I believe Professor James McGrath is quite sincere in his inability to grasp why it is that Jerry Coyne (as one example of a mainstream public intellectual failing to be convinced by the claims of biblical scholars that Jesus existed) cannot see that mythicism is any different from creationism. McGrath has demonstrated repeatedly an apparent cognitive inability to actually comprehend and directly address mythicist arguments, invariably focusing instead on trivial objections, on red herrings, on straw men, on blatant misrepresentation. McGrath makes no secret of his visceral loathing of mythicism and of those who argue for it, and especially of those who attempt to hold him to account for his own arguments both against mythicism and for the historicity of Jesus. He is not alone. Colleagues of his have publicly appreciated his efforts to rid the world of a challenge to their fundamental assumptions about the evidence we have for Jesus.
So McGrath elects to write the following as a riposte to Jerry Coyne’s musings on the failure of biblical scholars to convince him that we have sound evidence for the existence of Jesus:
I’m always surprised at how much rancor is directed toward “creationists”—those who deny that evolution, whether on the macro or micro level, is the best explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. I’m also surprised at how certain many biologists are that evolution occurred (Jerry Coyne, to give a prominent example).
Yet although I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in science, I think I’ve read enough to know that there is no credible evidence for the reality of evolution, and that arguments can be made that evolution is a purely mythological notion, derived from earlier ideologies, which gradually attained “facthood.” As a historian, I’ll say that I don’t regard the evidence that evolution occurred as particularly strong—certainly not strong enough to draw nearly all scientists to that view. It’s almost as if rejecting evolution brands you as an overly strident religious person, one lacking “respect” for science. There’s an onus against creationism that can’t be explained by the strength of evidence against that view.
What McGrath demonstrates with these words is a failure of his to grasp the fundamental arguments of the mythicists. Unlike creationists, mythicists do not appeal to divine revelation or dogma to explain the evidence before them.
Creationists pose no threat to evolution; mythicism, on the other hand….
What is being challenged in the public arena is the fundamental assumption — clearly ideologically based in a field dominated by Christian believers — that all their evidence should be interpreted through the belief that Jesus did exist. Large areas of biblical studies are being exposed as being built on sand. I can understand why some biblical scholars are offended by this implication and react offensively.
If McGrath rejected evolution he would be rejecting it on the basis of revelation, of dogma. Unfortunately, mythicists are directly engaging with the scholarly methods and sources of the biblical scholars. Mythicists accept the weaknesses and shortcomings of these methods and sources as they are conceded by many biblical scholars themselves. The difference is that the mythicists connects the dots to arrive at a simpler explanation, one that requires far fewer intermediate hypotheses to justify.
- A historicist explanation (simplified) of a gospel narrative explains the scriptural allusions and miraculous elements in a story about Jesus as deriving from oral traditions that impressed hearers enough to later add biblical parallels to those stories and that amazed other hearers enough to add a miraculous element and all this was inherited by the author of the gospel. Historicity belongs not to the narrative as it stands but to some core event behind it that became lost over time by the mythologizing of the event.
- A mythicist explanation (simplified) of a gospel narrative explains the scriptural allusions and miraculous elements in a story about Jesus as deriving from the author of the gospel emulating and adapting Old Testament stories according to the literary practices of the day. It concedes there is no independent evidence for the historicity of the narrative, and if there was then the mythologizing of the story has made the original event irrelevant.
Contrast how creationists combat evolution:
- A palaeontologist points to the chronological and matching patterns of body structures over the eons showing clear sequences of derivative relationships.
- A creationist points to the same evidence and says it is proof of God’s design.
The creationist leaves the methods and assumptions of the evolutionist untouched. There is no challenge to the science — except at a moral level. (It is atheistic and god-defying!)
The mythicist engages with the biblical scholarship and challenges the logic, the reasoning, the assumptions, — more often than not by extensive reference to publications of scholars themselves.
Creationism poses no threat to evolution. That’s why, I guess, you don’t see too many scientists venting their spleens and fearfully and crudely attacking creationists’ motives, characters and methods or even lying about their arguments.
I’d like to try to make this point on McGrath’s blog but he has banned me from sharing my thoughts with his readers there, as you know.
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