Fear and desperation from a theologian?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Christianity may teach us to be honest but as long as dishonesty serves the interests of faith I’m sure God forgives.

A certain Butler University Professor (his blog makes it clear he writes in his capacity as a Butler academic) who is well known for his strident dogmatism on the question of the historicity of Jesus has been at it again.

He writes in response to a “meme” that he realizes is false or flat wrong in every way except one: it scorns mythicism!

First falsehood:

the attempt to argue that because someone is only mentioned in the New Testament, therefore they are not historical, simply does not work.

Of course he cites no instance of anyone arguing this way. No publication putting in a word for the mythicist case that I know of has ever suggested that “because someone is only mentioned in the New Testament, therefore they are not historical”.

But he does say something that is obviously true. I think we can all agree with the following:

Mythicist dogmatists and Christian fundamentalists are not at polar opposite ends of the spectrum, except on the trite matter of what they insist they know. Their approach is an all-or-nothing one that are mirror images of one another, two sides of the same coin.

There certainly are “mythicist dogmatists” who are as, well, dogmatic, as any Christian fundamentalist.

Then he writes something most professional:

Historians, on the other hand, are supposed to deal in a nuanced manner with evidence, and to recognize that each piece of evidence must be assessed separately and on its own terms.

But then he slips off the rails. Two true statements bracketed by two false ones. A nice chiastic structure.

And so the heart of the matter is this: mythicism – the complete dismissal of the historicity not just of accounts but of the individual portrayed in them – is as illogical and indefensible as claims of Biblical inerrancy – the complete acceptance of the historicity of everything in the Bible because the existence of individuals mentioned in it has been confirmed.

Notice where he slipped? At first he made the obvious statement that a “mythicist dogmatist” is as bad as a “Christian fundamentalist”, but here he speaks of “mythicism” generically. Mythicism itself is as bad as Christian fundamentalism. I would have thought “mythicism” would stand in this context as a counter to “Christianity”: just as Christianity has its fundamentalists so does mythicism have its dogmatists. Both stand outside the realm of serious discussion.

And then he underscores the point:

Neither mythicism nor Christian fundamentalism is engaged in the practice of history.

Not, “neither mythist dogmatism nor Christian fundamentalism”, nor, of course, “Neither mythicism nor Christianity….”

Then we meet the professional indignation:

And when historians and scholars object to this misuse of their work, mythicists and inerrantists typically respond in the same way: by insisting that the academy is in fact conspiring to cover up the truth or infested with an ideology that blinds us to the truth.

Interesting that he speaks of “historians and scholars”. Is he trying to impress readers once again that theologians like himself really are true historians and scholars? Certainly a good number of theologians do call themselves historians and in one sense they are, but even in their own ranks we find criticisms that their approach to history is quite different from the way other historians work. (Raphael Lataster demonstrated that most emphatically in his book. Recall a paper of his discussing historical Jesus methodology that was rejected by a scholarly Biblical publisher was accepted by a Historical conference.) And of course our Butler Professor cannot be ignorant of the fact that it is theologians themselves, his own peers, who regularly complain about the ideology that blinds them as a whole to seriously radical ideas.

Recall again his point:

Historians, on the other hand, are supposed to deal in a nuanced manner with evidence, and to recognize that each piece of evidence must be assessed separately and on its own terms.

Do I need to quote again here the many instances of nuance and tentativeness and scholarly humility in the way scholarly mythicists (scholarly referring to any mythicist who argues in a scholarly manner — leaving aside the dogmatists) very often present their arguments and set them beside a list the many abusive and dogmatic denunciations of theologian “historians and scholars” like the Butler Professor himself when arguing for the historicity of Jesus?



The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

21 thoughts on “Fear and desperation from a theologian?”

  1. Does the case for mythicism require that Jesus Christ was not an historical person?
    Can’t an historical person be nonetheless mythicized?

    I’m just wondering.

    1. Mythicism, by definition, is the position that Jesus of Nazareth was not a historical person. The case for mythicism is just the set of all arguments offered in support of that position. Of course, historical persons can be mythicized, and many have been. Mythicists believe that that is not what happened in Jesus’ case.

  2. I think another question we can ask is whether we can conclude from the fact that a known historical personage appears in the New Testament, that we have any reason to believe this person had any historical connection to Jesus. For instance, Quirinius is mentioned in the New Testament, but there is no reason to think his census ever affected Jesus or his family. Or if Jesus didn’t exist, maybe the known historical personages were inserted into the New Testament for effect, Like a period piece of historical fiction about the civil war might include an appearance by Abraham Lincoln.

  3. Whether a publisher chooses to publish a book or not does not necessitate that the book is
    a good one/accurate/responsible – rather it tells you whether the Published thinks the book can make money,
    or in the rare case, that the author is going to be great one day and so let us sign him to a long term contract.

    You can accept the New Testament as being an accurate history of the life of Jesus or you can go to the other
    extreme and said it it is wholly fictional or you can accept a mix of both views.

    I have seen scholars on both extremes and most in the middle.

    1. The cozy middle ground.

      I get an impression we’re pretending we don’t realize the only reason so many take the historicity seriously is powerful, worldwide religion.
      You don’t normally believe in existence of main characters in literature loaded with fantasy and supernatural, unless there’s some good evidence elsewhere.

      In other similar cases “most probably wholly fictional” is the middle ground.

  4. It is not clear to me just what the term “mythicist dogmatists” is supposed to mean, whether as McGrath uses it, or even as we assume it means in dialoguing with him. Thus, how does the term compare with, say, “mythicist historian”?

    If a mythicist researcher, examining and arguing from the evidence, advocates the conclusion that no historical Jesus existed, that in his opinion the probability of such is compelling, does that make him a “dogmatist”? Does he have to add the phrase “But of course I could be wrong” at every turn? (Is that what true historians do?) Have words like that ever passed McGrath’s own lips, in order to avoid having himself labelled an “historicist dogmatist”?

    It seems that for historicists like McGrath, if a given scenario, taken solely by itself, makes sense, such as that “historical figures can be mythologized and so could a real Jesus,” or that “Gospel elements could be the end result of passed-on oral traditions about a real Jesus,” these scenarios have to be given automatic credence per se, without regard to whether the evidence actually supports them (such as, for example, whether the entire non-Gospel literature ever shows us the practice of appealing to or passing on words and deeds of an HJ, or whether the pattern of transformation of the faith’s central figure in the documentary record follows the progression of an historical figure evolving into a mythologized one, rather than the reverse). If a mythicist researcher points these objections out, and declares that they can serve to invalidate the historicists’ traditional scenarios, does this make him a “dogmatist”?

    The only clear “dogmatism” I can see in evidence here is McGrath’s own, in refusing to try to judge whether a mythicist researcher engaged in evaluating the question of Jesus’ existence is conducting it in a proper historical-research fashion, or is solely motivated by some preset dogmatism, deliberately twisting or ignoring the evidence. McGrath doesn’t regard the former as possible to a mythicist, and therefore all mythicists are dogmatists, explainable by their anti-Christian agendas, of course.

    Pointing out the fallacies and weaknesses of arguments put forward by the likes of McGrath, not to mention Bart Ehrman (see my detailed response to his infamous book of a few years past), must make us dogmatists, for how could we legitimately be disproving or undermining the position of such historians, and the army of consensus behind them? When you yourself cannot possibly be wrong, how can those who disagree with you be anything other than blind dogmatists?

    1. I interpret “Mythicist dogmatist” as the counterpart to “Christian fundamentalist”. McG has similarly compared “mythicists” to “creationists”. There unfortunately are mythicist counterparts to creationists and fundamentalists. They are characterized by the trait of resorting to attributing character or mental defects to those who disagree with them (PZ Myers hit the nail on the head as I quoted recently). These dogmatists do not understand the arguments for the historicity of Jesus and do resort to scoffing and insult in place of sound argument — and they are the ones whom people like McG and Hurtado point to as an excuse to bash mythicists more generally. Of course they are not justified in tarring all mythicists that way — and that’s why they, the McG’s and Hurtados, are themselves “historicist dogmatists”. They are unable to explain the arguments of mythicists and they themselves resort to insult and scoffing in place of valid and honest argument.

      I myself have been blacklisted — certainly viciously attacked and slandered — by some “mythicist dogmatists” for attempting to engage critically with their arguments (at their request, I might add) and for pointing out what I consider to be invalid arguments or unhelpful tones and rhetoric.

      1. It must depend on careful argument, with a willingness to change a viewpoint if shown to be unsound or extremely unlikely. There is no excuse for personal insult, which only advertises weakness in the accuser.

      2. I of course am not familiar with every declared mythicist in the world, of whatever type, but I cannot think of anyone I have read, or read about, who may be characterized as accusing historicists of being mentally defective for not embracing mythicism. Have McGrath and Hurtado actually named and quoted from such “dogmatists”? Who are these mythicist dogmatists you have been attacked by?

        Are there really mythicist counterparts to someone like Tim O’Neill? What exposure do they get and how do they come to the attention of McGrath & Co.? If they are that abysmal, is McGrath really incapable of distinguishing between them and the works of mythicists like Robert Price, Richard Carrier or myself?

        Perhaps these people are a phenomenon largely to be found on discussion blogs?

        1. Yes, they do make their presence known through their responses to blog posts (the blogs of McG, Hurtado, Erhman…) and discussion groups. That’s enough for the McG’s to smear all mythicists, of course. I am not at all suggesting the criticisms of McG and co have any true justification. Of course they are seizing upon any excuse to attack all mythicists.

          If I recall correctly Maurice Casey in his book attacking mythicism even included comments on this blog, Vridar, as testimony to my own views and attitudes!

          If you go to the discussion board at Freethought Nation — and even the Biblical Criticism and History Forum — you will find some very scandalous comments about me by a number of mythicists, especially by “astrotheology” supporters. I have left a few of their choice attacks on this blog, too. They most certainly do match Tim O’Neill’s MO.

          There is no excuse for the McGs and co, of course. Your books, those of Price, Brodie, Carrier, Freke and Gandy, Harpur, — none of these are written in the fundamentalist/dogmatist style.

          McG is possibly not capable of distinguishing between the rabble and the scholarly. I used to think he was blatantly dishonest. But I have been learning much about the human mind in recent years and acquiring a little more understanding. I don’t think McG really can bring himself to approach mythicism with any semblance of objectivity. But that’s another subject I wish I had the time to cover here.

          Raphael Lataster is probably correct when he says that mythicism is a subject that has no place among Christian believers (I would add … no place among those scholars who owe their academic reputations to acceptance among Christian believers.)

          1. I have just been reading Casey’s book which is a curate’s egg, but I do think he makes a reasonable response to those who say that Paul’s letters show no awareness of a human Jesus and his companions.

            1. Casey’s book, which arrived this morning and has kept my rapid reading occupied most of the day, has an arrogant tone, and his repetitious phrase “Blogger Godfrey” is gratuitously offensive. He makes a few neat points, but his biographical psychoanalysis of modern mythicists has no relevance to the scholarly arguments he invokes.

              I shall have to look at his other writings to see his actual reasons for the early dating and historicity of Markan material, and for his rejection of Johannine material (its “anti-Semitism” is hardly enough).

            2. A “reasonable response” would entail an honest acknowledgement and reasonable engagement with the arguments to which one is responding. Otherwise it’s an unreasonable and dishonest response.

  5. Another NT professor resort to posting a ‘Meme’ yesterday claiming that before the discovery of Pilate stone Mythicists were denying Pilate’s Existence but forgot that historically Pilate is way better attested than JC we have two lengthy account of his life in Judea by two great historians and one is even a contemporary account which is itself a rare feat.

    1. Lena Einhorn made these comment in another thread in another Vridar post –

      “The names of dignitaries from the 30s are there in both sources [Josephus & the NT gospels] — Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas, Herod Antipas, etc. — but they don’t DO the same things! They do the things of LATER dignitaries in Josephus’s texts. The intriguing thing is that procurator Felix (52-ca.59 CE), as he is depicted by Josephus, in many ways bears stronger similarities to the Pilate of the Gospels, than Pilate himself!

      “I have a whole chapter on them in the book, but briefly: it is (according to Josephus) Felix, not Pilate, who is a killer of Galileans; it is Felix, not Pilate, who has an open conflict with the Jewish king; it is Felix, not Pilate, who has an influential wife; it is Felix and Agrippa II, not Pilate and Herod Antipas, who share jurisdiction over Galilee; it is Felix, not Pilate, who crucifies Jews en masse; it is under Felix, not Pilate, that there is an open conflict between Galileans and Samaritans; it is under Felix, not Pilate, that there are to co-reigning high priests; it is during the time of Felix, not Pilate, that the robbers are active … by shifting the names of dignitaries, the New Testament, I suggest, has shifted the time [of these dignitaries from the mid 1st century to earlier in the 1st C. in the NT narratives].”


      Who is the other historian you had in mind? Which is the contemporaneous account you had in mind?

      1. I am talking about Philo’s Embassy to Gaius which is written around ~40CE in which he given a extremely hostile account of Pilate’s misdeeds in Judea in Philo’s own Words…

        >”in respect of his(Pilate’s) corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.”

    2. Another NT professor resort to posting a ‘Meme’ yesterday claiming that before the discovery of Pilate stone . . . .

      Someone other than McG? Who was this? Do you have the link?

      The whole point is very silly, actually. Even IF there were no other evidence for Pilate apart from what we read in the Gospels (as the “meme” implies) then of course we would have every reason to be sceptical of Pilate’s existence until concrete (or stone) evidence appeared. The “meme” is mocking a healthy scepticism that should be part of the MO of all scholarship. It is actually a confession that it’s okay to believe just because it’s in the Gospels!

      1. Yes i am Talking about McGrath he posted it in his Patheos blog under the Title ‘Pilate Mythicism’ and somewhat mocked that Mythicist used to deny Existence of Pilate, which AFAIK never was a question i mean yeah there is skepticism about his portrayal in Gospel which is just polar opposite to what Josephus and Philo Described of Him but there’s was no reason to doubt his existence.

        1. I said somewhere recently that I used to think McGrath was a blatant liar but have since come to think he cannot bring himself to even understand or read or comprehend the mythicist argument. I should have qualified my earlier point by saying I don’t think he knows he is a blatant liar. He really does believe he is on the right track — as incredible as that sounds. I still struggle with the idea myself sometimes.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading