The Quest for the Historical Hiawatha — & the historical-mythical Jesus debate

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by Neil Godfrey


Scholar of religion drops an interesting aside in his blog post, The Quest for the Historical Hiawatha:

From what I understand, virtually all archaeologists and historians who study the matter agree that the Iroquois confederacy–the bringing together into political and religious union the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca peoples–was carried out as a result of the work of the Great Peacemaker and his disciple, Hiawatha. There is, as best I can tell, little dispute about their existence, even though the earliest written accounts come from at least three centuries after their life. That should be instructive to mythicists regarding how actual historians approach their subject matter . . . . (my own bolding as in all quotations)

My first thought was that the reference to mythicists was an odd irrelevance that added nothing to the argument expressed. It was of even less relevance to mythicism itself given that its point bears no relationship to any arguments I have encountered in the serious mythicist literature (e.g. Doherty, Carrier, Price, Brodie, Wells).

My second thought was that it appears once again we have a scholar of New Testament studies advertising how out of touch his field is from other forms of historical methods pertaining to non-biblical topics. But no, that’s not quite correct, because clearly Jonathan Bernier is familiar with studies of oral history.

And my third thought was to wonder why serious scholars like Jonathan Bernier seem so bothered by mythicism that they appear to have any interest at all in making throwaway lines like the one in this Historical Hiawatha post. Why? What role does mythicism itself play in their minds that they should express any mindfulness of it at all in this way?

First thought: irrelevance to mythicists

JB speaks of mythicists as a homogenous entity who need basic instruction in how “actual historians approach their subject matter”. The implication is that insisting upon contemporary records as the primary grounds for accepting the historicity of any person or event is a misguided hyper-scepticism while the reality is that historians have no qualms in accepting the historicity of a figure on the basis of a three hundred year old oral tradition alone. And most importantly and with apologies to humanity’s porcine cousins, mythicists are pig ignorant of this fact.

The fact is that numerous studies amply demonstrate the unreliability of oral reports that are even contemporaneous with the persons or events they are supposedly reporting. Historians who have written about their craft regularly stress the importance of contemporary sources. At the same time no-one has ever insisted that without contemporary source corroboration we must maintain strong doubts about a historical report. We know well enough, for example, how historians of Alexander the Great must rely upon written sources that date centuries after the death of Alexander. However, historians have strong reasons for placing qualified trust in the basics written in those works. I won’t repeat that discussion originally posted at


One hostile critic of mythicism who often insisted that biblical scholars did history no differently from the way other historian worked once encouraged his readers to study how historians “really work” by perusing Gilbert Garraghan’s 1946 A Guide to Historical Method. Unfortunately the same critic had himself failed to read Garraghan’s own words on page 265 that said:

It is typical of popular tradition that it is first heard of long after the time when the events it reports are supposed to have occurred. Almost invariably there is a gap, more or less broad, between the events and their first appearance in recorded history. Such a gap occurring in the case of any report is enough to make it suspect from the start. Instances of such reports, found on examination to be unverified, are without number. Thus, unaccountably tardy first­ mention of them in written record of any kind is a major argument used by critics in discrediting such one­time general beliefs as the False Decretals, the Popess Joan, the authenticity of the reputed works of Denis the Areopagite. Again, no contemporary biographer of St. Thomas of Canterbury records that his mother was a Saracen princess whom his father had married in the Holy Land.­­­­­ John Morris, “Legends about St. Thomas,” The Life and Martyrdom of St. Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury( 2d ed., London, 1885), 523­25.

That Luther committed suicide is a story first heard of some twenty years after his death, when it began to be circulated by persons hostile to his memory.­­­­­ H. Grisar, Martin Luther, his Life and Work,57578.

The “Whitman­ saved­ Oregon”story first became public many years after Whitman’s death.­­­­­ See Edward G. Bourne Essays in Historical Criticism.

The Ann Rutledge ­Lincoln episode appears to be mainly legendary. No mention of it occurs until thirty ­one years after her death.­­ AHR,41 ( 1936): 283.

A crucial point to be noted about such beliefs as those indicated is that when mention of them in written record emerges for the first time, no reason is forthcoming to explain why mention of them bad not been made earlier.

Mythicist arguments that I have read do not cite the lateness of sources as a reason to believe Jesus was a mythical construction from the very beginning but they do acknowledge, as is good and standard practice among historians, that the relative lateness of the sources does lend support to other arguments that suggest we are entitled to at least question his historical existence. The only attempt I have seen to link any writings of mythicists with the argument that lateness of sources is itself a reason to disbelieve in the historicity of Jesus is Maurice Casey’s third chapter of Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? Casey’s case might have taken a quite different turn, however, had he accurately quoted the writings of mythicists instead of mischievously torching straw man fabrications.

That leads to the second thought . . .

Second thought: the role of oral history

New Testament scholars interested in the origins of the canonical gospels and the deeds and sayings of the historical Jesus have devoted a lot of energy to studies in the transmission of oral traditions. Walter Ong, Werner Kelber, Kelly Iverson, Lou Silberman, John Foley, Joanna Dewey, Vernon Robbins… it takes no time at all to acquire a respectable bibliography once one starts delving into the research in this area. Studies have been made of performers of epic tales in the Balkans and oral traditions among African tribes. Jan Vansina’s studies of the latter have been cited with varying degrees of competence.

However, what historians meet in the canonical gospels is a written word, not orality. Oral traditions prior to those gospels are hypothesized, but hypothetical traditions are not what historians normally rely upon for their primary or even secondary source material. I understand that hypothetical oral tradition is not what we have in the case of Hiawatha. Moreover, each telling of an oral tradition recreates the persons and events such that they meet the needs and interests of the new audience.

It is one thing to encounter a tribe’s or culture’s historical oral traditions and assess something of how they understood their past, but it is quite another to read a stories by an authors unknown, for audiences whose identities we can only make educated guesses, and to assume that their plots are indeed grounded in a genuine historical core, and that the bridge between that historical core and the penning of those gospel narratives was oral tradition.

Yes, there are indeed arguments marshaled to buttress this model of how the gospels came to be. Arguments are designed to reassure the establishment that the gospels are indeed biographical accounts written by authors sincerely dedicated to preserving historical core traditions despite the mythological and theological frills they added to them. But there are also other studies arguing that the gospel narratives were woven from other literary sources, especially those in the Jewish Scriptures.

Don’t misunderstand, however. We know that historical persons could be and often were described in ways that made them look like other famous persons or even gods. Alexander the Great, it was said, liked to model himself after the Dionysus who conquered as far as India before him. Hadrian wore a cloak in imitation of Hercules. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote about himself in ways to strongly remind readers of earlier biblical prophets like Jeremiah. So just because Jesus has been shown by scholars to be modeled after Moses or David or Elijah it by no means follows that there was no historical Jesus behind all of that spin.

No, questions about origins are raised on other grounds — or the absence of other supporting evidence. Strip away Dionysus from Alexander, Hercules from Hadrian, and Jeremiah from Josephus, and we still have ample evidence for the historicity of those persons. Nor does the principle apply only to the great and famous. Socrates wrote nothing, yet we have corroborating evidence for his existence. Ditto for Cicero’s slave and a stammering rival despised by the philosopher  Seneca. Again, I am only listing points that require much fuller discussion and that have indeed been discussed in depth both on this blog and in published literature. What is of significance in the context of this discussion is that one easily gets the impression, whether justified or not I don’t know, that some of the more hostile anti-mythicists have paid scant attention to any of these arguments.

Third thought: what does mythicism mean to such scholars?

So why do some New Testament scholars seem to be bothered by mythicism at all? It is evident that Jonathan Bernier has had no exposure to serious mythicist arguments. A quick survey of his posts indicates that he has read Valerie Tarico’s magazine article presenting reasons that “keep doubts alive” and that he has interpreted her points most defensively. Each point is rebutted by a response that makes it clear he is unacquainted with the arguments behind Valerie’s rubrics.

Bernier elsewhere indicates that his knowledge of mythicism actually derives from blog posts by James McGrath. I’m reminded of a comment in another but not unrelated context (questioning the historicity of “biblical Israel”) by Niels Peter Lemche. He was addressing the tactics of conservative scholars against critical methods originating in Europe, and how they would were advised to

never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you. . . .

There is no need for Bernier or any other mainstream New Testament scholar to read mythicist arguments. They need only listen to a few voices such as McGrath’s and Ehrman’s and Casey’s that tell them how absurd mythicist arguments are. The fact that those few voices have demonstrated a complete failure to present the actual arguments of people like Doherty and Carrier means nothing to them. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is a voice from within the establishment at least making the boast of having seriously engaged with and demolished the arguments. The normal tell-tale signs of a failure of serious scholarship — personal smears, unscholarly language, dismissive mockery — are forgiven, or even approved.

The situation is not at all comparable with the way mainstream scientists address creationist arguments. Neil Shubin and Jerry Coyne can and do seriously engage with creationist arguments and seriously address them. Creationists might not be persuaded but innocent and curious onlookers may very well be. Scientists can do this because they and creationists are addressing the same question: evolution.

That’s not what happens with the McGraths address mythicists. The mythicists are not addressing the same questions that have always been of interest to historical Jesus and Christian origins scholars. Historical Jesus scholars are always attempting to find out what we can know about the historical Jesus. That is, the historical Jesus is always assumed at the outset. Even E. P. Sanders in listing his dot points of reasons to believe Jesus existed took for granted the idea that the gospels were built upon a historical core.

The fact is that mainstream scholars have always taken the existence of Jesus for granted. The narrative outline of the gospels has always been assumed to have some historical basis. It is an understandable cultural assumption. So much is it taken for granted that Bart Ehrman was even able to write that he believed he was the very first scholar to sit down and try to set out the proofs for what he had always known at some gut level was true:

Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise.

Evolutionists and creationists charge at each other head first. Mythicists, on the other hand, are engaging with the scholarship of the biblical scholars but asking questions that have — at least until Bart Ehrman came along — never systematically been thought through before. There is no head to head challenge at all as there is with the argument over evolution.

I suggest biblical scholars who happen to react with hostility and other uncivil behaviour towards mythicists even though they have no honestly informed knowledge of mythicist arguments are in fact reacting defensively and fearfully for less than scholarly reasons. They are certainly not engaging in an erudite and knowledgeable explanation of why they are correct (without mere appeal to authority) and in turn demonstrating that they truly understand the opposing viewpoint while explaining why their own views offer the more truly scientific explanation. That is, they are not able to emulate the evolutionists.

McGrath, to but it bluntly, has never once, to my knowledge, demonstrated knowledge or understanding of any single argument by Earl Doherty or Richard Carrier. The routine has always been to distort. Reading appears to be even deliberately tendentious and perverse. The same must be said for Bart Ehrman and the late Maurice Casey.

My saying this won’t make any difference. In fact it will be interpreted as a sign that I am unable to accept the consensus of the scholars. What it in fact is demonstrating to a number of observers is that too many (not all) biblical scholars do not even know what the mythicist arguments are and that they are only interested in winning by means of insult and distortion. I don’t wish to end on a harsh note, though. Craig Evans debated Richard Carrier on this question earlier this year. The debate was genuinely (refreshingly) civil. But there was something rather odd about it all. Carrier knew well the arguments of Evans; but Evans used arguments that only demonstrated that he had never read mythicist arguments, not even Carrier’s book on the topic. And so it goes. McGrath admitted not having read Doherty’s book when he wrote his review of it for Amazon.com. His multipart review of Carrier’s book on The Bible and Interpretation website failed to even address the core arguments of Carrier’s work and even proclaimed that Carrier had not argued points he clearly did argue. And so forth. Meanwhile, the Berniers of the academy need only read what the McGraths have to say about those mythicists and all is kept under control.

Hiawatha, I suppose, had a significant cultural meaning for certain indigenous peoples of North America. Whether he existed or not I do not know (as an Australian I am unfamiliar with the details) but I am quite happy to accept that his historicity is probably the best going explanation for the existence of centuries of oral tradition. Jesus likewise bears major cultural meaning for Western civilization and even more specialized personal meanings for scholars who study this figure. But the evidence for Jesus is of quite a different nature.

So we return to the question. What does mythicism mean to scholars who have such strong feelings about it even though they remain ill-informed of its arguments? What other political or social scenarios does that situation remind us of?

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “The Quest for the Historical Hiawatha — & the historical-mythical Jesus debate”

  1. Of late, I’ve come to trend with Father Brodie. (_Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery_, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012) The ‘gospel tradition’ is not based on any ‘oral tradition’…it is based upon ‘literary tradition’. The Jesus narratives are rewrites of Hebrew Bible narratives….midrash. To Brodie, the entire claim of ‘oral tradition’ is a specious attempt to cover inconvenient lags in the chronology of the narrative development. Instead, Brodie points to the Elijah-Elisha narrative and the infill of copious Deuteronomic materials as the source materials and notes that an ‘oral tradition’ is an unnecessary postulation in a culture where reworking and rewriting existing narratives with an eye to addressing their contemporary issues. To Brodie, Q is no ‘mysterious missing document’ drawn upon by the gospel authors….it is readily and widely available throughout the Grecophonic world of the time and was known as the Septuagint; Q is the Hebrew Bible in Greek. Brodie expends time explaining the literary culture of the time and place and suggests that the Christ narrative is midrash and Jesus is the pesher, a literary construct to illustrate a schismatic lesson, developed by a literary school which drew upon Hebrew scriptures and each other for their materials.

    Warranted, being a militant agnostic, I don’t follow the good father in to his musings on the Christ narrative being a sign of ‘God is among us’….but, hey, I can see why he might want to save something from his confessional commitment to the Christ figure. I now have a bit more hefty of a tome to consume with his _Birthing of the New Testament_

  2. It doesn’t seem as though the McGraths and Ehrmans of New Testament scholarship are fans of “Rappert’s First Rule”, put forth by Daniel Dennett

    “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.””

    1. Sadly it appears that Jonathan Bernier has a very dim view of those who do not reach his own calibre as a scholar and can speak of them in the most demeaning terms: http://criticalrealismandthenewtestament.blogspot.com.au/2016/07/dialogue-and-reality.html — That post demonstrated what was surely an inability to articulate, let alone be aware of, the actual arguments of “lesser breeds” he opposes. I sent him the following response to that post but he has declined to publish it:

      Hi Bernier. Actually the frustration you speak about has been studied by researchers and there are some very good explanations for what is going on when such contrary sides meet. One excellent work is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and another that builds on Kahneman and others is by Rick Shenkman, Political Animals”.

      What I try to do is push such people to actually try to explain or sum up what they believe my case to be, while I do the same for their views. Interestingly I have never found one who can do that. Some are even unwilling to try. I like to think that such a confrontation at least will prompt a few of them to think there is something they are not grasping after all.

      One hesitates to use words like bigot and intellectual snob, however …..

  3. I’ve read a few of his blog posts (not on mythicism), Bernier seems to take the claims of the early church fathers and NT writers a little too seriously imo.

  4. It reminds me of the Climate Change / Global Warming “debate.” The “Warmists” line all their ducks in a row, are familiar with the science, and attempt to engage the public while not going too far out on a limb. The Denialists, on the other hand, are like Ehrman, Casey, McGrath & co. They don’t engage the science, facts and argumentation, except to cast assertions on them.

    Need I say anything more?

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