Motivations of a “Mythicist”

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by Neil Godfrey

From the Preface to The Evolution of Christianity by L. Gordon Rylands, 1927 (with my highlighting in bold):

The purpose of this book is to state as clearly and as concisely as possible, and to co-ordinate, the results lately obtained along different lines of inquiry by investigators of the origins of Christianity. The subject is wide and complex, and different inquirers have necessarily specialized in different directions. Sufficient results have now been secured to make a co-ordination possible and useful. I wish to say emphatically that the book is in no sense an attack upon religion in general, or upon Christianity in particular. There are, in fact, men who believe that the disappearance of the historical Jesus will have the effect of making religion more spiritual and more free. Professor Schmiedel has affirmed that his inmost religious convictions would suffer no harm even if he felt obliged to conclude that Jesus never lived; and I have no doubt that when advanced theologians have accepted this conclusion, as they have accepted many others which for a long time were bitterly resisted, they will discover that, nevertheless, Christianity can continue to exist. Kalthoff, indeed, argued that when an ideal—or, to use his expression, a prophetic—Christ has been substituted for the theological Christ, Christianity will be liberated from bonds which hinder its spiritual and ethical development, and will be capable of being raised to a higher plane.

The motive which prompted the writing of this book, however, was not to support that or any other point of view. I undertook the study of which it is the fruit solely with the desire of discovering the truth. And it should be obvious that that endeavour can be successful only in the absence of ulterior motive and of the wish to establish any particular conclusion. I was attracted to the subject of the book by its importance and fascination as a purely historical problem. So far as I had any bias at all, it was in favour of the historicity of Jesus, since I had not previously seen sufficient reason to doubt it; but I found this hypothesis untenable. And the farther I went the more impressed I became with the inadequacy of theologians and traditionalist critics, with whom the search after truth seemed to be subordinate to the maintenance of a particular point of view. So far as textual criticism is concerned, indeed, the work that has been done is admirable ; but in the treatment of the historical and mythological problems involved theological scholars have been lamentably superficial, if not sometimes wilfully blind. (pp. vii-ix)

As for the tendency of too many scholars to accept historicity if they consider an episode “possible” and they can think of “no reason to doubt”, that approach has been around at least these past ninety years according to Rylands’ opening statement in his introductory chapter:

It is extremely difficult for any one who has been educated in a Christian environment to come to a study of the Bible as he would to that of any other book. Probably from his earliest years he has been so familiar with the New Testament story that, when his mind has become capable of criticizing, he accepts without question impossibilities, and even contradictions, which would at once strike him if he could then meet with them for the first time. Even sceptical critics as a rule will not apply to the Gospels the canons which a scientific historian would bring to the examination of a professedly historical work. After cutting out incidents which are based upon passages of the Old Testament or have an obviously dogmatic motive, rejecting certain impossibilities and rationalizing others, they accept the rest as historical simply because it is possible. A novel could be held to be true on that ground. (p. 1)


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Motivations of a “Mythicist””

  1. I’ve just bookmarked that book and started to read it [via BC&H But first I thought I’d check out L. Gordon Rylands’ background from the internet.
    Couldn’t find anything, nothing substantial anyway.
    It may be my limited skills but I found the dearth of info somewhat puzzling.

    1. L. Gordon Rylands according to the title page has a B.A. and a B.Sc. Publication details say the book was printed in Great Britain “for the Rationalist Press Association Limited by Watts & Co….” Rylands writes:

      Although this study was originally undertaken for my own satisfaction, I have thought that it might be doing a service to other seekers after truth to put within their reach results with which they could otherwise become acquainted only through reading a number of much larger books than this, some of which are in German and have not yet been translated.

      The impression conveyed, at least to me, is that L. Gordon Rylands was not writing as a professional scholar but as an interested layman and that his career path had no relevance to the debate.

    1. file:///D:/Users/Kevin/Downloads/Gordon%20Rylands%20-%20The%20Beginnings%20of%20Gnostic%20Christianity.pdf
      I may have the wrong book Guiseppe, I thought it was same book with a different title.
      Anyway try that link.

      1. Thanks but I have already read that book. There are others two books by Rylands that I would like a lot to read, and they are that quoted by Neil in this post and “Did Jesus ever live?”.
        I think personally that, among the old Mythicists of the past, Rylands is that more worth of being read. At least, the his influence on Bob Price is strong, I think.

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