Just a small point

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by Neil Godfrey

Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch’s theology was the subject of B. A. Gerrich’s chapter (pp 230-247).

Finally I have been able to catch up with the answer to one particular small question that arose for me when I first read Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. In the first pages of his review Gullotta directs readers to numerous works that are said to offer a detailed history of mythicism or a detailed list of serious engagements with past mythicist ideas. For example, on page one he writes:

For an in-depth review of mythicism up until Arthur Drews, see

Shirley Jackson Case, ‘The Historicity of Jesus: An Estimate of a Negative Argument’, The American Journal of Theology 15.1 (1911), pp. 20–42;

Maurice Goguel, ‘Recent French Discussion of the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ’, Harvard Theological Review 19.2 (1926), pp. 115–142;

Walter P. Weaver, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900–1950 (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999), pp. 45–71;

B.A. Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on Reformation Heritage (London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 230–247.

(Gullotta, p. 311 – my layout)

The first three works I was somewhat familiar with (and I might have reason to question their portrayal as “in-depth reviews of mythicism up until Arthur Drews” although I can understand why Gullotta thought they might be) but the fourth, the one by Gerrish, was new to me. Only in recent days have I been able to read it.

Here is the full extent of the “in-depth review of mythicism up until Arthur Drews” given by Gerrish:

The problem of the historical Jesus was scarcely a new one. It had been one of the persistent motifs of nineteenth-century German theology, thanks largely to D. F. Strauss and his critique of Schleiermacher’s christology, and in the work of Bruno Bauer it had already issued in doubt whether Jesus ever existed. But it can hardly be claimed that Bauer had greatly shaken the world of German Protestantism. Towards the end of the century, shortly after the death of Albrecht Ritschl, a new phase of the discussion had begun, for which the year 1892 may stand as a convenient marker since it witnessed publication of the notable studies by Kaehler and Weiss. However, renewed discussion had remained the relatively genteel preserve of professional historians and theologians. Arthur Drews’s book, by contrast, became a cause célèbre because he enlisted historical skepticism into a vigorous public campaign on behalf of a post-Christian religious philosophy, which called for abandonment of faith in Jesus.

(Gerrish, pp. 230f)

That’s it. The remainder of the chapter is an in-depth critical review of how one particular theologian addressed the ways in which belief that Jesus had a historical existence was necessary for the faith of the Christian. It is not about mythicism, certainly not about the history of mythicism, but entirely about theological debates over whether Christianity was more about meaningful symbols, community interactions, than it was about the existence of a historical Jesus. Such debates arose in response to the possibility raised by Arthur Drews of even considering the question: How important is it for Christianity that Jesus did exist?

As I read the chapter I came to see more clearly how some few Christians today appear to have reconciled their Christian faith with the idea that Jesus was a metaphor, a symbol, an idea, and not historical. See the posts on Thomas Brodie for an example of how a Roman Catholic priest came to believe Jesus had no historical existence yet still finds deep meaning in the Christian faith.

If there’s a lesson to this post it is by no means a new one. It is one I have experienced many, many times over. And the example I have given above is far from being the only instance in Gullotta’s review. The lesson is: never blindly trust footnotes even in the most scholarly-looking articles, especially in the field of biblical studies at any rate. Always check them for yourself before running with the claim that they say or are what the author has written about them.


Gerrish, B. A. 2004. “Jesus , Myth, and History: Troeltsch’s Stand in the ‘Christ-Myth’ Debate.” In The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage, 230–47. London; New York: T & T Clark International.

Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15 (2–3): 310–46. https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-01502009.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Just a small point”

  1. Bravo Neil. I totally agree. You are really helping expose the fallacy of circular reasoning that we may rely on. Let’s all examine ourselves for the same, while as you infer, always question the consensus view, no matter how much peer pressure. After all that’s what Christians say too isn’t it, short of a persecution complex. So I think we can stay on common ground with the fundamentalists if we agree with them on those two principles : to resit both bias as well as peer pressure.

  2. • Perhaps Gullotta meant to cite:

    Williamson, George S. (2017). “The Christ Myth Debate: Radical Theology and German Public Life, 1909–1913”. Church History. 86 (03): 728–764. doi:10.1017/S0009640717001299

    1. And the publication date of the Church History article was September 2017. Gullotta’s review appeared in a combined 2/3 issue for 2017 so I very much doubt that he had had access to the Church History article before he submitted his own review for publication.

  3. some few Christians today appear to have reconciled their Christian faith with the idea that Jesus was a metaphor, a symbol, an idea, and not historical

    Hege, Brent A. R., “Jesus Christ as Poetic Symbol: Wilhelm Bousset’s Contribution to the Faith-History Debate” Journal for the History of Modern Theology/Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte/ (2009): 197-216.

    [Per Jesus by Wilhelm Bousset] this book reveals a growing reluctance on Bousset’s part to trust historical research to provide a firm and secure foundation for faith. —(Hege, p. 199)

    1. Oh db, you are doing it again! 🙂 Your quotation comes with no explanation about how it relates to the point of the post. (Yes, the chapter I discussed does talk about theologians debating Bousset’s and others’ ideas about the Jesus of faith, and we have posted on that aspect when discussing Schweitzer’s own argument in favour of a Bousset-like theology, etc. But that’s not what the post is about.

  4. Very true. I’m sure my book will be criticized for too few citations, but at least all of them are legit.

    As for the idea that Christianity can be “meaningful” even if Jesus wasn’t real, I address that in my book, though perhaps indirectly, by making it clear that the legitimacy of Christianity rests entirely on the historical legitimacy of the Gospels, because it was the “fact that Jesus was proven to have fulfilled prophecy” that proved Christianity was “true”. The only reason that Christianity was ever adopted in the first place was because it was believed that it had been proven that it had been proven that Jesus was actually divine by virtue of his fulfillment of prophecies. So if thee was no Jesus who actually fulfilled prophecies, then the whole cases for Christianity falls apart. This is also one of the reason why the Catholics argued that he was human, not just a spirit, because he had to have been a real human who actually did those things in order for their “proofs” of the religion to be valid.

  5. Brodie has my sympathy, though not my agreement.

    I abandoned fundamentalism after figuring out that biblical inerrantism was indefensible, but I stayed with liberal Christianity because I thought Jesus’ disciples must have discerned something really important about his teachings. Even after becoming an atheist in my mid-20s, it seemed to me that Jesus must have done or said something spectacular to have motivated his followers to start a new religion in his name. I didn’t stop thinking that until I was well into my 50s, when I discovered Doherty’s work.

    So, my thinking evolved from (A) Jesus was real, and he had something important to say about God, and his disciples ran with that, to (B) there is no God, but Jesus was real, and he had something important to say, and his disciples ran with that, to (C) there is no God, and there was no Jesus, and the first Christians had nothing important to say, and later Christians just screwed everything up.

    Brodie’s thinking (I assume he is still a theist) seems to have evolved from (A) Jesus was real, and he had something important to say about God, and his disciples ran with that, to (B) Jesus was not real, but the first Christians had something important to say about God, and their followers ran with that.

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