Neil the Pettifogger?

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by Neil Godfrey

This morning I was slightly surprised by a criticism of my posts, in particular with reference to PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods, that I make sophistic distinctions and nuances, or that I quibble over precise meanings for the sake attacking an otherwise very evidently sound and sensible argument. I know Tim O’Neill has indicated that he certainly thinks that is what I do with his posts, but I was a little surprised that someone else should make the same charge.

Godfrey is okay sometimes, but he seems to pettifog too much and comes across as uncharitable. Reading his articles is sometimes a chore. I didn’t read the whole thing, I stopped after I became annoyed. Example:

. . . .

Second example soon after:

//No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works…[more words]//

Ok, clearly Tim means that they are assuming Jesus to be/depicting Jesus as if he were a real human being who lived in the past, i.e., a historical figure, despite whatever theological interpretive overlay, legendary embellishments, etc., they spun on their ideas about Jesus.

I responded that I did not see my point as pettifogging but as a concern to ensure the discussion is governed by clear thinking. But I did wonder. Obviously some readers do see me as a nitpicker. And it’s not only Tim.

In the example I have cited I can well understand the critic’s point of view. Yes, certainly, the evangelists did place Jesus in a historical setting and gave him a historical biography. In hindsight I see that I would have been smarter to have made it known that I clearly understood that point before hitting the point of disagreement.

My disagreement was with the way Tim’s point was expressed. The problem as I see it is that to say “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin (of Christianity)” is a subtle question-begging interpretation of the sources and not a strictly correct or objective way to portray the gospels. That’s why I saw the point as a problem of unclear thinking. We need to sift out question-begging and casual conventional assumptions (even if they are common among biblical scholars themselves) and set them aside whenever we are addressing the actual data before us.

I suspect that my critic is so very entrenched in the conventional assumptions about the gospels that it is very difficult for him to see that they are indeed a question-begging interpretation that should be examined and tested, not casually repeated as if fact.

The data itself is a set of narratives in a historical setting and with historical biographical trappings about a character who is very obviously mythical. I mean Jesus is mythical as he is portrayed in the gospels: he talks to spirit beings and they to him, he does all sorts of miracles, returns from the dead. I’m not saying that that means there was no historical figure of Jesus behind the stories. As I pointed out in my original post the only way to find a historical figure from the gospels is to do exactly what scholarship does: make inferences about the origins and sources of the narratives and hypothesize about such a figure through those inferences. That approach, of course, has led to myriads of different historical Jesuses.

Probably at least some of the gospel authors did believe the Jesus they were depicting was historical but that is hardly a point in favour of historicity and is no grounds for saying that they explain Christianity began with a historical figure — unless we are also prepared to say that the cults of Dionysus and Heracles are portrayed as having historical founders (Dionysus and Heracles) and to say that as if we have grounds for a prima facie case that they were truly historical.

Maybe it’s a finer distinction than we might all grasp quickly. I should try to remember to clarify points of agreement and acknowledging where I understand the grounds for the view I am challenging. But at the same time I wish my posts were shorter, not longer. C’est la vie.

Okay, I skipped the first example my critic gave. Lest I be charged with self-serving misrepresentation let me address that one now, too.

//On the first paragraph, I am not sure that it is correct to charge that “mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition — that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed.” Several mythicists authors I have cited certainly came to that conclusion through an analysis of the evidence but I don’t know which mythicist authors Tim has in mind whom he believes “base their supposition” on the existence of a form of early Christianity that lacked an idea of a historical Jesus.//

Wasted space. Tim O’Neill’s quoted words he’s responding to could just be taken as describing the essence of the mythicist position…’supposition’ being used in the sense of ‘hypothesis’, etc. I’m sure Tim wouldn’t object to the idea that mythicists believe they have ‘evidence’ for this ‘suppositon’.

Wasted space, quite probably. I did hum and har a bit before adding that criticism and then I hummed and harred some more before deciding not to delete it. (I added it after I had written what became the second part of the post, if I recall correctly.)

I do agree with the critic’s objection that “Tim wouldn’t object to the idea that mythicists believe they have ‘evidence’ for this ‘suppositon’.” I know he does. But the words quoted and the ones I made clear I was addressing were:

The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation.

That’s not saying that mythicists believe they have evidence that leads them ineluctably to a certain conclusion. That’s saying that mythicists begin with and base their argument on a “fundamental supposition”. That’s the same sense in which mythicists say that historical Jesus scholars’ arguments for a historical Jesus are all “based on a fundamental supposition” that there was a historical Jesus to kick-start the process and lead to traditions that were set out in the gospels.

My point is that we need to be careful with how we argue and criticize the various points in the debate. It is not helpful to make careless sweeping statements as if they are fact — and in the words quoted the criticism is stated as an emphatic fact.

Perhaps I need to drop in more words to explain how I think my “opponents” are well-intentioned and sincere and why I can understand their point of view etc etc etc so I can not be seen as “uncharitable”. I know some of my comments on the blog in responses to others have been taken as hostile remarks when in my own mind I was doing nothing more than trying to zero in on the core of the argument.

But then . . .  I wish my posts were shorter, not longer. C’est la vie.


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Neil the Pettifogger?”

  1. That is why we should be so grateful that the Internet allows such quick and easily followups to anything we post. Nobody can write a readable-in-one-sitting essay on a controversial subject that anticipates and addresses every possible objection, even all the reasonable ones.

    You’re doing fine, Neal. Keep it up the way you’ve been doing it.

  2. On your critic’s first example I think it was perfectly fair and reasonable to examine what Tim wrote about “mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition — that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed.” It reads as if critics of the historicist position are putting the cart before the horse. It is a more than generous interpretation to assume that O’Neill meant to say ‘hypothesis’ when he chose a different word that includes some less salutary shades of meaning.

  3. What precisely is the difference between ad hominem and poisoning the well? Anyway it seems to me using such terms as pettifogger and fringe position as descriptors seems to smack of both.

    Our biases are difficult to recognize in ourselves and therefore attempt to mitigate. It takes effort. Some critical investigations take time and effort and entail nuances. If such investigations go against our bias, it is not a pleasant undertaking to work hard to discover the error that our bias clings to. Also, Occam’s idea is not a law, it is a guideline. Sometimes the more complex explanation is the correct one. We will likely not find it if it demands going against our bias.

    This blog has exposed my to much sound thinking that I would otherwise never have been aware of. I enjoy and commend your efforts, even if I comment rarely.

  4. This all stems from trying to discuss this topic with people who have very little actual knowledge of it. The problem with this topic is that most people have only a passing knowledge of the material and mostly only know of “mythicist” talking points from very high level or radical sources, like Acharya S or films like Zeitgeist, etc. They seem to come to the topic thinking that they already know it all or seem to think that the entire case is already fully made and there isn’t really anything new to learn.

    So when you start trying to lay out the framework and establish the basics people see it has being petty and and a knit picking facts, etc. because they don’t understand the nuances of the information. I ran into this recently with a discussion about the writings of Josephus among other atheists. Someone said something like , “Well Josephus confirmed that Jesus was a real person,” and I started trying to address that claim and then it turned into a big hullabaloo about me just not accepting real scholarship and this is what the experts agree on, etc. and it went no where.

    So, yeah, this topic is a major pain in the butt to discuss with people who aren’t well studied in the material, and it’s even worse to have with people who have a light knowledge of the material. If they don’t know anything you can kind of lay out some facts and have a discussion. When they know a little bits it’s often just a mess.

    It’s also hard for people to believe that so many “experts” could really be so wrong and that the information they have gotten from reputable sources like encyclopedias, secular history books, TV programs, etc. could be so far off the mark.

    1. It’s like trying to argue that the earth is moving around the sun and not the sun around the earth. Common sense and everything they can see tells them that it’s a nonsense extremist fringe thing to suggest. Obviously we’d all be swept off the planet we were standing on if it was really moving through space. Absurd idea. Copernicus was a complete nutter for a time.

    2. There are a lot of people out there muddying the waters and deliberately so: they don’t know new information or won’t acknowledge it, so won’t repeat it.

      A classic is scholarship on the ‘mentions’ about Jesus in the writings of Josephus, particularly the TF. The two most recent papers are significant but do not get due recognition –

      Ken Olson. 2013. “A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum”, in Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations, eds. A Johnson & J Schott (Harvard University Press), pp. 97–114. https://www.academia.edu/4062154/Olson_A_Eusebian_Reading_of_the_Testimonium_Flavianum_2013 (and https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5871.5-a-eusebian-reading-of-the-testimonium-flavianum-ken-olson)

      Paul Hopper (2014) “A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xviii:63,” in Monika Fludernik and Daniel Jacob, eds., Linguistics and Literary Studies: Interfaces, Encounters, Transfers, (de Gruyter), pp. 147-169.

      1. Yeah, people also misconceptions about “age” of views, like all the new claims are “revisionist”. It seems like older views would be more legit because they are “closer to the source”, but people don’t understand the need for new scholarship and the value of recent discoveries in what seems to be an “ancient” field.

        1. Yeah, there’s so many aspects to it all. Orthodox Christians and other traditionalists want all the NT books to be dated as close as possible to ‘the source’ (a loaded term in itself) yet ignore a key concept such as provenance, and want to ignore all the issues around texts changing from those early times to the extant versions we have. And the fact that the writings of Justin Martyr don’t reflect the extant texts we know today.

          On the other hand, they write off sceptical commentary of a century or more ago, such as that of the Dutch Radicals, as old and supposedly ‘debunked’.

          Yes, we are always rejigging perceptions as new information comes to light.

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