On mythicism, creationism and the wrath of ancient kings

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by Neil Godfrey

Someone asked me who among atheists were critical of Jesus mythicism when I posted Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it and a number have questioned my own view of why they do, or at least have offered alternative viewpoints. All fair enough. Meanwhile, someone on Facebook chided me for not having read Tim O’Neill’s article addressing PZ Myers’ “historical Jesus agnosticism” and attempting to explain how the relevant historical analysis works. So today I did finally at least skim quickly through O’Neill’s PZ Myers and “Jesus Agnosticism”, Eddie Marcus’s explanations, and a few of the comments. And whaddyaknow — there I read more of the exact criticisms I had been addressing in my earlier post about “atheist hostility to Jesus mythicism”. They once again demonstrate, to me at least, that the primary objection to mythicism is that it sets itself apart from mainstream scholarship and for that reason is seen as “essentially” one with creationism and holocaust denial.

There was something unexpected, though. What I found especially intriguing was Tim O’Neill’s admonition to his readers to not even read arguments that had been posted against his own views! Recall Niels Peter Lemche’s point about how conservative scholarship has worked to steer scholars away from radical criticism: The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche). Tim certainly goes overboard to smear me every time he seems obliged to mention me at all. He certainly is doing all he can to turn readers off anything coming from this quarter. That’s not so bad in itself, except that he seems incapable of doing so with dispassionate reasoned argument. Ancient kings (and more recent totalitarian regimes) who were obsessed with erasing all memory of opponents and/or cursing them to the limit would be most impressed.

From Tim’s page — with my highlighting of the key points:

Biosaber says:

Similar in their rhetoric and explaining-away of evidence. And are just as impervious to reason. Mythicism is to history what YEC is to science. But ok, they’re Atheism’s halocaust deniers

Then analogy is not to the degree or nature of the evidence. It’s the lack of understanding of the material and the arrogance of assuming they know more than the consensus of experts that is analogous. So the analogy is completely apt thanks.

One more:

Tim O’Neill says:

“I could provide examples of where the consensus of experts has been wrong (you know like some of science!) so that in and by itself is not disqualifying.”

Everyone knows it is not necessarily disqualifying. But most of the time the experts know better than some online nobody who’s watched a couple of YouTube videos.And even the cases when the maverick contrarians have been right and the consensus has been wrong are well known because they are so rare. Yet, like the Creationists, these twerps think they are the smart ones.

So there you have it. The sin of mythicism is that it disputes the conventional wisdom of the academy of biblical studies. And we even have the biblical imputation of motive for that sin — pride, arrogance. Can anyone with such a mindset help themselves from reading any mythicist arguments with hostile intent?


Here’s the surprising bit. Tim added an addendum to his post that had been written after PZ Myers responded to it (and after I had made my own comments on PZ’s response).

P.S. I would suggest you avoid reading the comments from the Mythicist true believers on Myers’ articles – most of them are so dumb they will make you lose the will to live.

And to reinforce the point, when one commenter asked

Biosaber says:

Hey Tim have you seen PZ’s post about this post, “The Tim O’Neill Treatment” (and Neil Godfrey’s post about it)?

Tim replied

Tim O’Neill says:

Yes. Note my addendum to my article above, which addresses Myers’ response. I pay no attention to Ol’Grandpa Godfrey though – he and the other jabbering boneheaded contrarians who gather in his little Treehouse Club for fringe weirdos are not worth the time.


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17 thoughts on “On mythicism, creationism and the wrath of ancient kings”

  1. It really trivializes the Holocaust to compare an obscure problem of historical trivia based on a scant amount of ambiguous evidence to the very well-documented and undeniable fact of the genocide engaged in by Germany under Nazi leadership.

  2. According to my cousin, who has a PhD in History from Cambridge University, the “academy” – and by that she means the academy of actual historians with real doctorates in history, and expressly not biblical scholars, accepts the Dutch radicals as nailing the essentials of it, and there was no historical Jesus Christ. They have no interest in the issue, it having been resolved to their satisfaction unless new valid evidence appears..

    Someone should let the illustrious Tim O’Neill know about the “consensus of true [historians”]. Heck, someone should let most mythicists know.

    1. Versus:

      • Will Durant and Ariel Durant —Historians

      • Michael Grant —Classicist Historian

      • Paul L. Maier —Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University

      • Edwin Judge —Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University

      • Philip Jenkins —Professor of History at Baylor University

      • Alanna Nobbs —Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University

      1. Edwin Judge and Alanna Nobbs are devout orthodox (and perhaps fundamentalist) Christians. Many of the staff in the department of Ancient History at Macquarie University are.

      1. Umm… She was furious (at me) for even implying that there was support among her colleagues for historicism. I doubt if I would dare to even broach the subject with her again! 🙂

  3. I’ll address this on my blog as well. The problem is really two fold, a problem with mythicists themselves and a problem with viewing mythicism as “nonsense because it is anti-consensus”.

    1) There is a lot of “bad mythicism”. It is true that there are many quacks making mythicist type claims and there is a bunch of nonsense in the field, that is true, and IMO, mythicsits needed to do more to call out poor scholarship. It’s not enough to highlight good scholarship, we also need to call out bad scholarship.

    2) I view mythicism as more like the concept of evolution. Prior to Darwin the concept of biological evolution had been around for hundreds of years (well actually thousands). The consensus, however, was that it was total nonsense. Darwin finally broke the consensus due to the weight of the evidence he presented (it took someone traveling around the world collecting data from all over the world to do it).

    The idea that “consensus” in and of itself is meaningful is total nonsense. There is no perfect way to determine what is true, and this always annoys me with how people preach about “science”. “Science” doesn’t guarantee any we arrive to correct answers, and anyway, what so many people seem to misunderstand is the METHOD that has been used by the majority to form their consensus in biblical studies, which is very unscientific.

    At present there is a faith based consensus among biblical scholars, period. I defy anyone to objectively look at the facts and not conclude that there is significant reason to doubt the consensus, the problem is that #1 most people don’t look at the fact or even know how to look at the facts and #2 when they try to look at the facts they have a high chance of being presented with either poor scholarship by mythicists or unsupported or selective claims by historicists.

  4. I keep receiving the confirmation that Tim o’Neill is neither an expert in this field, nor an honest individual, but an advocate of the “consensus” – no matter how this consensus is built.
    Alas, there is only in this field – of the religious historical studies – where the “researchers” (with such a great nonchalance) don’t follow the painful path of the scientific method, mandatory in all the other fields.

    1. Tim’s masters degree was in medieval literature, not history. He has demonstrated no awareness of key points about historical methods and writing and inquiry as addressed by historians themselves. (Even Eddie Marcus’s statements falsely presented one postmodernist school of thought as if it represented the totality of what historians think about their work.)

      When I pointed out in a discussion with Tim on PZ’s site the logical fallacy of appealing to authority or the “prevalent” view he simply dug in and said he would decide what questions he asked. We have to conclude he is not interested in a reasoned argument but only in denunciation.

  5. Contrast PZ’s treatment of opposing arguments with Tim O’Neill’s.

    PZ recently attended a creationist lecture which he not only described in great detail but recorded so that his readers may check if he’s somehow misrepresented the speakers’ points. He presented their arguments as well as his response to each point without once appealing to authority or invoking scientific consensus.

    It isn’t worth Tim’s time to pay attention to the opposing arguments, but evidently it is worth his time to emphasize how unworthy of attention they are to his readers and how heavily the guild is in agreement. All he needs people to understand is that those who don’t fall in line with scholarly consensus are fringe lunatics comparable to science denialists; you don’t want to be a fringe lunatic, do you?

    No surprise that the point of consensus sometimes being wrong completely sailed over Tim’s head. If everyone in an academic circle shared his attitude toward the maverick contrarian then the number of times a scholarly consensus was ever found wrong would’ve been precisely zero because the Ehrmans and McGraths would’ve stopped them at the gate much to the delight of the O’Neills who’d have celebrated the arrogant twerps being put in their place!

    1. Even the name of Tim’s website speaks to the focus on atheist group identity. Several of his posts strike me as being relevant to Christians, agnostics anyone and not exclusively or even primarily atheists. He presents as one concerned that his atheist identity is not tarnished by those he “essentializes” as a nutcase collective for daring to differ from a particular scholarly academy.

      He used to attempt to debate with me but has declined to make that effort since I insisted that he refrain from insult — to refrain from insult would be counter to what appears to be his primary goal: to warn other atheists not to join the mythicists, or look what targets of opprobrium they will be.

      I wonder if it is significant that he has not taken on a criticism or attack of mythicists who continue with their faith.

      1. I’m very curious to see how his interactions with PZ will play out in the future. PZ is not one to readily hop on any bandwagon, and Tim is understanding of that – at least for now.

        His whole piece reads as a warning to PZ the subject of which is to explain the difference between the good kind of agnostic (properly submissive to authority) and the bad kind (stealth mythicist) only ever using the word in scare quotes. In response to PZ’s point that cultural bias could also account for the consensus he admonishes him for sounding too much like those insufferable mythicists; you can’t be questioning the basis of the experts’ conclusions if you’re truly agnostic!

        I could picture PZ inadvertently ruffling feathers further whether it be, for example, failing to see “brother of the Lord” as a slam dunk or questioning whether the criterion of embarrassment is not just utilizing the argument from personal incredulity. He may need gentle reminders of how a proper Jesus agnostic is supposed to behave.

        In the end, I don’t see him wholly committing to either position but it wouldn’t surprise me that Tim might interpret this over time as being evidence of his mythicist sympathies especially after he’s begun questioning the methodology.

        1. I could not help but crack very wide grin when I read the following by Tim:

          It is admirable that Myers was, as a non-historian, open to listening to someone trained in the historical method and to seek to actually understand how it applies to Jesus as a likely historical figure. Unlike other analogous non-historian New Atheists of his ilk – e.g. Jerry Coyne – he is humble enough to realise that this question is well out of his field of expertise and to respect the fact that almost all of those who have studied it accept that a historical Jesus most likely existed and try to understand why. This is greatly to his credit. . . .

          So Myers’ reservation of judgement is a very sensible alternative to jumping to an uninformed opinion or – worse – a supposedly “objective” opinion formed by reading the fringe theorists from just one side (and here, again, we find Myers’ fellow biologist New Atheist blogger Jerry Coyne, who plumps wholeheartedly for Mythicism on the basis of no wide reading at all).

          Of course! And all of Tim’s backers have sensibly and judiciously undertaken their own wide reading of the question, too! As if! I suggest that the reason these “believers” meet with approval is the simple fact they conform to the views of the academic guild.

          And it’s also a not so subtle warning to PZ, that Tim will target PZ with the same personal abuse as he does Coyne if he goes the wrong way.

          Fact is even Tim’s reading, like that of Eddie Marcus, “the professional historian” introduced into the debate, appears to be limited to a few pop arguments like those of Bart Ehrman. He certainly won’t take on Tim or me in a debate, and will only continue to distort and twist anything serious mythicsts say from the sidelines where he can lace everything with slander, insult and the rest.

          More to the point, both PZ and JC pose the core questions that go to the heart of the question and that biblical scholars like James McGrath cannot answer beyond appeals to “the consensus”. Tim has to add lots of bluster and threat to hide this simple fact.

          And notice the reference to “well out of his field of expertise”. Thus the debate is so complex and esoteric that really only specialists can decide it so of course we must defer to consensus. Bullshit. Next he’ll be doing a Hurtado and implying we need to master Coptic and Aramaic before we can even be qualified to ask a question of the masters.

          1. I just don’t understand how people can seriously look at this environment and go “yup, the consensus is sound”. Even biblical scholars themselves confirm the extreme pressure on those who break with orthodoxy: Bart Ehrman’s argumentum ad baculum with James McGrath’s glowing endorsement, Joseph Hoffman’s admission that those holding certain views must keep quiet to preserve their careers, Thomas Brodie’s reluctance to “come out” for decades because he knew that he’d be condemned and his ideas dismissed, Richard Carrier’s experience with colleagues who are too afraid to even broach the subject, etc.

            This paints a picture not of a body of discerning experts thoughtfully converging on one sensible conclusion but a groupthink environment where self-appointed mindguards assimilate those who share the group’s correct way of thinking while maligning and casting out those with the temerity to challenge their central dogma. That there would be such overwhelming agreement with extreme certainty in a case of such scant evidence is a reason to be suspicious.

            Of course, Tim simply handwaves this away by declaring it “completely ridiculous” that non-Christian scholars might be “too timid” to publicly accept mythicism. OK, well that settles that! Why would they care about trivial things like their career or reputation? No doubt the idea that a particular flavor of non-Christian might be absorbed into the guild precisely because of their environment-friendly perspectives would be even more preposterous.

  6. I see this kind of tribal authoritarian thinking becoming more prevalent in general (or at least more openly espoused). I don’t know if this kind of reactionary response is due to a greater wide-spread sense of insecurity and loss of identity or what. But I think all of this just further goes to show that religion itself is not necessarily as much of a problem as are authoritarian institutions and leaders, both religious and secular.

    Maybe this is too obvious and banal but the split seems to be between people who are actually and primarily interested in pursuing answers to questions regardless of what people might think of the answers (genuine intellectual curiosity, true nerds), and people who are more interested in setting themselves up as authorities and experts and leaders, making and maintaining a name for themselves (no matter how minor their notoriety), and retaining a sense of public respectability (power seekers and and politicians at heart). I don’t know anything about Tim O’Neill, but just by perusing his website my impression is that he comes off as a bit of an egotist and ambitious, self-promoting know-it-all. I’ve seen this same kind of split in the academy where you’ll find very knowledgeable individuals who are more interested in the actual questions, arguments, and material and their more ambitious colleagues who are more interested in and canny about securing leadership positions, gaining prestige and accolades, and wielding institutional power.

    1. Indeed. What you describe comes in with what Boyer presents as coalitional behaviour. Tim, as an example, evidently sides with the body that represents the power interest because for him the benefits of doing so clearly outweigh the costs. People have different levels of commitment and the commitment level of Tim in that arrangement is very high: bullying, humiliation, defamation, ridicule, are his stock weapons. He has said he sees me and my arguments as insignificant and beneath him. He is right insofar as to engage with a serious debate over the issues would mean he gives up his perceived status with the intellectual elites of the reputable institutions and puts his imagined status at risk.

      His perception is further entrenched when certain scholars themselves (e.g. McGrath, Hurtado, and even the pro-Christian Tom Holland) laud his defence of their reputations and views.

      In other words he is a bully with a vocabulary better suited to bullying and denunciation than to genuinely academic or scholarly discussion.

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