Simon Gathercole has had an article published behind the paywall of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus opposing the idea that the Jesus figure of the New Testament originated as a theological and literary concept and in favour of the idea that he had a historical existence. Gathercole is addressing the evidence in the Pauline corpus, being titled, “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters.”
Gathercole opens with a statement that seems to run against certain claims of others (viz Ehrman, Hurtado, McGrath et al) who have argued against mythicism:
“Mythicism”, the view that there never was a Jesus of history, has in recent years attracted increasing interest from scholars. This interest is a positive development, not only because of the increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship, but even more importantly because of growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public.
There has been an “increasing interest from scholars”? There have been “increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship”? There has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public”? Outright denial of the first two statements has at times been used by scholars and their public backers as a reason to dismiss the questions raised by mythicist arguments. Perhaps Gathercole is thinking of critics of mythicism in his first claim such as James McGrath, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Larry Hurtado, Daniel Gullotta. But it is unusual to hear from a critic that mythicists are making “increasing attempts to engage with scholarship”. In fact, mythicist arguments that have most impressed me are those that have engaged with mainstream historical Jesus scholarship from the outset: e.g. works of Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, R. M. Price. As for the final point, that “more importantly” there has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public” one does have to wonder why current scholarly publications addressing such a “problem” are not made freely available to the public.
Simon Gathercole’s abstract to his article contains the following:
Attention to the language of the birth, ancestry and coming of Jesus demonstrates the historicity and human bodily existence of Jesus. There is also information about his ministry, disciples, teaching and character in the epistles which has been neglected. Paul’s letters, even taken alone, also show the Herodian timeframe of Jesus’ ministry.
And that’s where my opening quotation from Mark Goodacre (made in the context of the Q debate) enters the picture. Gathercole unfortunately does not address the core arguments of mythicists (from Drews to Couchoud to Wells to Doherty to Price) that argue for Paul’s view of an ahistorical figure of Jesus. He does partially address one idiosyncratic suggestion by a more recent scholarly mythicist which we will address later. Gathercole’s essay focuses almost exclusively on an expansion of the passages used by scholars to argue against mythicism (let’s for convenience call them “historicists” in this post) but without addressing the primary arguments of mythicists to the contrary, and therefore without anticipating what mythicists might say in reply to his expansions of the historicists’ position.
It may help if I set out my own cards on the table for all to see before we start.
I am an atheist who cares not one whit whether Jesus was historical or mythical. A historical Jesus sits in perfect comfort with my world view of religion, Christianity in particular, and everything else in the universe. I became an atheist long before I ever considered the possibility that Jesus might not have been historical. I have never had any desire to go to any trouble to “deconvert” Christians, but I am keen to make any ideas that I find interesting publicly available – hence this blog. I think the very worse, the least effective way, to undermine anyone’s faith in Jesus would be to try to convince them that there was no historical Jesus. Any effort along those lines would obviously meet with very early failure. The last thing I would ever attempt if I were ever to think it worthwhile to try to deconvert anyone from Christianity — the very last thing I would attempt would be to try to convince them that there was no historical Jesus. I would instead use the sorts of methods used by Hector Avalos in his The Bad Jesus and John Loftus in his blog Debunking Christianity. My interest in Jesus mythicism is in the same class, entirely, as my interest in any other scholarly study of the literature of the Bible. The final tipping point that led me to sympathize more with mythicist arguments over against “historicist” ones of Jesus was actually the obvious inability of mainstream historicists to present an effective and logical rebuttal of certain core mythicist arguments. The most voluble efforts to do so, unfortunately, turned out to be outright ad hominem attacks and even personal insults, non sequiturs, and blatant misrepresentation of the mythicist arguments. Happily, Simon Gathercole does not descend to the worst tactics of his peers.
Not very long ago I did address, in detail covering 22 posts, the criticisms of Daniel Gullotta in the same journal, The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, and pointed out step by step the litany of Gullotta’s misrepresentations and fallacies in his response to Richard Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus. At the same time regular readers of Vridar will know that Tim and I have both been open about our disagreements with Richard Carrier’s arguments. We disagree on some fundamental points relating to the question of Christian origins, so no-one can reasonably assert that we are knee-jerk supporters of Carrier when we protest against Gathercole’s description of Gullotta’s review. Gathercole writes:
One of the best recent critiques is that of Daniel Gullotta, who notes some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume.
If Gullotta’s critique is “one of the best” then I suggest that no critique, not one, of Carrier can ever seriously be called “best”. Please read my evidence-backed criticism of Gullotta’s review if you have doubts.
As we continue to read Gathercole’s article we see more clearly the truth of the quotation from Mark Goodacre at the beginning of this post. Gathercole continues:
The present article seeks to focus on Paul, with the aim of providing a more comprehensive and systematic treatment of what the undisputed epistles can tell us about the historical Jesus and the historicity of Jesus, while also responding to a variety of recent mythicist claims. . . . .
The method here is to engage in a thought experiment. . . . This article aims to adopt a kind of counterfactual approach to history, in which all of early Christian literature is set aside except the undisputed letters of Paul, in order to try to glean what can be learned from them alone.
That passage makes it clear. Simon Gathercole has set aside the arguments of mythicists themselves and explains that he will seek to provide “a more comprehensive and systematic treatment of what the undisputed epistles can tell us about the historical Jesus and the historicity of Jesus.” [At this point re-read the opening quotation from Goodacre in another context.] Apart from a subordinate clause that says “while also responding to a variety of recent mythicist claims” we are given no indication that the time-honoured and sustained arguments (as recapitulated by Wells, Doherty and Price) that Paul’s Jesus was an ahistorical figure are to be addressed.
Continuing . . . .
Gathercole, Simon. 2018. “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 16: 183–212.
Goodacre, Mark. 2002. The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem. Harrisburg, Pa: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.
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