Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

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by Neil Godfrey

I’m travelling again so am pulling out the occasional post I’ve had in store for such times. If circumstances do not permit some of my planned posts I’ll post another one of these.

McGrath would appeal to the variables shaping “cultural memory” and theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scriptures; the mythicists would appeal to one less hypothesis . . .

It’s been a while since I addressed James McGrath’s critical responses to mythicism so I will try to make amends. Please, only courteous and civil responses will be acceptable in the comments. I bent over backwards to make the peace with James McGrath a few years ago and I would still like to keep that possibility open. I like to hope that he will respond to my posts in a reciprocal spirit.

About three months ago McGrath engaged in discussions on Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined blog and presented the following list to enable readers to get a grasp of his reasons for objecting to mythicism. He listed only the urls but I have added the titles, too.

I’ve been blogging and writing elsewhere about this [i.e. mythicism] for many years. Here are a few samples in case they are helpful.

1. “Minimalism, Mythicism and Modernism”

I will address each one in chronological order. So we start with

Here McGrath quotes a portion of an article (the second last sentence) by Ronald Hendel and claims its relevance not only for “minimalists/maximalists” but for “mythicists and other modernists”. Minimalists refers to scholars who question the historicity of “biblical Israel”, believing the archaeological evidence must always trump the literary, and that archaeologists working in Palestine have not found evidence for

  • an exodus of Israelites from Egypt;
  • an invasion of Canaan by Israelites from the wilderness;
  • for a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon;
  • parallel kingdoms of Israel and Judah existing side by side up until the Assyrian conquest of Samaria;
  • monotheistic worship of Yahweh until after the Persians established the colony of Jehud.

Maximalists, on the other hand, are generally said to trust the Biblical narratives unless they have good reasons to doubt them, and that there was some sort of Exodus behind the biblical story, a united kingdom under David, and some sort of historical reality behind the biblical account.

McGrath also refers to “modernists” but I will leave aside that side of his criticism because I am not sure what the term covers or how it is relevant to “mythicism”. (Hendel refers without elaboration to a dichotomy of “post modernists / modernists” in the last sentence.) McGrath introduces Hendel’s words with:

The idea that we are either going to precisely reconstruct the past, or conversely decisively disprove traditional views about it, without room for doubt or error, reflect the approach of a bygone era.

A very bygone era, indeed. I don’t know when modern historical studies have ever claimed to be able to establish “precise reconstructions …. without room for doubt or error”. Even our “father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke, said that the most he hoped to be able to “reconstruct” was how a time and event “essentially was” — not how it was precisely and infallibly in all respects. I would be interested to know the specific scholars McGrath has in mind.

At this point I question the relevance of this introduction for the minimalist/maximalist debate as much as for mythicists. I don’t think either maximalist Albright or minimalist Thompson would claim to offer readers a precise reconstruction of the past without room for doubt or error. Nor do I know of any mythicist who seriously engages with the academic works of biblical scholars (e.g. Brodie, Doherty, the early Wells, Price, Carrier . . . ) who makes dogmatic claims about precise reconstructions of the past. All, from my reading at least, appeal to the weight of probabilities. I am open to correction, of course, but preferably from James McGrath’s own reading of mythicists.

I will leap to the conclusion of McGrath’s post because it is there that he targets mythicism directly:

To state the point more directly in relation to mythicism: The recognition that traditional tools and methods of historical criticism do not provide us with certainty does not demonstrate that the mythicists are right, but that they are every bit as wrong-headed as the fundamentalists on the opposite end of the spectrum. Recent scholarship has not given victory to mythicism or minimalism and defeated maximalism. It has shown rather than we need more nuanced categories which eschew both an all-or-nothing mentality and the idea that we can neatly distinguish in our sources between what is clearly historical truth and what is clearly fiction.

Characterizing mythicists as “wrong-headed” leaves us unclear about what is wrong with any of their arguments. I think most mythicists would agree with McGrath’s final sentence about “eschewing all or nothing mentalities”. And I think even most critical scholars, McGrath included, would agree that stories of Jesus walking on water, raising the dead, healing the paralytics, communing with angels and demons, walking physically out of the tomb and through solid walls, are fiction. There is surely a middle ground of agreement here, a place where the dichotomies break down. The difference between McGrath and mythicists arises over the best explanation for those gospel myths. McGrath, presumably via Hendel, would appeal to the vagaries of “cultural memory” and theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scriptures; the mythicists would appeal to one less hypothesis, the evangelists’ theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scripture.


I leapfrogged above to hew to the specific points on mythicism. I return here to the middle bit where Hendel’s theme itself is addressed.

Here’s a sample to whet your appetite:

The minimalist/maximalist dichotomy, as far as I understand it, becomes obsolete in light of the concept of cultural memory. The truth (if I may use this word in its everyday sense) is more complicated than this dichotomy allows. The pursuit of cultural memory in biblical studies has the potential to complicate and reconfigure many dubious dichotomies in our field, including maximalism/minimalism, history/fiction, diachronic/synchronic, and perhaps even postmodern/modern.

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7 thoughts on “Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1”

  1. Yeah, the whole oral traditions and memories argument just has no supporting evidence at all. At best one can talk about studies of how oral tradition can be passed down, but there is no evidence at all that this particular story derives from such a circumstance. Yes, it can be shown that the oral traditions hypothesis is a valid possibility, that’s true. But there are many valid possibilities, and all of them can’t be true.

    McGrath ignores the growing and overwhelming evidence for the literary development of the Gospel narratives. And of course in Deciphering the Gospels I tried to make the case that the whole Markan narrative is a post-First War narrative, which is directly addressed at refuting claims like those made by McGrath.

    In the process of preparing for my next book I’ve learned so much that I now see that the case I put forward in DtG is trivial compared to the full weight of evidence. The evidence that all of the Gospels are entirely post-war narratives is massive and overwhelming and I only scratched the surface in DtG.

    My next book isn’t going to be focused on this aspect of the evidence, but I’ll touch on it some. I think after I get my next book done (I’m assuming that’s 2 years out, maybe 1.5), I may put out a total re-write of DtG with the level of scholarship the thesis really deserves, in which case this will be a centerpiece of that case – showing that the Gospel narratives are purely post-war inventions. That point is the nail in the “oral traditions” coffin. If the narrative is invented after the war, it clearly doesn’t derive from pre-war oral traditions.

    I think a re-write of DtG will much more directly address claims of historicist scholarship than the current version does. Oral traditions and Q are directly in the crosshairs.

    1. ‘… I now see that the case [“that the whole Markan narrative is a post-First War narrative”] I put forward in ‘DtG’ is trivial* compared to the full weight of evidence …’

      to be pedantic, I assume ‘scant’ might be a better word here, as the proposition is not trivial.

      On the point about the ‘oral traditions and memories’ argument not having any supporting evidence at all, Tom Dykstra addresses that very well in his 2014 book, Mark Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark’s Gospel, in which he expands on Thomas L Brodie’s commentary about the same – the ‘oral traditions and memories’ argument not having any supporting evidence at all – in The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (2004, Sheffield Phoenix Press).

      The word ‘intertextuality’ in the title of the books of these scholars* emphasises “the growing and overwhelming evidence for the literary development of the Gospel narratives” …

      Dykstra has a Masters degree in divinity and a PhD in aspects of Russian history (in aspects of the history of Russian religion, I think)

    2. McGrath ignores the growing and overwhelming evidence for the literary development of the Gospel narratives.

      Brodie, Thomas L. (2012). “epilogue: Bart D. Ehrman’s ‘Did Jesus Exist?'”. Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery. Sheffield Phoenix Press. p. 229. ISBN 978-1-907534-58-4.

      Since around 1970 an alternative explanation of the New Testament and related texts has been emerging. Researchers are recognizing precise ways in which New Testament texts are explained as depending not on oral tradition but on older literature, especially older scripture.
      The dependence of the gospels on the Old Testament and on other extant texts is incomparably clearer and more verifiable than its dependence on any oral tradition — as seen, for instance, in the thorough dependence of Jesus’ call to disciples (Lk. 9:57-62) on Elijah’s call (1 Kgs 19). The sources supply not only a framework but a critical mass which pervades the later text.

      Nanine Charbonnel (2017). “Les Évangiles comme midrash” (in French). APPROCHES – Les promesses du commencement. n°172.

      In my book I draw a parallel between all that is said about Jesus’ actions, attitudes or feelings and ancient Jewish texts. Divided in two columns covering 43 pages I point out clear evidence that the authors of the texts always had those Jewish sources on their minds when they wrote their narratives. This Jewish material is used like playing bricks [Lego bricks] and they should not be read as historical references. And yet, unlike what was claimed on a catholic website, the edition of the Gospels was not a mere cut and paste process, it was developed in a sophisticated way by outstanding human minds. I give a specific and in-depth account of the devices to be found in the narratives and which became later like stumbling blocks in further interpretation. They usually result from a shortcoming in the handling of complex proper and figurative meanings.

  2. Also, I just read his post on the Teacher of Righteousness, but there are some problems with that he says.

    #1) It is certainly not verifiable that the Teacher of Righteousness really existed either. There is nothing to substantiate who the Teacher of Righteousness was or even if he was a real person at all.

    #2) The Teacher of Righteousness is talked about in ways more relevant to a real person than Jesus is in the pre-Gospels epistles.

    McGrath notes that we knew nothing about the Teacher of Righteousness prior to the Qumran find, which is true, but of the only writings about him that we found, they do describe in ways that appear to be talking about a real person more so than the way Jesus is described in the Epistles of Paul, James, or Jude.

    For example the Qumranic writings say things like, “The Teacher of Righteousness did X” or “The Teacher of Righteousness said Y”, or “The Teacher of Righteousness opposed So and So”. We find no statements like that about Jesus in the pre-Gospel Epistles.

    So yes, there can be many people about whom we know little or nothing, that’s true, and Jesus could have been such a person in theory, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that the pre-Gospel epistles talk about Jesus in ways that contradict what what one would expect to see in writing about a real person.

    The Qumran writings about the Teacher of Righteousness, by themselves, lead people to believe that the Teacher of Righteousness was a real person. But the argument of mythicists it that without the Gospels, the pre-Gospel epistles do not give this same impression of Jesus.

  3. • Jesus as a figure of “cultural memory”, appears to be relevant to the question of Jesus’ historicity, for McGrath.

    McGrath (19 August 2013). “Review of Is This Not the Carpenter?” [PDF]. Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath. Originally appeared in Review of Biblical Literature</q>

    Emanuel Pfoh . . . mentions more than once that his exploration of Jesus as a figure of myth and cultural memory is irrelevant to the question of Jesus’ historicity and is simply a different approach entirely. However, his conclusion seems to backtrack on these points, when he says that “[w]e may write many histories and socio-anthropological treatises on early Christianity, but we cannot write any about a concrete historical Jesus” (92). While it has since Bultmann often seemed better simply to set aside historical debates about Jesus and to focus instead on early Christian thought, that aim has been driven by a theological desire to avoid the ever-shifting sands of historical uncertainty. It is odd to see that stance now embraced by those whose aim is quite the opposite of Bultmann’s. It may perhaps be easier to study early Christianity than the historical figure of Jesus. But not necessarily so. Whether we can know anything about realities in early Christian communities likewise depends on the trustworthiness or otherwise of textual sources and the historical-critical study thereof. Consequently, it is not clear that dismissing the possibility of knowledge about a historical Jesus, while hoping for knowledge of a historical early Christianity, would actually fare significantly better.

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