James McGrath’s “particular” difficulty with “mythicism”

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by Neil Godfrey

Where to begin?!

One of the things that makes mythicism seem particularly implausible to me is precisely the claim that Christians just think there was a historical Jesus because they are biased in favor of his existence. The historical Jesus, a figure who (among other things) was mistaken about the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God that he predicted, who fostered hopes that he would restore the dynasty of David to the throne but was executed by the Romans, is not much of a comfort to the majority of Christians. Mythicists imagine Christians saying “Well, he was mistaken and a first-century figure that we can scarcely relate to, but I take great comfort in the fact that he existed.” That just doesn’t strike me as plausible.

McGrath, Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. 2019. “When Jesus and Mythicists Are Wrong.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). August 26, 2019. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/08/journal-of-gospel-and-acts-research.html.

It’s Trumpian.

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49 thoughts on “James McGrath’s “particular” difficulty with “mythicism””

  1. That just doesn’t strike me as plausible.

    (people like James McGrath never seem willing to attempt to present evidence. They mainly refer to claims or hopes, or perceptions of what their interlocutors might imagine. It’s like they’re subconsciously projecting.)

    1. McGrath writes, “[W]hat mythicists seem to do is make it an unquestionable methodological principle that what Paul wrote cannot converge with what the Gospels say…”

      When in truth, what historicists do, is make it an unquestionable methodological principle that what Paul wrote must converge with what the Gospels say.

      1. I was reading over the reviews of the Carrier/Goodacre conversation in the past couple of days,and it was astonishing just how much Goodacre was reading the gospels into the epistles – Paul’s mention of other apostles is assumed to be the disciples mentioned in the gospels for example. He even accepts the “Paul didn’t meet Jesus in the flesh and this was a source of anxiety” argument, and has to accept some pretty wild contortions to justify this, when Paul’s actual words are the opposite of this.

      2. McGrath writes word salad, again.

        Ironically, nobody addresses the issue of whether the Pauline epistles were edited to align with the gospels ie. edited by those that brought the texts together during formation of the NT canon or in the lead up to it.

        And historicists don’t address the propositions and arguments that the synoptic gospels are based, in part, at least, on the Paul epistles.

  2. I have never been a Christian, so I don’t know how they think, but what effect would learning that there was no historical Jesus have? No matter how well demonstrated, most Christians, I suspect would not believe, but what would happen with those that did accept it?
    If mythicism is right, the first Christians did not require a historical Jesus and could believe in his death and forgiveness of sins through believing in it. Has the worldview of people today changed so that a Jesus who lived and died in the heavens would no longer be considered plausible?

    1. <>

      Yes, it has. That was one of Doherty’s main points. Practically nobody today would believe such a thing, but in the ancient Near East, it would have made perfect sense to lots of people. It was part and parcel of Middle Platonism, which was very much a thing in that place at that time.

    2. While is it certainly possible to believe anything, Christianity as we know it would never have come into existence on such a basis. Christianity as we know it is absolutely grounded in the teaching that Jesus came to earth and took human form, suffered as a human, and died a material death. Christianity as we know it is entirely predicated on the belief that the Gospels were historically accurate descriptions of the real deeds and teachings of Jesus.

      If Nicene Christians claimed that the Gospels are just allegories based on lessons from various apostles whose teachings were cobbled together to write a story whereby the Jesus character was just used to voice the teachings of a subset of apostles whom the writers favored, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation today because no one today would even know what Christianity was.

      In other words, yes, it is very conceivable that a cult worshiping a heavenly Jesus would have originated in Palestine, but no, it is not conceivable that such a cult would have ever become the dominant religion of Rome. What lead to the domination of Christianity was the belief that the Gospels were literal history.

      1. “that Jesus came to earth and took human form, suffered as a human, and died a material death” could have been an evolving story/narrative, too.

        ie. he could have initially been mostly or even fully narrated as being a celestial being, such as an angel, who came to earth in human form or to take human form; with the [virgin] birth narrative/s being added later.

        1. That is more or less in accord with the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is essentially adopted at the Baptism. Well, at least that’s one interpretation of that scene.

  3. I had actually been pondering that comment by McGrath, trying to make heads or tails of it. Then I thought about Darell Ray’s book “The God Virus” and it does make some sense. The premise of the book is that religion acts like an infectious agent. It attempts to reproduce and spread. In doing this, it shuts off certain cognitive features of the beleivers that makes it’s propagation more likely. I think it’s a pretty apt analogy, and explains the behavior of McGrath and others to a T.

  4. People determined to believe in supernatural beings aren’t much bothered by the sorts of things we demand as evidence for natural things. But they are quick to take advantage of any gaps in our knowledge or anything that might be twisted to ‘prove’ their beliefs are rational.

    The Big Bang theory is often used in this way, and the Cambrian Explosion likewise.

    I have seen secular proponents of the so-called Historical Jesus emphasize the alleged unparalleled significance of Jesus to the point that very much like religionists his life, deeds, and teachings are the most important things that ever happened.

  5. Clearly straw man arguments are not out of fashion. Paint mythicist beliefs however you wish and then slay them for their stupid beliefs.

    People belief Jesus was a “real man” aka an historical character because they have been told that as if it were a fact for millennia. There is no other reason because the vast majority of Christians have examined the evidence up to about the level of the children’s plays on religious holidays. These are people who indoctrinate their children so heavily that they give cute toys of animals and an ark to celebrate the great Flood in which humanity was almost wiped out (as well as almost all other plants and animals). Great idea, celebrate the largest genocide even claimed (albeit fictional) with cute stuffed animals.

    What kind of a fevered mind comes up with “Mythicists imagine Christians saying ‘Well, he was mistaken and a first-century figure that we can scarcely relate to, but I take great comfort in the fact that he existed.'” Only one deliberately trying to mischaracterize the actual positions taken on this matter.

  6. I was raised Protestant and was very devout from age 11 to 12. Supposedly, Jesus became active in the temple age 12. In preparation for my holy baptism, I’d received a free Bible from my church. The cover was white with gold lettering which I cherished, and read it from beginning to end, although understanding very little. Mother one morning told me, “I heard you saying repeatedly in your sleep last night, “Don’t worship idols, don’t worship idols.”

    After being baptized age 12, I stopped regularly attending church because it seemed Jesus went absent from the temple also after 12. Age 18, I returned briefly to Sunday services, but was increasingly frightened at the maneuvering of adult Christians, to get me to go up to the alter and be saved, while fighting emotions of overwhelmingly deficiency and guilt that I could not. Becoming distrustful, I again dropped out of Sunday services.

    Over the next many years, I never questioned the authenticity of Jesus until the day an atheist informed me that Jesus didn’t exist. Could taste the chemical change in my mouth at the shock of it. Struggled that I had been duped all my life so easily. However, within a few hours, was also an atheist.

    Today, I agree with mythicism, agree there was never a real Jesus, agree that the majority of so-called miracles were myths pasted onto the pretend body of a fanciful human being. However, I do think there was a man who could do things others couldn’t…healed illnesses with information alone, understood the structure and function of the invisible “spirit worlds” around and within ours, how we are thoroughly interpenetrated by them. They are realms of consciousness called laws of nature that in an instant, like a Rubik cube, perfectly work if we work them right. I can understand why McGrath and other devout Christians hold onto their belief system and Jesus. Though their devotion is due certainly to information greatly and slightly skewed, they are held by it nevertheless.

  7. I had a friend (raised Jewish in the Bronx, if that matters) who told me — waaaaay back in college — that he believed in God because, just in case, he wanted to be covered.

    Like flood insurance.

    As someone raised R.C. and — even as a college freshman — a non-believer, I tried to argue the non-logic of the position he was taking. It was stupid of me, of course, but that’s what we did in college in the 1970s . . . have sustained stupid arguments. Pot certainly helped!!!

    UPDATE: We had a relatively recent conversation in which he said the same exact thing. The two conversations were separated by more than 40 years.

    Yeah, Yeah, “Pascal’s wager.” It’s an idiotic line of thought, ain’t it? This time, I just let it be.

    In thinking about “believers” — and aggressively Christian types, like The Religion Prof — I have come to realize that it is a short distance from “flood insurance” to Tertullian’s “I believe it because it is absurd.”

    You know, Donald Trump and the Trumpians were not hatched in 2016. This kind of “thinking” has been around for a long, long time.

    Even in the Bronx.

  8. OP: “It’s Trumpian.”

    LOL, I can only ask McGrath:

    • Do you concur that at least agnosticism is very sensible?

    • When will an academic book—published by a respected biblical studies press—present a proper refutation of Carrier’s, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt and also make a peer reviewed case for historicity?

  9. McGrath comments: “Paul provides evidence that he himself joined a messianic movement that he previously opposed, and insists that what he proclaims agrees with what others who were part of that movement before him proclaim. If his message was received through “revelation” and yet matched theirs despite him having no prior knowledge, what you’re proposing is a supernatural occurrence, and history has no room for that sort of thing.”

    McGrath seems unimpressed with Galatians 1:12, where Paul pretty explicitly says he learned his gospel straight from the risen Christ. He also fails to consider the idea that while Paul could have had common agreement on some things with his predecessors (perhaps on scriptural interpretations that initially informed the cult about Jesus), he could have still augmented that information with the personal “revelations” he was receiving — and even if there was a historical Jesus, isn’t that pretty much exactly what Paul did (i.e. teachings on circumcision)?

    Beyond that, in 1 Corinthians 11:23 Paul reveals the Lords Supper as something that was revealed directly to him — not something passed down by witnesses/participants. Why would divine revelation be necessary if this was a witnessed “historic” event? Likewise how would Paul get away with claiming to be the originator of this knowledge about this “historic” event when there were supposedly witnesses that he was not one of? And if we rule out divine revelation as a “supernatural occurrence,” then we are left with the reality that Paul was just making stuff up — either cognizantly or perhaps via paranoid delusions. No conspiracy is required, just a lunatic zealot.

    Perhaps someone can pose these questions to McGrath:

    Were the writings of the Quran really revealed by the Angel Gabriel, or did someone just make them up and claim they were?
    Did an angel really appear to and reveal the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, or did he just make it up and then claim one did to give it authority?
    Is it so hard to think that Paul, as well as those that preceded and followed him in the cult, just made stuff up when it suited them? Or is it just not plausible that Christians can be dishonest?

    1. McGrath and other historicists spend a lot of time ignoring what Paul actually says.

      Also. There is a pretty strong case that he Last Supper scene is entirely interpolated into Paul.

      1. • Pofarmer drops a devastating point right down McGrath’s ol’ pickle barrel!

        Pofarmer comments, “It Strikes me that in Romans, Paul also refers to Adam and Abraham as “of the flesh”. Both are now considered mythical, to my knowledge.”

        Lataster responds: “Pofarmer: Excellent point. The ‘OT’ characters are referred to as if they existed. We know better now!”

  10. I’m glad it wasn’t just me. I actually tried to make some sense out of that comment and couldn’t do it. Then, this morning, I thought about Darell Ray’s book “The God Virus” and it kind of brought it into focus. The Premise is that religious thoughts act like a virus. The religion is mainly concerned with propagating itself and spreading. One of it’s “tools” is to shut off critical thought about the virus. Sometimes it comes out as garbled stuff like this, or an apparent inability to understand someone else’ position even when it’s been explained like 10 times. Now, I’m not saying that religion is an infectious agent, but as part if a biological system that it behaves that way.

  11. Excuse me while I go upstairs to get my machine gun to take care of this butterfly…

    (1) McGrath’s own example of accepting the embarrassing apocalyptic predictions was something that Albert Schweitzer and others were ostracized for, in spite of the rock solid evidence for it, and even now there are evangelicals who say “its not what it looks like!” and liberal NT scholars who evade this by theorizing a Gandhi type Jesus and that the church fabricated the apocalypse sayings. When it comes to mythicism, which I think meets a much lower evidential standard, nonacceptance is expected.

    (2) Why does McGrath think that reactions of people 2000 years later tells us ANYTHING about what originally happened? Its ridiculous on the face of it.

    (3) I have (jokingly) told McGrath before that the christ myth theory passes the criterion of embarrassment since Thomas Brodie, a Catholic priest, thinks Jesus didn’t exist! Seriously, if McGrath wants to argue as he does then I’m not joking anymore!

    (4) Why would nontheists and a few highly liberal Christians feel the need to posit a mythical Jesus instead of a thoroughly human Jesus… Unless they believed that was the real truth? Seriously, no atheist has anything to fear from the kind of historical Jesus theorized by Ehrman, Crossan, etc.

    (5) What undergirds people’s belief in a historical Jesus is a very complex thing. People are very used to thinking of him as a historical figure, and the vast majority of people have not heard about this idea until adulthood (if then!), and this may explain why so many people, including scholars, think this.

  12. The “implausible” Christ myth theory proposes that early proto-Christians scoured the Septuagint looking for hidden messages (similar to modern “Bible Coders”) and “discovered” Jesus through their scriptural interpretations which linked previously unrelated passages (similar to modern Jehovah’s Witnesses using the Bible to identify Jesus and the archangel Michael as one and the same being). We have modern examples of this type of thing, so why is that not plausible?

    After reading this mysterious new figure into the Hebrew Scriptures, the next step was simply to begin to claim to commune with and receive messages from him – which at the very least we know is entirely how Paul “knew” Jesus. Similar in Islam, the Quran was “revealed” through communications with the Angel Gabriel (or even Moses and the burning bush). How can that be implausible, when we have examples of this exact type of claim?

    A few generations later someone wrote a story that said that Jesus didn’t just appear in visions, but actually appeared in human history, and this story became accepted as fact. Kind of like Joseph Smith’s first telling of his encounter with the Angle Moroni/Nephi taking place in a dream but later being amended to have actually have taken place in the real world, and being accepted as fact by his followers. Yet this is still implausible?

    To quote Upton Sinclair: “ It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    1. I think McGrath is setting up a straw man here (perhaps not deliberately, he doesn’t seem to have read much mythicist work, and has not demonstrated any understanding of the arguments). The “implausible” part is not that early Christians created a Jesus, but that modern Christians are saying “Well, he was mistaken and a first-century figure that we can scarcely relate to, but I take great comfort in the fact that he existed.”
      This is probably true, which is possibly why no one (at least to my knowledge) is making that claim. Though secular historicists are making similar ones – ie that he existed, but was mistaken (assuming they accept he claimed to be god), and that much of what the bible tells us about him is wrong.

  13. Okay, I’m officially done with that thread. It’s past the point of not making any sense, and none of the issues I raised are addressed, so I learned my lesson.

    Me: “When theologians say that 4 + 4 = 23 that’s nor credible. Clearly theologians are making provably incorrect claims. Care to address these issues?”

    McGrath: “See, this is the problem with conspiracy theorists.”


    1. On BibleInterp, McGrath comments, “What R. G. Price is saying that I am saying is not what I am saying. I’m just referring mainly to the monographs, articles, and other detailed treatments of the evidence, and not to things written to simplify and at times sensationalize things for a non-specialist audience.”

      1. So, I let myself get suckered back in. I’m not sure if my latest comment will post, because when I it Save it said it was waiting for moderation, which I hadn’t seen before. But here is what that said:

        The issue is not “what Paul said”, the issue is Paul’s sources. What are the sources of these claims? The sources are scriptures and revelation. Certainly being dead only happens to people that are alive, but there are literally thousands of stories from antiquity about people doing all kinds of things that only living people do, about fighting, dying, and dying and coming back to life, etc., and it is widely accepted today that the vast majority of those stories are about people who never existed.

        The story of Orpheus is that he was a prophet who foretold all manner of things, but the people of his village grew angry at him and killed him. Sound familiar? During the first century it was universally believed that Orpheus was a real person. But today historians conclude that there was no Orpheus at all, he never existed. Why? Not because Orpheus was never described as a real person. In fact Orpheus was always described as a real person. Indeed there are even dozens of documents attributed to Orpheus that were widely believed during the early Christian era to have actually been written by Orpheus. A mystery cult existed in the first century that revolved around supposedly prophetic Orphic Hymns, that we now conclude were likely 1st century BCE forgeries.

        The issue is not whether or not Paul or anyone else described Jesus as “being flesh”, the issue is whether those descriptions come from reasonable sources, i.e. from sources that trace back to real world observations.

        What we find when we investigate the sources for all accounts of Jesus, whether they be from Paul or the Gospels or any other materials, is that every single account or description of Jesus originates purely from three sources: scripture, prophecy, revelation. There is no account that appears to have come from any real observation.

        That’s largely what my book Deciphering the Gospels is about – showing that the sources that underlie the Gospels are really just the Jewish scriptures and the letters of Paul. These ideas about Q or oral traditions,etc, are all bunk, because we can actually determine the sources for all of these narratives and statements about Jesus, and all of the sources trace back to scripture, prophecy, revelation… every… single… time…

        1. Pofarmer comments, “folks like McGrath, who claim not to believe in the supernatural, are even MORE wedded to the historical Jesus dude. If he’s not real, then their whole belief system is a sham.”

          There is 0% cogency in McGrath’s argument sans appealing to the Gospel material and hypothetical sources.

          The S.S. (steamship) McGrath can only steer in a circle when not appealing to the Gospel material and hypothetical sources. Paul’s claim of a historical Adam and Abraham implies that Paul’s knowledge of a historical Jesus may be the the same as his knowledge of Adam and Abraham. It is 50/50 at best.

            1. I’ve seen two explanations for this
              1) Everyone knew all the facts anyway, so there was no need for Paul to mention them
              2) Paul thought that by mentioning facts about Jesus’ life, he would draw attention to the fat that he was a disciple and other people who he might disagree with had met Jesus

              People making these never seem to ask “How well does my explanation explain the facts. Does the way Paul writes and what he says make sense if I am correct. ”
              for example
              “If people all knew Jesus said ‘XYZ’ and ‘XYZ’ supported my argument, is it better for me not to say this or to say “as you know, Jesus himself said XYZ”
              “If my opponents are saying “I knew Jesus and he said ‘XZY’ is it better for me to completely ignore this, or to say why they misunderstood Jesus”

              1. Pofarmer comments, “To my knowledge it was Jewish belief that the Heavens were mirrored on Earth, so if Jesus was sacrificed in Heaven, then he must have been sacrificed on Earth too. Paul just doesn’t know anything about that. And certainly, the time and place he was in was rife with mythology and lore.”

                As I understand , “Jesus was sacrificed in Heaven”, was mirrored on Earth in the Temple Passover sacrifice and the Yom Kippur scapegoat sacrifice.

            2. Pofarmer asks: “Where does Paul say Jesus was crucified?”

              McGrath responds [NOW BOLDED], “when you ask a question like “where does Paul say Jesus was crucified”—when Paul said it was his aim to focus on nothing else but Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2)−it suggests that you have been making confident assertions about material you are not even superficially familiar with, and it is frustrating. Although it does explain how you can hold the views that you do.”

              • I am going to categorize this under “McGrath’s blue pill responses” 🙂

              1. I don’t understand. Is McGrath implying that Paul had no interest in pointing out the “where” of the crucifixion and so the question is pointless, or is he implying something else?

              2. Does James McGrath think the Christ title is synonymous with Jesus only? That’s simply not true. I’ve had suspicions that with each new edition the Vatican prints, the name Jesus is changed to Christ more and more. I can’t compare their late editions because I don’t have an old Bible, so am out of luck to prove it. It’s too late to hide what they’ve done.

              3. I don’t think McGrath is a deep thinker, so probably didn’t notice the incongruity of what he wrote, but he may have interpreted “where does Paul say Jesus was crucified” as “where in Paul does he claim Jesus was crucified” rather than “what location does Paul say the crucifixion occurred?”
                It is possible he meant the latter, and thinks Paul was just interested in the theological implications of Jesus death, so had no reason to talk about the details – It is still an important part of much of Christianity that all that really matters is “believe”, but it is rare I think for any sect to take this to its conclusion and not bother with Jesus life and ministry (Chick Tracts seem to only talk about the death, and how Jesus was God, with little or no interest in his teachings)

              4. Greg Shelley wrote:

                he may have interpreted “where does Paul say Jesus was crucified” as “where in Paul does he claim Jesus was crucified” rather than “what location does Paul say the crucifixion occurred?”

                Thank you, Greg. Of course. That makes perfect sense. I did not notice the ambiguity in the wording of the question. One would have thought McG to be more aware of mythicist arguments to have understood the intended point.

  14. • McGrath appears to be using Litwa’s playbook

    Litwa writes, “The fact is, few Mediterranean gods actually die; even fewer die and rise. . . . To be sure, a few gods die; and of these, some of them return, in some fashion, to life. Yet they do so for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. Mythicists such as Carrier fixate on abstract similarities. As a result, they often ignore or paste over important differences in the stories.”

    McGrath, still steaming in circles trying to make his case sans Gospels and hypothetical sources, comments: “(1) belief that humans die is universal, belief that celestial beings die is, shall we say, rare; (2) resurrection was a belief about what happens to humans in general, not just one individual; and (3) Paul emphasizes that last point so much and it would be undermined completely if Jesus’ resurrection were not thought of as the firstfruits of the general resurrection of the dead, but a unique celestial event.”

    1. McGrath is sniping at you with courtroom lawyer tricks and then leaping behind fallacious cover —you “is not only a minority view but a fringe one [ptooey spitoon sound].”

      1. Is McGrath actually arguing that the similarities in stories in the new and old testament are not because they were re-writing old testament passages, but coincidence, forshadowing and prophecy? That the crucifixion scene wasn’t verses from Isiah taken to create a new narrative, but prophecy? That the slaughter of the innocents and fleeing to Egypt not to mirror Moses, but some sort of other parallel? That Jesus feeding large numbers of people with a few loafs wasn’t based on Elisha doing it? And that this is the more likely explanation?

  15. The comments appear to be winding down on Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath, and to no one’s surprise have come full circle to:

    Piper, John (7 September 2016). “Jesus Is My Brother — But What Does That Mean?”. Desiring God.

    [Pofarmer.] How can we be brothers with the celestial Jesus today? By believing in him. “God the Father”. The creator of all things. Why wouldn’t we consider ourselves brothers of Jesus in that case?

    [James F. McGrath → Pofarmer] The relevant point in this context is what you do with the fact that James being “the brother of the Lord” is a way of distinguishing him among Christians, and so that designation cannot mean “brother in the sense that all Christians are brothers” in that context. See further:
    “James, Brother of Jesus, Bother of Mythicists”. Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath. 28 April 2018.
    “Mythicism and James the Brother of the Lord (A Reply to Richard Carrier)”. Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath. 25 March 2012.

    [John MacDonald → Pofarmer] I’m certainly no expert in the celestial angelology of 2nd temple Judaism (or anything to do with religion, for that matter) that Carrier wants to categorize Jesus under. Is there historical analogy for calling one of them, for instance, “Brother Gabriel?”

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