Trumpian Style Response to Mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

I am catching up on too my long-neglected RSS feeds and came across this post from James McGrath: Jesus, James and Peter Mythicism.

It is worth noting precisely what it is that mythicists do with Paul’s references to Jesus in his letters, and just how easily the same could be done with James, the brother of Jesus, whom most mythicists accept was an actual person, while denying that he was actually Jesus’ brother.

Now there is a sweeping confidence about what “mythicists” — a whole block of persons — believe and “precisely” do, or at least “most of them”. Maybe most do. I don’t know. But there are a lot of crackpot mythicists just as there are even more crackpot “Jesus historicists” (usually called fundamentalists, creationists, biblical literalists). Lumping them all together with blanket assertions about what “they” do does not seem like a useful way to open up a discussion.

They emphasize that he is not called “the brother of Jesus” but “the brother of the Lord” as though the Lord, for Paul, were not clearly Jesus. Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh, showing that mythicists are clutching at straws and have no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed. (My emphasis)

Again, notice how we begin with the universal “they” and how that elides to “some” but then returns to that same starting point, “the whole bang lot of them”. No need for citations, of course, because the message is that “they all” think and argue the same way. Would McGrath be content if a “mythicist” lumped together all authors of books about the life of Jesus by believers, apologists and others?

“Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh”, writes McGrath. Regretfully he provides no citation. The ones I can recollect who do argue for this do not merely “claim” it; they present a reasoned argument referencing the sources. But let’s move on. The message is that because “some claim” this point it follows that we can see that “mythicists clutch at straws with no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed.” “Some” is evidence of what the entire collective is like. (Two points: is McGrath seriously suggesting that “ancient Jews” did not equate Lord with Yahweh, but with Jesus, and that “mythicists” are showing their ignorance on this point? Second point: never mind that the evidence used by that “some” sometimes includes a comparable letter by Paul, the one to the Romans, in which very often, not always, uses “Lord” alone to refer to God, Yahweh, and as a rule makes it explicitly clear whenever he wants us to think that “Lord” applies to Jesus instead. One might be tempted to turn the tables and ask who is showing their lack of “real understanding” of the evidence of what Jews and early Christians believed”.)

And so why don’t they go further still? Paul went up to Jerusalem. Surely this could refer to a heavenly journey to the heavenly Jerusalem, during which he met Jacob, Yahweh’s brother. Simple! After all, Paul himself says that he was taken up to the third heaven.

Perhaps the answer is that mythicists, like McGrath, take the context as a primary pointer to meanings of particular words. Perhaps also because the word for “went up” ἀνῆλθον (anēlthon) is the normal word used for someone traveling up to a town, or a mountain (as in John 6:3) while a “real understanding of what ancient Jews and Christians believed” would inform us that when visionaries “went up” to the heavens they never “walked up” or “went up” as if on a journey of their own: they were seized, grabbed, swept up by an outside force — a different concept and a different word (ἁρπάζω (harpazó) ) is used by Paul to describe his being taken up to the third heaven.

I like reading the works of biblical scholars because I generally have lots to learn from them. I get disillusioned when I find some of them write as if they can get away with spouting misinformation to the generally less informed public.

My objection to this (in case you are starting to think maybe I’m onto something) is that it is the same approach religious fundamentalists take to the text, deciding what it is allowed to mean in advance, and then accepting any interpretation that provides that desired meaning, without discussion or consideration of whether the text more likely means what they think it should. Mythicists prooftext rather than exegete.

Again, where is a citation to support this statement? My own experience has been that I always began with the assumption that James was a real person and that he was believed to have been the brother of Jesus. It never occurred to me — even as an atheist — that Jesus never existed or that there was any reason to question the face-value of this passage in Galatians. It is only on closer examination that some — not all — some mythicists have raised the alternative question. McGrath claims to have read (presumably completely read) Richard Carrier’s book on mythicism, so he knows that Carrier even concludes that this passage in Galatians does indeed add significant weight to the argument for the historicity of Jesus. (The difference between Carrier and McGrath, though, is that Carrier does not turn to this or any other passage as a proof-text and use that one text, like a fundamentalist, to prove a much larger point. Context, and understanding the totality of the writings and manuscript histories are important in any scholarly — genuinely scholarly — analysis.)

I happen to think that the passage does mean exactly what McGrath says it means. I also happen to agree with another author who, in the process of arguing against — against — Jesus mythicism, had the honesty to admit that the patristic history of that passage really does raise serious questions about its authenticity. But that’s a discussion for serious scholarship. I trust McGrath won’t just pooh-pooh those arguments but seriously engage with the evidence as honestly as possible.

No, I am not saying that Howell Smith’s arguments are a slam dunk. There is room for honest doubt and question. What I am saying is that arguments from “proof-texting” — as it seems McGrath is accusing mythicists and of which I believe he himself is guilty — is not the way to go in any serious and informed exploration of the question.

I titled this post “Trumpian response”. I define a “Trumpian” as an attempt to persuade followers through disinformation not to read critical views of his position on things; to persuade followers that all “other views” are by definition “fake news”, and to be ridiculed and rejected out of hand. Certainly, one should never waste time actually reading both sides of a question for oneself and seriously raising the sorts of questions I have raised here among die-hard supporters.



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27 thoughts on “Trumpian Style Response to Mythicism”

    1. can anyone here point to where in the NT Mark says his gospel is an allegory? was he referring to the whole gospel or a specific tale. Am just trying to verify if something I’ve long since read is true. thanks!

      1. There is nothing that explicitly indicates that Mark is an allegory, but this is typical of allegories. The idea that the Gospel of Mark or any Gospel was on the whole allegorical was explicitly heretical and certainly not condoned by any orthodox or proto-orthodox Christians. I believe that here was some explicit opposition to any allegorical reading of the Gospels, though I don’t have a reference on hand, but I do seem to recall reading recently some explicit injunctions against allegorical reading of the Gospels.

        It’s also important to note that Mark was far and away the least read Gospel actually right up until around the 17th or 18th century. Mark was almost certainly widely read through the lens of Matthew. Matthew is certainly not written allegorically, nor are any of the other Gospels.

        My own contention is that Mark was an allegory, the others were not. Mark largely went along for the ride, as a work that was simply similar to the other Gospels and one of the set of testimonies to the life of Jesus. But little attention was paid to this particular work, thinking that it didn’t really reveal anything new that was not better attested to in the other works. So, Mark was actually a very poorly understood work from the beginning.

        1. It’s also important to note that Mark was far and away the least read Gospel actually right up until around the 17th or 18th century.

          On a side note I would also add that Mark is also the least per “Historicizing the Figure of Jesus, the Messiah”, i.e. from the POV of an uncritical contemporary reader, who would find that gJohn makes the claim of real story more strongly than the other gospels.

          Comment by Richard Carrier—3 December 2019—per “Kamil Gregor on the Historicity of Jesus”. ”Richard Carrier Blogs” 31 October 2019.

          [W]e do see a trend toward greater historicization in the Gospels. I’ve noted this on my blog many times.

          We start with Mark who writes totally in implausible allegory and never says he is writing history and even implies he isn’t when he has Jesus explain how parables work in Chapter 4. Then we have Matthew who first “sort of” historicized the narrative further by adding that certain “events” he records “fulfilled prophecy” but still never says he is writing history. Then Luke is the first author to claim to be writing history and mimic the markers of historical writing. But he still never insists anything he is saying is literally true or he is coy about that. John is then the first author to repeatedly insist everything he is saying is literally true, and that we should believe his account because it is literally true. Thus the texts move from implicitly allegorical to overt historicizing over time.

          Jesus was through all of this always a celestial pre-existent being. Paul says so. Before any Gospel was written. And Mark, for example, is a Paulinist. So Mark is just allegorically hiding his own cosmology. The true story leaks out gradually as the Gospels go on.

          By the time we get to the last redaction of John, where Paul’s original theology is openly acknowledged in the preface (and exaggerated), what we are seeing is not evolution of doctrine (as we can see in Paul, that was always the doctrine) but the leaking of that oral doctrine into the written narratives, which narratives had begun attempting to conceal it in allegory, but as the texts became more and more literal (more and more historicized), that interest more and more faded.

          Likewise, Paul’s creeds omit any interest in historicizing details. By the time we get to Ignatius, now insisting on historical details not only entered the creed where they never were before, but had become so fundamental to that creed that one could be condemned a heretic for rejecting them. Which is a huge red flag that tells us this was a new development, and that there were Christians they wished to banish who did not accept that historicization.

          P.S. All of the above is in my peer reviewed monograph, On the Historicity of Jesus, with cited evidence and scholarship.

            1. Have you seen Henrik Tronier’s “Philonic Allegory in Mark” in which it is argued (not merely surmised) that the entire narrative of Mark was written as an allegory of the descent of the Christ figure from heaven (Galilee) down to earth (Jerusalem) where he is crucified and from where he returns to heaven to share the fellowship of the saints.

              • Tronier, Henrik (2006). “Philonic Allegory in Mark” (PDF) Vridar.org

              I shall argue that Mark’s allegorical composition applies a modified framework of philosophical ideas for the purpose of performing a similar inscription of key Pauline ideas and values, including Paul’s cosmologically framed wisdom Christology and epistemology, into the scattered traditions about Jesus. By means of allegorical composition Mark continued the aim and strategy of Paul’s allegorical interpretation of scripture…

              • Godfrey, Neil (17 November 2010). “The acts and words (and person?) of Jesus as Parables in the Gospel of Mark”. Vridar.

              1. “We start with Mark who writes totally in implausible allegory and never says he is writing history and even implies he isn’t when he has Jesus explain how parables work in Chapter 4.”

                I think this is what I was looking for! thanks very much

  1. Agreed with what you’ve said about McGrath, but this is somewhat predictable. However I find the recent post on Dr Sarah regarding my book to be equally Trumpian, yet from someone that you wouldn’t expect such an approach.

    Here is her post: https://freethoughtblogs.com/geekyhumanist/2019/12/03/deciphering-the-gospels-proves-jesus-never-existed-review-chapter-one/

    As I replied to her, her approach to the material in my book deeply reminds me of the Creationist approach to the topic of evolution. What I find so fascinating about this is that here we have someone writing for “Freethought Blogs”, an atheist, a critical thinker, someone who professes to be “open minded”, etc.

    My take on her reaction and those like her is that this mindset stems from, as she herself attests, a devotion to “scholarly consensus”. And so for her, and many other “skeptics” like her, “scholarly consensus” has taken on a quasi-religious devotion. For such people, “skepticism” is essentially just denial of “fringe claims” on the basis of those claims being fringe. For them “skepticism” is taken to mean, “not believing things that the majority of scholars don’t agree on.” Of course, I completely disagree with such a definition of “skepticism”. By this definition Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, etc. were all quacks as opposed to skeptics. The idea that we should always follow the scholarly consensus is a root problem in the “skeptic” community at present, IMO, and leads to reactions like we see of Dr Sarah to mythicism, IMO, which, ironically, puts her not too far off from McGrath.

    1. A similar situation occurs per the Gerencser-McCall exchange, also noted in McGrath’s post.

      • Gerencser, Bruce (17 October 2019). “Questions: Do You Believe Jesus was a Real Person?”. The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser.

      As a lifelong reader of the Bible and student of Christianity, I can separate the historical narrative from the fanciful. Saying this has led some atheists to attack me, saying that I am a closet Christian or that I secretly desire to be a follower of Jesus. Such claims are absurd, but some atheists simply can’t accept that two people can look at the evidence for the historicity of Jesus and come to different conclusions.

      “Harry McCall Objects to My Rejection of Mythicism, Says I “Hate” Him”. The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser. 26 November 2019.

      [Per] James McGrath, David Madison, Tim O’Neill, John Loftus, and Bart Ehrman . . . I am acquainted with all of these men, some more so than others. (I wrote the forward to David Madison’s book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.) All of them are students of the Bible and Christian history. All of them are far more educated than I am.

    2. Scholarly consensus is fine with most studies. But we are talking here about a field populated primarily by Christian believers whose studies and whose professors are to a large extent funded by religious believers — and one does not have to look very far to find what scholars who are real scientists, in areas of naturalistic disciplines and humanities, to know that there is a lot of bemused snickering going on about many of these “religious studies” efforts.

      I was reading Tim O’Neill’s latest foray against “mythicism” and am reminded again how devoted he is, also, to the “scholarly consensus”. It is not a true consensus, though, as we know. But it certainly is an overwhelming majority that defends the tradition. Perhaps there is a lack of confidence somewhere there, and a felt need to diminish anyone who is an outsider who raises serious challenges to the “consensus”. It is evidently more than an intellectual debate. There is something else at work, something much deeper.

      1. I find it hard to comprehend how someone can fail to see that a “consensus” based off of those who are in the vast majority religious believers isn’t really a valid consensus.

        1. Any time I bring that up in polite company I’m considered a conspiracy theorist, crank, who obviously had no idea about the high academic standards of seminary education and the contributions of biblical studies to the fields of cryptography, archaeology, etc., and of course the role of Christian biblical criticism in debunking traditional views of the Bible.

          This is all bunk of course. I know good and well the role of biblical studies in these various fields. Of course, half of the really profound contributors in biblical studies ended up getting thrown out, like Bauer and much of the German school. And to boot, of course all of those radical findings ended up getting re-absorbed by the establishment and tamed. Yes, we got the Synoptic Problem, but then this was quickly resolved with Q to still provide how those later Gospels could be seen an containing independent information that traces back to Jesus, etc.

          Candida Moss shows the same type of phenomenon at work in the Catholic Church in regard to the study of the saints. Yes, the Catholic Church did identify that many saint biographies are bogus, but as things started getting too real they pulled back and made sure to reinforce the supposed biographies of the really important saints.

        2. I find it hard to comprehend how someone can fail to see…

          It is probably related to how someone can fail to see r.g.price’s argument and straw-man it so… so… badly:

          [T]he existence of this passage in our works of Josephus [Baptist Passaage per AJ] is good enough evidence to believe in John the Baptist’s existence . . . This, of course, tells us nothing whatsoever about Jesus’s existence. However, it does give us a clear example of a story of Mark’s that appears to be (and might well have been intended as) an allegory… but is nevertheless demonstrably about a real person. And as such, it blows a major hole through any theory that ‘allegory’ automatically equates to ‘fictional protagonist’. Which means that, right out of the gate, there is a fundamental problem with Price’s entire theory.

  2. as long as I got y’all here heh heh

    does anyone know what work(s) of Irenaeus being quoted here? Is there an overall title for his “books”? thanks!

    Chapter xxii of his Book II attacks John and Luke calling their record of early death heresy. Beginning with chapter x of his Book III he attacks the names of all four gospels and some of their quotations as false and heresy regarding parts of the crucifixion and early death of Jesus. It appears he only begins to hear of these gospels as he’s finishing Book II and beginning Book III. Irenaeus contends Jesus lived to a very old age (“maybe even until the times of Trajan 98-117”) as stated by John in previous oral traditions

    1. what work(s) of Irenaeus being quoted here?

      “Irenaeus Against Heresies.

      Wheless, Joseph (1930). “V – The “Gospel” Forgeries”. Forgery in Christianity.

      Bishop Irenaeus and Bishop Papias have both averred that the Christ lived to old age (even as late as 98-117 A.D.), flatly denying thus as “heresy” the Gospel stories as to his crucifixion at about thirty years of age. In any event, the Apostles, according to the record, scattered “to the ends of the earth, preaching,” orally, before they wrote anything at all. —(p. 148)
      One may turn the thousands of pages of the Ante-Nicene Fathers before Irenaeus in vain to find a direct word of quotation from written Gospels, nor (except as above, recorded) even bare mention of the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, as writers of Gospels. The above words of Irenaeus are registered in his Book III, chapter i; in the first two Books, while, like Justin, he quotes “sayings” which are to be found in our present texts, as in the apocryphas, he does not mention “Gospel” or any of the four reputed evangelists, until chapter xxii of Book II, where he mentions the word “Gospels” and those of John and Luke, and assails their record of the early death of Jesus as “heresy.” But beginning with chapter x of Book III, he bristles with the names of and direct quotations from all Four; and so with all the following Fathers. It seems, therefore, a fair inference that Irenaeus had just heard of these Four Gospels at the time the last chapters of the second of the two Books were composed; and that they came into existence, or to his knowledge, just before the time be began to compose Book III. —(pp. 165–166)

    2. Another similar writer:

      • Besant, Annie Wood (1893). Christianity: Its Evidences, Its Origin, Its Morality, Its History. R. Forder. p. 261.

      (D.) That before about A.D. 180 there is no trace of FOUR gospels among the Christians. . . . As it is not pretended by any that there is any mention of four Gospels before the time of Irenaeus, excepting this “harmony”, pleaded by some as dated about A.D. 170 and by others as between 170 and 180, it would be sheer waste of time and space to prove further a point admitted on all hands. This step of our argument is, then on solid and unassailable ground —That before about A.D. 180 there is no trace of FOUR gospels among the Christians.
      (E.) That, before that date, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are not selected as the four evangelists. This position necessarily follows from the preceding one [i.e. D.], since four evangelists could not be selected until four Gospels were recognised. Here, again, Dr. Giles [1854] supports the argument we are building up. He says : “Justin Martyr never once mentions by name the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This circumstance is of great importance ; for those who assert that our four canonical Gospels are contemporary records of our Saviour’s ministry, ascribe them to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and to no other writers.”

      Cf. Giles, John Allen (1854). “VIII. Justin Martyr”. Christian Records: an historical enquiry concerning the age, authorship, and authenticity of the New Testament. p. 73.

      1. Thanks for those cites to Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, db. I was expecting to hear my memory was faulty as to the first mention of actual gospels rather than “sayings” attributed to Jesus; and to find there was too little time between when G.Mk appears from the internal evidence to have originated and actual concrete knowledge of gospels plural. Knowledge and awareness of gospels dawning gradually on Irenaeus from circa 180AD as he consecutively wrote and published the volumes of his great tome; and he and Justin Martyr only knowing “sayings” attributed to Jesus before that is a relief to me.

  3. I was once directed on the internet to something that seemed to prove that Justin Martyr did know and reference the four gospels by name or some of them. I didn’t save it and I don’t remember how to find it. Does anyone know of any positive proof that he did not know of the four gospels, or if you are aware of the author I’m speaking of, has that author been debunked? thanks very much

    1. Per Neil Godfrey (1 January 2012). “Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels”. Vridar.



      The first time we have secure and verifiable confidence of the existence of the Gospels is in the latter half of the second century with the writings of Irenaeus.

      Working back from that position we come to Justin in the mid second century and find some indirect hints that he may have known of the Gospels in a form not far removed from how we know them. Justin certainly speaks of quite a few things we find in the Synoptic Gospels. We sometimes find a phrase here and there in other works that we find likewise appear in the Gospels.

      NB: Double check anything on Justin Martyr in the original Greek source, the Latin translations are worthless.

    2. Doudna’s new article support’s dating gMark as a second century composition, but he specifically makes no reference/connection to the gospels.

      • Doudna, Gregory L. (2019). “Is Josephus’s John the Baptist Passage a Chronologically Dislocated Story of the Death of Hyrcanus II?”. In Pfoh, Emanuel; Niesiolowski-Spanò, Lukasz (ed.). Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Bloomsbury–T&T Clark. pp. 119–137. ISBN 978-0-567-68657-2.

  4. On the off chance that that someone should jump the wall that historicists like McGrath set up around Mythicism and arrive at Vridar, they may find the following to be of interest:

    • Tantlevskij, Igor (2016). “Further Considerations on Possible Aramaic Etymologies of the Designation of the Judaean Sect of Essenes (ἐσσαῖοι/ἐσσηνοί) in the Light of the Ancient Authors’ Accounts of Them and the Qumran Community’s World-view”. ΣΧΟΛΗ. pp. 61–75.

    [Per the proposed etymologies for ESSENE] In the present author’s opinion, the Qumran community held itself allegorically to be the “root(s)” and “stock” of Jesse, giving life to the “holy” Davidic “Shoot” (see: Isa. 11:1) . . . one can assume the etymology of the designation Ἐσσαῖοι/Ἐσσηνοί from the Aramaic-Syriac spelling of King David father’s name Jesse — ᾿Κ(š)ay.

    • Variant spelling of Essenes = Ἐσσηνοί, Ἐσσαῖοι, Ἐσσηνος, Ἐσσαῖος
    • Variant spelling of Jessaeans = Ἰεσσαίων, Ἰεσσαῖοι, Ἰεσσαί, Ἰεσσαίους.



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