Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Recently James McGrath has addressed a point I have regularly made about a key difference between the canonical gospels and historical and biographical narratives by ancient authors: the latter generally attempt to assure readers of the validity of their accounts by mentioning their sources; the former generally do not. McGrath has put an anachronistic slant on the question by making comparisons with the modern practice of formal citations and bypassed the reasons and techniques that belonged to ancient literary culture. Perhaps it is a good thing that he has done so because he does provide a warning to us today to be careful not to confuse modern academic practice with ancient literary interests. Before I respond specifically to some of his points I will focus on what seems to be the key question he poses in his “challenge” to “those who give credence to mythicists”:

The mythicist claim that the Gospels are thoroughly untrustworthy – or more ridiculously, that they are written intended to be taken as allegories that don’t describe anything remotely historical – are really problematic. Perhaps the best way to put it is to ask those who give credence to mythicists this:

  • Why trust modern-day mythicists and their claims about what is important, what is valuable, what is reliable, or anything else, while giving no credence even to the broad outlines of what various ancient authors have written?
  • Is it anti-religious bias?
  • Chronological snobbery?
  • A preference for their conclusions?

I ask these questions because there is nothing in what they write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy. And so the same questions that apply to ancient sources, apply to modern ones as well. If it is the fact that they (well, some of them at any rate) mention scholars and sources regularly, then that is also true of mainstream scholars who conclude there was a historical Jesus, and it is true of conservative Christian apologists who are demonstrably untrustworthy even when they provide ample citations. And so my appeal to Jesus-mythicists is the appeal I’d make to any and all conspiracy theorists. By all means be skeptical – but be even-handedly skeptical, including of those you’re inclined to be persuaded by, and most importantly, of yourself.

(my formatting and highlighting)

“Trust” is a faith word.  So my answer to McGrath’s first and primary question is this: No-one should “trust modern-day mythicists and their claims” about anything.

“Credence” is also a faith word. “Anti-religious bias” and “snobbery” and self-serving (implied) “preferences” for certain conclusions are all well-poisoning terms.

McGrath also speaks of mythicist writings that contain “nothing . . . that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy”, dismissing any citations by mythicists to mainstream scholarly works as unimpressive for some reason — because some apologists also cite mainstream scholars and produce arguments that are, well, apologetic. The analogy is fatuous, of course. Citations are used by good and bad scholars, good and bad amateurs, in good and bad ways. Therefore, in McGrath’s view, mythicists must for some reason he does not explain and for which he provides no examples be making pointless citations. Yet we know McGrath has excoriated mythicists for not engaging with mainstream scholarship yet when they clearly do engage with mainstream scholarship he allows their conclusions to inform him that their arguments are unreliable. Is it religious bias? Intellectual snobbery? A preference for other conclusions?

Here’s how scholarly inquiry, any serious rational inquiry, works.

We look for evidence that helps us understand the nature of the claims made by ancient (or any) authors. That generally means we begin by analysing the form and context in which the statements are made. We often do this subconsciously. We let the tone of voice or writing help us decide if someone is being serious or joking. We allow the medium on which a message is written (a royal inscription, an officially stamped letter) to tell us if it is an official statement or not. (Official statement indicates that its primary audience is expected to believe what is written; we need other grounds for deciding if we should believe what is written.) The source of what is said is another important factor. A source can mean the person responsible for the words we read; it can further mean the sources available to that author. Provenance can refer either the original source of the document or it can refer to where the physical manuscript or tablet was found and by whom and what we know about how it reached us. All of those factors are important to understand when it comes to reading and interpreting any ancient work.

Where we have prose narratives about events and persons it is necessary for us to know something about how they were understood by their authors and original audiences. I have sometimes half-joked in frustration that no-one should be allowed to undertake studies in the biblical literature until they have first done a major course in classics: biblical studies should be offered only as part of a larger course in early Jewish/Judean literature studies and only as a post-grad course for those who are well-grounded in the wider literature of the ancient world.

In other words, we ought to interpret and evaluate biblical literature in the context of the wider literary world of that day. Biblical scholars will no doubt say that they certainly do that, but my experience with studies in biblical literature tells me that many only do so patchily and over-selectively at best.

If anyone (mythicist or mainstream biblical scholar) makes any claim one should always look for the evidence that supports the claim. No claim should be “trusted”, either. The most positive approach we can have with any claim is to accept it pending further discussion, analysis and evidence. That means continual reading and discussion, learning new perspectives, becoming familiar with more data. It means engagement especially with those who have the most experience with the data, usually the professional scholars, and we find that the most insightful authors of mythicist ideas are the ones who do engage seriously and thoroughly with that scholarship. Leaving the mainstream scholarly field behind and restricting one’s reading to unorthodox views that only sporadically touch on mainstream scholarship is not a healthy pursuit.

Mainstream scholars also have a responsibility to address questions raised about their work without sneering dismissals, elaborate appeals to authority, or misrepresenting the questions and arguments posed to them.

A mythicist claim should not be trusted but should be carefully assessed against the evidence offered and serious discussion about alternative interpretations and other evidence in the mainstream scholarly literature. The most positive response to any claim by a mythicist ought to be tentative acceptance pending further information.

Mainstream scholars need to keep in mind that some mythicist authors have had no axe to grind against Christianity (some have even remained very positive towards it) and that some (one might say many) mythicist authors were for some years believers in a historical Jesus even as atheists and that believing in the historicity of Jesus would make no difference to them ideologically, personally, in any way. Indeed, a number of us have said that mythicism is the worst way to try to undermine or attack Christianity. There are other more effective ways of going about that enterprise.


Back to the specifics of referencing sources. Continue reading “Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists”