Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists

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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.

James McGrath is quite correct to say that source citations are no guarantee of “truth”. We have made that clear in posts on this blog. Some sources cited are most likely fictions. See How Historians Study a Figure Like Jesus for most historians believing that the biographer of Apollonius of Tyana quite likely fabricated Damis, the person he claimed was his primary source. Herodotus and others are also thought to have simply made up their sources, and even lied about being eyewitnesses at times. See, for example, Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources and Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us and the two posts on Demonax.

Even when an ancient historian does cite sources we can accept as genuine, we are sometimes faced with subsequent questions like: How reliable was the source cited? How reliably has our author understood or used the source? Did the author have direct access or was he relying on hearsay accounts of it?

Often we can’t know the answers to those sorts of questions. What we can know, however, is why ancient historians and biographers claimed to use certain sources. We can also know that Greco-Roman historians had interests in presenting a “realistic” narrative as distinct from a “real” narrative and to do so they would fabricate events (sometimes adapted from playwrights and poets) to fill in gaps in their histories. Even the “most reliable” of ancient historians, Thucydides, was “guilty” of that. But the reason ancient historians frequently cited their sources in their prologues and sometimes in the body of their narratives was the same reason they made many other standard claims about their work: they sought to justify to their readers why their historical narrative was better or more credible or in some way superior to whatever had been written on the subject before.

Sometimes the sources they mentioned were true; sometimes they were fabricated. Even if true, we can’t always know how honestly the author used the sources or how reliable those sources were in the first place. But that was not the point: the point was to establish credibility for audiences.

Other techniques were applied for the same reason: often a statement about the family or social status of the author, his experience in relation to the events to be narrated, for example. Ability to write vividly, to entertain, and/or to teach a worthy moral lesson — those were also important skills in demand.

I think the gospel authors, on the other hand, were following the style of many of the Jewish Scriptures by appearing to write from the perspective of the all-knowing yet anonymous narrator. The source, it is implied, is not human tradition but truth itself. All-knowing narrators, one may sense somehow, have divine authority behind them. The tradition emerged that assigned the Pentateuch to Moses, the man closest to God; similarly, traditions grew that assigned the gospels to apostles or servants of apostles who knew Jesus.

Techniques differed, but the point was the same: to establish credibility among readers.

Even had all the evangelists explicitly named personal eyewitness sources, we would have to evaluate those claims in the context of the literary culture of that period. We know that such claims were not always guarantors of reliability and could even be fictitious. That’s not being hyper-sceptical. It is simply reserving judgement given what we know about how ancient historians wrote.

If it’s “historical facts” we want, then that’s a different question. Neither mainstream scholars nor those who “give credence to mythicists” should routinely “trust” an account that cites sources. I have posted often enough on this blog my disappointment to find that sources cited in scholarly publications do not always say what the scholar claimed, have sometimes been cited out of context, and sometimes simply don’t support the claim for which they are used. No reading of a scholarly argument is complete until all of the sources have been followed up and checked in their original context, and sometimes that means following up further sources cited in those cited sources.

When it comes to reading ancient works the same approach has to be applied whenever possible. Further, we need to learn about ancient literary mores.

We don’t “trust” other works. We “accept” what they say after first establishing independent confirmation of some kind, or establishing sufficient independent confirmations to have some confidence in what they write — and always with the proviso that we remain conscious of the fact that whatever we know now is tentative pending further insights and evidence.

With respect to the historical sources, scholars have no business talking about “authoritative and trustworthy” source documents as if any standalone document could ever be concluded “authoritative and trustworthy”. What might be authoritative and trustworthy would be a conclusion of a researcher after assessment of all the factors mentioned above. Always, of course, with the proviso mentioned.

Scholars who produce “trustworthy” scholarship are those who can support their conclusions with reference to evidence that is understood in the light of engagement with previous research. If their work is considered “authoritative” it is because of the exemplary methods applied and the work itself will alert readers to the humility with which its methods need to be approached and the provisional nature of its conclusions. What publication does McGrath consider to be “authoritative” — presumably beyond questioning? By “trustworthy” does he mean a work that does not open up questions about his deepest religious convictions or the foundational assumptions upon which his field of research is grounded?

McGrath, Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. 2020. “Mythicism, Isnads, and Pseudepigrapha.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). January 20, 2020. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2020/01/mythicism-isnads-and-pseudepigrapha.html.

See also: Ancient Historiography and Historians — Vridar Posts

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists”

  1. Hear, hear! Well said! I also wonder why all of the umbrage toward mythicists on the part of traditional scholars. Usually this is from a source of weak evidence or unsure arguments. “How dare you?” is only said by people who don’t have a decent response to the evidence.

  2. Man I love this blog. I lurk here constantly, but never post (until now) lol. Your work is greatly appreciated. As someone who comes from a very cultish and fundamentalist sect, along with all the inherited mental shackles that have plagued most of my life-you sir, are a breath of fresh air. Thank you Neil

  3. McGrath’s remarks are simply an ad hominem attack, a projection of the bias and snobbery he complains of. “There is nothing in what they write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy.” Really? Not a line in Doherty or Carrier that can be considered authoritative or trustworthy? It might be wrong to argue that the gospels were written with the intention of being considered allegory, but it is hardly “ridiculous” to make the argument, especially where passages in the gospels refer to different levels of understanding among those hearing the teachings of Jesus, and where we’re dealing with a story about virgin birth, walking on water, rising from the dead, and so on. Honestly, who is being ridiculous here?

    1. Oh, I see I misread the “authoritative and trustworthy” phrase thinking he was applying it to ancient sources. I will rewrite the post to correct my mis-reading. (It is too easy to start to rush through some of McG’s posts on this topic after reading the first few lines.)

      I found McGrath’s “or more ridiculously, that they are written intended to be taken as allegories that don’t describe anything remotely historical” somewhat, let’s say, misleading …. surely McGrath must know that a number of mainstream scholars do indeed regard at least the Gospel of Mark as, essentially, an allegory, and/or figurative/symbolic account of Jesus — with miracles being symbolic of spiritual lessons (e.g. healing blind, feeding hungry) and a recreation of the Exodus (Isaiah’s Second Exodus) or the Elijah-Elisha narratives. On an old crosstalk discussion forum scholars were at one point wondering if the verse “and he never spoke without a parable” was a suggestion that everything in GMark was written as a parable. But McG did cover himself by adding that second phrase: “…. that don’t describe anything remotely historical” — implying the two went together but defending himself from possibility of rebuttal.

      . . . .

      — [Updated 24th Jan: Since the comment above I have attempted to fix up my original post to address the key point that Clarke noted in McGrath’s post.]

  4. Not only do the gospels not clearly state their authors; the NT then goes on to suggest that many things are by a ghostly “spirit,” as much as by physical historical men.

    Then Paul explicitly adds that some (all?) things in Christianity are “allegories.”

  5. I don’t understand these people: you can crack open the New Testament for yourself and read what Paul says. I don’t need Richard Carrier or James McGrath to TELL me what Paul says. Hasn’t this occurred to anyone? Even worse:you are arguing on the Internet with other people on the Internet; other people who at the click of a mouse can rumble your bollocks inside a minute. Carrier even provides copious links to help you torpedo his own argument even quicker and more comprehensively than you might on your own! This goes for practically ANY topic you might want to go pontificating about.

  6. Per McGrath:
    IF Mythicist scholars are not giving credence even to the broad outlines of what various ancient authors have written.
    THEN any conclusions by said scholars such that the “Gospels are thoroughly untrustworthy – or . . . that they are written intended to be taken as allegories that don’t describe anything remotely historical” or even claims made about: what is important, what is valuable, what is reliable—or anything else a Mythicist might claim.
    ARE _____? (Mcgrath asserts: “really problematic”).

    Therefore the sheep following these “really problematic” Mythicist scholars must have one or more of the following attributes:
    • Anti-religious bias
    • Chronological snobbery
    • A preference for their conclusions

  7. Per Laura Robinson (@LauraRbnsn) December 9, 2019 [quoted by McGrath]:

    The opposite of mythicism (Jesus was a myth, not a real person) isn’t biblical inerrancy.
    The opposite of mythicism is the study of the historical Jesus.

    RATHER: The Jesus ahistoricity theory is the antithesis of the Jesus historicity theory.

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