Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Tag: Christ Myth Debate
All posts, for and against, the Christ Myth hypothesis are included here, except for posts relating in depth to Earl Doherty’s works. Posts relating in some depth to Earl Doherty’s ideas are found in the tag, Christ Myth Debate: Doherty.
At some point in the not-too-distant future (we hope), you’ll be able to buy a new book, an anthology of papers related to Jesus mythicism. In it, you’ll find essays from the usual suspects, including Neil and me.
While neither of us would characterize himself as a mythicist (I still think of myself as an agnostic on the matter), we still hold that it’s a viable option that needs more research. Further, we’ve both been fairly outspoken on the poor scholarship and bad faith continually demonstrated by many anti-mythicists. Good theologians often make poor historians.
My paper is entitled: “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey.” Just to whet your appetite, here’s a small excerpt.
I would call your attention to perhaps the most common error in NT studies: confirmation bias. Our minds are wired to seek data that proves our arguments, which helps explain why Casey and many other scholars have discovered concepts like high-context culture, but have not followed through with due diligence.
If they had, they would have discovered that modern scholars have called Hall’s framework into question, and for good reason. It turns out that despite widespread approval from armchair sociologists, business gurus, and human resource directors, we lack the sort of research that definitively shows Hall was correct. A closer examination shows that he often relied on intuition and anecdotal evidence. In his writings, he neither described nor mentioned his methodology. Peter Cardon writes: Continue reading “Cultural Context and Confirmation Bias: Why We Loved Edward T. Hall”
I have compiled the three parts into a single file. Make whatever use you want of it. Copy it; share it. I only ask that you acknowledge its source on this blog as per the Creative Commons licence for all works here. Frank Feller was the translator but I refined his work here and there into more fluent English. Find the Download Button beneath the viewing frame.
All the same notes apply re my modifications of some sections of the translation, additional notes and hyperlinks.
3. Tacitus and Josephus
The information we get from Ehrman about Tacitus and the Testimonium Taciteum, which he highly values, on 2 (two!) pages of the book is not enough to keep skin and bones together. We are only briefly informed about the content and the historical background of this testimony, but about the problems with it Ehrman has almost nothing at all to say. Ehrman speaks of the Roman historian Tacitus and his “famous Annals of Imperial Rome in 115 CE” (p. 54) and the passage that reports on the burning of Rome and the subsequent persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. According to Ehrman, Tacitus is said to have considered Nero the arsonist, but this is not true. If Ehrman had studied the text more thoroughly, he would have noticed that although Tacitus assumes that Nero was interested in the burning of Rome, he leaves the question of guilt in the balance – unlike Suetonius, to which Ehrman presumably refers. In any case, there are mass executions of Christians, here called “Chrestiani“, some of whom are torn apart by wild dogs and others burned alive to illuminate the imperial park at night. In this context, there is now also talk about the author of this name, Christ (the “Chrestus”, as the magnifying glass on the cover of this website shows), who was “put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”
Ehrman sees here a testimony to the historicity of Jesus, even though he admits that the text does not speak of Jesus but of Christ and that it is based on Christian sources. Moreover, Ehrman suggests that some mythicists argue that the Testimonium Taciteum was not written by Tacitus but interpolated “by Christians, who copied them [Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius]” (p. 55).
Unfortunately, however, he keeps the arguments they put forward for this viewpoint to himself – if he knows them at all. Ehrman considers these arguments to be a merely a trick to explain everything that doesn’t fit the bill as a later falsification.
Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it.
However, the radical critics who speak of interpolation will certainly have given reasons. What are they?
Since Ehrman remains stubbornly silent, let’s name a few. They arise from a (literary-critical) consideration of the context in which the passage of Tacitus is embedded. The 42-43rd chapter was about Nero’s lively building activity. After the fire in Rome, the emperor first used the situation to create new parks and gardens, and then to build houses and apartments according to a new, more spacious design. Chap. 45 continues this theme after the section on the persecution of Christians with an introductory “interea” (meanwhile). Now it is emphasized that the money for the building projects came primarily from the provinces and that even some temples in Rome were robbed of their gold to finance the emperor’s projects.
The text that has been handed down thus offers an extremely strange train of thought: Nero has the Christians burned, the people have pity on them – “meanwhile” (interea) the Roman Empire is being plundered. It is obvious that such a nonsensical train of thought could by no means have been the intention of the narrator. Between chapters 44 and 45 there is no connecting point to which the “interea” could refer. If it is to establish a meaningful connection, it can, in terms of content, only tie up to Ch. 43 but not to 44: Rome is being rebuilt – in the meantime the empire is being plundered for it! Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it. Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 3: Tacitus and Josephus”
I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. The original German review is linked at the end of the post. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too. All additional notes in those boxes are mine as are the quotation boxes within the main text.
2. Pliny the Younger
The mountains are in labor, a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth. (Horace, The Art of Poetry)
Ehrman goes to great lengths to introduce us to the sources which, in his opinion, reliably attest to the existence of a historical Jesus. To quote Horace, “Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.” Before the curtain finally opens and reveals a considerable number of Jesus witnesses to the curious gaze of the reader, a series of preliminaries and fundamental methodological considerations must be made. What we learn in the relevant chapters about the value and worthlessness of historical sources is indeed informative, but will have little new to offer to all those who have attended a historical proseminar once in their lives. Be that as it may, Ehrman advocates good and healthy principles, such as that multiple testimonies please the heart of the historian, or that “disinterested” and independent sources deserve preference over others, etc. (p. 41) – one only wished that he himself would also give them due consideration in the later sections. In a section on sources that we do not have, he also admits that we do not have authentic illustrations of Jesus, nor scriptures written by himself, nor eyewitness accounts (p. 49).
 Hurtado 2007, pp. 2-3: “If correctly dated to about 200, the Aberkio inscription (found in Hierapolis) remains perhaps our oldest identifiable Christian inscription. Although in some older publications one finds certain references to the catacombs and catacomb art of the second century, it is now generally accepted among experts that these too should probably be dated to sometime in the third century”.
 Theißen, Merz 1997, p. 160f. All that can be said about it is that it is possibly the site visited by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria sometime between 381-384 AD, which has been given as the house of Peter since Constantinian times. Everything else is conjecture and belongs at best in a travel guide, but not in a serious scientific work.
This is all well and good but could be further elaborated when applied to specific cases, which Ehrman certainly does not feel is necessary. Ehrman could have taken the trouble to make clear to the reader the full extent of the difficulties in which the defenders of Jesus’ historicity find themselves when they refer to external witnesses. For example, it is correct that no authentic images of Jesus have been handed down. But far more interesting is that the type of Jesus in the portraits we possess almost completely resembles the portraits of other late antique healers, so that archaeologists even today find it difficult to distinguish Jesus from, for example, Attis or Orpheus. With regard to the question of possible models for the Christian Saviour, this should not be an unimportant observation. As I already mentioned in my book Falsche Zeugen: Außerchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand (only in German; False Witnesses. Non-Christian Testimonies Tested, 2011 (Alibri)”, I have already shown that from the 1st to the middle of the 2nd century no archaeological evidence for the existence of Christianity can be found at all. For Graydon F. Snyder, the Christian faith as a cultural-historical phenomenon only dates from around 180 AD according to the archaeologists. Even that reference to Roman catacombs and catacomb art, with which one used to love to argue in former times, is no longer possible. The archaeologists, Larry W. Hurtado points out, who formerly dated the whole of Christian catacomb art with confidence to the 2nd century, now suspect it probably only originated in the third century . Speculations about a supposed “House of Peter” are based on dubious speculations and are only significant in so far as they contribute, not significantly, to the revival and promotion of the tourism industry in the “Holy Land”. 
Moreover, it’s a pity that Ehrman goes far too little into detail when asked about the “sources we don’t have”. For example, there is no reference to the so-called Remsburg List, which can impressively demonstrate to anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into the position of the mythicists how ignorance about the man from Nazareth and the Christian community reaches deep into the second century. Even if it can be objected that the ancient sources also keep silent about many other people, it makes a difference about whom they keep silent. After all, according to the Gospels, the effect that Jesus had during his brief activity in Galilee and Jerusalem was so overwhelming that even non-Christian contemporaries who were religiously open-minded, such as Philo or Plutarch, could hardly overlook it. There is constant talk of the “great crowd” that accompanies Jesus in his ministry and witnesses his miracles and healings, whose fame spread throughout Galilee (Mark 1:28) and beyond (Matthew 4:24). The New Testament scholar Gert Theißen reckons with “miracle stories … outside the followers of Jesus” and with “popular shifting and enrichment” of the miracle stories, thus assuming that a special Jesus tradition had formed in the population. Should nothing at all – apart from the Christian tradition itself – have survived?
But Ehrman now thinks that this is not the right way to approach the question. Before one can ask whether Jesus did miracles, one must “decide” whether he existed at all (p. 43).
But how can this question be “decided”? Based on which criteria? The problem is that Jesus is portrayed in all the ancient testimonies as a divine miracle worker or as a (semi-) divine being. That applies – with one exception (Tacitus) – also to the few non-Christian testimonies.
That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.
For the rest, it all depends on what is meant by “miracles”. Those “miracles” to which Jesus owes his fame according to Christian sources, and which are said to have led whole nations to seek him out, are first and foremost healing miracles or healings. Even if we do not know how they came about, we need not question the existence of such a phenomenon any more than we do the existence of other ancient miracle healers. But Ehrman does not even do this much; for example, he states on p. 269 that Jesus “developed a reputation for being able to heal the sick and cast out demons.” Shouldn’t we ask then, why the person responsible for such sensational healings was not given any attention by pagan authors? The question is valid but obviously doesn’t give Ehrman any comfort. That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.
This information seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman is withholding it from us does seem a little manipulative.
Finally, Ehrman also refers to Justus of Tiberias, although he calls him “Justin of Tiberius” (p. 50), a Jewish historian living and working in the second half of the first century, who, like Josephus, wrote a history of the Jewish people in the first century after Christ. Ehrman mentions that his books “did not survive”. Whether this refers to the work of later Christian censors and book burners, he leaves open. However, he fails to address the crucial point. Although the writings of the historian from the immediate neighbourhood of Jesus’ supposed residence have indeed been lost, we know at least from a paper of the Christian Patriarch Photius from Constantinople (9th century) what was not in it: “He does not mention the coming of Christ, nor his deeds, nor the miracles he performed. This information does seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman withholds it from his readers does come across as a little manipulative. Indeed, it would not seem easy for advocates of the existence of a historical Jesus to explain why a first-century Jewish historian from Galilee forgot the famous man from the neighboring city in his writings.
The number of non-Christian witnesses who, according to Ehrman, should prove the existence of Jesus is very small. Usually New Testament scholars cite a canon of six texts at this point:
the twofold testimony of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Ant 20,200 and Ant 18,63-64, so-called Testimonium Flavianum),
the testimony of the Roman historian Tacitus on the burning of Rome and the Neronian persecution of Christians (Ann 15:44;),
the report of the Roman governor Pliny the Younger in a letter to the Emperor Trajan and his reply (ep 10,96-97;)
two passages from the work of the Roman historian Sueton (Suet. Claud. 25,4; Suet. Nero 16,2)
a letter of the Syrian Mara bar Serapion to his son Serapion, which was only recently brought into play, and which is said to have been written sometime after 72 AD,
and an ominous passage from the lost historical work of Thallus (after 50 AD), which has only been preserved in excerpts in Julius Africanus and Georgius Synkellos.
In Ehrman’s case, the already very small number is reduced even further to the four witnesses Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius, although only Josephus and Tacitus, and possibly Pliny, are of significance. This decision, which Ehrman does not discuss further, is very wise, since not many can be impressed by the excluded two guarantors anyway because of their questionable dating.
Anyone who thought that Ehrman would enter into a conversation with the radical deniers of a historical Jesus and discuss in detail the handwritten tradition, origin and earliest testimony of his four sources or even shine with new points of view will be disappointed. His statements merely repeat what has been known for decades anyway, and contain nothing that has not long since been considered or refuted by the radical deniers of Jesus since Arthur Drews. The authenticity of the sources is loudly claimed but not proven. What remains is, at least as the testimony of Josephus and Tacitus shows, that Jesus lived and was executed by the Roman governor of Judea. “That, at least, is a start.” (p. 56) Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 2: Pliny’s Letter”
The following translation of Hermann Detering’s review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has been sent to me and I am thrilled to be able to make it available on this blog. It is over 7000 words, too long, I think, for a blog post, so I am posting here just the first part of the review. The rest to follow. I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. I have also replaced the English translation of Detering’s German language quotes of Ehrman’s words with the original English versions. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too.
Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources
1. Bart Ehrman’s book, Did Jesus exist?
The introduction to the book ushers us into the following scene: Bart D. Ehrman, PhD, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, actually wanted to write a completely different, more important work, namely about how a Jewish end-time prophet named Jesus became a divine being or God. But then he was startled by some emails. He suddenly found himself taken up by a scene that was apparently unknown to him until then: Mythicists who appealed to his authority for their claim that there had been no Jesus! Reason enough for a conscientious “New Testament scholar” to take a closer look at the matter.
Although Ehrman had by then read “thousands of books about Jesus in English and other European languages, the New Testament and early Christianity,” he was “like most colleagues completely unaware of the extent of sceptical literature [on the subject]” (p. 2). For a professor of theology and biblical scholar who should be up to date and in daily conversation with his students, this long phase of ignorance is astonishing enough, especially since the question of the historical existence of the man from Nazareth must have occurred again and again in the mass of Jesus literature he read. For example, in The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, often quoted by Ehrman, in which this very subject is dealt with on many hundreds of book pages. This book and others should at least have curbed Ehrman’s boundless surprise and shown him that the question “Did Jesus exist?” is not an entirely fanciful one, and that New Testament research has been periodically occupied with it. Moreover, it is not just since yesterday that the question has been on the agenda of those American “humanists” who read his books and with whom, according to his own statement, he has been in contact for a long time.
However, not everything Ehrman writes should be taken quite so literally. The reader of his book, which is written in a casual conversational tone, has to get used to this and other contradictions. The “casual conversational tone” is not meant as hidden criticism: one should be grateful for the good readability, especially since it saves German readers with “mediocre” English skills a lot of reference work in the dictionary. The fact that the casual presentation and simple language always turns into pure superficiality is, of course, the other side of the coin that we still have to get to grips with.
Instead of immediately shining with new perspectives and objective examination of the mythicists’ theses, Ehrman deals with the mythicists and – again and again with pleasure – with himself. Ehrman about Ehrman – a broad field… The professor strives for clear demarcation:
There — the “breed” (Ehrman in an interview*) of mythicists, a shadowy group that shies away from the light, concocting dark conspiracy theories in the worldwide channels of the network. With a few exceptions, neither academic degrees nor titles legitimize them to make a meaningful contribution to the difficult historical and religious-historical problems with which Professor Ehrman and his peers have struggled for decades at the forefront of science. In addition, loud, brash and aggressive in appearance, enemies of religion, atheists, and thrown from cliff to cliff by half-knowledge, stupidity and error. Avanti Dilettanti!
Here — the “New Testament scholar”, in the full splendour of his academic titles, honours and prizes, among his numerous students, whose questions he answers conscientiously and competently, proven author of numerous non-fiction books, who as such receives tons of e-mails (“Like most authors, I receive tons of e-mail”, p. 94) (apropos, how do you actually weigh e-mails?). A textbook example of biblical scholarship and theology as he is – imbued with his subject matter, which includes reading the Bible by him daily in the original Greek or Hebrew; who has been studying and teaching for over 35 years and “I don’t plan to stop any time soon” (p. 36). Yes, why should he? Does anyone want to stop him? The mythicists for instance?!
And yet no apologist! Ehrman wants to be understood as a pure historian, who is only interested in historical evidence. “I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting any Christian cause or agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings and my life and views would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed… The answer to the question about the historical existence of Jesus will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal” (p. 5f). Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 1 of Hermann Detering’s review”
The interview with Thomas L. Thompson on the Greek Mythicists site is not as long as I anticipated when I posted #1. (A weird technical issue made it look to me three times longer than it in fact was!) Here is the last question and answer. Thanks again to Minas Papageorgiou of Greek Mythicists for alerting me to this interview they (he?) conducted and for forwarding me an English text.
– – o – –
8) What is the future of mythicism views inside the academic community, considering the publication of many related books and papers in previous times? Would you agree that mythicists could follow the steps of biblical minimalists?
Minimalism is a movement in biblical studies which brings the study of biblical narrative closer to what is normal for historians. As far as I am aware, most mythicists also understand this, though I think they may be too quick to judge the single issue of whether he existed. The proper question is rather a largely literary question than an historical one. Until we have texts, which bear evidence of his historicity, we can not do much more with that issue. We can and must, however, ask what the texts mean—as well as ask what they mean if they are not historical (a minimalist question). My professor Kurt Galling from Tübingen was once asked how one could tell whether an Old Testament text was historical or literary. He answered: If Iron floats on water it isn’t! The reference is found in the Elijah Elisha stories, whose reiteration has dominated the gospels. One might also use the story of the bear who kills the 42 children and certainly Elijah’s flight out into outer space.
Quite some years ago I sat listening to a sabbath sermon by a Worldwide Church of God minister in which he made some very misleading assertions about the history of U.S. foreign policy. I approached him afterwards to point out what I had learned in an undergraduate course on the history of the United States. The minister had been trained at one of “God’s colleges” and told me that “the authority for” the point in question was one particular author and title I can no longer remember. What shocked me was that he claimed to have the equivalent of a B.A. in history yet spoke of one book being “the authority” on a historical question. My own education had led me to think of historical studies as an enquiry into the sources to attempt to evaluate the various points of view expressed in the literature on historical questions. There was no such thing as “the authority”. Perhaps the minister viewed my education as inspired by Satan.
[T]here is nothing in what they [Christ mythicists] write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy.
I can’t read McGrath’s mind so I don’t know what he means by “authoritative and trustworthy” studies. The most I can suggest is that he is setting mythicist works in contrast with mainstream scholarly works on the historical Jesus and in the process somehow implying that the bulk of mainstream scholarly historical Jesus books are in some sense “authoritative and trustworthy”.
What is an “authoritative and trustworthy” book of historical explanation?
To me, an authoritative work is a trustworthy work. Authority implies trust, confidence, in whatever it is that the authority proclaims. I am sure McGrath does not believe that any particular historical Jesus study is “authoritative” in the sense that it replaces the need for any other study.
If I were to point out what I consider to be trustworthy books on any subject here are the markers of trustworthiness that I would identify:
the work never makes an assertion without providing evidence for that assertion;
that evidence will be discussed in the context of other evidence;
and a representative range of views or interpretations about that evidence will be shared with readers;
and citations will be given to enable readers to follow up those different interpretations for themselves;
especially, I will look for a fair presentation of opposing views to the one the author favours;
and a fair and complete discussion of those opposing views — again with citations to enable readers to check details for themselves and make their own assessments;
I will look for evidence of a wide knowledge of the field in which the discussion is taking place so that the author can demonstrate he or she is not approaching a question with some sort of limited tunnel vision.
That’s seven points. The perfect or authoritative number, yes? What else should be added to complete an explanation of what makes a work “trustworthy”?
Note that according to the above a work can be called trustworthy (some might even say “authoritative” in one sense of the word) but it would not be “the final answer or the ‘true’ opinion. It would be authoritative in the sense that it presents fairly and accurately the relevant evidence and enables readers to form their own judgments based on relatively complete information and understanding of the debates in the field; it will be a model of good scholarship.
It is possible, often likely, that one will find a scholarly work ‘trustworthy’ in the above sense yet still find room to disagree with its overall thesis. An alternative viewpoint and conclusion can be expressed through another ‘trustworthy’ work of scholarship, whether the author is a professional or amateur scholar.
Yes, there has been much poor work published by mythicists, but there has also been some exemplary scholarship, trustworthy and authoritative in the best sense as per above. In that sense, mythicist publications are no different from publications by those who write about “the historical Jesus”. There are some exemplary works in that field, too, as mythicists like Doherty, Price, Carrier have well noted. I would love to read an “authoritative and trustworthy” work that challenges certain mythicist views, so if anyone knows of one that meets the above understanding of what makes a work trustworthy do inform me.
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?
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.
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.
M. David Litwa declared at the outset of his book How the Gospels Became History
Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern. (p.3)
So I remain mystified by his decision to make his first chapter entirely about the “Jesus Myth Theory”. It adds nothing to his argument about the “How the Gospels Became History” — which was the argument I wanted to read about when I sought out the book.
Litwa does excuse his discussion of the Jesus myth theory by explaining that the three “mythicist” views he will address are
examples of how comparison ought not to be done. (p. 22)
But he further delays this discussion by irrelevantly accusing most “nonscholarly mythicists” of being disgruntled and obsessed former fundamentalists.
[Maurice Casey] successfully showed that most of them were responding to their previous Fundamentalist views of Jesus. (p. 23)
Litwa cites nothing more than Casey’s assertions, magically transforming his baseless claims into a “successful demonstration”. I demonstrated that Casey’s assertions were lacking in any evidentiary foundation, with the abundance of evidence actually contradicting his claim. See Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics. Not a single testimony or publication (internet or print publication) of anyone who has left a fundamentalist or cultic church that I have read has “blamed Jesus” or expressed a desire to banish Jesus from history, though I suppose, given the bigness of the world, that there must be some exceptions somewhere. Former fundamentalists are generally either thankful to Jesus for bringing them out of their cultic associations or simply treat Jesus as an “innocent bystander”, the mere object of belief, while the villainy is always placed squarely on manipulative humans. I myself returned to mainstream churches after my cult experience and was very thankful and happy to do so. It was only after ongoing questioning that I eventually left mainstream Christianity after becoming an atheist, and even later still before I took any interest in the question of the historicity of Jesus.
I do have to wonder if M. David Litwa genuinely read Maurice Casey’s book against mythicists (Casey also personally attacks non-mythicists, anyone whom he appears to think has unfairly dared to criticize his work in the past) because the intellectual level of the book is surely an embarrassment to any professional scholar. Raphael Lataster remarked,
I find the posts by Hoffman, Maurice Casey, and Stephanie Fisher to be too mean-spirited, scornful, unconvincing, polemical, and amateurish to be even remotely worthy of consideration here. (Lataster, 133)
and I also posted some responses that are now archived here.
So Litwa informs readers that “nonscholarly mythicists” are
dispelling a phantom from their own tormented past[s] (though the daimon often returns — seven times as strong)
and that their mythicist belief is
born of seething resentment and (un)spoken rage against Fundamental Christianity (p. 24)
— without explaining what any of this has to do with his thesis that he has already said is not concerned with the question of historicity. Yet he does insist that there are serious Christ Myth scholars who are not former fundamentalists and that their arguments need to be taken more seriously. Why, or how this advances the thesis of his book, he does not explain. But having thoroughly poisoned the well Litwa proceeds to tackle the arguments of Bauer, Brodie and Carrier.
Litwa manages to discuss Bauer’s “mythicist” views without once mentioning Paul or the New Testament epistles even though it was Bauer’s study of Paul that led him to conclude Jesus had not existed.
At the end of his investigation of the Gospels, Bauer is inclined to make the decision on the question whether there ever was a historical Jesus depend on the result of a further investigation which he proposed to make into the Pauline epistles. (Schweitzer, 139, my emphasis)
As I read each chapter or section of Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus, I wrote about it here, but now that I have read the concluding pages I discover that Lataster anticipated some of the points I made along the way. Especially this one, the final footnote on the final page:
The poor criticisms offered indicate people that have already decided that mythicism must be wrong, simply because they find the conclusion distasteful, without knowing what the best arguments are, let alone how to argue against them.
(Lataster, p. 452)
There have been several responses to the work of Carrier and myself which cannot be dealt with in detail here; I shall point out their failings elsewhere. This includes the articles and blog posts by Christina Petterson, Daniel Gullotta, John Dickson, Michael Bird, James McGrath, Brenda Watson, and Simon Gathercole (and Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos A. Colombetti, who responded to Stephen Law’s agnosticism). None of them add anything substantial to the debate, mischaracterising our work and typically focussing on attacking the person instead of the argument. Additionally, every single one of them completely ignored our most salient points.
(Lataster, p. 463)
Responses by Daniel Gullotta and Simon Gathercole have been addressed in-depth on this blog. Lataster’s criticisms are entirely on target. A decade ago a colleague of Philip R. Davies (to whom Lataster’s book is dedicated) spelled out in detail the unscholarly tactics of “conservative scholarship” in addressing the so-called “minimalists” who dared question the historicity of the Davidic kingdom of Israel. Niels Peter Lemche’s description of those tactics applies just as much to the critics of those who question the historicity of Jesus:
Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists [substitute mythicists]. Don’t read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche [substitute Doherty, Brodie, Carrier, Lataster]; read books [or articles] about them!
As we have seen, Lataster mentioned in the opening of his book names of mainstream scholars who accept the legitimacy of doubting the historical existence of Jesus. More names are added in his final chapter.
Lataster’s concluding call for agnosticism concerning the historicity of Jesus contains all the punch of the preceding 440 pages. His argument has been three-fold:
the case for historicity (part 1, chapters 1 to 3) demonstrated the frequently unscholarly and generally fallacious efforts of recent attempts by mainstream scholars to present an argument for the historical existence of Jesus, and how such efforts effectively (unintentionally) support the case for agnosticism;
the case for agnosticism (part 2, chapters 4 to 6) demonstrated the hollowness of the foundations (both source foundations and the methods by which certain inferences are drawn from these sources) for any assertion that Jesus did exist
the case for mythicism (part 3, chapters 7 to 9) demonstrated that one does not need a historical Jesus to explain the evidence we have for Christian origins and that Christianity began with a belief in a heavenly (not historical) Jesus is indeed plausible.
Lataster has made it abundantly clear where the sound scholarly approach lies:
But look at what Casey did. Look at what Ehrman and the others do. These prominent historicists strangely and illogically appeal to the majority, appeal to authority, appeal to possibility, and, worst of all, appeal to innumerable sources that don’t even exist, in order to prove something that is supposed to be very obvious, something that is allegedly borderline insane to deny. This must stop. Scholars cannot be allowed to continue building on previous scholarship in the field, when the foundations – such as the appeals to hypothetical sources – are highly conjectural to begin with. If we ahistoricists argued like they do, we would be overlooked (well, more than we already are), and rightly so. These historicists did not argue in a transparent probabilistic fashion; they merely declared that their hypothesis is true or almost certainly true, and that anybody who’s anybody agrees with them. Contrast that with the approaches of Carrier and myself. Who are the ones trying to posit a wealth of non-existing foundational sources, whilst disregarding the impact of numerous actually existing sources? And who are the ones simply applying and asking others to apply transparent probabilistic reasoning to the sources that we do actually have access to?
This all should make it easy to figure out which scholars have an agenda, and which scholars merely go where the evidence leads. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you prefer the arguments of the people that used evidence, and logic, and had no real desire to deny the existence of a Historical Jesus, or if you prefer the wild and unsubstantiated claims about near-infinite non-existing sources, and just so happen to arrive at conclusions that placate their ultimately Christian benefactors. I strongly encourage philosophers and historians, and even other scholars, from outside the field to continue to scrutinise the methods and conclusions of these Biblical specialists. Several educated outsiders – and even some insiders – so far have done so and discovered that the emperor has no clothes.
(Lataster, p. 450)
Exactly. As for mythicists being driven by some need to debunk the existence of Jesus, such an accusation is entirely without evidential support and actually flies in the face of the evidence.