Review part 8: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism)

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by Neil Godfrey

Until now I have been working from a digital version of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, that was supplied to me by Brill for these review posts.  I have since been forwarded by Brill a physical copy of the book after I informed them that it might make exploring it for discussion a little easier. It does make a nice change to leaf through fresh clean book-odour pages and marking them with a light pencil. I am also reminded of the retail price with a physical copy of this volume: Brill advertises both the e-book and hardback at $US210. The Australian Amazon site equates that to $A294.97 + $15 postage. Australia’s Dymocks bookstore advertizes it at $A587.99 Those sorts of prices tell us that Brill clearly is looking at libraries (in particular academic libraries) as its primary market. (The publisher balances costs of publication against expected sales and such prices are not uncommon for scholarly books; so don’t assume the prices are a gold mine for the authors.) At this point it is appropriate to recall the emerging number of scholars (discussed in the opening post in this series) who are prepared to consider the Christ Myth theory as a reasonable hypothesis that deserves serious discussion if not outright acceptance.

So far we have surveyed Lataster’s Part 1, his analysis of the case for Jesus having been a historical figure (the first three chapters) and Part 2, the justification for being agnostic about the question of historicity (the next three chapters). We now come to the third and final part of the book, “The Case for Mythicism”.

Here Lataster hews closely to Richard Carrier’s exhaustive (ca. 600 pages) case for mythicism in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. His case therefore entails a justification of Carrier’s Bayesian approach to the question. (See part 4 of this series for an earlier discussion by Lataster in which he addressed some common misconceptions about this application of Bayes’ theorem.) I think Lataster has made a worthy contribution by abbreviating and simplifying Carrier’s arguments and overall thesis. The main reason I think so is the quite disjointed and misleading criticisms I have seen online (including in the scholarly Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus) of Carrier’s book. Too often criticisms have targeted specific discussions in On the Historicity of Jesus without giving readers any indication of the context and weight put on those points by Carrier himself. So Carrier lists forty-eight pieces (or “elements”) of background information that need to be considered against any detailed arguments for or against historicity, with each of them having different degrees of significance, and none being of itself decisive, yet some critics will take just one or two of these points of background discussion and give readers the impression that they are foundations of his entire argument, and so convey the notion that criticizing just those is enough to demolish the case for mythicism. To read Lataster’s discussion of Carrier’s book is to refresh one’s memory of exactly both the method and details of Carrier’s presentation — something several critics apparently failed to grasp. Continue reading “Review part 8: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism)”


Review part 7: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

We now come to what I think is Raphael Lataster’s strongest argument yet for being agnostic about the historicity of Jesus. It’s the last part of chapter 6 addressing “problems of Paul”.

Lataster begins by pointing out the well-known divergences between the accounts of Paul and the gospels and what these divergences specifically suggest about the theologically fractious evolution of the Jesus narrative. The argument then moves to what Paul tells us of his relations with followers of Jesus before him, especially James, and the many serious questions his comments raise given the assumption that those followers knew or were even related to an impressive prophetic figure now believed to have ascended to heaven. And that brings the argument to that ever contentious passage in the mythicist-historicist debate, “James, the brother of the Lord”.

Again Lataster’s broader knowledge of religion studies (as distinct from the narrower speciality of New Testament) and the histories of newly developing religions enables him to inform readers of the interesting possibility that biological relationships were created to co-opt pre-existing religious ideas into the new faith. Not that Lataster relies upon mere possibilities. Mainstream biblical scholars — in particular two who are “historicists” — are identified as either disputing the authenticity of the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians or (again with Bart Ehrman) at least provide enough caveats to lead one to have doubts about its authenticity. I think Lataster is on more secure ground when he develops the in full the argument for this passage not being original to the epistle than he is when reminding readers (as he also does) of the various arguments that the phrase has a range of meanings, especially in religious contexts, and does not necessarily point to a biological relationship. Many conservative biblical scholars reflexively recoil from suggestions of interpolation but Lataster is correct to point out that this reflex is in the main a product of religious conservatism. When the broader context of the dates and conditions of our manuscripts are considered, along with what is well-known about literary reproductions (including forgeries and theologically driven “redactions”) of the day, then it is only sensible and fair to be open to reasonable arguments for interpolations.

Later we read of the dual standards of scholarship in Bart Ehrman’s works. Lataster reminds us how Ehrman’s efforts to argue against the mythicist case in Did Jesus Exist? were very often shots fired at straw men yet in his subsequent books, How Jesus Became God and Jesus Before the Gospels, Lataster shows that many of Ehrman’s arguments suddenly align with the arguments of the mythicists that he earlier regrettably misrepresented or failed to grasp, arguments that he even mocked when they were presented by mythicists!

At this point Lataster drives home the biases of too many biblical scholars by demonstrating how even reputable names among them publish citations that simply do not support their assertions at all. One has always to look up and check the sources cited because so often vague passages are taken and assumed to be saying something specific in support of conventional understandings, and those works are subsequently cited by other scholars as having long settled the matter. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds that such assertions and citations and recycled quoting are all based on vague or irrelevant sources. The specific case Lataster refers to is Dan G. McCartney’s assertion that one of the church fathers “simply accepts that James was Jesus’s younger half-brother”, yet the three sources cited do not even mention James; and then James McGrath is cited as confidently appealing to McCartney’s assertion as having established that point. Worse, a biblical scholar is quoted making assertions about the church father’s views that directly contradict the explicitly stated words of that church father in the same paragraph. Such is some of the worst of biblical scholarship engaged in arguments against mythicism that Lataster exposes.

Lataster’s case for interpolation of the “brother of the Lord” passage is strong, being based on the use of the relevant epistle by the church father Tertullian who was using it to attack a view of a heretic that Jesus was not truly human. Tertullian points out that the heretic had problems with other gospel passages asserting Jesus had brothers but fails to drive home to the Paul-loving heretic that Paul himself claimed to have met “the brother of the Lord” — even though he quotes verses either side of that passage.

The only slight lack in Lataster’s argument is when he raises the question of why an interpolator would not make the “brother of the Lord” passage even less potentially ambiguous than it is. He fails to consider a common source of interpolations, a marginal note made by one scribe that confuses a later scribe who incorporates that note into the main text. Continue reading “Review part 7: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 2)”


Review part 6: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 1)

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by Neil Godfrey


I had hoped to cover Raphael Lataster’s sixth chapter, The Problems of Paul, in a single post but real life circumstances have obliged me to spend smaller amounts of time per day here so I’ll break it up into several posts.

I found Lataster’s chapter on Paul to be one of the best sections of his book so far. Lataster avoids common traps too many mythicists fall into when addressing Paul while at the same time he makes sound use of serious critical evaluations and broader questions pertaining to our sources to make what I consider to be very solid arguments without letting their potential controversy deflect him from course.

Some radical scholars have questioned the existence of Paul but Lataster rightly sidesteps that question as a red-herring in the context of asking if Jesus was a historical figure. Whatever we do with “Paul” himself the epistles in his name still need to be addressed.

Physical or Spiritual?

The most fundamental question that is asked of Paul’s letters in historicist-mythicist debates is whether the letters present Jesus as a physical or exclusively spiritual being. Obviously, if our (possibly) earliest sources for Jesus consider him a spiritual entity then the historicity of a Jesus figure has to be questioned. On the other hand, even if we can establish that Paul definitely thought of Jesus as a flesh and blood human being on earth in a recent past then I don’t believe we can conclude that that of itself establishes Jesus as a historical figure. History is replete with stories and legends of people who are believed to have existed yet whom we know to be mythical. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that an earthly Jesus in Paul’s letters will open up the possibility of Jesus being historical more than the alternative.

What is most significant about the evidence in Paul’s writings, Lataster stresses, is its ambiguity, or at least its potential to be subject to alternative interpretations. That is all that is needed to legitimize the question of whether Jesus was historical or not.

Vridar posts addressing the “born of a woman” passage in Galatians: The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read that Jesus was “born of a woman” and that would seem to end the discussion as to whether Paul thought of Jesus as a literal human being — except that Lataster points readers to Bart Ehrman’s discussion of this passage in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture which notes

a) there is compelling evidence in the writings of the earliest church fathers that while surrounding passages in Galatians were well known the particular passage with “born of woman” is not in evidence at all, even though it would have served decisive blows in the theological arguments those fathers were attempting to make;

b) that the word translated “born” is not the usual word for “born” but another word that carries ambiguities about the actual process being described and which has significance for various theological debates in the second century.

Lataster further raises the possibility that the passage was originally meant to be understood allegorically but I find the arguments raised for that possibility seem to be slightly strained against the natural reading of the text. (I have the same difficulties with Richard Carrier’s case along the same lines in On the Historicity of Jesus.) The allegorical portion of the text is made explicit and it appears to me to be introduced to inject a certain meaning into “real events” in the preceding verses. But that’s all a minor detour.

On the same question as to whether Paul’s writings speak of a human or exclusively spiritual Jesus Lataster further addresses a more general point that I find to be otherwise largely overlooked in this debate: Continue reading “Review part 6: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 1)”


Review part 4: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – I, Methods)

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by Neil Godfrey

After reviewing the efforts of Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey to present their respective cases for the historicity of Jesus we now come to chapter 4, Inadequate Methods. By way of summing up the previous discussion Raphael Lataster writes

The recent defences of Jesus’ historicity by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey lack lucid and competent methodologies, rely on highly questionable documents, and further make use of sources that no longer exist, if they ever did. They are polemical, occasionally vulgar, and often resorted to cavilling, focussing on tangential arguments of the more amateurish mythicists. They unquestionably failed, and this may have something to do with my introductory thoughts on just what sort of scholar should be investigating the issue; analytical philosophers seem much more suited to the task. (p. 129)

In response to the objection that “ahistoricists” or “mythicists” do not have an alternative explanation for Christian origins Lataster is blunt:

This is similar to the agnosticism over God’s existence. Those agnostics do not need to have evidence that God does not exist. They just need to be unconvinced by the lack of good evidence for God’s existence. In other words, my case for Historical Jesus agnosticism does not need to rely on good alternative hypotheses, though it certainly can be strengthened by them. (p. 129)

History is done differently when it comes to Jesus. And those doing the history on Jesus are, in the main, theologians or “biblical scholars” of some stripe who cannot deny that

. . . most people know of Jesus because of the historical reality of religious faith. (p. 131)

It’s like saying “Most people know about the massacres of Aboriginals in the Frontier Wars because of what they’d been told.” So how do we go about finding the fact of the matter?

I bypass here Lataster’s discussion of the respective appeals to “insider” and “outsider” sources (those of believers and those of outsiders), or the little controversy over the Jesus Project initiated by R. Joseph Hoffmann that he also addresses.

Lataster begins the core argument of this chapter with the theoretically correct point, “History Concerns What Probably Happened.” I find such arguments too theoretical. Indeed, one of the historians Lataster cites in this section expresses my view exactly:

That history as record is “relative,” may be admitted, in the sense that deriving as it does from the perception and testimony of men [sic – published 1946], it often borrows shape and color from the subjective medium through which it passes. Furthermore, the objective facts are perhaps never reproduced in their full range of authentic detail. But it is folly to leap thence to the conclusion that nothing can be absolutely known about the historical past. That Napoleon Bonaparte existed, that he fought Europe, was worsted at Waterloo, and died at St. Helena, are facts which we can be said to know absolutely. On the other hand, that his personality was such or such, that he was dominated by this passion or that, may very well be matters about which we have not, and probably cannot have knowledge that is final and irreversible. . . .

But “probability beyond reasonable doubt,” if we overlook the contradiction involved in this statement, is equivalent to certainty. What we hold “beyond reasonable doubt,” we hold with certainty. . . .

Although the historian can never attain the same certainty which is attained by the mathematician, the physicist, or the chemist, nevertheless, especially in the case of converging lines of evidence, he is able to reach such moral certainty as is the basis of nearly all our actions. (Freeman, Methods of History)

(Garraghan, pp. 78, 79)

If we cannot see evidence that persuades us “beyond reasonable doubt” that Jesus existed then we are compelled to maintain reasonable doubts and not deny them. Juries are required to find a defendant guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” and not be content with a “probably guilty” verdict.

As for the sources historians study, they fall into two types: primary and secondary. Primary sources are generally understood to be contemporary with the events being studied, secondary from a later time. Both types of source must be subject to the same scrutiny and Lataster cites Garraghan three times in the book on this point: Continue reading “Review part 4: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – I, Methods)”


Review part 3: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Addressing the Case FOR)

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by Neil Godfrey

Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. — Isaac Asimov

Properly read, the books arguing for the historicity of Jesus by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey present a strong case for being agnostic about the existence of Jesus. — paraphrasing Raphael Lataster

Part One of Questioning the Historicity of Jesus addresses the case for the historical existence of Jesus. The first difficulty here is finding the best and strongest scholarly arguments for Jesus’ historicity:

I have long searched for good cases for the Historical Jesus. I sought fairly recent, peer-reviewed academic books or articles, solely/primarily focussed on arguing for Jesus’ historicity, written by secular scholars in relevant fields. Not one source met these criteria. I would have loved the opportunity to critique books focused on this topic written by a James Crossley or an Aaron W. Hughes, and published with Oxford University Press, but such books – perhaps like Jesus – do not exist; so I have settled for two popular books written by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey. (Lataster, p. 29)

Those books are Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (2012) and Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths? (2014). Long time readers of Vridar will be aware of many posts covering in detail both of those works. Lataster’s criticisms overlap with much that has been posted here and by others, such as Richard Carrier. Even some of the scholarly quotations I posted here alerting readers to professional disagreements with the methods of Ehrman and Casey are also found in Lataster’s book. The arguments are so flawed that it hardly seems worth the trouble addressing them again, but I’ll try to outline the main points Lataster focuses on.

The sad part is that Ehrman has such a high reputation for critical acumen.

I respect the man, and I respect the rest of his work. On this topic, however, his work fails to impress . . . (p. 31)

Most of us know the failings: well-poisoning, false dichotomies, speculations on the motives of unknown authors, inconsistency in relying upon hypothetical sources for his own arguments but condemning appeals to hypothetical sources for opposing arguments, insisting that hypothetical sources included information upon which his argument depends, reliance upon speculation, circular reasoning, fundamental errors of logic, selective naive readings of the sources, the possible to probable fallacy, misrepresentations of the Judaism of the Second Temple era and unjustified generalizations about religious groups. Lataster dissects each of the above failings in Did Jesus Exist? but interestingly goes further and contrasts Ehrman’s failings there with his books written before and after that one:

Before and after writing that book, Ehrman was and is capable of proper critical research on the biblical texts. But for some reason, during the writing of Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman’s standards dropped remarkably, only for the ‘old Ehrman’ to return soon after, as if he suffered from a fugue state. I suspect that Ehrman consciously or unconsciously realised that the case for Jesus would be very poor indeed if he consistently applied his critical approach and all of his vast knowledge to this question, leading to this strange Jekyll and Hyde situation. (p. 71)

Other scholars may have stressed other “proof points” for Jesus’s historicity (e.g. the “core” of a Josephan reference to Jesus) but Lataster shows how Ehrman effectively demonstrates the inadequacy of such material as clear evidence for Jesus.

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Ehrman’s critical awareness of the limitations of the sources that we do have (the gospels, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius) leads him to explain why in none of those can we find secure grounds for believing Jesus to have had a historical existence, and that having dispensed with those sources he falls back on hypothetical sources behind the gospels. Continue reading “Review part 3: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Addressing the Case FOR)”


Review part 2: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster – Some Definitions

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by Neil Godfrey

Definitions, a necessary complement to the previous post and clarification for future posts. . . .

Raphael Lataster asserts that he is “not a mythicist per se”, with the term “mythicist” meaning, in this context, “the view that Jesus did not exist.”  He explains,

I do not assert that Jesus did not exist. I am a Historical Jesus agnostic. That is, I am unconvinced by the case for the Historical Jesus, and find several reasons to be doubtful. (pp. 2 f)

Lataster compares the term “mythicist” with “strong atheist” and “hard naturalist” and the term “historicist” with “theist”. The “historical Jesus agnostic” is compared with the “God agnostic”.

I understand the comparisons but feel they do not sit comfortably with those mythicists who have continued to hold fast to their Christianity.

Lastaster proposes a third term, “ahistoricist“,

to encompass both the ardent ‘mythicists’ and the less certain ‘agnostics’. This avoids the false dichotomy, which I think historicists (much like theists) have been taking advantage of. They often frame the debate as only being between the right and the wrong, the reasonable and righteous historicists versus the silly mythicists, ironically appearing as unnuanced and dogmatic fundamentalists in the process. With my proposed terminology, it shall become much more transparent that there are many more scholars that question Jesus’ historicity than is typically thought; that this is not such a silly idea. (p. 3)

I can say that I find the evidence for a historical Jesus to be inadequate and conclude that there is no need to postulate a historical Jesus to explain the letters and gospels and origins of Christianity. In that sense I could call myself a mythicist, but my position would be tentative. I would remain open to new evidence and insights emerging to change my mind. That sounds the simplest and most “scholarly” approach to me, but I have to admit that terms have long been charged with prejudicial associations and for many people the term “mythicist” implies an unnecessary dogmatism. Or would Lataster’s definition make me an “agnostic” — one who does not believe in the historicity of Jesus until further evidence or insights are presented? So I can understand Lataster’s point. Except that scholars like Thomas Brodie — who are Christians who believe Jesus was not a literal historical person — would surely prefer a comparison that did not carry associations with atheism. I suspect liberal Christians who are atheists yet believe in a historical Jesus likewise would not fit comfortably into the comparison. The world is a complex place and the making of definitions is often hard.

Raphael Lataster introduces yet another term, the Celestial Jesus. This is the Jesus of Paul, Lataster explains (p. 13). It appears to me that Lataster is following Richard Carrier at this point. Carrier’s definition of a “minimal Jesus myth” consists of the following five points:

  1. At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.

  2. Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus ‘communicated’ with his subjects only through dreams, visions and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophecy, past and present).

  3. Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.

  4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.

  5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only ‘additionally’ allegorical).

(Carrier, p. 53)

Lataster writes

[W]e can refer to the Biblical Jesus, or more specifically, the Gospel Jesus, as the general version of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels and held dear by believers, while the Celestial Jesus refers to the possible early Christian view of a Jesus that did not appear on Earth, as portrayed in the Pauline Epistles. (p. 13)

I fear the terms “mythicists” or “ahistoricists” may run into difficulties up ahead with such a foundation. Though Earl Doherty (whom Carrier follows), and before him, independently, Paul-Louis Couchoud, postulated a Pauline Jesus who was entirely “celestial”, Paul’s letters can be read differently. As Roger Parvus has shown, it is possible that Paul’s letters allow room for a Jesus who came to earth for a short time in order to be crucified.

Another “mythicist” option is also plausible: it is not inconceivable that Paul’s “crucified Christ” was preached in opposition to another Christ, a conquering Christ, as per the Book of Revelation, a Christ who was at no point crucified — according to Couchoud’s thesis (see “The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity” by P. L. Couchoud at vridar.info).

Carrier is following Earl Doherty’s thesis at this point, yet despite Doherty’s monumental contribution to raising public awareness of the question of Jesus’ historicity, I do not think that a “celestial Jesus” is a satisfactory notion of an equivalent to a “mythicist” Jesus. To express the point in its crudest terms, myths do not have to be restricted to “celestial realms”. And in the case of the “Jesus myth” idea we do have other options. Other “Jesus myth theories” have postulated a narrative arising in B.C.E. times, in particular around the time of Alexander Jannaus who is on record as having crucified 800 (mostly) Pharisees.

For the sake of compatability and consistency with Raphael Lataster’s discussion, I will try to keep in mind the need to refer to “mythicism” as the more inclusive “ahistoricism“.

The Gospel Jesus

The Gospel Jesus is evidently a figure crafted from a wide range of literary sources. The question for the study of Christian origins is Who/What gave rise to those gospel narratives? Somewhere along the line the Pauline notions gained dominance, although through the second century certain powers found opportunity to forge new concepts in his name. But before that time there were others with quite different notions of “Jesus” — one who had been slain in heaven, another who had been crucified by Herod (not Pilate), and one who had in the meantime descended into a place below the earth in order to release lost souls.

Any definition of a Jesus who is an alternative to a “historical figure” ideally should allow for all such apparent notions of “Jesus”, and more.

We will move on and next look at Raphael Lataster’s analysis of Bart Ehrman’s argument against the “ahistoricist” view and for the “historicist” Jesus.


Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill.



Review part 1: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster.

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by Neil Godfrey

Brill, a publisher who value[s] academic freedom and rejects attempts to silence it. . . There are others of course but [Brill is among] these academic treasures that are on the side of truth and not beholden to ideologues of any stripe. — Jim West (ThD)

The publisher Brill has forwarded me access to Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why A Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, for review on this blog.

Disclaimer: Raphael Lataster makes a brief but favourable mention of me in the book. I can only plead my best efforts at honest neutrality by pointing to my critical responses to another scholar, Richard Carrier, who has also spoken positively about me.

The book’s dedication honours the late Emeritus Professor Philip R. Davies, no doubt because of his courageous 2012 article in The Bible and Interpretation, Did Jesus Exist?, in which he wrote

Philip Davies

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. (Bolding is all quotations is mine.)

A lengthy Foreword is written by Professor James Crossley who was a student of an anti-mythicist, Maurice Casey, but also a colleague of Philip Davies. Crossley acknowledges the contributions of outsiders from the field of biblical studies such as Raphael Lataster whose doctoral dissertation was in the Analytic Philosophy of Religion in the Religious Studies department of one of the world’s top fifty universities, the University of Sydney. Crossley notes that biblical studies departments have traditionally assumed the historicity of Jesus and that challenges to this assumption have come “from outside in recent years”, and notes specifically of Lataster’s contribution:

Thinking about the challenge provided by Lataster, my take is that more scepticism is indeed needed. (p. xii)

I’m so proud of this kid.
Jim West on James Crossley

Interestingly Crossley refers to his own particular contributions to the study of Christian origins and acknowledges that we cannot be certain that the themes he raised (the Gospel of Mark’s treatment of the sabbath, purity laws and eschatology) started with a historical Jesus:

Did these issues emerge with the historical figure of Jesus? It is possible, certainly. But they could have developed in (say) the 30s or 40s CE. Moreover, people can create stories in days, never mind a decade or decades. Stories can also retain historical information. But how do we actually prove this either way once we’ve established an early tradition or theme? (pp. xii f)

Note that. Lataster, likewise, argues the agnostic position.

Instead of relentlessly focusing on reconstructing an individual, and precise claims that cannot be proven, we might instead turn our focus to a history of ideas in Christian origins and provide a more solid grounding for scholarly claims.
James Crossley

Crossley is not denying the historicity of Jesus:

As is hopefully clear, this is not a mythicist position in the sense that it does not disprove Jesus’ existence (nor does it attempt to do so) but it is a position which acknowledges that we are severely restricted in what we can say about reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus. (p. xiii)

And then makes a point I find most reassuring myself, having attempted to promote it often enough on this blog:

But this does not have to be a bad thing. Instead of relentlessly focusing on reconstructing an individual, and precise claims that cannot be proven, we might instead turn our focus to a history of ideas in Christian origins and provide a more solid grounding for scholarly claims.

This brings us to Raphael Lataster’s own Introduction. I am dwelling on both the Foreword and Introduction in this first post on Lataster’s book because the question is certainly controversial enough and misconceptions abound and need to be confronted and cleared away in order for a serious reading to happen.

Continue reading “Review part 1: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster.”


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

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by Neil Godfrey

Where to begin?!

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

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

It’s Trumpian.


The Tone of a Mythicist-Agnostic Debate

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by Neil Godfrey

Some of us may be interested in a somewhat objective attempt to measure the tone of the discussion on the question of Mythicist-Agnosticism as raised on the Religion Prof’s blogsite:

Current Debate Jesus Agnosticism/Mythicism – Raphael Lataster and James McGrath

The measure is from a text analysis program, the LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count). From the How It Works site:

Basically, it reads a given text and counts the percentage of words that reflect different emotions, thinking styles, social concerns, and even parts of speech. Because LIWC was developed by researchers with interests in social, clinical, health, and cognitive psychology, the language categories were created to capture people’s social and psychological states.

See the site for more details and Interpreting LIWC Output for a description of the areas measured.

I don’t include any commenters who posted fewer than 700 words. I would be especially cautious about the two I have included that posted fewer than 1000 words.

Name of blog commenter

and number of words used

(quotations of the words of others are not included)

Analytic thinking

— the degree to which people use words that suggest formal, logical, and hierarchical thinking patterns

— when people reveal themselves in an authentic or honest way

— the relative social status, confidence, or leadership that people display through their writing


— the higher the number, the more positive the tone

JM’s Original Post on B&I (3043 words)
74.07% 28.08% 55.08% 39.90%
James McGrath’s Discussion (1116 words) 56.82% 55.72% 48.92% 43.75%
Tim O’Neill’s Discussion (1155 words) 51.18% 47.37% 71.04% 20.52%
Leigh Sutherland’s Discussion (1046 words) 72.07% 48.3% 44.3% 72.33%
David (778 words) 65.19% 30.06% 59.65% 39.56%
Gary (708 words) 51.67% 68.37% 61.68% 19.45%

Congratulations to Leigh for his positive contribution to the overall level and especially the tone of the discussion.


Current Debate Jesus Agnosticism/Mythicism – Raphael Lataster and James McGrath

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by Neil Godfrey

The Bible and Interpretation website has published an article by Raphael Lataster discussing his book (published by Brill) Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse.

Some excerpts:

Now, within five years of each other, there are two comprehensive academic monographs arguing the other way. Those wanting to know why we ought to accept the Historical Jesus’ historicity generally have to make do, if they do not directly engage with the sources themselves, with the specialist scholars merely asserting their opinions, and some popular books, like those recent ones from Ehrman and Casey.

On Bart Ehrman’s attempt to address the Christ Myth hypothesis:

Apart from his use of hypothetical sources, Ehrman highlights two key points that apparently make Jesus’ existence a sure bet. The first is Paul’s relationships with Peter and James, who surely knew a historical Jesus. The big problem is that we know of this from later documents. Ehrman and other scholars read the later documents into the earlier Epistles. Reading the Epistles without Gospel-tainted glasses will lead to some intriguing possibilities, as we shall soon see. There are other problems, too, such as the general unreliability of the Epistles (just as with the Gospels), and the fact that such passages were tampered with (as Ehrman himself published on; see his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 238-239).

The second is that Jews would apparently never invent a suffering Messiah. This is utter nonsense. Ehrman is wrong in principle and in fact.

On Maurice Casey’s follow up diatribe:

Casey outright admits, like so many theologians and cryptotheologians, that “the criteria reasonably used by historians writing about important political figures such as Julius Caesar need modification in dealing with the historicity of Jesus” (p. 66). No Casey, you do not get to alter the rules of what is historically probable because you know that your evidence simply isn’t good enough. The other great innovation that Casey brought to the debate is the radically early dating of the Gospels, almost laughably unjustified, as well as the identification of the earliest Gospel writer.

Raphael Lataster follows with a summary of his case for “agnosticism and an alternative hypothesis”:

Thinking of early Christianity in this way address a lot of the problems with the state of the evidence. . . . [T]he Gospels are simply allegorisations of the earlier teachings, something that scholars are increasingly accepting. Did earlier Jews believe in such Celestial Messiahs? Yes! One need only turn to the fairly recently discovered intertestamental texts, to see that there were Jews who expected a Celestial Messiah who would bring abut somewhat of a spiritual victory . . . .

Interestingly, these ideas are gaining ground. Scholars in fields related to New Testament are increasingly adopting agnostic views about Jesus. Even within the field, there are scholars willing to be agnostic or sympathetic to agnosticism. I fully expect that a torrent of abuse will come my way. Though I expect that, like the Old Testament minimalists, I, and the few like me, will eventually be vindicated, fairly quickly. Even in the early years of my career, the likes of Brill, Springer, Cambridge, and Oxford are seeing the value in my research. And I see many younger New Testament scholars asking more questions about the reliability of the extant sources and oral transmission and memory. The time is ripe for change.

Very quickly a reply from James McGrath followed: Exorcising Mythicism’s Sky-Demons: A Response to Raphael Lataster’s “Questioning Jesus’ Historicity.”

You will have to read McGrath’s article for yourself lest you think any criticism I make will be an expression of personal bias. As for substantial argument McGrath falls back on Paul’s letters as the primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus without realizing that in doing so he is simply repeating the very methodological problem Lataster pointed out with this approach: it relies on interpreting Paul through much later sources like the gospels. McGrath fails to comment on the fact that the scholars he is defending against Lataster’s criticism – Ehrman and Casey – reject McGrath’s own reliance upon the epistles as the bedrock evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The general point of McGrath’s response can best be summed up by the following . . .

Indeed, Lataster’s article consists of rhetorical ploys, insults, and insinuations far more than substantive argument, and it is thus not only appropriate but necessary to look closely at what is being said and how it is being conveyed.

Lataster resembles other prominent mythicists in his use of insult and denigration in place of argument.

. . . he is not taking the discussion at all seriously or approaching it in an appropriate academic manner.

Lataster simply does not grasp what scholarship entails at its most fundamental level, or is simply happy to engage in misrepresentation and flights of fancy if doing so seems to support his preferred ideology.

But you be the judge.

B&I posted a response by Lataster to McGrath’s article, When Critics Miss the Point About Questioning Jesus’ Historicity

Given the amount of errors McGrath makes in his response, I decided to respond, and the The Bible and Interpretation team have kindly allowed this.

Firstly, I wish to leave the rhetoric to one side. It is often unfair, and leads to unending accusations about the ‘other side’ being more polemical and many misinterpretations . . . .

and concludes with

Carrier published his academic book in 2014 and I have published mine in 2019. We are still waiting for a proper refutation of my case for agnosticism and his more ambitious case for outright mythicism. I suspect that this will never occur, because ‘at least agnosticism’ is very sensible. The sources are terrible, with the best ones being anonymous, and portraying a character reminiscent of earlier non-existent figures. The Celestial Jesus theory also seems increasingly plausible, given all we are now learning about early Christian diversity and pre-Christian Judaisms, with all their varied views about celestial beings and the Messiah. Hopefully, like Davies, Avalos, and Crossley, more scholars of the New Testament will eventually come to admit that nothing like a case for certainty about Jesus’ historical existence can be offered, and that questioning Jesus’ historicity is very reasonable indeed.

We shall see.



Understanding the Hostility to the Christ Myth Theory

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by Neil Godfrey

Questioning the historical existence of Jesus attracts something other than mere curiosity or intellectual debate among many biblical scholars and some of the public who don’t even have any personal interest in religion. I can understand people with a personal faith in Jesus either simply ignoring the question with disdain or amusement or responding with some hostility. (One would have to be gauche indeed to even raise the question with them.) But some of us have been mystified by some people, not scholars, who proudly identify as atheists, who can be found to react with visceral invective towards those questioning the historicity of Jesus. Similarly among biblical scholars. Even the non-believer Bart Ehrman dismisses “mythicists” as animated by dishonest motives and culpable ignorance.

The answer to that question, at least in my own mind, is now as clear as daylight. Many of us internalize the values and ideology of society’s established intellectual class.

And in fact, most of the people who make it through the education system and get into the elite universities are able to do it because they’ve been willing to obey a lot of stupid orders for years and years—that’s the way I did it, for example. Like, you’re told by some stupid teacher, “Do this,” which you know makes no sense whatsoever, but you do it, and if you do it you get to the next rung, and then you obey the next order, and finally you work your way through and they give you your letters: an awful lot of education is like that, from the very beginning. Some people go along with it because they figure, “Okay, I’ll do any stupid thing that asshole says because I want to get ahead”; others do it because they’ve just internalized the values—but after a while, those two things tend to get sort of blurred. But you do it, or else you’re out: you ask too many questions and you’re going to get in trouble. (Chomsky, 236)

(I use Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power as the structure for this post because a fellow ex-Worldwide Church of God member reminded me of it in his book of his experiences in that cult, Showdown at Big Sandy. The author, Greg Doudna, spoke of many attempts that both he and a colleague, Russell Gmirkin, made to address doctrinal questions with the hierarchy.)

Some lay people who have been through much of the education system have even gone to such an extreme that they even justify the ruling powers who forced Galileo to recant! Tim O’Neill, author of History for Atheists, is perhaps the best known for this authoritarian stance. Questioning “the consensus of experts” is a sign of arrogance:

* The complaint that a questioning and critical analysis of orthodox views amounts to a “lack of understanding” of them has a long heritage. Back in the days of Galileo and Descartes the rector of the University of Utrecht deplored challenges to the expert consensus views of his day in the following words (1642):

First, it is opposed to the traditional philosophy which universities throughout the world have hitherto taught on the best advice . . . Second, it turns away the young from this sound and traditional philosophy and prevents them reaching the heights of erudition; for once they have begun to rely on the new philosophy and its supposed solutions, they are unable to understand the technical terms which are commonly used in the books of traditional authors and in the lectures and debates of their professors. . . . And lastly, various false and absurd opinions [follow], opinions which are in conflict with other disciplines and faculties and above all with orthodox theology.

(Voetius’s letter to Father Dinet, quoted in Cottingham, 395)

Then analogy [between creationists and mythicists] is not to the degree or nature of the evidence. It’s the lack of understanding* of the material and the arrogance of assuming they know more than the consensus of experts that is analogous. So the analogy is completely apt thanks. (Oct 2, 2018)

The same atheist critic even goes so far as to defend the consensus of the intellectual elites embedded in the Catholic Church against Galileo!

[T]he Church’s opposition to Galileo and heliocentrism was primarily based on this clear scientific consensus. (https://historyforatheists.com/2018/07/the-great-myths-6-copernicus-deathbed-publication/)

Galileo received high praise and encouragement from the Pope down. . . . It was not until Galileo strayed into theological questions with his widely-circulated “Letter to Castelli” in 1615 that the Inquisition began to take an interest in him (https://historyforatheists.com/2018/08/sam-harris-horrible-histories/)

O’Neill elaborates with a citation of a letter by Cardinal Bellarmine that superficially suggests that he was ready to call for a study into revising church doctrine if the new views in astronomy proved true, but overlooks the fact that the Holy See itself flatly rejected such “liberalism” and that Galileo was in branded a heretic for his heliocentric view that contradicted the Bible. (O’Neill following even says Galileo was not charged with “formal heresy” without identifying the source of that term or explaining how “formal heresy” differed from “heresy” per se. Nor should one overlook the words of Galileo’s contemporary, Descartes, who expressed fear for himself at the news of Galileo’s trial. See green side box.)

So we see here a crusade for “better history” by a lay non-historian, an atheist, who cherry-picks quotations and rationalizes submission to the consensus of intellectual elites all the way back to the seventeenth century. Now that’s ‘internalization of the university elite’s values’!

On hearing of Galileo’s fate Descartes wrote in a personal letter, 1634:

Doubtless you know that Galileo was recently censured by the Inquisitors of the Faith, and that his views about the movement of the earth were condemned as heretical. I must tell you that all the things I explained in my treatise, which included the doctrine of the movement of the earth, were so interdependent that it is enough to discover that one of them is false to know that all the arguments I was using are unsound. Though I thought they were based on very certain and evident proofs, I would not wish, for anything in the world, to maintain them against the authority of the Church. I know that it might be said that not everything which the Roman Inquisitors decide is automatically an article of faith, but must first be approved by a General Council. But I am not so fond of my own opinions as to want to use such quibbles to be able to maintain them. I desire to live in peace and to continue the life I have begun under the motto ‘to live well you must live unseen’. . . . For I have seen letters patent about Galileo’s condemnation, printed at Liège on 20 September 1633, which contained the words ‘though he pretended he put forward his view only hypothetically’; thus they seem to forbid even the use of this hypothesis in astronomy. For this reason I do not dare to tell him any of my thoughts on the topic. Moreover, I do not see that this censure has been endorsed by the Pope or by any Council, but only by a single congregation of the Cardinals of the Inquisition; so I do not altogether lose hope . . .

(Kenny, ed. pp. 42f. The message sent to Descartes was that Galileo was not even permitted to teach his view as an unproved ‘hypothesis’, contrary to the weight O’Neill assigns to Cardinal Bellarmine’s apparent statement otherwise. Still, as can be seen from D’s conclusion, he continued to hope for better days.)

Surely we have here a credible explanation for the vociferous backing of the “mainstream scholarly consensus” among certain lay persons, atheist or otherwise.

But there is more than years of indoctrination and internalization of such values.

And there are many other subtle mechanisms which contribute to ideological control as well, of course . . . .

Or just take the fact that certain topics are unstudiable in the schools—because they don’t fall anywhere: the disciplines are divided in such a way that they simply will not be studied. That’s something that’s extremely important. . . .

Well, these [corporate controls of political systems and national resources, including national populations] are major phenomena of modern life—but where do you go to study them in the universities or the academic profession? That’s a very interesting question. You don’t go to the economics department, because that’s not what they look at: the real hot-shot economics departments are interested in abstract models of how a pure free-enterprise economy works—you know, generalizations to ten-dimensional space of some nonexistent free-market system. You don’t go to the political science department, because they’re concerned with electoral statistics, and voting patterns, and micro-bureaucracy—like the way one government bureaucrat talks to another in some detailed air. You don’t go to the anthropology department, because they’re studying hill tribesmen in New Guinea. You don’t go to the sociology department, because they’re studying crime in the ghettos. In fact, you don’t go anywhere—there isn’t any field that deals with these topics. There’s no journal that deals with them. In fact, there is no academic profession that is concerned with the central problems of modern society. (239-242)

And ditto for the study of the question of the origin of the Jesus figure. New Testament scholars study Christology and the different views of the Jesus figure in the various sources, but they take for granted as their starting position that such a historical figure did exist. Hence in 2012 Bart Ehrman was able to confidently write:

Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it (Ehrman 2012)

Before commenting let’s finish Chomsky’s words:

And it’s extremely important that there not be a field that studies these questions—because if there ever were such a field, people might come to understand too much, and in a relatively free society like ours, they might start to do something with that understanding. Well, no institution is going to encourage that. I mean, there’s nothing in what I just said that you couldn’t explain to junior high school students, it’s all pretty straightforward. But it’s not what you study in a junior high [course] . . . .
(Chomsky, 242)

Daniel Gullotta

Simon Gathercole

It is at this point that we find an explanation for a type of response by the Ehrmans, the McGraths, and others against mythicism. I am talking about the default targeting of personal motives, even personal morality and character, of proponents of the Christ Myth view. Equally depressing is that these accusations are coupled with bizarre distortions, misrepresentations, blatant “misunderstandings” of the mythicist arguments. Recall the somewhat bizarre reviews of mythicism by Daniel Gullotta and Simon Gathercole in scholarly Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus for biblical scholars. (The general public can read one of its articles if they are prepared to pay $US30 — per article — for the privilege.) We saw how both Gullotta and Gathercole [see side box for references] clearly felt free to not pay any serious attention to the arguments they believed they were discussing and gross misrepresentation was par for the course. Compare:

MAN: What I’m struck with in each of the . . . major misunderstandings that are used against you. . . . is how much your views have been distorted and oversimplified by the press. I don’t understand why you’d want to keep bringing these ideas to the mass media when they always insist on misrepresenting them.

[Chomksy:] But why is that surprising? First of all, this is not happening in the mass media, this is happening in the intellectual journals. And intellectuals are specialists in defamation, they’re basically commissars [Soviet officials responsible for political indoctrination]—they’re the ideological managers, so they are the ones who feel the most threatened by dissidence. The mass media don’t care that much, they just ignore it, or say it’s crazy or something like that. In fact, this stuff barely enters the national media; sure, you’ll get a throwaway line saying, “this guy’s an apologist for this that and the other thing,” but that’s just feeding off the intellectual culture. The place where it’s really done is inside the intellectual journals—because that’s their specialty. They’re commissars: it’s not fundamentally different from the Communist Party. (Chomsky, 206)

“It’s the ideology, stupid!” It is easy to be dismayed (as I know I have been) at the utter “disunderstanding” of the arguments they say they are addressing. But notice that there’s another explanation:

But if any of you have ever looked at your F.B.I. file through a Freedom of Information Act release, you’ve probably discovered that intelligence agencies are in general extremely incompetent—that’s one of the reasons why there are so many intelligence failures: they just never get anything straight, for all kinds of reasons. And part of it is because the information they get typically is being transmitted to them by agents and informants who are ideological fanatics, and they always misunderstand things in their own crazy ways. So if you look at an F.B.I. file where you actually know what the facts are, you’ll usually see that the information has some relation to reality—you can sort of figure out what they’re talking about—but by the time it’s worked its way through the ideological fanaticism of the intelligence system, there’s been all sorts of weird distortion. And that’s true of the Anti-Defamation League’s intelligence too.

But this stuff certainly is circulated around—like, probably somebody in this area received it from the regional office, and there’ll be some article in the local newspaper tomorrow that’ll pull a lot of junk out of the file, that’s what usually happens when I go places. And the point is that it’s used to close off the discussion: since they can’t deal with the issues, they’ve got to close off the discussion—and the best way to do it is by throwing enough slime so that maybe people will figure, where there’s smoke there’s fire, so we’d better not listen.

. . . But there are plenty of others who do the same sort of thing—because this is really the institutional task of the whole intellectual community. I mean, the job of mainstream intellectuals is to serve as a kind of secular priesthood, to ensure that the doctrinal faith is maintained. So if you go back to a period when the Church was dominant, the priesthood did it: they were the ones who watched out for heresy and went after it. And as societies became more secular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the same controls were needed: the institutions still had to defend themselves, after all, and if they couldn’t do it by burning people at the stake or sending them to inquisitions anymore, they had to find other ways. Well, over time that responsibility was transferred to the intellectual class—to be guardians of the sacred political truths, hatchet-men of one sort or another.

So you see, as a dissident, you shouldn’t be surprised to get all of this stuff done to you, it’s in fact a positive sign—it means that you can’t just be ignored anymore. (207f)

Continue reading “Understanding the Hostility to the Christ Myth Theory”


Definition of a Christ Mythicist

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by Neil Godfrey

A commenter suggested I post what I would consider an appropriate lede for a Wikipedia mythicism article. Here it is:

A Christ mythicist is one who believes the literal truth of the myth of Jesus Christ as set out in the epistles and gospels of the New Testament, or who believes that those myths, even if they have only limited or no historical foundation, nonetheless contain symbolic or spiritual value for those of the Christian faith.



Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation (Engaging with McGrath — 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

In Australian private hospitals we are likely to see pictures of a crucifix or Mother Mary. In Thailand we see Buddhist paraphernalia. View of one taken by me from a hospital bed where I arrived as result of accident. Life is always full of unexpected surprises.

Again waylaid by life experiences so surfacing here another post begun way back. The first post in this series is  Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

This time we are addressing

McGrath begins:

Mythicists regularly claim (as one commenter on this blog recently did) regarding Paul that “Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him.  He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation.”

Since the subject has come up once again, in the same form in which it always seems to, let me devote a blog post solely to this topic, in the hope that any mythicists who desire not to be like creationists (who are notorious for repeating the exact same arguments even though they have been addressed adequately on countless other occasions) may at least show a willingness to consider the evidence and respond.

Here are the main relevant points that need to be considered.

First, in Galatians 1:15-17, Paul claims not to have consulted with anyone before starting to proclaim the Gospel.

That “first main relevant point” that McGrath informs readers needs to be addressed simply avoids the problematic verse that the commenter was addressing. McGrath begins with Galatians 1:15 but fails to acknowledge that the commenter, Vinny, was referring to Galatians 1:11-12. Vinny’s comment that McGrath claims to be addressing is:

Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him. He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation. He didn’t tell us why he persecuted the Christians who preceded him. Most of the communities he addressed were communities that he founded. The only evidence we have for what those communities knew and understood about Jesus is what we find in Paul’s letters. It is not unreasonable suppose that they knew other things but any declarations concerning what those things actually were are little more than conjecture and speculation. How much of his message came from those who preceded him and how much was the product of his own imagination and creativity is also a matter of conjecture and speculation. Those are pieces of the puzzle that we don’t possess.

The passage to which Vinny was referring was Galatians 1:11-12 (I am using the same NIV translation as McGrath is using):

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

But let’s see how McGrath addresses the comment. As we just noted, he glosses over the above verses and begins at verse 15:

Here is how the New International Version renders it:

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.  I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Important things to note are

(1) that Paul had previously persecuted the church (Neil: The persecution reference is two verses earlier), and so was not entirely unaware of what Christians had to say,

(2) his aim here is to emphasize that his authority is not dependent on the apostles in Jerusalem,

(3) he does not in fact say that he received everything he knew about Jesus or the Gospel by supernatural revelation, and finally

(4) if he did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe him, since there is obviously a more mundane explanation available for how Paul knew the things that he did.

I think we can all agree with the first three of McGrath’s four things to note. Concerning #4, historians have no problem “believing” that mystics and visionaries claim to have visions and revelations from spirit realms. Historians acknowledge that Joan of Arc heard voices without believing that a heavenly saint really was speaking to her, that Saint Francis had visions without believing God was really communicating with him, and that people speak in tongues without believing that a real “holy spirit” is doing the work. I learned through an article by Stephen Young that “the now classic analysis” explaining the difference was set out by Wayne Proudfoot in 1987 in Religious Experience:

Descriptive and Explanatory Reduction

We are now in a position to distinguish two different kinds of reduction. Descriptive reduction is the failure to identify an emotion, practice, or experience under the description by which the subject identifies it. This is indeed unacceptable. To describe an experience in nonreligious terms when the subject himself describes it in religious terms is to misidentify the experience, or to attend to another experience altogether. To describe Bradley’s experience as simply a vision of a human shape, and that of Mrs. Edwards as a lively warm sense that seemed to glow like a pencil of light, is to lose the identifying characteristics of those experiences. To describe the experience of a mystic by reference only to alpha waves, altered heart rate, and changes in bodily temperature is to misdescribe it. To characterize the experience of a Hindu mystic in terms drawn from the Christian tradition is to misidentify it. In each of these instances, the subject’s identifying experience has been reduced to something other than that experienced by the subject. This might properly be called reductionism. In any case, it precludes an accurate identification of the subject’s experience.

Explanatory reduction consists in offering an explanation of an experience in terms that are not those of the subject and that might not meet with his approval. This is perfectly justifiable and is, in fact, normal procedure. The explanandum is set in a new context, whether that be one of covering laws and initial conditions, narrative structure, or some other explanatory model. The terms of the explanation need not be familiar or acceptable to the subject. Historians offer explanations of past events by employing such concepts as socialization, ideology, means of production, and feudal economy. Seldom can these concepts properly be ascribed to the people whose behavior is the object of the historian’s study. But that poses no problem. The explanation stands or falls according to how well it can account for all the available evidence.

(Proudfoot, 196f. bolded emphasis mine)

Thus McGrath’s suggestion that Paul’s claim to have received by revelation his gospel of Jesus is implausible confuses acceptance of Paul’s claim with belief in Paul’s own beliefs about his claim. Historians can and should explain Paul’s words without themselves personally believing Paul’s interpretations. It is absurd to suggest that they should reject Paul’s words because they themselves don’t believe his account.

So we can correct #4 to say that “if Paul did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe his visions were genuinely from another realm; historians would be quite content to accept that he claimed to have had a direct revelation by whatever means.”

McGrath Does Make a Serious Point

It is too easy to dismiss everything McGrath writes after we read the above lapses where he fails to address the verse Vinny was discussing and confuses the historian’s choices of descriptive and explanatory interpretations. McGrath does, in fact, make a serious point in the next section of his post. Continue reading “Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation (Engaging with McGrath — 2)”


Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

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by Neil Godfrey

I’m travelling again so am pulling out the occasional post I’ve had in store for such times. If circumstances do not permit some of my planned posts I’ll post another one of these.

McGrath would appeal to the variables shaping “cultural memory” and theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scriptures; the mythicists would appeal to one less hypothesis . . .

It’s been a while since I addressed James McGrath’s critical responses to mythicism so I will try to make amends. Please, only courteous and civil responses will be acceptable in the comments. I bent over backwards to make the peace with James McGrath a few years ago and I would still like to keep that possibility open. I like to hope that he will respond to my posts in a reciprocal spirit.

About three months ago McGrath engaged in discussions on Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined blog and presented the following list to enable readers to get a grasp of his reasons for objecting to mythicism. He listed only the urls but I have added the titles, too.

I’ve been blogging and writing elsewhere about this [i.e. mythicism] for many years. Here are a few samples in case they are helpful.

1. “Minimalism, Mythicism and Modernism”

I will address each one in chronological order. So we start with

Here McGrath quotes a portion of an article (the second last sentence) by Ronald Hendel and claims its relevance not only for “minimalists/maximalists” but for “mythicists and other modernists”. Minimalists refers to scholars who question the historicity of “biblical Israel”, believing the archaeological evidence must always trump the literary, and that archaeologists working in Palestine have not found evidence for

  • an exodus of Israelites from Egypt;
  • an invasion of Canaan by Israelites from the wilderness;
  • for a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon;
  • parallel kingdoms of Israel and Judah existing side by side up until the Assyrian conquest of Samaria;
  • monotheistic worship of Yahweh until after the Persians established the colony of Jehud.

Maximalists, on the other hand, are generally said to trust the Biblical narratives unless they have good reasons to doubt them, and that there was some sort of Exodus behind the biblical story, a united kingdom under David, and some sort of historical reality behind the biblical account.

McGrath also refers to “modernists” but I will leave aside that side of his criticism because I am not sure what the term covers or how it is relevant to “mythicism”. (Hendel refers without elaboration to a dichotomy of “post modernists / modernists” in the last sentence.) McGrath introduces Hendel’s words with:

The idea that we are either going to precisely reconstruct the past, or conversely decisively disprove traditional views about it, without room for doubt or error, reflect the approach of a bygone era.

A very bygone era, indeed. I don’t know when modern historical studies have ever claimed to be able to establish “precise reconstructions …. without room for doubt or error”. Even our “father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke, said that the most he hoped to be able to “reconstruct” was how a time and event “essentially was” — not how it was precisely and infallibly in all respects. I would be interested to know the specific scholars McGrath has in mind.

At this point I question the relevance of this introduction for the minimalist/maximalist debate as much as for mythicists. I don’t think either maximalist Albright or minimalist Thompson would claim to offer readers a precise reconstruction of the past without room for doubt or error. Nor do I know of any mythicist who seriously engages with the academic works of biblical scholars (e.g. Brodie, Doherty, the early Wells, Price, Carrier . . . ) who makes dogmatic claims about precise reconstructions of the past. All, from my reading at least, appeal to the weight of probabilities. I am open to correction, of course, but preferably from James McGrath’s own reading of mythicists.

I will leap to the conclusion of McGrath’s post because it is there that he targets mythicism directly: Continue reading “Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1”