Tag Archives: James McGrath

Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists

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

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

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

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

(my formatting and highlighting)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–o0o–

Back to the specifics of referencing sources. read more »

Questions for James McGrath: Seeking Understanding

Professor James McGrath of Butler University recently posted on his blog a tantalising article, The Gospel of the Gaps (and the Gaps of the Gospels). I describe it as tantalising because it seemed to promise so much but left readers without answers to the questions it raised.

The post began:

One of the things that mythicists regularly mention is the (in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest copies of texts that mention them.

Yes, that is true. But it is also true that the very same question is raised by many more mainstream biblical scholars. And they suggest different hypotheses to explain that “(in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest . . . texts that mention them.” (I don’t know of any mythicist — and I am sure McGrath knows of none — who argues a case that Jesus did not exist because we have a large gap between purported events and the earliest manuscript copies describing those events. It’s a big world and there are probably some who do argue that but I don’t think they are any more widely accepted than someone who argues for the non-existence of Priam, Agamemnon, Achilles etc on the bases that our earliest manuscripts of Homer are many centuries subsequent to their time.)

But back to the point. Mythicists like Earl Doherty and Thomas Brodie and others do indeed “regularly mention” the gap between events described in the gospels and the apparent fact that the gospels were not written until a generation or two after those events — but they do so by addressing the problem as raised by mainstream biblical scholars. McGrath has read Doherty’s book so only needs to consult its index and bibliography to refresh his memory.

But McGrath’s point is bigger. All of the above is only pointing out the tendentious nature of McGrath’s approach to the question.

The next question is most interesting and one I hoped to see answered:

They clearly have no sense of what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally.

Now that reminds me of a time some years back when I grappled with “How do we know certain persons/events existed/happened” in ancient times? I had studied ancient history for three years as an undergraduate and knew how we knew what we did about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, for example. Books and lectures would usually begin by setting out and explaining the sources our studies were to rely upon. With the presentation of those sources there was no question, “Did Julius Caesar exist?” We could all see the evidence and the question never arose.

So what is different about the gospels as sources for Jesus?

When McGrath raised the question of “what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally” I was looking forward to at least a summary to explain what that typical thing is. But it never appeared. I suspect the reader is meant to assume that all ancient sources are written long after the events they describe and, well, if we believe them, then we should believe the gospels, too.

But if that was what the reader was meant to assume then the message is a misinformed one.

So here are questions I would like someone to present to Professor McGrath to offer him a chance to encourage serious dialogue. Perhaps his responses could be copied here in the comments.

  • Question 1: What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which our known sources are entirely very late (by a full generation of forty years or more)? By sources, I include here the sources mentioned by the later authors: thus, for example, we have, say, a very late history of Alexander the Great but the author of that source explains how he acquired his information and that it comes from such and such a biographer who lived at the time of Alexander. (The gospels have nothing comparable: Luke’s prologue is as vague and ambiguous as ancient historian prologues are specific and clear.)
  • Question 2: And this is a slightly extended form of the above question. What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which we have no independent evidence to help verify our written sources? By independent supporting evidence, I include here not only archaeological evidence but also other writings that are independent yet testifying to the same event/person.

There are many other questions I could ask but those are the key ones. I have discussed the above points — and many other related questions — about historical methods, in particular the methods of ancient historians and about the writings of ancient historians themselves in many posts. I have also raised the above questions before, but years ago, directly with McGrath. (Just click on the tags related to this post for scores of such posts.)

Maybe add one more question here:

  • Question 3: What are the different explanations biblical scholars have advanced in scholarly works for the gap of 40 to 80 years between the canonical gospels and the time setting of the events they narrate — and in what area of ancient history are there comparable gaps (bearing in mind the relevance of Q’s 1 and 2 above) for which classicists and historians of ancient times propose similar explanatory hypotheses? Or are the canonical gospels in some ways unique and not comparable to the methods normally accepted in the field of ancient history?

Now I certainly admit that some answers may be new to me and I may be forced to revise or at least modify my past conclusions. But I need clear examples to demonstrate the comparability between the generally accepted methods of historians of ancient times and those of biblical scholars. Looking forward to new knowledge and understanding.

Trumpian Style Response to Mythicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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.

Religion Prof Watch (Quote Mining a Review on Nazareth)

The following appeared on Religion Prof’s blog today:

I discovered that [Polish scholar Anna] Oracz has written a review of Rene Salm’s denialist take on the village of Nazareth. Her conclusion is summed up well in this sentence: “anybody seeking an honest evaluation of the evidence in “The Myth of Nazareth” will be disappointed.”

I’ve read The Myth of Nazareth and was surprised that anyone would find reasons to conclude it was a dishonest treatment of the archaeological evidence as published in the scholarly literature. It turns out that the bulk of Oracz’s criticism is over René Salm’s daring to criticize the influence of Catholic Church in influencing the interpretations and (frequently poorly supported) claims of archaeologists with obvious Christian sympathies. As for being disappointed, I was disappointed that the review simply skipped over the bulk and substance of Salm’s book and made no comment about any of the evidence it cited to demonstrate its case as well as the flaws in many claims of archaeologists funded by churches and the tourism industry of Israel. The closest Oracz appeared to come to a specific criticism to refer to the chapter titles (none of their content) and to a comment he made on one archaeologist’s grammatical slip:

In discrediting the Christian point of view Salm is resorts to different means. For instance, the author points out a grammatical mistake in Bagatti’s work. After quoting a passage from the Christian archaeologist, he writes:

We note, first of all, the incorrect English grammar. The subject is plural and the two examples are given, but the verb is singular (p. 113).

A more informative comment would have cited Salm’s more critical analysis when he wrote those words:

“Indeed, Bagatti corrects Richmond’s error, but he still mentions the word “Hellenistic” upwards of a dozen times in his Excavations — rarely, however, in connection with identifiable evidence. A careful review of his tome shows that there are astoundingly few artefacts involved:

The only pieces which seem to indicate the Hellenistic period is [sic] the nozzle No. 26 of Fig. 233, and 2 of Fig. 235, a bit short for the ordinary lamps, but not completely unusual.  (pp. 309–10.)

This is a second surprise. We note, first of all, the incorrect English grammar. The subject is plural and two examples are given, but the verb is singular. It is of no moment whether the faulty grammar is due to the author or to the translator, for — since Bagatti nowhere claims Hellenistic structural remains — we here have the remarkable admission that the entire Hellenistic period at Nazareth is represented by only two pieces: an oil lamp nozzle, and number “2 of Fig. 235.” In contradiction to the above statement, a careful review in fact shows that Bagatti alleges other Hellenistic shards in his Excavations.[234] He has evidently ignored these latter instances in his above summation which concludes his book. Certainly, two pieces are precious little upon which to base the existence of a village. Apparently, however, they constituted the sum total of pre-Christian evidence at Nazareth as of 1967, the publication date of Excavations (Italian edition). Such staggering importance is therefore placed on “the only pieces” from Nazareth witnessing to Hellenistic times, that they merit the most careful scrutiny.”

Only in the second last sentence does the reader get a hint of what has been missed in the review:

Nevertheless, in my opinion this book is interesting because its points out the problems which could arise with the interpretation of the archaeological data from the hometown of Jesus.

If we read only McGrath’s comment we would be left with the impression that Salm is some sort of dishonest denialist.

I think a more appropriate word in place of “honest”, given the content of Oracz’s review, would have been “disinterested”. I am not aware that anyone has been able to substantiate any charges of “dishonesty” in Salm’s study.

But anybody seeking an honest [disinterested] evaluation of the evidence in “The Myth of Nazareth” will be disappointed.

Salm certainly approaches his survey of the archaeological publications with a clear interest to be alert to where orthodox biases have led to misleading, sometimes incorrect, claims about the evidence for a village of Nazareth in the Second Temple era.

(Oh, and Oracz even cites Vridar to support her claim that Salm’s book “provoked a lively discussion”. Someone notices us here!)

One more point

One interesting detail in McGrath’s post — he writes of “mythicists”:

All of them have an anti-religious bent, whether it be Communist or modern online atheist opposition to religion in general . . .

Now that is simply not true. Thomas Brodie? Timothy Freke? Peter Gandy? Herman Detering? Paul-Louis Couchoud? Arthur Drews? Tom Harpur? Robert M. Price? Edward van der Kaaij? Francesco Carotta? Even René Salm . . . .  from what I see they have all sought to promote what they consider to be a higher form of spirituality or religiosity than anything that relies upon literalist dogmatism.

(Not that I think there is necessarily anything wrong with an anti-religion bias — so long as one expresses it honestly, with understanding, tolerance, and with the best information one can acquire. You know, like, with the mindset that says “there but for the grace of buddha, krishna, allah, yahweh and elvis go I”)


McGrath, James. 2019. “Mythicism and Diametrically Opposed Ideological Propaganda.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). July 3, 2019. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/07/mythicism-and-diametrically-opposed-ideological-propaganda.html.

Oracz, Anna. 2015. Review of R. Salm, The Myth of Nazaret. The Invented Town of Jesus (Review), by Rene Salm. The Polish Journal of Biblical Research 14: 211–14.


 

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

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. read more »

Analysis of the McGrath and Carrier debate on a Bayesian approach to history

The latest contest started when James McGrath made a mockery of his understanding of Carrier’s mehod: Jesus Mythicism: Two Truths and a Lie

I have run the to and fro posts through a Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) analysis. Here are the interesting results:

VARIABLE MCGRATH 1
Two Truths
(449 words)
CARRIER
Wrong Again
(2485 words)
MCGRATH 2
Mythicist Math
(680 words)
Analytic thinking:
(the degree to which people use words that suggest formal, logical, and hierarchical thinking patterns)
82.22% 32.85% 55.17%
Authenticity:
(when people reveal themselves in an authentic or honest way)
49.57% 34.39% 39.55%
Clout:
(the relative social status, confidence, or leadership that people display through their writing)
38.59% 47.75% 48.82%
Tone:
(the higher the number, the more positive the tone)
92.86% 16.55% 13.75%
Anger: 0.22% 0.56% 0.88%

.

Tone

Unfortunately when one reads McGrath’s Two Truths post one soon sees that his very positive tone (over 92% positive) is in fact an indication of overconfidence with the straw-man take-down.

But but but….. Please, Richard, please, please, please! Don’t fall into McGrath’s trap. Sure he sets up a straw man and says all sorts of fallacious things but he also surely loves it when he riles you. It puts him on the moral high ground (at least with respect to appearances, and in the real world, despite all our wishes it were otherwise, appearances do seriously count).

But see how McGrath then followed with a lower tone — and that’s how it so easily can go in any debate on mythicism with a scholar who has more than an academic interest in the question.

Anger

Ditto for anger.

This variable was measured by the following words:

MCGRATH1 CARRIER MCGRATH2
lying destroyed
argued
argument
liar
arguments
argues
lied
lies
damned
insults
criticized
argument

Clearly a more thorough and serious analysis would need to sort words like “argument” between their hostile and academic uses.

Analytic thinking style

James McGrath began the discussion in a style that conveyed a serious analytical analysis of Carrier’s argument. Of course anyone who has read Carrier’s works knows McGrath’s target was a straw man and not the actual argument Carrier makes at all. (Interestingly when Carrier pointed out that it appeared McGrath had not read his actual arguments McGrath at best made inferences that he had read Carrier’s books but fell short of saying that he had actually read them or any of the pages where Carrier in fact argued the very opposite of what McGrath believed he had.) Nonetheless, McGrath’s opening gambit conveyed a positive approach for anyone unfamiliar with Carrier’s arguments.

But look what happened to McGrath’s analytical style after meeting Carrier’s less analytical style: he followed Carrier’s lead.

Carrier has chosen to write in natural language style which is fine for informal conversation but the first impression of an outsider unfamiliar with Carrier’s arguments would probably be that McGrath was the more serious analyst of the question. (I understand why Carrier writes this way but an overly casual style, I suspect, would appeal more to the friendly converted (who are happy to listen rather than actively share the reasoning process) than an outsider being introduced to the ideas.

In actual fact, Carrier uses far more words that do indeed point to analytic thinking than does McGrath. Carrier uses cognitive process words significantly more frequently than does McGrath (24% to 16%/19%). But his sentences are far less complex and shorter.

Other

There are many other little datasets that a full LIWC analysis reveals. One is a comparative use of the personal singular pronoun. A frequent use of “I” can indicate a self-awareness as one speaks and this can sometimes be a measure of some lack of confidence. Certainly the avoidance of “I” is often a measure of the opposite, of strong confidence and serious engagement in the task at hand. Carrier’s use of I is significantly less than McGrath’s.

Another progression one sees is the use of “he”. As the debate progressed it became increasingly focused on what “he” said: e.g. McGrath1: 0.45%; Carrier 1.65%; McGrath2 2.06%.

McGrath sometimes complains about the length of Carrier’s posts. But more words are linked to cognitive complexity and honesty.

—o—

Of course I could not resist comparing my own side-line contribution:

VARIABLE NEIL
Reply
(1077 words)
Analytic thinking:
(the degree to which people use words that suggest formal, logical, and hierarchical thinking patterns)
86.42%
Authenticity:
(when people reveal themselves in an authentic or honest way)
44.36%
Clout:
(the relative social status, confidence, or leadership that people display through their writing)
56.27%
Tone:
(the higher the number, the more positive the tone)
32.13%
Anger:
(measured by my use of “criticism”, “argument” and “critical”)
0.93%

.


Pennebaker, James W. 2013. The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Reprint edition. New York: Bloomsbury Press.


Clarification needed for my reply to McGrath’s criticism of the use of Bayesian reasoning

McGrath does not tell his readers in the post we are addressing what he has in mind as the “clear-cut” evidence for the historicity of Jesus but from previous posts and comments I am convinced that it is the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19 that he has in mind. If I am wrong then someone will no doubt inform me.

I ought to have made that point clearer in my original post.

If someone can direct me to where McGrath recently made the point about that Galatians passage (was it in response to the reddit discussion about Vridar?) I would much appreciate it.

 

 

Is this statement about historicity within the Gospel of Mark true?

The same can be said of the alleged first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark. The aim was presumably to “prove” that the Gospel is reliable. That’s even more ironic, because no one seriously doubts that the Gospel of Mark was written in the first century, and whether it was or not is independent of questions about the historicity of information in it.

James McGrath, Rumors of First-Century Mark and the Resurrection, on the Religion Prof blog.

Even if the Gospel of Mark were composed in the second century (which “no one seriously” believes) that late date would have no relevance to the historicity of its contents? How can that be?

 

James McGrath and I Finally Agree on Mythicism

A week ago James McGrath posted Earl Doherty as Christian Reformer in which he expressed a point I have been making for some years now and especially since Thomas Brodie “came out” as not believing that there was a historical Jesus. Approvingly citing Matthew Green, McGrath writes

if mythicism did turn out to be true, all that would likely happen would be a shift to focusing on learning what the celestial Jesus rather than the historical one taught. Indeed, for many Christians Jesus is a celestial figure who still speaks to them in the present day. For atheists to try to use mythicism as though it were an argument against Christianity makes no sense.

Exactly! And the point has been most clearly demonstrated by Thomas Brodie who has continued to be a Christian believer. See posts #22, 23 and 24 linked in Vridar’s Brodie Files for Brodie’s explanation of why he believes the Christ Myth theory is not incompatible with Christianity.

I have for some years even been quoting Albert Schweitzer who indicated a very similar possibility when he wrote that Christians needed to get away from their focus on the historical Jesus:

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

Schweitzer was not a Jesus mythicist and that is all the more reason Christians ought to seriously think about what he said here (from pages 401f in The Quest of the Historical Jesus).

Atheophobia?

Part of the problem in some circles seems to be a fear or ignorance of atheists and atheism. There seems to be an assumption among some believers that atheists are programmed to seek to attack and destroy Christianity.

McGrath is by no means the only one to dismiss “mythicists” because they are atheists and therefore have a motive to find Jesus did not exist. The point is thought to be to undermine Christianity.

That is nonsense. No doubt some atheists somewhere do scoff at Christianity and claim they don’t believe Jesus existed anyway. But at least among the serious writings I have read arguing for a mythical origin of Jesus not a single one has expressed a hostile or subversive Christian agenda.

Indeed, atheist John Loftus (of Debunking Christianity) made the point I myself had also expressed: the worst possible way to undermine Christianity and turn people away from being believers is to try to say Jesus did not exist. See Is the Christ Myth a Threat to the Christian Faith? (If not, what is?)

But atheists also believe

I have posted about several Christ Myth advocates from past years who have even been very pro-Christian, expressing admiration for the faith, despite not being Christians themselves. Paul-Louis Couchoud was one, if memory serves.

Today there are a number of mythicists who are also favourably disposed towards Christianity. Consult the Who’s Who table for details.

I can see no reason why an atheist would “want” to believe Jesus did not exist. The Jesus atheists believe existed was just another Jewish prophet or miracle worker or whatever. The only reason I could imagine an atheist might want to believe that there was no Jess is if he or she thought Jesus really was god, too. But that makes no sense!

So I am very mystified to learn that another atheist would write the following in her review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus:

What did surprise me was Carrier’s claims to indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and his professed lack of vested interest in the matter, which in my opinion rests somewhat uneasily with his confessed atheism . . . . 

Yet I am assured today that the reviewer, Christina Petterson, is indeed an atheist. That makes no sense to me, either.

 

Another summary of discussions with McGrath and Hurtado

Nicholas Covington of Hume’s Apprentice has collated lowlights of his discussions about Jesus mythicism with James McGrath and Larry Hurtado. He includes references to posts on the same topic by Jonathan Bernier, too.

Nicholas identifies the same circularities of argument and the same logical fallacies that characterize their points as I have also found in the past.

His conclusion:

It’s funny how anti-mythicists nowadays spend more of their time wading into personal attacks on mythicists, extensive psychological speculations about why they hold the beliefs they do, non-stop reminders that all the “real scholars” believe it, but ancient evidence and its interpretation is practically an afterthought. Moreover, this whole accusation is largely false, I personally do not use this as an argument against Christianity: I have debated the resurrection without suggesting Jesus was mythical and written a chapter in my book Atheism and Naturalism refuting common apologetical arguments without once mentioning the Christ myth theory except to make clear that my arguments did not assume it was true. neither do any of the more prominent scholarly mythicists. Thomas Brodie sure doesn’t, neither does Robert M. Price (“There could be a god but no Jesus or a Jesus but no God” and sees his own views on the mythological origins of Christianity as a “working hypothesis” or a “speculation,” with the qualification that “it’s all speculation,” in other words: he’s saying his thesis is at worst no more speculative than anyone else’s). Carrier himself routinely assumes Jesus was a historical figure when debating Christian apologists.

 

Paul and Eschatalogical Morality

In a recent post (What a Bizarre Profession), Neil cited James McGrath over at The Pigeon Trough, discussing Paul’s admonition to the Romans not to resist the powers that be.

13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  (NASB)

English: The Apostle Paul
English: The Apostle Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naturally, McGrath mainly wished to take a few fizzling fusillades at mythicists, and that’s no surprise. What did surprise me was the number of respected scholars who actually take the scripture so seriously (if not literally), they feel obliged to tie themselves into rhetorical knots over whether and when to refuse to submit to governing authorities.

As Neil rightly said:

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

But even if he had written more clearly, and we fully understood the context of Romans 13, would we have any reason to consider Paul a trustworthy advocate for ethical behavior?

The question intrigues me, so I thought I’d compile a little list of reasons we might not want to trust Paul’s advice.

♦ Imminent Eschatology

Paul was clearly a believer in the imminent eschaton. He seems to have arrived at this belief by analyzing recent events, especially the resurrection, in light of scriptural reinterpretation. We might find his method somewhat odd, since he could have cited the teachings of his Christ instead. However, Paul either chose not to mention Jesus’ predictions concerning the coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the Temple, or else he was unaware of them. read more »

Biblical Scholar Watch #1

There are many excellent biblical scholars whose works are discussed here as often as opportunity arises. Check out the Categories list in the right column here to see the extent of our coverage.

But as with any profession there are some rogues who need to be exposed. A few hours ago on the Religion Prof blog appeared a post in effect leading the public to believe that mainstream biblical scholars have published far, far more on the topic of the historicity of Jesus than anyone who doubts Jesus’ historicity. Here is the screenshot:

The link is to the following page on Amazon:

Scrolling down one sees the number of pages is said to be 3300.

I have access to the electronic edition and can confirm that the number of pages is closer to 4000 than 3000.

But is it honest to claim that these four volumes under the title Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus address the question of the historicity of Jesus itself? After all, that is the clear message and point of the “religion prof’s” post. His message is that mainstream scholars have published far more on the topic that is addressed by, say, Richard Carrier.

But open up the pages of those four volumes and one soon discovers that this claim is misleading.

Of the over 3700 pages contained in these volumes there are exactly 29 pages that appear on first glance to be devoted to the question of whether Jesus existed or not. They are by Samuel Byrskog in a chapter titled “The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed?” — pages 2183 to 2211.

The four volumes are not about the question of Jesus’ historicity but in fact presume the existence of Jesus and from that starting point address scholarly questions relating to how we can learn what kind of person this Jesus was. Let me show a few more screen shots from the table of contents so you can get the idea:  read more »

Just How Dangerous Is Mythicism?

Demon
Demon

In hindsight, I think we were unnecessarily cruel to Mr. Griffin, our misfit freshman science teacher. Behind his back, we referred to him by his initials, R.A.G., and sang that old “Rag Mop” song. He was a bit of a goof, but to RAG’s credit, he chose an innovative science text intended to take the student on an “odyssey of discovery.”

That high school textbook focused on a mysterious crystalline substance called bluestone. Over the course of the semester, we would test hypotheses and run several experiments trying to identify this stuff. I think it was my friend, Doug Simpson, who very early on sneaked a peak at the instructor’s edition lying on RAG’s desk and who shouted out, “It’s copper sulfate!

RAG was furious.

MacGuffins

You could, of course, consider bluestone as a sort of MacGuffin. To be sure, we were learning basic chemistry; however, the main purpose of the text was to teach us the scientific method. At the beginning the book invited the student to consider the demon hypothesis, the notion that tiny invisible beings were causing our bluestone to react to exposure to heat, dilution in water, combination with other chemicals, etc. After each experiment we’d evaluate the results and alter our hypothesis. Eventually, we would develop a new, more scientific hypothesis — one that better predicted future experiments and more rationally explained our observations.

Our so-called demon hypothesis had some features in common with other early natural theories such as the chemical theory of phlogiston, which postulated an imaginary, immaterial substance released during combustion. But it had even more in common with prescientific theories that required supernatural intervention in the natural world to explain mundane phenomena. We could also draw similarities with the concept of the devil’s advocate, inasmuch as our placeholder hypothesis was obviously wrong and decidedly nonscientific (or even antiscientific).

Pigeons

To hear Dr. James McGrath tell it, no variation of the Jesus Myth hypothesis has merit. In fact, he consistently compares it to creationism. Actually, he always takes care to call it Young Earth Creationism, in deference to Old Earth Creationism and Guided Evolution, pseudo-scientific theories he finds perfectly acceptable.

Incidentally, here on Vridar we did not adequately mark the passage of The Exploding Cakemix, which McGrath has renamed “Religion Prof.” Of course, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Hereinafter, I shall refer to his blog by a moniker that will “retain that dear perfection,” namely The Pigeon Trough. read more »