Tag Archives: James McGrath

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 »

Woops …. with gaffes like these. . . . (will anyone dare to discreetly tell the professor that David was right all along?)

Most readers with an interest in the mythicism debate are well aware that Paul never uses the term for “disciples” in any of his letters but only ever speaks of “apostles” — e.g. 1 Cor 9:1-5; 12:27, 29; 15:7, 9; 2 Cor 11:5; 12:11f; Gal 1.17, 19.

So what are we to make of the following exchange in the Ehrman/Price Post-Debate Show @ 22 min 30 sec . . . ?

David Fitzgerald: [Paul] never even uses the word disciple in any context ever in any of his [writing]. He never implies that Jesus had twelve of them. He never identifies the twelve. . . . .
James McGrath: Are you thinking of apostle? Are you thinking of apostle?
David Fitzgerald: He talks about apostles but when he describes what an apostle is it has nothing to do with being a disciple of Jesus who followed him around. . . .
Moderator: [Attempts to intervene and redirect the discussion]
James McGrath: It’s characteristic that mythicists don’t know the terminology that’s used in these sources. You have a superficial familiarity with it and then they’re confused by it and think that proves something. I think this actually illustrates an important point.
David Fitzgerald: I don’t know why you’re here James, to be honest with you, because what else are you going to say besides shitting on mythicism?
Daniel Gullotta: Because he’s an expert in [the New] Testament?
James McGrath:
(shouting!)
I’m going to point out you don’t know what the sources say. You don’t know the terminology. When a student in my class says the Bible is important and they talk about the Book of Revelations with an s at the end, I’m like, they haven’t even looked at the title carefully. I know there’s a [certain] familiarity; they’re paying lip service to the text. They don’t actually know it.
David Fitzgerald: I’m not going to get into a pissing match about . . .
James McGrath: No, this is not a pissing match. I’m talking about the evidence. I want you to talk about the evidence!

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Shooting Blanks at Mythicism – & Why That’s the Necessary Point

Jonathan Bernier noted in a recent post “the special pleading involved in rejecting a consensus position adopted by virtually every New Testament scholar (that Jesus existed) while accepting without reflection a consensus position [on the dates of the gospels] adopted by most but hardly all such scholars. If we are all mistaken on something so fundamental to the discipline, then how can it be assumed without investigation that the majority of us are correct on anything else?”  — James McGrath, The Myth of Mythicism and Undebunkable Skepticism (Sept 30 2016) — James McGrath’s title for his post seems to indicate that he thinks all the fuss about the arguments for the Christ Myth theory today are a hoax and there is no such phenomenon on the web or anywhere, but I don’t think that’s what he meant to convey.

My head is spinning. Didn’t Maurice Casey in his polemic accuse mythicists of rejecting the consensus position of scholars on the dates of the gospels?

ludicrously late dates for the Gospels are central to the assumptions of mythicists . . . (p. 45)

mythicists try to date the Gospels as late as possible, one of the reasons they use is the date of surviving manuscripts. (p. 49)

mythicists try to date the Gospels as late as possible, and one of the reasons they use is the date of surviving manuscripts. (p. 66)

I have already pointed out that the dates proposed for the Gospels by mythicists are seriously awry. (p. 80)

the hopelessly late dates proposed by mythicists. (p. 81)

Apart from the extraordinarily late dates proposed by mythicists . . . (p. 93)

The very late dates for the canonical Gospels proposed by mythicists should be uniformly rejected. (p. 107)

Two major mistakes underlie all the mythicists’ arguments. One is the date of the synoptic Gospels, which they all date much too late, as we saw . . . (p. 133)

Building on their ludicrously late date of the synoptic Gospels . . . (p. 134)

So how can Jonathan Bernier accuse them of mindlessly accepting the consensus position on gospel dates?

There is a very deliberate reason that Bernier does not familiarize himself with the arguments and why McGrath likewise side-steps them. It is not a simple misunderstanding. Nor is it a question of partial information that can be rectified. But first let’s be clear about the gulf between Bernier’s cum McGrath’s attacks on mythicism and reality. read more »

“In Most Worlds, You Don’t Even Exist” — Miracles and Probability

Jesus Walking on Water
Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

Recently, while watching our favorite apoplectic antimythicist discuss “The Case of the Historical Jesus,” something the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature said caught my ear. Here’s what he said:

Historians tend to discount miracle claims and those kinds of things right off the bat, because even if they were to investigate them, the things that people call miracles tend to be things that are inherently improbable . . . But talking about things like walking on water, turning water into wine — most historians won’t even bother discussing those things, because the most a historian ever does is say something is probable. And a historian is never going to tell you that something inherently improbable is probable. And so those kinds of things can be set aside from the outset. (James McGrath, 2016)

Actually, two things drew my attention here. The first is the term inherently improbable, and the second is the claim that historians set aside miracle claims.

Inherently improbable

If you search among books, articles, and academic papers, you’ll find the term inherently improbable used quite frequently in the sciences, liberal arts, religious studies, and the law. But in philosophy (especially logic), you’ll also find people writing about it with some ambivalence.

What exactly do we mean by inherent probability? In his book, Acceptable Premises: An Epistemic Approach to an Informal Logic Problem, James Freeman cites John Nolt’s definition. read more »

Questions for Professor McGrath re Those Proofs

I trust I have set out Professor McGrath’s proofs for the historical existence of Jesus fairly and accurately in my previous post. Since the Professor has declined to engage in discussion with me I wonder if any interested readers would like to raise the following questions with him and alert us here of his responses.

Paul says Jesus was of the seed of David according to the flesh — thus indicating he believed him to be historical. Here Paul is talking specifically about “the Davidic anointed one” and referring to a “kingly figure” and the “expectation that the kingship would be restored to the dynasty of David”. That expectation meant that the messiah would be made the king, not crucified. So crucifixion was almost automatic disqualification from being the Davidic messiah.

“So if you’re inventing a religion from scratch and trying to convince Jews that this figure is the Davidical anointed one, then you don’t invent that he was crucified.”

If Jesus was crucified then is it not equally unlikely that the early disciples would have come to interpret him as having been the Davidic Messiah? Yet they obviously did interpret Jesus this way despite his crucifixion. So how can we explain a historical crucified man being interpreted as having been the Davidic Messiah? Is not your argument invalidated by the very fact that the early Christians chose to interpret a crucified one as the Davidic Messiah? read more »