Hoffmann’s Ersatz Response to Mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

The opening publication of R. Joseph Hoffmann, the leader of “The Jesus Process: A Consultation on the Historical Jesus”, is a curious puzzle of blended words and concepts that have the power to overwhelm his choir with the sense that they are listening to a view so original, unique and erudite that they are bound to think:

Now here is our prophet! I do not understand what he is saying but it is clearly incomprehensibly deep. I must bookmark this and tackle it again another day when I will not feel so intellectually incompetent if I do not understand his every word. Till then, I will highly praise and recommend it to others . . . .

Unless I have misunderstood Hoffmann’s publication (he speaks of his blog post as an “essay” “now published!” along with much terminological pretentiousness such as “Process”, “Consultation”, copyright insignia) he almost entirely avoids the question of whether or not Christianity began with an historical Jesus. That appears not to be his intention at all. For Hoffmann, the historicity of Jesus is a given. Hoffmann describes his essay

as a preface of sorts to a more ambitious project on the myth theory itself and what we can reliably know – if anything — about the historical Jesus.

The question of what we can know about the historical Jesus has been the starting point of all hitherto quests we have seen for the historical Jesus. Necessarily it begins with the assumption that there is indeed an historical Jesus to know about.

Hoffmann sums up the myth theory itself as

largely incoherent, insufficiently scrupulous of historical detail, and based on improbable bead-string analogies . . . . [guilty of] methodological sloppiness with respect to the sources and their religious contexts . . . . [and] almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the “silence” of Paul.

One has to wonder why any such theory is deserving of any scholarly attention at all or how Hoffmann himself can ever justify his own history of support for the mythicist team.

If the fear is that a misguided public are ignorantly being persuaded by arguments so inept, then why not present a simple and direct point by point exposure of the sham? Hoffmann would respond to this question by declaring that such point by point exposures have been published since 1912 —

  • S. J. Case, The Historicity of Jesus (Chicago, 1912)
  • F. C. Conybeare, The Historical Christ (London, 1914)
  • Maurice Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene, Myth or History (London 1928; rpt. Amherst, 2008)
  • R. T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (London, 1986)
  • Morton Smith, “The Historical Jesus,” in Jesus in History and Myth, ed. R.J. Hoffman and G.A Larue (Amherst, 1986)

Yet bizarrely the same R. Joseph Hoffmann who writes in his Jesus Process essay that Goguel’s arguments are a “clear refutation” of mythicism, and who in the Introduction in a reprint of Goguel’s book wrote that

Goguel poses real challenges to the theory that Jesus never existed (p. 35)

also wrote on this blog two years ago that Goguel’s arguments were “weak and dated“, that the reprint of his book had “historical interest” but was otherwise “pretty insignificant“, that to demolish his arguments, as Doherty has done, is nothing worth mentioning, and that the myth theory is kept at arms length from academia for reasons other than its intrinsic merits: Continue reading “Hoffmann’s Ersatz Response to Mythicism”


“Jesus Not A Myth”: A. D. Howell Smith’s Prefatory Note

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by Neil Godfrey

Some who have been following the recent posts of selections from Jesus Not A Myth might find the following prefatory note by its author, A. D. Howell Smith, of interest.

Who is this guy and where is he coming from? The preface also offers glimpses of the range of mythicist authors of his day, and the types of refutations that were being published in English then (1899-1942).

Within perhaps the last twenty years the denial that Jesus ever existed has been changed from a paradox to almost a platitude for an increasing number of Rationalists, and occasionally a Christian of strong modernist leanings shows himself more or less sympathetic to it. Continue reading ““Jesus Not A Myth”: A. D. Howell Smith’s Prefatory Note”


Goguel’s critique of the Christ Myth. Hoffmann’s response. And Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

I discuss here Goguel’s critique of the Christ Myth as seen through the eyes of two biblical scholars, mainly R. Joseph Hoffmann, and very briefly Christopher Price. I conclude with my own understanding of the reason (bias) underlying Hoffmann’s perspective of Goguel in his anti-mythicist arguments, and an alternative perspective from Earl Doherty.

Hoffmann compares this book by Goguel with the one discussed in the preceding post by Case:

Whatever its argumentative shortcomings, this section of Goguel’s work [attempting to show that the theology in Paul’s letters and in the apocalypses presupposes the gospel tradition] is especially important in setting out the assumptions and terms of the debate between the myth theorists and defenders of historicity. Goguel is by far superior to other defenders* of historicity because he is willing to acknowledge the serious aporiai of locating fugitive biographical details in a swirl of theological and mythological embellishment. He does not deny, for example, the missionary purpose of the gospel writers. He does not suggest that the reporting of “objective” fact (“natural supernaturalism”) is a part of any evangelist’s agenda. . . . (p. 32-3)


Weaknesses of traditional anti-mythicist arguments

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

jesusthenazareneThis post addresses R. Joseph Hoffmann’s discussion of Maurice Goguel’s 1926 defence of the historicity of Jesus in response to the early mythicist arguments, initially launched by Bruno Bauer in 1939, and developed in particular by Reinach, Drews and Couchoud. Hoffmann divides Goguel’s defence (Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?) into the following six sections. I have attempted to epitomize Hoffmann’s responses to each of the core arguments of Goguel for historicity. I have clearly indicated where I have departed from my understanding of Hoffmann’s own words and introduced my own comments.

When I started this post I half expected it to become a response to historicist arguments in general, hence I sometimes speak of “some Jesus historicists” where Hoffmann is specifically addressing Goguel himself.

1. The notices of opponents

Goguel suggests that Christianity was recognized by outsiders at least from the time of Tacitus (55-120) and none of its opponents doubted the existence of Jesus.

Hoffmann responds:

Tacitus, even if his report (Annals 15.44) is authentic, is reporting on the teaching of the cult and not on historical records he is attempting to verify.

None of the pagan critics of Christianity cast doubt on the historicity of Jesus “for the simple reason that after the second century –the first age of Christian apologetics — the story was regarded as a canonical record of the life and teachings of an authentic individual, thus to be refuted on the basis of its content rather than the details of its historical veracity.”

The earliest official report referring to Christianity, the letter of governor Pliny to Emperor Trajan (111 ce), “knows nothing of a historical Jesus, only a cult that worships a certain Christ as a god (quasi deo).

Other critics such as Celsus, Porphyry and Julian found the idea of the historicity of Jesus a point in favour of their attacks on Christianity. They could mock the insignificance (not the nonexistence) of the Christian founder.

The inconspicuousness of Nazareth also lends credence to the myth theory. Was Jesus “the Nsr/Nazorean/Nazarene/Nazaraios” (my own variations of the word mixed with Hoffmann’s here) originally a divine name, as in Joshua the protector or saviour? Compare Zeus Xenios, Hermes Psychopompos, Helios Mithras, Yahweh Sabaoth. The evangelists appear to struggle with placing the name as a geographical locality in their gospels. Opponents were happy to associate Jesus with an insignificant town, but Hoffmann’s point is that the confusion over this epithet is embedded in the earliest debates over whether it was a local or a divine title.

2. The Docetic heresies

The various docetic views held that Jesus was not truly flesh, but a spirit, perhaps only appearing as a flesh and blood human. Some Jesus historicists have argued that when orthodox Christianity combatted these views, they were indeed affirming the historical reality of Jesus.

But this misses the point of what the debate was about. The issue was not whether Jesus had lived in the time of Pilate, but about the “materiality” of Jesus — was he manifest as real flesh and blood or only an apparition.

The existence of such docetic views among a range of Christian groups may well have been vestiges of some “pre-Christian” Jesus myth. But those arguing for the historicity of Jesus have focussed only on the orthodox response to docetic views, without really addressing the full complexity of its implications.

Is is not a myth the church was refuting in attacking Docetism; it was the belief that Jesus was of a different order of reality than the dichotomous reality it attributed to him as both god and man. Church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian will accuse the Gnostics of believing in a phantasm, an apparition, a ghost, a spirit, in order to malign their opponents’ denial of the physical Jesus, but at no point do they accuse their enemies of creating a deception or myth. (pp. 26-27)

3. Paul and the Gospel

Opponents of the mythical Jesus idea have claimed mythicists make far too much of Paul’s silence on the details of the earthly career of Jesus. Continue reading “Weaknesses of traditional anti-mythicist arguments”