Tag Archives: mythicism

Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #2

Thomas L. Thompson

The interview with Thomas L. Thompson on the Greek Mythicists site is not as long as I anticipated when I posted #1. (A weird technical issue made it look to me three times longer than it in fact was!) Here is the last question and answer. Thanks again to Minas Papageorgiou of Greek Mythicists for alerting me to this interview they (he?) conducted and for forwarding me an English text.

 – – o – –

8) What is the future of mythicism views inside the academic community, considering the publication of many related books and papers in previous times? Would you agree that mythicists could follow the steps of biblical minimalists?  

Minimalism is a movement in biblical studies which brings the study of biblical narrative closer to what is normal for historians. As far as I am aware, most mythicists also understand this, though I think they may be too quick to judge the single issue of whether he existed. The proper question is rather a largely literary question than an historical one. Until we have texts, which bear evidence of his historicity, we can not do much more with that issue. We can and must, however, ask what the texts mean—as well as ask what they mean if they are not historical (a minimalist question). My professor Kurt Galling from Tübingen was once asked how one could tell whether an Old Testament text was historical or literary. He answered: If Iron floats on water it isn’t! The reference is found in the Elijah Elisha stories, whose reiteration has dominated the gospels. One might also use the story of the bear who kills the 42 children and certainly Elijah’s flight out into outer space.

“Nothing in what [mythicists] write is authoritative or trustworthy”

Quite some years ago I sat listening to a sabbath sermon by a Worldwide Church of God minister in which he made some very misleading assertions about the history of U.S. foreign policy. I approached him afterwards to point out what I had learned in an undergraduate course on the history of the United States. The minister had been trained at one of “God’s colleges” and told me that “the authority for” the point in question was one particular author and title I can no longer remember. What shocked me was that he claimed to have the equivalent of a B.A. in history yet spoke of one book being “the authority” on a historical question. My own education had led me to think of historical studies as an enquiry into the sources to attempt to evaluate the various points of view expressed in the literature on historical questions. There was no such thing as “the authority”. Perhaps the minister viewed my education as inspired by Satan.

Since someone drew my attention to James McGrath’s following comment I have been thinking back on that experience:

[T]here is nothing in what they [Christ mythicists] write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy.

I can’t read McGrath’s mind so I don’t know what he means by “authoritative and trustworthy” studies. The most I can suggest is that he is setting mythicist works in contrast with mainstream scholarly works on the historical Jesus and in the process somehow implying that the bulk of mainstream scholarly historical Jesus books are in some sense “authoritative and trustworthy”.

What is an “authoritative and trustworthy” book of historical explanation?

To me, an authoritative work is a trustworthy work. Authority implies trust, confidence, in whatever it is that the authority proclaims. I am sure McGrath does not believe that any particular historical Jesus study is “authoritative” in the sense that it replaces the need for any other study.

If I were to point out what I consider to be trustworthy books on any subject here are the markers of trustworthiness that I would identify:

  1. the work never makes an assertion without providing evidence for that assertion;
  2. that evidence will be discussed in the context of other evidence;
  3. and a representative range of views or interpretations about that evidence will be shared with readers;
  4. and citations will be given to enable readers to follow up those different interpretations for themselves;
  5. especially, I will look for a fair presentation of opposing views to the one the author favours;
  6. and a fair and complete discussion of those opposing views — again with citations to enable readers to check details for themselves and make their own assessments;
  7. I will look for evidence of a wide knowledge of the field in which the discussion is taking place so that the author can demonstrate he or she is not approaching a question with some sort of limited tunnel vision.

That’s seven points. The perfect or authoritative number, yes? What else should be added to complete an explanation of what makes a work “trustworthy”?

Note that according to the above a work can be called trustworthy (some might even say “authoritative” in one sense of the word) but it would not be “the final answer or the ‘true’ opinion. It would be authoritative in the sense that it presents fairly and accurately the relevant evidence and enables readers to form their own judgments based on relatively complete information and understanding of the debates in the field; it will be a model of good scholarship.

It is possible, often likely, that one will find a scholarly work ‘trustworthy’ in the above sense yet still find room to disagree with its overall thesis. An alternative viewpoint and conclusion can be expressed through another ‘trustworthy’ work of scholarship, whether the author is a professional or amateur scholar.

Yes, there has been much poor work published by mythicists, but there has also been some exemplary scholarship, trustworthy and authoritative in the best sense as per above. In that sense, mythicist publications are no different from publications by those who write about “the historical Jesus”. There are some exemplary works in that field, too, as mythicists like Doherty, Price, Carrier have well noted. I would love to read an “authoritative and trustworthy” work that challenges certain mythicist views, so if anyone knows of one that meets the above understanding of what makes a work trustworthy do inform me.


This post is an extension of the earlier Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists


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 »

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.

The Tone of a Mythicist-Agnostic Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name of blog commenter

and number of words used

(quotations of the words of others are not included)

Analytic thinking

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

Authenticity
— when people reveal themselves in an authentic or honest way
Clout

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

Tone

— the higher the number, the more positive the tone

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

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

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

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

Some excerpts:

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

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

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

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

On Maurice Casey’s follow up diatribe:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you be the judge.

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

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

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

and concludes with

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

We shall see.

 

Definition of a Christ Mythicist

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

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

 

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

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 »

Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

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

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

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

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

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

1. “Minimalism, Mythicism and Modernism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will leap to the conclusion of McGrath’s post because it is there that he targets mythicism directly: read more »

Robert Price and Christopher Hansen Discussion

Thanks to the emailer who brought me up to date with what’s happening elsewhere on the web, in particular a youtube discussion between Robert M. Price and Christopher Hansen about Christian origins, or more specifically the question of Jesus’ historicity.

Some points I particularly liked:

References to works against and for the concept of dying and rising gods in the ancient world, with special focus on Weber’s explanation of an “ideal type” (addressed by Price, as many readers will know) — that’s a concept I have had lined up for a post here so with the prod from this discussion I must make that post soon. I have also often wanted to post on Jonathan Z. Smith’s books. (I don’t recall off-hand if I have yet done so on Trygge Mettinger’s Riddle of Resurrection.)

Another comment worth registering: nothing should be dismissed out of hand by anyone sincerely interested in scholarly inquiry. It is too easy to say Arthur Drews should be dismissed because so many books “debunking” his views have been published; what a scholar should do is always address an argument in his own terms, seriously, not dismissively.

Price cannot hold back from injecting his political views from time to time, but at least he does so with humour and we have to indulge him (hoo boy!). One has to sympathize with his agony when he points out the (one would think) obvious evidence that the pagan concepts of dying and rising gods preceded Christianity yet finding that some scholars seriously contemplate the possibility that Christianity was the influence that these religions copied in late(r) antiquity.

One little detail mentioned in passing by Price was a reference to a scholar (not Charles Guignebert) who said that a historical Jesus would not likely have been named Jesus. If anyone does hear that detail I would welcome a note in the comments on his name. I have posted Guignebert’s argument on the same point and would like to know how the two compare.

That moment was part of a discussion on whether or not we could call a figure a “historical Jesus” if he was so much at variance with our concept of Jesus. (That discussion reminds me of a colleague at the Singapore National Library Board who used to raise the question of the relationship of technology to copyright and identity by pointing out that Cindy Crawford has a beauty mark on her left cheek, but if we reverse her photo it will appear on her right cheek: deep philosophical question coming up — is that reversed image really that of Cindy Crawford given that CC’s mark is on her left, not right, cheek?

 

Another question that comes up in the discussion: what literature in the “pagan world” is comparable to the gospels insofar as it treats a historical character in mythical terms? An example of Augustus Caesar was given, also Vespasian. I think that that answer left something to be desired. The gospels can arguably be sourced from nonhistorical narratives and are clearly mythical (or some scholars would prefer to say “christological”) in their presentation of Jesus; accounts of Roman emperors are clearly derived from historical events and the mythical additions are generally noted as such, or with some reservation usually being expressed by the historian/biographer.

Christopher Hansen says he is a “historicist”, currently accepts that there was a historical Jesus who was a distinctive personality (how can one “do anything” with a very ordinary person?) who did claim to be god (I hope I have recalled that correctly). Similarly he thinks there was a historical Gilgamesh, and a Trojan War behind the Iliad. I can’t see those arguments, myself. Much good fiction (including ancient novellas) is placed in real settings and includes some introduction of historical persons. (I mean, there may have been a historical Jesus, Gilgamesh, Trojan War between Agamemnon and Priam, — but if so, we can never know.)

Anyway, those are some of the details that came to my mind reflecting back on the discussion.

One thing I appreciated was being alerted to some books I have not yet read and have now put on my wish list.

One piece of good news came up — Acharya S’s book The Christ Conspiracy is apparently being re-written (at her request) with Bob Price’s involvement to be a more scholarly presentation.

I am a little perplexed by Price’s leaning to the possibility that “the Romans” invented Christianity to somehow help pacify messianic Jews. I will have to read the book he mentioned (Creating Christ by Valiant and Fahy) with Brandon’s in mind to see what lies behind his thinking. I can understand Judeans elites “inventing” a form of “Judaism”  under the Persians since Thomas L. Thompson has pointed out that such religious innovations were a practice in those time to persuade people who had been resettled that they were there at a god’s bidding. But we have a very different sort of situation in the wake of the two Jewish wars against Rome. Something I need to read more about before further comment.

Price once again mentioned his personal friendship with Gregory Boyd, co-author of The Jesus Legend. Price has mentioned that relationship before and it pulled me up because some years ago I wrote a very judgmental review of Boyd’s (and Eddy’s) approach to the question of interpolation in 1 Thessalonians 2:16. Price’s comment reminded me that we are addressing our fellow human beings and it pays to treat them with respect and not get carried away with the quasi-anonymity or distance set up by the internet.

 

 

 

New French Mythicist Book

My routine was interrupted this week with the arrival of a new book in the mail, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. Nanine Charbonnel is an emeritus professor of philosophy who describes herself as a specialist in hermeneutics. The publisher of her new book has given prominence to the fact that it contains a preface by Thomas Römer.

I once posted on another French philosopher who contributed articles and books presenting a case that Jesus originated as a mythical figure, Paul Louis Couchoud, and would like to do the same for Nanine Charbonnel. Unfortunately, my high school and one year of undergraduate French is very rusty indeed and I rely heavily on machine translation as my first foray into what lies before me. Expect me to appeal to readers more fluent in French to help out from time to time.

I think I can post a machine translation (with minor corrections, added fluencies and clarifications from me) of Römer’s preface without infringing copyright. I have changed the formatting (paragraphing, highlighting) totally, though:

This book which will surprise and undoubtedly also disturb many readers could also have been entitled “The Invention of Jesus”. Its author, Nanine Charbonnel, professor of philosophy breaks a taboo that has existed for more than a century in academic research on Jesus of Nazareth, the origins of Christianity and the New Testament.

From the beginning of the so-called “historico-critical” exegesis arises the question of the “historical Jesus”. His virgin birth, his encounter with the devil at the beginning of his activity, his miracles, even his resurrection of the dead, are understood by the Rationalists as mythical reinterpretations of a human figure.

  • Thus, Ernest Renan, in his inaugural lecture at the College de France, spoke of “the man Jesus” who “reached the highest religious level that ever before man attained” was “deified” after his death (OEuvres Complètes, n, 329-330). In 1862 these words caused a scandal and provoked the temporary dismissal of Renan from his professorship at the College de France.
  • Renan’s statement is part of what is now called “the first quest” of the historical Jesus, which began in the eighteenth century with the posthumous publication of the texts of Hermann Samuel Reimarus by the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Reimarus highlighted the historical Jesus who never wanted to found a new religion, even the Church, but who was an eschatological preacher. His failure was transformed by his disciples who created the myth of his resurrection and ascension. A distinction was made between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith”, a distinction accepted until today by the totality of university researchers and historians.

At the beginning of the research on the historical Jesus, the question of the proofs of his existence (outside the New Testament texts) was nonetheless posed.

  • In the middle of the nineteenth century, Bruno Bauer argued that Christianity born in the second century was a sort of syncretism combining different religious ideas (Jewish, Greek, Roman). Jesus is not at the origin of this Christianity, but a literary fiction to give this “new religion” a founder.
  • At the beginning of the twentieth century the German philosopher Arthur Drews published a book The Christ Myth, in which he considered the figure of Jesus as the personification of an earlier Christic myth, showing that all the epithets of Jesus were borrowed from mythologies Jewish and Greek.

These theories remained marginal however and, despite the fact that in the 1st and 2nd centuries there are no texts outside the New Testament clearly attesting to the existence of a Jesus of Nazareth, the historicity of such a character is almost no longer questioned.

  • Thus Daniel Marguerat, eminent exegete of the New Testament, says: “the meaning of his deeds and actions, not his existence, is debated today” (p.13, in his Introduction to the edited volume Jesus de Nazareth. Nouvelles approches d’une énigme, Geneva, Labor and Fides, 1998).

According to Nanine Charbonnel, author of this book, this distinction between the historical Jesus and the reinterpretations of his life and death in the Gospels has been detrimental to research. Relying on a “rationalization” of evangelical texts, it has prevented the deep understanding of these texts by questioning them almost exclusively from this idea of ​​a historical core and thus seeking the historical basis of certain pericopes as well as indications of borrowing from Judaism or reinterpretations after the death of Jesus in others. Faced with the affirmation shared by believing scholars and agnostic intellectuals that Jesus is a historical figure of whom we know almost nothing historically, the author of this book proposes to read the New Testament texts from the idea that Jesus Christ would be a “paper figure”. The philosopher’s approach includes a severe critique of hermeneutics, and in particular the current called “hermeneutic phenomenology”.

This book proposes to read the Gospel tales as midrashim, reminding us rightly that it is impossible to read the New Testament texts without locating them in their relation to the Old Testament (in Hebrew and Greek). As a midrash, an exegesis and reinterpretation of earlier texts, evangelical tales set up a theology of fulfillment through narratives, drawing largely on the texts and themes of the Hebrew Bible. Nanine Charbonnel shows it in pedagogical tables indicating the different borrowing and rewriting that can be found behind the tales of the Gospels. She then details the function of the characters appearing in the Gospels, like the twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes of the new Israel, and Mary, the Jewish people who begets the Messiah. Jesus is the new Adam, the new Moses, the new Elijah and the new Elishah, but also the new Joshua and the incarnation of the “suffering servant”, a messiah who brings together different messianic traits. The Gospels no longer appear as compilations but as creative works repeating and transforming statements in the Hebrew Bible.

To understand the figure of Jesus Christ as a sublime invention of the human mind is the main thesis of this book. It is possible that many readers are reluctant to follow the author in this way. Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny the midrashic character of many pericopes of the Gospels. Everyone will be free to draw conclusions from this midrashic reading which will have the great merit of going beyond the dichotomy between “myth” and “history”.

Charbonnel and Römer

Before I post an outline of Charbonnel’s discussion in her opening chapter I want to address the word “midrash” and how it has been related to the gospels. I don’t believe this will seriously detract from her presentation, or from the theses presented by others who have used the term in similar ways, but I think we should be aware of scholarly differences pertaining to the term whenever we see it.

 

Looking for Communist Christ Mythicist Publications

One blogger is looking for old communist-era publications explaining Jesus as a mythical figure. I have had a similar interest in the sorts of things that were said about Jesus and Christian origins in the Soviet Union. I know Engels wrote something and that Drews impressed Lenin enough for him to propagate his views throughout the new Russia. See, for example, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.slq.qld.gov.au/stable/309549

For some reason Kalthoff comes to mind but I can’t recall any specific link between his work and education in the Soviet Union.

If anyone knows specific works that directly answer this query please do leave a notice in the comments. (That is, I am only interested in links that identify titles/names that were published as arguments for the nonhistoricity of Jesus for readers/students in communist nations.)

My request is much the same as our blogger friend whose post, in translation, reads:

. . . . I pray for your help. . . . . During the time we lived in Romania, I visited the antiques as many times as I had the opportunity. Once (I think in Sibiu) I entered an antique shop that had some books on religion from the time of the communist period. I found them interesting but strange, presenting Jesus as a purely mythological person with traits and characteristics taken over from previous mythological people and gods. Then I did not foresee any occasion in which I would need communist propaganda like this and so I left the books on the shelf and did not buy them.

Now, I’m sorry for that decision.

Since then, between English speakers, this idea of ​​communist propaganda has become very popular in Internet communities. It would be the case for somebody (either I or others) to write a history of this idea that involves the crusade against Christianity during the Cold War.

I would start this project, but I encountered a problem. I do not have access to the necessary books because of the mistakes made many years ago in an antique shop in Romania.

I did not write this blog post just to advise you not to make the same mistake. I hope that some of my relatives and friends in Romania, or your friends and acquaintances, have some books like this, or to guess where I can find them either in a library or in an antique, in a personal collection.

That’s two of us now with the same request.

. . .

As a footnote, I am reminded here of the same blogger’s (somewhat amusing) response to my reference to Eric Hobsbawm’s point about historical methodology:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific [hero, person] merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. 

In the context of our controversial topic those words by Hobsbawm sounded like the methodology of a communist propagandist to our friend:

You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

Interesting to compare another historian’s comment on the soundness of Hobsbawm’s methods as a historian.

Update to “Another Name to Add to the Who’s Who Page of Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics”

Many of you took special notice of my post (Another Name to Add to the Who’s Who Page of Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics) about Narve Strand and his response to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for the historicity of Jesus.

Narve Strand has since uploaded a new version of that article, partly as a result of the Vridar discussion thread. He has added qualifiers to hopefully clarify some of the questions that arose over his presentation. He has also entered some new references and updated his CV.

So replace all your copies of the original with the new version: