Mythicists and bad arguments

There have been a few exchanges on facebook between James McGrath, whose blog “Exploring our Matrix” is justly one of the most celebrated Christian blogs, and Laurence Moran, who blogs at “Sandwalk” occasioned by a blog post by Jerry Coyne commenting on a recent BBC poll indicating that 40% of Britons don’t think there was a historical Jesus. There seems to be, to say the least, a failure of meeting of minds. The link to the Sandwalk blog incorporates some of that.

Coyne, supported by Moran, is of the opinion that there really is no persuasive evidence for Jesus, so the 40% of my countrymen who seem to think that Jesus never existed are on sound ground.

This rests on four foundations, firstly the fact that there is no plausible historical evidence for Jesus outside the Bible; references in Josephus are discounted as forged. Well, there are two references to Jesus in Josephus, in book 18, chapter 3, 3 of the Antiquities of the Jews, and in book 20, chapter 9, 1. The first of these is without much doubt partially forged, in that at some point a Christian scribe has added some wording. Scholars vary as to how much wording has been added; those who wish to see the evidence as weak tend to go further than the scholars and consider that if any of the statement is inauthentic, the whole can be discounted, which very few current scholars would agree with.

However, those seeing the evidence as weak generally go on either to ignore the second or to claim (against virtually all scholarship at any point) that it is also a forgery. This is, I think, an untenable position for a serious historian; the second quotation thus establishes the existence of Jesus as the brother of James, about whom Josephus writes at some length. It does not, however, give any other detail about Jesus. Nor do the various references in Roman historians to the early Christians, noted as being a problem from the reign of Nero onward in Rome and Asia Minor, as the mythicists are keen to point out.

They also tend to say that the Romans were assiduous record keepers and nothing about Jesus has been found in Roman records. This is a non-argument, as nothing about any other Palestinian Jew of the period has been found in Roman records either. They may have kept a lot of records, but almost none of them have survived!

The second foundation is to dismiss everything written in the Bible as being without historical value. Generally, this revolves around an attack on the Gospels as written at the least some tens of years after Jesus’ given lifetime and on some accounts as much as 100 years later (an extreme dating for the Fourth Gospel); some further stretch the point and attribute a second or third century date, on the basis that there probably are second and third century alterations to the texts.

In doing so, they tend to ignore the fact that the genuine 7 Pauline letters are virtually incontrovertibly dated to between 40 and 45 for the earliest and 60-65 for the latest, or to dismiss them as having little detail of Jesus’ actual life. That second fact is entirely correct; Paul is depressingly (for a biblical historian) disposed to ignore what Jesus actually said and did in favour of writing about his importance for people at the time of writing.

The snag there is that Paul not only confirms (and is confirmed by) Josephus in referring to James as brother of Jesus, but he also reports a number of pre-existing traditions about Jesus, notably including that he was crucified by the Romans and is worshiped as Lord, this within 10 to 15 years of the date of his death. He is plainly joining what is already a well-established community of believers at that point.

The third foundation is to attack the blatant failures of historical accuracy (such as the census of Quirinius, which could not have had the effect claimed nor have been at the time specified) and the presence of supernatural events (miracles) as entirely removing any credibility from the Gospel accounts. I don’t think we can do that (and neither do 99+% of historians). Certainly, as Dr. McGrath strives hard to point out, historians are going to discount any report involving a miracle (or, indeed, any supernatural event at all) as being too unlikely ever to be capable of historical proof.

(As an aside there, I would note that a historian of thought would not discount those aspects of the gospels, but a historian of thought is merely cataloging what people were thinking and not what actually happened.)

Does the presence of miracles invalidate the Gospels as a source of other material? Not for an historian, as otherwise almost all ancient writers of history would need to be discounted in their entirety, most of them being entirely willing to accept supernatural events or beings as part of history. Neither does some particular factual inaccuracy; historians treat all ancient sources with some suspicion, and are keen to cross check them against other evidence, if there is any. On the other hand, for a source where there is no other evidence one way or another, an historian will tend cautiously to accept that factual claims may be true. Despite the best endeavours of some mythicists to argue that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence (i.e. that events did not happen), this is not historical technique.

The fourth foundation, and that which seems to be a stumbling block in the discussions I link to, is the argument that the existence of an historical person called Jesus who in fact did not turn water into wine or rise from the dead, or say quite a lot of the things he is reported to have said (if we believe the Jesus Seminar who, to be fair, are not too much more sceptical than the bulk of NT scholars) would not be sufficient to say that there was an historical Jesus. The only way you can say that there was an historical Jesus, according to this argument, is if he actually was God incarnate, claimed to be the Son of God, performed miracles and rose from the dead. Dr. McGrath entirely correctly points out that historians could never say that any of these things was an historical fact, and indeed my reading of him for some years indicates to me that he probably thinks that supernatural causes did not operate in the first century any more than they operate today, which is to say that they very probably never did operate.

The argument is very much that in order to say there was an historical Jesus, the person identified must have substantial identity to the Jesus described in the Bible, and if you cannot say that, you cannot say that there was an historical Jesus. This is, it seems to me, a foolish argument. We do not, for instance, say that because it was said of Augustus Caesar that he was son of God and God, and that he was miraculously conceived, then there was no historical Augustus Caesar. Equally, we do not say that because a lot of people have seen Elvis after the date of his death, then Elvis never existed. We equally do not say that as (say) ancient historians writing of a battle must be discounted in total because they got the date of the battle wrong some years after the event (or because it was not, according to archaeological evidence, the unmitigated success which the winning side claimed, or because the numbers of troops involved prove to have been massively inflated).

Any suggestion these days that there was no historical Jesus, on whom the stories in the New Testament were based, is, frankly, an insult to generations of scholars, many of them atheist, agnostic or non-Christian, who have spent years of study piecing together an account of a real person who was called Jesus and was crucified by the Romans in around the year 30. It cannot be argued that they were serving an apologetic end, either, as generally their efforts to use historical method have resulted in howls of protest from conservative believers and often loss of position or reputation. Yes, it can be argued that different scholars see different patterns in the evidence, some emphasising the Jewish wisdom teacher, some the mystic, some the social radical, some the apocalyptic prophet. Actually, it is entirely possible for all of those to be aspects of one complex personality.

The situation is, I think, rather well summed up in this article; in particular I share the embarrassment of the author that as many as 40% of my fellow countrymen are so badly historically educated. However, I do not share the opinion that Christianity must fail completely if it could be shown that there were no historical Jesus (any more than Buddhism would fail if it could be shown there was no historical Gautama Buddha). Christianity, to my mind, rests far more on the actual experience of Christians, and Christians experience Jesus here and now – and it is not really relevant to the survival of the religion how exactly it is that they experience Jesus. I could certainly live with a determination that there was in fact no historical Jesus myself!

The thing is, if there in fact were no historical Jesus, there would have had to be an invention of Jesus. Richard Carrier (who is notable as being one of only two or three mythicists with advanced degrees which actually relate to the area) has addressed this issue in a talk.

Carrier is superficially plausible in this talk; his quantity of study time definitely shows. However, we must remember that in that video he is making a case, not presenting a dispassionate view. I ought, I suppose, to be more impressed with Carrier – I do not, for instance, have any relevant degrees myself. However, I am a retired lawyer, and making, countering and assessing arguments is part of the professional expertise of a lawyer.

Starting with Philo is particularly powerful, as Philo’s writings, in my view, have to have been the basis of the thinking of the author of the Fourth Gospel; the author was taking a set of concepts which Philo developed and applying those to the person of Jesus. That said, Philo does not, of course, identify his angelic figure as being called “Jesus”, he merely refers to a passage from Zechariah which deals with a high priest called Joshua (granted, that is another anglicisation of the Hebrew form of Yeshua).

I am much less impressed with the collection of dying and resurrecting gods which Carrier outlines. These are in every case fertility gods, representing the cycle of the seasons with rebirth in spring and death in winter; this is a motif strikingly lacking from anything in the New Testament, and suggestions that the Osiris cult may have involved personal salvation may well be arguing that result is cause and vice versa, as I see no evidence that this tendency existed in Osiris cults before the late first century. I also see no significant evidence that the cults of these gods involved a real historical incarnation, at least not before the concept was current in the nascent Christianity.

Where his argument is strongest, however, is in the entirely correct observation that the earliest witness, Paul, does not talk about details of Jesus’ life, merely his death. This is, to my mind, the biggest single argument against the process suggested by Carrier. Yes, there was an incentive to revitalise Judaism following the destruction of the Temple (which, I point out, occurred some years after Paul’s death), but were you trying to do this, you would not choose as an historical referent someone who would be likely to be remembered by people still alive, and you would definitely not choose someone about whom the main historical fact claimed was that he had been crucified by the Romans. That fact by itself negated any claims of being the messiah for mainstream Judaism (and still does); reference to the “suffering servant” passages in Isaiah ignores the fact that in Judaism before and since, those passages were not seen as being messianic and referred to the nation of Israel as a whole; the messianic connection was made by followers of Jesus looking for foreshadowings in previous scripture (and yes, I accept Carrier’s statement that the early followers were doing a form of pesher on the scriptures with that in mind). As Paul says on more than one occasion, this is a stumbling block to Jews.

I think it is worth mentioning here that an experienced advocate will use ridicule (as Moran does with this reference to Humpty Dumpty and Carrier does with his reference to space aliens) in only two circumstances (as otherwise he weakens his argument). The first is where he really does not have a strong case and is grasping at straws. The second is where he is insulting the intelligence of his audience, as I note often occurs (and fairly frequently works) in jury trials. Personally, I do not appreciate having my intelligence insulted.

There is a further major point, however, which Carrier completely ignores. To start with, as James McGrath points out, the historical move which is apparent from careful study of the New Testament documents is actually from an historical figure (albeit one worshiped from a very early stage) to a more divine, cosmic one, and not from angel to historical figure. Granted, the earliest writer, Paul, talks almost exclusively about the significance of Jesus as a cosmic figure rather than as an historical person, but this is relatively quickly corrected by the three synoptic gospels, or at least by the materials used by the evangelists to construct their writings, which may well have predated Paul.

As I mention above, supernatural claims, such as divine status and miraculous birth, were often attributed to historical figures such as Augustus and his successor emperors. Alexander the Great was a notable earlier example, and some earlier Greek healers who were probably historical were credited with miraculous healings. So too in Judaism were a number of early Rabbis (such as Eliezar and Honi the Circle Drawer) credited with miracles. The mindset of the time demanded that great men were not like common beings, but had something of the divine about them, and this resulted in such stories. Indeed, that mindset has not completely left us, as witness Elvis still being alive according to some!

This is a known, natural progression. I would therefore choose this as a probable mechanism over any suggestion from Carrier that a pre-existing godlike figure was alleged without any historical basis to have existed for a time in first century Palestine. That, however, raises another issue. How is it that a relatively insignificant Jewish carpenter’s son, killed as, in effect, a terrorist, started having this kind of story told about him within at the outside ten years of his death, and more probably during his lifetime?

The only viable answer to that question which I can see is that there was indeed an historical Jesus, and that he was an entirely exceptional man, capable of inspiring remarkable devotion among his followers. Yes, not everything which was later written about him is historically true, and not everything which he is claimed to have said is at all likely actually to have passed his lips, but he must have been unique (and he became more unique in the hearts and minds of his followers over the next 350 years to the point at which the Roman Empire became Christian).

And that brings me to my last point. Carrier refers to Cargo Cults as a reference for how strange beliefs can arise; I find that wholly unconvincing. However, within my lifetime there has been a Jewish Rabbi who became hailed as “King Messiah” by his followers, and still is after his death, with a “second coming” anticipated by some; I refer of course to the Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I consider him a far better parallel for how a Jewish messiah figure can arise and gain a large following which persists after his death. The Rebbe was indeed an entirely exceptional man, and had he lived in the first century, I have little doubt that he would be said to have performed many miracles. In point of fact, he IS said to have performed miracles. He is also said to have pre-existed his mortal lifetime.

None of this means that Rebbe Schneerson was not a real historical person.

The trouble with the arguments of the mythicists is that they are just that, arguments. They have to be seen as you would view the statements of counsel for the prosecution (or defence) in a trial; they make the best case they can for their chosen position. In a trial, you always have the adversarial point of view presented, and must then make up your mind whether one or the other is correct, or whether the truth actually lies somewhere between the two. I should therefore point out that what I write here is not the case for the other side; neither are the posts of James McGrath  I link to or the whole book on the topic written by Bart Ehrman (who is neither a Christian nor, indeed, a believer). All three of us are weighing the evidence on both sides and attempting to reach a measured conclusion; the case for the other side is that of those who claim that everything in the Gospels is historical, of which you can find many.


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