Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Blog Response: Jesus Mythicism

Hambydammit from the rational response squad and John Loftus from debunking christianity have gotten into it over Jesus mythicism. You see, Loftus has continued believing in and defending the theory that there was a real man named Jesus who began the Christian faith, while others, such as Richard Carrier, have gradually been persuaded to believe that Jesus was a spiritual being, like an angel, and was to the earliest Christians what Hercules was to the Greeks: A poetic allegory. A fiction. Anyway, here is something Loftus said which I found intriguing:

"I fear my friend Carrier could become marginalized as a scholar if he doesn't make a strong case [for Jesus mythicism]... His scholarship is too good for that and for our cause. If he becomes marginalized people will write him off and his credibility will be in need or repair."

This got me wondering: Why are the people who study Christianity so dogmatic as to write some one off permanently for having an idea they disagree with? Sure, maybe its wrong. Sure, maybe its stupid. But why would Carrier's support of a bad theory permanently ruin his reputation? I'll tell you why: Most of the people who study Christianity are Christians, and if Jesus is a myth then their cherished religion is over. Well, call me a fool but I don't think trying to break this dogma would be a bad thing if it came at the cost of "losing respect" amongst the likes of Gary Habermas or even the Jesus Seminar (They just have a liberal theological agenda, they want to bring Jesus into the 21st century, but that is a subject for another time).

Now, I can agree with Loftus that atheists may be better off accepting the historicity of Jesus for the sake of argument, whether one believes in Jesus or not. But Loftus seems to think that this issue shouldn't be brought up in academia so that we gain street cred with moderate christians and then, before they know what hit 'em, nail 'em within the acceptable parameters of debate they've chosen. They may write off Jesus mythicism, so let's steer clear of that, and instead portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. That's something intellectual that the moderates could at least hear, so let's go that route.

I don't agree with that. Sure, in a debate you can accept the historicity of Jesus as a given and show that the arguments still don't hold up, but as a historian should you pretend like Jesus exists if you suspect he didn't? No, and not even to win over the moderate christians.

This is where Loftus has gone wrong. From what he has written elsewhere, it seems that he thinks the Jesus mythicist position is some kind of gargantuan effort to once and for all destroy Christian apologetics. But it isn't: Neither Carrier, nor Robert Price, nor any of the other academic mythicists use it as an end-all argument against Christianity. The intellectual, philosophical, scientific and historical arguments for Christianity are dead in the water, and have been for a long time.

What historians like Carrier are seeking is to understand more about the man, or myth, who has affected so much of civilization. And they came up with a different answer about Jesus than the modern day admirers. Go figure.


Jon said...

I genuinely believe that John is driven to historicism based in large part on the fact that he wants that street cred from Christians. Many of his statements indicate this, which I've pointed out to him.

In some threads when his historicism is challenged he opts out of the discussion saying he's bored of the topic rather than reply to criticisms. Yet it keeps coming up in his threads over and over. He's bringing it up when it's not even the topic of discussion. It seems he just wants to let Christian apologists know that he's not as kooky as a lot of those skeptics. See for instance here:

Nobody was talking about mythicism, but John comes in and lets all the Christians know he's a historicist. He wants as much respect as he can get from them. He may get more than the rest of us will on this basis.

Not to take anything away from his anti-apologetic work, which is very good. I hope he can recognize what is really motivating him on this issue and take a more objective look at the facts.

SirMoogie said...

I've also been in similar discussions with John. He paints himself as an expert in these matters, at least I think he was referring to Jesus historicity and he is listed as one on Opposing Views*, but expertise is a process gained by reading the scholarship in the field, something John refuses to do when it comes to the mythicist viewpoint, and contributing to the field. John has contributed to the arguments against Christianity and has lived through Christian apologetics. I'd consider him an expert in these things, not the history of the Bible. I agree with you, and presumably John, that one should try to reach a common ground when debating an opponent, but this common ground should not be at the expense of our integrity when pursuing scholarship pertaining to history.

* - I understand that what Opposing Views thinks is neither here nor there. However, I also presume the John accepted the title.

SirMoogie said...

BTW, Hambydammit has a new blog:

I enjoyed his post on his position regarding mythicism:

Hambydammit said...

John's apparently had real trouble understanding my position on mythicism. Ironically, if he understood it better, he would understand my criticism of his position.

By the way, it's worth mentioning that John takes great liberties with my posts on his site, publishing what he wants to respond to, cut and pasting when he doesn't feel like putting my whole response up, and simply ignoring things that he doesn't like. I've put some of the comments he hasn't approved on my blog, but in all honesty, I don't care, so it's not something I've been keeping up with.

In any case, here's the thing. I'm not a mythicist. John keeps accusing me of being one, and I'm not. I'm not even a hundred percent sure John understands fully what mythicism is claiming and what it is not. I am no expert on textual criticism, and I have no background to make any claims as to the earliest Christian literature's intent. That's what mythicism is about.

My problem with John is that he hasn't gotten the memo that you don't get to be a preacher as an atheist. What I mean by that is John just shoulders his way through big issues making proclamations as if he has the word of God on his side. As an atheist, he is bound by logic and epistemological rights, and he seems neither willing nor able to play within the rules.

To be perfectly clear, I don't care if there was a historical Jesus. I don't attack Christianity from a Biblical perspective, and I don't need Jesus to be a myth to dismantle Christianity. I don't know why John's so attached to a historical Jesus. I don't care. What I care about is that people will perceive him as an authority when he's not, and that he acts like he has a free ticket to say anything that pops into his head just because he's an atheist now.

Anebo said...

The problem isn't gaining 'street cred' among Christians (and using a term like 'street cred' would make you a laughing stock among any academics), but rather, a New testament critic or Church historian denying the existence of Jesus would be taken as seriously by his colleagues as a physician who denies that HIV causes aids would be by his. Its a form of pseudo-scientific denialism that has no basis in evidence and would overturn numerous well established theories if it were true.

SirMoogie said...


Your point stands if a claim is made that is unjustified, and that the claim doesn't coincide with prior plausibility (which I'm not sure how this factors in to Biblical scholarship). That is not what Richard Carrier is doing. Richard Carrier is making an argument, AFAIK, against the historical method in Biblical scholarship and potentially double standards in its application when it comes to evaluating the history behind the Bible. From this I think he will construct a case for mysticism from a, presumably better, methodology.

Assuming Richard is intellectually honest, and indeed has constructed an outstanding case for the mythicist position, your analogy would be a kin to there being several RCT demonstrating that AIDS is best explained by another, non-viral, source. It might take a while, and several repeat trials (something not necessary in history AFAIK) to confirm the findings, but if such a process occurred, more and more immunologists would abandon the hypothesis. Your comparison to HIV denialism is different, as the proponents do not perform rigorous science, and they rather make appeals to personal anecdotes, emotions, and good ol' fashioned Big Pharma conspiracy.

Granted, it takes time to create paradigm shift, but they do happen when the evidence for the new paradigm outweighs previous explanations for the phenomena under examination.

Anebo said...

Prior plausibility is exactly the problem. There is very good evidence that he did exist.

Hambydammit said...

The whole point of the Jesus Project is not to prove that there was no historical Jesus. Sure, Richard Carrier and others are mythicists, but mythicists are not the only scholars working on the Project. In speaking with Dennis MacDonald, James Crossley, and other contemporary Jesus Scholars, I get the strong feeling that the goal of the project itself is not so much to prove that Jesus did or did not exist, but to reach a conclusion that uses good, consistent methodology.

This is what has been lacking in Jesus history, even as late as the Jesus Seminar, which was even something of a failure in its own estimation.

What so many people do not understand is that the huge, vocal consensus that Jesus certainly did exist owes its own existence to the acceptance of conspiratorially vague and inconsistent methodology. It's the lie that's been told enough to become truth.

Now, to be really, really clear. I'm not saying it's a lie because of the conclusion. It's a lie because of the method. It might turn out that there was a historical Jesus. That's fine with me, and it's fine with all the Jesus Project folks I've interacted with. The point is that whatever conclusion is reached, it is reached with proper and transparent methodology.

AIGBusted said...

Hi Anebo,

I'm glad you've decided to add your voice to this discussion.

When I used the phrase "street cred" I was using it in a derogatory way towards those trying to attain it. I was saying that John Loftus and others are yearning for respect, yearning to be considered worthy by their christian colleagues.

I don't think your HIV analogy is all that good. There's (obviously)lots of evidence that HIV causes AIDS. The evidence for Jesus, however, is not very great in quantity or quality.

I'll concede that he might have lived, but I do not see overwhelming evidence for that conclusion.

Now, you say that Jesus mythicism would overturn numerous well established theories. I would love to hear all about what it would overturn. It would overturn christianity, as well as the familiar story of its origins, but other than that history would be basically the same.

Search my blog for "Romulus" and you should find a post (w/cited sources) that show that the figure of Jesus was very much influenced by paganism. If Romulus and Heracles did not exist, and Jesus was pretty much cut from the same cloth as they, how can we say that we know for sure that this guy existed?

Hambydammit said...

AIG, you've hit on one of the reasons I'm excited about the Jesus Project. One of the questions I feel has been severely underrepresented in the literature is that of Jesus' historical relevance.

You mention Jesus' ahistoricity overturning Christianity, but oddly enough, I don't think that it would. After all, evolution has already done that, and look around you. Facts have rarely gotten in the way of religion. You or I can take five minutes and a chalkboard and debunk Christianity completely.

One of the things that has not been asked (or at least answered sufficiently) is this: If there was a historical Jesus, is it at all likely that he had any contemporary relevance?

Rather than retype things I've already written, I'd like to invite you guys to read my blog entries on Jesus' historicity:

SirMoogie said...

"Prior plausibility is exactly the problem. There is very good evidence that he did exist."

Prior plausibility that may have been reached under bad methodology. I've discussed methodology previously in the comments on this blog. I'm not impressed by what I've heard from some Biblical scholars when asked what their justifications are for a historical Jesus (in particular the criterion of embarrassment). I may not be a normal person, but I cannot stress how enthusiastic discussion of methodology makes me. If you know of any books or papers arguing for a historical Jesus* that you think use a sound methodology, I'd like to hear of them. I'm not a scholar in this area, so I don't even know where to begin looking.

* - Whatever the term "Jesus" might denote in this context seems debatable.

AIGBusted said...


You've raised some very thoughtful points.

Of course, if Jesus Christ was what Christians make him out to be, we would expect lots of contemporary evidence. How could so many miracles go unnoticed by so many historians?

But what if Jesus existed, but he just wasn't what Christians say he was. Let's say Jesus was a deluded rabbi who started his own cult. Would such an individual be expected to leave a mark on history? Not necessarily.

So, let's say, for the sake of argument, that it turns out that there is no evidence for a historical Jesus. In my view this would not prove there was no such person, but simply shift the question to: Is it more reasonable to posit a historical or mythical Jesus as the foundation of Christianity?

We then have to evaluate the arguments and decide which is more likely.

I agree with you that the Jesus myth theory succeeding would not ring the death knell of Christianity amongst people. After all, I believe there was an Anglican Priest who became a mythicist but says that his faith was strengthened by realizing this. The Christians could easily go back to being a mystery cult with a symbolic spiritual christ, although this position would destroy most forms of christianity as we know them.

But this would raise troubling questions, such as: Why did Christianity remain literalist for so long? Why didn't God preserve the correct interpretation of his divinely inspired stories? Christians already have some of these problems, but this would certainly not help them out at all.

Anebo said...

Comparing Jesus to Romulus and Herakles is making a categorical error, or following a red herring, if you prefer. The mythology attached to Jesus certainly took on many of the characteristics of the mythology attached to divine men in the ancient world, but that has nothing to do with Jesus' historicity, only with the development of the mythological tradition that developed after his death, two different things.

As far as extra-biblical evidence goes, the mention of James in Josephus seems sufficient attestation of Jesus' existence--indeed Josephus may well have mentioned Jesus in the same place, but we'll never know that thanks to the Christian interpolation that became attached to the passage. We would not expect much more for so minor a figure as he seemed at the time.

As far as Biblical evidence goes, there are several considerations. Paul was in a good position to know whether Jesus existed or not and he seems to have had no doubts about the matter. He came from a mythological tradition (apocalypticism) that already honored figures like Enoch and it is unlikely that he would have created a new mythological figure as the basis of his mythological system. Then, the earliest stratum of Jesus material in the gospel tradition was not mythological but consisted of sayings based in the tradition of peasant wisdom (Q, the source of Thomas, etc.), and that kind of material is quite likely to have originated with a historical figure. The earliest traditions about Jesus are much more like those attached to Hillel or Diogenes than they are to those attached to Romulus.

By the way, can you point to a divine man tradition that originated in either first century that grew up around a fictitious figure rather than being anchored in the life of a real person? Even Apollonius of Tanya is quite well attested as a real person. A very good parallel is Simon Magus, definitely a real person, and possibly also originally a follower of John the Baptist, and the founder of his own religion with himself as the messiah (the power of god that is called great)--but there are no adequate studies of him as yet.

The theories that would be overturned by the non-existence of Jesus which i think moves the whole thing into the sphere of denialism, are the various forms of tradition criticism as well as everything we know about the formation of religions within the Roman and Jewish worlds.

As for bibliography--Charlesworth rewrites his book on the Historical Jesus every few years to take into account new scholarship, so the most recent version of that is the best place to look (although I've only read an older one). He also has a book on the Jesus tradition and Hillel. For Paul, the book I like is Segal's Paul the Convert. there is a large bibliography on Jesus and the Cynics, some by Francis Downing.

Hambydammit said...

So, let's say, for the sake of argument, that it turns out that there is no evidence for a historical Jesus. In my view this would not prove there was no such person

Absolutely correct. It would not prove that there was no Jesus. However, it would raise the very valid question: What would qualify as a historical Jesus? Would it have to be a man around which a significant portion of what would become Christian mythology was centered? Or would it be enough that the writer of the Gospel wrapped Hellenized versions of Jewish mythology around a person of no particular consequence, or perhaps even someone whose actual life didn't resemble Jesus at all, but who, for one reason or another, struck a creative nerve in the Gospel author's brain?

If you read the work of enough Jesus historians, you ought to be shocked at just how many different versions of Jesus are claimed to be overwhelmingly likely. At once, he was a rabbi, a lunatic, a heretic, a preacher, a prophet, a public official... the list goes on, and each scholar has taken the scant evidence and imposed his own image of what a historical Jesus "ought to be."

This, simply put, is bad history.

One of the things that I'm not sure the contemporary world is ready for is that the correct answer to the question of Jesus' historicity might be, "There's no way to know at present." If that's the answer, it may be unsatisfying, but if we have to overstep our epistemological rights to say anything else, well... I guess we might be stuck with no answer.