Some readers might have noticed that my post http://criticalrealismandthenewtestament.blogspot.ca/2014/08/progress-and-decline.html ignited a small firestorm surrounding mythicism. Now, I have been quite clear in my view of this "position," namely that it has a scholarly merit comparable to that of creationism or the hollow earth theory. I stand by that position. So one might wonder why I am concerned with addressing the issue. The reason is simple: mythicism is the fruit of historical Jesus studies. We created this beast. It is our Frankenstein's monster.
Now, begin I proceed, let me be clear: I am not interested in continued discussion of mythicism's scholarly merits because, again, it has none. Rather, I am interested in considering why one should care about something that is so obviously erroneous. The answer lies in the insidious character of decline.
Let me elaborate. I described, in the aforementioned post, Lonergan's notion of decline. Oversight leads to oversight, error compounds error. Historical Jesus scholarship began as an autonomous discourse in the 19th century. It built upon a series of genuine insights, predating but whose significance was first fully appreciated in that century, the most notable of which was the recognition that Jesus probably did not do, say, or experience everything that the canonical gospels attest to be the case. The possibility that Jesus might thus have differed subtly or radically from the evangelical portrait emerged. Indeed, the very idea that we are in the gospels dealing with not a single portrait told quadriphonic but rather with four distinct portraits is largely a product of this period. Put otherwise, this was the century that we began to realize the historical significance of evangelical diversity.
A dual enterprise effort was then launched. In his introduction to the epoch-defining and already classic 2012 edited volume on Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity Anthony Le Donne describes quite succinctly and aptly the duality of this enterprise, and I would refer any reader there for fuller discussion. But to make even more succinct that succinctness, the dual enterprise was the pursuit of two forms of authenticity: one, the other the pursuit for the "what really happened"; the other, the pursuit for Jesus's authentic genius. These are of course related: a statement about the "what really happened" would potentially have implications for understanding Jesus' genius, and vice versa. A signal recent example would be the Cynic Jesus: Jesus' authentic Jesus rested in his striking aphorisms and counter-cultural lifestyle and thus sayings and deeds consistent with that genius tended to be favoured over those that did not.
These two pursuits allow us to situate the seeds of decline that have led to our current situation, in which the absurdities of mythicism actually seem to some (indeed, not many) to be something other than, well, absurd. The "what really happened" need not but potentially and in actuality was carried out under the banner of what Lonergan calls empiricism, namely the position that since the real is what is there to be seen the task of the historian is to eliminate from her or his field of vision that which is not real. So clever techniques were devised to carry out the stated elimination. Completely overlooked in such a procedure is the reality the real is not simply what is there to be seen, that knowing is not like looking, but rather genuine understanding entails just that: understanding. What I see is data to be processed, and as such historical reality consists not of data deemed to be authentic but rather of the historians's work in construing via the data the world from which that data came to be.
The quest for Jesus' authentic genius understands that, at least implicitly. It understands that the historical Jesus is not just a sum of the parts left over after we have gutted the gospels via criteria of this or that provenance. Rather it understands that just as the Evangelists were constructing Jesus in their own time so too are we constructing Jesus in our own. The difficulty is that the quest for Jesus' authentic genius lapsed into what Lonergan calls idealism, namely the position that since the real is what is there to be seen and since what is there to be seen is not what was really the case it follows that one cannot apprehend the real. Put more succinctly, the gap between what the scholar thought to be Jesus's genius and the gospels' empirical presentation of Jesus' teaching and actions generated an epistemological chasm that idealism could not and cannot broach, precisely because it cannot apprehend how to move from understanding ideas to understanding the world.
In practice idealism fell back on empiricism. The quest for Jesus' genius became the quest for the "what really happened." Again, the Cynic Jesus portrays this quite well. The procedure that results looked typically something like this: I determine what I consider to be Jesus' genius, then I devise methodology by which to eliminate from the data all that contradicts with said genius. And this is how we would have ended up with mythicism. The mythicists simply take this subtractive approach to an extreme: since all in the gospels is in question it must all be false. The problem is that it in so doing it simply repeats the basic error of both empiricism and idealism, namely that knowing is like looking, that the real is what is there to be seen. It reasons: since what is there to be seen differs subtly or significantly from the "what really happened" then it must follow that there was no "what really happened."
This of course is silliness. No one actually operates that way in the real world, and no one actually could. If I tell you that Friday night I went with John Bolton to see Guardians of the Galaxy and John Bolton tells you that we went on Saturday night one would not conclude that we never went to Guardians of the Galaxy but rather that one or both of us is confused about the date. (Side note: if you haven't seen Guardians of the Galaxy stop reading now and go watch it immediately). It is silliness, but it is silliness of our devising. It's the end product of two centuries of oversight that has seen our vacillate between an untenable empiricism and an unequally untenable idealism, generating in the process all sort of freakish chimeras in between. The so-called "criteria approach" constitutes but the latest chimeric menagerie. We have no to blame but ourselves, or perhaps more precisely our predecessors.
So the solution is simple yet difficult: we need to get our conceptual house in order. No point bemoaning mythicism when it is but a symptom of our own disorder. Only when we genuinely understand what it is to do history will we be able to articulate to people outside our discipline.