Saturday, 30 August 2014

Putting the "Myth" in Mythicism

Once again, someone with only very little knowledge on the subject has posted a blog post loudly declaring that there is good reason to doubt that Jesus existed. Once again, the reasons given are without an exception logical fallacies. Let us consider.

Here is the link:

Here are the five reasons the author gives, and the fallacies involved.

1) "No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef." This is of course an argument from silence, and thus only compelling insofar as one should expect there to be something other than silence. In point of fact, given that Christianity in the first century is quite marginal, it is hardly surprising that those outside the movement take little notice of the movement. Moreover, given the paucity of evidence from the ancient world few silences are unexpected.

2) "The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts." Again, argument from silence, and moreover something of a non sequitur. That Paul does not mention a matter does not mean that he is ignorant of the matter. There are lots of things I never mention about which I am nonetheless quite aware. More to the point, again, it is only compelling if we should expect Paul to write more extensively on Jesus' life. Should we? If one seeks to provide warrant for this argument from silence then one must make the positive case that if Paul knew more about Jesus's life he would have written about it.

3) "Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts." This is another example of a non sequitur. To demonstrate the presence of this fallacy let me use an example. I have no first-hand account that tells me the author of the blog in question exists, yet I judge it likely that she does. If this judgment is true then first-hand accounts are not necessary for affirmation of a person's existence. The author's argument is also an instance of special pleading, as it sets an evidentiary standard far in excess of where one would normally set the evidentiary standard.

4) "The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other." Again, non sequitur. It hardly follows from the observation that the accounts contradict each other that Jesus did not exist. If I tell you a story about a friend of mine and another person tells you a story that contradicts that one you would not normally conclude that the friend in question did not exist but rather that one or both of the stories are inaccurate or even fabricated. As this is not normally how one would proceed it is again also an instance of special pleading.

5) "Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons." Utterly irrelevant, which is also to say again a non sequiter. That there is not agreement about a historical figure hardly leads to the conclusion that that figure never existed. This is actually, exactly, the same error as #4 above.

So, perhaps there is reason to doubt Jesus' existence, but Ms. Tarico has yet to provide a logically valid reason, which is to say a reasonable reason, which is actually to say that she has not yet presented a reason at all. So, given her account, there is no reason to doubt. It increasingly looks to me as if the only myth around here is mythicism itself.

Incidentally, James McGrath has observed quite rightly that the title of the post is misleading: there simply are not a growing number of scholars who think that Jesus did not exist. There are, to the best of my knowledge, three, and one of those (Richard Carrier) in fact lacks primary expertise in biblical studies.


  1. It could be interesting ("could be") for some kind of anonymous poll to be taken on this. I was thinking a poll at The Jesus Blog but it would be too easy for people to intentionally try to skew that result.

    1. If you want a rough indication of how left-field mythicism is, go to Google scholar and do a search on "Jesus mythicism". Then run a search for something that scholars actually do find worth discussing (say, the development of the NT canon or textual criticism) and compare the results.

    2. Interesting experiment, Mr. Regnier. Let us see how it pans out

      Mythicism=36,200 results
      "did Jesus exist"=84,400 results
      "Jesus myth"=87,000 results
      "Rudolf Bultmann"=245,500
      "New Testament textual criticism"=703,000
      "New Testament canon"=1,520,000 results

      Very interesting results indeed.

    3. Was that on google or google scholar?

    4. Google. I didn't notice that you originally wrote "Google *scholar*." Let's try the experiment again.

      "did Jesus exist"=180 results
      "Jesus myth"=466 results
      "New Testament textual criticism"=1,790
      "New Testament canon"=5,700 results
      "Rudolf Bultmann"=15,800

      Interesting. We talk a lot more about ol' Rudy than we do about Jesus' existence. Not surprising, really.

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  3. Well my comment was directed at the claims of some mythicists that in personal conversation several scholars have confided that they have their doubts (or are full on mythicists) but would never say so in public, much less in publication.

    1. Well, those are that: claims. It's gossip. Pure and simple. They have zero empirical validity. That said, sure, there are lots of things that people hold that they haven't said on record, or in official publication. So I have no problem believing that out of the eight thousand or so members of the Society of Biblical Literature a few more than have gone on record are mythicists or sympathetic to mythicism. Would that drastically alter the picture that emerges from the above search on Google scholar? Show me the data before I accept that hypothesis.

    2. I've encountered those claims Kris. Appeal to anonymous authority should be treated as the worthless, sneaky, debating tactic it really is: Mythicists who claim this don't have to produce a scrap of evidence to support the claim that they have hidden sympathisers, but (implicitly) the lack of evidence itself becomes a kind of evidence (i.e. the lack of evidence itself proves that scholars really are scared to speak out).

      Think about it: if I told you that I had emails from scientists who were sceptical about evolution, but afraid to speak out about it. Or Geographers who were scared to voice their sympathy for Flat-earthism, would you really attach any weight to that? I think you'd be crazy to, to be honest.

      If you're really determined, I'm sure you could design a piece of research anonymously surveying attitudes among one or other Bible Studies organisation, and maybe get that published somewhere, but I sincerely doubt you'll find much interest in, or sympathy for, the possibilities of mythicism.

      Otherwise, as I think Trajan wrote to Pliny on the subject of Christians, "Ignore anonymous accusations. They really stink."

    3. Bang on. If this is what people think let them go on record. Until then it is just gossip and hearsay.

    4. // if I told you that I had emails from scientists who were sceptical about evolution, but afraid to speak out about it. Or Geographers who were scared to voice their sympathy for Flat-earthism, would you really attach any weight to that?//

      If I thought you were an honest and rational guy*, I'd at least wonder in the back of my head if it may be so.

      But anyway, I think people are taking my remark more seriously than it was meant. "Gossip" was the right word for it. I mean, of course it would be interesting if it turned out there's a bunch of closet mythicists out there. And of course it would be interesting to be able to put the rumors of such things to rest. But it's not like I said anything to indicate to anyone that I think these claims of closet-mythicism should get more than an electron's weight in the calculus, if that.

      *By that I do not mean to imply I think you're not honest or smart.

    5. (Addendum to previous--though you telling me that about flat-earthers especially may work in reverse to make me question my judgment that you're honest and smart.)

    6. (Treading dangerously close to unnecessarily hostile here, and I reserve the right to censor comments that I think cross that line).

    7. Sorry, I genuinely don't know what you mean. Can you help me out?

    8. Oh, was it the "addendum" post you were referring to? I didn't mean that with even a tiny bit of hostility--it just occurred to me after my previous post that a person making a claim about closeted flat-earthers is making such an implausible claim that he's not really giving even weak evidence for the existence of closeted flat-earthers, instead, he's giving evidence that he's either mistaken or lying. In other words, it was a partial confirmation of Paul's original point.

    9. Okay. Now I see what you were doing. The "you" was a hypothetical "you." That wasn't clear to me the first time around.

  4. "(implicitly) the lack of evidence itself becomes a kind of evidence (i.e. the lack of evidence itself proves that scholars really are scared to speak out)." You know who reasons that way? Conspiracy theorists. Hence my comparison of mythicism in previous posts to people who wear tin foil hats to prevent the CIA from reading their thoughts.

  5. Hi Jonathan,

    I think your answers to the Mythicist were very good. I'm not a Jesus-Mythicist, and I don't believe that the CIA can read my thoughts, but I do believe that the NSA records and saves the electronic data of just about everybody on our planet and stores it in their new million square foot facility in Utah, tin foil hats notwithstanding.

  6. To me, and I think to most people, the game-changing question isn’t whether the Jesus stories derive from a historical kernel but whether and to what extent the stories in the Bible are mythology. I care about moving toward a world in which our shared priorities are not driven by the worship of Iron Age texts, a world in which individuals can embrace reason and compassion, unshackled by viral ideas we know to be false and harmful, including many that have been written in stone by the Abrahamic religions. Given my goals, I have little emotional investment in the question of whether most Jesus stories are historicized mythology or mythologized history.

    Most scholars who approach the gospels from an academic perspective rather than an apologetic perspective (ie. as defenders of faith), agree that the biblical stories are highly mythologized. In a world where almost half of Americans say the Bible is the literally perfect word of God, this is what lay people need to know. The debate between mythologists and historicists is interesting in part because it opens up to lay people the arguments and methods relevant to this question.

    If I had been more privy to the these methods and arguments before writing this article, for example, if I had spoken with Bart Ehrman in addition to David, or had read some of Ehrman’s frustrated rants on the topic, I would have worded some things differently. But while I assume that the consensus position is probably correct, I don’t dismiss the mythicists or their position, for several reasons. 1. The mythicists I know may or may not be right, but in contrast to the accusations hurled against them, they are serious and rigorous in their approach. 2. I come at this as a psychologist, not a classics scholar, and one lens that psychology brings to this debate is the knowledge that humans are highly prone to historicizing otherwise vague stories. Psychological processes in which this happens include confabulation (when alcohol addled brains invent histories to fill gaps) and false memory syndrome, in which an expert asking leading questions actually prompts a person to create memories which become more detailed and solid over time. In split brain research a message can be sent to the right side of the brain, for example, go get a diet coke. When the person stands up and the left side of the brain is asked why, it provides a perfectly coherent story. To my mind, in other words, psychological and social mechanism exist that would make historicized mythology feasible.

    1. Thank you for your response. A few critical rejoinders.

      You sum up the problems with your article perfectly in the first line of your final paragraph: you are not privy to the methods and arguments in the field to which you are responding. You continue that ignorance in this comment.

      First, please look up "historicist." It means something, and that meaning is not to serve as an antonym to "mythicist." Also, note that that latter is the term that people espousing the view that Jesus did not exist adopt, not "mythologist," which again has a completely unrelated meaning.

      Second, biblical scholars are not classics scholars. Biblical studies and classical studies have related histories and are certain cognate histories but are nonetheless distinct fields. It does your arguments little credit when you do not even know the name of the field about which you are speaking.

      Third, your statements about how biblical scholars talk about mythology is just simply wrong. The language of mythology has not been prominent in the field for fifty or so years. And please be careful lest you commit the "No true Scotsman" fallacy here, upon which you bordered above.

      Fourth, I'm not qualified to be a psychologist. I haven't invested the time and energy needed to be a psychologist. I have invested the time and energy needed to be a biblical scholar. And I'm telling you, and James McGrath is telling you, and every qualified biblical scholar I have seen respond to your article has told you, that you are dead wrong in what you say about our field. You even admit that you know next to nothing about the field. Yet you continue to justify what you said, over and against those who do know quite a bit. Now, since you have decided that you have the right to be an armchair biblical scholar I'm inclined to say "Fair game," and be an armchair psychologist. Instead I will ask a question: in your professional opinion, what might we discern about a person's psychology if that person thinks that, despite a lack of any training and almost any knowledge on a matter, she can speak to it with greater competence and authority than those who do have that training and knowledge? I am very interested in the answer.