Mythicism: like Creationism and Holocaust denial?

I have reserved a couple of Ehrman’s assertions in his introduction to Did Jesus Exist? for discussion in detail so as not to dilute their significance with the rather more casual characterizations of mythicists. Those were bad enough, but in my reading these two examples fairly leap off the page as being especially revealing.

In his argument about the expertise of academic Jesus scholars Ehrman gradually turns up the heat:

Those who do not think Jesus existed are frequently militant in their views and remarkably adept at countering evidence that to the rest of the civilized world seems compelling and even unanswerable… The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist.

…the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet.

This is where Ehrman begins to contrast the expert to the amateur – you want your dentist to be an expert, or your architect to draw up your house plans, don’t you? Professionals with years of training and experience. He goes on to bring this contrast to the field of history.

It may be the case that some of my students get the bulk of their knowledge of the Middle Ages from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but is that really the best place to turn? So too millions of people have acquired their “knowledge” about early Christianity – about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the emperor Constantine, the Council of Nicaea – from Dan Brown’, author of the aforementioned The Da Vinci Code. But at the end of the day, is that such a wise choice?

Ironically, both Monty Python and Dan Brown in their works of fiction posit that Jesus did in fact exist. It would be interesting if Ehrman acknowledged that shallowness and a passion for conspiracy is part of the worldview of some who share his conviction that Jesus was a real historical person. Indeed, may get their ideas about Jesus from the devotional literature of the New Testament, a body of literature riddled with problems as almost universally admitted among everyone who’s done any study of it (including Ehrman himself!). But perhaps that would introduce too many shades of gray in the black and white portrait he’s trying to draw.

Serious historians of the early Christian movement – all of them – have spent many years preparing to be experts in their field. Just to read the ancient sources requires expertise in a range of ancient languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and often Aramaic, Syriac, and Coptic, not to mention the modern languages of scholarship (for example, German and French). And that is just for starters. Expertise requires years of patiently examining ancient texts and a thorough grounding in the history and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, both pagan and Jewish, knowledge of the history of the Christian church and the development of its social life and theology, and, well, lots of other things.

Indeed we are all indebted to the work of scholarship for much of whatever we may believe about early christian history and the stories of the New Testament. Even the humble Bibles used by believer and skeptic alike is only accessible because of the work of translation from ancient into modern language. It’s no secret that the work of experts have contributed mightily to shaping whatever knowledge we might have about the literature and history of early christianity.

And today’s academic scholars are likewise indebted to past scholars for their training and the theoretical framework within which they practice their discipline. For more than a thousand years scholarship was the preserve of that same Christian church, and its concerns and agenda controlled what could and could not be studied and what could and could not be published. Sometimes to the point of outright murder of dissenters. Only gradually over hundreds of years could an academia free of dogmatic oversight begin to produce a secular body of independent scholarly literature.

Nonetheless, even today a significant part of the academic world – especially in Jesus studies – is still under the thumb of religious control. And when Ehrman includes teachers at theological seminaries and divinity schools among his body of experts he tacitly admits that fact.

Moreover simply because one attends or is employed at a secular school it does not necessarily preclude one from being a person of the christian faith. Indeed in our society most people identify themselves as being christians of one stripe or another – the one unifying theme of christianity being belief in Jesus whatever doctrinal differences divide them. Even those who do not subscribe to christianity are very likely to have been raised as christians in a society awash in christian beliefs. Even free thinkers are likely to simply accept that Jesus existed by osmosis.

So I think it is fair to say that belief that there was a Jesus – whether you accept theological claims about him or not – is the almost universal axiomatic jumping off point for just about  everyone. Which is reflected in thinking about ancient times. We mark time from the supposed date of the birth of Jesus, and it’s non-controversial for anyone talking about the period to refer to it as ‘the time of Christ’. It appears that the notion of Jesus as an historical person is part of the warp and woof of our culture.

These considerations go a long way, I believe, in explaining why New Testament scholars never thought to try and demonstrate that this Jesus really existed. It’s a given.

These considerations also go a long way, I think, in explaining Ehrman’s puzzlement about the existence of people who deny the existence of Jesus.

Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

The idea that the central figure in the field of study so many have devoted their lives to might be a myth must have been a shock. Ehrman makes a couple of comparisons to express just how shocking this ‘radical skepticism’ is:

It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure. Again, this is not a piece of evidence, but if nothing else, it should give one pause. In the field of biology, evolution may be “just” a theory (as some politicians painfully point out), but it is the theory subscribed to, for good reason, by every real scientist in every established university in the Western world.

In this analogy Jesus is to history as evolution is to biology. To deny the real existence of Jesus is like denying the realty of evolution. To be a mythicist is like being a creationist.

Now, as Ehrman tells us, biologists subscribe to evolution as an explanatory theory for good reason. The question is, do New Testament scholars subscribe to the historical existence of Jesus for equally good reasons? After all there is literally tons of evidence for evolution – there are so many fossils that museums can’t display them all and new evidence is discovered every day. Is Ehrman really trying to imply there is the same overwhelming unambiguous glut of hard evidence for Jesus?

If there isn’t a similar state of the evidence in both cases, then Ehrman’s comparison fails. Can we really accept that some of the prestige enjoyed by evolutionary science can rub off onto New Testament studies in this way? I don’t think so.

Now if Jesus scholars aren’t much like evolutionary biologist in the significant way Ehrman implies, are mythicists in any significant way like creationists?

In the face of the growing accumulation of evidence for evolution creationists by and large have only a couple of tacks available to them: that the evidence is faked, that naturalistic explanations couldn’t work even if it’s not fake, and that the traditional explanation of magical intervention is more likely.

Now it is known that some of the New Testament materials are fakes, even by the New Testament scholars. This is just a problem everyone interested in the study of early christianity has to cope with. This is a rather important distinction between the state of evidence for biological evolution and Jesus studies. So it’s hardly controversial that people who reject the historicity of Jesus acknowledge this fact.

As far as I know most mythicists are willing to acknowledge that the historical Jesus hypothesis could work if there were sufficient evidence – it is known that legends can grow up around real historical persons.

Finally, it seems to me most mythicists propose a thoroughly naturalistic explanation for the development of christianity as a distinct religious movement.

On this score I think Ehrman’s comparison of mythicists to creationists also fails. Can we reasonably accept that some of the distaste and disdain for creationists should rub off on mythicists? No.

Now having tried to make an analogy along these lines Ehrman goes directly to another comparison:

Still, as is clear from the avalanche of sometimes outraged postings on all the relevant Internet sites, there is simply no way to convince conspiracy theorists that the evidence for their position is too thin to be convincing and that the evidence for the traditional view is thoroughly persuasive. Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that a majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing – whether it involves the fact of the Holocaust, the landing on the moon, the assassination of presidents, or even a presidential place of birth – will not be convinced. Simply will not be convinced.

This is the most egregious slur against mythicists, attempting to put them in the same boat as a laundry-list of familiar cultural ‘bad guys’ and whipping boys.

Mythicists are people who are not persuaded of what a majority believes, so they are part of the ‘anyone’ Ehrman excoriates. And what is this ‘evidence’ that this majority finds overwhelmingly persuasive? Mostly it’s the Bible. And the weight of more than a thousand years of cultural domination of christian dogma.

I find it appalling that Ehrman trivializes the Holocaust by dragging it into his argument in a transparent attempt to tar mythicists with the same broad brush. Is this how a scholar is supposed to conduct himself? And this is no slip of the pen – he makes the same comparison in articles and interviews during the media blitz advertising his book.

By choosing to frame the debate about whether or not Jesus really existed in such Manichean terms it appears to me that Ehrman is betraying some insecurity as to whether a dispassionate examination of the evidence will be persuasive, and thus resorts to poisoning the well. He seems to be trying to inoculate his readership against taking the arguments of mythicists with an open mind and freely and fairly judging them on their merits. Because he has planted this seed in their minds that to listen to them will be like giving a sympathetic hearing to Holocaust deniers, creationists, and conspiracists.

Even if Ehrman privately thinks this way, he would have been better served to let the evidence and the arguments speak for themselves. By giving vent to such an emotional outburst Ehrman gives discerning readers good reason to doubt that he gives scholars who are not persuaded of the existence of an historical Jesus a fair hearing.


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