Ehrman’s Take on The Basic Mythicist Position

Having run through his word-portraits of mythicist personalities and even gone into some detail in characterizing and criticizing the works of some authors he feels particularly ‘sensationalist’ Ehrman is finally ready to talk about what mythicism is all about.

The case that most mythicists have made against the historical existence of Jesus involves both negative and positive arguments, with far more of the former.

Which I think is to be expected – if one were to argue that unicorns do not really exist the lack of evidence for them would loom large in any discussion of the matter. This in itself speaks to the burden of proof: it’s generally agreed that those who propose something like the existence of unicorns need to make their case – it’s not up to anyone else to disprove them. But it’s not unusual for those unable to meet the burden of proof to challenge the skeptical listener to ‘prove I’m wrong’.

We see this in debates between theists and atheists all the time. Because belief in gods is so ubiquitous, it is often argued that the burden of proof is on the atheist to prove there aren’t any gods. Which seems rather absurd. Because the characteristics of these gods are so mutable and vague it’s difficult to know what would constitute ‘proof’ that none exist. A more reasonable view is for those making the positive claim to define what they mean and then back it up with what they think might be evidence for their view.

Likewise for the debate about the existence of Jesus: just because many belief there was a Jesus does not mean that there is no burden of proof on those who make this claim. As we have seen, Ehrman has characterized the question of Jesus’s historical existence as an unexamined axiom of Biblical studies which only with the publication of his book Did Jesus Exist? became an explicit argument intended to make that case.

I realized when doing my research for the book that since New Testament scholars have never taken mythicists seriously, they have never seen a need to argue against their views, which means that even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it. Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise. How do you prove that someone from 2000 years ago actually lived? I have to say, it was terrifically enlightening, engaging, and fun to think through all the issues and come up with all the arguments. I think really almost any New Testament scholar could have done it. But it ended up being lucky me.

http://ehrmanblog.org/did-jesus-exist-as-part-one/

Obviously if no one is really making a case for an historical Jesus (up until now) then one can hardly fault mythicists for failing to rebut one.

In any case, I think it is a fair assessment to say that there are both positive and negative arguments for a mythicist position: on the negative side there is the lack of evidence for Jesus as an historical person and on the positive side there should be arguments for how the figure of Jesus came about. To return to the unicorn example we have the lack of evidence for unicorns plus hypotheses as to how such a fabulous creature should have been developed.

On the negative side, mythicists typically stress that there are no reliable references to the existence of Jesus in any non-Christian sources of the first century. Jesus allegedly lived until about the year 30 CE. But no Greek or Roman author (or any other non-Christian author, for that matter) mentions him for over eighty years after that.

This would seem to be a fair characterization of a negative argument. While it is in itself not a decisive argument (after all most people who may have existed during this time period were not mentioned in surviving texts either), it would certainly help the case for an historic Jesus if there were some record of him outside of devotional literature. For instance, if there were no references to Boudicca by known contemporary authors what reason would we have to conclude she existed? And indeed the documentary evidence is slim – but slim is not none.

Ehrman will revisit this negative claim in detail later, so I will reserve discussion of it until then

(On a side note I’m getting rather frustrated by the constant flitting about: topics keep getting mentioned, hints dropped, promises made to go into detail later, etc such that it’s difficult to get a fix on the full argument. There’s a certain vague hand waving air that ‘all will be shown in due time’ that I get the impression I’m supposed to take these bland statements on faith for now. Is this how arguments are generally developed by established academicians? Make insinuations about the personalities of the people whose conclusions you disagree with before you address their arguments? Assert things as facts with only a promise that you will eventually establish them as facts?)

But let us move on to the other area where ‘lack of evidence’ is thought to plague claims for an historical Jesus:

In addition, they typically claim that the historical Jesus does not appear prominently even in early Christian writings apart from the New Testament Gospels. In particular, they maintain that the apostle Paul says hardly anything about the historical Jesus or that he says nothing at all. This may come as a shock to most readers of the New Testament, but a careful reading of Paul’s letters shows the problems. Paul has a lot to say about Jesus’s death and resurrection – especially the resurrection – and he clearly worships him as his Lord. But he says very little indeed about anything that Jesus said and did while he was alive. Why would that be, if Jesus was in fact a historical person?

This also seems like a good summing up of arguments I have seen regarding the epistolary record. The New Testament is a body of ‘canonical’ devotional literature part of which consists in texts in the form of letters supposedly written by various early christian heroes. Some of these are thought to have originated in the first century between the alleged date of Jesus’s crucifixion and the composition of the famous Four Gospels.

Now there are several issues connected with this – the first I should mention is ‘canonical’: there was a great deal more written about christianity by early christians which was not deemed as worthy of  acceptance when it came down to deciding which texts would be held as ‘theologically correct’ by an emerging orthodoxy. That is to say, there were many different ideas about what christianity was, who or what Jesus was, and many versions and variations of tales circulated from the earliest record. Those who thought their version was the correct one condemned the others as ‘heretics’ just as christians do today.

In any event, the version of christianity that won out over the others enforced its version of christianity in part by selecting among all the available literature which texts were required reading and how those texts were to be interpreted. So the New Testament is just a selected collection of devotional works that fit the agenda of one particular sect. Since everything that was excluded from this sample was either considered unimportant or even harmful, much of it was lost or deliberately destroyed. Much of what we know about these other christianities that flourished from the earliest times is literature from the winners in the historical contest – often polemical treatises condemning them.

How accurate these portrayals are is questionable indeed. Imagine if the only record we had of Abraham Lincoln was that of the secessionists in the United States, or the only record we had of Winston Churchill was written by Joseph Goebbels. Fortunately for historians some of the documents of alternative christianities have managed to survive and we are able to read for ourselves what else was thought and taught during this fertile time.

Of a variety of portraits of Jesus available to people of that time (on the assumption that the epistles do in fact predate the gospel tales) it is interesting to compare and contrast the earlier version of Jesus as found in Paul to the later-emerging narratives of the Jesus story. It would seem that much that was later put out about Jesus was different than the Jesus who appears in the epistles. This is another oddity which must be accounted for.

So if it is true that the historical Jesus is not known from disinterested contemporary authors, and not known from what is thought to be the earliest writings of the christians, where do we get information of an historical Jesus?

This means that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are our only real sources for knowing about the historical Jesus, and mythicists find these four sources highly problematic as historical documents. For one thing, they were written near the end of the first century at best, four or five decades or more after Jesus allegedly lived. If he really did live, wouldn’t we have some earlier sources? And how can we rely on such hearsay from so many years later?

Moreover, mythicists typically point out that the Gospels cannot be trusted in what they do say. Their many accounts of what Jesus said and did are chock-full of contradictions and discrepancies and so are completely unreliable. The Gospels are thoroughly biased toward their subject matter and so do not present anything like disinterested history “as it really was.” They can be shown to have modified the stories they relate, and in some places they obviously have made up stories about Jesus. In fact, virtually all – or even all – of the stories may have been invented.

Likewise this seems to be a reasonable statement of some criticisms made by many people of the gospel tales, whether they believe in an historical Jesus or they don’t.

As such these facts are further hurdles for those who want to argue for an historical Jesus – not only the lack of evidence from disinterested sources, but even from the earliest interested sources. And when sources for a biography of Jesus belatedly arrive on the scene, they are highly dubious.

Furthermore, many mythicists insist that the Four Gospels ultimately all go back to just one of the Gospels, Mark, on which the other three were based.

This is hardly a controversial claim. It is widely accepted that the Gospel of Mark (so called – really just attributed to someone named Mark who, as legend has it, took down the testimony of Simon Peter, allegedly a disciple of Jesus) was the first of the canonical four to be written, as the others seem to copy it and then expand upon it.

This does not impose an insuperable difficulty for someone who wants to argue for an historical Jesus, though it should serve as a warning that attempts to ‘multiply’ the number of sources in an effort to bolster the case is on notice that it’s well known that four versions of one story is not four independent sources.

Given all these problems, some mythicists insist that the burden of proof rests on anyone who wants to claim that Jesus did in fact exist.

We don’t even need to enumerate the problems to realize that the burden of proof is on those who make such a claim. That is where it always belonged. Ehrman seems to think there’s something wrong in mythicists ‘insisting’ on holding true to this basic principle of reasoning. Why this should be surprising to anyone, or a point that must be insisted upon against those trying to shrug off their responsibilities, is quite telling about the attitude Ehrman has toward meeting those responsibilities.

Added to these negative arguments is one very important positive one, that the stories about Jesus – many of them incredible, all of them based on late and unreliable witnesses – are paralleled time and again in the myths about pagan gods and other divine men discussed in the ancient world.

Thus Ehrman sums up what he takes to be the basic mythicist position, which I think is fair as far as it goes. Although it’s my understanding that there is much more to the positive case, but that is where we find much more diversity among those proposing that Jesus is more likely a literary figure than an historical one.

The discussion about the content of the epistles and the gospel tales touches on this – if it’s true that much of this material is literary in character (for instance, it’s widely recognized that half of the epistles attributed to Paul in the canon are forged in his name) then that is in itself positive evidence for a ‘mythical’ Jesus – evidence that the authors are ‘caught in the act’ of invention rather than faithfully recording history as they know it.

But now we are finally ready to embark on Ehrman’s discussion of what he takes to be the positive case for an historic Jesus, a task long avoided by the mainstream scholarly community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Taking mythicists seriously. Seriously?

Despite the profound implications of the question of whether Jesus existed historically (or only as a figure from literature – a myth) it seems there is no discussion of this issue because it is not taken seriously by those whose work is most closely affected by it:

It is fair to say that mythicists as a group, and as individuals, are not taken seriously by the vast majority of scholars in the fields of New Testament, early Christianity, ancient history, and theology. This is widely recognized, to their chagrin, by mythicists themselves. Archibald Robertson, in one of the classic works in the field, says with good reason, “The mythicist… does not get fair play from professional theologians. They either meet him with a conspiracy of silence or, if that is impossible, treat him as an amateur whose lack of academic status robs his opinion of any value…”

If  in fact mythicists do not get fair play by established academics, then we can certainly look forward to this situation being corrected now that the secret is out. Ehrman goes on to give examples of others who summarily dismiss the views which are so antithetical to their own (John Meier and I Howard Marshall).

Having established that, in his view, mythicists are treated unfairly by academics in his field, Ehrman goes on to mention some whose arguments must be considered:

As I will indicate more fully later, I think Wells – and Price, and several other mythicists – do deserve to be taken seriously, even if their claims are in the end dismissed.

Which is in the end the ideal – ideas are not simply to be ignored nor dismissed without a hearing – even if it becomes clear that the evidence does not support a theory at this time it is fruitful to know where it fails and how it might be instructive to look at old ideas from a fresh perspective. Even if mythicism does not succeed in persuading, some of the critiques it offers may be beneficial in testing hypotheses of the current consensus.

 

Knowing that Ehrman intends to take some mythicists seriously, we are about to embark for the meat of the matter. But before we do Ehrman treats his readers to a couple of appetizers, authors who he does not feel should be taken seriously: D M Mudock whose work includes The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold and Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy whose book The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? comes under some scrutiny.

While it is useful to provide a taste of the sensationalist claims that one can find in this literature, I do not think that the serious authors who have pursued a mythicist agenda (for example G A Wells, Robert Price, and now Richard Carrier) can be tarnished with the same brush or be condemned with guilt by association. Their work has to stand or fall on its own. independent of the foibles and shortcomings of the sensationalists.

That’s good to know, because in my experience many who have taken up the historicist agenda make it quite clear that ‘guilt by association’ is a major pillar of their mode of argumentation. That is when they’re not simply ignoring mythicists, or condemning the on the basis of what credentials they hang on their office walls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ehrman names names – a colorful ensemble of mythicists

Ehrman continues his brief history of mythicism by running quickly through a list of some authors whose views touch on the subject. After Bruno Bauer’s career was destroyed by anti-mythicist fanaticism:

The mythicist view was taken up some decades later in English-speaking circles by J. M. Robertson, sometimes considered the premier British rationalist of the beginning of the twentieth century… Robertson argued there were striking similarities between what the Gospels claim about Jesus and what earlier peoples believed about pagan gods of fertility, who, like Jesus, were said to have died and been raised from the dead… while there may have been a man named Jesus, he was nothing like the Christ worshiped by Christians, who was a mythical figure based on an ancient cult of Joshua, a dying-and-rising vegetative god who was ritually sacrificed and eaten.

Here Robertson’s views seems to mirror that of many supporters of an ‘historical Jesus’ – especially when they try to draw a sharp distinction between the ‘Jesus of faith’ whose biography is pretty much laid out faithfully in the Gospels and the ‘historical Jesus’ who was a mortal man and likely did not say and do many of the things ascribed to him by the Gospels. That very little beyond ‘Jesus existed’ can be agreed upon by those who hold this position would seem to indicate that Robertson was right in thinking this Jesus was a cipher.

Many of these views came to be popularized by a German scholar of the early twentieth century named Arthur Drews, whose work, The Christ Myth (1909), was arguably the most influential mythicist book ever produced because it made a huge impact on one reader in particular. It convinced Vladimir Ilyich Lenin that Jesus was not a real historical figure. This, in large measure, led to the popularity of the myth theory in the emerging Soviet Union.

Unfortunately Ehrman is unable to sketch out for his readers the arguments that were found to be so convincing. I’m sure Ehrman will get around to that, eventually…

But I do notice the widespread acceptance of Jesus as a figure of myth in this part of the world is put down to the personality of one man. It couldn’t bet that where christianity is a political force to be reckoned with Jesus historicism is found acceptable, while in regions where christianity is impotent it is at least within reason to suppose this figure is more myth than fact – could it?  But why does it matter in which nations this or the other view might prove more popular?

Ehrman follows this all too brief ‘history’ with a few paragraphs to bring his readers up to date on mythicist authors today. I will not do much more than touc on this section as the living authors have works which can be referenced easily independently of Ehrman’s characterization and they are perfectly able to respond to any valid criticisms offered as well as defend themselves if they find that Ehrman mischaracterizes them or their views.

Ehrman mentions Earl Doherty, Robert Price, Frank Zindler, Thomas L Thompson, Richard Carrier, Tom Harpur, and George A Wells – these are the ‘colorful ensemble’ Ehrman considers to be the contemporary champions of the position that Jesus may well not have existed at all. Why they are any more ‘colorful’ than the card-carrying members of the New Testament academy remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s their ties?

 

 

 

 

 

Bruno Bauer – mythicist martyr?

Ehrman introduces Bruno Bauer in his brief history of mythicism section:

The first bona fide scholar of the Bible to claim that Jesus never existed was a German theologian named Bruno Bauer, generally regarded among New Testament scholars as very smart and very idiosyncratic… When he started out as a scholar, Bauer concurred with everyone else in the field that there was historically reliable material in the first three Gospels of the New Testament… As he progressed in his research, however, and subjected the Gospel accounts to a careful, detailed, and hypercritical evaluation, Bauer began to think that Jesus was a literary invention of the gospel writers. Christianity, he concluded, was an amalgamation of Judaism with the Roman philosophy of Stoicism. This was obviously an extreme and radical view for a professor of theology to take at the state-supported German University of Bonn. It ended up costing him his job.

I do hope Ehrman intends to revisit Bauer and discuss some of the actual evidence which convinced this smart and careful scholar that Jesus was a literary invention. As it is we are left to wonder what could prompt an academic to go against the  cultural and political prejudices of his time. We are only told by Ehrman that Bauer was ‘idiosyncratic’, that his views were ‘extreme’ and ‘radical’ and that 

…[Bruno Bauer] had virtually no followers in the scholarly world.

Hardly surprising Bauer had virtually no following among scholars when you consider how Bauer was punished for holding the view that Jesus never existed outside the pages of literature. He lost his position, which rather makes you wonder about those who cite ‘no one in academia holds the mythicist view’ when it is evident that expressing that view is apparently enough to get you fired.

Considering how hard people work to obtain jobs in academia, and the prestige that comes with it, you can understand why someone might be loathe to jeopardize their place in academia by even considering the question and keeping your dangerous ideas to yourself. As academic scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann notes

I should also mention that the biggest reason for the shyness of scholars with respect to the non-historicity thesis had/has to do with academic appointments (as in security thereof) rather than common sense. As a middle-of-the road Hegelian like Strauss discovered.

 

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/christ-myth-and-holocaust-denial/#comment-10067

This is not even something that could only happen in the ‘bad old days’ – recently another respected and reputable scholar lost his job when he publicly declared his considered opinion that Jesus was not an historical person: Thomas L Brodie was dismissed from the institution he founded when he revealed his conviction that Jesus was a figure of myth. 

But the ‘no academic mythicists’ mantra rings rather hollow when you realize this is not so much an observation about scholars as it is apparently a statement of enforced policy. In a piece appearing on the Huffington Post website Ehrman stated

…there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html

So not only will mythicists be fired if they are found out, they won’t even be hired in the first place, for no other reason than considering Jesus a myth. It begins to sound like members of a restricted club claiming ‘Jews can’t play golf’ simply because they don’t allow them to join the club.

But I do want to go back and look at some of the words Ehrman uses to describe Bauer and his views: idiosyncratic, hypercritical, extreme, and radical.

It’s not abundantly clear what ‘idiosyncratic’ is supposed to mean here. Certainly Bauer seems to have been bold enough to go against the grain of the times, but that tells us nothing about the value of their approach or their findings. Perhaps it’s just a word used to underscore the ‘mythicists are a minority’ meme Ehrman wants to emphasize, with the implication that there’s something wrong with taking a minority position. And as we’ve seen, steps are taken to make sure it’s a minority position.

And what is ‘hypercritical’ meant to stand for? Literally it means ‘overly critical’, but just how critical is the ‘just right’ amount? The amount that Ehrman is critical? I often hear the term ‘hyper-skeptical’ thrown at atheists because they dismiss claims of magic and other supernatural phenomenon on the grounds that evidence for such things is lacking. Perhaps it’s just meant to mean ‘not credulous enough for my taste’.

Then we have the charge of ‘extremism’. There’s not much one can do with that – I mean how much of a spectrum of views is there? Yes Jesus existed, no he didn’t? Aren’t they both equally ‘extreme’? Or is Bauer’s views ‘extreme’ only to mean ‘unpopular among scholars who want to keep their jobs’? It seems to me that ‘extremism’ is just another scare word flung at a scholar like Bauer in hopes it will stick in the mind of his readers even if only subconsciously.

Then there is ‘radical’ which has a couple of senses to it, one which may well be technically accurate: Bauer’s years of study and scholarship led him to conclude that the very root belief about the origins of christianity – that it was based more or less on the biography of an historical Jesus – turns out to be a false trail. In this sense Bauer is addressing the roots of the whole enterprise, introducing a whole new paradigm, and could be described as radical just as Copernicus’s heliocentric model was a ‘radical’ shift in perspective.

Having grown up during the Cold War I also know that ‘radical’ is often used in a pejorative sense – every time I would read in the newspaper about ‘radicals’ I knew exactly what point of view I was supposed to take about these persons. They weren’t ‘our kind’, they were dangerous. and if not actually evil they were certainly misguided. Certainly for the general reader a less emotionally loaded way of characterizing Bauer’s work could be found?

For those interested in a little more in depth discussion of Bauer I include a couple of links to a blog I highly recommend: Vridar

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/bruno-bauer-through-albert-schweitzer/

and

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/08/18/bruno-bauer-and-today-is-this-not-the-carpenter-chapter-2/

Though perhaps Ehrman will revisit Bauer later in his book, we’ll have to leave it here for now.