See James’ interesting discussion on his blog. Here is a snippet to get the conversation going:
Let me emphasize from the outset that I am talking about a particular brand of mythicism, one well represented in discussions on blogs like Vridar as well as by commenters here at Exploring Our Matrix.
It is the type of mythicism which asserts that it is impossible to deduce the historicity of events on the basis only of details in texts.
via Exploring Our Matrix.
I would say James is correct, to a point. His example here is a good one. As a minimalist, however, I feel that basing historicity to a certain high level of probability (in either direction) based solely on the text is as disingenuous as it is dangerous.
For example, saying that it is highly probable (something like a consensus-conforming figure–over 75% or so) that certain figures in the Biblical narratives are historical based on nothing but the text is, as far as the evidence goes, dishonest. Of course this is specifically scenario-dependent (this is more true for certain figures than others, and context plays a role).
In the introduction and first chapter of my ‘Of Men and Muses’ I bring up the problems associated with making probabilistically-positive historical claims about figures in ancient literature. Thomas L. Thompson is quite right, for example, when he writes:
We do get an accumulating body of stories from such works as Josephus writes and from the traditional historiographies given in the Bible, but it is a mistake to suppose that we can use one text to confirm what another says about the past. The most important historical information we can learn from such ancient historiography has very little to do with the quality of their history, and almost nothing to do with what they say about the past. (The Mythic Past, 2000; p. 10)
Philip Davies would agree:
No story, and that includes the stories our memories generate, is ever an innocent or objective representation of the outside world. All story is fiction, and that must include historiography. (In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’, 1999; p. 13)
Ancient sources are not the recordings of ‘what happened’. Such a notion was the furthest thing from the minds of the Biblical authors–indeed, even Livy and Tacitus had little concern for ‘what happened’ when ‘what happened’ was an inconvenience for their overall agenda or rhetorical message. And whereas the Gospel authors sought to make more of a theological point than a historical one (if history played any part in the minds of the authors at all, it was merely to supplement the theological message), historical verisimilitude becomes even more elusive.
But by ‘elusive’ I do not mean to suggest that it is ‘deceptive fiction’. Simply because we cannot find evidence for it does not mean eo ipso that we are talking about a deliberate attempt to mislead as Philip also points out that directly dismissing the text is just as dangerous. After all, strange things happen so records of strange things are not automatically dubious. Agnosticism towards historicity is still recommended. So in this, James is absolutely correct.