Defining Mythicism: Is it Easier to be a Caesar Mythicist Than a Jesus Mythicist?

James McGrath, Neil Godfrey, Toto (from FRDB), and of course Steven Carr have been discussing, in no small effort, the vagaries of mythicism and historicism; all of this, I would say, makes it more clear that the evidence is still inconclusive.  But James does make a claim that I must dispute:

As for Julius Caesar, it would not be nearly as hard to me a Caesar mythicist. The references to “Caesar” on coins referred to a spiritual ruler, who was only later turned into a historical one. They even wrote things in his name, but can we be 100% certain that they are not later forgeries. Is it not wrong, says the mythicist, to trust the judgment of experts who tell us that these sources are both ancient and reliable, and who tell us the dates for various artifacts?

It is not harder to be a Caesar mythicist than a Jesus mythicist, and it involves employing many of the same strategies.

This demonstrates, quite profoundly, the reasons why the evidence for different figures of history (but not necessarily from history) must be weighed on its own merit.  First, the analogy of the contemporary coins bearing Caesar’s name to the evidence for Jesus, which is made up of narrative texts written decades later by non-contemporaries, is inappropriate for several reasons.  First, several coins were commissioned with Caesar’s name, all contemporary to his life and his deeds, many of which Caesar had commissioned himself.   It would be impossible to interpret these as spiritual. There is also a large amount of supporting evidence that coins were often commissioned (though not always) to commemorate people and events–real people and real events.

But it isn’t just a matter of coins.  We have Caesar’s own memoirs, quite attested, and probably most important is the contemporary enemy attestation (via Cicero’s correspondence with Brutus and his own words throughout his works).  We also have actual histories and biographies about Caesar, that is to say, not just rewritten narratives but histories of his campaigns which can still be verified independently using archaeological data.  If we had any of this sort of evidence for Jesus, of course, there would be no debate at all.

But this is also where many mythicists are quite wrong as well.  We should not expect this sort of evidence for a figure like Jesus–supposing he was historical.  And we must not make the mistake that many mythicists make when they argue that ‘if Jesus was really healing the sick and raising the dead we should expect more evidence’.  Yes, but a historical figure of Jesus would not have done those things.  And even in the event such a figure, if he existed, did do those things, we should not just expect there to be evidence.  Returning to Caesar as an example, even with contemporary evidence and archaeological data supporting his existence, where he had commanded armies in huge battles that decided the fate of the known world at that time, much of what he did and said are as contested and obscured by data as anything having to deal with Christian origins.  The Battle of Pharsalus, for example, is written about not only by Julius Caesar in his memoirs, but by a plethora of ancient historians.  Yet the location of where the battle was fought is hotly debated, and has been debated for generations in scholarship.  Even Caesar’s own accounts aren’t wholly trusted (he gets things wrong–and he was there!).

But James’ example is still inaccurate and unhelpful, as if we shouldn’t expect the same sort of evidence or attestation, why did James use it as an example to begin with?  The more appropriate example, if James wishes to use one, might be the historicity of the figure of David or, for a more classical reference, the historicity of the figure of Apollonius of Tyana, where these individuals might have existed, but doubt is certainly acceptable and realistic.  And if one leaned on the side that these figures did not exist, they would not be penalized or ridiculed for it.  It is almost as if James needs to produce an example for which there can be no rational or reasonable doubt to compare it to Jesus, so as to make the mythicist position look more strained and ridiculous.  This is unfair and disingenuous.  If he is to argue a position that requires an analogy, he should stick to examples where the evidence is in a similar state.  But, and perhaps he knows, using those examples would not be helpful for his position as doubting the historicity of those other figures is quite acceptable and common.

The debate taking place right now highlights all the wrong in the current discussion.  There is an inadequate amount of respect for the historical position James is taking from the mythicists, which is not only rude but hypocritical (you can’t demand respect and then claim that historical Jesus scholars like James are incompetent–it doesn’t work that way).  But there is also a gross overstatement of the evidence from those arguing for historicity and also an inability to recognize the legitimacy of the question over the mythical aspect of the figure of Jesus.  After all, we have no evidence suggesting Jesus was ever just a man (i.e., non-miraculous figure).  None (this, by the way, doesn’t mean I don’t believe that some evidence couldn’t lean to an exaggerated historical figure).  So we must treat the evidence for Jesus differently than that of Julius Caesar (for whom we have contemporary evidence of his human-ness from his antagonists).   This means not making statements comparing Jesus (who would not have warranted much attention) to figures like Caesar, to Alexander, or some other figure of great renown.  But it also means recognizing that the limitations of the evidence don’t necessarily point to a negative position.

Finally, we must all remember that the ancient mythic mind of the believer, the scribal author, the Gospel writer, was much different than the rational minds of people today.  Sociological studies are quite effective at proving that.  So claiming, as some might, that Jesus could have been a completely mythical figure that had come to be euhemerized into the past is not, outright, an ignorant or preposterous suggestion as we have plenty of examples in history of such an occurrence.  It is, however, one that does deserve to take the evidence seriously–both historical Jesus scholars and mythicists could do well to remember that.  Only then can the arguments be refined in a manner suitable to the academic world which it belongs.

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8 Responses

  1. [...] 9, 2011 by James F. McGrath GA_googleAddAttr("author", "JamesFMcGrath"); Tweet Tom Verenna shared some thoughts on something I wrote recently, in a comment on the Vridar blog, in which I suggested that it is not harder to be a mythicist [...]

  2. Thanks for posting about this, Tom! Here’s a response of sorts on my own blog. I don’t actually disagree that the comparison is problematic – but precisely because we can reasonably expect stronger evidence for the existence of Julius Caesar, and yet could cast doubt on his existence using the methods employed by Earl Doherty, to say nothing of Dorothy Murdoch, that suggests that the approach of the Jesus-mythicists is methodologically flawed.

  3. Thanks James!

  4. I think we have to separate whether arguments are sane vs. whether arguments can be said. The principles employed by Murdock, Doherty, and the good people at Zeitgeist to make historical cases, if extended beyond their field can get all sorts of results. I would argue that their sort of thinking is the same kind used by Stichin for his aliens from planet Marduk. You just assume that everyone else who works on the subject is somewhere between incompetent and fraud, present only favorable evidence and opinions, assume you are the greatest expert on any relevant languages or ideas, and so on.

    I remember a commenter on James’s blog that claimed that it was Nero who had defeated the Judean rebellion and destroyed the Temple. Ludicrous? You bet, I didn’t even bother to ask how he came to that conclusion. I bet though if I asked he would have an argument and an explanation, however unlikely, for any evidence that would suggest otherwise.

    If someone wanted to take the time to make the case that J. Caesar didn’t exist I think they could. It probably wouldn’t be particularly valid or plausible, but it could be said. And in that regard it wouldn’t be different in kind from Doherty’s work, though I imagine it would be different in scope (one would have to explain a lot of coins and literature)

  5. [...]  to clarify, on my blog James writes:  I don’t actually disagree that the comparison is problematic – but precisely because we can [...]

  6. Mike, I think you are correct. An argument can be made for anything. The issue here is about methods. And I have made a statement here:

  7. The debate taking place right now highlights all the wrong in the current discussion. There is an inadequate amount of respect for the historical position James is taking from the mythicists, which is not only rude but hypocritical (you can’t demand respect and then claim that historical Jesus scholars like James are incompetent–it doesn’t work that way).

    So where is the lack of respect from “the mythicists” (plural), Tom? Cite the evidence.

    Where are the hypocritical demands for respect “from the mythicists”?

    So this is your “even-handedness”? Just make up accusations against “the myhicistst” (with my name included among them in your opening line) so you can balance faults you see in the other side?

  8. Neil, we’ve already hashed out clear examples of you claiming lack of a respect and being ridiculed and the various types of persecution complexes that mythicists, particularly in the more fringe wing (DM for example), display. There is no need to rehash common knowledge, we’ve already seen examples of this, even from you, in my blog comments. This is a gentle nod, Neil. Not an insult.

    I am surprised you would believe I am ‘making up accusations’ when this is a flaw that almost everyone sees in your writing. You have no respect for James McGrath, and that tone bleeds out through your own writing. You might feel that your tone is warranted, and I can understand that feeling, but it really isn’t necessary. IN your recent comments in your blog, I do applaud you on being less agitated than you have been in the past. That doesn’t excuse those instances where you aren’t. And it doesn’t excuse James for his behavior on those occasions as well.

    But I will state that among mythicists, you are one of the most level-headed, along with Earl, but if you spend any amount of time on Dorothy Murdock’s message boards, or spoken with her fan base, you will see quite clearly what I mean. It’s persecutionism that stains the discussion from the mythicist side.

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