James on Jesus: Reopening Pandora’s Box

I would first like to again thank James McGrath for providing his blog as a venue to discuss this subject; it is no doubt a highly-charged and, sometimes, volatile subject at that.  While James and I have had many conversations about this in the past, including a few phone conversations, we have always remained cordial and that is a credit more to his patience, I think, than to mine. That being said, James has opened the conversation once again and I, as usual, am willing to fire back.

His most recent aspirations to dispute the claim has been two-fold.  Of the first, he has brought up an age-old Philosophy of History problem: the problem of being too skeptical.  This is a very valid perspective on James’ part.  After all, and James is right, we can only know someone existed from the past by examining the evidence left behind about them and by them.  We cannot travel back in time and examine the data as it was then.  Only by evaluating the available data, with the best of our understanding, through the lenses of several fields of study (anthropology, archaeology, and so forth) can any determination be made about history (in general) and individuals from history (specifically).  If all we have are written records of an individual, however, then we can only evaluate the credibility of the accounts.  If they are deemed credible, at least believable to some degree, historicity can be established—but this is often situational and I will cover this briefly below.

James, however, makes a false analogy from the start.   He erroneously compares the state of evidence for the historicity of Jesus to the state of the evidence for that of George Washington.  The elephant in the room, of course, is that the state of evidence for Washington is so incredibly good that to dispute it would be non-sense and delusional; conversely, the state of evidence for Jesus is not even comparable to the evidence for Washington and to make such an analogy is a sign of desperation.  James is bluffing, hoping that the mythicists at the table will fold before he has to show his hand.    And just why would James ignore all of the vast physical evidence we have from Washington (clothes, equipment, blankets, odds and ends, his remains—ahem) in his analogy?  Unless James is coveting Jesus’ gourd or sandal somewhere, that’s rather dishonest of him.  Now, it might be that this was unintentional—which then leads me to question how much thought James has actually put into his position?  James may indeed try to retort by saying that we cannot expect the same sort of evidence for Jesus that we have for Washington.  Well, d’uh…he would be correct in saying so; but then just why would you use that example then, James?

There is, of course, a huge problem, besides the one mentioned above, with this line of argumentation.  The source evidence we have for Jesus, being written down as it is, presents itself as a part of a literary tradition that is well known to scholars of all fields of ancient history.  James can probably present some good instances where individuals who were highly mythologized did, most probably, exist historically.  However, I can also produce instances of mythological individuals in antiquity that were historicized and yet, most probably, never existed historically (Lycurgus [the Spartan, not the Athenian statesman], Romulus and Remus, Moses, Abraham, Joshua, Job, Enkidu, Gilgamesh, the Greek demigods associated with other mystery religions like Dionysus, Bacchus, and Orpheus, etc…).  Often it is very difficult to tell the difference between these two literary scenarios and often scholars will work towards a compromise; a middle ground which, oddly enough, does not exist with Jesus.  This begs the question: Where does that leave the evidence for Jesus?  This is precisely the problem that James, and most historical Jesus scholars, fails to address.  In order for me, however, to address the situation in its entirety, I would need to rewrite the first, second, fifth, and seventh chapters of my book and, to be frank, I have no urgent desire to do so.

James’ second venture to refute the position is a little more, shall we say, devious.  James should reevaluate his continuous appeals to emotion, hyperbole, and a false consensus (despite what James and others say, no real consensus exists on the state of evidence for a historical Jesus—it truly is just an assumed, oft taken-for-granted, position and one, as James is demonstrating for us, that is notoriously hard to break from) in fragile efforts to harangue and dissuade people from, essentially, disagreeing with him.  Yes, James, I believe we are all capable of recognizing hyperbole when we see it.  Fortunately, it is a correctable occurrence—one that I have worked hard to overcome, myself.  It is very easy to get carried away and overstate the evidence; we should all be cautious about doing so, including mythicists (who, sadly, do it quite often as well—Zeitgeist is a good example of a mythicist position full of overstatement).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; James and others have reason to distrust the mythicist position as a whole, but that should not suggest that the position itself is flawed.  The direction some mythicists have taken the discussion might be flawed, but really it all comes down to the state of the evidence.  I don’t believe James, or anyone, can produce an argument strong enough to show probability in favor of Jesus’ historicity anymore than one can produce a strong enough argument for the historicity of Lycurgus, or Horatius, or any other substantially historicized or mythologized figure that a great deal of individuals believed in throughout antiquity.  And unlike James, I can produce, as well as others, a steady line of Jewish scribal tradition where history was not only invented, but utilized to express theological and philosophical perspectives.  And how convenient for me, these authors often did just this by using invented fictional characters placed in historical settings (i.e. Moses, Abraham, Job, etc…).  It is not merely a Jewish phenomenon either; it is a literary tradition that extends beyond borders through long-standing socio-cultural ties and utilizes story-telling techniques (like cuing the reader with eponymous names, for example).

This is not the first time I have had to come down on James for using hyperbole and I sincerely hope he will stop this nonsense and correct the flaw in his rhetoric now; otherwise I might be forced to reconsider my position on his level of honesty and integrity and, as a person who respects James’ work and him as a human being, I really hope it doesn’t come down to that.  That aside, I continue to look forward to the work James has done on this subject.  Hopefully he will come up with something soon that will surprise me.

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