James McGrath: “Are Some Forms of Mythicism Self-Contradictory?”

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.


13 Responses

  1. I assume that when you say you don’t mean to suggests that it is fiction, you are disagreeing with the statement by Philip Davies in some way or you are using fiction in a different sense, is that correct?

  2. In a different sense, yes. Philip is quite correct; but his meaning is that it is fiction–it did not happen as it is portrayed (if at all). My use in that paragraph is to suggest that the author was not out to deceive and what we know is that, simply because its historical core is elusive, does not mean that it is impossible. I will amend the paragraph for clarity.

  3. Surely it is possible for an author to write a fictional tale that is not meant to deceive. When I read a novel, I assume the writer knowingly wrote a piece of fiction.

    Are you familiar with Beck’s work on The Golden Ass? I have not been able to read it fully (copyright and all) but in Chapter 6 of the linked work evidently he argues with some justification that Apuleius was writing not just a novel for entertainment but a tract for the sympathetic outsider of his mystery that would introduce the cosmology to them.

    Therefore I feel like there is a fallacy of excluded middle implied in the idea of “fiction” as you are using it. People don’t write either straight history or complete deceptive fiction. They can also write texts that have substrata that are the primary purpose of the text with a superstructure that is apparently different. Is this not another option for the gospel genre?

  4. Evan, you’re talking past me. I never said that I thought it was impossible for an author to write a fiction that was not meant to deceive; in fact, that is precisely what I feel are the Gospels.

  5. OK, I am sorry I am so obtuse. You suggested that the gospels were not deceptive fiction. I am unaware of anyone whose theory suggests that they are, so I guess I am unsure who you are arguing against with that phrase. Do you have any examples of a “deceptive fiction”?

  6. No, because I am not arguing that point.

  7. I’m sorry Evan, I was rather exhausted last night and did not have the chance to give your comment the time it deserved. First, keep in mind that I feel we have similar perspectives on the genre of the Gospels. That said, I know many laypeople, especially Zeitgeist mythicists, who feel that the Gospels are deceptive. Also Joe Atwill is another example of someone who argues that the Gospels (or at least one of them) had been written by Romans to deceive the Jews into joining a new religion. People argue some strange points.

  8. OK, that clarifies it very well for me, thanks.

  9. Tom, have you considered that Mark may be fictional at the level of some individual pericope but the author is unaware of that and has assemble a collection of anecdotal stories he thinks illustrates the life of Jesus? When looking at American folk lore I noticed that some tales look like things that were believed and told to be believed about and individual, and some looked like tall tales concerning a famous individual(I doubt any one believed at any time that Davy Crockett rode up a waterfall on the back of an alligator). When compiling the deeds of someone thought to have miraculous power sorting out the fabulous, like feeding the masses from the mundane, like getting crucified would have been difficult.

    Relatedly, do you fell Mark is a compilation of anecdotes or is it the unified creation of the author?

  10. I believe that assigning to Mark, someone who was clearly well educated and underwent rhetorical and imitative training (Μίμησίς, and Ζήλωσις), the label of ‘oblivious’ is a little silly. His work is chalk full of purpose. We see these stories all over antiquity and especially in Jewish literature from the period. These archetypal narratives where the protagonist is an eponymous topos themselves. I don’t think Mark believed he was writing about a historical figure in the sense that we might think of Davy Crockett; more like in the same sense that Herodotus, Xenophon, Polybius, and Plutarch write about Lycurgus (the lawgiver, not the king). Maybe Plutarch wrote about Lycurgus in a sense that you speak of, creating a fictional legend around someone he felt was historical…but did Herodotus think he was a historical figure of was he writing a fiction about an idealistic Greek–the epitome of which he felt a Spartan should aspire? In this, perhaps Eusebius thought of Jesus as a historical figure, but did Mark? Did Paul? These questions are decidedly more complex to answer and require background in linguistics, the languages, the style of prose, the knowledge of ancient education and writing practices, the socio-cultural drive to create such stories… this is my understanding coming from this background.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but there is no evidence to base the conclusion upon Mark’s incompetence as a writer–I tend to think that devalues Mark’s skillful composition and talent for imitation.

  11. I think one can create purpose out of collected stories. The author of Judges does that with a disparate grab bag of legends. It is no slight on the author.

    Is this the Lycurgus of “The Histories” book 1 :65? I don’t know, but i would imagine Herodotus would think he is a real person. I get the impression pre-modern historians put a lot of faith in the handed down tale of their ancestors.

  12. Yes, certainly someone can create purpose out of collected stories. The question is not whether it is possible, or even whether it happens (or happened). The question is whether or not we can show that simply because an author discusses a figure or event in a context which, upon the surface, seems historical. This is where the background in genre, ancient authorship and literary composition really play a big role.

    I’m not saying my position is the be-all, end-all; however I would say that my case is defensible. And compared to some arguments for the figure of Jesus, that’s saying something.

  13. […] about mythicism. He asked if some forms of mythicism are inherently self-contradictory. Tom Verenna responded, as did Neil Godfrey. McGrath interacted with their responses here. Both Verenna and Godfrey […]

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