Is Mythicism Close to its End?

Many readers now are quite aware that I am no longer a ‘mythicist’ so I am not against James’ assertion that it is dying.  But I’d like to state quite plainly that the lack of historical veracity for a figure of Jesus is still a problem that has yet to be adequately addressed by scholars.  James might well be a part of the “mainstream academic fold” that ignores the question, accepting it based on old, dated methods but that doesn’t mean the question has gone away.  As someone who is agnostic about the question of historicity, I believe that the question cannot be put to rest under scholars directly (as opposed to indirectly, so common in studies of the historical figure of Jesus) deal with the questions academically.  This is what Carrier and I both hope to accomplish.

In other words, unlike those Zeitgeist mythicists, so dogmatic in their claims and parallelisms, historical Jesus agnostics (as I would label myself) are more concerned with coming to an answer using valid, critical methods.  Carrier’s two volume work will address problems with current methodology in historical Jesus scholarship–something desperately needed.  But his work also proposes a new method, utilizing mathematics.  I don’t think its fair that James dismisses his methods out of hand, as something inappropriate for historical reconstruction, especially since he doesn’t seem to fully grasp it or understand how to use it.   And I don’t think Hoffmann’s dismissal of it as irrelevant is useful either, since he first championed his methods and now rebukes them (due to his personal issues with Carrier or because of other issues, I cannot say).  And what I know of Carrier’s method actually takes into account the current flaws in historical Jesus methods and does an amazing job correcting them precisely by checking all assertive (i.e., overstatements, hyperbole, etc…)  claims that fail to support the data in an honest way.

In my volume, ed. with Thomas Thompson, the New Testament community is asked to directly address its own questions regarding historicity.  It is not a book for mythicists, nor is it a mythicist book.  It is a book which reopens the question of historicity back up for academia and, in a large way, readdresses the subject in a minimalist way.  Are we actually asking appropriate questions when we ask them about a historical figure?  Can that figure be recovered?  Would it matter if he or she were?  Are we failing to read the books of the New Testament the way they were meant to be read if we read them in search of historicity?   And so forth.  The book takes a stance, neither for or against historicity, but seeks only to ask scholars to take the time needed to validate their own presuppositions with the data.  And if it cannot be done, I would ask that scholars recognize the validity of an agnostic position.



12 Responses

  1. I can’t wait.

    It strikes me that much of the dispute between mythicists and historicists is over the burden of proof. Both sides figure they should win by default if they can punch enough holes in the other side’s arguments.

    I don’t personally think that burden of proof is a particularly relevant concept. Burden of proof is used in a court of law because the final verdict has to be for one side or another. The jury is not allowed to return a verdict of “we don’t know.” However, there is no reason that a scholar shouldn’t be allowed to say “the evidence is insufficient or too evenly balanced to establish one side as more probable than the other.”

    I suspect that people with Phd’s don’t like to admit that they are not sure about an issue they have devoted their lives to studying.

  2. Quite correct Vinny. Quite correct.

  3. Tom, is that volume you mentioned been published? I would love to take a a look at it.

  4. Again, it strikes me that this is a distinction without a difference. If someone thinks that King Arthur is a myth, and someone else disagrees and shows that Arthur was based on Ambrosius Aurelianus who was real man, they are talking about two different things.

    The stories we have of King Arthur — with Guinevere, Sir Kay, Bors, the Green Knight, Lancelot and so on — are myths. This is indisputable.

    So there almost certainly was been a peripatetic person wandering around Judea in the 1st century named Jesus or something else, who was one of the bases of the myth we currently have in the gospel, but the Gospels are myths that draw on Jewish and Greco-Roman mythemes that were around for centuries prior this person’s existence.

    Popeye, Sherlock Holmes and Clark Kent are all based on real people, but they are literary fictions, just like King Arthur, Romulus and Jesus.

  5. Which? Richard’s two volumes are being peer reviewed and are under contract now, but my book with Thompson is currently in press (going through proof stages now). We hope they can get it published by November (before SBL meeting) but you can keep track of it here:

  6. Evan makes a point I’ve made repeatedly, and which still concerns me. Taking it as a given that there was no such thing as a man named Jesus who walked on water, turned water to wine, raised the dead, came back from the dead, etc, I’m hard pressed to discover a reasonable positive claim of who Jesus was.

    Was he a homeless messianic prophet? Was he a rabbi? An aesthete? A strange old dude who liked to tell stories?

    It’s not unlike Arthur… but it’s worse. At least there are a couple of actual theories as to who the Arthur legend might be based on. A couple of names. But with Jesus, there’s nothing. Even piecing together the most obscure bits of tiny scrolls that may or may not constitute evidence, the best I’ve ever seen is someone suggesting that Jesus might be this or that *KIND* of a person. There’s never been a suggestion of grounding him to an existing historical narrative.

    Unless I missed a memo.

  7. Quite right Hamby. Even if the secular data, Jesus is always portrayed as the Gospel figure.

  8. Lving Life makes a point that was also in the book edited by Hoffmann: what are the necessary characteristics of calling someone the historical Jesus? Which traits are needed show are historical to say there was a historical person?

    Virgin birth? Probably not.
    Resurrection? Hard to prove.
    Son of David? How to show that?

    I’m glad that that chapter made it into “Sources of the Jesus Tradition” no matter any other issues it has.

  9. You’re exactly like a creationist now. You’re not against evolution (/historicity of Jesus), you just question it. [/McGrath]


  10. If someone thinks that King Arthur is a myth, and someone else disagrees and shows that Arthur was based on Ambrosius Aurelianus who was real man, they are talking about two different things.Evan,


    Suppose that one of Ambrosius Aurelianus’ descendants was the person who thought that King Arthur was a historical person and the person who claimed he was a myth knew of the relationship. If they could not politely agree to disagree, I would suspect that the source of the conflict had more to do with being emotionally invested in knocking down the other guy’s position than it had to do with questions of historical fact. That seems to me to be the dynamic of many of these mythicist/historicist debates.

  11. […] Daniel Kirk, Brian LePort, Joel Watts and Tom Verenna chime in on the Shema and Pauline monotheism. Tom also explains why he is no longer a “mythicist.” […]

  12. […] Is Mythicism Close to its End? […]

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