Smackdown? More on Mythicism, James McGrath, and Caesar

James has graciously posted up a response of sorts to my blog post here.  He writes:

But precisely for this reason, the comparison between the two possible mythicisms can be instructive, because if someone could deny the existence of someone like Julius Caesar using the same sorts of tactics and approach as are used by Jesus mythicists, would this not constitute an adequate demonstration that the approach of Jesus mythicists is problematic?

And  to clarify, on my blog James writes:

 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.

I haven’t read his new book, but I don’t believe Earl Doherty employees a ‘deny all evidence’ methodology, which is what James is sort of suggesting.  This concerns me a great deal.  It suggests that James really doesn’t recognize where Doherty engages the evidence, rather than simply dismissing it.  If we were to employ the methods that Neil Godfrey has suggested, while they are not realistic and could not fully be used–at least without many caveats–to determine the historicity of most figures, one would have to, in fact, draw the conclusion Caesar was real.  After all, Godfrey and Doherty have argued that contemporary silence is a main weapon against the historicity of the figure of Jesus, and contemporary silence is something we don’t have for the historical Caesar.  So once again, James’ analogy is false and inappropriate.  If James wants to make a case that Doherty or Godfrey are just dismissive of all evidence, he needs to express that clearly and with statements from them to support it.  I am not aware of any.

Further, I do not believe James has really produced an instructive analogy, either.  Where has he stated the methods mythicists used which can be used by others?  I believe it is a little unfair to provide an ‘instructive’ blog where people can just make up methods they presume a mythicist would use rather than actually providing his readers with actual methods which Doherty or Godfrey have laid out.  Indeed, since James has only provided one method–that is, the method of just being dismissive–many might actually fall prey into the thought that mythicists are just dismissive.  This is hardly the case.

I should clarify my own position as well, if only to avoid confusion.  I don’t mind at all James’ instructive blogs, and I think James is onto something here by turning the methods of mythicists over to other sorts of figures.  But again, I stress that he needs to do so in a manner that is responsible.  If he refuses to create fair, more appropriate analogies with figures which are more comparative to the figure of Jesus (as far as the evidence goes), then he should at least be considerate enough to utilize the methods Doherty actually employs, instead of fabricating a method which he doesn’t at all use.  I have no doubt that James can find an actual method utilized by Doherty in his new book which will make his case in the same way, without inventing new ones, especially if Doherty makes as many poor arguments as James claims.  Again, I haven’t read the book, so I cannot say whether he does or doesn’t.

Addendum: I do believe dismissive behavior is seen in Zeitgeist mythicists however, and those that follow Dorothy Murdock.  Through correspondence with those sorts of mythicists, I have to agree that they care little about evidence and only for the fancies of what their Archarya S provides them.

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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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