Undisputed! Ignatius, Skepticism, and the Problem of Ignorance

The title may be a little confusing; what do any of those things have to do with each other?  Well, as it turns out, this post is a bit of a critique of the ‘criterion of disputation.’  This criterion goes that if a particular person, place, or event in antiquity wasn’t contested (that is to say, their existence or their happening wasn’t called into question) by other contemporaries, that the person, place, or event must have been historical.  If we broke the argument down into a syllogism, it would look like this:

 P1. If (insert name here) did not exist, a first century text would mention it.

 P2. No first century text mentions it.

 C1. Therefore (person) existed [i.e. (individual/group) did not not exist].

But this is just not a sound argument, nor is it helpful.  For starters, this criterion uses too many generalizations–it’s a special plea because it fails to prove accurate in many, if not most, of the cases one would think to use it.  For example, Romulus.

At some point in early Rome (we don’t know when precisely) there grew a belief in a demi-god, a patriarch, of the city of Rome.  Was it within the first 50 years?  The first 100 years?  Maybe later?  We are pretty sure that Rome became a Republic sometime in the 6th century BCE, and that it is traditionally said to have been ruled by several kings prior to it becoming a republic and that it was founded perhaps 200 years earlier.  The first mention of Romulus is in the 4th century BCE and our earliest history of Rome comes from Diocles around the same time.  So there is some length of time between when the city was first established and when the patriarch was given to myth. I’ve dealt with the problem of proximity before, but clearly I need to readdress it at some point in light of some additional considerations, but more on that soon.  What should be remembered here is that nobody doubted the historicity of Romulus; his existence went undisputed.  Interestingly enough, not only did his existence go undisputed, some of his miraculous deeds did get disputed.  For example, Plutarch disputed whether or not he had really risen from the dead–but his existence was never disputed.

Likewise, and I’ve written on this before, Palaephatus wrote in his introduction to his work Πeρὶ ἀpίstων:

Now some people, who have no acquaintance with philosophy or science, are too credulous and believe everything that is said to them.  Others, of a more subtle and inquisitive nature, totally disbelieve that any of these tales ever happened.  My own belief is that there is a reality behind all stories.  For names alone without stories would hardly have arisen: first there must have been deeds and there-after stories about them.

Palaephatus lists a great deal of “true stories” behind the myths.   In his work, he writes that Centaurs were real people, but rather than being half-horse and half-man, the stories arose from them being the first group of people to ride horseback (before then, he says, people only used horses to pull chariots)!  And of course the truth behind the Trojan horse is not that a group of Greeks jumped free from it and attacked the city, but that the Trojans tore down parts of their wall to accommodate the horse, thereby allowing the Greeks to enter through the opening!

And then, of course, there is Euhemerus himself (from whom the word ‘euhemerism’ derives).  Euhemerus argued that the gods of the Greeks were mythologized historical Kings.  Again, the gods were not disputed to have existed, but their mythology stripped and they were placed within the context of a historical setting.

But we should bring this back home a little bit; we should consider Ignatius as a model here.  Ignatius supposedly wrote several letters defending Christianity in his lifetime and is attested to have lived from about the early-mid first century to the early second century CE.  Later Christian historians write on him and tell us about his life, more about his martyrdom.  No one in antiquity doubts his historicity.  But I am doubtful that such a figure as Ignatius existed historically (I’d say there is about a 30-40% chance that such a figure existed–and that is being generous).  In fact, I don’t believe there is any way such a figure, if he did exist, wrote anything (or, if such a figure did write something, then it might be argued but at a later date).  Let me break this down for you so you can better understand what I’m arguing here.

When I say I am 30-40% sure of Ignatius’ historicity, for example, I’m not denying his existence outright.  I must stress that; I’m not denying his historicity completely.  I’m stating that the limitations of our evidence doesn’t ipso facto suggest Ignatius didn’t exist, but they certainly don’t help or support the case for his existence.  For example, are we really to accept that Ignatius was captured by Romans in the second century for practicing a ‘false religion’, only to be supplied by those same Romans with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about his same forbidden religion?  And are we then to assume that his letters were kept or sent out by these same Romans (which Ignatius considers rather mean-spirited and cruel to him)?  Are we to believe he had other ‘illegal Christian’ visitors, let in by the Roman guards (the same guards holding him for being a Christian), to secure these letters before he was eaten by lions?  Keep in mind, he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!  I just don’t buy it.  Maybe you do.  I do not.

And then there is that whole pesky thing about Christians being persecuted in the early second century.  Pliny didn’t even know what a Christian was and he should!  He held enough high positions and judicial positions that if there were some edict against Christianity he would know about it!  And yet the way Ignatius discusses his captivity, one would think that the Romans were just hunting Christians down. This calls into question not only the authenticity of the letters, but also the person.  For what more do we know of him except from later Christian tradition?  Of that later tradition, it is no more valid or useful than the letters themselves.  So I don’t think my estimation of about 30-40% is too low or too skeptical.  In fact I’m probably being more generous than I should given the circumstantial nature of the evidence.

But I could make an even stronger case that the historical validity of things were simply not questioned in antiquity.  And examples are readily found in the New Testament itself.  All of the pastorals are written in the names of people which may or may not have any historical significance.  That is to say, was Nicodemus a historical figure?  And what of Simon Magus in Acts?  Certainly some must doubt the historicity of these individuals.  But who contested them?  Who in antiquity wrote on the ahistoricity of Nicodemus or Simon Magus?  Indeed, their traditions were merely exemplified.  Many of these traditions were created within a generation of the events, some contemporaries probably still lived to dispute them if they wanted to do so.  Yet we have no evidence that anyone sought to dispute them.

Now, keeping in mind that we have letters attested to have been written by Ignatius, my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.  In fact, in many respects, a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones.  I’m allowing, in fact, for the possibility that some traditions may be based on historical events or people.  But I’m also saying that the state of the evidence doesn’t permit us to be sure enough to permit anything more than a 50/50.  Maybe that will change when better evidence presents itself.  I’m leaving room for such possibilities.  But I’m not straight out denying the traditions.  And that is the difference here between my skepticism and someone who is a denialist.  And I would put a lot of mythicists in the denialist camp.

Now, most academics are skeptical to some degree.  Skepticism is healthy and useful.  But what this shows is that there is a danger in not being skeptical enough.  That doesn’t mean to suggest that we need to be hyper skeptical where our doubt borders on denialism–that is not what I’m suggesting, and there is a clear difference between that sort of skepticism and what I recommend.  My concern is that there are too many arguments made without consideration for the elephant in the room; too many scholars who are not following through with their own conclusions.  And I believe it is a general fear of becoming too skeptical; too sensitive to the limitations of our evidence.  My concern is that the limitations of our textual evidence is taken for granted–and some may say it isn’t, because they’re using evidence and argument.  But if our text is our evidence, and the text is subject to fictionalization, almost completely in the sense of the Gospels, what does that say about the state of the evidence?  And what does that say about the value of the criterion of disputation?

I tend to think the greater danger is in merely taking the information within our texts for granted, that is to say, simply relying upon consensus rather than doing any of the leg work to verify the validity of a consensus.  For example, I trust my doctors, but I still look into the medication they prescribe me just to make sure I know what I’m taking.  If I have questions, I consult my doctor or get a second opinion (or a third or fourth).  And when a scientist presents a study on evolution, I look into it as well because I don’t know whether that scientist is presenting credible arguments from the evidence–even if his premise (evolution) is one with which I agree.  Another example of this is when geologists try to suggest that a gust of wind is responsible for the parting of the sea during the crossing of the Israelites from Egypt or that an earthquake can accurate point to the exact day of the crucifixion.  Doing one’s due diligence is not something to be ridiculed, in my humble opinion. Being a responsible scholar depends on ones familiarity with the basics–not just the knowledge that everyone agrees with them.

All I want to see is more honesty.  My goal in all of this is to simply keep the conversation open.  Maybe one day we’ll have evidence which will close it, but I don’t think we currently do.  I think there are multiple ways to interpret the data which are all just as useful and realistic and possible.  But what this criterion does is shut out the alternate realistic possibility that people in antiquity rarely disputed traditions–because traditions were more important than the fact of them.  The same could be said of Tea Party candidates today who believe that the early founding fathers of this country established a Christian nation, that Jefferson was a religious fellow; tradition (even if that tradition was just created) is more important than the facts.

The criterion of disputation doesn’t allow for the facts; it presumes things about it that we can provide ample evidence against.  And those who use it should always be cautious.

Related Articles: Minimalism and Ancient Historiography

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16 Responses

  1. Excellent post. You have touched on the points of what any academic has to do when reading over a work of proposed factual evidence. I have used this same thinking as I am reading through some of the early works of the first Christians. There are great leaps made in the thinking, but it does seem that the historical figures listed are assumed to have existed. I enjoyed this post. Keep up the good work and visit my blog if you get the chance. Thanks.

  2. Much like the criterion of embarrassment, the structure of the syllogism needs to be changed for it to have any validity. For this disputation criterion to have any validity, it should be part of the premise that there were persons who could have known the truth of the matter and would have written about it and we would have their skepticism saved for posterity. As with your Romulus example, we don’t have disputes from the time of alleged time of Romulus because we don’t have much of anything from the time (including the myth it seems),

    For Ignatius, we don’t have, say, letters from the governor of the time who had sent him away, we don’t have rival Christian documents from the time, etc. And heck, why would they write about this stuff? It becomes an extremely bad argument from silence, and all the worse when the scribes of the Middle Ages were hardly going to copy documents that would paint things in a poor light.

    As for the skepticism about the existence of Ignatius, there has been a lot of recent fighting about the authenticity of the letters and when they date. It seems to be the newest growing consensus that the letters, authentic of not, are later that believed before, perhaps from the 140s. The debate has a nice summary in a recent paper by Timothy Barnes in a 2008 issue of the Expository Times (Vol 120, No 3, pp. 119-130). That may affect your probability estimate, but there is still the issue of a man in custody writing many letters with eloquent prose, quotations, theological argumentation, and so on. And other sources say Ignatius was killed not in Rome but in Antioch (which makes infinitely more sense to me). I have a hard time to believe there were was a consensus that this stuff was legit. A lot of it apparently was been the weight of guys like Lightfoot and Zahn in the early 20th entury.

  3. Gilgamesh,

    Thanks for responding. Yes, absolutely. My point though is that no one disputed the existence of a historical Romulus because that wasn’t how the ancient mythic mind works.

    For Ignatius, that is interesting and I’ll have to read into that.

  4. Hello Tom,

    Thank you for your take down of the criterion of disputation. While I agree with you on that, I do have a bone to pick about mythicism and denialism. :)

    You say:
    “…my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.”

    And:
    “But I’m also saying that the state of the evidence doesn’t permit us to be sure enough to permit anything more than a 50/50.”

    As you just admitted, “an estimation of 50/50 is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns”. If they are really unknowns that need to be accepted, and since you admit to being generous, why not be honest and admit to tilting away from historicity?

    That is not denial. How about that being honesty?

    I am suggesting saying, we have very little reason to think Jesus existed.

    The closer we study, the more it all looks like pious fiction and reports of hallucination.

    How easily do we side with ahistoricity of Romulus! Or would you say you are 50/50 on that as well? Are you a Romulus denier?? :)

    Compare Jesus mythicism with atheism. Fundamentalists like to say atheists deny the existence of God. They try to paint a picture where Atheists supposedly claim to have proof of _absence_ of God.

    On the other hand, Atheism simply says that we have no reason to believe in a God as there is no evidence for a God, not that it is impossible for any sort of God to exist.

    Of course, the evidence for God or its absence is not as patchy as that of evidence for the historicity of Jesus. But considering that we know only a tiny tiny tiny fraction of all there is to know in this universe, our evidence of or the lack thereof for God is also patchy, surely! Should we go 50/50 on Theism?

    Perhaps you would change your mind on putting “a lot of mythicists in the denialist camp”!

    If there is (to quote Ehrman) “powerful evidence” for Jesus’ historicity, and if mythicists still insist on questioning, then that might be legitimately called denial.

    Cheers,
    Manoj
    http://manojpontificates.blogspot.com/2012/06/are-jesus-mythicists-denialists.html

  5. Manoj,

    Thanks for the comment. I appreciate you taking the time to respond. I don’t think I’m wrong at all in calling many mythicists denialists. Anyone who believes the content of this photo is a denialist, for example:

    https://tomverenna.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/if-you-buy-into-images-like-this/

    And in this regard, there is strong evidence against such positions (as I note in the subsequent blog posts under ‘related’). Yet many mythicists accept this line of parallelomania in spite of this evidence. In my published article on B&I, I agree with Ehrman on this point–when it comes to these sorts of mythicists, there is powerful evidence against these claims. So these individuals are denialists and they well outnumber any of the mythicists that make more sensible arguments, so ‘most mythicists’ is justifiable.

    As for your use of Romulus, that is a rather terrible comparison. I liken the figure of Jesus to the figure of Lycurgus of Sparta. There is a good chance Lycurgus is a complete invention, but there is a decent amount of evidence that could also be interpreted as historical tradition. Not enough to warrant a positive or negative claim, so historians remain agnostic–some lean a certain way, some don’t. As for the figure of Jesus, I can understand why so many scholars accept the historicity of Jesus. There is some supporting evidence, mainly in tradition. I don’t find them very compelling, but I remain agnostic because I don’t think the arguments against historicity are all that compelling either. Even if the figure of Jesus we know from all our evidence is fictional, that wouldn’t automatically imply that no such figure existed as an inspiration for that fictional one. We can’t know, thus we have no particular knowledge, and thus I remain open to both possibilities.

    As for Romulus, I would say I would give his historicity at somewhere like 1-2%. With a 98-99% probability that he didn’t exist historically. The evidence is different, and so you evaluate it differently. That is also part of the problem with many mythicist arguments. They presume that the evidence is comparable when in fact all texts need to be weighed against themselves, and be judged upon their own merits.

    Hope that helps.

    Tom

  6. Tom,

    Thank you for your response. I have a rather long and rambling response. Thank you in advance, for reading!

    First about the comparison with Romulus. Perhaps my comparison was a bad one. I confess to ignorance and defer to you, if you say so.

    However, my point was and still is that it is easier to take a call on someone other than Jesus, someone like Romulus. Because it is not a high stakes debate. My point is that had this been a dead religion, and had this been a purely academic debate, with the very same patchy evidence, we might have more people on the side of ahistoricity.

    When we see copious amounts of pious fiction and fraud and legends, we tend to not consider it history. We don’t go hunting for a kernel of history and demand proof that that is not the case. Except in the case of Jesus.

    You said:
    “Anyone who beliefs the content of this photo is a denialist, for example:”

    oxforddictionaries.com
    denialist: a person who does not acknowledge the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence; a denier:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denialist
    Denialism is choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an uncomfortable truth.

    Pardon my use of wikipedia. :)

    Now, the picture you link to. Anyone who believes the contents are perhaps just mis-informed? Many of them, perhaps most of them are not out to find a way, by hook or crook to deny Jesus. I think so. Maybe we can agree to disagree.

    I don’t think they are doing that to deny an uncomfortable truth or deny historical evidence. Perhaps you’d consider that they are misinformed and simply wrong.

    Back to the question of a historical Jesus. Perhaps there is a lot of misinformation out there because the scholars who ought to know better claim there is “powerful evidence” (That would be Ehrman) when that is clearly not the case. A vast majority of the mainstream scholars refuse to even consider other possibilities.

    Denialism suggests not acknowledging sound historical evidence. Where is anything close to that for a historical Jesus?

    If there were sound historical evidence, evidence that is there to see for people interested enough to look, many of the mythicists would not be denying anything, I think.

    Mainstream scholars come up with portraits of a historical Jesus using a fair dose of speculation. Many of them get facts wrong. Why is it such a terrible thing if mythicists get some facts wrong or speculate a bit (ok, a lot)?

    With patchy evidence, there is a lot of room for speculation as long as speculation is called speculation. Perhaps people do not do that all the time, historicists and mythicists included.

    I think mythicists actually do have a case there. Maybe not an ironclad one.

    Ever since I read Earl Dorethy’s Jesus Puzzle, I have been looking for a sound rebuttal. I have not found a reasonable one. Mark Goodacre seems to be closest to a historicist who does not distort the strength of evidence and he spends bits of time on this subject. I am yet to find him persuasive.

    I understand you are agnostic about Jesus historicism. Believe it or not, I think I understand that your point that there isn’t enough evidence to rule one way or the other.

    But given what you say about the topic, I find it difficult to believe that you are 50/50 on it. Keeping the door open to any possibility is not necessarily 50/50. Any sensible person is open to possibilities, especially new evidence.

    I am not a mind reader. But pardon me when I do a bit of mind reading. When you keep talking about your agnosticism, it seems to me that you are trying to distinguish yourself from those folks who embrace fringe theories.

    Allow me to talk about a bit about my background. I used to call myself an agnostic, not an atheist. I preferred that label cause I knew I could never say there could never be a God. I call myself an atheist now
    because I realize, no sane atheist I know of claims otherwise.

    Perhaps that is why when someone says agnosticism, I go, no no no, what you really mean is… I plead guilty to that. :)

    Back to your Jesus historicity agnosticism. When you say,
    “…my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.”
    and
    “a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones”.
    That does not sound like you are at 50/50!

    Why beat up mythicists if they judge the probability to be different, more in favor of mythicism and fiction and fraud? Why not show them where they are wrong? Why not do a take down of Dorethy’s hypothesis and show why 50/50 is the right position with the current state of evidence?

    Why call them denialists?

  7. Permit me one more go.

    You said:
    “As for Romulus, I would say I would give his historicity at somewhere like 1-2%. With a 98-99% probability that he didn’t exist historically. The evidence is different, and so you evaluate it differently. That is also part of the problem with many mythicist arguments. They presume that the evidence is comparable when in fact all texts need to be weighed against themselves, and be judged upon their own merits.”

    Sure. And that really was not what I was arguing against. I was not claiming an apple to apple comparison (more like both are fruits).

    Let’s take it as a given that there is shoddy scholarship out there. You might agree that this is not just on the mythicist’s side. But does not matter.

    I was arguing two things.

    1. You said most mythicists are denialists. I agree, there may be bad scholarship, pseudo-scholarship, too much speculation and fringe theories out there. But where is the sound historic evidence for a historic Jesus that they are supposedly denying? Show us the historicist-50% of your evidence that is supposedly being denied.

    2. When you say you are at 50/50, it doesn’t sound like 50/50. I assume this is not “I am clueless and hence have no opinion on this” 50/50. So, again, show us the evidence, the evidence that is being denied by mythicists.

    Note: I am posting my responses and yours to my blog. If you have an objection, let me know. I’ll take my copy of your post down.

  8. Tom,

    Thank you for your response. I have a rather long and rambling response. Thank you in advance, for reading!

    Quite so! Long is perhaps an understatement. ;-)

    First about the comparison with Romulus. Perhaps my comparison was a bad one. I confess to ignorance and defer to you, if you say so.

    It’s plainly obvious.

    However, my point was and still is that it is easier to take a call on someone other than Jesus, someone like Romulus. Because it is not a high stakes debate. My point is that had this been a dead religion, and had this been a purely academic debate, with the very same patchy evidence, we might have more people on the side of ahistoricity.

    I don’t think that Jesus’ historicity is as much a high stakes debate as you think it is. Scholarship has basically done away with large amounts of the Gospel narratives, some completely have gone away from the realm of historicity. There are some fighters, but not many. The figure of Jesus is quite small now.

    When we see copious amounts of pious fiction and fraud and legends, we tend to not consider it history. We don’t go hunting for a kernel of history and demand proof that that is not the case. Except in the case of Jesus.

    Be careful with the use of the word ‘fraud’. In academia, ‘fraud’ has a very serious connotation with very serious consequences. ‘Fraud’ is not the word you’re looking to use, trust me.

    As for your claim here, this may be true in some cases, but not most. In fact the maxim is that one accepts historicity of a tradition unless shown otherwise. The reason is quite simple: we don’t have all the supporting evidence because of the period in which we’re dealing. So it is not at all strange to see a highly mythologized figure in antiquity being taken as a historical one. Gilgamesh, for example, is extremely mythologized–we have no historiography of his life at all, just myth. But there are many Sumerologists who believe he was a historical king. I think it is certainly likely. They are not wrong in thinking that.

    You said:
    “Anyone who beliefs the content of this photo is a denialist, for example:”

    oxforddictionaries.com
    denialist: a person who does not acknowledge the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence; a denier:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denialist
    Denialism is choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an uncomfortable truth.

    Pardon my use of wikipedia. :)

    Sorry about the typo, ‘beliefs’ should be ‘believes’. Corrected it above. You’re forgiven for your use of wikipedia, but perhaps next time you should use a modern dictionary like Oxford, which is more comprehensive and, in my humble opinion, more trustworthy. But for now these definitions suffice.

    Now, the picture you link to. Anyone who believes the contents are perhaps just mis-informed? Many of them, perhaps most of them are not out to find a way, by hook or crook to deny Jesus. I think so. Maybe we can agree to disagree.

    If you read what I wrote in the article attached to the image, I said “If you buy into images like this then you need to do more research.” My comment on the image in this thread is specifically for those people who argue and argue and argue that these images are relevant and useful. They are denialists because people like me have instructed them time and time again, or asked them for a primary source for information about it and they can only offer Graves or Murdock. So I’m not at all convinced that these people are just misinformed, though they are certainly that too. No, these people are denialists because they can’t even admit when they are wrong.

    I don’t think they are doing that to deny an uncomfortable truth or deny historical evidence. Perhaps you’d consider that they are misinformed and simply wrong.

    Actually, I’d say that is precisely what they are doing in most cases. They certainly are misinformed and wrong, but to continue to argue for something so incredibly inaccurate is troublesome.

    I’ll give you an example. Right now there is a thread out there on some message board entitled ‘Tom Verenna Watch’ where these denialists all live and they spend a lot of their time trash-talking me because I call them out on their ignorance. It’s like a little ‘Tom Verenna haters club’. And I’m okay with it. Because every time they post they prove my point about them. In their minds I am a deceiving, conniving, reprobate with no social skills and no life and no future. It stands in direct contrast to real life. So I chuckle when I read their posts, at how incredibly naive and brash and speculative it all is. But that is my point; they’re denialists.

    These are the same people who promote images like the one I shared earlier; they are the same people who continue to pretend as if I use a fake name, or that I have no college education, or that I didn’t graduate high school, or that I have no friends in academia, or that I am never going to be published, or any of the other dozens of fictions they have concocted to get them through their denialist worldview. So is there an emotional drive there? I certainly believe there is one for them. I can’t tell you what it is, but it is there.

    I recommend James Crossley’s new book Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism. It is basically a history of Jesus scholarship and how it relates to religious, cultural, and philosophical agendas (in a nut shell) and it is excellent so far.

    Back to the question of a historical Jesus. Perhaps there is a lot of misinformation out there because the scholars who ought to know better claim there is “powerful evidence” (That would be Ehrman) when that is clearly not the case. A vast majority of the mainstream scholars refuse to even consider other possibilities.

    While you may be right to an extent, I don’t think it is fair to make overly generalized statements like this. You can’t know what the majority of mainstream scholars consider or not.

    Denialism suggests not acknowledging sound historical evidence. Where is anything close to that for a historical Jesus?

    This displays a general misunderstanding of how historical methodology works. Historical Jesus scholars use standard methods and criteria to come to a conclusion that Jesus existed. Now, we can argue over their criteria, but it isn’t like they are just throwing their arms up in the air and saying, “Well, Jesus definitely existed, time to write a book about how I’m right.” There is more to it than that–a lot more. And the sooner that mythicists recognize that, the more serious and objective their arguments will become.

    If there were sound historical evidence, evidence that is there to see for people interested enough to look, many of the mythicists would not be denying anything, I think.

    I am not so sure because I don’t think mythicists really understand the field of history and the limitations of the evidence. That isn’t to say all historical Jesus scholars understand it, but they get it better than your average nonacademic mythicist.

    Mainstream scholars come up with portraits of a historical Jesus using a fair dose of speculation. Many of them get facts wrong. Why is it such a terrible thing if mythicists get some facts wrong or speculate a bit (ok, a lot)?

    If it were only once in a while, and mythicists then changed their perspectives with the evidence, then I don’t think there would be a problem. But many mythicists–particularly the real bizarre ones like those who post on websites like truthbeknown.com would rather belittle or attack anyone who disagrees with them or exposes a flaw in an argument. An example of this is when Carrier addresses a mistake in Murdock’s arguments; instead of sensibly taking his criticism into account, she fires back with a comment along the lines of ‘just pretend as if this mistake doesn’t exist and support me.’ I’m sorry, that is denialism at its core. And it fuels scholars like James McGrath and Bart Ehrman who are just as sick and tired of it as I am. And unfortunately it kills any debate because people are just so lagged from the bullshit that they don’t even want to listen to the sound arguments because they are afraid it will be more of the same. And I completely understand that because I have been there. It is a legitimate reason to shun mythicists all together–it is just taxing. And it isn’t healthy to be stressed and upset, to be honest. But the mythicists aren’t going away, and their denialism just spawns more insane arguments. So what you get is a neverending wave of crap (like comparing Horus to Jesus and suggesting a correlation) and the sensible arguments that might be there are drowned out.

    With patchy evidence, there is a lot of room for speculation as long as speculation is called speculation. Perhaps people do not do that all the time, historicists and mythicists included.

    The problem is actually more convoluted than that, I’m afraid.

    I think mythicists actually do have a case there. Maybe not an ironclad one.

    Sure, it is possible. Some do, I’m sure. Most don’t.

    Ever since I read Earl Dorethy’s Jesus Puzzle, I have been looking for a sound rebuttal. I have not found a reasonable one. Mark Goodacre seems to be closest to a historicist who does not distort the strength of evidence and he spends bits of time on this subject. I am yet to find him persuasive.

    I like Mark. I always learn something from him when we chat. Honestly, I think it all depends on how we define our terms.

    I understand you are agnostic about Jesus historicism. Believe it or not, I think I understand that your point that there isn’t enough evidence to rule one way or the other.

    Good!

    But given what you say about the topic, I find it difficult to believe that you are 50/50 on it. Keeping the door open to any possibility is not necessarily 50/50. Any sensible person is open to possibilities, especially new evidence.

    I’m sure it is difficult to wrap your head around it, because you’re not me. But I would say that I’m a 50/50 guy here.

    I am not a mind reader. But pardon me when I do a bit of mind reading. When you keep talking about your agnosticism, it seems to me that you are trying to distinguish yourself from those folks who embrace fringe theories.

    If it sounds like that, it is because there are still people out there who refuse to read my blog and still think I am a mythicist. These are the same denialists who argue that Buddha influenced the figure of Jesus.

    Allow me to talk about a bit about my background. I used to call myself an agnostic, not an atheist. I preferred that label cause I knew I could never say there could never be a God. I call myself an atheist now
    because I realize, no sane atheist I know of claims otherwise.

    Perhaps that is why when someone says agnosticism, I go, no no no, what you really mean is… I plead guilty to that. :)

    Thank you for your story. No, sorry to say, that isn’t like me at all. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t project your background onto me. As for myself, I call myself a Possibilian.

    Back to your Jesus historicity agnosticism. When you say,
    “…my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.”
    and
    “a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones”.
    That does not sound like you are at 50/50!

    But I am, so perhaps you are misunderstanding me. Or maybe I’m not being clear. Either way, I am at 50/50.

    Why beat up mythicists if they judge the probability to be different, more in favor of mythicism and fiction and fraud? Why not show them where they are wrong? Why not do a take down of Dorethy’s hypothesis and show why 50/50 is the right position with the current state of evidence?

    I’m not beating up on mythicists for having a different probability. I’m not even ‘beating up on them’ as much as I am exposing the flaws in their arguments. There is a difference.

    As for Doherty, maybe one day I’ll sit down and do just that. But presently I don’t have the willpower to handle it. I have too many other things to do; publishing academically is a priority right now and it is a lot of work. I agree with Goodacre that the question of historicity is not as interesting as other questions. So while I may take down a criteria or an argument here and there, spending a lot of time on the question of historicity isn’t really what I want to be doing. I did it for my review of Bart Ehrman’s book, but I have no interest in it long-term.

    Why call them denialists?

    Because many of them are.

  9. Note: I am posting my responses and yours to my blog. If you have an objection, let me know. I’ll take my copy of your post down.

    You could just link people back here for my response. That is sort of the ‘blog etiquette’ of it all. I would prefer that actually.

  10. Tom,

    Thank you for your considered responses! Much appreciated. Permit me one final argument and I’ll bow out. I’ll keep this shorter.

    You said: “So I’m not at all convinced that these people are just misinformed, though they are certainly that too. No, these people are denialists because they can’t even admit when they are wrong.”

    I think our point of disagreement arises because you put mythicists in the esteemed company of deniers of the Holocaust, climate change, Obama’s birth place…

    - You say there isn’t sufficient evidence to rule one way or the other.
    - Carrier thinks it is 1/5 for historicity (I write this from memory).
    - Ehrman thinks it is 99% (again from memory).

    So, there is room for arguing one way or the other. So, we are not disputing that. The problem as I understand is that mythicists do not accept criticism nor do they admit mistakes.

    Ehrman repeats the very same mistakes Carrier called out on (evidence for Pilate for instance).
    See here:
    http://religionforlife.me/2012/05/21/dr-bart-ehrman-will-the-real-jesus-please-rise-part-2-may-24-28/

    A scholar of Ehrman’s mettle can get facts wrong and stick to his guns even after being corrected.

    If a mythicist were to get facts wrong or refuse to accept correction, then denialists they must be! I disagree.

    Cheers
    Manoj

  11. “You could just link people back here for my response. That is sort of the ‘blog etiquette’ of it all. I would prefer that actually.”

    I just removed your response and posted a link instead. Sorry about that!

  12. No apology necessary. Thanks for asking.

  13. First, I never put mythicists in the same camp as Holocaust deniers, since we’re talking about different levels of evidence. But denialists are denialists regardless. In that respect that same motivation behind denying the historicity of Jesus and denying the Holocaust may be the same, I don’t know for sure, but the act of denying something outright in spite of evidence is comparable here.

    And in many respects I think Ehrman is a denialist as well; I don’t think he has taken into consideration various points which are relevant and useful. That doesn’t mean his conclusion is wrong (that Jesus existed)–Jesus might have indeed existed, whether his arguments are valid is a different issue, isn’t it?

    Finally, it may be said that you’re a bit in denial about mythicists being denialists. ;-)

  14. [...] to be abysmal, but that doesn’t make them mythicists.  Also, there is a difference between being a mythicist and being an agnostic (read).   I’ve written on this more times than I want to count (link to an article [...]

  15. [...] this book in March and would much rather share my thoughts on it then.  However, I will say this is on a subject I have blogged about [...]

  16. [...] many of my readers know, I’ve suggested something similar before about Paul and also about Ignatius.  I encourage everyone to check out the interview and return here on March 9th for my [...]

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