Dialogue with Dr. James McGrath, part II
Last post I responded to Butler University's Dr. James McGrath's critique of my talk on the Jesus Myth position at Skepticon. Today I was delighted to find a very thoughtful second response from him on his blog, which I'm happy to respond to below:
First of all, sincere thanks again for your kind words and timely response, both much appreciated. I was delighted to read your post this a.m. I also appreciate and completely agree with what you say here:
“Let me end by saying that you do indeed touch on a lot of points that are simply mainstream scholarship, and I am glad that you are seeking to bring that sort of information to a wider audience. But as someone who also has dedicated a lot of time to arguing against creationists, I can say that having individual details correct is not ultimately enough. It is possible to deal correctly and honestly with many details, and yet nevertheless incorporate them into a misleading or unpersuasive theoretical framework. I remain convinced that that is what you are doing with the matter of the historical figure of Jesus.”
As an Evolution advocate myself, I totally hear you. I’m the first to complain that much of what passes for Mythicist theory is completely baseless, based on outdated scholarship (or no scholarship!), honestly mistaken, and more often than not, just crackpot crap. And I have little respect for amateur historians - even speaking as one myself - because although I have a degree in history and consider myself fairly well-read on the subject, I’m all too aware of all the mistaken ideas and just plain wrong approaches that I made before I began running my ideas by professional historians like yourself. I’ve buried a graveyard’s worth of mistaken ideas, flawed assumptions, and unsupported facts that failed to make it into the book. But that said, what survived that crucible so far has endured subsequent critiques from historians. So I still maintain that the best points of the Mythicist position hold up under examination and at the very least deserves a second look from most historians. I hope a read through my book will at the very least provide you with good reasons to reconsider the strength of the theoretical framework, and perhaps expose some weaknesses of the traditional position, such as explaining not just the plurality of early, competing forms of Christianity, but the plurality of competing Christs, repeatedly attested to both in Paul’s epistles (2 Cor. 11:4, 13-15, 19-20, 22-23; Gal. 1:6-9, 2:4) and in the Gospels (Matt. 7:21-23, Mark 9:38, Luke: 9:49).
First of all, I want to stress that I don’t feel I’m completely bucking mainstream historical opinion, even if my ultimate point seems radical. I didn’t start out as a Mythicist, and it wasn’t until after coming across the arguments of many different historians that I became one. None (well, maybe three out of dozens and dozens) of the ideas I put forth in the book are original to me, but all have been made and accepted by recognized scholars across the theological spectrum. I would even say that most of the points raised are non-controversial, many even among evangelical apologists. For example, in addition to the scholars you mention, Bart Ehrman in particular is staunchly against the Mythicist position. But I find that his excellent work supports what I, and others in the Mythicist camp, argue at least as well (if not more so) as his own position that Jesus was merely a failed apocalyptic prophet. And if I come across as suggesting the entire historical mainstream is foolish for not seeing the same conclusions, I will temper that accordingly in future talks, because I certainly do not feel that way at all. I do want to lambast most apologists for the many foolish things they claim, deny, and try to weasel out of, but that’s a different matter...
I’m pleased to see you and I agree on more than I originally expected, which was nice surprise. But let’s discuss those points we don’t a little further.
* I’m with you that Luke-Acts is historical fiction (even though the author wants us to think it is 100% genuine history). But even when Acts seems to incorporate some genuine historical sources, such as the letter of Claudius Lysias to Governor Felix in 23:26-27, in ch. 6 of my book I discuss still more instances where anachronisms or historical impossibilities make it clear that he is fabricating events. And “Luke” has no qualms about completely altering even the events Paul corroborates (e.g. whitewashing over the antagonism between Paul and the church leaders at the Jerusalem Council); and Paul’s own account blatantly contradicts much of Luke outright. Several scholars have also noted Luke’s dependence on FJ’s Antiquities for myriad little historical touches (see esp. Steve Mason’s "Josephus and Luke-Acts," in Josephus and the New Testament (1992), pp. 185-229) and Luke’s general unreliability, even by ancient standards (cf. the citations of Richard Pervo and Richard Carrier on p.101 of my book).
When we get to his gospel, Luke shows his dependence on Mark (although again, he wants us to believe that his is the only real gospel out of all the many others) - and Mark’s original gospel has many indications that it is an allegory.
* Your quote from Augustine’s City of God is precisely that one I have in mind when I discuss Seneca the Younger. You’ll see Augustine notes that Judaism is one of other theological “superstitions” Seneca criticizes, but then tries unconvincingly to explain why Seneca “did not dare to mention” the Christians. It’s also odd that De Superstitio is one of the only works of Seneca’s that was not preserved out of over a hundred of his others.
* I take your point regarding Origen's mention of Josephus, though I still respectfully disagree for the reasons I mentioned previously. And I should add that there are many more reasons I cite that throw both of Josephus’s alleged mentions of Christ into question. Whatever one thinks of the overall thesis, I think the cases against both the Testimonium and James Reference (as I try to lay out in ch. 3) are entirely convincing.
* I do find (as have others before me) that 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 appears to contradict the Gospels:
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
Paul says here that his crucified Christ provided no miraculous signs, and that this was a stumbling block to the Jews. But all four of the canonical Gospels not only have him doing many miraculous signs, but make it clear that his crucifixion and resurrection were powerful signs as well. John evens numbers them for us. And though Paul is not above bragging about his own miracles (Rom.15:19), and 2 Cor. 12:12 tells us they are the signs of legitimate apostles, Paul never makes mention of all the miracles Jesus did. Instead, he
strangely declares in the opening of the Kenosis Hymn (Phil. 2:7) that his Jesus “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (And there are other aspects of the Kenosis Hymn that are in more striking divergence from the Gospels’ Jesuses).
And even in this same passage from 1 Cor., we see remarks that imply that no one would have known about Jesus before he began to be proclaimed by preachers like Paul:
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” (1 Cor. 1:21)
I spend ch. 8 discussing many such passages, and again, it is not just Paul who talks like this, but every pre-gospel Christian writing we have. No matter whether Paul and his generation thought that their Jesus had lived and died on earth some time in the past as an unknown figure (in order to fool the demonic archons of our world) or thought that he was a figure born in the shape of a man and crucified on a higher level of heaven (like the Jesus of the Ascension of Isaiah), or even from pure allegory or mythology, it seems very clear that the early believers got all their information about him from scriptural exegesis - since they are constantly telling us that Jesus performed everything according to the scriptures. When they talk about their early Jesus, they are describing a mythological figure. Even those rare points that could be interpreted easily as referring to a human Jesus are problematic when examined (as I discuss in ch. 8).
But when we come to the Gospels and Acts, this is completely reversed - everyone starts by preaching the human Jesus. And it’s important to note that we don’t have several different authors composing the earthly life of Jesus within a few decades - we have one author, Mark, who is writing a gospel, not a biography, packed with symbolism and allegory, and proclaiming Jesus like a mystery faith - just as Paul does. “Mark” writes his gospel sometime after the War with Rome, and we know that the later gospel writers build their gospels on his, putting their own theological spin upon it. By the time Docetism and other Gnostic ideas arrive, the Gospel story has already been mutating for years, if not decades.
From the get go, I grant that on the face of it, the Mythicist position can be a hard sell. But having honestly spent the last ten years reading all the perspectives I could on the Historicity question, when I look at not only the lack of contemporary evidence for Jesus, but the seeming explosion of both rival Christian movements and rival Christs, the fundamental differences between the Jesuses of the earliest generation of Christianity and those of the Post-Gospels, the myriad historical difficulties, implausibilities and impossibilities entailed in all of our Jesus stories and still more serious considerations, it becomes very difficult for me to accept that there even could have been a historical figure behind Jesus of Nazareth.
So that’s where I’m coming from.
This letter is already way too long, and yet still way too short to make the case I’d like you to consider. So, I’d just like to end by saying how much it would mean to me if you would reconsider giving the book a read and sharing your impression with me. I don’t think it’s the last word on the Mythicist position; indeed, I feel all its shortcomings very acutely, and I think the subject will covered much more ably defended by others in the future. But for all that, I think it has some important points to make, and at the very least perhaps you could help me argue them better, discard any that are flawed, and perhaps even change my mind on the whole thing. Or vice versa, even...
All the best,