This week has seen James McGrath setting up a “TalkHistoricity” project, to respond to Mythicist arguments (the idea that there is no historical figure behind Jesus). And a flurry of posts and counter-posts among the usual suspects on the topic.
I’ve discussed Mythicism online with a lot of people, and I’ve been thinking that I ought to do a category post on it for a while. Perhaps 90% of the discussions I have involve people misunderstanding what the other is saying. This is particularly acute in comments or forums when a group of people with different opinions argue against a common ‘enemy’. Actually making progress, or even identifying the actual argument being made, is like nailing jelly to a wall.
So as for my previous posts in this genre, I offer this caveat. These categories are not clearly delineated, the terms I use to describe them are my own, and anyone can occupy more than one at a time, or move between them as the mood takes them. I describe these categories with positive statements, but don’t read them as me making these claims. I’ll declare my view at the end.
Conclusions on whether Jesus was a historical figure.
Historical Minimalism — The Christ myth coalesced around a historical figure, who’s biography can only be minimally recovered. We can say only that Jesus was a preacher, healer and exorcist from second-temple era Galilee, who was baptised by John and executed during the governorship of Pilate (some minimalists may have less or a little more in their ‘core’, but you get the idea).
Pure Agnostic — (h/t Vinny) — The historical evidence is too patchy, too minimal and too ideologically tainted to be able to make any conclusions at all about Jesus. Saying anything about the existence of Jesus is going beyond what the evidence allows. The best we can say is “we don’t know”.
Agnostic Mythicism — We should not assume things to exist unless we have enough evidence to conclude so. So — building on the Pure Agnostic position — in the absence of sufficient evidence, we should assume there was no historical Jesus.
Positive Mythicism — Jesus was initially conceived of as a celestial being, and only later accumulated an invented biography. There may have been historical figures used as the inspiration for the historicisation (when you come to make your demi-God into an apocalyptic preacher, you use the apocalyptic preachers you know of as inspiration), but the evidence shows the process went from divine to human, from myth to man.
Attitudes towards the Jesus evidence that lead to Mythicist conclusions (where the conclusion could be any of the above categories, for some of these).
Evolutionary Mythicism — (h/t Neil) — The Jesus story coalesced among various religious groups from a range of pre-existing spiritual or heavenly figures, the tradition of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, metaphors, cultural fragments. A distinct historical source for the story is not required by the evidence.
Analogical Mythicism — Features of the story of Jesus are seen in other mythological stories. At one end of this category is the observation that elements of the Christ myth are typical. At the other end is the claim that pre-existing myths were recombined to make the myth of Christ (which is a particularly focussed form of the Evolutionary approach, above).
Methodological Mythicism — Historical Jesus scholarship is based on an ideologically compromised methodology. Scholars project their view of Jesus onto history, while pretending they are discovering something. Their methods are not used by historians outside the field, and other figures with similar evidence are uncontroversially acknowledged as mythical.
Moral Mythicism — Christians take “there probably was a historical Jesus” and hear “Jesus Christ is true”. Historicism gives legitimacy to religious immorality. By denying it, we might encourage thinking Christians to reconsider their beliefs. Which in turn might lead to a more secular, and more moral society.
As usual with these posts, I don’t think I will have covered the whole range, so please contribute other useful categories and I’ll update. Also in common with previous categorizations, I’m aware I will unconsciously weaken the descriptions of positions I disagree with, so if you hold one of these positions and feel I’ve whiffed it, then please suggest how I can strengthen the description.
Which just leaves me to say that, in this categorization, I am thoroughly a historical minimalist. I am convinced the best fit for the data is of a historical figure mythologised, rather than a mythological figure historicised.
So where are you? And do you recognize these kind of nuances in Mythicists?
 I’m rather torn about this project. To some extent, having good information around on historical topics is fine. But I’ve not found much benefit from Talk Origins in my discussions with creationists. Because all it does is encourage the other side to write rebuttals of the rebuttals, ad infinitum. So ultimately the resource is only useful if you first decide to trust it. Which is rather the point of the disagreement, in my experience.
[Edit: 2013-1-6 -- Added Pure Agnosticism on Vinny's suggestion - thanks.]
[Edit: 2013-1-6 -- Edits for clarity and brevity based on Sabio's comments.]
[Edit: 2013-1-7 -- Added headers for more clarity based on Sabio and Paul's comments.]
[Edit: 2013-1-7 -- Added Evolutionary Mythicism on Neil's suggestion - thanks.]