Mythicism and the Problem of Sources

Sorry for the sparse posting, folks, its been a tough week!

This post is a follow-on from the Jesus, The Mirror post, and the discussion that got into the question of the historical or mythical Jesus. Since that is buried away in a comment, I want to give my source-criticism based view of the NT.

A selection of imaginary sources for the NT texts.

This is a *made-up* source diagram for the contents of the synoptic gospels and Paul's letters (I've added sources like Jesus's Uncle to reinforce the fact it is not meant literally). Although this is a fiction, I think it is probably at least as complex as the actual source tradition that our text traces back to Jesus. There seem to be some pretty short hops, through eye-witnesses or disciples, and those are the ones we are able to figure out. Other routes may be much longer and more involved, with no hope of ever being reconstructed. Many routes trace back to non-Jesus sources, such as literature, mythology or debating positions among early Christian apologists.

Source criticism is a form of historical criticism that tries to trace a text back to the sources on which it is based. Just about everything is based on some sources. Even pure fiction is inspired by previous work, or has characters that have loose connections with real individuals. In many cases we can be almost certain of the source patterns among texts. It would be very hard to argue against the theory that Mark was used as a textual basis in the writing of Matthew and Luke. Mark, in this regard, is a source for both Matthew and Luke. But it is equally certain that Matthew and Luke had other sources, at least some of which are held in common.

Despite the fact that source criticism is a distinct way of doing textual study, it is also used extensively in all other forms of criticism. Even textual criticism (which is sometimes, justifiably, described as the ‘foundation’ on which others grow) is informed by our knowledge of the developments of the text through various sources.

It may be because it is the field that most intrigues me, but I think source criticism has the central role to play in questions of historicity.

So how does this relate to the question of whether there was a historical Jesus? Well the idea is that we can trace back the way sources were used and reused, and at one point of this process we end up with a substantial source of material that believably describes a Galilean itinerant preacher, who seems to have been called something like Yeshua (Jesus in greek). Now, few historical critical scholars think that the version of Jesus in the text isn’t dramatically enhanced by speculation, wishful thinking, mythologising and possibly downright lies. But the fact is that there is a core source, and we have to decide what to do with it.

One scholar might doubt the integrity of the source and might make an argument why it should be split into two prior sources. We might, for example, say that the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus were accretions from another source. That’s a good argument to make, and it has some merit. And these kinds of arguments have been made consistently for the last century. Robert Price’s book title is quite apt in this “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man” (though I disagree with his conclusions)

But it would be difficult to argue that none of those sources was based on a real person. And so far I haven’t seen any mythical-Jesus proponent make that argument in the crucible of peer-review.

Incidentally the image above is Creative Commons Attribution licensed (3.0, UK, in case it matters). Use it as long as you make it clear it is intended to be fictional. It was very easy, and done with open source tools, so if you have actual source hypotheses you want in this form, drop me a comment and I’ll explain how.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Mythicism and the Problem of Sources

  1. Good example. What was the open source tool? (nice diagramming)

  2. great diagram! what about the attachment of chap 16. to Mark? or is that more redaction or historical criticism?

    good stuff!

  3. Ian

    @Sabio – its called ‘GraphViz’ it is a command line program (you define a text file with the relationships in and it constructs the diagram from that). I use it quite a bit. It isn’t perfect (some of the lines are a little too wiggly), but for very large graphs it is far better than doing it by hand!

    @luke – there are two distinct forms of the ending of Mark’s gospel (called the ‘shorter’ and ‘longer’ endings – there are smaller nuggets of text that may also be present in some manuscripts, but there are just these two broad traditions we see). That plus the fact that the end of the text before that “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” is an ending, suggests that there were versions of this narrative that ended there. Particular as both the shorter and longer endings then go on to describe how they actually did say things to people đŸ™‚

    A widespread suspicion is that the Resurrection narratives in Mark were added later, possibly after the emergence of Matt or Luke (or after other gospels in that period we have lost) which had a richer storyline for the resurrection. They could have been written from whole cloth at that point, or may be reworkings of resurrection stories in common circulation. That the shorter and longer endings are not original is overwhelmingly the consensus among biblical scholars.

    In bibles aimed at worshippers, this is a problem. Because the King James Version had the longer ending to Mark. So lots of confessional bibles have words to the effect of “some ancient sources don’t have the following”. Which is a hugely diplomatic way of saying it! I would say it is even a slightly disingenuous way of saying it!

  4. Sabio

    Thanx Ian — I have started using it.

  5. Ian,

    yeah, that is what I was referring to and i was wondering how you’d draw that. Like redacted Mark (with lines from final Matt and Luke)?

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