Where is the Mark Goodacre of Mythicism?

Once again there are sparks flying across the blogosphere about mythicism — the idea that there was no historical Jesus at the core of the Christian mythos. Prominent atheists such as PZ Myers have publically backed the anti-scholarship-plus-conspiracy-theory angle, as prominent NT scholar (and superb self-marketer*) Bart Ehrman has released a book for a general audience defending the overwhelming academic consensus.

We are seeing an increasing polarization between the camps. And an increasing descent into the same tactics as is frequent in the Creationism clash. Accusations of conspiracy, appeals to ‘academic freedom’, races to find even vaguely qualified professionals to bolster the non-consensus view, quote mining, ungracious reading**, goading academics into a response, then using the response as a sign that the debate is legitimate.

Today I was reading Mark Goodacre’s “The Case Against Q”, and it struck me that Mark provides both a good analogy and a sharp contrast.

Mark (who writes at NT blog, and speaks at NT pod) has a decidedly non-consensus view about the existence of Q: the most significant lost source behind the NT. Unlike the vast majority of NT critics, he believes and argues that it is mythical, that it never existed.

Now, Mark is an excellent scholar, with contributions to NT studies that range far outside arguments about Q. So far his career has done just fine, despite his Q heterodoxy.

I can totally imagine a Mark Goodacre of mythicism. Someone who made the forceful, rational, detailed case. Someone who demonstrates their scholarly acumen doing important work outside of that one issue. I simply do not believe that such a person would get hounded out of the academy or systematically refused tenure.

I take seriously the idea that Q is a complete fiction. I take it seriously because I take Mark seriously. I still tend towards the consensus that Q did exist, but those few times I’ve mentioned Q on this blog I’ve footnoted my Goodacre-induced doubts on it.

What would it take for me to take mythicism seriously? For the academy to? For any scholar to? I think it would take a Mark Goodacre of mythicism. Simple as that. It would slip effortlessly out of being a ‘crackpot internet atheist thing’ to being a minority viewpoint among serious scholars: a point of valid disagreement. Until that particular unicorn arrives, let’s not be surprised that mythicism is being laughed out of the academy. The hypothesis simply isn’t being made in a credible way, by credible people with a credible track record.

* This observation about Ehrman is not meant in the tiniest bit pejoratively. I deeply admire any academic who has the charisma and turn of phrase to bring their scholarship to the general public!

** Ungracious reading is the art of responding, usually with mockery, to the letter of what has been written, instead of trying to understand what the author meant and respond to that. It is frustratingly common on both sides.


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10 responses to “Where is the Mark Goodacre of Mythicism?

  1. Interestingly, I have just started listening to Mark Goodacre’s PodCasts and really enjoy them.

    I am probably part of the 3% (or so) of the population whose reflex is to resist authority. I usually realize this is not a virtue, but a programmed temperament — though it still tricks me often. “Consensus” , for my type of creature, is a negative word. I strongly value alternative voices — but then, my temperament naturally does. Ian, do you feel you have a more traditionalist temperament?

    I don’t have enough interest in the Q controversy nor the mythicist controversy to read enough so as to be tempted to take sides. I do wish I did have enough time to allow the interest to flourish — they are both fascinating.

    But you are right, someone INSIDE the system who bucks it, does influence even a doubter like me more than those outside — I am ashamed to admit.

    I must say, though, I have not been impressed with James McGrath’s arguments against the mythicists on his site. I am not speaking of the content of his arguments, so much as the rhetoric style and the jumps in logic. I feel a desperation in those trying to protect Jesus.

    But I know that is not the point of this post. For the point of this post seems to be directing us to look at how we weigh controversial information — I think. But your writing seems to be poking fun at anyone who is not in the “academy” — or am I mistaken. And having taught in Universities for many years (though I am not a scholar), I am very cynical of the Academy. But I have already shown my cards — my cynicism appears to be merely reflexive, not deeply informed.

  2. Ian

    I think we have a systematic bias to believe that scholarship in all fields is simpler than it really is. Therefore when we are ideologically opposed to its conclusions, we tend to believe it is relatively simple to see why the so-called experts are wrong. This happens whenever scholarly consensus is opposed by amateurs. My keenest experience is with creationists, but I’ve also had extensive experience with folks who think all modern physics is bunk.

    Peer reviewed academic scholarship is hard. Getting tenure in a good research university is hard. Getting a PhD is hard. In each case you have to prove you know your stuff.

    So when all the people who we can be reasonably confident actually know their stuff think one thing, and the people claiming something different are people who’s track record is lousy. I think it is appropriate to conclude either that there is a conspiracy, so nobody with the ‘wrong’ viewpoint is allowed in the club, or else the ‘experts’ really do know more than the amateurs.

    I simply don’t believe in the conspiracy, there is just no evidence. There is even less evidence for it in NT studies as in biology. At least in biology there are plenty of people quite explicitly calling for journals to block papers by creationists.

    I am not poking fun at amateur scholars in any discipline. But so far the case has not been made credibly, and it seems to me glaring obvious that it could be made credibly.

    Anyone can be wrong. Scholars, whole fields of scholarship, are often proved wrong. But the frequency they are proved wrong is far, far lower than the frequency that well-meaning amateurs get it wrong.

    I too have worked in the academy. And I know for certain that it takes a lot of time and effort to get good at something, I mean world-class good at something. I know how hard I worked and how effortlessly the world-class scholars in my department ran rings around me. That doesn’t mean I didn’t sometimes make excellent points that stopped them in their tracks and made them go “yes!”. But more often my points were naive and muddled. I lacked discernment, intuition, acumen. I will never undervalue the skills or knowledge needed to be a world-class scholar.

    If all the NBA players tell you to pick-and-roll in a particular way, and someone is holding court on the internet about how the NBA players are all wrong, and how, with their high-school basketball experience, they figured it all out, even when the NBA guys say “no we looked at that, it doesn’t work”: I think you can justifiably conclude they aren’t credible.

  3. Kay

    Have you read Carrier’s article yet? I found it interesting. I don’t think he’s a mythicist, but he seems to be to be balanced.


  4. Ian

    Yes, this post was motivated by Carrier’s comment that Earl Doherty’s book on mythicism is the best scholarly work on the subject and argues a consistent thesis well. A suggestion which (as someone whop’s read said book) I find rather laughable. Doherty’s book is Cargo Cult scholarship, bits of straw and wood lashed together to look like an airplane.

    But Carrier is right, Ehrman’s huffpo article was very poor. There’s no denying that Ehrman’s article was poorly written and left an open goal for such a response. I agree with Carrier, Ehrman’s article was very much the weakest thing I’ve read of his.

    In general Carrier’s focus is on producing resources for internet-based new atheists. He argues for mythicism normally, but he may nuance his view there somewhat, I don’t know.

    I won’t go into the problems I had with Carrier’s points, because – as this post is supposed to suggest – the views of another non-professional NT scholar is not needed. I wasn’t impressed, however. Except in so far as Ehrman was asking for it.

    I will say that crowing about a lack of academic freedom and claiming that the genuine controversy isn’t being taught because of a conspiracy to keep it out of the academy, is right from the creationist playbook.

  5. Kay

    I’m sorry. I hadn’t read any of the comments and so missed his mentioning Doherty. I can’t comment on the validity of Doherty’s points. But I can say that I think I tried to read both that and Price’s book, but lost interest and then donated them to the library.

    “I won’t go into the problems I had with Carrier’s points, because – as this post is supposed to suggest – the views of another non-professional NT scholar is not needed.”

    I hadn’t realized that Carrier was a non-professional NT scholar. I thought he was. I’d gotten that impression from other articles and debates I’ve read. That’s why I bothered to post the link. My bad.

    “I wasn’t impressed, however. Except in so far as Ehrman was asking for it.”

    This is where all this stuff gets frustrating for folks like me who aren’t NT scholars, aren’t professionals, etc, etc … I thought Carrier had some good points, but apparently his points are not good ones. I have no basis for comparison, no basis for knowing that. I’m just some chick who loves NT research and who thinks that there was probably some guy, maybe, named Jesus who had pretty much no history written down about him whatsoever. Lots of myth – not that *he* was a myth – but we have very little actual factual history. Just stories.

    Anywhoo … didn’t mean to stir the pot. 🙂

  6. Ian

    Hey nothing to be sorry for, Kay. The non-professional scholar thing was just because I don’t want to get drawn into the same merry-go-round of blog arguments. My voice just doesn’t help in the argument. I don’t for a minute want to criticize yours though.

    Carrier did a PhD in ancient history, but isn’t a mainstream academic (he lists his job as “Freelance Lecturer” — i.e. no with no institution). As such his expertise *is* relevant. Not your bad.

    If you’re into books on this, Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted is good (Carrier is busy recommending it in the comments of his post), as is “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium” and “Forged” – all very approachable.

    “This is where all this stuff gets frustrating for folks like me who aren’t NT scholars”

    I think this is really true, and I’m in the same boat as soon as discussion leaves my tiny window of knowledge.

    Take, say, the linguistic argument over “Brother of the Lord”. It is pretty much useless to have debates over its meaning in the way Carrier does, because, to judge its meaning, we have to assess it in its linguistic context – how did people use that construction, and when? It’s no good doing what Carrier does and supposing it could mean a general term, without doing the work to show when it is used that way. How many times is someone described as being Jesus brother, a brother of God, or a brother of the Lord? Is there a linguistic or context difference between this and claiming Christians are brothers with one another? To answer that requires a knowledge of the greek and a good knowledge of the corpus – the texts of Christianity beyond the NT. It isn’t something any interested amateur could be expected to have. So when Carrier and other mythicists write about it, it is only for an amateur audience: they go about conflating concepts and mixing up linguistic forms and it sounds plausible, because, after all, most amateurs are not used to being precise about language in the way scholars are. But — and this is the real point — none of these mythicists have ever put this ‘imprecise’ argument forward in an academic paper for scrutiny by their colleagues. So you have to see it as a canard. It is there purely for the consumption of folks who aren’t used to dealing carefully with the texts, and they would not put it in front of peer review.

    This post was an attempt to stop trying to cut off these sloppy tendentious arguments at the pass and give a different criteria. I think we can assume it is hard to master the topic to the level of the top scholars. If so, then we should all be careful of ‘reasonable’ arguments presented exclusively for amateur readers which have not been exposed to peer review.

    Please don’t take an iota of criticism from me about your comment though. I didn’t mean any.

  7. Kay

    “If you’re into books on this, Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted is good…”

    I’m actually reading it right now. I started a series of blog posts on it, but didn’t get much feedback, and so dropped doing the posts.

    I’ve enjoyed the book so far. In it he actually talks about how a rumor got started that he is a mythicist and how he is going to do a future post about why he is not. (But then you know this as you’ve read Jesus Interrupted.) So when the HuffPo article came out I took it with a grain of salt as I remembered what he said in J.I. and understood his defensiveness (though it is not professional).

    Though I find myself leaning towards the mythicist viewpoint from time to time, I have no carved in stone opinion one way or another.

    I was going to buy “Not the Impossible Faith” by Carrier, but am now rethinking this.

    And sorry for all my apologies. 😉 I worry that I’ve unintentionally offended, even when I haven’t and *avoiding confrontation* is my middle name. Except with my husband. He’ll vouch for that. 🙂

  8. Kay

    Oops. I meant Ehrman said he was going to write a book, not do a future post. Heh.

  9. Grizel

    I just found your blog. Good stuff. I read Doherty’s book and was very unimpressed ( I also remember thinking “This guy desperately needs a good editor!”) Have you had a chance to read Carrier’s “Proving History” yet? ( I did a search on your site and din’t find any post about it…) I have a hard time believing Bayes Theorem will become the new way to “do” history. Back in the mid 80’s, C. Behan McCullagh brought up Bayes in “Justifying Historical Descriptions” and quickly noted several problems for historians trying to use it to “prove” history. Has something changed since? I haven’t read the book yet because I’ve been looking for a review by someone with a mathematical background who isn’t a militant “mythicist”. Any thoughts?

  10. Ian

    Thanks for the post, and welcome to the blog!

    I have read Carrier’s book yes, and I’ve been asked to put together a mathematical review of it, which I’m doing. So it is likely to be a few days more.

    To tip my hand though, I think probability theory is worth understanding, because there are some counter-intuitive bits of it which are pertinent to history. But Carrier has done a poor job of putting forward a coherent way of using it specifically, his math is a either naive or deliberately obfuscatory (can’t quite decide which). More on that anon…

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