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.