Views on Mythicism

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)[1]. 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?

[1] 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.]



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105 responses to “Views on Mythicism

  1. A synonymous term for “Historical Minimalism” would be “Pragmatic Denialism.” It’s a position that gives you the primary benefit of Mythicism (i.e. elimination of any historical basis of claims of authority by Jesus) without any of the negative consequences sometimes associated with Mythicism (e.g. being categorized with the flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers).

    Nevertheless, the historicity of the New Testament documents and the first-century social movement of which they are but the residue has withstood every challenge made to it for almost two thousands years – still yielding its treasures to those who will dare to read them with an open mind. I think the same will be said another thousand years from now.

    This I will say in favor of Mythicists, pragmatic or otherwise: they have simply carried critical biblical scholarship to its logical extreme. Thus I can understand Bart Ehrman disagreeing with them, but I do not understand why he denies paternity.

  2. Happy New Year Ian :

    You are back blogging often again. What has stirred your religious mind? Less work, lithium deficiency, your sister, the Holy Spirit?
    Does your sister read this blog?

    I love categories — and like you, understand the caveats of categories and taxonomies in general — they are just a tool to help us organize for-the-time-being.

    This post was very difficult for me to follow. I wonder if a categorization of mythicists is as useful as the uses of the word “mythicist”.

    I understood when you said,

    ” I remain convinced the best fit for the evidence is of a historical figure mythologised, rather than a mythological figure historicised. “

    The rest was convoluted for me — probably cause I don’t hang in those circles.
    Or maybe a minimum definition followed by an explanation with examples of people who hold the positions would help.

    Personally, I have benefitted by reading the Mythologists — I hadn’t thought about several of the positions and issues they raise. They have helped me realize how deeply mythologized he is. As to whether there was a historical Jesus, I am intuitively inclined to think so, but then, I was raised Christian and was a firm believer once (like you). And I don’t know enough about history studies to know how to judge — BUT, learning how evidence points at the mythologizing methods is important.

    I hope to see clearer categories in the future. Or maybe I will re-read another time.
    Thanx, Ian.

    Edit suggestion:
    I am guessing that you wrote this in a hurry — it is set up with very complex thought and sentence structure (mimicking your unedited brain) — you usually re-write your posts to make them much more reader friendly.

    (1) You said:
    Because I think perhaps 90% of the arguments I have, seem to consist of bad inferences on what someone else is saying.

    That sentence made no sense to me.

    (2) You said:
    are specifically designed to be credulous the idea of a historical Jesus.

    –> credulous of ? [either way,] either way, that sentence is hard to understand too. Maybe because I don’t know what “historical Jesus Scholars” means — is it folks who believe IN a historical Jesus or scholars of the Jesus stories who say he is ahistorical?

    (3) you said:
    my major gripe being that setting that level of scepticism would wave away far more than Christianity

    I am not sure what that is saying.

    PS – could you go into wordpress and give us a little bigger comment box? 😉

  3. TWF

    @Mike Gantt: The “withstood every challenge made to it” leaves a lot of room for interpretation there. I think at best you could claim that belief in the Bible has endured despite challengers. That in and of itself is not too remarkable, especially given what you also reference in your reply; the flat-earthers, who have been around in concept much longer than the Bible. 😉 But thanks for providing a comment from the other side of the fence! I prefer not to visit sites that are just echo chambers.

    Ian, great work on the categories here. I think Sabio pointed out all the “bugs.” I’d recommend checking out his post which deals with the larger view of how much truth is seen in the story of Jesus if you haven’t already. But I really like how you’ve explored the nuances of Mythicism here. I’ve been somewhat concerned about Methodological Mythicism in the negative aspect of creating myth where there is none simply due to the method. It’s tricky not to fool yourself.

    Ultimately though, I think I am in the same boat as you with Historical Minimalism, or perhaps, as Gantt suggests, Pragmatic Denialism.

  4. TWF

    Sorry, I forgot to close my “a href” on that link. Doh!

  5. So where are you?

    I think “historical minimalism” would be the best fit for my view.

    What strikes me, on reading people addressing this issue, is that mythicists and historal minimalists agree on almost everything that seems important (that is, important to me), yet they argue — sometimes bitterly — about what words to use to describe their over all picture.

  6. vinnyjh57

    How about just plain agnostic? It seems to me that in the absence of sufficient evidence, we shouldn’t assume either existence or non-existence. We should just acknowledge that our sources are so problematic that neither conclusion warrants much confidence.

    I have often seen “burden of proof” invoked by one side or the other and it always seems misplaced to me. “Burden of proof” is a legal concept which is necessary because a “I don’t know” isn’t an option for a jury. It must decide for one side or the other even in cases where the evidence is very close or incredibly murky. When it comes to historical questions it should be perfectly legitimate to say that the evidence is insufficient to do more than lay out some possibilities.

    If there was a historical Jesus, it is entirely possible that he was unknown during his lifetime outside of a small group of illiterate peasants until such time that he annoyed someone in power sufficiently to get himself crucified. This is not the kind of person we could count on to leave any historical footprint that would be discernible today.

  7. Neil Rickert,

    Good question. Normally, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Keep searching until you find out why that’s not the case here.

  8. “This is not the kind of person we could count on to leave any historical footprint that would be discernible today.

    Correct, Vinny. This is why His resurrection is the only plausible explanation for His notoriety.

  9. Ian

    @Mike thanks for posting, always good to hear a faithful perspective on the arguments of the unbelievers 🙂 (no sarcasm meant at all, in case that sounded off).

    @sabio, thanks for the corrections, I’ll work through and try to clarify now. Always helpful to get a sense of where I’m babbling incomprehensibly! I’ve got more time now to blog, so am getting back into it. Though what I’m reading and writing has moved a little off early Christianity and the bible, so I’m trying to figure out where to go. On the wordpress thing, I have a vanilla free account with WordPress, so I have no control over anything and can’t install plugins, so I don’t have control over sizing type stuff, sorry.

    @TWF, Thanks. As I wrote this I realised that a lot of the issue is not on how-much of Jesus is historical, but whether it was man-to-myth or myth-to-man. Corrected the html.

    @Neil – I agree so much with that! I’ve experienced several bouts of violent agreement on this.

    @Vinny – Yes indeed. Funny how obvious stuff is when it is pointed out! I’ll add that category now.

  10. vinnyjh57

    Quite right Mike, just as the only plausible explanation for Moroni’s notoriety is his appearances to Joseph Smith.

  11. Ian

    @Sabio – made a bunch of corrections and compressions, hope that is simpler. If not, I’m at a loss for how to be even clearer!

  12. Vinny,

    Actually, the explanation for Moroni’s notoriety, such as it is, is Joseph Smith’s notoriety, such as it is.

  13. Ian

    @sabio – forgot to answer the question in the first bit – my sister knows about the blog, certainly, I’ve no idea if she reads it regularly, but has seen posts in the past.

    This is why His resurrection is the only plausible explanation for His notoriety.

    That is indeed what many historical Jesus scholars say.

    Those that doubt a resurrection happened say that something happened to make the early Christians believe that a crucified criminal was the agent though whom God created the world, but they cannot (as historians) say what that might have been.

  15. Ian


    “That is indeed what many historical Jesus scholars say.” Who, particularly, among historical Jesus scholars says that the resurrection is the only plausible explanation for Jesus’s notoriety? Can you point to where they say it? I can perhaps think of one scholar who might make that claim, but only one. And even then I’d be moderately surprised to hear him say it. So perhaps I’m missing something. Or perhaps you’re making it up.

    “Those that doubt a resurrection happened say that something happened to make the early Christians believe that a crucified criminal was the agent though whom God created the world” Well doesn’t everyone believe this? There was some set of causes behind the Christ cult. It didn’t ping into the air by divine fiat. I suspect that you’re actually trying to make some implication about bias. So actually make it, explicitly.

    Hiding your accusations behind vague innuendo isn’t helpful. You can be a big boy and actually say what you think.

  16. @ Ian:
    (1) Could you use “@” symbols (I wish Carr would do the same) so as to keep who is talking to whom straight — fun conversation here.
    (2) Could you give use a score card for who these other folks are– you have dialogued with them before — could you tell us their positons relative to the mythicism believer/unbeliever spectrum. Thanx. It would help to follow the game. 🙂

  17. Ian

    @sabio – 1) done, 2) gah! I don’t want to presume to express their positions – that would hold me hostage I think. — Steven I’ve not dialogued with before, but has posted against historicism on other blogs I’ve read. I’d be very interested to really unpack what he thinks but I get more of a sense of disdain than engagement, which I wanted to make clear isn’t welcome here. Mike, TWF and Neil I think have shared comment streams with you before on here. I’m pretty sure you’re responsible for hooking me up with TWF. Mike is a Christian with a very high view of scripture, Neil, Vinny, and TWF declare themselves above (thanks!).

    Vinny comments on several blogs on mythicism issues. My opinion of his position is a good example of the dangers that motivated this post. Initially because of seeing him argue against historicism, I made broad assumptions and rather dismissed him mentally. Only later did I appreciate that he talks a huge amount of sense, and our difference is probably only a degree of skepticism. Mea culpa (sorry Vinny). When scanning long comment threads about Mythicism on other blogs, his is a name I stop to read.

  18. IAN
    Who, particularly, among historical Jesus scholars says that the resurrection is the only plausible explanation for Jesus’s notoriety? Can you point to where they say it? I can perhaps think of one scholar who might make that claim, but only one.

    NT Wright is an historical Jesus scholar, who makes such a claim.

    Licona, Craig, lots of people who say Jesus existed, claim the resurrection is what made Jesus stand out from other people.

    Surely the majority of historical Jesus scholars are Christians who believe in the resurrection?

    “Those that doubt a resurrection happened say that something happened to make the early Christians believe that a crucified criminal was the agent though whom God created the world”

    Well doesn’t everyone believe this?

    Everyone believes Jesus was a crucified criminal? Even Doherty and Wells?

  19. Ian


    Right, so you picked the one I was thinking of. But even he doesn’t say what you claimed he did, I don’t think (I could well be wrong, please give an example). Licona and Craig are apologists, I thought we were talking “Historical Jesus scholars” (your words) – I’d be very surprised if either would identify with that label, let alone be recognized as such by any other scholar. “Surely…” surely you’re right without giving evidence? Nope, that’s not how reality works, I’m afraid.

    “Everyone believes Jesus was a crucified criminal? ” – no, but even Doherty and Wells believe that Christians believe he was a crucified criminal, and therefore something must have caused that belief. Hence my objection – say what you are actually saying, rather than playing word games – we can both do that all day. What is your actual opinion on this, and why? Start from a statement of your belief we can actually talk about, rather than heckling other commenters from the peanut gallery.

  20. My apologies.

    Please forgive my ignorance.

    By ‘historical Jesus scholars’ I didn’t realise that Licona ,Craig, Habermas do not regard themselves as ‘Historical Jesus scholars’.

    Likewise, I had no idea that Wells and Doherty regarded Jesus as a crucified criminal.

    I can only plead stupidity.

  21. ‘no, but even Doherty and Wells believe that Christians believe he was a crucified criminal’

    Sorry, my mistake again.

    They believe that Mark’s Gospel was the source of Christians believing that Jesus was a crucified criminal.

    And Wells and Doherty certainly believe something happened to cause ‘Mark’ to write a Gospel.

    But I really and honestly can’t say why Christianity started. I am neither a psychiatrist nor a policeman.

  22. Ian


    Nobody asked you say why Christianity started, I just asked you to state your point plainly, rather than endless word-games. Your dripping derision and sarcasm is wearing, and I can’t be bothered to try and coax a straightforward conversation out of you. So please go and be self-righteous elsewhere.

  23. i. Steve Carr, who frequents the same blogs that I do, must think that his cryptic, tangential remarks make him sound smarter. I can think of no other reason for why he writes the way he does.*

    ii. I’m pretty firmly between the pure agnostic and historical minimalist camps, but I lean toward historical minimalism. In their current state, stronger forms of mythicism tend to end up sounding too conspiratorial for my liking.

  24. Ian

    Thanks Dan, and welcome to the blog.

  25. Thanks Ian
    Good points, Dan Gillson.
    But you say something which I think is important. Most of us take positions on this issue with very little evidence but gut feelings. Dan says he won’t go all the way because it sounds too conspiratory, but those who like conspiratory go all the way because we like conspiratory. Cynically, I think all of our epistemology is very suspect and then we try to make it sound smart — well Ian and Dan aren’t — and I admire that honesty. Me, I decide with some evidence, but way less than I would prefer and way less careful thinking than I wish I did. But hell, only so much time in a year and in a lifetime, and I got a feeling what I think is right and what matches my preferences — Isn’t that largely how we all decide? Tis only a matter of degree, eh?

  26. Ian


    ” I think all of our epistemology is very suspect and then we try to make it sound smart ”

    Post-hoc rationalization is a scarily powerful force, I agree. I am guilty of it all the time. It could be the case on this issue, and I wouldn’t know it.

    But. I assumed the historicist position uncritically through my degree, and only critically re-examined it when I later came across mythicist arguments. This was at the point I was gleefully casting aside all kinds of former beliefs. Historicism seems like a bizarre thing to subconsciously cling onto, among all the stuff I was going through critically and throwing out.

    But, the point of self-delusion is that it is really, really convincing for the person concerned – so who knows!

  27. Hey Ian,

    Well, I got all my errands done today, so I have a chance to sit down and re-read this to see if I understand. I will be comparing what you wrote to my simplistic 4 category diagram here which are:

    The Factualists :
    1. Accurate : fundies and lots of evangelicals
    2. Close Enough: most evangelicals, liberals

    The Mythicized:
    3. Fictionalized largely (man –> myth) most atheists, skeptics, agnostics and some progressive Christians
    4. Fabricated (myth–>man): nonbelieving ‘mythicists’

    I am #3 — but learn a lot from #4 and not sure if they are wrong.

    So how do these parallel yours:

    Historical Minimalist = close to my #3

    Pure Agnostic = maybe 3 & 4. But certainly they don’t feel that way about every person reported in History.

    Agnostic Mythicism: I reread this and Pure Agnostic — hard to tell the difference — not sure I care.

    Analogical Mythicism: Sounds link 3 & 4 . Confusing for me because I don’t know the various positions.

    Methodological Mythicism: I think this is better call Mythical Methodology — a method should be kept differentiated from a position. I think this is what I find confusing about your list. It seems to be listing both categories for different types of stance on mythicism AND different uses of the word mythicism.

    Moral Mythicism: Same, this seems to be a policy issue and not a category or mythicist.

    So, I think lists of why people may want to believe mythicism is as useful as is why people would benefit from being a believer. But we should keep them separate from what they believe.

    Maybe I am confuse. But i gave the post another more careful read.

  28. Hey Ian,

    It will be fun to see what you think of Carrier’s upcoming book. I didn’t read his History one, and only sped-read your posts on it — over my head and all. But his next one may be a bit more reader friendly. And I liked the podcast I heard with him arguing with Marc Goodall (sp?) at Duke. Goodall sounded bad to me but I liked Carrier — and I went into it with a bias the other way.

    Do you find yourself moving more toward mythicist positions or further away nowadays?

  29. Interesting post Ian.

    I wonder if it might be better to think of some of your nuances of mythicism (analytical and methodological) as overlapping arguments that might support the mythicist case? Perhaps there should also be space for those who, while acknowledging the existence of mythical elements in the NT, take a more optimistic about the possibility of reconstructing a historical Jesus than could be described as minimalist? I guess my own position would be somewhere just on the optimist side of minimalism.

    I don’t know if it quite constitutes a separate category, but there are also quite a few people out there I’d term pseudo-mythicists. By that I mean people who obviously sympathise with mythicism and who argue the mythicist case in posts and comments, but who when pressed will deny that they are mythicists. As far as I can tell, Neil Godfrey and Stephen Carr seem to fit this description.

  30. Ian

    @sabio – yes the categories crosscut both conclusions and reasons for holding them, intentionally – sorry for the confusion – maybe I should put headings.

    Mark Goodacre – my former tutor in fact… I think Carrier came out on top because he went in much better prepared. Folks opposing scholarly hegemony spend all their time studying and responding to their opponents. It has been Carrier’s full time job for a couple of years now. How much time has Goodacre spent honing his responses? Probably a day at most. When I heard about it, I feared it would be a bigger rout..

    “Do you find yourself moving more toward mythicist positions or further away nowadays?”

    I haven’t moved much in the last three years, certainly not substantially.

    I have become much warmer to certain Mythicist positions as I’ve understood what they are actually saying, and understood how little distance they are from mine. And because I’ve realised most Mythicists aren’t really arguing against my position (if they realise it is a position at all).

  31. Ian

    @paul – thanks for commenting and welcome. I considered adding a category for not-so-minimalists. In the end I didn’t because I thought it would be better to focus on folks who could reasonably find themselves in the Mythicist spectrum. So I’ve met a few self-proclaimed “Mythicists” who are historical minimalists, but use the language of mythicists to avoid being thought of as more ‘optimistic’ (as you put it).

    Pseudo-mythicists, I wonder what their actual views are, and whether they would appear in another category here. And whether they’d actually be willing to declare their views explicitly. Certainly Steven Carr above showed a determined unwillingness to state his beliefs. I don’t read Godfrey, do you have a sense of what he actually believes then (or a link to it)?

    Perhaps there are a group who are not so much pro-mythicist as anti-historicist… hmmm. Interesting thoughts.

    Anyway, based on yours and Sabio’s comments, I’ve added headers to the post to clarify the kinds of category at work.

  32. Ian,

    Please say more about your study under Mark Goodacre. I admire his measured manner, broad interests, and affable tone but only know him through the web. I’m interested in what you thought of him, experiencing him as a tutor and a person, to fill in my limited perception of him.

    I would agree with you that Carrier appeared stronger in the podcast, but I ascribe that to Carrier’s abilities as a polemicist. After all, a good lawyer can argue either side of a case equally well. I found from personal exchanges with him on his blog, however, that he doesn’t hold up well under a sustained line of questioning about a single topic. He does better when he can dart from one subject to the next, never letting the dust settle on a challenge before he makes the next one. By his own admission, he’s less interested in establishing mythicism as correct history than in overturning the view that current history is correct. Thus, I think Goodacre clearly has the facts and logic on his side, but he’s just not the verbal pugilist that Carrier is.

    In any case, I wonder also where Mark G. might have fit into your migration away from faith – if you’re willing to discuss it.

  33. Ian

    Mike, Wow, interesting questions…

    Mark was my ‘personal tutor’ as an undergraduate student (the person you’re supposed to go in a UK university to for general advice), as well as a lecturer on the New Testament. So I was probably one of maybe 30 students he tutored, and one of maybe 50 on that course per year. He had a deserved reputation as a great lecturer: fun, witty and passionate about the subject (and – to be honest – this was high praise: there were quite a few good lecturers in the dept, along with the inevitable duds). The very few times I had personal conversations with him, he was warm, helpful and generous with his time. So I think your description of him resounds with my impressions of him as a student. But I don’t want to claim any privileged knowledge. I’m very sure he wouldn’t remember me from those days, as I don’t remember 99% of students I have taught! I just like to name drop occasionally!

    As to where he fits in my migration away from faith, he doesn’t really, at all. As a student, the challenge to my faith came through my philosophical theology lecturer, or rather one of his set texts (Fear and Trembling – by Kierkegaard – which blew my mind). But I weathered that storm and abandoned my faith more than a decade later.

  34. I confess, I was uninterested in the matter until one of my favourite bloggers, Dr. McGrath, started bringing up mythicism regularly to mock it. My interest has mainly been Old Testament criticism, and historical Jesus studies didn’t particularly interest me.

    Like all regular churchgoers, it seemed beyond the realm of reason that Jesus might not have existed as a historical person. But when I began seeing what Price, Carrier, and Wells had to say (I have not read Doherty), it made me see aspects of the New Testament I had never noticed before. Christian origins began making a new kind of sense.

    At the moment, I have been persuaded enough to adopt Price’s agnostic mythicism — though I think this is the position that should properly be called Minimalism, since, like Old Testament Minimalism, it treats all historical claims made by religious/theological literature with skepticism until independent evidence is found.

    At this point, I think all the best arguments in favour of historicism have been made… and they’re not that good. I’d have more respect for some of these scholars if they were a little more humble about their conclusions and the contingent nature of their evidence. What we really need now is more physical, documentary evidence from the first century on Jewish and Hellenistic religious developments. (Of course, a single nonreligious contemporary reference to Jesus could also decide the matter.)

  35. Interesting comment stream here !

    @ Paul D :
    I agree with you. It was not until Dr. McGrath started bad-mouthing the Mythicists vehemently — out of character for him — that I decided to read some of their posts. I actually enjoy Neil Godfrey’s writings sometimes — but it is usually beyond my pay grade – as is Ian’s stuff when he is not kind! 🙂 But usually Ian is very kind and keeps stuff simple for us lay folks. I think that is in part because of his temperament and because he still goes to Bible studies and thus is in touch with active believers talking about the Bible in a country (England) where they don’t influence politics and status as they doe in America.

    Paul, if I remember correctly, you live in Japan. During my 7 years there I never was reminded that I was a non-Christian. No one cared. When I got back to the US — Christians were in my face again. Then when I had children, it got much worse. So I started writing.

    @ Ian :
    Thanx for your great reply both about your epistemology and relationship with Mark Goodacre — I think you are right on the prepping issue. He will have a much better chance after Carrier publishes his book.

    But I must say, in that Podcast, Carrier was very gentle, courteous and measured — far from the “pugilist” misrepresentation Mike Gantt gave.

    I think the mythicists are doing a great favor in that they are getting people to see the myth. Before, many atheists just thought Jesus was crazy or a misunderstood shaman or … The atheists did not see the editing and mythologizing themselves. And perhaps they will help Christians to see behind the stories too.

  36. Grizel

    Great post Ian.
    Historical minimalist fits for me. Actually I was a mythicist before I began to study Jewish/Christian history and began reading Ehrman, Brown, Meier, Schiffman, Nickelsburg, Friedman, Fredricksen, etc., until I finally went back to college (after a long absence) to study not just biblical/religious studies but actual historical methods and theory. I find some of the same types of arguments among historians of various fields – two historians can examine the details of a person’s life (that we have much more concrete evidence about) and come to completely different conclusions. One will accuse another of making assumptions unsupported by evidence, the other will defend their history and damn the other ( a good example of this is the arguments that went back and forth about Natalie Zemon Davis’ book “The Return of Martin Guerre”- with her detractors taking a much more minimalist position, with some even claiming the story was a myth). I keep waiting to be convinced that the whole thing is a house of cards propped up by a secret religious cabal that makes professors teach a “historical” Jesus and instead I keep finding the opposite…hmm…

    I am still an atheist (even though I have been accused of not being a “true” atheist due to my support of the historical Jesus, which I find mildly amusing since when, as a young boy I questioned the existence of God and was told I was not a “true” Christian) but I am no longer an “angry” atheist. My default position is to not immediately challenge any and all things that are even remotely related to religion as fake, fraudulent, or illogical. I sometimes question if there are not some in the hardcore mythicist camp who instead hear the name “Jesus” and immediately their blood pressure soars…

  37. In your Positive Mythicism description you speak of Jesus being a “mythological being”. I personally think that term is misleading for some major mythicist authors. “Spiritual” or “heavenly” or “celestial” might be more comprehensive and accurate, probably “celestial” is the best. Mythological, to me, implies a collation of stories around that figure, whereas major mythicist names have argued more that the Christ figure was a heavenly entity with a role or function rather than having stories or personality ascribed to him.

    Further, perhaps another category should allow for an evolutionary mythicist, in the sense that the Christ idea only came to eventually coalesce out of a range of spiritual/heavenly ideas, figures, metaphors, midrash . . . before finding a place in an earth-located gospel story.

    And one more category — what about “incidental mythicists” — that is, those such as myself whose interest and inquiry is really not to prove or disprove the HJ, but to understand Christian origins and literature, and who in the process see abundant evidence that the figure of Jesus is a theological and literary creation without secure anchor in history outside those texts and ideas.

  38. Ian

    @Neil, thanks a lot. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. I knew I’d bias the language, no matter how hard I tried. I’ll make that first change.

    Evolutionary mythicism. Good call.

    I won’t get to make the change until this afternoon.

    Incidental mythicists. This gets into motivation or origin, which is an axis I hadn’t thought about. The opposite being, presumably, ideological mythicists. I’ll have a think if I want to go there. The problem with having motivational categories, I think, is that there will probably be some that nobody wants to be put in. So, I like to think I’m a historical minimalist from a dispassionate interest in Christian origins, via a careful study of the data. But, as per the discussion with Sabio above, perhaps I’m just a vapid ideologue who’s deluding himself (as I’ve been accused of)…

  39. Ian

    @Grizel – thanks for this. I rather retreated from commenting on a lot of atheist blogs because of the regular wall of antagonism when I tried to correct bad information. I don’t mean even defending historicism, even simple things like pointing out that most Christians aren’t fundamentalists, and many liberal Christians are not theists. Interesting on the other historical debates. I’d love to read more on that – is there a link to somewhere I can enter the controversy through?

    @Sabio – I agree, I didn’t think Carrier came across as a pugilist either. Just more polished and better prepared..

  40. Ian

    @Neil, I’ve added your suggestions. If you wouldn’t mind making sure I’ve not skewed them again! I’m a bit stuck on the distinction between Evolutionary and Analogical – my categories seem unduly coupled there (a problem with my categorization, totally). So I might tweak. Thanks again.

  41. @Ian, thanks for the description of your relationship with Mark.

  42. What are we to think about the fact that the most energetic and prolific critics of Jesus Mythicism (Ehrman, McGrath, Hoffman) are not those who hold the highest views of Scripture but rather come from the ranks of “historical minimalists”?

  43. @Paul D,

    The New Testament documents provide ample direct evidence that a relatively mature social movement revolving around a figure called Jesus existed prior to 50 CE. That contemporary historians would take no note of his life, and only note of the social movement to the degree, and as, its presence grew, is supported by the extant documentary evidence – both religious and nonreligious – that we have.

    Therefore, the solution to uncertainty is not to look for more evidence from contemporary nonreligious sources, but rather to examine the New Testament documents with the following questions in mind: 1) Are the documents we have reasonably faithful representations of what was originally written? 2) what did the various people who sent and received these documents think about Jesus? and 3) Why did they think it?

    Jesus Mythicists do not give definitive answers to these questions. Rather, they merely want to say (Carrier is the most forthcoming and clear about this) that their unsatisfactory answers are better than the unsatisfactory answers of those who accept the historicity of Jesus. Therefore, if you want to find out the truth – one way or the other – about Jesus’ historicity, know that you will never find it in Mythicism. The goal of Mythicism is not history but rather agnosticism about history..

  44. @Mike Gantt

    I appreciate your enthusiasm to engage with me on this. Suffice it to say, I am more than familiar with the arguments on both sides.

    Your last paragraph implies that having an answer is better than having no answer. On the contrary, pretending to know something we can’t be sure of is precisely the problem that keeps us from finding correct answers. Mysticism may be agnostic about Jesus, but pretending you have certain knowledge does not make it so, and certainty is not a virtuous position to adopt.

    (This reminds me of the common religious apologetic argument that presumes it is more virtuous and beneficial to fake belief than have genuine doubt — as if that were evidence for a religion being true.)

  45. @Paul D,

    You have ascribed to me a view I do not hold. I find reprehensible any argument that says “it is more virtuous and beneficial to fake belief than have genuine doubt.” And I am in league with you that “pretending you have certain knowledge does not make it so.”

    A fearless search for truth is the only durable hope of finding it. That means a willingness to end up either certain or uncertain as findings may warrant.

  46. I have no problem with the change you made to the Positive Mythicism section. (i.e. celestial)

    As for Evolutionary mythicism, might I suggest something along the lines of figures coalescing among various religious groups — or maybe I’m making this too complicated, sorry. Just that “pieced together” sounds a bit like someone sitting down and patching it all together one evening, maybe? Just my thoughts.

    Does Analogical Mythicism cover those who wonder if John the Baptist or another figure from the time of Jannaeus or Simon Magus were the basis of the Jesus figures?

  47. Categorizations, including the one above by Ian, can be a very helpful means of sorting out the many varied, and otherwise confusing, streams of input coming to us on a given issue. Such taxonomies can, however, also be misused and thereby become counterproductive.

    Such categories can obscure important nuances. What if the truth can be found only in between existing categories? Or what if the truth transcends some or all categories and renders some of all of them moot?

    I do not call myself a Christian. What other people want to call me is their own business; I don’t dwell on it Non-Christians usually call me a Christian, and Christians usually call me a heretic. None of those labels matter to God because He is not overwhelmed by many varied and confusing inputs. He can see us each as we are.

    I imagine that when each of us views Ian’s list (or Sabio’s, or anyone else’s), we perceive a certain social status for each group listed. This group may appear more or less socially acceptable than some other group. If we don’t guard our thinking, our search for truth devolves into a search for which social group to join – and fears of rejection begin to nag at our pursuit of truth in counter-productive ways.

    So much of an individual’s sense of identity today derives from which social groups to which he considers himself connected. People today identity themselves with sports teams in the way that ancients identified themselves with selected gods. And on it goes.

    My caution is that we use categorizations to organize and understand the inputs we have thus far received…but we do not assume that the answer must lie within one of the categories we currently see before us. And in no case do we consider a search for truth a search for how I want other people to perceive me.

  48. Ian


    “maybe I’m making this too complicated” – I don’t think so. I’d rather it sound right. If it takes many more attempts! I’ll tweak.

    “Does Analogical Mythicism…” – not the way I was thinking about it, but its another important point to try to fit somewhere. Again, I think the ‘Analogical’ category is proving to be the least useful, so I need to rethink it, I suspect. Perhaps it can just go and be part of evolutionary. The analogical seems to suggest that these folk think Jesus was only made up of myths. Where I’m not sure anyone claims that. I suspect folks who stress the prior mythic figures, would actually be in your evolutionary category – they think the prior myths are important sources, but wouldn’t deny the existence of other sources. So I think the inclusion of the evolutionary category makes my previous attempt to capture something similar naive and a little tendentious. Unless you think otherwise.

  49. vinnyjh57

    A fearless search for truth is the only durable hope of finding it. That means a willingness to end up either certain or uncertain as findings may warrant.

    Jesus Mythicists do not give definitive answers to these questions. . . . Therefore, if you want to find out the truth . . . .know that you will never find it in Mythicism.

    Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

  50. Ian


    I absolutely agree. Category posts for me are a way of forcing myself to recognize diversity, to try to fairly recognize other people’s opinions, and to listen to what someone is actually saying, rather than projecting preconceptions onto them. None of these things comes naturally to me. The irony is, of course, that categories also mush people together, so they’re only useful if they mush people into more groups that I would otherwise.

    As for what is actually true, yes, it would be nothing more than a happy accident if the truth (on any issue) happened to be right in the center of one of my categories. I wouldn’t expect that, and the categories aren’t intended for that.

    Philosophically I think all nouns and adjectives work this way: they are conventions used to describe some group of things. That we choose to group those particular things in those ways is merely a label of convenience, and we shouldn’t fool ourself that our terms have any impact on reality. I’d say that for terms like “Christian” and “Atheist”, even “Male” and “Female”. None are inherent properties, all are human constructs seeking to represent some underlying pattern, and the arbitrariness of them can be seen clearly at the boundaries.

  51. Vinny,

    The cognitive dissonance lies with those who are certain that no one can be certain.

  52. vinnyjh57

    Wait a minute Mike. You just told me that I have to be willing to be either uncertain or certain as the evidence warrants. Now you are claiming that there is something wrong with stating that the evidence is insufficient to warrant certainty if that is my conclusion. Make up your mind.

  53. Vinny,

    There is a difference between saying, “I am uncertain,” and saying, “No one can be certain.”

  54. vinnyjh57


    Not necessarily. If my uncertainty is due to lack of knowledge, then it would be foolish of me to suggest that no one could be certain. However, if I have considered all the evidence and arguments and I have concluded that they are insufficient to warrant certainty, then it would be equally foolish to think that the conclusion only applied to me.

  55. Agnostic Mythicism. I don’t see how you can be a Pure Agnostic. If you can’t say anything about a HJ, then why wouldn’t the default be he didn’t exist? And the possibility of new evidence is always there, or even better theories and arguments about current evidence.

    I’m just looking at Mike Gantt’s 3:39 comment, but I find I completely agree with it (out of context, perhaps, but still surprising!)

  56. As for reason, all of them!

    Vinny, you are saying no one should be certain. (like Methodological Naturalism). Mike is saying you can’t say “no one can be certain.” (like Philosophical Naturalism)

  57. Ian

    Thanks Mark. I agree, although when the two sides both are explanations of the data, I think making one the default is not a neutral choice.

    So Jesus is a historical character, and Jesus is a fictional creation are both positive claims. If we have not enough evidence to establish either, then should we conclude by default that neither are true? Or should we instead conclude that we don’t have the evidence to determine which is true.

    If the former, and if there isn’t a third option, then we’ve concluded A is false and not-A is false. Which is an error. So, if that is a representation of the situation, then a Pure Agnostic approach should be taken: we don’t know if A or not-A is true.

    Of course, you might feel that the two options are a) not both positive claims, b) differently evidenced, or c) do not exclude the middle. In which case you would be warranted in thinking Pure Agnosticism isn’t correct.

    But it isn’t, it seems to me, an unjustifiable position.

    “I find I completely agree ” – glad I could be the host for such a love-in 😉

  58. @Mark – Agnostic Mythicism. I don’t see how you can be a Pure Agnostic. If you can’t say anything about a HJ, then why wouldn’t the default be he didn’t exist?

    I’m sure Vinny can explain his own stance better than me, but doesn’t your non-existence default effectively mean that we should favour one interpretation of the evidence over another? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I don’t quite see why this should be the case…

  59. Paul, for me, the premise of Pure Agnosticism is there is no reliable historical evidence to interpret. Thus, no existence.

  60. Ian

    Which is fine if you don’t use that conclusion, plus the law of excluded middle, to come to a conclusion about how the evidence did arise.

  61. According to your criteria I’m a pure agnostic, with the following qualifications:

    1) We keep finding more evidence pertinent to the history of 1st-century Judea and Galilee, and to the history of early Christianity. It’s entirely conceivable that at some point we will have enough evidence to say with certainty either that Jesus existed or that he never existed. In this case as in so very many others, a positive would be much easier to prove. A single 1st-century papyrus could prove Jesus’ existence, and ancient papyri are still being dug up in great numbers. This question could be settled soon.

    2) Much more important than 1) — I very much dislike being referred to as an agnostic, because I hate agnostics, as the term is most commonly used, referring to people who proudly don’t take a stance on the question of the existence of God. They are thoroughly obnoxious, smirks with legs, who are constantly proclaiming, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that they are more clever than all atheists and all believers. I’ve met a lot of atheists, a lot of believers and unfortunately a few agnostics as well, and I know that membership in none of those three groups requires a notable degree of intelligence.

  62. Ian

    @stevenbollinger – thanks for that and welcome to the blog! I’ve met some smart-alec agnostics too, but most agnostics I’ve met have been reasonable, just sayin.

    I enjoyed your post on whether biblical scholars are to blame for the failings of New Atheism. I did comment on it at some length, but blogspot deleted the comment. [fwiw I hate blogspot commenting, if there’s any error (like a mistake in the username or pw) the comment is gone, and can’t be recovered by going back a step. And I always forget to copy to the clipboard.]

  63. Mark – I guess I’ll let Vinny explain whether that accurately describes his own views and whether he agrees with your line of reasoning.

    If you think that the evidence for something is ambiguous, or scant – that it could equally point to the existence or non-existence of a person or thing, I don’t really see what you gain from adopting a default position of ahistoricity (or historicity for that matter) rather than just saying “there’s not enough evidence to decide either way”.

  64. Ian: I’ve had access problems with wordpress and other online sites. I think you may have to be logged out of wordpress in order to comment on some other blog platforms? I’m not sure. Not even sure I’m using the correct IT jargon. Anyway, if you find it impossible to leave a message over there, you could respond over here and I’d gladly read your comment. Sorry for the bother.

  65. (Btw, Ian, I’d like to believe that reasonable agnostics exist. I really would.)

  66. @Ian,

    I don’t know where you want to go next in this discussion, if anywhere. If you were willing, however, I think the most time-efficient place to start would be to see if the “Pure Agnostic” (i.e. Vinny’s) position can be proven. I say this because if it can, then the game is over and no time needs to be wasted considering any other position (identified or unidentified). Stated another way, disproving PA seems a condition precedent required to prove any other position.

  67. Isn’t this what Carrier’s first book tried to discuss: What counts as evidence and how do we decide on evidence in different domains — in particular, the history domain.

    I know a great deal about what counts as evidence in Medicine — we have worked on that for the last 50 years — and still room to improve in our methodology. In computer science, it is much easier. Likewise, for physics.

    And in Business, good-enough counts much more than in hard sciences. And in the social sciences it all falls apart. Then, in history it gets really tough.

    So we can’t argue about enough evidence until we are clear on what sorts of evidences there are and how to weigh them. Thus, much of this thread seems to be people talking past each other.

  68. Mark,

    I am pretty sure that many many people lived in the ancient world without leaving any discernible mark the historical record so I find it hard to see why non-existence would be the default position any more than existence.

    At this point my uncertainty is still provisional. Of course it is always subject to discoveries of new evidence of the type that Steven mentioned. Equally important, however, is my suspicion that much better arguments for historicism can be made than the ones I have seen so far. I have no trouble affirming that the kinds of arguments Ehrman advanced in Did Jesus Exist? don’t warrant certainty. On the other hand, I am struck by the fact that with each successive gospel, Jesus seemingly became more divine and more supernatural. I could imagine being persuaded by an argument that extrapolated the trend back to a historical person. .

    At this point, I find the historicists’ explanations for the epistles too artificial and the mythicists’ explanations for the gospels too speculative.

  69. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, Theology, by nature, is always untestable and thus safely guarded from all sorts of evidence measures.

  70. Steven B,

    Regarding agnosticism:

    I have no trouble affirming the non-existence of leprechauns because, in addition to seeing no evidence for their existence, I cannot imagine any circumstances under which the leprechaun hypothesis could ever have any explanatory power.

    I also find the evidence for God unpersuasive, but I still can see the the explanatory potential of the God hypothesis when it comes to certain big picture type questions like why there is something rather than nothing and why there is consciousness.

    It is similar to the reason that I remain agnostic about a historical Jesus. I don’t think the case has been made, but I can see the explanatory potential of the HJ hypothesis.

  71. Stated another way, disproving PA seems a condition precedent required to prove any other position.

    No MIke. Proving any other position is the way that you disprove HJ agnosticism.

  72. Vinny, your first graf is entirely confused (not confusing). We are not talking about the existence of any non-determined person. That is pointless. HJ means Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the Gospels is historical. Meaning – at the absolute least – a Jew named Jesus who lived at some point in Nazareth in the first two decades of the CE.

    Agreed on the next two grafs, except for allowing extrapolation as positive evidence for HJ. HJ needs evidence external to the Gospels.

  73. Ian

    “HJ needs evidence external to the Gospels.” Why? I mean, we can disagree what they’re evidence for, but I’ve never understood why people think the Gospels aren’t good evidence. Compared to other literary works of the period, they’re absolute gold standard: massive numbers of copies, widely distributed, heavily attested textual traditions, some with a clear and pretty complete paleographical sequence. If you just dismiss texts on the basis of their later compilation into a text that got treated as scripture, you’re surely betraying a rather ideological bias. Again, this is independent of whether you think their contents actually support one hypothesis or the other.

  74. Ian

    “HJ means Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the Gospels is historical” Not really – very few Historical Jesus scholars will argue anything like this. Historical Jesus, as distinct from Mythicist, is the idea that the development of the Jesus tradition began with a historical figure, around which the mythology developed. That the historical figure was not as the gospels portrayed him is universally accepted in the scholarly works I’ve read.

  75. vinnyjh57


    You wrote, “If you can’t say anything about a HJ, then why wouldn’t the default be he didn’t exist?” I simply pointed out that lots of people existed in the ancient world about whom we cannot say anything. I think that it goes exactly to the reason you gave for preferring non-existence as a default.

    Why did Jesus ever have to live in Nazareth? Ehrman says that if it were proved that Nazareth did not exist until later, it would just mean that he came from somewhere else. I suspect there are at least as many different interpretations of the term “historical Jesus” as there are of the term “mythicism.”

  76. Ian

    @Mark – this post: may illustrate the distinction a little better.

    @Mike – I’m not sure how you’d ‘prove’ insufficient evidence. Seems like a negative judgement. When no possible solution can reach some burden of proof, then Pure Agnosticism is the only warranted position. I’m not, here, particularly concerned with trying to resolve the issue, in any case, since I want to encourage these kinds of conversations that seem to be better refining some of the categories. And I don’t want to try to herd what is proving to be a bunch of very interesting and very cool cats.

  77. “…Compared to other literary works of the period…” I’m afraid it will take a while to respond in full and to Vinny, but I can’t believe you’re using this one, Ian. And in what sense are you using “literature”? Just something written down?

  78. Ian


    “On the other hand, I am struck by the fact that with each successive gospel, Jesus seemingly became more divine and more supernatural. I could imagine being persuaded by an argument that extrapolated the trend back to a historical person.”

    My reasoning has something of that about it. But the big problem is that Paul is earlier than the gospels (indisputably, that I can see). Which is a pain! 🙂

  79. Ian

    @Mark ” And in what sense are you using “literature”? Just something written down?” Yes. I’m using it in the historical sense, please don’t read any judgement into that. What kinds of evidence of anything in antiquity are there? There are literary evidence (stories, letters, biographies, histories, almanacs, polemics), inscriptions, architectural and human remains, material culture, etc. I’m not suggesting the works of the NT are ‘literature’ in the sense of Dickens (though Acts in particular is very similar in structure and style to some fictional genres of antiquity).

    “I can’t believe you’re using this one” – then I suspect you probably think I’m saying something that I’m not actually saying. As far as I can tell, what I’ve said is not controversial among anyone on any side of this question. It certainly wasn’t intended to be.

  80. vinnyjh57


    That is what keeps me on the fence. Maybe Wells is right that Christianity was some sort of amalgamation of a mystery cult and a cult built around an actual person. Occam might tear his hair out though.

  81. “I cannot imagine any circumstances under which the leprechaun hypothesis could ever have any explanatory power”

    I can imagine such circumstances with the greatest of ease. A pugnacious Irish midget would suffice.

  82. Ian

    @Vinny, my just-so story (again, I don’t think this is the place to go into why I think this in detail) is this.

    Paul is in opposition with the community of prior believers, and particularly key figures in authority over that community. Later writing identifies the individuals in authority as connected with the historical Jesus (I read Paul as acknowledging the same w.r.t James, though the line of reasoning isn’t solely dependent on that interpretation). This seems to fit: it explains their authority, and explains Paul’s disinclination to historiographical theology with his churches. But after Paul the church as a whole came to trace its authority back to both sides, equally. Which again seems to explain later gospels increasingly weaving together historiographical and transcendent ideas of Jesus.

  83. vinnyjh57


    I come from a family of Irishmen of various sizes and shapes, but the Irish whiskey hypothesis has always been sufficient to explain their pugnacity.

  84. My last comments must not have struck any resonance with folks. Oh well, I will try again.

    Ian: the breaking into 2 large categories is an improvement. BTW, I would put the “(h/t)” into the notes at the bottom, not the main text.
    And the text is much clearer.

    But here are more suggestions:

    Concerning the “Conclusions”:

    (a) Perhaps you should us “HJ” as an abbreviation and order the categories by the degree of HJ felt substantial. Thus maybe change the title to “Positions of HJ” and the categories as:
    (1) HJ Literalism
    (2) HJ Majoritism
    (3) HJ Minimalism
    (4) HJ Agnosticism (“Pure Agnostic”)
    (5) HJ A-historicism (“Agnostic Mythicism”)
    (6) HJ Fabricated Mythicism (“Positive Mythicist)

    Because your 4 categories don’t catch all Christians. You’ll see that this list captures similar to my diagram — however, using the pie-chart, my diagram illustrates the variety of these positions a bit more graphically.

    Concerning your “Reasons”
    I don’t think these are categories but instead statements about methodology, evolution of stories, motivations and such all mixed up. No need for “Mythicism” titles here. It confuses with the “Conclusion” categories unnecessarily.

    I find these ‘categories’ still confusing. Instead, maybe it should “Claims of HJ researchers (Historicists & Mythicists):” Then with each give an example and an author. (too time consuming, I know).

    (a) Evolution: the HJ stories evolved ….
    (b) Myth Borrowing (“Analogical” — boy, that is a user unfriendly word)
    (c) Myth Combining (part of “Analogical)
    (d) Confirmation Bias Reading (“Methodological Mythicism): this works both ways, of course.
    (e) Evidence Stretching (“Moral Mythicism”)

    Thus, avoiding calling these categories allows you to expand this list of ideas used to discuss the various positions taken on the HJ.

    Just my two-cents.

  85. PS:
    I would change your initial paragraph to:

    James McGrath has started “Talk Historicity” wiki project to organize critiques of Mythicist argument. Here is an annotated list to his project and others addressing the issue:
    — Talk Historicity: James McGrath, progressive Christian
    — The Historically Inconvenient Jesus: Joseph Hoffman, Christian sympathetic skeptic
    — Wonderful Ideas of McGrath: Neil Godfrey, mythicist sympathetic Skeptic

    And then you can come back here and build the list of those responding.

    By the way — I enjoyed Neil’s response on his post — what do you think, Ian. I didn’t see you respond there.

  86. Ian

    @Sabio – I don’t think this issue is about the “amount of historical Jesus” – so while those changes would better reflect your post, I think it would detract from mine. Relatedly, I don’t want to get into faithful attitudes towards Jesus, because that is a separate fight. My lack of those features was intended. I’m not trying to blow off your suggestions or be rude: I appreciate the thought and specificity, but I’m happy with the general approach.

    I think you’re getting hung up on the word category unduly. I don’t think it is hard to understand that the first set are categories of conclusion, the second are categories of reasons. That there are further sub-types of reason categories, I’ve no doubt. but I’ve also no real desire to try to form an ontological hierarchy. It doesn’t fit with my style. I’m more into charting the mess than imposing order; more into maps than guides 😉

    Some people have agreed with you on my timeline of church history, for example: too confusing, too messy, can we organize them into movements, and drill down into more detail. Others appreciate that the mess is intact, and organization is imperfectly draped on top. I would like to see more of the mess, and wince at the people I’ve left out. Sorry if there’s an impedence mismatch for you (and anyone else in a similar boat).

    Again, please don’t take this as rudeness or lack of respect for you and your approach. Just a note that the difference is not accidental.

    As for Neil’s response (and some of the other responses), I thought they got hung up on an odd point. James McGrath had no pretence that the exercise would be anything other than a tool for countering the other side in discussion, I felt. TalkHistoricity is not my thing, and I don’t think it is particularly useful, so this post isn’t intended to be part of that.

  87. Sabio,w

    Like Ian, I hope you will not be discouraged by his response to your comments). In fact, why don’t you take your point of view and run with it your own site? You have some good ideas and many people, including me, would probably appreciate both yours and Ian’s perspectives on this issue. Each of you could occasionally link to the other, yet without feeling encumbered by the other.

    I’m not trying to create work for you, but if you want to pursue the subject, I think having you comment here as well as develop your own lens on your own site would add to everyone’s perception. I have noticed no shortage of people who want to interact on this subject.

  88. Scott de B.

    I think it’s perhaps best to work from a slightly different directions, such as analogical religious figures. Did Mani exist (we have writings that purport to be from his hand, but which have at least been heavily modified and edited)? What about Confucius? Siddhartha Gautama? Are the cases for the historicity of these figures better or worse than that for Jesus?

  89. Ian

    @Scott, thanks and welcome to the blog! I think that approach is very historically naive, to be honest. Because it isn’t the general, but the specific, which is important to making these judgements. That we consider the Buddha to be real (or a myth) should have no effect on our consideration of Jesus. Both should be done based on the evidence. We can certainly say “that particular group of historians are using different criteria to these”, but I’d say we can only discover that if we look in detail, you can’t figure that out by just saying “they must be using different criteria, because there they think Jesus is real, but here they think Buddha is a myth”. Is like pointing at one trial and saying “you must find this person guilty, because so-and-so was found guilty and they had much less evidence against them”. That’s not the way trials should work, and any lawyer trying that in court would be out on their ear.

  90. Wow, it’s going to be hard work to get back into this discussion. But I want to say what a good thread it is. It has to be a function of it being a category post. No case/opinion being laid out, which necessarily creates a dichotomy of pro/con. Just people working together to figure what each other (and themselves) think. Skol!

  91. As general response to the basics of HJ, I didn’t think that through very much. I’m quite happy to lay out the minimal requirements of historicity as Ian does in the “Are We All Mythicists?” post: “There was a man named Joshua who was a follower of John the Baptist, an itinerant apocalyptic preacher from Galilee who caused a kerfuffle one Passover in Jerusalem and got himself executed.” Although I think “apocalyptic” is just one particular characteristic of his teaching or works that is emphasized, depending on the scholar. (Does apocalyptic have the support of a majority or plurality of HJ scholars?)

    The point is, there has to be some characteristics that you try to find evidence for to argue for historicity. An unnamed itinerant preacher isn’t enough of a description to count for anything. I think Vinny is playing mind/word games, although I’ll have to go back to specific comments to clarify.

  92. Pingback: Kinds of Mythicism

  93. Ian

    Thanks Mark, I appreciate the kind words. I too am enjoying the discussion.

    There have been some scholars who thought the Apocalyptic stuff was a separate thread added later to the rest of the Jesus story. The most prominent work in that vein is Crossan’s Historical Jesus, where Jesus is originally more of an anti-rich, anti-establishment preacher, and Crossan splits off the more apocalyptic into another strata. That view has mostly gone now. There seems to be little reason to think that apocalyptic should be separated from other threads of the story of Jesus. So the consensus is now that Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic preacher.

    But you’re right, by choosing to use that adjective, I was choosing to stress that feature of his preaching. I think it is important, and not duly acknowledged by Christianity through the ages, so I put it in. As do others.

  94. Because it isn’t the general, but the specific, which is important to making these judgements. That we consider the Buddha to be real (or a myth) should have no effect on our consideration of Jesus.

    Ian – I tend to find that both mythicists and historicists will draw analogies to other figures, both historical and non-historical to make their case. So why not just be open about it and try to look at the totality of evidence for a range of comparable figures and try to see where Jesus best fits in?

    I don’t think you can prove or disprove Jesus by reference to other figures, but I do think that such a comparison would be useful for other reasons. For example, one central issue in the debate seems to be whether mainstream HJ scholars employ respectable historical methods or (for mythicists) fail to do so for religious or other motivations, and thus reach conclusions that go what is reasonable for the evidence. If mythicists are right, then they should be able to show how and where Jesus scholars make assumptions or errors that scholars studying comparable figures do not make. Conversely if HJ scholars are right, then they should be able to show how and where their methods match those of other historians.

    Again, I’m not saying it would prove or disprove Jesus’ existence but it would seem to be one way of showing why it’s reasonable (or unreasonable) to accept the scholarly consensus on Jesus.

    On your point about law – I’m not much of a lawyer, but don’t aren’t our systems of laws, juries, precedents, burdens of proof, etc at least partly designed to ensure that two cases with a similar weight of evidence do ideally result in a similar outcome? And in cases where justice does not seem to have been done (whether it’s Derek Bentley or OJ), perhaps it’s because we feel that given the same evidence, a different person would have received a different decision?

    @Mark. For me, the bare minimum of historicity would be that the gospels are based on a single historical religious figure named Jesus who was executed. I think the execution and religious parts seem so central to the story that I don’t think you can lose them and still argue for a historical Jesus in any meaningful way. As for the other parts: I think they’re all pretty certain, but I don’t think they’re individually necessary in quite the same way. E.g. I think it’s fairly certain that the message of Jesus was apocalyptic, but I don’t see how putting forward a different view of Jesus’ teachings undermines his historicity.

    Out of interest, and on the comparison with other figures theme, I wonder what you would propose as the bare minimum for a historical King Arthur?

  95. Ian

    @Paul – Thanks – I just don’t think you have a hope of figuring out if methods are consistent by looking at vast agglomerations of scholarship like that. You could, for example, compare methodology in Sanskrit paleography to that of Coptic. But outputs of whole fields are at totally the wrong level of detail to make reasonable comparisons.

    And nobody who disagreed with your conclusion would ever find it plausible. I don’t see how it holds any weight, other than giving some group a warm and fuzzy feeling for being right.

    For the level of detail in which historical scholarship should work, there simply is no ‘comparable’ figure to Jesus, or the Buddha.

  96. Dropped my phone on my keyboard and lost a post! (I actually clicked “back” too soon, it hadn’t gone on to the next page yet). On blogspot, I always type a character in the box and click “preview”. Then it logs me in and I can edit the box to write the comment.

  97. Ian

    @Mark – hey, good tip, hadn’t thought of that. I just need to remember to do that now 🙂

  98. The hard part isn’t jumping back in, but picking what to respond to. I’ll go to this comment from Ian: ” ‘HJ needs evidence external to the Gospels.’ [quoting me] Why? I mean, we can disagree what they’re evidence for, but I’ve never understood why people think the Gospels aren’t good evidence.”

    The point is not that the gospels aren’t evidence period. What a straw man! Obviously, we’re talking about what they are evidence for. In the HJ case, we are talking about an itinerant preacher from Galilee named Jesus who followed John the Baptist (is this essential, or is it just added because John has better outside attestation?) and was executed in Jerusalem (can we say crucified?). I would also require a minimal HJ to have at least a range of dates for the passion story to have taken place. (There really is no end of problems in deciding what to include as the minimal HJ)

    The comparative case means nothing. “That we consider the Buddha to be real (or a myth) should have no effect on our consideration of Jesus.” I’m glad you agree! So, what is the absolute case for the historical evidence of HJ in the NT? You mention “a clear and pretty complete paleographical sequence.” Assuming Markan priority, isn’t there a long period of time between the purported events and the first outside attestation of Mark and extant fragments we have? Both of the latter occur in the second century CE, right? What’s clear and complete about that?

    I surely don’t dismiss a text because of it, but rather use the fact that the Gospels are a “later compilation into a text that got treated as scripture.” (I’d say the motivations and situation of the author are more important – and harder to get – than treatment as scripture, which could have come much later and would tend to preserve, but redact, essentials, not mangle them.) That requires looking at the Gospels a certain way. Again for Mark, how do you deal with Wrede’s arguments?

  99. Ian

    @Mark “What a straw man!” Oh good. I thought it was obvious too, but I wasn’t sure that wasn’t what you were saying.

    Obviously, we’re talking about what they are evidence for.

    Actually I think this is a little backwards. We’re actually trying to figure out how the texts came to be. The aim shouldn’t be to see what hypothesis about Jesus we can use the texts evidence for, but to come up with a credible theory as to where the texts came from. Do the texts contain clues as to the development of the stories they contain? If so, what of that development can we reconstruct? So the texts are the evidence, but more than that, they should — ideally — the whole focus of the study too. This is part of my frustration with the whole Historical Jesus on the internet thing. It seems like getting hung up on the wrong thing. But that may be just me.

    What’s clear and complete about that?

    I think there was a crucial ‘Compared to other literary works of the period’ in there.

    But before this becomes an exercise in merely pouring scorn on claims though. Can you be clear. Are you saying that you believe that the only way to accurately reconstruct the date and content of the early form of an ancient text is to have a copy of that text from less than 100 years after its composition? I think otherwise, so it would be good to know.

    My impression is there isn’t a historian of any other ancient text who wouldn’t give their right arm for the amount, quality, and age of manuscripts of what became the New Testament.

    My comment about paleographic sequence was referring to the fact that manuscripts of the NT are so common and well-preserved, in multiple languages, that they are used as paleographic sequences for works well beyond the NT and beyond Christianity. If you’re objection is that I appeared to suggest we have manuscripts right back to the autographs, then I’m sorry I didn’t qualify that, and my use of ‘complete’ may have been sloppy: that was not what I was claiming or would want to claim. Manuscript evidence is rather like the fossil record. It is never strictly ‘complete’, but I might talk about a complete fossil record of certain transitions meaning “we can be confident we have evidence for all the steps”. Of course, someone who fundamentally mistrusts evolutionary biology will laugh at that confidence and pour scorn on the conclusion, but still…

    On Wrede, what are you asking? On a cursory glance, Neil’s post on Wrede seems to be arguing against a position I don’t hold or recognize (and his portrayal of scholarly opinion on the matter seems tendentious at first glance). So what is the question you think Wrede raises?

  100. arcseconds

    Hi, Ian,

    Your ‘torn-ness’ about the project I sympathize with, which is why I’m trying to encourage the focus to be about giving a positive argument for historicism, rather than rebutting mythicist claims.

    I’m really thinking of myself a few years back, and there must be plenty of people like me, who have a serious question and want to know what the scholars think.

    I think the 29 Evidences for Macroevolution section is great. It’s interesting even for people who don’t doubt evolution! And anyone who isn’t strongly committed to an anti-(macro)-evolutionary standpoint who has some feeling for scientific argument would, I think, find it pretty convincing.

    As for engaging with creationists, or anyone else holding some kind of denialist viewpoint, one shouldn’t expect the creationist to capitulate then and there. For one thing, it’s socially embarassing to lose an argument, and I’ll confess there’s been plenty occasions in my life where I’ve concluded after the fact that my argument was a weaker one, and I think I’m more open to being wrong than many.

    One shouldn’t expect them to capitulate at all, really, although it is possible. The thing to remember though is that as they don’t generally hold their position due to a rational process of discovery, so they’re not going to be swayed by a rational argument alone. That’s not to say the rational argument has no point, but at best it’s going to be only part of the puzzle.

    It’s probably more encouraging to think of what happens to bystanders.

  101. @ Ian:
    (1) I don’t think I was trying to get into “faithful attitudes” and agree that it is good not to.
    (2) I am not sure I understand your qualifications on “categories” – and, if I get around to it, I will have to read your recent post addressing it again (though I have twice now), to see if I get your point. But at this time, it sort of escapes me. Call the categories, labels or attributes, you seemed to be about to something and it was a bit unclear to me so I questioned the best I could. But it seems I have gone counter to your purposes — as to which I am blindly still a bit unclear. So I will leave it alone. Others seem to have understood very clearly, it appears.
    Not taken as rude or blowing off — taken more as poor fit (again, though it escapes me why — but others are benefiting so I bow out).

  102. Ian

    @arcseconds – Thanks for commenting and welcome! I think the last paragraph on why anyone changes their views is important. Very often it isn’t because of rational means, even if we think it is (myself included).

    @sabio – 😦 Sorry. Its tricky. I don’t totally understand what is underlying your issue either, so I’m stuck how to respond more positively!

  103. Scott de B.

    “Because it isn’t the general, but the specific, which is important to making these judgements. That we consider the Buddha to be real (or a myth) should have no effect on our consideration of Jesus. Both should be done based on the evidence. ”

    I think I expressed myself poorly. Surely there is no causal relationship between the existence of Jesus and the existence of Mani. But I would say that the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus is at least as good as the historical evidence for most religious figures living before c. A.D. 700. The debate about Jesus seems to take up most of the bandwidth. Yet if there is no historical Jesus, if he is a product of the collective imagination, then I don’t see on what basis one can be confident Mani or Mohammed or Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tze, etc. existed. And yet I don’t think anyone ever argues that there were no charismatic religious leaders before A.D. 700.

    That does not mean, and I am not arguing, that we should conclude that _all_ of those figures actually existed. That would indeed be a logical fallacy. I think there’s a good chance that some of them didn’t exist. Zoroaster in particular seems a pretty shadowy figure. What I would argue is that a) there were charismatic religious leaders before A.D. 700, that b) many of those did leave an imprint on the historical record, although some of those in the historical record may not have existed, that c) Probabilistically, many or most of them are likely to have existed, and that if one wants to make a case that a specific one of them didn’t exist, one should employ reasons specific to that case, and d) none of the arguments against a historical Jesus are specific to his case, instead all of them (or almost all) could equally be applied to other charismatic religious figures. That doesn’t mean one couldn’t mount a case against a historic Jesus, just that I find those that have been proposed to be lacking. So I think we are saying the same thing, but in different ways — the case must be based on the specific, not the general, and that hasn’t been done.

  104. Ian


    Hmm… I’m sorry I don’t buy it. I like to agree, but I’m struggling 😉

    re: Causal relationship – I didn’t read you as claiming that, either.

    Your c) to me seems to just assume your conclusion – or at best shifts the burden of proof to the other side, d) seems just plain untrue to me – the arguments from many Mythicists seem highly specific to the evidence we have.

    The last line then I do agree with. But I don’t know what it is only the mythicist case that you seem to think needs that. It strikes me any explanation for the evidence should be based on the specifics.

  105. Pingback: Ouch! It’s True! « Vridar

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