Joel Watts has an article in the Huffington Post about the historical Jesus.
The more the mythicist / historicist thing crops up in general readership the more silly it seems. And you can see from the comments on that post.
There are two questions here.
1. The narrow scholarly one about what historical events lead to the texts of the early Jesus movement being written (a question that shouldn’t be about the existence of Jesus, per se).
2. And there’s the one that everyone is interested in, about the validity of Christian truth claims.
Addressing the former in a context where clearly most people are interested in the latter is problematic.
It is rare for scholars to get any public interest in their areas (God knows, Huffpo wouldn’t have printed an article on my research area, even in general terms!), it is tempting to dangle the former question in venues where the latter question is overwhelmingly more important.
At the expense of going Godwin, here’s a thought experiment. Let’s say the nation is being gripped by a rise of politically active fascists. They are aiming to take control of the government and enact laws motivated by their ideology. There is a widespread discussion happening about the suitability of fascist ideology for national politics, with one side pointing out how badly that ended in 1930s Europe, and the other pointing out that Germany was an aberration because it did it wrong, and that Italy wouldn’t have been that bad without Germany and that the evils of Spain were really a reaction against internal unrest, and that ‘true’ fascism is the only way forwards.
In that context, it is hardly surprising that a group of European Social Historians suddenly find that their research on the affectionate courtship of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun has a ready audience. So one (staunch anti-fascist) historian takes to HuffPo to make the point that, while Hitler clearly did some bad things, he wasn’t all bad, and was actually quite nice to his girlfriend.
Is the scholar correct? Yes* Was Hitler an unmitigated demon? No. Did Mussolini make the trains run on time? Who cares? Well scholars do, and they should, the questions are interesting and important in a certain way.
But just because the prevailing social conditions mean there is a popular audience for their research, doesn’t mean the scholarly question is either comprehensible or able to be usefully applied.
What matters is “is fascism evil?”. “But historians can’t answer those questions!”, they might say. I disagree, but even if I didn’t, that objection only reinforces the point: in what way is it sensible to promote Hitler’s affectionate side in the context of our cultural discussion, then?
Back to Jesus. The point simply hasn’t got out that traditional Christian truth claims about Jesus are false. And I think that is often because scholars tend to tread very carefully there. Perhaps because they fear disaffecting their students, perhaps because they lack a certain kind of integrity (in the sense of integrating their scholarly truth seeking with their ‘spiritual’ truth seeking – I don’t mean in the sense of honesty).
I’ve listened to every Historical Jesus course I can find online, and all of them are peppered with these little caveats: “this is what we can tell historically, you’re free to have faith that Jesus rose from the dead, this won’t tell you if Jesus was really God, history can’t tell whether supernatural things occurred” and so on. And not in a “you’re free to believe any crap you like, as long as give the right answer” way, but said with seemingly genuine concern to give permission for students to retain their ahistorical views in the light of the history they will engage with.
Yet I’ve never heard a biology lecture series say “this is evolution from a scientific perspective, of course science can’t tell us what happened supernaturally, you’re free to have faith that it only looks this way, this won’t tell you if God actually created distinct kinds.”
Jesus Christ did not exist. This has been known for 200 years. That some of his legends are based on an obscure wandering exorcist is as unimportant beyond scholarship as the biographical details of Nicholas of Myra are to the question of whether Santa Claus brings presents down your chimney on Christmas eve.
The scholarly question is interesting. But pretending that the scholarly question is the important one in our political context is unhelpful. A sizeable organised polity wants to curtail our freedoms and impose laws on the basis of things that did not happen – is putting down mythicism really the important public battle?
*Yes, for the sake of this analogy. I’ve no idea whether this is actually the case, but that’s not the point.