James McGrath has asked me to explain what it is that mythicists do believe. Here is the answer from the best I have been able to ascertain:
They believe William Tell was not a real historical person, but a legendary or fictional creation of some sort.
What do historicists believe about William Tell?
Now, let me ask what “historicists” believe. I would expect them to say something like, “We historicists believe William Tell, whom our historian Karl Meyer can connect with known places and events, and whom Schärer can even identify personally, was a real historical character, and not at all a fictional creation.”
I suspect someone like a Garth McJames would not be satisfied with the mythicists’ answer, and he would refuse to relinquish historicity until mythicists could clearly demonstrate who made up the story and all the details about how they did it and exactly when and where.
Unless William Tell mythicists can come up with a detailed model of how the myth developed, the Garth McJames’s will feel they can safely ignore them.
All the evidence in the William Tell story for borrowing from Nordic legends would be dismissed as parallelomania and irrelevant when it came to the question of historicity. “I mean, I even have a Nordic name! Therefore I’m a myth,” they would chuckle. The silence of the record, the absence of evidence for the earliest supposed carriers of the tradition would be rationalized. The humiliation of Tell’s imprisonment would be declared as sure evidence of the historicity by virtue of the authenticating tool of the “criterion of embarrassment”.
What do mythicists believe about Rama?
The mythicist has reasons to believe Rama was a mythical being, although she cannot explain how the myth arose, who was responsible for it, or why it came into being.
The historicist (Hindu fundamentalist), on the other hand, knows Rama was historical, can point to his birth-place, show the site of a temple there, list the names of his immediate and extended family relatives, cite his many heroic deeds, describe the colour of his skin, his size, and even tell you the exact day and year he was born, and again the date of his marriage. They can also use the criterion of embarrassment to prove the historicity of Rama’s 14 year exile by his father. Parallels with the Jesus Christ story can be dismissed as irrelevant coincidences.
The Hindu historicist may well demand of the Rama mythicist a full accounting of exactly by whom and how the “supposed myth” emerged before he can be expected to take the claim that all this abundance of historical detail is myth.
A pre-Darwinian mythicist challenges the historical God of the Bible
But James has said he thinks analogies with the physical sciences, particularly those related to evolution, are more instructive. Okay, so let’s try that analogy for size.
A pre-Darwinian mythicist does not believe the historical Genesis account that all life began with a historical God. Let’s call this mythicist “Gomy”. Gomy declares that the God-in-History did not touch earth, walk around in the Garden with Adam, or create all life forms 6000 years ago. Gomy rather thinks that this idea of God-in-History somehow evolved like the life-forms around us. This pre-Darwinian who thinks God is a myth does not understand how that God idea originated, or how life could have begun without a God-in-History, but is convinced that the evidence of remarkably similar phalanges across species, and that other cruel events are enough to convince him God is a myth, too.
The historicist retorts that this mythicist is talking nonsense, and that the evidence really points to a designer, a real God in real historical time and place, who created everything with his own word of mouth. Until the God-in-History-hating-mythicist can produce a complete explanation of how this God idea emerged, and how evolution occurred, as complete as anything found in Genesis 1 and 2, then he can be dismissed as an ignorant crank.
True story: mythical or historical Atlantis?
One more: I have a friend who believes in the historicity of Atlantis. She can point to the historical records of how the tradition was preserved and handed down faithfully through the centuries by the most reputable statesmen and philosophers of the times. She can point to the vivid detail of the early narratives and confidently declare such detail could only be explained as originating from real eye-witness testimony.
She dismisses my views to the contrary as overly sceptical mythicism. The reason my friend and I have different interpretations of the same evidence is because: (i) I have found reasons to think that the documents containing the “tradition” show signs of narrating something other than real history; (ii) while my friend, on the other hand, accepts the documents at face value (as attempts at recording history) with a few “rationalist” modifications, and dismisses my scepticism as something akin to nihilism.
So what do mythicists believe?
They believe there is an alternative to the literal historicist explanation that somehow makes more sense, even if they cannot explain in detail how the nonhistorical alternative emerged.
Hell, if there were a clear discernible trail to the origin of the myth demonstrating how it started, it would hardly survive as a history at all! But this does not mean that the mythicist belief is circular. The “mythicist” has arrived at her conviction (maybe a tentative acceptance) as a result of the failure of historical explanations to present the sorts of evidence normally associated with clearly historical characters, along with those indicators in the record one normally associates with fictional creation. Mythicists do not accept that the narrative is evidence of its own historical origins. They do not think “tools of authenticity” when applied to plot analysis can validly establish historicity. Historicity of a narrative’s contents can only be established by some form of evidence external to the narrative itself.
“Mythicists” may have a range of alternative possible explanations, and some will be convinced of one more than another.
It does not take detailed working out of how a mythical William Tell emerged to convince someone William Tell is not historical. It is enough to look at the positive evidence that strongly suggests this. The fact that some powerful interests have a vested interest in protecting the historical status of William Tell is beside the point. There are staunch Swiss nationalists who absolutely reject “mythicist” talk as rot and nonsense. They accuse “William Tell mythicists” of undermining the spirit of national pride and unity and of being guilty of tendentious scholarship.
The real historical question
I do not need to be able to explain how and why beliefs in the heroic tales of Aeneas or Romulus arose in order to have excellent reasons for believing they were mythical creations. Of course I would really be fascinated to understand their origins. If we had the available evidence, I am sure it would make an absorbing study. But we would be surprised if someone today insisted that we explain exactly how belief in these nonhistorical characters arose before we will accept that they are mythical.
Conversely, one does not need to know or understand anything about Alexander the Great to know, on the basis of inscriptions and coins, that he was historical. It would be pointless to insist on a full understanding of his life and deeds before we accepted he was historical.
But historical enquiry is not about questions like “Did Aeneas or Alexander or Mr and Mrs Socrates really exist?” It is a process of attempting to understand the past, to explain it. It works with the evidence in this endeavour. It does not use the evidence (or it should not) to merely explain in various ways “the party line”. That is confusing history with propaganda, and turning history into an exercise of competing claims for the most plausible propaganda model.
The real historical question as I see it is, How to explain Christian origins?
Perhaps the reason for this misunderstanding, and for the demand that an explanation for how myth X arose before one accepts that X could actually be a myth, is a carry over from the biblical historian confusing one particular model or interpretation of Christian origins with the nature of history itself when applied to Jesus. The bulk of the historical models of Christian origins thus far, that I am aware of, are variations of the gospel narrative. When E. P. Sanders or Robert Funk list what they are convinced are the bedrock facts of the life of Jesus, they are in fact isolating those narrative components that they consider are essential to the gospel plot. They always begin with the baptism of Jesus by John and end with some life-changing impact of the crucifixion’s aftermath on the disciples. In other words, history for them is essentially equated with a paraphrase and rationalization of the gospel narrative.
So when confronted with the question of an alternative paradigm to explain that narrative, they naturally ask for a comparable storyline or model to replace their solitary historical one.
But it is a mistake (or should be) to confuse “historical” with any particular historical explanation, and it is the same (or should be) with the mythical view of Jesus.
History is not about explaining a “mythicism” or “historicism” view. There ought never to be a single defined “historicist” view as opposed to a “mythicist” view. It is about making the best sense of the evidence, and all paradigms should be allowed to contribute their part and be honestly tested.
There are a number of explanations for the Jesus myth, and there are many more explanations for the historical Jesus. We are entitled to find none of the historical explanations decisively satisfactory as an explanation of all the evidence. But that fact by itself by no means implies that the historical paradigm itself should be jettisoned. It simply means more work needs to be done in the historical enquiry. It is no different with the mythical enquiry.
The cultural matrix nurtures the conflict
But cultural baggage tends to hijack the historical enquiry. The question of the existence of Jesus can never be as neutral and innocent as the question of the existence of Mr and Mrs Socrates.
To study the origin of philosophy one can happily place Socrates in a small paragraph or not. The movement he represents is what is really important.
But biblical studies is still dominated, it appears to me, by the religious faithful who use history to edify their readers in more nuanced ways of understanding their faith. James McGrath is one example. His book on the burial of Jesus is directed at those readers who are dealing with critical challenges to their faith that has yet to find a higher level of sophistication. John Shelby Spong and N. T. Wright write about the historical Jesus for the edification of believers and those more sceptical of the faith. One regularly sees similar addresses in the final chapters or introductory remarks of John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk and, to go back a little, Albert Schweitzer.
Obviously not all scholars of the historical Jesus are Christians. But they are all part of a culture that is to a significant extent defined by its iconic Jesus figure.
This is why it is so easy to accept a mere paraphrase of the iconic narrative, usually with an added touch of scholarly rationalization and “plot analysis” with “tools of authenticity”, as “the most straightforward and uncomplicated explanation of all the evidence.” Cultural blinkers can too easily shelter us from the baseless assumptions, the inconsistencies, the illogical ‘double-binds’ in our thinking, that we can identify so easily when it comes to the “culturally appropriate and correct” subjects of analysis.
The same cultural blinkers that enabled “Old Testament” scholarship for so many decades to merely paraphrase (with a few scholarly variations) the biblical story of Israel are still firmly fixed in place among “New Testament” Jesus scholarship, generally speaking, today. Observe how biblical scholars such as James McGrath can publicly express their conviction, without any sense of irony, that the methods and tools they ply to Jesus studies are standard and used in the same ways (to establish the very model’s bedrock evidence) throughout all mainstream history disciplines. At most they will concede that biblical scholars “define” or describe these “common tools” differently.
The academic departments that have claimed the intellectual authority over one of our culture’s central icons also claim, without even seeming to realize it, an exceptionalism in methodology. Without this exceptionalism I suspect they could not exist as independent areas of historical studies.
And so the vested interests and the more culturally defined egos on both sides take up arms. Insults fly. Inconsistencies and irrationalities are wielded for defence. There are dismal publications issued from both sides. And nothing seems to have changed much about the nature of the debate in the last 100 years. I suggest that this ‘status quo’ is a reflection of the wider balance of competing interests and dominant ethos (despite some tidal to-ing and fro-ing) in Western society throughout this time.
Biblical studies is embedded in the wider cultural and personal significance of the biblical Jesus story. To question Jesus’ historicity is more than an academic question, and the hostile, anti-intellectual responses so often aroused by questioning his historicity are testimonies to this fact.
P.S. Just “like a creationist”?
James McGrath has taken advantage of his status as a public intellectual to foster public prejudice and ignorance against those who challenge the assumptions, logical fallacies and circular methods of a minority branch of academia that is an institutional hangover from the dark ages.
He will no doubt not be satisfied by my answer above. Some creationists demand to see the missing link before they will accept evolution. When shown a missing link, they then complain that there are now two missing links to be accounted for.
James has complained that those who argue for a mythical Jesus have no alternative hypothesis to explain the evidence. He has also complained that they, “like creationists”, have too many competing hypotheses. He says that he is not personally convinced by any of their hypotheses, and that his own historical model explains the evidence better. Instead of opting to argue his case in reasoned and intellectually honest manner, he selects straw-men comments from internet exchanges and responds with insult and slurs. He says he thinks a lot about “mythicism” but also says he has not read any of their publications.