After my earlier post on Assumptions and Historicity it appears there is still some confusion about mythical Jesus arguments and points I have raised about the need for external controls to establish the historical value of a narrative.
External controls are more than just nice extras
It has been said that my discussion about absence of external controls for the Gospel narratives merely leaves their historicity “inconclusive”, and that “in order to conclude that these stories are most likely not historical, we need some further argument.”
Certainly the absence of external controls renders the historicity of a narrative “inconclusive”, but “inconclusive” in the strongest sense. That means that we cannot begin to assume historicity at all. To suggest that the absence of external controls still leaves open the possibility of the narrative being historical is obviously true. Anything is possible. What we need is a defensible justification for inferring the historicity of a narrative. It is not valid simply to say we need more than the absence of external controls to conclude a narrative is “most likely not historical”. In the absence of external controls we have no way even to begin to work with a narrative as if it were historical. We cannot justify any assumption of historicity in the absence of a justification external to the narrative itself.
Narrative launching pads
Once we go this route of treating the narratives as narratives alone (because we have no justification for thinking them historical), then we are asking a new set of questions and building a new picture of Christian origins. Some of these questions are already being asked and answered even within the “historicist” paradigm. Dennis MacDonald, for example, has studied the Acts of Paul and Thecla in relation to the Pastoral epistles and proposed a scene of rival Christianities in the early second century that were seeking to claim the authority of Paul.
In the case of the Gospels there are already many useful starting point studies of Mark. Doherty’s analysis of how it combined two broad strands of Christianity owes much to Burton Mack’s Myth of Innocence. The Gospels and other early literature are raw materials for exploring the relationships of their ideas, their expressions, and what can be inferred from all of that.
The approach and questions of those seeing the evidence pointing to a Jesus figure who evolved from multiple communities over time open up a whole new area of insights into the religious world of the first and second centuries. To suggest, as at least one scholar does, that the “mythicist” view of Jesus shuts down historical enquiry is simply nonsense. The new paradigm opens up a whole new universe for exploration.
“Mythical theory”? Please explain.
On another blog (Hoffmann’s) I posted a comment to the effect that I do not understand what is meant by the expression “mythical theory” in this context. Presumably this is to be understood in contrast to a counterpart “historical theory”. I don’t know of any “historical theory” of Jesus, so how am I to understand the term “mythical theory”? (There are “historical theories” but that is getting into the philosophy of history, and I don’t think these are what is implied in this discussion.) I have never heard of historians calling themselves “historicists” as opposed to “mythicists” on the grounds that they believe their subject is about historical persons and events. The object of historical enquiry as it has evolved since von Ranke is to understand and explain causes and events. We can also attempt to understand the makeup of historical persons about which we have the necessary evidence. Historical questions are not normally about whether or not a particular person existed.
This is similar to the point I was attempting to get at in my post What do (Jesus) mythicists believe?
New dimensions, new questions
The evidence (that is, what we know existed) is what historians work with because it is already there. So mythicists challenge the foundation of the historical Jesus enterprise. It’s not that they put an end to history, therefore. Not at all. They are, rather, asking for enquiries to be transported to a new dimension or paradigm that works with real evidence, and not constructs masquerading as evidence. That will mean new sets of questions, too.
So I do not see the point of dismissing the mythical Jesus idea on the grounds that it does not answer all the historical questions. The paradigm that includes the mythical Jesus opens up many new questions and they will not all be explored in a day. Historical Jesus studies have sought in vain for decades for “THE historical explanation” of the nature of Jesus and Christian origins. (One might wonder if it is time to look for an alternative paradigm.) Mythical Jesus studies will no doubt potentially find the journey towards understanding the origins of both Jesus and Christian origins as stimulating as any other enquiry into the origins of social and cultural movements that have likewise come to acquire mythical foundations.
Checking for faults, preparing for the journey
What “mythicists” like Earl Doherty have done is to challenge the assumptions upon which “historicist” interpretations and enquiries are based. There is more to question and tackle, still. I have repeated Schweitzer’s own comments on the “fault of mythicists” in an earlier post. That’s one reason I have taken the particular line I have about historical methodology. Of course I have only been able to do this in a piecemeal fashion and acknowledge the disadvantages of that.
All this is still only preparatory to embarking on the real journey. Demonstrating that the way to account most comprehensively for the evidence is that Jesus was a figure who evolved in the theological interplays of early Christianities is only one part of the story of Christian origins.
Becoming just like other histories
The details of some of the answers will never be recoverable. The history of the rise of new social movements rarely leaves an organized trail of evidence for historians to sift through, and the problem is worse for pre-modern times. Generally historians are left to study peaks of early activity without recourse to all the details about their precise demographics, clearly identifiable relations with earlier and contemporary groups, and so forth. But studies are nonetheless possible (e.g. various studies on Mithraism since Cumont; Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium). Similarly, a study of Christian origins apart from the Eusebian-historical paradigm is certainly possible, but how far we can dig into the details we would like to know will obviously be limited. And the questions the evidence permits us to ask will certainly be different from the sorts of questions that are currently generated by the Gospel-Acts model of origins.
And we just might end up with a more rational and natural explanation of a core element of our cultural heritage. Imagine an explanation that does not fall back on “something that historians cannot examine must have happened at Easter” in order to account for Christianity; or “this is so incredible or embarrassing it must be true”; or people could not have gone out and persuaded thousands so quickly or given their lives if there were not some good reason to think the story true.” All of these are apologetic rationalizations required to maintain an unrealistic model that we have inherited.
Anyone left behind?
(James McGrath, meanwhile, has unfortunately blinded himself to the real nature of the mythicist paradigm by an insistence that it must at all costs be squeezed it into some silly creationist paradigm. His ad hominem attack on the motives of “mythicists”, on the grounds that they have not yet answered all the questions that arise from their paradigm, is his latest indicator that he himself has yet to find a constructive place in the debate. — Although in fact they do suggest many more answers than he is obviously aware of.)