Thursday, January 8, 2009


My ongoing discussion with John Loftus has led me to realize something about a lot of people who like to throw their weight around in the discussion of a historical Jesus.  Actually, what really tipped me off to it was that John kept saying that I agree with mythicists.  Just to be thorough, he might have said that because I sided with a mythicist on a point of order -- that John hadn't addressed a particular argument.  If that's why he thinks I'm a mythicist, then he's just mistaken.  I was playing the part of a referee (albeit an uninvited one) who says, "Hey guys... no hitting below the belt."  John wasn't playing by the rules of debate.  He was restating his position without addressing the critique that had been offered.  I was not siding with the mythicist.  I was siding on neutrality and fairness.  In the paraphrased words of Dan Dennett, the net needs to be up for both sides.

Having gotten that out in the open, perhaps John thinks I'm a mythicist because of THIS BLOG POST.  It's an understandable mistake, I suppose, if one doesn't know what mythicism is.  If you read through that post, however, you will notice that I don't use the word mythicist.  I speak of Jesus as an ahistorical figure.  That's not mythicism.

Mythicism is a positive claim that the first literature about Jesus indicates that Jesus' was first conceptualized by believers as a spiritual being, and the stories of his actions as symbolic, not earthly.  I'm going on the record right now as saying that I have absolutely no idea whether this is true or not.  None.  I have no position.  I have neither the time, nor the background, nor the desire to form an opinion on Jesus Mythicism.  It's for scholars to fight about.

I am not a mythicist.  I don't think the mythicist position is winning.  I don't care.

I invented a term for myself, and I think I'll make it public now.  I am a Jesus-Irrelevantist.  Here are my two (and only two) positions:

1) I don't believe the archaeological and literary evidence is sufficient to present a positive case for a particular historical inspiration for either the Gospel or the Epistles or both.  Further, I don't think the evidence is sufficient to present a positive case for a necessary historical inspiration.

2) I believe that because of the fifty(ish) year literary and archaeological silence after the alleged events, and the complete contemporary silence, it is likely that any person (or people) who contributed to the inspiration for either the Gospel or Epistles was historically insignificant.

That's it.  I am not saying, nor will I say that there was no historical Jesus.  I also won't say that there was.  In good science and good history, we don't make pronouncements with insufficient information, and I don't believe the information exists at this time.  Because of the burden of proof, I must maintain the position that until there is evidence for a historical Jesus, I must not say that there was.  Simply by default, I must maintain the negative position.

Can you see that this is not mythicism?  Not even remotely.

I also want you to see that my position is compatible with mythicism -OR- historicity.  I think all atheists are comfortable saying that IF there was a man who inspired the myth, he did not walk on water nor did he turn water into wine, unless he was a wine maker by trade.  He was an ordinary man who did something.  I have no clue what that might have been.  Even so, there is still merit to my argument that Jesus, if he did exist, was historically irrelevant.  The history of Christianity is very different from the historicity of Jesus.  We know Christianity exists, and we know pretty much where and when it started.  These are two different discussions.  My position is that the narrative of history works whether Jesus is historical or ahistorical.  That is, he is historically irrelevant.

To be sure, if the mythicists are completely correct, we wouldn't expect to find a single human who we could call "the Historical Jesus" but does that mean there were not contemporary events, perhaps acts by one or more people, that had direct impact on the writer of a particular work?  Of course not.  There had to be a reason for the Gospel to be written, and we would be shocked if it didn't have some contemporary relevance to the reader.  The question, it seems, is whether contemporary events inspired a writer to retool a savior from literary history for current use, or whether a person's life inspired a writer to mold literary history around him.

Suppose the historians are correct, and the first literature was meant to portray a real person.  We're in exactly the same boat!  Who knows what inspired the first person who wrote about the "real person" Jesus in the Gospel.  Even if the Gospel was written by a madman who really believed he had seen all these things, where'd he get the ideas?  From people.  For that matter, suppose we could prove through textual criticism that the Gospel is intended to portray a real earthly person.  That's fine, but we're still left with the historical question of whether the author was telling the truth or lying or decieved or stretching the truth to the point of absurdity.  So, even proving the mythicists wrong leaves a big gaping hole in our understanding of history.

Whether there was a writer with a penchant for the classics, a preacher,  a doomsday prophet, a homeless crazy guy, or Paul's great nephew, we may never know.  It's basically irrelevant except as a piece of history.  Don't get me wrong, I have great respect for historians, and I'd love to know the right answer, but whatever they find simply isn't going to change much.  Christians will still be blinded by faith.  The pope will still make pronouncements about birth control.

What I care about the most is scientific and historical honesty and accuracy.  I don't like it when people go off half cocked talking about subjects they're not qualified to address as if they're authorities.  The debate between Jesus Historians and Jesus Mythicists isn't even understood by most people.  They think it's about whether there was a Doomsday prophet or not.  Maybe there was, and maybe there wasn't, but that's not the debate.  The debate is about what the writers of the first texts were doing.  Were they writing about a heavenly or earthly savior?  There were doomsday prophets in Palestine in the first century, CE.  Let's just get that out there right now.  Maybe one of them even resembled the literary Jesus very closely.  That's not the point.  The point is one of textual criticism.  What was the author's intent and what was his subject matter specifically?

I don't have a horse in this race, and I don't think many people even grasp the idea that they don't have one either.  It's people who don't even understand the debate who are screwing things up by thinking this is about something it's not.  The mythicist debate is about very specific and very scholarly understanding of languages that virtually nobody has any training in, and scholars are trying to piece together this understanding from the scantest evidence.  It's really hard and specialized work, and the fact is, if you don't know VERY specifically what I'm talking about -- as in, you have had years and years of specialized training in ancient languages and literature -- you are not qualified to do anything but watch.

This, friends, is why I insist on people being epistemologically justified to make claims.  If everybody who doesn't even know what mythicism is would just listen instead of getting their panties in a bunch and shouting down anyone who disagrees with them, there could be some actual scholarly dialog about how these texts should be interpreted.  I'd be interested in the results, but I'm not going to be in the discussion because I'm not qualified.

I sure wish more people would follow my lead.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thank you for your "commitment". I am interested in all of the dialogue, but because I believe in "free discourse", I "blog" and don't even know I don't know (enough) to have or not have an opinion.
I am with you where it concerns the bible. I find that whenever there is anyghing considered "holy", it is dangerous territory to tread, but then I like to be what do I do?

Hambydammit said...

Thank you for your "commitment".

Ahem... "thanks."

I am interested in all of the dialogue, but because I believe in "free discourse", I "blog" and don't even know I don't know (enough) to have or not have an opinion.

Free discourse is different than informed discourse. I believe in both. I also believe in identifying each honestly.

I am with you where it concerns the bible. I find that whenever there is anyghing considered "holy", it is dangerous territory to tread, but then I like to be what do I do?

Identify your opinions as such, and when you have something informed to add, back it up. Don't pretend to authority you don't have. It's pretty simple.

LegendKiller_Justin said...

Hello Hamby,
This was a very good read I sort guess I would fit under Jesus Historian position but do not believe Jesus was God or divine in any event. thanks for the great read and hope you keep it up and have a good day and Happy Late New Year.


AIGBusted said...

Hey Hamby,

It's remarkable how close your position is to my own. I'm agnostic about the historical Jesus, and sometimes I lean towards historicity while at others I lean towards mythicism.

Anyway, I've had some exchanges with Dr. James McGrath, and here is one of them. And here is yet another one.


Rationality through Fluffy Fur and Pointy Claws

Is there such a thing as a God or Gods?