Hat tip to Prof. James McGrath for this.
Jesus mythicism, for the uninitiated, is the belief that Jesus never existed — that he is an imaginary creation derived from a handful of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean mythological figures. This post by R. Joseph Hoffman, a New Testament scholar who is no “right wing fundamentalist” for sure, contains a number of insightful observations. Here are two:
It is false to say however that the argument for Jesus’ historicity is merely circumstantial. For an argument to be circumstantial there would need to be a lack of direct evidence of an event; conclusions would be drawn entirely from the coincidence of effects and prior events.
The evidence for Jesus is much stronger than that, in spite of its deficiencies. Moreover, it has context, conditions and coordinates as defining parameters, so if Jesus typifies or meets certain criteria in these domains, the probability of his being a real person and not a cipher are greatly increased. I am startled by comparisons to Superman, Hercules, Santa Claus, and a dozen other gods and heroes, precisely because these figures fall outside the category of the typical. It is not just that their stories are incredible but that they are incredible in a way designed to emphasize their departure from an historical norm. The New Testament serves a different purpose.
So, in a nutshell, the artifacts we possess, whatever their limitations as “evidence” are not circumstantial evidence but the sort of evidence many historians would like to have in the case of other well-known figures like Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana.
I am still waiting for some proof from the mythtics that the story is concocted, either out of thin air or as an amalgam of competing myths, not many of which look very much like the Jesus story at all. As comparative religionist Jonathan Z. Smith has noted concerning the “prevalence” of the dying and rising god myth, it isn’t prevalent at all; it’s “largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.” So out of fashion is the category that modern classicists, religionists, and historians avoid it altogether, and it survives largely in the imagination of amateurs whose views are formed by outdated nineteenth century speculations. Gregory Boyd puts it succinctly when he comments that often there is either no death, no resurrection or no god in the examples used to construct each of the examples in the category, making the whole exercise a bad case of what Gerald O’Collins has called “parallelomania.” The mere compilation of analogies has always been the quicksand into which mythicism disappears. It is their attempt to prove–entirely circumstantially–that if something besides Jesus was there to be used it was used. One dying and rising god is like every other rising god. One salvation story fragments into a dozen salvation stories, one of which is the gospel.
The problem with this line of thinking, as I suggested in a post yesterday, is that simple logic and parsimony require us to use what we know before we resort to what might have been. When there is a known figure who typifies his era, preaches things typical of his time and place, and lives and dies in a context plausible for the time, what possible reason would there be –apart from pure malice–to introduce a completely foreign explanation–a Hercules or Dionysus–into the mix. Closer to home, as we know more about Jesus than we do about Theudas or Judas the Galilean, what reason do we give for preferring other identities and activity to the activity described of Jesus. Increasingly the far reaches of mythicism begin to sound more like the wingnut birtherism that declared Barack Obama was born in Kenya and the report of his birth called into a Honolulu newspaper in prescient anticipation that one day he would need the right stuff to be president.
Best line: “As a group, the mythicists have proven themselves happier in the echo chamber of their own beliefs than in a world where a real interchange of ideas can happen.”
Yep. That’s mythicism in a nutshell.