Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Problems With Mythicism

Seriousness -- it's what's for dinner.

First of all, calling it mythicism is a problem, because it's not applied only to those who argue that Jesus' existence is a myth, but also to EVERYone else who has ANY doubts at ALL about Jesus' existence. Those who take the position that it's certain that Jesus existed are called historicists, and that's perfectly appropriate. it describes the group well, they argue that Jesus is an historical figure, that he really lived. An appropriate use of the term "mythicist" would apply it only to those few zanies, like David Fitzgerlad and Michael Paulkovich, who insist that Jesus never existed except as a mythical being.

All the rest of us, who aren't completely sure one way or the other, are called mythicists. I'd rather not call myself a mythicist, because I'm not saying that it's certain that Jesus is mythical, and even more so because most of the most prominent mythicists, that is to say: most of the most prominent people known for writing about Jesus who aren't sure that there was an actual Jesus from Nazareth upon whom the stories of the gospels are based -- most of those people are pretty silly. R Joseph Hoffmann isn't silly at all, except for his poetry, which is just teeth-grindingly awful, as visitors to his blog know. But other than the ill-advised flights into verse, Hoffmann is a formidable scholar with a keen mind. And he's also a mythicist: he's not completely sure that Jesus existed. But, a small slip in his seriousness, he insists that he is not a mythicist, just as he insists that he is not an atheist although he he doesn't believe that God exists.

I think I understand Dr Hoffmann's reasons for these evasions: he doesn't want to be associated with mythicists like Carrier and Price, and he doesn't want to be associated with atheists like Dawkins and Harris.

I don't want to be associated with any of those bozos either. But the fact is that I am an atheist and a mythicist according to the definitions given above, which is how the terms are used, and terms are defined by usage just like they always have been. I'm an atheist and a mythicist and so is Dr Hoffmann.

And there may well be other mythicists among the ranks of academic Biblical scholars and Christian theologians who've hidden it better than Dr Hoffmann. But that's purely speculation on my part. The only mythicist I know who is tenured in one of the "relevant fields," who wears the label proudly, is Richard Price. Price thinks maybe Jesus existed, and maybe not, just like the great majority of us mythicists do, until we come up with a less unfortunate label for those of us who aren't sure.

Unlike Hoffmann and like most mythicists who write about Jesus, Price, despite his tenure, is a dingbat. G A Wells has tenure, but in German literature, not in one of the "relevant fields." He's written quite seriously in the mythicist vein, but seems to have retired from writing. Richard Carrier has a PhD in ancient history from Columbia, but hasn't been hired by a university since receiving his doctorate in 2008. Surely, with a PhD from Columbia, he could get some academic post somewhere if he wanted to. Nevertheless, he's a dingbat. Like Price, a dingbat with some competence in ancient languages.

Then there's Thomas L Thompson, professor emeritus of the University of Copenhagen, on public record as not convinced that Jesus existed and therefore a mythicist, emphasizing mythical elements of the story of Jesus much more strongly than your average tenured Biblical scholar, but apparently almost fully unaware of most of the mythicists, because he apparently reads nothing but primary texts and peer-reviewed work, aaaaannnd --

-- most of the mythicists are rank amateurs, and I mean that both in the technical sense of their having no academic credentials, and also in the more personally insulting sense of their not knowing what the Hell they're talking about.

And then there's me. Well, I'm a rather unusual case, but we knew that.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, seriousness is on the menu here, and being serious when examining an historical question which can be answered "yes," "no" or "I don't know," such as: "Did people reach the Americas by crossing the Pacific Ocean tens of thousands of years before the land crossings from Siberia to Alaska?" or "Did the Phoenicians develop the first alphabet?" or "Did Jesus exist?" means evaluating all attempts to answer that question fairly, and not attacking an attempt because someone answers the question differently you do, or supporting anyone and everyone who answers the question the same way you do.

And this is one area where the prominent mythicists flunk right straight out. Let's examine the cases of Bart Ehrman and Michael Paulkovich. Up until a couple of years ago Ehrman was very popular among the mythicists, and why wouldn't he be, he writes brilliantly, concisely and authoritatively about early Christianity in a way which has overturned many traditional assumptions about the subject. But he has held on firmly to that one assumption, the assumption that a real, non-supernatural person, Jesus of Nazareth, was the inspiration and basis for the stories of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Then, apparently, all at once he became aware that there was this group of mostly non-academics, the mythicists, who had been writing for some time expressing doubts about Jesus' existence, and even in a few extreme cases insisting that Jesus had been purely mythical right from the start, and very often citing him, Ehrman, to make their cases. Ehrman was horrified, and hastily, and, I suspect, in a rather agitated state, he dashed off the book Did Jesus Exist?, which, as I've said before on this blog, would've been much more accurately entitled with the last 3 words in the book: Jesus Certainly Existed -- and which in any case had much more to do with today's mythicists, than with Jesus.

I, of course, was not mentioned in Ehrman's book, because I'm nobody. But even I felt a little bit personally hurt by it. But I said that Ehrman seemed to have been upset when he wrote it, and that it wasn't his finest work, and that he was human, and I was just about done. (And since the book was published I've become more familiar with the work of some of the zanier mythicists addressed in it, and although I still do not share Ehrman's certainty about Jesus' existence, the book seems a little less unfair to me now.)

Other mythicists' reactions were -- well: apeshit. Ehrman became topic #1 and Public Enemy #1 in mythicist circles. Any and every ridiculously tiny suspected error in his book was treated as if it were the Nagasaki bombing. Carrier and Anchyra S went on and on about a representation of a bird in the Vatican and how Ehrman's account of Acharya S' description of it exposed him to be a fraud, somehow. I never was able to follow those accusation, although I must admit I tended to fall asleep in the middle of trying to read them. Price and Carrier and Acharya S responded to Did Jesus Exist with, besides numerous blog posts, an entire book of their own:

(Acharya S' chapter is devoted to that bird in the Vatican. Wow.)

Just as Ehrman had written Did Jesus Exist? in response to learning how many mythicists are writing these days, so too in the midst of the shitstorm which Did Jesus Exist? caused, he created a blog which primarily dealt, for the first several months, with the negative responses of those mythicists to that one book of his.

So, that's the case of Ehrman and the mythicists. Now let's look at Michael Paulkovich and his fellow mythicists. Paulkovich is one of those rare cases among those who've (self-?)published a book, who still would be called a mythicist if the world were different like I and R Joseph Hoffmann wish it were, and the term "mythicist" were applied only to those who insist that Jesus was never man, but a myth from the start. And as regular readers of my blog know, one of the things he uses to support this position is a stupifyingly unserious list of 126 names of people Paulkovich says were historians (maybe 10 of them could be called historians), whose work he claims to have studied (47 of them have no surviving written work for anyone to study), who should have mentioned Jesus if Jesus had existed (in their works on medicine or architecture, or their re-telling of Greek myths, or their love-poetry).

And this was published in Free Inquiry, which is as close to the flagship publication of New Atheism as anything there is.

Price edited a book attacking a pre-eminent Biblical scholar for being a little rough on him and other mythicists, Carrier contributed to it. Paulkovich published an article in Free Inquiry which, if he had submitted it as a term in a Biblical Studies 101 course Price was teaching, it would have been Price's duty to give it a failing grade, and what has Price said about it being published so prestigeously? Nothing. Carrier has said nothing. There has been no great uproar from the mythicists about Free Inquiry's obvious lack of standards or concern for the accuracy of the writing they publish.

This is an example of what makes mythicists a joke: a leading Biblical scholar gets a little rough with them and they go berserk; a leading New Atheist publication publishes nonsense which would make Giorgio Tsoukalos blush, and there's barely a shrug from them. No seriousness in sight here: Ehrman disagrees with them on that one yes/no question, and they are outraged and write about little else for months, calling him liar and a charlatan, and then for good measure publish a book bashing him a little more; and an actual charlatan, Michael Paulkovich, publishes nonsense with which they should be ashamed lest anyone think they supported it, and that's fine, because he says Jesus never existed. Get that one answer right, nevermind how you get there, and, it seems, you're cool with Price, Carrier & co.

But to me that's like the atheists who assume you're bright if you're an atheist and stupid if you believe in God. I agree with them that God doesn't exist, but I don't see atheism as much of an intellectual accomplishment. There are so many ways you can get there besides being smart: your parents, or a charismatic friend, may be atheistic; maybe your parents are believers and you're angry at them; or you're angry at an abusive priest or nun, or at a government allied with religion, etc. Conversely, to me belief in God makes no sense, but I don't know of any intelligent person who doesn't have at least one topic upon which they cease to be rational.

So: Ehrman is still cool with me, although I disagree with him on that one question, and I dislike that one book he wrote. Hoffmann is still cool with me despite the poetry and the denial that certain words mean what they mean.

But Price and Carrier and anyone else who can accept Paulkovich (not that he's the only mythicist who's that silly) as one of their own just because they and he (and I) happen to agree on that one question (although we don't actually even all agree on that. Paulkovich is sure Jesus never existed), and who can just shrug away the fact that he publishes stupifying nonsense in supposed support of his answer to that one question -- no, sorry, I can't be on their team.

I have standards. For all I know, Price, on the other hand, might've given that term paper an A.

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