Saturday, March 26, 2016

Once More About Mythicism

It seems to be in the news again, at least in the small-pond news of New Testament scholars and we mythicists who aggravate them so much, so I'll take the opportunity to state my position at present.

Typically, academic Biblical scholars describe mythicists as amateurs and nuts. Unfortunately, they're right, with some rare exceptions such as G A Wells, and -- of course -- myself. But just because a lot of people argue a position ineptly does not mean that the position itself is unsound.

Those writing the news and quoted in the news -- and not just the journalists who are not Biblical scholars, but sometimes the academic scholars as well -- often repeat the erroneous view that mythicists are convinced that Jesus did not exist. But mythicists such as Robert Price, Richard Carrier, G A Wells and myself are not convinced that Jesus did not exist: we are all just none of us convinced that he did exist. PS, 9 January 2018: Actually, G A Wells (22 May 1926–23 January 2017) ceased to be a mythicist some time before 2000; but the difference between himself and a mythicist remained so small that almost no-one noticed it. And we all agree that the academic mainstream of Biblical scholarship is much too opposed to debating the matter. They, the academic Biblical scholars, are the pros. They're the ones with the advanced training. They are the people ideally qualified to investigate whether or not Jesus existed. And they're simply not investigating it. Four centuries ago, almost everyone assumed that Abraham was an historical figure, and that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Today, we don't assume that either Abraham of Moses is historical, and before the discovery of the Tel Dan stele there were some doubts about David as well, and their remains quite a bit of controversy over whether David's kingdom was anywhere near as large as described in the Bible. And all of that is due to the efforts of these very same Biblical scholars, the very same ones who are not subjecting the question of Jesus' historical existence to the same kind of scrutiny.

Typically, the academic Biblical scholars aren't nuts. But many of them are religious believers, and many more are somewhat reluctant to upset religious believers, and this may have something or everything to do with why they aren't asking (in spite of the title of that book by Bart Ehrman), Did Jesus exist? but rather continuing to routinely assume that he did, and go from there.

We mythicists don't all agree about much else other than that Jesus' historical existence has not been firmly established. What follows is my own position. Other mythicists disagree with some or all of it, so don't assume that I'm speaking for anyone else but myself. For their positions, read their books and their blogs.

With one possible exception, there are no known mentions of Jesus written earlier than Paul's letters and at least 3 of the 4 Gospels. That one possible exception is the Gospel of Thomas. Assuming that those who date Thomas to the 50's are wrong -- a very safe assumption in my opinion -- the earliest mentions of Jesus are from Paul, who by his own admission only saw Jesus "in a vision," whatever that means: in a dream, or a daydream, or an hallucination, or does it simply mean that Paul made Jesus up?

In my opinion, the only significant evidence we have at this time about whether or not Jesus existed is the New Testament. All that Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus have to tell us is about the existence of Christians, which is not the same as the existence of Jesus. The good news is that we just keep on finding more and more ancient texts. Mostly in Egypt near the Nile, but also some as far east as Mesopotamia. So, more evidence may turn up at any time. But in the meantime, it seems to me, only the New Testament can help us figure out whether or not Jesus existed. And I honestly don't see how it alone can answer the question conclusively one way or the other.

The problem with the New Testament as history, obviously, is that so much of it is legend. But we can't conclude from that that it's entirely legend and that Jesus is a fictional character. I like to compare the New Testament to the Nibelungenlied. Both contain a high percentage of legend. In the case of the Nibelungenlied we have a great deal of historical material about the same time and place, and because of that other historical material, we know, for example, that Etzel in the Nibelungenlied is an historical person: he's Attila the Hun. If we didn't have as much of that other historical material, we would have to rely much more heavily on the Nibelungenlied in trying to understand the history of 5th- and 6th- century central Europe. Because of the lack of other historical material, we have to rely very heavily on the New Testament when trying to understand the history of 1st-century-AD Judea and Galilee, because it comprises a very great portion of all the written evidence we have, and when it comes to the life of Jesus, it comprises almost all of the significant evidence we have.

Another comparison I find helpful is to compare Jesus to Achilles. In my opinion, there's about as much reason to assume that one existed as the other. This, of course, will cause academic Biblical scholars to point at me and laugh and laugh, because they think it's so obvious that Jesus existed. But it still isn't obvious to me, and they shouldn't laugh so much, because their job is to explain stuff to people like me, and as yet none of them has begun to convince me that it's obvious and certain that Jesus existed.

I'm not so upset about it. I'm a 54-year-old autistic man who wasn't correctly diagnosed until the age of 45, so I'm quite used to being laughed at for all sorts of reasons. And laughter is a physically healthy thing. Who am I to begrudge it them?

But they haven't convinced me, and that's their job. To convince me, or to admit that the matter is not yet settled. When it comes to Jesus, the academic Biblical scholars -- with a few exceptions -- are not doing their jobs.

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