And on it goes. James McGrath has taken issue with another of Neil Godfrey's posts on the Jesus Myth.
I'll state for the record that I am not persuaded by the mythicist position, and think E P Sanders is probably the greatest living NT scholar. So I have some sympathy with McGrath.
I appreciate James' point (and even more with Steph's in the comments, I have always thought "assumption" such a terrible term here, though it's often used. . .just because people don't outline a full explanation doesn't mean they've "assumed" it). But there is a counterpoint to be scored here as well.
What other characters do we attempt to reconstruct in any detail based solely on texts? Especially texts that are all written "in-group," none of which are autobiographical?
Neil and I would probably disagree on what standard of evidence is required before we move forward, but I would concede (in the spirit of the 1913 Schweitzer he's been citing lately) that we can only move forward provisionally, recognizing the limits of our conjecture.
Even if we agreed there was an historical Romulus, for example, if you started telling me a specific act he did in the founding of Rome, with details about his consciousness while he did it, I'd laugh in your face. It seems preposterous everywhere but here. And even if we let you get away with it, your statement would be a lot more provisional. If someone replied that they doubt Romulus even existed, you would doubtlessly allow for the possibility, and acknowledge that your later conjectures were based on an earlier conjecture: That Romulus was real.
When we deal strictly with textual evidence elsewhere, we recognize the limits of our conjectures. But here we have none (still germane to my post Why Bother?). Not only do we not have to be provisional, we can suggest that all the gospels fundamentally misunderstood Jesus' message, and we know even better than they do what it was. While many critics would disagree with those sorts of efforts, we don't deprive them of dialogue, while virtually anywhere else we wouldn't deem to treat such speculation with a grain of seriousness.
As I pointed out before, we have no rules.
So, to get back to the point, Neil's probably wrong. Or at least should be more provisional in his comments. Sanders' may have assumed historicity. He may not have. He doesn't tell us, so we don't know. Some academics probably do. Some probably don't. But without an explanation we can't be sure what they've done, and can't be sure they've "assumed" anything. Simple decorum and charitability demands that we give them the benefit of the doubt.
But James is wrong too. What we do with texts is a lot different here than everywhere else. Not because we treat them differently--it's often suggested that the biblical historian is engaging in some new species of history. We can flatly reject that. We figure ways to find authentic information from texts the same way any other branch of history does. Sometimes with the same criteria.
But what we don't do is see the limits. We don't recognize the provisional nature. And (as I've said again and again lately), we build on people who also didn't see the provisional nature. The last guy's speculation becomes my fact in a sense we really don't see outside of this branch of historical inquiry.
It's not that we don't see any limits at all, of course, just that the ones we push are too far removed from what our evidence can really state to be of much use. But we still have an outer boundary, beyond which we pay proponents the most serious of insults: We deprive them of a dialogue partner.
Robert Eisenman flatly rejected hard science. Hard science he requested. Now there's an analogue to creationism. But he got dialogue partners. Baigent and Leigh, Barbara Thiering, hell, even Dan Brown. Truly ridiculous, crackpot ideas. That got dialogue partners.
Are we really going to suggest that an Earl Doherty or a Robert Price is so over the edge that even these crackpots are more deserving of engagement than they are? Because if we are, we're wrong. And wholly unjustified.
Here's the simple reality: Earl Doherty does very little that a Crossan or a Meier doesn't do. He uses the same criteria. He just attaches different (entirely subjective, the same as everyone else') weight to them. And by tweaking the weight--this criteria has more force than this one--he uses established methods to drive ineluctably to a given conclusion. That is how history is done, biblical or otherwise. And if it's okay for a Crossan or a Meier (as examples who rely heavily on methodological criteria for authenticity), the it's okay for Earl too.