Monday, April 30, 2012

Why I Am A Mythicist

I had a rather startling realization perhaps two months ago.

I am a mythicist, though I doubt this means what first comes to mind. Not in the sense that Carrier or Price or Turton are, but in the sense that Thomas Thompson is. The distinction is important, but more on this below.

To start at the beginning I was once among the more loquacious defenders of the historicity of Jesus on the interwebs. What I lacked in eloquence I compensated for with tenacity. Constantly frustrated by my inability to make people see what I saw, I had only an academic appreciation that my opponents in these debates had exactly the same frustration.

This same shallow appreciation colors many of the current debates on the matter. It defines McGrath's polemic. It created Neil Godfrey's imagined dichotomy of "charity" and "suspicion" I'm putting the final touches on a subsequent post on these two in particular. McGrath needs to define "good historian" as something more than "guy who agrees with me," and Neil--or better yet everyone--needs to stop using the term "hermeneutics." They keep using that word, it does not mean what they think it does. I have, in fact, never seem the term "hermeneutics" used productively outside of a philosophy text.

This shallow appreciation produces what Doherty calls "colorful language" and I call "shameless rhetoric." It produces the shortcomings of Ehrman's latest book. What it doesn't do is produce fruitful dialogue. And it defined my own approach. And then I read Hayden White and Keith Jenkins.

Anyone who reads White and doesn't walk away reassessing the practice of history has either missed the point or committed themselves to willful ignorance. But this is almost a non sequitur. The huge majority of historians will never trouble themselves with questions of theory generally, much less answer White's challenge. This is shameful, and results in histories that are nothing more than a house of cards.

Anyone who has seriously engaged fundamental theory in any topic can no doubt attest to the epistemological quagmire one can end up in. Theory begins to handcuff rather than inform one's work. This was the situation I found myself in for most of the last two years. Which was unfortunate, since I only need theory because I love history, and I was losing the latter to the former.

Finally, I acknowledged that a truly unassailable historiography was an impossibility. This is almost a tautology, but knowing it is one thing, keeping it in mind without being crippled by it quite another. I am ill-equipped to develop a historiography from the ground up, so instead opted to copy the smart people. Or at least to use them as scaffolding high above the ground I would otherwise start at.

"Smart people," in this context, are historians with a method informed by theory, that is more easily defended than attacked. A methodology that is conservative, minimizes value judgments, and restricts truth claims to only that which survives such a highly critical approach. This is a short list of smart people. In Biblical studies, so far as I had read to that point, they were all named Thomas Thompson (I've since added a couple more, most notably Lemche, though not many). This actually isn't entirely accurate. There were other people who did smart things (Liverani springs readily to mind), but none who were quite as consistent in their "smart people"ness as Thompson.

It's important to note that Thompson's isn't the only possible "smart people" historiography, and indeed I differ from him in several respects, in some instances I'm more forgiving, in others (believe it or not!) I am even less charitable. But much like Thomas Verenna, Thomas Thompson has influenced my historiography more than anyone else.

Also to clarify, lest someone get offended, "smart people" is wholly tongue in cheek.

This bit of background is important for two reasons: First, in understanding any large change of position such as this, the background to it is important in assessing the motives and understanding the thought process.  It is as important to know why I reject another paradigm as it is to understand my reasons for adopting a new one.

Secondly, and equally importantly at least to me, is selfish pride.  I have no desire to be confused with the crusading secular.  Insofar as epistemology can ever be distinct from ideology, I am no ideologue.  Nor is this a decision reached rashly and without careful consideration of the methodology employed.  Probably more than any other historical conclusion I've ever espoused, this follows from method, and in no way preceded it.

I'll have more to say on the historiography I employ in subsequent posts, though I make no promises on when that will be delivered.  I have three children with a combined age of 9, after all, which severely limits my "wax philosophical on history" time.

Now, on with the important part.

First and foremost it is paramount to understand the difference between history and the past.  The two terms are often used interchangeably, but in fact describe different things.

Real people existed in a real past.  They did real things.  They lived in real places, had real friends, real rulers, real armies.  But that is gone.

History is created in the present.  The emphasis is on the word "created."  Contrary to the popular axiom, evidence never speaks for itself.  It needs to be interpreted, and any history is a creation every bit--and probably more--as much as it is a discovery.

The aim of the historian is to create a history that closely approximates the real past.  The understanding is that it is only an approximation, and all conclusions are provisional.  For this to be meaningful, we need to have rules.  Functional rules.  Readers may remember my post some time ago lamenting the lack of rules in NT studies.  If there is any conviction I firmly hold, it is that proceeding in such a fashion is unacceptable, and that anyone who thinks otherwise has no interest in meaningful history.

So with this distinction in mind, there are two questions we must ask on the historicity of Jesus.  Does the genesis of Christianity (the past) require a Jesus behind it?  And; Do our sources require an historical figure behind them (history)?

Ideally we should have considerable overlap between these questions--they should almost be redundant.  If we ask if the Age of Augustus requires an historical Augustus, this question is functionally identical to asking if our evidence requires it, because our evidence is inextricably linked to to the time and place in question.  The less overlap between our evidence and the past--the less our evidence can be anchored in known reality--the less meaningful our questions become.

We can only ask questions of what survives--we can only question our sources.  If they do not overlap the known reality, then any question we ask of them is meaningless.  Without such an anchor monuments are just buildings, texts just stories.

So is there any overlap  between our evidence of Jesus and the birth of Christianity?

The simple reality is that there is not.  Not unless we put it there.  The gap is too large, the sources too unprovenanced, their creation too devoid of known context.

I'll note in the interest of candor that there is one possible exception to this: Gal.1.19.  I have not read any interpretation of this passage that makes more sense to me than the plain reading of the text.  Because of this, and this alone, I am still somewhat tentative.  But it is nowhere near enough.

This remove means that we can't ask questions of the past.  We can't know about the genesis of Christianity (which is where I diverge from the people mentioned in my opening sentences.  I do not think the evidence required for an assessment of the birth of the movement--mythicist or historicist--exists).  But perhaps there is still a requirement in our evidence for someone behind the stories.  Even if we can't firmly link him to the birth of Christianity, surely it is at least a plausible speculation to link such an individual without a context to it?  And the authorship of Mark, for example, can unequivocally be linked with the authorship of Mark.  So do we require a real person for him?

Alas, even this tentative speculation cannot be allowed.  The answer to the second question is a resounding no.  That isn't my voice, but the voice of a century's worth of scholarship, during which every event described in the New Testament has been reasonably argued to be unhistorical by one scholar or another.  To be sure, arguments for inclusion have been raised as well.  This simply reflects historiographical assumptions.  Criteria of inclusion assume positive results.  Criteria of exclusion assume negative ones.  Let them clash.

But remember what the smart people do:  Methodology is conservative, value judgments eliminated, conclusions restricted only to what survives this.  A real person is not required, not demanded, not even vaguely necessary to explain what survives.  It is perfectly coherent without one, and this is what the methodology I described demands.

So, to get back to the start, I am agnostic on whether or not a real Jesus lived in the past.  But I am a mythicist in so far as our evidence supports.  There is no good reason to believe there is a a man behind the story.  There is just a story.


Loren Rosson III said...

Rick, I see you've drunk the kool-aid! But these are nice thoughts. I confess I've grown incredibly skeptical (since my confident mindset of the '90s) about what we can say about Jesus. If he can't be reasonably gleaned from Paul and the synoptics, then he's lost if he ever was. But I think it likely he was. I agree with you, however, about McGrath's exceedingly unhelpful rhetoric in these debates.

Rick Sumner said...

Heh, I suppose in some sense I have, though not entirely--I still reject Doherty, for the same reasons, in the same spots. I still think Price is a polemicist first, last and always. It's very much an epistemologically based conclusion.

I wished I could agree with you. . .I started off fully expecting to develop a sound historiography that justified that conclusion. I just can't do it. For me "lost if he ever was" about sums it up.

VinnyJH57 said...

I might call myself a "mythicist" in the sense that I believe that the historical Jesus is beyond recovery and that the evidence compels me to treat Jesus as mythical for all practical purposes, but I don't call myself that. I find that calling myself a "historical Jesus agnostic" reduces the grief I get more than enough to justify the wear and tear of the extra keystrokes.

I agree with you about Galatians 1:19. It is the one verse that seems to me to point towards an actual person, but like you I don't think that it is nearly enough.

Rick Sumner said...

I thought of titling it "Jesus Agnostic," for exactly that reason. And it's not entirely inaccurate--I am agnostic on the existence of a real Jesus. But I'm not agnostic on the ability to create a historical Jesus, so it seemed better to go in for a pound.

VinnyJH57 said...

Best of luck to you on that Rick. I grew tired of being accused of drinking the Kool-Aid. Now they just think that I'm sniffing the fumes.

bardi said...

one thing I don't understand is how come Paul, after inventing his own dream-like "Jesus", spends most of his letters in polemics against the "Jesus" of the old disciples, James, Peter etc. Did every one have their own private revelation? How can the same myth arise at the same time in many people? Isn't it much simpler to think that Paul had to invent his own mythical Jesus exactly because he missed the real one?

AB said...

The Book of Mormon is a purely literary exercise. No real people or real history were required to write it. The New Testament is a lot like that. There's more than one author, but several of them tip their hand and make the mistake of protesting too much: "These stories are really true! We swear!" Several of Joseph Smith's colleagues wrote of miracles as well. We should be extremely skeptical of the veracity of all holy texts.

Anonymous said...

Asking a question about "Jesus" of the past, at the root of the origins of Christianity, is like looking for Adam at the origins of human evolution. As long as that is the question, we can't see all the transitional fossils embedded in the rock layers.

Anonymous said...

What is really odd is that the church didn't try to pull a Moses and claim Jesus wrote 5 books. If they had done that, probably mythicism wouldn't get as far. If you're raised from the dead then you're still alive, still capable of writing your own history. The church should have taken the opportunity afforded by that and forged a few books in the name of Jesus rather than Matthew and John. OOPS.

Anonymous said...

Galatians 1:19 is part of the same theology that informed the gospel and Acts. I don't see a hard, compelling reason to accept that it's real letter written by a real Paul to a real church in Galatia about his real experience with "James, the Lord's brother." A few years later, the same church had Paul writing letters to Seneca.