Thursday, July 18, 2013

Jesus Agnostic, Mythicist and a Question of Terms

Some time ago I posted on my agnosticism on the historicity of Jesus.  The post, entitled "Why I Am a Mythicist," sits somewhat oddly for two reasons.  First, it is surrounded by significant silence on either side.  This reflected my conviction that it would be disingenuous of me to fail to make public my reversal on what I had quite publicly decreed previously.  Secondly, and more interestingly, most of my readership would not call me a mythicist today.

This is an interesting shift, occurring, as it did, in little over a year.  Because, as I noted in the comments to that post, at the time most readers would have considered my position a flavor of "mythicist."

I'd attribute this transformation principally to two things in the biblioblogosphere.  First, the increasingly vituperative and apparently eternal exchange between Vridar and James McGrath has increased awareness of the distinction between someone who doesn't know and someone who actively argues for a positive mythicist case, and second, the dialogue inspired by Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?.

With that in mind, let us imagine for a moment that someone put a gun to my head, right now, and said "Jesus or no Jesus?"  I would concede that I find the traditional reading of Gal.1.19 most compelling, and that we could probably call the brother of James the "historical Jesus."

Fortunately, there is vastly insufficient interest in my position for me to have to worry about firearm wielding people eager for a declaration.  So I am not forced to proceed on such a flimsy premise as "I find one sentence more compelling this way," and I can cheerily continue saying that I simply don't know.

But let's keep our armed psychopath around for a little longer.  He now wants to know how I proceed on the question of the "historical Jesus."  What does my new declaration change about my approach?

Nothing.  The problems of the texts don't disappear because of my declaration for historicity.  I still can't proceed with any confidence that the gospels are based on the life of the brother of James, rather than a simple tradition of "Christ crucified" and no more.

Which leads me back to the top.  My position would be described by most as "agnostic," and as a category this is fine.  But it doesn't actually describe anything.  Some have suggested they are not certain, and then proceeded to produce a sketch of the life of Jesus, am I the same as them?  Others suggest that there are no interesting questions to be asked because of their agnosticism.  Again, does that describe me?

Certainly not on both counts.  "Jesus agnostic" is woefully inadequate.  Tom Verenna has suggested ‘Jesus as Literary Construct’-ist to describe himself, though he goes with "agnostic" because of the rather clear clunkiness of what he sees as a more apt description.  This would be more apt for me as well, but I can't very well go around using that term without wanting to choke myself, much less the effect it would have on people reading it.

I am increasingly inclined toward "functional mythicist."  This differentiates me from an actual mythicist, who argues a positive case (such as Doherty or Carrier), and differentiates from the more confident or more apathetic agnostic.  It describes how I am going to handle the material--particularly the gospels--but does not adhere me to a declaration one way or the other.


VinnyJH57 said...

I consider myself a "historical Jesus agnostic." I realize that the term it clunky, but it seems to do the trick in communicating my position as distinct from mythicism. I think that our sources are too problematic and sparse to allow us to determine that Jesus of Nazareth was historical in any meaningful sense.

I would describe your position as "historical Jesus minimalism," i.e., there is sufficient evidence to believe that there was an actual historical Jesus at the root of the Christian movement, but our sources are too thoroughly mythologized to say anything with certainty about what he actually said or did.

"Functional mythicist" is nicely descriptive and less clunky, but experience tells me a lot of people just won't get it. The word "mythicist" often triggers a Pavlovian response and you will spend many hours vainly trying to explain that you don't think it more likely than not that Paul's Jesus existed only on a spiritual plane. "Historical Jesus agnostic" requires fewer hours spent convincing people that you haven't drunk the Kool-Aid.

Rick Sumner said...

Hi Vinny, thanks for your thoughts. I definitely sympathize with the Pavlovian response "mythicist" gets. Just to clarify though, I'm only a minimalist with the gun to my head. Without, I don't think finding a reading compelling is evidence of anything but compulsion. I think either conclusion is reasonable, and can't see a way to differentiate objectively, so without a firearm, I'm agnostic.

Rick Sumner said...

whoops! that should be " unreasonable"