Some FAQs about ahistoricism

By DOUG SHAVER
April 2015

(The following was inspired by James F. McGrath's "A Menu of Answers to Mythicists".)

You often compare Jesus to characters such as William Tell, Ned Ludd, or John Frum, who at one time were thought to be real but never actually existed. Aren't you ignoring some relevant differences?

Relevant to what? It's up to historicists to explain just how those differences invalidate the analogy. The point of the comparison is to establish the fact that people can and do come to regard fictional people as real people. Given these examples, it cannot be argued that it cannot happen. Your argument therefore must demonstrate the improbability of its having happened in this particular instance.

You say there was no Christianity as we know it before the gospels were written. Isn't there some clear evidence to the contrary?

Not just because apologists say so, but the answer to this question depends in part on (a) when the gospels were written and (b) when the earliest patristic writings were produced. Conventional scholarship has it that the gospels were substantially completed during the first century, and that the patristic record starts with Clement of Rome's epistle to the Corinthians sometime in the 90s. If we accept those dates, our case stands.

But granted, mythicists do tend to date the gospels quite a bit later. Many think they did not appear, or at least were not widely circulated, until well into the second century. Doesn't this create a problem? Not necessarily. Many are also suspicious about the conventional dating of Clement and other early patristic writings, especially the Ignatian corpus. We can set that issue aside, though. Mythicists do not need to insist that the first gospel author (probably Luke) was working from scratch. Most accept the existence of Q or some document like it that could have given the canonical authors some of their key ideas.

 How can you deny that Paul claims to have met Jesus' brother?

By reading what he actually wrote without presupposing his intended meaning. We admit that if historicity is assumed, then "brother of the lord" probably meant "Jesus' sibling." All we're saying is that if we don't make that assumption, then alternative construals are not unreasonable.

Why do you continually accuse historicists of presupposing historicity?

Because their arguments have no validity without the assumption that Jesus existed. Certain key premises of their arguments are unsupportable without that assumption.

Aren't you demanding more evidence than we should expect for an obscure itinerant preacher in a backwater nation? Surely you don't think we should have as much evidence for Jesus as we have for Caesar?

Some historicists say we do have just as much, actually. But if you're admitting we don't . . . . We're not entitled to infer anything from evidence that we don't have, and it makes no difference how good a reason there is for us not to have it. When Wegener proposed his continental drift theory in 1912, the scientific community rejected it on grounds of insufficient evidence, and the community was right to do so. We now know that the continents really do move, but only because of evidence that was not discovered until many years after Wegener died. Insufficient evidence may well lead us to make a mistake, but the only right way to correct such a mistake is to find more evidence. It may be interesting to speculate about what we should believe if we had more evidence, but speculation is all it can be. It is epistemologically irresponsible to treat it as if it were settled fact.

Why don't you admit that literature can be a source of historical information?

Why do you accuse us of thinking it can't? We are using, as our evidence, the same literature you are using. We just disagree about what it proves, and we're trying to explain why we disagree. You may critique the reasoning by which we get from the evidence to our conclusions, but it is disingenous to claim that we're simply ignoring the evidence.

History is about probabilities, not certainties, isn't it?

Of course, and mythicists who claim to be certain the Jesus didn't exist are just wrong. Responsible mythicsts are claiming no more than that Jesus' nonexistence is more probable than his existence.

Uncertainty about his existence does not imply his nonexistence.

Arguments to uncertainty are not supposed to prove his nonexistence. They are rebuttals against historicists who claim that his existence is certain, and those historicists are legion.

Paul was writing to Christians who, we should think, already knew what they needed to know about Jesus' life and ministry. Should we really have expected Paul to repeat all that information?

Of course not all of it, but Paul shows no obvious awareness of any of it. That is what mythicists find anomalous. And it isn't true that a writer never tells his readers anything that he thinks they should already know. He might suspect, rightly or wrongly, that they have forgotten something. Or he might think they have failed to apply their knowledge appropriately to some problem. Anyone who takes a course in calculus already knows the Pythagorean Theorem, but a professor who never mentioned that theorem would have a really hard time teaching their students any calculus.

Granted that Paul doesn't give many details of Jesus' life, but he does give some. He says he was born of a woman and was descended from David, and that he was crucified and buried. What about those biographical data?

If I found a letter from the late 19th century about a man named Abraham who was born of a woman, had English ancestors, and was buried after dying of a gunshot wound, and the writer said nothing else about him except the kinds of things Paul said about Jesus Christ, I would not regard it as certain that the subject of the letter was the 16th president of the United States.

Aren't people who disagree with a nearly unanimous consensus of experts nearly always wrong? Why should mythicism be given any more serious attention than creationism?

Mythicists believe that they have better reasons to question the consensus than creationists do. Historicists thus have a choice. They can either demonstrate the inadequacy of those reasons, or they can just keep on repeating "the consensus is against you." A proposition does not stop needing a defense just because it has been accepted by all the authorities.

Most scientists justifiably feel that they have better things to do with their time than argue with creationists, but doesn't mean it would be wise for every scientist to feel that way. A site such as talkorigins.org was badly needed, and a comparable site defending Jesus' historicity would be a really good idea, if such a site were possible.

Mythicists don't seem to agree on anything except Jesus' nonexistence. Isn't this a good counterargument to the claim that historicists don't agree on anything except Jesus' existence and manner of death?

This argument from confusion is directed against the evidence, not the conclusion inferred from the evidence. The sources obviously say much more about Jesus than that he existed and was crucified. The lack of consensus about what else we should believe about him arises from differing judgments about which parts of the gospel narratives are credible. But we're talking about all the parts except those that say he lived and then was crucified. If we're told that we cannot regard any of the gospels except those parts as reliable, it seems reasonable to ask: Why make an exception for those parts?

You are not a historian or a biblical scholars. How are you entitled to disagree with those who are?

Epistemic entitlement has nothing to do with earned degrees or other credentials. You get it by reasoning cogently from uncontested facts and background knowledge. If anyone arguing for any theory is using flawed reasoning or relying on unsupported assertions of fact, then their credentials are irrelevant.

If textual evidence cannot support a historical claim, then how can it support a denial of that claim?

The issue is not whether textual evidence can support any claim. The issue is which claim it best supports. A particular document may be inadequate as evidence either for or against some particular claim, but several documents collectively might become adequate.

If we stipulate that the earliest Christian writings fail to support Jesus' historicity, then surely the only reasonable alternative is to suspend judgment, isn't it?

 I've already agreed that when mythicists say they have proved Jesus' nonexistence, they're making a mistake. But mythicists are not saying only that the evidence for historicity is insufficient. They're also saying that some of the evidence is inconsistent with his historical existence, and that makes it evidence for his nonexistence.

 


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