For me personally, the biggest flaw in McGrath's analogy is in the question of the paths that lead to each conclusion. I don't think that mainstream biology is likely to lead anyone to seriously consider creationism. On the other hand, I had always assumed that there was a historical Jesus, but I have become less sure that I can know anything about him with any certainty as a result of reading the work of mainstream scholars like Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, John Dominic Crossan, Geza Vermes, John Shelby Spong, Burton Mack, and even James McGrath. The more I read of these scholars, all of whom are historicists, the more Robert Price's notion of "Jesus at the Vanishing Point" resonates for me.
One the questions I tried to raise with McGrath was what it really meant to say that Jesus was historical or mythological:
Suppose that Paul’s Jesus was mythological or suppose that Paul’s understanding and preaching of Jesus was based entirely on the visionary experience he had of the risen Christ and had nothing to do with anything that an actual person said or did.McGrath conceded that this was an "excellent point," and a few of the other commenters seemed interested in discussing the whether historicism and mythicism overlap. In particular, Eric Reitan responded directly to my question by laying out sliding scale :
Further suppose that some of the things described in Mark’s gospel happened to actual people or were said by actual people, and that Mark attributed these sayings and events to Paul’s Jesus.
Would that make the Jesus of the gospels historical or mythological?
I am troubled by the argument that the mythicist position fails “[i]f even one saying of Jesus, or action by him, or something done to him such as the crucifixion, is clearly more likely to represent authentic historical information rather than something invented.” As a matter of probability, it seems likely to me that something described somewhere in the gospels happened to an actual historical human being who may even have been named “Jesus.” On the other hand, it also seems possible to me that the Christian movement sprang from the ecstatic visions experienced by the members of a cult in first century Jerusalem and that it was only coincidentally related to any actual historical person.
If it could be shown that there was an actual historical person named Arthur Pendragon, wouldn’t we still think of King Arthur of Camelot as a myth?
Contrast the following claims:Eric expanded on this comment on his blog, and Qohelet and John Hobbins blogged about the scale as well. I would have liked to see McGrath spend a little more time discussing the range of positions that might be said to fall within the mythicist or historicist camps, but he was intent at hammering away at the most radical mythicist position, i.e., that the first Christians actually thought of Jesus as an entirely spiritual being whose death and resurrection took place on heavenly spiritual plane.
(1) There was an historic king of the Britons named Arthur, and his life was exactly as described by Sir Thomas Malory in _Le Morte d’Arthur_.
(2) There was an historic king of the Britons named Artur whose impact was sufficiently great that, after being slain by a usurper, those loyal to him would gather secretly to swear allegiance to his bloodline and share stories about him—stories said to come from Artur’s closest thanes. The earliest writings from these communities are by a priest more interested in the meaning of Artur’s life than the details of it. But after a few decades, several followers attempted to write accounts of Artur’s life and sayings based on what their respective communities had preserved. While not historically accurate, they offer clues for anyone wanting to understanding the historic King Arthur.
(3) There was an historic king of the Britons named Artur whose impact was sufficiently great to prompt storytelling about him. This storytelling became quickly severed from actual historic events, becoming interwoven with the creative fancies of bards whose interest lay more in telling colorful tales than in preserving history. Eventually these stories evolved into the legendary figure we now know as King Arthur. But the King Arthur we encounter in the inherited legends has little similarity to the historic figure that inspired the original storytelling.
(4) There was no historic king of the Britons who gave rise to the King Arthur legends. Instead, this figure was wholly an invention of bards interested in creating colorful tales—although the first bard to invent the first King Arthur story borrowed a few of his plotlines from divergent bits of recent events he’d witnessed in his travels, and decided to name his hero “Artur” because he had some vague memory that there was some king by that name who’d lived a generation ago.
Your question gestures to claim (3). As I understand it, Earl Doherty and his followers are making a claim akin to (4) with respect to Jesus. Fundamentalists embrace something akin to (1). Most biblical scholars I know are closer to (2) but allow for elements of (3). The case of (3) is interesting. If we accept it, is there a sense in which there is an “historic Arthur”? I’d say yes, but only in the sense that there is an historic figure who prompted the storytelling—and I’d be quick to add that the character in the stories bears little resemblance to the historic figure. (2) offers more room for dispute about which details are historical.
I think Eric is probably correct about most scholars falling in neighborhood of (2), but I wonder whether this is because so many of them start out at (1). I suspect that there are many more examples of scholars who move up the scale than down.