Saturday, February 1, 2014

Who Do I Need to Read to Understand the Flaws in Mythicism?

I am often told that the reason I don't understand why New Testament scholars are so convinced of the historicity of Jesus is because I have not been steeped in the scholarship the way they are. One of the people who has told me this is a protege of Maurice Casey, so I was rather interested in a comment Jim West quoted from Casey's latest book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths.
Casey then makes mention of [Emmanuel] Pfoh’s rather playful if not sardonic remark (in his essay in the Thompson/ Verenna ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son’ volume) that he has never ‘read NT Wright’. At this point I think Casey has simply exaggerated the importance of that toss off remark. Casey writes that this remark ‘… puts the determined ignorance of mythicists in a nutshell‘ (emphasis Casey’s).
West disagreed with Casey's allegation that Pfoh is a mythicist, but I was more interested in Casey's apparent endorsement of N.T. Wright.

The only things I have read by N.T. Wright are arguments for the historicity of the resurrection, which make me wonder why he should be taken seriously as a historian at all.  I know that he is seen as a great expert on Paul, but I can't see why I should expect his conclusions there to be any less driven by his apologetic agenda.   I have very little interest in reading anything else by him.

If Casey is saying that one cannot be adequately informed about the question of Jesus' historicity without reading Wright (and I realize that I don't have enough context to be sure that this is what Casey is saying), it might be like someone saying that it would be impossible to understand World War II without reading the work of a Holocaust denier.  It is not that I think that there is the slightest moral equivalency between affirming the resurrection and denying the Holocaust, but as a matter of responsible historiography, both positions are pretty far out there.

From what I know of Casey, I wouldn't expect him to  find Wright's arguments on the resurrection any more persuasive than I do, but I still feel like there is something wrong in a field where the works of such an unabashed apologist can be considered essential reading.


  1. Have you ever considered that you aren't willing or aren't capable of believing that Jesus existed? I mean you know that Jesus has been referenced in such diverse sources as the New Testament of the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the writings of Josephus and the writings of Tacitus, as well as very early church traditions. What more evidence do you need to show you that Jesus existed? There is a certain point where skepticism becomes irrational. I mean look that the birthers; even after Obama presented numerous pieces of evidence that show he was indeed born in Hawaii there are still people who believe he was born in Africa. In regards to Jesus, if you are a die-hard naturalist then I'm not surprised that you would conclude that he was not resurrected or the son of God, but I am surprised that anyone would conclude that he never existed.

    You seem violently apposed to the idea that Jesus may have been resurrected, and I think that this is what drives your skepticism about Jesus' existence. Do you think that miracles are impossible? If so, why? If you're a naturalist then you're not only committed to the idea that gods don't exist you are also committed to the idea that some material object such as the universe, multiverse or subatomic particles (and perhaps immaterial objects like the natural laws) have eternally existed sans a cause. However, intuitively and experientially we know that material, contingent objects (including all the elements) don't exist eternally sans a cause, so why would anyone find naturalism plausible?

    As I see it, you need to work out how you feel about God's existence before you evaluate historical evidence of Jesus' existence because the supernatural aspects surrounding what has been said about Jesus are causing you to doubt he existed at all. If you conclude that God exists then the supernatural accounts of Jesus are not only possible they're plausible. Of course, even if naturalism is true it doesn't follow that Jesus never existed, it would only follow that the supernatural accounts of him are false, but I think that in your case naturalism is blinding you to the historical facts about Jesus' existence.

    1. I haven't concluded that Jesus never existed. I just think that the evidence is much more problematic than the vast majority of New Testament scholars are willing to acknowledge. Most of the people in the ancient world who left a historical footprint that can still be discerned today were prominent and/or literate people and/or they did things during their lives that had an impact on the prominent and/or literate people of their day. Jesus' historical footprint is the result of supernatural events that were believed to have taken place after he died. Our earliest source only knows him by supernatural visions. For historians who must reason by analogy, that's a problem.

      My doubts about the resurrection have little to do with my doubts about Jesus' existence. I doubted the former for well over thirty years before it occurred to me to question the latter. I cannot imagine any good arguments for the resurrection, whereas I think that there may be some good ones for Jesus' existence.

      I'm pretty indifferent to the existence of God because whether He exists or not, I still have to make sense of the world in which I find myself using the mind with which I have been endowed. I employ methodological naturalism to do so because it has proved itself to be a useful and reliable tool. I can easily imagine the existence of God without thinking for a minute that it makes the resurrection any more likely.

    2. So, is your position that Jesus' existence is unlikely? Can you point to a post you've done that explains what your position is and why you think it's true?

      You say that, "Jesus' historical footprint is the result of supernatural events that were believed to have taken place after he died," but I don't think that this is true as the Josephus, Tacitus and Talmud references are not explicitly supernatural. The Josephus and Tacitus references deal with Jesus' execution and the persistence of his followers after his death. From these references one could either conclude that Jesus' followers really did see him walking around after his death or you could conclude that they were mistaken about this belief. The Talmud reference just deals with Jesus' execution; the only possible supernatural aspect to this reference is that he is accused of practicing sorcery. Even in the Gospel accounts not all the references to Jesus are supernatural in nature.

      I assume that you're referring to Paul's 1 Corinthians when you talk about the "earliest source", but the early church tradition that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15 predates Paul's letter by many years and is not based on a vision.

      When it comes to Jesus' possible life and resurrection I don't think that it a matter of arguments; it a matter of assessing the historical evidence. In regards to Jesus' life, I find it highly implausible that all the previously mentioned sources are referring to someone that never existed. In regards, to Jesus' resurrection I think someone's assessment of the historical information breaks down to whether or not you're assuming naturalism. If you assume that naturalism is true then any explanation, no matter how outlandish, is going to be preferred to the explanation that Jesus was resurrected. Since I think that naturalism is implausible I conclude that the various naturalistic explanations about Jesus' postmortem appearances are implausible and ad hoc, and that the best explanation is the God resurrected Jesus.

      You say you need to make sense of the world regardless of whether or not God exists, but you're implying that since I'm a theist I'm not capable of making sense of the world. I don't see how it follows that theists can't make sense of the world. Why even think that the mind you've been endowed with is likely directed towards truth if it was formed by random forces? After all, all evolution says is that our brains need to get us to food and mates, it does not necessarily say that our brains need to be able solve life's great questions.

      I think that if God exist then Jesus' resurrection is dramatically much more plausible because if God exists then he could momentarily suspend the natural order that he created and resurrect Jesus. However, if God doesn't exist then such an aberration in the natural order would be monstrously implausible. I think God's existence is necessary for the resurrection to be true, but not sufficient because there is still the question of whether God would be willing to suspend the natural order he established.

    3. I think that I would still have to classify myself as agnostic about the existence of a historical Jesus, although I think that I am leaning in favor. However, I doubt that it is possible to know anything about him beyond the mere fact of his existence.

      But for belief in the resurrection, there is no reason to think that Josephus, Tacitus or the Talmud would have ever mentioned Jesus. We only know any natural stories about him because the people who believed he had been raised from the dead spread them.

      1 Corinthians 15 refers to appearances of a man returned from the dead and gives no detail about the content of those experiences. For all we know, they were hallucinations, visions or even dreams like the one in which the angel appeared to Joseph in Matthew 1. More importantly, there is no indication in 1 Corinthians 15 that any of the people who experienced the appearances had known Jesus during his natural life. If the ghost of King Arthur appeared to me in a vision, that would not constitute any evidence that a historical King Arthur existed.

      I didn't say that theists can't make sense of the world. I simply don't think that theism helps to make sense of the world. If there are things that I don't know, I prefer to admit that I don't know rather than resorting to "God did it" as an explanation because I don't think that really explains anything.

      If God exists, I think that the resurrection only becomes infinitesimally more plausible. As you correctly point out, that God could do it provides no reason to think that he would do it.

    4. KEITH
      I mean look that the birthers; even after Obama presented numerous pieces of evidence that show he was indeed born in Hawaii there are still people who believe he was born in Africa.

      And there are still people convinced Jesus was born in Bethlehem!

  2. And Pfoh probably hasn't even read Mike Licona or William Lane Craig!

    I had the same reaction when I saw this quoted on a forum, "Why should anyone read N.T. Wright?" Wright isn't even willing to admit that the mass resurrection at Jesus death didn't happen.

  3. When it comes to understanding Paul's theology and its relationship to the Judaism of his day, it wouldn't surprise me if Wright has insights that can't be found anywhere else. However, when it comes to the implications on historicity of Paul's silence regarding the life and ministry of Jesus, I haven't the slightest reason for thinking that Wright is capable of the kind of scholarly detachment that would make his opinion worth having.

  4. Jesus is in the Koran , eh?

    Who would have thought that was such an amazing recommendation?

    I guess fundies just don't realise they have to put on a public show of consistency.