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Atheists often deny they have a specific world-view. I would contend that any strongly held world-view is prone to fundamentalist style beliefs. Whether it’s in history, science, religion, paranormal, health, or society. One prominent feature of fundamentalists is that they evaluate information under their own set of rules that are in conflict with best practise methods. I’m not trying to insult people by using the term fundamentalism, I just think it’s important we recognise dogmatic views for what they are. I’m also not an anti-religious atheist, I believe people should be free to practise their religions, but obviously not to impose their beliefs on others.

Defining fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is sometimes easy to identify, but difficult to define. Believing in creationism over evolution, and denying the holocaust are two prominent examples of fundamentalist beliefs. But I suspect that most of us have some fundamentalist beliefs, just not as obvious as those. Holocaust denial is very well supported (believe it or not) in the Islamic world – they have thousands of scholars who put forward this view. I was actually shocked to learn that, and I do think it raises legitimate questions over how much we can trust historians in general to determine facts about the past in an unbiased way. Although I would strongly caution my readers to believe a systemic problem amongst Islamic scholars in the Middle East would affect scholars in the Western world.

The key characteristic of any fundamentalist belief is that it is based on rules or knowledge that are not set or agreed upon by the experts in the relevant fields of study, and when confronted with this the belief is generally not affected. It’s a closed system that is not interested in information provided by the outside world. It’s often based on people’s instincts or on flawed logic. I can even give an example, I met a very nice and intelligent gentleman a while ago with a very fundamentalist belief that we are over-educating the population. I cited facts and evidence, and his response was “well my instincts disagree”. His belief is almost certainly tied to a strongly-held world view, and he’s not interested in what the evidence says.

The definition that I put forward therefore is one where there is a strongly held belief system tied to some kind of world-view that is resistant to change even when presented with overwhelming evidence that disproves the belief.

Denialism

Fundamentalist beliefs can be associated with denialist beliefs. A denialist belief is usually associated with an opposite fundamentalist belief – denying the theory of Evolution or science altogether in favour of creationism. Denying the validity of psychiatry as a science in favour of fundamentalist Scientologist beliefs. Denying the holocaust in favour of fringe outlier theories. Denying that HIV causes AIDS in favour of a fringe outlier theory. Denialism is most commonly associated with history and with science. With both fundamentalism and denialism, people will often not make use of the set of methods developed by the experts to test their theory, and instead use their own methods. Because of this, the historical data or the scientific data does not end up affecting fundamentalist and denialist beliefs.

Honourable example

I’ll start with an example well supported in the literature, which does not have any religious ties. I’m talking of course about the chiropractic theory of disease. This “theory” of disease puts forward the view that misalignments of the vertebra is the cause of all human ailments. It totally rejects germ theory and the associated modern biomedical theories of disease. This is called a fundamentalist belief in the peer review literature. Now it is true that many chiropractors have a “soft” view of the chiropractic theory of disease, where they believe that misaligned vertebra are one of many causes of disease along with bacteria, viruses, and other causes. That’s less denialist, but it’s still fundamentalist as every other modern practitioner rejects the chiropractic theory of disease. I should point out that believe it or not, there are even chiropractors that call themselves chiropractors but don’t believe the chiropractic theory of disease at all! I think that’s hugely unethical and is akin to psychics that know they aren’t psychic (which is all of them) but tell you they are anyway.

Now, does this mean that everyone that goes to a chiropractor is stupid? Well no, so long as they’re not using chiropractic medicine to replace best practise medicine, it’s not going to do any harm and you might get a placebo effect. Although I should say that I have an ethical problem with parents that gets this kind of treatment for a child.

Why is mythicism a fundamentalist belief?

Mythicism, the theory that Jesus didn’t exist as a historical person, is unquestionably a fundamentalist belief. It’s tied to the denialist view that historians are not competent in their assessments of history. Now this is a denialist view that I used to have as a Christian, and that view softened over time, and as atheist I now have the utmost respect for historians as professionals. They are no longer a threat to my world-view – but if your world-view is that Jesus did not exist as a historical person, then it is tied to a denialist view of associated academic professions. “Part of the problem may be an insufficient acquaintance with how historians work with the limited data available” (Larry Hurtado, 2012) … perhaps Larry, and that might be true of some mythicists, however for fundamentalists the historical data does not end up affecting their belief.

Let’s quickly remind ourselves of a few characteristics of fundamentalist and denialist beliefs. 1. They are internally logical when you’re in that bubble. 2. They are often socially constructed and linked to in-group beliefs. 3. Often linked to strongly held world-views including religious or political views. 4. They do not make use of set of methods that experts use to test their theories and determine truth. 5. There may be cognitive dissonance and epistemological leaps involved to reconcile facts about reality to fit within a person’s world-view. 6. Often based on instinct or logic. 7. There can be an overestimation or an underestimation of the quality and level of evidence that exists to support or disprove their belief. Put together this gives us a picture of why perfectly intelligent  people can believe seemingly irrational things.

Mythicism meets most of the criteria set in the previous paragraph. Most notably, mythicists refuse to use the set of tools that historians would ordinarily use to determine historicity of an ancient person or event – and this is true even of Richard Carrier which we will get to shortly. It also ignores the overwhelming academic consensus – just as there is scientific consensus that HIV is the cause of AIDS (despite the persistent outliers), there is academic consensus that Jesus was a historical person amongst scholars of the ancient world. And finally, they refuse to present credible evidence for their theory, and insist that the evidence used by historians isn’t valid.

Mythicists can be every bit as dogmatic as fundamentalist Christians, knowing with absolute certainty that they are “right”. They decide what they want to believe, and then ignore everything that disagrees with their belief, and chastise everyone who believes differently. That makes them fundamentalists.

Who are the mythicists scholars?

Mythicism is such an extreme example of a fundamentalist belief that it doesn’t enjoy the support of even a few hundred scholars: it enjoys the “support” (if you can call it that) of only about six, and that’s stretching it. Three of the mythicist scholars are Christians! Mythicists often mistakenly put forward the view that mythicist scholars are atheists as justification for their view, well I’ve got news for you guys: Thomas L Brodie and Thomas L Thompson are Roman Catholic theologians, scholars, and mythicists! What on earth are you guys going to say next – that I’m dishonest and made this up? No – read their bios, they both identify themselves as Christians, and Brodie is a priest. Tom Harpur who passed away this year was an ordained Anglican priest, journalist, theologian and scholar. He’s no longer living, so the third scholar I’m counting is of course Robert M Price.

Brodie is a well qualified and respected New Testament scholar. However, he has held his mythicist belief since before he studied to be a theologian and scholar. He puts forward the view that the gospels are patched together from existing Old Testament stories to create a new narrative, and his evidence are parallels that he identifies from the Old Testament. The methods that he used have been highly criticised by his peers including other mythicists as being wrong. Which isn’t surprising since those are the methods that convinced him before he studied to be a scholar, and goes right to the very hart of fundamentalism: that fundamentalists insist upon using their own questionable methods. He also flat-out denies all historical evidence for Jesus outside of the New Testament, and denies there was an oral tradition before the gospels. He believes Acts of the Apostles is a literary creation as well. His peers have pointed out that he lacks evidence to support his theory, and after 40 years you would think he could have come up with some decent evidence if it existed.

The late Tom Harpur put forward the view that the gospels were patched together from ancient pagan mythologies. I know, this is a direct contradiction of Brodie’s theory – contradicting each other’s theories is actually a common trait amongst mythicist scholars! Harpur was a fully qualified New Testament scholar, also well qualified in classics, and yes he held a teaching position. Harper claimed that the second or third century church forged all the scriptures, and then covered up all the evidence. The methods used in his investigation have been highly criticised by his peers. And like most other mythicists, other mythicists criticised his theory as well. Also, Egyptologists rejected his assertions that parts of the gospels were based on Egyptian etymology.

Thompson is a Old Testament scholar, and puts forward the view that Jesus is so enriched in mythology that he can’t be shown to have existed, at least not from the canonical gospels. Ehrman has criticised him for lacking expertise in New Testament studies. Thompson has not put forward a case regarding the remaining evidence outside of the gospels, which include the letters of Paul, Acts of the Apostles, the other New Testament writings, Annals by Tacitus, and Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus. Furthermore he denies that he believes Jesus not to have existed, his belief is what some people call “soft mythicism”.

The late Dorothy Milne Murdock was a questionably qualified classicist who put forward the view that Jesus and the gospels were based on Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and other mythologies. Her website is still up if you wish to check. Her methods have been highly criticised by her peers, including Robert Price and Richard Carrier (two fellow mythicists). Ehrman found numerous factual errors and assertions made in her book and said “Mythicists of this ilk should not be surprised that their views are not taken seriously by real scholars, mentioned by experts in the field, or even read by them.” (Ehrman, 2012). She was also a conspiracy theorist. I say she was questionably qualified because while she had a bachelors degree in classics, she did not work as a professional historian or hold a teaching position. I only use her as an example of the questionably qualified “scholars”, I’m not going into greater detail of others such as Earl Doherty, as I don’t think they should be counted when discussing the number of active mythicist scholars.

The late George Albert Wells who died in January of this year was a professor of German and not a bible scholar. Wells has certainly been the single most influential mythicist of our generation, having written several books putting forward his position that Jesus did not exist. He is also the only mythicist worth taking seriously, given that he accrued support from other mythicist scholars. Wells was not a New Testament scholar, and (as is becoming the overarching theme) his peers criticised the methods that he used to obtain his conclusions. But in the 1990’s he rightly became convinced of the Q document hypothesis, and from then until the day he died he believed Jesus to be a historical person shifting to a being a “soft mythicist”. He changed his view when new information was brought to light that disproved his theory, which is what any good investigator should do.

Robert M Price describes himself as a Christian atheist. He’s a New Testament scholar, a former Baptist minister, a professor of textual criticism, and a theologian – he’s very well qualified. He is agnostic on the historicity of Jesus, claiming that the evidence is insufficient. A claim as already pointed out, rejected by all non-mythicist scholars of antiquity. Furthermore he rejects the authenticity of the Pauline epistles and is agnostic on the historicity of Paul of Tarsus, which even other mythicists like Carrier think is absurd. In arriving at his position Price either refuses to use or ignores whole methods commonly used in ancient studies. Price’s view that the “evidence is insufficient” is the one most often put forward by atheists who think that Jesus was not a real historical figure, despite the fact that he lacks the support of other mythicist scholars, and despite the fact mythicists usually go way further than his agnosticism when attempting to prosecute their fundamentalist argument.

Hector Avalos is “agnostic” on the historicity of Jesus. He’s a New Testament scholar, former Pentecostal preacher, and currently a professor of religious studies. Going on that article he wrote, he doesn’t seem to believe in textual criticism which is a textbook fundamentalist trait!! Textual criticism is how we know which books Paul really wrote, and whether or not there have been edits, such as 2 Corinthians which is believed to be a composite of Pauline letters rather than a single letter. His views are actually very similar to Robert Price, and like Price he says he’s agnostic on the historicity of Jesus. Which is surprising since in his actually published academic books he doesn’t challenge the historicity of Jesus. Unlike Price, he’s never denied that Paul of Tarsus was a historical first-century Apostle who wrote several letters including Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians. Unlike Price he’s quite anti-religious.

Finally, there is Richard Carrier and Raphael Lataster. I know I said I wouldn’t discuss any further questionably qualified scholars, but given that Carrier is by far the loudest mythicist on the planet we can’t leave him out. Lataster is currently a PhD candidate and does hold a teaching position at the University of Sydney, making him somewhat qualified. Carrier is qualified in ancient history and classics, he’s an atheist, a Taoist, and has never held a teaching position. All Lataster’s books including the one he co-wrote with Carrier are self-published, and Carrier’s books are published with populist non-academic publishers a fact that has been widely pointed out by his critics. So I really don’t want to give the impression that they’re qualified on this – because they aren’t – but nevertheless Carrier is cited more than any other mythicist scholar by atheists who are on the mythicist bandwagon. I really don’t know why people take him seriously.

Anyway, I do want to be very specific here. Carrier uses something called the Bayes’ theorem to test the hypothesis that Jesus was historical, and then claims that it proves that the historicity of Jesus is improbable. No other historian of the ancient world uses the Bayes’ theorem, and every scholar who has bothered to comment on it has said the same thing: it’s not the right tool to test the historicity of ancient people! Let me repeat it, the Bayes’ theorem is not a valid historical method to test questions pertaining to historical people or events. Carrier also emphatically rejects the contemporary methods use by historians! Carrier has shown no interest in studying the mythicist theories put forward by others claiming that all other mythicist theories are wrong (source), and his theory has been strongly criticised by other mythicists who state that his “methods are terrible” (source). As pointed out in that link, not even considering the evidence and opinions put forward by others would be akin to a biologist coming up with his own theory of Evolution, all the while refusing to read or even acknowledge the work by Darwin and Mendel. Many of the “facts” he cites in support of his theory have been shown to be wrong, or based on a reading of ancient literature that is rejected by his peers in ancient history and classics.

So there you have it. All the major mythicists scholars. I would question whether we should count Avalos and Lataster in particular, so really there are just three or four qualified mythicist scholars depending on whether we count Carrier or not. As pointed out by Ehrman below, they are not seen as credible by the “real scholars”. It’s important to note that not all mythicist scholars are fundamentalists, although Carrier definitely is. And that Price, Brodie, and Thompson are all respected scholars. The mythicist argument commonly seen across the internet is purely a denialist and fundamentalist one: they won’t look at evidence, they aren’t interested in what the experts say, and they don’t care what are the right methods to use to solve these questions. Sure you can come up with a new method to assess evidence, and professionals do that, but what they don’t do is come up with a new method and simultaneously claim that all existing historical methods are wrong and that only their way of thinking can be trusted.

Are we done? I think we’re done.


Final word

Credits to Bart Ehrman, Larry Hurtado, and Michael Shermer, I used quite a lot of their original thoughts when researching this topic, as well as a lot of my own. This post took an unbelievable amount of time and research to write what is essentially on a topic not even worth discussing. I have undoubtedly made some errors in this post, so please fact check it for me and let me know if you notice anything that needs improvement.

And on that note I’ll quote Ehrman:

Transcript:

Q. “I can’t see evidence archaeology or history for historicity”.

A. “Yeah, well I do. That’s why I wrote the book. There is a lot of evidence. There is so much evidence that – I know in the crowds you all run with it’s commonly thought that Jesus did not exist. Let me tell you once you get outside of your conclave there is nobody who – this is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity. It is not an issue. There is no scholar in any College, or University, in the Western World who teaches classics, ancient history, new testament, early Christianity, any related field who doubts that Jesus existed.

“Now, that is not evidence. That is not evidence. Just because everybody thinks so doesn’t make it evidence. But if you want to know about the theory of evolution versus the theory of creationism and every scholar in every reputable institution in the world thinks & believes in evolution, it may not be evidence but if you have a different opinion you better have a pretty good piece of evidence yourself.

“The reason for thinking that Jesus existed is because he is abundantly attested in early sources. That’s why. And I give the details in my book. Early and independent sources indicate certainly that Jesus existed. One author that we know about knew Jesus’s brother, and knew Jesus’s closest disciple Peter. He’s an eyewitness to both Jesus’s closest disciple and his brother.

“So, I’m sorry, I respect your disbelief but if you want to go where the evidence goes I think that atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because frankly it makes you look foolish to the outside world. If that’s what you’re going to believe you just look foolish. You are much better off going with historical evidence and arguing historically rather than coming up with the theory that Jesus didn’t exist.” – Bart Ehrman.


“The mythicist position is not seen as intellectually credible in my field (I’m using euphemisms here; you should see what most of my friends *actually* say about it….) – no one that I know personally (I know a *lot* of scholars of New Testament, early Christianity, and so on) takes it at *all* seriously as a viable historical perspective (this includes not just Christians but also Jews, agnostics, atheists – you name it), and my colleagues sometimes tell me that I’m simply providing the mythicists with precisely the credibility they’re looking for even by engaging them. It’s a good point, and I take it seriously.

“In that connection I should say that I can understand how someone who hasn’t spent years being trained in the history of early Christianity might have difficulty distinguishing between serious scholarship that is accepted by experts as being plausible (even when judged wrong) and the writings of others that, well, is not. But experts obviously don’t have that problem, and the mythicists simply are not seen as credible. They don’t like that, and they don’t like it when it someone points it out, but there it is.

“The other reason for staying out of the fray is that some of the mythicists are simply unpleasant human beings – mean-spirited, arrogant, ungenerous, and vicious. I just don’t enjoy having a back and forth with someone who wants to rip out my jugular. So, well, I don’t. (They also seem — to a person – to have endless time and boundless energy to argue point after point after point after point after point. I, alas, do not.)”Bart Ehrman.

 

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