What’s the deal with mythicists?

Aractus 22, November, 2016

Before we begin, please view this short 18 second clip:

Bart Ehrman. Video © Mythicist Milwaukee, 2016.

As Bart says above and will wholeheartedly agree, I don’t think Christians are foolish. There are many types of atheists, and again as Bart puts it, some are atheist fundamentalist, every bit as bad as a fundamental Christian. This is kind of where the mythicist belief has crept in, and I will agree with Bart on that as well. Where we are different is that I am not agnostic on Yahweh – I am convinced that he does not exist as a real physical entity, and exists only in mythology.

The tendency to gravitate towards beliefs on the extremes like mythicism is typical of inter-group bias. It’s no different to what happens within religions. People think that it sound like an intelligent argument – but that’s largely because they’re not historians and don’t know how to evaluate ancient literary evidence. It’s also because they don’t understand the answer to the question “why was Jesus special if he was an ordinary man?” I think Jesus of Nazareth was a special person, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

Mythicism is not taken seriously in scholarly circles. As an atheist, attaching yourselves to these outlandish claims makes all of us atheists look like closed-minded tinfoil-hat wearing nut cases. Despite this Bart recently agreed to debate one of the two prominent mythicist scholars – Robert Price. Bob did not appear up to the task frankly, he did not so much engage in a debate, rather he gave an overview of why he doubted the historicity of Jesus and then concluded by saying it was on a knife’s edge and could be disproved any time with a “new discovery”. Bob appears to have his beliefs and to be set in them – as is the case in fact with all mythicist scholars. You’d have to be joking to say that Richard Carrier doesn’t have a vested interest, and Thomas Brodie has held the same mythicist belief from before he even studied to become a scholar and a priest. Brodie is unique in being a devout Catholic Priest convinced that Jesus didn’t exist – which I hope shows that this belief is not unique to atheists.

So what then is the evidence?

The primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus are the four Christian gospels. Secondary to that are the genuine epistles of Paul. And thirdly there is the Epistle of James. That’s it in a nutshell.

The Epistle of James is often overlooked, it wasn’t even mentioned by Bart in his recent debate (even though he mentions the SotM). Yet the Epistle of James is unique in that the author knows of the Sermon on the Mount, and uses its teachings prior to the SotM being published in Matthew, but knows about almost nothing else found in the synoptic gospels.

So what makes Jesus special?

Contrary to what Christians think, Jesus was not a perfect man. However he appears to emphasise with marginalised, stigmatised, and low-status people so much so that scholars are convinced that Jesus came from a poor family! The interesting thing though is that the gospels do not ever say that Mary and Joseph were poor, and the nativities that paint them as being so are not considered historical events. For evidence though that perhaps they were in fact well off let’s compare Joseph to Paul of Tarsus. Joseph was said to be a builder, in Nazareth, where there would have been plenty of work for him. Paul is said to be a tentmaker, and the book of Acts makes it pretty clear he is well off as he can afford to rent a house out of his own pocket while under house arrest, as well as employ a full time secretary, for two whole years leading up to his presumed execution. Now I’m no expert in classics, but it appears to me that Paul was under house arrest because he could afford to rent his house – if he couldn’t he would have been placed in a Roman prison of some kind. It also appears to me that if tentmakers were wealthy people, then likely the same would be true for carpenters.

This at least gives us some insight into Jesus’s background. He wasn’t from a dirt-poor family – even if carpenters in Nazareth were not wealthy people, they still would have been well off as their service was in demand at that time in history. They weren’t lowly fishermen after all. The other thing that suggests to us that Jesus wasn’t poor as scholars assume, is the fact that he clearly could read the Hebrew scriptures for himself. This is demonstrated clearly when Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth, reads from Isaiah, and is rejected and chased out of town. This event is considered historical by scholars. And it is generally assumed that the poor in ancient world were illiterate.

So Jesus’s empathy with people of low social status is remarkable – as is some of his teachings. And in particular you will not find a better example of this than the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In modern day terms it would be like giving a parable of the “Good Jihadist”. The other thing Jesus did not like was the religious leaders exploiting the laity. This is possibly what motivated him to perform his own healing ceremonies – which the gospels paint as being very popular. Although you may scoff at the idea of faith healings, the fact is that Jesus offered these healings to people like lepers who no one else would. And even today just offering people prayer can be very powerful for believers.

So I think it’s a shame there are people that doubt the existence of demonstrably good people like Jesus of Nazareth, simply because they want to be right. Jesus did exactly the same thing in his day that atheists like us do today – he challenged the religious authorities of his day. He disputed their beliefs, and boldly held his own – even in the face of oppression. If Jesus were alive today he would have made a terrific atheist!

2 comments on “What’s the deal with mythicists?”

  • Jim says:

    :-) You say, “This is demonstrated clearly when Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth, reads from Isaiah, and is rejected and chased out of town. This event is considered historical by scholars.” — There are scholars, and I’m thinking Hector Avalos here, and others, who doubt the historicity of Nazareth! In the verse you allude to here, the crowd wants to throw Jesus off a cliff. Look at modern-day Nazareth. It’s in a valley. The verse said it had a synagogue and that the synagogue drew a crowd, but there are no contemporary references to this place by Philo or Josephus, etc. I lean toward the mythicist arguments because the Gospels appear to be created out of whole cloth. Evidence for this is the 2nd ending of the Book of Mark, the pericope adulterae being added perhaps CENTURIES after the fact, etc. The two divergent genealogies of Joseph, and truthfully, the pure impossibility for a 4000-year-old genealogie to survive the Deluge, the Exodus, 40 years of wandering in the sand, captivities of Egypt and Babylon, countless wars with Hittites, Amalekites, Canaanites, etc. Who would have started such a project and why? Adam certainly hadn’t invented language, papyrus, ink, quills, etc. Did Noah have a genealogy back to Adam on the ark that his offspring took with them? No, there was no written Hebrew in his day either. So, someone has to be remembering all these people in their head as the genealogy is passed down orally, generation to generation. Wouldn’t have someone like Abraham had his handful with sheep and goats and mending his tent, and putting up with a barren wife, etc. Who was going to maintain this precious document? Once it became known that the Messiah was going to hail from a particular tribe, wouldn’t every Jewish parent try to keep a genealogy just in case their son was the progenitor of the son who was the progenitor of the son who… {on and on} …fathers the Messiah? Is there any surviving records to show this? If they made it 4000 years from Adam to Jesus, why not just 2000 more from then till now? Because it’s frigging impossible! How far back can you trace your lineage with modern libraries, computers, research services, and standardized file protocols? Jesus was a myth is the EASIEST part of the Bible to believe!

    • Aractus says:

      Hi Jim,

      Regarding the historicity of Nazareth I point you to this 2009 new report. Following that, Ehrman has contacted the chief archaeologist as reported on his blog, who confirmed the news report. From the report, newer ruins have been built on top of the older ruins which is not unusual, but makes excavations more difficult since each layer needs to be preserved. With city sized areas these can form Tells, often with more than a dozen layers of occupancy. What we can say for certain is that a house that was in ancient Nazareth has been excavated and is consistent with the time of Jesus.

      The other issue that the extreme scepticism on your part and that of Mythicists brings up is that the explanation that there was no Nazareth at the time of Jesus is more problematic than the explanation that there was. The gospel writers appear to downplay Nazareth, both the Luke and Matthew’s gospels instead put his birthplace in Bethlehem. But, despite this he is consistently called a Nazorean and a Galilean throughout the canonical gospels.

      Much of the rest of your post is irrelevant to this discussion, and follows a false-association fallacy. I.e. because X didn’t happen, neither did Y or Z. I.e. The fact that the Patriarchs including Moses are mythological figures rather than historical figures does not mean that Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus are as well.

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