• McGrath’s Mythicist Gaffes

    The following is a dialogue between McGrath and I that he included on his blog. I suggested that Paul, when referring to James as a “brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19) meant this in the same sense that Christ is “the firstborn of many brethren” (translation: all Christians are “brothers of the Lord”). In response, McGrath wrote,
    “If so, then what would it indicate if Paul singled out James as ‘the brother of the Lord’ in a letter in which he also mentions other Christians?”

    To which I responded:

    Paul did that to distinguish James in 1:19 from James the apostle. Alternately, if we assume that James the apostle was the “James, brother of the Lord” mentioned in 1:19, then a biological interpretation is falsified by the fact that Luke-Acts knows of no biological brother James who held an active role in the church.

    McGrath again:

    “This is typical of mythicists – being satisfied with any counterclaim without paying attention to or even giving much thought to the details. In this example, for instance, isn’t it obvious to everyone else, and not only to me, that if ‘brother of the Lord’ means ‘Christian’ then it is no more useful as a way of contrasting one Christian James from another who happens to be an apostle, than it is useful as a way of distinguishing between the James and Peter mentioned in Galatians?”

    I’ve found McGrath’s words confusing, but if he means ‘why didn’t Paul call Peter the brother of the Lord?’ That would be easy: 1) Peter and James don’t have the same name, thus there is less reason for a distinction, and 2) Peter may have been a ‘brother of the Lord’ but he was not merely a ‘brother of the Lord,’ he was clearly a high-ranking leader of the church, so calling him a ‘brother of the Lord’ would be like a talk show host introducing the pope as merely a “Christian.”

    Responding to someone in the comments section who commented on the many possibilities mythicists have concerning Galatians 1:19, McGrath’s circular reasoning becomes apparent:

    McGrath: “then Other options are indeed possible. That’s where the question of evidence comes in… 😉 We have early sources that are close to Paul’s time which view Jesus as a human being with human siblings rather than a celestial figure, much less a purely celestial one.”
    When McGrath is asked how he knows that the gospels refer to a historical man instead of symbolic myths about a celestial being, he refers to Paul. When McGrath is asked how he knows that the Pauline letters refer to a historical man instead of a celestial being, he refers to the gospels. If you want to know why I feel free to disregard the insistent opinions of ‘experts’ who study Christian origins, look no further. Their reasoning is so frequently poor and transparently circular that it is obvious we shouldn’t take them at their word on everything.
    That brings me to Jonathan Bernier. He says,

    “Carrier himself lacks credentials in New Testament studies, however, which is not reason to reject his argument, but does leave one wondering why it is that adequately credentialed New Testament scholars almost universally reject the mythicist position.”

    I don’t know the answer to that question. That’s the problem. So far, Larry Hurtado, James McGrath, and a few others have taken a swing at it only to fall flat on their face, leaving me with no idea why they reject it.

    Jonathan Bernier, like other anti-mythicists, also isn’t very good at logic:

    “The mythicist narrative rests essentially upon a conspiracy theory, namely that New Testament scholars are beholden to disciplinary pressure such that they are unable to see or speak the truth, but that just begs the question by supposing that mythicism is true.”

    First, if you want a good look at how Christian faith assumptions permeate new testament scholarship, look no further than Bart Ehrman’s Forged. From the book’s description: “[T]his book takes on an idea widely accepted by biblical scholars: that writing in someone else’s name was common practice and perfectly okay in ancient times. Ehrman argues that it was not even then considered acceptable—hence, a forgery.” Why did scholars think it was “perfectly acceptable” to write in someone else’s name for so long? Pro-Christian bias. It is not to be found in the ancient evidence. If you can understand that without positing a conspiracy theory, but rather as the shared biases of believers, who are naturally in the majority in biblical studies, then you can understand the Christ myth theory without positing a conspiracy theory.

    Second, it isn’t ‘begging the question’ to see bias in NT scholarship, for that is not a conclusion deduced from the Christ myth theory, it’s just an evident fact the more you look at the field. NT Wright’s book – which argued that a dead body came back to life and that anyone who didn’t conclude the same was a ‘Herod,’ – was the subject of a full issue in The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. But that same journal hasn’t been even slightly interested in the question of whether its object of study is even a real thing!

    Larry Hurtado was asked a question regarding whether there is a ‘pre-Christian Jesus’ in Philo:

    “Yes, in another of his writings (NB: contra Carrier, not in the De Confusione passage), Philo can refer to the Logos by the labels you cite. Indeed, he can even refer to the Logos as ‘a second god’ (deuteros theos), but then quickly qualifies this with ‘so to speak.’ The Logos is an ‘archangel’ (remembering that for ancient Greek speakers the word ‘angelos’ = messenger, or spokesman), for the Logos is the expression of the ineffable biblical deity toward the world/creation. One has to study carefully the multitude of Philo’s references to the Logos to put it all together, for he was a complex writer. But the Logos isn’t really a separate ontological being, like we imagine an ‘angel/archangel.’ And, contra Carrier, nowhere does Philo refer to an archangel named ‘Jesus.'”

    Who does Hurtado think he’s refuting by pointing out a difference between Philo and Christianity? That would only be relevant if somebody out there was arguing that Christianity directly stole everything it believed from Philo. Instead, Philo and Christianity both ‘inherited’ their theology from a common ideological ‘ancestor,’ a fact which is undeniable given their deep similarities. Hurtado himself writes:

    I identify ancient Jewish traditions of what I call “divine agency”, distinguishing three types:  (1) personified divine attributes, such as Wisdom and Philo’s Logos; (2) “exalted patriarchs”–Enoch, Moses, and others; and (3) “principal angels” including Michael and others.  I contend that these all are variant forms of what we can call “chief agent” tradition, in which God is pictured as having a particular figure acting as God’s plenipotentiary or vizier.  I further propose that the early christological statements appear to portray Jesus as God’s unique agent, and so likely drew upon these traditions.

    The heavens and Earth were thought to be mirror images of one another (read Hebrews, see what I mean) such that there was a heavenly double of everything on Earth and vice versa. Given that context, if there is an earthly Joshua who builds the temple of the Lord and serves as high priest (Zechariah 6) then there must also a heavenly Joshua who builds the temple of the Lord (“I will destroy this temple and in three days raise it up!”) who will serve as high priest of this heavenly temple (Lo and behold: Hebrews 8:1-2).

    So, Hurtado butchered Carrier’s argument by assuming the Christians borrowed directly from Philo, when Carrier’s argument only assumes that Philo’s and early Christian theologies stem from a common tradition, a conclusion that Hurtado shares and has even published in support of! Unbelievable.

    Lastly, I’ll finish with another quote from McGrath:

    “For atheists to try to use mythicism as though it were an argument against Christianity makes no sense.”

    It’s funny how anti-mythicists nowadays spend more of their time wading into personal attacks on mythicists, extensive psychological speculations about why they hold the beliefs they do, non-stop reminders that all the “real scholars” believe it, but ancient evidence and its interpretation is practically an afterthought. Moreover, this whole accusation is largely false, I personally do not use this as an argument against Christianity: I have debated the resurrection without suggesting Jesus was mythical and written a chapter in my book Atheism and Naturalism refuting common apologetical arguments without once mentioning the Christ myth theory except to make clear that my arguments did not assume it was true. neither do any of the more prominent scholarly mythicists. Thomas Brodie sure doesn’t, neither does Robert M. Price (“There could be a god but no Jesus or a Jesus but no God” and sees his own views on the mythological origins of Christianity as a “working hypothesis” or a “speculation,” with the qualification that “it’s all speculation,” in other words: he’s saying his thesis is at worst no more speculative than anyone else’s). Carrier himself routinely assumes Jesus was a historical figure when debating Christian apologists.

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    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I used to blog at Answers in Genesis BUSTED! I took the creationist organization Answers in Genesis to pieces. I am the author of Atheism and Naturalism and Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus. I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, and Skepticism in general.

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    1. “When McGrath is asked how he knows that the gospels refer to a historical man instead of symbolic myths about a celestial being, he refers to Paul.” I don’t see that this happened. It’s obvious Mark means for the reader to understand it as talking about events in Palestine involving human beings.

      1. Mark, Ancient context is very important; one cannot ‘read the bible like a newspaper.’ Here’s a brief intro to symbolism in the gospels:
        http://aigbusted.blogspot.com/2012/01/gospels-tell-you-so-what.html

        Matthew’s genealogy is even symbolic:
        https://books.google.com/books?id=E4Ji4v7Z9UEC&pg=PA104&dq=Matthew%27s+symbolic+genealogy&hl=en&sa=X&ei=nLu0U82HKqbL8AGJ_4HQDQ&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=Matthew's%20symbolic%20genealogy&f=false

        A popularized, easy-to-read account of the symbolic genealogy may be found here: https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/whats-the-deal-with-matthews-genealogy/

        1. Your claim though was that McGrath argued in a circle, but you didn’t cite any evidence. Maybe it exists. It is by the way not arguing in a circle to use two pieces of evidence – here Mark and Paul – to argue for claims about each that couldn’t be established separately.

          1. That isn’t what McGrath does: Both mythicism and historicism compete to account for both the early epistles and the gospels, with historicism claiming that Epistles refer to a human figure (albeit strangely) and that the gospels work out the details, whereas mythicism would say that the Epistles refer to a celestial being and that the gospels do, too (earthly stories were often interpreted as veiled references to celestial beings and events). So, no argument from ‘convergence’ can be used.

            1. McGrath (now bolded):

              I should also perhaps mention what an individual that I recently had to ban here sent me by email.
              […]
              See also the chain of bait-and-switch reasoning recently at Vridar on the same topic, with no attention to details, dates, or even references to or citations of primary sources where those would be crucial.
              […]
              [Comment: McGrath] Other options are indeed possible. That’s where the question of evidence comes in… 😉 We have early sources that are close to Paul’s time which view Jesus as a human being with human siblings rather than a celestial figure, much less a purely celestial one.

              Primary sources?
              Close to Paul’s time?

            2. Gullotta (2017) now bolded:

              [Per Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus] The following chapters deal with the sources themselves, with Chapter 7 briefly reviewing all the primary sources from the epistles of Paul, the canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, as well as the extra-biblical evidence. —(On Richard Carrier’s Doubts, p. 14)

    2. Covington: “The heavens and Earth were thought to be mirror images of one another…”

      Charles, Robert Henry (1900). The Ascension of Isaiah: Translated from the Ethiopic Version, Which, Together with the New Greek Fragment, the Latin Versions and the Latin Translation of the Slavonic, is Here Published in Full. A. & C. Black.

      [T]here I saw Sammael [sic] and his hosts, and there was great fighting therein. …as above so on the earth [below] also; for the likeness of that which is in the firmament is here on the earth. (p. 48)

      1. Per Carrier (16 December 2017). “On the Historicity of Jesus: The Daniel Gullotta Review”. Richard Carrier Blogs. Comment by Carrier (17 December 2017):

        [Per OHJ] I explain there (and document with abundant evidence) that the lowest level of heaven (called “the firmament”) was of corruption and death, and that there were copies of earthly things there as well—and in fact again in every level of heaven above that: at each level, the copies are more perfect; so, e.g., there is a temple on earth, a corrupt temple in the sky, an incorruptable temple in the first heaven; a more glorious incorruptable temple in the second heaven; and so on all the way to the most glorious incorruptable temple in the seventh heaven […] The first set of copies (in the firmament) had been corrupted by Satan and his demons, and were inhabited by them. Only the copies at higher levels were good.

        I prefer the term likeness (cf. “man was made in the image and likeness” of God – Genesis 1:26-27).

    3. Hurtado:

      Now in Philo’s thought (which, it appears, Carrier hasn’t researched adequately in the six years he devoted to his project), the Logos is not really a separate ontological being, not really an “archangel.”

      Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E.—40 C.E.) § Doctrine of the Logos in Philo’s Writings § The Angel of the Lord, Revealer of God @ http://www.iep.utm.edu/philo/

      Philo describes the Logos as the revealer of God symbolized in the Scripture (Gen. 31:13; 16:8; etc) by an angel of the Lord (Somn. 1.228-239; Cher. 1-3). The Logos is the first-born and the eldest and chief of the angels.

      The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) (ISSN 2161-0002) was founded in 1995 to provide open access to detailed, scholarly information on key topics and philosophers in all areas of philosophy.” @ http://www.iep.utm.edu/home/about/

    4. McGrath:

      [Per Jonathan Bernier] mythicists are really engaged in Christology, offering a reinterpretation of early Christian sources in a manner that is theological rather than historical.

      Ehrman (2012):

      [Some] mythicists are avidly antireligious. To debunk religion, then, one needs to undermine specifically the Christian form of religion. […] the mythicists who are so intent on showing that the historical Jesus never existed are not being driven by a historical concern. Their agenda is religious, and they are complicit in a religious ideology. They are not doing history; they are doing theology. —(Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 337f)

      1. Of course, the only people who would consider the Christ myth theory plausible would be non-Christians (notwithstanding odd exceptions like Thomas Brodie), practically every Christian would find this contradictory to their beliefs.

    5. Lataster, Raphael (14 December 2014). “Weighing up the evidence for the ‘Historical Jesus'”. The Conversation :

      Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.

      Dickson, John (24 December 2014). “It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas … Mythicism’s in the Air”. http://www.abc.net.au :

      Lataster has offered an academic contrivance, as he seeks to give respectability to what is known as “mythicism”
      […]
      no student – let alone an aspiring scholar – could get away with suggesting that Christians “ought not to get involved” in the study of the historical Jesus. This is intellectual bigotry and has no place in academia, or journalism. I would likewise fail any Christian student who suggested that atheists should not research Jesus because they have an agenda.

      I would like to know if a scholar does not hold some form of the Documentary hypothesis, Supplementary hypothesis or Fragmentary hypothesis.

      1. Lataster (2015):

        [T]he justification of agnosticism is already made obvious by consulting the people arguing for Jesus’ historical certainty. […] Simply peruse the sources for yourself. Do that, and also hear from the historicists how they ‘prove’ Jesus’ existence. […] If the case for Jesus is unconvincing, then agnosticism is already justified. —(Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists, pp. 25f)

        Covington: [Why New Testament scholars almost universally reject the mythicist position.] “I don’t know the answer to that question.”

        I do not know why agnosticism about the historicity of Jesus is not a credible conclusion?

    6. Pro-Christian bias is why some scholars that forgery was an innocent practice in ancient times? This conclusion is not drawn from Ehrman’s work, which doesn’t argue any such thing. This was derivative from the idea that some historians had concluded that ancient literary practice did not censure writing in someone elses name. Secondly, the vast majority of scholars, both Christian and non-Christian alike, applauded Ehrman when he demonstrated, from historical sources, that forgery was in fact censured. This was not a Christian issue, this was a scholarly issue. Armin D. Baum, who is a Christian, writes “In Bart Ehrman’s recent book on ancient pseudepigraphy, at least three central questions can be distinguished. First, Were pseudepigraphical texts written to deceive and were they regarded as deceptive by their readers? Ehrman gives a positive answer.1 His second question is, “Did forgers think that lying is something not only right, but divinely sanctioned?” (548). Ehrman’s answer is again positive, and there can be little doubt, I believe, that this is exactly what some of the ancient sources indicate.”
      Baum, Armin D. “Content and Form: Authorship Attribution and Pseudonymity in Ancient Speeches, Letters, Lectures, and Translations—A Rejoinder to Bart Ehrman.” Journal of Biblical Literature 136.2 (2017): 381-403.

      If Christian bias so greatly permeates New Testament scholarship, then how is it that Ehrman is considered one of the most distinguished historians in his field? Or how is it that John Dominic Crossan, a member of the Jesus Seminar, is the president of the Society of Biblical Literature? Or how is it that Rudolph Bultmann, a radical German critic, was literally the most influential New Testament scholar of all the 20th century, even beyond the likes of C.H. Dodd and F.F. Bruce? Is your evidence for this really a single issue (like 10 papers) being published in devotion to an important work? Was it similarly outrageous when the journal Harvard Theological Review devoted an entire issue to the debate concerning the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus Wife? Couldn’t it be that some journals think attention should be devoted to inspecting the methodology of new works which would clearly be very important if valid?

      1. “If Christian bias so greatly permeates New Testament scholarship, then how is it that Ehrman is considered one of the most distinguished historians in his field?”

        Bias does not = vast conspiracy with zero exceptions. Nontheless, far more typical than Ehrman are situations like Gerd Ludemann being fired for his rejection of the Christian Faith:
        https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/open-letter-on-behalf-of-gerd-ludemann-49.html
        I hardly need to mention such situations as Michael R. Licona being scapegoated for questioning the literal veracity of Matthew’s account of many people being resurrected at Christ’s death. There are many others, as David Fitzgerald documents in his “Jesus: Mything in Action” series.

        “Was it similarly outrageous when the journal Harvard Theological Review devoted an entire issue to the debate concerning the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus Wife?”

        Let me ask a question: Was there serious concern over whether that work was historically accurate (i.e. that Jesus actually had a wife)? Even if so, that only proves that if you’re willing to go to those lengths in the name of intellectual discussion of a wide range of possibility, then mythicism should definitely qualify for as much.

        “Couldn’t it be that some journals think attention should be devoted to inspecting the methodology of new works which would clearly be very important if valid?”

        That would most certainly apply to Carrier’s work, both in his application of Baye’s theorem and his interpretation of early Christian writings.

        1. For some reason, your responses do not appear in my notifications. Anyhow, your grave errors are just extraordinary. Your appeal to Ludemann is in fact self-refuting.

          Have you actually read what Ludemann got fired for? He not only argued against claims important to Christians, he used his scholarly position to attack Christianity directly. This is one thing he wrote:

          ‘the person of Jesus himself becomes insufficient as a foundation of faith once most of the New Testament statements about him have proved to be later interpretations by the community’

          Ludemann let his religious axe to grind get in the way of his scholarly profession. Whether or not this was an adequate reason for dismissal is beyond my ability to assess, but even the very link on infidels.org you link to is enough to dismiss your claim. Do you see how many scholars signed that letter? So many signed it that it really does crush the claim that there is a bias. And finally, no scholar fired Ludemann. The Church fired Ludemann. The Church had enormous power to dismiss people from their positions there, and it’s not surprising that the clergy, seeing Ludemann abuse his power to attack Christianity, dismissed him. So which scholar is exactly responsible for bias against Ludemann? Name the scholar. If you can’t, why can’t you?

          “Bias does not = vast conspiracy with zero exceptions”

          This seems to be an attempt to play around the facts. When shown overwhelming evidence of secularism in scholarship, as I just did, one simply claims that “i never said it’s a vast conspiracy”. Ugh, who cares?

          “I hardly need to mention such situations as Michael R. Licona being scapegoated for questioning the literal veracity of Matthew’s account of many people being resurrected at Christ’s death. There are many others, as David Fitzgerald documents in his “Jesus: Mything in Action” series.”

          I’m well aware of what happened to Licona. None of the people who dismissed Licona are actively engaged in scholarship. Again, Licona, like Ludemann, was dismissed by the clergy in his non-scholarly organization. And David Fitzgerald holds no credibility as everyone knows.

          “Let me ask a question: Was there serious concern over whether that work was historically accurate (i.e. that Jesus actually had a wife)?”

          What nonsense are you talking about? The Gospel of Jesus Wife would be an enormously important apocryphal document if authentic like the Gospel of Judas. Journals happen to occasionally publish issues devoted to important scholarly matters. What about that is confusing to you?

          “That would most certainly apply to Carrier’s work, both in his application of Baye’s theorem and his interpretation of early Christian writings.”

          There’s nothing particularly important about Carrier’s abuse of logic.

    7. I have to add one more comment. I will disclose my bias beforehand: I consider mythicism a great delusion. Anyhow, you write this:

      “To which I responded: Paul did that to distinguish James in 1:19 from James the apostle.”

      It flat out stuns me how badly mythicists read the Bible. They absorb every detail, every word, letter, a punctuation mark of Carrier, and yet this is written. I was going through a century old commentary that actually spotted the following fact:

      Galatians 1:19: but I did not see any other apostle **except** James the Lord’s brother.

      Paul says he did not see any other apostle EXCEPT James, which means Paul overtly says that James is an apostle here. Paul flat out calls James an apostle, and so the entire mythicist claim that Paul id distinguishing Peter an “apostle” from James “a mere brother” gets itself into a muddle. Paul says they are both apostles. There is no distinguishment in apostleship, and so the mythicist tirade must once again explain something. Both James and Peter were apostles, but **only** James was the “Lord’s brother”. Why is this?

      1. “Paul says he did not see any other apostle EXCEPT James, which means Paul overtly says that James is an apostle here.”

        Allow me to quote Galatians 1:18-19:
        “Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”

        When he says “I saw none of the other apostles” he is probably referring back to Cephas. Even if not, if James the apostle is one and the same as “James, the Lord’s brother” then there is still a problem with reading this as a biological reference, since Luke-Acts never refers to James the Apostle as having a biological relationship with Christ!

        1. To add a bit to what I was saying previously…

          “I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”

          I think you could read that as saying, “I stayed with Cephas [the apostle] and saw no other apostles, but I did see James, Lord’s brother [not an apostle, just an ordinary Christian].

          1. Tischendorf 8th Edition:
            ἕτερος δέ ὁ ἀπόστολος οὐ ὁράω εἰ μή Ἰάκωβος ὁ ἀδελφός ὁ κύριος
            Secondly now the apostles were absent, the only one present was James…

          2. You provide this translation:

            “Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”

            Three problems. For one, I already quoted Galatians. Two, you offer a novel translation than the one I provided, and it’s clearly troubling. Why is there a hyphen? There are no ‘–‘s in Greek, nor does the Greek grammar warrant that. Finally, that’s a clear minority translation when seeing all the different available translations of Galatians 1:19 on BibleHub. I’m simply using the translation most scholars use. Paul saw no apostle EXCEPT James, meaning that by this translation, James is an apostle. It’s quite nifty to see all of mythicism hang on one peculiar translation. Not surprising, of course.

            “Luke-Acts never refers to James the Apostle as having a biological relationship with Christ!”

            Ugh, maybe because James “the Apostle” (a phrase that never appears in Luke-Acts from what I know) is not the brother of Jesus. That James is the other James of the twelve disciples. There are two James’s in the New Testament, the first being one of the twelve, the second being the family member of Jesus (see Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56). Jesus having a brother named James is even known in non-Christian circles in the first century, see Josephus Antiquities of the Jews XX.9.1. So, since you cite Luke-Acts, why don’t you actually … listen to what Luke-Acts says? According to Luke-Acts, James “the Apostle” got martyred almost right away. So, according to Luke-Acts, by the time Paul was talking about his experiences in Galatians 1, James “the Apostle” was long dead. So……… that refutes this ridiculous interpretation of Galatians 1:19, it must be the brother because the disciple was dead. Craig Evans even mentioned this fact to Carrier in their debate, Carrier’s reply was “durrr Acts not reliable”.

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