Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Papa Joe pontificates on Jesus Mythicism

James McGrath has a new chum who has joined the anti-mythicism chorus, none other than GCI 'Pastor General for Life' Joe Tkach Jr. Now I respect (though I don't always agree with) James' opinion on this subject, after all he has the 'cred' to speak out on the topic. But Joe?

In any case you can read the PG/President's thoughts for yourself on El Presidente's weekly missive. The mighty theologian drags out quotes from Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius, all of which were written long after Jesus' death and are somewhat dubious anyway. Nothing new there. Joe also chucks in brief references to F.F. Bruce, C.S.Lewis and I. Howard Marshall just so we all know he's firmly in the evangelical mainstream (as if that's a good thing!) More surprisingly he calls in a quote from Bishop Spong to bolster his argument.

Any mythicist worth their weight can easily debunk Joe on the points he raises, this is territory that has been visited and revisited ad nauseam. Not that I'm nailing my flag to the mythicist position. Hey, who really knows? Jesus' existence as "the man from Nazareth" and the "stranger from Galilee" is based on probability rather than any rock solid evidence. Despite what you may have heard from blowhards like Joe, the gospels are anything but eyewitness accounts.

To read the article that in all likelihood set Joe frantically pounding his Word Processor - or perhaps his ghost writer did the hard yards - then click across to the December 18 Washington Post article by Raphael Lataster. This guy at least knows the parameters of the discussion. An excerpt.
All we have are later descriptions of Jesus’ life events by non-eyewitnesses, most of whom are obviously biased. Little can be gleaned from the few non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, with only Roman scholar Josephus and historian Tacitus having any reasonable claim to be writing about Jesus within 100 years of his life. And even those sparse accounts are shrouded in controversy, with disagreements over what parts have obviously been changed by Christian scribes (the manuscripts were preserved by Christians), the fact that both these authors were born after Jesus died (they would thus have probably received this information from Christians), and the oddity that centuries go by before Christian apologists start referencing them.
Sorry Joe. Again, the evidence is thin on the ground and humility is called for. I rather think on balance that there is an historical core to the Jesus accounts, but it's best to keep a finger grip on such conclusions.

You don't of course need to be a literalist to appreciate the depths of Christmas story - in fact wooden literalism probably just gets in the way. But false assurances and blatant apologetics are less than helpful. So no, I'm not in favour of 'retiring' Christmas because of the imaginative elements (something you don't need to be a mythicist to concede).

But I do think unelected President for Life Tkach should retire. Should have done so years (decades!) ago. He's way out of his depth.

Happy holidays to all!


  1. While I appreciate the mention, I'm not sure that there is any significance when religious people happen upon a conclusion for dogmatic reasons and scholars for reasons of evidence and investigation, and it happens to be the same conclusion.

    I was unimpressed by Lataster's article - although I was very impressed by your spelling of his name! :-)

    1. Oops! Correction made.

      I'm not convinced that someone who reaches a correct conclusion through the wrong process deserves any credit. We can all take shots in the dark. As for evidence and investigation, well, we're not dealing with scientific formulae here. History is reconstruction and that involves hypotheses which can be disconfirmed - as you know far better than me. My lay assessment FWIW is that probably a historical Jesus existed in some form, but obviously very different from the character in the gospel narratives. That Jesus is largely fictive. Could he be completely fictive? Well... Lataster's article is a good place to start a discussion being a long way off from the likes of Dorothy Murdock (Acharya S) and a past generation of mythicists who, like a past generation of highly regarded biblical scholars, don't hold up well today.

      Believe me, if you knew of Tkach's track record you would want him cuddling up as any kind of ally!

      BTW I'm really impressed too - by the speed of your response!

    2. I'm curious. I've been out of touch for so long. What has been Joe Tkach's "track record" -- where can I read about this? I asked in another comment (not sure if it went through, though) if the CGI is still as authoritarian as the WCG used to be or is it only the external teachings they have changed?

    3. Best recent source I can think of is David V. Barrett's The Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God. Oxford University Press 2013. Joe isn't Elmer Gantry, but as far as I know he still has the organisation pretty much sewn up.

      I didn't get your earlier comment, but I did stumble on your very kind posting yesterday which I've mentioned in today's piece ;-)

    4. Probably Gary Lenard's Banned by HWA blog is the go to place for all things "Armstrong splinter groups".

  2. Tkach: "Once, CS Lewis had doubts, but when he read the Gospels, he was moved to believe". wow!
    Proof that it doesn't take brains to get rich from religion in California.
    Wife Tammy also researches, writes (and takes another six figure salary?)

  3. "most of whom are obviously biased" surely in this day and age we can take it for granted that ALL sources are biased, the more useful question is how is this source biased, and what impact does this have on our discussion. In such a quest for a historical Jesus surely sources whose biases are obvious are the most useful?