Thursday, 25 December 2014

The latest HJ/Mythicist Stoush

Nothing quite stirs the waters among New Testament scholars as the suggestion that Jesus may not have existed. Raphael Lataster's piece in the Washington Post has led one of his former professors to come out swinging. You can read John Dickson's fulminations on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting) site.

G.S. Neil, racing to Lataster's defence, has crafted a response to the Dickson piece. I'll append it in full below. Do read both the Lataster and Dickson articles first though, or it won't make much sense.

What struck me about Dickson's rant is that in some key areas he doesn't actually seem to know all that much about the state of New Testament studies. He writes, for example:
[T]here are numerous idiosyncratic statements throughout Lataster's article which he passes off as accepted insights of historical study. For example, the claim that the Gospels are all "anonymous" is no more accurate than insisting that a modern biography is anonymous on the grounds that the biographer's name appears only on the front and back cover of the book not in the body of the work. Of course, the Gospel writers did not begin by writing, "I, Mark, now want to write about Jesus of Nazareth ..." But wherever we have a surviving front or back page of a Gospel manuscript, we find a superscript indicating the biographer's name, and there is absolute uniformity of that name: euaggelion kata Markon, euaggelion kata Lukan and so on.
Uh. Does the good prof. believe that the superscriptions indicate actual authorship? If so he's out on an academic limb himself. That's not "idiosyncratic" but thoroughly mainstream.

Then there are the misrepresentations about Lataster's argument which Neil points out. Add to that the nonsense comparing mythicism with "the anti-vaccination crowd"! It's never a good idea to write a rebuttal in the heat of the moment (unless it's a blog piece of course, which is a different kettle of fish entirely).

I don't think an intemperate piece like Dickson's will do his cause much good. Whatever relevant objections he might have made have been drowned in his own bile. Not a good look.

To read G.S. Neil's rejoiner... click!

Dickson claims Lataster “seeks to give respectability to what is known as ‘mythicism’.”  Actually, Lataster’s article does not conclude that mythicism is respectable in and of itself, nor a final answer to any historical question.  Rather, he uses some work by scholars on mythicism to raise a fair question of doubt.  Lataster’s final sentence: “In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable.”  That’s all.  To use a metaphor, Lataster has harvested fruit from the garden of mythicist research, but the garden is not his goal.  Dickson has presupposed a motive that just isn’t in the piece.  To a more objective reader, Lataster manages to make it respectable to question and will not walk away with a sudden respect for mythicism as a whole.

Dickson goes on to suggest that Lataster means to say Jesus went from a celestial figure to a historical one in the span of 10-20 years.  Lataster does no such math, not even by implication.  Lataster’s view of Paul’s writing (probably the earliest NT compositions) and theology would understand that Jesus is not yet historicized in the middle of the first century.  Referring to the later gospel accounts, he plainly says “These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events.”  So the article actually widens the possibility for movement from celestial figure to historical one to a window of at least 40 years, if conceding a “start” date of the death of the so-called historical figure.  If Jesus was, in fact (and it is not a fact), understood as a celestial figure prior to the human Jesus, the historicizing window expands.  The timeline for historicizing of a celestial figure should begin at the point when the celestial figure first appears, not when the “birth” of the human version appears. Even if using the shorter timeline, it should be said that Dickson’s example of Romulus and Remus’ historicizing “over the course of about 300 years” does not set a minimum standard for how long such a transformation actually requires.  On this point, Dickson attacks a straw man, presupposing Jesus’ historicity by using the “human” timeline and unfortunately ending his criticism with an exclamation point, raising a red flag for the reader that something other than disinterested defense of historical integrity is at stake for the critic.

The paragraph likening mythicists to the anti-vaccination “crowd” is somewhat useless.  Besides the odd analog (perhaps chosen for giving opportunity to use terms “outlier” and “conspiracy?), it’s just an ad hominem attack, which counters no argument at all.  Nowhere in Lataster’s article does he hint at any conspiracy.  Dickson rails, “This is precisely what Raphael does when with a wave of his hand he dismisses the apparently ‘atrocious methods’ of historians of Jesus.”  Lataster never calls those methods “atrocious,” (though he does call them dubious – big difference).  On the contrary, Lataster acknowledges that the “thing New Testament scholars seem to agree on is Jesus’ historical existence,” without calling such agreement a conspiracy.  But for readers who are moved by sensational labels and sweeping claims about what someone has written, Dickson will score on the conspiracy trope.

Lataster didn’t actually, himself, suggest that “that Christians ‘ought not to get involved’ as Dickson claims.  Dickson just distorts what was happening in that first paragraph.  Again, not useful and slightly alarming, considering this is a scholar who would ordinarily be expected to pick up on the tongue-in-cheek.  But this begins to appear to be no ordinary reading effort on Dickson’s part, whose teaching legacy is entangled a bit with this former student’s prominent publication in the Washington Post.

So far, Dickson’s points one and two fall short as compelling.  He does slightly better by actually addressing some content with respect to Paul, though makes two vital errors.  The first is by
conflating Lataster’s belief that the LETTERS of Paul overwhelmingly support a celestial figure Jesus with the idea that there is overwhelming support generally, in biblical studies.  These are two different things.  Lataster does not, in fact, suggest that there is such wide support in biblical studies – rather, is referring to the content within the letters of Paul, strictly, as compared to the gospels.  Dickson asserts that Lataster wrecks on the rocks of I Cor. 15:1-5, as though Paul credits appearances by Jesus to others as his source material.  He is not crediting those appearances as his source material, but is using them as corroboration of his own claim to vision of Jesus.  No wreckage there, unless it is Dickson’s ability to discern the difference between attribution and corroboration. 

Dickson attacks Lataster on characterizing the gospels as having un-named (Lataster doesn’t say “anonymous,” but this is splitting hairs) authors.  Dickson says “But wherever we have a surviving front or back page of a Gospel manuscript, we find a superscript indicating the biographer's name.”  It would be helpful for him to have added “alleged” in front of “biographer,” since even undergraduate theology students will be aware of the fact that the names attached to the texts as “biographers” are not to be taken as the certain authors – most likely, not.  Perhaps he has forgotten that even several of the letters that have Paul’s name attached to them are considered not to have been written by Paul.  As to the fact that  history has always relied on non-eyewitness and later recorders, this does not mitigate Lataster’s caution.  Instead, it simply reminds readers that any of the ancient historical accounts relying on such second-hand material must be taken with a grain of salt – any of them. The fact that “chronological distance” can actually “enhance” historical portraits is exactly the concern that Lataster (and others) have about the narrative.  Such enhancement does not necessarily mean better or more accurate, though it is certainly possible; just not a foregone conclusion.  Dickson simply fails to successfully draw down anything significant that Lataster actually said in the article regarding skepticism that arises from sources with an agenda that are hard to vet.

Dickson would do well to take his own advice: “There is just an urgent need for all of us to be more cautious before making (or accepting) grandiose claims.”  He thinks Lataster’s concluding statement is grandiose, which it is not.  Would that he might have actually spent words on answering more of Lataster’s claims instead of engaging in histrionics (there were several other openings for Dickson, if he wanted to seriously address the arguments).  It is arguably evident to a third-party reader that Dickson is playing a “scorched student” strategy to distance himself from any criticism about where Lataster might have done his learning.  Rather than preserving his credibility as an instructor, his emotional and careless response shines a light on his own exposure to bad marks and frankly, succeeds in making Lataster look better for having come through his influence with a better than average willingness to keep questioning the “settled” scholarship.  Fail.


  1. Jesus didn't exist because (1) perfect people who never make a mistake is an impossibility. (2) Real people living in CE weren't written about in BCE, because time travel is impossible.

  2. Jesus is a lot like Moses and King Arthur. In all three cases, I'm sure SOMEbody existed (or perhaps more than one person). And they did and said things, which were told in stories, and these stores grew and morphed over the years and at some point they were written down. Later the written stories were edited repeatedly to adhere to the changing religious orthodoxies over time, and VOILA! Now we have scriptures!

    1. I don't think so Skeptic...because, Paul, in Galatians says that he is preaching the same gospel as he was in the beginning (say around 32 AD, according to Bart Ehrman). There simply was not time for the stories to grow and morph over the years. Nope, they made it up "as is" from the beginning.

  3. Old timers (Casey) and mid-century Establishment scholars (McGrath, Hoffmann) go ballistic at the hint of the Jesus Myth Theory. Gen X (Lataster, Carrier) adapt quite well while the Gen Y 'millennial' atheist vanguard take it in stride. The Jesus Myth Theory is big on YouTube: I like "Truthsurge" and "Jesusneverxisted"(Ken Humphreys) videos. It has now even come to the attention of megadollar evangelists like Joseph Tkach who thinks he can dismiss it by cutting & pasting the usual line-up of weak 'Historicist' proof-texts: naïve, worried, desperate!

    The Establishment has a lot at stake: Christianity is used to control over 2 billion people, if it falls it will hasten the fall of Islam and Mormonism, another 1.5 billion who will lose their wacko delusions and become stable! How shall we handle this influx of rationality?

  4. When I was atheist or agnostic, I didn't have a problem with a member of the deity representing the good needle on the scale. But, I did have a huge problem with people co-opting that deity to promote and further their own sense of Utopia, and to enforce their agenda. My problem was not with Jesus, (to whom I referred in those days as a literary character) but with some of the small minded people claiming to be acting on His behalf.

    The fact is, even if we had 100% historic, archaeological, and scientific proof of Jesus' past existence, and time spent as a human being, there would still be great controversy over His teachings and what they might mean for each of us personally. There would still be charlatans, such as the ones who influenced our own lives, who exploit and utilize Jesus as their ultimate boogey man to enforce their agenda.

    Both real people (Simon Bolivar) and myths (Santa Clause) can be used as a source of extra power. Some use these to inspire the liberation of the soul and enhancement of life, while others exploit and enslave to further their own egos and agendas. In the field of sales, there is the sale of a physical, tangible good, and there is the sale of a concept. In the hands of a skilled professional, either the tangible or the conceptual can be sold.