The train crash that is modern mythicism is built on the train crash that was earlier mythicism. The chance of the crash happening twice in just the same way? About 50%.
In a previous post I reproduced chapter three of Shirley Jackson Case’s 1912 study, The Historicity of Jesus, which is a fair account of the state of the question in his day. At the end of his book, Case writes,
“If the possibility of his non-historicity is to be entertained at all it must be brought about by reconstructing, without reference to him, so strong a theory of Christian origins that the traditional view will pale before it as a lesser light in the presence of a greater luminary. Will the radicals’ constructive hypothesis stand this test?”
The new mythtics (some anyway) have claimed that their argument can be won by the application of Bayes’s theorem. Confronted with arguments about why the theorem is useless in deciding a question like this, their recourse has been to repeat two assertions: (1) It is too useful; and (2) People who say it isn’t useful don’t “get” it. Whereupon they usually invoke some parallel as distant from what they are trying to prove as Herakles is from Jesus.
The rush of excitement that greeted Richard Carrier’s suggestion that the Jesus question could be settled with relative finality has been offset slightly by the failure to recognize that the first step in using Bayes’s Theorem is to establish plausible assumptions. A few bloggers at Vridar have suggested that proving Jesus is like proving a case at law: after all, we’re trying to reach a verdict on whether Jesus existed, so, since a trial deals with events that happened in the past, and Jesus existed in the past, you could say that the application of probability to the Jesus question is like determining guilt or innocence. All you need to do is compile the evidence, plug it into your probability machine, write the equation, and you’re home free.
Except you’re not. In a law case–let’s make this one a murder so we can use DNA–the variable to be decided is not the event (E), the crime, but the cause (C) of the crime. Let’s make it a ghastly murder, a murder most foul (they like to quote Shakespeare over at Vridar– just trying it on). You postulate a murderer. Good job. You discover a bloody knife. A glove–shades of OJ–fingerprints, crime scene, probable time of death. It is a linear progression of data that points to Mr. Jones as the perp: the right man in the right place at the right time with the right motive and the right DNA. What has not changed in all of this? (E) has not changed: the murder itself is not in doubt. It raises the speculation and creates uncertainty about (C).
In the case of Jesus, as the mythtics frame the case, we are doubting an event (E) has taken place at all: the mythtics are not asking whether Jesus rose from the dead (= dealt the fatal wound causing E) but whether there was an E. They are saying all the reports of E–what he said and did are falsifications of an historical occurrence.
To prove this contention (the groundwork of the assumptions that will then be used to establish probability) they offer not evidence but a succession of increasingly more tortuous challenges to the only available evidence, thus trying to prove through improbability what a linear progression of known, envalued variables (the sort of thing that makes statistics useful in law cases) cannot readily establish.
In no particular order, individually and conglomeratively mythicists have argued:
1. The evidence for E is hopelessly tainted and unreliable, proving that E did not occur.
2. The sayings and deeds attributed to E are the work of a single author or the “church” and were intended to propagate a cult.
2. The so-called evidence for E was mostly written in the second century by unknown authors, forgers, or copyists.
3. It is based on a combination of myths and stories familiar to the forger or copyist or his naive imitators. These range from ancient stories like the Gilgamesh to first century tales about the death and apotheosis of Hercules, and everything in between (“A myth is a myth, like a rose is a rose”).
4. Elements of the record that appear to be “historical” are decoration provided by the fabricator to create a veneer of authenticity–especially the use of place names and Aramaic, the language E is alleged to have spoken.
5. The original second-century document was probably composed in Rome where myths and mystery religions circulated freely and a copyist could make a living and use the libraries.
6. Prove postpositive that the gospels are fabrications is provided by the inexplicable silence of someone [Paul] who “should have” known him but doesn’t say much about him.
7. References in Paul’s writings to both Jesus, his brothers, his most important followers, their interference with his mission, the existence of churches that worship him and believers who supervise them, and the correlation of names between the gospels and this writer’s references to Jesus and his circle are not dispositive because they do not fit the pattern of what this writer actually believed.
7. Some of Paul’s letters are forged. Those that are “authentic” and seem to speak of an historical individual are tainted, like the gospels, with additons, corrections and interpolations. All passages that seem to speak of an historical figure are interpolations. All references to historical-biological relatives of Jesus are figures of speech referring to the church.
8. It is plausible that this writer did not exist at all.
9. If he did not exist, it is stronger than average proof that Jesus did not exist either. It is not necessary to explain who wrote Paul’s letters or explain what he was talking about if he did not write them. (In all likelihood, the church wrote them too.)
10. The fact that the gospels do not differ substantially from many Graeco-Roman historical writings concerning known historical figures, except in length and subject, is of no importance to the case.
11. The fact that miracles, healings, miraculous births and ascensions to heaven are attibuted to historical figures in the Roman world has no bearing on the case.
12. The external sources are completely irrelevant to the case, as they are either silent, clearly forged or heavily interpolated. Sources almost uniformly agreed to be authentic like Tacitus are of no relevance to the case. Sources that require more judicious treatment–like Josephus–are clearly fabrications.
13. The fact that no ancient writer questioned the historicity of Jesus and the fact that no church writer felt compelled to defend it is of no relevance to the case.
The anti-evidence continues until the mythtics are satisfied that their demolition has proved the non-occurrence of E. To challenge this brutually unsatisfying logic is to be a fundamentalist, or to use a word they are trying to make current as a counterpoint to the word “mythtic” and “mythicist,” an “historicist.” There is a strong implication that not believing in Jesus is the rational complement to not believing in God. As a rule, most mythicists are atheists. As a rule, most people who subscribe to mythicism are not biblical scholars, trained in biblical studies but regard such training as a kind of “brainswashing” in the methods that have been used for the last century and a half to investigate the origins of Christanity and the context of Jesus. To know something about human anatomy is good for a doctor. But to know something about the technical aspects of biblical studies is a liability to knowing anything about this subject.
It seems to me that this latest and less impressive incarnation of mythicism has tried and failed to satisfy Case’s 1912 challenge to them, which, frankly, in the wake of substantial advances in New Testament scholarship, makes their work much more difficult than it was at the opening of the last century. Salvation by Bayesth alone will not really help: they are stuck precisely where the formidable Morton Smith left them in 1986: “The myth theory is almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the ‘silence’ of Paul….In order to explain just what it was that Paul and other early Christians believed, the mythicists are forced to manufacture unknown proto-Christians who build up an unattested myth . . . about an unspecified supernatural entity that at an indefinite time was sent by God into the world as a man to save mankind and was crucified… [presenting us with] a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels.”
They are not likely to create the plausible reconstruction demanded by their task from the debris they leave behind when they are done with their work. In fact, there is no indication that they acknowledge or are capable of meeting that challenge. They are puzzlingly content to locate the answer to how did it happen?in their belief that it did not happen at all, at least not in the way the only available evidence asserts. And that is a very curious position for people who are looking for “reasonable” solutions to adopt.