Mythicism is not “scholarly”?
In the last post I mentioned that Jesus mythcists and historicists are talking past each other, and how I want to examine some underlying assumptions that may be the cause. So, here we’ll begin by looking at one little exchange that occurred in the debate. In the final cross-examination segment, Dillahunty asked “Why is mythicism not taken seriously?” Ehrman’s astonishing answer was simply an argumentum ad populum: “It’s not a question debated among scholars.” Wow. Of course, that has nothing to do with lack of evidence or even with history.
The short exchange can be paraphrased like this:
Dillahunty: Why is mythicism not taken seriously?
Ehrman: Because it’s not [a question] taken seriously.
Not too enlightening. “It’s not a question debated among scholars” is also pretty ironic… Are not Ehrman and Price debating mythicism at this very event? And are they not scholars?
This puts us on notice that something to do with Ehrman’s intellectual approach to mythicism just doesn’t add up. Though Bart may have the admirable penchant of speaking ‘from the gut,’ as it were, in doing so he obviously can leave logic far behind. His above reply comes from the “different” reality mentioned in the last post. To explain: somehow, in Ehrman’s view, “scholars” and what is “debated by scholars” excludes this Mythicist Wilwaukee event. Perhaps Ehrman sees himself as taking an off-the-record jaunt on a Friday evening outside of his academic duties and quite below his professional status—as if taking a promenade to the seamier side of town and striking up a conversation with a group of bums, telling them to get their act together, to get some education, and to get with the program.
But Ehrman is saying something more: Mythicism is not a question debated at all by those of worthy standing in the profession. It seems that, for Ehrman, to take Jesus mythicism seriously is to be an academic derelict.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The ability to view Jesus mythicists as academic derelicts opens the door to also jettisoning the entire history of Jesus mythicism as unworthy. This Ehrman in fact seems to do. When he says (as he did in this debate) that Jesus mythicism is “laughable,” he is also basically saying that whoever engaged with mythicism in the past was derelict, whoever engages with it in the present is derelict, and whoever engages with it in the future will be derelict. For Ehrman, Jesus mythicism is ‘dereliction of duty,’ pure and simple.We can turn the question around: Who then is not ‘derelict’? For Ehrman, the answer is the “scholars” he mentioned above—presumably those upstanding members of the guild who are definitely not debating mythicism. 🙂 Elsewhere in the debate Ehrman mentions “Oxford University Press” and “Harvard University Press” as reputable publishers. So, his definition of “acceptable scholars” might be construed as: biblical studies professors [umm, let’s get this straight—he means Ph.D-level academics who have successfully secured employment at a well-established university or college] who are published by well-known, peer-reviewed journals and by large publishing houses. Whew. Now we’ve got an idea of who Ehrman considers an unimpeachable “scholar.” Shucks, I guess that leaves me out… I knew it: I am a derelict. A reprobate. A deplorable.
It also leaves out (surprise!) Dr. Robert Price, Ph.D, Th.D. Yup… Bob has not “successfully secured employment at a well-established university or college,” he is not published by well-known peer-reviewed journals (although he himself founded the Journal of Higher Criticism), and he has yet to be published by Oxford or Harvard University Press.
We now understand how Ehrman can sit only a few feet away from Price, can debate him, and can at the same time announce that mythicism is “laughable” and “not a question debated among scholars.” This is, however, one of the places in the debate where Ehrman needed to be pulled up short. I would have preferred if the conversation developed somewhat as follows:
Matt D: Why is mythicism not taken seriously?
Bart E: It’s not a question debated among scholars.
[Bob P]: Are you implying that I’m not a scholar?
[Bart:] You’re a scholar… But you’re not a scholar with standing in the profession.
[Bob]: Well, then perhaps “the profession” needs to improve to include views such as mine.
[And so on…]
Of course Ehrman’s attitude is by no means unique. It typifies the dominant paradigm in Christian studies today, a paradigm that betrays a completely circular logic: real scholars do not take Jesus mythicism seriously. Therefore Jesus mythicists are not real scholars.
Thankfully, this pervasive paradigm is under mounting stress—and not just from Jesus mythicists. Many scholars from both inside and outside the guild are poking holes in it. Thomas Brodie, a mythicist priest, has shown that the gospel narratives were patterned on OT stories. Dennis Macdonald has demonstrated the influence of Homer on those same gospel narratives. There’s the work of Price, Zindler, Doherty, Detering, myself, and other mythicists writing today… All these arguments may not be compatible, they may not all be right, but calling them “laughable” is, in my opinion, a real betrayal of the scholar’s mandate which is, first and foremost, to respect evidence. I firmly believe (and I’m sure this will strike Ehrman as totally unacceptable) that the best New Testament work today is being carried out either by Jesus mythicists or by scholars who allow the possibility for Jesus mythicism. What this means is that the dominant historicist paradigm is lagging and must soon come under scrutiny by the mainstream.
In disparaging mythicism in general, Ehrman also ignores two centuries of cogent, scholarly, mythicist work. This is also part of the skewed rules of the game that have allowed historicism to hang on well past its evidentiary demise. Typical of the mainstream New Testament scholar, it is clear that Ehrman is neither familiar nor interested in the long and continuing history of Jesus mythicism, with its often remarkable breakthroughs. I doubt very much that he has read (or cares to read) the works of B. Bauer, W. B. Smith, A. Drews, G. van Eysinga, and P.–L. Couchoud (to mention only a few)—all Ph.D-carrying, peer-published Jesus mythicists of the past. These were “scholars”—and good ones too.
We now have a situation where mainstream New Testament scholars increasingly hide their heads in the sand. They will not be able to do so forever, however, as the evidence mounts that, for example, Nazareth, Bethlehem of Judea, Bethphage, Bethany, Bethabara, Chorazin, Dalmanutha, and Aenon did not exist at the turn of the era (with doubt cast also on Bethsaida, Capernaum, Cana, and Magdala); as the evidence mounts that the canonical gospels are second century texts (already argued by Bauer c. 1850), as also is the Acts of the Apostles, as also are the Pauline epistles—which incidentally were not by “Paul” at all—and so on…
The new mythicist paradigm is already in the making. Admittedly, it now exists outside the guild. It will continue to move along the periphery as more Thomas Brodie’s step forward. And then, as the evidence (from first-rate scholarship, mind you) becomes ever more widespread and ever more conclusive, Jesus mythicism must slowly move from the periphery towards the center. The end result is inevitable: Jesus of Nazareth will be seen not as the savior of the world, but as the myth of the ages.