Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Are Jesus mythicists, denialists?

[Updated to link to Tom's responses and mine (originally posted on Tom's blog).]

Tom Verenna has written a blog post on the criterion of disputation. While I agree with him on that, I do have a bone to pick about his claim that a lot of mythicists are denialists.

Tom says: estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.
And: [update 07/24]
In fact, in many respects, a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones. I’m allowing, in fact, for the possibility that some traditions may be based on historical events or people.  But I’m also saying that the state of the evidence doesn’t permit us to be sure enough to permit anything more than a 50/50.

As he just admitted, "an estimation of 50/50 is allowing for a lot of unknowns". If they are really unknowns that need to be accepted, and since he admits to being generous and taking conservative estimations why not be honest and admit to tilting away from historicity?

That is not denial. How about that being honesty?

I am suggesting saying, we have very little reason to think Jesus existed.

The closer we study the writings from the first and second centuries, the more it all looks like pious fiction and reports of hallucination.

How easily do we all side with ahistoricity of Romulus! Or would Tom say he is 50/50 on that as well? Is Tom a Romulus denier?? :)

How about another example? Let's compare Jesus mythicism with atheism. Fundamentalists like to say atheists deny the existence of God. They try to paint a picture where Atheists supposedly claim to have proof of absence of God. 

Atheism simply says that we have no reason to believe in a God as there is no evidence for a God. Not that it is impossible for any sort of God to exist.

Of course, the evidence for God or its absence is not as patchy as that of evidence for the historicity of Jesus. But considering that we know only a tiny tiny tiny fraction of all there is to know in this universe, our evidence of or the lack thereof for God is also patchy, surely! Should we go 50/50 on Theism?

Perhaps you would change your mind on putting "a lot of mythicists in the denialist camp"!

I don't think the mythicists are denying anything. There just is no convincing reason to think that a single person (who went completely unnoticed by the rest of the world, by the way) was behind Christianity. That is not to say I can not be convinced. But until someone does, I'll take the risk of being branded a Jesus denier!

Please see here for Tom's response.

My response to Tom:
Thank you for your response. I have a rather long and rambling response. Thank you for reading in advance!

First about the comparison with Romulus. Perhaps my comparison was a bad one. I confess to ignorance and defer to you if you say so. 
However, my point was and still is that it is easier to take a call on someone other than Jesus, someone like Romulus. Because it is not a high stakes debate. My point is that had this been a dead religion, and had this been a purely academic debate, with the very same patchy evidence, we might have more people on the side of ahistoricity.
When we see copious amounts of pious fiction and fraud and legends, we tend to not consider it history. We don't go hunting for a kernel of history and demand proof that that is not the case. Except in the case of Jesus.

You said:"Anyone who beliefs the content of this photo is a denialist, for example:" 
denialist: a person who does not acknowledge the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence; a denier: 
Denialism is choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an uncomfortable truth.
Pardon my use of wikipedia. :)
Now, the picture you link to. Anyone who believes the contents are perhaps mis-informed? Many of them, perhaps most of them are not out to find a way, by hook or crook to deny Jesus. I think. Maybe we can agree to disagree. 
I don't think they are doing that to deny an uncomfortable truth or deny historical evidence. Perhaps you'd consider that they are misinformed and simply wrong. 
Back to the question of a historical Jesus. Perhaps there is a lot of misinformation out there because the scholars who ought to know better claim there is "powerful evidence" (That would be Ehrman) when that is clearly not the case. A vast majority of the mainstream scholars refuse to even consider other possibilities. 
Denialism suggests not acknowledging sound historical evidence. Where is anything close to that for a historical Jesus? 
If there were sound historical evidence, evidence that is there to see for people interested enough to look, many of the mythicists would not be denying anything, I think.
Mainstream scholars come up with portraits of a historical Jesus using a fair dose of speculation. Many of them get facts wrong. Why is it such a bad thing if mythicists get some facts wrong or speculate a bit (ok, a lot)? 
With patchy evidence, there is a lot of room for speculation as long as speculation is called speculation. Perhaps people do not do that all the time, historicists and mythicists included. 
I think mythicists actually do have a case there. Maybe not an ironclad one. 
Ever since I read Earl Dorethy's Jesus Puzzle, I have been looking for a sound rebuttal. I have not found a reasonable one. Mark Goodacre seems to be closest to a historicist who does not distort the strength of evidence and he spends bits of time on this subject. I am yet to find him persuasive. 
I understand you are agnostic about Jesus historicism. Believe it or not, I think I understand that your point is that there isn't enough evidence to rule one way or the other. 
But given what you say about the topic, I find it difficult to believe that you are 50/50 on it. Keeping the door open to any possibility is not necessarily 50/50. Any sensible person is open to possibilities, especially new evidence. 
I am not a mind reader. But pardon me when I do a bit of mind reading. When you keep talking about your agnosticism, it seems to me that you are trying to distinguish yourself from those folks who embrace fringe theories.  
Allow me to talk about a bit about my background. I used to call myself an agnostic, not an atheist. I preferred that label cause I knew I could never say there could never be a God. I call myself an atheist now because I realize, no sane atheist I know of claims otherwise.
Perhaps that is why when someone says agnosticism, I go, no no no, what you really mean is... I plead guilty to that. :)

Back to your Jesus historicity agnosticism. When you say,“…my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.”and"a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones".
That does not sound like you are at 50/50! 
Why beat up mythicists if they judge the probability to be different, more in favor of mythicism and fiction and fraud? Why not show them where they are wrong? Why not do a take down of Dorethy's hypothesis and show why 50/50 is the right position with the current state of evidence? 
Why call them denialists?
My second response:
Permit me one more go. 
You said:
"As for Romulus, I would say I would give his historicity at somewhere like 1-2%. With a 98-99% probability that he didn’t exist historically. The evidence is different, and so you evaluate it differently. That is also part of the problem with many mythicist arguments. They presume that the evidence is comparable when in fact all texts need to be weighed against themselves, and be judged upon their own merits."
Sure. And that really was not what I was arguing against. I was not claiming an apple to apple comparison (more like both are fruits).
Let's take it as a given that there is shoddy scholarship out there. You might agree that this is not just on the mythicist's side. But does not matter.
I was arguing two things.
1. You said most mythicists are denialists. I agree that there may be bad scholarship, pseudo-scholarship, too much speculation and fringe theories out there. But where is the sound historic evidence for a historic Jesus that they are supposedly denying? Show us the historicist-50% of your evidence that is supposedly being denied.
2. When you say you are at 50/50, it doesn't sound like 50/50. I assume this is not "I am clueless and hence have no opinion on this" 50/50. So, again, show us the evidence, the evidence that is being denied by mythicists.
Please read Tom's response here.

My third response:
Thank you for your considered responses! Much appreciated. Permit me one final argument and I’ll bow out. I’ll keep this shorter. 
You said: “So I’m not at all convinced that these people are just misinformed, though they are certainly that too. No, these people are denialists because they can’t even admit when they are wrong. 
I think our point of disagreement arises because you put mythicists in the esteemed company of deniers of the Holocaust, climate change, Obama’s birth place… 
- You say there isn’t sufficient evidence to rule one way or the other.
- Carrier thinks it is 1/5 for historicity (I write this from memory).
- Ehrman thinks it is 99% (again from memory).
So, there is room for arguing one way or the other. So, we are not disputing that. The problem as I understand is that mythicists do not accept criticism nor do they admit mistakes. 
Ehrman repeats the very same mistakes Carrier called out on (evidence for Pilate for instance).
See here:
A scholar of Ehrman’s mettle can get facts wrong and stick to his guns even after being corrected. 
If a mythicist were to get facts wrong or refuse to accept correction, then denialists they must be! I disagree. 
And here is Tom's concluding response.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this comment, Manoj. I will be responding on my blog.