The title of this article is a joke. Sort of. But maybe not as much as you think. As I’ll show. Because James McGrath has added another entry to his bizarrely uninformed critique of On the Historicity of Jesus, and this time is the most dishonest of the bunch. For to get the result he wants, he has to essentially become a Christian fundamentalist, denying there is any mythmaking in the Gospels at all, and reject all non-fundamentalist scholarship of the last fifteen years.
I kid you not.
Ignoring My Book
Skipping almost the entirety of the book, McGrath jumps all the way now to one single part of Chapter 10, with his new entry at Bible & Interpretation, “Mythicism and the Making of Mark.” (I’ve addressed his previous entries in this series here and here.)
Neil Godfrey has already exposed how incompetently McGrath ignores what I actually wrote in the sections McGrath is talking about. My favorite example: McGrath complains that when I define three criteria that are markers of myth writing, I’m making a big mistake because no one of them is sufficient to entail a text is a myth…completely ignoring that I say exactly that, in the text he claims to be reading.
As Godfrey sums it up:
Ignoring Carrier’s point that “no one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical but the presence of all three is conclusive” McGrath proceeds to “protest” that “no one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical”.
I find this to be disrespectful and insulting. McGrath is pretending I didn’t say exactly what he is saying, and pretending that therefore he has a legitimate critique of what I said. McGrath therefore has no actual rebuttal to what I said.
[Edit: Possibly McGrath didn’t realize the logic of his argument entailed this. See comment. Some mistook Godfrey’s description as a direct quote, despite the fact that it is literally verbatim, which should have clued them in. Godfrey and I are describing the logic of McGrath’s argument, and pointing out the fact that it ignores the actual argument is disrespectful and insulting. Not a lie. Only in subsequent sections do I catalog McGrath’s lies.]
Lying about the State of Scholarship in His Field
McGrath leads with the shamelessly false claim that “Scholars of the New Testament typically view allegorical interpretation of the texts they study with disdain.” He evidently has never read Burton Mack, John Crossan, Dennis MacDonald, Harold Attridge, Thomas Sheehan, Mary Tolbert, Marcus Borg, William Lyons, Elaine Pagels, Morna Hooker, Craig Evans, etc., etc., etc. These are major, well-respected New Testament scholars. And a mere fraction at that. Because this list is just off the top of my head.
I want everyone to post in comments their own additional lists of big names in contemporary NT studies who also acknowledge the Gospels contain symbolic narrative constructions.
And it’s not like Thomas Brodie, Thomas Thompson, Robert Price, and Randel Helms are an insignificant addition to the list. Practically the entire fellows list of the Jesus Seminar (including me) consists of scholars who acknowledge that much of the Gospels is of symbolic construct. And as Neil Godfrey has shown, many luminaries praise the approach, even use it themselves, rather than “disdain” it.
Do you know who does disdain all that these scholars have shown regarding the Gospels being allegorically constructed? Christian fundamentalists. Do you know who pretends their view is the mainstream view and all other views are “disdained” in the field when in fact the opposite is true? Christian fundamentalists. Who is McGrath siding with? Hm.
It is thus telling that in “support” of this falsity, McGrath does not cite any living scholar or recent work, but an antiquated essay written by James Barr in 1966 (with a follow up in 1989). And to deceive you further, McGrath cites it as if published in 2014 (actually only the date of a reprinted historical collection). And to deceive you further, McGrath implies these articles by Barr demonstrate McGrath’s claim that allegorical interpretation is disdained by the mainstream today. Yet, first, being written 26 and 49 (!) years ago, they cannot have said anything about the state of the field today; and second, both argue for allegorical interpretation of the Bible!
Barr was arguing against Biblical literalists, not mainstream scholars, and pointing out that not only is literalism unscholarly, but that even the literalists were using “theological” and “typological” interpretations which were actually in fact allegorical, so that even the literalists agree with him, they just won’t admit it. How does any of this support McGrath? It doesn’t. And that looks like scholarly dishonesty to me.
In line with what looks like a constructed lie, McGrath then deceitfully makes it appear that I just make everything up in my demonstration of allegorical content in the Gospels. In fact I extensively rely on the mainstream peer reviewed literature in the field. Look at n. 41, p. 405 (several peer reviewed experts on the Barabbas allegory), n. 56, p. 412 (Norman Petersen on the allegorical construction of the travel narrative in Mark 4-8), n. 59, p. 415 (Paul Achtemeier on the allegorical function of the miracle sequences in Mark—notably, when McGrath uses this example, he completely omits to mention that I am relying on the work of Achtemeier, and instead gives the impression that I just made it all up [on this see also a followup by Neil Godfrey]), n. 71, p. 423-24 (Deborah Krause on the allegorical structure of the triumphal entry), n. 78, p. 426 (Calum Carmichael on the allegorical structure of Mark 12), n. 97, p. 433 (R.G. Hamerton-Kelly on the allegorical structure of the temple clearing and fig tree inclusio), n. 98, p. 434 (several peer reviewed experts on Mark’s use of narrative intercalation to communicate allegorical content), n. 118, p. 445 (several peer reviewed experts on Mark’s use of allegory in his concluding chapter).
And that’s just a few examples, and only on Mark. All mainstream peer reviewed scholarship. Don’t get me started on the mainstream peer reviewed scholarship showing the same for Matthew and Luke and John. For example, n. 218, p. 496 (Francis Moloney’s work on the allegorical construction of John’s travel narrative from Cana to Cana). For Luke alone, I show allegorical readings are backed in the peer reviewed literature by such luminaries as Arnold Ehrhardt, Francis Gerald Downing, Jean Magné, Barbara Shellard—even N.T. Wright, and you can’t get more mainstream than that!
Plus all the ancient evidence I presented that this is in fact how the Bible was both read and written, which I extensively documented, and which McGrath completely ignores and pretends I didn’t present (Element 14, pp. 114-24).
And I don’t just demonstrate, and show that countless peer reviewed experts have also demonstrated, that allegorical-symbolic structure exists in the Gospels, but also that the Gospels often do this through fabricating narratives by rewriting Old Testament stories about Moses and Elijah (and I cite numerous mainstream scholars supporting this fact, including Dale Allison, Raymond Brown, and many others, not “just” Thomas Brodie), by inventing stories that communicate things a given author wanted people to believe but that have no plausible basis in history (and again I cite mainstream scholars supporting the point), and by assembling narratives out of pesher-like readings of scripture (a conclusion so mainstream I cannot believe I need to explain this to McGrath…for example, the derivation of Mark’s crucifixion narrative from Psalm 22 and other passages is famously accepted as a mainstream fact, and that’s just the most famous example). Likewise, I show that many sayings were invented for Jesus, sometimes out of things said by others, and sometimes improvised to explain how history proceeded after Jesus supposedly died. And this, too, is an accepted fact of mainstream scholarship.
When you put all of that together, and add the fact that we can’t corroborate the existence of the central figure (no reliable evidence outside the Gospels places Jesus in Galilean or Jerusalem history, or anywhere on earth), and the fact that the story is fundamentally soaked with improbable events (from the unrealistic behavior of nearly every character, to the extensive array of miracles that occur), and we have what can only honestly be described as a myth. And that the Gospels are primarily myths, and that the Jesus in them is a mythical person, is almost universally agreed by all non-fundamentalist scholars of the New Testament. The mainstream view is that the historical Jesus was someone different than the mythical Jesus in the Gospels. But no one says the Gospel Jesus is not mythical. Except Christian fundamentalists.
Lying about My Appeal to Conspiracy
Not content to rest on those deceptions, McGrath dishonestly deploys a well poisoning fallacy by saying he “will not discuss here [Carrier’s] conspiracy theory approach to early Christian literature, summed up nicely when he writes, ‘This appears to be what typically happened to the evidence. It was erased, doctored or rewritten to support a historicity party line against a mythicist one’.”
First, no mainstream scholar doubts that “the evidence” for Christianity was extensively “erased, doctored or rewritten” (and fabricated) to support the victorious sect; the evidence for this is vast, we have countless proven examples, and I extensively cite mainstream scholarship demonstrating it. McGrath appears to be saying this is my own contrivance, that none of that went on. Once again, that’s the position of a Christian fundamentalist.
Meanwhile, this is what I actually say in the book about “conspiracy theories”…
[T]here was no organized conspiracy to doctor the record (except when it came to controlling faith literature, for which we have clear evidence of Christians actively eliminating disapproved Gospels, for example), but this along with all the other cases (above and below) indicates a common trend among individual Christians to act as gatekeepers of information, suppressing what they didn’t like. Which collectively destroyed a lot of information. (OHJ, p. 303)
[T]his doesn’t demonstrate any organized conspiracy, but there seems to have been a zeitgeist motivating many Christian scholars and scribes, independently of one another, to remove embarrassingly silent sections of secular histories, or to remove embarrassingly silent histories altogether (by simply not preserving them). (OHJ, p. 305)
[T]he epistles do reveal the constant vexation of novel dogmas; the devastating events of the 60s did occur; the history of the church is completely silent from then until the mid-90s or later; a historicist sect did later gain supreme power and did decide which texts to preserve, and it did doctor and meddle with numerous manuscripts and even produced wholesale forgeries to that same end—and not as a result of any organized conspiracy, but simply from independent scribes and authors widely sharing similar assumptions and motives. (OHJ, p. 609)
And most extensively:
Unlike most other questions in history, the evidence for Jesus is among the most compromised bodies of evidence in the whole of ancient history. It cannot be said that this has no effect on its reliability. This does not entail or require any particular ‘conspiracy theory’, however. Of course, the fact of it is so firmly in evidence it cannot be disputed (only its degree); so even if a conspiracy theory were required, it would be more than amply established by the evidence we have. But it isn’t needed, because all that one does need is a sect of fanatical believers who (a) have a common dogma to promote (e.g. that Jesus really lived and really said and did certain things conducive to the doctrines they wanted to promote), as we know the ‘orthodox’ sect did, and (b) have no qualms against destroying evidence (or just not mentioning or preserving it), forging evidence and doctoring evidence, as we again know the ‘orthodox’ sect did (i.e. these are not mere hypotheses, but established facts in our background knowledge). Any such community will organically produce the same effect as a conspiracy, without ever having to conspire to do anything. They do not require any top-down instructions or orders to follow, nor any collusion. If each independently did what made sense to him, each on his own initiative, the effect on the evidence that survives for us now will have been the same. (OHJ, p. 276)
How did McGrath miss all of that? It’s not conceivable…if he is actually reading my book. His contempt for the truth is therefore galling.
Lying about Myth & Historicity Criteria
We see this again in his treatment of my mythic marker criteria, which I did not invent (as McGrath dishonestly implies) but adopted from mainstream scholarship. As Godfrey also pointed out, McGrath does not address what I mean by mythical emulation as one of the three criteria. He says instead that mere similarities are inevitable; thereby implying I neither looked for nor found anything more than that. He doesn’t mention the example I give (Virgil’s emulation of Homer), which refutes him, or the mainstream peer reviewed scholarship I cite arguing my very point (I didn’t make this criterion up).
Nor does McGrath reveal that I actually address the importance of distinguishing inevitable similarities from actual emulations in my methodological primer for OHJ, Proving History (pp. 192-203), which he also reviewed and thus claims to have read. Nor does he offer any rebuttal to my solution. So again, McGrath is lying to you about what I said, and trying to make it look like I said something else.
McGrath also confuses my third criterion (the presence of uncorroborated persons and events as key to the story) as meaning lack of corroboration entails their non-historicity. I never say any such thing. All I said was, when that happens, that ups the probability, but does not guarantee, that we are looking at a myth. I said nothing about having determined anything as non-historical from such a criterion alone, and in fact elsewhere in the book I explain in detail that that can’t be done (e.g., chs. 2.1 and 8.3-4). McGrath effectively lies to you, by not telling you that, and telling you instead that I said the opposite of what in fact I actually said.
McGrath also complains that miracles sometimes are claimed in histories not just myths. Again lying to you, by implying I did not concede this very point in the very next paragraph, where I explain:
[I]f we find enough of those in a single text, this supports the conclusion that the remainder are as well, according to the principle of contamination, which Stephen Law has formally articulated for ‘miracle’ content. His argument can be fully extended to all improbabilities, including emulative features of a story that are improbable coincidences if posited as history but not improbable as an authorial creation. (OHJ, p. 394)
So here is what I actually said: the more improbabilities that are stacked in a story, the more likely the story is to be myth. Does McGrath have a rebuttal to that? To what I actually said? No, he does not. Nor could he. Because I’m right. And it would make him look like a fool to deny so obvious a principle.
McGrath also says my criteria would establish 1 Maccabees as myth, “but,” he complains, someone said 17 years ago (!) that 1 Maccabees was totes history and not at all mytho-historical fiction. Since he doesn’t actually perform the procedure I describe, and that he claims would get this result, on the text of 1 Maccabees, I get to call bullshit.
I am fairly certain the Gospels perform far worse by all three of my criteria than 1 Maccabees. And yet, everyone agrees there is myth and fiction in 1 Maccabees. The Gospels, many times more so. And that’s precisely what makes the difference between history with some myth in it, and myth with some history in it. Again, McGrath has no rebuttal to what I actually said. Because he cannot deny that what I actually said is correct. And, again, denying it would make him look like a fool. So he has to lie and pretend I said something else.
In a sense, even McGrath’s entire thesis is a lie: he tries arguing at length that I am wrong to dismiss the Gospels as of any use because some history may yet be in a myth-heavy narrative. A fact I never deny. To the contrary, I repeatedly say, “There is no good case to be made that any scene in Mark reflects a historical Jesus. Because most scenes clearly do not, and even if any do, we cannot discern which, or what in them is historical” (OHJ, p. 456); “There is in fact no way to discern what if anything Matthew has added to Mark has any historical basis, or even a source (and its having a source would still in no way establish that it’s historical…),” so “The burden is therefore on anyone who would insist there is anything in Matthew that is any more authentic than what’s in Mark,” otherwise, “Even if any historical facts about Jesus are in it, we have no way to identify them” (OHJ, p. 469); “Even if any historical facts about Jesus are in [Luke], we have no way to identify them” (OHJ, p. 487). Etc.
Notably, McGrath does not even attempt to demonstrate a single fact uniquely in the Gospels about Jesus is historically true. Thus proving my point: no one has done this with the needed certainty—nor can, given the problematic sources we have. And this isn’t just me saying this. This is more or less the shared view of numerous top mainstream scholars, from Dale Allison, Stanley Porter, and Anthony Le Donne to Mark Goodacre, Morna Hooker, and Fernando Bermejo-Rubio (and not just them; I cite about a dozen major scholars reaching this conclusion in Chs. 1 & 5 of Proving History, and the most recent scholarship in the field agrees with me: see Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity).
These scholars do claim they can infer some things about Jesus from the Gospels, but at the same time admit they can produce no certain proof of it because there are no reliable criteria to use. And McGrath presents no answer. He says there could be facts in the Gospels. But that’s what I myself said. I agree, there could be. And I say so. But what I also point out is that we have no way to figure out which claims in the Gospels are those facts, if any are even in there. And McGrath does not address that point. So once again, McGrath has no rebuttal to what I actually said.
More Lies from James McGrath
McGrath again lies when he says “Carrier … refrains from expounding what the mystical meaning of the texts is supposed to have been” because maybe that “would expose just how speculative and unconvincing such approaches to the Gospels really are.” In fact, I give several examples, from possible interpretations (that have at least a 50/50 chance at being true) to interpretations convincingly demonstrated in mainstream peer reviewed literature! My chapter is full of these, and many are from mainstream scholarship. So here we have the most appalling lie: to avoid addressing what I actually argued, McGrath says I didn’t do X, when in fact I did, and uses the false fact of my not doing X to insinuate I can’t because the attempt would expose the effort as untenable, when in fact I actually engage in the effort and show not only why (and when) it is tenable, but I also cite dozens of scholars who support me in that. Not one piece of which McGrath mentions or engages. That’s simply dishonest.
Another example of McGrath’s dishonesty appears in a footnote where he says:
Carrier’s confident assertion about talitha koum in Mark 5, ‘Certainly, Jesus never actually spoke those words, since the story is entirely a fiction’ (p. 410), illustrates how his presumption that the material is fictitious leads him to dismiss details which in fact suggest otherwise. Carrier’s speculation that Mark ‘adapted those words from a targum’ is not persuasive.
This remark contains several deceptions. First, he falsely claims this is a presumption, when in fact I outline an extensive case for the first conclusion. Which he does not address. At all. And pretending there is no argument to rebut is dishonest. Second, he merely asserts that my second argument is “not persuasive,” but does not explain why. That’s not dishonest so much as lazy. But where it becomes dishonest is that he does not mention what I actually argue. I only argue that anyone asserting historicity for this event must rule out that source, and for the very reasons introduced not by me, but by Bruce Chilton, an expert on targumic literature, whom I cite on the point, another fact McGrath deceitfully fails to mention.
So here, McGrath falsely represents me as arguing these words definitely come from a targum, when in fact my argument is that we cannot know they didn’t. This is a burden of evidence argument. My argument is that the burden is on him. It is not on me. It is dishonest of him to pretend that’s not the argument I made, and to not respond to my actual argument, but to respond instead to an argument I didn’t make, that he falsely represents me as making.
I won’t address McGrath’s shameless attempt at a well poisoning fallacy by attempting to equate me with Barbara Thiering. That’s just bullshit.
Nor will I bother addressing at length his closing assertion, that I have constructed the mythicism thesis to be unfalsifiable. That is a shameful lie. Anyone who reads OHJ will see I explain numerous times what would falsify the thesis. I spelled out more in Proving History (especially Ch. 5). And frankly I am disgusted that I should have to dig through and find the countless occasions of that just to prove McGrath is lying. It is his moral responsibility as a scholar to locate those passages in my work and actually address them, before maintaining a claim like his. That he did not do this disgraces him as a scholar.
I am content that any honest person who reads my two books will see what I mean.
General Call to James McGrath and All Other Biblical Scholars Who Do This
Stop fucking lying about my work.