Naturalism’s Best Case: Christological Mythicism
III. Naturalism’s Best Case: Christological Mythicism
Recall that Davis characterized the naturalist’s most persuasive argumentative case as composed of the following claims: D1) the biblical testimony supporting the resurrection is unreliable, written years after the alleged event by unsophisticated, myth-prone people who were concerned with proclaiming statements of faith and furthering Christian ends rather than recording accurate history; D2) the evidence for the resurrection is frequently contradictory on the details of the resurrection and the events that followed; D3) finally, even without a plausible alternate explanation of the known facts, given the available evidence the probability that dead men stay dead surpasses the probability that the resurrection actually happened.
Notably, in both B3 and D3 Davis assumes the naturalist has no viable counter explanation to the evidence supporting the resurrection; he writes as if the naturalist arguing against the resurrection must rely upon the sheer improbability of the event to make the rational (naturalistic) conclusion “Impossible.” Concerning alternate theories of the nineteenth century rationalists, Davis thinks these all collapse of their own weight. Notably, Davis’ best case for the naturalist mentions such alternate hypotheses solely to say that the naturalist’s best objection — the sheer improbability of the resurrection — can succeed even if the naturalist has no alternate explanation of the evidence. While Davis does admit to the theoretical possibility of such a counter explanation being developed, he clearly does not think that anyone has done so (1985, p.305).(22)
Habermas also has a low regard for naturalistic hypotheses and is convinced that sceptics can neither dismiss the known facts — particularly those used by Core Facts — nor explain them with non-resurrection accounts. Although Habermas insists on a maxim of investigating all the evidence when confronting those who flat-out deny the possibility of miracles such as the resurrection (see, e.g. 1996, pp.58-59), he frequently justifies his opinion of naturalistic hypotheses by repeating that biblical scholars no longer take such theories seriously, then providing copious references to certain biblical scholars. Consider, for example, Habermas’ repeated references to Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown on this topic:
…eminent Roman Catholic theologian Raymond E. Brown gives a list of nineteenth-century theories. Brown asserts not only that these views are not held today, but that they are no longer even respectable. Furthermore, he states that any new revivals of such views should be ignored by serious scholars (1984a, p.32; citing Brown, “The Resurrection and Biblical Criticism”, Commonweal Nov.24, 1967, p.233)
Raymond Brown likewise asserts that twentieth-century critical scholars have rejected these theories, holding that they are no longer respectable. He adds that such contemporary thinkers ignore these alternative views and any popularized renditions of them as well (1987, p.21; citing Brown, see above)
…New Testament scholar Raymond Brown similarly observes that twentieth-century thinkers ignore these alternative views and any new renditions of them as well, even treating them as unrespectable (1992, p.65; citing Brown, see above)
Similarly, Raymond Brown also provides a list of these theories and then concludes: “the criticism of today does not follow the paths taken by criticism in the past. No longer respectable are the crude theories…popular in the last century” (1996, p.63; citing Brown, see above).
Whatever Habermas’ attitude — whether he fully agrees with Brown or simply cites him to set up a comparison wherein Habermas looks reasonable and open-minded for even bothering to refute these theories — the fact that such hypotheses are no longer taken seriously is not an adequate reason that they should no longer be taken seriously.(23) The Mythicist’s view of Jesus’ resurrection — indeed, Jesus’ entire history — is a serious threat to the standard resurrection-hypothesis, recently advocated by at least two critics of Christian thought, Martin and Wells. Rather than relying on what Davis has broadly formulated as the naturalist’s best case for resurrection-skepticism — it appears that Flew has already used this approach in the debate with Habermas (see Habermas 1987) — I will adopt the approach of Martin and Wells, introducing an alternate explanatory hypothesis that alleges to account for the facts of Core Facts without simply arguing around them.
III.1. Mythicism Briefly Formulated:
In 1988, Wells stated his fundamental thesis as follows:
…the earliest references to the historical Jesus are so vague that it is not necessary to hold that he ever existed; the rise of Christianity can, from the undoubtedly historical antecedents, be explained quite well without him; and reasons can be given to show why, from about AD 80 or 90, Christians began to suppose that he had lived in Palestine about fifty years earlier (p.ix).
In 1991, he briefly states a major strand of this thesis in more detail:
It really is not possible to reconcile the obscure and unrecognized earthly Jesus of the earliest Christian documents with the influential teacher and miracle worker of the gospels. And it will not do to accept the latter and ignore the former. The later, gospel modifications of the earliest ideas of Jesus on record are no more likely to represent any reality than are those ideas themselves. In the earliest documents the Crucifixion is an event, at an unspecified time and place, carried out by unnamed human personages at the instigation of supernatural forces, which ensures the salvation of believers because in the upshot it thwarted these forces which stood between them and God. This gives no basis of plausibility to the later idea that the event had occurred in Jerusalem, involving well-known Jewish and Roman officials, as recently as a few decades before the earliest documents were written (p.102).
Wells grants that the critically established New Testament text is roughly what the original authors of these documents actually wrote (see 1988, pp.7-10), but asks whether these documents give reliable information about Jesus. Wells notes that properly answering this question requires knowledge of a number of things: the types of documents the gospels are; how close in time their testimony is to the events being attested to; and to what extent the statements in the gospels are confirmed by documents written earlier than, or independently of, the gospels (1988, p.10).
Martin, a philosopher, has extrapolated broad historiographical principles from Wells’ thesis, producing an abstract of Wells’ argument of which Wells seems to approve (Martin, p.42).(24) Given the general nature of these principles they could apply to a situation of similar detail, but here they apply specifically to Jesus. In his abstract Martin argues that a person — let’s call him Jon Doe — who is said to have lived at a particular time (T) should be considered legendary rather than historically real if: 1) confirmation of Jon Doe’s historicity at T is lacking in the documents written during or shortly after T; 2) the primary documents that do allege Jon Doe lived at T frequently contradict one another, credit Jon Doe with having done highly improbable things and were written many decades after T by devotees of what were taken as Jon Doe’s teachings; 3) the major elements of Jon Doe’s life can be accounted for in terms of a literary tradition in which these primary documents were written without assuming that Jon Doe must have lived at T.
As principles of historiography these appear at least prima facie valid. Therefore, the important question to ask is whether it is historically accurate to apply these principles to the case of Jesus’ historicity. For example, is Martin’s assessment of the lack of early confirmation of Jesus’ historicity accurate? Were the primary documents supporting the resurrection — the gospels — written decades after Jesus’ lifetime by devoted followers of what were taken to be Jesus’ teachings? Can Jesus’ life be accounted for via a literary tradition — à la Wells, the Jewish Wisdom Literature — without assuming Jesus really lived? Accordingly, those such as Habermas and Davis who will wish to criticize the Mythicist’s hypothesis will need to do one or more of the following: 1) challenge Martin’s historiographical principles;(25) or 2) dispute the similarity between the situation described by Martin’s abstract argument and the evidential situation surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection.(26)