James McGrath

One man's crusade to save the world from misinformation could very well be another man's hobby horse obsession to be derided and mocked at will. The boundary between these two extremes can seem like the thinnest of lines at times. In the Saturday-morning cartoon that the Biblical studies bloggosphere can sometimes be, everyone sees himself as Bugs Bunny; whose wits and charm always wins the day. No one ever sees himself as Yosemite Sam, the bumbling ideologue with an ax to grind. Blogs, because of their inherent editorial limitations, are often fertile ground for looney-tune civil wars (some more civil than others). Because anyone with a heartbeat and a home computer can now keep a personal blog on which to express his own peculiar ideas, some people, who are either academically or professionally invested in a topic, but who would otherwise be mild-mannered citizens going about their daily business, have been emboldened (and worried) by what they see as absurd ideas and by the immediacy and the range of influence of this new technology, and have appointed themselves a kind of paradigm police, to express themselves, at times quite forcefully, on their pet contentious academic topics.

Some people really are crazy ...

  • Wanna see proof that evolution is silly?  . . . . see here . . . and here
  • Wanna know what is being kept secret at Area 51? . . .  see here . . . and here
  • Read about what happened to Hitler after he evaded capture in 1945? . . .  here.
  • Want proof that a secret society of Illuminati is conspiring to control the world?  . . . here

Now, I don't recommend any of these articles except as simple examples of a fringe-ness that apparently knows no limits. One would hope that people would have enough critical savvy to be able to discern such clearly outlandish and sensationalist crap. The research bears it out.  
I get it, and I too find most conspiracist thinking to be annoying as hell.
But I also know that there's very little I can do or say to change these crazy people's minds, and I know that any attempt on my part is unlikely to do any good.  

That said, James McGrath is certain that Jesus existed, so sure, in fact, that he thinks that all mythicist expressions necessarily fall into the same category, that of bunk quackery, same as creationism does, and need to be derided at every opportunity. Not content to merely reject the idea, McGrath is one of its most active online detractors, has been for almost a decade now in his Exploring Our Matrix blog, in fact. Professionally, he holds a phD and teaches the New Testament at a university. I think his specialties are the christology in the Fourth Gospel and the Mandeans. He comes across as a well-spoken intellectual elite who is clearly well-informed and knowledgable about the issues and 'facts' in the field. I don't doubt that he is a fine professor who is liked by students.  I only know him from his interactions on his (though I seldom visit it any longer, I used to some years ago) and others' blogs. What follows is what I hope is a fair a fitting description of James McGrath the blogger.

Mythicism is a topic I've been interested in for quite a while. As such, I'm always interested in what its critics have to say. I've been looking into it for so long that no one is likely to tell me something that I'm not aware of about mythicism. However, I highly value critics' perspectives and it helps me check my own critiques and observations of the various mythicist and historicist writers. I love a good discussion. 

I've been thinking of a way to approach the subject of blogger McGrath.
I think the best way is to directly address the last correspondence I had with him. I had just launched this blog (coming on four months now).  Gavin at OTAGosh noticed it and did a nice write-up.  I thanked him in a comment. Next thing I know, James McGrath appeared with a bit of a denunciatory snipey tone:

The author is anonymous but known to me from a long history of interaction. He isn't a Biblical scholar or grad student in the field but an interested layperson, like most other mythicist bloggers. In fact, we had a falling out, as I recall, over his championing of this stance despite the evidence against it and the fact that its claims are consistently found to be implausible, unsubstantiated, or downright false in many instances, and at best unpersuasive in most others. It is sad to see that there has been no change, and I'm not sure why his decision to devote a whole blog to a subject he has been blogging about for ages is noteworthy.


First, we didn't actually interact all that long, maybe a year. At least he remembered me, I guess, which is fine. What I found particularly annoying about his comment, though, was the weird, casually passive aggressive tone he adopted in "remembering" our "falling out."
"As [he] recalls," I stopped visiting because I refused to accept overwhelming evidence against mythicism. In other words, I stopped coming because I am one of them evidence-denier mythicists, basically. In response to that I submit that his memory is a well of verbose creative hyperbole. I mean ... really? ... That's what he "remembers"? Could he be any less specific? I actually do remember the exchange that convinced me to give up on McGrath. He had published a review of a collection of essays published by Paul Eddy, The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Something McGrath said didn't jive with my understanding of Robert Price's arguments (I'm a long-time fan and reader, so I'm very familiar with his ideas). He credited some ridiculous claim about Tammuz (as I recall - the interested reader will have to do his own search of McGrath's blog and either prove me wrong or verify the specificity of my memory) to Price. It was so ludicrous that I decided to read the book being reviewed for myself. Sure enough, McGrath had facilely misrepresented Price. When I confronted him in a comment, he dismissed me and said he had not. Instead of listening to what I was trying to ask him, he stood his ground and just dismissed the question. It's McGrath's biggest weakness; he has a tendency to strawman every argument he opposes. Regardless, I didn't push the issue. I simply stopped coming. This is why in the recent exchange I responded:
No, James . . . we didn't have a falling out.
I merely stopped reading your blog altogether (without any fanfare whatsoever) when it occurred to me that you are willing to be dishonest in service of your agenda.
The curious thing about this now is ...
Why does what I think make you sad, or glad, or anything at all?
I think that you taking this condescending and patronizing attitude says more about you than it does about me, but I'm cool with letting whoever is reading along decide that for themselves.

This apparently spurred him on. He found it irresistible to continue his lambasting:
It is interesting that you think that writing as you do would not involve a falling out. Mythicists, like all purveyors of fringe ideas, have to resort to accusations of dishonesty, as they seem unable to grasp that, in scholarship, when someone wants to revive a long-abandoned view, or offer a new one, the onus is on them to make the case for it and to persuade their peers. If, having failed to do so, you resort to claims of dishonesty or other tactics involving conspiracy of scholars against you, I guess some in the public might actually fall for that claim, but academics won't, because we see it all the time from various cranks and fringe figures who prefer to insist that they are being treated unfairly, rather than consider the hard truth that their claims are unpersuasive.

That may be his experience of those nasty mythicists, but in this particular case, my accusation of dishonesty is very clear and specific, and it was the reason for my distancing myself from the Matrix. My accusation is not some general verbose hyperbolic rhetoric a la McGrath for the sake of some ulterior internal need to demonize him or scholarship. Mind you, this was a week after I started this blog, a blog I intend as a hub of brief dossiers on mythicists and their critics, and which therefore doesn't make a case for mythicism, but rather comments on individual scholars' ideas. Also, this was the first encounter we'd had in years. This was his reaction? Does he really see me as a mad-eyed krank just for starting a friggin blog on this topic? Does he really think it's an anti-scholar thing? There's a weird paranoia about it all. I think he needs a vacation from blogging.

At any rate, when I told him he was repeating himself he added:
Biologists often have to repeat themselves when responding to evolution-deniers. The response is often to ignore them, too.

Although I found this episode annoying and unnecessarily boorish, we were commenting on someone else's blog, and so I felt that to just drop the whole thing was the best course of action. But because he is arguably the most active "historicist" blogger out there currently, and because his number came up, and because this brief exchange is so illustrative of how I generally view McGrath's contributions to the mythicism din, I will use it as my springboard. The thing to realize about McGrath ... is ... he's dead serious. He really thinks that to doubt the historicity of Jesus is necessarily crazy, analogous to "creationism." (**see my recent post on that equivocation here.) He really thinks that there is some clear inviolable line of scholarship that he represents (and is defending in his chivalrous passive aggressive way) somehow. McGrath is a bigot, but not of the kind we are used to associating that word with. He's not a racist or a jingoist or anything like that, but he is, however, a perfect example of an elitist bigot.  It's "bigotry from authority."

The point to make here is ...
If you have a point, make it.
I don't really care much about how one feels about mythicists as much as I'm interested in why one thinks that specific arguments fail.

McGrath feels that mythicists don't grasp the basic premises involved. Fair enough. Here's the thing, though ... as a layman with no stake in the game (despite the horns McGrath may envisage beneath my cap), I see people like Doherty and Carrier and the folks at Vridar at least trying to have an intelligent conversation about some of the more problematic and/or dissonant aspects of Christian origins. These people are talking about serious things. At the same time, I see people like McGrath simply wanting to discredit these people in any way, treating these serious people like insolent clowns, even resorting to crying "Creationism!" which is a really infantile and disruptive tactic, a way to stop a discussion before it even starts.  The kind of antagonistic stance toward any hint of mythicism in McGrath's diatribes suggests that he sees mythicism as getting way too much attention, and, heaven forbid, he can't have dissenting scholars and freethinking laypeople who are ignorant enough to ask all of these really hard questions which are, it would seem, the rightful purview of proper mainstream academics. Lay people should keep their mouths shut on these matters, as should anomalous academic views (I guess).   "Don't worry, ma'am, we are scholars. We got this." McGrath tries to hide complexity with facile arguments. He keeps it all reductio-like. The problem with that is that in as convoluted a subject as this is, details are crucial, and having a ready-made eloquently rehearsed general appeal to authority at the ready is all fine and lovely, but it has nothing to do with the critical analysis of the material that is being so earnestly sought by those he dismisses as mere "creationists."

Now, I don't necessarily object to simplicity per se, and wouldn't necessarily fault McGrath if he wanted to keep the conversation pointed at the most relevant facts. I can certainly see value in that kind of simplicity. But that is not what he is doing. He is merely painting mythicists as irrational contrarians with a broad brush and then declaring the case closed. Despite the limitations of the methodologies involved in examining the issue, mythicists are making claims that can be tested against other, "historicist," models of origins, they can be compared and contrasted. We can question evidence. We can question the validity of contexts. But what we should not do is question someone (scary monsters) for asking these kinds of questions in the first place, or to presuppose that we have some hidden agenda. If you want to attack mythicists by saying that they go against a scholarly consensus, that's a valid enough point to make, but, essentially, what McGrath is trying to say in his smug grandstanding is that I don't have the right or the authority to ask these questions.

The only advise that can be given to those of us who have to deal with elitist bigotry of this kind is to stay focused. Although this blog post is technically about blogger McGrath, ... this is not about him ... and it's not about me either; this is about being able to have rational discussions about a problem. When I write a favorable post about Carrier or Brodie or Doherty or whoever, it's not because I necessarily subscribe to all they say or because they are flawless. No, it is because these people, the way I see it, sincerely want and seek reasoned conversation instead of the smarmy partisan elitist bigotry they get from McGrath. Those are the types of conversations I want to be having. Ego-free exchanges of ideas.
To this end, I think that we need to stand up to the arrogant elite and say,

"No, that 'I'm-the-scholar-so-shut-up' bullshit is not the kind of conversation we want to be having."

"No, you will not be allowed to get away with attempted character-assassination because it suits the impression you have of yourself as elite."

"You'll either learn to be intellectually honest or be made irrelevant. The evolution of the dissemination of information that the internet is in the process of opening wide open will not look kindly upon your arrogant ass."

I hadn't intended to compose such a long post. But there you have it, my honest assesment of McGrath's contributions to the discussion on historicity.

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Postscript: I guess all I really wanna add is that some of my favorite moments while reading the Vridar blog have been when McGrath has no idea that his "i-am-a-scholar" armor is all bloodied and riddled with arrows and bulletholes, reminiscent of the Black Knight in the famous Monty Python Holy Grail movie, when he has no idea that he's being slapped around (and by laymen at that!). He simply refuses to concede anything a mythicist might say.
It's almost pathological. 



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