CPBD 046: James McGrath – The Golden Rule and Historical Method

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 13, 2010 in Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview Bible scholar James McGrath. Among other things, we discuss:

  • The implications of evolution for Christian doctrine
  • “Golden Rule” historical method
  • How technology is changing scholarship
  • How Jesus Myth theory is like Creationism
  • Christianity, Sherlock Holmes, Scooby-Doo, and LOST
  • If fundamentalists are wrong about supernaturalism, is it worth keeping religious language to talk about the mysteries of human experience?

Download CPBD episode 046 with James McGrath. Total time is 1:12:07.

mcgrathJames McGrath links:

Links for things we discussed:

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven Carr June 13, 2010 at 10:18 am

‘How Jesus Myth theory is like Creationism’

So where are the web sites with detailed rebuttal of mythicist arguments?

McGrath can’t refute mythicists, so he resorts to name-calling and distortion.

When he should be able just to refute mythicist arguments the way creationists are refuted.


Reginald Selkirk June 13, 2010 at 11:34 am

He seemed to rankle a bit when you referred to Christian miracles as “magic.”


Lee A.P. June 13, 2010 at 11:35 am

I think one of the best things about this podcast is that I have found so many Christian academics out that that I really like and respect even though I disagree with them.


nonexistentpuppies June 13, 2010 at 11:45 am

Re McGrath’s rhetoric about Mythers are like Creationists; does this then mean that all ‘mainstream’ historical Jesus scholars believe in the theory of evolution? The scientific theory that pretty much destroys any requirement for Jesus to come down to earth and wipe clean the sins of the world caused by Adam, who evolutionary theory says probably didn’t exist?

Anyway, if the evidence of one individual 2000 years ago found in four anonymous documents and the gargantuan amounts of empirical evidence from countless scientific fields (the theory of evolution) were in any way comparable, perhaps McGrath’s analogy would be useful.


lukeprog June 13, 2010 at 11:54 am


McGrath did not say Jesus Myth theory is similar to Creationism in all respects. He said Jesus Myth theory is like Creationism in one or two attributes, which he specified.


lukeprog June 13, 2010 at 11:56 am

Glad to hear it, Lee A.P.


Steven Carr June 13, 2010 at 12:23 pm

So McGrath has nothing better to offer than cheap insults.

Look at the differences between Mythicism and Creationism.

When Creationists claim there is no evidence for transitional fossils, they are battered with data.

When Mythicists claim there is no evidence for Judas, Joseph of Arimathea, Thomas,Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Salome, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Bartimaeus, Jairus, Martha,Barabbas , they are battered with the idea that this is irrelevant, that history does not work that way, that serious scholars do not consider such questions…


Steven Carr June 13, 2010 at 12:38 pm


This is an interesting article in the Guardian showing that you do not have to exist to be the founder of a Christian sect.


Zak June 13, 2010 at 12:50 pm


I love your interviews, but I find them hard to listen to when you split the audio.


Hansen June 13, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I also wish that you would not split up the voices between the two speakers. It actually reduces the listening experience – especially when using headphones.


Jon Hanson June 13, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I agree with Zak, I’m used to listening to my ipod in one ear only so for ten minutes I couldn’t figure out what was going on.


lukeprog June 13, 2010 at 5:12 pm


Thanks. It wasn’t intentional. It will be fixed after the next few episodes, which I have already mixed and uploaded.


Chemical Jeff June 13, 2010 at 6:47 pm

I really enjoyed this interview, though I’m confused as to how James can classify himself as a Christian (or why he would want to). I get the impression that he doesn’t believe in a supernatural realm, the resurrection of Jesus, divine intervention etc. I can understand why one might want to retain the “culture” and “explanatory language” of Christianity, but why is it necessary to retain the Christian label? Whether fair or not, the consensus definition of a Christianity specifies that the “Christian” accepts Jesus’ supernatural resurrection. Wouldn’t it be easier to just avoid the Christian label altogether? Or at least clarify it as something like “cultural Christianity”?

His blog post (linked below) sheds a little light on this question, but it also seems purposefully vague.



lukeprog June 13, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Chemical Jeff,

Your questions are exactly what James and I discussed toward the very end of the interview…


anon June 13, 2010 at 9:28 pm

I thought the review was very interesting and I enjoyed hearing McGrath’s insights.

In the end, though, I agree with Chemical Jeff. Towards the end of the interview, when Luke asked McGrath how he could be a Christian when he was all about “demythologizing”, McGrath started to get frustratingly evasive and vague.

It sounded like McGrath was suggesting, though not explicitly saying, something like this: He thinks that no supernatural stuff ever happens. He doesn’t think Jesus didn’t rose from the dead. God never acts in the world or interacts with it. But McGrath is still a Christian because he continues to use “Christian language.” He still utters sentences like ‘God exists’ and ‘Jesus rose from the dead’. That is what is important to him. That is what makes him a Christian.

If that is what McGrath was suggesting, then that is just silly bullshit. For me, the important question is about whether or not God exists etc and not about whether we continue uttering certain sentences. Maybe that is not McGrath’s position. But it sure sounded like that was what he was saying.

What a disappointing ending to such an interesting interview.


anon June 13, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Whoops. When I said “I thought the *review* was very interesting…” I meant “I thought the *interview* was very interesting…”


anon June 13, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Also, “He doesn’t think Jesus didn’t rose from the dead.” should just be “He doesn’t think Jesus rose from the dead.” Sorry for the poor editing job.


Atheist.pig June 14, 2010 at 12:43 am

This is an interesting article in the Guardian showing that you do not have to exist to be the founder of a Christian sect.

Lol, that’s a good one.

This is the first time I’ve heard James McGrath but he’s the type of Christian intellectual that I respect and enjoy listening to. Similar to John Haught or Lorenzo Albacete who you should try to get on the show also. On his point about maybe we should call the unknown or the mysterious “God”, Stuart Kauffman essentially said the same thing at the beyond belief conference a couple of years ago, although it didn’t go down well with the audience. Great interview Luke.


Atheist.pig June 14, 2010 at 1:18 am

Reinventing the sacred paper by Kauffman on Edge website.

Reinventing the sacred talk by Kauffman at University of Vermont.


Steven Carr June 14, 2010 at 2:28 am

Richard Carrier was on last week. His new book will explain why the historical methods used by James McGrath simply don’t work.

We all know that they don’t work as historical studies of Jesus have crashed and burned for a hundred years or more now, to the extent that people write books documenting the failures.

So why is McGrath allowed to call himself an historian when the methods he used to write his book on the Burial of Jesus simply don’t work?


raichel June 14, 2010 at 2:43 am

Great interview!! Thoroughly enjoyed it! I am also confused as to why he calls himself a Christian. I follow what he was saying at the end of the interview and can appreciate his reasons to some degree but to me it boils down to wanting to remain part of a community that you feel comfortable in. As someone who has doubts about the resurrection and Jesus being God if I come to the conclusion that I can’t believe these things anymore I can’t imagine not feeling like a big phony if I continued to call myself a Christian, not to mention the frustration of trying to explain my position to both believers and non believers.


Atheist.pig June 14, 2010 at 3:10 am

As someone who has doubts about the resurrection and Jesus being God if I come to the conclusion that I can’t believe these things anymore I can’t imagine not feeling like a big phony if I continued to call myself a Christian…

I wouldn’t call it being a phony raichel since he’s being open and honest about his beliefs and philosophical position. Karen Armstrong says the heavy focus on “belief” in religious traditions is a relatively recent phenomena.


raichel June 14, 2010 at 3:47 am

point taken atheist.pig
perhaps it is my fundamentalist christian roots that causes me to see it this way. and the knowledge that all my christian friends and family would not be able to reconcile my lack of belief, in what they view as so fundamental to being a christian, and me still considering myself to be a christian.


Reginald Selkirk June 14, 2010 at 5:18 am

Karen Armstrong says the heavy focus on “belief” in religious traditions is a relatively recent phenomena.

Does she? And yet oddly, burnings at the stake for heresy are fewer now than in the olden days, at least in the Christian fold.


Haukur June 14, 2010 at 5:30 am

Shorter McGrath: The story of the resurrection of Jesus is not a historical fact but a myth that we need to find new interpretations of in the light of our modern understanding of the world, oh and also, the story of the crucifixion of Jesus is a historical fact and not a myth – only silly non-peer-reviewed people advocate that.


Chris June 14, 2010 at 12:09 pm

The Garden of Eden is a story about people growing up? Seems like a pretty bad metaphor. I don’t remember a point in my childhood when I was given the commandment to not grow up (don’t eat of the tree!) or a choice to not grow up (by refraining from eating of the tree). Nor have I ever considered the hardships of adult life to be punishment for “choosing” to grow up. Nor did I interpret puberty as a desire “to be as gods.” Nor did I see the world as “very good” (pre-Fall Creation) before I grew up (I was young, but I wasn’t stupid)…

No, that will not do. Call it a myth and leave it at that. It is not relevant to our lives.


Devlin June 16, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Great podcast. I enjoyed the interview. Very interesting and funny.

I loved the part on Scooby Doo. I’ve long thought that Scooby was sadly the ONLY show in popular culture where the skeptics of superstition we’re ever given the chance to be proven right. Every show I can think of where there is some conflict between rationalism and superstition, the man of faith (to use a LOST reference) is ALWAYS right. Look at LOST, Battlestar Galactica, the X-Files and so on. Couldn’t Scully be right, just once? Please? Only Scooby Doo is the show that lets Velma give a rational naturalistic explanation for any mystery. Also the common theory about why, Scooby and Shaggy are always jumping to the wrong conclusion every single time, regardless of how many times they discovered a ghost was a guy in suit who would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids was because they were pot heads. They always had the munchies and we’re paranoid and you know had a talking dog.

Thanks for the great work, what happened with the counter apologetics podcast you started?


lukeprog June 16, 2010 at 1:41 pm


Too busy for the other podcast right now, but it may return.


Devlin June 17, 2010 at 8:31 am


I thought that was the case about the counter-apologetic podcast. The time crunch with you great blog and pale blue dot podcast must be pretty heavy. But after reading the Trivial Hobbies post, you should stop playing those darn games and make more podcasts to entertain us! :-)

Thanks for all your great work.


lukeprog June 17, 2010 at 8:52 am


I don’t play videogames. Remember, Alonzo is the author of the ‘trivial hobbies’ post, as explained in the first paragraph.


dgsinclair June 17, 2010 at 9:28 am

Wow, this guy is frustratingly liberal on so many levels – smart, yes, but I find him wrong or misleading on many of the topics discussed.

1. Clergy Letter Project and Evolution

Next there will be the Clergy Homosexuality project. Error has no lack of supporters from the ‘clergy’ or academia. While I don’t think creationism is a central tenet for Christian faith, I find it amazing that so many are brainwashed into thinking that evolutionary theory is ‘strongly supported’ by science. But I am not surprised, and gave what I consider to be the psychological and social reasons why many feel so strongly about the verity of evolution in Mass Delusion – 10 Reasons Why the Majority of Scientists Believe in Evolution.

Evolution is a nice world view and myth of origins, but it hardly qualifies as useful science. Plenty have written books, including

2. Guilt by association on the interpretation of ‘yom’

If that is the term he was using in his example, it doesn’t matter of some YEC is not a biblical scholar – McGrath seems to be saying that anyone who is educated will agree with his interpretation, and those who disagree are morons like the guy who could not recognize Greek. Cute story to mock opponents, but not logical argumentation or a good example – just an example of his insulting view that YECs are ignorant “of science, history, and theology.”

3. Biblical economics, politics, and science

I think this attack on Christians who are rightly seeing faith as a full-orbed world view, and actively pursuing social and political change is mostly off the mark. To say that Jesus was a republican (or a democrat), of coure, might be off the mark, but to say that Jesus would support socialized medicine because it ‘helps orphans and widows” is no more pious than saying “Jesus would be pro-life” for the same reasons.

And the only reason that Christianity in America has become associated with the GOP in recent years is that Christians had to choose one of the viable parties, and the Democrats have moved so far away from Biblical mores regarding sexuality, the sancitity of life, and economics, that Christians naturally gravitated to the GOP. And as you can see with the current Tea Party movement, the right is no longer happy with GOP members who go soft on conservative, biblical values, showing that their allegiance is to principle and NOT to the party.

4. Justice and concern for the poor

The other problem with your guest’s mostly bogus criticism of evangelicalism and social concern is that it seems to only take into consideration the political side of Christian social involvement – he failed to recognize that evangelicals do PLENTY for widows and orphans, not least of which is in providing homes for unwed mothers, running soup kitchens, etc.

Arthur Brooks’ book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism demonstrated pretty clearly that these “political evangelicals” give and do more charitable work across the board than liberal critics like your guest.

5. YECs providing an outlet for those who want to feel like “faithful minority”

OMG, this is some of the worst psychologizing I’ve heard in a long time. You might as well apply this to any minority opinion. Pro life, gay marriage, whatever. Time to grow up. How frustrating to hear an educated person resort to such nonsense.

As a YEC sympathizer, I’ll tell you why we like YEC perspectives.

1. We are not convinced that evolution has merit. At best, evolutionists haven’t made their case to the public. At worst, and as we YECs suspect, they are blinded by their need for a naturalistic myth of origins, and have convinced themselves that evolution is true – not based on data, but on their own need for a mythical framework.

2. We doubt the scientific community’s objectivity and ability to do proper dating. In part, this is due to the abuses of C14 dating, coupled with the many proposed ‘missing links’ which, a couple years later, all seem to fade into oblivion as they are reclassified as simian (e.g. Lucy).

We also understand that most dating methods are based on certain assumptions, which could easily be wrong. With regard radiodating, for example, our calculations are only true if (a) the original rations are known (we have to guess at that), (b) the decay rate has been constant (c-decay was a popular theory which we haven’t seen definitively debunked), and (c) no C14 was introduced during the intervening years.

Interestingly, if you change any of these in the most reasonable direction (based on known physical laws), they end up making the universe and earth younger. Or so we YECs assume ;)

3. We are not willfully ignorant, as many liberal theologians are, of the theological implications of evolution. While a harmony between evolution and Christianity is always being proposed (c.f. Francis Collins and his Logos project), we (rightly) view these attempts as quite strained. I find the theological implications of evolution to be clearly inconsistent with biblical theology and cosmology.

You can read more in my posts:
Why Most Evangelicals Don’t Like Evolution
Can Darwinism Provide a Positive Moral Framework?
Evolution and Religion: Not Compatible?
13 Misconceptions About Evolution

More later if I have time.

Arthur Brooks’ Who Really Cares – The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism demonstrated pretty clearly that these “political evangelicals” do more across the board than liberal critics like your guest.


Sabio Lantz June 21, 2010 at 3:03 am

Luke, well done.

Unlike others, I find James McGrath’s answers largely satisfactory even if I do not use his religious language. In fact, though an Ex-Christian, I think I use Buddhism in ways he still uses Christianity to work with the “depth, richness and mystery” of our lives.

I do feel atheists don’t need any religious language to do that, however.


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