The Historically Inconvenient Jesus
In my last brief post I offered a few reasons why I think Jesus was an historical
figure. I’ve been pilloried since by the same gaggle of mythtics who normally begin to cackle and crow every time someone reiterates the perfectly obvious suggestion that their cause is nothing more than a cobbling together of mutually contradictory premises, the full weight of which don’t amount to an argument.
For example, the mythtics like to remind us that the gospels are unreliable as history. That’s a bit like arguing that advertising is unreliable as science.
I don’t know too many New Testament scholars who would argue that the gospels are good history, and some (me among them) who would say that for the most part the gospels are totally useless as history. The gospels were written as propaganda by a religious cult. That impugns them as history, even at a time—the last decades of the first great Roman imperial century—when history wasn’t especially committed to recording what really happened in a dispassionate and disinterested way.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, it was thought that if you got rid of all the mythical and legendary bits of the gospels and dug down far enough, you’d end up with a body, or at least an empty tomb. Not everyone believed that, including some of the scions who advocated the process. In an article a few years ago I compared it to the much more modern embarrassment of excavating the body of John Henry Newman when the Church’s cause for sainthood required his exhumation.
Unfortunately, there was literally nothing left of poor Newman except a few damp scraps of his priestly garments—no bones to impose on the foreheads of cancer victims to seal the deal for the required second miracle. I also noted that the proof for Newman is nonetheless overwhelming: photographs, writings, family, the testimonies of friends who loved him and enemies who hated him. Newman’s empty tomb is no argument for no Newman. He is a good example of how absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence.
But the empty tomb of Jesus is a different sort of empty. To beg the question (that is, to assume his “causality” for a moment) his memory evoked a different kind of reaction. He wrote nothing. He said little that could be construed as original or memorable, so that almost everything attributed to him could have
come from other sources. We can point to a dozen “mystery” religions whose heroes had at best a shadowy existence, but probably none at all. And even though the dying/rising god cults differed pointedly from each other and from Christianity, it is pretty clear that Christianity after the time of St Paul fit the description of a salvation cult pretty well. It is hard to imagine Christianity surviving and spreading on the basis of Jesus’ teaching alone. That’s why Paul boasts that everything hinges on the resurrection of Jesus. I wrote a generation ago that “It was Jesus’ death, not his life, that saved him from obscurity” (Jesus Outside the Gospels) but in fact it was Jesus’ death dehistoricized and religionized by Paul and the resurrection traditions that really did the trick.
Given that there is (a) no reason to trust the gospels; (b) no external testimony to the existence of Jesus (I’ve never thought that the so-called “pagan” reports were worth considering in detail; at most they can be considered evidence of the cult, not a founder); (c) no independent Christian source that is not tainted by the missionary objectives of the cult and (d) no Jewish account that has not been invented or tainted by Christian interpolators, what is the purpose of holding out for an historical Jesus?
Simply put, it is the three “C”s: conditions, context, and coordinates. The political and religious conditions of the time of Jesus plausibly give us characters like Jesus. This is a tautology that has to be confronted. It is possible of course that Jesus was Joshua, that Jesus was Theudas, that Jesus was Judas the Galilean, that Jesus (at a chronological stretch) was bar Kochba, or that he was one of the “others coming in my name” that he is said to refer to in the gospels. But the gospels present a fortiori evidence that there was another figure, Jesus of Nazareth, who also meets the prescribed conditions, and that figure cannot be argued away through analogy. That is to say, why would an analogous figure be preferable to the figure described in the ancient texts? What criterion or canon do we use to defend that preference?
Second, context: We know that the general context of the gospels—the historical and cultural environment of the times and events as described–is right, though the writers makes mistakes, get dates wrong, misconstrue events, names and processes they’re not familiar with, and like other Hellenistic writers make things up they can’t possibly be around to have heard or witnessed.
In fact, it might seem at first flush a huge boost to the mythtic side that the gospels seem to pivot on the unheard, the incorrect and the incredible. But at no point does the context of the gospels sacrifice the centrality of its historical figure—not even when he acts as a healer, wonder-worker and magician—all of
which “professions” were recognized in the ancient world.
No doubt the mythtics will chortle and point to walking on water and ascending into heaven as violations of the “historical.” And what I have to say in reply won’t satisfy their objection: these legendary accretions are minimal, late and built on Hellenistic literary models that glorified military commanders and emperors. The Julio-Claudian period (45 BCE-68 CE) was famous for the apotheosis tradition, as we know not just from literary but from numismatic evidence. Enrollment with the gods, as Bowerstock has shown (1984) was practically demanded by the people and continued in popularity until the time of Septimus Severus in 185 CE. In the last case, an eagle was set free from the emperor’s funeral pyre to prove his ascent into heaven. The great man cult and the cult of Christ are parallels, another one of those cases where the contextual analogy favors historicity rather than the opposite.
But think of it this way: you decorate a Christmas tree, sometimes to the point where the tree becomes simply the mode for displaying the ornaments and lights. The tree is still there, branches and all. Hellenistic history works the same way.
When I read comparisons to the λειτουργεί of Heracles or the doings of Coyote on mythtic sites, I frankly have to shake my head in bewilderment. Is the point of this guessing to create an anthology of absurd, historically disconnected improbables?
The context of Jesus is clearly the context of first century Palestinian Judaism, mediated through the work of Hellenistic reporters, themselves Christian—members of the cult of Christ, the Jesus believers. The clues to understanding what people thought about him—even when they got it wrong or deliberately exaggerated what they knew or heard—does not give us a drama like ravings of the Hercules Oetaeus or the mysteries of Mithras or Persephone.
I have to say that when it comes to this single feature of mythicism I detect a singular intellectual deafness and lack of historical discrimination unlike anything we can imagine even in the worst mainstream scholarship.
If Jesus has a “parallel” worth considering, it was charted long ago–by the Christians themselves–in the tales about the Neo-Pythagorean teacher Apollonius of Tyana (15-100 CE) who suffered a similar legendizing fate at the hands of his sole biographer, Philostratus. But even with that, Apollonius largely survives his biographer as a plausible figure because of his context. The Apollonius inscription “apologizes” that his tomb, while it received his body did not contain it, since “heaven received him so that he might wipe away the pains of men.”
As with the case of political and cultural conditions, context cannot be thrown to one side as an inconvenience: for an argument against Jesus to work, the mythtics need to show how he violates rather than conforms to his historical environment. Instead, mythtics introduce totally alien contexts as templates for the understanding of a figure who doesn’t require foreign myths for an efficient explanation of his historical location.
Lastly, coordinates. I said in my previous post that Jesus can be situated between the end of the first century BCE and the end of the middle of the second century CE. His description comports with two events: rebellion against the temple cult by dissident elements, like Josephus’ “fourth sect,” and the ill-fated, last gasp effort of bar Kochba to redeem the lost city and its cult. A Jesus outside this specific matrix would make no sense—a sui generis apocalyptic preacher in an age of prosperity and contentment?
It is precisely because we can pinpoint the essential dates, figures, movements, factions and effects that Jesus does make sense: he parses. He does not come off as atypical, until such time as Paul makes him a transcendent, supra-historical figure sent to redeem the sins of the world. Paul is a figure of cultic significance who knows little about the man he is preaching, and even boasts that it doesn’t matter to him that he doesn’t (2 Cor. 5.16 ).
As to Jesus, the three c’s apply to Paul: He is the essential flim-flam man in an age of religious propaganda.
Mythtics however are fond of pointing to the “assured” result of Paul’s literary priority over the gospels. Repeatedly they return to the Christ-myth notion that a heavenly man was fleshed out as an historical figure.
But in my view there is no convincing argument that establishes that priority, and the disconnect between the two literary strands, gospel and epistle, is so sharp that it is impossible to conclude that a figment invented by Paul could have served as the literary model for the Jesus of a gospel like Mark’s. I hope in my forthcoming book to make clear how the connection was finally achieved–it’s not a simple story–but looked at from the standpoint of the history of the question I do not believe that the doctrine of Paul’s “priority” is a secure one. It is abundantly clear that Paul was aware of an historical figure and consciously set about to redefine him in supra-historical terms.
I think the fatal flaw for the mythtics is that they feel the need to go so far afield for answers that are much closer to home. I’ll save that salvo for a later time. At the end, let me just wonder out loud why it is that an historical Jesus is so problematical for the adepts of this group? What, to be blunt, is the problem?
An argument for historicity is not an argument for the divinity of Jesus—at least the kind of argument I am making. It is simply a way of making the best sense of the evidence. If the point is more metaphysical than that–there was no historical Jesus so Jesus cannot have been the son of God, or God himself–then I’d suggest that this discussion not belong to history but to polemic.
In a previous post from 2012, I reiterated the (deficient) S. J. Case-case against mythicism, reminding them that all it will take for them to succeed is a coherent, parsimonious and internally logical interpretation that makes better sense of what we’ve got than the prevailing view. What we normally get from mythtics instead is banshee shrieks and ad hominem howls when their unsightly smorgasbord of a “theory” is assailed.
But it should be assailed until and unless they can make it better, and until their attention can be diverted from Orpheus, Hercules, and Coyote to the time, place and chronology that has a bearing on the topic.
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