A Barely Historical Jesus
I read a blog written by Ian at Irreducible Complexity a day or so ago that attempts a useful feat: offering a typology of Jesus mythicism ranging from something he calls Jesus minimalism to maximal mythicism, with some shades and positions in between–postive, analogical, and methodological forms of the approach. It’s a nice try (though, oddly, it seems to owe a lot to the Wiki on Jesus Mythicism) to bring some coherence to a process that he cleverly describes as trying to “nail jelly to the wall.”
Typologies are useful things, and there’s no doubt that people have different levels of confidence in the primary artifacts for knowing anything about Jesus.
It’s also true that people will come to these artifacts with different ideas of how they should be handled: with kid gloves, if your approach is overly theological or apologetic, or a sandblaster if you think the whole structure is a tissue of lies.
One of the reasons I am not yet prepared to endorse a typology is that, for the most part, the mythtics deal with the issue like my teenage daughter dealt with a soft-drink dispenser at Burger King when she was twelve: Mix ‘n blend. Who knows? It might come out ok and you’ll definitely come out with something.
New Testament scholars used to practice something that might be called “respectful realism” with regard to the gospels. They knew that what they had in front of them wasn’t purely history, but they also believed that the documents served a dual function, only one of which was (and inadvertently so) to provide historical information. That is because until relatively recently the study of the New Testament was a branch of theology, and almost everyone who practiced the craft did so in a seminary or university faculty of theology. Only in 1934 did Harvard make it possible to study religion outside the precincts of its divinity school, and to this day scholarship in the area ranges from the credulous and parochial to the critical and secular, a result never more clear than at annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature whose membership ranges from well-coifed preacher-men to bearded skeptics.
An early twentieth century example of the faithful-realist approach was Adolph Harnack’s essentialism in Das Wesen des Christentums; a later twentieth century example was Bultmann’s existential reprogramming called “demythologizing,” based on an important essay called “The New Testament and Mythology.” Both were essentially theological–or if you prefer, religious–in character, but they both confronted honestly the unavoidable fact that the worldview of the time of Jesus has to be discarded in the modern period.
That meant that the things that were believed and said about Jesus weren’t “true” in the ordinary sense of the word, as science had come to define truth for us. But (and this is where the Grand Division began) they might be “true” in some other sense, given a clutch of clever theologians to define it. The Bible, so the axiom went in the German faculties, was the Church’s Book. Its usefulness as secular history was secondary, limited and even negligible.
This partitioning had already come to be encapsulated in Martin Kähler’s 1892 slogan “the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history,” a slogan that seemed to suggest that no verdict on the latter would sink the former. To say, as did some radical critics who remained theologians, that Jesus did not exist, or that he did but we don’t know anything about him, did not change the reality of the Church and Christian belief: the Bible remained the Church’s book and what it proclaimed could be proclaimed without benefit of history. In retrospect, the defensiveness of this position seemed doomed from the outset, and it has usefully been called the fideism of the modern era–a salute to the more supernaturalistic fideism of the medieval world.
But the view did not die. Bultmann’s view and the agenda of his pupils was bolstered by Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, (phenomenology), and later was enlarged with the deconstructionist and postmodern approaches to narrative that followed. First and foremost, it was maintained that the New Testament is a discourse, not an artifact like–say–the Code of Hammurabi. It speaks to readers and listeners. It speaks to people who will interpret its message differently and act on it in different ways. Its meaning therefore doesn’t reside in its recitation of facts but in its overall effect and in the “dialectical distance” between the reader or listener and the text, read or spoken. Whatever remained of Jesus was safely locked away in the trendy word “proclamation” (κήρυγμα) and the nice thing about kerygma is that the New Testament uses it to talk about people who talked about Jesus (Luke 4:18-19; Romans 10:14; Matthew 3.1). Let the hermeneutical circle be unbroken. The demythologizers responded to Schweitzer’s idea that the mistake of scholarship had been to make Jesus a man of our time rather than a figure of his own time by promoting a reinterpretation of the ancient “message” that made the historically embarrassing figure optional.
Though I was trained by Bultmann’s closest pupils, I am not especially worshipful of phenomenology or its literary effects. I am even less happy with the way in which a whole generation of NT scholars was forced to dance on the head of a pin to avoid challenging the schizophrenic faith/history solution to the Jesus problem.
Very few reached the level of sophistication of my late friend and colleague Michael Goulder, but many came close: Norman Perrin, Robert Grant, Martin Dibelius, Ernst Kaesemann, Dennis Nineham, Dieter Georgi, John Fenton, Gerd Luedemann–the list is long and international. Virtually all were trained as theologians; all would have agreed that historical questions must be kept apart from theology when the questions we are asking are historical. To say that the status of a book limits us to asking certain kinds of questions about it gives us gnosticism at an intellectual level and anarchy at a methodological level. New Testament scholarship has done its bit to ensure the triumph of both. I have discussed the myth-thesis with some of the leading lights of twentieth century scholarship, and the number of times the discussion ended on the word “irrelevant” or “outdated” is distressing. To me, it remains an interesting question, even though I am fairly certain that Jesus was not a figment of a first century writer’s overactive religious imagination. My reasons for saying so have nothing to do with theology.
Unfortunately some of the loudest advocates of mythicism are making the question less interesting. They are making it less interesting partly because they deride before they read, and partly because they are committed to an obnoxious and sophomoric debating style that puts serious discussion at jeopardy. While they toss around words skimmed from logic primers and snippets of “scholarship” (largely robbed from atheist and free thought websites dealing with early Christianity), it’s clear that they are simply out to score points, which becomes far easier when you are unable to recognize when points are scored against you–a situation enhanced by an internet culture in which the last commenter always wins. No one wants the internet to be less smart. But everyone wants it to be smarter. As a group, the mythicists have proven themselves happier in the echo chamber of their own beliefs than in a world where a real interchange of ideas can happen.
What worries me in the discussion of mythicism is that the apical matter–whether Jesus existed–has been shoved into the foreground with virtually no attention to the prior history of the problem. There are occasional salutes to Schweitzer and a few radical critics like Bruno Baur and Arthur Drews, but the great movements in New Testament scholarship are ignored or uncharted, while the serious limitations of liberal and radical scholarship (Schweitzer’s conclusions, heavily infused with a zwischen den Zeiten idealism, are today regarded as church history) are not acknowledged.
The overall effect of this omission is something like trawling through the attic, finding the trunks full of Great Aunt Betsy’s clothes charming, and wondering why people don’t dress like that anymore. Begin with the conspiracy view that the Church used theology to suffocate mythicism (rather than the real course of events: theological scholarship created the question) and the rediscovery of mythicism becomes a heroic, proto-atheist achievement. If the older New Testament scholarship had a “faith-problem,” the faith problem of the new mythicism is its commitment to acknowledging only the arguments that support their conclusion. Obviously this is a definition of apologetics, not scholarship.
Mythicism didn’t collapse because it was suppressed–-it thrived as a sub-genre in early twentieth century theology, even in newspapers. It collapsed under its own weight, and its nostalgic reintroduction seems doomed to repeat the same fatal errors that killed it the first time round. In the case of Drews (d.1 935), who hated everything, especially Jews and Nietszche, the motives for being a mythicist were highly political (just as Albert Kalthoff needed the “idea” of Jesus to be, in some sense, real in order to make sense of the community). In the case of the older and dejected Strauss (d. 1874), it was to permit Christianity to live as a poem after recognizing its failure as history. Almost none of the early mythicizers were driven by atheism; almost all were left-Hegelian spiritualists and idealists who were looking for something that could take the place of the historical faiths. The sloppiest of them, Drews, was a self-promoter who enjoyed the fight.
In fact any kind of typology is inadequate as a statement of the mythtic case as it stands, or has stood, but might be useful as a statement of attitudes toward evidence.
I, for instance, am not a Jesus minimalist. I am relatively uninterested in the question of his existence, but if he existed he would be typical of his day and I am very interested in his day.
It is false to say however that the argument for Jesus’ historicity is merely circumstantial. For an argument to be circumstantial there would need to be a lack of direct evidence of an event; conclusions would be drawn entirely from the coincidence of effects and prior events.
The evidence for Jesus is much stronger than that, in spite of its deficiencies. Moreover, it has context, conditions and coordinates as defining parameters, so if Jesus typifies or meets certain criteria in these domains, the probability of his being a real person and not a cipher are greatly increased. I am startled by comparisons to Superman, Hercules, Santa Claus, and a dozen other gods and heroes, precisely because these figures fall outside the category of the typical. It is not just that their stories are incredible but that they are incredible in a way designed to emphasize their departure from an historical norm. The New Testament serves a different purpose.
So, in a nutshell, the artifacts we possess, whatever their limitations as “evidence” are not circumstantial evidence but the sort of evidence many historians would like to have in the case of other well-known figures like Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana.
Even if an “original” myth-maker existed who invented Jesus lock stock and barrel, it would not make the artifact-nature of these documents different; it would only mean that the story he is telling is an untrue story. It would in turn raise the question of why a messiah maker would not use more of what Arnold called the “raw miraculous” as we find it in (e.g.) the stories of Asklepios and even in tales about Diogenes and Pythagoras. Since we know from gnostcism that there were self-conscious myth-makers prepared to create a Jesus who laughed at death and scorned social attachments, why is the Jesus of the gospels, by and large, both intensely social and unarguably human? However, if the story is true, in terms of at least some of its historical assertions, then there would be no reason to be a Jesus “minimalist.” It would provide good reason to assume that other assertions are true as well. The modalities are clear: Either Jesus lived or he did not live. He taught or he did not teach. If he did not teach, and if a body of beliefs associated with that teaching and his deeds and person had not arisen, there would be no record of his having lived. Everything therefore depends on the status of the record purported to be, in part, an account of his life. If there is minimal agreement on anything, there should be agreement on that.
I am still waiting for some proof from the mythtics that the story is concocted, either out of thin air or as an amalgam of competing myths, not many of which look very much like the Jesus story at all. As comparative religionist Jonathan Z. Smith has noted concerning the “prevalence” of the dying and rising god myth, it isn’t prevalent at all; it’s “largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.” So out of fashion is the category that modern classicists, religionists, and historians avoid it altogether, and it survives largely in the imagination of amateurs whose views are formed by outdated nineteenth century speculations. Gregory Boyd puts it succinctly when he comments that often there is either no death, no resurrection or no god in the examples used to construct each of the examples in the category, making the whole exercise a bad case of what Gerald O’Collins has called “parallelomania.” The mere compilation of analogies has always been the quicksand into which mythicism disappears. It is their attempt to prove–entirely circumstantially–that if something besides Jesus was there to be used it was used. One dying and rising god is like every other rising god. One salvation story fragments into a dozen salvation stories, one of which is the gospel.
The problem with this line of thinking, as I suggested in a post yesterday, is that simple logic and parsimony require us to use what we know before we resort to what might have been. When there is a known figure who typifies his era, preaches things typical of his time and place, and lives and dies in a context plausible for the time, what possible reason would there be –apart from pure malice–to introduce a completely foreign explanation–a Hercules or Dionysus–into the mix. Closer to home, as we know more about Jesus than we do about Theudas or Judas the Galilean, what reason do we give for preferring other identities and activity to the activity described of Jesus. Increasingly the far reaches of mythicism begin to sound more like the wingnut birtherism that declared Barack Obama was born in Kenya and the report of his birth called into a Honolulu newspaper in prescient anticipation that one day he would need the right stuff to be president.
The circle circles: Because the gospels are unreliable. Because the gospel writers were making things up. Because the early Christians needed a saviour god story after Paul (who in some circles is also made up!) to rival the stories of the other mysteries. I often quote Morton Smith’s rejoinder to George Wells, that the Jesus of the mythtics is unbelievable far beyond anything we find in the gospels. But I do want (earnestly) to understand their reasoning, because on the face of it, it seems not just paper thin but dangerous.
Until that reasoning is made clear, person to person and camp to camp, any attempt at typology is premature.
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