The Passion of the Christ-Deniers
he recent uptick of interest in the historical Jesus is fueled partly by a new interest in a movement that was laid to rest about seventy years ago, but has received a new lease of life from a clutch of historical Jesus-deniers. The rallying point for the group is a site maintained by a blogger by the name of Neil Godfrey, an Australian university librarian who, like many others who have assumed the position, comes from a conservative Christian background.
In the broadest terms, the movement feeds and thrives on the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never really existed. There are various permutations of that basic position: (a) That he was concocted lock, stock and cross by a second century religious movement that (also) produced the documents of New Testament; (2) He is a composite of semi-historical characters, but no one in particular; (c) He is the reworking of an assortment of ancient dying and rising god myths, a little from here, a little from there. There are sonata and fugue-like variations of these variations, but the central premise is that it is easier to explain the origin of Christianity without an historical founder than with one, and easier to explain the development of the New Testament as the work of garden variety story-makers, working out and reworking the myth of Jesus as the crowds began to come to the church door. If the gospel-writers were Hertz, Paul was Avis: he tried harder and finally won the competition to get the wobbly faith off the starting block. (The fact that Paul failed miserably even to secure his own reputation into the second century is an inconvenient bit of business for the mythicists.)
Much of their argument gets down to details, if not back of the fridge leftovers, and much of what I have had to say about the topic so far has been in clarifying these details. There will be plenty of scope to discuss the flaws and crevices in the “logic” of mythicism in my forthcoming book, though the book itself is about what we can reliably know about Jesus, not an assault on the Nichts da ist, und es gibt nichts zu wissen school.
I increasingly regard the “mythers” or “mythtics” or (more traditionally) “mythicists” as belligerent yahoos who behave like sophomores at an all-city debating contest. They are out to score (or claim to score) points against anyone suspected of what they label “historicism.” In case you are interested in what that word means when they humpty dumpty it, it means anyone who believes in or defends the proposition that Jesus was real.
I have grown to dislike the mythtics because they are fighting for a cause they don’t fully understand, based on evidence they can’t cipher for an objective they can’t reach. I know that in other contexts this might make them idealists or romantics, like Byron’s dying for Greek independence. But idealism and romanticism are usually defined in relation to objects and intentions. What are the objects and intentions of the mythicists? Why do they regard what they are doing as important? Is it out of some desire for truth—to get to the bottom of a case and see historical justice done. That would qualify as idealism. Or is it simply to make their opponents look mean-spirited and wrong by pursuing immoderate ends in the rashest way. That wouldn’t.
I regard them as hurtful because they are turning the serious question of Jesus of Nazareth’s existence into a farcical one.
Which raises the question I want to address here. Why is it so important to certain people that Jesus did not exist? Is it just the flip side of the importance of the premise that he did?
Before I get to that, however, a story.
The Roman historian Tacitus writing of the year 57 CE in his Annals (XIII.32,in about 114) discusses the trial of a certain Pomponia Graecina a Greek woman married to a Roman solider–Aulus Plautius who was decorated for his bravery in the British campaign. Pomponia had embraced what Tacitus calls a “foreign superstition” and was handed over to her husband for trial. Plautius found her innocent, together with some members of her family. Interestingly Tacitus does not directly mention that the foreign superstition was Christianity. The strong surmise that it was comes from later, third century inscriptions commemorating members of the gens Pomponia, who apparently led an austere life and like Pomponia dressed soberly (by the standards of the post-Neronian period)–”as though they were always in mourning” Tacitus says. Importantly the date of her trial and her (presumably earlier) conversion corresponds to the average dates for Paul’s missionary activities and his earliest letters but predates any involvement in Rome, which is thought to date from the late fifties or early sixties of the first century. Paul knows churches like the one Pomponia may have founded, but so did lots of missionaries preaching many different “gospels” during the same hyperactive period. The trial of Pomponia simply illustrates the heterodox and competitive environment in which these stories were fashioned, and Tacitus bears indirect and inadvertent testimony to it.
Seven years later, in Tacitus’s discussion of the Neronian persecution (Annals, XV, 44), the same xenophobia sets in: for a major fire probably caused by accident Nero blames a foreign sect “hated for their abominations, called Christians,” and then continues: ”Christus, from whom their name is derived was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.” He goes on, “Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out not only in Judaea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome, that cesspool of everything that is sordid and degrading.” He then describes the process by which people accused of belonging to the sect could be tried, a process for which there is strong evidence in the famous letter of Pliny the younger to Trajan some fifty years after Nero’s rule. The fire was real enough: four of the fourteen districts of Rome escaped the fire; three districts were completely destroyed and the other seven suffered serious damage. Christian forgers later tried to blame Nero; and in the second century Dio Cassius accused Nero of playing his lyre during a production of his favourite epic, the “Sack of Ilium” while the city was burning. It is Tacitus’s sober report that Nero was not in the city at the time and that when he saw the damage, paid for the relief efforts out of his own pocket (Annals, XV.39).
Mythtics spend a lot of time denying or countering evidence while always demanding more of it. Thus for example, they might want to say the following about the above passage: (1) It only goes to show that there was a movement called Christianity; (2) the fact there is a third century cult named after someone named Pomponia does not prove it was the same Pomponia; it might have been anyone; (3) Tacitus could have got the very basic information about the historical “location” of Jesus in relation to Tiberius and Pilate from Christians who had come to believe this (though probably not from literary sources); but why bother since (4) how do we know Tacitus really wrote this? Weren’t the Christians master forgers and interpolators? Didn’t they mess with purported references to Jesus in the work of Flavius Josephus? The best proof of which is that they made Jesus up.
Most historians would regard this treatment of sources not just absurd and flatfooted but dizzying in its circularity, especially as Tacitus died only a few years after the younger Pliny’s famous letter, written ca. 111 (Pliny jr. was a great admirer of Tacitus) and was born, according to the best evidence, in a year when Paul would have been missionizing the provinces and prior to any “first edition” of the gospels. That makes his scant but direct reference to Jesus significant, not least because it is entirely lacking a theological motif and seems conservatively Roman in its denunciation of the Christ cult as a “superstition” (lit. a new religion). His distaste for the actions of the faith will be echoed by Celsus, by Porphyry and even after the legitimation of Christianity under the final pagan emperor Julian.
Take a breath: and note well. No one is suggesting that a reference in Tacitus written at the end of 116 CE about events of 64 CE can be considered a clincher for the historical Jesus. However neither Tacitus nor Suetonius later, nor Celsus, nor Josephus if he mentions Jesus at all, raise the slightest doubt that Jesus was a flesh and blood character from their recent past. I repeat, their recent past. We have often established the irrefragable historicity of persons in the ancient world with much less to go on. In fact, the circumstantial proof for details of Tacitus’s own life are pretty scant; and they come from Pliny, who was soft on Christianity. What might we want to conclude from that? Please don’t write in with suggestions: it’s called irony.
The reason that the mythtics are determined to hide the evidence under their bed and then ask where it is seems to come from the darker regions of intentionality. So let me be direct.
It is important to them that Jesus should not exist. It is important to them in a way that the existence of Proclus or Anacreon or Alcibiades or even Socrates is not. The mythtics don’t want history, they want a victory. They don’t want serious discussion or best interpretation, they want to score points. Almost every discussion I have seen on their sites or mythtic-friendly atheist sites resembles nothing so much as the citizens of Lilliput trying to pin down a sleeping Gulliver with sewing thread, with lots of back-slapping and cheer-leading points presumed to be won against mainstream scholars with more…conservative ideas.
They don’t want there to be a historical Jesus because they think that if there wasn’t they have somehow zapped the “foul superstition” Tacitus describes right out of existence. No historical Jesus no son of God, no resurrection, no salvation, no final judgement, no heaven above or hell below. Christianity (do you hear me brothers and sisters?) is fucked. It is a lie built on a myth, sustained by dishonesty and fed to the ignorant. The historical Jesus is the key to exposing the falsehood of it all–including the deceit of the grandly glorious Roman Catholic church and the backwater Pentecostal assemblies who have made their reputation by poisoning minds and ruining lives with their fakery and dogma. The stakes are high, so the tactics have to be mean. This Jesus (myth) must die.
The agenda for the mythtics is as theological–or maybe better, evangelical– as the agenda of the Christian apologists: it’s a winner- take- all game based on the idea that Christianity is vulnerable on this score in roughly the same way that most atheists believe the existence of God is buggered by the classic problems of theodicy.
I anticipated the confusion of ends and means in a couple of essays in the collection Sources of the Jesus Tradition. The essays were primarily intended as orientation rather than scholarship, but I have reason to think that the mythtics didn’t give them much time. To make it easy, an early and less refined version of the lead essay, “Of Love and Chairs,” is available at The Bible and Interpretation. Ideally, it should give rise to discussion–but I am pessimistic that it will. It offers very little: it makes the pretty obvious point that the existence of God and the existence of Jesus are two different things unless (a) you believe Jesus is God or (b) you believe that a Jesus who did not exist cannot have been God, which might also have some impact on some ideas of God as well.
A serious discussion of the historicity of Jesus does not arise from either of those beliefs. The existence of Jesus is not a theological problem. It should not be motivated by events in our own religious biographies and experiences. It is not a case in metaphysics. It is an historical question that should be free of theological ends and metaphysical implications. Otherwise, it cannot be answered.