Unquesting the Mythical Jesus

The Jesus Process

1.  Plausibility and Possibility

In a few previous posts I’ve talked about the weight of “plausibility” in assessing arguments for the historicity of Jesus. A few commenters have correctly said that plausibility is not evidence. That’s true.  No one said it  was.

Plausibility is a precondition for managing the kinds of information that would be suitable for discussing a character like Jesus of Nazareth.  A plausible cabbage is a cabbage that is not being passed off as a cucumber.  Socrates–even without much evidence for his existence, outside dialogues attributed to him by a pupil whose dates and specifics are also sketchy–is typical of a range of fifth century Athenian philosophers.  He is thus plausible as Herakles is not. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Clark Kent were contemporaries in 1938; only one is plausible.

It is the minimal distinction between what is typical and what is unusual (or, strictly, incredible) that permits us to raise questions about plausibility. It’s true that a good writer can invent plausible figures, but in fact the characteristic of literature called verisimilitude (roughly, “believability”)  in its evolved form (realism) is a feature of modern literature that grows out of particular schools of writing–especially naturalism in fiction. Dreiser’s departure from Victorian novels of manners and morals in Sister Carrie (1900) is a good example. In the previous history of fiction, characterization was often stereotyped to reflect the moral or ideological prescriptions of the day. The raison d’etre of a literary or dramatic figure was to represent a virtue,  a vice, a fate, or teach a lesson–until relatively recently.  One of the incidental reasons to think that the Jesus of the gospels is not a stock or contrived figure is the lack of literary unity with respect to his character.  While countless scholars have seen this feature (including Schweitzer)  as “mysterious”, it is probably merely a function of inconsistencies among traditions.

In Aristotle’s era, dramatic heroes like Agamemnon or Odysseus possessed what was called “magnitude” (μέγεθος) or larger-than-lifeness, not life-likeness, even though he specifies a “grounding in reality” as the basis for all good dramatic art, which he regarded as an imitation (mimesis) of reality. Even plausible figures in ancient literature tend to be  highly constructed, and in cases where the figure is typically heroic–Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus, for example–the artifice of the writer and artificiality of the figure are transparent.  A writer with the skill to make a Jay Gatsby or a Bruce Babbitt as opposed to a stock figure like Lucian’s Peregrinus (who may have been historical) would have been implausible in himself.

To say that Jesus is a plausible figure is thus merely to say the following: (1) His description fits the historical matrix from which it comes; (2) Allowing only for the credulity of writers and listeners of the time, there is nothing especially surprising about this description that would cause us to conclude it is fabricated or composed from assorted myths and legends, and (c) Lacking any positive grounds for thinking that the figure was invented through the fraudulence or malice of legend-spinners, it is more economical to think that it is a story (not an historical record) based upon the life and work of an historical individual. Saying only this and no more is saying that we prefer plausible explanations to more extravagant ones: that is what Occam’s razor requires us to do–to utilize and exploit the possibilities before us before spinning off into other possibilities that do not arise organically from the material in front of us and its closest known correlates.

The first “great” naturalistic novel, 1900

2. The Hegelian ‘Fallacy’

The older and more extravagant forms of mythicism came to light out of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, associated with the German universities, especially Göttingen and Tübingen. The names of the leaders of the school–Bernard Duhm, Albert Eichhorn , Hermann Gunkel, Johannes Weiss, Wilhelm Bousset, Alfred Rahlfs, Ernst Troeltsch, William Wrede and others–are known, primarily, only  to scholars.

 Most of the group (never really a school) were German protestant theologians, though they eventually had Catholic sympathizers like Alfred Loisy and a few so-called Catholic modernists.  Wrede (d. 1906) is perhaps the most famous of the lot for his work on the so-called “messianic secret” in the gospel of Mark, arguing that many elements of the gospel tradition were secondary and rationalistic– that the real source of Christianity’s success is a mythological interpretation of the life of Jesus rather than the teaching of Jesus ( “another backwater Jewish sect”) and other equally controversial ideas that were considered radical in their time.

The radicals and left Hegelians, like the history of religions club, were influenced by the idea that history moves in predictable patterns, under the influence of recombinant conditions (Zeitgeist  that shapes, alters,  synthesizes and recreates “ideas.”)  The Zeitgeist was, of course, a metaphysical construct but was often spoken of as though it was a real factor of change.  Hegel describes it as much:

Spirit does not toss itself about in the external play of chance occurrences; on the contrary, it is that which determines history absolutely, and it stands firm against the chance occurrences which it dominates and exploits for its own purpose. (Phenomenology of Spirit)

It is impossible to overstate the influence of the rival interpretations of Kantian and Hegelian philosophy on the New Testament scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  I mention it here because one of the results of that influence was to assume that “history” is a form of ideological coalescence, a process where events and personalities invest other ideas, personalities and events to create the contexts in which we live–our “present.”  Truth resides in a complex outcome driven by the spirit of time and simplicity is hardly achievable at all as the flux continues.  For the same reason, the “original” idea is not as important as the unevolved idea: what stands at the end of the process, however temporary, is what is intended, “how things are.”

Hegelianism made its energy felt in fields as removed as geology, biology, archaeology, theology and philology: it gave us words like “evolution” and “syncretism,” and even “synthesis” in its modern usage. Even the conservative John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman wrote his famous 1878 essay “On the Development of Christian Doctrine” under its spell.  The belief that a single-monistic God directed the course of the world gave way to the belief in processes molding and remolding phenomena according to an”absolute” purpose.   Even early views of natural selection could be described as telic and purposive rather than “accidental” using Hegel’s idea of spirit and purpose as the unseen forces of change in history.

The application of Hegelian ideas  to theology and to biblical studies was simultaneous as the areas were taught in parallel fashion in the German faculties. The first doctrine that came under scrutiny was “inspiration”– whether the New Testament was a sui generis book delivered whole-cloth through divine revelation to inerrant scribes, or whether like other historical monuments it could be read and seen as a document of its time.  Slowly and irrevocably, Hegelian principles began to gnaw away at the doctrine of divine authorship  The notion that there were lots of messiahs  lots of saviors  lots of resurrections  and lots of parallels between Christianity and other ancient religions was exciting stuff in the theological lecture halls of 19th century Germany. If you can imagine what sexy scholarship looked like circa 1850, think Göttingen and Tübingen.

On the one hand, it was no longer possible to say that Jesus was unique, or even very different from his Jewish context.  On the other, more Hellenistic side, it was no longer possible to see the Christian salvation myth as entirely different from other salvation myths.

As an uneven amalgam of these two traditions (not to mention, a cake- batter blend of the two in certain sections of the fourth gospel), it was tempting to conclude that the Jesus problem could be solved using Hegelian tools. That is what Strauss’s disciples thought  and later what Baur and Drews in Germany and a few radical Dutch and American scholars began to believe. In a word, they bought versions of the Hegelian “conglomerate” model hook, line and sinker, thinking that only theological conservatism prevented their colleagues from acknowledging the composite and basically artificial nature of the New Testament sources.

There are too many problems with the various Hegelian models of Christian origins that emerged in the nineteenth century to discuss them here but it may be enough to point to the most obvious one.  Concerning the implicit “theodicy” of Hegel’s view  the best place to start is with Thedor Adorno’s piercing Negative Dialectics.

Hegelianism is an overgeneralized and even romantic way of dealing with historical processes. In the long run, things run the course they run–influenced by the conditions under which they develop, like water at freezing point. An event in historical terms is a singularity no matter how influences bear on its occurrence.  Even the most rigid determinist would be hard pressed to say that Hegel’s ideas constitute a law of development.

Thus, in one sense, every historical event is unique. In another sense, it has many parallels  It is unique in the sense that it forms an Archimedian point of occurrence that does not share space with any other point; but like the stars in the sky, its analogies are not only obvious but help us to distinguish it from other events.  The key to defining a particular historical moment lay in its differentiation from what is parallel and similar.

That is why, with respect to the New Testament artifacts,  it is important to emphasize both the familiarity and unfamiliarity of the Jesus event. From the gospels we gather (or can reasonably conclude) that it was rather ordinary: the story is told  on a superficial level, with  allusions to ambient events–politics, rulers, sects, religious customs–but very little in the way of character development in the documents themselves.

We are given basic information to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth belonged to an established ablutionist sect of preacher-wonder-working dissidents who lived on the edge of Jewish popular opinion and “mainstream” sects,  and rapidly deteriorating tolerance of such characters.  The basic narrative provided in the gospels does not make Jesus unique, however; it absolutely situates him in the time and place where he is reckoned to have lived. Even at the point in the gospels where a mythic savior or celestial hero would defy death on Golgotha, smite his enemies and rise laughing into the heavens (as some strands of Gnosticism taught, the hell-harrowing Jesus of the Gospel of Nicodemus, and even the Christ of Philippians 2.5-11), the canonical Jesus simply dies a gloomy death, with only a drum roll and minor stage business thrown in to mark it.

Christ harrows hell

Some responders who are deeply committed to mythicism (and use the word “historicism,” rather absurdly, to describe a “belief” in the historicity of Jesus) cling to a notion that the existence of the gospels do not “prove” that Jesus exists because it is just as “plausible” that

(a) they (the writers) were wrong about him or,

(b) they are talking about some other Jesus or some other character by some other name who was wearing a Jesus wig;  or

(c) are, for amusement or malice,  making the whole thing up.

Unfortunately, each of these invitations to skepticism is non-parsimonious; that is, they ask us without warrant to lay to one side the concrete information and what it says in favour of alternative explanations not warranted by either internal or external reasons for doing so.  Parsimony does not ask us to put skepticism on hold; it asks us to use skepticism methodologically rather than as a Pyrrhonic silver key that, at the extreme, calls final certainty about anything into question.  The effect of unbridled, unsystematic Pyrrhoinism has always been antagonistic to final knowledge about anything and mythtic utilization of the “It could be this, or that, or anything else, or nothing at all” suggests that sort of indifference to  a constructive skeptical approach to the Bible.  Hume’s rejection of Pyrrhonism might apply: “Philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not nature too strong for it.” In short, the prior question–“What are we dealing with in the New Testament books and how can it efficiently be described” cannot begin with the belief that  all explanations have the same status and that all those rendering opinions have the same capacity to render good ones.

Sextus Empiricus, recorder of Pyrrhonism

The appropriate response to (c) is that while there is every reason for a gospel-monger like Paul to make things up, given the fact that he is confronted directly–perhaps within two decades– with a post-crucifixion crisis in the life of a small band of religious orphans, there is no equally compelling reason for a gospel writer to do so.  Indeed, the way in which the synoptic  gospels confront the crucifixion has little symmetry with Paul’s expansive notion that the resurrection of Jesus is a “fate” that can be experienced by all believers, given a little tinkering with the definition of σάρξ (flesh).

The “embryonic” gospels seem early enough and linked enough to Judaism to resist applying the literal fable of Jesus’ resurrection to his followers. Indeed the story we now possess suggests that the followers were not confident in saying too much about the event itself–especially with respect to appearance legends. Paul seems far enough away or disconnected enough from the Jewish context into which Jesus fits to explicitly attribute the effects of the resurrection to all those who are “in Christ.” Indeed, that is why his brand of Christianity succeeds where the slow tale of a Galilean wonder-worker would not have attracted or sustained attention. The theological positions are radically different. No gospel survives in which the circumspection of the early community, as reflected in the earliest resurrection account, has not been displaced by Paul’s thunderous use of resurrection as the axial moment in the life of faith. Yet through simple redaction techniques and synoptic criticism we can reconstruct the movement from diffidence and caution to “proclamation” and elaboration. This pattern is the very opposite of the way in which myth develops.

Examination of the contents of these (accidentally) canonical artifacts has to begin with accounting for this radical difference, and a primary question would have to be: Why would any two writers “just making things up” make up such completely different stories? (That by the way is the subject of a chapter in the book, not a blog topic.)

As to (b) a rough application of the rule of economy would suggest that the artifact evidence is evidence of a man named Jesus, whose name, career and fate correspond to the careers and fates of others of the time.  A coincidence of a common name is evidence of a common name, and evidence of a common name ascribed to a similar career holds for very little unless one is wedded to dates certain for the gospels   For reasons I will try to make clear in my book, I hold to a relatively early date for significant portions of the gospels, not because I wish to stick them closer to the time of the “historical Jesus” but because in terms of their rationalization of his fate and what can be made of it, the gospel, like new wine, are a little thin. By the same token, “Jesus could have been anybody” does not respond to the fact that the gospels say that Jesus was an historically-located somebody, and as we’ve said before arguments from analogy and similarity would only be useful if we had satisfactorily exhausted the possibility that the gospels are substantially wrong in their descriptions.

Thus far, that case has not been made.

As to (a), that Jesus is “made up,” or is a deliberate fiction in the service of religious cult: a consistent line would require us to state reasons for the fabrication. What is the likely social context for making up a rather dull story about a failed messianic prophet from Galilee, especially when that story flies in the face of essential parts of later construals like Paul’s. A strong reason for the existence of the story would be that the story had wide appeal because the man was a popular teacher and people rem embered him, and that eventually these reminiscences, inconsistent and partial as they are, found their way into writing and then were copied, edited, and high;y elaborated and spiritualized by “John” 

The weak reason for the existence of the Jesus story is that is that an unknown scribe, with time on his hands decided to tell a story.  Two centuries of careful work on the gospel suggests that this explanation is absurd.

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The Poet Laments His Lack of Wit

I think in epithet

And deadly rhyme.

I think I simply do it

To save time.

 

I do not ever say

“I love you so.”

I say, in Auden’s way,

“It’s sad to go.”

 

I see your face before me

And I cry,

Quelle peine! Nécessité!

How love doth die!

 

I have no subtlety

That’s truly mine.

What I call poetry

Is  others’ rhyme.

 

I thieve the threads

Of poets who are better;

I tear them into shreds

Or add a letter.

 

I think in epithet

And deadly rhyme.

I think I simply do it

To save time.

Sonnet 65: To Carolyn in Winter

Landing in New York I smelled the breeze

of the jet-way. I inhaled it as home. Home.

The guy at immigration was all Please

and thank you, Where you been–Awesome.

But Hey, you are home, he said,  enjoy it.

I prowled for gifts, flew out toward Syracuse,

to a wife whose face once beautiful was ripped

with the agony of my arrival. How are you?

And you, I said. It must be cold. It is she said.

In Ithaca she poured gin, and said her lover’s name,

and how sometimes in the hard white weather dead

love stays dead, how then you have to find the same

thing you killed in another, whose unrepentant heart

follows yours on a mapless trail from finish to start.

The Truth About Jesus?

Jerry Coyne at “Why Evolution is True” shouted a few weeks ago that “Joe Hoffmann Knows the Truth About Jesus.

I am much beholden to Jerry for the good news [sic] since I didn’t know I knew. But as Jerry seems to like the word “truth,” let’s talk about it..

First of all, truth is a quality of propositions in logic, not a set of facts. People are always getting that wrong, but it’s high time we got it straight.

Even the Greeks–especially the Greeks–were too smart to equate truth with facticity. It is possible, not to mention fun,  to create a valid deductive argument that is completely false: A syllogism can be true, but not valid (i.e. make logical sense). It can also be valid but not true. It depends, as an annoying logician friend never tires of telling me after two gins, on knowing your modus ponens from your modus pollens, as in

All men who rise from the dead are gods.
Jesus rose from the dead.
Jesus is a god.

But count on it: There is always some wanker  in the corner (usually a mathematician) not sufficiently drunk who will say, “The problem is, you see, he didn’t” (smile).  Exactly.

Second, truth is a slippery word in the sciences and that is because the sciences are more comfortable dealing with epistemological variables of a scalar variety like “certainty.” Colloquially “truth” in the form of conclusions or warranted assumptions is what you get when all the evidence stacks up in favour of a hypothesis.  And the language of “falsification” (falsifiability) was widely used in the mid-decades of the twentieth century in philosophy to refer to the testability of hypotheses  through experimentation– a very deliberate attempt to move discussion away from the receding goal of  “truthification” meaning a level of certainty that scientific method cannot provide.

But truth in metaphysics means something completely different.  Scientists normally have no interest in metaphysics because if they do they end up having to discuss things like the soul and the eternity of ideas, and if you want to make a scientist squirm start talking about those things.For that reason, scientists often group theology and metaphysics together as belief in fairies, while philosophy and theology have poignantly rejoined, Oh yeah?

To be a little more serious,  it is is perfectly reasonable to ask the question, What are the facts about Jesus?  I am happy to approach that question without the obvious rejoinder, It depends on what you mean by fact. Facts should not be subject to what you mean by them; if that’s your fancy you are talking about opinions. In my little outline of the Jesus book, I was not talking about what I mean by facts that I ascertain from some private knowledge or speculation; I was talking about what might be plausibly concluded on the basis of certain very limited and provisional criteria for establishing historicity: context, conditions, and coordinates.  This does indeed leave much in the realm of opinion, but it is the kind of working opinion that Socrates (and science) calls θεωρία–theory, and as all scientists know, theories are susceptible to grades of proof based on types of evidence. The same goes for historical inquiry.

Sometimes in such inquiry,  facts hide behind, under and on top of opinions. This is especially true in the artifact evidence we call the gospels. It is a fact for example that Mark or someone who wrote a piece of lore that goes by his name, said that Jesus was the son of God. Even if you take that statement as, properly speaking, false or fraudulent, it remains a fact that it is said.Saying it does not make it a fact that Jesus was the son of God.  If to be logical we want to put it this way, the statement is not falsifiable. But neither does it mean that Jesus is not the son of God.  Because the prior question (which too many mythicists and amateurs take for granted at their methodological peril) , is what did the writer mean when he called Jesus the son of God? That is not a metaphysical or theological question–though heaven knows after almost 2000 years it is hard to see it any other way.  It is a linguistic question.

More important, the gospels are full of pesky questions like that–language that taken at face value won’t even get you a nose.  To get at the facts we have to distinguish layers of meaning, cope with ambiguity, linguistic disparity, translation difficulties.  We also have to be aware of the type of literature we are dealing with: no one is quite sure what a gospel is (though theories abound),but there are a few works like them in the ancient world. But one thing we know they aren’t:  collections of facts.

Jerry is quite right that much of my outline sounds very much like a plausibility argument and that plausibility is a weak place to begin discussion of the historicity of Jesus:

While I haven’t yet read his book, since it hasn’t been written, Hoffmann’s analysis seems to be more a matter of opinion and plausibility rather than of solid historical documentation. And, when it comes to the existence of Jesus, “plausibility” arguments are all that historicism can adduce. They’ve never settled the issue, or even come close.

But to use his favourite word, this is not true. Look at the phrase “solid historical documentation.”

It is a good phrase but totally useless in sorting through much of ancient literature, where much of what we have to go on is neither solid nor (in the modern sense of objective reporting)  historical .

That is where plausibility comes in. Plausibility’s no a substitute for argument and evidence. It is a precondition for argument based on interpretation  of facts–meager, disguised, reversed, buried and otherwise hard to catch by the throat. Without establishing that Jesus in one stratum of the tradition about him–namely, the gospels– is a  plausibly historical figure there would be no sense saying that he is arguably historical. A Jesus who in all or most particulars violates the conditions, coordinates and context of his time would certainly be mythical, because mythical figures tend to operate in the service of an enveloping story–the sort of thing Paul does with Jesus by transforming him into the Lord at whose name every knee must bend–a timeless symbol of salvation and redemption from sin.

There is no doubt at all that there is a is a mythical Jesus, and we already know where to find him.  My point is simply that the plausible Jesus of the gospels is not that figure. This is where the process begins.

The Passion of Jesus the Galilean

One of the features of cults is that members are true to their own. Like-minded people, most of them religious, have been willing to die for their cause. Once empowered, they have been willing to kill for it.

In Just War and Jihad (2006) I remarked that the “lord God of hosts” was essentially a war God whose colours, arks, icons and effigies were paraded in battle. He has blood on his hands from years past until the present, inspired by sacred books and their anointed interpreters. There are no two ways about it. Religion is to violence as orange is to juice.

It isn’t true of course that secular cults will always behave as badly as religious cults have done, but the nationalist and populist movements that were provoked by the secular conscience, from the French Revolution through the Communist victories of 1949 in China, have been characterized by the collectivizing evil of like-mindedness and powerful men behaving badly.

It’s enough to make us think that real problem is Us, not It–not religion, not its opposites. If it is true we made God in our image, it is also true that what survives his death is the part of him that was always, essentially us.

The Bible is not his book. It is our book. And in historical terms, getting rid of him doesn’t mitigate the factors that went into the process that gave us a cruel, fickle, plague-happy, arrogant, and unbearable father whose laws would govern us until St Paul in a rare moment of perception said Enough.

He said this, by the way, not in his own name, but in the name of someone he claimed was the messiah and chosen one of God, sent to abrogate all previous covenants and arrangements, sent to forgive and not condemn, redeem and not to punish. Like the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is hard To Find,” Paul is that man who “wisht he’d a met Jesus,” because it “ain’t fair he wasn’t.”


“I wisht I had of been there…It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known.”

Lacking the advantage of the observers of Jesus’ teaching, Paul is free to create his own moral and theological universe.

Whatever else Paul was, he was the greatest revolutionary in history when it comes to the God-concept. His ideas were completely unhistorical and at odds with Jewish teaching: he finessed his disagreements into a cult that turned the vindictive God of his own tradition into a being capable of forgiveness. Needless to say, the way he arrives at this is angstful and tortured, but he gets there in the end–-not through tradition and law, but through a stratagem: ”Christ the Lord.” His turnabout from Judaism was so complete that his only intelligent interpreter, Marcion, believed he must have been speaking of a completely different God. As Harnack once remarked, “There was only one man in the second century who understood Paul, and he misunderstood him”.

Sad, it seems to me, that so much of the mythicist argument is based on what Paul does or doesn’t say about Jesus, considering there is a world of thought there that, cast to one side, makes it virtually impossible to know what Paul was talking about. Mythicism, among it many other dubious achievements, has achieved a new level of illiteracy in relation to Paul’s ideological and religious world.

* * *

There will never be a cult of the historical Jesus. And I have made the claim that there never could have been a cult of the historical Jesus.

His “biographers” tell the story of a man who preached a kind of mock civil disobedience, but was as critical of Jewish legalism and ritualism as it was of Roman boots in Jerusalem. They tell us he gathered an unpromising following of women and yokels (Celsus’s words, not mine), failed to achieve whatever it is he wanted to achieve, and died among thieves as an enemy of the nation.

There is absolutely nothing improbable about this story. And there is also nothing unusual about the way it was improved, given the categories, archetypes, and models of hellenistic legend-making common to the period.

Emperors were divine. That’s what the historians and the coins tell us. They ascended into heaven as a matter of right and their effigies were worshiped centuries before the Christians thought it appropriate to erect an icon of their saviour.

One has to be committed to the view that Jesus was the son of God to think he was unusual. One has to be committed to the view that he cannot have been what the gospels say he is (and they say different things, not one thing) to deny his historical existence. Paul came very close to the edge in his theology. The gnostics went over it. Orthodoxy brought it back from the cliff, but at the expense of historical interest.

Both the believer and the Jesus-denier have to begin with his atypicality–his status as someone who stands outside the flow of human events. But the gospels locate him squarely within the flow of events.

For the believer, the case for Jesus is made on the basis of holding the gospels to be true in part and whole. For the critic, the “unbeliever,” the mythicist, the gospels are simply not telling the truth or so packed with lies that it is a waste of time sorting out the true from the false, the plausible and the perhaps.

Essentially, they allege the books are a fiction devised from fragments of misremembered stories, scraps from the floor of the Greek marketplace and the Jewish bazaar–the court of the gentiles. That there is no direct evidence this is the way the gospels developed, or that the stories cited at “sources” of the Jesus legend are, at best, literary allusions of the sort hellenistic writers and hellenized Jews were fond of making is unimportant and does not need to be acknowledged. Some especially adventurous souls have suggested that the only ”real” [sic] question is whether Jesus is 95% or 100% a fiction.

My own argument is a bit different. It does not begin with a sacred text but a religious artifact dating from the first century of the common era. It is a story about a man named Jesus the Nazarene who was a healer and magician, and who followed in the radical apocalypticism of someone named John the Baptist, fell out with his Jewish contemporaries over how the law should be interpreted, and was put out of business through a conspiracy between the pharisaic sect and a few law-and-order Roman officials who feared, more than anything else, another Palestinian revolt. I am not reading between any lines to see this in the gospels. This is the story at the most superficial of levels.

Devotees of the “dying and rising god” theory of Jesus like to point to the crucifixion as the centerpiece of their theory–after all, no dying Jesus, no rising god.

But history tells it differently. Appian tells us that when the slave rebellion of Spartacus was crushed (71 BCE), the Roman general Crassus had six thousand slave prisoners crucified along a stretch of the Appian Way, the main road leading into Rome (Bella Civilia 1:120). As an example of crucifying rebellious foreigners, Josephus says that when the Romans were besieging Jerusalem in 70 A.D. the Roman general Titus crucified five hundred Jews in a day. In fact, so many Jews were crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem that “there was not enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies” (Wars of the Jews 5:11.1).

History has singled Jesus out of this crowd for other reasons, but crucifixion was so common a punishment for slaves, rebels with various causes, and common criminals that Valerius Maximus scoffs at is as “a slave’s punishment” (servile supplicium; 2:7.12), an epithet Paul arguably puns on in calling himself a “slave for Christ” after insisting that his preaching is all about a crucified messiah (1 Cor. 2.2).

I am happy to listen to details about how the gospel writers get details of the crucifixion wrong, or how the trials of Hercules are the model for the death of Jesus, but frankly, I have no desire to read fantasy when history will do and when the sources I am reading can easily be situated in the time-frame from which they come.

In arguing that Jesus is plausible, I am simply saying that the undecorated preacher of rebellion against the enemies of God and the corruption of the temple cult was transformed into the decorated embodiment of the power of God against the power of sin, mostly through the work of one man–Paul–who knew a few stories about Jesus but had never met him in the flesh.

It is not clear to me entirely why Paul does what he does to achieve this, but two things are pretty clear: the transformation is not carried out in the earliest identifiable stratum of the gospels. When a bit later the gospels also show shades of collaborating in this transformation, especially through legendary additions, it is because Christians have had to confront the reality of failing in their original mission. In redefining themselves, they redefined their “saviour,” but in ways so incoherent that it becomes almost impossible to know what ideas might adhere to the historical individual who put it all in motion.

Thus begins a process that has defined the growth of Christianity from their day to our own time.

It is not accidental that the defining moment for this transformation from the historical to the mystical is the crucifixion–-not the resurrection, which achieves its centrality through Paul’s growing sense of its popularity with crowds, not through the gospels’ almost passive inclusion of the tale at the end of the passion narrative.

The crucifixion is central to the gospel, not just narratively but psychologically, because it was the moment of crisis for the Jesus believers. It represents that moment when their history might have ended but did not; when Jesus’ reputation for apostasy and dangerous politics caught up with him, and would have caught up with them if they had continued to preach what he preached. Somewhat hypogeally, the gospels present this outcome in stories about the desertion of the eleven and the death of Judas, the betrayer.

So, they did with him what one normally did with a dead emperor. He lives on; his genius is immortal; he lives with the gods in heaven. His failure is his triumph. Death could not hold him.

Thanks to the rapid development of Christian theology after Paul the message about him became so familiar that even Romans could accept it. The course of Christology from the second to the fourth century is the biography of the Christus Victor, the one who overcame death, and finally of Christos Pantokrator, the one who rules the universe like the sun the sky.

This imperial image completely supersedes the historical as a category we can understand, because it has sent Jesus to live as the king of kings for all eternity. From now on, we will even set our calendars by the “date” of his birth.
It is possible to read this later development back into the gospels, but not easily and not very successfully. It was only possible for this transformation to complete itself because by the fourth century these texts were already considered sacred and, in any event, no ordinary Christians could read them.

Even if they had, they would scarcely have cared about a first century Jewish dissident who died at the beginning of his career.

Parsimony with that Salad?

I am watching in amusement as the mythtics, in some exasperation, encounter the problem of parsimony for the first time.

The “father” of the word, William of Ockham (Occam), was a famous Franciscan logician when the two words were not considered a contradiction in terms. He actually stole the idea from Aristotle, but keep it quiet.

His tri-partite axiom is that “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate” (Complexity should not be extended without necessity); that “Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora” (It is useless to posit many things that can be explained by a single thing); and ”Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem” (Things [causes] should not be multiplied beyond necessity).

Only one of these formulations (the first one) is his. It means that when you have two competing predictive theories the simpler one is the better. It has been used as far afield as philosophy and quantum physics, as with Stephen Hawking’s famous comment in Brief History of Time, “We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it. However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals. It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor.”

In the later history of philosophy, the principle is known as economy (Ernst Mach) and by its more common name, “parsimony.”

It is interesting that the mythtics do not see that arguments from distant analogies and might-be or might-have-beens are needlessly complex and hence violate this principle.

They repeatedly try to stick the fallacies of “straw man” and “circular reasoning” to my comments, presumably because these are favourite recourses and the only fallacies they know.

Another they might want to know is iterari assertionem, a form of wishful thinking that operates on the principle that if you say something often enough, people will think you’re right. It is notable that they do not see that a simple statement–that the gospels present material typical of their time and place and that the figure they present is a typical figure of his time and place–is a parsimonious statement accounting for the existence of the gospels. I can’t entirely blame them for this since for almost two thousand years theologians argued that Jesus violated all of these categories and that the gospels were a unique species of literature unparalleled in the Hellenistic world.

My argument is not an argument for the divinity of Jesus. It is not a conclusive argument for the historicity of Jesus. Instead, it constitutes an aporia against the argument that Jesus was not historical. It also requires any alternative theorist to present a more plausible and economical explanation of the existence of the gospels, and to defend the suggestion that they are fabrications against the parsimonious observation that they are, at least with respect to their primary subject matter, telling the truth. Such an argument, just to save time later, does not consist in the repeated assertion that stories of other gods are made up because these other stories are not gospels and don’t even look very much like the gospels.

This is not propositional truth, obviously–which is why tests like Bayes’s theorem fall flat in testing it–but truth as being a generally accepted statement of events as they were perceived by observers and reported under the conditions of their time and place. Historians have to rely on this rather modest definition of truth all the time, and much of our general theory of history is built on it, figure to figure, movement to movement, and place to place. It is not infallible, but then neither are the general theories of physics: it would be a pretty dim scientist who thinks that if he could actually witness the event of the Big Bang he would not need to make adjustments to his theory. If that is true, think of all the history that would need to be re-written if we could send historians in to record the death of Socrates, Marco Polo’s audience with the Khan, or (assuming it happened) the crucifixion.

The multiplication of analogies and difficulties violates this basic principle in the same way that metaphysical explanations of the world’s causation violate it in modern cosmology.

Of course no one is arguing that the law of parsimony is a substitute for insight, careful reasoning and the full operation of the scientific method. However, attempting to substitute the weakest form of argument–analogy–for more transparent and compelling approaches does not set the stage for meaningful discussion.
The three C’s I have invoked, therefore, have to be addressed not by counter-propositions (and trivial, mainly useless appeals to “logic” as the mythics have come to use the word) but by evidence: The mythtics need to provide positive evidence that a character “like” Jesus (or if they prefer, one imported from another myth, Greek, Jewish, or other, adapted to use) explains the existence of the gospels and their central message more adequately than the economical view that an historical individual named Jesus, who was typical of his time, culture and background as we know it, is the source of artifacts dating very close to the time he is reckoned to have lived.

Alternatively, they need to show what events, causes, and conditions may have led first century writers, of no apparent skill, to fabricate the basic elements of their story. This may seem elementary because it is.

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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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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