This evening I was heartened to find an idea that has long been lurking in my mind suddenly out in the light of day, in print, in a 1939 Hibbert Journal article by French scholar Paul-Louis Couchoud. Couchoud was replying to M. Loisy’s critique of “Christ mythicism” and within a few pages he said it. He said that while he has argued Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus and that it is futile to think a “historical kernel” can be found somewhere in the Gospels, he has never said Jesus was “a myth”.
What exactly are we reading about when we read of the earliest Jesus in our records, in particular in the New Testament epistles? Troels Engberg-Pedersen has studied Paul’s letters from the perspective of Stoic philosophy and sees in Paul’s religious ideas a striking similarity of function between the Stoic’s Logos or Reason and Paul’s Christ. Both figures effect “salvation” through reaching down to the would-be convert, exalting those in whom they are revealed or awakened into a new identity that sets them apart from the world and their past lives, and leads them into a new way of life “in Reason/the Logos” or “in Christ”. Some of these ideas are found in the Engberg-Pedersen archive. I can’t think of “Reason/Logos” as a myth, and it is hard for me to think of Paul’s Christ a “myth”, too. A spiritual idea, yes. But that’s not the same as a myth.
This heavenly Christ, this religious conception or representation of a God-Man idea
has no relation to the conception of a man elevated to divinity nor to that of the anthropomorphic God, both of which were familiar to the religion of antiquity. It is an intimate and unique synthesis in which God retains his glory in its fullness and man his mortal destiny in its bitterness, without change of God into man or of man into God. It was a new idea, and it was by this new idea that the world was conquered. (Couchoud)
I think Couchoud here hits on a subtext in historicist-mythicist arguments. The end-result, the Christ in heaven, is far too a-human or non-human to be the kind of figure one would expect of a real man who had evolved into a deity. And he certainly is no counterpart to Homer’s Olympian gods.
Why Christ is not a myth
It was no myth. Myth is a word I have never employed in this connection. The history with which I am concerned is the history of a religious conception. Myth is a word easily taken in a derogatory sense; it is a way of explaining a natural fact, a rite, or a philosophic idea under the form of a narrative. Like the parable, of which it is a variety, the myth speaks a language of its own for helping the mind to grasp, and to retain in memory, what ought to be done or believed. A religious conception, on the other hand, has a nature far simpler and deeper, far more unsophisticated and fertile. Its relation to rites and myths is primordial. Zeus is a religious conception. The punishment of the Danaids is a myth.
Anyone who has attempted to absorb the conceptual details of Karl Kerényi’s studies of the Greek gods will understand the difference between the idea of Zeus as a religious conception in the everyday lives of the ancients and the idea of Zeus acting in mythical roles in Homeric and other tales.
Whence came this new religious idea?
Now that is a big question. The previous series of posts on The Creation of Christ has shown us Couchoud’s answer to this. Earl Doherty has offered the most comprehensive exploration of this question. I’ll keep this post short and leave with Couchoud’s conclusion of where the idea did and did not originate:
I regard it as philosophically impossible that the conception of the God-Man, the Saviour of the world, can have originated in any event of history, no matter of what kind. Induction had nothing to do with it. Whence, then, did it come? In my judgment it is a great religious creation which arose in the context of the mystery cults and was founded on earlier conceptions and vitalized by mystic illuminations. Its consequences were developed slowly and in sequence.
It is the chronological sequence of evidence, known to all but seen for what it surely is by the “religious conceptionists”, that is the strongest argument in favour of views such as those of Couchoud and Doherty.
Is there another question here, too? I’m thinking of the one about how a debate is framed.