2012-05-13

1950s Scholarship on the Historicity of Jesus – Vardis Fisher’s summary

by Neil Godfrey

American novelist Vardis Fisher (it’s not coincidental that the name of this blog is a partial acronym of this name, and an “autobiographical” character in one of his novels) included at the back of his novel Jesus Came Again: A Parable, a discussion of the scholarly views of his day on the historicity of Jesus.

He writes, in 1956 (with my formatting):

Was Jesus of Nazareth a historic person? We do not know, and unless documents turn up of which we have no knowledge we cannot hope ever to know.

Montefoire . . . says petulantly: “If eccentric scholars like to argue that Jesus never existed, let them do so.”

And Klausner, another Jew, says it is “unreasonable to question” it.

But says Schmiedel: “the view that Jesus never really lived has gained in ever-growing number of supporters. It is no use to ignore it, or to frame resolutions against it.”

Weigell: “Many of the most erudite critics are convinced that no such person ever lived.”

Among those so convinced [that no such person ever lived], some of them internationally known scholars, are

  • Bauer,
  • Bohtlingk,
  • Bolland,
  • Bossi,
  • E. Carpenter,
  • Couchoud,
  • Dupuis,
  • Drews,
  • Dujardin,
  • Frank,
  • Hannay,
  • Heulhard,
  • Jensen,
  • Kalthoff,
  • Kulischer,
  • Loman,
  • Lublinski,
  • Matthas,
  • Mead,
  • Naber,
  • Pierson,
  • Robertson,
  • Rylands,
  • G. Smith,
  • W. B. Smith,
  • Stahl,
  • Van Eysinga,
  • Virolleaud,
  • Volney
  • and Whittacker.

For such as Volney he was an astral myth

and for Dupuis, the sun;

for Kulischer, a vegetation god.

Bauer was perhaps the first great scholar to deny the historicity’ for him Jesus was a personification of certain ideas and ideals then current.

Kalthoff‘s argument is similar: every movement of the folk-soul demands an ideal person and creates an illusion of reality more compelling than fact itself.

Jensen tried to find parallels in the Gilgamesh legend.

Drews, W. B. Smith, Dujardin and others argue that there was a pre-Jesus Jesus-god-cult and point out that Paul knew nothing of an historical Jesus but only the Christ — that is, the god.

Robertson argues this thesis as plausibly as any: see Christianity and Mythology.

G. Smith: “I believe the legend of Jesus was made by many minds working under a great religious impulse” — which is essentially the position of many scholars who accept this historicity.

Couchoud and others argue that Jesus was the name of the god in a mystery drama . . . ; Jehua-Joshua-Jesus (all the same name) mean, they say, Jahweh the savior.

Dujardin reminds us that Frazer said the rite creates the god: “‘Passion’ is the technical term that one finds in all the religions of mystery.”

Hannay: “a great deal of useless discussion has taken place as to the historicity . . . of Jesus, but we know that ninteen-twentieths of his supposed acts and teaching were attributed to various gods all over Asia.”

Those on this side have some strong arguments which their opponents have not yet demolished.

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Of the abler scholars who accept the figure as historic nearly all follow Renan Arnold and others in rejecting the supernatural elements. These elements, they say, all came from pagan cults.

Schmiedel ahs a famous thesis, that there are nine unflattering statements in the gospel stories which prove the historicity of Jesus — for unflattering things would not have been invented. But we need to know if these meant to people then what they mean to us.

Loisy speaks of a great number when he says: “Jesus the Nazorean is at once an historical person and a mythical being who, supporting the myth and supported by it, was finally made by it into the Christ.” Like many others he rejects everything in the gospel story but the historicity of the central figure.

For readers unfamiliar with the field possibly it ought to be said that the only evidence supporting the historicity is the Gospels, for what they are worth. The passages in Josephus are now admitted even by Catholics to have been forgeries. There is no allusion to Jesus in any work contemporary with him known to us, Jewish or gentile, and the Gospels were not written down until long after his death, and contradict one another on a great many details.

One group of scholars accepts the eschatological view, popularized by Schweitzer: that he preached repentance believing that the end of the world was near.

C. F. Moore: “The core of the preaching and teaching of Jesus is the ‘kingdom of God,’ the coming time in which He shall be owned and observe by all men as king.”

Keim argued that Jesus expected the end to come any day.

The eschatological view was first advanced by Reimarus at the end of the 18th century, his essay being, says Schweitzer, one of the greatest events in the history of criticism. Jesus, said Reimarus, “had not the slightest intention of doing away with the Jewish religion and putting another in its place.” His whole teaching was summed up in, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Schweitzer says

  1. the first alternative laid down by Strauss (1835) was “either purely historical or purely supernatural.”
  2. The second had been worked out by the Tubingen school and Holtzmann: either Synoptic or Johannine.
  3. Now came the third: either eschatological or non-eschatalogical.”

Those rejecting the eschatological view have included Bousset, E. Haupi, Schürer, Wende, Brandt, Wellhausen, Hilgenfled, Jülicher.

Popular in recent years has been form-criticism, defined by Prof. S. E. Johnson as the doctrine “that community interests controlled the formulation of the Gospel material,” and championed by such as Bultmann and Dibelius. They point out that traditions about Jesus are not Jesus. Form-criticism explains the many contradictions and differences in the Gospels: the stories developed in different cities widely separated, under different conditions and needs: this explains the enormous difference in spirit between, say, Mark and John.

As for Jewish scholars

Graetz thought Christianity arose out of Essenism.

Salvador (a Jew on his father’s Catholic on his mother’s, side) pointed out, as Jews have since, that ethical precepts ascribed to Jesus were commonplaces of his time. He finds the Sermon on the Mount in Sirach, as Kalthoff did later.

Montefiore thinks most of the ethics in the Gospels can be found in other Jewish writings but thought the form in the Gospels superior (he gave no credit to the King James translators), an opinion some Jews have hotly disputed.

Answering him Friedlander set out to prove that the whole Gospel system of ethics stemmed from earlier Jewish writings.

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If any reader is curious to know which among so many books he might read, I find Guignebert’s Life best on the whole; McCown, Search for the Real Jesus, has excellent summaries; phoney doctrines are set forth in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels; on Christian roigins few are more brilliant than Loisy; on form-criticism, Dibelius or Bultmann; on the eschatological view, Schweitzer.

If the reader is curious to know what my opinion may be after more than thirty years of reading in this field the answer , in regard to the historicity, is simple: I have none. Either side can make out a plausible case — and I would say almost equally plausible.  (pp. 258-261)

Vardis Fisher’s novel, Jesus Came Again, A Parable, is reviewed by Earl Doherty on the Age of Reason website.

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  • 2012-05-13 21:48:28 UTC - 21:48 | Permalink

    Well I really think you neglected the one that I think encompasses them all in explanatory scope. The missing magic ingredient which some dare to eat. Culture expunges nature as a road to experiencing immorality , lost in a world of material literalism,historical reconstructed fantasies, agenda driven for today’s modern idiot. The trees in the garden and the eucharist were so obvious that they escaped detection….lol .. The drug wars made nature a criminal while raising pharmacological companies to the level of gods.

    http://www.egodeath.com/

  • ROO BOOKAROO
    2012-05-13 22:19:05 UTC - 22:19 | Permalink

    Yes, no doubt, Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) was the first academic scholar, with European visibility who rejected the concept of a historical Jesus Christ.
    He concluded in 1850-51: “The question which has so much exercised the minds of men — whether Jesus was the historic Christ (= Messiah) — is answered in the sense that everything that is said of Him, everything that is known of Him, belongs to the world of imagination, that is, of the imagination of the Christian community, and therefore has nothing to do with any man who belongs to the real world.” At age 33, he lost his teaching license and left his professorship at the University of Bonn, and never taught again.
    I kept wondering whether he got a nod in Bart Ehrman’s book.

    But the fact remains that it was two brave Frenchmen of the Enlightenment who were the first to publicly declare their refusal to accept the historicity of Jesus: Charles-François Dupuis and Constantin-Francois Count de Volnay
    (1742-1809) was the main one. He was a French scholar, who shared the Enlightenment’s belief in the universal character of human nature. He described the commonality of religious myths of all cultures in “The Origin Of All Religious Worship, or the Universal Religion” (1795, Transl. 1872). He had a special interest in astronomical knowledge and published “Historic and Mythological Description of the Zodiac” (1806). Dupuis was the authentic founder of “astro-theology” dear to New Age mysticism and enthusiasts of spiritualism.

    Count de Volney (1757-1820), shared similar ideas, and added a taste for imaginative folk etymology as a tool for studying ancient mythology. He was the first to propose the fancy etymology that derives the name “Christ” from “Krishna”! This game continued to be played with great fervor by addicts all through the 19th century, all the way to Arthur Drews (1865-1935), even after WWI.

    Those were the glorious days of the Christ Myth in full bloom, irrupting on the European scene with a bang, and sparking off exciting debates and a sizable quantity of publications and books that are still worth studying. This first wave of the new controversy lasted well until 1946 and was fought mainly among the elite of scholars, academics, theologians, and scientists, writers who had enormous erudition, profound knowledge of the ancient languages, who could write and speak with great elegance, and who managed to come up with new fresh insights.

    The debate is reviving now, even with much wider amplitude, but no longer at the same level of intense scholarship and revolutionary fervor. Now what we mostly get are popularizing works, of variable quality, mostly products of extensive compilations of the work done from the time of Dupuis and Bruno Bauer until 1946, and mostly aimed at the crowds.

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      2012-05-13 22:36:05 UTC - 22:36 | Permalink

      Of course, one must read: “Charles-François Dupuis (1742-1809) was the main one.”
      I didn’t want to leave Volnay out and inserted his name before the dates relating to Dupuis.
      The difficulty is that when writing a comment, there’s no “preview” function to edit the text.
      Plus the font type of the original draft seems to be constricted Arial with tight spacing, which makes editing more challenging, and errors easy to slip by.

    • mP
      2012-05-15 08:16:25 UTC - 08:16 | Permalink

      Perhaps Bauer was the christ. Notice he lost his teaching at 33. 33 go 33!

  • stevenbollinger
    2012-05-13 23:24:30 UTC - 23:24 | Permalink

    “And Klausner, another Jew[...]”

    Would it be petulant to ask what Montefiore’s (if you’re going to slag the guy please at least spell his name right when you do it) and Klausner’s ethnicity has to do with it?

    “Bauer was perhaps the first great scholar to deny the historicity”

    Bauer was the first professor I know of to loser his job for questioning Jesus’ historicity, although not the last. Normally I feel bad for Bauer about this, but at the moment, with Fisher having reminded me of Bauer’s anti-semitism, my sympathy is mitigated just a bit.

    Nothing like a cold shot of anti-semitism first thing in the morning. It’s bracing.

  • 2012-05-14 01:00:55 UTC - 01:00 | Permalink

    Lets not forget “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross” 1970 by John M Allegro as well as the DSS fiasco.I think he was a lone scholar to publicly proclaim the role of entheogens in religion.

  • stevenbollinger
    2012-05-14 01:19:03 UTC - 01:19 | Permalink

    That long list of surnames Fisher provides contains no first names, and very few first initials. It’s as if Fisher assumes that his readers will know who he’s talking about, even though many of the surnames are quite common. It’s almost as if Fisher and his readers were members of a club — a club which I, or, for example, Ludwig Wittgenstein or Karl Popper or Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud or Walter Benjamin or Theodor Adorno or Alfred Doeblin, would not have been invited to join — and everyone would already be quite familiar with this list of illustrious past members. I think “Drews” refers to Arthur Drews, 1865-1935. according to Wikipedia:

    “Drews also offered a critique of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche in his article “Nietzsche als Philosoph des Nationalsozialismus? (‘Nietzsche as philosopher of National Socialism?’) in the journal Nordische Stimmen 4 (1934: 172-79). There Drews condemned Nietzsche as an ‘enemy of everything German’, as an individualist whose thought was antithetical to National Socialism, and for granting the Jews a prominent place in his political philosophy.

    “Drews lamented that ‘most people today who make statements about Nietzsche are only picking the ‘raisins’ out of the cake of his ‘philosophy’ and, given his aphoristic way of writing, have no clear idea at all about the context of his thoughts.’”

    It’s nice that the antisemitic and nationalist Drews at least understood that Nietzsche was opposed to antisemitism and nationalism. It’s hard for me to understand how that much could not be clear as day to anyone who’s read Nietzsche. He came pretty close to putting that much into the titles of some of his works. It was extremely important to Nietzsche that that was made clear, and how sharply opposed he was to things like the anti-semetic agitation of his sister and brother-in-law. And yet so many people go on and on about Nietzsche and don’t understand that much about him. So, kudos to Drews for that.

  • 2012-05-14 05:03:21 UTC - 05:03 | Permalink

    The last thing that crossed my mind with Fisher’s outline was “anti-semitism”. Surely Jewish scholarly views of Jesus are of a special interest to anyone with an interest in the topic and for obvious reasons. He has another section detailing the views of Jesus by Jewish scholars. Would it be offensive if I posted those?

    As for making use of surnames, Fisher refers in his books to the names of hundreds of scholars across a very wide spectrum of thought, and very often by surnames, and especially in the added notes to his novels he is compacting over-much detail into very tight spaces — only in the most common names like “Smith” does he add initials. In context I don’t see any cliquishness about any of this.

    • stevenbollinger
      2012-05-14 05:34:19 UTC - 05:34 | Permalink

      “Surely Jewish scholarly views of Jesus are of a special interest to anyone with an interest in the topic and for obvious reasons”

      Obvious? Obvious? Not obvious to me, Chester! Are Frenchmen’s views of special interest here for obvious reasons? Slovenians’ views?

      “He has another section detailing the views of Jesus by Jewish scholars. Would it be offensive if I posted those?”

      I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I repeat the question I asked in 3. above: what difference does a scholar’s ethinicity make to the soundness or unsoundness of his views? Why does Fisher make it a topic?

      • 2012-05-14 06:39:40 UTC - 06:39 | Permalink

        Roman and Jewish views of Jesus are singled out throughout the literature on Jesus. What did Romans think? What did the Jews have to say? Josephus? Celsus? Trypho? The Talmudic references? The scholarship today makes special note of those scholars who write on Jesus “from a Jewish perspective” — their differences are noted, and where they agree their views are also seen as significant and there is not the slightest suggestion that there is a negative reason for this, by either side. Jews do have a special interest in Jesus for historical reasons that are obvious to anyone acquainted with western culture. To suggest that the observation is gratuitous and no more valid than singling out those of Slovenians is simply nonsense.

        • stevenbollinger
          2012-05-14 23:27:25 UTC - 23:27 | Permalink

          “Roman and Jewish views of Jesus are singled out throughout the literature on Jesus. What did Romans think?”

          So presumably Fisher seeks out modern Italians in order to try to understand the ancient Romans. No, of course not. Because to assume that only an Italian could understand an ancient Roman would be stupid. Just as it would be stupid, and insulting, to assume I’m an expert on the Talmud just because I’m Jewish.

          The essence of prejudice is to assume characteristics in people based on their membership or perceived membership in a group, as opposed to perceiving the actions and qualities of individuals persons. If you can’t detect antisemitism in Fisher after having studied him intensively and enthusiastically enough to base your handle on his name, then you’re not qualified to pontificate on ancient history. The latter is much, much more difficult.

          “Jews do have a special interest in Jesus for historical reasons that are obvious to anyone acquainted with western culture.”

          Or to any individual Jews who’ve ever experienced prejudice from individual Christians or descendants of Christians. You don’t need to remind me of elementary realities like that. Well, that is to say: you remind me of them whether you mean to or not. It’s like Bernard Malamud said, if a Jew ever forgets he’s a Jew. a Gentile will remind him.

          • 2012-05-15 06:40:54 UTC - 06:40 | Permalink

            The study of various cultural characteristics is a valid study. It is particularly important for the study of Christian origins. What were the characteristics of Galilean culture, of the Jewish Diaspora, — what was distinctive about Jewish thought — and how much overlap and distinctiveness was there with “pagan” cultures, etc. This is justified by the Jewish and non-Jewish source material of the day itself speaking of cultural differences between the two. All of this is essential to understanding Christian origins. There is nothing anti-semitic about it. We could not write history without studying cultural thought and interactions. Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures have their respective characteristics that are attached to individuals within those cultures, too. What Christian scholars think of Mohammed is of particular interest to many Muslims. What Muslim scholars say about Jesus is of special note to many Christians, too. Now throw Jewish scholars into the mix and make it a happy threesome.

            So I appreciate your not seeing prejudice in me (or Fisher, despite your disclaimers to the contrary) on this question, since you can surely see that I do not assume group characteristics define people “OPPOSED to” perceiving their thoughts as individual persons. You will surely see clear evidence of that even in the post above if you care to have another look.

          • ROO BOOKAROO
            2012-05-15 15:46:25 UTC - 15:46 | Permalink

            I find this such a sterile and useless discussion. Only a reader trying to rearrange his personal sympathies towards scholars in function of his own knowledge and personal prejudices. No merit concerning the matter of the subject itself. What difference does it make to Bruno Bauer’s pioneering impact in history if the reader likes him or not? Or if he dislikes Klausner being mentioned as a Jew?

            A good book to read in this context is “The Trial of Jesus: A Study in the Gospels and Jewish Historiography from 1770 to the Present”, by David R. Catchpole (Brill, Leiden, 1971). It covers the inputs of dozens and dozens of learned Jews or Jewish history experts on the interpretation of Jesus and the Gospels.
            Their merits are not based on some inexistent abstract framework where “merits” are weighed and allocated by impartial judges (who? and where?), in a kind of aethereal “Last Judgment” scene, but they are singled out as merit-worthy essentially because they are issued by Jewish scholars. Their merits derive mostly from their Jewish origins or environments.
            And it can be seen that Klausner’s contribution (“Jesus of Nazareth”, 1925, “From Jesus to Paul”, 1943) is paramount, so it’s vastly important to emphasize that his views’ pre-eminence does reflect their Jewish origins .

        • 2012-05-15 00:31:42 UTC - 00:31 | Permalink

          Neil, before Steven descended into reductio ad Hitlerum, I was going to mention that atheist and agnostic scholars are sometimes singled out when they support the historicity of Jesus. We’re told, “Look, Bart Ehrman is an agnostic, and he believes there was a historical Jesus.”

          A Biblical scholar who is not a Christian (whether Jewish, Muslim, atheist, whatever) is often thought of as an “honest broker.” I suppose the idea is if they don’t have a dog in the fight, then perhaps they can have a more detached assessment.

          • gmalcolms
            2012-05-15 18:35:42 UTC - 18:35 | Permalink

            I would say that someone who has devoted his career to a particular issue has a dog in the fight, regardless of his religious convictions.

      • 2012-05-14 06:43:04 UTC - 06:43 | Permalink

        It isn’t their ethnicity, but their religion that is of interest. Christianity grew out of Judaism (or so we presume), and we have a long history of tensions between the two religions. Supersessionism says that Christianity replaces the old covenant and that Jews who reject the Messiah are damned. On the other side, we’re told that early versions of the Talmud contained descriptions of Jesus in hell, boiling in excrement.

        In the truce that followed WWII, both sides have agreed to “play nice,” but it’s still notable when Jewish scholars defend the historicity of Jesus. There’s nothing antisemitic about it.

        Imagine Evangelical Protestant scholars saying something nice about Mormonism, perhaps defending the plausibility of the golden plates or the visitations by the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith. I would call that remarkable.

        • stevenbollinger
          2012-05-14 23:52:15 UTC - 23:52 | Permalink

          “it’s still notable when Jewish scholars defend the historicity of Jesus”

          If I wrote something like “it’s still notable when Gentile scholars have a active curiosity about Judaism,” or “it’s remarkable that many Irish people are highly-literate,” it would be perfectly reasonable for people to take offense. Because those statements make assumptions about people based on their ethnicity, rather than observing individuals.

          “In the truce that followed WWII, both sides have agreed to ‘play nice’”

          Long before WWII and the Holocaust — long before Christianity, actually, but the history of secularized Jews remains little-known — many people on “both sides” rejected that division and declined to behave the way some people expected them to based on their ethnicity. But to this day some people like Fisher and Neil and you and Hitler still haven’t gotten the memo. You put those walls right back up. (Some Jews do it too. I’m not claiming there aren’t any Jewish bigots.)

          As for Protestants and Mormons, you don’t seem to have gotten around much in the oecumenical, interfaith movements. They include many evangelicals making nice with Mormons. And interfaith movements are older than Mormonism. Perhaps you don’t realize that there is such a thing as a leftist evangelical.

          • 2012-05-15 00:11:23 UTC - 00:11 | Permalink

            Steven: “Some Jews do it too. I’m not claiming there aren’t any Jewish bigots.”

            You mean like comparing people they don’t even know to Hitler?

            • stevenbollinger
              2012-05-15 00:23:07 UTC - 00:23 | Permalink

              Oh — did I OFFEND you?

              • 2012-05-15 00:44:51 UTC - 00:44 | Permalink

                Oh, surely not. Being compared to a genocidal maniac isn’t offensive at all.

                Now, noticing in passing that a scholar is Jewish, that is highly offensive and needs to be called out.

              • stevenbollinger
                2012-05-15 01:04:49 UTC - 01:04 | Permalink

                The thing is, though, it wasn’t in passing, not on your part and most certainly not on Fisher’s part. I see Neil has edited his selection of quotes from Fisher above. Fisher’s mention of some Jewish scholar as “petulant” seems to have vanished, (“Oh those petulant Jews, always complaining about being discriminated against or cheated or massacred or something.”) but in its place we now have charming tidbits like “Salvador (a Jew on his father’s Catholic on his mother’s, side).” I guess that makes Salvador doubly versatile. Or doubly suspect. Or something. Whatever it is, Fisher’s sorting of people pout by ethnicity certainly doesn’t happen in passing.

              • stevenbollinger
                2012-05-15 01:11:11 UTC - 01:11 | Permalink

                My bad, Fisher’s characteriation of Montefiore’s comment: “If eccentric scholars like to argue that Jesus never existed, let them do so.” as “petulant” is still there.

  • ROO BOOKAROO
    2012-05-14 09:05:20 UTC - 09:05 | Permalink

    The first thing that crossed my mind with Fisher’s outline was: “Depuis” must stand for “Dupuis”, the Charles-Francois Dupuis.

    The second thing that crossed my mind with Fisher’s outline was: Who are some of the others? Bothlingk? Bolland? Bossi? Frank? Hannay? Heulhard? Jensen? Loman? Lublinski? Matthas? Naber? Pierson? Stahl? Virolleaud?

    Is there any woman in that list?

    Third thing that popped up was, why aren’t the key demolishers of the fable of Christian’s divinity, of Jesus as the Son of God, in that list at all?

    Those famous activists of the 18-19th centuries who were simply “historicists” at the time, also were often much more significant, and more revolutionary than the pure “mythicists”.

    The huge controversy about the divinity of Jesus became, historically, much more important than the question of Jesus’s existence or not. The great iconoclasts, those who made a marked impact on Western civilization, were those who denied the supernatural and the belief in Jesus as a God, starting in the 18th century as fearful of prosecution and imprisonment, and becoming international celebrities in the 19th century.

    Doubting Jesus’s existence was only an extension of the doubt about his godliness. Deniers of Jesus’s historicity were limited, during the pioneering 18th and 19th centuries, to just fringe scholars, curiosities at most, easily dismissed by the mainstream.

    The whole battle of the Enlightenment was primarily against Jesus as God and Christian churches as delegates of Jesus and God on earth, arrogating to themselves absolute spiritual superiority and using the police of the state to impose their intellectual totalitarianism. Reimarus, Baron d’Holbach, Voltaire, led the fight against Jesus as God, and started producing studies of the New Testament “critically examined”, critical of the supernatural and the godliness of Jesus. Deists and the few atheists were not concerned about the existence of Jesus.

    David Friedrich Strauss had much more impact in Europe and America than Bruno Bauer.

    It’s only once the denial of Jesus’s divinity was pretty well established that some scholars pushed the inquiry further, and started the “critical examination” of Jesus’s existence itself. Bruno Bauer’s stance was only the extreme logical consequence of David Strauss’s doubt about Jesus as god and Strauss’s novel insistence on reading the stories of the Gospels myths. Why not push the assumption of the “myth” to its limit and wonder whether Jesus himself was not a myth?

    All the interest in primitive cultures sparked off by European explorations and colonialism resulted in a marked increase in the studies of ancient and oriental languages, religions and mythologies. The French invasion of Egypt in 1798 added a passion for Ancient Egypt’s religious art and language, and Egyptomania flourished in the West.

    James Frazer contributed his gigantic research in anthropology, compiled in the Golden Bough. And his examination of primitive religions fueled the interest in “primitive Christianity”, leading to the intoxicating discovery of “syncretism” — that Jesus’s creation was another exercise in primitive confabulation and myth-making. Hello Buddha, Krishna, Horus, you’ve got a new cousin in the family of “dying-and-rising” hero-gods.

    Frazer opened the gates, and, at the turn of the 20th century, the confrontation between Jesus’s existence deniers (later labeled “mythicists”) and supporters of “historicity” became a football for academics, journalists and theologians, a kind of high-level intellectual game that left believers in their pews unconcerned.

    But now the controversy is being pictured as a pitched battle, the fight between two radically opposed “Weltanschauungs”.

    However, for a long time, it was the “historicists” who were on the front line of the war against the crippling influence of the Christian Churches and their obfuscating world view. In that sense, “historicists” were the natural allies and front line of the few “mythicists”.

    Even today Christopher Hitchens seemed to have been a “historicist”. Bart Ehrman, a convinced historicist, has done more to dispel the public belief in the sacrosanct character of the New Testament than most mythicists have. And George Albert Wells had no compunction wondering whether accepting the validity of the Q hypothesis did not entail that there may have been some vague, anonymous figure at the origin of Q, one that was later fused into Mark’s fabricated life of Jesus.

    Taking recently a peek at Joseph Hoffmann’s site, it was instructive to see him hemming and hawing about why he declared himself as a non-believer in the existence of Jesus back in 2007 and why he now was so violently opposed to pure mythicism, especially when supported by his nemesis, Richard Carrier. Nobody was able to clearly understand his explanations. Visiting this site makes you also vividly realize why Joseph Hoffmann never envisaged Hollywood as a career.

    So the violent nitpicking recently addressed at Bart Ehrman by “pure” mythicists is a little bit of a puzzlement. Why have the disputes raging between “historicists” and “mythicists” become so virulent, nearly sounding like a new religious war? Each side despising and vilipending the other?

    It seems that this quarrel is viewed not just as a scholarly question of solving a historical enigma, but as a new mission to resist the efforts of camouflaged Christian apologists who take up advocating the cause of the existence of Jesus as the latest rearguard phase of defending Jesus’s divinity. For mythicists, behind “historicists”, are lurking Christian soldiers marching on for the cause of Jesus as Son of God.

    • 2012-05-14 09:57:40 UTC - 09:57 | Permalink

      One day I think I’ll take the time to track down who all of those names were. Maybe. Before I do I am going to have to invest in a magnifying glass and spotlight in order to be sure I have the correct spelling of them all. The page of my book is very dark from age, the print very small, and I would not be surprised if I often confused letters like “l” and “i”.

      • ROO BOOKAROO
        2012-05-15 14:29:21 UTC - 14:29 | Permalink

        The problem is also the distortion from scanning. Any New Yorker knows at once that the name is “Montefiore”, and not “Montefoire” (!).
        There are instances of this very passage of Vardis Fisher being quoted online, some more complete than the present one, with again a few garbled names. Searching on the Net using the garbled spellings can result in wild goose chases and a tremendous waste of time.
        Otherwise most of the names cited by Fisher above without first names can be found online after a bit of research online.
        A few are enigmatic because of being too common: For instance, Frank (?) or Stahl (?). Those are pretty hard to define, and must be located in passages listing groups of names.

        I suspect that this list was not composed by Fisher himself, but lifted as such from his reference books, for instance the eight books he mentions at the end. It is not clear whether Fisher himself was able or bothered to determine the output and impact of each writer on the list. It’s much easier for us with Google and Wikipedia.

        It must be remembered that many of those names only have a historical value, as having played a major role in the debates of their time. What’s extraordinary when researching them is to read how practically all the issues and angles and interpretations and contestations and refutations concerning the problem of origins were already aired in those days, and decided one way or the other.
        The 19th and early 20th centuries were an intense period of discovery and pioneering. Searchers like Constantin von Tischendorf have no equivalent in our time. Scholars then had the advantage of novelty and excitement. They also had all the time in the world to spend their whole lives in libraries studying all the documents available. The depth of their research was astounding. “Gründlichkeit” was the key principle, all too ignored in our days of pressure and speed.

        Since then, a few momentous finds have added new material for scholars to start speculating and writing about them (Nag Hammadi Library, 1945; Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, 1947-1956), giving fuel to a new wave of interpretations and writings. But otherwise, the “old” school had covered practically everything else, and all contemporary presentations just are vast compilations and revivals of the pioneering scholarship, giving a new play to the old material, modernizing the language with better illustrations and striking jackets, or dumbing it down for mass popularizations — putting old wine into new flasks indeed.
        .
        As an aside, the claim by Bart Ehrman that he is the first to tackle the issue of Jesus’s existence in a systematic manner strikes us as preposterous. It can find currency only among his young students, the followers of his blog, or neophytes in the field of Christian origins with a time vision of ten or twenty years at most — all readers who have no in-depth knowledge of the subject and often none at all, considering “anything before their time” as terra incognita.

        Now everybody is cashing in — writing a history or review of the “mythicists versus historicists” debate — so many of the names figuring in Vardis Fisher’s list are being brushed up and given another airing. A few will remain buried in this list as dead mementos of past battles.
        Still it’s worth revisiting them online, and very refreshing.

    • stevenbollinger
      2012-05-15 00:09:28 UTC - 00:09 | Permalink

      Frazer may have opened some gates for mythicists, but he himself was an historicist, and on p 412 of vol 9 of the unabridged Golden Bough, in the first footnote to “Note. — The Crucifixion of Christ,” he explicitly distances himself from the mythicists, saying, among other things: “my views on this subject appear to have been strangely misunderstood” and “The doubts which have been cast on the historical reality of Jesus are in my judgement unworthy of serious attention.”

      Also in this footnote Frazer says that the origin of Christianity is inexplicable without the existence of a great reformer. To which I would reply: I agree. But I don’t know whether that reformer is Jesus or Saint Paul. And I don’t see many people casting doubt on the historical existence of Saint Paul.

      • ROO BOOKAROO
        2012-05-15 02:09:37 UTC - 02:09 | Permalink

        Frazer opened the gates to a full frontal confrontation between both sides by contributing his anthropological research and highlighting the concept of “dying-and-rising” godly heroes.
        You haven’t seen too many people casting serious doubts about the existence of Paul simply because you’re not conversant with the biblical scholarship (British, American, German, Dutch, French, and Italian) and the comparative religions school of the 19th-20th centuries, with immense disputations about the authenticity of the epistles, and which ones to retain if any at all. That took place from 1830 to 1940. Tens of thousands of books were written. Nobody knows them all. There must be a way to find out a list of those Paul deniers. Our dear Dorothy Murdock is the last one to throw her hat in that ring (this is a “poetic” image!).

      • sahansdal
        2012-05-15 03:10:49 UTC - 03:10 | Permalink

        Some have. But I think he has too many flaws to be unreal.

  • stevenbollinger
    2012-05-15 00:47:25 UTC - 00:47 | Permalink

    My reductio ad Hitlerum did not fall out of a clear blue sky. As I mentioned, at least one of the people Fisher singles out as “the most erudite critics,” Arthur Drews, was a committed Nazi. According to wikipedia, Drews

    “condemned Nietzsche as an ‘enemy of everything German’, as an individualist whose thought was antithetical to National Socialism, and for granting the Jews a prominent place in his political philosophy.”

    Not one word so far from Neil, either in the blog post above or in the comments, distancing himself from such people. (Or correcting the citation from wiki if wiki is incorrect about Drews.) Not one expression of dismay that his hero includes someone like that on a list of supposedly eminent minds.

    Do you guys want someone like Drews to be counted as a banner-carrier of mythicism, or not? Does it give anyone pause, other than me, that Fisher includes someone like Drews in his list, or not?

    Is it really so hard to see what’s bugging me here?

    • Nikos Apostolakis
      2012-05-15 06:59:41 UTC - 06:59 | Permalink

      In one of his papers, Lipman Bers, a mathematician of Jewish origin and human righs activist, quoted Plutarch (Pericles, 2:2):

      It does not of necessity follow that, if the work delights you with its grace, the one who wrought it is worthy of your esteem.

      He was refering to Oswald Teichmüller, a fervent Nazi whose work Bers used and expanded.

    • 2012-05-15 08:20:46 UTC - 08:20 | Permalink

      Steven, you wrote: “The essence of prejudice is to assume characteristics in people based on their membership or perceived membership in a group, as opposed to perceiving the actions and qualities of individuals persons.”

      I never knew Drews personally, as a person. I loathe all forms of brutality and prejudice. I loathe the politics of some in my own community because I believe their mind-sets are dragging us back to inhumane treatment of others and even barbarity. I also know that I myself have been caught up in the past in beliefs and cruel attitudes of which I have long since been ashamed. One thing that astonishes me when I listen to interviews of some people today who in the past, but no longer, supported Nazism is how the mind-sets were so similar to what I myself experienced in a very different context and with a different set of beliefs. So I know how we all can be caught up in our times and environment and only with time can we look back in dismay at where we once were.

      I once had a very close relative whom I greatly admired, who influenced me immensely, but whose anti-semitism I absolutely loathed. Whenever he expressed it I completely shut down my receptors and wished with all my being he did not think and feel like that. As far as I know he never gave up some of the most sickening views imaginable about Jews — even to the extent of saying he thought Hitler did the right thing about the Jews. But he had other qualities that I greatly admired. I suppose as a boy I did not judge him as member of an anti-semitic mob or party but as an individual person who, like many of us, had a very dark side to his nature.

      There was once a political leader here I still feel should be tried as a murderous criminal. I had no sympathy at all over his final demise. At the same time he did especially one thing I believed was absolutely wonderful and good and for which I will always have respect and even a little pride.

      Do I need to say more? Do you see where I am going?

      • 2012-05-15 15:25:39 UTC - 15:25 | Permalink

        What is the source of “anti-Semitism”? Some irrational conspiracy on the part of gentiles across time, space, and nationality? Or is the source something else, such as Jewish behavior? Which explanation is more likely and makes more sense?

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