2015-05-04

Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by Minas Papageorgiou

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

jesus-mythicismMinas Papageorgiou, freelance journalist,  managing director of a Greek publishing group and a founding member of the Hellenic Society of Metaphysics (metafysiko.gr), has made his Greek language survey of a wide range of contemporary Jesus mythicist views available in English as an ebook on Amazon. And it’s not exorbitantly priced, either.

Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction was originally written for readers in the religiously conservative nation of Greece where the very existence of the mythicist debate has scarcely registered, both historically and today. The book is an attempt to introduce Greeks to a wide range of Jesus mythicist ideas currently being published and discussed in the English speaking world and now that it is available in English it is also an interesting introduction for English speakers.  

Before the main interviews Papageorgiou covers some of the more general or foundational arguments of mythicists such as those addressing the earliest references to Christianity in the non-Christian sources. He segues from this discussion into details of René Salm‘s arguments about the archaeological evidence for the inhabitation of Nazareth in the early first century, Raglan’s list of “hero archetypes” found among mythological figures, and material such as supposed ancient correspondence about Jesus that has been long understood to be forgeries. Some of this was new to me.

The first interview is with Gerd Lüdemann, the scholar who suffered professionally for publishing a work calling into question the authenticity of many of the sayings of Jesus. Lüdermann also expresses his views on the Christ Myth hypothesis, too. (Hint: I’ve updated the Who’s Who list of mythicists and mythicist agnostics/sympathizers.)

While I have been interested in a few Jesus myth arguments (in particular Brodie’s, Carrier’s, Doherty’s) and have known something of a tiny handful of others (e.g. Atwill’s, Murdock’s), there are others I knew about only vaguely or not at all.

Minas Papageorgiou from the start seeks to reassure readers that mythicism is not opposed to spirituality or faith but that it even has the potential to “enhance the essential messages of faith” by separating myth from historical truth. He points out that the first “Jesus mythicists” appeared with the emergence of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century but that this intellectual movement largely bypassed Greece. Only two groups, he writes, have anything to fear from mythicism: members of organized clergy and some of the academic guild who have made their reputations and livings through supporting the traditional Christian narrative.

This publication is not a critical evaluation of the various mythicist ideas but leaves the reader to judge and follow up what he or she personally prefers. The result is that some readers with a more serious scholarly interest may be dismayed to see the views of Carrier and Atwill given much the same billing. Carrier has criticized Atwill’s approach as decidedly unscholarly and fallacious and the two are scarcely comparable in terms of intellectual rigour. However, it is good to see Papageorgiou has given his interview with Richard Carrier priority.

In his introduction to Richard Carrier he writes:

[Carrier] does not hesitate to criticize and contradict other mythicists since his primary aim is to keep the research standards high.

He quotes Carrier himself saying:

There are too many different mythicist theories and too many arguments for them of varying quality to answer this question productively. Most mythicist theories are simply untenable, and most arguments for even the tenable theories are bad arguments (logically or factually), or too weak to grant any merit.

The only defensible Jesus myth theory is what I call the Doherty thesis (because it was articulated either first, or most persuasively and coherently, by Earl Doherty). But Doherty deployed a lot of weak or bad arguments for it, alongside strong and sound ones. If we strip away everything that is logically weak or inconclusive, or that we can’t reliably prove, what we have left are some good arguments, which can be moulded into a persuasive case.

The principal pillars of that case are

(1) that in his authentic letters Paul does not appear to know anything about an historical Jesus, but only a celestial Jesus who only communicates with his apostles through revelation and scripture;

(2) that the Gospels are wholly and manifestly mythical and nothing reliable can be extracted from them;

(3) that all other claims about an historical Jesus either just draw on those Gospels or are obvious fictions (e.g. the Infancy Tales about Jesus, or his Letter to King Abgar); and

(4) that every core element of the alternative, the Doherty thesis for the development of a mythic Jesus, has ample support in background evidence and explains the evidence we have better than any theory of historicity does.

In short, it just makes more sense. But one must experience a paradigm shift in the way one looks at the evidence to finally understand this.

I was very surprised to see the interview with me appearing next. That’s a nice compliment to some of my efforts on this blog to try to keep the arguments on both sides honest and understood despite less then honest efforts by both bigoted scholars attempting to misrepresent and/or shut down debate and polemical mythicists themselves. (I also have an opportunity to give a little biographical background that will stand as a counter to some of the lies Maurice Casey published in his malicious tract against persons to whom he had taken a personal dislike in Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?)

Raphael Lataster and Robert Price are also interviewed, of course. I learned interesting details about their backgrounds and attitudes to the Christianity and the debate that I had not known before.

It was especially gratifying to read Earl Doherty‘s section since he is asked to sum up his main argument in a few paragraphs. Anyone who has not yet read either The Jesus Puzzle or Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, will find this a most useful synopsis.

If you have wondered what other ideas are out there, or what are the views on “the other side of the fence”, then you will read explanations from the authors themselves of the main arguments behind views that Christianity was a spinoff from Caesar worship (Carotta), or even created by Roman emperors (Atwill), or originated in fact with Judas the Galilean (Unterbrink), the astrotheological/astromythological views of Acharya S/Murdock,  or a view that Jesus of the gospels was based on Paul (Einhorn).

So what to make of the less than rigorous arguments of some of these names? As I continued to read I came to sense that it is important for those who are skilled and believe in the academic approach to take up the challenge of seriously engaging with the full range of views that evidently have some appeal to the wider public. Unfortunately I suspect most academics (not all) who currently bother to say anything at all about mythicism will continue to scoff, ridicule and insult and flatly refuse to engage with popular views or sincerely searching public questions. Their relevance as public intellectuals too often has little to do with the wider public — apart from that sector broadly sharing their same faith perspective.

There are other European authors, too, that were entirely new to me. Not all of these are mythicists but they do specialize in related scholarly questions of interest to mythicists. I’m thinking in particular of Polish professor Maria Dzielska who has specialized in a study of Apollonius of Tyana.

It is worth noting that Ms Dzielska asked me in advance not to ask any questions that would compare Jesus to Apollonius, which, of course, I respected. I cannot hide, however, that I tried to tailor my questions as best as possible in order to allow the readers to draw useful conclusions on the subject under consideration here.

I found Professor Dzielska’s discussion of great interest for its wealth of new (to me) information about the scholarship related to this figure who is often compared with Jesus. 

Interesting, also were a couple of the Greek names Papageorgiou interviewed. I had not known that there was a movement in Greece to attempt to restore some of her ancient cultural customs. Interviews with Harita Meenee (“Jesus versus Dionysus”) and Ioannis Mpousios (“Jesus versus Adonis”) relating to ancient Greek religious processions and ceremonies and modern interests in reviving them suddenly place in context Minas Papageorgiou’s own biographical note that one of his interests is the “timeless struggle for the authentic Greek identity.”

Another names I had not known is Payam Nabarz (“Jesus versus Mithras”). I have been long aware of the jesusneverexisted website but have known very little about the person who is behind it, Kenneth Humphreys, so it was useful to learn more about him and where he is coming from in his interview, too.

The book concludes with other questions of popular interest, such as what is known of the many relics said to be original items from the time of Jesus, the various views of what Jesus looked like (including the social and psychological factors said to be behind those reported faces of Christ that suddenly appear in burnt toast or on mildewed walls, etc.) — again through interviews of relevant experts.

I was intrigued to read an appendix giving a synopsis of Gunnar Samuelsson‘s thesis arguing that the evidence we have in the gospels and elsewhere gives us no reason to assume that Jesus was actually crucified on a cross-shaped crucifix. Death by any kind of suspension is apparently an arguable meaning of the terms used.

And if you’re interested in films then you will find here interviews with those behind the making of some films like Zeitgeist and Caesar’s Messiah. There is also a discussion of some of the popular films about Jesus that have appeared from America and Europe.

Unfortunately there are also a number of minuses to the book. The English translation does not always read well, and the typographical and even some layout errors seem to increase the further one reads. What is less fortunate is that there are also a number of factual mistakes. Hal Childs, for example, is listed as a mythicist presumably because the title of his book is “The Myth of the Historical Jesus”. I have posted an article or two recently on Childs’ work and have made it clear that his work is not an argument for mythicism in any sense meant here. I cringed each time (and there were many of them) when Unterbrink emphatically declared that one of the points in common between the Jesus of myth and Judas the Galilean was that both led movements protesting against the paying of taxes to Rome. (That mistake, of course, is not the fault of the author but one wonders why such an error was not picked up and queried with Unterbrink before publishing.) And while Minas was clear when expressing details some of his statements give the impression that in the English speaking world there is much more interest in mythicism in “academia”, whereas in fact most of the academics he did interview and discuss belong to fields other than those of theology and biblical studies.

But taken as an overview of some of the ideas — the good, bad and ugly — relating to mythicism and as a glimpse into “who’s who” behind these ideas, and as a source for a few additional resources to follow up, it is indeed a handy little volume to have.

 

 

22 Comments

  • Lowen Gartner
    2015-05-04 15:04:05 UTC - 15:04 | Permalink

    “It was especially gratifying to read Earl Doherty‘s section since he is asked to sum up his main argument in a few paragraphs. Anyone who has not yet read either The Jesus Puzzle or Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, will find this a most useful synopsis.”

    If it is just a few paragraphs can it be excerpted here?

  • Reader
    2015-05-04 17:48:57 UTC - 17:48 | Permalink

    Good review/overview.

    What jumped out at me was the quotation from Prof. Maria Dzielska:

    “It is worth noting that Ms Dzielska asked me in advance not to ask any questions that would compare Jesus to Apollonius, which, of course, I respected”.

    Out of curiosity, it would be great to ask her why? The very nature of the book for which she is being interviewed is about such comparison(s) or more accurately – about those who would proffer such comparison.

    Follow up questions would be:

    Are there any grounds for such a comparison?
    Is such a comparison valid, given what the state of the evidence is for both figures?
    If there is no grounds for a comparison, it would be non-controversial for her to state as much.

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-04 17:56:17 UTC - 17:56 | Permalink

    Papageorgiu’s selection seems very mixed in quality, and personally I shall not put it on the top of my to-be-read pile, so how about a few more concise excerpts on the Vridar website from the more scholarly and sensible chapters, along Lowen Gartner’s suggested lines? I am not lazy so much as overwhelmed!

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-05-04 20:41:17 UTC - 20:41 | Permalink

    @Lowen: The paragraphs are quite lengthy and run into a few pages, sorry.

    @Reader: I was satisfied just to read what Dzielska had to say about what we know of Apollonius and the sources. I’d love to read more. I had no idea this figure was such a study in his own right.

    @David: Yes, the quality of selection is very mixed. I guess that reflects the spectrum of mythicism in the public interest. I think those with more skills, knowledge and training have a responsibility to effectively engage with the popular as well as the scholarly literature to be relevant. Scoffing by mythicists won’t achieve anything more productive than the scoffing by the McGraths and Hurtados.

  • Bee
    2015-05-05 14:36:07 UTC - 14:36 | Permalink

    Some allegedly too-speculative mythicist efforts may be underappreciated. It happens that the entire field of mythogenesis and cross-cultural diffusion, between often very obscure languages, and their metaphysical ideas, is so complex, and data so lacking, that the field is necessarily less certain or less accessible than say, modern physics.

  • 2015-05-05 18:43:37 UTC - 18:43 | Permalink

    I appreciate Carrier’s intention, and I take basically the same position myself, however in Carrier’s book he mis-represented by position and characterized it. He kind of maligned me, but really got my argument wrong in the process. Oh well.

    • Lowen Gartner
      2015-05-05 18:58:31 UTC - 18:58 | Permalink

      I’d be curious as to how Carrier mis-represented your position and got your argument wrong?

      • 2015-05-06 01:19:20 UTC - 01:19 | Permalink

        Carrier briefly discusses my position on page 51 & 2 of his book. He claims that I claim that Jesus was a political fiction, i.e. invented by the political class for political motives. This is not accurate. Carrier claims that this has an “even lower probability” than the idea that Jesu began as a “celestial deity”, but that’s not even really what i’m claiming.

        My position has never been that. My position was always simply that the story and concept of Jesus was Jewish in origin, having evolved from Jewish martyr and messianic mythology. Later (prior the writing of his in , in works that I know he read because he cited my works) I developed the idea that the Gospel of Mark was written as a fictional story about the First Jewish-Roman War which was then misunderstood by people.

        This position was more fully developed in my most recent web article, explaining my detail in more detail. See below.

        http://web.archive.org/web/20150218004315/http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/fictional_jesus.htm

        My basic theory is that “Jesus Christ” originated as a messianic myth, born of the idea that the material world is hopelessly corrupt and that the Kingdom of God established by the messiah couldn’t be created on earth, but would have to be created in heaven by a heavenly messiah (Jesus). This was the idea of just some small inconsequential cult in Jerusalem, to which Paul was a convert and apostle.

        Then, after the First Jewish-Roman War, some follower of Paul wrote a fictional story in which he cast Jesus as the protagonist in a narrative based on literary allusions to the Jewish scriptures, in which Jesus walks the reader through a series of events meant to demonstrate the culpability of the Jews for their fate in the war.

        That story is what we call the Gospel of Mark, and it is the story that introduced the idea that Jesus was a real person, and every narrative about Jesus descends from that single fictional story.

        I don’t claim that Jesus was invented “as a political fiction”. And my theory is not at all far fetched because it is actually the most evidence based theory in the entire field as far as I’m concerned.

        So he kind of brushes aside my entire thesis without really even addressing it….

        • Geoff
          2015-05-06 03:28:25 UTC - 03:28 | Permalink

          I agree here with RG. I first read his Gospel of Mark article years ago and still think he has the best take on the Jesus Myth. I’m not sure how Carrier threw RG Price into the “political fiction” category, which I usually take to mean a Roman fabrication aimed at pacification of an unruly population. In fact, in several places where Carrier alludes to GMark as being an allegory, it sounds quite a lot like RG Price’s position.

          • Jonathan
            2015-05-06 10:33:13 UTC - 10:33 | Permalink

            Writing on a phone but just to back up RG, carrier did totally misrepresent his poition in a footnote to his essays – which are indeed some of the best stuff I have read on the Jesus issue. RG also is really insightful re mark – he has nailed it re mark writing a tale about judgement of the Jews via allusions to the OT. However I am now convinced – having read tom dykstra and a few other things – that Paul is an even more significant influence on mark than the OT. Mark is “narrativising Pauline” (in fairness to RG he has also shown the Paul influence, but I would go further now). In any case mark is a very clever multi layered work of theological allegory. There is lots in it! But, I think we can be pretty sure, no “history remembered”!

        • Pier Tulip
          2015-05-06 11:11:19 UTC - 11:11 | Permalink

          This response on the one hand tells me that the methodology of Carrier is somehow wrong (can not be the one to establish the reliability or the probability of a claim) and on the other I am sorry because I had hoped for a more opening of Doc. Price to the astrological thesis.

          • Pier Tulip
            2015-05-06 11:33:31 UTC - 11:33 | Permalink

            I think the second part of my answer is wrong. I always confuse the two Price. Sorry.

          • Giuseppe
            2015-05-06 11:33:39 UTC - 11:33 | Permalink

            Carrier admitted his not understanding very well the ideas of R. G. Price.

            • 2015-05-06 12:50:42 UTC - 12:50 | Permalink

              @Giuseppe Interesting. Thanks for that, but he still doesn’t really seem to understand my thesis (which is frustrating because I worked with him in developing it :p)

              The term “political fiction” does not really reflect what I’m advocating. That implies that there was some kind of political calculation to try and invent the idea of Jesus for purposes of political control or manipulation, which is not at all what I’m saying.

              My position is that its all a big misunderstanding. That someone wrote a fictional story (with political themes in it) which was misinterpreted by other people as having been an account of real events (which the author never intended).

              My thesis is basically like if Mark Twain had anonymously published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and some people thought it was a true story, and other people wrote accounts of Jim’s life derived from Mark Twain’s story, and then by the early 20th century all of the stories about Jim and Huck were believed to have been literally true accounts.

              In that scenario, Mark Twain had no intention of bringing about this misconception. It happened on its own, due to organic confusion.

              My view is that the Gospel of Mark is about as political as Huckleberry Finn. Both stories were written after the events that they describe. Both stories are pseudo-historical. Both stories were written after a war. In both stories a protagonist leads the reader through a series of events, which portray those that they interact with in a bad light. In the case of Huck Finn, the Southerner’s treat Jim poorly and are portrayed as fools and idiots and bad people, which is meant, after the South’s loss in the Civil War, to portray the Southerners as people who deserved the destruction brought upon the South by the War.

              For the audience reading Huck Finn in the late 1800s, the results of recent war would have been at the forefront in their minds as they read the story. The same with the Gospel of Mark and the First Jewish-Roman War.

              I really do see Huck Finn as a great “modern” parallel to the Gospel of Mark.

              But yes obviously there was a pre-existing conception of Jesus, as Carrier tepidly acknowledges, because a huge part of my thesis is that the Jesus character is based on Paul and that the writer of the story was using the letters of Paul as inspiration for his narrative. So it’s not a minor acknowledgement on my part, its a central plank of the thesis, showing that there is a constant LITERARY source for all of the scenes and dialog in the Gospel of Mark, either from Paul or Hebrew scriptures, which completely precludes the idea that any of the story is based on “oral tradition” or any knowledge of a real person. The source of the story is existing writings, none of which themselves were based on any account of a real person.

              I’m not sure why Carrier takes the position he does regarding my work, especially since (or perhaps because) it is so close to to his own positions.

              Anyway, I don’t want to hijack this thread, it sounds like Papageorgiou’s book is worthwhile.

              I’m just a bit frustrated because I’m trying to get a book published now and I’m not having much success because I have no credentials. I don’t want to go down the self-publishing route again, but I may have to if no one will publish my work.

              • 2015-05-06 13:08:09 UTC - 13:08 | Permalink

                Oh also, Carrier claims that I don’t develop a full theory of Christian origins, only “the Gospels”, to which I would strongly disagree. Even in the two older works that he cited I went well beyond just talking about the Gospels and addressed overarching theories of Christian origins. In fact I talk about the importance of that multiple times.

                But certainly my view is that the Gospels weer absolutely foundation to the development of Christianity. My view is that without the Gospels Christianity wouldn’t exist. Prior to the writing of the Gospels there was only a small inconsequential cult with probably no more than a few hundred or perhaps few thousand converts, most of which were probably only nominal followers and also followed other religions as well.

                It wasn’t until after the writing of the Gospels, and the belief that the Gospel stories were true, that Christianity as we know it really developed. The Gospel stories are the cause for the belief in a real human Jesus, so yes, they are the real root from which the Christian religion actually grew. Without the Gospels, the cult of the heavenly Jesus messiah would have faded away and gone unknown to history. Yes, that is my position, but by no means does that fail to provide a “a theory of Christian origins”, at least IMO.

                And again, I discuss how the literary allusions played a critical role in the origins of Christianity by explaining that it was the literary allusions that gave the impression of “prophecy fulfillment” as “secret messages” that played a central role in the adoption of the religion by “scholars” and the ruling class. It was the fact that they thought the Gospels provided proof of prophecy fulfillment that drove the adoption of the religion, which again all tied back to the literary basis for the Gospel stories.

              • Bee
                2015-05-06 14:06:45 UTC - 14:06 | Permalink

                Price: Excellent clarification. Sounds like you are thinking of a social “needs-based” social model. Not a political or ideological or imperialist one.

              • David Ashton
                2015-05-06 17:44:37 UTC - 17:44 | Permalink

                To R.G. Price: I have your latest book on order, and trust that this is a pearl of undoubtedly great price, which will help explain the motivations of “Paul” and “Mark”, and their “commercial success” so to speak. That “Mark” is quite a rich literary formulation has been noticed even by non-NT scholars like Helen Gardner, but it is interesting to see its author ranked as “novelist” of stature. (“John” somehow reminds me of some of George Bernard Shaw’s plays.) I hope the Godsquad (Yamauchi, Dunn and the various “Craigs” will give your work a comprehensive and courteous analysis: too much to expect?

  • Steven C Watson
    2015-05-16 16:08:08 UTC - 16:08 | Permalink

    OHJ is not about engaging with every historiscist/mythicist idea under the sun but establishing a rigourous baseline for future research. If you wish to follow up a particular historiscist/mythicist author or idea, Dr Carrier gives more than adequate bibliography and bibliographical note to do so.

    This contrasts with a cursory glance at RG Price’s work where what might be novel cannot be distinguished readily from being simply pulled from thin air. The majority of the content seems to be in furious agreement with Carrier and Doherty; but it seems clear not too much interaction is going on with theirs or anyone elses scholarship; else it would be understood why “John” is adrift from “Mark” and that, no, the author(s) of “Luke/Acts” are not familiar with the genuine Paulines. Indeed the flat-out contradictions between the two are obvious even to the lay person.

    What follows is a general criticism and not directed at any particular person.

    Richard Carrier and Earl Doherty stand out from the crowd and are in a different order quality-wise because they make complete arguments backed with complete evidence and they interact with the scholarship in depth. You are not left asking how they came to such and such a conclusion; they do not in general leave even small matters unexplained in contrast to a great number of others who can go for great drifts of text just assuming and asserting even major items with no acknowledgement of where the ideas come from; how they relate to one another and other scholarship;how what they write better explains the evidence; etc.

    If it isn’t sourced and it isn’t referenced I don’t know where the hell it comes from and I have no means, and if you haven’t got a pedigree, no reason to trust what you write. You have thrown up a dirty great mansion without having the footings and foundations surveyed, let alone the rest of the building. How do I know it is not a jerry-build that is going to fall on my head immediately I climb the stairs and lean on a bannister?

    It is a busy market place. If I have to go “WTF?”, I’ll pass thanks. If you want to be taken seriously; do the bloody work.

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-16 21:52:55 UTC - 21:52 | Permalink

    OMJ – patient advice, concluded with polite charm! A student rather than author, I shall make up my own mind about Price’s “The Christ-Myth Theory and its Problems” which has just arrived, and can measure it against many downloaded articles by Carrier, “The Empty Tomb”, &c.

  • Tariq
    2015-05-17 03:25:38 UTC - 03:25 | Permalink

    Dave,

    Steven was referring to RG Price. The Christ-Myth Theory and its Problems is by RM Price. Need to get your Prices right!

    • David Ashton
      2015-05-17 08:59:45 UTC - 08:59 | Permalink

      I sit corrected.

      • Steven C Watson
        2015-11-26 18:55:18 UTC - 18:55 | Permalink

        I agree with your comment, which ever Price you apply it to. I find Dr Carrier perhaps the more rigorous and Dr Price the more open minded, sometimes to the point where I think his brains are going to fall out! How did you measure the two?

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