3 reasons scholars have embraced the Mythical Jesus view

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by Neil Godfrey

R. Joseph Hoffmann has in interesting introduction to his (re)publication of Jesus the Nazarene by Maurice Goguel in which he discusses some aspects of the early history of Jesus mythicism. He notes that the theory that Jesus had never lived at all was first broached in the nineteenth century. He cites three reasons why some scholars held this belief.

The evidence of the earliest Christian literature

Paul’s letters, being the earliest Christian literature, are completely silent about Jesus as an historical figure. For Paul, Jesus is Christ the Lord who died for sins and offered forgiveness and immortality for those who believed in him.

There is little — one almost has to say no — reference in these letters to a Nazarene who taught by the sea of Galilee, healed the sick, and spoke in parables about the end and judgment of the world. There is next to nothing, and certainly nothing on the order of a historical narrative, about a public crucifixion and resurrection, merely a reference to “deliverance,” death and resurrection as events of his life (see Galatians 6.14) which were understood to have bearing on the life of believers within the cult of “church.” (p.15)

Hoffmann then cites the Philippian hymn (2.5-11) that “seems to locate these events in a cosmic dimension that bears closer resemblance to Gnostic belief than to what emerges, in the end, as orthodox Christianity.”

The only datum in Paul’s writings that appears to have any significance for Christians is belief in the bare fact of Jesus overcoming death in order to give believers confidence in their own salvation.

While the whole meaning of Christian “faith” was predicated on the acceptance of a single event located in time (Paul does not specify the time, and seems to have an eschatological view of the days nearing completion: Romans 8.17-20), the earliest form of Christianity we know anything about yields not a historical Jesus, but a resurrection cult in search of a mythic hero. It found this in the divine-man (theios aner) cult of Hellenistic Judaism.

Synthesizing myths and traditions

The gospels provide such a hero, or rather the story of such a hero:

  • Jesus, a Galilean prophet
  • who teaches familiar lessons
  • who performs routine miracles
  • who is crucified mistakenly by those who don’t believe in his divinity
  • who proves them wrong by being resurrected

Hoffmann observes that just as Paul knows nothing of this gospel story, the gospels know nothing of Paul’s theology. That is, they do not reflect Paul’s understanding that the resurrection of Jesus is a paradigm for the immortality of every believer.

The theology of the cross is, Hoffmann notes, the outcome of the artificial linking of the Gospels and Paul’s writings in the NT canon.

“This artificiality” is said to have suggested to some scholars that the myth arose out of “the mystical supper”. This is the one common element in Paul and the Gospels — “a meal designed to ensure the benefits of salvation to the expectant messianic community of believers who had come to believe that their savior was also the expected deliverer of the last days.”

This myth was a synthesis of:

(Hoffmann does not address it, but his reference to the binding of Isaac typology is certainly of interest when read beside the Levenson discussion of how some Second Temple Jews interpreted this as a literal sacrifice and resurrection of Isaac so that his blood atoned for the sins of his nation.)

This myth deviated from Judaism with

its emphasis on the divinity of the savior-redeemer, a hybridization of messianic and apocalyptic thought further complicated by being agglomerated with hero tales, miracle sagas (thaumaturgies), and features of the mystery religions and emperor cult, especially the signification of Jesus as a “son of the God.”

Hellenestic Judaism was always an agglomeration of beliefs, but the Jesus cult was a most complex blend. Hoffmannn speaks of “this cult’s dazzling array of beliefs about Jesus”.

It was, Hoffmann writes, eventually banned from conservative Palestinian synagogues, but its popularity continued unabated “as a message of liberation to dissident Jews and religion-hungry gentiles outside Judaea and Galilee . . . ”

Rabbinic Judaism branded the Jesus beliefs as heretical, but in Hellenized Palestine the virgin birth, death and resurrection and such were eagerly embraced by many.

The Jesus legend embodied in the gospel is significant proof of a syncretizing Judaism which invented and exported such stories to the Jewish diaspora in Rome and Syria.

The importation of existing tales

In general, the Gospels seem to be combinations of traditions about Jesus rather than the life story of a single individual. The myth theorists were quick to point out that there is virtually no part of the Gospel that has not been affected by existing tales then circulating throughout Rome and the provinces. (p.17)

What tales were these? Hoffmannn lists them as “ancient stories of dying and rising (or recomposed) gods, ranging from Osiris and solar deities such as Mithras to Heracles and Prometheus.”

Jews, as we know, did not accept such myths undiluted, “but tended to domesticate them within the constructs of their own religious history.”

Hoffmann speaks of an apocalyptic context around the time of the first Jewish war in which belief in “semi-divine personages was at fever-pitch”. (I would be curious to know the evidence for this. I am not saying I doubt it, but it’s a detail I would like to know more about and the evidence underlying it.)

Hoffmann lists the most important of such mythical semi-divine personages:

  • the Son of Man (Daniel 7-12)
  • Sophia, or Wisdom (Sirach 1.6ff; Matthew 12.42/Luke 11.31)
  • the pre-Hebrew goddess Asherah, or Ishtar (never completely eradicated from the Jewish pantheon)

Jesus in the synoptic Gospels is an uneven commixture of these idealized figures, while in John he is repainted as the Gnostic savior revealer, the logos of God, who is “identical” to God himself (John 10.29) — so that he can be said to have existed “from the beginning” (John 1.3-4; cf. Ecclesiasticus 24.1-5).

So in addition to priesthood, calendar and ritual, Hellenistic Judaism’s mythic features dominated “the popular religious imagination.”

Hoffmann recaps these mythic features of Hellenized Judaism that “blended to form an inchoate tale that developed into a controlled structure only after written versions of the story began to supplant its weedlike variegations”:

  • the eschatological figure of the Son of Man
  • the Greek idea of the divine man
  • quasi-Gnostic constructions of the androgynous revealer goddess Sophia
  • a theophanic view of messiahship as the appearance and return to heaven of a heavenly man (the kyrios christos)

The variegation of the early components of Jesus mythic associations are reflected in the differences among the earliest gospels. Compare Mark, for example, with Matthew’s and Luke’s expanded birth of savior god, and resurrection, accounts; and compare these with John’s “spiritual” gospel that attempts “to replace the messianic-apocalyptic figure with a heavily Gnosticized one.” Add to these the wide variety of gnostic and apocryphal gospels and we have a very untidy scenario of Christian origins. Origins that are indeed “a riotous diversity” as Doherty has phrased it. (But don’t mention Doherty to Hoffmann!)


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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “3 reasons scholars have embraced the Mythical Jesus view”

  1. Into what are the existing tales being imported?

    I am impressed by the explanatory power of Hoffman’s theory that the gospels and the epistles first developed independently. However, if we are going to say that the gospels represent an independent line of development, at what point do we think they imported the historical Jesus stories and what was there prior to the importation?

  2. My inchoate understanding is that Jesus the ethical teacher is plausibly an outgrown of the Sophia/Wisdom entity or role of God’s envoy. There are a couple of references to Jesus as Wisdom, or his sayings being Wisdom in Luke and Matthew. I think of the Gospel of John being the sort of gospel one might expect to be created around a Wisdom envoy sent to earth. Very little action, just a spirit in human form teaching lots of stuff.

    But I also keep coming back to Justin Martyr’s tracts. I get the impression he is himself working out a series of narratives about the life of Jesus — concluding their facticity in each case from his interpretation of scripture. (Some scholars, or at least one whose name I cannot recall offhand, also has noted that his references to the Memoirs of the Apostles are clustered in just a couple of areas in his tracts, and in connection with just one theme, and have the appearance of being later interpolations. But even if they are original, whether they really resemble our gospels is questionable in my view since he appears elsewhere to contradict them — e.g. no Judas, no betrayal, Jesus appearing to institute the sacred meal and all his teaching after his resurrection, etc)

    So I am also open to the possibility of the gospel narratives being developed as late as the mid second century, as the Jesus idea was being gradually “fleshed out”.

    Meanwhile, on the other side, we have Marcion, Valentinians, among whom Paul was chief revealer.

  3. The theological progression of the gospels seems to me to be more consistent with a historical figure being mythologized than a mythological figure being historicized. I’m not really sure whether it is possible to reach a conclusion on that either way, but it seems like it avoids the fallacy of assuming the historicity of the texts. Of course, he still might be so thoroughly mythologized by the time of Mark that nothing meaningful can be said about the historical person and he may well be too far removed to be considered the founder of the religion that resulted from the eventual amalgamation of the epistles and the gospels. I’m looking forward to Hoffmann’s book, but for now I am still pretty firmly in the agnostic camp.

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