Orthodoxy itself is best defined as the victory of the belief that Jesus had actually lived a full human existence over the belief that he was a mystical being or a man from heaven, greater than the angels (see Hebrews 2.1-18).
And the foundation of this victory was the canonization of the Gospels. Paul’s letters, without the Gospels, could give no case against the docetic and gnostic views of Jesus. As Hoffmann remarks, these letters might even be viewed as sharing those views.
Paul’s language of myth
Hoffmann remarks that Paul’s explanation of the way of salvation is described in mythical language. Note in particular Galatians 4.3-6, 9:
So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the elemental spirits of the universe [archontes tou kosmou]. of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, [to be] born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we [too] might receive the adoption of sons. . . .
But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable elemental spirits? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
So in Paul’s view of history, the human race that had long been damned was suddenly liberated from sin by the advent, death and resurrection of Christ, and this Christ “in significant respects resembled the savior gods of Hellenistic religion — especially Mithras.”
So what does Paul’s savior god and lord look like? Here are the descriptors as delineated by Hoffmann:
- he had no personal biography (or rather the merest of one: “born of a woman under the law”)
- “the most important events in his sketchless life were his death and resurrection — or rather revelation as a god.” — see, for example, the early Christian hymn quoted in Philippians 2.5-11:
- he originated as a god
- temporarily forsook his divinity
- was born in the likeness of man
- was killed
- was restored to full divinity by his Father-god
- Compare the same story in the “pro-Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl“
Paul’s claim is . . . that Jesus was a dying and rising savior God, a “redeemer” given to the Jews in the same way that Mithras had been given to the gentiles. (p.19-20)
Comparing the Mithras beliefs
Mithras believers held that
- there was a celestial heaven and a world of evil
- benevolent powers of good would sympathize with their suffering and vindicate them with eternal life in the world to come
- there was to be a final judgment day when the dead would be raised
- there would be an end-time conflict in which the present world order would be destroyed and the forces of light would triumph over those of darkness
- the faithful must undergo a purifying baptism
- the faithful must also partake of bread and wine as symbolic of the body and blood of the god
- the “day of the Sun” was sacred
- the birth of the god was celebrated annually late December
Thus Hoffmann, page 20.
Could Christianity be a Judaic or Jewish-Gnostic recollection of one of these earlier myths? Theorists in the nineteenth century making use of a variety of analogues ranging from pertinent to absurd began to be convinced it could.
“The  basic premises were sound”
Hoffmann then claims that the case for the Jesus myth being an outgrowth of these earlier myths was argued with mixed competence, but “the basic premises were sound: stated here with dangerous brevity” . . . I state them here with even more brevity in most cases, hence presumably with even greater danger, from Hoffmann’s pages 20-22:
- “The gospels are written later than the letters of Paul, and the letters of Paul are founded on the myth and liturgy of the dying and rising god, Jesus Christ.”
- “The gospels can be seen as the simple expansion of this foundation, over time, to provide a mise en scene for the life of the god.”
- “This pattern of ‘expansion’ is familiar from the development of myth and hero legends” of the Roman world — those of Horus, Mithras, Dionysus — and is common to “religious myth in general.” One does not see this same pattern in chronicles or historical narratives. These may contain legendary embellishments, but nothing more than that.
- The myth theorists saw the two strands of Jesus myth as geographically distinct, and not that one was the outgrowth of the other. One was the Jewish-gnostic view (as per the gospels) of Jesus being an ethical teacher — wisdom and virtue are his trademarks; the other was the Graeco-Roman myth of Jesus as the manifest deity of Paul’s letters and John’s gospel.
- “In order to establish the historicity of the gospels, one would need multiple “firsthand” accounts for the purposes of corroboration” — thus Hoffmann. (Anyone who has come across other posts of mine here would know I question this as it appears to be stated here, perhaps with “too much dangerous” brevity — e.g. there are probably thousands of “firsthand” accounts of alien abductions today. . . ) But Hoffmann remarks on the role of source-theory destroying the notion of multiple sources in the case of the gospels, since it is now apparent that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their primary source. And further, where Mark is not their source, as in the birth narratives, “we are quite clearly dealing with unvarnished or lightly coated Greek myth.” And “in the independently composed gospel of John, we are in the neighbourhood of a pure Gnostic mythology which has been only superficially historicized.”
- Myth theorists were “often more forthright than their theological opponents” in acknowledging the kind of literature that the gospels in fact were. The gospels were clearly seen as “examples of first-century religious propaganda, created for the purpose of winning allies for the new movement.” Thus John 20:30; 21:25 and Luke 1:3-4. . . . “The only reason for telling the story is to exhort and to persuade . . . not to provide evidence.” The myth as we have it yields “no purely historical data — no information which is not, in the language of biblical studies, “Christological.”” The myth is not about a man who becomes a divinity, but a divinity who becomes human — “the movement is from Christ to Jesus and not Jesus to Christ.”
The end of the mythicist-historicist debate
Then the whole mythicist-historicist Jesus debate, begun with Bruno Bauer in 1839, was
swept aside by a tide of historical scholarship that seemed to supplant its basic tenets with a succession of “quests” for more detailed information about the Jesus of history as he might be reconstructed from the gospels. (p.22)
Why? Hoffmann suggests two causes.
- “the erosion of Christian metaphysics (i.e., the failure of the miraculous to provide a sufficient warrant for Christian belief)”
- “and the more radical position that Jesus himself was a fabrication of the early church”
The church might (just) have been able to dispense with the miracle worker borne of the matrix of first-century beliefs, but it could not under any circumstances do without the ethical teacher who happened also, for whatever reason, to have been associated with the supernatural.
So scholarship launched into the “quest for the historical Jesus”, and there was no room left for the mythical saviour from that time on.
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