Weaknesses of traditional anti-mythicist arguments

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by Neil Godfrey

jesusthenazareneThis post addresses R. Joseph Hoffmann’s discussion of Maurice Goguel’s 1926 defence of the historicity of Jesus in response to the early mythicist arguments, initially launched by Bruno Bauer in 1939, and developed in particular by Reinach, Drews and Couchoud. Hoffmann divides Goguel’s defence (Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?) into the following six sections. I have attempted to epitomize Hoffmann’s responses to each of the core arguments of Goguel for historicity. I have clearly indicated where I have departed from my understanding of Hoffmann’s own words and introduced my own comments.

When I started this post I half expected it to become a response to historicist arguments in general, hence I sometimes speak of “some Jesus historicists” where Hoffmann is specifically addressing Goguel himself.

1. The notices of opponents

Goguel suggests that Christianity was recognized by outsiders at least from the time of Tacitus (55-120) and none of its opponents doubted the existence of Jesus.

Hoffmann responds:

Tacitus, even if his report (Annals 15.44) is authentic, is reporting on the teaching of the cult and not on historical records he is attempting to verify.

None of the pagan critics of Christianity cast doubt on the historicity of Jesus “for the simple reason that after the second century –the first age of Christian apologetics — the story was regarded as a canonical record of the life and teachings of an authentic individual, thus to be refuted on the basis of its content rather than the details of its historical veracity.”

The earliest official report referring to Christianity, the letter of governor Pliny to Emperor Trajan (111 ce), “knows nothing of a historical Jesus, only a cult that worships a certain Christ as a god (quasi deo).

Other critics such as Celsus, Porphyry and Julian found the idea of the historicity of Jesus a point in favour of their attacks on Christianity. They could mock the insignificance (not the nonexistence) of the Christian founder.

The inconspicuousness of Nazareth also lends credence to the myth theory. Was Jesus “the Nsr/Nazorean/Nazarene/Nazaraios” (my own variations of the word mixed with Hoffmann’s here) originally a divine name, as in Joshua the protector or saviour? Compare Zeus Xenios, Hermes Psychopompos, Helios Mithras, Yahweh Sabaoth. The evangelists appear to struggle with placing the name as a geographical locality in their gospels. Opponents were happy to associate Jesus with an insignificant town, but Hoffmann’s point is that the confusion over this epithet is embedded in the earliest debates over whether it was a local or a divine title.

2. The Docetic heresies

The various docetic views held that Jesus was not truly flesh, but a spirit, perhaps only appearing as a flesh and blood human. Some Jesus historicists have argued that when orthodox Christianity combatted these views, they were indeed affirming the historical reality of Jesus.

But this misses the point of what the debate was about. The issue was not whether Jesus had lived in the time of Pilate, but about the “materiality” of Jesus — was he manifest as real flesh and blood or only an apparition.

The existence of such docetic views among a range of Christian groups may well have been vestiges of some “pre-Christian” Jesus myth. But those arguing for the historicity of Jesus have focussed only on the orthodox response to docetic views, without really addressing the full complexity of its implications.

Is is not a myth the church was refuting in attacking Docetism; it was the belief that Jesus was of a different order of reality than the dichotomous reality it attributed to him as both god and man. Church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian will accuse the Gnostics of believing in a phantasm, an apparition, a ghost, a spirit, in order to malign their opponents’ denial of the physical Jesus, but at no point do they accuse their enemies of creating a deception or myth. (pp. 26-27)

3. Paul and the Gospel

Opponents of the mythical Jesus idea have claimed mythicists make far too much of Paul’s silence on the details of the earthly career of Jesus.

Hoffmann comments in response to Goguel’s arguments here:

This conclusion is less compelling than it might be, however, since Paul was not a disinterested writer of late antiquity who might be expected to ignore the details of Jesus’ life (thus Tacitus) but an apologist for a cause that had made him a zealot. Hence, it might be expected that Paul’s testimony to the death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 1.23; Galatians 5.11) would include tidbits of Jesuine teaching and, plausibly, biographical detail.

Opponents of mythicism often make much of the occasional nature of Paul’s letters. Specific theological and ethical issues in particular communities dictated the points he addressed in his conversational letters. There was no scope within such constraints for speaking of the biographical details of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

However, this argument cannot be carried too far. It depends on the assumption that the career of a real historical Jesus would have led to a fairly general consensus, so soon after his death, on what were the actual details of his life and teaching. Paul’s authority would have depended on this, or had to argue for one view of Jesus’ life and teaching against others to make his case.

But we know — from Paul himself — that there was no such Christian consensus in his time. So the question must arise, “from what quarter did the historical grounding arise, and when — and for what reason?”

It has become clear to scholars that

early ‘orthodoxy’ or a doctrinally cohesive hierarchical Christianity arose late rather than early; that early Christianity was fissiparous theologically; and that much of the success of the orthodox movement depended entirely on its use of the appeal to history — “apostolic tradition,” as by Irenaeus — the presupposition for which was a historical Jesus of Nazareth and his selection of disciple successors appointed to safeguard the truth. (pp.27-28)

Then we have the Ascension of Isaiah, and ancient text known to Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho), Tertullian (Scorpiace, 7 and de Patientia, 14), Origen (Commentary on Matthew 10.18) etc. The Ascension tells of the descent of the Beloved Son from the highest heaven, down to Sheol, and of his reascent to the heavens (6.1-11, 43).

This myth appears to undergird Paul’s use of a “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2.5-11 and also the baptismal and temptation sequences in Mark 1.1-9, 13, pars. The quarrel between Jesus and the Jews as representatives of Satan, patent to John’s gospel, is also expressed in the Ascension of Isaiah (11.19-21), where the Beloved descends to the powers of hell in order to overcome death, but is betrayed by Satan and is crucified for his attempts to despoil hell. (p.28)

I copy here the passage Hoffmann cites from the Ascension of Isaiah above:

19And after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel, who did not know who he was, against him. And they handed him to the ruler, and crucified him, and he descended to the angel who (is) in Sheol. 20In Jerusalem, indeed, I saw how they crucified him on a tree, 21and likewise (how) after the third day he and remained (many) days. 22And the angel who led me said to me, “Understand, Isaiah.” And I saw when he sent out the twelve disciples and ascended. 23And I saw him, and he was in the firmament, but was not transformed into their form. And all the angels of the firmament, and Satan, saw him and worshiped.

We would love to know how much of this myth in the Ascension is pre-Christian. Unfortunately we cannot tell. Its connections with other saviour myths such as the Hymn of the Pearl and the Christian apocryphal Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus) are also of interest.

The relationship between this myth in the Ascension and Paul’s theology must remain an open question. There are certainly resonances between the two.

Hoffmann notes that Goguel attempts to distance the possibility of the Ascension from Paul’s theology by insisting that the Ascension belongs to the second century, and by attempting to stress the links between Paul’s and the Gospel’s sayings . . .

with predictable emphasis on the (few) sayings or echoes of sayings of Jesus preserved in the apostle’s letters. In the long run, one would have to regard this attempt as contrived and unsuccessful. (p. 29)

4. The mythological structure of Paul’s thought and his spiritual view of Jesus

Paul’s view of the world is a universe “divided between God and demons, sin and evil, law and freedom”, and the solution to it all is redemption.”

The present evil age is under the dominion of evil powers; its essential character is sin, death, and impotence (Galatians 1.4; 1 Corinthians 1.20; 2.6; 3.18, 2 Corinthians 4.3). . . . Goguel struggles to maintain that despite the mythological structure of Paul’s thought, the apostle nonetheless conceives of Jesus historically: he does not, for example, consider Jesus “preexistent” as John and the Gnostic teachers had done. (p. 29, my emphasis in bold, as always)

So although the anti-mythicist (Goguel) might well argue that Paul’s Jesus is unlike the pre-existent being of the Gnostics and Johannine Christians, what Goguel does not suggest is also of significance: “that Paul’s imagery of the descent of the god man, the victory of Christ over the demonic spirits of this age, and his assumption to glory at God’s right hand until the end of time (Romans 8.34; 1 Corinthians 15:24, 26) was already being refashioned in Paul’s name before the end of the first century (Colossians 1.20, 3.1; Ephesians 4.9-13, etc.).”

To paraphrase Hoffmann here, I understand him to be arguing that Paul’s spiritual or mythical view of Jesus was being developed further in a nonhistorical direction by his followers.

What Goguel is unable to deny, and indeed ends up strengthening, is the case made by the myth theorists that Paul’s understanding of Jesus is essentially spiritual.

Jesus mythicist Couchoud had commented that Paul may have deduced a history of Jesus from the drama of redemption, while Goguel “modestly” replied that we know nothing in Diaspora Judaism that offers us any analogies to any such Pauline speculation. — “unless, that is, we admit the evidence of the Ascension of Isaiah, and the many examples of the ascending-descending gods in non-Jewish literature”, Hoffmann adds.

[Goguel’s] basic contention . . . proves untenable, that “if Christian doctrine had come forth in its entirety from the brain of Paul as Minerva did from that of Jupiter, it would present a homogeneous character.” (p.30)

Hoffmann points out that Goguel saw Paul as being confronted with a dilemma: how to synthesize the earthly life-history of Jesus with the doctrine of redemption. Goguel says that Paul was not successful in achieving this “completely at once”. But Hoffmann further observes of Goguel’s argument:

In fact, Paul’s theology displays only stresses in relation to the second of these elements; the first arises not in relation to the history of Jesus but the Jesus who overpowers history with his divine presence. History is not a literal course of events but a metaphysical process for Paul. The sinful biography of the human race is problematical; the literal biography of Jesus irrelevant (2 Corinthians 5.16), and even if known would remain irrelevant. Beyond this, it is highly doubtful that Paul knew many of the details being propagated by the forerunners of the gospel tradition. (p.30)

5. The Pastoral Epistles, Epistle to the Hebrews and Book of Revelation

Goguel sees these as originating from a time later than Paul’s letters, developing the doctrine of redemption, and in different ways being dependent on the Gospel traditions. Hoffmann zeroes in on Goguel’s discussion of Revelation here. The Christ in Revelation is hardly the same figure we find in the Gospels. To appeal to the possibility that the cosmic Jesus in Revelation is derived from apocalyptic Judaism scarcely addresses the problem for historicists. By the time Revelation was being written, with its Christ being born and immediately taken to heaven, the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke were under development.

Hoffmann suggests that Goguel’s arguments here actually strengthen the mythicist case, since they show “how easily the skeletal features of the descent, appearance and ascension motifs can be rationalized in narrative form.”

6. The historical Jesus must have existed to give rise to the Gospel (and the Gospel presuppositions of Paul)

This is a question of what came first.

Mythicists have argued for the following sequence:

  1. pre-Pauline traditions
  2. Pauline/paulinist traditions
  3. later traditions
  4. the historicization of the traditions in the gospels

Early publicists of this order of things included nineteenth-century philosopher of art, Schelling, who observed that the history of Jesus was “completely enveloped in fables” taken from Hebrew prophecy. Salomon Reinach and Couchoud

suggested that the whole fabric of the gospel account of Jesus is constructed from a mesh of Old Testament texts regarded as prophetic by the Jesus believers, most especially those relating to the crucifixion or “passion narrative.”

In response, Goguel might have been expected to have argued strongly a case for the historical reliability of the gospels, but this is what he scarcely does at all. His argument attempts to deal at a very technical level with the chronological and interpretative difficulties of the mythicist argument here, Hoffmann explains.

Example: Psalm 22 is commonly viewed as being the source of the crucifixion scene. Goguel argues that if this really were the case, then we need to be able to explain why no other Christian author (until the time of Justin Martyr (1 Apology 35) in the mid-second century) knows that this is the case.

But as Hoffmann notes, Justin was surely merely making explicit a relationship between the Psalm and the Passion Narrative that “would already have been consciously known by the compilers.” But even more tellingly,

It can as easily be argued that Justin is the first to make explicit what Christian believers of the previous generation had mistaken for an independent tradition — in which case Justin, in his use of typology, a standard method of Christian interpretation of Old Testament texts, becomes one of the first to discover the mythological sub-stratum of the gospels themselves. (p.32)

Conclusion of the Introduction

Hoffmann concludes his introduction with a discussion of the reasons Goguel’s critique of the mythicist arguments of Reinarch, Drews, Couchoud and others is “far superior to other defenders of historicity” of Jesus. This section contains some of the more interesting of Hoffmann’s commentary, but the time it would take to outline his views here is beyond me at this moment. One turn of phrase is of interest enough to single out, however: If the view of the mythicists

can be called “myth without mystery,” myth as the fabrication of an idea, then Goguel’s defense of “history” is best described as an apology for mystery as a significant category of human experience, typically,  — that is, historically — expressed as a myth.

I might just add one comment on something Hoffmann writes which, I wonder, may point to a possible reason for what I consider to be Hoffmann’s most unfair dismissal of the arguments of Earl Doherty. When Hoffmann speaks of Goguel having “posed questions that New Testament scholars must continue to ask in dealing with the newly invigorated question of the historicity of Jesus”, he speaks of the need to meet Goguel’s challenge with the “same high seriousness” Goguel himself displays in his writing.

Doherty, of course, quite deliberately writes for the educated lay reader, not for the scholarly community. Although Doherty does meet the most advanced historical Jesus scholarship head-on, he opens up to it critiques from new perspectives and, introduces a genuinely “new paradigm”, in the words of Misericordia’s Professor of Religious Studies and author of Jesus the Healer, and specialist publications on the Gospel of Thomas, Stevan Davies. One wonders the extent to which Doherty’s fresh questions and insights that have introduced a new dimension into the mythical Jesus question, and of course his non-academic style, have disqualified him, in Hoffmann’s mind, simply Doherty’s approach has challenged and broken away from “the same old”.

Earl Doherty’s own critique of Goguel’s book is found online here.

The following diagram is added with some misgivings. I would not want anyone to interpret it as some simplistic outline of Hoffmann’s own discussion. Take it as nothing more than one of those freebie extras.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Weaknesses of traditional anti-mythicist arguments”

  1. What about the idea that the historicization that began with Mark was not part of a sequence that included Paul but rather was part of an independent sequence that came together with Paul’s sometime later with Acts?

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