Some reasons to favour a “mythical Jesus” over a “historical Jesus”

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by Neil Godfrey

The various historical Jesus explanations for Christian origins are without analogy, are highly improbable, and rely on filling in gaps with “something unknown” or “something we don’t understand”.

How plausible is it, after all, that all of the following somehow come together in a coherent “explanation”:

  • Jews scarcely believing Jesus was nothing more than a prophet while alive, or worse, with a handful thinking him a “Davidic messiah”;
  • Jesus dying the death of a criminal, as a failed prophet or failed messiah;
  • Jews very quickly after his death coming to believe [through some unexplained process] that he was a resurrected divinity to be worshiped alongside God, even creator and sustainer of the universe, and whose flesh and blood were to be symbolically eaten;
  • Jewish followers persuading large numbers of other Jews and gentiles who had never seen him to worship him thus, also?

How plausible is it that

  • the many earliest references to such a historical person who performed astonishing miracles, delivered precepts on the sabbath and divorce and other Jewish rituals, suffered as a martyr, . . .
  • — how plausible is it that the many earliest references to such a historical person ignore all of these details of his life;
  • yet on the contrary, speak of his flesh and crucifixion  as entirely mystical or theological phenomena that cohere with the well known ancient paradigm of divinities above working out the conversion experiences of mortals below;
  • and that also speak of the revelation of the Gospel (not of Jesus himself) in the Scriptures, and point to Scriptures, not the life or miracles of Jesus, as the “revelation” of “the mystery of the gospel” that can only be grasped by spiritual gift (not historical evidence)?

How plausible is it that

  • there are no biographical or historical accounts of the life and person of one who reportedly attracted a following of multitudes from Tyre and Sidon and beyond Jordan and Jerusalem and Idumea, who came to the hostile attention of Herod and Pilate and the entire religious establishment?
  • the only accounts we have of such a person are not witnessed until the second century,
  • the same accounts contain anachronisms (e.g. Pharisees and synagogues dotting Galilee, hostile Christian views of rabbinic Judaism) that further suggest a very late composition,
  • and are brief tracts that demonstrate an incestuous literary relationship,
  • and that are primarily theological treatises promoting theological agendas above anything else?
  • and that such a historical Jesus in each of these gospels should be little more than a cardboard cutout mouthpiece for various (unoriginal) sayings and acts that are often demonstrably cut from OT narratives and characters?
  • that there is no reliable independent verification in the historical record for the historicity of such a person?

A funny thing about the above points is that they are often adhered to on the grounds that “no-one would have made up the Christian narrative. This strikes me as something of a Tertullian defence: “It is absurd, therefore [the first Christians, and] I believe”. This explanation, as far as I am aware, flies in the face of all that we can expect or that we can see recorded of human experience.

How much more plausible is it that

  • the basic idea behind the gospel narratives was the template of pagan gods appearing on earth in the likeness of men, and ascending heavenward again, often after death, — a fact that Church Fathers conceded with apologies— and mirrored in popular Jewish literature, such as Tobit and certain Second Temple interpretations of angelic/divine visits to earth in Jewish scriptures? (Besides, divinities have been known to find expression as historical persons — compare Celtic and Norse gods generating King Arthur and William Tell);
  • many of the literary features of popular literature of the day, including novels in which escapes from crucifixions, apparent resurrections and ascents to heaven, visions, interventions of gods, prophecies, miracles, plots built around identity confusion, sea adventures and prison escapes, unjust trials, that were all very common and much loved tropes, with puns for personal and geographical names, should be the natural vehicles of composing a story that was parabolic or relatively new for its audiences?
  • such a religion might evolve out of that “wing” of Second Temple Judaism that acknowledged the high heavenly roles of the Heavenly Adam and other heavenly figures such Jacob, Elijah, the Logos, personified Wisdom, Son of Man, in Enochian and other apocalyptic literature, with its emphasis on visions, prophecies, “wisdom”, angels and demons;
  • such out of such a religious set was crystallized something that met the spiritual demands of many Jews in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 — with at least a significant number of others establishing rabbinic Judaism as an alternative and rival response to this crisis?
  • such a new religion embraced such Second Temple period views as the atoning, salvific blood of a resurrected Isaac (and of Jewish martyrs generally), as well as spiritual or personal interpretations of a Logos-dying-and-rising-Messiah-Son of Man figure?
  • that the historical earthly appearance of Jesus emerged as a response to rival claims of sects to be heirs to various traditions traceable back to a spirit-heavenly, and post resurrection, Jesus; it was one-up-manship to trace back to contact prior to the resurrection, among disciples who had lived with the hero; the only counters to this seem to have been that such a story was a fable (allegory) or the disciples remained ignorant of the master’s teachings.

The reason I particularly like points 4 and 6 of the last cluster is because they offer explanatory and specific historical contexts for the emergence of certain distinguishing features of Christianity.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Some reasons to favour a “mythical Jesus” over a “historical Jesus””

  1. Yes, nobody would have made up a Superman who can be weakened by Kryptonite or a Jedi whose father was a Sith or an Odysseus who was seduced by Sirens or an Aeneas who would fall in love with Dido. Nobody ever makes up anything about a fictional character that is anything but flattering.

    1. Well, that’s just absurd. Serious scholars of the historical Clark Kent will admit that the historian has no means of evaluating whether Krypton existed or if there is any Kryptonite on Earth. Of course, they’d never go so far as to deny Krypton existed. I mean, that would be utter hubris.

      The question is and must always be: How much can we know about the historical Clark Kent?

  2. What is a large number of Jews and Gentiles? It might affect what is plausible. You plausibly think someone would right a biography of Jesus if he existed, seriously? I’m getting the impression that you think Christianity was wildly popular in the first century or that Greeks with a knack for seeing the future would be jumping over each other to write a biography for an obscure religious fanatic. If you look at the sort of people who space in the biographies we have of the classical age, the line he has in Josephus is generous enough (and if you think the current level of acceptance of the TF is part of some Zionist plot, feel free to discard even that mention, and I still don’t think we should expect more than what you would accept as the most ancient secular witnesses to Jesus.) Christianity was in the first century just like all the odd cults that emerge and mostly fade into nothing. I don’t think they strode of Israel ready to bend Rome to it’s will it was the Moonies of its day, or the Mormons of Brigham Young’s day. A small fringe group with a few areas of local influence.

  3. I guess Mike is saying that it’s not fair to expect “biographical or historical accounts of the life and person of one who reportedly attracted a following of multitudes from Tyre and Sidon and beyond Jordan and Jerusalem and Idumea, who came to the hostile attention of Herod and Pilate and the entire religious establishment” because, well, he didn’t attract any such following or come to much hostile attention (except suddenly, at the bitter end), being really (according to the historicist position as espoused by Mike) an insignificant figure revered early on by only an insignificant number of people.

    It’s a form of special pleading, I think. Any detail or narrative element in the gospels that might possibly serve to identify this nebulous figure can be jettisoned as exaggeration or theological interpretation since we find no corroboration in the historical record. The problem, and you don’t address this, Mike, is that when you’re done jettisoning all these features, there’s nothing left to be history, and that is Neil’s whole point. Historical figures are integral parts of the historical reconstructions in which they appear; they are not just shown to exist, they have a role, they can be shown to have acted, to have done things without which our reconstruction becomes fanciful or incoherent. The minimal “historical Jesus” who is left when you remove all of the fictional specificity has nothing to do. At best, things are done to him: baptism, crucifixion. There is no “Jesus shaped hole” in any historical reconstruction of the events of 1st-Century Galilee and Judaea.

  4. If this is Mike’s point, then yes, CJ is spot on.

    If I understand the process correctly, it is common for Historical Jesus scholars to decide what is the evidence and what is not according to their hypothesis.

    They will start with a hypothesis that can explain a subset of the data (e.g. That Jesus was a minor actor with a fringe following is one possible explanation for there being no external testimony supporting the gospel narrative).

    Next step is to use that hypothesis to come up with criteria that will be used to find more evidence that supports it (e.g. followers would want to exaggerate and glamorize the importance of certain past events, etc);

    Next step is to apply that criteria to decide what happened in history and what didn’t (e.g. Jesus didn’t really attract such large crowds as claimed in Mark, etc).

    Is not this the same sort of circular logic used to prove alien visitations and astrology?

    1. On the one hand, his followers were so numerous and dangerous that the Temple constabulary needed a traitor to help find Jesus’ nighttime hide-out (so they could sneak up on him). On the other hand, he was so insignificant that Pilate decided it was OK to have Jesus crucified during a national holiday, without any worry that riots might break out in Jerusalem.

      On the one hand, Jesus was so dangerous and obnoxious that he had to be crucified. On the other hand, none of his numerous and passionate followers were deemed dangerous, so he was crucified between two anonymous strangers.

      On the one hand, Jesus was killed in the most brutal manner possible, with torture and public shame. On the other hand, Pilate gladly surrendered the body to Joseph of Arimathea, who gave Jesus a dignified burial an unused, rock-hewn tomb.

      1. The beautiful thing about gospel contradictions is that they allow the historian to find almost anything they need to argue any theory. Paula Fredriksen can explain the failure of Pilate to execute Jesus’ followers along with him by appealing to the Gospel of John to “show” that Jesus went to Jerusalem for feasts lots of times, so Pilate knew he was harmless. He only did the dirty on Jesus to get the priests off his back.

        But hang on, doesn’t this begin to sound like the sort of literary expositions we used to do in classes of literary studies? Isn’t history meant to be grounded on a bit more than mere texts of unknown provenance and without any concrete supporting evidence to any detail of their historicity?

  5. C.J., thanks for translating me into a form everyone can understand. On the other hand to expect that someone who drew large crowds in Galilee would be the subject of a biography, while possibly not idiotic, certainly shows a lack of understanding of this time. I mean a “large crowd” will be present for the county fair here but I doubt you guys will get the news on it. So not only is it not implausible that we don’t have a biography for this person, it would be implausible to expect one. Do we have a biography for the Josephus’ Egyptian prophet? he had a following of 30,000, 6 times the size of Jesus largest reported crowd, but he just gets a brief mention in “Jewish War’ and “Antiquities”. Nor is there a biography for Judas the Galilean, who probably got bigger crowds in Galilee than Jesus, just a couple of brief passages in Josephus and one small line in Luke-Acts. I have no reason to doubt that he drew large crowds as depicted in mark, The numbers as all numbers in these ancient sources aren’t likely to be very accurate, but 4 or 5 thousand gathered to see someone, or a person who is a constantly sought after as is so often depicted in Mark is not outside the realm of possible, it probably happened a lot. And I don’t think we should expect this to be big news globally.

    While accurate population figures are hard to come by quickly, the figures for Jerusalem is between 30,000 to 80,000 with an additional 50,000-100,000 for big holidays. Palestine/Judea/Galilee gets numbers ranging from 500,000 to 3 million. 4,000-5,000 to listen to someone or see an exorcism is not that big a number. But even a fraction of that would be potential dangerous enough to want to avoid a direct confrontation if one one doesn’t want a riot in town.

    G.Luke gives the number of followers in the weeks after Jesus death at 120 people, and after the Pentecost speech he claims they gain 3,000 converts. These are not huge numbers. It is hard to judge the size of the church in Paul’s time since he dwells so much on theology and hardly discusses the nuts and bolts of these congregation. Even when talks about collecting a donation for the Christians in Jerusalem, he never talks specific figures. But Acts presents it as being a large enough movement to threaten the lively hood of Ephesian silver smiths, and Paul himself reports being beaten multiple times which may indicate enough Christians to worry about, and if the “Chrestus” riot in Rome is really because of Christians in Rome, then there were enough Christians in Rome at that time to cause a riot worthy of notice. While we should doubt the accuracy of the numbers they are likely to reflect what the authors though was approximately the right number. For instance Luke’s 120 for the number of followers Jesus had after his death is a round and somewhat symbolical charged number but it is not 12 or 144,000. The Egyptian prophet may not have had 30,000 followers but he also probably did not have only 300 or 300,000 either.

    But I don’t see a need to manipulate the given numbers to make the point here, as some who have posted here seem to believe. If you think Mark and company are describing a movement of great contemporary significance, I think you just don’t have grasp of the nature of the Roman world at this time. It seems the interest in it only extends to demonstrating overwhelming support for a theory that most experts in the field don’t see as being well supported.

    Ultimately you seem to have ideas based on false premises.

    1. Hi Mikelioso,

      I originally wrote of the implausibiliy of “biographical or historical accounts” of someone who drew crowds from Tyre and Sidon and across Jordan and Idumea and Judea (Mark 3) such that Jesus was forced into a boat to avoid being crushed. As you remark, we do have historical records of such people.

      But when it comes to Jesus, as I went on to point out, we do also have very much written about him, but none of it demonstrates any purely biographical or historical interest in his life. It is all theology. Jesus is essentially a mouthpiece for unoriginal sayings, and each evangelist tailors his acts according to whatever theological point he is expressing.

      So we do have much written about Jesus indeed. But why does none of it demonstrate a clear interest in the person and life of Jesus for its own sake? That is the oddity, is it not? We only have theological treatises that use Jesus as a key or exemplar for specific theological (and christological) beliefs of the evangelist.

      The only explanation I have heard for this strange state of the “record” is that the evangelists were so overwhelmed by Jesus that they could not bring themselves to describe him as they would normally describe the life and person of anyone else, but were all moved to express their impressions of him in metaphor and midrash and hyperbolic or allegorical imagery and scenarios.

      I think there is a simpler explanation. Especially so if the original Jesus was so relatively insignificant as you insist.

      1. I wrote the following quite some years ago, and I think it demonstrates to some extent what I am discussing here — the absence of any biographical interest in Jesus in the earliest accounts. The following is an excerpt from my larger article here http://vridar.info/xorigins/Markparable.htm

        Mark’s Jesus is exclusively an agent for pronouncing and acting out theological or metaphorical messages. He is not a character of even the faintest whiff of personal biographical interest.

        Mark vividly details John the Baptist’s dress and diet but not Jesus’ (except by vague tangential inference when scripture or rules or story function are the issues) and that requires explanation no less than it does of Paul when he wrote of rules for eating. If we reply that John’s dress was a theological construct and not a genuine biographical memory (to make him an Elijah forerunner of Jesus) then we come back to my #1 square: that Mark’s characters are unknown both to him and to us as real people. He only permits us to know them as literary or theological creations, not as real people of the past with non-functional historical or biographical interest or delineation. Mark’s Jesus is as much an impersonal theological construct as is Paul’s despite any narrative illusion to the contrary.

        Jesus’ origins and family background are likewise only obliquely referred to when the author needs their function to make theological points (3:31, 6:3-4). The author can with equal facility strip them of their family relationship to Jesus in order to dramatize another spiritual or metaphorical point for his readers (15:40, 47, 16:1, 8 with 3:33-34 – this is discussed further below.) The only father Jesus appears in some adoptionist sense to have is God yet identification by fathers was the norm in biographies. (To dismiss this as an effort by the author to avoid reminding readers of embarrassing rumours regarding a less than honourable birth cannot be sustained. There is no other interest anywhere in the gospel of a real person apart from his textual theological function. Besides, this criterion of embarrassment is applied in a totally reverse manner when some critics excuse the account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist by saying that such an incident “had” to be true because it was otherwise too much opposed to the author’s theological interests.) In other words the author has no historical or personal biographical interest in Jesus’ origins or family background. He is creating theological literature first and last and such references as there are to Jesus’ family are first and last personifications of specific theological messages. The author demonstrates no interest in nor even knowledge of a real flesh and blood person. The Jesus of his text lived entirely within his theological and literary imagination.

        The same can be said of the death of Jesus. Both gospel and extra-canonical evidence informs us that it was the common and widespread custom of Jews of Hellenistic and later Roman times to reverence the tombs of their martyrs and honoured fathers. That the place and identification of the tomb of Jesus was not indicated in some way by Mark is incomprehensible if he had any biographical interest in Jesus. To argue that the resurrection made the tomb itself somehow irrelevant is perverse logic since such a miracle would only infinitely enhance, not diminish, the significance of some identifiable location of the tomb. Mark is rather following the Hellenistic literary motifs used to indicate divinity of a hero by having him vanish mysteriously from the scene of his death.

        The point bears repeating: the author demonstrates no interest in nor even knowledge of a real flesh and blood person. The Jesus of his text lived entirely within his theological and literary imagination.

  6. The historical notices of some of the religious fanatics in Josephus are rather small and out side of Josephus are only mentioned in Luke-Acts and that may be dependent on Josephus, If Josephus hadn’t caught the attention of Christians we wouldn’t have ever heard of them. Jesus gets comparable space in Josephus and given the scope of his work at the time, it is about right I think. Obviously you have a different take on the Jesus material in Josephus, but brighter people than ourselves have already said as much as can be on that topic.

    The way the Christians handle Jesus in their gospel narratives aren’t much different than the way they handle people who’s existence is more certain, such as Paul in Luke-Acts or in the Acts of Paul. Those accounts come off as a bit more polished than Mark, but Mark is an odd book by any standard.

    1. Don’t be over-awed by the intelligence of scholars. If they can substantiate their views with evidence and clarity of argument they will do so. If they can’t, then we are entitled to dismiss what they say. You need to ask what changed between the Second World War that led to a 180 degree shift of the scholarly view on Josephus. Was it new evidence? Or a shift in attitudes towards things Jewish and interfaith approaches – as well as a concern of mainstream scholars to meet the challenge of mythicism? You also need to ask why it is that Gary Goldberg apparently refuses to have what is probably one of the most extensive and thorough studies on the TF anywhere on his Josephus site.

      You have not addressed my arguments on the other point, but simply repeated your own. I encourage you to read more widely the ancient literature known at the time of the gospels.

  7. I can’t help but think that the 20th c. rehabilitation of the Testimonium was motivated in large part by the uneasy realization of just how impoverished is the extra-scriptural evidence for any such figure as Jesus in the 20s-30s CE. Since “everybody knows” Jesus was a real person, surely there’s some kernel of information in the TF that bears this out. If everyone today knows this thing from the 1st c. in Palestine, how much more must our premier source for that time and place must have known, and, come to think of it, how much more unreasonable it becomes to believe that he had not a word to say on the subject!

    In other words, 19th c. and earlier scholars didn’t have a problem with recognizing the TF as the obvious Christian fabrication it is, because the gospels and epistles were generally considered to be firmer historical ground for solid information than the ravages of 20th c. form criticism left them. Nobody needed Josephus to talk about a HJ in the 19th c. They had Matthew. Now that scholars are largely left without the gospels, the rehabilitation of an extra-scriptural source became inevitable.

  8. At the end of May 2015 I am in the process of belatedly downloading all your valuable material.

    One point of interest: William Tell (no near-contemporary substantial evidence of ac tualexistence). King Arthur (a fusion of a least one probable historical person with myths and then subsequent politically motivated fiction).

    But there is also Joan of Arc (real person, but credited with “voices” of uncertain origin, several attendant miracles, and even a resurrection story). Each character has to be investigated on its own merits, though I now see that Price and Doherty have made out a good case re Jesus.

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