Why did opponents of Christianity not declare Jesus was a myth?

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by Neil Godfrey

Starting to catch up here with a few comments or queries that have bypassed the blog because they don’t quite fit to a post of mine. Here’s one:

But I want to ask a question from the opposite angle, but one that also concerns a conspicuous absence.  We have to at least admit that Christianity was growing rapidly in the first three centuries CE, and after the first few generations of conspirators (that constructed a would-be Christ myth), we know that the growing movement in the 2nd and 3rd centuries believed in the historicity and resurrection account of Jesus.

So if at least that much is true…

WHY didn’t numerous 2nd and 3rd century Jews debunk the gospel/resurrection story in writing?  I can find no evidence of such writings from the Jews…rather the writings that we do see argue against Jesus being the Messiah on theological grounds, not historical or forensic ones.  If in fact the lack of historicity was so clear (and I dare say it would have been clearer then than now, since the mythology hadn’t had time to snowball down the hill of history and gain momentum), why not point it out with volumes of refutation?

The dates we assign to the canonical gospels and epistles attributed to Paul lay outside the purview of this question.  The only critical element we need to raise the question is the known growth of the Christian movement, not the dates of individual texts within that movement.

If there’s a complete lack of historicity, why didn’t the non-adherents snuff out the Jesus fire before it got too large to be challenged by straightforward historical evidence?

I’ve seen a cogent answer to this question by Earl Doherty somewhere but I cannot locate it at the moment.

C. J. O’Brien recently gave his take on the question. Here is mine. . . .I used to wonder the same thing and for a time considered the possibility that an answer lay somewhere in the struggle between “proto-orthodoxy” and early docetism. It took me a little while to realize that my question partly arose out of placing modern concepts of the historical past into ancient minds. Historical studies are really only as old as the Enlightenment. But to backtrack a little first  . . .

My own understanding begins with a clear distinction between the beliefs of Christianity as we know it and the unknowns and partly knowns of what existed before this Christianity became the orthodoxy. When Justin Martyr describes the spread of Christianity in the early to mid-second century he indicates it is “unorthodox” beliefs that were more prevalent than his own views.

We find the same indications in the writings of other “Church Fathers”. Even the pastoral epistles and epistles of John tell us that “all of Asia” and “the whole world” has gone after “false teachers”. The letters of Paul were first testified as being the authorities of the “heretics”. Accusations of ‘enemies’ adding to the writings or taking away from the writings flew back and forth. The gospels also indicate that they are written for Christians who live amongst “false brethren” and that “true believers” are a victimized minority.

The original question, I think, assumes that Christianity mushroomed with its orthodox views from the beginning. I don’t think so. Hebrews and Revelation portray beliefs in a Jesus who is not of this world at all. There are similar indications in the Odes of Solomon and the earliest layer of the Ascension of Isaiah. And in Colossians, 1 Corinthians, et al.

Some of the earliest Christian art forms we see (I’m thinking of the earliest sarcophagi) suggest something less literal and orthodox than we are accustomed to. Jesus is depicted as being baptized as a young boy, for example.

Even the letter of Pliny speaking of Christians (if it is genuine) is curious in what it both does and does not say about the beliefs of Christians in the time of Trajan. Even under torture witnesses apparently gave no hint that they worshiped a Jewish man crucified by a Roman governor.

And don’t forget the Valentinians. See, for instance, my own attempt to graphically portray the extent of the various Christianities around the second century.

So though we have evidence that Christianity was spreading rapidly throughout the second century, it is by no means clear that the bulk of these Christians held the beliefs that we associate with what subsequently emerged as Christian.

What that earliest Christian world (or world of various Chrisianities) was like, and its various debates, have been mostly lost from view.

By the time orthodoxy was gaining traction there was no means of suggesting that its central character had never historically existed. One side was declaring the need to have faith in the Jesus of the gospels; the other sides were saying that that was a heresy or a nonsense. Claims were made, and those who felt compelled to oppose those claims had no choice but to do so within the parameters set out by their opponents.

This is where we need to avoid asking why the opponents did not think like post-enlightenment history-savvy folks. There was no reason (or intellectual tools) for anyone to question the historicity of the underlay. The debate was between the theological claim and counter-claim.

The question of setting a newly created myth in recent times

Another facet of this question is the question of how or why many would have accepted a mythical person and event that was set in relatively recent times instead of the dim distant past. (A most fundamental answer is that it certainly was the Christ myth, not the historical Jesus, who seized the imaginations of believers from the start.)

This question also rests on the assumption that Christianity was born in orthodoxy rather than over time coalesced into orthodoxy.

One answer is that we don’t know when some of the early strands of Christianity placed Jesus’ crucifixion (perhaps not all even believed in a crucified Christ, either). Paul, for example, does not speak of Christ crucified in his own time, but of the revelation of the mystery of Christ crucified. That leaves open when the event of that revealed mystery was supposed to have happened. Although it might be worth noting that Paul and other NT authors say it was kept a mystery from the beginning or from the prophets. Revelation speaks of it happening at the foundation of the world. Christian interpreters and others have taken that to mean it was only ordained from then. Maybe they’re right. But how do we know?

But as for the orthodox Christian belief as we interpret it in the canonical gospels, I fail to see a problem with placing the event in the generation before the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70.

The “myth” was not a myth of how the world began, but of how the last days had begun. One of the myth’s functions was to explain the fall of Jerusalem. Proto-orthodox Christians found legitimacy by appropriating (I once used the word “hijacking” and got crucified for it) the Jewish scriptures as their own. To do that, they had to allegorize them all (the way Greek and Roman philosophers allegorized Homer and the way Philo had done) to rob them of any relevance to the Jews (except to condemn them for not embracing their allegorical interpretation) and to make them a uniquely Christian set of books. Their age made them venerable, and their ‘prophecies’ of the last days beginning with the Christ sent to the Jews just before their destruction at the hand of the Romans made them relevant.

There is nothing strange about assigning a mythical event (probably in the sincere belief it was a literal event, too, according to the revelation of the scriptures) to introduce “the last days” in “the last days” themselves.

Who was there, after the fall of Jerusalem and the related chaos of slaughters and deportations into slavery and refugees seeking new homes, to declare that there had been no such Jesus walking around Galilee over 40 years earlier? The audiences of these gospels were not (well, probably not) inhabitants of Capernaum who could ask their grandparents “if they were true”. It is not insignificant, methodologically, that we have no external attestation of these gospels until well into the second century anyway. But even if the gospels were written in the latter decades of the first century, consider their audiences and where they were, and how long before they were able to attract notice and raise questions.

No, the gospels indicate what other Christian sources (e.g. epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr) likewise indicate, that their stories were believed because they were revealed histories from the scriptures.

Homer’s “history” of the Trojan war was revealed by the Muses. Revelation comprised a key component in Jewish and Christian histories even where there were genuinely historical foundations for the narratives. To validate a narrative the faithful would do as the Bereans did and turn to the scriptures to see whether those things were so. Luke does not tell us they sent a delegation to Jerusalem and Galilee to cross-examine eyewitnesses.

A Justin postscript

Justin Martyr tells us that the Jews did send out delegations following the twelve apostles around the world to undermine their message (Trypho, chapter 17). I think this is a piece of fiction as much as the twelve themselves, and Justin creates it to further his theological cum racist agenda. But it opens up the question: what did the earliest critics of Christianity argue against the earliest Christians? We scarcely have any idea what constituted beliefs among the earliest (and “proto”) Christianities; we certainly have nothing surviving from their critics.

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Neil Godfrey

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23 thoughts on “Why did opponents of Christianity not declare Jesus was a myth?”

  1. C.J. hit the nail on the head. The ancient polemicists would rather offer a counter-myth to contradict the Christian claims than simply say, “None of what you says is true.” There’s not much to write after you’ve said that.

    Consider what Celsus offered by way of counter-myth. He wrote that Jesus had been “born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.”


  2. Neil, that there were many variations of christianity in antiquity is not evidence or does not create an inference that it was based on a myth, and it does not answer why its opponents did not raise the point.

    If christians took well-known Jewish stories and attributed them to Jesus, you might have a stronger point (although there are numerous other problems with the Jesus-didn’t-exist theory, including the apparent historicity of his relatives).

    But that isn’t what happened. Jews believed in a Messiah who would save the day. The problem jews had with Christianity was that the prophet/messiah was killed, not that he didn’t exist. And christians had to create a whole new story as a way of dealing with the fact that things didn’t happen as planned. So they decided on the death as sacrifice for sins and justification lines of thought.

    That is the most simple, logical explanation.

    And to get back to the last thread, you do believe Mark is “fiction” as the word is commonly used, whether you want to use that word or not. You do believe in what is commonly known as “mythicism,” even if you would prefer to not be labeled that way.

    1. But that isn’t what happened. Jews believed in a Messiah who would save the day. The problem jews had with Christianity was that the prophet/messiah was killed, not that he didn’t exist. And christians had to create a whole new story as a way of dealing with the fact that things didn’t happen as planned. So they decided on the death as sacrifice for sins and justification lines of thought.

      That is the most simple, logical explanation.

      For which we have not one shred of evidence apart from Gospel narrative itself. It is that Gospel narrative that is in question. So to declare that it is the explanation for the problem is arguing in a circle.

      And to get back to the last thread, you do believe Mark is “fiction” as the word is commonly used, whether you want to use that word or not. You do believe in what is commonly known as “mythicism,” even if you would prefer to not be labeled that way.

      How about responding to my last comment on that thread? My interest is in historical inquiry into Christian origins. For that reason I believe it is more useful to understand how the ancients themselves thought rather than for us to muddy the question with modern concepts unless we can first demonstrate their relevance.

      Do you really think we share a common enough interest to engage in a fruitful discussion? I am not interested in apologetic defences or attacks.

  3. I think I’m mostly satisfied, Neil. Although we should note that most of the rival Christianities that know something about (Marcionite, docetism, adoptionist ideas, etc.) still had a Historical Jesus at the core. So the Jews could have attacked Christianity in most of its forms by dispelling the HJ as a fiction. And if they had done this, I think history would have bore out a different result. The more hyper-spiritualized sects (where Jesus never needed to be historical at all) would have won the battle over orthodoxy. This is speculation obviously, but the fact that even most of the fighting factions that remained by the time of the late apologists (and even all the way to Constantine) believed in a HJ…this at least shows that any doubters in the the HJ packed little punch with their arguments. Had the argument been appropriately made, I think the content of orthodoxy would have come out differently.

    That said, I think your points about the lack of access to historical evidence are the best explanation. I can imagine that Jewish polemicists DID want to argue against the historicized Christ character in the early Gospels – but especially after the fall of Jerusalem and its subsequent chaos, they had no access to any evidence worth exhibiting. I read Mr. O’Brien’s post as well, and you are right to link his thoughts into this post. They seem spot on in their logic. And also, I loved your insight about he Bereans in Acts 17, doing revisionist history through study of scripture. I suppose the overall point here is that, at that period of time and with the available methodology for argumentation, revisionist histories were the only histories one could feasibly do. I think I can go along with this explanation – so thanks.

        1. Thanks drdave. It’s not the reference I was thinking of but it’s well worth noting here.

          In sum, Doherty says here that the failure of Jews to respond to early Christian claims by discrediting Jesus is indeed remarkable — IF the Christians really were preaching from the beginning that the Jews had slain their own messiah and brought all their woes of war and its aftermath upon themselves. The earliest indication of any Jewish response is found in Justin’s claims of the mid second century.

          If the Jews were amazingly slow off the mark, it was because they had in effect been sucker punched. They failed to see it coming because they had no awareness, no memories about the newly-reputed Christian originating event. Their reaction was piecemeal, disorganized, because what they found themselves reacting to had no basis in anything they could put their finger on in their own historical background. (p. 528)

  4. I think we can also look at how the Second Century Christians attacked the Roman myths. If Paul’s Mythical Jesus was influenced by Hellenistic culture which held similar mythical beliefs about spiritual saviours like Attis and Mithras as Doherty claims, then regardless of whatever happened to Paul’s Mythical Jesus Christianity, that Hellenistic culture presumably still existed in the wider pagan world by the time that the ‘historicist’ Christians arrived.

    And yet, when Christians like Justin Martyr attacked the Roman myths, he famously said “we [Christians] propound nothing different from what you [pagans] believe”. Could Justin have claimed this if the pagans believed that their gods acted in a “supernatural realm” while Second Century Christians believed that Christ had incarnated on earth? Keep in mind that Justin believed in a historical Jesus and was knowledgeable about the philosophical traditions of the time. Or did ‘supernatural realm mythology’ disappear from the pagan world at the same time as well?

    I cover this in my review of Doherty’s “Jesus: Neither God Nor Man” on my website, starting from here:

    1. Don, reading your website, it seems clear that you (and Doherty) place the “undisputed” Pauline epistles before 70 CE.

      If the epistles attributed to Paul were written pre-70 CE, what do you consider Romans 11 to be referring to? What is 1 Thess 2:16 referring to?

  5. It should be noted that the earthly, material existence (in a mythic past or a Golden Age) of figures like Osiris, Herakles, Asklepios, and Dionysus was granted by ancient commentators. What was in dispute was the (metanarrative) significance of the narratives about them and the nature of a particular figure’s relationship with the supernatural Divine.

    This raises the question, of course, of how this mode of mythmaking was employed to retroject a fiction into the relatively recent past. Ironically, the answer is that it was for Christian opponents’, just as much as for commentator pf above, “the most simple, logical explanation” that the demythologized core of a narrative about a marginal religious radical’s squalid execution was more or less true. Because the significance attributed to such a shameful ending was so perverse to ancient commentators, disputing the foundation seemed utterly pointless, even counterproductive. When you think your opponent has just hung himself with his own words, you don’t quibble, you attack by demonstrating that what he professes to believe is absurd or actively dangerous in its challenge to normative beliefs.

    Also, Neil, you are right on as regards the eschatological orientation of the Christ myth in particular being determinitive for the placement of the events in Mark in a time as recent as the 30s. I think that between the earliest Pauline material and Mark there must have been a significant anxiety about just when things had been set in motion. You can’t very well claim that the last days are upon us, and oh, by the by, they have been since the days of Antochus Epiphanes but we only just now noticed. As always we have to keep in mind that apocalypticism is first and foremost literary, a mode of expression, and that the varieties of eschatological belief have to be read between the lines.

    Finally (I’m in scattershot mode) this from the quotation in your post: “conspirators (that constructed a would-be Christ myth)” is an entirely typical (and, I should add a rhetorical, intentional) misinterpretation of the idea that Jesus of Nazareth is a literary fiction. Literary mythmaking in a society that operates on a mytho-poetic understanding of history and the human relationship to the divine requires no underhanded tactics or backroom collusion. It was a public, participatory affair. There are clearly some historical puzzles involved in the question of how and when a cosmic myth got brought down to earth, but we should not be distracted by the anachronistic idea that the traditions involved were conceived in secret with the intent to mislead. Communities divorced from traditional forms of redemptive media invented their own, and only after they did was anyone deceived that their creations reflected an interest in questions other than mytho-poetic ones.

  6. JW:
    I think the HJ argument that absence of the ancient counter-claim of MJ is evidence of HJ, is evidence of HJ. It’s just not very good evidence since it is an absence of evidence (negative) argument. The argument has the following weaknesses:

    1) MJ can appeal to the initial source for Christian evidence of Jesus, Paul, who has a theme of Revelation, for the MJ position. Thus, an argument based on reaction to Paul, is less important.

    2) As McDuff pointed out, the ancient standards for historical evidence were much looser. Early polemics show that each side seemed to accept the base historical claims of the other as a starting point. The arguments were more philosophical in nature rather than historical. I almost hate to say this because it reminds me too much of the god-awful HJ argument that based on ancient standards there is huge evidence for HJ but to reverse the argument, where are the early Christians claim that Pagan rivals to Jesus were fiction? (For those who need points sharply explained including JP Holding who is scratching his chin here saying “Hmmm, JW is right, what is the difference in arguments here?”, the difference is the standard for historicity should be modern while the issue of this post is ancient standards).

    3) Celsus, as preserved in Origen, gets close to claiming the Gospels are all fiction, by claiming all but the original are:



    After this he says, that certain of the Christian believers, like persons who in a fit of drunkenness lay violent hands upon themselves, have corrupted the Gospel from its original integrity, to a threefold, and fourfold, and many-fold degree, and have remodelled it, so that they might be able to answer objections. Now I know of no others who have altered the Gospel, save the. followers of Marcion, and those of Valentinus, and, I think, also those of Lucian. But such an allegation is no charge against the Christian system, but against those who dared so to trifle with the Gospels. And as it is no ground of accusation against philosophy, that there exist Sophists, or Epicureans, or Peripatetics, or any others, whoever they may be, who hold false opinions; so neither is it against genuine Christianity that there are some who corrupt the Gospel histories, and who introduce heresies opposed to the meaning of the doctrine of Jesus.”

    Interestingly, Origen seems unaware that in Celsus’ time, late 1st century, the Gospels are still anonymous, as Celsus never identifies them by name. Per Celsus, all subsequent Gospels have a source of Apologetics and not historical witness. Note especially that Celsus makes a modern type textual observation:

    “Christian believers, like persons who in a fit of drunkenness lay violent hands upon themselves, have corrupted the Gospel from its original [Mark] integrity, to a threefold [Synoptics], and fourfold [Canon], and many-fold [non-orthodox]degree, and have remodelled it, so that they might be able to answer objections”

    which Origen, the top Christian Bible scholar of the early Church, is clueless about.

    4) The Church would have considered a claim of MJ blasphemous and may have censored the claim. The two great early critics of Christianity, Celsus and Porphyry, were both censored by Christianity and I speculate that the Great Library contained both and worse.


  7. So on the Historical Jesus theory, Christians went around explaining that a recently crucified criminal had lived before Abraham , and was the agent through whom God had created the world, and was due back any minute to judge everybody in the world, and opponents were supposed to refute this , not by writing them off as lunatics, but by investigating to see if any criminals had been crucified by Pilate?

  8. Doherty believes that the early Christians and their contemporary pagans believed in a “spiritual realm” (“World of Myth”), so I looked at the evidence for this. Part of this analysis was looking at the Second Century Christian apologists and how they attacked the Roman gods. According to Doherty, early Christians would have been eager to exploit the advantage of a recently historical saviour figure over the “average pagan” belief of their gods existing in this “World of Myth”.

    Second Century apologists like Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen were educated members of the Roman Empire who would have grown up immersed in its religious and philosophical culture. They would have been certainly familiar with the views of both the average and educated pagan of their day. And yet, in all their attacks on the Roman gods, there is not a hint of the idea that the pagans thought their gods acted out their stories in a “World of Myth”. They attacked the pagan myths as being allegories, or the fiction of poets, or the lies of demons.

    Probably many readers are familiar with the famous quote by Justin Martyr that “we [Christians] propound nothing different from what you [pagans] believe”. Could Justin have claimed this if the pagans believed that their gods acted in a “supernatural realm” while Second Century Christians believed that Christ had incarnated on earth? Keep in mind that Justin believed in a historical Jesus and was knowledgeable about the philosophical traditions of the time. So the question isn’t just why did the ‘historicist’ Christians not notice the earlier ‘mythicist’ Christians, but why did they not also notice the ‘mythicist’ pagans when attacking the Roman gods?

    ** This is my second go at this post. In my last post, I linked to my review of Earl Doherty’s “Jesus: Neither God Nor Man”, which is where most of the above came from. However, I suspect adding links into posts is causing them to be sent to Neil’s spam folder, so I didn’t add any links this time.

    1. Do you know what works Doherty used to arrive at his conclusion about the supernatural realm? I had read a a work that has been used by proponents of the theory. I forget the name of the Roman writer, he is discussing Osiris. If I’m not mistaken, he discuses a couple of different ways people envisioned the god, and the Romans are surprisingly modern in this, ideas like he was a human king from long ago, an allegory for how the water fertilizes the Nile and the one I think Doherty is taken up. It presents the Osiris-Isis myth as a sort of description of some creative force that interacts with matter. It seemed like the sort of thinking the Gnostic’s engaged in, and would have been the Roman equivalent to our theoretical physics.

      The difficulty for believing that Paul has such a thing in mind for Jesus’ birth and crucifiction,(and that is really all we are discussing. It is, in fact, the doctrine of orthodox Christianity that Jesus was with the father since the beginning and is with the father in heaven now, the HJ aspect is the period between his birth and death) is he doesn’t explain them in any detail, and the detail he gives would lead one to think Jesus is descended from real humans(whether Abram is real is not the issue, since Paul thinks that this man is the father of Jewish race, you may sub in any anonymous figure who is the last common ancestor of the Jewish race) while theoreticaly you could interpret those words to mean anything else, why should you?. There is simply no evidence to suggest any one in history thought this about Jesus until the modern era. Even the gnostic books speak of Jesus as a god who interacted with the real world in the form of a human being.

      The theory stands on the question of why don’t the early text make more use of the worldly life of Jesus, and the perceived incomprehensibility of a human, in the environment ascribed to Jesus, having a belief system like Christianity evolve around them. On point one, it is interesting, but is such a difficulty that a new form of Christianity, otherwise unknown, needs to be imagined to explain it? On point two, I think most students of religious history and anthropology will not find the traditional basic theory for the development of Christianity a difficulty.

      1. Mike, I suspect you are thinking of Plutarch and his “On Isis and Osiris”. I discuss this heavily in my review of Doherty. I won’t try to post a link here, but you should be able to google my review using “gakuseidon doherty jesus neither god nor man part 4”. Part 4 covers “the World of Myth” concept, including Plutarch.

  9. I believe that the Dead Sea Scrolls offer the earliest and best criticism of Christianity, as Robert Eisenman suggests. This criticsm was naturally suppressed by the Romans from the start, so it was not readily available until now. The kind of people that a hand in destroying the Dead Sea Scrolls sectarians also had a hand in creating New Testament Christianity.

    I’ve been enjoying the articles investigating these “kind of people” summarized here:


    As for critics of later Christianity, they are where they should be, in the second century and after, after the gospels were written.

  10. Neil, you are right that this is fruitless. If you think that I’m an apologist after I opined that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, you really have a skewed reality of christianity.

    Also, you are totally inconsistent in how you treat evidence. You reject different opinions that have no proof that would stand in court but fail to see that everthing you believe is 100% speculation that has very little logic behind it. And you know, we would get along if we met. Politically, I’m close to you an I hate fundamentalism. But you think you have a lot of evidence on this issue but you don’t.

    1. My impression, on the other hand, is that what you perceive as speculation and as having little logic derives from a misreading of my posts. When you replied “that there were many variations of christianity in antiquity is not evidence or does not create an inference that it was based on a myth, and it does not answer why its opponents did not raise the point”, I scarcely know how to respond because I did not intend to suggest such an argument. The point I was attempting to make had to do with the nature of the different types of Christianity, not the fact that “there were many variations”. And this post was indeed largely speculative and based on much else that is argued elsewhere, as I attempted to indicate in the post by explaining it was merely “my take” on the question.

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