2011-06-29

Strengths of the mythical Jesus theory

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by Neil Godfrey

A week ago (22nd June) I posted a draft list of points one might expect a historical Jesus hypothesis would explain or predict. I have still to make the time to work on that list along with some suggestions that were posted to it. But here is a similar list for what might be seen as the strengths of the mythical Jesus view:

A mythical Jesus theory

1. Would expect to find either no account of the eye-witness or authoritative transmission of words and deeds of Jesus in the early record, or vague/contradictory/politically-theologically-tendentious (only) accounts of such a transmission to fill the gap between Jesus and the earliest written accounts;

2. Would expect to find teachers claiming authority through, or simply teaching with reference to, a mystical or heavenly or vaguely historical Jesus;

3. Would expect to find detailed and variable accounts of Jesus almost entirely explicable in non-historical terms, e.g. of theological interest and/or literary borrowings or artifice;

5. Would expect to find historical details of Jesus appearing later than other accounts of Jesus, and would expect to find the earliest such details contradictory or inconsistent if coming from diverse types of Christianity;

6. Would expect to find earliest evidence for Christianity explicable in terms of, and consistent with, known philosophical, cultural, religious features of the time;

 

7. Explains the relative lateness of historical details, and the even later widespread acceptance of these, in the record in contrast to the earlier non-historically-specific accounts;

8. Explains the absence of historical details across a wide spectrum of types of the earliest Christian data;

9. Explains the absence of indisputable independent external corroboration of the Christian historical narrative.

I’m sure I’m biased and the above list is in strong need of healthy criticism.

 

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14 Comments

  • 2011-06-30 09:29:38 GMT+0000 - 09:29 | Permalink

    Expanding on points 1 and 7:

    I think the mythical hypothesis would expect the first generation of believers — the chosen “twelve” and the other disciples who supposedly followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem — to be poorly documented and shrouded in myth. The lists of the twelve don’t match, and that’s to be expected. It isn’t even clear that Cephas and Peter are the same person. What happened to all those people? We have no idea. Is that because the early church misplaced its records or because they’re all fictional characters? What’s the simplest explanation?

    The first generation supposedly knew Jesus personally and heard him speak, but none of them wrote anything down. The historicists have to come up with twisted explanations for this fact, but the mythicist can say that it’s exactly what we’d expect. The details of Jesus’ life evaporate the closer you get to 30 CE. Naturally so — the historical details hadn’t been invented yet.

  • KevinC
    2011-06-30 11:49:59 GMT+0000 - 11:49 | Permalink

    I think some of your criteria are a bit too broad to be very useful. In general, predictions for a mythicist theory should aim to be incompatible with the existence of a historical Jesus,* and vice versa. Given the muddled and contradictory nature of the data, neither theory will really have a perfect fit (hence the debate), but strongly contrasting predictions without “fudge factors” will provide better guidance as to which model is supported by the preponderance of evidence.

    1. Would expect to find either no account of the eye-witness or authoritative transmission of words and deeds of Jesus in the early record,

    Fine so far…

    or vague/contradictory/politically-theologically-tendentious (only) accounts of such a transmission to fill the gap between Jesus and the earliest written accounts;

    Since in a mythicist model there is no gap between Jesus and the earliest written accounts (there being no historical Jesus situated X years before the writings), this latter clause can also “explain” data that favors a (poorly-recorded, theologically filtered) historical Jesus tradition. We shouldn’t actually want that. A theory that explains everything explains nothing.

    6. Would expect to find earliest evidence for Christianity explicable in terms of, and consistent with, known philosophical, cultural, religious features of the time;

    I do not think this one is useful, since it would also apply to a historical Jesus, who would have been a man of his time. We would only expect the earliest evidence for Christianity to be inexplicable in terms of, and inconsistent with, known philosophical, cultural, religious features of the time if it had some kind of paranormal (divine, alien, etc.) origin.

    *By “historical Jesus” I am referring to a figure who is the genuine founder of Christianity, whose life and words provided the impetus for its formation. Or: Historical Jesus—>His immediate followers—>proto-Christianity. This is to be distinguished from a man whose life may have been viewed by Christians as a Platonic earthly shadow of the workings of the Divine Logos/spiritual Christ, or: First “channelers”/”apostles” of a spiritual Jesus—>proto-Christianity—>linking of spiritual Christ to events in the life of one or more men who are to the spiritual Christ what the earthly Tabernacle is to the Heavenly Sanctuary (ref: Hebrews).

  • KevinC
    2011-06-30 11:52:18 GMT+0000 - 11:52 | Permalink

    Since turnabout is fair play, I’m going to offer a set of criteria for you (and others here) to poke holes in. 🙂

    A mythicist model…

    Predicts:

    1. The “implicit epistemology” of earliest Christianity should be mystical and dogmatic rather than historical-factual in orientation. We should expect appeals to visions, revelations, and Scripture rather than to historical memory (eyewitnesses, apostolic succession, writings of Jesus or his contemporaries, etc.). These visions and revelations should be experienced by people other than Jesus (see #7 below).

    2. Factual accuracy should take a distant second place to mystical, theological, and literary concerns. Since the mythicist model posits that basis of Christianity is mystical, theological, and literary, we should expect that the earliest Christians would handle data (Scriptures, “sayings of Jesus,” accounts of his deeds, etc.) very loosely, even esoterically. Appeal to accurate historical fact is not a trump card for mythicist Christians, so they would not have a high regard for concrete facts.

    3. “High theology” should precede human-like detail. Since a mythicist Christianity would begin with a spiritual, celestial figure (Divine Logos, dying-rising god-man, etc.), we should expect the earliest Christian writings to portray a heavenly, rather than a human/historical Jesus. The more lofty the earliest theology of Jesus, the more probable a mythicist origin.

    4. “Human” aspects of Christ should be sparse and theologically determined at first (redeeming death and resurrection, prophetic fulfillments such as a link to the Davidic lineage, echoes of the deeds of major Scriptural figures like Moses, Joseph, Elijah, etc.), with attempts at realism, fleshed-out biography (childhood, personality, relationships with other people, etc.) appearing later and accumulating over time.

    5. “Jesus the man” should be anomalously insignificant relative to his earliest historically confirmed “followers.” Important historical figures (Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Einstein, Queen Elizabeth) tend to overshadow their assistants and followers. If mythicism is accurate, we would expect that the “followers” (i.e. the people having the mystic revelations of Christ) would overshadow “Jesus the man” in terms of preserved material, because “Jesus the man” is a product of “his” followers rather than the other way around.

    6. The earliest Christian writings would not reflect attempts to preserve the words and deeds of the great man Jesus. Other considerations (theology, the needs of Christian communities, etc.) would take precedence.

    7. We should not expect to see references to visions or mystical experiences Jesus had as authoritative Christian revelation in the earliest writings. In the mythicist model, Jesus is the one appearing in visions, rather than a man having them. Jesus is the revelation, rather than the revealer. Any references to visions or mystical revelations experienced by Jesus should not appear until Jesus is provided with a “human biography.” Even then, a mythicist model would predict that Jesus himself as a supernatural figure, rather than revelations vouchsafed to him, would be the foundational authority. Compare with figures like Joseph Smith or Mohammad, who serve as conduits for revelation rather than being the revelation.

    8. We should expect the earliest Christian writings to contain explicit references to Jesus’ most important actions taking place in a purely spiritual context, rather than as historical deeds on Earth.

    9. Since the “teachings of Jesus” would have been channeled revelations rather than discourses uttered under specific historical circumstances, an early body of free-floating “sayings of Jesus” or “words of the Lord” that originate apart from any tradition of when and where they were spoken would lend credence to mythicism. If we see a specific “saying of Jesus” that is inserted into different, non-reconcilable narrative contexts by different authors, that saying is likely to be a channeled revelation that gained currency in the community apart from a historical tradition of its utterance by a human Jesus. More like “Seth Speaks” than the Gettysburg Address.

    10. It should be very difficult, if not impossible, to provide a plausible historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus without “breaking” the narrative of the Jesus story. Like Hercules without super-strength, Merlin without magic, or Star Trek without spaceships, a “demythologized” Jesus should be very different from the Jesus of Christianity. Compare: it is possible to strip historical figures like Emperor Vespasian, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, and Mohammad of their supernatural trappings without fundamentally changing the genre of their narratives. In a mythicist model, the myth is the message.

    10.5. Corollary: It should be easier to remove the “historical” “human” aspects of Jesus and still have something recognizable as the Jesus of Christianity, than to remove everything but the “historical” “human” aspects and still have a Jesus that Paul or St. Augustine would accept.

    Explains:

    1. The “Great Silence” (of course).

    2. The insignificance of Jesus (in terms of preserved teachings and non-mythical/midrashic biographical material) compared to putative followers, especially Paul.

    3. The extremely flexible way the earliest Christian writers handle data such as Scriptures, “sayings of Jesus,” pericopes of his “life,” sources for their own writings (e.g., the way subsequent Gospel authors freely plagiarize, edit, etc. prior Gospel sources), and the absence of appeal to, and regard for, historical fact and accuracy.

    4. The presence of very lofty theology (Jesus as the pre-existent creator and sustainer of the Cosmos) in the earliest Christian writings combined with extreme sparsity of “human” detail.

    5. The extreme, and contentious diversity of early Christianity (or perhaps more accurately, “Christianities”), and the absence of an authoritative historical tradition or apostolic succession in the earliest writings.

    6. The way Jesus’ “biography” starts with a free-floating “birth” and death/resurrection like any Mystery Religion god-man (Paul), then extended Passion narratives with an appendage of prior adult life and a few teachings (Q, gMark, gThomas), miraculous birth stories and human genealogies (gMatthew, gLuke), a divine pre-existence and a human forerunner (gJohn), then later, non-canonical “infancy gospels” fleshing out his childhood. The “biography” of Jesus sprouts from his mystic death/resurrection rather than preceding it.

  • Steven Carr
    2011-06-30 16:13:05 GMT+0000 - 16:13 | Permalink

    If people crucified Jesus, we would expect early Christians to attack those people as enemies.

    If no people crucified Jesus, we would expect early Christians to attack whatever spiritual forces they felt were at work.

    Bart Ehrman says ‘If you want to make up a story about the Messiah, will you make up the story that he got squashed by the enemy and got crucified, the lowest form of execution in the empire? No! If you’re going to make up a story about the Messiah, you’d make up that he actually overthrew the Romans and he’s the King in Jerusalem now…Why didn’t [early Christians] make up that story? Because everybody knew Jesus was crucified…this is why Christians had the hardest time convincing people that Jesus was the Messiah.’

    It must be true because nobody would make it up…..

    People would have had the same problem trying to persuade people that Lee Harvey Oswald was the True President of the United States of America.

    Ehrman doesn’t explain why Christians thought Jesus was the Messiah. According to Ehrman’s own methodology, Christianity is an Impossible Faith, so must be based on real events.

    And Ehrman doesn’t explain why, if Paul was always banging his head against the brick wall of persuading people that somebody executed by the Romans was the Messiah, Paul then claims that the Romans were God’s agents – sent to punish wrongdoers, and who did not bear the sword for nothing, and who held no terror for the innocent.

    If you are banging your head against a brick wall, you don’t start putting concrete on the wall.

    If Jesus execution by the authorities had been the biggest stumbling block to Christianity for decades, why would Paul write that people executed by the authorities had it coming to them?

  • 2011-06-30 21:40:45 GMT+0000 - 21:40 | Permalink

    “Bart Ehrman says ‘If you want to make up a story about the Messiah, will you make up the story that he got squashed by the enemy and got crucified, the lowest form of execution in the empire? No! If you’re going to make up a story about the Messiah, you’d make up that he actually overthrew the Romans and he’s the King in Jerusalem now…Why didn’t [early Christians] make up that story? Because everybody knew Jesus was crucified…this is why Christians had the hardest time convincing people that Jesus was the Messiah.’”

    I can’t believe intelligent serious scholars really advance this sort of argument with a straight face. The logic is puerile. Paradox, the overturning of expectations, ironic reversals — it’s as if these biblical scholars are trying to say such ways of thinking were unknown to ancients. Not only were they known, but such concepts were the very fasion of broad swathes of Hellenistic philosophy and turn-of-the-century literature, and even of much apocalyptic type of Jewish Second Temple thinking. It’s almost(?) as if this sort of argument one hears from Ehrman and McG et al is outright dishonest, or an expression of a blatant disrespect for the audiences they are addressing.

    The argument is nothing more than a rhetorical question, and as I have liked to quote in relation to arguments by rhetorical questions in another academic discipline:

    I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments.

    (http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/cracked-argument-rhetorical-questions-and-women-witnesses-at-the-tomb/)

    • 2011-07-01 07:18:00 GMT+0000 - 07:18 | Permalink

      It reminds me very much of proponents of Intelligent Design who offer extraordinarily weak arguments based on “irreducible complexity.” Just saying you can’t imagine an intermediate bacterial flagellum that serves any purpose in the intermediate stages assumed by natural selection is not a sufficient argument.

      And just because mainstream NT scholars “can’t imagine” early Christians telling stories about a crucified messiah unless it were true is an argument for a lack of imagination, not for historical veracity.

  • M. W. Nordbakke
    2011-07-01 05:02:07 GMT+0000 - 05:02 | Permalink

    Ehrman’s argument is identical to the one made by James Patrick Holding, an internet apologist. Holding asks rhetorically, “Who on earth would believe a religion centered on a crucified man?” Robert M. Price (Jesus Is Dead, chap. 16) has shown that refuting this argument is easy. Richard C. Carrier devoted a 450 page book to the subject, titled “Not the Impossible Faith” (2009). It would have been helpful to know whether the Ehrman quotation is documented or not. It seems almost beyond belief that Ehrman is endorsing Holding’s essay, “The Impossible Faith.”

    If Michael E. Vines (The Problem of Markan Genre) is correct in concluding that Mark is a Jewish novel, a militant king along the lines suggested by Ehrman would have been a misfit: “Because the chronotope of the Jewish novel is dominated by the presence of a sovereign God who alone can save, a powerful hero who brings victory through personal charisma and military prowess is impossible. Such a hero would draw too much glory to himself. Instead, the chronotope of the Jewish novel demands a weak and vulnerable hero, a hero who will not detract from the glory due the sovereign God” (p. 157). Vines also writes: “Like the protagonists of the Jewish novels, Jesus is the agent of God who defeats the enemies of the kingdom, not by force, but by faithful and sacrificial obedience” (p. 163).

    • pearl
      2011-07-01 05:32:35 GMT+0000 - 05:32 | Permalink

      “It would have been helpful to know whether the Ehrman quotation is documented or not.”

      You can find it somewhere around 41 minutes into this video:



      • pearl
        2011-07-01 05:44:19 GMT+0000 - 05:44 | Permalink

        Oh, and to give credit, I found this out — here.

        • M. W. Nordbakke
          2011-07-01 06:50:57 GMT+0000 - 06:50 | Permalink

          Pearl: many thanks for valuable refs.

          • pearl
            2011-07-01 07:35:29 GMT+0000 - 07:35 | Permalink

            You’re welcome, Michael.

    • 2011-07-02 17:15:13 GMT+0000 - 17:15 | Permalink

      Ehrman and Holding rely on the same arguments. That says it all. I have been thinking of other arguments of historicists (will post on one soon) where it occurred to me that their arguments from incredulity are like the children’s arguments for the existence of God. Look at the heavens and wonder! How can any of this have “just happened”? It HAS to be the handiwork of God. The same “thought” processes (really emotive processes) underly the assertions that “the historical and geographic detail in the story just HAS to be the product of an author seriously wanting to tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

  • 2011-07-01 09:11:52 GMT+0000 - 09:11 | Permalink

    I posted some comments in response to this thread on my blog, http://thepassivehabit.blogspot.com/2011/06/discussion-on-another-blog-has.html
    There’s also a thread on TheologWeb if anyone wants to discuss this with us.

    Cameron

  • Pingback: An even worse worst argument for the historicity of Jesus |

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