Jesus, Neither Man Nor Myth

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by Neil Godfrey

This evening I was heartened to find an idea that has long been lurking in my mind suddenly out in the light of day, in print, in a 1939 Hibbert Journal article by French scholar Paul-Louis Couchoud. Couchoud was replying to M. Loisy’s critique of “Christ mythicism” and within a few pages he said it. He said that while he has argued Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus and that it is futile to think a “historical kernel” can be found somewhere in the Gospels, he has never said Jesus was “a myth”.

What exactly are we reading about when we read of the earliest Jesus in our records, in particular in the New Testament epistles? Troels Engberg-Pedersen has studied Paul’s letters from the perspective of Stoic philosophy and sees in Paul’s religious ideas a striking similarity of function between the Stoic’s Logos or Reason and Paul’s Christ. Both figures effect “salvation” through reaching down to the would-be convert, exalting those in whom they are revealed or awakened into a new identity that sets them apart from the world and their past lives, and leads them into a new way of life “in Reason/the Logos” or “in Christ”. Some of these ideas are found in the Engberg-Pedersen archive. I can’t think of “Reason/Logos” as a myth, and it is hard for me to think of Paul’s Christ a “myth”, too. A spiritual idea, yes. But that’s not the same as a myth.

This heavenly Christ, this religious conception or representation of a God-Man idea

has no relation to the conception of a man elevated to divinity nor to that of the anthropomorphic God, both of which were familiar to the religion of antiquity. It is an intimate and unique synthesis in which God retains his glory in its fullness and man his mortal destiny in its bitterness, without change of God into man or of man into God. It was a new idea, and it was by this new idea that the world was conquered. (Couchoud)

I think Couchoud here hits on a subtext in historicist-mythicist arguments. The end-result, the Christ in heaven, is far too a-human or non-human to be the kind of figure one would expect of a real man who had evolved into a deity. And he certainly is no counterpart to Homer’s Olympian gods.

Why Christ is not a myth

Zeus and Hera : archetypal image of father, husband, and wife

It was no myth. Myth is a word I have never employed in this connection. The history with which I am concerned is the history of a religious conception. Myth is a word easily taken in a derogatory sense; it is a way of explaining a natural fact, a rite, or a philosophic idea under the form of a narrative. Like the parable, of which it is a variety, the myth speaks a language of its own for helping the mind to grasp, and to retain in memory, what ought to be done or believed. A religious conception, on the other hand, has a nature far simpler and deeper, far more unsophisticated and fertile. Its relation to rites and myths is primordial. Zeus is a religious conception. The punishment of the Danaids is a myth.

Anyone who has attempted to absorb the conceptual details of Karl Kerényi’s studies of the Greek gods will understand the difference between the idea of Zeus as a religious conception in the everyday lives of the ancients and the idea of Zeus acting in mythical roles in Homeric and other tales.

Whence came this new religious idea?

Now that is a big question. The previous series of posts on The Creation of Christ has shown us Couchoud’s answer to this. Earl Doherty has offered the most comprehensive exploration of this question. I’ll keep this post short and leave with Couchoud’s conclusion of where the idea did and did not originate:

I regard it as philosophically impossible that the conception of the God-Man, the Saviour of the world, can have originated in any event of history, no matter of what kind. Induction had nothing to do with it. Whence, then, did it come? In my judgment it is a great religious creation which arose in the context of the mystery cults and was founded on earlier conceptions and vitalized by mystic illuminations. Its consequences were developed slowly and in sequence.

It is the chronological sequence of evidence, known to all but seen for what it surely is by the “religious conceptionists”, that is the strongest argument in favour of views such as those of Couchoud and Doherty.

Is there another question here, too? I’m thinking of the one about how a debate is framed.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Jesus, Neither Man Nor Myth”

  1. I do think that it would be really helpful to get the postings of the full copies of the two Appendices in the “Creation of Christ”, that is Appendix I: The Gospel According to Marcion, and Appendix II: The Historicity of Jesus .
    Especially Appendix II, since you mention it is, in the Hibbert Journal of Jan 1939, Couchoud’s answer to Loisy’s criticism of Couchoud’s book, all about the historicity of Jesus Christ.
    Without the real text in front of our eyes it is hard to formulate a decent comment.

    The original title of Couchoud’s book was “Jesus, le Dieu fait homme” 1937, (Jesus, the God Made Man). Loisy’s criticism of the book affirmed the historicity of Jesus (1938). and Couchoud answered Loisy’s refutation with “Jesus, Dieu ou Homme?” (1939, “Jesus, God or Man?”).
    Alfred Loisy made this famous quip: “Christ prophesied the arrival of the Kingdom of God, but it is the Church that came.”

    We have followed patiently the unfurling of those 28 postings on the Creation of Christ, a very interesting journey.
    But I feel we deserve and need to get the full text of those two Appendices, as they were critical additions to the body of the book.

    It is otherwise not immediate to untangle the difference between a “myth” and a “religious conception” in their cognitive and emotional aspects (echoes of a distinction made by Albert Schweitzer).
    Couchoud here is injecting his personal philosophy, as we already saw in the last lines of the Creation of Christ. A philosophy that we suspect strongly inspired by the Catholic foundations of French secular culture, and that we have to unravel before we can justify any serious comment.

  2. In 1938, Alfred Loisy had published a booklet “History and Myth Concerning Jesus Christ”, criticizing Couchoud’s book “The Creation of Christ”, 1937 (“Dieu Fait Homme”).

    Couchoud wrote him a note (June 1938): “A friend tells me that you have devoted a full booklet to my last book. I won’t read it, because I am told that its criticism is insignificant, while its whole value is in the hatred expressed in it. I am rather proud of the hatred I have inspired in you by the services that I had provided to you. One must have enemies, it keeps you warm. But I now regret, poor man, after having believed that there was something of value in you, to have to despise you so much.”

    Now, there’s a bit of life and passion in Biblical Studies!

  3. Ah, the good old Hibbert Journal. The University of Adelaide had a full set, and I spent far too much of my undergraduate time reading the gems therein instead of studying the stuff I was supposed to be studying. (I also learned a great deal about Victorian society from the collection of DuMaurier’s cartoons for Punch.) That is the trouble with old-fashioned libraries. You can learn things from them.

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