I decided to review this book after encountering commenters on this blog strongly asserting that Christian origins must be found in “astrotheology”. I had to confess I had never read Acharya S’s or D. M. Murdock’s book arguing for this position, The Christ Conspiracy, completely from cover to cover. I did, however, attempt to point out where the comments presenting this case here were logically fallacious. Each time, however, or at least very often, I was assured that there was “much more” to the argument. So I thought it might be a good idea — at least for the benefit of curious bystanders — to have a closer look at the book that I understand propelled a renewed interest in the apparent astrotheological roots of Christianity.
Unfortunately, the responses of both those earlier commenters, Murdock herself and other of her supporters, have been uniformly maliciously hostile towards me personally. I was regularly chastised for even deciding to review this book at all since it was an “old” book and Murdock has written other things since 1999, in particular Christ in Egypt. But as far as I can see Christ in Egypt does not address, at least not directly, the arguments for astrotheology as the basis of Christian origins. Moreover, that recent book refers its readers more than once (pp, vi, 575, and it is referenced in the index 20 times) to The Christ Conspiracy without any sense of embarrassment. So I think it is fair to say CC still has relevance.
As for the accusations that my reviews are riddled with personal insult and abuse towards D. M. Murdock, I leave it up to disinterested readers to decide their validity. What comes across to me is that Murdock’s supporters and Murdock herself interpret any criticism of their arguments, or any point at all that they deem not to be wholeheartedly supportive, even lighthearted irony and humour, as psychologically deranged personal attacks. Their leader has apparently even called upon them to find all the dirt they can about me — beginning with my past association with the Boy Cubs, or was that my childhood fantasies about Santa Claus? — no, no, I remember now, it was my time spent in the Anglican and Uniting churches after I left a cult, or was it the time I spent in the cult itself, or was it that cult-exit support group I started up for a while afterwards? Anyway, they apparently have my tortured past and my supposedly twisted psychological makeup all sorted out among themselves as a result of these reviews. (I now routinely divert their comments to my spam bin.)
Chapter 2. The Quest for Jesus Christ
D. M. Murdock (she used the name Acharya S on the book) points out the way Jesus Christ has been interpreted and reinterpreted in different ways to meet changing cultural needs. She writes: “Burton Mack says in The Lost Gospel of Q” — the actual title is The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins — that before Constantine Jesus was mainly seen as a good shepherd yet after Constantine as a great victor. Murdock updates this with a wide range of popular images of Jesus today. I have posted on Dieter Georgi’s in-depth study of these changing images of Christ: see How Jesus has been re-imaged through the ages to fit different historical needs.
But none of this supports the case that Jesus himself was a mythical figure. The argument is a non sequitur. There are several different versions of Australian history and the ideologies or myths about our past I was taught in school have been replaced by quite different ones today. That does not mean that Europeans never encountered indigenous peoples in Australia, but that changing political and social trends mean we come to interpret our past differently. How our famous/infamous bushranger Ned Kelly is imagined depends very much upon whether one has a stake in the tourist industry of Ballarat, is a descendant of one of his victims, or is a member of his surviving extended family. How a person is portrayed by others, especially in later times, in itself has no bearing on the question of the historical existence of the person.
Murdock then segues into the wide spectrum of views among scholars about what the historical Jesus was really like. This has more relevance to the questions of methodology of historical Jesus scholars and the elusive nature of their various views of what constitutes the “evidence” for the historical Jesus. Murdock does not discuss this aspect, however, and lumps the widely divergent views of Jesus — both pop cultural and scholarly — into the one basket and concludes:
Despite all of this literature continuously being cranked out, it is obvious [sic] that we are dealing not with biography but with speculation . . .
The rhetoric the author uses reminds me so vividly of the rhetoric used by some past cult leaders I have known in their efforts to grab attention and stun audiences into listening to their words as authoritative. How like the old Armstrong-style is this:
Whereas this [the debate over Jesus’ divinity] is the raging debate most evident today, it is not the most important. Shocking as it may seem to the general populace, the most enduring and profound controversy in this subject is whether or not a person named Jesus Christ ever really existed.
It was turns of phrases like this — “Shocking as it may seem . . .” — that made it difficult to continue reading the book some years ago. The author is evidently not laying out a case beside alternative views, but is about to dogmatically push one view alone as the only sane one. And that impression is confirmed with what immediately follows. Murdock then proceeds to present the debate over Jesus’ existence as falling into three rival views: two of these she will portray as ridiculous and the third she will describe as the only intelligent one. (I would never think to enter a discussion on the historicity of Jesus by painting my opponents as stupid and my view as the only one with any smarts, but Murdock is not fazed by such an approach.)
The “truth”, Murdock says, has been sought out by “many seekers of truth over the centuries to research thoroughly this important subject from an independent perspective”. These “seekers of truth” have produced “an impressive body of literature” that has been
hidden, suppressed or ignored . . .
(I can’t help but remark that Murdock recently said I myself had over the years “suppressed or ignored” her work as if I was part of some wider effort to hide her work from view.) Their works certainly have been for most part ignored among scholars of the New Testament. But to suggest it has been “hidden” or “suppressed” is taking it too far. Much of it is still readily available to the public despite its relatively small reading market.
The three groups active in the debate are “the believers”, the “evemerists” and the “mythicists”.
These are those who believe the Bible. These are those who believe
that a male God came down from the heavens as his own son through the womb of a Jewish virgin. . . . in a remote area of the ancient world and spoke the increasingly obscure language of Aramaic as opposed to the more universally spoken Greek and Latin . . . . that there is now an invisible man of a particular ethnicity omnipresently floating about in the sky. . . .
This dogmatic stance in effect represents cultural bigotry and prejudice. All in all, in blindly believing we are faced with what can only appear to be an abhorrent and ludicrous plan on the part of “God.”
These include many others — general public and scholars (Murdock places the word scholars in quotation marks) — who reject the “irrational beliefs and prejudicial demands” of the believers and
maintain that behind the fabulous fairytales found in the gospels there was a historical Jesus Christ somewhere . . . .
Why do they believe this? Murdock makes it clear that it is not because they have studied the question or seen clear evidence, but because it is a “commonly held” opinion.
This “meme” or mental programming of a historical Jesus has been pounded into the heads of billions of people for nearly 2,000 years, such that it is assumed a priori by many, including “scholars” who have put forth an array of clearly speculative hypotheses hung on highly tenuous threads . . . .
Murdock cites three arguments of mythicist G. A. Wells to knock their views out of the arena. (The arguments of the historicists themselves are not laid out and addressed.)
- Pre-gospel Christian documents do not portray Jesus as a political agitator
- If Jesus had been a political rebel, and the evangelists had no interest in explaining his political views, then what was the motive his followers believing in him?
- If the cleansing of the Temple had been a political act, why is it not mentioned by Josephus and why does Tacitus say there were no disturbances at that time?
She quite rightly recognizes that the primary weakness of the historicists’ arguments is that once the mythical trappings in the story of Jesus are eliminated the very ordinary human that is left is hardly one to have inspired a new religious movement.
This group has consisted of a number of erudite and daring individuals who have overcome the conditioning of their culture to peer closely and with clear eyes into the murky origins of the Christian faith. . . .
its brilliant work and insight have been ignored by mainstream “experts” in both the believing and evemerist camps.
I might agree with some of this to a point, but to belittle mainstream scholars by referring to them as “experts” in quotation marks, and to write as if there have been no bad mythicist literature at all, does not help an objective reader to take Murdock’s words as anything other than a polemic.
Murdock then argues that the early Christian debates over the nature of Christ — was he a spirit in the form of flesh only? — are an early version of the mythicist debate. She quotes Robert Taylor’s Diegesis asserting that the first Christians were docetists or those who believed Jesus did not have a literal human body — those who “denied Christ came in the flesh”. Thus Murdock is able to claim:
[T]he mythicist argument has existed from the beginning of the Christian era.
I doubt that there are many mythicist arguments today or in recent years that have argued the Docetic view — that Jesus appeared on earth as a spirit and only apparently in real flesh and blood.
Murdock has missed a good opportunity to ask how such a view of Jesus could have emerged so early if Jesus had indeed been an historical person. That would have been a more convincing argument.
[T]he mythicists’ arguments have been too intelligent and knifelike to do away with. Of course, the works of the mythicists have not been made readily available to the public, no doubt fearfully suppressed because they are somewhat irrefutable, so we cannot completely fault the “experts” for having never read them.
This is conspiracy-theory nonsense, of course. Murdock fails to provide any evidence that the mythicist literature has been “suppressed”. I suggest normal market forces are at work regarding the publication and availability of their works. Scholars are certainly not interested in the mythicist viewpoint and have undoubtedly ignored it, but that’s not the same thing as “suppressing” it.
Murdock objects to scholarly claims that mythicists apparently overlook the Jewish aspects of the Gospel (inferring that Jewish details must be historical) by saying that “anyone can interpolate quasi-historical data into a fictional story”. These scholars, says Murdock, should themselves pay more attention to these Jewish aspects of the Gospel narrative since they are frequently “erroneous, anachronistic and indicative of a lack of knowledge about geography and other details”.
Murdock concludes with another quotation by Gerald Massey to say that Christianity existed before “the Personal Christ”, and that the New Testament could be called “Gospel Fictions” and “the Christian religion could be termed the “Christ Conspiracy.”
So we are seeing an extension of the polemical style that, in my view, would be of little interest to those seeking to engage with the arguments as clearly understood from all sides. One hopes by the time we reach the arguments for astrotheology the tone of the book will mellow and we will indeed see sound and valid arguments.
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