Updated with an added final paragraph 40 minutes after posting
You’ve got to be kidding!
Of course not. Not even the fact/theory of evolution and advances in biological science can undermine any of the “religions of the book”. John Loftus of Debunking Christianity made it clear that one of the worst things he could take up in his efforts to debunk Christianity was to argue Jesus did not exist.
In one of his more recent statements to this effect he wrote:
Christians will be more likely to listen to me than someone who claims Jesus probably didn’t exist at all. (The Christian Reaction to Jesus Mythicism)
He follows with this (my bolding and formatting):
I am a focused, passionate man, who is single mindedly intent on debunking Christianity. This issue [mythicism] will not do the job for the simple fact of what evangelicals like David Marshall think of such a claim. It’s too far removed from what they will consider a possibility.
I’d like to hear of the vast numbers of Christians who abandoned their faith because they were convinced Jesus didn’t exist. I just don’t see that happening at all.
Christians will not see their faith is a delusion until they first see that the Bible is unreliable and untrustworthy, and that the doctrines they believe are indefensible, which is my focus.
Now it might be that Christians could come to the conclusion the Bible is unreliable upon reading arguments that Jesus never existed, but they will be much less likely to read those very arguments because that thesis is too far removed from what they can consider a possibility.
Exactly. I agree 100% with what John Loftus writes here about the value of the Christ Myth idea for debunking Christianity.
The logic of Loftus’s understanding is that espousing the Christ Myth must inevitably be counter-productive for any attempt to “debunk” Christianity.
If the Jews can get along without a literal Abraham . . .
I once asked a member of the Jesus Seminar (long-time readers move on, you’ve heard this story before) if he thought Christianity could survive or what the effect might be on Christianity if Jesus turned out not to have been historical. After a moments reflection he began, “I suppose Judaism can get along without an historical Abraham, so . . . . .”
With mythicists like these . . . .
And that’s exactly the sort of argument that the latest Christ Myth advocate to “come out” has advanced. Thomas L. Brodie’s case is outlined in my post, Mythicism and Positive Christianity.
I seem to recall mythicist Robert M. Price saying that he still likes to fellowship at church meetings. Paul-Louis Couchoud, prominent mythicist in the heyday of Alfred Loisy, loved Christianity and wrote of what he saw as its glorious virtues in tones of panegyric in The Creation of Christ. (And I believe another modern mythicist author is a Buddhist.)
If Christ Myth proponents like these can remain apparently in love with Christianity how can anyone seriously believe that the Christ Myth per se must somehow initiate a dismantling of the largest faith on earth today?
What would change?
So many billboards outside churches proclaim the powerful presence of Jesus now in heaven or in the hearts of believers. One wonders how deep a role a historical Jesus really does play in the minds of many believers. Many devout still believe in Adam and Eve and probably a talking snake, so surely something like the Christ Myth would be nothing more than another meaningless (or Satanic) cloud floating over their heads while they continue to hold fast to “the truth” of the literal word, anyway.
The knowledge of good and evil
Don’t get me wrong. I personally have a lot of reasons for seeing Christianity as being responsible for enormous damage, physical and mental, to countless millions. I will post criticisms of religion — any religion, but especially fundamentalist religions. But I have also posted encouragements for those who have been damaged by such religions by reminding us of the good that also came of our faith years.
In 2007 I posted 11 articles on some of the pain caused by fundamentalist belief systems; in 2008 I posted 11 articles on the good that ex-members can bring with them from their experiences. Indeed, it was Marlene Winell’s book, Leaving the Fold, that in part enabled me to initiate local support meetings for ex-cult members. (Marlene was living in Australia at the time — I was introduced to her through a radio interview that I followed up. She was offering support sessions for people damaged by their religious backgrounds. Since she could not make it to where I lived I decided to use her material along with that of others that had helped me enormously and share it with others who could also benefit from it.)
Many people who do leave such toxic faiths behind do so with a very positive outlook on life. That’s where the Steve Hassans and the Marlene Winells and so many like them come from. It takes a little effort, and a little know-how on how to rebuild self-respect and all that. But countless thousands do manage it. One thing that the religious experience does instill in followers is to accept responsibility for their own actions. If I made some stupid decisions I can only accept responsibility for that myself, and learn lessons that few others ever get the chance to learn — especially close-up lessons on how power manipulations and self-deception works.
The Christ Myth theory is not for those who remain twisted and embittered by their experiences. Those sorts of people would never want to touch the Bible or anything remotely associated with religion ever again.
But hey, I love to understand the origins of the mainstays of our culture, especially the origins of the values and social customs that make us what we are. American novelist Vardis Fisher learned the same lessons from his Mormon background. He likewise loved to explore the roots of the way we are: hence his Testament of Man series of novels (see blog header).
Love thy neighbours
I have Jehovah’s Witness neighbours. They are lovely people. I sometimes feel for them as I see the busy church-centred life-style (it’s part of the program that functions to stop people from thinking independently) they lead. They sometimes say a word to me that I recognize instantly as a subtle “witness for Christ” line. I ignore it. I would never try to undermine their faith. Why? Because I believe in the Golden Rule. Even infants know about that (see my recent post). That doesn’t stop me from posting on what I see as the problems and damage that comes with that faith — but I do that as a public education, in a sense, on this blog or such places so that only those interested in reading it will do so.
The only sure threat
The only threat to the Christian faith will come from strategies to advance the scope and impact of genuine education (as opposed to indoctrination) — which means learning to value reason and democratic values. But that education is a rare privilege in the grand scheme of human history and it is a right that needs to be protected. We have a responsibility, I believe, to take action or speak out when we see vested powers preying on vulnerable people to with propaganda and one-sided information. (I am thinking in particular of the way some Christian groups actively recruit isolated Asian students who come to study at Western campuses.)
As an afterthought I might even suggest the Christ Myth has a potential role to play vis a vis cultural change but ONLY in the context of genuine education. If New Testament scholars are keen to see their historical Jesus being part of a genuinely educative process then they need to start treating him as such. To date they are repeating a lot of propaganda and using old-style Soviet techniques of declaring dissidents to be mentally unstable (or in the clutches of the devil). That may work for a while, unfortunately, as it has for around 2000 years already. Genuine education and Christianity (or any faith) have not always been happy bedfellows. (Maybe I’m biased. My background is in educational studies and practice.)
Who should be afraid?
There is one group I do think does have something serious to fear from the Christ Myth, however. It’s not the faithful. It’s the scholars whose reputations and funding depend upon the traditional historicity of Jesus. It seems they have no rational arguments to defend themselves. If they had they would not be threatened. They’d win easily. Education would win the day as it does with evolution and the biological sciences among those who are exposed to it in a healthy measure. It does seem that their only recourse is the same as it has always been. Shut down the debate by burning straw men and hanging pejorative labels above their ashes.
But there is no need, really. As I recently wrote in another comment:
I think the real key to understanding and then explaining the evidence is “taking seriously” the Jesus we find in it all — a literary and theological figure. (This goes without saying. Leave all questions of what might have lain behind that figure originally — whether a historical person or an idea that came to be personified) and just work with the Jesus we have, the literary one. That will open up the new possibilities for exploration. Leave the questions of historicity or mythicism fall where they may in the course of that journey.
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53 thoughts on “Is the Christ Myth a Threat to the Christian Faith? (If not, what is?)”
Loftus is explaining some basic psychology. Anyone who tried to argue against Christianity by saying that Jesus didn’t exist would be too far in left field to be listened to rationally. It’s like having a frog in a pot of water, where if you turn on the heat all the way up the frog will notice the heat differential immediately and jump out. Loftus’ strategy – as one who actually wants to debunk Christianity – is to turn up the heat slowly, at a pace that the frog wouldn’t notice.
It’s pretty well known in psychology that if you present someone with facts that are just too contrary to what they believe, they will reject it outright; not only that, but they’ll become even more convinced of their original position. Anyone who attempted to argue against a layperson by presenting arguments that say Jesus didn’t exist would be sorely mistaken; anyone who would think that people only argue for Jesus Mythicism as an attempt to debunk Christianity would be sorely mistaken as well.
Christianity debunks itself. I’m interested in history, not deconverting people.
If a mythical Christ was good enough for Paul, why should modern day Christians want more?
The primary change is occurring not within religion but outside it. A number of young people I have spoken to who have little interest in religion see the Christ Myth Theory as far more plausible than Historicism. The cultural framework of social respect for faith is being steadily sapped, and the defending walls face impending collapse. The Christian fish swims in the lake of society, but the water is drying up.
I am one of those cultural Christians who find the myth very beautiful but want to rebase it from magic to science by seeing the early construction of the myth as grounded in allegory rather than fact. This is a line of thought which in my experience cannot even be discussed with traditional Christians but is often seen as common sense by the non religious.
Allegory sounds like a literary question, not a scientific one.
The scientific question is whether the New Testament is primarily a work of history or of fictional imaginative literature. This is a question within historical science, a discipline defined as the method of basing historical claims solely upon evidence. If, as the evidence suggests, the New Testament is fiction, then the various claims it makes can only find real meaning as symbol, as metaphorical allegory for something real.
Sounds like a literary study to me — principally a study of literary genre and intertextuality. I don’t know what is meant by “historical science”.
Paleontology? Or this? — http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Historical_science
Okay — If I understand that, then it cannot apply to the gospel or Christian narrative at all. It refers to information derived from the “sciences” of past events (paleontology, archaeology, geology) that we know “scientifically” happened. It is bogus to apply that to supposed historical events and persons that may or may never have existed. We are back to studies of history and literary analysis (genre studies, literary sources, etc.)
The wiki page linked by Tim defines historical science as “research which seeks to determine how particular historical events occurred.” Another definition is “the study of past events.” I was drawing a contrast between science-based empirically verifiable history and the faith-based imaginative constructions of the Gospels. The Gospels can still be objects of scientific research, for example in how they used Midrash. Literary analysis can occur either within a scientific or a faith based framework. Science avoids presuppositions while faith is full of them.
Literary analysis occurs within a literary framework. It is not a scientific exercise. Establishing the use of midrash is a literary judgement and not a “scientific research”. I know of no such thing as “science-based empirically verifiable history” of the sort one reads in historical narratives. Historians don’t call on “science” to decide if Napoleon conquered Europe or if Caesar crossed the Rubicon and no-one I know uses “science” to decide if a text is meant to be read figuratively or literally. Certainly the definition of “historical science” as on that rational wiki page has nothing in common with such exercises.
You seem to be defining science so broadly as to lose all meaning entirely if you say it is applied to decide if the Gospels are using midrash or not.
I originally used the term science to simply mean ‘based in evidence and logic’. That is a common understanding of the scientific worldview. By this broad definition, science includes historical analysis that seeks to be based on fact rather than fantasy, and does not include theology that presupposes a historical Jesus.
And the literary critic does not use evidence and logic?
If you define science so broadly you leave out any way of distinguishing the arts and humanities from the hard sciences. A child can use evidence and logic to manipulate a parent.
Using science in your context is like those attempts in social sciences to use ostensibly complex mathematical formulae to lend a false air of rigour to their otherwise very loose processes of evidence and logic. There is nothing scientific about the use of evidence and logic per se. Alchemists used the same process, and so do astrologers. (I’m tempted to say that anyone who has a pet dog or cat knows it can use evidence and logic.)
It is the certain way in which evidence is approached that makes the difference with science, as well as very specific logical processes. It involves value judgments and structured methods. All of that goes well beyond the commonplace use of evidence and logic.
Robert, you appear to have committed yourself to a sham method and unachievable goal with your interest in placing “astrotheology” on some methodologically valid footing.
I do not think it is possible to completely separate science from ideology. Stephen Jay Gould is particularly good in his essays in showing how ideological leanings have moulded and guided scientists in their (sometimes largely correct) theorising. By ideology I mean a system of ideas and ideals, often unquestioned and sometimes unconscious, usually hiding a sectional interest or privilege.
How much science a treatise contains does NOT depend on the presence of a mathematical apparatus: Darwins great book on the origin of species is the best of science (and moulded by the ideas of liberal capitalism and anti-slavery campaigning) and contains very little maths. In contrast most textbooks on Positive Economics (as opposed to Political Economy) have an overwhelmingly ideological content with their lack of scientific rigour masked by entirely spurious mathematics.
The best of scientists are aware of their own prejudices and do not allow their provisional conclusions to close their eyes. Indeed they try to understand opposing theories “from the inside”.
To the extent literary criticism uses evidence and logic, it is scientific. But studies in the humanities also use interpretative methods that are intuitive rather than scientific. Such intuitive opinions can be a legitimate form of scholarship, bringing to bear judgments of experience, but such judgments cannot be called scientific when they lack strong evidence. This is all basic methodology. Historians do in fact use science, broadly understood, to state we have real evidence for Napoleon’s campaigns and that we have no real evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ.
“To the extent literary criticism uses evidence and logic, it is scientific.” — So does a child use the scientific method to manipulate its parents. So does an astrologer use scientific method. You have failed to address the fundamental criticism I raised and simply repeated your assertion that you can call just about anything “scientific”.
Neil, what I find interesting in this conversation is your surprising challenge to my original contrast between magic and science. I see magic and science as conflicting worldviews, rather like nonsense and sense. It is widely held among atheists that everything sensible sits within science, while everything nonsensical sits within magic.
Even purveyors of nonsense can use sense, and must do so to gain credibility. The philosophical task, especially in Jesus Studies, is to demarcate the boundaries between sense and nonsense in a rigorous way.
Religion is enduring the cultural evolution of the world from magic to science. Within this process, we face the problems of whether we can cope with a purely logical and scientific outlook, whether themes such as enchantment, myth and mystery have an enduring place in our psychology and institutions.
In terms of the topic of this thread, the threat of the Christ Myth to Christianity, we could say this threat sits within the bigger question of the threat of science to magic. Those who imagine they live within an enchanted Christian world, accepting evidence-free concepts such as miracles and heaven, readily brush aside scientific attitudes. But what Gould called the separate magisteria of faith and reason are not actually separate – the magician insists on scientific credibility as a source of legitimacy,
Scientific attitudes are destroying the credibility of enchanted claims, leading faith to crumble from within. But do we have an enduring need for enchantment that is not properly understood by atheists?
Robert, you are avoiding my criticism and are now blatantly misrepresenting it. I have at no point suggested any challenge to the different worldviews between science and magic. Your claim that I am making a “suprising challenge” to their different world views is disingenuous. I am tempted to say dishonest.
Arguably the historian’s Jesus — a failed prophet from Galilee too insignificant to get noticed by any contemporary historians — is much more damaging to Christianity than the mythic son of God crucified by the archons and raised to glory. After all, Mark and Paul didn’t believe in an empty tomb, virgin birth, or any of the other physical accoutrements that were needed to make Christianity a state religion.
Not only that, the hypothesis depends on Jesus being a sort of pathetic self-deluded cult leader and his followers basically liars who, as Ehrman put it, just “started to say” that Jesus had risen from the dead.
I completely disagree.
The faith of the billions in the pews depends on their belief in the miracle story of a man who now lives forever as God’s son, who watches out for their interests, responds to their prayers, who will judge whether they also get to live forever in eternal bliss. A lion’s share of them believe they have a personal relationship with this man-god because he is real and decidedly not a mere metaphor. Without a historical Christ, there is no resurrection and without a resurrection, there is no afterlife, no Christianity.
Sure, people will initially resist accepting the validity of a non historical Jesus. But with repeated exposure to a new majority opinion, when they are mocked for the very idea of believing in yet another false god, their faith will be completely undermined.
Why do you think mythicists are met with such outrageous tactics? – a non historical Jesus is anathema to institutional Christianity. Not because the concept particularly worries the cognescenti within the guild, but precisely because they well know the whole bloody gambit depends on the income generated by the sheep in the flock, secure in their belief of Jesus Christ the man, their redeemer.
And who’s filling up an increasing majority of those pews? WOMEN. Churches may be run mostly by men, but women are becoming the bigger part of the congregation. Why? Read David Murrows book: “Why Men Hate Going to Church”
Here’s a good review explaining what the book is about:
Jesus being portrayed as the sensitive, caring, doe-eyed personal savior is a huge hit with females, and increasingly irritating to men. And this is the dilemma… how are you going to successfully debunk Christianity when there’s hundreds of millions of women who look to Jesus like he’s a “chick-flick” movie star?
“The faith of the billions in the pews depends on their belief in the miracle story of a man who now lives forever as God’s son, who watches out for their interests, responds to their prayers, who will judge whether they also get to live forever in eternal bliss.”
That’s the mythical Jesus you described, not the historical Jesus.
The miracle requires a fully human man who now lives forever – the same bargain offered several times in every sermon in every church in the world. The promise of the afterlife for every real human being is the basis for their faith. The idea that immortal gods are immortal is of no consequence – their faith is dependent on the fact that Jesus actually lived on Earth as a man – that he was historical, just like them, and that they can also receive the miracle of immortality, all for the low, low price of simple belief.
“The miracle requires a fully human man who now lives forever…”
I don’t think that’s true any more than we need a Yahweh who literally defeated a sea monster, walked in Eden, and showed his backside to Moses. These are all now accepted as metaphors for how God interacted with people through history.
Thanks for this blog! What a pleasure to read and follow!
The no-real-Jesus-existed concept (which includes the belief that everything was plagiarized from the concepts of other culture’s deities to construct the mythical Christian Jesus) has a need for Paul to also never have existed, needs Josephus to be completely discredited (for only having one redaction capsule that was apparently inserted under the direction of Eusebius), also needs the much respected in Jerusalem James and brother of Jesus to not have existed, and needs several more very unlikely things to have also happened or not have happened for that to be possible. Here are my thoughts with several items regarding this topic listed, which the second of the two was written yesterday and the first just a few days ago (I’m not familiar with Word Press tools as of yet so these were copied from my facebook pages and for now appear rather rudimentary with regard to formatting): http://reachingtheevangelicalmind.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/no-historical-jesus-whatsoever-creates-these-absurdities-which-include-certain-travesties/ & http://reachingtheevangelicalmind.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/constructing-the-real-jesus-series-messiah-blueprint-and-self-fulfilling-prophecies/
As for the existence of Jesus and Paul, you do realize that spiritual writing had no need for historical figures in order to write in their name, or write biographies of them? See, for example, the Epistles of Enoch or Jeremiah, and the Books of Daniel, Judith, Tobit, etc. Besides, having three different authors all writing as “Paul,” with intimate personal details from all three, does not attest well for the integrity or authenticity of the Christian literary project.
Josephus has been corrupted by Christian (and probably pre-Christian) editors. Also, it’s likely that the NT writers read the part about James, brother of Jesus (ben Damnaus) and included him in their myth-making pseudo-history as part of the nascent Christian church.
Blood: I’m making my way through as much of this as I can with what knowledge of the topic I have accumulated so far. I don’t take anyone’s word for anything and have to review each piece myself. This will, of course, take some time; but I have initiated my own commentary on the first 26 chapters of Genesis so far which lays out my basic approach to this matter, which was written two years ago this January. I do this as a recovering evangelical and consider it vital to my mental well-being and that of my children, and of my greater family in the long run as well.
Doug: fine, but that doesn’t address the points I made above. Your notion that the theory of the non-existence of Jesus “needs [many] very unlikely things to have also happened” is not tenable. My main point is: ancient spiritual writing is unconcerned with actual facts. It’s concerned with what the writers conceived of as spiritual truths, and pseudo-historical verisimilitude was often the means of achieving that for Jewish writers and their Christian imitators. The transmutation of literature into history is complete once intimacy with the original author’s milieu and method is forgotten.
Continuing from #4, now I am slightly baffled. I said I want to rebase Christianity from magic to science by seeing the early construction of the myth as grounded in allegory rather than fact. Neil responded that allegory sounds like a literary question, not a scientific one, and that “it is bogus to apply [historical science] to supposed historical events and persons that may or may never have existed.” But allegory is very much a scientific question. We do in fact apply science to Biblical narratives, as for example when Rene Salm explores the archaeology of Nazareth.
Perhaps we are working from different meanings of allegory, which just means that things in a story symbolise something else. The Bible makes abundant use of allegory, such as the snake as symbol for Satan. The scientific meaning of allegory dates back at least to Augustine, and arguably provides the original intent. The scientific content here is that observation provides the framework of truth, the Bible claims to be true, and so obviously untrue Bible stories can only be understood as allegory for the scientific reality.
In The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, Augustine said facts are known with certainty by reasoning or by experience, and it is greatly to be avoided to hear a Christian speaking idiotically on these matters, totally in error, so the meanings of obscure passages which appear at variance with the perceptions of rational faculties should be read in a way that recognises that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies. This is summarised from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegorical_interpretations_of_Genesis#Days_of_creation
I was simply making this logical Augustinian point, also found in Calvin, that when text and sense disagree, the text should be read as allegorical for something sensible. Science cannot be trumped by Scripture. I do not see what is bogus or dishonest in that. I hope Neil can explain how he thinks I have misrepresented him. The scientific allegory in scripture is basic to explaining why the Christ Myth Theory is becoming harder to ignore.
Robert, your convoluted word games, your persistent avoidance of the simple objection I raised (that allegory is a literary question, not a scientific one), and your resort to such a nonsensical inference that the archaeology of Nazareth somehow establishes Nazareth being used as an allegory in the gospels, all of this is understood when one learns that your agenda is to argue a “scientific case” for “astrotheology” as an explanation for the Gospel narratives and Christianity.
Neil, I did not avoid your objection, I challenged it. Augustine and Calvin saw allegory as scientific, in a perfectly reasonable way. Of course Nazareth is allegory. How do you imagine the idea of “Jesus of Nazareth” got started if there was no town Nazareth at the time? “Nazareth” is allegory for “Nazarene”. The writers knew full well there was no Jesus of Nazareth, but direct reference to the Nazarenes was politically risky except as reference to an invented town. A good new paper from Rene Salm on the Buddhist origin of the Nazareth concept is at http://www.mythicistpapers.com/the-natsarene-religion-pt-3/
I’m very sorry, Robert. It did not occur to me that you were seriously appealing to Augustine and Calvin as the arbiters of the difference between scientific and literary studies. My apologies. As I said, according to your definition of science even astrology and alchemy are “scientific”. So now I understand that you presumably agree that they are since I suspect Augustine and possibly Calvin thought of either both or one of thse as scientific pursuits.
(As for Nazareth, there is no “allegorical” relationship between Nazareth and “Nazarenes” — unless you redefine “allegory” as you have your own meaningless definition of “science”. It never occurred to me that the authors of the gospels who spoke of Nazareth did not know of a village called Nazareth so I don’t follow yet one more strand of your chaotic argument. Clearly Matthew knew of such a village when he wrote, probably in the second century. Unless you suggest that rabbis chose to name their new town after the reputed gospel birthplace of Jesus!)
No I do not consider astrology and alchemy as scientific.
No I do not consider the definition of science as “evidence-based” to be meaningless.
No I do not consider that the gospel authors knew of a village called Nazareth, since there is no archaeological or historical record of such a village at their time.
No I do not see Augustine and Calvin as the arbiters of the difference between scientific and literary studies.
I would prefer Neil that you engaged with what I actually say, rather than introducing extraneous material. I don’t understand the problem. I started off with an innocuous comment about the relation between magical and scientific world views in the context of why the Christ Myth has traction, and you have responded with this perplexing debate about whether allegory is scientific or literary. My mention of Augustine and Calvin was not to endorse their cosmologies, but to show that the view that Biblical writings are allegory for natural observation has a very old, and very sensible, pedigree.
I am surprised that you appear to endorse the idea that the Gospel Authors believed in a town of Nazareth since this conflicts with the work of Salm that you have positively reviewed.
Robert, your definition of science (anything that is based on evidence and logic) does allow for astrology and alchemy to be called scientifc — as I pointed out several comments ago and that you have failed to address. I have expressed the arguments at least twice so I will not spell them out again here. Your claim to treat literary analysis and whether or not a gospel author is using midrash as “science” or “scientific” rests upon a meaningless definition of science and I gave my reason for why your use of “science” is misleading.
As for Nazareth, you are confusing the nonexistence of Nazareth at the supposed time of Jesus with the nonexistence of Nazareth at the time the gospels were written. The single appearance of Nazareth in Mark is suspect, and there is no reason to think Nazareth did not exist at the time the other gospels were written.
Neil, now that you have challenged me I feel obliged to reply promptly.
NG: Robert, your definition of science (anything that is based on evidence and logic) does allow for astrology and alchemy to be called scientific — as I pointed out several comments ago and that you have failed to address.
RT: I disagree. There is no evidence in support of astrology and alchemy. They are based on tradition, not evidence. Yes there is a logic based in tradition, just as there is for the Christ Myth of orthodox Christian dogma, but these traditions are based on imaginative fantasy rather than evidence.
NG: I have expressed the arguments at least twice so I will not spell them out again here. Your claim to treat literary analysis and whether or not a gospel author is using midrash as “science” or “scientific” rests upon a meaningless definition of science and I gave my reason for why your use of “science” is misleading.
RT: You said, referencing Levenson, “The whole Christ of faith concept — the “only son” being sent to be “a sacrifice to atone for sins” and bring believers into a new family that supersedes the old is an idea entirely born of midrash.” http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/midrash-and-gospels-3-what-some-jewish-scholars-say-and-continuing-midrash-tales-of-the-messiah/ I think your phrase “entirely born” constitutes a scientific claim, that you apparently support, and which I agree with.
By the way that thread was #1 for googling gospel midrash.
NG: As for Nazareth, you are confusing the nonexistence of Nazareth at the supposed time of Jesus with the nonexistence of Nazareth at the time the gospels were written. The single appearance of Nazareth in Mark is suspect, and there is no reason to think Nazareth did not exist at the time the other gospels were written.
RT: But do you really believe the Gospel authors believed in the Historical Jesus? I don’t. I think they made it up, consciously and deliberately. In the second century it is plausible that there was some political reason to hide the cult of the Nazarene behind an imaginary non-existent town even if that town was then being established like a Potemkin village to support the myth.
Robert, you are completely confused and quite out of your depth. Your commitment to astrotheology is your intellectual ruin. I will respond to your points in reverse order.
The challenge of the archaeology of Nazareth to the Gospel narratives is that there is no secure, independently validated evidence for Nazareth being a settled place between the Babylonian conquest of Palestine and the late first century CE (presumably related to the Jewish-Roman War of 66 to 73 CE). That is, the evidence for a settlement at the supposed time of Jesus is non-existent. However, even by conventional dating of the Gospels (between 70 CE and the end of the first century/very early second century), we can say Nazareth was a populated centre at the time these Gospels were being written.
Nazareth as a village is thus an anachronism in the Gospel narratives. A town that was in existence in the days of the evangelists was anachronistically retrojected into the time of Jesus.
The origin of the “Nazorean/Nazarene” and related epithets was hidden behind the name of the village of Nazareth. We see this happening in the Gospel of Matthew.
Your questioning of whether or not I believe in an historical Jesus is a non sequitur. The arguments relating to Nazareth stand apart from any Christ Myth argument. The non-existence of Nazareth in the early first century CE does not of itself disprove the historicity of Jesus.
No-one that I know of has ever been foolish enough to suggest that Nazareth was populated in an attempt to support a myth. (I trust/hope you do not think this yourself.)
I quoted a Jewish scholar of Jewish studies expressing the view that the central Christian belief in God sending a beloved son to die for the forgiveness of sins originated as a midrash upon, in particular, the Jewish story of the offering of Isaac. Levenson’s argument is entirely based on literary analysis and historical inquiry. He uses rigorous methods of literary analysis but he is not doing science. Science performs experiments that can be tested and thereby generally accepted or rejected. Levenson’s studies are open to a wide range of interpretative challenges. He is doing literature and history, not science.
Simply saying that Levenson’s conclusion is a “scientific claim”, as you do, does not make it one. The only way you can justify your belief that Levenson is in some sense doing “science” is to stretch your meaning of “science” to cover anything that is based on “evidence and logic” — and that’s what I understand you have said does constitute science. But I pointed out that such a broad definition makes just about any human activity “science”. I can say a house is haunted on the evidence of strange noises and logical conclusions. You may respond that there are other explanations for those strange noises. But that’s the point. There are other explanations for the origins of Christian theological ideas. This is where a host of other factors come into play, especially value judgments and cultural knowledge. There are other explanations for the evidence someone might cite for astrotheology.
For literary scholars and historians to make claims that they are also doing “science” is nothing but pretentiousness.
I think what you mean, or what you are looking for, is rigour and validity of methods. But even these within the humanities are based upon philosophical, cultural and value inputs and judgments that set them apart from the more “independently objective” methods of science.
I believe that Levenson is right and that Christian doctrine is in large measure derived from a midrashic reading of Jewish scriptures. But that’s not a scientific claim. It’s a literary evaluation and judgment. If you are going to call it science then you need to come up with a meaningful definition of science. Otherwise, your attempt to call it science is an attempt to make your argument sound more authoritative and absolute than it really is or ever can be.
See my point on the haunted house above. Your claim that astrology is based on tradition is a meaningless rejoinder. So is midrash based on tradition. Even amateur astrologers will point to the evidence of personality traits and associate these with birth dates and use logic to draw conclusions. If you say there are other explanations of the evidence they appeal to, you have (as I pointed out above) just confirmed my point. Your definition of science (basing an argument on evidence and logic) is meaningless.
I have to admit that I loved quite a lot what Robert was saying in a number of ways. But I also have to say that Neil backed up what he stated earlier extremely well. “Rigorous methods of literary analysis” are so foreign to theists that it definitely seems much like science to me, in defense of Robert; but Neil made great points and I think he is technically correct on this.
NG: Robert, you are completely confused and quite out of your depth.
RT: Neil, you may enjoy being condescending as a rhetorical tactic, but I am perfectly within my depth here and look on your comments with some bemusement as showing a weak grasp of the philosophy of science. You seem not to fully understand how “based on evidence” is a central concept of the scientific non-magical world view of modern enlightenment. Reliance on evidence means, among other things, that a claim can be subject to contestable verification. Ghost impressions from bumps in the night are not based on evidence, they are based on imaginative intuition. To say noise = ghost involves a set of speculative leaps that have no evidentiary content, much as Bible = supernatural God fails the fact test.
NG: Your commitment to astrotheology is your intellectual ruin.
RT: I have not mentioned astrotheology in this thread. My comments here are solely about scholarly methodology and how the methods which give rise to the Christ Myth Hypothesis are scientific rather than magical. This distinction between science and magic is central to sound epistemology, and is therefore shunned by true believers.
NG: Nazareth as a village is an anachronism in the Gospel narratives. A town that was in existence in the days of the evangelists was anachronistically retrojected into the time of Jesus.
RT: Nazareth illustrates evidentiary principles. It makes no sense that Mark or Matthew would know of a new town called Nazareth and decide to locate Jesus there, since the newness is a giveaway sign that Jesus is fiction. If Nazareth had in fact only been recently established, as archaeology suggests, then the Gospel authors must have known that Jesus did not actually come from there. They must have had some allegorical reason for calling Jesus a Nazarene. Rene Salm’s discussion of the Buddhist origins of the Nazarenes looks to be a strong candidate to explain this anomaly.
NG: The origin of the “Nazorean/Nazarene” and related epithets was hidden behind the name of the village of Nazareth. We see this happening in the Gospel of Matthew.
RT: Salm says Nazareth is based on Natzarene – eg http://www.mythicistpapers.com/the-natsarene-religion-pt-2/. In your thread http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews-notes/salm-myth-of-nazareth/ you refer to the link to Noah as “findings”.
NG: Your questioning of whether or not I believe in an historical Jesus is a non sequitur.
RT: Neil, you have not read my comment carefully. I said “do you really believe the Gospel authors believed in the Historical Jesus?” I know you don’t believe in the Historical Jesus, but your previous comment suggests you think Mark did. I think that is ridiculous, as Mark was a genius and knew exactly what he was doing, constructing a historical myth.
NG: The arguments relating to Nazareth stand apart from any Christ Myth argument. The non-existence of Nazareth in the early first century CE does not of itself disprove the historicity of Jesus.
RT: Agree with the second sentence but not the first. It is bizarre that the Gospel authors would locate Jesus in a town they knew did not exist in Pilate’s time, as it makes “Jesus of Nazareth” a fiction. This question of Nazareth is central to the Christ Myth argument, since it illustrates that the entire original vision was mythical, and the literal reading was only a late corruption.
Can you really imagine an Israeli messianic author today saying the messiah lived fifty years ago in one of the Jewish West Bank settlements, even though everyone knows these towns are new? That is the equivalent of what you are saying.
NG: No-one that I know of has ever been foolish enough to suggest that Nazareth was populated in an attempt to support a myth. (I trust/hope you do not think this yourself.)
RT: I do not know. I would accept whatever the balance of evidentiary probabilities indicates. That is the scientific method. The archaeology of Nazareth is just one topic among a myriad relating to early Christianity. It seems to me that Christian Nazareth derived from INRI is probably a fake. I find Salm’s work convincing. The Potemkin nature of Nazareth, like the Potemkin nature of Helena’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre etc, is the working hypothesis I am most happy with unless someone can refute it by evidence.
NG: Levenson … uses rigorous methods of literary analysis but he … is doing literature and history, not science.
RT: When you said the Christ of faith concept is an idea entirely born of midrash, it seemed you endorsed Levinson’s hypothesis on this. And indeed, this is a claim about what is actually the case. Either it is true or not. Of course it is challenged, but the challenges can be assessed against the evidence. That is what science does. It looks at rival assertions and assesses them against data. It is far from clear that this midrash basis of Christ is an unfalsifiable assertion. If we find piles of coherent Midrash, and place this within a consistent hypothesis about motive and opportunity of the authors, we are applying forensic methods just like in any coronial investigation. Coroners pride themselves on their scientific standards, and so should Biblical scholars.
NG: Simply saying that Levenson’s conclusion is a “scientific claim”, as you do, does not make it one.
RT: But you were the one who use the term “entirely” for Levenson’s claim about basing Jesus in Midrash. Now you seem to be resiling from the scientific implications of your own comment, according it a lower epistemic status, as merely literary and not objective. If you think Jesus is entirely Midrash, that is because you think the available evidence supports that as the most coherent and elegant scientific hypothesis.
NG: I can say a house is haunted on the evidence of strange noises and logical conclusions.
RT: And you can be laughably wrong. When an opinion is based on evidence, it excludes rival claims whose derivation is traditional authority. The opinion that Jesus lived is based on the traditional authority of the church. The documentary evidence is entirely uncorroborated. For an opinion to be “based” on evidence, the data has to be the primary basis of the opinion, rather than just lending support to a view based on other factors.
To say there is actually a ghost we need much more evidence than a few bumps and creaks. This is an extraordinary claim which requires corresponding strong evidence as it conflicts with all scientific knowledge. And indeed we generally find that ghost stories have good natural explanations when the evidence is studied, as does the Jesus Myth.
NG: You may respond that there are other explanations for those strange noises. But that’s the point. There are other explanations for the origins of Christian theological ideas.
RT: And those rival explanations are more or less scientific, or evidentially parsimonious. Traditional dogma about Jesus conflicts with parsimony, whereas the explanation by Midrash coheres with parsimony. Parsimony and elegance are core principles of scientific evidence. Modern people have scientific minds and reject fantasy, just as the peasant rejected the story of the watery tart in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as lacking in evidence.
The ghost assertion coheres better with evidence of wishful thinking than of dead people hanging around ectoplasmically. Using evidence as our heuristic, we therefore say the claim is wishful thinking, not ectoplasm. Noises are not real evidence of active personal spirits.
NG: For literary scholars and historians to make claims that they are also doing “science” is nothing but pretentiousness.
RT: As Paul said, by no means. Any research solely oriented to discovery of facts is ipso facto scientific. Only when speculation about value judgments enters do we leave the evidentiary realm of science.
If a scholar presupposes Jesus existed, they are not doing science. If a scholar explores the evidence with no presuppositions, they are doing science. Eliminating presuppositions is central to the scientific method.
NG: I think what you mean, or what you are looking for, is rigour and validity of methods. But even these within the humanities are based upon philosophical, cultural and value inputs and judgments that set them apart from the more “independently objective” methods of science.
RT: Since Hume, we accept a distinction between facts and values. Facts are the realm of science, while values are the realm of speculation and sentiment. We cannot derive an ought from an is. But we can explore the ‘is’ questions about ancient history in an entirely rigorous scientific way. What actually happened? This is a scientific question. The factual evidence gives no basis to infer Jesus existed, a claim that must introduce extraneous cultural assumptions.
NG: I believe that Levenson is right and that Christian doctrine is in large measure derived from a midrashic reading of Jewish scriptures. But that’s not a scientific claim. It’s a literary evaluation and judgment. If you are going to call it science then you need to come up with a meaningful definition of science. Otherwise, your attempt to call it science is an attempt to make your argument sound more authoritative and absolute than it really is or ever can be.
RT: What you mean is that you think it is a weak scientific claim, plausible but not persuasive let alone convincing. A weak scientific claim is still scientific, it just is not yet proven. So for example we can compare the Jesus Midrash Hypothesis to dark matter, something indicated by evidence but still lacking definitive explanation. Dark matter is a scientific hypothesis, as is the presence of midrash in the Gospels. By contrast, Gospel literalism is not scientific, because it conflicts with obvious evidence such as the failure to find any other observations that conflict with the laws of physics. Mark span out the blarney quite persuasively, but hearsay is not accepted as evidence in court.
NG: Your claim that astrology is based on tradition is a meaningless rejoinder. So is midrash based on tradition.
RT: Non-sequitur there. The claim that Jesus is a product of midrash and did not live as an historical individual is based on evidence, not tradition, except the suppressed tradition of Docetism. For astrology, the claim that people born under one sun sign have certain character traits is traditional. When scientists have tested this claim statistically, they have found no evidence for it. This is what logicians mean by the distinction between evidence and tradition. Evidence is contestable whereas tradition is not. Anecdotes do not constitute evidence to any scientific standard.
NG: Even amateur astrologers will point to the evidence of personality traits and associate these with birth dates and use logic to draw conclusions.
RT: But Neil, that is as bad as saying that Bible Scholars point to the assertions in the Gospels and call these evidence. The story that Jesus rose from the dead is not evidence. Nor is an astrologer’s fantasy that people born in August have leonine personalities. Fantasy is not evidence. When logic is applied to astrology, so far it has almost universally failed the test.
I suggest you do some serious reading about the philosophy of science. Facts and values are not so distinct within the humanities as you claim, and your reliance upon Hume to make your point suggests your reading is quite limited in range.
Your implications of what I argue about Nazareth are false. But you tell me what my argument is without asking questions so it is clearly a waste of time discussing the issue with you.
How on earth can you possibly interpret my use of “entirely” in a quote as a “scientific claim”!
I am tired to wasting my time with you. You will go around endlessly in circles, refusing to be pinned down on clear definitions and terminology, in order to justify your nonsense about astrotheology. Astrotheology — and your methodology — has absolutely no place in any serious Christ Myth discussion. It is a hocus pocus sham equivalent to von Danikenism.
The following discussion from Jerry Coynes website (dare i say “blog”) may add some perspective to the ensuing back and forth between Neil and Robert:
Neil, apologies if the quotations are too long and do forgive the “copy and paste ninja” or was it “copy and paste jockey” as you and Tim so humourously designated such behaviour some time ago..:)
Also a question :
Do you think saying that Jesus Christ was a literary/theological figure would be the same thing as saying that the figure was a mythological figure? If no why do you say so?If yes, is it not a case of a “A rose by any other name..”
Would you be interested in writing a post about this specific comparison – Literary/Theological or Mythical or both or variations thereof?
“it is commonly objected that historical knowledge is, in the requisite sense, scientific, since it depends upon evidence, and may even make predictions as to what we will find in the public record or in archaeological digs. For several reasons this does not seem satisfactory to me, since it is clear that our historical understanding of events changes over time. Gibbon’s history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example, with its wealth of often reliable detail, is also quite clearly a product of its time. No one, while they might use and even confirm much of the factual material that is contained in Gibbon’s volumes, would write a history of the fall of Rome in quite the way that Gibbon does, with his particular social and political emphases. Histories of the First World War often, according to Hew Strachan’s The First World War, by failing to take into consideration the time and circumstances in which the Great War took place, also fail to understand why, at the time, this was considered to be, not an absurd and monstrous waste of life, but of the first importance for the future of civilisation; and he points out the paradox that results from this assessment of the Great War’s meaninglessness. . .
It is important to note that whether we look at the world in one way rather than another does not obviously depend on the factual evidence that can be brought to bear on the question of the correct interpretation or understanding of the events in question.
The question that arises for me on the basis of considerations such as this. . . is whether we have, then, in history, a “way of knowing” which is distinct from that of science? My own view is that it is the notion of “ways of knowing” that is the problem here, not the fact that there are different types of knowledge, all of which, to some degree, depend upon evidence, but none of which can be simply subsumed under science as the paradigm case of what we understand when we speak about knowledge or truth. ”
“I think Eric is conflating here the facts of history with the interpretation of history. And yes, those facts can change with time, but so can scientific facts. Facts of history and science are both provisional, depending on the current state of knowledge and new evidence that arises. But this says nothing about whether empirical evidence, reason, doubt, and consensus about the evidence—in other words, the tools of science—aren’t the way to find out what happened in history.
Yes, I am construing science broadly here, as a “methodology for finding out truths about the universe,” and that methodology is pretty much the same whether one is a historian or a scientist. If you construe “science” more narrowly, as “the body of knowledge accumulated by scientists,” then yes, historical facts don’t come from science. But that misses the point. The way one finds out that Julius Caesar existed is pretty much the same way we find out that the supercontinent Pangaea existed—through historical reconstruction and tangible evidence.
Really, it matters to me very little whether one argues that history is a branch of science or not. What matters to me is that they use the same methods to establish what really happened in our universe. And of course how one views the relative importance of various factors in history is often not something subject to empirical adjudication, but is simply a philosophy or worldview. It is interpretation, not fact. So what?”
“To the extent that the academic study of history is not a science and therefore a “different way of knowing,” though true in a limited sense, it is an indictment of the field. **All too often, historians, especially religious historians, when challenged with the more-than-questionable nature of their methods (particularly literary analysis of centuries-old documents about millennia-old events), will whine, “But, if we were to hold history to the same standards as the hard sciences, then we wouldn’t know anything at all about history!”
The truth, of course, is that we really don’t know a great deal about history, and pretending otherwise no more makes it so than pretending that zombies like having their intestines fondled means Jesus wants you to drink his blood.”
** – bolded
In this exchange there are quite different concepts of history that are being confused and generating misunderstandings. I will write about this later, though I have written a post or two on it in the past.
My responses were directed at Robert Tulip’s argument as I know it more fully from previous exchanges and reading of his posts elsewhere and the articles and books related to his posts. Specifically I was addressing Robert’s definition of science as that which is grounded in “evidence and logic” and pointing out that this definition — which is the basis of his primary interest, the promotion of Acharya S’s astrotheology as the seed of Christianity — is as flaky as astrology. He can see the flaws in his premise when applied to astrology but not when applied to his own beliefs, and avoids with all sorts of circumlocutions the criticisms I make against his definitions.
Yes and no.
Yes in the sense that a literary/theological figure is a myth (even the literary/public persona of Churchill and Obama are myths).
No in the sense that the question of any figure outside the literary/theological figure is irrelevant if all we know and all we can ever hope to know is that literary/theological figure.
There is nothing original in my approach. I have been emulating the approach of Thomas L. Thompson and some of the other “minimalists” that they applied to their studies of the Old Testament. (TLT has since published his views about Jesus and these are indeed an extrapolation of his arguments relating to OT literature.) Removing the miraculous from miracle stories does not help us get to history, it only destroys stories. Tim made this point most effectively recently with his analogy of the punch line of a joke. All the lead up information is not “truth” independent of the punch line; the punch line is the very reason the lead up info exists.
I do not believe we have any evidence for an historical Jesus, but the reason I do not express myself this way as a rule is because I am not interested in arguing “that Jesus did not exist”. My interest is in understanding the evidence as we have it. The question of Jesus outside the evidence is meaningless to me. A bit like someone studying the medieval ballads of Robin Hood without any interest or care for whether there was a real Robin Hood behind them all.
There are two reasons I doubt the existence of an historical Jesus. One is the fallacious nature of the arguments for such a Jesus; the other is that the Jesus of the Gospels and Paul is more than adequately explained by other means.
I will sometimes tear into fallacious arguments for the historicity of Jesus because I believe that the academics making them should know better and are being irresponsible and unprofessional when they mislead others with such tripe.
But if one day we were to discover evidence for an historical Jesus, then that would not worry me in the least. It would only make the inquiry into Christian origins more interesting and open up questions why he was or is not seen in the literary evidence. (But that leads to the question of how we would ever recognize “the real Jesus” if he were ever discovered outside the theological texts.)
Most of my arguments about the nature of the literature of the biblical books come straight from non-mythicists. The message there is that the question of mythicism is as irrelevant as is the historicity of Robin Hood to a literature scholar studying medieval ballads of Robin Hood.
As TLT has said in effect in other contexts, the historian must begin with and can only deal with the David, the Jesus, the Robin Hood we do know — the literary one found in the texts.
For those interested in understanding more about where those I have argued against are coming from, D. M. Murdock has commented on this blog and me personally at http://freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=27420#p27420 The same page has Robert Tulip’s take on the discussion here. There is also a discussion thread on Facebook to which I added a comment or two: http://www.facebook.com/groups/thebiblegeeklisteners/permalink/455798044492198/
Godfrey, the blog Nazi, lol.
Others may begin to see why I have lost some patience with Robert and Murdock. I have learned to recognize the weasle words used here that are completely belied on other sites. I used to defend Murdock against gratuitous personal attacks. But since the way she has personally sought to slander me with all and sundry, though I never attacked her personally, I have lost the motivation I used to have to speak out against the way others savagely spoke about her. Her and Robert’s responses only confirm my view that genuine intellectually honest discussion is not on their agenda.
I have to agree with Loftus here. The most devastating possible thing that could happen to Christianity would be if the historicists could produce ironclad proof not only that “there was a guy” but of who he really was and what he really said. Atheists could hope for nothing more than to actually validate the real existence of, say, Ehrman’s failed apocalyptic prophet, drag him before the crowd and triumphantly shout “Ecce homo!” (“Behold the man!”). Consider: the core of the mythicist case is that the pre-Gospel Christian writers (and most of the early post-Gospel writers, given the standard dates for the authorship of the Gospels) almost never write of The Man From Galilee (TMFG). We get Paul making vague allusions to a Christ who was “born of woman” “of the seed of David” and so on, but if these are references to TMFG, Paul is doing his best to hurry past the brother of his chief rival for influence and get to the celestial Christ of his own visions. The other Epistle writers avoid TMFG with equal zeal. At best they invoke him only so that they can have a real, physical body to get crucified (the Johannine Episles), but shy away from him as much as possible, e.g., going to the well for Esau and his mess of porridge when they want to condemn those who sell out and betray the movement, rather than appealing to stories of Judas selling out for 30 pieces of silver and betraying TMFG with a kiss.
One of the main anchors of the historicist case is the Embarrassment Criterion. That is, some of the most sure evidences of The Man From Galilee are those places where the Gospellers are ashamed of him, and trying to sweep him under the carpet so they can get on with using him as a scaffolding for miracle stories, midrashes of Hebrew Scripture references, and as a mouthpiece for their own theological views. Historicists will point to the progression from Mark reporting that Jesus was a prominent disciple of John the Baptist, hanging his hero on the coattails of a prominent and well-known prophet, to the other Synoptic authors working to reverse the coattail relationship as their movement grew, and with it the grandiosity of their views of Jesus, toward the eventual obliteration of the JtB/TMFG relationship altogether. In other words, we can have confidence that The Man From Galilee existed because we can see where the Gospellers started trying to cover him up as certain realities of his history (that he was a disciple of John the Baptist, that he faced his crucifixion with an anguished cry that God had forsaken him, that he was from the insignificant village of Nazareth rather than the prophetically meaningful town of Bethlehem, etc.) got in the way of their expanding Hellenistic god-man theology.
Isn’t that peculiar? Christianity as a movement doing its level best to run away from its founder? If the mythicists are right, it only appears that way, because there was no human founder for them to run away from: Jesus is not the Joseph Smith of Christianity, he’s the golden plates. If the historicists are right, it’s because The Man From Galilee–the real person who had a full complement of human foibles and fallibility, who had to squat and take a crap every day–could not live up to the lofty mystical theology those who came after wanted to hang on him. In both cases, Christianity as we know it arose as an answer to the same problem: any Messiah who actually shows up can’t be the Messiah. As long as a Messiah is coming Real Soon Now, but not actually here, he can be perfect. He can be everything his followers hope he will be, even if their hopes are not clearly articulated. He can be expected to remove all injustice and unpleasantness and bring Utopia on Earth or in Heaven. But whenever a would-be Messiah actually appears, like the series of failures who came before Jesus (TFMG or otherwise), he can never measure up. He turns out to have specific views that can’t appeal to everyone. Some may agree and follow him, but others consider him a vile heretic, or think he is too strict/not strict enough about the Torah, dislike some of his policy proposals, etc., and so forth. After failing to get unanimous support, to produce miracles, and otherwise succumbing to the limits of being merely real, he gets his ass kicked by the Romans. Since this had already happened a number of times before Christianity, it’s not surprising that some Jews might start looking for a way to have their Messianic hopes, without banking on a merely human Messiah who could never live up to them.
A celestial Christianity would answer this problem by re-interpreting the idea of Messiah into a spiritual person or principle who brings about inner transformation in the heart or spirit of the believer rather than a concrete restoration of the Kingdom of Judah, but who will come Real Soon Now to bring about a perfect world. Such a figure can be like a rainbow, beautiful and evanescent, ever before the believer, but never having to yield an actual pot of gold. A historicist Christianity would answer the problem by gradually transforming The Man From Galilee from one more real, but failed human Messiah into a celestial Christ by stripping away his actual human life, retaining only those elements that could be fit within a grander mythic narrative. The end result: the theology and mythology surrounding his death becomes far more important than his life, words, and deeds. Notice also how concrete and detailed are the descriptions of Hell, compared to descriptions of Heaven in Christian literature. It’s far easier to concoct a description of absolute misery (permanent, maximum torture) than of a perfect Utopia that appeals to everyone. How many modern evangelical Christians would really welcome a Jesus who wanted to take their guns and SUV’s away, and actually took all those red-letter passages about money seriously?
I think that the reason we don’t have churches full of explicitly “mythicist”–or to be more accurate given that modern pejorative connotations of “myth” that did not exist when Christianity was founded, “celestialist” or “spiritualist” Christians is because the Jesus of modern historical scholarship, and the evidence used to argue for him, is not well-known outside of the ivory halls of the scholastic guild. I think the major reason for this is that for the most part, the basis for their conclusions is not easily summarized for the non-specialist. Sure, historicists can point to “James, the brother of the Lord” and say, “See? There was a guy.” They can point to some of the Embarrassment Criterion passages in the Gospels and say, “See. There was a guy.” They can point to “born of a woman,” “seed of David,” “seed of Abraham,” “second Adam” etc. and say, “See? Paul believed there was a guy.” Whether you agree with those arguments or not, they are at least fairly easy to understand, and don’t require expert knowledge of koine Greek and Aramaic or an exhaustive understanding of ancient cultures. It’s only when they try to move beyond the mere existence of “a guy,” to try to figure out who he really was and what he really said and did that they get into the weeds. There isn’t any easy way for a scholar to explain how they know that some particular “saying of Jesus” is part of the earliest stratum of Q (or that there is a “Q,” that it has strata, and what order they were laid down in), or that Mark’s Greek rendering of the saying indicates Aramaic sentence structure and idiom, and thus represents either a translation from the Aramaic or a transcription of Aramaic oral tradition. For that matter, it’s not as if it’s all ironclad, and the scholars can unite around a list of sayings, words, and deeds of the real Man From Galilee that their complex methods can validate as such.
So, despite the historicists’ voluminous confidence in the existence of some small Man From Galilee who was basically that guy on the street corner with a cardboard sign saying “The End is Nigh!” Christians don’t really have to confront TMFG or the scholars’ confidence. They just grab on to the scholars’ assurance that “there was a guy,” ignore all the complicated textual criticism & etc. that would take years to understand anyway, and emit their own confidence that the “guy” was their miracle-working god-man. In response, some atheists* (and neo-Gnostics like Freke and Gandy, and others like Murdoch) latch on to mythicism as a way to dynamite away “the guy,” and thus, they hope, bring the whole structure of Christianity crashing down. It only seems to be a valid strategy at this point because the Christianity they want most to debunk (i.e., fundamentalist/evangelical and Catholic) strives to anchor itself in historical and scientific fact, even if they have to make the “facts” (e.g. the “evidence” for Creationism) up and defend them against reality at all costs. If it were possible to validate The Man From Galilee in some ironclad way–say, if someone found a clay jar containing a book written by him, or if the Talpiot Tomb had actually turned out to be his, etc.–then he would stop being the glowing celestial Messiah and be reduced to an ordinary man. Then, just as the earliest Christians did (if the historicists are right), modern Christians would have to run away from TMFG. Where would they go? To the celestial Christ who is found in Scripture rather than in Galilee, for whom that man would merely be the Earthly shadow, the shadow on the wall of Plato’s Cave which points toward the true, higher spiritual reality. Just as Hagar/Earthly Jerusalem is to be left behind in favor of Sarah/Heavenly Jerusalem, and the priest in the Earthly Temple is to be set aside in favor of Jesus the High Priest who brought his blood into the Celestial Temple, any real Man From Galilee would be quickly abandoned by Christians–in favor of something very like the celestial Christianity of “mythicism.”
*I do not mean to imply that all, or even most Jesus mythicists fit into this category.
#18 rocks! 🙂