2013-04-23

We Are All Mythicists Now

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by Tim Widowfield

English: Portrait of Milton Friedman
Portrait of Milton Friedman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are all fill-in-the-blank now

You probably recognize the title of this post as a play on the quotation by Milton Friedman, “We are all Keynesians now.” I hadn’t known until recently that Friedman’s (or Nixon’s) quote is itself a play on the earlier “We are all socialists now,” coined by William Vernon Harcourt back in 1887. The phrase has a tasty ironic ring to it, which is why I suppose it reappears every few years with a new predicate nominative.

And I suppose that’s the same reason it occurred to me while reading Larry Hurtado’s recent post “‘Revelatory’ Experiences and Religious Innovation.” Not that Hurtado is a Jesus mythicist, not at all. However, in a sense, everyone acknowledges that some parts of the Jesus “corpus” are mythical. For example, an inerrantist Christian would identify the Jesus as portrayed in the gnostic gospels as mostly mythic or legendary. A liberal Christian might point to examples closer to home in the canonical books of the New Testament.

Where did the myths come from?

The standard model for the development of Christianity posits a human Jesus who ran afoul of the Roman authorities (perhaps accidentally, possibly on purpose) and was crucified. His followers were stunned and the experience somehow caused them to start seeing visions and interpreting scripture in a radically new way.

The way in which this “post-Easter” sequence of events played out remains a bit murky. You can expect to see lots of hand-waving and hear lots of fuzzy talk. But it’s worth serious discussion in the attempt to come up with a plausible story. The first step, I think, toward plausibility is to describe what kinds of processes must have been at work to create new, mythical representations of Jesus. How, for example, did the view of the risen Christ in heaven come to be thought of as true and real — so real and so immediate, that for someone like Paul it essentially eclipsed the human Jesus?

In discussing the question of how Jesus became a “co-recipient of devotion along with God,” Hurtado points to two processes: (1) revelatory experiences and (2) charismatic exegesis. The first has to do with visions of Christ, the second, with interpreting the Bible in new ways.

While I’m more interested in how the mythical, exalted, resurrected Christ emerged, Hurtado is focused on how the model of worship in which God and Jesus are both venerated could have arisen out of Judaism. We recall a similar question from Hurtado: namely, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? In the current blog post he writes:

So, the historical question is how to account for it [the “dyadic devotional pattern”]. More specifically, how did observant Jews who shared the traditional concern for the uniqueness of the biblical God feel so ready to embrace this dyadic devotional stance?

As I’ve argued for a number of years now, it seems that they felt compelled to do so, and felt that refusing Jesus this sort of reverence would be disobedience to the one God. In the lecture [ref. his original post], I examined several NT passages that reflect the connection between this conviction and the powerful religious experiences that generated it. These likely included visions of the exalted Jesus, including perhaps visions of heavenly worship, such as we have reflected in Revelation 4–5, in which the exalted Jesus receives worship. On the ancient logic that heavenly worship was the model for earthly worship, these early believers felt compelled to follow suit. (emphasis mine)

I’m reminded of the epistle to the Hebrews with the earthly temple reflecting the heavenly temple, as well as the mystical words of Jesus in Matt. 16:9 — “. . . whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The second process Hurtado describes is what some scholars refer to as midrash. (Others, of course, think we don’t understand what that word really means.)

Another type of revelatory experience was what I call “charismatic exegesis” (borrowing the term from David Aune). This likely involved experiences in which bursts of new insight about certain biblical (OT) texts suddenly emerged, probably in circles of early believers as they prayed and expected such revelations and pondered their scriptures. The novel understanding and repeated use of Psalm 110 is a prime instance, the passage taken as reflecting God’s exaltation of Jesus to heavenly status. The creative use of Isaiah 45:23 in Philippians 2:9-11 is another striking instance where a biblical text was read in a novel way, two figures seen as reverenced in this Isaiah text, both “God” [Elohim or ho theos] and the “Lord” [adonai or kurios]. (emphasis mine)

Hurtado’s Dangerous Idea

If the vivid imaginations of first-century Christians could create a heavenly Christ with brass feet and a sword for a tongue, then could they also create an earthly Jesus who walks on water? Where does it stop?

At this point I’m reminded of creationists who insist that the simple process of natural selection combined with mutation can produce variation within “kinds” (caution: not a scientific term) but cannot produce new species. And we have to ask, “Why not?”

By the same token, we have two plausible processes for generating mythical stories about a historical figure. However, I’m sure mainstream NT scholars would hasten to add, these processes could not produce Jesus himself. So, say it with me: “Why not?

Hurtado has provided two cranes that help explain the emergence of Christianity. We don’t need the skyhook of the resurrection when visions of heaven and unrestrained scriptural interpretation are in play. If the vivid imaginations of first-century Christians could create a heavenly Christ with brass feet and a sword for a tongue, then could they also create an earthly Jesus who walks on water? Where does it stop? If, as Crossan argues, Joseph of Arimathea was created from whole cloth, how can we know who was not? Did the early Christians also create Lazarus? Mary Magdalene? Peter?

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-DNfhHBtHU&start=83]

Like Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, this is a slippery slope, and I invite everyone to take that first step and let go. As with natural selection, it is both easy to understand and powerful in its ramifications. As Daniel Dennett put it, “You don’t need any math.” As I’ve said many times before, I am not a mythicist. However, the existing evidence can support theories of Christian origin with a mythical Christ and a historical Jesus just as easily as it can support theories in which Christianity is based on a mythical Christ and a mythical Jesus.

What certain scholars call denialism, I would instead call “the logical outcome of a dangerous idea.” For if the exalted Christ is a myth, and we understand the processes by which he was created, who is to say that this Christ did not come first, and that the historical Jesus came later as prophets and exegetes “filled in the gaps”? Isn’t this pretty much what Earl Doherty has been saying for years?

See also:

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2 Comments

  • Evan
    2013-04-23 09:17:48 UTC - 09:17 | Permalink

    Richard Carrier makes the same point in a different way. If the author of the gospel according to Mark could make up a global darkness that absolutely no non-Christian ever saw, doesn’t it seem trivial to make up a person that nobody ever saw?

  • 2013-04-23 10:09:00 UTC - 10:09 | Permalink

    Not trivial but very, very likely!

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