“It is absurd to suggest. . . “: The Overlooked Critic of Mythicism (+ A Catalog of Early Mythicists and Their Critics)

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by Neil Godfrey

3D Book cover_aThis continues the little “It’s absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism” series inspired by the unbearable lightness of the wisdom of Professor James McGrath. The previous post saw how Professor Larry Hurtado’s source for the comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist, H.G. Wood’s Did Christ Really Live?, in reality explicitly points out to the reader that it is not a comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist. The next candidate for a publication having considered “the strongest case for mythicism” that I consider is A. D. Howell Smith’s Jesus Not a Myth (1942).

Curiously I have not seen this book mentioned by any modern scholars who emphatically declare that mythicist arguments have long since been addressed and decisively demolished. This is curious because Howell Smith really does address the major mythicist arguments of his day. Similarly surprisingly few anti-mythicists today cite Schweitzer as having delivered the death-knell to mythicism. We will see an interesting similarity between ways S and H-S each argue their case for Jesus’s historicity.

I will save some of the details of Howell Smith’s arguments for my next post. Here I want only to introduce A. D. Howell Smith to those of us who only dimly recall my post on his Preface three years ago. I have reformatted it and added subheadings and bolding. Jesus Not a Myth was published in 1942, not long after the appearance of H. G. Wood’s title with the same purpose.

I conclude with a summary of the various Christ-myth views widely known at the time.

Something was sometimes different back then

Notice the way our author actually has some positive things to say about the mythicists he is about to debate. It sounds surreal to read such things given our familiarity with the demonization and gratuitous insults we routinely expect from the McGraths, the Hurtados, the Caseys, the Hoffmanns etc. McGrath, Hurtado and Casey would have readers think mythicism is no more rational or informed than are flat-earthers or moon-landing hoaxers. Seventy years ago Howell Smith (along with Goguel and Wood and Schweitzer and other critics) actually acknowledged the rational spirit infusing mythicism and the names of several prominent and esteemed scholars and others who at the very least toyed with the plausibility of the Christ myth idea. Today’s critics — are there any exceptions? — are far more universally savage in their personal attacks and far more dogged in their refusal to allow any mythicist proposition to be accorded the faintest touch of rationality. Is this a sign of some desperation that the idea just won’t ever seem to go away? Or is it a symptom of the crudeness of an American-Christian dominated scholarship by contrast with the kind of religious ambience of Europe in an earlier generation?

Within perhaps the last twenty years the denial that Jesus ever existed has been changed from a paradox to almost a platitude for an increasing number of Rationalists, and occasionally a Christian of strong modernist leanings shows himself more or less sympathetic to it. 


So far as England is concerned the redoubtable J. M. Robertson‘s five works on the subject, beginning with Christianity and Mythology (pub. 1899) would seem to have been the principal factor in this transformation.  His  weight of learning,  unhappily  not always accurate, stuns the average reader, if he is not biased against the Mythicist thesis, into acquiescence.

Of other English Mythicists Thomas Whittaker and L. Gordon Rylands, who have both  brought  much scholarship and acumen to bear on their task, are chiefly worthy of note. The former’s exposition of Van Manen‘s  theories on the Pauline Epistles is an admirable piece of work.


Two important foreign works, one German and the other Dutch, were translated into English shortly before the first World War;  these are Arthur Drews‘s The Christ Myth and Dr. Van Eysinga‘s Radical Views about the New Testa­ment.  The former shows the least sense of what a critical method is, and in places reads like a parody of the thesis it is concerned to defend; its chief value lies in the mass of interesting data accumulated.  Dr. Van Eysinga is a soberer critic, and, being a professional theologian, he avoids the amateurish note this class of literature so often betrays.


In quite a different category is Couchoud‘s learned and charming book, The Creation of Christ; this has been excellently translated from the French by Mr. C. B. Bonner and was presented to the English public as recently as 1938.

A year earlier appeared Mr. A. Brodie Sanders’s abridgement of Dujardin‘s  Le Dieu Jésus and La Premiere Generation Chrétienne under the title of The Ancient History of the God Jesus.  Edouard Dujardin is an eminent Biblical critic, whose radicalism on questions of Old Testament  origins far outstrips Wellhausen.  His views about a prehistoric Palestinian God Jesus, originally a totemistic eel, are very startling, but, in the opinion of the present writer, critically and psychologically unsound.


W. B. Smith‘s Ecce Deus, a work of immense erudition, written by a professor of mathematics in the U.S.A., was published not long after Drews’s book on the Christ myth. W. B. Smith could write with equal facility in English and German.  His Der Vorchristliche Jesus, published earlier than Ecce Deus, has not so far appeared in an English dress.

CRITICS – France

Able opponents of the Mythicists have been forthcoming on the Continent. It is sufficient to draw attention to such important  names as Maurice Goguel, Alfred Loisy, and Charles Guignebert.  One wonders why no one has seen fit to translate Guignebert’s Le Problème de Jésus.  His Jésus, now translated, is a monument of painstaking criticism by a professional scholar, who fights shy of all extravagances.

CRITICS – England

Few English scholars seem to have troubled to refute the Mythicists.  Such refutations as do exist nearly all emanate from the side of orthodoxy  or semi-orthodoxy. We may note here three works as worthy of careful study; two of them are by Christians. 

  • The Rev. T. J. Thorburn‘s Jesus the Christ, Historical or Mythical? deals very fully, and often shrewdly, with  the  arguments  of  Robertson  and other  Mythicists, and  undoubtedly  scores many points; but its theological conservatism must severely circumscribe the limits of its appeal. 
  • Abler and more cautious is Dr. H. G. Wood‘s Did Christ Really Live?  The shakiness of so many of Robertson’s Pagan parallels to Gospel stories, as well as his frequent self-contradictions, are here exposed with a quiet urbanity by a liberal-minded Christian, who had a very high regard for Robertson’s  personal integrity and  great intellectual power.  
  • F.  C.  Connybeare‘s  The Historical Christ is a caustic retort by a stalwart Rationalist, with a rather conservative bias on questions of New Testa­ment criticism;  it is lucidly and skilfully reasoned, laying bare many misstatements of fact and logical fallacies, but by its occasional misunderstandings and misrepresentations (of course unintentional) it was bound to cause the irritation it did.

CRITICS – A. D. Howell Smith

The present writer feels that the time has arrived when it is desirable to argue out the whole position afresh in the light of the most recent Biblical criticism, taking into account recent palaeographical discoveries which seem to throw back the dates of the Gospels to an earlier time than the Mythicists are willing to admit.  The ideological setting of the Gospel legend, the sources and interaction of the two main streams of Christological evolution, and the parallelism between the rise of Christianity and other cults of apotheosized heroes  or  propagandists  are also discussed. Naturally, much of this book has a negative aspect, for its main concern is to expose the weakness of the Mythicist’s case;  but it was important  at least to suggest a counter-construction.

The author is not a professional scholar, but he has had some­thing of a theological training, being the son of a clergyman of the Church of England, whose calling he once hoped to follow.

The argument is conducted by one who does not disclaim the title of “Rationalist,” for he believes that the light of reason should be allowed to play freely on all human prob­lems;  but  perhaps “Humanistic Mystic” would better describe his cosmic outlook.  He has not discussed meta­physical issues here, and though he would heartily subscribe to Matthew Arnold’s “miracles do not happen” as a sound principle for the critical historian, he no less heartily echoes Hamlet’s  “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

So Howell Smith testifies that English-language critics of mythicism up till his day had fallen short in some way. This is not what we would expect from McGrath’s or Hurtado’s claims that it is “absurd” to suggest mythicism was not dealt its coup de grâce decades ago.

In his opening chapter Howell Smith surveys the train of mythicist thought from its beginnings.

Late eighteenth century

Dupuis and Volney: Jesus was a variation on the sun myth. This was before New Testament criticism had become a substantial discipline.

Nineteenth century

Bruno Bauer: 1850, argued Mark was the earliest gospel and its Jesus was the author’s creation. The other gospels followed Mark with an equally fictitious Jesus. Rome, not Jerusalem, was the cradle of Christianity.

Allard Pierson: Author of The Sermon on the Mount and other Synoptic Fragments (1878). Denied there were any valid grounds for accepting any of the NT’s portrait of Jesus. Raised doubts about the authenticity of references to Jesus in Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger.

A. D. Loman: Began as a critic of Pierson but ended as radical as he. Jesus of the NT was “an ideal creation, embodying the speculations of Judaism and Graeco-Roman Paganism”. Even if there had been a Jesus he is now unrecoverable, though we should continue the search by historico-critical methods.

Sir James Frazer: Author of The Golden Bough, Frazer always assumed the historical existence of Jesus. But many readers became convinced that Jesus was another of a long line of gods who suffered, died and rose again, ascending to heaven, and that the Passion story consisted of relics of ancient practices of human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism. Many asked:

Have we not in Jesus a translation into history of a myth, rooting in practices of immemorial antiquity, rather a translation into mythology of a man who actually lived and died? 

Twentieth century

W. B. Smith: Equated Jesus with Yahweh. The Gospel of Mark was an elaborate mystification. The miracles are all allegories. Influenced strongly by Bauer.

J. M. Robertson: Jesus was a slain god of a mystery cult. Joshua of the OT originated as a Saviour God similar to Dionysos and Osiris, born of the Virgin Miriam. Around this cult there emerged a mystery drama in which the suffering of the god was depicted as saving sacrifice. Evidence of this mystery play is found in the Passion “stage directions”: Immediately after “Sleep on now and take your rest” we read “Rise, let us be going”.

Thomas Whittacker: Accepts Robertson’s pre-Christian Jesus/Joshua cult, but denies there was any Christian movement before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Christianity emerged after 70; it is entirely a product of the second century. Paul was not an apostle of Jesus but a follower of a Messianic movement within Judaism.

Gordon Rylands: Also tends to accept an early Jesus/Joshua cult and mystery drama. But more significantly, for him Christianity began with a concept of a Christ, Logos, Wisdom, Holy Spirit that were mystical equivalents of concepts in Jewish Gnosticism throughout the Hellenistic world. Christ was really born in pious souls but a later generation (mis)interpreted him as coming literally as a flesh and blood human being. His death and resurrection were transcendental mysteries. They only became historical after Jewish Gnosticism passed into a Pagan environment.

P. L. Couchoud: Christianity began with visions, apparently first by Peter. The Gospels, not Paul, originated the historical setting of Christ being crucified under Pilate.

Edouard Dujardin: Also believed in an ancient Jesus/Joshua mystery cult among Galileans. This Jesus/Joshua began as a divine fish, an eel (classified by the ancients as a water-serpent). Joshua Son of Nun means Joshua Son of Fish. The Jewish author of Genesis 3 had degraded this water-serpent divinity by making him a land-serpent as punishment for tempting Adam and Eve. Other Jewish authors euhemerized the Galilean God Jesus into a conquering hero — Joshua. Food taboos forbade the eating of the eel (without fins and scales), and since such taboos often forbade the Hebrews to eat what was sacred to other peoples, we may think this creature was among those eaten in sacred rites by others. This Joshua/Jesus was ritually eaten with the context of a primitive drama. Sometimes bread and wine substituted for the fish. When Peter was the hierophant of the cult he had visions that inspired visions among others, and soon Jesus was seen as being transformed from a fish figure to a God-man walking the hills of Galilee. From this time on the Gospel narrative was crafted.

Arthur Drews: Wrote from the perspective of pantheistic mythicism. Saw Jesus as an amalgam of myths found from Egypt, Babylonia, India, Persia.

G. J. P. J. Bolland: Saw cosmopolitan Alexandria as the birth-place of Christianity.

Albert Kalthoff: Christ was the spirit of the community that collectively suffers and dies and is always undergoing a resurrection. Later ages turned this poetry into history.

Adolf Ellegard Jensen: Saw the solar hero Gilgamesh behind Jesus, Moses, Samson and others. John the Baptist was prefigured by Gilgamesh’s hairy companion, Eabani.

Georg Brandes: Author of Jesus, a Myth summarizing the arguments used by various mythicists.

Andrew Niemojewski: Saw the constellations behind the Jesus story. (Pilate was identified with Orion.)

Jack Lindsay: Suggests Pilate was derived from the god Poseidon.

And one or two more. It is apparent that the mythicist range of views is comparable to what we see today. There are very learned and well argued cases at one end of a spectrum while at the other we see some quite amateurish speculations.

Howell Smith discusses the impact of the discovery of a “mystery drama” of the Babylonian deity Marduk but this is something I will cover in a separate post.

Two Radical Biblical Scholars

Howell Smith then turns to professional biblical scholars.

A number of specialists in Biblical criticism have come very near to denying the historicity of Jesus without endorsing the whole of the Mythicist’s case. Thus Cheyne, a very learned but very eccentric Anglican scholar, came to disbelieve that there ever existed a group of Twelve Apostles, and confessed: “I am afraid we shall have to give up the Crucifixion.” Loisy insisted that if the Crucifixion never took place Jesus has no footing in history. Cheyne was sympathetic to the symbolism into which W. B. Smith resolved so much of the Gospels. (p. 11)

Then Abbé Joseph Turmel is ushered in.

The learned Abbé Joseph Turmel, who has sustained for his many heresies the greater excommunication, may be counted among the deniers of the historicity of Jesus. For him Jesus is not a god reduced to human status, but a “Providential Man,” who, when the Messianism of the Jewish Apostles passed into circles where Pagan ideas were current, became first a virgin-born Son of God, then (in the East) a Demi-God or Logos emanating from the Eternal Father and (in the West) the Eternal Father himself or a portion of his substance (the Holy Spirit), and finally the second of three hypostases in a Trinity of co-eternal and co-equal persons. . . . . 

With a curious Judas twist.

For Turmel the Jesus of the Gospels and the Epistles is a myth. Judaizing Christians, Paul of Tarsus, Marcionites, Montanists, and Catholics have all been engaged on his creation. But behind the myth Turmel surmises an historical figure, one very unlike the Jesus of the New Testament — Judas of Galilee, who raised the standard of revolt on the occasion of the first census inflicted on the Jews by the Romans (A.D. 6). Turmel draws attention to a curious statement of Irenaeus, for which the latter claims the authority of all the “Elders” (or “Presbyters”) who had seen John (? the Presbyter) in Asia Minor, that Jesus reached the age of fifty. . . . (John viii, 57); . . . . Because of its incompatibility with the usually accepted chronology Turmel is inclined to believe that Irenaeus was telling the truth.  But the career of Judas of Galilee better fits in with the tradition of the fifty years than does that of Jesus of Nazareth, and, although Judas never claimed to be the Messiah, Turmel finds no difficulty in holding that the Christian movement took its rise from his insurrection. “Jesus” he believes to be a title subsequently conferred on the actual Founder, owing to its Messianic import. (p. 12)

Recall in my previous post we referenced Guignebert’s belief that the historical “Jesus” would not have been known by the name of “Jesus”.

A regular reader and commenter on this blog, John, will love to read the above about Judas the Galilean. Turmel would appear to have proposed an idea not very dissimilar to what he has often argued himself here.

I am also reminded of Robert M. Price and his discussion of character syzygies in the gospels, as Jesus and Judas would be.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on ““It is absurd to suggest. . . “: The Overlooked Critic of Mythicism (+ A Catalog of Early Mythicists and Their Critics)”

  1. Modern, current historicism is probably best represented in the current JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL JESUS STUDIES. Though a subscription might be required to see more than one courtesy issue, many public libraries now offer patrons access to it, through free public access to the scholarly EBSCO data base. In addition some authors post a copy of their own articles on their own web sites.

    By the way, Larry Hurtado appears to have been on the editorial board of JHJS for some time. He has a fairly recent article in it – that furthermore seems to be available to everyone on his own web site. In that article Hurtado seems to argue the somewhat vague point that people believed in Jesus, in part because they believed he was a real, historical person. Oddly, Hurtado does not quite seem to absolutely take the next historicist step: supposing that because they believed Jesus was historical, he must have been real.

    In fact, some of the writers on this journal – like one “Robb”? – seem to be arguing somewhat against at least a “maximalist” Historicist view: the idea that every bit of the Biblical Jesus (even miracles) was historically accurate. Most writers are somewhat more “minimalist.”

    At times it even seems as if an advocacy of Mythicism is just on the horizon in fact in some articles. Even Hurtado here often does not seem to explicitly assert the existence of an historical Jesus. He merely suggests that early Christians believed that Jesus was historical. Most of the time he does not assert that belief was true.

    Though many others have taken that step, even many historicist scholars today often hedge their language a bit.


      Of recent interest is not just Hurtado’s insistence that belief in a real resurrection was important in establishing belief in an historical Jesus. But also “Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel: Three Dead-Ends in Historical Jesus Research,” by Paul Foster.


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