Enticed by a great quote & surprised by an unexpected “mythicist”

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by Neil Godfrey

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

Yesterday I completed reading a most unexpected argument (an argument that led to the conclusion that Christianity did not originate with a historical Jesus) in a book I borrowed on the understanding it would do nothing more for me than clarify a few textual details about our early accounts of the Last Supper. I was following up sources associated with my earlier post, The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death.

I see now that if I had paid more attention to a few bibliographies of mythicists here and there on the web and to Klaus Schilling’s summaries/translations (here and here) I might have been forewarned. But I came to the name Jean Magne and some of his works in mainstream scholarly literature and had no forewarning.

The book I am talking about is From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Its Introduction arrests us with

The following pages set out the results of my investigations which started in 1945 soon after my return from captivity in Germany.

From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity (1993) consists of a partial translation of Logique des Sacrements (1989) and the complete translated text of Logique des Dogmes (1989). Anyone even slightly aware of prominent names in biblical scholarship could not fail to be somewhat impressed by the mention of Neusner in the same Introduction:

I would like to reiterate . . . my heartfelt gratitude to Professor Jacob Neusner who prompted this publication, writing to me on February 19, 1990: “I found your thesis entirely plausible. If you can get the book translated into English, I can get it published in a series I edit”, and again on April 23: “I thought your book showed how first-rate scholarship could produce a compelling and important thesis. This is why I wanted it in English”.

Earlier I had attempted to work my way through the original French text of Jean Magne’s “Les Paroles Sur La Coupe” [literally “the words on the (eucharist) cup”] and found the French very difficult indeed, so I was somewhat sympathetic to several of the infelicities in the English translation of Magne’s book in English.

The method

The first part of the book, “From Christianity to Gnosis”, focuses on the textual evidence we have (canonical gospels, Paul’s letters, the Didache) for the origins of the current ritual of the eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Mass. What particularly struck as I read was the author’s method. This could be epitomized by the epigraph at the beginning of Magne’s second chapter:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

My search for the author of that epigraph eventually led me to the following explanation.

Dom Maerten’s criticism highlighted the difference which exists between the historical method based on authentic, dated documents and the critical method which, like an archeologist when he excavates, has to distinguish between the various redactional layers in biblical or liturgical documents. Errors of syntax are one of the means of reconstructing the prehistory of a text in order to attain History. The historian’s shortcoming lies in his frequent inability to distinguish between two literary genres : works that have an author and works of living literature where each generation has added its contribution.

Now that little point suddenly reminded me of another work I read and wrote about last year: Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”. Revelation among many learned Judeans was not considered sealed up in a single book, but was always open to new understandings so that works in the names of certain authors multiplied. Adding to an existing text is not the same thing but it is similar. Did not the author of Revelation address this very practice when he pronounced a curse on anyone who would tamper with what he had just written — which ironically looks like something written over and around another earlier (non-Christian) text!

I cannot agree more with the first quote that speaks of the need to “reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts”. But when it comes to the particular method of reasoning as set out in the second quotation I have some niggling doubts.

So when Jean Magne showed how textual inconsistencies in the various sources appeared very much to be resolved by fitting Jesus words that he would not drink the cup again until in the kingdom back into the gathering at Bethany and not on the Passover itself just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, I was fascinated. The Last Supper ritual of the Passover evening when Jesus declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, etc. was a later addition to the Gospel of Mark. An earlier version of that gospel placed the arrest of Jesus immediately after his anointing for burial at Bethany.

I found the argument intriguing (and still do) but at the same time, and especially after many more such arguments relating to the various gospels and epistles, one is left with a very neat and very new picture of the evidence. It’s like the way the archaeologists found scattered pieces of an inscription at Tel Dan and studied to see the way they best fit together to make the most sense. Except with the texts we begin with texts that are already in one piece, only with lots of curious inconsistencies or non sequiturs in them that years of familiarity has very often hidden from us.

The point I am getting to is that after finding such nice fits by sifting out earlier from later strata one is left wishing one could find some additional independent source to test the new reconstructions. Have we built a new house of cards?

So I remain intrigued by Jean Magne’s arguments but I am also held in suspense, waiting for “the proof” to come along to confirm or demolish them. What I really would need to do, pending that moment, would be to devote considerable time and energy to a detailed study of Magne’s arguments and not simply rely upon a single reading of his book.

The overall argument

The general case Magne presents is that although our surviving gnostic texts (Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, Testament of Truth) are comparatively late, he finds that earlier Jewish and Christian texts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) are best explained in places as attempts to refute the arguments that are often found in those later gnostic writings, or sometimes even advance them. The surviving forms of the gnostic works have themselves introduced efforts to rebut those earlier rebuttals. The Pseudo-Clementine writings about the contest between Simon Magus and Simon Peter may well attest to the real debates that were extant much earlier at the time of Paul and the authors of the gospels. (We know, of course, of the arguments from Roger Parvus, Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price that identify Paul with Simon Magus.)

Crucified in heaven

Before I fully grasped the extent of this argument I was struck by a passing comment on 1 Cor. 2:8 that I had posted about at length.

The passion of Jesus, crucified by the archons (1 Co 2.8), though presented as the messiah crucified by the Romans to the Jews . . . .

(Magne, p. 29)

Did Magne think that Jesus was crucified in heaven? Surely not! But . . . . Then later:

The function of the narrative is therefore to make the Jews accept a new definition of the Messiah which would allow them to accept as the Messiah they were awaiting Jesus crucified by the archons according to 1 Co 2.8, portrayed as crucified by their ‘high-priests’ and ‘archons’ (Lk 24.20).

(Magne, p. 43)

The answer did not become unequivocal until I got into the second part of the book.

The function of the Emmaus narrative, for example, will be to affirm that the heavenly crucifixion of the saviour by the Archons — terminating the reign of astral fatality and alluded to in 1 Co 2.8 —, transposed into a Roman-style crucifixion ‘by the archpriests and archons’, was predicted of the messiah.

(Magne, p. 69)

Did Magne really hold to the Christ Myth theory? Was he a “mythicist”? The last chapter is titled The Problem of Historicization. That should be a clue. The opening sentences leave no doubt.

To conclude, one last problem must be tackled. How were the principal characters in early Christianity, John and Jesus, who did not exist, any more than a few others who necessarily appear with them in the gospels, endowed with a quasi-biography?

(Magne, p. 203)

Name dropping

The same chapter outlined the history of various approaches among the scholars to investigating the historical Jesus: the form critical school and the redaction criticism school. Mention is made of Loisy — whose work on the eucharist set in motion the train that eventually led me to Magne — and some other names of interest:

In actual fact Loisy did not uphold the existence of Jesus for critical reasons, but because he was attached to the Church, and he needed a spark to kindle a fire : “Show me a spark”, he retorted for the benefit of his contemporary mythologists, namely A. Drews in Germany, Paul-Louis Couchoud and Prosper Alfaric in France. This challenge is equally valid for their successors: Georges Las Vergnas, Georges Ory, Marc Stéphane, Guy Fau and, currently in England, G.A. Wells. It is not enough to show that there is no proof for the existence of Jesus, nor that his life was written relying heavily on so-called prophecies, as P. Alfaric has clearly shown in his two short publications on the gospel of Mark, La plus ancienne vie de Jésus and Pour comprendre la vie de Jésus (1929), it is necessary to define why there was a need to write his life and explain how Christianity could have arisen without the existence of the one given as its founder, when it did in fact found him.

(Magne, p. 204)

As an aside, the last sentence in that extract is worth pondering more, since I think it is where today those who argue that there was no Jesus do not seem to present as compellingly as they might the need for Jesus to become historicized.

I flipped back and took more notice of a page between the Foreword and Introduction. It was a quotation by none other than Paul-Louis Couchoud:


… “Tell me, what is Jesus ?”


“Concerning Jesus, I replied, it is easy to believe but hard to know”.

“As it is for Buddha”, he said in the low tone of a thoughtful, educated man who has weighed up the secular faith.


I write for you, faraway hermit and for you, whoever you may be, who consent to examine this great question without bias, without passion, without partiality and with seriousness, courage and sincerity.

You must not tackle this great question until you have put yourself to the test. I wish every student of religion would take a sort of Hippocratic oath, like the future doctor at Montpellier in times gone by:

I swear, whatever my belief or lack of belief, not to let it influence my investigations.

I swear to be disinterested and seek neither controversy nor propaganda.

I swear to be loyal, to omit nor add anything to what I shall discover, nor attenuate or exaggerate anything.

I swear to be respectful and not to trifle with any beliefs whether past or present.

I swear to be courageous and fearlessly hold my opinion against all armed belief which does not tolerate it.

I swear to renounce it the very instant I find a solid reason or it is brought to my attention.

(Paul-Louis Couchoud, Le mystère de Jésus, Paris, 1924, p. 12)

(Magne, p. xiv)

I will no doubt be returning to Jean Magne’s book to manducate (a word he uses often) various pieces more slowly.


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20 thoughts on “Enticed by a great quote & surprised by an unexpected “mythicist””

  1. I appreciate the blend of Neil’s objectivity with his excitement at finding new information. Gnosticism does account for Christianity’s mythic themes and I have argued the same. Another significant factor that I see in the study of the historic Jesus is that the Romans and their church destroyed evidence e.g. the library at Alexandria and what led to the Dead Sea Scrolls being hidden away. We ask why, and if we ever hear a response from the Vatican to the Jesus myth theory. Yet we are left with the very difficult task of reconstructing history. My wife makes a delicious smoothie each morning, full of fruits, veges, nuts, powders and water. Blended at 1,000 rpm it becomes a soft and thick mixture; you cannot see the ingredients. I hope that illustration makes sense. Neil you are doing a really great job thanks and I look forward to further insights from you. I think I am about a 95 % mythicist.

  2. Les paroles sur la coupe contains, among other things, the reasons why Luke’s version of the last supper is not derived from canonical Mark, but an earlier common denominator is to be determined. These details have been left out in Logique des Sacrements, thence probably also in From Christianity to Gnosis […].

    1. I would like to compare Magne’s arguments for that common source against the consequences of the possibility that Luke knew Matthew. Magne appears to have ruled out that possibility — as per the conventional wisdom.

      1. Matthew’s and Mark’s presentation of the Last Supper are quite similar, versus that of Luke at least. The Farrer/Goodacre stuff is about the similarities between Luke and Matthews against Mark.

        Thwe French multi-source hypothesis is nowhere near conventional wisdom.

  3. Very interesting, I’ll have to look into this as well. I also find this to be another reminder that “mythicism” has been derailed by poor scholarship. The reality is that there is a lot of really good scholarship out there that supports the case, but unfortunately too much attention is grabbed by wild and nonsensical claims of so-called “mythicists” that it have diverted too much of the view away from the real scholarship and instead toward the attention grabbing claims of poor scholarship. This plays right into the hands of opponents of mythicism, because those claims are easy to debunk and hold up and examples of how absurd mythicism is.

    What’s needed is more focus on legitimate biblical scholarship. Unfortunately, people who have just a passing knowledge of mythicism only really are aware of the poorest of claims.

    Good work on this one. I’m still not convinced that the Last Supper in Mark is a later interpolation though, I’d have to see more about that. I want to read this case myself too.

    1. An academic based case for mythicism is put by Truthsurge in his short videos on YouTube titled “Jesus Hebrew Human or Mythical Messiah” ? I’m not qualified as an academic but perhaps you are Mr Price and you may comment on the scholarship there if you view one or two of them. I studied 4 years full time when I was young in a Protestant Evangelical Bible College so I have only a very basic knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. What attracts me to Truthsurge is his openness towards the scholarship he refers to as well as his study of the pre-gospel influences of the Ascension of Isaiah and The Book of Enoch. His works have strongly affected my support for mythicism as a valid theory.

  4. Hi Neil,

    I should translate in Italian (to best understand it) an article of Jean Magne available on Jstor, titled “Jésus devant Pilate”. From what I learn but only by a rapid reading (via that little of French I know) is that there Magne does the case that the Earliest Gospel (I mean: the first Gospel of who euhemerized Jesus) had only something of the following kind as Passion of Jesus:

    So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

    “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.

    “You have said so,” Jesus replied.

    He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

    Here there are some my personal reflections on the matter.

  5. This is another article of Jean Magne.


    In p. 5, he argues that in the Gospels the Jews want the crucifixion of Jesus “called Christ” and the freedom for Jesus Barabbas because “the Jews” are made responsible for the “theological crime” – in the eyes of the Judaizers – of the same Gnostics who denied that their Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and therefore they opposed the identification of the Son of Father with the Jewish Christ. Their historical opposition to the Judaizers was converted by the evangelists in their a priori opposition to “Jesus called Christ” in the fictional story.

    This would be equivalent to argue that if the Gnostics had written them a Gospel in a time first than the Judaizers (ehuemerizing first them the Jesus), then they would have invented themselves a Barabbas episode where “the Jews” (allegory of the Judaizers) would have crucified just the Jesus “Son of Father” and not the Jewish Jesus called Christ. Also in this case, only to parody their theological enemies.

    1. This shows the French multisource hypothesis in action. It might look superficially similar to the book of Delbert Burkett which has been discussed here earlier, but with a fairly different purpose and argumentation.

    2. What seems to be excluded from this discussion is the argument that Roman and aristocratic families concocted the gospel stories based on the vulnerabilities of a vast majority of uneducated people both Jews and Pagans. The Romans, dealing with Jewish uprise dangers by diffusing and dispersing the militant elements of Messianism and catering for the Pagans by building in the Gnostic elements, were the victors and are still today a la the Vatican empire. The Ascension of Isaiah and the Book of Enoch help explain the mythical angelology and I think it’s predominately 95% fiction anyway. Fascinating stuff.

  6. Is it ironic that the Jews reject the so-called Messiah Jesus and claim Jesus Barabbas, that is Jesus Son of the Father, whom the Sanhedrin condemned as a blasphemer? Would not the narrative rather be the transposition of an opposition to the messianization, or “Christianization”, of the Lord Jesus, Son of God, within the movement that later on in Antioch will take the name of Christianity? “Son of the Father” is the title that Jesus claims by calling God his Father. It is attributed to him in the Second Epistle of John (v.3), and every day still thousands of pious voices acclaim him “Filius Patris” in the liturgical recitation of Te Deum and Gloria in excelsis.

    (Jean Magne, La Crucifixion-Polémique anti-juive et Mythe Gnostique.)

    Paraphrasing Magne, I may say with equal right:

    Is it ironic that the people of Nazaret reject the “Carpenter” and “son of Mary” Jesus, brother of Simon, Jacob, Judah, etc? Would not the narrative rather be the transposition of an opposition to the bastard son of the lost Sophia, or “Demiurge”, the creator god and friend of the Jewish heroes and Patriarchs, within the sect of Nazarenes that later on in Antioch will take the name of Christianity?

  7. • Does Magne’s work support the following claim?

    Christianity originated from a Jewish sect in a milieu where some Jews practised a form of proto-gnosticism—seeking salvation by revealed gnosis—via a mediator between God and humans, i.e. an intermediary variously known as “one like a son of man”, “the divine Logos”, etc.

    1. I have not read enough of Magne’s work with serious enough attention to detail to be completely sure, but it does appear from what I have read that it supports much of your claim. The part where I hesitate is that I am not sure if he would say it originated from “a sect” of Judeans in particular. He speaks of an openness of many Judeans to gnostic ideas and a subsequent Judaizing of gnostic ideas (e.g. the rehabilitation of the “Demiurge” in some of the later gnostic literature) as well as Christians Judaizing and historicizing certain ideas. I am not yet clear on Greek-Judean crossovers, influences, etc.

      1. Hello DB may I suggest you look at the YouTube presentations of Joseph Atwill, Acharya S., Richard Carrier and Truth Surge. They do not agree on all points but my “academic” understanding of history has been shaped largely through their influence. Why they don’t agree is fascinating too – all have backgrounds, vested interests and personalities as diverse as yours and mine – that relates to my “spiritual” understanding of history. I find that the points that you and Neil are raising about Gnostic influences are all relevant and contend that history is written by the victors. I’d like to ask the modern popes what they understand by Pope Leo X’s words “How profitable this myth of Christ has become for us”. Rome lives on.

    2. It would have to be an anti-deuteronomial sect using Greek philosophy (except stoic and epicurean); but a non-Jewish movement trying to interpret the Tora in the sense of philosophy would also do. A semitic compound is indispensable in virtue of the Aramaic puns employed. The strong antithesis to deuteronomial Judaism is necessary: The fruit of the illegal tree is seen as the way to salvation, and the eucharist remembers the sharing of the fruit.

  8. RE: “Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.”

    It is a fascinating quote. It appears to argue that the artefactual characteristics of the texts are surely factual (archeological) whereas any “facts” found within the text are hypothetical. It appears to point to a differentiation between how the classical historical method defines and deals with sources (especially primary sources) and how the biblical historical method does the same. I could be wrong in this. There may be a bit of ambiguity here, or I may not be reading it in the way the author intended it to be read.

    Granted that you have already confirmed that the quote is the original quote in the English language publication (“translated by A.F.W. Armstrong and revised by the author”), do you happen to have the original French quote? (Just to check any possible nuance in the translation?)

    1. In the catalogue information of “From Christianity to Gnosis….” is this:

      “The present book comprises a partial translation of Logique des sacrements (Paris 1989) and the full text of Logique des dogmes (Paris 1989)”

      If you can track those works down I suppose you will find the quote in French … although in the English work I have quoted from there is also the note that the author has “revised” the work translated by A.F.W. Armstrong so there may even be a chance that the quote is not in a French work by Magne.

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