Category Archives: Mack: Myth of Innocence


More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism

by Neil Godfrey

Bill Arnal and Leif E. Vaage are not the only scholars who have published doubts about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. I mentioned them back in January this year. Another was Burton Mack in Myth of Innocence. (The evidence against historicity is in my view overwhelming. I have shown the weakness of the arguments by E. P. Sanders for its historicity and posted before on how the scene’s can be explained entirely in terms of literary function and artifice without any need to resort to assumptions of extraneous events outside the text.) But for sake of completeness here is Burton Mack’s argument for treating it as entirely mythical. I highlight in bold type the reasons he sees evident for the need or wish of early Christians to invent the episode. Far from the scene being an embarrassment to the first Christians to have heard the story, it was surely welcomed. Only later evangelists reading Mark’s gospel felt embarrassment over Mark’s account because they had quite different views of Jesus.

The framework stories of the gospels are the most highly mythologized type of material. They include the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. The transfiguration story is purely mythological, as are the birth narratives, the story of the empty tomb, and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Critical scholars would not say that any of these derive from reminiscences.

The baptism story is also mythic, but in this case may derive from lore about Jesus and John the Baptist. Lore about John and Jesus is present in the sayings tradition, in a pronouncement story, and other legends both in Q and in Mark. John the Baptist was a public figure whose social role was similar to that of Jesus and whose followers were regarded by some followers of Jesus as competitors.

Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.

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The Markan Legacy: A Myth of Innocence

by Neil Godfrey

In A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins Burton L. Mack crudely summarizes what he sees as the legacy Mark’s Gospel in the form of the Christian myth that has become the lens through which Western (particularly American) culture has viewed the world:

The Markan legacy is a myth of innocence that separates those who belong to the righteous kingdom within from those without. The boundaries, however, are not at all static. The borders shift as conflicts arise both within and without. Separation occurs when the mission to convert the other is thwarted. Judgments fall to support the righteous cause as justified and the recalcitrant other as wrong. A period of time is devoted to patient proclamation, but an either/or approach to issues excludes the middle range of compromise. Conversion means loyalty to the cause of the righteous; rejection means consignment to the forces of opposition. Ultimately, should the mission be threatened with failure, victims may be sacrificed. That is because the cause is righteous and must somehow prevail. The sign of failure, a crucifixion, also serves as the sign of victory. If all else fails, both martyrdom and the destruction of the wicked can be imagined as the means for vindicating the cause and trusting in the power of God to resurrect a new creation from the ashes. (p. 372)

I don’t know if this view is a pop rationalization or if it has roots in serious psycho-sociological research. (I suspect it too glibly side-steps politico-economic structures and universal geopolitical realities, as well as something distinctively Manichaean within America’s soul) But it sounds plausible and interesting. Broken down it looks like this: read more »


The confessional bias of scholarship’s quest for Christian origins

by Neil Godfrey
Scholar and his books by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
Image via Wikipedia

Even scholars who are attempting to find an “independent” and “socio-economic” explanation for Christian origins (such as James Crossley) are, like virtually all scholars involved in this quest, “driven by the Christian imagination” itself. Burton L. Mack explains the nature of this bias in his introduction to A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins.

The reader who dares to enter this discourse [of Christian origins] from the humanities or from the social sciences, cannot avoid coming to a certain conclusion. The events that center the massive amounts of scholarly learning are exactly those that haunt the average Christian imagination as well. They are exactly those suggested by the Christian gospel, the gospel that sets them forth as inaugural and foundational for Christian history and faith. (p. 8)

Christians well know that the claims in the Gospel that offer them personal conversion or a new life in Christ are very same ones that also explain the origin of the Church. These are:

  • Jesus
  • his teachings
  • his activities
  • the supper
  • the cross
  • the resurrection

And it is these that are the focus of scholarly studies of Christian origins. Mack continues: read more »