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

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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 scenes 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.

Continue reading “More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism”


The Markan Legacy: A Myth of Innocence

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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: Continue reading “The Markan Legacy: A Myth of Innocence”


The confessional bias of scholarship’s quest for Christian origins

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by Neil Godfrey

Scholar and his books by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
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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: Continue reading “The confessional bias of scholarship’s quest for Christian origins”


The Cost of the Markan Legacy

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Burton Mack has, for me, some memorable remarks about the nature of the Christianity spawned partly via the medium of the Gospel of Mark. They are found in his conclusion to A Myth of Innocence.

One of several quote-worthy points was this, and it addresses, perhaps without full realization of what Mack himself originally meant,  the circularity at the foundation of historical Jesus scholarship.

The Christian gospel is the lens through which Western culture has viewed the world. This means that a refraction of the symbols of transformation has determined the way in which the world has been imagined. Translated into secular systems of human thought and observation, the imaginative scheme has given rise to notions and categories that appear to be self-evident, yet continue to support the Christian construction of reality from which they are derived.

If you are reading this late at night after a long day, or too early in the morning after not quite enough sleep, these words may appear to be too abstract to convey much immediate concrete sense. He is “simply” saying that we Westerners have come to view the world and life experiences very largely through Christian concepts, or through thoughts (or memes) that only make much sense to those brought up in a culture that has imbibed much from Christianity over the centuries. Before I make it even more complicated, I’ll let Mack get to the point:

Self-evident categories are difficult to expose because they stem from the matrix of fundamental interests and attitudes that govern social identities and the sense to be made of human activity and intercourse both at the intellectual and the practical levels of endeavor. The example used to investigate this phenomenon in the present study  is the notion of origin, a self-evident category that has determined the scholarly quest to understand how Christianity began.

Now we are beginning to see something distinctive about Christian cum Western culture. There is a certain view of origins that has permeated Western culture and that can be traced to Church teaching.

Mack continues by stating that we take this particular view of origins for granted and thus fail to recognize that it derives from the Christian myth that has been at the foundations of our culture.

The scholarly investigation of Christian origins has proceeded in terms of critical methods drawn from the humanistic traditions. The guiding vision, however, has been some imagined event of transformation that might account for the spontaneous generation of the radically new perception, social formation, and religion that Christianity is thought to have introduced to the world. Because this notion of origins has been assumed as self-evident, its derivation from Christian mythology has not been examined. The results of this scholarship, therefore, have been secular apologies for the truth of Christian claims to unique foundations, even though the purpose of the enterprise as a whole has been purportedly self-critical. (p. 368)

Which, coincidentally, is exactly what I have been arguing in part through the past so many posts. Even nonChristian biblical scholars are bound up in the iconic myth of Christianity and fail to recognize they are merely perpetuating this myth, for all their sophisticated socio-economic or psychological and political critiques. They cannot see the circularity of their assumptions. Not even when they think of themselves as “independent” scholars.

Doherty, whether consciously or not, appears to have acknowledged this failing in mainstream explanations for Christian origins, and proposed even more radically than did Burton Mack an origin for Christianity that cannot be traced to a romantic heroic foundational figure, but that was the outcome of a series of evolutionary fits and starts on which today’s myth was later imposed.

Major social and religious movements, like major political and economic ones, rarely do start from a single heroic founding fathers. But we do know that mythical founders have always been created to explain customs and beliefs of a later age.

If historical Jesus proponents insist that the “Jesus myth” was set in times far too recent to be adopted as a plausible lie, they are simply repeating the circularity of arguing from the assumptions of the myth itself.