Tag Archives: mythology

Historical Jesus Scholarship and Mythmaking

Excerpts from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert (related to an earlier post, Biblical Scholars, Symbolic Violence, and the Modern Version of an Ancient Myth) where he draws upon the study of structures of myths by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss:

. . . to give an interpretation of a myth is to create a new variant of it. (p. 21)

As we have seen from Lévi-Strauss … any interpretation of a myth is a new variant of it. (p. 28)

We have seen that many myths come to us with all sorts of variations. Each variant of a myth is another retelling of the same myth. This includes scholarly recreations of myths:

Most faculties dealing with biblical scholarship are theology faculties; therefore they seek a rational version of the divine inspiration of the Bible. (p. 28)

To quote from Lévi-Strauss directly:

[A] myth is made up of all its variants, [therefore] structural analysis should take all of them into account. (p. 435)

On the other hand, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that all available variants [of a myth] should be taken into account. . . . There is no one true version of which all the others are but copies or distortions. Every version belongs to the myth. (p. 436)

That is, Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic Jesus, Morton Smith’s magician Jesus, Stevan Davies’ shaman healing Jesus, Crossan’s cynic philosopher Jesus, Sara Parks’ feminist Jesus, are all variants of the biblical Jesus myth and stand alongside the Gospel fo John’s divine Jesus, Matthew’s new Moses Jesus, Mark’s mysterious unfathomable Jesus, Thomas’s gnostic Jesus, and so on. There is a Jesus for every ideology, for every whim, for every value: violent warrior, pacifist victim, defender of the oppressed, merciless judge of all who defy him, a presence always with us, a distant being who will be present in the future, etc etc etc.

How is it that the Jesus stories have captured imaginations all through these past two millennia?

Wajdenbaum proposes that the reason for their durability is that “they help maintain the Bible’s sacred character”

Most scholars still view the Bible from a theological perspective. We could even say that as long as modem society, which claims to be secular, has not recognised the Hellenic character of the Bible, that secularisation is not complete. Behind a so-called liberty, the biblical monument remains untouchable. Anything said about it must contribute to its mystique. ‘To uncover its nakedness’ would be the most terrible assault on Judeo-Christian decency. (p. 29)

Wajdenbaum, not unlike Russell Gmirkin and M. David Litwa, identifies Hellenistic or Greco-Roman myths as having spawned much of the biblical characters and narratives.

From the point of view of scientific epistemology we can try to understand why a systematic and we profound comparison of the Bible with classical Greek literature has not been published until today. Again, the answer is simple: the Bible could not resist such an analysis as it demonstrates how almost every biblical narrative finds accurate parallels with Greek myths. If believers of Jewish and Christian faiths were aware of this, then the Bible could lose its credibility. Biblical scholarship has done all it could to maintain the Bible as a sacred text that is still relevanl to modern society, as Hector Avalos argues. In his polemical book he calls for an end to modem biblical studies. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has explained how university scholars use symbolic violence to ensure their authority in their field. By presenting themselves as a legitimate institution, university scholars impose an arbitrary knowledge that is recognised by the masses as legitimate. But this intellectual domination is not completely passive; It comes from the demands of society. As both Avalos and Bourdieu (in their respective works) have put it, the media industry—the press, movies and television—plays an important role in the continuation of either the sacred character of the Bible or symbolic violence. The biblical field created theories that have allowed the Bible to survive only because masses of believers wanted it to.

So is it possible to do historical studies without creating another variant of biblical myth? I’ll address that question in a future post.


Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68 (270): 428–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/536768.

Wajdenbaum, Philippe. 2011. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox Pub.


Does “Mythicism” Need an Early Paul? — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 6

Robert M. Price argues that it makes little difference to the case for Jesus being nothing more than a mythical construct if Paul’s letters are judged to be early or late, or even if written before the gospels. This is the theme of his chapter “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” in Is This Not the Carpenter?’: the question of the historicity of the figure of Jesus. He also raises the question of whether modern Christ myth advocates should be more critical of the Pauline epistles as an earlier generation of scholars were.

Today’s two main proponents of the Christ myth theory (Earl Doherty and George A. Wells) argue for the conventional view of the genuineness of Paul’s letters. Both agree that they belong to the mid first century period, well before the first gospel was composed. Most scholars certainly agree that the gospels were composed after Paul wrote his letters, but the “mythicist” argument goes one step further and says that interested parties only created a “biographical-historical” figure of Jesus well after Paul wrote his letters.

That is, the earliest evidence for Christianity, the New Testament epistles, testify only of a theological concept of Jesus. The concept of an earthly Jesus living out a career of teaching and healing, calling disciples and confronting Pharisees, was a relatively late development in the history of Christianity.

Price comments on the contemporary mythicists’ tendency to accept the Pauline epistles as genuine:

This makes them admirably early and leaves plenty of time for Gospel story-tellers to have done their subsequent work, historicizing Jesus and pillaging the epistles for sayings to reattribute to Jesus. one feels that things would begin to blur if the Gospels and epistles had to be placed as more or less contemporary. That condition would open up the possibility or need to find another solution for the lack of Gospel-type tradition in the epistles. (p. 100)

After covering in some detail the arguments and counter-arguments over whether any passage in Paul’s letters is indeed evidence that Paul knew any traditions stemming from a historical Jesus, Price casts back to earlier mythicists and what they had to say about the relationship between Paul’s letters (and their dogmatic or theological Jesus) and the Gospels (with their “biographical” Jesus), as well various arguments about relative dating and authenticity.

The critical passage in this chapter follows:

Even if all [the gospel] stories were to be found verbatim in the epistles, even if the epistles should all prove to be authentically Pauline, we would still be dealing with the (rapid) accumulation of stock, predictable hagiographic legends. We would still have to offer some pretty compelling reason for an impartial historian to accept the Gospel versions as historically true while rejecting medieval, classical, Buddhist or Hindu parallels as false. That is what the principle of analogy is all about. (p. 108 — Price is drawing on an insight first published a century ago by John M. Robertson in Pagan Christs (link is to the book online))

Price posits the argument slightly differently, but suggests the Christ myth theory would not be undermined even if the Gospels were found to be earlier than Paul’s letters: read more »

Explaining (the Gospel) Myths

There can be little doubt that when we read the Gospels and the books of Revelation and Acts we encounter many stories that sound remarkably like myths. Prison doors opening by themselves to release heroes, dragons descending from heavens to pursue comely women upon earth, finding coins in caught fish, raising the dead and walking on water. Anyone (except fundamentalist apologists) will be prepared to admit that biblical stories like these really have originated from mythical imaginations and wider literary influences.

The question remains open, however, whether such mythical stories originated as attempts to interpret or convey the great significance and meaning of a historical subject (Jesus), or if they are in themselves attempts to create from scratch a mythical narrative persona (Jesus).

I think it is reasonable to argue the latter is the case if, after removing all the layers of the mythical, there is nothing left over to be called historical. (Contrast ancient Macedonian and Roman rulers with whom myths were associated. Peel away the myths and there is still plenty of historical person left there to study.)

But when it comes to Jesus, that argument does not explain the source of the mythical narratives in the first place. Philippe Wajdenbaum wrote a chapter for Anthropology and the Bible, edited by Emanual Pfoh (2010), that argues for a structural analysis of myths according to the research of “the father of modern anthropology”, Claude Lévi-Strauss.

If we embrace Lévi-Strauss’s view of myths, then the myths of early Christianity can only be understood and explained as mutations of similar myths in other cultures, and also in earlier Jewish culture. They are not unique. Their constitutional ties with other myths are integral to understanding them. read more »