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Is Jesus a Myth?

[1]

Isis with the infant Horus, faience, Ptolemaic period

3,069 words

I’ve spent most of my time at Counter-Currents focusing on issues that unite us rather than those that divide us. This hasn’t been out of any tepid desire to avoid controversy: I really do think the issues that unite us are far more important than those on which our community is split. Thus, I’ve been hesitant to risk sowing discord over side issues where we need unity more than ever.

But the truth of our side’s take on the issues that unite us—if you ask me—is obvious, and this just doesn’t always lend itself to interesting conversation. As a writer, I can only repeat the obvious for so long before desiring more of a challenge.

So to make it abundantly clear that this argument is posed with no hostility, I’ve decided to collaborate with Christopher Robertson to make this a sort of Bible Week at Counter-Currents. While I publish a discussion of the possibility that Jesus never existed as a historical figure, Robertson will be publishing a sort of Bible study (which he agreed to do by my insistence—I genuinely found it interesting). This way, the overall tone of Counter-Currents won’t be skewed towards either its Christian or non-Christian readers. And I hope that this token of good faith will help defuse any sense of hostility potentially created by this essay. Also note that in the future I’ll be discussing my disagreements with modern “atheists” in just as much detail.

First off, my background . . .

I was raised—initially homeschooled—in a small Southern town, with young-earth creationist parents. For those who don’t know, this is where someone adds up the genealogies listed in the Old Testament from Adam to Jesus and comes to a figure of 4,000 years, adds this to the 2,000 years or so we’ve seen Anno Domini, and concludes that the Universe must be approximately 6,000 years old.

I didn’t even encounter anyone I knew to be non-religious until somewhere around the age of 15.

And then I went on a manic spree, reading everything I could get my hands on—from Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? [2] to the little-known third part of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, subtitled Examination of the Prophecies [3].

My deconversion process was slow and torturous, because my mother was convinced I was on the way to an eternity in hell—a matter that completely superseded all interests I may have had in my earthly life entirely. If focusing on the matter of my eternal soul meant neglecting all other aspects of my education altogether . . . well, even 100 years spent starving and homeless followed by an eternity in Heaven would be better than 100 years spent in luxury followed by an eternity in Hell. It occurred to me that this attitude was entirely compatible with her premises, and that anyone who claimed to hold the worldview that she did without behaving the same way would have to be some kind of hypocrite.

I ended up forced into debates with pastors, forced to read countless works of apologetics, and ultimately spent several years in what amounted to some kind of ad hoc seminary.

In short, I didn’t come to appreciate the idea of mythicism because of some teenage act of rebellion, or juvenile attempt to snub my nose up at Christians and prove my superior intellect; I was sincerely interested in the truth, and curious to analyze all the different possibilities left by the gaps in the historical record. It was also a deeply personal process for me, because at the time, I was also taking the idea that I might be condemning myself to an eternity in Hell because of the conclusions I was arriving at in complete and total, unironic seriousness.

So, what is mythicism?

Mythicism is the thesis that Jesus is a myth, not a historical figure.

The most common objection to mythicism is that it’s impossible to prove a negative: if the mythicist has an arrogant attitude towards people who claim to know that a historical Jesus really existed, don’t they deserve the same amount of arrogance in return for claiming to know that he didn’t?

But this misses the point that a mature version of mythicism should really be aiming to prove: the idea is not supposed to be “hey, here’s why you can’t prooove Jesus was a real historical man! Neener neener!” but something more like this: “We’ve looked at what most religions around AD 1 were like, and what the background beliefs of the population in question were mostly like. Here’s our most plausible account of how Christianity arose in history. As you can see, this account of Christian origins just doesn’t involve a historical founder. We don’t need a historical founder because we have a better account of the origins of Christianity, that explains the facts as we find them, that just doesn’t involve one.”

In other words, the idea is not to ask “Can we prove a man named Jesus existed in history around AD 1?” but rather: “What is the most plausible account of how the religion we now know as Christianity began?” That account will either involve a historical Jesus, or it won’t.

Now, in this essay, my aim is even more modest than that: I don’t intend to prove within the span of a couple of essays that the mythicist account is the most plausible story of how Christianity arose, but simply that an intelligent and mature mythicist account is possible. I’ll achieve this first by showing why there are enough gaps in the historical record to allow one to question if a historical Jesus really existed, and then by outlining one conceivable origin account that demonstrates what an alternative that doesn’t involve a historical founder might look like.

What is mythicism not?

You may remember a well-circulated, amateurish underground conspiracy “documentary” from about ten years back called Zeitgeist.

This is an excellent demonstration of what mythicism is not. After peddling 9/11 conspiracy theories, the documentary does a lazy job of summarizing bullet points of rough similarity between Jesus and the gods of previous religions: supposedly, the sacrificial God born of a virgin only to be crucified and resurrected is a constant motif throughout ancient religion. The documentary makes this claim of Mithra, Horus, and Dionysus, among others. Yet, when comparisons like these are made by amateur mythicists, they almost always reveal a deeply pseudo-intellectual comprehension of the pagan objects of comparison with Jesus.

Mithra, for example, wasn’t born of a virgin; he emerged fully formed as an adult . . . out of a rock. [1] And he was never killed, let alone crucified. [2]

Dionysus was born from Zeus having sex with Semele:

“And Semele, daughter of Kadmos was joined with him [Zeus] in love and bare him a splendid son, joyous Dionysos,–a mortal woman an immortal son. And now they both are gods.”–Hesiod, Theogony. 940 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic 8th or 7th centuries BC)

Then he was torn into pieces by the titans.[3] And the only account in which Dionysus was resurrected and ascended to Heaven afterwards, the Contra Celsum, was written in AD 248—and therefore could not have inspired the story of Jesus (more likely it was the opposite).

Horus was born when Isis took the form of a bird, “revivified the sexual member of [then-dead] Osiris and became pregnant by him, eventually giving birth to their child . . .” [4]

I can’t imagine any Christian telling the story of how after Mary died, the Holy Spirit resurrected her vagina and impregnated her dead body while in the form of a bird to conceive Jesus.

A mature and reasonable mythicism is not drawn from overly simplistic and lazy comparisons of the story of Jesus with the motifs of other religious figures. But this is the form of “mythicism” that people are most likely to be familiar with. So part of my task is to show that there are indeed forms of mythicism that are far more mature and intelligent than this sort of tripe.

God and the Gaps

Though traditional scholarship places the circulation of the first written Gospel (by almost all accounts of current scholarship, The Gospel of Mark) around AD 70, it isn’t until around AD 170 that we have any official record of how they acquired their modern names. That was when Irenaeus [4], a Roman bishop, published Against Heresies, a refutation of various forms of Gnosticism.

In Book 3, Chapter 1, he claims: [5]

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

What were Irenaeus’ sources, a full hundred years after the fact? How can we trust him to know the identities of the authors of the Gospels? In fact, even mainstream Christian scholarship [6] tends to doubt the authorship of the Gospels. As Craig Blomberg writes in The Case for Christ, “It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.” Furthermore, as this essay on Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels [6] notes,

. . . the first church fathers who alluded to or quoted passages from the Gospels, for nearly a century after their composition [that is, until the time of Iranaeus], did so anonymously. Since these sources do not refer to the Gospels by their traditional names, this adds further evidence that the titles bearing those names were not added until a later period (probably in the latter half of the 2nd century AD), after these church fathers were writing.[4] And, if the manuscript titles were added later, and the Gospels themselves were quoted without names, this means that there is no evidence that the Gospels were referred to by their traditional names during the earliest period of their circulation. Instead, the Gospels would have more likely circulated anonymously.

So we should make it very clear that when we refer to “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke,” and “John,” this is primarily a matter of convention, and not any real identification of the books’ authors. The proper title for the book I will call “Mark” is “The Gospel According to Mark,” and it obtained that name well over some hundred years after Jesus would have been dead.

As mentioned previously, the first Gospel—very probably Mark—is near–unanimously believed by scholars to have entered circulation around AD 70 [7]. Together, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the “synoptic” gospels (from the Greek σύν; syn, “together” and ὄψις; opsis, “view”), because they copy a great deal of content from one another—content differs between Matthew and Luke, but both contain lines throughout which are copied verbatim, or almost verbatim, from Mark. Thus, the current scholarly consensus is that Mark came first, and some years later Matthew and Luke both separately worked with Mark, as well as a hypothetical document called “Q” collecting the sayings of Jesus, or perhaps some other figure, used to explain lesser amounts identical content contained in Matthew and Luke but not originally appearing in Mark. The second leading theory is that the shared content between Matthew and Luke occurs because Luke copied directly from Matthew (a theory which dispenses with the need to hypothesize about “Q”). The Griesbach hypothesis differs from this consensus by supposing that Matthew was written first, and that Luke used Matthew as a source, while Mark then used both Luke and Matthew.

One problem for these second two theories can be demonstrated with an easy example: Mark contains no story of Jesus’ birth. Matthew and Luke both add birth narratives to the story, and the details of their narratives couldn’t differ more totally. Luke 2:1–7 says:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

As it so happens, we know that this census took place in AD 6 [8].

Yet, when Matthew tells the story in Chapter 2, he claims that: “. . . Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod . . .” And as it so happens, we know that Herod the Great died in 4 BC [9]—ten years before Quirinius was appointed Imperial Legate of the province of Roman Syria and conducted his census.

The two Gospels, therefore, place Jesus’ birth a full ten years apart in time.

And they do so with narratives that never once overlap on any of the key important points. Matthew tells a story of King Herod ordering the murder of all newborns in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the newborn Jesus:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under . . . (2:16)

While it isn’t impossible that such an event could have taken place, the anonymous “Gospel According to Matthew,” written some decades after the events in question, is the sole source for it in all of history [10]. And Luke never mentions it, either.

Matthew then claims that Joseph was warned by an angel to flee Bethlehem because of Herod’s plan, notes that Joseph “got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod” (v.14–15), and then claims that this all happened to fulfill “what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son”” (v.15).

Now, this verse is more interesting than it appears at a glance. Matthew has the unique trait of searching far and wide to make claims of Jesus having fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. But anyone who isn’t committed to taking an apologetic approach from the outset, I think, will find these claims not only unconvincing, but downright disconfirming of its author’s reliability.

This particular prophecy, for example, comes from Hosea 11:1.

Now, here is what Hosea 11:1–2 says:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.

Not only is it clear that v.1 is a historical reference to the nation of Israel, and not a prophecy about the coming of a future prophet or son of God, but it is abundantly clear that v.2 could not apply to Jesus—certainly no Christian would want it to, because it would have Jesus rebelling against God making sacrifices to the gods of foreign religions.

The discrepancies don’t end there. While Matthew has the family of Jesus fleeing to Egypt until Herod’s death (2:15, 2:21–23), Luke has them staying in Nazareth the entire time from the very beginning, going away to Jerusalem every year without fail (2:41 – “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover”) and staying alone for three days in the Temple of Jerusalem (2:46–47 – He was “. . . sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.”) Surely this would have caught King Herod’s eye! But according to Luke’s account, Jesus wasn’t born until King Herod was already ten years dead. Luke’s story has Joseph and Mary start in Nazareth, then journey to Bethlehem and back again, while Matthew’s has the family start in Bethlehem, then flee to Egypt, then find a new home in Nazareth. There literally isn’t a single point of overlap between their two accounts. It’s hard to see how to explain this, except by concluding that they were both separately filling in gaps left in Mark’s story.

See A Synoptic Gospels Primer: Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke [11] for an overview of the various approaches to this issue, and see here [12] for further discussion of the existence of the hypothetical document known as “Q.”

The Gospel of John, meanwhile, is not believed to have entered circulation until at least AD 90—and likely not even until after AD 100 [13].

So, how good are the Gospels as records of the life of a historical Jesus?

Less scholarly apologists who address themselves to popular audiences would like us to believe that what we have in the Gospels are four independent but corroborating, eyewitness accounts of the life of the historical Jesus. But even according to mature Christian scholarship, this very probably isn’t the case.

Instead, what we appear to have is one anonymously written work that appeared at a bare minimum almost four whole decades after the hypothetical date at which Jesus’ death would have taken place, two that copied extensively from it, and one that was most likely not written for still yet at least a few more decades. Generally speaking, this reduces the evidence represented by the Gospels down more or less to the evidence represented by Mark: whether or not the Gospels represent strong evidence for a historical Jesus, in other words, basically depends on whether or not the Gospel According to Mark does.

I’ll discuss this further in the next entry [14], and then discuss the one set of Christian documents we have which precede the dating of the Gospel According to Mark: the letters of Paul.

Notes

1. Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies (1975), p. 173; Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 8 (1994), p. 757.

2.  Richard Gordon, Image and Value in the Greco-Roman World (Aldershot: Variorum, 1996), p. 96

3. Paus. viii. 37. § 3; Diod. iii. 62; Phurnut. N. D. 28.

4. Richard Wilkinson, Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (2003), p. 146.