Apr 27 2017

Jesus Mythicism Revisited

I recently wrote about the historical question of whether or not a person names Jesus existed and is the same person referenced in the New Testament. My bottom line conclusion was that the historical evidence is thin.

This post sparked an interesting conversation that brought out a lot of nuance, and also, I think, exposed some weaknesses in how I framed the original discussion. The comments are still very active, indicating there is a lot of interest in this question, so I wanted to reframe the discussion a bit and hopefully clarify my position.

Part of what I think happened, which happens frequently in my experience, is that people tend to assume your position falls within a preexisting camp.  In the historicity of Jesus question there are two main camps, the mainstream position and the mythicist position. Therefore anyone saying anything to question the mainstream position is immediately accused of being a mythicist. Likewise, endorsing the mainstream position can be mischaracterized as endorsing Christianity.

Let me state my position up front and then go into more detail. First, I am not endorsing any of the mythicist positions. I do not think that any mythicist makes a strong positive case for their alternate hypothesis of how the Jesus story emerged.

Second, I understand the reasons that mainstream historians use to argue that it is more likely than not that Jesus existed. I simply think they are overstating their confidence and neglecting reasons to argue that we simply don’t know. 

The Mainstream Position

I won’t be able to do justice to a complex issue about which many books have been written, but I am going to try. From my reading it seems that there are two main pillars on which the mainstream position that Jesus probably existed rests. First, the facts, about which there is little disagreement:

There is no direct evidence that Jesus existed. There is no archaeological evidence, he left behind no personal writing, there are no first-person accounts, and his disciples left behind no writing. The first mention of Jesus in the historical record are the letters of Paul starting 20 years or so after the crucifixion of Jesus (I will simply reference the timeline without adding caveats each time). Seven of the letters are considered genuine, and the others were from other authors who probably used Paul’s name to lend credibility to their writing.

Paul never met Jesus. He primarily refers to visions he had of Jesus. He does claim to have met James, the brother of Jesus, and two of the disciples. He also refers to Jesus as if he were an actual person.

The Gospels were written beginning about 60 years after Jesus. They were the result of complex conflicting oral traditions that were eventually written down in order to codify the tradition for a specific community. There were many gospels with many conflicting details. Around three centuries after Jesus, after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the church settled on four gospels as canon, and everything else became heresy.

The gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew are the synoptic gospels and clearly emerge from one common oral tradition, or may have shared an unknown written reference. The gospel of John clearly represents a separate oral tradition, with very little overlap in details with the other three.

There are also two important historians that refer to Jesus, Josephus and Tacitus. Josephus refers to Jesus twice. One reference is definitely a partial forgery, but historians make a good case for why it is not a complete forgery. These historians were writing about a century after Jesus, and the question is – did they have a reliable source for their references, or were they just recounting what was believed at the time?

That is a quick summary of the basic facts, again mostly not in dispute. The argument is about how to make the best inference from these facts.

Historians use two bits of logic to make their inference that Jesus probably existed. The first is the argument from embarrassment. They argue that there are details in the Jesus story that are inconvenient to early Christians. If they were inventing the story out of whole cloth they would not have included these details, therefore they are there because they derive from a real historical person.

So, Jesus was said to be from Nazareth, a small town of no reputation or religious significance. However, the prophesies say the messiah will come from Bethlehem. Therefore the gospels invent a story for why the parents of Jesus had to make a trip to Bethlehem just in time for Jesus to be born there and fulfill prophesy. If the entire story were made up, they would have just made him come from Bethlehem. There is no theological or narrative reason for the town of Nazareth to enter the story at all, unless it was a detail describing a real person.

They make the same argument for the baptism. If Jesus were the Christ, then he would not have to be baptized because he had no sins to wipe away. But the story includes the detail that he was baptized by John the Baptist. This is an inconvenient story element that the gospels deal with in different ways. In the synoptic gospels Jesus simply makes a comment to John about how he will let him baptize him just to follow protocol. In John, Jesus is simply not baptized. Jesus meets John the Baptist, who then baptizes other people, but not Jesus.

The final inconvenience for the Christian mythology was the crucifixion. Being attached to a tree or wood was abhorrent to Jews of the time. The notion that their messiah was crucified was an embarrassment and a source of mockery. An oral tradition untethered to an actual historical figure would never have included this major story element.

I think this is a reasonable line of argument that is logically valid. However, I don’t find it as compelling as historians apparently do. It is partly an argument from ignorance – they can’t think of another reason why those story elements would be included so they must be real. What I have not read (but would be open to if it is out there) are clear historical examples where this type of story element is a marker for veracity. How predictive is the fact that there are inconvenient story elements?

Perhaps I am more informed by my skeptical background and knowledge of modern myths, that contain lots of quirky details for quirky reasons. People don’t appear to have a problem making ad hoc adjustments to convoluted stories in order to make them work for their purposes. If those details entered the oral tradition for some reason, because someone heard that some guy from Nazareth did something amazing, for example, that detail would not necessarily be later purged. It could easily be accommodated.

It seems that the mainstream arguments are falling a bit for a false dichotomy – was the story invented or derived from a real person. But there is a third possibility, the story evolved organically and was neither crafted nor lifted from one real person.

The second major line of argument I encounter is the argument from silence. The early church was a hot bed of disagreement. They disagreed about every major element of their emerging religion, including basic stuff like whether or not Jesus was divine. They did not, however, disagree about whether or not Jesus existed. There may have been individual doubters, but mostly everyone at the time took for granted that Jesus was a real person.

Again, I don’t dispute this fact, but I am not as compelled by their interpretation of it. If the story was that Jesus was an actual person, I don’t find it surprising that this was accepted uncritically. People tend to believe stories and underestimate (grossly underestimate) the degree to which stories can be wrong in major details. It simply may not have occurred to anyone that the very existence of Jesus could have been a made up detail.

The Mythicist Positions

There are various mythicist positions, none of which I think are very compelling. After reading mainstream criticism of them, they all appear to have major holes that they cannot adequately explain. One position is that early Christians did not believe Jesus was a real person, just a spiritual being. He was later “historicized” into a real person. While Jesus may have been a historicized myth, there is no evidence that early Christians did not believe he was real, and there is good evidence that they did. The letters of Paul make it clear that he thought Jesus was a real person.

Another hypothesis is that the character Jesus was an amalgamation of many contemporary prophets. While this is a viable hypothesis, there is no specific evidence for the sources of the amalgamation. Further, this doesn’t explain the inconvenient story elements, which, historians argue, would not have been cherry picked from various individuals.

Others argue that the Jesus story was simply lifted from other traditions of the time. I think this confuses two questions – the historicity of Jesus and the mythology of Jesus. The details of the Jesus story, specifically the inconvenient elements, were not lifted from any other legend or story of the time. They are new and unique to Jesus.

However, the mythology of Jesus was fully in the tradition of messiah stories of the time. The mythological elements, such as fulfilling prophesy, a miraculous birth, being theologically precocious, performing miracles, healing the sick, raising the dead, and making a heroic sacrifice in order to save their community, are all established messiah myth elements.

I would also add that many mythicists use as a major pillar of their position that there was little mention of Jesus outside of early Christians for a century, until you get to the scant mentions by Josephus and Tacitus, and they could easily have just been referring to the belief in Jesus of the Christians (although admittedly this is disputed). This is their own argument from silence.

However, I think this is a wash, it is neither evidence for or against the historicity of Jesus. Scholars argue that it makes perfect sense there was no mention of a poor preacher from Judea. We have scant evidence of anyone from that time. Many comparisons are made to other ancient historical characters who are not controversial but have similar levels of evidence that they existed.

I don’t think this argument gets either side anywhere. It makes sense that there is no direct evidence for Jesus whether he existed or not. It neither supports nor refutes his historicity.

Scholarship Cuts Both Ways

Where does all this leave us? I would make a few conclusions:

First, there is no smoking-gun direct evidence that Jesus was a historical person. This does not prove he did not exist, but it is simply a fact that the conclusion that Jesus probably existed is simply a best inference from the scant evidence we do have.

I agree that the conclusion Jesus was a real person is a reasonable, and probably the simplest, inference from the evidence.

However, I think it is more accurate to conclude that we don’t know. The inference is thin, and rests on an argument from ignorance. I think it also underestimates the ability of communities to rapidly evolve myths out of very little raw material or even nothing, confusing myth for history and then basing further myths on that false history. Someone makes up or massively confuses a story, that story is treated as if it is real and then becomes a reference point.

Modern myths inform this position tremendously. I already mentioned in my previous article the Roswell incident. There were no flying saucers or aliens at Roswell, yet we have books written about the incident as if there were. Think about our modern “fake news” culture in which a made up story becomes its own reference.

Today we have reporters reporting on the existence of a story, and their reporting then being used as a citation to support the reality of that story. I think it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that 2000 years ago we had similar things taking place, even to the point that historians were reporting on stories, and then being used as evidence for the story.

Without hard evidence or first hand corroboration, we should not underestimate the power of storytelling.

I would further conclude that while some mythicist critics have legitimate points to make about the weaknesses in the evidence for a historical Jesus, they do not make a valid positive case for their specific alternate hypotheses.

Finally, for those who would argue that the mainstream consensus opinion is that the best inference from the evidence is that there was a guy named Jesus who came from Nazareth, was baptized and crucified, you have to also acknowledge that the mainstream consensus opinion, based upon the exact same historical reasoning, is that none of the other New Testament story elements are historical.

For example, the same historians who say Jesus was probably crucified also say that the story of the tomb is almost certainly not historical. If you apply the same logic and inference from the available evidence, all of the story elements that are not consistent among the various oral traditions, that are in line with prior myth and not inconvenient, and for which there was debate among early Christians are probably not real historical events.

You can’t have it both ways, invoking the consensus opinion of historians for the things you like and rejecting the consensus for the things you don’t like.


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