Jesus Mythicism: Response^3

John Walker wrote another article, this one to me personally, entitled “Jesus Mythicism: A Response to A Response”. This is the original post and here is my original reply. Here is what John wrote back to me:

If I’ve understood “Bahumuth” (presumably his pseudonym) correctly, then I am one of the “Biblical scholars” who hate mythicists. Now, unfortunately, I have to reject this on two grounds. As much as I’d like to be, I’m not Biblical scholar, but I appreciate the compliment. Second, I have no hatred toward mythicists. I am, admittedly, often annoyed by them. Not because they challenge conventional thought, though. Heck, I think a guy rose from the dead. Rather, its the unwarranted confidence they have behind their claim. Radical ideas are spoken of as if they’re recognized facts. It’s not just that they think that Jesus didn’t exist, it’s that scholarship knows that he didn’t.

That blog entry title was not meant to imply that you are a Biblical scholar or that you hate mythicists. It was a hastily-invented title that I admit was a poor and confusing choice. The meaning was a general statement towards the fact that mainstream Biblical scholarship completely ignores mythicism with the exception of extremely disappointing attempts at disdainful dismissal by scholars like Bart Ehrman and Joseph Hoffman. So of course mythicists do not claim that scholarship “knows” Jesus didn’t exist. The main contention is that the vast majority of mainstream Biblical scholars completely ignores the topic as if the arguments do not even merit consideration in the scholarly world.

But if we are going to criticize naming conventions, then I find it funny that you are literally writing under the title “Freedom in Orthodoxy” yet suggest that believing the central tenant of Orthodox Christianity “challenge[s] conventional thought.” You know what would actually challenge conventional thought? Writing something that does not conform to Orthodoxy!

Touche. I must read this Sepher Toledot Yeshu. I normally ignore Medieval texts as sources of information about Jesus, but perhaps…

Yes, I know. That is the immediate response I always get. “It’s medieval and too late to be relevant.” Here is why that presumption is wrong:

1. Tertullian makes a reference to Jesus’ disciples’ trampling the cabbages of Judas’ garden, which only happens in the Toledot Yeshu (De Spetaculis 100.30).

2. In the Toledot, Yeshu’s betrayer, identified in a later version with Judas, is a gardener. In John, Mary Magdalene confuses Jesus with the gardener. The Judas Thomas sect believed Jesus’ betrayer was his twin brother and there’s an alternative tradition in which Judas was crucified in Jesus’ place. (The idea that Jewish critics decided to ignore most of the far more popular details of the canonical gospels to expand on that tiny irrelevant detail in John is extremely unlikely.) Thus, it solves the strange question of why Mary confused Jesus with the gardener: the story element comes from a gospel in which they looked alike because they were twins.

3. The Talmud names five disciples of Yeshu, four of which appear in the Toledot. Jesus splits five loaves and has twelve leftover, then splits seven loaves with seven left over, then specifically tells his disciples the numbers have some special relevance. The numbers represent the five disciples named in the Talmud feeding the spiritually hungry with knowledge, leaving behind the twelve apostles, followed by the seven “evangelists” referenced in Acts.

4. There are historical elements in the Toledot that have no bearing on the story, such as the fact that Yeshu is married and has sons that accompany him on the Triumphant Entry, which itself has more credibility as happening before the Roman occupation. The Flight to Egypt due to sectarian strife also makes more historical sense than Matthew’s story about escaping Herod because of a prophecy.

5. Mara Bar Serapion says that the “Wise King” was killed by the Jews, not the Romans, which better fits the Toledot, the Talmud, 1 Thessalonians, and Delbert Burkett’s Sanhedrin Source (used for both Luke-Acts’s Passion narrative and Stephen’s martyrdom story). Mara links the divine retaliation not with the destruction of the Temple, as the gospels do, but the loss of the Jewish kingdom, which happened when Pompey conquered it in the first century B.C.

6. Epiphanius likewise endorses a tradition that Jesus was given the crown of the Jewish kingdom after Alexander Jannaeus without realizing that it would place Jesus in the first century B.C.

7. The story of Jesus hiding from authorities as he traveled to Jerusalem, being captured by Pharisees, exhibiting silence during his interrogation, and being executed on Passover comes from a story repeated by Josephus about Honi the Circle Drawer, who also lived during the first century B.C. Honi’s family were the original Zadokite owners of the Jerusalem Temple and so would have been seen as an alternative priesthood to the Herodian hierarchy. This provides a more realistic explanation for an origin than a local peasant movement expanding into a rival religious sect. These “proto-Christians” were Essenes who wanted to restore the Zadokite line to the temple, calling their leader the Teacher of Righteousness (Zedek). Daniel 9:26 reinterprets a prophecy in Jeremiah to link it to the martyrdom of another member of the dynasty and “Messiah”, Honi III. At the Temple, when Jesus is asked what authority he has to disrupt the merchants, he uses a reference to John the Baptist to refuse the answer but then tells the story of a landowner (God) that sends his son to the tenants at the vineyard (Temple) and is killed by them, which really only makes sense if Jesus had the hereditary rights to the Temple rather than being a Galilean peasant.

Not sure the folks at the Jesus Seminar are the best bedfellows, but at least he’s reading. I see a couple names that don’t live on the fringe, so that’s good (Schweitzer, Fredriksen, Crossan, etc.). Not so sure about those first names, though.

So Crossan is acceptable but the Jesus Seminar isn’t? That really doesn’t make any sense. You do know that Crossan, along with Robert Funk, founded the Jesus Seminar, don’t you? Crossan’s early works are far more radical than anything the Jesus Seminar has put out as a collective. My guess is that you are relying more on what critics of the Seminar have said over their actual works. The Seminar follows in the same century-old tradition of the “Liberal Jesus” model as David Friedrich Strauss and Thomas Jefferson argued for, only with far superior methodology.

Now, I think I understand what his overall argument is. He places Jesus at the 1st BC – so he’s not a strict mythicist. I don’t know what he does believe about this Jesus, but presumably its very different than what is recounted in the Gospels. The letters of Paul, which are dated before the 2nd Temple was destroyed, I’m assuming, on his account, refer to this BC Jesus?

That is true that, like G.R.S. Mead, Alvar Ellegard, and G.A. Wells, I am not a “strict mythicist”, or perhaps another way to put it is that I am in the minority of an already fringe theory.

I think the Pauline Epistles were written in the second century and were revised several times. I think the biographical elements of Jesus referenced in 1 Thessalonians 2:15 and Hebrews 5:7 refer to Honi the Circle Drawer and the theological descriptions in 1 Corinthians 2:6 and Colossians 2:15 present Jesus as a dying-and-rising god being killed by the “archons” or “the rulers of this age,” connotations for elemental spirits. 1 Thessalonians says Jesus was killed not by the Romans but the Jews, which better corresponds to the Toledot, Honi, and Mara Bar Serapion than the gospels. Hebrews describes Jesus as shedding his tears and offering up prayers and supplications, which sounds to me more like Honi praying from within his circle than Jesus at Gethsemane. Consider it this way: what would you know of who Jesus was, what he taught, and when he lived, if you had all of the early epistles and apocrypha, but not the gospels? With the exception of the late Pastorals, there is nothing that gives a firm description of a Galilean peasant with his own travelling exorcism ministry.

The overall scheme leaves heaps of questions unanswered. He has disputed certain facts (Jesus’ having brothers, the Gospels as literary fiction, etc.), thus, establishing a negative case, but he has offered no compelling alternative narrative. Frankly, an AD Jesus just makes a lot more sense of the data. It takes much less finagling and dispels the heaps of problems mythicists run into. He has offered no reason why mythicism is a more plausible alternative to historicity.

I included several links to my compelling alternative narrative. One link is right there in the quote you gave of me in your response. Here is another.

Other than the literary link’s I’ve already stated, it just makes more sense that a story be retold set in the author’s time than for a story be set backwards in time. Think of how movies set book adaptions to the present time and how Disney movies become the new “canon” of how stories like Cinderella are told.

I don’t know nearly enough about these ancient texts to dispute the particulars. However, I will say, if Bahumuth is convinced that Tammuz offers a strong source for the Gospels stories, then he should submit an article to a journal. Scholarship is always seeking more parallel texts, and if he has found some that have gone untouched, then he should let the academy know.

It’s already been discussed by scholars like James George Frazer, Reverened Sabine Baring-Gould, and Joseph Campbell.

Let’s go through a rundown of Tammuz:

1. Tammuz comes from the Sumerian Dumuzi, which means “True Son” or “Faithful Son”.
2. The name is associated with both the epithets “Shepherd” and “Fisherman”.
3. He has a Eucharist of bread and water and his sister is the goddess of wine. The Greek version of Tammuz, Dionysus, has a Eucharist of bread and wine.
4. He dies at Christmas and is reborn on Easter, representing the Earth’s vegetation.
5. In the Myth of Adapa, Adapa (the Kassite Adam) dies and meets him at the gates of Heaven like St. Peter, and Adapa must sympathize with his death in order to get into Heaven.
6. In one Sumerian myth, he is killed by demons (like the archons in 1 Cor. 2:6) beneath the apple tree, mirroring the story in which Jesus died at the same spot as Adam and the fruit of wisdom. Later versions of the myth have him hung on the tree. Acts 5:30 10:39, 13:29 reports that the first apostles decided to phrase Jesus’ death on the cross as him being “hung on a tree”. Galatians 3:13, 1 Peter 2:24 also refer to Jesus being “hung on a tree.”
7. Other elements from Acts such as “kicking against the goads” and chains miraculously breaking come from Euripdies’ The Bacchae, the Greco-Roman version of Tammuz.
8. In another myth, his enemy is Belulu, the feminine equivalent of Ba’al the storm god. In Babylonian myth, the storm god Bel Marduk slays another version of him, Kingu, and uses his blood to create mankind. This helps explain why Christianity focuses more on the aspect of Ba’al as Satan (or Ba’al as Satan’s underling), which was far more undeveloped in Judaism.
9. Ezekiel says that women wept over his death at the Jerusalem Temple.
10. The Sumerian love poems about him and his wife, Inanna, are the inspiration for the Song of Solomon.
11. Jerome says that pagans “stole” the birth shrine of Jesus in Bethlehem and rededicated it to Adonis, the Syrian version of Tammuz.
12. A second century talisman shows Orpheus becoming deified as Bacchus by being crucified on a cross, and a second century marble sarcophagus shows an old man bringing a crucifix to the baby Dionysus to symbolize his fate. Other archaeological evidence show similar parallels.

Orpheus Becomes a Bacchoi

Marble Sarcophagus of Dionysus with Cross

I’d be very interested to know your reaction to these. Are these all coincidences? Did the devil know the story beforehand and copy Jesus before the original happened, as Justin Martyr claims?

Read some Martin Hengel and you’ll find that the dichotomy between Jewish and Hellenistic is a false on anyways. Parallels with Stoicism and Cynicism do little to “dejudaize” the NT.

What does it mean to say the dichotomy between Jewish and Hellenistic is false? What does it mean to be “thoroughly Jewish” then? My point was not to “dejudaize” the New Testament but to point out that it includes fully Hellenistic criticisms of Judaism as well as the Hellenized Judaism of Philo.

For the majority of mythicists, the common themes with the dying-and-rising prove that Jesus was a god historicized rather than a man deified, but I always thought it did not necessarily mean that there was no Jesus. When I was first introduced to mythicism from The Jesus Mysteries by Freke and Gandy, my reaction was that the parallels were undeniable but that did not necessarily mean that there was no historical Jesus. Jesus could have been a a “thoroughly Jewish” Messiah, who followed the Old Testament, and was crucified by the Romans for sedition, but the reason the lowly sect became acceptable to the wider pagan world was that the far more universal dying-and-rising god elements were added to the story as it expanded, or Jesus could have led a sect of Galilean peasants who followed an alternative version of Judaism that didn’t follow the Old Testament and worshiped Yahweh as a dying-and-rising god, equivalent to the same feminine sect Ezekiel referenced, and his death caused his followers to associate him with Yahweh, but the religion is later adapted to mainstream Judaism. The partial reconstruction of the Testimonium Flavian from Crossan, Fredriksen, etc., seemed pretty convincing to me for a long time, but after I read Frank Zindler’s critique of it and found it made far more sense as a double interpolation. I was still surprised I never found any references to the dying-and-rising god parallels in more scholarly works and that the theory of a mythical Jesus was never even entertained. It is not like we have any surviving writings from someone who knew him personally. Scholars agree it’s all pseudo-graphical. Irenaeus tries to claim he knew John who knew Jesus, but that’s three generations in 150 years! That Christianity could have been affected by mystery religions did not seem very controversial to me. Bultmann says at much. In fact, Crossan’s scholarship linking Q1+L to Greek Cynicism was more a shock to me personally because that reached more into the core of the historical Jesus. I have never seen the arguments of Jesus as a Cynic peasant treated as unscholarly or even terribly controversial, so I’m surprised many critics have dismissed the connections to the dying-and-rising god as “parallelomania”.

There is much more that could be said. Folks may find it odd that I would choose to respond to this blog post, but I think it serves well to demonstrate what mythicist arguments look like.

Perhaps you didn’t really mean it that way, but this statement does ring of the smug “they aren’t worth talking to” attitude that I think most mythicists are just tired of getting. You haven’t read any of the Sumerian, Babylonian, Syrian, or Greek myths that contain Biblical parallels, but you assume nobody important believes them. You haven’t read the earliest surviving references to Jesus in Judaism, but you never thought it might be relevant. Even responding is made out to be something that is hard to justify. You threw out this ridiculous advise to tell people how to deal with a mythicist based entirely on the premise that mythicists are not well read and are unaware of mainstream scholarship, but when you get presented with a test case, you find yourself explaining both why it isn’t important for you to have read the texts relevant to the discussion and why you are bothering to respond to a mythicist after giving advise on how to respond to a mythicist. But thanks for allowing me to demonstrate what mythicist arguments look like.


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About Jeff Q

I live in New Orleans. I have a Bachelors in Computer Science and a Masters in English Literature. My interests include ancient history, religion, mythology, philosophy, and fantasy/sci-fi. My Twitter handle is @Bahumuth.