Jesus Mythicism: The Final Response

Here is my response to the last post John Walker made at “Freedom in Orthodoxy” to my arguments, which he says will be his last. I do hope that John at least provides a few quick answers to my questions in my comment section, but if he doesn’t, he at least has spent more time debating mythicism than the majority of Biblical scholars.

John,

Thank you very much for responding to my last post. I also appreciate that you are willing to keep the debate centered on the actual evidence rather than make continuous appeals to authority like Bart Ehrman and James McGrath does or focus entirely on the psychological profiles of mythicists like Joseph Hoffman does. At the same time I am extremely disappointed in the way you simply acknowledge the parallels and then go on to dismiss them, failing to explain whether you think they are coincidences or if such copying of mythological motifs is not relevant, and if so, why.

1. STY allegedly contains a story that Tertullian recounts. Now, the only problem is, when you read Tertullian, he doesn’t contain the story that Jeff says he does. Read Tertullian’s De Spectaculis and the closest thing you’ll find is this: Tertullian boasts that in the day of the Lord he will be able to point to Christ and shout, “This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!” This is clearly a reference to those who deny Christ’s resurrection by appealing to the stealing of the body or misplacement by a gardner. Not the “disciples trampling the cabbages of Judas”.

I did not say that Tertullian told the whole story from the Toledot Yeshu. I said he referenced the story, proving it existed in his own time. Yes, of course it is related to the reference to the stealing of Jesus’ body, but Tertullian clearly cites two traditions: 1) That the disciples stole his body, and 2) The gardener stole his body to keep the disciples from stepping on his lettuces. Matthew 28:11-15 knows of the first tradition, saying that the priests and elders invented a story that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and that this story was still being told “to this day” by “the Jews” (not the priests and elders, not those who deny Jesus, but “the Jews”). The Toledot represents a combination of both traditions, saying Yeshu was hung on a cabbage stalk because none of the trees would take him and then the gardener stole him and buried him in his garden to prevent his disciples from stealing the body. None of the gospels say anything about Jesus being buried by the gardener or anything about cabbages or lettuces, so what you appear to be arguing, at least as far as I can tell, is that the tradition of “the Jews” about Jesus’ body being stolen was either lost or never existed and that later Medieval Jews took the the story element about disciples stealing the body from Matthew, the ambiguous link between Judas (i.e. the gardener) and the “Garden of Blood” from Matthew and/or Luke, and the reference to the gardener stealing the body and lettuces from Tertullian, then combined them all to make that story. That is pretty extraordinary. Aside from the strange explanation necessary for why Medieval Jews would choose those particular details to react against, what evidence is there that the authors of the Toledot were familiar with Tertullian or any other church father? Or maybe you believe its a coincidence? Well, Tertullian also wrote in Against Judaism 9.31, that the Jews did not even contend that Jesus performed miraculous healings, saying, “it was not on account of the works that you stoned him, but because he did them on the Sabbath.” Yeshu was stoned to death as befitting a Jewish execution, which obviously could not have been done publicly during the Roman occupation. Is that also a coincidence or are these Jewish writers really so versed in Tertullian?

2. Why should we trust the “Judas Thomas sect” over the Gospels which were written much earlier?

John is hardly early, having first been mentioned by Irenaeus in the 170s-180s. As Rudolf Bultmann established, John was originally a “Signs Gospel”, which the majority of scholars accept, and was revised twice, the first time from a Mandaean Gnostic sect, which for some reason most scholars not so much as reject as completely ignore (Randel McGraw Helms being an exception), and then a second time from an ecclesiastic redactor. So there shouldn’t be anything radical about suggesting there were previous story elements in John that have since been edited out. The questions that you need to answer are: why would Mary Magdalene mistake Jesus for the gardener and why would Judas be linked in two contradictory ways to a “Garden of Blood” if the “Judas as Gardener” story element did not already exist when these gospels were being written? If the tradition that Judas the gardener was Jesus’ twin is later than John, why does it offer a good explanation for why Mary would have misidentified the gardener as Jesus? If John inspired Thomas and the Toledot, why is it that the specific story element of Mary Magdalene looking for Jesus dropped from both traditions? It makes far more sense that the order of myth construction is: 1) Gnostics identify the gardener/traitor figure as Jesus’ twin (Thomas) as a literary irony; 2) One of Mark’s sources identify the traitor figure with Judas Iscariot because of the Sicarii Judas of Galilee and “the twin” (Thomas) is relegated to one of the other disciples, as if he’s someone else’s twin; 3) Other Gnostics combine the traditions so that Jesus’ twin, Judas the gardener, is crucified in Jesus’ place and Mary Magdalene confuses Jesus for Judas the gardener; 4) Canonical John uses the tradition of Mary confusing Jesus as the gardener but separates Judas Iscariot from Thomas, forcing him to leave out the reason why Mary would make such a mistake, then uses the “Doubting Thomas” story to criticize the Gnostics he is borrowing from for not believing in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus.

3. Why should the Talmud be trusted over the Gospels? Isn’t it more likely that STY, a textually medieval Jewish text, would derive elements from the Jewish Talmud, not the other way around.

I am providing proof that the tradition of five disciples were known to both the gospels and the Talmud, so it isn’t really trusting one source over another in this case. If the gospel says that these the five loaves turning into twelve loaves then seven loaves has some special numerical meaning, and the Talmud offers the final piece of a great explanation for it — five disciples, twelve apostles, and seven evangelists — then you should either accept that it makes sense or try to argue that this is a coincidence. But let’s look at your first question: Why should the Talmud be trusted over the Gospels? Well, all things being equal, one would imagine that the Pharisees would create traditions to counter the Jesus movement before the sect became so Hellenized that the majority of their members were getting their information about Jesus in Greek. The Talmud was constructed in Palestine and Babylon, closer to Jewish milieu in which Jesus would have lived, while the Apostolic Church that Ireaneus and Pope Victor founded was centered in Ephesus, Lyons and Rome, using earlier gospels from Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, so I would argue that the third-century Rabbis have a stronger hereditary link to the Pharisees than the second-century Greek-speaking Apostolic Church had with Aramaic-speaking Messianic Jews in Galilee and Palestine. Now, let’s assume, as you have it, that the epistles were the earliest tradition in Greek. With the exception of the Pastoral epistles, which are very late, what data could be used from any of the epistles, canonical or apocryphal, to show that anyone knew any of the biographical details of who Jesus was, and where and when he lived? If you can’t even establish a biography from every epistle typically dated to the first century, why should you assume that that the followers of Jesus who would have access to some of them know when Jesus lived? The epistles, regardless of whether or not they were forged, are also nonfictional, while modern critical scholar agrees that the gospels are mostly fictional, even if they all agree they can find plenty of nonfictional elements in it without agreeing with each other completely on how much of these elements and which ones are nonfictional. So if the early, nonfictional epistles say that Jesus was hung on a tree, why do you trust the later fictional gospels that Jesus was crucified on a cross? Aside from all that, it just makes more sense for the story of Jesus to be retold in a later date, something mythology and movies do all the time, rather than the enemies of Jesus making his sect older than popularly believed and taking even more responsibility for his death than is typically ascribed. The expected answer to “You Jews crucified our Lord” should be “No we didn’t. A few unnamed Pharisees had the Romans crucify Jesus for disrupting the legitimate Temple service during Passover and we had nothing to do with that.” Instead, the Talmudic answer is “We executed Yeshu according to the law because he was a magician and were in a bloody conflict with his followers long before the first century A.D.” Why make that up?

4. That doesn’t suggest historical reliability. This is a non-critical way of evaluating the text. I find it bizarre that you give such credence to the STY while denying the much firmer fourfold Gospel tradition.

Bart Ehrman uses the references to Jesus’ brothers being named in Mark to make the argument that Jesus was a historical person. Do you think that is a “non-critical way of evaluating the text”? I would agree that giving names to brothers that offer no bearing on the story would be a decent argument if it were not for the fact that the names match other Messianic figures from that area and so in fact do offer a symbolic bearing on the story since it explains why people from that area did not consider Jesus to be someone of particular importance.

5. The Gospels agree that their was some Jewish figures played a role in the events leading to his execution. Mara Bar Serapion’s relevant excerpt says this: “Or the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them?” This could just as easily refer to the sacking of Jerusalem.

Playing a role in an execution is not the same as executing someone yourself. The sacking of Jerusalem can hardly be equated with having “their kingdom driven away from them.” The revolt only lasted a few years and Jerusalem was still being fought over by three major factions when the Romans reconquered it. It’s hard to have a “kingdom” without a “king”.

6. The relevant portion of Epiphanius can be read here (Part 29: 3.1-3.8). It clearly does not place Jesus right after Alexander Jannaeus, but rather has Herod following Jannaeus and then Jesus later holding a position like that of Jannaeus.

Epiphanius says “For the rulers in succession from Judah came to an end with Christ’s arrival. Until he came the rulers were anointed priests, but after his birth in Bethlehem of Judea the order ended and was altered in the time of Alexander, a ruler of priestly and kingly stock.” He is clearly repeating a tradition that Jesus was born in the first century B.C., when Alexander lived. As I said, he did this without realizing it, and so goes on to amend this tradition so that it fits within the gospel context.

7. I actually don’t really know how to respond to this one. It’s just a bit bizarre.

The question you should answer is, do you think its a coincidence that Honi the Circle Drawer also hid from the authorities as he traveled to Jerusalem, was also captured by Pharisees, also exhibited silence during his interrogation, and was also executed on Passover? Added to these parallels, we also have the fact that both Yeshu and Honi the Circle Drawer had Simon ben Shetach as an enemy and the fact that Honi III is identified as a martyred Messiah in Daniel 9:26. What is more likely to have turned into a major religion: a failed semi-pacifistic peasant revolt against the Jerusalem Temple or a rich and powerful priestly dynasty, going back to the time of Daniel’s composition, that had hereditary rights to the Jerusalem Temple?

I must admit, after reading the texts that Jeff refers to, I am not confident that he has read them himself.

That’s okay. I think the same thing about yourself, especially after you said the Jesus Seminar is “fringe” but Crossan isn’t.

I’m not sure how, or why, but he considers the Pauline Corpus to be 2nd century. I obviously disagree with this. That would mean all the Pauline texts are pseudonymous which raises the question of why his name would be appealed to at all.

By that logic, why would there be any scripture attributed to Mark or Luke or Barnabas? If proximity to Jesus was all that mattered, we’d expect nothing but epistles and gospels from Peter, James and John. I think the name Paul was first invented by the Marcionites as a representation of Peregrinus, who was a popular Cynic prophet in Asia Minor, where the Stoic Marcionites were from, to use as a foil against the Twelve, who they portrayed as misunderstanding Jesus. Obviously, I have reasons to back this up, but don’t want to bog down this response, so I’ll just offer my Gospel Source Flowchart to show how I view the composition of scripture.

First off, parallels say nothing to historicity.

What does that mean?

3. I’d love to hear what text Tammuz’ eucharist comes from?

From the Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi:

“Dumuzi sang:
‘O Lady, your breast is your field.
Inanna, your breast is your field.
Your broad field pours out the plants.
Your broad field pours out grain.
Water flows from on high for your servant.
Bread flows from on high for your servant.
Pour it out for me, Inanna.
I will drink all you offer.'”

Notice that the bread and water is metaphorically associated with Inanna’s body, just as the bread is metaphorically associated with Jesus’ body.

From the Epic of Ba’al:

Eat bread from the tables!
Drink wine from the goblets!
From a cup of gold, the blood of vines!

Here the wine is specifically referred to as metaphorical blood.

This is an Orphic Sacramental Bowl from Pietroasa, Romania, dated to the 200s or 300s A.D. Orpheus is holding a fisher’s net and shepherd’s staff, with wheat and grapes (bread and wine) growing above his shoulders:

Dionysus

And here Dionysus is crucified on a cross-tree as initiates partake in a bread and wine Eucharist:

Dionysus

4. Cool, but the Gospels don’t speak of Christmas (or the 25th of December). No derivation there. Again, what texts does this come from?

No, but the celebration of Easter was definitely established before the Bible was canonized in the 170s-180s, and remember, the majority of ancient Christians would have been illiterate, so let’s not retroject the notion that the Bible is the end-all be-all back into the origins of the Jesus movement.

5. I’m pretty sure that nothing in the New Testament speaks of Peter at the Pearly Gates.

Actually, the idea comes from Peter being given the keys to the kingdom in Matthew 16:19, where it specifically says that he gets to decide what is bound and loosed in heaven. Plus the idea that one has to sympathize with the death of Jesus in order to get into heaven is definitely present in the Gospel of John.

6. That’s very interesting. Point me to these myths and I will to read them.

From Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld:

“Holy Inana answered the demons… They followed her to the great apple tree in the plain of Kulaba. There was Dumuzid clothed in a magnificent garment and seated magnificently on a throne. The demons seized him there by his thighs. The seven of them poured the milk from his churns. The seven of them shook their heads like ……. They would not let the shepherd play the pipe and flute before her (?). She looked at him, it was the look of death. She spoke to him (?), it was the speech of anger. She shouted at him (?), it was the shout of heavy guilt: “How much longer? Take him away.” Holy Inana gave Dumuzid the shepherd into their hands. Dumuzid let out a wail and turned very pale. The lad raised his hands to heaven, to Utu: ‘Utu, you are my brother-in-law. I am your relation by marriage. I brought butter to your mother’s house. I brought milk to Ningal’s house. Turn my hands into snake’s hands and turn my feet into snake’s feet, so I can escape my demons, let them not keep hold of me.’ Utu accepted his tears. Utu turned Dumuzid’s hands into snake’s hands. He turned his feet into snake’s feet. Dumuzid escaped his demons. They seized [broken tablet]……. Holy Inana wept bitterly for her husband. A fly spoke to holy Inana: ‘If I show you where your man is, what will be my reward?’…. She came up to the sister (?) and [broken]…… by the hand: “Now, alas, my [broken]……. You for half the year and your sister [the Queen of the netherworld, Ereshkigal] for half the year: when you are demanded, on that day you will stay, when your sister is demanded, on that day you will be released.” Thus holy Inana gave Dumuzid as a substitute …..”

The ending mirrors that of Adonis who likewise splits his time between Aphrodite (Inanna) and Perspehone (Ereshkigal), symbolizing the change of seasons between the Spring Equinox (Easter) and the Winter Solstice (Christmas).

7. I have a feeling that is not the only place “kicking against the goads” is found. That would be like saying that I’ve quoted N.T. Wright because I’ve said “the proof is in the pudding”. I’ve just as well quoted darn near every Brit to have walked the Earth.

Sure, but it’s said in the same context, from the god himself to a man who is repressing the religion. There’s also the chains breaking on their own accord to let the Dionysus’ followers out of jail, the same that happens to Peter and Paul. Like Jesus, Dionysus allows himself to be arrested and is interrogated by Pentheus in a way very similar to how Jesus is interrogated by Pontius Pilate. In the Gospel of John Jesus says, “You would have no authority at all over me, had it not been granted from above.” (19:10), similar to Dionysus saying, “Nothing can touch me that is not ordained.” (line 547). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” as he is being crucified. In The Bacchae, Dionysus tells Pentheus: “You know not what you are doing, nor what you are saying, nor who you are.” (line 484). Divine retribution is similarly promised in the poem, in which Dionysus says, “But I warn you: Dionysus who you say is dead, will come in swift pursuit to avenge this sacrilege.” (line 548).

8. I didn’t know that Ba’al was underdeveloped in Judaism.

In rabbinic Judaism, Ba’al is not Satan and Satan is not the devil.

10. That has nothing to do with Jesus. And that theory does not hold wide acceptance.

As with Ezekiel, it shows that the Tammuz cult has had a long history with Judaism. The style, theme and a good deal of content of the texts are identical. Just like in the Courtship of Dumuzi and Inanna, the husband is called a king and a shepherd, while his bride is also referred to as his sister. Both canticles consist largely of lovers’ dialogues separated by musical refrains, both use the terms milk and honey as sexual euphemisms, and both move from the mother’s house to a special apple tree for the honeymoon:

“Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. In his shade I take delight and sit down, and his fruit is sweet to my taste.” -Song of Solomon 2:3

“I would go with you to my apple tree.
There I would plant the sweet, honey-covered seed.” -Courtship of Dumuzi and Inanna

“Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.” -Song of Solomon 4:11

“Fill my holy churn with honey cheese.
Lord Dumuzi, I will drink your fresh milk.” -Courtship of Dumuzi and Inanna

“His legs are pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as its cedars.” -Song of Solomon 5:15

“At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar.” -Courtship of Dumuzi and Inanna

“If only you were to me like a brother, who was nursed at my mother’s breasts! Then, if I found you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me. I would lead you and bring you to my mother’s house– she who has taught me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the nectar of my pomegranates. His left arm is under my head and his right arm embraces me. Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires. Who is this coming up from the desert leaning on her lover? Under the apple tree I roused you; there your mother conceived you, there she who was in labor gave you birth.” -Song of Solomon 8:1-5

“Open the house, My Lady, open the house!”
Inanna ran to Ningal, the mother who bore her.” -Courtship of Dumuzi and Inanna

12. I didn’t know people thought that amulet was authentic.

The amulet was lost during World War 2 when the Berlin Museum was bombed by Allied forces. From my understanding, archaeological artifacts that are known fakes are not typically kept in museums. I’ve seen the argument at Bede.org that the blogger’s own personal research led him to believe the bent arms and legs only came from the Medieval era, but that’s simply unture. But even if we assumed it was fake, there is also 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.

Marble Sarcophagus of Dionysus with Cross

I don’t think I need recurse to devils in order to manage these parallels. Even if proven, they prove little. And I doubt that proof will be forthcoming. To demonstrate that there are similarities between Jesus and an ancient god is not to demonstrate that their is derivation.

What do you mean “they prove little”? You say that as if there are some other hypothetical arguments that would prove something, but what, in your mind, could I possibly have presented to you to make a compelling case? Are you saying these are all coincidences or are you saying it doesn’t even matter if all these themes were copied from prior mythological motifs? This unexplained dismissal only shows to me that you have erected a mental blockade to enforce a denial that any parallels can be accepted as evidence.

I disagree with your reading of Josephus. I think there is an authentic portion of the Tesimonium Flavian. Likewise, his references to Jesus’ brother, James, seems legitimate.

In 1912, William Benjamin Smith, a professor of Mathematics at Tulane University in New Orleans, presented an examination of the two paragraphs from Josephus, dividing it into five parts:

1) Pilate attempts to bring Caligula’s effigies into Jerusalem but is stopped by protestors for five days, after which Pilate decides to massacre them but changes his mind after seeing the Jewish protestors kneel and bear their necks to him in a show of self-sacrifice;

2) Pilate massacres protestors who try to stop him from using sacred money to create a water supply;

3) A random, unimportant wise man is crucified for no explained reason;

4) “And about the same time another terrible misfortune confounded the Jews…”; and

5) four thousand Jews are banished from Rome.

Smith argued that Josephus meant for this to be a list of massacres, and that the “terrible misfortune” that “confounded the Jews” mentioned in (4) could only be a reference to the massacre in (2) since that could hardly be an adequate description for the death of one wise man. This would mean that the entire Testimonium regarding Jesus must be a forgery. The phrase “a wise man, if indeed one may call him a wise man,” is still awkward, possibly indicating that the phrasing went through two redactions: the first one calling him a “wise man” and the second one adding the more pious parts including “if indeed one should call him a man.” Jerome’s Latin version instead has “He was believed to be the Christ” and Jewish philosophy scholar Schlomo Pines has called attention to a Lain manuscript from before the 700s A.D. that does not have the line “if indeed one ought to call him a man” (Zindler 59).

Smith had argued in a series of books since 1894 that the lack of historical details in the New Testament epistles implied Christianity had originated from a Nazorean sect derived from the Essenes. A German philologist named Eduard Norden also wrote a similar argument for the Josephus passage being a forgery independent of Smith a year after him (Wells, Early 191). Doherty also points out that “[i]n the case of every other would-be messiah or popular leader opposed to or executed by the Romans, he has nothing but evil to say” (Doherty 210). Given that Josephus helped kill thousands of his fellow Jews in battle over Messianic hopes, we would have to assume that had Josephus known about the Triumphal Entry and Jesus taking charge of the Temple grounds, which certainly would have been the most famous thing about the gospel Jesus, he would have written as negatively on him as he did all the other would-be Messiahs.

As for the New Testament writings, I didn’t know that “Scholars agree it’s all pseudo-graphical”. Not the ones I’ve read.

What Biblical scholars do you know believe the actual disciples wrote Matthew and John or that Peter wrote 1 and 2 Peter? I would guess any you would care to name also have a problem with the scientific fact that the earth is more than 6,000 years old. These are apologists. I’m talking about critical scholars, as in scholars who admit that the Bible is man made and contains contradictions and interpolations. Many conservative and Fundamentalists seem to think the majority of scholars are like themselves and it’s the “liberal Jesus” scholars who are on the “fringe”, but the truth is critical scholars do not even engage with apologists, just as apologists only reference other apologists. The debate in critical scholarship is not liberal Jesus scholars vs. apologists, but liberal Jesus scholars vs. apocalyptic Jesus scholars, like Albert Schweitzer, scholars who believe Jesus was preaching that the end of the world was to come to an end in the first century A.D.

And, for the record, Jesus as a cynic is relatively controversial and has been considered unwarranted by much of scholarship. Crossan does not have many backing him on the cynic claim.

Well, that would only have relevance if you actually read Crossan’s arguments, which as I said, you have already given me good reason to doubt.

In closing, I apologize if I’ve come across as disrespectful. I only felt the need to legitimize this correspondence because, as you’ve admitted, your view is very marginal and dismissed by most of scholarship.

The idea that Buddha is mythical is also marginal among Buddhist scholars, but as I already mentioned, new evidence has arrived to show Buddhism to be older than previously believed as well.

To summarize my thoughts: I am utterly unpersuaded.

Your first post called mythicism “blasphemous” so that obviously leads me to question if you can even allow yourself to accept the possibility that these parallels are significant without condemning yourself to divine punishment. So the question is, could anything persuade you? Since you do not offer an explanation of why it would not matter if the parallels are true or for what you consider to be legitimate evidence, I think not.

Jeff

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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.

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