Mythicists and the Biblical Scholars Who Hate Them

This is a response to “”Jesus Never Existed” – How Do We Respond?”:

I always find it funny when someone starts off by attacking mythicists as fringe conspiracy theorists — or even better: blasphemers — and then, immediately afterwards, start crying about how mythicists are a bunch of big meanies who (surprise, surprise!) respond to personal insults with personal insults of their own.

Here’s my own answers to the four points you brought up:

1. I have been studying Christianity for about 14 years. I believed in a historical Jesus for about half that time (as well as before I started studying the subject). I have read over 100 scholarly books on the topic and own a bookcase full of books dedicated to that topic alone. I changed my mind not because of any scholarship but because I discovered the Sepher Toledot Yeshu, which placed Jesus in the 1st century B.C. Seeing the earliest version of the Toledot was not derivative of the gospels and finding parallel confirmation in other sources such as Epiphanius and Mara Bar Serapion, I came to the conclusion that Jesus really lived in the first century B.C. and that the gospel Jesus was a myth based on the church’s reaction to the First Jewish-Roman war.

2. The scholars I most align myself with are G.R.S. Mead, Robert M. Price, Earl Doherty, John Dominic Crossan, Delbert Burkett, Richard Friedman, and Israel Finkelstein. I am also a fan of Rudolf Bultmann, Alvar Ellegard, Robert Funk, Albert Schweitzer, Paula Fredriksen, William G. Dever, Helmut Koester, Randel McCraw Helms, Joseph B. Tyson, Robert Eisenman, Margaret Barker, Hyam Maccoby and Joseph Campbell. Yes, I know Crossan believes in a historical Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that his scholarship, along with that of the Jesus Seminar, hasn’t done a great deal of undercutting of the historical underpinnings of the gospel Jesus by explaining why some 80% of Jesus’ sayings could not or probably do not go back to him. It really should not be at all surprising that people who decide to dedicate their lives to studying Christianity would have a bias against mythicism. Most Biblical scholars start off as Biblical Literalists who want to study the Word of God and eventually come around to the truth that the Bible is a human work full of contradictions and interpolations, so it’s hardly surprising that the idea that Jesus never existed would be a bridge too far.

3. That’s easy. Just look at the epistles, excluding the second century Pastorals, and you can see that nothing in them identifies Jesus as a first century itinerant healer or the originator of the teachings being promulgated. Jesus’ “brothers” in Mark’s gospel can be shown to be references to famous first century Galilean figures, showing it to be a story of fiction and not a mythologized bibliography. The canonical texts were chosen in lieu of the decision to regard the Apostolic Church as founded by the gospel Jesus. Other apocryphal texts such as the Didakhe fail to mention Jesus a itinerant healer/preacher as well and the The Sherpherd of Hermas, despite being immense, amazingly fails to even refer to Jesus by name! Other Gnostic texts like Gospel of Judas, which portrays Judas as Jesus’ twin and the only person to truly understand him, are obviously meant to be read as fiction. As to the credibility of a religion starting without a founder, most scholars generally agree that Judaism did not really originate with Moses but came about much later, probably with the canonization of the Bible during Ezra’s time. Apart from that, did Hinduism need a historical originator? Neither Buddha nor Zoroaster can be pinned down to a particular time period with any certainty. Just lately a Buddhist shrine in Nepal was dated 300 years before the generally accepted date for Buddha. Finally, one must ask about the historical likelihood that a localized peasant sect could grow into what became Christainity without overtaking a larger movement, such as the Essenes, in the process. Are there any other religions known in the world that began with someone as low on the totem pole as a Galilean peasant? I think my own theory, that Jesus can be identified with a priest from the Onias dynasty, which owned the rights to the Temple Mount before they were ousted from power, does better to account for how a religious movement could maintain the kind of early popularity necessary to become a major religion.

4. I have read the parallel texts and have written extensively on them. I should add that I do agree that Osiris and Mithras in particular are often overblown and mischaracterized by mythicists. Mithras did not die and come back and Osiris’ resurrection is done in a way that does not particularly parallel Jesus. Mythicists should instead focus their attention to Sumerian and other Mesopotamian texts, whose Biblical parallels with the Garden of Eden, the Fall of Man, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, and the death and resurrection of the fertility god are undeniable. I am always shocked at how little is known among Biblical scholars about the Mesopotamian texts with Biblical parallels considering they really should be required reading for anyone serious about studying the Bible. Ezekiel places the dying-and-rising god Tammuz as being worshiped by women at the Jerusalem Temple itself. If linking a dying-and-rising god to the time of Ezekiel’s composition isn’t good enough because it isn’t close enough to the first century A.D., we can look to Jerome, who said that “From Hadrian’s time [135 A.D.] until the reign of Constantine, for about 180 years…Bethlehem, now ours, and the earth’s, most sacred spot…was overshadowed by a grove of Tammuz, which is Adonis, and in the cave where the infant Messiah once cried, the paramour of Venus was bewailed.” Are we to believe the same pagans who persecuted Christianity stole the site and rededicated it to a much older god who just so happened to also be depicted as a shepherd and a fisherman, whose name Tammuz means “True Son”, and whose Eucharistic meal consisted of bread and wine, all from within a town that just coincidentally means “House of Bread”? The talisman depicting Orpheus becoming an avatar of the god Bacchus by being crucified beneath the seven planets, as shown on the cover of Freke and Gandy’s “The Jesus Mysteries,” is proof positive of correspondence with Christianity. Finally, I believe pretty much all Orthodox Jews would take issue with the assumption that the authors of the New Testament were “thoroughly Jewish” considering some verses such as blood becoming wine or Paul wishing that the “men of the circumcision” would just go all the way and castrate themselves. The New Testament itself is written in Greek, not Herbew or Aramaic. Plenty of non-mythicist scholars have drawn parallels between the teachings attributed to Jesus and the Greek philosophies of Cynicism and Stoicism.

I would very much like to maintain a dialogue with some critics of mythicism because I believe this is the best way to test my own beliefs and arguments. However, my attempts so far with striking up such a dialogue with Joel Watts and James McGrath have left me rather skeptical that critics of mythicism can really put forth an intelligent response that goes beyond “Denying a historical Jesus is no different than denying evolution or defending the Young Earth theory”, or as Bart Ehrman put it, “By staking out a position that is accepted by almost no one else, they open themselves to mockery and to charges of intellectual dishonesty.” And of course his complete unawareness would not be complete without going on to complain about how mean mythicists were in responding to the accusation that we are all intellectually dishonest for not bowing down to majority opinion. Hopefully, you might take note that of this obvious hypocrisy and try to address my response with the same respect you would give a person who has a different opinion than you regarding who Jesus was and what he believed, as opposed to the question of whether he existed or not.

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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.
  • Angelo

    So do you think John the Baptist was a historical character?

  • I’ve responded to your post at Freedom in Orthodoxy.

  • Pingback: Jesus Mythicism: Response^3 | Political Rants()

  • John the Baptist is attested in Josephus and Origen attests to him being in Josephus by the third century, so it’s definitely a stronger case than the Flavian Testimonium on Jesus. Atheist author Frank Zindler has argued that the passages are still probably added by a John the Baptist sect because they are right in the middle of another story about a war between Herod and Arteras, because John is sent into a castle in which Josephus just said was in Arteras’ command, and because Herod is said to have met a bad end when a different verse gives a different reason for Herod’s bad end. Also, a Greek Table of Contents fails to mention John while a Latin Table of Contents does have him. He isn’t mentioned by Philo or any Rabbinic source, so Zindler thinks John is either mythical or from long ago.

    An Arab historian named Aboulfatah, writing in the 1300s, said that the followers of Dositheus, a rival of Simon Magus who is mentioned in the Pseudo-Clementine literature, also placed Simon Magus as living 100 B.C.

    There are Aramaic scriptures from medieval times of the Mandaeans have a Book of John the Baptist, which includes a conversation with Jesus. Mandaeans refer to Jesus as a “lying Messiah”, although the verse could be translated as “Book Messiah”, which could possibly mean “mythical Messiah”. (The Manaeans were still living in Iraq until the Iraq War, when their community collapsed and they fled to the surrounding countries.)

    I’ve also heard that Yohanan can be derived from Honi, so that of course made me wonder if John was also based on Honi the Circle Drawer. But I don’t think that’s the case because they found a cave with drawings that look like John the Baptist, including his beheading. Since I really doubt Honi had two different stories of how he died associated with him, I’m going to assume he’s a different person.

    Also, there are bones in a Bulgarian medieval church that are claimed to be John the Baptist’s have been dated to the first century A.D.

    There was also something that made me think perhaps the person who baptized Yeshu was Anna (or Yeho-ANNAn?) the prophetess from the Gospel in Luke, not at Jerusalem’s Temple but the alternate Onias-built Temple in Leontopolis, Egypt, while he was escaping the sectarian conflict in Jerusalem. But I haven’t been able to find the source that made make me think that.

  • I forgot to mention that there is also a very similar story in Josephus about a rebel named Theudas who also gathers followers at the Jordan and is then beheaded. This may be the actual identity of the “John the Baptist cave” showing a crowned and beardless “John the Baptist” head. “Luke” also seems to be interested in it because he anachronistically had Gamaliel bring him up in a conversation. Theudas is also the name of the supposed disciple of Paul who taught Valentinus, which is interesting because I think we in fact inherited the Gospel and Apocalypse of John from the Valentinians and there are things in Revelation that make me think the original John was supposed to be John of Giscala, another rebel against Rome. Peregrinus, the second century Cynic who I think was original “Paul” of the earliest “Pauline” epistles, probably from the Montanists, was also said to have tried to incite the Greeks against Rome. The fact that their legacies were tied up in rebellion may explain why their identities needed to be changed.