On Christian Origins – Part 1: Why I favour Mythicism.

Summary:

The vast majority of professionals involved in studying the historical Jesus (Bible scholars, historians etc.) believe that Christianity began with a historical man named Jesus and his disciples.  The question that is then debated between secular, liberal and conservative Christian ranks is how much of the gospel accounts and church tradition is based on real history, and how much is mythical.  The view that the Jesus depicted in the gospels is not at very least based upon a real historical figure has been frowned upon by academia since it was first presented several centuries ago, and most scholars (and religious apologists) today attempt to dismiss arguments in favour of this view as being unworthy of serious debate.

However, whilst Jesus mythicism has largely been an area pursued by hobbyists, in recent decades it has attracted a small number of professional scholars, including in recent times radical Bible scholar Robert M. Price and historian Richard Carrier, who recently published the first peer-reviewed work on the topic to be printed by an academic press.  I personally am of the opinion that the work of Price and Carrier on this topic is of a far higher standard then what emerges from any other scholars, and likewise I think that there are many other notable writers in the field (with significant variation in qualifications and the quality of their writing) who also have much to contribute to the topic, regardless of how they are viewed by the majority of scholars.

I believe that when the facts are considered objectively, the theory that Christianity began not with a historical man but with a fictional literary character or deity is not merely plausible, but is actually quite likely.  When considered in detail (which we are not going to do here) the arguments presented for the historicity of Jesus do not stand up to scrutiny, and there is only a small amount of ambiguous evidence that should be presented in favour of historicity.  Furthermore, there is a very strong accumulative case against historicity, and when you consider the details and compare arguments from both sides (again which we are not going to do here) you can see that the evidence against historicity is well-grounded, and it is the dismissal of these arguments by the mainstream of religious studies that it is largely erroneous.

I cannot be absolutely certain about non-historicity, and I do not believe that anybody should make claims to certainty either way on the topic, as regardless of what theory of Christian origins you hold there are difficulties to be faced.  However, I am of the opinion that non-historicity is far more probable given the available evidence, and I have to agree with Richard Carrier that we are probably living right now in the transition period in which the theory will start to become more and more highly respected, just as the same took place in relation to the historicity of Abraham and Moses in the second half of the 20th century in response to overwhelming evidence from archaeology.

The hard part with Jesus is that it is not just Christians that have identified with Christ, and just like any addiction it is hard for many people to let go.  Letting go of Jesus does not mean abandoning spirituality however, and I argue that it is necessary for our spiritual evolution to pursue beliefs that remain true, whether or not the sacred myths of a particular nation or faith  turn out to have historically roots.  Reality is as it is regardless of whether your favourite god really walked the earth, or exists out there in the Astral cosmos as a real entity, separate from your belief in it.

Main Article:

So how did Christianity begin? Many, many people would like us to think that this question does not need to even be asked, as Christian apologists and conservative religious scholars make claims of absolute confidence in the traditional church account.  Liberal and secular scholars also believe that we can be certain about a number of bare facts, including the historicity of Jesus and his disciples.  I am one of a growing number of people that do not accept this as true, and identify themselves with the theory of non-historicity, which we refer to as Jesus mythicism, or the Christ myth theory (mythicism for short, though technically one could be a mythicist about various religious figures).

So, why is it that almost all professionals (and certainly all apologists) think that mythicism is so outrageous that it deserves only ridicule?  Is the idea itself of a prophet or deity held to be historical by many turning out to be mythical an outrageous proposition?  No, of course not.  We have countless examples of religious figures that have been believed to have been historical, where in light of the evidence today many (if not most) of us believe that they did not walk this earth.  Abraham and Moses fit this category perfectly, as prior to the last 50 (odd) years it was commonly assumed that they were historical figures, whereas modern scholarship supports the contrary.

Most of the gods of the ancient world are considered to have been mythical beings who never walked the earth by almost all modern-day people, despite the fact that there have always been people that sincerely believed the opposite, and that it was common for believers to write stories of these gods coming to earth and walking amongst men.  It may perhaps be true that Jews and Christians were particularly keen to try and place their religious figures in historical contexts, but this does not by itself mean that there was necessarily any more historicity to their prophets then to the gods of other nations.

We also have ancient witnesses who give conflicting accounts as to whether a deity of the ancient world was really a mortal man that was later mythicized or was always a local deity.  Whilst Osiris and Dionysus are viewed by most people today as mythical Egyptian and Greek gods, there was a trend in the ancient world contemporaneous with the development of Christianity in which such figures were thought to have been heroes of old, whom had been divinized after their deaths.  We have one very significant account from the Greek historian Herodotus who tells us about a man named Zalmoxis who was reported to have gone missing (and been assumed dead) and re-appeared (and been presumed resurrected by his followers), in which Herodotus himself admitted that he wasn’t sure whether this story was that of a real person, or a naturalised and historicised account of a local deity.

Therefore, we know with a high degree of certainty that some religious figures were historical men (and women) who were later deified (as in the case of Roman Emperors), and vice versa; we know that that some religious figures were mythical gods and prophets that were euhemerized (historicized).  Hence, prior to examining the specifics it is just as probably that Jesus was one or the other; therefore the idea that Jesus was non-historical is not a ridiculous idea at all.

So mythicism can’t be considered to be outrageous on that point.  So, is the evidence in favour of historicity so overwhelming that it is outrageous to deny or question it?  Well, I say no.  It is important to note that there is significant diversity amongst historicists, particularly between conservative Christians and secular scholars. There are certainly some overlapping arguments between the two, but by and large they go about making significantly different cases, using vastly different approaches.  Hence I will discuss them separately.

The traditional view of Jesus and its defenders:

If one was only to read and listen to the opinions of conservative Christians on the subject of Jesus one could be excused for thinking that there was “more evidence for the historicity of Jesus then Julius Caesar”, or that “the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best attested event in all of history”.  Those in the know will realise that I am not merely paraphrasing Christian apologists here, but rather am quoting them word for word, as they make extraordinary and entirely misleading claims to an audience that trusts them to give them the truth on a subject they hold most sacred.

Unfortunately for Christians they are being misled, and it doesn’t take much detective work to uncover that fact.  The vast majority of claims and arguments being used by Christian apologists are in-truth sick jokes, making a mockery of their claims to be defending truth.  For example, one of the primary arguments they present for the historicity of Jesus is that we apparently have a larger array of surviving manuscripts for the New Testament then for any other surviving work of the classical world, and the earliest manuscripts (and/or fragments) date closer to the time of the original composition then for any other examples.  Apologists then proceed to claim that therefore this makes the NT more reliable then any other ancient work, as if this is some standard means test amongst scholars studying “textual integrity”.  The problem is that the whole argument is bunk, proves pretty much nothing, and runs contrary to real secular textual criticism, which actually concludes the opposite of what apologists claim; that being that the NT has suffered numerous interpolations and redactions in its current form.

Likewise, apologists frequently take the claim from 1st Corinthians 15:6 that there were 500 witnesses to the resurrection as equivalent to having 500 people stand up in a court of law to testify to the event.  In truth however, it is merely a claim found in one ancient letter, and even if Paul had spoken to 500 people that had claimed to have seen the risen Christ, it could simply be a common vision, as religious believers in a particular community often have shared experiences.  Likewise, apologists also like to reference Acts 4 in which the disciples stand before the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leaders do not deny that Jesus performed miracles or that they crucified him.  However, most secular scholars believe that Acts is not merely an unbiased historical work, but rather is a work of religious propaganda (though apologists and conservative Christian scholars claim to have proven its historical accuracy). You cannot simply use the Bible to prove the Bible, just as you cannot do the same for the Vedas or Bhagavad-Gita, or any other religious text.  Obviously this is circular reasoning, and it is not a valid method of arguing for historicity.

Heading down into the bottom of the barrel of apologetic arguments you encounter all sorts of erroneous claims such as the disciples wouldn’t have died for a lie, or that the Gospels were written too early to be a myth (and that the early dating of the NT is verified by the church fathers), or that they were written by eye-witnesses, or that Christianity was too impossible to have survived had it not been true, or that the empty tomb and its female witnesses proves the resurrection (William Lane Craig has written many, many words on this doozy), or that the reliability of Jewish oral tradition validates the accuracy of the NT and other equally bunk claims (which I have dealt with in detail in my book, but in truth do not deserve any real time or consideration).

The only real evidence that apologists present that has any possibility of truth is in the “non-Christian attestation”, that being references to Jesus and Christianity in Jewish and Roman sources.  However, Christian apologists vastly misrepresent the evidence and again reach the wrong conclusions.  Apologists tell their flock that there are a large number of secular references to Jesus that affirm various aspects of the Gospel story and effectively prove that Jesus was indeed a historical figure.  In reality however the vast majority of these references can certainly be seen as natural responses from the Roman and Jewish world to Christian preaching, and there are only a handful of passages that could possibly be seen as external verification for the historicity of Jesus.

The passages in question that should at least be considered in detail are those found in the works of Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius and the Babylonian Talmud; all other sources in this category (Lucian, Celsus etc.) should be viewed as most likely responses to Christian preaching, or Christians attempting to find verification for their beliefs where there was none (such as in the case of Thallus). Whilst there is not the room to deal with these references properly here (I have done so in detail in my book), I will give a quick summary for those unfamiliar.  There are two passages found in Josephus’s work “Antiquities of the Jews” that mention Jesus.  The first of these in chapter 18 (known as the “Testimonium Flavianum”) is unquestionably at least a partial interpolation, though opinions vary as to whether or not there was an authentic core or whether the entire passage is an interpolation.

I personally believe that there is an excellent case for total inauthenticity based on the following: The whole thing reads as a condensed Christian creed, it was not quoted by any Christian author until Eusebius in the 4th century, the passage interrupts the flow of the chapter and if it is removed the following paragraph directly references and follows on from the paragraph prior to it, Eusebius refers to the passage being in a different place relative to the discussion of John the Baptist, there are extensive Christian interpolations in Josephus’ other work “The Jewish War”, and Photius quotes extensively from Josephus in the 9th century without mentioning this passage etc.  Whilst there are various theoretical arguments that can be produced in favour of partial authenticity, the only actual evidence that exists for that possibility is the Syriac and Arabic versions of the Testimonium.  In these cases the passages do indeed read less like statements of Christian faith and more like what one would expect from a Jewish historian.

On the basis of this evidence I must concede that there is some evidence that could be presented for partial authenticity of the Testimonium, which can then be presented as possible evidence for the historicity of Jesus (possible only as it could still be argued that Josephus only heard about Jesus from Christians, though I personally find this unlikely).  However, there have also been some scholars that have argued that the Arabic and Syriac versions of the Testimonium are derived from the Greek version as quoted by Eusebius, and that they were ‘softened’ for philosophical and political reasons.  Personally I favour this conclusion for a number of reasons, the most notable being the following, which is also my primary reason for believing that Josephus not only never mentioned Jesus, but had also never heard of Jesus Christ or Christianity.

Josephus’s entire work “The Antiquities…” was heavily polemic against messianic Jews, and he sought to separate himself and the “good Jews” from the messianic Jews that started the war with Rome (in which he himself fought).  Josephus effectively betrayed the Jews with which he had fought at the point of surrender, claiming that Vespasian himself was the messiah that the Jews had awaited.  If Josephus had heard of Jesus and Christianity he would have written about them in distinctly negative terms, as he was trying very hard to distance himself (and Judaism as a whole) from the messianic movement.  Hence, I believe that the evidence is consistent not only with the whole Testimonium being inauthentic, but also with Josephus not being at all familiar with Christianity.

As for the second passage in chapter 20, very few scholars will concede the possibility that it did not originally refer to the Jesus of Christianity.  However, there is a good possibility that this is so, for if the words “called Christ” are removed (and seen as an interpolation from the hands of Origen, originally written as a note in his own writings and later copied into the main text of Josephus) then the passage makes perfect sense as referring to a different Jesus (Jesus son of Damneus).

As for Suetonius and Tacitus, they tell a well-known story of Christians being persecuted by Nero in Rome in the 60’s CE, and they briefly attest to the origins of the sect with Jesus.  It is of course possible that the persecutions under Nero were historical (most scholars believe they were) and it is possible that the Romans had some sources for the crucifixion of Jesus. However, it is also possible that Suetonius and Tacitus were merely repeating stories they were hearing from Christians, and in light of other evidence this is personally the conclusion which I favour (though there is also potentially more to it then that).

As for the Babylonian Talmud, there are several references to a Yeshu that have parallels to Jesus.  However the references in question are nothing short of a mess, they contradict each other and have various differences to the gospel accounts, and the whole communications style of the Talmud is quite unusual; hence it is difficult to know in what context the passages were intended to be read.  Due to a number of reasons it seems quite likely that they were written as Jewish polemics to Christian preaching, and no reasonable historian could read too much into the uncertainty surrounding these passages.

Given that the best that can be produced by Christian apologists for full historicity gives only at best the possibility of historicity, it is clear that we should give time and attention to alternative voices on the subject, and that conservative Christian scholars and apologists cannot be trusted to give reasonable and objective opinions on the subject.  Rather, it is clear that they enter the discussion with vested interests in preserving the status quo of orthodox Christianity.  The people in question are not merely upholding a conspiracy of sorts; rather they have made their Christian faith part of their personal identity (their ego), and they are doing what the ego does best, attempting to preserve its precarious existence by upholding the identity which they have chosen.  Hence, we cannot expect them to be reasonable with the evidence.

Minimal historicity, liberal and secular scholarship:

Conservative Christians do love to cite the academic consensus on the historicity of Jesus as supporting their assertions, particularly in response to the claims of mythicists.  In truth however, liberal and secular scholarship on the topic only concludes that there was a historical man named Jesus of Nazareth who taught, gathered disciples and was crucified under Pontius Pilate.  All the rest of the gospel narrative is unsupported by mainstream academia.  Whilst the position of Christian apologists (that being full historicity to the NT accounts) is completely untenable both in light of the weakness of apologists arguments and also in light of contrary arguments (that we have not yet summarized), this mainstream position is certainly far more reasonable, and no question absolutely plausible.

We should be able to trust academia to give us accurate, unbiased considerations of the available evidence, especially when there appears to be a consensus amongst scholars.  However, as is the case in other subjects all human beings are prone to personal bias, and academia follows trends, whether or not there are religious motivations for these aberrations.  In truth there is significant diversity in what secular scholars believe about the historical Jesus, and when we examine their methodology the whole house of cards begins to fall over.

I have already briefly touched on the secular references to Jesus and Christianity, to which we should consider several possibilities as to how they came to be, some of which are consistent with a historical Jesus and some of which are not.  So, it is not as if there is not some evidence that at least on first impression should be viewed as supporting historicity.  However, these references do not preclude non-historicity, and their existence can be easily explained as a secular response to Christian preaching, along with interpolation (forgery) by later Christian scribes.  What then of the other evidence and arguments that mainstream scholars cite for the historicity of Jesus?

Secular NT scholars commonly cite a series of tests that they apply to ancient works to determine what is historical and what is fictional, such as the criteria of embarrassment, multiple attestation, coherence, discontinuity, rejection and execution.  By applying these criteria to the gospels scholars argue that some parts are historical, whilst rejecting other parts as fictional embellishments.  The problem is that this is such a weak methodology for so many reasons, and it is almost embarrassing that mainstream academia would place so much weight on a completely theoretical approach.  In truth, we do not know who wrote (and edited) the various NT texts and what their thought processes were, not to mention that this method assumes that a text is historical in order to treat it as such, and could likewise create a false impression that there was a historical core when applied to a work of fiction.  Richard Carrier and a few others have rightfully been pointing out that scholars of the historical Jesus need to adopt better methods, and when quizzed many in the field have admitted as such.

Secular scholars also often claim that the presence of a handful of Aramaic words in the gospels (along with a few passages that appear to have been interpreted from Aramaic sources) validates the view that the gospel narrative has roots in the experiences of Aramaic speaking Jews from Judea (whereas in fact every single NT text was originally written in Greek as far as we have manuscript evidence for).  In truth however, there are multiple possibilities as to how a handful of Aramaic words and sources ended up in the NT texts (such as that the author/s of the gospels also spoke Aramaic, or consulted with someone that did) that do not necessitate a historical Jesus, and again this argument is extremely weak.

Another argument along similar lines is that the NT texts are dependent upon now lost source texts (such as Q), and that these sources must have originated with a historical Jesus and his followers.  Again however, this argument is entirely theoretical and its conclusion is erroneous.  Firstly, the existence of these sources texts is purely hypothetical and it is just as likely (if not more so) that there were in-truth no such source texts, but that the details of the synoptic problem (and others) can be solved in other ways.  Furthermore, even if such source texts did exist, they still need not be dependent upon a historical Jesus and his followers.

Mainstream scholars (and Christian apologists) also commonly like to make a big deal out of references to the “brothers of the Lord” in the epistles (Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 9:5), claiming that “myths don’t have families”.  Richard Carrier and Robert Price have given lengthy responses to this argument, and I would simply just refer my readers to check them out if you are interested.  I personally have always felt that this argument was much ado about nothing.  Once again there are so many possible explanations for how these passages originated, and only some of these would involve a historical Jesus; hence the presence of these passages in no way precludes the possibility of non-historicity.

So, whilst the idea of a minimal historical Jesus is plausible and there does exist secular references to Jesus, the actual case presented by secular historians and NT scholars is extremely weak (at best), and conceivably could be entirely and absolutely flawed.  Hence, it is worth at least considering whether mythicists can produce strong evidence against historicity, and if they are able to then we should give credit to that explanation.

Jesus Mythicism:

Whilst I can state that I lean towards mythicism, it should be made clear that there is not one single mythicist theory on Christian origins.  The vast majority of mythicist theories share certain common ground (which should be the strongest arguments), and from there the weaker works rely on secondary arguments, which are often quite a stretch, and in some cases entirely erroneous.  That is not to say that there are not some excellent arguments that are ignored by some mythicists, as I personally believe that there is much evidence in this field that is often overlooked, not just by those hostile to mythicism.  There is however a great deal of variance in this field between the best and worst writers, their presentations of the relevant evidence and arguments, and the plausibility (or lack thereof) of the overall origins theory, which they present.

For example, Richard Carrier, Robert Price and Earl Doherty present their cases very well, as do some Internet mythicists such as Neil Godfrey (who runs the Vridar blog) and my friend D.N. Boswell (though his use of satire may confuse some).  Other hobbyists such as D.M. Murdock, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy and Kenneth Humphreys contribute much to the field IMO, but also make some mistakes and do not present their work with the same standard as the best in the field.  Others such as Joseph Atwill give a bad name to the whole field, and most of us do not wish to be associated with work of that nature.

So, what evidence do I personally believe should be presented in favour of non-historicity?  To start with, we have the vast amount of literary and mythological parallels found in the gospels (as well as in Acts) that lead us to the obvious conclusion that the authors of these works were aware that they were writing fiction, or employed questionable methods in writing their scriptures, that often involved “discovering” what Jesus had done through revelation and allegorical readings of the Hebrew scriptures (see Romans 16:25-26).

The gospels are filled from start to finish with blatant references and parallels to the Hebrew scriptures, making it quite obvious that their authors employed the Jewish literary techniques of midrash or pesher, in extrapolating new narratives from their sacred texts.  Whilst proponents of this theory may also present some weak parallels, the strongest ones are so clear that it rightly calls into question whether there was any historical source for the gospel narrative at all, or whether the entire gospels were written as literary fiction?

Using only the gospel of Mark (which was almost certainly written first and used as a source for all later gospels) as our example, we have various parallels with the stories of Elisha (such as 2 Kings 4:43-44 with Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10, or between 2 Kings 4:8-37 and Mark 5:21-43), numerous parallels between the crucifixion narrative and Psalms 22, the story of Jonah (Jonah 1:4-16), Psalm 107 and Mark 4:35-41, or 1 Kings 13:1-6 and Mark 3:1-6.  Whilst it is of course possible that the writers of the gospels merely embellished a historical narrative with references to fiction, the more legitimate parallels that can be found the more an accumulative case is built against historicity, and the more likely complete non-historicity becomes.

Then there are the parallels found between the gospel of Mark and several works of Homer (primarily “The Odyssey”), which make it quite apparent that the author of Mark was attempting to kill two birds with one stone, in inserting parallels to both Jewish and Greek mythology.  As with the above, there are certainly some weaker parallels presented in favour of this theory, but the strongest ones are quite clear, and any objective reader should be able to accept the natural conclusion that the earliest gospel is largely based on a work of pagan literary fiction.  The parable of the tenants (Mark 12:1-12) summaries the Gospel narrative in terms that resemble a summary of the Odyssey, and the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11) has parallels with Athena coming down from heaven to speak with Telemachus.  The “messianic secret” theme in Mark is paralleled by the secrecy of Odysseus when he returns to his home, and there is a remarkable parallel between the story of Jesus being anointed with oil (Mark 14:3-9) with the story of Odysseus having his feet washed by Eurycleia (this one is a killer), and Mark’s identification of James and John as the “sons of thunder” is a dead giveaway that the author of Mark was thinking of the Greek brothers Castor and Polydeuces.  I don’t really have room here to cover all of the parallels in detail, so I recommend that those interested investigate further for themselves (and of course, I have covered this in necessary detail in my book); needless to say, an objective reader will be amazed at the strength of this case when presented properly.

Then there is the controversial subject of pagan parallels, to which Christian apologists claim we mythicists are grasping at straws, and to which most secular scholars believe we stretch the truth and go way too far.  I have already given a lengthy defence of the theory of pagan parallels in my original article on Justin Martyr’s “Diabolical Mimicry” argument (which can be found on this website), and the next article in this three-part series will deal with apologetic and scholarly objections to pagan parallels in some detail (not to mention that I went into considerable detail in my book).  For the time being then, let me just summarize the topic in a paragraph or two.

Critics of Christianity have since the 2nd century CE pointed out that there are obvious parallels between the figure of Jesus (and the things believed about him) and various pagan gods and other religious figures.  The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that the early Christians that wrote the gospels were familiar with these pagan figures and literarily copied various features across into their narrative, regardless of whether there was some partial historicity to their story or not.  Certainly there have been some very poor presentations of this theory both from early mythicists in the 18th-19th centuries, and in recent times by hobbyists and Internet amateurs.  Having said that however, the case is legitimate and objective readers should be able to recognize the strength of the case.

The motif of a god or hero being conceived via the union of a male god with a mortal female was literarily everywhere in the ancient world, and there were indeed a number of pre-Christian examples where the mortal woman was also a virgin.  Resurrection in various forms was likewise commonplace in ancient religion and mythology, and it was actually the central concept of the single most well known religions and cults in the ancient world (that being the Sumerian cult of Inanna and Tammuz and the Egyptian cult of Osiris, through to the Greek and Roman Mystery religions), starting 3,000 years prior to Christianity right through to the time in which Christianity emerged.

Not only that, but the cults based around myths of gods that had died and been reborn or resurrected also offered the same thing for their followers that Christianity did, promising eternal life after death, free from suffering.  Not only that, but the Mystery religions also practiced initiation through immersion in water, took part in ritual meals where they “ate the god” and various other strong parallels to Christianity.  Richard Carrier has rightfully stated that you could have asked somebody just prior to the Common Era what a pseudo-Jewish Mystery cult would look like, and literarily predicted pretty much every single major feature of Christianity, simply by combining messianic Judaism with the pagan Mystery religions.  Hence, it is extraordinary that so many today are in denial of this reality; a fact that will surely be embarrassing for religious studies in the near future.

Then there are the various contradictions and historical difficulties found amongst the NT texts.  The four gospels contradict each other constantly from start to finish (the perfect examples being the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke), making it quite clear that at least to some degree they weren’t concerned with preserving historical details, but were driven by theological motives.  Furthermore, several major features of the gospel narrative appear almost impossible when we consider their details.  Case in point, the “cleansing of the temple” episode ignores the necessity of money changers and vendors selling ritual animals for the functioning of the Jewish temple, let alone that there were Roman guards out the front, and Jesus and his followers would probably have been killed on the spot had they created a disturbance in the temple.  Likewise, Mark has the Sanhedrin meeting on the eve of the Sabbath, which would have been illegal at the time.

Given all this, we can reject pretty much the entire gospel narrative as being fictitious, leaving us only with the epistles, Acts and the revelation of John in the NT.  Acts suffers from the same issues as does the gospels, and revelation is a thinly veiled allegory predicting divine and demonic punishment upon Rome and all of the enemies of the Jews (and/or Christians).  As for the epistles, mythicists have long pointed out that they are practically inexplicable if there were a historical Jesus.  Richard Carrier emphasises this point as the primary argument for his case (as do most good mythicists), as most scholars believe that the Pauline epistles were written before the gospels (I personally have ultra-radical views on the Pauline epistles, which I will explain in the third and final article in this series).

In the epistles bearing his name, Paul writes that he received his information about Christ from revelations (visions) and from the Jewish scriptures, states that he was uninterested in hearing earthly concepts of Christ, and that he stands against other forms of Christianity that claim earthly authority (though there are also other passages which appear to contradict these statements).  Likewise, there appears to be many places in the epistles where it would be convenient to reference episodes from the gospels (had they been known or accepted as Scripture at the time), but where the author/s fail to do so.  Furthermore, the theology of the primary Pauline epistles appears to be quite Gnostic, which leads into the little known or discussed fact that there was considerable controversy surrounding these epistles (and the identity of Paul himself) in the 2nd century, and heterodox Christians claimed them as their own and based their theology upon them.  I will discuss this in brief in my third article in the series, and I discuss it in detail in my book.

Mythicists have produced long lists of writers from the 1st century CE that they claim should have mentioned Jesus if he had really lived.  Unfortunately the majority of the people on these lists should not be on there (for various reasons).  However, there are a handful of writers from the time period that could legitimately have been expected to write something about Jesus had he been known to them.  The first of these is Philo of Alexandria, who lived in the early 1st century CE, was well connected and had travelled to Jerusalem, and wrote extensively on religion, philosophy and issues relevant to Jews of his day.  However Philo failed to mention Jesus and Christianity, despite the fact that even a minimal, historical Jesus is supposed to have done significant things (such as causing a disturbance in the temple), and his followers were supposed to have encountered resistance from the Romans wherever they went.

There was also another Jewish historian named Justus of Tiberius, of whom we are told said nothing about Jesus.  It should be noted that despite the fact that the works of Justus do not survive today, the witness for this was a Christian; hence surely a Christian would have told us if Justus had indeed mentioned Jesus.  Combine the silence of Philo and Justus with the fact that Josephus should have been expected to give a harsh rebuttal of Jesus and his followers had he been aware of them, we have a legitimate argument that no Jewish writer from the 1st century CE knew anything about Jesus or his followers.  In light of this we can make a legitimate argument from silence, and conclude that the available evidence best fits the non-historicity thesis (though again, it does not completely preclude historicity).

As Richard Carrier has succinctly stated, it is not so much that (good) mythicists are simply arguing that Jesus couldn’t have been historical, therefore he must have been a myth.  Rather, there is so much evidence that the Jesus of the NT is a myth, that it is more likely that he was not historical.  Carrier and others argue that we are missing the evidence that we should have expected had Christianity begun with a historical figure, and we have precisely the evidence we should expect had Christianity begun with a mythical figure, whose followers later historicized Jesus with the gospel narratives (I would like to note that to many mythicists the consensus that the epistles preceded the gospels is presented as a primary argument for mythicism; personally I only partially agree with this, and I will explain my own views in the third article of this series).

Conclusion:

Obviously the above is an extremely brief summary of why I favour mythicism, and I would expect historicists to object to pretty much everything that I have written, and that is fine.  If anyone wishes to accuse me of being biased and being motivated towards favouring mythicism, I would like to point out that I myself favoured a belief in a supernatural Yogi Jesus (as espoused by Paramahansa Yogananda) prior to my personal study of this topic.  Hence, if anything I would have been biased towards not merely a historical Jesus, but a supernatural, miracle-working, resurrected Jesus.

Out of all the plausible models for the emergence of Christianity (that being excluding the traditional view), none of them actually suit my overall view of comparative religion any more then any other.  Hence, I would argue that my view on the topic is separate from my overall worldview, and I would be happy to change my view on this topic if someone could convince me otherwise.  Human beings do not like changing their beliefs, and will generally resist doing so even when faced with evidence that utterly refutes their presumptions.  Human beings try and make their beliefs part of their identity, so when their beliefs are challenged they tend to take it personally and feel that part of themselves is under threat.

In relation to Jesus this is so not only of conservative Christians, but also followers of other religions and New Ager’s, who often have their own picture of who they believe Jesus was, that conveniently makes him one of their own.  It has been quite a surprise to me over the years to discover that religious liberals and those amongst the New Age movement can get just as upset as religious conservatives when their picture of Jesus is challenged.  I would suggest that a truly enlightened approach to religion and spirituality should not be dependent upon any one religious figure, text or tradition.  Rather it should be dependent upon timeless and universal (i.e. perennial) truths, and whilst it is advisable to choose a particular path to travel through to the end (rather then merely scratching the surface of many traditions), ones chosen path should be seen ultimately as a mere tool to help one directly experience Spirit.

If our spirituality is authentic then it shouldn’t matter whether or not Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Lao-Tzu, Pythagoras, Plato, Kuan Yin or any other religious figure was a historical person or not.  Rather, it should only matter whether the teachings that are associated with them are true or not.  I have no doubt that both Christians and non-Christians alike have authentic spiritual experiences of Christ, regardless of whether or not their beliefs about the nature of reality are accurate.  Sincere Buddhists have visions of Buddha, Hindus have visions of Krishna, Shiva and a plethora of other deities, devotees in the ancient world world had visions of Osiris and Dionysus, Theosophists have had visions of the ascended masters, and New Ager’s have visions of all of the above.

This does not necessarily mean however that they are either all deluded and the experiences lack any objective reality, or that all of these gods are objectively real in one sense or another.  I believe that Spirit will work with us through the context of our pre-existing beliefs and the language and symbolism of which we are familiar.  Likewise however, I believe that there is not a clear defining line between spiritual and psychological experiences, and that most visions and other religious experiences feature a complex combination of both.

The spiritual seeker should attempt to experience truth outside of the bubble of their personal experiences and cultural conditioning.  I want to know what is true, what has always been true and what will always be true.  I don’t just want to have self-validating experiences that ultimately prevent further growth, though they may be comforting at the time.  I have long been a fan of the Bhagavad-Gita, and although I think some interpretations (such as that by ISKON) misrepresent its message, it teaches that taking a personal form of God as an object of worship and meditation is helpful for most people, as it can be quite hard to reach that which has no name or form.  However, we mustn’t mistake the finger for the moon itself (to change analogies), or think that the elephant’s trunk is the whole elephant.  Rather, religious myths have limitations and can restrict us if we take identification with them too far, and we have abundant evidence that religion can become so immersed in ego that it can actually prevent the cultivation of real spirituality.

As for how Christianity began, I personally think there a number of plausible explanations, and that we should be cautious about becoming too invested in any particular origins theory, though it is ok to have our personal preferences.  Christian apologists and conservative religious scholars seem to live in their own bubble where they can make all sorts of erroneous claims using all manner of contorted arguments, and maintain a successful career reaching the wrong conclusions.  Mainstream scholarship on the other hand is far more sensible, though the methodology being applied to the study of early Christianity at the moment is a bit of a joke; one can only hope that the field sorts itself out rather then becoming an embarrassment to academia.  Whilst we should legitimately be cautious about Internet mythicism, objective readers will discover that mythicism is not only a plausible possibility for Christian origins, but might just be the most likely.

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4 thoughts on “On Christian Origins – Part 1: Why I favour Mythicism.

  1. Quote: Human beings do not like changing their beliefs, and will generally resist doing so even when faced with evidence that utterly refutes their presumptions. Human beings try and make their beliefs part of their identity, so when their beliefs are challenged they tend to take it personally and feel that part of themselves is under threat. end Quote.

    You hit the nail on the head. This causes the debate to become very heated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Clear, concice, no rhetorical trickery, and to the point. Can’t wait for your book. Will be made avalible in physical form or E. form?

    Like

  3. Thanks again Daniel, I really appreciate the positive feedback. I’m looking into different self-publishing options, though the sheer length of my book produces possible complications (its approx. 500,000 words). I am considering splitting it into two, though I think my heart wants to keep it as it is. Obviously due to the length there will be more costs involved in printing then with a shorter book. I would really like to get it into print, though I am seriously considering an Ebook if necessary. One way or the other I don’t want to drag my feet on this for too much longer (it’s been finished for about 18 months). I will be blogging regularly from now on, and I will certainly make it well known on here when it is available to purchase (and I will also give a summary of it here as well). Also, if you are interested, please check out my page on FB: https://www.facebook.com/JamesHiscoxAuthor?ref=hl

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