Assessing the Christ Myth Theory

The question of Jesus’s historicity, addressed in good secular faith

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Jesus mythicism, the theory that there was no historical Jesus and that Christianity is therefore based on a colossal fraud or gross misunderstanding has thrived on the intellectual dark web. Certainly, this view of Christianity is dark enough to be at home on the outskirts of polite society. But the intellectual merits of the Christ myth theory are often lost in the canards, red herrings, and strawmen that divert mythicists and traditional Christians alike.

Here I’ll clarify, therefore, what seems to me the most intellectually-responsible way of answering this question.

A Very Brief Summary of the Mythicist’s Case

First, I’ll summarize some Christ mythicist arguments to give you an idea of the debate, if you’re not familiar with it.

The problems for traditional Christianity begin with the available sources. Paul’s epistles are strangely silent about a historical Jesus, since they focus instead on a theology of achieving personal salvation by identifying with a suffering but triumphant intermediary deity. That theology could have been taken wholesale from Mithraism, Orphism, and the other ancient Mystery cults. I’ll go into more detail about the non-Christian dying-and-rising gods, in a later section.

The epistles’ few references to concrete details such as to Jesus’ being born of a woman or to his having been crucified hardly distinguish Paul’s proclamations from myths, since myths differ from abstract philosophizing precisely by dramatizing big ideas. The fact that bulls exist doesn’t mean Mithra actually lived and slayed a bull, even though the myths are “realistic” enough to have specified the type of animal which was sacrificed to the sun god. Even Jesus’s name isn’t a clear-cut historical detail in the New Testament, since although it was a common name at the time “Yeshua” meant “to rescue, save, or deliver” and is therefore suspicious for being theologically convenient to Christians.

The gospels aren’t eyewitness accounts, since Matthew and Luke and perhaps also John are based on Mark. You can see word-for-word how Matthew and Luke modify Mark in pursuit of a theological agenda. Mark himself engages in literary invention in his dramatization of the Pauline suffering savior, especially in his passion narrative.

Q and Thomas are lists of sayings attributed to Jesus, but as mere lists they could initially have been attributed to some other wise person or to no one at all, before Jesus’s name was attached to them. After all, the perspective displayed in those documents wasn’t revolutionary but was that of Stoicism, Cynicism, or Essenic Judaism.

There are other early, non-Christian references to Jesus, such as from Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, and Suetonius, but they’re all deeply problematic. Some testify only to the existence of Christianity and to the Christian’s beliefs and practices, not independently to the historicity of Jesus. Josephus likely passed through the hands of Christian copyists who could have served as interpolators, adding pro-Christian messages to the passages in his Antiquities of the Jews. The only question for critical historians is the degree of Christian invention in Josephus. Did Christians write the whole of the two passages or just parts of them? (See Earl Doherty’s chapter on Josephus, in The Jesus Puzzle, for a compelling case that Christian copyists added the entire passages.)

In short, the evidence for Jesus’s historicity is mixed at best; indeed, the evidence is much poorer than we’d have expected, given what Christians have been saying for two thousand years. It looks like Christianity began as a Jewish version of a Mystery cult, as a merger of the Jewish expectations of the messiah with the rites and theology of the pagan savior gods and with the Hellenistic philosophy of the divine intermediary deity (Logos), which coincided with Jewish speculation about a similar figure, known as personified Wisdom.

Mark dramatized the life and death of that intermediary, presenting Christians with the first known gospel narrative, which seemed to function for him as a parable, and subsequent Christian communities failed Mark’s test since they took it all literally! Moreover, Jesus was historicized for political reasons, to confine religious authority and power to certain inheritors of the competing traditions, thus elevating what came to be an ecumenical church over more free-thinking Gnostic Christianity.

Jesus Mythicism in the History of New Testament Criticism

Now, if you’re interested in the question whether Jesus could have been a mythical figure all along, the first line of defense you’ll hear from Christian apologists is that no reputable Bible scholar subscribes to Jesus mythicism, since that view has been discredited in the scholarly community.

There are two dubious contentions that make up this compound canard. Let’s start with the second one. Have the mythicist arguments been systematically and decisively refuted by the scholarly community? Not at all. (See Earl Doherty’s comprehensive unmasking of this dubious claim.)

Instead, what happened in the history of New Testament criticism is much more in line with what the pragmatist Richard Rorty would have expected: the scholars changed the subject. New theoretical approaches or paradigms came along so that the old ones became unfashionable or obsolete. Think of the fashions that come and go in the music, clothing, and food industries. Does change in taste “refute” the earlier preferences? No, the transition is more like the difference between playing poker one day and chess the next. If chess comes afterward, that hardly means chess has disproven poker.

That’s not to say that scholarly criticism of the Bible is purely subjective and game-like. On the contrary, this critical approach has uncovered many historical and literary truths that were long hidden by the alternative stance, namely the Church’s dogmatic, anti-critical one. Historical criticism of the Bible has been uniformly negative, as far as Christian apologists and Bible inerrantists should be concerned. But there are degrees of negativity and subversion, as we’ll see.

The critical-historical approach to Christian origins begins with the Enlightenment thinkers in the eighteenth century, although there were forerunners in Hobbes and Spinoza. Reimarus, for example, invented the search for the historical Jesus, by distinguishing that figure from the apostles’ theological overlay.

The critical, rational, non-dogmatic search for the historical Jesus continued through the next century until Albert Schweitzer demolished it, by showing how the resulting scholarly pictures of the so-called historical Jesus were better understood as reflections of the modern authors’ liberal European values, since these pictures tended to leave out Jesus’s premodern assumption that the world was about to end. Instead of getting at the objective facts, these scholars were intent on seeing Jesus in a positive light, albeit in the light shone from a modern, naturalistic standpoint. The Jesus Seminar would return to this liberal secular search for the historical Jesus, in the 1980s.

In any case, modern Jesus mythicism begins in the late nineteenth century with the German history of religions school, which emphasized syncretism and the similarities between religions. (Theosophy and perennialism begin in the same period.) These scholars maintained that Christianity should be understood in its original historical context which included the Mystery cults.

Note how Wikipedia’s article on biblical criticism introduces the transition to the period of twentieth century criticism: “In the early part of the twentieth century, Karl Barth (1886–1968), Rudolf Bultmann, and others moved away from concern over the historical Jesus and concentrated instead on the kerygma: the message of the New Testament” (my emphasis). Instead of refuting Schweitzer, then, historians found something else to talk about, since they invented a new method called “form criticism,” which classified biblical stories in terms of their literary patterns and was meant to demythologize biblical language, replacing theological interpretations with existential (Heideggerian) ones.

The key point with respect to the Jesus myth theory is that the early proponents of this theory weren’t atheists but German Protestant theologians who had an anti-Jewish bias. Despite their purported cosmopolitan view of the equal merits of the world’s religions, they emphasized Hellenistic influences on Christianity by way of minimizing Jewish ones, as dictated by their anti-Semitism. For them, Christianity was too great to have been produced by Jews.

From that same article: “Foundations of anti-Jewish bias were also established in the field at this time under the guise of scholarly objectivity…This stark contrast between Judaism and Christianity became a common theme, along with a strong prejudice against Jews and Judaism” in Herder, Schleiermacher, de Wette, Baur, Strauss, Ritschl, as well as “the history of religions school of the 1890s, and on into the form critics of the twentieth century until World War II.”

That reference to WWII is crucial to understanding what really happened to Jesus mythicism in biblical studies. After the war, anti-Semitism obviously became highly unfashionable. As a consequence, scholars came to emphasize the Jewishness of early Christianity, perhaps fearing that any appeal to non-Jewish sources would be politically tainted. See, for example, Geza Vermes’ Jesus the Jew (1973) and E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism (1985).

The 1970s saw the trend of literary criticism of the Bible, sparked by Jacques Derrida’s poststructural philosophy, but a dominant theme in NT studies after WWII was the emphasis on Jewish sources of Christianity and a de-emphasis on pagan ones. Again, the obvious cause of that shift was no vaunted scholarly refutation of mythicist arguments, but the Nazis’ metastasization of anti-Semitism which the Allies terminated in a cataclysmic war.

Regardless, George Albert Wells’ Did Jesus Exist? (1975) revived the mythicist theory, albeit on the fringe of critical-historical studies of Christianity. Still, Wells operated on strictly evidentiary grounds rather than, say, on theosophical ones. (The Christ mythicist Alvin Boyd Kuhn, for example, was a theosophist.) Others such as Robert Price, Early Doherty, and Richard Carrier have pursued Wells’ inquiry as well as earlier mythicist arguments where the latter can be reconstructed without any anti-Jewish bias. The question for these more recent mythicists is what critical-historical methods and the textual, archeological, and sociological evidence entail about the origin of Christianity.

Ulterior Motives in the Scholarly Rejection of Jesus Mythicism

The political aspect of the history of modern Jesus mythicism accounts in part for why most NT historians dismiss the theory: they associate the theory — needlessly now — with anti-Semitism, the latter being taboo after WWII. But there are two other evident reasons for the fringe status of this theory.

First, most of these scholars who dismiss it are themselves Christian. These Christian scholars are split between conservatives and liberals. At least some of the former are dogmatic apologists and are therefore inauthentic historians. They’ve attained academic credentials but they don’t take to heart the spirit of historical inquiry. At the very least, these conservatives are of two minds, since they commit to the truth of Christian traditions on the basis of faith, but they learn, to some extent, to leave aside that faith to play the scholarly game. The greater their conservatism, the less likely they’re able to question or to ignore their dogmatic commitments.

As for the liberal Christian historians, they use historical methods of objectivity to obtain a natural and therefore plausible portrait of Jesus, but for the most part they stop short of denying his historicity. For them, Jesus was a wise man, a healer, or a political agitator, but he didn’t perform any miracles and the New Testament is full of legends, myths, fictions, and propaganda that the apostles added for religious and political purposes.

The point, then, is that if most of the scholarly community rejects Jesus mythicism, this could be due not to any theoretical fault of the latter, but to these scholars’ prior religious commitment to Christianity.

Second, all of these scholars are professionals, whereas Jesus mythicism is, as I said, a theory that has radical, subversive implications about Christendom and thus about the foundations of modern Western societies. There are, then, two ulterior motives behind the scholarly dismissal of Jesus mythicism: religious faith and an interest in fitting into a certain social class or in protecting an academic institution.

Even the liberal scholars are conservative in this sociological sense, precisely because they’re accredited professionals. Jesus mythicism is toxic because it’s associated not just (wrongly now) with anti-Semitism, but with political radicalism or with some reckless outsiders’ grudge against social order. For these upstanding members of academia, engaging with Jesus mythicism would be like consorting with a drunk homeless person in a back alley.

How is Jesus mythicism subversive? Just imagine, for a moment, that there wasn’t actually any historical Jesus. Now ask yourself what that would entail, given how history actually unfolded. The Christian religion banked on its claims about the historicity of its founder. The Church tortured and killed nonbelievers in the name of the creed that proclaimed God came to earth and lived and died as an actual man. The Church crusaded against Muslims, based on their disagreement about the nature of what they assumed was an historical figure. For two millennia Christian empires rose and fell, missionaries spread the gospel to distant lands, and now even the critical historians of the New Testament fall in line to protect the honour of Christendom and of Western civilization, by dismissing the possibility that Jesus was a myth.

Again, if there were no historical Jesus, all of that history would be based on some combination of grotesque fraud and misunderstanding. But if two thousand years of Western history can be essentially a lie or a profound error, what other social conventions should be doubted? Confronting Jesus mythicism is like waking up from the matrix.

Jesus among other Suffering Savior Gods

Next, if you’re interested in whether Jesus was historical or mythical, you’ll have to contend with the red herring that there aren’t really any parallels between Jesus and other dying-and-rising savior gods. Alas, this red herring was thrown down by overeager Jesus mythicists such as Kersey Graves, Joseph Wheless, and DM Murdock (Acharya S) who defended the most extreme versions of the Jesus myth theory. According to them, the parallels are exact or early Christianity is entirely a fraud rather than just a misunderstanding.

In The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors, Graves contends that Attis, Mithra, Prometheus, and other gods from around the world were crucified saviors like Jesus. Other mythicists point to ancient myths of the resurrection and ascension of non-Christian saviour gods, the implication being that Christianity derives from those traditions either by deliberate copying or by the perennial nature of these themes.

The Christian apologist responds by poking holes in the purported similarities. Being tied to a rock, for example, as in Prometheus’s case isn’t the same as being nailed to a wooden cross. And having a hero’s incorporeal spirit ascend to heaven after his death isn’t the same as being physically resurrected like Jesus.

Of course, there would be no need for the Christian myth of Jesus to be identical in every respect to certain foreign myths. Indeed, that would hardly be possible since each culture’s myth differs in details to reflect the local circumstances and ethos. Moreover, early Christians needn’t have copied competing myths word-for-word and then lied about their originality. Indeed, that too could hardly have been possible, since it’s not as though a mass-market edition of those pre-Christian myths could have been obtained at a local bookstore. There was no such fine-grained standardization in the Mystery cults, especially since the inner mysteries were passed along only orally as treasured secrets.

Nevertheless, the Hellenistic fertility myths and the Orphic, Gnostic, and Jewish stories of divine intermediaries who descend to earth and sacrifice themselves, suffering and redeeming their followers by enabling the latter to identify with the savior, to suffer and rise to a new level of being in turn were in the air in Palestine in the first century CE.

The myths of Osiris, Horus, Isis, Orpheus, Dionysus, Hercules, Adonis, Attis, Baal, Serapis, Tammuz, Mithra, Zalmoxis, and of numerous others would have provided revelatory ideas that could have been syncretized with Judaism to produce the Christian creed — with no need for an historical Jesus. Add Hellenistic philosophies such as Cynicism, Stoicism, and Platonism (including Orphism), as well as the Jewish scriptures, Essenic Jewish radicalism, and the literary conventions of ancient biographies, aretologies, and apocalypses, and it’s hard to find any unquestionable historical content in the Christian narrative of Jesus’s life and death. That’s the power of the Christ myth theory, as we’ll see.

The real problem for apologists isn’t that there’s a pre-Christian Rosetta stone somewhere that contains all of Christianity. Instead, the elements of the New Testament, from the wisdom sayings of Q and Thomas to the theology of the Pauline epistles to the detailed biographical narratives in Mark and the other gospels can all be shown to derive from other, independent sources without the need to posit an historical Jesus as a unifying origin.

In fact, there is no unique residual figure of Jesus in the New Testament that bears the unmistakable mark of history rather than of literary invention, midrash, or syncretism; at best, we know in general that there were plenty of wise Jewish healers and political agitators in the period. Thus, Jesus as a type was plausible and historical (minus the supernatural elements), but that’s a far cry from saying Jesus the individual, a unique figure who gave rise to Christianity, was real. I’ll return to this distinction in a later section.

To take just one example of a similarity between Christianity and foreign religious traditions, the sacred meal of the Eucharist was likely drawn from that of Mithraism. Paul of Tarsus speaks of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians, and Tarsus happened to be a home of Mithraism. In both meals, followers ritually reenact certain sacrificial bloodshed to identify with their savior god: Jesus offered his body and blood to his followers, in symbolic bread and wine, while Mithra offered the meat of the bull he killed to the sun god, and his followers drank the blood of a bull or red wine as a symbol of that blood.

In the second and third centuries CE, the Christian writers Tertullian and Justin Martyr conceded the Mithraic and other Mystery cult similarities, and resorted to what seems today like a pitiful defense of Christianity, since they attributed the similarities to “demonic mimicry” in advance of Jesus. That is, according to those apologists, the demons saw the real savior was about to arrive, so they poisoned the well or laid the groundwork for mythicist objections to Christianity. In short, the defense was to concede the mundaneness of Christian theology and to demonize critics who pointed out that mundaneness.

See, for example, Tertullian’s De Praescriptione Haereticorum: “The Devil whose business is to pervert the truth, mimics the exact circumstances of the divine sacraments in the mysteries of idols. He himself baptizes some, that is to say, his believers and followers; he promises forgiveness of sins in the sacred fount, and thus initiates them into the religions of Mithra” (40).

Needless to say, the sheer existence and poverty of that early Christian reply to the comparisons strengthen the Christ mythicist’s case.

Moreover, it’s commonplace not just for mythicists but for critical historians of the Bible to show how the details of Mark’s passion narrative, for example, are taken line-by-line from the psalms and the Jewish prophets. That borrowing or midrashic invention is dressed up as prophecy fulfillment, which makes for as pitiful an excuse today for literalistic Christianity as the notion of diabolical mimicry.

So a gospel writer will say that this or that detail of the narrative of Jesus’s life happened in fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, and the author will allude to that scriptural passage in the narrative. Most of those passages aren’t even prophecies, but they’re called such to obscure the ahistorical nature of the gospel’s narrative. (See Robert Price on Mark as midrash on Jewish scriptures.)

Take Jesus’s words on the cross in Mark 15:34, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” which allude to Psalm 22. That psalm is a goldmine of information, since many details of Mark’s account of Jesus’s death are obviously derived from it (and from Isaiah 53). Unlike Matthew and Luke, though, Mark isn’t trying to hide his literary sources by boasting about prophecy fulfillments. Instead, Mark wrote parables and challenged the reader to uncover the visionary secrets. (See Mark 4:9–12, 33–34.)

That is, Mark, the anonymous author of the earliest and foundational gospel narrative viewed his text not as a historical report but as a series of theological lessons disguised as a biography. The biographical structure was equivalent to an outer mystery that offered only superficial, exoteric wisdom, as Freke and Gandy put it in The Jesus Mysteries.

If Mark saw himself as writing history, let alone an eyewitness account, he’d have cited some objective piece of evidence or said so and so saw such and such happen, and he’d have gone into detail to establish the witness’s credibility. In short, he’d have made a historical case, complete with arguments and empirical evidence, rather than telling a story.

But Mark wasn’t interested in proving the mere historicity of anything (as if such a scientific perspective could even have been possible in first century Palestine); rather, Mark was after spiritual/existential, mythic truth, which is why he cites Jewish scriptures that hint at the inner, esoteric secrets that would lie at the heart of his cryptic “biography.” For example, instead of ordering events in history’s natural, haphazard fashion, Mark artificially sandwiches them to find deeper meaning in the story. Historians call these sandwiched episodes in his gospel “intercalations.”

Finally, a word on the differences between Jesus’s supposed resurrection and that of the other savior gods. The physicality of Jesus’s resurrection in the gospels is due to the influence of Judaism, since Jews believe the body is God’s temple and should be kept holy (Lev.11:45), and that a wise God is in control of all Creation so that everything in the universe is fundamentally good (Gen.1:31).

By contrast, polytheists are free to condemn parts of the world as being controlled by inferior gods. Their idea of salvation was often more in line with Gnosticism and with Eastern religions, since they were interested in freeing the spirit from the prison of the body and of materiality.

Those incidental differences, however, are irrelevant to what was generally shared between Christianity and the polytheistic savior-god cults: the saviors suffered and died, and the proof that they could act as sacrifices and redeem their followers was that these heroic gods conquered death and ascended to paradise. The followers needed only to perform an imitative magic trick to obtain the same glory.

Moreover, there’s no such thing as a unitary Christian concept of resurrection in the early period, since Paul said that only a “spiritual body” could be resurrected, flesh being forbidden from entering God’s kingdom (1 Cor.15:42–44, 50). Paul’s idea of Christ’s resurrection, which was the earliest Christian one, was a carryover from the Mystery cults. His conception was more Platonic (dualistic) than Jewish.

The Critical Historian’s Epistemology

Of course, this back-and-forth between mythicists and apologists raises the question of what the preponderance of the evidence shows; in other words, is it more likely that Jesus was a historical person or that he was a myth? But there’s a logically prior, epistemological question to consider, about the nature of historical inquiry into the ancient world.

To the extent we can be certain or justified in having very high confidence that something or other existed in ancient times, this is due to two factors: archeological evidence and the mundaneness or naturalness of the posited thing. For example, if the question is whether there were swords in general in the ancient period, you can be highly confident one way or the other, because the swords have been found and scientifically dated. You can see them in a museum.

Moreover, swords are only some of many, many weapons that have been found all over the world and that are still manufactured. There’s a strong induction here, which means there’s a firm analogy between ancient and modern weapons, since both belong to a larger pattern. That pattern is that we’re violent creatures and we use our ingenuity to devise techniques for protecting ourselves and for hunting and going to war.

What if the question, instead, is whether a particular person existed many centuries ago, such as Socrates, Julius Caesar, or Shakespeare? Archeology can’t settle the matter so directly, unless the body could be dug up and some distinguishing features in the bones or the gravesite could be detected and explained.

Assuming the person of interest is just an ordinary human, albeit a famous one whom we could identify, the historian’s principle of induction or analogy (that the past should be expected to have been generally like the present) can lower the bar of evidence required, by establishing the plausibility of the person’s historicity. Socrates was purported to be a philosopher, Caesar a statesman and emperor, and Shakespeare a playwright, and we have lots of archeological as well as present-day evidence that those types of figures are real.

To pinpoint whether those individuals were historical, you would generally need to satisfy two further conditions. First, you would need to posit the person’s historicity to have the best explanation of some body of data such as the many plays attributed to Shakespeare. You’d have to switch, that is, from induction to abduction, from considering a very general analogy between past and present, to appealing to the best explanation of a specific data set.

Second, the model would be strengthened were you to have multiple and independent attestations. If contemporaries referred to the individual and if those sources were independent of each other, the claim that the person is historical would progress from being plausible to being probable, depending on the number and quality of attestations.

Notice that this fallback position due to the absence of direct, decisive archeological evidence entails not just a lowering of the evidentiary bar but a reduction in the degree of confidence about what’s being explained. The more circumstantial the case, the more open the question is to having multiple and incompatible explanations, all of which may be more or less flawed. This means historians have to live with uncertainty, especially when the circumstantial case is about a matter of ancient history, since that case is bound to be relatively weak (assuming the matter isn’t settled by physical, archeological evidence).

Assessing the Historicity of Jesus

Let’s apply those principles to the question of Jesus’s historicity. Again, archeology can’t be expected to settle the matter. The Shroud of Turin, for example, is a fake. What of the bare plausibility of this person’s existence, as established by historical induction? Here the matter is complicated by the Christian’s deification of Jesus, since there are no such miracle-working deities walking around today.

Still, we’re familiar with gurus and with marginalized, radical philosophers, as well as with cult leaders who claim to be healers and even miracle-workers. Moreover, we have abundant evidence that this type of person was common in the ancient world and specifically in first-century Palestine.

Thus, we could side with something like the euhemerism of liberal Bible historians in saying that while the entire figure of Jesus as presented in the New Testament must be dismissed as a theological construct, the existence of a naturalized version of that type of figure, of a wandering Jewish teacher, healer, and agitator is plausible.

Again, the problem with isolating this historical Jesus has been the enormous extent of the theological overlay in early Christian writings. Wherever you look for historical bedrock in them, you’re faced with an equally-plausible mythicist explanation, that is, with a maximally-skeptical model which denies Jesus’s historicity.

Was the historical Jesus a sage? But his sayings sound like countercultural wisdom drawn from Essenic, messianic Judaism and from Hellenistic philosophy, so his sayings could have been taken from other communities, especially since we have bare lists of sayings in Q and Thomas that could have been easily modified, one of which fed into Matthew and Luke, and others of which could have fed into Mark. The parables could have come from Jewish and Hellenistic sources and been attributed to Jesus at a later date.

Was the historical Jesus crucified under Pilate? But suffering savior-god cults were rampant when and where Christianity originated. Romans certainly crucified Jewish rebels and one such radical could have been behind early Christian memories, but the problem is there’s no need to posit such a figure to account for the evidence of early Christianity. Mark could have invented the concrete details of the narrative, including the reference to Pilate, as part of a parable to weed out those with mere exoteric understanding and to lay the literary groundwork for the epiphany of the few who are fit to be spiritual insiders.

Did the historical Jesus leave behind an empty tomb because he rose from the dead? But again, the empty tomb story could have been invented by Mark as part of his passion tale which we know is drawn from Jewish scriptures. Paul refers only vaguely to Jesus’ burial, and he could have done so to emphasize the descent of his savior god. That skeptical interpretation would seem uncharitable were it not for Paul’s baffling silence about a historical Jesus throughout his corpus. He doesn’t refer to Pilate, for example. Far from appealing to Jesus, Paul is content to horn in on what should have been Jesus’s authority, by explicitly crediting his message not to anyone else, but to “the scriptures” and to Paul’s vision of the risen (and thus ahistorical) Christ.

What of the multiple, independent attestations of Jesus’s existence? Again, they’re all deeply problematic, whether they’re inside or outside the New Testament. The question is whether they lend enough weight to the assumption of historicity, to overcome the availability of the mythicist’s hyper-skepticism.

The Call for Agnosticism and Apathy

As far as I can tell, therefore, something like agnosticism with respect to Jesus’s historicity is called for. Assuming we’re interested in following the evidence wherever it leads, so we’re not going to be swayed by religious faith or considerations of political incorrectness, we can be confident at least that the apologist’s full, partly-theological picture of Jesus is ahistorical.

At most, some Jewish teacher, healer, and rebel or amalgamated memory of various such individuals may be at the root of Christianity. For that matter, as I suggested elsewhere, we could credit this religion’s origin simply to the entire ancient history of the Jewish people, since as a collective Jews were widely considered righteous and wise and they suffered under foreign subjugators, sacrificing themselves, as it were, for the proclamation of monotheism.

It’s just as likely, though, that there was no single historical figure who encapsulates the Jesus described in the New Testament. At least, the most interesting aspects of that character could have been assembled over some decades by syncretism between Judaism, the Mystery cults, and Hellenistic philosophy.

Alternatively, there could have been some historical figure who accidentally would have conformed to parts of the Jesus narrative, but who bore no causal relation to Christianity apart from that person’s contribution to the general type of figure in question, which would have informed the experience of Jews in that period.

The point I’m driving at is that the problem of Jesus’s historicity isn’t settled by pointing to the plausibility that some Jews who resembled Jesus were crucified by the Roman Empire and would have been vaguely or indirectly known to the earliest Christians. The interesting question, rather, is whether some particular individual lived and died largely as depicted in the New Testament, and whether the memory of that person led directly to oral traditions and writings that led in turn to the NT and to Christianity. Was Christianity founded by the deeds and sayings of a real person or just by fraud (such as plagiarism and interpolation), midrash, syncretism, political machinations, and the misunderstanding of various myths?

Nor would it make sense to speak of proving that Jesus did or didn’t exist. That’s the wrong evidentiary standard to apply since there’s currently no smoking gun one way or the other. The available evidence pertaining to such a narrow issue of ancient history is bound to be equivocal. Short of physical proof, we must content ourselves with searching for what’s plausible, whereby we swiftly eliminate the theological Christ, that is, the NT’s full-throated picture of Jesus, and we duly allow for the minimal, naturalized Jesus as an established type of ancient figure.

As to whether there was such a unique individual who effectively founded Christianity, at this late date the case for his historicity is weakened by the myriad problems with the textual sources, including the fact that they all passed through the hands of Christian copyists who could have sanitized them with ecumenical interpolations and redactions. That leaves us, finally, with the need to find merely the best explanation of the available evidence, which allows for the possibility that all the competing explanations are flawed.

What I’m saying, then, is that the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly in favour of either Christ mythicism or euhemerism, even assuming the legendary Jesus is stripped of all the specific deeds and sayings the NT ascribes to him which could readily have derived instead from Jewish scriptures or from other sources. Our knowledge of this minimal historical Jesus would be limited to identifying him as a Jewish sage, healer, and/or rebel who was executed by Romans and perhaps by some complicit Jewish leaders. The point is that even if this model can explain Christianity’s origin, it can’t do so much better than can Christ mythicism. Thus there’s no decisive reason to favour either, which leaves us with agnosticism, assuming no further evidence is forthcoming.

This agnosticism should be combined with apathy, since given the many probable influences on Judaism and Christianity in that period, the minimal Jesus we can responsibly posit as historical is irrelevant to the merits of the religion that arose in his name. Once we’ve whittled the Jesus figure down on historical principle, to some mostly-unknown Jewish preacher who issued countercultural, Hellenistic-Jewish diatribes about reversals of fortune at the imminent end of the world and who was crucified for his troubles, the question of whether some such person actually lived or whether Christianity is entirely a product of syncretism, literary invention, and misunderstanding is little more than an academic puzzle.

To be sure, the puzzle may be intriguing, but the issues that matter to Christians and to critics of that religion will already have been decided by the basic critical-historical framework. What really matters to Christians is the supernatural, theological Christ that can be accepted only on faith, whom history as an objective discipline discounts on principle. Jesus mythicism is only icing on the critic’s cake.

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Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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