Clarifying and Debating the Christ Myth Theory

Was Jesus historical or mythical?

Image by Matthew Schwartz, from Unsplash

Graham Pemberton has responded to my article, “Assessing the Christ Myth Theory.” I’m grateful for the opportunity to delve further into the intriguing matter of whether Jesus was historical or purely mythical.

The Debate between Jesus Mythicists and Historicists

My article isn’t so much a case for Christ mythcism as it’s a meta-case for what I consider the best way of understanding the debate between mythicists and historicists. That debate is something of a tempest in a teapot, compared to the conflict between theism and the secular or “critical” approach to history.

For those like me who are fascinated by ancient history and religion, the question of whether Jesus existed in history may, of course, be of special interest. But the matter has little bearing on whether the elements of Christianity that are crucial to Christian theists are justified.

This is why Pemberton miscalculates in alleging that mythicists are just as biased as the Christian historians who believe Jesus was historical. The situation is far from equivalent, but we should also be clear on the logical status of the appeal to authority in this context.

The reason I went into the history of critical scholarship of the Bible and pointed out that the most fervent historians who think Jesus was a historical figure are themselves Christian or at any rate are professionals who would want to protect their institutions to maintain their authority and financing wasn’t to offer a positive reason to doubt that Jesus existed. The point was only to counter a historicist canard, which is that historians have reached a consensus that Jesus was a historical person. As Earl Doherty proves in his survey of historians’ replies to the Christ myth theory, historians use that consensus to dismiss rather than examine the theory.

The point to make here is that the discipline of history isn’t really the type of science in which the experts’ consensus would be epistemically decisive. History is a soft science, at best. Even in the secularist’s version of history, there’s as much subjective story-telling as there is objective testing of hypotheses, and that’s especially true when (1) the evidence is highly problematic, as in a narrow question of ancient history, and (2) the subject has to do with an ongoing religion like Christianity that’s foundational to the Western societies that host the historical investigations in question.

Pemberton agrees there may be some such biases, but he rushes to claim that mythicists are equally biased. Yet while many mythicists today are likely non-Christians and atheists, some are mystics or liberal Christians, such as Freke, Gandy, and Tom Harpur; as I said in the article, Alvin Boyd Kuhn was a theosophist and the early mythicists were liberal Protestants.

In any case, the underlying issue here is the inerrancy of the Bible. Conservative Christians are literalists not just about Jesus’s historicity but about virtually everything the Bible says. Liberal Christians reject that dubious dogma, so they’re able to understand the metaphorical, allegorical, and poetic aspects of scripture. They’re able to appreciate that since Christianity is a religion, Christianity is likely based on myths, not on history. Therefore, liberal Christians might be attracted to the Christ myth theory, whereas conservatives have to dismiss it out of hand, to protect their doctrine of the Bible’s inerrancy.

What is the atheist’s stake in the matter? As I suggested in the article, there’s not much at stake at all, because the crucial questions are already decided by the atheist’s commitment to another principle, namely that of the critical-historical approach to the Bible and to Christianity’s origin, which amounts to a commitment to the scientific principle of methodological naturalism.

This is why even the most fervent Christian historians must leave out their theological beliefs when writing in the discipline of history. For example, in academic journals a Christian historian can’t appeal to God or to miracles or to anything supernatural. This is because professional historians fancy themselves as scientists.

Pemberton errs in saying that the theological Christ of faith is ruled out by my personal bias. I have nothing to do with it. My article just reports on the nature of the academic debate. That which rejects all theological interpretations is the institution of history as it’s come to define itself in the last few centuries, namely as a soft science committed to the critical, evidence-oriented — as opposed to dogmatic and faith-based — approach to the Bible and to the history of religions. Faith-oriented interpretations are rejected as unscientific, since historians-as-scientists are committed to methodological naturalism, which means they have to consider all naturalistic explanations before resorting to supernatural ones, since the former are metaphysically simpler.

Pemberton goes as far as to say, “In any investigation or inquiry, nothing should be discounted on principle.” That strikes me as oxymoronic. Since Descartes or Euclid, we’ve understood that investigations proceed by methods which are founded on principles or axioms. The critical-historical approach to the Bible separated itself from the dogmatic one of the Scholastics, when the historians adopted scientific methods and principles, one of which was methodological naturalism.

So on the contrary, all methodological investigations presuppose some founding principles which enable certain options to be dismissed out of hand. Life is short and not every possibility can be exhaustively researched or tested. The trick is to turn to intellectually-responsible, epistemically-worthy principles of reasoning, not to fall for fallacies that lead us astray.

As to whether I’m personally hostile to Christianity as a whole, I’ve long distinguished between exoteric and esoteric Christianity. The latter may preserve some Axial age wisdom that I would reconstruct in pantheistic, existential, aesthetic, and cosmicist terms. Exoteric Christianity, which is a simplistic, literal-minded, compromised creed for certain ignorant, hypocritical, and duped masses should be refuted and ridiculed but not eliminated, since their antics provide comic relief for intellectual elites who might otherwise be overloaded with dark, subversive knowledge. (Pemberton suspects I mean “to be rid of it [Christianity],” but that’s not quite so.)

But again, that’s neither here nor there in this discussion. Even if there were an historical Jesus, atheism might be true, assuming that historical figure is interpreted in critical-historical and therefore natural terms. So I don’t have a strong opinion about whether Christianity began with a historical Jesus. Richard Carrier says the same about the matter’s importance to him (see the 1:41:22 minute mark of this video).

For mythicists, it’s more a question of being consistent in applying the science-centered methods of historical inquiry for greater understanding, without being swayed by considerations of political correctness, religious faith, or institutional empowerment. In short, the mythicist’s motive is philosophical in the classic sense.

Only when the historian switches to the freewheeling terms of theology can she speak of the supernatural Christ, in which case the Jesus mythicist who happens to be a secularist rather than a liberal Christian or a mystic would respond not with historical arguments but with philosophical and scientific ones, and that would be a separate debate. The debate between Jesus mythicists and historicists occurs within the field of historical investigations, not theological ones; at least, that’s the debate I’m exploring here.

Clarifying the Question of Jesus’s Historicity

Pemberton presents a view of the historical Jesus that derives from Schonfield, Douglas Lockhart, and Eisenmann. According to them, Jesus was a Jewish fundamentalist, a rebel or a Zealot, and perhaps a Jewish messiah or at least a descendant of King David such that James, his brother and successor became head of the church in Jerusalem.

They see clues of a Catholic cover-up in the gospels, since Jesus could no longer have been considered the messiah in the political sense after 70 CE when the gospels were written, when Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple, and when the decades had piled up and the prophesied end of the world that was supposed to favour Christians had failed to arrive.

For example, according to the NT, Jesus was crucified rather than stoned to death, which would indicate he’d committed a political crime such as rebellion against Rome, not mere blasphemy. Also, the gospels say Jesus’s followers carried swords. And Jesus seemed to have picked Zealots for some of his disciples, according to how they’re named in the gospels.

The first thing I should say in response to this portrait of Jesus is that Pemberton is chasing a red herring. He concludes, “So, contrary to what Cain suggests, there could well have been a single historical figure called Jesus at the time in question, and he would have been far more than an obscure itinerant preacher.”

Pemberton seems misled by what I said about the possibility that the historical Jesus was an amalgamation of Jewish individuals, and about the difference between the plausibility of some Jewish figure as a type and the evidence for the existence of a unique individual who both founded Christianity and was significantly similar to the Jesus of the New Testament.

My point wasn’t that a historical Jesus was impossible. Of course it’s possible that the earliest Christians based their oral traditions and religious writings on their memories of a particular person. The point I raised is that the less we know about that founder, given the problems with the extant sources (such as the fact that the New Testament is filled with self-contradictory religious propaganda rather than historical reports), or the less that founder resembles the Jesus especially of the gospels, the more this “historicist” view of Jesus amounts to mythicism.

We can take this to the extreme by imagining that the real founder of Christianity was nothing at all like any of the portraits of Jesus in the New Testament, that those documents so distort the foundational facts with theological shenanigans that they preserve no detailed information about that founder’s life.

Perhaps the real founder was a Roman woman named Griselda who was born in 50 BCE and who converted to Judaism, drew pictures of crucifixions, taught nothing, and died peacefully in her sleep. Perhaps by happenstance that woman was at the root of Christian memories, and those memories were distorted over the years, becoming the Christian legend of Jesus Christ by the familiar process in which errors accrue in the retellings.

Would a Christian today be happy with the historicity of Griselda, or would the belief that Griselda was the historical Jesus be tantamount to mythicism about Christianity’s Jesus? That’s a rhetorical question.

So the point I was driving at is that it’s possible Christianity only accidentally had a historical founder, since that founder might not have resembled the Jesus we’re familiar with from the gospels. The reason this is important, again, is that the critical-historical approach to Christianity’s origin already dispenses with most of the details of the gospels’ portraits of Jesus. For example, many of those details are allegorical or are drawn from Jewish scriptures in the manner of pesher or midrash.

I should add that one reason I didn’t consider the hyper-Jewish portrait of Jesus which Pemberton favours is that I wasn’t arguing directly for mythicism in any comprehensive way, so much as I was attempting to frame the debate, to show what the real issues are, as I said above.

Reasonable Doubt and Reading the Tea Leaves

Before turning to Pemberton’s picture of Jesus, we should linger on the epistemic issues since they’re decisive. We’ve known since Albert Schweitzer made the point in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, that many interpretations of Christianity’s source of inspiration are possible, since the available evidence is equivocal and tendentious at best.

If only a historian in the first century had had no ulterior motives and written out for us exactly what happened at the foundation of Christianity. Alas, we have no such historical report, but only wildly contradictory religious texts that were compiled as propaganda for competing Christian communities, and that were forged and canonized in a political process and hand-copied over a period of centuries by Christian ideologues who further rearranged, interpolated, and catholicized or harmonized the texts at will.

The result is a patchwork of highly problematic documents that can be read in a thousand different ways at each and every point of interest. If you squint hard enough or read the tea leaves, you can see anything anywhere. Thus you can cherry-pick the evidence and conclude Jesus was a political radical, a progressive Hellenistic preacher, a Cynic, an Essene, a Pharisee, a Gnostic, a Buddhist, a magician, a fiery prophet who thought the world was about to end, a Jewish Messiah, a con man who tried to fake his death, and so on and so forth.

Could all such interpretations be true? If not, how do we know which goes back to the historical Jesus and which is legendary?

This problem is at the heart of Jesus mythicism, since if there are many plausible portraits of Jesus that nevertheless conflict with each other and can’t all be true, the evidence may not be compelling enough to favour any of those theories, in which case the choice between them comes down to theological or political inclination. In that case, the more intellectually-responsible way of handling the evidence would be to opt for agnosticism, to doubt the probability of all comers and to deny we have a rational way to break the deadlock. We wouldn’t know which Jesus is the historical one, since the portraits would cancel each other out.

Contrary to academic historians of the New Testament, who need for there to be a historical Jesus to warrant all their labours and to save them the embarrassment of having to reverse themselves so monumentally, the default position isn’t to affirm Jesus’s historicity. If evidence for that historicity produces myriad incompatible theories of Jesus’s identity which cancel each other out, and if there’s reasonable doubt about every single element of the historicist’s case and about each of those theories, we’re left with no compelling evidence for his historicity. Agnosticism about the choice between any of the particular theories of the historical Jesus turns into mythicist doubt about the existence of any relevant, knowable historical Jesus.

The Ambiguity of Crucifixion

I’ll illustrate this ambiguity by looking at some of the details from Pemberton’s account. Historicists say Jesus was crucified by Romans, since the early Christians would hardly have invented such an embarrassing element of their story. Moreover, those Christians would have preferred for Jesus to have been stoned to death by Jews, since they wished to blame Jews for Jesus’s death and to whitewash Roman involvement, after the destruction of Jerusalem, to appeal to potential pagan converts. For that reason, the fact that the gospels say he was crucified would indicate Jesus’s historicity.

Unfortunately, the criterion of embarrassment is weak sauce. The ancient followers of Attis believed he castrated himself, which was hardly regarded as noble given the prevalence of patriarchy at that time. Indeed, the whole point of these cults was to embarrass their practitioners to test their faith and to weed out those who weren’t loyal to the group. This is a sociological application of the evolutionary handicap principle.

Moreover, mythicists point out that the early Christians concluded their saviour god had to be crucified, from their readings of scripture or from visions of a risen Christ, not from memory of an historical event. That’s what Paul says about the origin of his gospel, and it’s also why he says Jesus descended from David, because that what a standard Jewish scriptural expectation for the messiah.

Mark takes details from Psalms 22 and 69, Isaiah 53, and elsewhere, while the other gospels draw heavily from his narrative, redacting it not for accuracy’s sake but for literary and theological reasons, to reassure their differing religious communities.

According to a more esoteric, spiritual interpretation, though, based on Isaiah’s suffering servant passages and reinforced by the emergent Wisdom/Logos literature, the divine saviour had to suffer to atone for other people’s sins, so the greater the agony, the more potent the sacrifice. Stoning to death isn’t as gruesome as crucifixion. Stoning was a poor man’s method of execution and could be over in seconds. Once the head is stoned, the person is knocked unconscious so the suffering ends, whereas crucifixion was notorious for degrading and torturing the punished individual for hours or days.

Judging from Paul’s surviving epistles — and who knows how ahistorical and overtly Gnostic were his other writings which the ecumenical Christians declined to preserve? — Paul was evidently obsessed with the theological symbolism of the dying and rising god, so it’s natural he would have preferred to think this divine intermediary was crucified rather than stoned to death.

Paul and the gospel writers wrote in Greek and happened to live in a Hellenistic time and place in which cosmopolitan and individualistic Mystery cults, with their dying-and-rising saviour mytheme were rampant. Moreover, Judaism in that period wasn’t monolithic, but was fractured into many sects, including but not limited to the four Josephus refers to, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots.

Thus, there’s no good reason to think the early Christians would have been embarrassed about saying their saviour Jesus was crucified. Those authors combined Greco-Roman ideas with Jewish ones to form a new religion, which is how syncretism works. Moreover, Mark would have preferred crucifixion for literary reasons, since crucifixion made for the more impactful story.

Finally, an ancient religious reference to crucifixion didn’t imply the earthly penalty, because the ancients believed there were degrees of earthliness, reaching up into the heavens. Jesus the saviour god could have been “crucified” in a “fleshy” but not human biological body, by archons or demons in a lower heaven. Add that, then, to this list of reasonable doubts about the historicist’s account.

The Ambiguity of Jesus’s Politics

Again, the historicist can say the historical Jesus was a rebel since the gospels say his followers carried swords which were brought to bear when Jesus was arrested. But the mythicist will point out that Luke unveils a literary reason for the references to swords, since Luke 22:36–37 cites the scripture to which Mark only alludes, namely Isaiah 53:12, “‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.” Mark 14:49 says only vaguely, “But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”

The historicist will say this episode is historical because it smacks of Christian embarrassment about Jesus’s criminal status. But the mythicist will say it was more important for the early Christians to ground their writings in Jewish scripture than to attempt to record historical facts which were long past knowing. (Plus, the criterion of embarrassment is wrongheaded.)

Moreover, instead of reading the references to swords and to Jesus’s response as signs of the author’s embarrassment and of his attempt to conceal an awkward historical fact, you can read them as later Christian transvaluations of Zealot militancy. The Zealots were much more active and inflamed when the gospels were written than in the time Jesus supposedly lived, so any Christian community that disagreed with the Zealots — due for example to their understandable dread of the Romans who had just crushed the Jewish rebels in 70 CE — would have had the incentive to explain why a different path forward was needed.

So in Luke, Jesus might have reversed himself on what his followers should bring (9:3, 10:4), only to provide an opportunity to implicitly condemn the Zealots by demonstrating his pacifism, saying “Stop! That will do!” and by healing the ear. All of which may go back only to the gospel communities, not to any historical Jesus.

In any case, the criterion of embarrassment begs the question, since if the gospel writers weren’t interested in mere history but in conveying secret spiritual truths through parables, allegories, and allusions to Jewish scriptures (pesher, midrash), they would have had nothing to be embarrassed about here since they’d have been referring to crucifixion and swords as symbols. Note that this is how Origen interprets scriptures, as having literal, moral, and spiritual meanings; the former were fit for the herd of outsiders, while the abstract spiritual lessons were for advanced insiders.

Mark says the same about Jesus’s parables, which indicates that his whole narrative was likely a parable or allegory, teaching the mysteries or gnosis to the spiritual insiders. See, for example, his story about the freeing of Barabbas, which symbolizes a twisting of the scapegoat ritual of Yom Kippur: the Jews who cry for him to be released foolishly prefer the military version of the messiah, and don’t recognize the superiority of Jesus’s atonement sacrifice.

Or see Mark’s account of Jesus’s cursing of the fig tree, where the tree symbolizes the Temple which Christians thought their religion replaced.

Similar reasoning applies to the questions of whether Jesus picked Zealots for his followers and whether he was crucified with criminals. In addition, there’s some question whether “Simon the Zealot” was a mistranslation of “Simon the zealous or jealous [for the law].” We don’t know how active the Zealots were in the early first century. The gospels were written after the Zealots led Jerusalem to destruction, so the authors could have projected their interests back into what was supposed to have been Jesus’s time period.

The upshot is that at a minimum, there’s plenty of ambiguity here. The evidence can be read in different ways, which means the evidence is weak rather than compelling. The weaker the evidence, the greater the reasonable doubt, which strengthens the case for mythicism via agnosticism about the choice between the conventional explanations.

An Assortment of Ambiguities and Reasonable Doubts

A complicated theory for historicity such as Eisenmann’s is a blessing and a curse for the historicist, since while he takes into consideration more of the data, the greater complexity leaves more room for reasonable doubt. A convoluted account is less plausible than a simple one.

The same applies to conspiracy theories about biological descendants of Jesus surviving for centuries and ending up in France and so forth. I’m not saying that scenario is impossible; I’m saying the evidence for it will be convoluted and equivocal at best, which will entail reasonable doubt, which in turn favours agnosticism on the matter.

Malachi Martin’s reference to a meeting between a pope and Jesus’s alleged biological descendants whom the pope rejected is equally dubious. Unless I’m mistaken, Martin provides no primary sources for his highly detailed account of that meeting. Luckily, Martin was also an anti-Catholic novelist, so he had the means and motive to invent the incident out of whole cloth. (See Tobias Churton’s The Missing Family of Jesus.)

Incidentally, Pemberton’s interest in Eisenmann’s theory leads Pemberton wide of the mark when he says, “This strongly suggests that all the gospels were written by followers of Paul.” John is the closest to Paul, since both have numerous Gnostic elements, but Paul is very far from Matthew, since Paul says the Jewish law is no longer necessary for salvation, whereas Matthew says every jot and tittle of the Law is in effect until the end times. Indeed, Matthew is closest to the Jewish purists and archconservatives such as James, the Jerusalem Church, and the Nazarenes.

The most obvious difference between Paul and any of the gospels is that the latter are narratives which seem at least superficially to focus on the historical Jesus, whereas Paul has no interest or unambiguous knowledge of such a figure. It’s not just that Paul ignores any historical Jesus in places he could have cited him or his teachings; more than that, Paul often speaks in ways that exclude an earthly Jesus.

Paul emphasizes his direct pipeline to the risen Jesus, which he could have believed he had even if Jesus had never been on earth. Or take the strange proclamation in 1 Cor.15:3–8, which implies that Jesus appeared only after he died and was buried and raised on the third day. Wouldn’t an earthly, historical figure have appeared also while he was living as a man, teaching and performing miracles, before he died? Over and over again, if you read Paul without presupposing the gospel narratives, his formulations don’t just ignore but technically leave no room for an historical Jesus.

Or take Gal.4:4 which says Jesus was “born of a woman.” That can be read in historicist terms, but as is always the case the historicist faces many problems with that interpretation which add up to reasonable doubt. See, for example, Doherty’s treatment of the passage.

First of all, in that passage Paul says he’s speaking metaphorically, using biological birth as a symbol of our slavery “under the law” and to elemental, demonic forces that control the fallen state of Creation. To redeem the world, the saviour had to be born into that created order, which would have included a lower heaven above the earth; the saviour freed us from “the slave woman” who “was born according to the flesh,” so that we might be reborn by “the free woman…as the result of a divine promise” (4:23).

Once again, moreover, Paul says he derives his entire religion from the scriptures and from revelation from the risen Jesus. Thus, he might have been alluding to Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Moreover, Paul doesn’t use the straightforward Greek word for birth, “gennēthenta,” but rather the broader word “ginomai” which means “to emerge, become, transitioning from one point (realm, condition) to another.” At a minimum, then, the verse is ambiguous and consistent with historicism and with mythicism.

However, as Richard Carrier points out in On the Historicity of Jesus,

Paul never uses that word [the general one for creation, ginomai] of a human birth, despite using it hundreds of times (typically to mean ‘being’ or ‘becoming’); rather, his preferred word for being born is gennao. Notably, in 1 Cor.15.45, Paul says Adam ‘was made’, using the same word as he uses for Jesus; yet this is obviously not a reference to being born but to being constructed directly by God. If so for Adam, then so it could be for Jesus (whom Paul equated with Adam in that same verse). Likewise in 1 Cor.15.37 Paul uses the same word of our future resurrection body, which of course is not born from a parent but directly manufactured by God (and already waiting for us in heaven: 2 Cor.5.1–5). Thus, Paul could be saying the same of Jesus’ incarnation.

See also Phil.2:7, according to which Jesus was born only “in the likeness of men.”

It’s the same with Romans 1:3, “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh.” The Greek for “descended” is “genomenou” which can mean created or even manufactured and which would apply to angels, ghosts, or other nonphysical “bodies.”

As for the bizarre phrase “according to the flesh,” kata sarka, Earl Doherty points out in his long chapter on the phrase, in Jesus Neither God nor Man, that the flesh in question needn’t be just human flesh. ‘In its most recent edition,’ he writes, ‘Bauer’s lexicon [2000, p.915, def. 3.b] recognizes that sarx can refer to the flesh “of transcendent entities…(to) flesh other than human…i.e., of divine messengers who take on sarx when they appear to humans” (as in Genesis or Homer).’

Doherty adds that,

the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (VII, p. 127) identifies the demon spirits as possessing bodies which comprised some form and substance similar to flesh, but a more ‘spiritual’ version of it — something invisible when such spirits approached or came in contact with humans. Angels, too, have ‘corporeality.’ They “have flesh or at least appear to have it” (p. 143, n.340), and Jude 7 refers to the “different flesh” of Lot’s angelic visitors, a flesh lusted after by the men of Sodom.

As for James, Jesus’s brother, watch again for the ambiguities and reasonable doubts: in Gal.1:19 Paul doesn’t say James is Jesus’s brother, he says he’s the “Lord’s” brother. Alas, early Christians used that word “adelphon” to refer also to cultic brothers or to all baptized Christians. See for example Rom.8:29, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Similarly, Catholics today speak of their priest as “father,” so there are evidently spiritual uses of familial terms rather than just biological ones.

Pemberton quotes Eisenmann as saying that in the gospels, ‘“no embarrassment whatsoever is evinced about this relationship with Jesus, and James is designated straightforwardly and without qualification as Jesus’ brother”. There is no attempt “to depreciate or diminish this relationship.”’

But that’s straight-up nonsense from Eisenmann. Look at Mark 3:21, 32–35, where Jesus’s family calls him insane and Jesus says he has no family apart from his religious followers and that, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” That sure looks to me like a depreciation and diminishment of the biological relationship. That depreciation indicates, in turn, a theological purpose of the reference: like many myths, the story is meant to explain the origin of something, since Christians were expected to leave their families to join the cult.

Incidentally, the New Testament refers to many different people named James. Eisenmann has a complicated theory of how names in the NT were handled, but the basic fact is that there’s reasonable doubt whether the leader of the Jerusalem Church (James the Pillar) was the same James as the one the gospels identify as Jesus’s biological brother.

Again, when Paul calls James the church leader “the Lord’s brother,” he may have been speaking in the spiritual rather than the biological sense. Indeed, the fact that he uses that term in the nonbiological sense elsewhere but doesn’t remove the ambiguity here with an explicit clarification indicates he had no special, biological sense in mind.

According to Carrier (citing L. Paul Trudinger), the Greek of Gal.1:19 is typically translated as the convoluted negative statement, “I saw none of the other apostles except Peter and James,” instead of the more straightforward, “I met only two apostles, Peter and James.” That’s because the translation is meant to hide what the Greek really means, which is, “other than the apostles, I saw only James,” implying that James wasn’t an apostle. If that’s what Paul meant, that explains why Paul would have deemed it relevant to add that this James was nevertheless a Christian, that is, a “brother of the Lord” in the cultic sense.

As Carrier says in OHJ, “By calling him a brother of the Lord instead of an apostle, Paul is thus distinguishing this James from any apostles of the same name — just as we saw he used ‘brothers of the Lord’ to distinguish regular Christians from apostles in 1 Cor.9.5.”

The Unreliability of the Church Fathers

Regarding Pemberton’s use of Eusebius and Julius Africanus, to my knowledge those references to Jesus and to his family aren’t generally used against the Christ myth theory, the reason being that they’re late and dependent on the gospel tradition. These were Christian authors who wouldn’t have had independent information from which to draw. Africanus even says he “can urge no testimony” in support of his preposterous legend, that although Herod burned all the genealogies, Jesus’s miraculously survived to the benefit of his blood relations.

This is the same Africanus who tried to back up the gospels’ claim that darkness descended on the land when Jesus was crucified, citing Thallus and Phlegon about a solar eclipse. Africanus asks, “What is common about an earthquake, an eclipse, rocks torn apart, a rising of the dead, and such a huge cosmic movement? At the very least, over a long period, no conjunction this great is remembered. But it was a godsent darkness, because the Lord happened to suffer.”

And we’re supposed to trust the anecdotes of such a Christian “historian”? I think not.

It’s worth pointing out that the New Testament doesn’t regard Jesus’s brothers as apostles. Moreover, Moses likewise was credited with having brothers, but historians agree he was mythical. Thus, the ascription of a biological family to a heroic individual in the ancient world doesn’t establish the hero’s historicity, especially if the ascription is based on obviously legendary or theological accounts such as the gospels or Paul’s epistles.

The situation is worse with the notorious Eusebius who was one of the earliest Christian advocates of pious fraud and a likely candidate for the interpolator of Josephus. In Preparation for the Gospel, Eusebius said, “it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.” Specifically, he points out that “in the Hebrew Scriptures” you may find “also thousands of such passages concerning God as though He were jealous, or sleeping, or angry, or subject to any other human passions, which passages are adopted for the benefit of those who need this mode of instruction.”

Elsewhere, in Church History, Eusebius begins to speak of the destruction of churches, which might have cast doubt on God’s support of Christianity, but stops himself: “But it is not our place to describe the sad misfortunes which finally came upon them, as we do not think it proper, moreover, to record their divisions and unnatural conduct to each other before the persecution. Wherefore we have decided to relate nothing concerning them except the things in which we can vindicate the Divine judgment. Hence we shall not mention those who were shaken by the persecution, nor those who in everything pertaining to salvation were shipwrecked, and by their own will were sunk in the depths of the flood. But we shall introduce into this history in general only those events which may be useful first to ourselves and afterwards to posterity” (my emphases).

Likewise, Origen agrees with Celsus that “sometimes it is allowable to use deceit and lying as a medicine,” as for “the purpose of bringing salvation. For some characters are reformed by certain doctrines which are more false than true, just as physicians sometimes use similar words to their patients…But further, there is nothing wrong if the person who heals sick friends healed the human race which was dear to him with such means as one would not use for choice, but to which he was confined by force of circumstances.”

So the early Christian apologists felt forced to deceive — to forge documents, to interpolate, to exploit the gullibility of the illiterate, and so on — because humanity was in a fallen condition.

Again, I belabor this to illustrate the severe problems with the pieces of evidence that have come down to us. Historicists are fond of saying Jesus is the best attested Jew of the first century. But quantity is very different from quality. It doesn’t matter how many fragments of documents we have if they’re written by so many propagandists or if they’re equivocal, contradictory, or legendary. A thousand dubious pieces of evidence don’t add up to a compelling case — unless you have to make up your mind and there’s no alternative explanation of the data (as in a trial when a lawyer presents a circumstantial case for the jury to judge).

I’ll just close by reemphasizing that I’m not saying anyone can prove Jesus didn’t exist. I’m saying the available evidence is too ambiguous or otherwise problematic to establish any particular model of an historical Jesus beyond reasonable doubt. If all such models not just can but must be doubted, there’s no way of knowing, from our standpoint now with the evidence we have, whether anything like the familiar Jesus actually lived. Given that extreme uncertainty, a mythicist scenario becomes at least as plausible and as likely as any of the historicist ones.

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.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store