Who was the historical Jesus and why does he matter? The controversy surrounding the existence of a historical person who founded the Christian movement has been raging for centuries – in fact much longer. This article is a very brief introduction to this lengthy subject. We will not focus here on the evidence concerning the historical Jesus; we only want to illustrate the extant and depth of the controversy.
THE DEBATE SURROUNDING THE HISTORICAL JESUS
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter” (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Adams, 1823).
Historical Jesus vs. Historical Founder of Christianity
Part of the confusion surrounding the ‘historical Jesus’ is the lack of consensus on the subject matter. What is Jesus? Is Jesus the Son of God, Savior, miracle worker, who was born of a virgin, died, came back to life and ascended into heaven? Or was Jesus one of dozens of Jewish rebel leaders during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem? Among scholars, the former is generally refuted (or ignored) and the later is affirmed; therefore it is often pointed out by conservatives that no ‘serious’ scholar doubts the historical Jesus. However, not only is the ‘historical Jesus’ of modern academics completely different from the Jesus Christ of the gospels, there is also a very specific reason – one which is not based on evidence – for the current academic support of the historical Jesus. Nevertheless, the modern academic support of the historical founder of Christianity is a continued source of support for Christians.
The common, modern understanding of ‘the historical Jesus’ goes something like this: scholars and academics still believe that there was a historical founder of Christianity, but disbelieve in the miracles because they aren’t scientific. Christians believe in the historical Jesus as well (which is not irrational because they are supported by the academic community), and also have faith in the miraculous events. However, there is a paradox in this situation which is not often pointed out: the method and technique that scholars have been using for decades to try and find the ‘historical Jesus’, is first to get rid of all the blatant mythological or pagan elements in the Bible, usually because they are believed to be additions from alternative (non-Jesus) sources. They are, in effect, the very things least likely to have been said or done by Jesus, not because they are unrealistic, but because they are not unique to an authentic, Jesus-inspired tradition. The result is a historical founder of Christianity which, rather than providing a doorway or foundation for Christian faith, is actually diametrically opposed; for if the historical founder of the scholars did exist, it is only possible due to his dissimilarity from the Jesus Christ of the gospels.
In the following sections outlining the debate over the historical Jesus, this distinction is often blurred. Supporters argue that Jesus was a historical man and therefore, his miracles and role as savior are also real, while detractors argue that his miracles and most of the gospel stories are myths and fables – and that if we remove them there is no reason to keep searching for a historical founder.
Even if many of the stories and miracles in the gospels are not accepted on faith, The Bible still paints a particular picture of Jesus as a physical man who left his mark on the world. Our question then, is not whether Jesus Christ existed, but whether the literary character recorded in the New Testament is based on a historical figure, or, conversely, on previous literary traditions and characters. Additionally, it is possible that a large collection of literature and mythology was added on to a historical kernel of information about a historical figure – but if this is so, the figure of Jesus Christ which resulted from this inclusion is still a mythological construct, rather than a historical person.
Incidentally, even the name ‘Jesus Christ’ is a title rather than a proper name; it is a literary referent. We are, in this study, not concerned with trying to find some historical figure (that continues to be the focus of academic research), who was not named Jesus Christ but something else, and who did not do the things described in the gospels, but may or may not be somehow tenuously tied into the tradition that later became Christianity. Instead we are looking at the character of Jesus we know – the character fully proclaimed by Christians and the Bible, and asking whether the deeds and events ascribed to this Jesus really happened.
Historical vs. Physical
Finally, I should point out that, in this research, “not-historical” and “mythological” will be considered the same as “non-physical”. Many early Jesus followers (I’m hesitant to call them by name because it will lead to debate over the specific doctrines of particular groups) believed that Jesus was, at least in part, non-physical, because of the philosophical conflicts with allowing a perfect God to have a flawed, physical body. To me, it is only the historical (physical) Jesus that can save him from complete identification with the mythical. If it can be proved that Jesus did not have a physical body, or that he or the greater events in his life were ‘in appearance only’, then the claim that he was nevertheless very real and different from many other myths and legends should become firmly a matter of faith and not at all a question for academic research. Some will argue that not having a physical body does not mean that Jesus was not historical; however it does erase any possibility of separating him from the mythological traditions to which he is so similar.
Controversy in the Patristic Era
“To the question, then, On what grounds do you deny that such a person as Jesus Christ existed as a man? the proper answer is, Because his existence as a man has, from the earliest day on which it can be shown to have been asserted, been as earnestly and strenuously denied, and that, not by enemies of the Christian name, or unbelievers of the Christian faith, but by the most intelligent, most learned, most sincere of the Christian name, who ever left the world proofs of their intelligence and learning in their writings, and of their sincerity in their sufferings; And because the existence of no individual of the human race, that was real and positive, was ever, by a like conflict of jarring evidence, rendered equivocal and uncertain.” Reverend R. Taylor, 1834 (Taylor, 254)
The above passage by Reverend R. Taylor makes two important points. The first is that the existence of Jesus Christ as a man has been denied, by both Christians and non-Christians, continuously and consistently since a very early period in the Church history. The second is that Jesus is the only historical figure whose existence has been ‘rendered equivocal and uncertain.’ We will address both claims below.
In fact it is not difficult to stumble on the early Church controversy concerning the historical nature of Jesus Christ. Nearly every Christian apologist and Church Father, for the first several centuries of Christianity, focused a great deal of their writings vilifying competing Christian groups (heresies) that believed Jesus came ‘in appearance only’. They also confronted criticisms that Jesus was no different from pagan gods or mythologies.
Origen, for example (185-254), considered one of the early champions of Christianity and the greatest theologian of the Patristic era, had to deal with the argument of the pagan philosopher Celsus that Christian faith was no different from other contemporary traditions:
Are these distinctive happenings unique to the Christians – and if so, how are they unique? Or are ours to be accounted myths and theirs believed? What reasons do the Christians give for the distinctiveness of their beliefs? In truth there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe, except that they believe it to the exclusion of more comprehensive truths about God.” Celsus, on Christianity
This alone should come as a surprise to those familiar with contemporary accounts of Christian history. Jesus was supposed to be something entirely new; his miracles, death and resurrection were expected to shock and awe; even his humility and ethics are assumed to be in stark contrast to the wild revelries of the pagans. Actually – as Celsus points out, there was nothing in the doctrine of Christians that was at all surprising to their contemporaries. The subsequent persecution of the Christians, therefore, was not (as is commonly believed) because they were loving and peaceful, or because they worshiped the One True God and refused to practice idolatry (although the latter does have something to do with it.) Rather it was their attitude of total exclusion: Christians looked down on contempt at the much older and more philosophical religions of the pagans, and ridiculed the gods and beliefs of their contemporaries.
Importantly, early Christians never denied the claims of similarity between Jesus and pagan gods. They complain about it, and write defenses of Jesus, without ever making the modern claim that these similarities are simply coincidental. Writing several decades earlier than Celsus and Origen, trying to justify his beliefs to the more erudite pagan philosophers, apologist Justin Martyr (100-165) has no qualms about acknowledging the similarities between Jesus and pagan gods:
When we say that the Word, who is first born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven; we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (Zeus). Justin Martyr, First Apology
Justin’s formal argument is that – although other pagan gods are also said to have been ‘born without sexual union, crucified, died, rose and ascended into heaven’, Jesus Christ physically and actually performed this feats, and is therefore unique. The question of why pagan gods should be at all similar to the biographical events of Jesus Christ is solved by Justin’s rather unconvincing argument, “Diabolical Mimicry”, which argues that the Devil copied Jesus before his actual lifetime in the various mystery cults and pagan religions, in order to confuse the faithful. After Justin, apologists continue to offer only the Diabolical Mimicry argument when faced with the criticism that Jesus was nothing different from pagan mythologies.
Another large controversy and point of contention within early Christianity, was that there were Christian communities who believed that Jesus was a spiritual being, rather than a physical human. Evidence for this can be found in the many damning prohibitions and criticisms of these communities by (what came to be) the orthodox groups. Another great father of the church was Iraneus. Addressing a widespread and popular heresy about 150 years after the (alleged) death of Christ, he says “I have learned that certain ministers of Satan have wished to disturb you, some of them asserting that Jesus was born only in appearance, and was crucified in appearance, and died in appearance.”
The letters and writings of the Church fathers are united in lampooning this heresy, which demonstrates just how large this “false belief” concerning Jesus really was. They argued ferociously that, regardless of what everybody else was saying, Jesus had really existed. Interestingly, instead of defending their beliefs with historical proof, they only develop theological arguments along the lines of “what we believe is not impossible, and therefore we believe it”, citing examples from nature and Old Testaments literature. Instead of refuting the position of their adversaries, through fact or logic, they rely on repetition, affirmation, name calling and character attacks:
For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is the antichrist; and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is a devil, and whosoever perverteth the oracles of the Lord (to serve) his own lusts, and saith there is neither resurrection nor a judgment, this man is a first born of Satan.” St. Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians (Book 7, Chapter 1) Polycarp (69-155)
Moreover, rather than providing evidence or testimonials from people who witnessed Jesus’ deeds, the fathers of the church from a very early period emphasized faith – not faith in God, but faith in the historical reliability of the gospel account! Central tenets of Christian faith included, as they do today, faith that Jesus was truly born of a virgin (not just symbolically or mythologically), truly crucified (in the flesh), truly suffered (as a real person; experiencing pain), and truly came back from the dead (not just ‘in appearance’):
I have perceived that you are firmly settled in unwavering faith, being nailed, as it were, to the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ in flesh and spirit, and firmly planted in love in the blood of Christ, being fully convinced as touching our Lord that He is truly of the race of David after the flesh, and Son of God after the Divine will and power, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John, that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch truly nailed for us in the flesh…And He truly suffered, as also that he truly raised himself up.”(Ignatius, Epistle to Smyrnaeans)
The above passage (with its emphasis on ‘truly’) demonstrates that the claims of Christianity were being strongly contested. Ignatius was writing around 110ad, so at least at that time, there were already Christian communities who believed that Jesus did not ‘truly’ accomplish all of the feats mentioned above. Where did these communities come from? How could they have heard or learned enough about Jesus to follow him as savior, but not enough to know for certain that he was a recently deceased historical figure, who came and suffered ‘in the flesh’?
It is improbable that these astoundingly diverse communities could have ever come into existence given the reliability of ‘apostolic tradition’. If Jesus Christ was a real person and there were real witnesses to his death and resurrection, while his stories and words and miracles may have been altered through transmission, the one idea that most certainly would not have changed, is his physical, historical, and bodily presence, both before and after the resurrection – and corresponding proof to justify such incredible claims. The diversity of early Christian creeds shows that, whatever message was being conveyed, it didn’t have enough details or evidence to prevent these heresies from forming.
In the Flesh
It is worth explaining that a large part of the early Church’s emphasis on ‘truly’ ‘actually’ and ‘in the flesh’ (as well as opposition to these ideas) come from their belief in the physical resurrection of bodies. While many mystery religions, philosophies and spiritual traditions of the time believed in an afterlife for the soul, they were generally based around a cosmology that viewed the body (and all physical matter) as dirt to be left behind.
The idea that Christians would be bodily resurrected was perceived as a crude and laughable mistake, an impossibility, and a perversion of ‘more comprehensive truths’. To combat critics, who told them their belief in the bodily resurrection was false, Christians strengthened their belief that Jesus himself had been bodily resurrected (thus their insistence on ‘in the flesh’) and therefore, that they would be too. However, belief in the resurrection of physical bodies was clearly a later permutation; it is only argued after the apostolic age. The letters of Paul make it clear that he believed in the resurrection of a spiritual, rather than physical body:
It is the same too with the resurrection of the dead: what is sown in perishable, but what is raised is imperishable; what is sown is contemptible but what is raised is glorious; what is sown is weak, but what is raised is powerful; what is sown is a natural body, and what is raised is a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:43)
What I am saying, brothers, is that mere human nature cannot inherit the kingdom of God: what is perishable cannot inherit what is imperishable. (1 Cor. 15:50)
Christians who affirmed the resurrection of the flesh knew that they were diverging from Paul’s original message, and complained that this difference of doctrine was often pointed out to them. Instead of responding to the criticism, and recognizing that the heretics were closer aligned to Paul’s theology, they pushed on undeterred.
Among the other [truths] proclaimed by the apostle, there is also this one, “That flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” This is [the passage] which is adduced by all the heretics in support of their folly, with an attempt to annoy us, and to point out that the handiwork of God is not saved.” Irenaeus, Against the Heresies
As is demonstrated by orthodox apologetics, the idea of ‘resurrection of the flesh’ was met with contempt from pagans and also the majority of Christians. An eternal physical body was seen as a disgusting and irrational idea. Justin Martyr succeeds in representing the opinion of the opposition, without answering any of the questions raised by them:
They who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh; giving as their reason that it is impossible that what is corrupted and dissolved should be restored to the same as it had been. And besides the impossibility, they say that the salvation of the flesh is disadvantageous; and they abuse the flesh, adducing its infirmities, and declare that it is the cause of our sins, so that if the flesh, say they, rise again, our infirmities also rise with it. By these and such like arguments, they attempt to distract men from the faith. And there are some who maintain that even Jesus Himself appeared only as spiritual, and not in flesh, but presented merely the appearance of flesh: these persons seek to rob the flesh of the promise. (Justin Martyr, 2nd Apology)
Significantly, the Christians who believed in the physical resurrection of the dead did not point to their own savior as proof, nor did they mention the miraculous raising of Lazarus found in the gospels. They neglected to offer the woman Peter raised to life in Jaffa, or the boy that Paul raised to life at Troas after he’d fallen out of a three story window, both of which were later recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. When asked to provide even one example of someone who has physically risen from the dead, they don’t. Instead, they argue that it is better to believe without seeing, while at the same time giving examples of resurrected men from pagan mythology!
Then, as to your denying that the dead are raised–for you say, “Show me even one who has been raised from the dead, that seeing I may believe,”–first, what great thing is it if you believe when you have seen the thing done? Then, again, you believe that Hercules, who burned himself, lives; and that Aesculapius, who was struck with lightning, was raised; and do you disbelieve the things that are told you by God? But, suppose I should show you a dead man raised and alive, even this you would disbelieve.” Theophilus, To Autolycus
The greatest challenge for the historical Jesus Christ is the sheer size and range of heresies surrounding him, which had begun even before the gospels were written, and continued for several centuries. After Christianity gained the political upper hand with support from Rome, they systematically persecuted heretics, burned controversial books and documents, and razed pagan temples and shrines to the ground (or converted them into Christian temples). Emperor Constantine’s mother set the example of traveling to the Holy Land and retrieving artifacts from the life of Jesus (she found the site of the cross about 400 years after the crucifixion), and historical relics of Jesus or the apostle became expensive commodities to display in churches. Lay persons became mostly illiterate, and non-believers were put to death. It is not surprising therefore, that for about a thousand years (‘the dark ages’) the historical Jesus was believed universally.
There were, however, exceptions. Giordano Bruno, for example suffered a martyr’s death by fire less than 400 years ago, for the belief that Bible was mythological:
Excommunicated by an obscurantist ecclesiasticism he went to the stake for his beliefs. He was convinced that the wisdom and magic-born religion of ancient Egypt excelled the fanatical theory that burnt dissident thinkers as heretics. For him the Biblical record was on par with the Greek myths. Refusing to retract his teachings, he met his doom dauntlessly, for he had less cause than his judges to fear the verdict of history and could snap his fingers at them in warning. Giordano Bruno, the unfrocked monk, perished on 16 February 1600, for his intransigent denial that Christianity was unique. (Witt, 267)
‘Enlightenment’ refers to the period of Western thought which considered reason as the highest authority. It could be traced all the way back to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (1637), although most scholars attribute it to the 18th or 19th centuries. With enlightenment came an enthusiasm for learning, discovery and education. Historically, it is tied with the Scientific Revolution which began about a century earlier (Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543).
Enlightenment was a desire for human affairs to be guided by rationality rather than by faith, superstition, or revelation; a belief in the power of human reason to change society and liberate the individual from the restraints of custom or arbitrary authority; all backed up by a world view increasingly validated by science rather than by religion or tradition. (Dorinda Outram)
During this period, the idea that Christianity was a compilation of pagan mythology seems to have already been the foregone conclusions of many philosophers, free thinkers and rationalists; nowhere is this more clear than a handful of quotes attributed to the founding fathers of the United States of America. In fact, the conscientious inclusion of tolerance and freedom of religious practice was probably added into the constitution and declaration of independence specifically to distance the American people from the authority of ecclesiastical organizations.
“The Christian god can easily be pictured as virtually the same god as the many ancient gods of past civilizations. The Christian god is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always of two classes: fools and hypocrites.” Thomas Jefferson
“As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed.” John Adams
“Lighthouses are more helpful then churches.” Benjamin Franklin
“The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma.” Abraham Lincoln
An interest in classicism and the translation of mythologies from newly discovered parts of the world, critical biblical scholarship, along with the weakening censorship power of the Church, led to the publication of many dozen treatises undermining the historical nature of Jesus Christ. The first scientific essay about the historical Jesus was published by Lessing (based on notes by Reimarus) between 1774 and 177; they conclude that Jesus was wholly terrestrial and never meant to start a new religion. Voltaire, although maintaining the idea of a historical, crucified founder, reveals that very little of the gospels could be taken at face value.
In the involved and prudent manner forced upon him, Voltaire pointed out the small documentary value of Gospels “written by persons acquainted with nothing, full of contradictions and imposture”—the improbability of the eschatological prophecies, against which good sense rebelled. “Let each ask himself,” he writes, “if he sees the possibility of pushing imposture and the stupidity of fanaticism farther.” “The whole history of Jesus—only a fanatic or a stupid knave would deny it—should be examined in the light of reason.” Voltaire on several occasions draws attention to the silence of non-Christian authors concerning the Gospel history. Obviously, Christian tradition does not inspire in him any confidence. However, he does not go so far as to maintain that it corresponds to no reality at all. He is aware that “certain followers of Bolingbroke, more ingenious than erudite,” considered themselves authorized by the obscurities and contradictions of the Gospel tradition to deny the existence of Jesus. (Goguel, 14)
Constantin-François Volney and Charles François Dupuis, two great thinkers of the French enlightenment, published works in the 1790’s claiming that the stories of Jesus Christ found in the gospels, as well as many other myths, were based on movements of the sun through the zodiac. According to Dupuis:
Jesus is still less man than God. He is, like all the deities that men have adored, the sun; Christianity is a solar myth. When we shall have shown,” writes Dupuis, “that the pretended history of a God, who is born of a virgin in the winter solstice, who is resuscitated at Easter or at the Vernal equinox, after having descended into hell, who brings with Him a retinue of twelve apostles whose chief possesses all the attributes of Janus—a God, conqueror of the prince of darkness, who translates mankind into the empire of light, and who heals the woes of the world, is only a solar fable, … it will be almost as unnecessary to inquire whether there was a man called Christ as it is to inquire whether some prince is called Hercules. Provided that it be proven that the being consecrated by worship under the name of Christ is the sun, and that the miraculous element in the legend or the poem has this star for its object, then it will appear proven that the Christians are but sun-worshippers, and that their priests have the same religion as those of Peru, whose throats they have cut. (Dupuis, 251)
The writings of Volney were influential in destabilizing the claim that Jesus was historical. In 1808, Napoleon I was under the influence of Volney when, in a conversation that he had with Wieland at Weimar, he said it was a great question to decide whether Jesus had existed. (Schweitzer, Gesch., p. 445)
Another theory was raised in Germany around the same time by Bahrdt and Venturini, who introduced a skeptical movement into Jesus’ life that “so far forsook the gospel representation as to leave his real historical form largely a matter of conjecture” (Case, 33). Jesus, they said, was a protégé of the essences, who had drawn upon secret wisdom from Babylonia, Egypt, India and Greece. Thus, he was revealer of ancient and secret wisdom, but not the savior portrayed in the gospels.
In 1829 Reverend Robert Taylor published his masterpiece, The Diegesis, which claims that Christianity did not originate with a historical founder, and in fact has far more ancient roots. Prior to this work, Taylor founded the ‘Christian Evidence Society’ (among whose central claims were that the persons in the gospels never existed, and the events in the gospels never happened), and was thrown in jail for blasphemy and “a conspiracy to overthrow the Christian religion.”
A more influential (and controversial) work was David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus, first published in 1835 translated into English in 1846. The Life of Jesus is an attempt to remove all of the mythical elements from the gospel accounts, in order to search for the real, historical person behind them; as such Strauss is considered a pioneer in the historical investigation of Jesus.
The first Gospel accounts, in Strauss’s opinion, have not been drawn up from an historical point of view. They do not relate the events as these took place, but express certain ideas by means of images and symbols, or, to employ the exact term that Strauss makes use of, by myths. What is important in the notion of the myth is not the idea of unreality, but that of a symbolical expression of a higher truth. The mythical explanation seems to Strauss the synthesis which resolves the antithesis between the naturalist and the supernatural explanations of the life of Jesus.
Strauss’s torch was picked up by Bruno Bauer, who, accepting Strauss’s premise but, focusing on the mythical rather than historical Jesus, began arguing that Jesus was merely a fusion of Greek, Roman and Jewish theologies in 1840. (Goguel, 16)
Vie de Jésus by Renan in 1863 marked the first French book on the subject – although mostly a compilation of German criticism, it was directed at the public and thus attracted a great deal more attention. Renan’s novel paints a literary picture of a (very human) gentle dreamer, and makes the claim that the idea of a risen God comes from the passion of a deluded woman.
This line of thought was continued by Kersey Graves in the 1875 book The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors (or Christianity Before Christ). In his preface, Graves states that Jesus A) taught no new doctrine or moral precept, B) inculcated the same religion and morality, which he elaborated, as other moral teachers, to great extremes, and C) differs so little in his character, preaching, and practical life from some of the oriental Gods, that “no person whose mind is not deplorably warped and biased by early training can call one divine while he considers the other human”. (Graves)
Around the same time, the ‘Rosetta Stone’, found by Napolean’s army in 1799 and translated by Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822, inspired a frenzy of academic study of Egyptian mythologies. This movement motivated specifically Egyptian comparisons between Christianity and mythology. In 1877 W.R. Cooper published The Horus Myth in its relation to Christianity, in which he writes:
The works of art, the ideas, the expressions, and the heresies of the first four centuries of the Christian era cannot be well studied without a right comprehension of the nature and influence of the Horus myth. We cannot ignore these facts. We have as Christians no reason to be afraid of them. (Cooper, 49)
Egyptologist Gerald Massey, (1828-1907) author of Gnostic and Historic Christianity and other works, also compared Jesus’ biography with Egyptian mythology. Once having made this identification, however, he goes on to conclude that the figure of Jesus is completely mythological, and could never have been historical. In a private edition of his lectures published at the turn of the 20th century (c.1900) He says,
Nothing is more certain, according to honest evidence, than that the Christian scheme of redemption is founded on a fable misinterpreted; that the prophecy of fulfillment was solely astronomical, and the Coming One as the Christ who came in the end of an age, or of the world, was but a metaphorical figure, a type of time, from the first, which never could take form in historic personality, any more than Time in Person could come out of a clock-case when the hour strikes; that no Jesus could become a Nazarene by being born at, or taken to, Nazareth; and that the history in our Gospels is from beginning to end the identifiable story of the Sun-God, and the Gnostic Christ who never could be made flesh. When we did not know the one it was possible to believe the other; but when once we truly know, then the false belief is no longer possible.
John Mackinnon Robertson (1856-1933) wrote several books in his lifetime about the mythical Jesus, whom he identified as the solar deity of a Jewish cult. Based on the evidence that everything found in the gospels can be paralleled to pagan mythology, and that the Jesus Paul speaks of is “speechless sacrifice” rather than person of action and teaching, Robertson concluded that Jesus was a composite of pagan myths (Case, 43). He is perhaps most famous for Pagan Christs: Studies in Comparative Theology published in 1903. Also published in 1903 was G.R.S. Mead’s Did Jesus Live 100 B.C, which finds a Talmudic basis for the Jesus of the gospels. In 1906 Albert Schweitzer published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a classic work of Biblical historical criticism. Whittaker, meanwhile, in The Origins of Christianity (London, 1904; 1909), argued that “Jesus may not be an entirely fictitious person, yet the gospel stories are almost wholly mythical.” (Case, 41)
These texts influenced Arthur Drews’ The Christ Myth (1909), which synthesized and strengthened many of the earlier arguments, and W.B. Smith’s Ecce Deus – which earned a full review in The New York Times on August 13, 1911. A little later we find Edward Carpenter’s Pagan and Christian Creeds (1920) and Jesus of Nazareth: Myth or History by Maurice Goguel (1926).
Jesus must, then, have been at the beginning the God of a mystery. At the time of Paul neither the God nor the mystery had become historical. They were to become so in the period to follow the creative age, when it would be no longer possible to understand the high spirituality which had inspired the primitive faith, and when the celestial drama upon which Christianity of the first generation had lived had been transported to earth. (Goguel, 28)
After over a century of debate and dissension over the historical Jesus, by the beginning of the 20th century it was generally conceded that Jesus, even if he existed, was virtually unknowable. The great German scholar Rudolf Bultmann and his new literary-critical school of Formgeschichte (form criticism), effectively shut down all inquiry into the historical Jesus within academic circles with his memorable 1926 statement, “We can know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus since the early Christian sources show no interest in either” (Bultmann).
This position – that the historical Jesus is beyond the scope of rational inquiry – was taken for granted by philosopher Bertrand Russell in his treatise, Why I am not a Christian:
Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one. (Russell, 1927)
This state of affairs led in two distinct directions. The first was a continued emphasis on comparative mythology, wherein the historical Jesus was ignored in favor of the interpretation of the mythos and its importance for understanding the human condition. This was the direction which gained prominence through the writings of Freud, Jung, Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Frazer.
The second was a renewed interest in discovering the historical Jesus, by identifying and removing all traces of mythology, which focused on identifying dissimilar elements in the Christ movement that could have originated with a historical founder.
Mythology, Archetypes and the Subconscious
James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (first published in 1890) scandalized Europe by equating the story of Jesus Christ with mythologies from more primitive and ancient peoples, and arguing that all mythical heroes that die then come back are really vegetation gods representing the changing seasons. “For Frazer, the chief myths of all religions describe the death and rebirth of vegetation, a process symbolized by the myth of the death and rebirth of the god of vegetation” (Segal, 4). The Golden Bough had a major influence on anthropology and many of the poets and authors of the 20th century, and invited the interpretation of mythology and religion.
Frazer was an early piece of a movement towards the appreciation and universalism of all humanity. With the synthesis and comparisons between different religious and mythological traditions, it became clear to many that human beings, rather than gods, are responsible for the creation of their own mythos – and moreover, that the similarities between these stories reflect some as yet unknown common link between all humans. The study of mythology became seen as a way to access the raw, original subconscious desires and motivations of mankind.
The ‘father of psychoanalysis’, Sigmund Freud interpreted mythology as result of repressed sexual desire. For example, Sophocles’ classic myth of Oedipus Rex (the King) was considered by Freud to be incestuous in nature, and support his claim that all men have a subconscious desire to sleep with their mothers and kill their fathers. Freud studies have become so widely appreciated that few people have not heard of ‘Oedipal complex’, which Freud explains in his work “The Interpretation of Dreams.”
His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours –- because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so. (Freud, 296)
It must be pointed out, however, that Freud’s thought lies in the assumption that dreams and mythology are productions of the subconscious mind, and that subconscious motivations are universal. There may be truth in Freud’s theories, but there are also many controversial claims which are simply not adequately supported. Critics of Freud have coined Freudian analysis the ‘find the penis’ game. Trying to read Harry Potter, for example, along Freudian lines, is both possible and ultimately unsatisfying. In Harry Potter’s Oedipal Issues (2001), Kelly Noel-Smith explains
Given that it is every child’s phantasy to remove, by death, his or her father to enjoy exclusive possession of his or her mother (and, inversely, to eliminate one’s mother to take her place with one’s father), the reader of Harry Potter is able to indulge in wish fulfilment of the most basic phantasies without the grief which would ordinarily attach to them: we know, at a conscious level, that the story is not true; unconsciously, the deaths of Harry’s parents represent a wonderful fulfilment of Oedipal phantasies. (Noel-Smith)
The ultimate problem with Freudian analysis is – although the subconscious desires may really exist – readers themselves aren’t aware of them; which make them of little value to the millions of fans that just want to enjoy the story.
Less known about Freud is the fact that, while himself not religious, Freud was very interested in comparative mythology, and wrote Moses and Monotheism (1938) to explore the link between the Judaic monotheism of Moses and the sun-centered religion of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. As Jan Assman says in Moses the Egyptian (1997), “Freud stresses (quite correctly) the fact that he is dealing with the absolutely first monotheistic, counter-religious, and exclusivistically intolerant movement of this sort in history” (167).
“Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes.” (C.G. Jung, The Psychology of the Child Archetype)
Carl Gustav Jung argued that the human psyche is by nature religious, and that mythology, religions, dreams, art and philosophy can be used to explore the unconscious. Like many of his peers, interest into comparative mythology greatly influenced his work. As a student of Freud, his early position was that myth originates and functions to satisfy the psychological need for contact with the unconscious. He was “staunchly committed to independent invention” of myth and asserted there is “no evidence and indeed no possibility of contact among all of the societies with similar myths” (Segal, 14). Based on the similarities between various world traditions, and the presumed impossibility of contact (something I will argue against later) Jung came up with the concepts of ‘the collective unconscious’ and ‘psychological archetypes’. In other words – since many cultures use the symbol of a dying and resurrecting savior figure, and since these cultures did not share the symbol with each other, it must have come out of secret subconscious forces.
Jung argued that Christianity, although once vital, stopped interpreting its myths and so stopped being relevant to modern people. “Belief is no adequate substitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously” (Jung, undiscovered self, civilization and transition, 265).
Noting the conflicts between the claim of an historical Jesus and comparative mythology, Jung reasons, “if the statement that Christ rose from the dead is to be understood not literally but symbolically, then it is capable of various interpretations that do not conflict with knowledge and do not impair the meaning of the statement (Segal, 38).
According to prominent Jungian Mircea Eliade, all myths are religious myths, (except for modern myths, which may be secular). Eliade also continues the Jungian ideal that you cannot go from sacred to profane – in other words, it is possible for humans to create religious myths (sacred stories) based on mundane experience (profane), but not the other way around.
The main problem with this line of thought, is that, although it popularized the similarities between various mythological traditions, it basically assimilated all mythology into its psychological umbrella and the fixed, limited historical period of the movement, academic study of mythology is seen as ‘dated’ or only relevant for psychology majors.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) mythologist Joseph Campbell’s purpose was to explore the similarities between Eastern and Western religions. Later, in his four-volume series of books The Masks of God, (1959-1968) Campbell tried to summarize the main spiritual threads common throughout the world while examining their local manifestations. He made it clear that it is the stories which should concern us – not whether or not the stories have historical basis.
We may doubt whether such a scene ever actually took place. But that would not help us any; for we are concerned, at present, with problems of symbolism, not of historicity. We do not particularly care whether Rip van Winkle, Kamar al-Zaman, or Jesus Christ ever actually lived. Their stories are what concern us: and these stories are so widely distributed over the world- attached to various heroes in various lands- that the question of whether this or that local carrier of the universal theme may or may not have been a historical, living man can be of only secondary moment. The stressing of this historical element will only lead to confusion; it will simply obfuscate the picture message. (Campbell, 230-231)
Campbell represents mythology studies at its most matured – however by continuing in the tradition of Freud and Jung, seeks only the universal aspects of humanity which gave rise to specific mythological symbols, and thus is not interested in finding any specific historical (or astrological) root to these symbols.
Christian apologist C.S. Lewis reflects many of the humanistic tendencies and shifts Christianity went through in the middle of the 20th century. During the rise of the ‘modernist heresy’ much of Christian thought and writing involved Neo-scholasticism and biblical literacy, along with the adamant refusal the studies mentioned above. In the 1950’s, however, under humanist theologians like Kahr Rahner and John Courtney Murray, Christian theology began to turn towards tolerance, inclusion and inter-faith dialog. The Second Vatican Council (1962) is a record of these changes; although the Catholic Church has since moved back to a more conservative position.
A fantastic writer, C.S. Lewis accepts the universal mythology of Jung or Campbell and models a very modern Christianity; one which could accept the mythical nature of the gospels without being threatened but it. His conclusion (like Justin Martyr) is that all the other figures who are similar to Jesus Christ were legends, stemming from the imagination, and that Jesus Christ was the same story, but as a historical reality.
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. . . . God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.” (C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock)
Lewis’ hypothesis however, is based on the assumption that there is a great deal of evidence for the historical Jesus – “it is all in order”. If Jesus existed, then he existed; similarities to mythology are simply irrelevant. Thus, the similarities between Jesus and other mythological figures are not threatening to Christians, but only as long as the evidence for the historical Jesus is strong enough to silence our incredulity that a historical person should have so much in common with mythology.
The Criteria of Double Dissimilarity
While mythologists were busy exploring the similarities between Jesus Christ and world mythology and claiming that they were produced out of some universal human need or shared unconscious, biblical scholars continued the ‘quest for the historical Jesus’ but with a shifted focus. Using a methodological tool first advocated by Bultmann, the Criteria of Double Dissimilarity (or ‘CDD’), scholars tried to identify the genuine historical founder behind the Christian movement, by combing through The Bible for ideas that could not be traced either to Judaism or the Early Church. As Bultmann says in The History of the Synoptic Gospels (1921),
We can only count on possessing a genuine similtude of Jesus where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety and the distinctive eschatological temper which characterised the preaching of Jesus; and where on the other hand we find no specifically Christian features. (Bultmann)
Bultmann’s Criteria of Double Dissimilarity was reiterated and expanded by Kasemann and Perin, gaining the seal of approval among academics, and has since remained very influential in academic research into the life of Jesus.
We can only sketch in a few bold strokes the embarrassment of critical research. it lies in this; while the historical credibility of the Synoptic tradition has become doubtful all along the line, yet at the same time we are still short of one essential requisite for the identification of the authentic Jesus material, namely, a conspectus of the very earliest stage of primitive Christian history; and also there is an almost complete lack of satisfactory and water tight criteria for this material. In only one case do we have more or less ground under our feet, when there are no grounds either for deriving a tradition from Judaism or for ascribing it to primitive Christianity. (Kasemann, 36-37)
Thus we reach the fundamental criterion for authenticity upon which all reconstructions of the teaching of Jesus must be built, which we propose to call the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’. Recognising that it follows an attempt to write a history of the tradition concerned, we may formulate it as follows: the earliest form of a saying we can reach may be regarded as authentic if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church, and this will particularly be the case where Christian tradition orientated towards Judaism can be shown to have modified the saying away from its original emphasis. (Perrin, 43)
The CDD sounds like a very reasonable academic process. Reading between the lines, however, I am able to give my own criticisms. First of all – CDD is made possible by first completely ignoring the mythological and Pagan elements in the gospels. Biblical scholars (of the Bultmann variety) unanimously conclude that they are ‘later additions’ and can tell us nothing about the historical Jesus. In other words – if Jesus was pagan, i.e. if all of those mythical elements were the core of him, and he consisted of nothing else, he would not be historical; thus leading to a dead-end in research and the impossibility of knowing anymore about him. Therefore, scholars claim, the historical Jesus must have been Jewish, because if he wasn’t, then he wasn’t historical. This is a logical tautology at best, but it has been the motivating reasoning behind research into the historical Jesus for the last few decades.
Since many of the elements in The Bible came either from pre-Christian Jewish movements or post-Jesus Christian apologetics, Jesus (according to the CDD) is to be found somewhere between these two. It must be noted that with this type of research, the historical Jesus remains only an unproven theory – Jesus the historical figure is the binding element given to any untraceable idea, phrase, philosophy or theology from a specific time period. Based on the pagan similarities to the gospels, the only way to talk about the historical Jesus intelligibly is to talk about who Jesus must have been: he was either Jesus the Jew (who got immediately transformed into something very different by his followers) or nothing at all. This trend is clearly shown by a few of the more popular titles published about Jesus in the last few decades: Jesus the Jew (1973); Jesus and Judaism (1985); The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991); A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991-2001); and Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (1999).
The danger with this line of reasoning is that, when we do a close examination of the Jewish sources, we find very little in the gospels that cannot be traced to earlier movements within Judaism. We could theorize that Jesus was the person who put these pieces together and got everyone really excited about them, but it is also possible to remove the hypothesis of a historical Jesus without weakening an understanding of the historical developments. (Where, why and how the character of Jesus Christ we know from the gospels originated, if not from a historical person, can be found in other sections of this website.)
Consequently, when searching for the historical Jesus with academic rigor, it is possible to go too far and actually weaken the position that there was one at all. This problem was recognized in the following article, published in a 1963 edition of TIME magazine:
“We Can Know Nothing.” During the 1920s, Bultmann sealed the doom of the old quest, as far as Europe was concerned.* He argued that the Gospels were interested not in presenting a dispassionate portrait of Jesus but in expressing the kerygma—the proclamation of the early church’s faith in a Risen Christ. This meant that although the New Testament might be a primary source for a study of the early church, it was only a secondary one for a life of Jesus. Since the faith of later generations was really based upon the shining faith of the first Christians and not upon Jesus himself, theologians should forget about seeking the earthly Jesus and analyze the formation of the kerygma. “We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus,” Bultmann wrote in one of the shaping dicta of modern theology.
Bultmann himself later moved a step farther to the theological left and argued that to become credible for modern man, the kerygma must be “de-mythologized”—stripped of such unbelievable elements as its heaven-above, hell-below framework. But demythologizing, Robinson points out, threatened to end up with “the conclusion that the Jesus of the kerygma could well be only a myth.” Deprived of its link with the historical Jesus, Christianity might end up as some kind of existentialist philosophy, of which Christ was little more than a mythological symbol. (Time Magazine, my italics)
Another problem with the “Jewish Jesus” is that nobody really believes in him. He is a necessary fiction, in order to preserve the possibility of Christian faith – but he is nobody’s savior, or hero; only a historical novelty. Moreover, in stripping away the pagan, mythical elements in the gospel, academics are also removing central concepts of Christian faith, (the virgin birth, the miracles, even the death and resurrection of Jesus). In proving the historical Christ, they are also, albeit indirectly, disproving the Jesus of Faith.
Although it is true – and often pointed out by apologetics – that the majority of scholars continue to believe that Jesus was historical (i.e. that there was a human founder behind the Christian movement), there have been a few modern scholars who disagree. These scholars are aware that the Jewish Jesus, while necessary to preserve the possibility of a historical Jesus of any kind, is very tenuously based on The Bible and the assumption that Jesus was real; and that although he remains the focus of academic investigation, a very different hypothesis, which does not presume the historical Jesus, is also possible. This hypothesis is often called the “Christ-Myth Theory”.
Although the following definition does not apply equally to all writers, in brief the Christ-Myth theory argues that there is no need for a historical founder to explain the rise of the Christian movement; that all episodes and events in the gospels can be traced to earlier traditions, and that certain early sects of Christianity began to believe – mistakenly – that the stories of Jesus Christ were about a real, historical figure. This theory may sound unbelievable, but bear in mind that it is already not so different from the ‘orthodox’ position. Modern scholars already believe that the early Christian communities, who worshipped Jesus as the dying and resurrecting son of God, glossed over the real historical Jesus in favor of the ‘Jesus of Faith’ – a Jesus that incorporated elements from mythology, philosophy and the theology produced by these early communities. The ‘historical Jesus’ which they believed in and even died for was not the historical Jesus still investigated by modern scholarship.
Christ-myth theory is in general not supported by the academia because they have already decided to look for the historical Jesus, and acknowledge that comparative mythology cannot shed light on the object of their investigations. Those few historians and academics who are still researching the mythical Christ, are trying in vain to present an argument strong enough to withstand the foregone presumption of critics that the theory is outdated or has already been adequately disproved. Meanwhile biblical historians focus exclusively on Jesus the Jew, while Theologians focus exclusively on Christology and theory, and the very real difficulty in putting the two together is ignored.
For the general public however, whether or not the Jesus Christ as presented in the gospels was a historical figure is a source of much interest, and books on the subject have been both well-received and heavily criticized. Titles exploring the Christ Myth theory include G.A. Wells’ Did Jesus Exist? (1975), as well as his later books, The Jesus Legend (1996), and The Jesus Myth (1998). In 1999, three books on Christ Myth theory were published: The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Acharya S; The Jesus Mysteries: Was Jesus a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy; and The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty. There was also Robert M. Price’s Deconstructing Jesus (2000), and more recently Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ (2005) and sequel Water Into Wine (2007).
The difficulty in making any continued progress on the question, “Who was Jesus Christ?” is simply that the controversy is not new. Various contradicting theories have been proposed and discredited, academic research has already noted and filed away the distinctions between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith, and the general public has had the opportunity to assimilate hearsay and anecdotal evidence which support their preconceived ideas.
The wildly popular documentary Zeitgeist (2007), which introduced the Christ myth hypothesis to record numbers of people, sparked a new level of internet debate; the controversy now rages stronger than ever – but both sides recycle arguments and evidence that the other side then blithely discredits or ignores. In fact, there is no debate or controversy today – only two groups, equally convinced that there is an abundance of evidence which supports their views. The current state of frenzied disagreement is all too often based on logical argument, semantics and sophistry rather than a close investigation of the evidence, and also fails to give – on either camp – a clear explanation of Christian history that fully supports the evidence available.
What do you think? Was Jesus a fictional character or a historical savior? Comment below and join the discussion!