Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mythic Versus Historical Jesus

Every so often the "Mythic Jesus" hypothesis is advanced, usually by members of the esoteric community. The hypothesis goes like this - no such person as Jesus ever really existed in history, and instead the purported founder of Christianity was a mythical creation fabricated by later proponents of the religion. It's easy to see the appeal of this idea to non-Christians who have been told over and over again that Jesus is real and their gods are fake; it turns the tables quite nicely on univalent idiots. However, very few scholars accept it, as laid out in this article from Quora.

Scholars who specialise in the origins of Christianity agree on very little, but they do generally agree that it is most likely that a historical preacher, on whom the Christian figure "Jesus Christ" is based, did exist. The numbers of professional scholars, out of the many thousands in this and related fields, who don't accept this consensus, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Many may be more cautious about using the term "historical fact" about this idea, since as with many things in ancient history it is not quite as certain as that. But it is generally regarded as the best and most parsimonious explanation of the evidence and therefore the most likely conclusion that can be drawn.

The opposite idea - that there was no historical Jesus at all and that "Jesus Christ" developed out of some purely mythic ideas about a non-historical, non-existent figure - has had a chequered history over the last 200 years, but has usually been a marginal idea at best. Its heyday was in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, when it seemed to fit with some early anthropological ideas about religions evolving along parallel patterns and being based on shared archetypes, as characterised by Sir James Frazer's influential comparative religion study The Golden Bough (1890). But it fell out of favour as the Twentieth Century progressed and was barely held by any scholars at all by the 1960s.

The whole article is quite detailed and very much worth reading. One of the factors that complicates the issue is that there are significant differences between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of Paul, Christianity's main promoter who never met Jesus in person. Even in the Gospels the nature of Jesus changes substantially, from the itinerant preacher and healer of Mark (~60 CE) to John's logos of the entire universe (~130 CE). Furthermore, during that same period Christianity was borrowing ideas from other popular religions of the time such as Mithraism and transforming itself from a radical Jewish sect to a potential world religion in its own right.

Regardless, as the article explains none of these points demonstrate an absence of Jesus from history. They do imply, though, that if he were to return and examine the state of modern Christianity he would be unlikely to recognize many elements of the edifice that has been erected in his name.

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Richard said...

Actual scholars are coming out in support of the hypothesis recently, foremost among them Richard Carrier. His book Proving History argues for a Bayesian approach to history, and his second book in the series tackles Jesus Christ directly. You might want to check it out.

Scott Stenwick said...

I've followed some of those arguments casually, but the fact is that as a Thelemite the argument itself only engages me to a limited extent. Essentially, it matters little to my personal spiritual work. What I find more interesting is why a certain subset of the esoteric community gravitates towards the mythic hypothesis and finds it so appealing. Regarding Carrier's work, it doesn't seem to me that the Bayesian version of "plausible" is any more compelling than that applied by mainstream historians, just different. Just because the two methods tend to err in opposite directions doesn't say anything about the accuracy of their conclusions.

In many ways this is similar to my problem with the logic employed by hardcore paranormal skeptics. As with psychic abilities, we have a lot of weak evidence for a historical Jesus but nothing strong. This can be interpreted as (A) Jesus never existed or (B) Jesus was not considered all that important during his lifetime. The problem with (A) is that it requires throwing out all the evidence we do have on the grounds that it's not strong enough - but that right there is also a bias.

Frank Milera said...

I'd imagine B)to be the case. Jesus never went outside of Palestine, though his Apostles did. It's kind of subversive isn't it? You can't beat the Romans, but if you convert them, it is a victory of sorts.
An even better question might be not who Jesus was, but rather who was Barabbas...

Scott Stenwick said...

@Frank, That's my opinion as well. There were all sorts of messianic sects in Palestine at that time, and prior to the rise of Christianity the one that Jesus led was just one among many. The mythic Jesus hypothesis, though, is supported by the accretion of myth that grew around him as the religion expanded. Because of that, even if you accept the evidence we have as valid it's not clear at all that a historical Jesus existed who had much in common with the Jesus of the later church.