Monday, October 14, 2013

More on Mythic Jesus

In my last article on the mythic versus historical Jesus, a commenter recommended that I look into the works of Richard Carrier, one of the foremost proponents of the "mythic Jesus" hypothesis. Lately an article by independent researcher Joseph Atwill has been making the rounds on the Internet, putting forth the argument made in his 2005 book Caesar's Messiah that Christianity was the result of a Roman "psyop" intended to pacify the Jews of Palestine. This argument sounds dubious, and even though Atwill's book has been out for years it has only recently attracted a lot of attention. So who's going to show up to convincingly debunk the whole thing? Why, none other than Richard Carrier himself, who characterizes Atwill as a "crank myther" and goes on to demolish his entire thesis. Read the whole article, it's that good.

Atwill is best known as the author of Caesar’s Messiah (subtitle: “The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus,” Roman meaning the Roman imperial family…yeah). In this Atwill argues “Jesus [is] the invention of a Roman emperor” and that the entire (?) New Testament was written by “the first-century historian Flavius Josephus” who left clues to his scheme by littering secret hidden coded “parallels” in his book The Jewish War. Atwill claims to prove “the Romans directed the writing of both” the JW and the NT, in order “to offer a vision of a ‘peaceful Messiah’ who would serve as an alternative to the revolutionary leaders who were rocking first-century Israel and threatening Rome,” and also (apparently) as a laughing joke on the Jews (Atwill variously admits or denies he argues the latter, but it became clear in our correspondence, which I will reproduce below…it’s weird because making fun of the Jews kind of contradicts the supposedly serious aim of persuading the Jews, yet Atwill seems to want the imperial goal to have simultaneously been both).

Notice his theory entails a massive and weirdly erudite conspiracy of truly bizarre scope and pedigree, to achieve a truly Quixotic aim that hardly makes sense coming from any half-intelligent elite of the era (even after adjusting for the Flynn effect), all to posit that the entire Christian religion was created by the Romans (and then immediately opposed by it?), who somehow got hundreds of Jews (?) to abandon their religion and join a cult that simply appeared suddenly without explanation on the Palestinian (?) book market without endorsement. I honestly shouldn’t have to explain why this is absurd. But I’ll hit some highlights. Then I’ll reveal the reasons why I think Atwill is a total crank, and his work should be ignored, indeed everywhere warned against as among the worst of mythicism, not representative of any serious argument that Jesus didn’t exist. And that’s coming from me, someone who believes Jesus didn’t exist.

As I mentioned in my previous article, I tend to agree with the mainstream historical perspective that the Jesus who inspired the Gospels was probably a real person. However, it seems to me that much of the confusion exists because even if we propose that a historical Jesus existed, a mythic one clearly does as well. Mark is the only surviving Gospel that might have been written by someone who actually knew the original man, and even it was written at least 30 or 40 years after his death. Paul, who is known to have never met Jesus, transformed the young religion from a Jewish movement to a creed for gentiles, and in the process made a whole series of alterations to its teachings and theology.

So if you read the Gospels in historical order you can see the transformation from man to myth. First, in Mark, Jesus is the leader of a small messianic Jewish sect executed by the Roman authorities. We know from history that at the time hundreds of such groups existed, and as a result Jesus would not have been particularly significant during his life - which to my way of thinking explains why he in only mentioned in a few contemporary sources. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus' uniqueness as the fulfillment of the Jewish messianic prophecy is emphasized, and in Luke we see the first obvious borrowing from another tradition, that of Mithraism. While the other three Gospels contend that Jesus was born in a stable, in Luke it becomes a cave - just like the birthplace of Mithras, who also was said to have been born of a virgin.

Finally, in John we see the myth fully realized. Jesus is no longer a mere teacher, revolutionary, or even prophet, he is "the word" or logos of God that has existed for all time, and through whom all things were made. Would the historical Jesus have considered himself "the word" in this fashion? How about the third person of the Trinity? Given how he is characterized in Mark, I would answer almost certainly not on both counts. And yet this is the Jesus of most modern Christian churches, more myth than man. Perhaps this renders the whole argument over the historical Jesus' existence largely irrelevant, in that Christianity has erected an entire mythic personage that has far greater influence over its theology than even a well-documented historical individual ever could.

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Nerd said...

I agree that the issue of whether he literally existed or not is moot. The same thing could be said of many historical figures of the ancient world, like Alexander the Great.

Back in the day, history and myth (like "science and religion,) were not necessarily separated. Historical events were more likely to be interpreted from a mythical standpoint than reported from an "objective" standpoint, as we attempted to do in newspapers in the previous century.

What's your take on the theory that Jesus was a re-incarnation of Solomon (and pre-incarnation of St. Francis of Assisi?) I think Pryse wrote something on this. John the Baptist was said to have been a re-incarnation of Elijah, iirc.

Scott Stenwick said...

I'm not sure how workable it is to try and shoehorn reincarnation into Christianity. According to modern Christian theology, it just doesn't happen. As I understand it some forms of Kabbalistic Judaism allow for it, but I don't know much in the way of details about how it fits into the system according to those traditions.

It's also not clear from the Gospels that John the Baptist is supposed to literally be Elijah, only that some people of the time made that claim. And anyway, much of that might be moot given how much time passed between the life of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. Details could easily have been changed, and almost certainly were.

Certainly by the time you get to John the idea of Jesus as a reincarnation of anyone doesn't make much sense. By that time he's basically considered to be God, and "the word became a human being" makes it pretty clear that Jesus was the first time this occurred. If you go back and look at Matthew and Luke, though, you see events emphasized that draw parallels between Jesus and Moses - so perhaps that equivalence might be closer than trying to equate Jesus and Solomon.

Anonymous said...

Reincarnation features fairly prominently in Jewish lore including Kabbalah. Some might argue that rationalists such as Maimonides did not accept the idea of reincarnation, but as far as I am aware he does not make mention of reincarnation to support or deny it.

Kabbalists such as Rabbi Chaim Vital certainly accepted reincarnation as he wrote a book on it called Sha'ar HaGilgulim (Gate of Reincrnation). A lot of Jews are unfortunately ignorant of the idea of reincarnation in Judaism, believing it to be an idea introduced from Eastern mysticism.