What We Talk About When We Talk About Jesus

Does it feel good to think of this face as Jesus’s?

Bart D. Ehrman is a fairly liberal theologian, an ex-fundamentalist who calls himself agnostic, who hasn’t been afraid to ruffle some feathers among his fellow scholars of Christian texts, especially among those who used to think of him as of the same flock. For more on his background, read his wikipedia entry. I want to get to his newest book’s argument, which he summarizes on Huffington Post, and which seems designed to ruffle feathers of another of his former flocks, or a “small but growing cadre” of it,  “who call themselves mythicists,” he says.  He goes on:

This unusually vociferous group of nay-sayers maintains that Jesus is a myth invented for nefarious (or altruistic) purposes by the early Christians who modeled their savior along the lines of pagan divine men who, it is alleged, were also born of a virgin on Dec. 25, who also did miracles, who also died as an atonement for sin and were then raised from the dead.

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine. There are a couple of exceptions: of the hundreds — thousands? — of mythicists, two (to my knowledge) actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study. But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

I think it’s highly likely that a major difference, besides belief in the historicity of Jesus, that sets apart the vast majority of New Testament and early Christianity scholars (setting aside the classicists for a second) from these mythicists is a basic faith in Christianity, which may be precisely why they find skepticism about its basis in history so “extreme” and “unconvincing”–some might even say threatening. I mean, these scholars depend as much on their living from the continuing relevance of the faith as the clergy, and for 2,000 years (give or take a few), that relevance has hinged on the meaning of Christ (or the meaning of faith in him, anyway) to history.  The very count of our “years of the Lord” stems from his alleged year of birth, despite having been shown (like so much of sacred Christian doctrine) to have been a very late interpolation by a mid-Medieval Pope.

The mythicists on the other hand, I think generally don’t have any interest in joining the club Ehrman seems to think they’d relish belonging to in the way the creationists or intelligent design advocates crave approval from scientists. The whole point of mythicism, if you will, is to get all that orthodoxy smoke out of the way to see what this Christ-belief is really about.

After all, how is a non-Christian supposed to approach “The Christ?” Granted, Christianity and its central figure have been an important part of Western and now global culture for a very long time–no arguments there. Are we non-Christians supposed to lightly accept that this figure was the actual son of God, the source of truth and the one way to eternal life? Good luck to those of you hoping the answer to that would be yes! But why can’t we accept, as modern, science-informed theologians propose, that Jesus was a great teacher or revolutionary from Judea who threatened to bring down the old order with a new system and paid for it with his life, thus sparking a grand revolution in history? If so, where is the evidence for this great man’s life besides four conflicting gospels and later apocrypha? If he was a great Jewish scholar like Hillel, who lived around the same alleged time, or Paul, who began writing about him 35 years after his alleged death (though never once referring to him biographically–see Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle), where are this Jesus’s writings? If he was just a humble but very smart man whose force of personality was captured by the scribes who wrote the Gospels, why don’t those Gospels appear until a century or more after he died? Why were Christian scribes always sticking false clues into ancient texts to make it look as though Jesus were a real man in other people’s real history? Why is virtually all early Christian writing in Greek? Why are Jesus’s “Torah” references all apparently based not on the Hebrew Torah but on the Ptolemaic translation The Septuagint? Why would the church make it heresy to deny, not just Christ’s divinity, but his humanity if there were no doubt he was a real person?

I don’t want to rehash all the old arguments here, though I did engage in them quite a bit since my Usenet days on talk.atheism and other forums.  If you’re interested, here’s a lengthy example of the kinds of dialogues we had on the subject in the spring of 2002, when I was just coming to some major philosophical conclusions about my own beliefs.  This one covers most of the ground these discussions tend to cover when naive participants engage with it–the Roman writers on “Chrestos” and “Christians,” the obvious fraudulent meddling with pagan texts by Christian scribes, the comparisons with the “historicity” of Homer and Aristotle, etc., etc.  I joined it in this round under the handle xofpi and stayed with it to nearly the end. You probably have to be very interested to follow it. If you are at all interested and have some time , you could do worse than check in with “xofpi” here and there to see how the discussion develops. I find it entertaining, but I don’t expect too many others would (and, frankly, the Usenet format is very hard to read and follow).

I was interested to find that my beliefs about Jesus have held amazingly steady over all these years, despite continued reading and thinking about this subject. I thought I was digging deeper into the roots, but my Jesus skepticism seems to have sprung Athena-like almost full-formed in the weeks after I began reading Doherty’s Jesus Puzzle and Joseph Wheless‘s wonderfully cranky criticisms Is It God’s Word? and Forgery in Christianity. What strikes me is a bit from the Usenet debate I referred to above, that feels like something I could have written tonight,  in fact, something I did write tonight in response to Ehrman’s HuffPo piece. In true Christian style, I’m going to pull the 2002 text out of context and redact it to make it easier to digest, but please have faith it is essentially a whole thought unadulterated (but without the interruption of my Usenet antagonists to distract):

What are the salient characteristics of the Jesus we all know and love or love to hate? By far most of them are the items you have to take on faith (the virgin birth, the miracles, the genetic relation to god, the resurrection). Assume there was a Jesus that the Biblical one was based on: if he lived in the universe that I live [in], his life was nothing like the Biblical Jesus’s. He could not have been born of a virgin. He could not have performed miracles. He could not in any conventional sense have been genetically related to God. He could not possibly have risen from the dead. The salient parts of Jesus’ character are pure fiction.

…[M]y point is that if the fictional Jesus is nothing like the “original” Jesus, then the original Jesus is essentially irrelevant. It’s the fictional Jesus that people worship and that has had an impact on history and culture, just as the “original” King Arthur, if there was one, or the original Agamemnon could not approach either of their fictional counterparts in their effects on human thought down through the ages. When speaking of King Arthur, we assume we’re talking about the fictional one. It’s the same with Agamemnon, but for some reason people are unable or unwilling to admit they’re talking about a fictional character when they’re talking about Jesus.

What I wrote tonight:

“Here’s the big problem the historical Jesus proponents have to deal with and never do as far as I can tell. Even if there were a real man named Jesus on whom the Biblical Jesus is based, there are clearly huge differences between these two versions or ideas of Jesus. The discrepancies between the Gospels are the first sign that this must be true. A rational person with [sic] would probably also accept that the real Jesus would almost certainly have to vary from the Biblical Jesus in all of those points of his biography that absolutely require faith to believe in: He must not have been born of a virgin, not have been able to perform miracles, not been the literal only son of god, not resurrected after death, and not ever to return to earth to collect the saved for all eternity. There goes everything that makes Jesus an “interesting” focus for religion. So my point is, that “real” Jesus, whoever he was, if he ever was, is forever lost to us. The only Jesus we ever really talk about when we talk about Jesus is the mythical one.”

I think that’s a pretty simple point that speaks for itself and I would be willing to say more about it if any reader is interested in discussing it further. I just wanted to say a bit more about Ehrman’s complaint. One thing that I think he gets wrong is that mythicists are “naysayers.” We’re not. We’re truth seekers. It’s just that our idea of how to get truth is by looking at, not just textual, but material evidence. There’s nothing Ehrman can offer us to back himself up besides his and other people’s text, which admittedly is a lot of what we offer back; but the burden of material evidence is on his side, which is making the claim that a person we’ve only ever known as myth was once material. On our side we start with no sacred assumptions–not even that Jesus was always pure myth.

As far apart as the two sides seem, I think there’s a way to reach common ground by focusing on what we–not just Christians, but all of us–talk about when we talk about Jesus. Are we talking about the Central Man of History? Are we talking about the hypothetical revolutionary rabbi of Palestine? Are we only ever really talking about the idea of Jesus formulated from his assuredly real textual existence? Or what?

PS: An interesting PhD to read on these difficulties at getting at what Jesus is or ever was is Jonathan Z. Smith of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. For the record, he’s a Jewish Marxist atheist, and he’s not easy to read.  But he is enlightening, especially his Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity.


2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Jesus

  1. Pingback: Why You Should Doubt the Historicity of Jesus « Tragic Farce

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