Saturday, March 1, 2014

Jesus: miracle, midrash, or myth?

Did Jesus really exist? A review of Robert Price's "The Christ myth theory and its problems".

What?! Doesn't everyone agree on this most central historical fact? The fact from which our very historical time is measured? Indeed, wasn't Jesus blond-haired and blue-eyed? Well, no, and the reason is that the evidence for the existence of Jesus in any historical sense is extremely thin to non-existent. Biblical scholar and professor Robert Price weighs the evidence, and comes down very tentatively on the myth side of the equation. I will be following his analysis, more or less, below. But the fact of the matter is that we have so little to go on that either position is equally valid, and equally tenuous- Jesus might have existed, might not ... no one really knows. Indeed it would be accurate to say that we know that the Jesus we know is mostly myth. The only question is where in the low figures the percentage of reality is: 20%, 10%, or 0%?

The Jesus as myth hypothesis posits that the gospel writers were furiously filling an entirely blank biography with an amalgam of Old Testament rewrites, (similar to the Jewish practice of midrash), Homeric themes, and new archetypal and theological material. Whether the subject was historically real or not was, as frequently in the ancient world, (and today!), not of the highest concern, once the community had fastened onto its inverted Jewish Messiah story. Even today, the insistence of the political right wing in the US on its "facts" is an object lesson in real-time myth-making. And the Messiah itself was such a common theme in this tumultuous time, both in the Jewish world, and in the Roman world generally, that a miracle-working, dying and rising superman was easy to conjure, whatever the historical seed may or may not have been. Many others have raked over this territory far better than I, so take this as an appetizer of sorts for the critical analysis of others.

But let's get to the main points of the case- the evidence, and lack thereof.

  • The historical traces.
Aside from the New Testament, we have virtually no mention of Jesus, and those mentions are decades after his time, in some cases inserted by unnamed later authors, and in any case merely mention the Jesus story as was current among Christians of the time, with no detailed or independent information:
Josephus, writing ~93 CE
"Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned."
Tacitus, writing ~116 CE
"Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Jud├Ža, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular."

Pilate was a true historical figure, attested by archeology as well as historical writings. But Tacitus is evidently referring to the story as told by the Christian followers, so the connection to Jesus is here one of hearsay, as is the passage by Josephus. Now, the absence of evidence is in no way conclusive. Even though the miracles attributed to him, the quasi-revolution fostered by him, and the brutal judgement by his community and execution by Rome might well have excited some kind of contemporary commentary, none has come to light. Nor is likely to ever come to light, considering how fervently such material has already been sought.

  • The name. 
Jesus is a form of the Hebrew Joshua, meaning Yahweh saves ... a savior. While this was a reasonably common name, "The works of Josephus refer to at least twenty different people with the name Jesus... ", it is awfully convenient for the presumptive Messiah to have this name. One hypothesis might be that Mary received her vision of why she happened to be miraculously pregnant, and had Joseph choose this propitious name. Or it might have been a coincidence, or a miracle. Or there may have been many valid messiahs in Palestine at this time, of whom only those named Jesus rose above the noise or took the mission onto themselves. A bit like someone in Mexico named "Jesus" becoming the next religious founder. Or, it might have been applied after the fact to a mythical savior, along with the equally honorific "Christus", meaning messiah. Critical historical analysis, in which Price gives a few lessons, tends to favor the easier hypotheses over the outlandish, convoluted, or coincidental.

The hometown of "Nazareth" is hardly more helpful, since it is not clear that such town existed at the time. It is quite possibly yet another power-name to go with "Christ" and "Jesus", this one meaning "branch", another reference to the messiah. "Jeremiah 23:5: 'Behold, the days are coming,' declares the Lord, 'When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch. And He will reign as King and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the Land.'"

  • The Epistles.
The earliest writing within Christianity is regarded as whatever of the Pauline Epistles are genuine, from about the 50's CE. These have a far different picture of Jesus than the storybook Gospels. Paul never claims to have met Jesus, other than by a vision, and refers to him always in a sort of Homeric formula, as Christ crucified, or our Lord, etc. Price mentions that if Paul had the various sayings from Jesus that are thought to have been current in the community via the Q source or gospel of Thomas material, he would surely have used them in his various arguments recorded in the epistles. But no quotes at all, indeed no biographical Jesus at all, other than indirectly in references to Jesus's brother James, which we will get to below. (For a contrary view..) Perhaps this was just Paul's style, and a mark of his "outsider" status vs the Jerusalem church, but it is hard to square with a personality cult, like the one developed from Muhammed, for instance. The vast Hadith collection, all of it thought to be false, grew up in Muhammed's wake, and it hardly made a difference whether he was real or not. But Paul's ignorance of such a tradition indicates that it may have arisen later, just in time for the gospel writers, or been distrusted as a source by Paul.

  • The Gospels.
The four gospels are great artistic achievements, certainly when transmitted through the language of the  King James committee. But where did they come from, and what were they really saying? Firstly, the authors are unknown, as the canonical names were applied by others. They were written in the 70's-80's CE, except for John, which comes later by a couple of decades. I won't even deal with the contradictions among them, which are legion despite being partly derived from some common sources.

Price notes that each of the gospels tells a very archetypal story. Each anecdote has a lesson, each epsiode a moral. It is not history in the conventional or modern sense, since the story is there to push the theology rather than say simply what happened. Jesus becomes the archetypal hero, with plenty of precedent, both ancient and modern. Born of a virgin, precocious, foretold in countless ways from the old testament, possessing special powers and insights, disbelieved, becoming a king (if in an inverted way), then brought down, only to rise again as the scapegoat for all sins. The Jews had long been on the lookout for a messiah, and the wider Roman world indulged in many similar hero-mystery religions.

Price spends most of the book going literally chapter and verse through the New Testament to dredge up the models that inform each passage. Most come from the Old Testament, though some also come from Homer or Euripedes. Many of the comparisons seem rather strained to me, but there are also quite convincing sections. For instance, a long section of Luke is passage for passage pretty much a re-casting of Deuteronomy. A few examples of Price's comments:

Deuteronomy 8:1-3 / Luke 10:38-42
"Luke has created the story of Mary and Martha as a commentary on Deuteronomy 8:3, 'Man does live by bread alone, but... man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the lord.' Luke has opposed the contemplative Mary who hungers for Jesus' ('the lord's') 'words' with the harried Martha ('Lady of the house', hence an ideal, fictive character), whose preoccupation with domestic chores, especially cooking and serving, threatens to crowd out spiritual sustenance (cf. Deuteronomy 8:11-14). It is not unlikely that the passage is intended to comment in somne way on the issue of celibate women and their various roles in the church of Luke's day (cf. 1 Timothy 5:3-16)."

Deuteronomy 8:4-20 / Luke 11:1-13
"Deuteronomy compares the discipline meted out to Israel by God with the training a father gives his son, then remind the reader of the fatherly provision of God for his children in the wilderness and promises of security, prosperity, and sufficient food in their new land. Luke matches this with his version of he Q Lord's Prayer, sharing the same general themes of fatherly provision and asking God to spare his children 'the test', recalling the 'tests' sent upon the people by God in the wilderness. Luke adds the Q material about God giving good gifts to his children (Luke 11:9-13/Matthew 7:7-11), certainly the point of the Deuteronomy text, together with his own parable of the Importunate Friend, which (like its twin, the parable of the Unjust Judge, 18:1-8, also uniquely Lukan) urges the seeker not to give up praying 'How long, O Lord?'"

Deuteronomy 13:12-18 / Luke 12:54-13:5
"Whole judgement of his people.. Whole cities lapsing into pagan apostasy are to be eliminated, destroyed, Deuteronomy mandates, with nothing ever to be rebuilt on their desolation, so seriously does Israel's God take spiritual infidelity. No less gravely does the Lukan Jesus take the lack of repentance on the part of the Galileans and Jews. Past tragedies and atrocities will be seen as the mere beginning of the judgments to fall like the headsman's axe on an unrepentant people. Of course, the Lukan Jesus prophesies long after the fact, referring to the bloody triumph of Rome in Galilee and Judea culminating in 73 CE."

The idea is that the New Testament is a sort of midrash, a common form of Jewish literature, where homilies are given on scripture themes, sometimes with only glancing or metaphorical reference to the source. Old wine into new bottles, so to speak. While one might argue that Jesus himself may have delivered all these homilies in structured form, commenting on Torah passages and stories, in sequence, as he preached through the land, with scribal listeners taking careful note. But the much likelier hypothesis is that the structure as well as the content came much later, in the quiet of the authorial chamber, with the relevant scrolls at hand.

Hindu traditions are full of this kind of thing, (though generally oral, not scribal), as gods make multiple re-appearances, (avatars), each one provided with related, but different, stories. No one wonders whether any of these characters were "really real" or not. The human need for transcendent, not to say magical, heroic drama seems universal and insatiable. Harry Potter comes to mind also, including the vast fan literature it has generated. The Jewish community in its many sects and off-shoots was very active in this respect, to the point that one can imagine a fresh hero derived from the messaianic and prophetic strains of the old testament, who spend his (fictive) time fulfilling OT prophecies and updating lesson after lesson out of the OT. And the Hellenized proto-Christians took off with it, in perhaps unexpected and unintended directions.

The Jesus Seminar was a conclave of biblical scholars who attempted a sort of Jeffersonian re-write / re-daction of the bible, casting stones on all the less believable material (miscellaneous miracles, infancy stories), while keeping the moral sayings and teachings, as presumptively "genuine". But Price (who was a member of this august body!) points out that this hardly addresses the basic question of believability, let alone historicity. It is like taking the Superman story and deleting the flying-through-the-air parts, and thinking that what you have left is more truthful. No, the whole story was of a piece. An archtypal piece that has a purpose for its time, taking the form of history, but not necessarily being history.

Two other examples that come to mind are Islam and Mormonism. Islam would be amenable to the Jesus Seminar approach, since Muhammed is certainly a historical figure. Here it makes sense to separate, say, his night flight to Jerusalem from his marriage to nine-year old Aisha bint Abu Bakr. The latter, quite believable. The former, not so much. Mormonism, on the other hand, is fabricated from top to bottom. Not that Joseph Smith was not a historical person, but that the book of Mormon is a work of utter fantasy, concocted from Bible bits, completely made-up history, and portentious language. This type of thing seems endemic to the human condition, cropping up again in Scientology even more recently. The ancient world had even more porous relations between factual and fantasy history, and even sci-fi dystopia / analogy / futurology, as the book of Revelation makes clear. Heroes can be made to order.

A small further example is the birthday of Jesus, i.e. Christmas. This is a total fabrication, merely the co-optation of the existing Saturnalia by the new religion, with no knowledge whatsoever of the true birth date. Yet this too is taken as "gospel" by plenty of people.

  • James, brother of Jesus.
Then there is the reputed brother of Jesus, James, who is substantially better-attested historically, leading the early Jerusalem church, with plenty of tangles with Paul, among others. Price has some fun with the Catholic summersaults on the nature of James, since by its interpretation, Mary was a perpetual virgin, and thus Jesus having a brother was a no-no. But he is called by Paul and others the brother of Jesus. This is perhaps the biggest single problem with the myth hypothesis- the one thread that best testifies to the reality of Jesus himself. But "brother" is a notoriously flexible term. The medieval monestaries were rife with them, and Price offers that James was perhaps a follower of higher grade than the rest in some other respect, as was later reflected by his temporal leadership, and was thus inducted, whether contemporaneously or latterly, into the inner-most circle of the heroic mystery. One has to admit this interpretation is quite strained, given how Paul (and then Josephus, as above) refers to James as the lord's brother very casually in passing.

  • Analogous to climate heating denial?
Lastly, one has to ask whether this myth hypothesis is just headstrong denialism- the last gasp of the dedicated atheist. Price points out, however, that the Jesus myth theory is largely unrelated to atheism per se. Jesus could easily have been real, and done all the Seminar-approved things, and there still not be a god. Conversely, god could exist, yet Jesus not be his messaih, as the Jews have long maintained, or have not existed at all. There are plenty of other gods to choose from, after all.

It is certainly cantakerous, even in this skeptical age, to point out that the reality of Jesus is far from secure. And as everyone points out, the vast majority, even of Biblical scholars, take the opposing postion. But the vast majority of Biblical scholars are both believing Christians and have a vested interest in their subject. So a majority here does not count for as much as one might think.

A comparison with climate denialism is instructive. On that front, the majority is led by scholars working with far more data, much of which is contemporary, public, and reproducible. Their interaction with the historical record is far more dynamic, as new forms of evidence, like tree rings, stalagtite rings, fossil coral, isotope analyses, etc., allow us all to peer ever farther and more accurately into the instructive past. What a difference from the Biblical scholars (or ourselves) ruminating over their feelings about this or that passage!

Importantly, in contrast to the case of Christianity, it is the climate denialists who bear the metaphorical cross of motive in this case, since they are often paid by the very industries whose economic interest (indeed existance) lies in denying what has been patently obvious for over a century- that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that our atmosphere acts as a greenhouse, and that the biosphere is currently being decimated by (geologically) rapid heating.

While climate scientists have a coherent theory of their topic, (and their deniers really do not), the Jesus myth theorists have yet to come up with a detailed theory of which community among the first century Jews had the motivations and materials to generate the tradition that was taken up by the apostles and Paul, as described more or less in Acts, before it was so nicely and systematically elaborated in the gospels. Robert Price takes a few stabs at this issue, invoking Marcion as a key generator and organizer of eary gospel material, with certain theological visions and axes to grind. Nevertheless, key data is missing from the story's origin period, perhaps necessarily so, since any heresies have been well and truly expunged from the record by this point. What we have is heavily sanitized and twice-told tales from many decades after, and little else.

At any rate, one should appreciate that, whether entirely mythical or not quite entirely mythical, there is precious little to nothing known about Jesus, once all the encrustations are pared away and one takes a careful and skeptical look at what is left. Our contemporary knowledge of the rapidity with which myths can grow, from seeds either fictional or factual, and the enthusiasm people show in augmenting them and expressing their own views through them, should be a big piece of the historical & critical approach we bring to bear on this question. The Jewish messianism & escatology that constructed early Christianity could have arisen either from a community of writers consulting their many sources for appropriate passages and prophesies, or, quite a bit less plausibly, a remarkably inspired (and scholarly) single person simultaneously embodying and preaching a precise set of midrashes based on Torah themes, brought up to date for the Hellenized, post Roman-conquest Middle East.


  1. Absolutely nothing new here. Price’s views have been addressed and shown to be quite unimpressive and hardly within the mainstream. This is a dead end. To have to leap from "Jesus was just a teacher--a man like any other," to "He never even existed historically," is not the leap of a historian but the leap of an ideologue.

    And this from an atheist:

    “…Ehrman has to explain to Reggie that ‘we have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.’”

    And this not by a Christian but by an “agnostic with atheistic leanings”.

    More here:

    To get to Price fast-forward to the 21 minute mark.

  2. Hi, Darrell-

    Thanks for your comment and links. Indeed, if I had to bet, I would go with the non-myth position. But the other side has some interesting things to say, and I thought it worth laying out. I will read Ehrman's book on the topic. His talk per your link was intriguing, especially in the weight he also puts on the James-as-brother argument. It is a good one, but isn't that something of a thin thread to hang such momentous history on? And what his second argument is.. I can't wait to see it.

  3. I think we should be clear here. The only reason people want to believe Jesus did not exist, even as a historical person, is because they don't want there to be a Christianity. Otherwise, as Ehrman tells us, "we have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period."

    So by your reasoning, if we are to take accepted modern historical and evidential methodology into consideration, all the other historical figures of that time are also myths. Is that what you are telling us?

    Further, don't you find this deliciously ironic give all your harping on "evidence" and proper methodology in the sciences or as to historical facts? Why the pass here? I think we know why.

  4. Certainly, it does partake of a potshot at the Christian belief system, but Christianity does exist and will continue to exist, whatever the case here.

    Ehrman's statement does not mean Jesus is well-attested, but more that very few individuals from his time are attested at all, and pretty much none from Jesus's presumed social position, etc. Being more attested than that is not a high bar.

    As to methodology, my discussion of Climate heating touches on this point. The evidence for Jesus's existence remains probabilistic and circumstantial, even if one takes it to say he probably existed. That is best that can be done. And the interesting point out of this blog is that the gospels are in very large part some kind of post-hoc fabrication, whatever the seed of truth that prompted them. I think Ehrman would agree with that. We knew it all before, but it remains useful to point out. And the Jesus seminar type of approach is pretty much throwing darts.. it is not a convincing way of winnowing the wheat from the chaff, even if it is the best than can be done with the minuscule amount of evidence we have. The whole field remains very data-poor.

    That is the main difference from contemporary sciences, combined with the heavy emotional commitment of most of the players, including myself. So it is particularly appropriate to entertain contrary hypotheses and re-analyses of what evidence there is. I think both Price's and Ehrman's books are doing good service.

  5. And I might add that your argument cuts the other way as well.. why all the horror about the question of the mythical status of Jesus's doings or even existence? That also betrays motivation and tradition that bears examination. We are learning more about other traces from antiquity, as archeology progresses, (among other fields). Such as that the whole flight from Egypt doesn't seem to have taken place, by the Jews, let alone by Jesus. The seeds of these traditions sometimes turn out to be vanishingly small.