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Of Myth and Men
A closer look at the originators of the major religions-what did they really say and do?

by Robert M. Price

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 1.

The lives of most religious founders have come down to us, not as straight biography, but as sets of devotional myths and pious object lessons. The aim of these stories is not to inform the reader so much as to edify. As the Buddha might have said, the question of what the founder actually said or did is not among those that tend unto edification. And yet, as the great comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade said, Western thinkers have been willing to sacrifice everything including religious faith for the sake of pure knowledge. We want to know what happened, if we can, even if that should bar us from the edification of the traditional holy tales. But, as anyone who has embarked on the journey of historical discovery knows, the effort is not without a kind of edification of its own.


The founder of the Buddhist sangha (community) has many names. Siddhartha is his given name. Gautama (or Gotama) is his family name, while he belonged to the Sakya clan, hence the epithet Sakyamuni, "Sage of the Sakyas." His titles include the Tathagatha ("The One Thus Come," which might mean many things), the Jina ("The Victor"), and of course the Buddha ("The Enlightened One"). Western textbook summaries of the Buddha's career must appear startling to believing Asian Buddhists who chance to read them, since these treatments tacitly presuppose a radical "quest of the historical Gautama" as alien to popular Buddhist piety as the modern critical quest for Jesus is offensive to traditional Christian faith. Essentially, what any standard textbook will tell you is that Siddhartha was a princeling born to one of many petty Kshatrya-caste noble households. As such his lifestyle would have been slightly above the level of general poverty. What relative affluence he had he renounced once he found his conscience moved to pity by the plight of all mortals: sickness, eventual infirmity, death-and endless more rounds of the same via reincarnation. Like many young people of his time and his caste, he is pictured as leaving home to seek salvation at the feet of the various gurus who taught techniques of yogic meditation amid shady forest groves, far from the bloody sacrificial altars of the official Brahmanical religion of the priests. The picture is not unlike that of affluent American youths quitting church and business school to run off and join "cults" like the Unification Church or the Hare Krishnas of our day.

Having briefly studied with two such gurus and attaching himself to a group of ascetics, Siddhartha found his questions still unanswered, so he set out alone and seated himself beneath the spreading branches of the Bodhi Tree ("Tree of Enlightenment"), where he resolved to remain until the light should dawn-and in a matter of hours it did. Returning to his old ascetical colleagues he preached to them the dharma (doctrine) of desire as the cause of suffering and the cessation of desire as the key to blissful Nirvana, already in this life. After many years of successful itinerant teaching, the Buddha expired after being accidentally poisoned by a well-wisher who had sought only to provide him a meal.

But all this is only the demythologized version. No Buddhist scripture puts it so simply. Instead, Buddhists are taught that young Siddhartha was miraculously conceived and announced before birth as the savior of the world. As an infant in the crib he already proclaimed his own great destiny. His earthly father, a king with fabulous wealth, sought to influence the boy to a career of conquest like his own and to that end sheltered him on the vast palatial grounds, where he should remain ignorant of the facts of sickness, old age, and death until it came time for him to march forth and unite all India under his booted heel. If the boy did not know the world needed salvation, he would never bother to seek it, or so his father reasoned.

But the gods saw to it that the young prince did not escape his destiny. One by one four deities appeared on the palace grounds in human disguises: a sick man, an old man, a corpse, and finally a mendicant monk, a seeker of salvation. His father's best-laid schemes in ruins, Siddhartha left the palace, traded garments with his stunned charioteer, and headed off for the woods. There he met one guru after another, then the circle of ascetics, winding up beneath the Bodhi Tree. There he attained his revelation only in the face of some six distracting temptations by Mara, the Buddhist Satan.

How have Western scholars distilled the first version (the "historical Gautama") from the second (the "Buddha of faith")? The best book on the subject is E.J. Thomas's Life of Buddha as Legend and History (1927). Thomas easily dispenses with the obvious fairytale improbabilities. And like John Dominic Crossan and other historical Jesus researchers, he reconstructs, from what we know of India's political economy of the period, the sort of socio-economic conditions Prince Siddhartha must have lived in, assuming he was an historical individual of the early sixth century b.c.e.

As for specific episodes, Thomas displays the acumen of a David Friedrich Strauss, noting where the existence of a more modest version alongside the better-known spectacular version must force us to dismiss the latter, however reluctantly, as legendary. For instance, we might drop the intervention of the gods and yet maintain that the young prince happened to behold a sick man, an old man, and a corpse, and that the shock made all his luxury pale on him. This is the way it is shown in Bernardo Bertolucci's film Little Buddha. But then we notice a neglected passage in the scriptures where the Buddha recalls how he was moved to seek salvation by the simple process of cogitation on the unpleasant state of mankind. No gods, not even any "passing sights" (as the sick man, old man, dead man, and monk are called in Buddhist lore). We have to admit it is impossible to imagine a Buddhist fabricating the more modest version if the facts were as dramatic as the story of the Passing Sights makes them. But if it were known that the Buddha merely thought out the matter, it is quite easy to picture the pious imagination embroidering these meagre facts to create the tale of the Passing Sights.

Gospel critics defend the historical character of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist on the grounds that the story serves not to glorify Jesus but to subordinate him to a prior saintly figure; hence, they reason, it cannot have been a Christian creation. In exactly parallel fashion, Thomas figures that the historical Siddhartha must have studied with two gurus, as the story goes, since later Buddhists would hardly have wanted to picture their hero feeling the need for instruction from mere mortals. But here I think Thomas, like his gospel colleagues, is missing a likely option. Both stories actually, I think, finally serve to subordinate the Baptist and the pre-Buddhist gurus to their erstwhile disciples, Jesus and Siddhartha. The stories are symbolic ways of saying that "our" man could not be satisfied even with the best of contemporary teaching-and went on to transcend it. This point comes through with particular clarity in the Buddha's case since one of the two gurus' doctrine is described in terms highly reminiscent of contemporary Samkhya Hinduism, which shares the Buddhist "distinctive" doctrine that it is desire, not karma, which causes reincarnation. It was important to try to distance Buddhism from a close rival and predecessor because of what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence."

There is, then, a surprisingly meagre residue once one scrapes away the historically dubious. Even the notion of the young prince abandoning affluence begins to sound like one more piece of typical stage setting when we realize the same setup occurs in the hagiography of the Jaina saint Vardhamana (usually called Mahavira, "Great Hero"), who supposedly lived a single generation earlier than the Buddha. Granted, one man might have followed in the other's footsteps, but this is not the only parallel between Buddhist and Jainist hagiography. When Siddhartha sits beneath the Bodhi Tree, he is protected from Mara's assaults by the hood canopy of the mythical Naga King, a hydralike cobra deity. And so was the Jain hero Parsva, the predecessor of Mahavira. History does repeat itself, but not nearly as much as myth does. The Jainist religion, much like Buddhism in many ways, believed in the periodic advent of a Jina or Tirthankara ("Ford-maker, Bridge-builder, Trail-blazer") in every age, 24 in all, Mahavira being the last in this cosmic cycle. It is no wonder that the same adventures should be predicated of any or all of the saviors, who were essentially repetitions of one another anyway. And the same is true for Buddhism itself, since even early Theravada Buddhism, while free of the more extravagant mythology of later Mahayana Buddhism, made Siddhartha Gautama the twenty-fifth in a series of Buddhist avatars that had not yet run its course. Buddhists awaited the coming of a future Buddha, Maitreya. Buddhist doctrine even holds that every single Buddha has repeated all the steps in the canonical life of Gautama Buddha (except for the abortive apprenticeship with the two gurus-here later sensitivities have deemed it unbecoming for the Master to have masters, as Thomas suggested).

But it is only the Western critic who would put it this way. Buddhists would say that Gautama Buddha was the repeater. It was he who trod the same path as his predecessors, like Dipankara Buddha. Western scholars argue in a circle at this point, assuming there must have been a historical Buddha, the most recent, and so similarities in the myths of previous Buddhas, all of them mythical, must be derived from the story of the one historical Buddha, the actual founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, the Sage of the Sakya clan. But this Gautama-centered perspective would seem strange to many if not most Buddhists. For Pure Land Buddhism, by far the most popular family of Buddhist sects, Gautama is hardly the most important. He yields that palm to Amitabha Buddha, whose salvific labors created the Pure Land where those who call on Amitabha's name in faith can be reborn unto certain salvation. Gautama Buddha is simply the teller of the tale of the far superior Amitabha in the Sukhavati Sutras sacred to the sect.

To the average Buddhist, none of the 25 Buddhas is any more or less historical than the others. And I wonder if they are right. I wonder if Western scholars have simply imported the model of a "revealed religion" with a prophetic founder into a religion ill-suited to that schema. Hinduism lacks it, and no Western critic maintains that there was somewhere back in the past a "historical Krishna" or a "historical Rama." These two names are among several avatars, or incarnations, of the god Vishnu, and all recognize them as pure myth. An earlier generation of Western scholars of Buddhism, including R. Otto Franke, did relegate Gautama Buddha to the same bin and believed Gautama Buddha to be just a collective name for earlier generations of unnamed Buddhist teachers who, being vigorous opponents of the ego, would hardly have troubled themselves to be remembered as individuals. That must be true in large measure any way you cut it, since on anyone's reading virtually none of the teaching ascribed to him in Buddhist scripture, all of it written down only some centuries after the traditional date of the Buddha, can possibly be his. What did the Buddha himself actually teach? There is even conflict in the texts as to whether he taught the now-central Buddhist tenet that there is no individual soul (atman), or whether, like all yogis, he simply refused to identify such an exalted entity with the ego-personality.

No doubt under the then-pervasive influence of Max MŸller, H. Kern thought the Buddha was, like Vishnu and Samson, probably also Hercules, a mythic embodiment of the sun. MŸller's theory that all myths originated as solar symbols was too ambitious, but instead of correcting its excesses, typically, scholars pronounced its deathknell and went on to alternative theories, most of them equally overreaching. This pendulum swing perhaps accounts for the conventional neglect of the possibility that there never was an historical Buddha. I suspect that the scholarly assumption that somewhere beneath the legend there must lurk a real historical founder is a modern case of Euhemerism, the belief of ancient historians that all the mythic gods had first been historical heroes, kings, warriors, physicians, etc. And besides, if one were to admit that the gospel-like legends of the Buddha may have gathered like debris around a historically empty black hole, why would it not be feasible to raise the same question about those great founder figures of the biblical tradition itself: Moses and Jesus? And that of course is just what we are about to do.


It is surprising that one does not hear more expressions of doubt as to the historical existence of Moses, the ostensible originator of the Hebrew law. I suspect this is because such suspicions would be heard as attacks upon the Torah itself, and this implicit equation, I shall argue, is a natural one. It is reflected in the ancient custom of the rabbis who used the name Moses as synechdoche for the Torah commandments "Moses says . . .". Indeed, Moses is essentially a narrative embodiment of the Torah. In the vast majority of biblical tales in which he appears he does not transcend his function of constituting a peg upon which to hang this or that legal precedent. First, let us review this evidence in the broadest possible manner.

One major group of Pentateuchal stories is the class of ceremonial and legal precedents. The idea here is to secure legitimacy of some later law or rule or detail of religious observance by retroactively fathering it on Moses. Two different versions (Exodus 18:1-27 and Numbers 11:11-12, 14-17, 24-30) have come down to us of Moses receiving divine sanction for establishing a board of jurists or elders to, so to speak, adjudicate legal cases ex cathedra, from the seat of Moses (Matthew 23:2-3a). The origin of the priestly order of Levites (actually a re-explanation of their origin, replacing their original identity as the priesthood of the serpent deity Nehushtan, as Ignaz Goldziher showed long ago) is ascribed to Moses in Exodus 32:25-29. The temple image of Nehushtan (see 2 Kings 18:4) is re-explained in Numbers 21:4-9 as Moses' version of Apollo's healing caduceus. Similarly, we can detect (in Exodus 32:2-4a, jump to 24, back to 4c-5) the vestiges of a miracle story originally told in the Israelite temples of Dan and Bethel to explain to pilgrims how the priests knew in the first place to represent the invisible God in the form of a young bull (1 Kings 12:28-29). Of course, as we read it, it has become a lampoon of the calf image. Numbers 10:35-36 anchors the war chant of the Ark of the Covenant (Psalm 68:1ff) in the practice of Moses. Numbers 27:1-11 amends the Torah to allow daughters to inherit.

Cautionary tales form our second category. These are vintage priestcraft as the rationalists used to call it, scare stories appealing to superstitious fears to keep sinners in line even when the authorities cannot see them sinning. Some are aimed at the people as a whole, in the fine sermonic tradition of 1 Corinthians 10:9-10: "We must not put the Lord to the test as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; nor grumble as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer." We are warned in Numbers 11:10, 13, 18-23, 31-33, as well as Numbers 21:4-9, not to complain to God in times of want. Better not violate the enforced idleness of the Sabbath even in trivial ways (Numbers 15:32-36). Elsewhere we find a warning not to take private booty in war, but to turn all the spoils of holy war over to the priests (Joshua chapter 7). The "uppity" laity are bullied not to give any lip to those who speak as Moses' successors (Numbers 12:1-12).

But it is not only the laity that needed to be kept in line. Most of the cautionary tales are the special concern of the priests for whom the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) was after all written. Leviticus 10:16-20 warns priests to be sure they finish the sin-offering goat meat, much as Catholic priests today must finish the leftover communion wine. They must be careful not to mix the incense recipe wrong, or else (Leviticus 10:1-3). God forbid that a priestly functionary dare touch the sacred Ark without proper ritual preparation, no matter how noble the motive (outside the Pentateuch, in 2 Samuel 6:6-8). Numbers 17:1ff tells lower priestly orders not to covet the professional prerogatives of the Aaronide Brahmins. Comparing Numbers 16:1ff with Psalms 84 and 51, especially verses 16-17, we gain a fascinating glimpse into Levitical politics. "Korah" in Numbers 16 stands for the later Levitical choral guild the Sons of Korah who penned (and sang) beautiful songs for the temple hymnal. Sacrificial priests were much more highly paid than mere singers, in that the former, sacerdotal butchers, retained a hefty share of the meat they sacrificed. The singers got nada. Eventually they protested, and their answer was a tale in which Korah was sent down the chute to Sheol for his effrontery against Moses (= the Aaronide priests). In reprisal, the singers began to pepper their compositions with dismissals of the whole idea of animal sacrifices (Psalm 51:16-17)!

Geological stories, our third category, sought to satisfy popular curiosity about unusual rock formations, strategic oases in desert places, etc., things formerly ascribed to the potent presence of Baals and other local godlings in these places, which were thus also considered holy places with their own shrines, priests, and fortunetellers. People continued to visit them, and, as Israelite theology changed, new reasons for their holiness had to be found. And Moses figured into most of them. He is responsible for the sweet water at Marah (Exodus 15:22-25), the spring at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13), the well at Be-er (Number 21:16-18), the Oasis of Twelve Springs (Exodus 15:27), and even the common desert growth of sweet, flaky manna (Exodus 16:1-36 and Numbers 11:4-9). These brief Pentateuchal notices originated much as the ubiquitous "George Washington slept here" plaques in New England.

Etymological stories provide folk theories for the origins of certain place names, sometimes also sanitizing former heathenish meanings in the process. These anecdotes include Exodus 15:22-25 ("Marah"), Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13 ("Massah and Meribah"), Exodus 11:1-3 ("Taberah"), Numbers 11:31-35 ("Kibroth"), and Numbers 21:1-3 ("Hormah"). The most important is the re-explanation of Moses' own name. Originally it is an Egyptian name, meaning "son of," as in Thutmose (son of Thoth) and Ramses (son of Ra), but later Jews wanted it to be Hebrew. The closest Hebrew word available was mashah, "to draw forth," so Moses had to have been named for an event in his infancy in which he was drawn out of something, and it had to be eventful enough to commemorate by naming him for it. Hence the story of baby Moses set adrift on the Nile and drawn forth from the bulrushes by Pharaoh's daughter. The "baby set adrift" motif is quite common, e.g., in the myths of Perseus, Romulus and Remus, Sargon, etc.

The ethnological myths of Genesis pretend to account for the current relations between Israel and her various neighbors by telling paradigmatic stories of how their symbolic mythical ancestors related (e.g., Jacob, father of the Israelite tribes, versus Esau, father of the Edomites). In a slightly different idiom, the ethnological stories of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy define the conflicts and alliances of these groups by presenting a gallery of first encounters of Israel with the neighboring nations: were they friendly to God's people or not? If not, they were eternal enemies. Of course, the stories reflected the later politics, not vice versa. These categories mattered a great deal, since they governed the options for Jewish intermarriage, commerce, and admission to the temple. In short, these tales, too, are law.

Moses' role in every one of these stories is to authorize. He is in the stories for the sake of something else. Are there any stories told about Moses? Yes, but strangely, as Raphael Patai and Robert Graves point out (Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis, 1983), each of these little Moses stories in Exodus, as well as their linked sequencing, reflect a parallel set of stories told back in Genesis about the patriarch Jacob. Both characters flee eastward after a dangerous altercation (Genesis 27:41-28:5 and Exodus 2:15). Arriving there each hero comes to the aid of native women at a well (Genesis 29:1-12 and Exodus 2:16-17ff). Intending to marry into their family, he enters his father-in-law's employ as a shepherd (Genesis 29:18, 30:29, etc., and Exodus 3:1).God appears to the hero and tells him to return westward (Genesis 31:13 and Exodus 3:1-10ff). He returns with his new and growing family (Genesis 31:17-21 and Exodus 4:20). On the way, astonishingly, God ambushes him (Genesis 32:22-32 and Exodus 4:24-26)! The effect is extraordinary, much like the extensive parallels between Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. Which cycle, Moses or Jacob, was original? Probably the Jacob version, since each of his stories has a different function (etymological, ceremonial, ethnological) in its own right, whereas the Moses versions seem to have been inserted to move the Moses story along. Thus they seem derivative.

Who was Moses the lawgiver, originally? If all the stories of which Moses' fame now consists are secondary, who was the original Moses whose importance they presuppose? He was, I venture, another sun god. Max MŸller being out of fashion doesn't make this any less likely. The basic Moses mytheme is that of the sun (god) which emerges from the tent of concealment, the night, and bestows commandments upon a king. The sun is also the source of both death (by sunstroke) and healing. Psalm 19, as Old Testament scholars uniformly admit, comes from Akhenaten's Hymn to the Sun. It speaks of the sun's glorious emergence from his tent, then extols the glory of the commandments, as if there were some connection between the two-which of course there was, since the sun was the origin of the law. We also see this atop the famous stone table of Hammurabi's Code which shows the emperor receiving the law from the hand of Shamash the sun god. Moses was originally the law-giving sun, as we can still glimpse in Exodus 34:29-35, where Moses emerges from the tent of meeting with new commandments, and with his face shining, not coincidentally, like the sun! And like Apollo, he can inflict flaming doom or heal it (Numbers 21:4-9) and even bears the caduceus like Apollo. Like many other Hebrew mythical sun-characters (still reflected in Elijah, Esau, Isaac, Samson, and Enoch), and other gods, too (Gad, Miriam, Jubal, Joshua), Moses must have begun as a god pure and simple, but as Hebrew religion evolved toward monotheism, the stories could only be retained by making the gods into human heroes.


A flood of books have sought to separate myth from history in the case of Jesus, resulting in by far the greatest number of attempts to uncover the historical biography of any of the great religious founder figures. A spate of such books appeared in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as chronicled by Albert Schweitzer in his great book The Quest of the Historical Jesus: From Reimarus to Wrede (1901). Schweitzer's treatise is often imagined to have temporarily shut the door on the movement, but the quest never really stopped. Nor did it stop being a cloak for theological interests. Nonetheless, today we hear liberals proclaiming the Renewed Quest of the historical Jesus, while orthodox apologists, seeking to appropriate the historian's reputation for greater objectivity, have staked out their own so-called Third Quest for the historical Jesus, really a repristinization of the Christ of historical Orthodoxy.

Amid this Jesus-din, one seldom catches the strains of the Christ-myth theory long championed by skeptics and freethinkers, namely that Jesus had no more historical basis than Osiris, that the Galilean rabbi and healer of the Gospels is the result of the early Christian imagination clothing an earlier mythic Jesus in the false garb of the first-century Jewish environment. And yet it can be argued that the many recent attempts to delineate a historical Jesus, one whose portrait can be drawn convincingly as "a marginal Jew" (John P. Meier) or "a Mediterranean peasant" (John Dominic Crossan), a Galilean hasid (Geza Vermes), a Zealotlike revolutionary (S.G.F. Brandon, Robert Eisenman), a folk magician (Morton Smith), shaman (Stevan L. Davies, Gaetano Salomone), a Qumran Essene (Barbara Thiering), or a Cynic-like sage (Gerald Downing, Burton Mack) are themselves so many attempts to historicize the mythic-seeming figure of Jesus who meets us in the Gospels. Each book attempts to show that the story looks a good deal less fanciful if one re-explains it in immanent historical-cultural terms. For Jesus to be the Son of God sounds patently mythic. But if "son of God" meant a holy man especially close to God, or a Judaic monarch, or a sage filled with divine wisdom, or a miracle-working sorcerer, as it could depending on which linguistic context you choose, then we will appear to have brought Jesus down to earth as a person who might actually have existed.

One must ask whether all the effort spent to translate the Gospels into various possible historical contexts does not instead highlight the raw mythic character of the story as is, without all the scholarly window-dressing. As folklorist Alan Dundes has shown, the Gospel life of Jesus corresponds in most particulars to the worldwide paradigm of the Mythic Hero as delineated by Lord Raglan, Otto Ranck, Joseph Campbell, and others. Drawn from comparative studies of Indo-Aryan and Semitic hero myths, the pattern is comprised of 22 recurrent features, by Raglan's reckoning:

(1) The hero's mother is a royal virgin, while (2) his father is a king, and (3) the father is related to the mother. (4) The hero's conception is unusual or miraculous; hence (5) he is reputed to be a son of a god. (6) Evil forces attempt to kill the infant or boy hero, but (7) he is spirited away to safety and (8) reared by foster parents in a foreign land. Besides this, (9) we learn no details of his childhood until (10) he journeys to his future kingdom, where (11) he triumphs over the reigning king and (12) marries a princess, often his predecessor's daughter, and (13) becomes king himself. (14) For a while he reigns uneventfully, (15) promulgating laws. But (16) he later loses favor with his subjects or with the gods and (17) is driven from the throne and the city and (18) meets with a mysterious death, (19) often atop a hill. (20) If he has children, they do not succeed him. (21) His body is not buried, yet (22) he has one or more holy sepulchers.

How well does this description fit Jesus? Better than O.J. Simpson's glove, though the reader will already have noticed a few respects in which the match is less than exact. This, though, would be true of every single hero story, since the Mythic Hero Archetype is an abstraction drawn from all known instances. All ideal types function as measuring sticks whereby we may both find the right category for the phenomenon we are studying, and sharpen our focus on the respects in which it is unique. The uniqueness (whether of the Jesus story or the Oedipus myth) occurs just at the points where it does not conform to the type, and all variants are thus unique. In fact, there are nothing but variants, some closer to the ideal type than others. This is important to understand since otherwise we fall prey to the argument of apologists that, since the conformity of the Gospels with this or that myth-type is not exact, any comparison is moot.

Jesus' mother, Mary, is a virgin, though not of royal descent unless, like some apologists, one harmonizes the Matthean and Lukan genealogies by making Luke's the genealogy of Mary, which would make her Davidic, too. Later apocrypha do make the Davidic linkage of Mary explicit. Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus' father Joseph was a Davidic heir, though not the reigning king-but in this case, that's just the point: the messianic king is coming to restore the throne. Mary and Joseph do not appear to be related. Jesus' conception is certainly unusual, by the Holy Spirit's agency. Jesus is thus heralded by the angels as God's son. At once he is persecuted by the reigning king, Herod the Great. In most hero myths the wicked king is also the hero's father (the king seeks to kill his son lest the son someday usurp his throne). But in the Jesus story, this role has been split between two characters: Jesus' father, though of royal descent, is not king, so there must be another king, and a wicked one. Fleeing the persecution of Herod, the infant hero is given refuge in faraway Egypt, though not by foster parents. (Big deal.) There are no details of Jesus' childhood except for Luke's story of the 12-year-old wunderkind confounding the Jewish scribes, but this is itself a frequent mytheme recurring in other hero stories not considered by Raglan.

Jesus approaches Jerusalem and is acclaimed king by adoring crowds on Palm Sunday. He does not, however, take military power, so there can be no literal battle with the old king. The Gospel equivalent, obviously an intentional trope on the expected plot-turn, is Jesus' confrontation with the Procurator Pontius Pilate (John 18:36-37). Jesus disdains his rival's temporal authority since a higher form of sovereignty belongs to him: the royal witness to the truth (a well-known Stoic theme). Jesus does not take a bride/queen, though he does have a retinue of attendant women, at least one of them with royal connections (Joanna in Luke 8:3). Does Jesus have an "uneventful reign" in Jerusalem, prescribing laws? Not literally, but the pattern fits anyway, since we see him holding court in the temple, for the moment unchallenged (Mark chapters 11-12). Instead of hammering out laws, he issues teachings, parables, and prophecies, which are later taken with legal force by his followers.

The initially fervent crowd suddenly turns ugly, at the instigation of the priests, the old order, and Jesus is driven forth from the city to be crucified atop Mount Calvary, the hill of Golgotha. He is temporarily buried, but his body turns up missing, leaving an empty tomb, a pretty close variation on the archetypal theme. The empty sepulchre (more than one of them, actually) stands as a holy monument to his resurrection. He has no offspring (contra modern hoaxes like that which inspired Baigent and Leigh's Holy Blood, Holy Grail), and it is a series of his brothers and/or cousins who succeed him in the leadership of his sect.

Christ-myth theorists like George A. Wells have argued that, if we ignore the Gospels, which were not yet written at the time of the Epistles of Paul, we can detect in the latter a prior, more transparently mythic concept of Jesus, according to which he is imagined as someone like Asclepius, a demigod savior who came to earth in earlier times, healed the sick, and was struck down by the gods but resurrected unto Olympian glory from whence he might still reappear in answer to prayer. The Gospels, Wells argued, have left this raw-mythic Jesus behind, making him a half-plausible historical figure of a recent era. Instead, I would contend, the Gospels themselves have hardly budged from the initial mythic stage. It is rather modern apologetical/historical research that is for the first time attempting to clothe the myth-Jesus as a historical personage.

But Wells is right: the process of historicizing the mythic Jesus did barely begin in the Gospels, and this by the expedient of assigning Jesus' death, not to cosmic Powers of Evil as the earlier tradition had done (1 Corinthians 2:6-9), but rather to known personages from recent Greco-Roman and Jewish history, most notably Pilate and Herod Antipas. The secondary and artificial nature of these linkages is apparent from the endless difficulties Christian scholars have had trying to square the Gospel accounts with the secular history of these figures. David Friedrich Strauss (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) showed long ago how Luke merely fabricated his story of the nativity, having Jesus born during a fictional census of Augustus-and simultaneously in the reigns of Herod the Great and the Roman governor Quirinius, which missed coinciding by a dozen years! At the other end of the story, the execution of Jesus is attributed, as Alfred Loisy showed, by one of Luke's sources and by the Gospel of Peter to Herod Antipas, not to Pilate as in Matthew, John, Mark, and 2 Timothy. The Talmud has Jesus crucified in the time of Alexander Jannaeus (ca. 100 b.c.e.)! I suggest such confusion is incompatible with there having been any historical memory of the execution of Jesus. If any one of these versions represented the facts, how could the others ever have arisen in the first place? All seem more likely to be independent guesses, once someone felt the need to anchor Jesus in recent history.

Add to this that the New Testament accounts of the death of Jesus themselves seem to be patchwork rewrites of various Old Testament passages (John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?, Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions). Mark's account, the earliest known narrative version (i.e., not a mere assertion of "Christ crucified," cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2), is simply a padding out of Psalm 22, which Matthew in turn embellishes with material from the Wisdom of Solomon, chapters 2-3. This would never have happened if there had been any memory of any events to rely upon.

The political coloring of the last days of Jesus seems to have been borrowed from the stories, confused together, of various popular Jewish and other revolutionary kings from the period. Mark 13:21-22 warned against such confusion, but it was already too late, as Mark's own account shows. Still another likely source was the women's mourning rituals from contemporary Mystery Religions. Here is a list of parallels and probable sources. The anointing of Jesus at Bethany (as Randel Helms recognized) comes from Isis anointing the corpse of her husband Osiris to resurrect him, part of the mummy-resurrection mythos of Egypt. Jesus' triumphal entry and ejection of the "robbers" from the temple has been derived from the welcome, during the Roman siege, of Simon bar-Giora, a messianic king, and his troops to exterminate the Zealot "robbers" who occupied the temple. Jesus' interrogation and beating before Pilate and the Jewish elders mirror those of the mad prophet Jesus ben-Ananias who, like the Christian Jesus, was condemned for predicting the fall of the city/temple. When Pilate is bullied by the crowd into condemning the harmless messiah Jesus, we have a mirror-reversal of Pilate's ordered butchery of a peaceful crowd of Samaritans led by their own messiah, an act of wanton cruelty that led to Samaritan petitions to Rome and Pilate's recall.

When Matthew has Pilate's wife intervene in Jesus' trial proceedings, hoping to free him, he has likely borrowed the notion from John the Baptist's passion narrative, where, however, it was Herodias' intervention that led to the Baptist's death. The mockery of Jesus as a fool-king, as Crossan admits, seems to come from Philo's story of the Alexandrian crowd that bowed before a similarly-accoutred street bum named Carabbas to embarrass the visiting Jewish king Herod Agrippa I. And of course Carabbas' very name survives as the Gospels' Barabbas. Luke has one of Jesus' crucified colleagues bid him, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom," a phrase borrowed directly from Diodorus Siculus. The divine portents attending Jesus' death on the cross reflect those at the crucifixion of rebel king Cleomenes of Sparta at Alexandria according to Plutarch. These omens cause visitors to the cross in each case to declare the crucified one to be son of god. And like Cleomenes, Jesus is stabbed to make sure of death.

As the Gospels have Mary Magdalene and her companions seek the body of Jesus only to find it gone, so do Isis, her sister Nephthys, and their maidens seek the slain Osiris, hoping to anoint him. The incognito appearance of the risen Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus bears a striking resemblance to a much older and well-known story in which Asclepius appears unrecognized to a woman suppliant heading back home disappointed-only to gain the hoped-for miracle after all. Again, in Luke 24 and John 20 Jesus appears to his astonished disciples, who have given him up for dead, showing them his solid flesh for proof that he has not died to reappear as a ghost but has miraculously escaped Pilate's wrath-just as Apollonius of Tyana appears to his dumbfounded disciples, extending his hands to convince them he has escaped Domitian's evil intentions. After Apollonius' final ascension, one of his disciples remains stubbornly unconvinced until Apollonius appears in a special epiphany just for him-precisely as Jesus does for doubting Thomas in John 20:24-29.

Jesus' parting commission to carry his teaching to the nations and make them his disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) is uncannily similar to the commission of the risen Romulus to the leaders of his newly founded city to spread the dominion of Rome to all the nations. The ascension of Jesus into cloudy concealment is also reminiscent of Romulus but seems to have been modelled directly upon Josephus' account of the ascension of Moses before the forlorn eyes of his disciples.

Is it, after all this, possible that beneath and behind the stained-glass curtain of Christian legend stands the dim figure of a historical founder of Christianity? Yes, it is possible, perhaps just a tad more likely than that there was a historical Moses, about as likely as there having been a historical Apollonius of Tyana. But it becomes almost arbitrary to think so. For after one removes everything that is more readily accounted for as simple hero-mythology or borrowing from other contemporary sources, what is left?


For a long time scholars have considered Islamic origins as basically unproblematic. It seemed fairly straightforward: the founder was a figure of relatively recent history, amply documented, and many of his own writings and sayings survived. True, there had been a frenzy of fabrication, but early Muslim scholars themselves had seen this early on and moved to weed out spurious hadith (traditions of the founder's sayings and deeds). What was left seemed ample enough, as did the text of the Koran, the revelation of Allah to Muhammad. Even if one could not confess with Muslims a belief in the divine inspiration (actually, dictation) of the Koran, one still agreed the text preserved the preachments of Muhammad. The most recent generation of students of Islam, however, have broken with this consensus. GŸnter LŸling is joined by many in his opinion that Western scholars of Islam and the Koran had simply accepted the official party line of Muslim jurists and theologians regarding the sources for Muhammad and early Islamic history. The game was certainly simpler that way, just as Church history had been before F.C. Baur. In fact, Western Islamicists had done everything but accept the Koran as the revealed Word of God. In retrospect one wonders why they balked at this last step!

Perhaps the most systematic and explosive reconstruction of Islamic origins appeared over 20 years ago, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook (Cambridge UP, 1977). I will summarize their account here.

Islamic sources offer us a sanitized, party-line account of Islamic origins, one designed to provide a pedigree for a subsequent orthodoxy. Hence the tracks have been covered. If we want to get a critical look at Islamic origins, we need to start with the evidence of contemporary non-Muslim reports and then see what light these sources throw on anomalous data surviving in Islamic sources.

It seems that Muhammad first appeared as the prophetic herald of 'Umar (later revered and redefined as the second caliph after Muhammad) as the messiah. So we are told in two contemporary Jewish apocalypses. Some Jews were happy to recognize 'Umar as the messiah, even though he was an Arab (an identification not unprecedented). He would shortly drive out theByzantine/Roman/"Edomite" occupiers of Palestine, which, Crone and Cook maintain, was liberated, contra later traditions, already in Muhammad's time.

The self-designation "Muslim" appears first on the Dome of the Rock in 691 c.e. and nowhere else till the late eighth century. Earlier sources call Muhammad's believers the Magaritai (Greek papyrus 642) or Mahgre or Mahgraye (Syriac papyrus 640s). The Arabic would be muhajirun. The early believers were known as Hagarenes because they were engaged in a Hegira/Hijra, an Exodus like that of Moses from Arabia to Palestine, the Promised Land where the messiah must manifest himself. They were organized according to the biblical 12 tribes of the Ishmaelites. The land belonged to Abraham and his seed, which naturally meant Ishmael as well as Isaac, so an alliance of Jews and Arabs in a messianic conquest was natural. Even from the Jewish point of view this seemed natural, since Kenites (understood to be Arabs) had been involved as Moses' allies in the first conquest, and the second should recapitulate it. In the Secrets of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, "the Kenite" is given messianic status.

They rejected Jesus as a false messiah and scorned the cross. But their own messianism appears to have been more Samaritan than Jewish in orientation, which meant the Promised One would be a prophet like Moses, not a king like David. There was, however, some hope that the Hagarenes, having conquered Palestine, were going to rebuild the temple. They wound up raising the Dome of the Rock instead. Rebuilding the temple would have implied Davidic messianism, but they didn't do it.

Their movement may be understood in many ways as a kind of Samaritanism. There was the non-Davidic Mosaism, the rejection of any books outside the Pentateuch (as attested in Nestorian accounts of debates with the Hagarenes), a non-Jewish biblical covenant (for Samaritans, it was the Mosaic Covenant as opposed to the Davidic; for Hagarenes, it was the Abrahamic promise to Ishmael). The dispensing with the Prophetic books explains why none of the so-called writing Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, etc.) is ever mentioned in the Koran.

As implied just above, as the winds changed, the Hagarenes found it advantageous to break with Judaism and turn to Christianity. To this end, 'Umar's messianic status was forgotten; his title al-Faruq, The Redeemer, was explained away as a gratuitous honorific applied by over-enthusiastic Christians (not likely!) or as meaning something else in Arabic by means of a typical etymological story. Accordingly, Jesus was accepted as messiah after all. Though the first Arabic "king" of Jerusalem made a show of praying at Golgotha, Bethlehem, and the Empty Tomb, implying acceptance of the whole soteriology, Islam did not finally go this far. They made Jesus messiah but still rejected the cross. The Koran opts for "docetism," the belief that the Crucifixion was a "simulacrum," an illusion or hoax, with Jesus ascending to heaven before he could be executed. But the Koran also refers to the death of Jesus, a vestige of that earlier period of Christianization, and this reference would become the center of desperate theological harmonization among later orthodox Islamic exegetes.

The abandonment of the Exodus (Hegira/Hijra) association in favor of that of "sons of Hagar/Ishmaelites" reflects the disassociation from Judaism. So does the apparent adoption of "Islam" ("submission" to God) as the new central image for the faith, a topos derived from Samaritan characterizations of Abraham as the one who submitted to God. The harking back to Abraham parallels the argument in the Epistle to the Galatians, where Paul leapfrogs the Mosaic Torah and makes Christian believers the direct spiritual descendants of Abraham. In both cases, the retreat to Abraham is a means of undercutting Judaism. And, though not preserved in the Koran, contemporary non-Islamic sources say the Muslims originally proclaimed the commandments of Abraham, circumcision and sacrifice (brought over from prior Arab tradition), rebuking Jews and Christians for abandoning one or the other. Muhammad's role as the one to revive the Abrahamic faith, as well as to bring to the neglected Arabs their own monotheistic faith and scripture, reflects this attempt to distance Islam from Judaism. Muhammad is seen as the successor of various Gentile prophets like Salih and Hud, again, not the successor of the biblical prophets. This prophetology ill comports with the Samaritan-derived motif of Muhammad as the Prophet like unto Moses, which is thus seen to stem from an earlier stage, because the Samaritan-type Mosaic prophetology still locates Muhammad within the biblical tradition, whereas Muhammad as the Prophet like Hud takes him outside the Bible but parallel to it.

Muhammad was retroactively removed from his apocalyptic context, as we can readily see when we compare the so-called Meccan Surahs with the Medinan Surahs. In the latter he is no longer the Prophet of the Last Day (much less proclaimer of the messiah 'Umar), but rather the Mosaic theocrat. Similarly, for Islam Jesus' own messiahship is purely vestigial, and Jesus, too, is made over into a prophet like unto Moses, with his own Torah, the Evangel. David, too, is brought aboard once stripped of his messianic associations. He, too, is now a prophet like unto Moses: Muslims say Moses brought the Law, David brought the Psalms, and Jesus brought the Gospel.

The Koran was assembled from a variety of prior Hagarene texts (hence the contradictions re Jesus' death) in order to provide the Moses-like Muhammad with a Torah of his own. (LŸling surmises that as much as a third of the text of the Koran derives from pre-Islamic Christian hymnody!) Some Islamic traditions say that the third caliph, Uthman, destroyed most of "the writings" and kept only one. Does this mean merely variant texts of the Koran itself (as is usually supposed) or something more? Perhaps a creative redaction like that of Ezra after the Babylonian Exile, patching together our Pentateuch from the J, E, D, and P sources? This would account for all the Koranic variants, redundancies, contradictions, and harmonizations (earlier revelations "abrogated" by later ones). Perhaps the scraps of anti-Trinitarian Christological polemics are vestiges from disparate sources, too.

The Hagarenes also derived from the Samaritans a precedent for withdrawing from Jerusalem as the central holy shrine, eventually settling upon Mecca, which, like the Samaritan center Shechem, was situated near a patriarchal, but non-Judean, grave, Shechem near the grave of Joseph, Mecca near that of Ishmael. Both were Abrahamic sites as well. There is evidence, though, that Mecca was not the first alternative shrine of the Hagarenes. From some early and anomalous notes and from archaeological evidence (the design of early mosques, etc.), it appears that, before Mecca, a place called Bakka (actually mentioned in the Koran and later harmonistically identified with Mecca) may have been the earlier site.

The holy cities Mecca and Medinah are both substitutes for biblical sites originally venerated by the proto-Muslim Hagarenes. Medinah is identified in some Arab sources with Midian, which makes sense as the goal of the Exodus (the "hegira" of the "Hagarenes," remember). Midian was the goal of Moses and the Israelites exiting Egypt, and the site of Sinai/Horeb, where Moses received the Torah, just as Muhammad did at Medinah (cf. the legalistic Surahs ascribed to the Medinan period). The fact that Medinah had earlier been called Yathrib suggests that Medinah first actually referred to the Midian of the Bible, then was transferred and symbolically reapplied to Yathrib. And now, of course, since the Hegira has been redefined as Muhammad's personal flight from Mecca, its goal must have been Medinah/Yathrib, not the faraway biblical Midian! But then one wonders whether there might even have been some sort of connection with the biblical Jethro (Hebrew Yithro) and Yathrib!

After the Hegira lost its original coloring as a messianic Jewish-Ishmaelite exodus to Palestine under the messiah 'Umar, this population move was recast as a later expulsion of Jews from Arabia back to Palestine by the caliph 'Umar! The appellation Ansaru Allah, Allah's helpers, which had first designated Jewish allies of Muhammad and 'Umar, came to refer to Arabs who heeded the call to holy war.

As for Mecca, this was another later replacement or relocation of Jerusalem, as is still evident from the acknowledged fact that the qiblah (direction of prayer) was early on switched from Jerusalem to Mecca. The idea of the conquest of Canaan starting from a base in Midian becomes Muhammad's triumphant return to Mecca after consolidating power in Medinah where he had fled from Mecca. But originally, Muhammad himself actually led/partook in the conquest of Palestine. Subsequently, his death was pushed back two years earlier, perhaps in order to reinforce the Moses parallel, since Moses did not get to enter the promised land.

Originally "caliph" denoted not "vicar of the Prophet" as in subsequent Islamic orthodoxy, but rather something equivalent to rasul (apostle) or bab (gate-cf. John 10:9), the earthly stand-in for Allah himself. The caliphs and imams were originally a priesthood (Muhammad himself is said to stem from the Quraiysh, a priestly caste) and were even called kahins (originally "soothsayer," but in Hebrew it came to mean "priest," cohen). This implies that once they de-messianized the movement and demoted 'Umar to caliph of Muhammad, the authority structure continued (along one trajectory, leading to Sunni Islam) as an analogue to the Samaritan high priesthood. Mahdism (the expectation, central to emerging Shi'ism, of an apocalyptic return of a descendant of Muhammad) was equally early but represented a renewal, albeit by deferral, of messianic hopes, based originally on the Samaritan Moses redivivus idea (whether of Moses himself, or of the Taheb as a prophet/revealer like unto Moses). Mahdi is tantamount to messiah, as attested by the equation of the two in the Sunni saying "There is no mahdi but Jesus son of Mary."

Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was interpreted in two contradictory manners, one by each group. As a priestly successor (fountainhead of the imams, a term used for Samaritan high priests/esoteric teachers in Arabic writings by Samaritans), Ali had to be the descendant of Muhammad. And in fact Shi'ite doctrine sees Ali as explicitly playing Aaron to Muhammad's Moses. But, as the sole successor to Moses, he was analogous instead to Joshua, a layman and not a relative of Moses. The eventual harmonization of the two conceptions made Ali not the son but the cousin of the Prophet.

The rabbinical character of Sunni Islam is not original but came from the influence of Babylonian Judaism. (Thus it is no mere analogy between the Talmud, the Jewish legal code, and the Shariah, the Islamic code.) The category of Sunni first referred not to traditions of the Prophet, but rather just to "custom" as distinguished from statute law. It still appears this way in early documents. And this means that all we thought we knew of the Prophet Muhammad is really a mass of fictive legal precedents meant to anchor this or that Islamic practice once Muhammad had been recast as an Arab Moses. And the question of the origin of the Koran is no longer "from Allah?" or "from Muhammad?" but rather "from Muhammad?" or "from countless unnamed Hagarene jurists?" The first question was theological ("Do you accept the Muslim gospel?"); the second is historical-critical ("Are you taken in by the Muslim apologetic?"). And it becomes equally evident that the line between the Koran and the hadith must be erased, for both alike are now seen to be repositories of sayings fictively attributed to the Prophet and transmitted by word of mouth before being codified in canonical written form.


Our survey of the four great religious founders is offered on the cusp of the millennium. This fact might prompt us to look to the dawning future, but we are drawn rather to the past, gazing down the corridors of lost time, straining to catch what stray traces may still be visible. The sheer magnitude of the centuries separating us from the earliest, the Buddha, as well as the latest, Muhammad, is so great as to raise the question whether historical knowledge of the founders is either necessary or possible. For it has become manifest that the images of these individuals at once began to transform and grow as living symbols of the faith communities whose figureheads they were. This implies that the various believers simply lacked the historical curiosity of us moderns. Their stories were told for other reasons entirely. Insofar as our studies dismantle their edifice of holy myth, we have perhaps debunked only a literalistic distortion of these faiths, itself alien to the traditions it seeks misguidedly to defend. In any event, such scrutiny of the founders and their legends aims only at a greater appreciation of the religions as grand cultural products of the human imagination. 

Robert M. Price is Professor of Biblical Criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute and a member of the Free Inquiry Editorial Board. He is a member of the Jesus Seminar and is Regional Director of New York and North New Jersey for the Council for Secular Humanism. His book, Deconstructing Jesus, will appear in January from Prometheus Books.

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