Why Secular Humanists Should Abandon the Myth Theory of Jesus

Bill Cooke

One of the key claims made by secular humanists is that we take the findings of sound scholarship seriously and do not allow dogma or wishful thinking to interfere with results. In a range of disciplines, humanist scholars have made significant contributions. In the fields of religious history and comparative religion, for example, humanist scholars have contributed mightily.

But when we look at Jesus scholarship, things are different. Many humanist thinkers ideally placed, in principle, to offer objective scholarship unsullied by prior commitments languish on the sidelines. Why? Because while theologians wrestle with the increasingly difficult task of reconciling a Jewish Jesus with Christian theology, many humanist scholars persist with the increasingly irrelevant “myth theory”—that is, the theory that Jesus never existed.

Not all humanist biblical scholars accept myth theory, of course, but myth theorists have assumed the mantle of authentic humanist biblical scholarship (see, for example, “Jesus Probably Did Not Exist” by Raphael Lataster, FI October/November 2016) in a way that is detrimental. It’s an oddity of humanist history that the historicity of Jesus has been a highly divisive issue. A century ago, a dispute about the historicity of Jesus between J. M. Robertson, a leading myth scholar, and F. C. Conybeare, an authority on Armenian Christianity, became bitter and personal. Robertson’s shrill and ad hominem campaign forced Conybeare out of the English rationalist movement. Thirty years later, just after the Second World War, another opponent of the myth theory called the whole controversy a “hornet’s nest.”

In 1985, John Hick, one of the most respected theologians of the time, warned Free Inquiry’s “Jesus in History and Myth” conference attendees at the University of Michigan not to commit themselves to the myth theory, which, he noted, was eccentric and far from the cutting edge of research about Christian origins. As recently as 2012, Bart Ehrman, a recognized scholar in the field, repeated this warning, comparing mythicists to creationists in their willful refusal to consider contrary evidence.

These warnings have largely gone unheeded. So what’s gone wrong?

The Myth Theory Relies on Fallacies and Poor Argumentation

The first problem with the myth theory is that it’s often poorly argued. For instance, the theory rests on a fallacy, often called the “excluded middle.” This is when two stark alternatives are presented as the only valid choices when in fact there exists a range of options between the two extremes. At the extreme on one end, we have the doctrine of total historicity, advanced by the literalists; at the opposite extreme, we have that of total unhistoricity, advanced by the mythicists. Between those extremes can be found all the options that scholars are actually looking at, all of which involve a living person—a Jew called Yeshua ben Yosef who made some inflammatory claims, annoyed the Romans, and paid the price. Reading the work of respected scholars in the field, such as Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, John Macquarrie, Gerd Lüdemann, and so on, we can then determine where lies the balance between historicity and the subsequent layers of theology, which transformed Yeshua ben Yosef into Jesus Christ. All of these, and more, are the entirely plausible options that the myth theory excludes from consideration because it is trapped in the vise-like grip of the fallacy of the excluded middle.

The extreme claim that nobody called Jesus ever existed brings on the next question: How and why did these mythical stories gather credibility? Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, we are told. This argument has been used against theologians, but few myth theorists have seen that it applies in equal measure to their claims. The trouble is, the sometimes fanciful explanations offered by myth theorists have failed to convince. J. M. Robertson’s myth scholarship was blighted by this weakness. It’s long been known that the soundest solution is often the simplest, and unnecessary additions only complicate things and increase the opportunity for error to creep in. Myth-theory explanations, then, run up against the sharp end of Occam’s razor.

We know that the Gospels are successive accretions of dogma, mythology, wishful thinking, and political expediency that smothered the original story. It is a valid exercise to try and unravel the various layers in search of some reliable historical kernel of fact. But it is quite unjustified to suppose that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. It is a non sequitur to conclude from confusing and contradictory evidence that the person being spoken about did not exist at all.

If these fallacies and bad arguments aren’t enough, we also see discredited sources given too much credence. Earlier generations of myth scholars followed long-forgotten scholars such as W. C. van Manen, whose preference for very late dates for the appearance of the Gospels and doubts about the Pauline authorship of any of the Epistles suited his needs. More recently, Joseph Campbell is sometimes cited as the authority for seeing Jesus as conforming to some sort of hero archetype. Campbell’s scholarly credentials have long been dismissed by scholars of mythology. Robert Ellwood’s work is relevant here. Campbell’s casual generalizing in the service of strongly held antipathies discredits his work. Sadly, Campbell is still much loved by the general reader, to the disadvantage of far sounder work on mythology. Paul Edwards, editor of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, called him a “purveyor of mush.”

Besides resorting to fallacious arguments and relying on low-quality evidence, myth scholars have a habit of deprecating evidence that undermines their case. Robertson was far too willing simply to declare biblical passages that were inconvenient to his argument as “interpolations.” (And his previously mentioned personal attacks on Conybeare did him little credit.) Of course, many biblical passages are indeed inauthentic—but not all of them, and not all of the inconvenient ones. More recently, mythicist Richard Carrier, when not lacing his work with casual insults of opponents, makes the mistake of discrediting Epistles not written by Paul as “forgeries.” This misunderstands the practice, then common, to attribute something one has written to an earlier, highly respected name. It is nothing more than an ad hominem argument—long recognized as invalid practice—to describe as a forger someone who would have seen his action as a tribute.

Myth-Theory Scholarship Misses the Point

Even if all these flaws in argumentation could be addressed, the myth theory is sterile. Reading prominent theologians today—I have in mind people such as John Hick, Tom Wright, Richard Swinburne, John Macquarrie, and Rowan Williams—it is clear that they have sidestepped the historicity issue, at least in its balder version. Wright sees the “Did it happen?” question as an irrelevance, of interest only to fundamentalists and mythicists. These theologians are often willing to concede that the Resurrection was not a historical event. Their focus, rather, is on (in Williams’s words) “the theological vision they proclaim.” Alvin Plantinga goes one step further, awarding Christians the boon of “warranted belief,” which, because it’s Christian belief, doesn’t need to be defended at all. Now, this is a very weak foundation for a grand proclamation, but that’s not the point here. The point is, what can the myth theory say in response? Nothing that matters. If the theologians are conceding the historicity of the Resurrection, then an argument built around questioning the historicity of the Resurrection is not going to amount to much. And if they’re not conceding historicity, they’re hardly likely to take seriously a claim about a mythical Jesus.

At the time that Hick issued his warning, the most prominent myth scholar was G. A. Wells, whose work remains the most impressive. Since then, Wells has largely abandoned the myth theory. He originally supported the strong mythical view (“Jesus never existed, in any form”) but has moved to the far more credible claim (“Jesus was a real person but we know virtually nothing sure about him because of subsequent layers of interpretation and theology that obscured his message”). As we’ve seen, many Christian theologians have already conceded this latter point to some degree or other.

Symptomatic of the problems Wells ran up against in the earlier part of his career as a staunch mythicist, he argued that the “existence of strongly divergent Christologies in early Christian times is a strong argument against Jesus’ historicity.” No, it isn’t. Rather, it is evidence of a disparate range of people playing loose and fast with a story they had heard from different people in different circumstances. Confusion among various accounts is not the same as proving that the something in question does not exist.

It’s important to note that Wells did not move from one version of the myth theory—a strong one—to a weaker version. To acknowledge, as he now does, that Jesus existed but his message was buried by successive layers of theology is not a myth theory. It’s a theory about a historical person and what happened to that person’s message—something very different. For the sake of clarity, let’s call this the “forgotten-Yeshua theory.” So when I speak of the myth theory, I am referring to the thesis that Jesus never existed at all.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the myth theory is that it doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. Partway through an argument by Wells for the lack of historical evidence of Jesus, the reader is surprised then to read: “The utmost that is affirmed of him in the late first-century epistles is that he lived in an unspecified past which may have been recent.” This is a common gambit; Robert M. Price has said similar things in his YouTube commentaries. This is not just a casual slip but a fundamental admission that the myth theory has little substantial to say.

To ask whether Jesus ever lived was a valid question a century ago, when the front lines of scholarship were between rival notions of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. If there was no historical Jesus, then the Christ of faith was nothing but hot air. But the debate between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith stalled. Barthian theologians pulled up the drawbridge and declared the contest irrelevant. The second quest for the historical Jesus, in the 1950s, tried to diminish the importance of the historical Jesus by insisting what mattered was the kerygma, the “proclamation” Christians made about him. And from the 1980s emerged the third quest for the historical Jesus. Third-quest scholarship sought to break out of this increasingly sterile stalemate and see what could be gleaned about Jesus from a wider study of his surroundings. Third-quest scholars have conceded that very little is known for sure about the historical Jesus. But by looking further afield, at the Jewish, Roman, and other sources available at the time, some general observations can be made. From that work, we’ve been presented with a variety of Jesus-styles to choose from: political revolutionary, eschatological prophet, Galilean charismatic, magician, and healer, among others. We can legitimately dispute the relative merit of these portrayals, but on the basis of current evidence, we’re unlikely to get much further. But what has not turned up is any plausible context in which stories about someone who didn’t actually exist could likely develop.

Central to third-quest scholarship is the insight that Jesus Christ cannot be understood outside of his Jewish milieu. Jesus Christ—Yeshua ben Yosef—was a Jew. The consequences of this are far more fatal to Christian theology than whether he existed or not. As a Jew, Yeshua had no intention of founding a new religion. As Christianity developed, the things said about him grew progressively more alien to what he actually believed. And all the things said by him can be judged by this criterion: Is this the sort of thing a Jew of the time would—or even could—have said?

In other words, third-quest scholarship amounts to a major victory for the forgotten-Yeshua theory. But the myth theory—no such person ever lived—is now an awkward mirror-image of the fundamentalist insistence that Jesus was exactly what the Gospels said he was (ignoring the many discrepancies in those accounts). It’s a sterile debate with no foreseeable outcome beyond mutual exhaustion. Even scholars sympathetic to the myth theory could do little with it. Paul Kurtz (in The Transcendental Temptation) paid lip service to the theory, while Michael Martin (in The Case against Christianity) endorsed it more openly. But, significantly, neither of them went on to make any use of the myth theory in their wider critiques of Christianity. More recently, John Loftus’s capable summary of third-quest scholarship makes no use of the myth theory. He doesn’t need to. He leaves it to a footnote to observe, correctly, that the vast majority of scholars reject the myth theory because the dominant theory is simpler. Bart Ehrman makes a similar point in his demolition of the myth theory. When a theory is of no practical help even to sympathetic scholars to advance the cause, then you know it’s not worth much.

Part of the problem is that there is no convincing explanation as to why a body of mythological exegesis should have built up quite quickly around someone who never existed. Robertson posited the Jesus story as some form of mystery drama derived from pagan savior cults. William Benjamin Smith argued for a cultic exercise in the name of a purer monotheism. At various times, Gnostics, Essenes, and Therapeuts have been pressed into service to help explain why an account of someone who never lived should have taken such a hold. More-recent myth scholars have spoken on the Celestial Jesus theory or have toyed with questionable categories drawn from Campbell’s pseudo-scholarship but have been careful not to speculate too much about why this myth should have taken hold in the way it did. This is sensible, but it weakens the theory to little more than a claim about Jesus never having lived with no credible explanation as to why this might have been so. In marked contrast with the forgotten-Yeshua theory, the myth theory has little explanatory value.

This is not to say that a mythicist explanation is never valid. Moses, Abraham, Judas, and in all probability Laozi are unlikely to have been historical people in any shape or form. But the myth theory simply doesn’t work with respect to Yeshua ben Yosef. Unlike with Moses or Abraham, there is too much contrary evidence to explain away for a myth theory to work. The forgotten-Yeshua theory explains the evidence we have very well; the myth theory explains it very poorly.

Conclusion

The issue here is not that the Christian claims about Jesus are credible; clearly they are not. But if we condemn as invalid the Christian habit of adding two and two to get five in the form of a supernatural, savior deity, then so is the mythicist subtracting two from two to get minus five in the form of an entirely unhistorical character. The best conclusion we have at the moment is the forgotten-Yeshua theory: “Jesus Christ” is a bundle of dogmas, beliefs, superstitions, and wishes built up, around, and over—until smothering—a historical person probably known as Yeshua ben Yosef. The entirely Jewish world of Yeshua meant he had no intention whatever of founding a new religion, let alone one as anti-Semitic as Christianity has proved to be. And what Yeshua did believe, about an imminent destruction of Rome and its replacement by the Kingdom of God, never materialized. Yeshua was quickly forgotten, and a corpus of belief built up around his name he would not have understood, let alone approved of. The myth theory of Jesus is, at best, a marginal footnote to Jesus scholarship. As a theory, it relies on poor and invalid methods of arguing, has (Wells being a marked exception) a tendency toward ad hominem arguments, and has little explanatory power. Time to move on.

Further Reading

  • Conybeare, F. C. 1914. The Historical Christ. London: Watts & Co.Cooke, Bill. 2014. Kernel and Husk: The Waning of Jesus in Godzone. Wellington: Steele Roberts.Ellwood, Robert. 1999. The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY.
  • Hoffmann, R. Joseph and Gerald Larue, eds. 1986. Jesus in History and Myth. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  • Loftus, John, ed. 2010. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  • Martin, Michael. 1991. The Case against Christianity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Robertson, Archibald. 1946. Jesus: Myth or History. London: Watts & Co.
  • Swinburne, Richard. 2008. Was Jesus God? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Wells, G. A. 1986 [1975].Did Jesus Exist? London: Pemberton.
  • ———. 2007. “Jesus, Historicity of.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Tom Flynn. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007.
  • Williams, Rowan. 2003 (1982). Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.Wright, Tom. 2011. Simply Jesus. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Bill Cooke

Bill Cooke is a senior editor of Free Inquiry and a historian of atheism and humanism. He holds a PhD in religious studies and teaches philosophy and religious studies in Warrington, United Kingdom.


When mainstream theologians admit the Resurrection might never have occurred, arguments that Jesus never existed miss the point.

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