The Mythical Jesus Argument: What’s the Key Issue?

Bill Cooke

I’m grateful to Mark Cagnetta for his contribution to an ongoing debate (“Jesus Is a Myth: A Rebuttal to Bill Cooke,” FI, June/July 2017). It’s imp ortant that humanist scholarship gets this right, because if we’re not getting it right, as I claim, then the consequences affect our general credibility. Unfortunately, Cagnetta’s arguments don’t get it right.

Let’s start by clearing the decks.

  • Mythicists deny that the Gospels can be read in a straightforward manner as history. I agree completely.
  • The historical account of Jesus Christ as a universal savior beloved of God is not credible. I agree completely.
  • Many of the stories told about Jesus have parallels in other religiously significant figures, both historical and mythological. I agree completely.
  • Paul was the first person to write about Jesus, and his account of Jesus was almost entirely a theological construct, not a historical memory. I agree completely.
There are, in fact, very few reliable facts about Jesus’s life. I agree completely.
  • There are other deities with miraculous properties similar to those attributed to Jesus. I agree completely.
  • Many of the defenders of the Christian Jesus have a corporate charge to do so, which impacts their ability to learn freely from disinterested scholarship. I agree completely.

Mythicists waste a huge amount of time trawling these points ad nauseam, thinking that by doing so the case for a mythical Jesus is being made. But it’s not. Having agreed in every respect while clearing away the discredited husks of theology and Christology, what are we left with? It is at this point that the reasoning of the mythicists becomes unhinged. Because at this point, mythicists suddenly rush to the conclusion that, just because the evidence for the theological Christ is weak—which it is—there must therefore have been no such historical person. This is a textbook case of a non sequitur, universally recognized as a mark of poor thinking. Yes, the evidence for the theological Christ is weak. But it simply doesn’t follow that there is no historical person behind it. Were that the case, virtually no person in the ancient world would have existed.

And then, as if to advertise the sterility of the mythicist argument, Cagnetta admits there may have been some sort of historical figure, while failing to see how significant this admission is. I won’t go over the other fallacies to which mythicist scholars resort. Instead, readers are directed to my previous article, “Why Secular Humanists Should Abandon the Myth Theory of Jesus” (FI, December 2016/January 2017).

Having cleared away all the theological baggage, the simplest approach—the one most in accord with Occam’s razor—was taken by the scholars who undertook the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus, which began in the 1980s. This approach may be summarized as follows: The Christ story, problematic as we recognize it to be, emerged from a Jewish society, so let’s learn more about the Jewish world he lived in. From that reformulation of the question, a credible, historically sound theory of Yeshua ben Yosef as a prophet of some sort within a Jewish context emerges.

The forgotten-Yeshua theory does two things that the mythical theory does not and cannot do. First, it begins from the universally recognized starting point of Jewish backgrounds and outlooks, from which it builds a credible account of the sort of things that were said and believed at the time. Second, it offers compelling reasons why Yeshua ben Yosef should be subsumed over a couple of generations into the gentile and not infrequently anti-Semitic figure of Jesus Christ. The newly independent Christians were anxious to distance themselves from rebellious Jews in the eyes of Roman authority and gentile opinion. E. P. Sanders and Geza Vermes are outstanding examples of this approach.

In stark contrast, we find the myth theory shimmying down the sharp edge of Occam’s razor. Mythicists ignore or explain away the evidence on the ground and resort to a more extravagant claim: The absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and a Celestial Messiah story was contrived from a patchwork of mythological or ritual traditions, sometimes quite foreign to the Jewish milieu of the time, blended we know not how, for reasons that can’t be explained. Why the early mythmakers should go to all this trouble and why their subterfuge should have been accepted so widely in such a short time also remains unexplained.

Cagnetta illustrates this incoherent approach when he makes this surprising admission: “We can all agree,” he writes, that “despite indisputable evidence that Yeshua may have existed; there were probably hundreds, if not thousands of street-corner prophets heralding Armageddon in those days, but why should we care? The contention of mythicists is that the biblical Jesus is unhistorical.”

This makes no sense at all. After acknowledging the “indisputable evidence” that Yeshua, or some variation of Yeshua, existed, Cagnetta then professes not to be concerned by this and returns to the core mythicist claim that the “biblical Jesus is unhistorical.” But we have already agreed that the theological Christ is unhistorical. And if the “biblical Jesus” is unhistorical, then where does that leave the existence of Yeshua, whose probable existence he admits?

Equally problematic is Cagnetta’s accusation: “To imply that the supernatural and clearly nonexistent character known to us as Jesus, the son of God, was based on a real person named ‘Yeshua’ reeks of desperation.” If I had said that, this might be a fair charge. But at no point have I wanted to support any supernatural claim about Jesus. Or Yeshua. Like everyone who’s ever lived, Yeshua ben Yosef was a human being, with all the folly and delusion human beings are heir to. The Christian claims are not “based” on Yeshua in any way. Indeed, they were intent on getting rid of Yeshua and replacing him with the more safely gentile “Jesus.” And, of course, Cagnetta’s second claim totally contradicts his first claim.

So, which account is the “desperate” one? Is it the account that puts to one side all the theological grandstanding and supernaturalism and begins from the facts on the ground, namely the Jewish context in which a Jewish prophet stirs things up and gets into trouble, for which he paid with his life?

Or is the “desperate” account the one that makes the fallacious assumption that lack of evidence proves nonexistence (while also admitting that someone might have existed after all) only then to contrive a mythical alternative patched together from Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish sources (among others) that somehow became accepted as the mainstream account of the founder of Christianity?

There really is no contest.

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.

Yes, the evidence for the theological Christ is weak. But it simply doesn’t follow that there is no historical person behind it. Were that the case, virtually no person in the ancient world would have existed.

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