It’s Time to Put the Myth Theory of Jesus Aside

Bill Cooke

So much of the writing by advocates of the mythical Jesus is the belabored rearrangement of what is already known. Mythicists spend inordinate amounts of time showing that we know little about the life of Jesus, and that most of what we think we know is a later account, produced for theological ends. Outside of evangelical seminaries, few would dispute this. But having labored so mightily to clarify what’s already known, mythicists then leap to the quite unconnected conclusion that, because the sources are so meager, Jesus did not exist. It is a non sequitur to conclude that lack of evidence amounts of evidence of absence. It’s the most obvious and basic error of thinking. And it lies at the heart of mythicist thought.

I shall not develop this point any further, having done so already in two recent articles in Free Inquiry (“Why Secular Humanists Should Abandon the Myth Theory of Jesus,” December 2016/January 2017 and “The Mythical Jesus Argument: What’s the Key Issue?,” October/November 2017). The focus here will be the theoretical foundations of mythicist thought and the strangely vague solution mythicists offer as to what actually happened.

The current conclusion of scholarship about Jesus that I am defending is that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who warned his fellow Jews that the end-times were upon them and that the kingdom of God was at hand. This kingdom would happen in their lifetime and would unfold here on Earth, and the Romans would get what was coming to them. The Romans saw Yeshua ben Yosef (whom we call Jesus Christ) as a rabble-rouser and put him to death, as they were wont to do. I call this the forgotten-Yeshua theory, because it highlights the Jewish origin of the Christ story, which was buried and forgotten by successive layers of Christian theology.

An important point about this understanding of Jesus is that it is shared by scholars of different persuasions, whether believer or unbeliever. It is a conclusion open to anyone who values evidence over prior belief. The myth theory, by stark contrast, is supported only by unbelievers and is an uncomfortable mirror image of the equally narrowly conceived theological Christ believed only by evangelical Christians. The title of a recent defense of the myth theory, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate among Atheists, admits this point.

Critics from F. C. Conybeare a century ago to Bart Ehrman today have noted that mythicists’ scholarship is faulty along many trajectories. They rely on spurious sources, assume a zero-sum mindset of either/or, and jump to conclusions quite unsupported by the evidence they offer. In the space available, let these recent examples of slipshod scholarship stand as evidence. Richard Carrier begins with the respectable observation that ancient authors invented dialogues and incidents that helped their stories. But from this fair point he then leaps, quite unreasonably, to this conclusion: “This was clearly the norm, not the exception. Most of what the [early] Christians wrote were lies. We therefore should approach everything they wrote with distrust” (Carrier in Lataster 2015, p. 325). In one deft swoop, unwarranted inference combines with ad hominem to create a symphony of poor scholarship. Later on Carrier notes, again quite correctly, that the Gospels contain mythological material and historical improbabilities. But from this he then leaps to the unjustified conclusion that they are “totally mythical” (Carrier in Lataster 2015, 349). Bart Ehrman noted that it would take 2,400 pages to refute all the errors in Earl Doherty’s recent 800-page tome (Ehrman 2013, 252). Sadly, this ratio is true for all mythicists.

Mythicist scholarship also bears some uncomfortably close similarities to conspiracy theorist thinking. In Raphael Lataster’s breathless account of Carrier’s work, for which Carrier supplied an approving preface, mythicists alone are bearers of the truth and those who disagree are necessarily dishonest. The probability of a historical Jesus, we are told, is 0.008 percent. Lataster concludes declaring that “anyone that fails to see how the minimal mythicist theory perfectly—at least in the relative sense—fits the evidence ought to leave the discussion” (Lataster 2015, 384).

History of an Error

Poor scholarship, aggressive/defensive styles of arguing, and extravagant conclusions are not new to current mythicist scholarship. Myth scholarship began with Count Volney and Charles Dupuis at the end of the eighteenth century. The second spell came in the 1860s and 1870s with the German theologian Bruno Bauer. The myth theory as we would recognize it today owes much to its third stage, led early in the twentieth century by the Scottish politician J. M. Robertson. Then, in the 1980s, G. A. Wells led the fourth stage of myth-theory about Jesus. The recent reemergence of the theory can be seen as its fifth incarnation.

The theories of Volney and Dupuis are not taken seriously even by myth scholars. Volney suggested that Jesus was a solar myth derived originally from the Krishna legends of India. The person who would profit most from reading Count Volney today would be Dan Brown, who would appreciate this rich vein of pseudo-history, conspiracy, and mythology. In many ways Bruno Bauer remains the most impressive mythicist scholar. Only the current myth scholar Robert M. Price comes close to Bauer’s relevant training and credentials to speak with authority. But this doesn’t stop Bauer’s theory being eccentric and irrelevant. Bauer decided Jesus had been made up by Mark, a composite of the stoicism of Seneca within a Jewish framework. Nobody now believes this, not even other mythicists.

The third wave of myth scholarship arose in the wake of a new interest in mythology at the end of the nineteenth century, especially as articulated by James George Frazer, author of the monumental Golden Bough. Under Frazer’s influence, Robertson spoke of a “Christ cult” composed of “the two most popular Pagan myth-motives, with some Judaic elements as nucleus and some explicit ethical teaching added” (Robertson 1900, 34). The two most popular pagan myth-motives were the astral or solar myths, which Robertson thought the most important, and vegetation and fertility myths. The “Christian cultus,” as preserved in the gospels, he argued, is a transcript of a mystery drama, not a narrative but more of a “symbolic modification of an original rite of human sacrifice, of which it preserves certain verifiable details” (Robertson 1903, xxi). Subsequent myth scholars have shuffled the balance of “pagan myth-motives with some Judaic elements as nucleus,” with none agreeing with each other, and none offering a more convincing argument than his or her predecessor.

The fourth wave of myth scholarship was led by Wells, a professor of German. Though not trained in New Testament studies, his mastery of German meant he was better informed with German scholarship than many people trained within the discipline. Wells had no difficulties, as Robertson did, acknowledging the priority of Mark. Neither did he believe that the accounts of Jesus’s death are the surviving script from a mystery drama, and he saw no evidence for a secret Joshua-cult. Instead, Wells relied heavily on the silence of Paul. It was of crucial importance to Wells that the genuinely Pauline and immediately post-Pauline epistles were written before the gospels and reveal little detailed knowledge of, or interest in, the historical Jesus. He argued that Paul’s view of Jesus is inspired much more by the Jewish Wisdom literature (Wells 1975, 97). More rashly, current mythicists see the silence of Paul as evidence for a celestial rather than a historical Jesus.

A recurring strand in mythicist scholarship is the use made of mythology. Mythicists claim to see parallels in the Jesus story as it has come down to us and rush in to spot parallels. These
are the “pagan myth-motives” that Robertson spoke about. One is the notion of a dying and resurrected god. Bart Ehrman dismisses this whole idea: the so-called sixteen crucified saviors, as popularized by Kersey Graves 150 years ago. Though Graves’s account is hopelessly overblown, Ehrman is probably too hasty to dismiss this idea out of hand. But the weaker point remains valid. What evidence is there, anywhere, of pagan influence about dying and resurrected gods in first-century Palestine? Ehrman is right that there is none. It is also valid to ask why monotheistic Jews would confuse their messiah with such a pagan notion (Ehrman 2013, 254–56). Undeterred, mythicists assert this link, with little or no evidence.

Even more problematic is the theory of a Joshua cult. Problems with this theory were exposed a century ago by Conybeare, a great New Testament scholar and historian who demolished the claim that a cultic belief about Joshua the sun god was the model for the mythic Christ. Robertson supposed, unwisely, the historicity of the book of Joshua and offered no plausible account of why this story should have taken hold among monotheist Jews of the first century (Conybeare 1914, 17, 19, 82).

Mythicists fail so comprehensively with mythology-based theories because they misunderstand mythology. Earlier scholars relied too heavily on Frazer, whose massive work The Golden Bough, once seen as a milestone in mythology scholarship, is seen now as an impediment to avoid (Stocking 1995, 136, 140, 174). Frazer assumed a positivistic progression from magic, through religion, to science, and structured his work around that premise. Robertson highlighted Frazer’s approach when he called mythology “traditionary error,” a weakness for zero-sum thinking that modern mythicists have inherited.

Even more damaging is the reliance some current mythicists place on Joseph Campbell. Following Carl Jung, Campbell assumes that “myth” is all one thing: an expression of some “primal archetype.” The “mythic imagery of the Bible bears a message of its own that may not always be the one verbalized in the discourse of the text” (Campbell 1965, p. 110). Campbell then proceeds to unlock the “secret,” to the inordinate satisfaction of his followers. Price and Carrier both replicate Campbell’s mistake. Carrier adopts the so-called Rank-Raglan scale of the deification of a hero figure, a schema Campbell adapted in his popular classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Overlooking the many objections to the Rank-Raglan scale, Carrier notes that Jesus scores well as a mythical hero. The fact that the same scale would also prove Abraham Lincoln or JFK to be mythological heroes is dismissed as flippant (Lataster 2015, 326).

Campbell’s poor scholarship was motived by some very strong antipathies (toward Jews and the English) and an equally unbalanced love (for Native Americans). Robert Ellwood notes that Campbell had some sort of “recurrent emotional problem with both Jews and Judaism” (Ellwood 1999, 164). Far more than Frazer, Campbell’s work serves only as an obstacle to scholarship on mythology, with damaging consequences for any theory based on such unscholarly and tainted categories.

Even without Campbell, myth theory ends up, however unwittingly, supporting anti-Semitism. Scholars have come to speak of “supersessionism,” or the willingness to see Jesus as superseding his Jewish roots and context in a Christian over-story. Christ’s mission superseded the narrower interests of the Jews. The “New Testament” superseded the “Old Testament.” Part of the value of the Third Quest for the historical Jesus has been to help eradicate this latent anti-Semitism. But when it dismisses the historicity of Yeshua’s life and thought, the myth theory unconsciously supports anti-Semitism. Just as evangelicals dismiss Yeshua’s Jewishness by turning him into a celestial savior, mythicists do the same thing when they turn him into a celestial myth.

When the time finally comes to give an account of the Celestial Jesus said to be so obviously the solution, mythicists are strangely reticent. We’ve already seen Robertson’s Joshua-cult theory collapse. Carrier agrees that the theories of his predecessors are “crazy” and “amateurish” (Lataster 2015, 298) when, in fact, his account isn’t that different. The so-called Celestial Jesus theory is a patchwork of associations of mythological references from non-biblical sources mixed with Gospel or Pauline passages. Having berated mainstream scholars for want of sound referencing, mythicists hope to distract readers by vigorous arm-waving. They have no choice, given the lack of sources. The most they can do is make some strained links, note some parallels, and hope for the best.

If the issues spoken of so far highlight the poor state of mythicist scholarship, the issue we now confront highlights its essential sterility. This is the admission, referred to in previous articles, that a historical person may actually have existed, but that somehow this doesn’t matter. It is a constant theme through much myth literature that someone called Jesus may well have existed but that “Jesus Christ” is still a myth. Carrier admits that Jesus, or several Jesuses, were crucified under Pontius Pilate (Lataster 2015, 302). Price has made similar points in his YouTube talks; earlier, Robertson also made this very basic mistake (Robertson, 125). Wells, to his credit, became more willing and understood the significance of his acknowledgement of the existence of a historical Jesus.

Apart from Wells, mythicists seem quite unaware how damaging this admission of historicity is to their argument. Any theory arguing for a historicized mythology is surely undermined fatally when admitting the existence of a historical person. It stands as clear evidence of the essential sterility of the myth theory. Either Jesus existed or he didn’t. If Jesus didn’t ever exist, then the stories about him have to be explained in some way, and some variation of a myth theory may well work. But once it is admitted Jesus did actually exist, in however modest and insignificant a way, then we are not dealing with a myth theory. It now becomes a theory about someone who did exist but not in the way commonly understood. But that, of course, is where we started from. And the forgotten-Yeshua theory is the one that fits the facts best. But until mythicist thinking fades away, genuine humanist scholarship in this area will be understandably sidelined.


Further Reading

  • Campbell, Joseph. 1975 (1965). The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, London: Souvenir Press.
  • Conybeare, F. C. 1914. The Historical Christ, London: Watts & Co.
  • Cooke, Bill, “Why Secular Humanists Should Abandon the Myth Theory of Jesus,” Free Inquiry, December 2016/January 2017, pp 34–7.
  • Ehrman, Bart. 2013. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, New York: HarperOne.
  • Ellwood, Robert. 1999. The Politics of Myth: A Study of C G Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.
  • Hoffmann, R. Joseph and Gerald Larue, eds. 1986. Jesus in History and Myth. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  • Lataster, Raphael, with Richard Carrier. 2015. Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists [self-published].
  • Robertson, J. M. 1936 (1900). Christianity and Mythology, London: Watts & Co.
  • ———. 1911 (1903). Pagan Christs, London: Watts & Co.
  • Stocking, George. 1995. After Tylor: British Social Anthropology, 1880–1951, Madison:
  • University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Theissen, Gerd and Annette Merz. 1999. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, London: SCM.
  • Wells, G. A. 1986 [1975]. Did Jesus Exist? London: Pemberton.

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.

So-called Christ-myth theorizing has become an obstacle to genuine humanist scholarship.

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