Why Jesus Mythicists Should Abandon Secular Humanism

Robert M. Price

I must reply to a recent article in this magazine titled “Why Secular Humanists Should Abandon the Myth Theory of Jesus” by Bill Cooke. My title, just above, is a bit of a joke, I’ll admit, but I do want to take issue with Cooke’s piece. For one thing, shouldn’t he really say “Why Everyone Should Abandon the Myth Theory of Jesus”? What difference should it make whether one is humanist, Hindu, Hinayana, or Holiness? I guess it’s just that Cooke knows his readership. Reading Free Inquiry is like reading Christianity Today: you’re just preaching to the choir. Fair enough. But there is an undercurrent implying that Cooke is really urging changes in an institutional party line.

Cooke alerts us to the supposed fact that Mythicism is “increasingly irrelevant.” I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean, though the further one gets into the essay, the more it looks like “increasingly irrelevant” denotes “passé,” like last year’s clothing styles. We will not be much surprised to observe that Cooke is captive to the “appeal to consensus” fallacy. For instance, “The trouble is, the sometimes fanciful arguments offered by myth theorists have failed to convince.” You know, that isn’t saying much. During the recent election season, pro-Trump arguments failed to convince many Democrats; neither did pro-Hillary arguments manage to convince many Republicans. You have to examine arguments, not just take a focus group poll. Similarly, Cooke dismisses “long-forgotten scholars such as W.C. van Manen.” Why are they to be discounted? Because an earlier scholarly establishment discounted them?

Speaking of van Manen, Cooke slanders him: his “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.” In fact, van Manen set out to refute the claims of A.D. Loman, A. Pierson, and S.A. Naber, the Dutch Radical Critics, then found himself reluctantly convinced that they were right. Similarly, Cooke repeats the common cavil that Mythicists discard as interpolations any passages in the Epistles that would count toward a historical Jesus, when in fact these interpolation hypotheses were already proposed by non-Mythicist scholars for various reasons having nothing to do with the historical Jesus question.

Cooke writes off Mythicism with insulting invective, accusing us Mythicists of “willful refusal to consider contrary evidence.” Has Cooke bothered to read any of our books? I know he has not wasted his precious time perusing mine, as he admits he has only viewed various of my YouTube videos. I should have thought that would have been sufficient, but it wasn’t, since he misrepresents my views: somehow he came away with the false impression that I think there was a mysterious historical figure behind the mythical Jesus figure. Perhaps he misconstrues my admission that, theoretically, there might have been a historical Jesus, as conceding that Mythicism might be mistaken, though so far the burden of proof would seem to fall on the shoulders of those who say there was.

It does not daunt Cooke that, as he admits, those who posit a historical Jesus are far from agreement on who or what Jesus was. Hasidic rabbi? Magician? Cynic sage? Revolutionary king? Feminist? Community organizer? Liberal Pharisee? Apocalyptic prophet? Self-proclaimed divine incarnation? Cooke seems to think that the Jesus Myth model is “outvoted” by the range of other options. All of them sit on one end of the see-saw, outweighing the lonely Mythicist model sitting high in the air on the other end. But here he commits the bifurcation fallacy: There is easily as much difference between the various historical-Jesus theories as there is between any one of them and Mythicism. He could pull the same trick if he began by isolating any one of the others instead. Has Cooke bothered to read the books of Richard A. Horsley, Juan Luis Segundo, Marcus Borg, Robert W. Funk, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, James Breech, D.F. Strauss, Morton Smith, Bruce J. Malina, Robert M. Fowler, Stevan L. Davies, Burton L. Mack, James M. Robinson, Jane Schaberg, Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Dibelius, C.H. Dodd, Joachim Jeremias, T.W. Manson, Hyam Maccoby, David Flusser … the list goes on? I have, and I think many of them would not touch each other with a ten-foot pole. They would not care to be “numbered among the transgressors.”

Cooke accuses Mythicists of the “excluded middle” fallacy; he would have his readers believe that we think that the only options are fundamentalist literalism on the one hand and Mythicism on the other. Once we have exploded the Sunday-school Jesus, we congratulate ourselves on proving there was no Jesus at all. What nonsense! You already know this if you have read the books of G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, myself, and others. We devote considerable attention to critiquing the work of non-Mythicist critics such as Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, and others.

One of the most powerful Mythicist arguments is the entire conformity of the Jesus story to the Mythic Hero Archetype. Cooke disdains the very existence of such an Ideal Type as the fever-dream fantasy of Joseph Campbell, whom he considers a worthless hack. Absurd! Campbell is a bit sloppier than I would like, but that is irrelevant. The Mythic Hero Archetype is the contribution of major scholars such as Lord Raglan, Franz Overbeck, and Alan Dundes. It must be weighed and evaluated. You can’t, as Cooke does, reject it by dissing one scholar who has appealed to it because a couple of other scholars have dissed him.

Cooke ventures to tell us about the New Quest for the Historical Jesus (which he calls the “second” quest), a scholarly project of the 1950s mounted by a group of scholars, students of Bultmann. Cooke does not know what it was, misinforming us that it “tried to diminish the importance of the historical Jesus by insisting what mattered was the kerygma, the ‘proclamation’ Christians made about him.” Wrong. This is the position they argued against, the position of their mentor Rudolf Bultmann. In fact, the New Questers believed the historical Jesus mattered quite a bit, and they sought to demonstrate a continuity between Jesus’s own self-understanding and that implied for Christian believers in the kerygma.

But then he gets to the so-called third quest. “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. … Central to third-quest scholarship is the insight that Jesus Christ cannot be understood outside of his Jewish milieu. … All the things [reportedly] 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?” This is, I think, is seriously misguided. First, you admit that we have an empty hole of knowledge about Jesus. So let’s just shovel into that pit some of the surrounding soil. This is to reduce a specific individual to a mere function of his environment. It’s like saying that a particular couple has 2.5 children because that’s the average.

Here we can see the point of the criterion of dissimilarity: the notion that, if we want to know what the historical Jesus really said, we have to bracket any saying that parallels the teaching of either the early Church or contemporary Judaism. Of course, a teacher’s disciples would perpetuate at least some of his teaching. Of course, any teacher would share some ideas with his colleagues. No one denies that. So, sure, such parallel sayings might be authentic, but then again, they might be Christian creations or Jewish borrowings. The point is that presumably there must have been something distinctive about Jesus and his teaching. That’s what you’d need to look for. But the third-questers are busy making Jesus merely typical for his time. If you’ve read my Jesus books, you know why I think the dissimilarity yardstick finally tells us nothing about a historical Jesus. And the third-quest approach tells us even less.

No doubt the most egregious fallacy in Cooke’s essay is this: “There is no convincing explanation as to why a body of mythological exegesis should have built up quite quickly around someone who never existed.” Uh, hel-lo! If, theoretically, Jesus didn’t exist, then what does “quickly” even mean? It’s one thing to suggest that a historical Jesus died at some particular time and that myths and embellishments rushed in like a flood (or that it must have taken more time for that to happen, as apologists maintain). It’s quite another to say that the invention of a fictional Jesus must require more time—starting when? Without a historical Jesus, the bottom drops out of the whole thing. Who knows when the mythopoeic process would have started? Mythicism posits an evolutionary process whereby ancient savior myths (Osiris, Tammuz, Marduk, even Yahweh), mystery sacraments, and Gnostic doctrines gradually percolated and mutated. It counts as Christianity at some almost arbitrary point, like the point at which we draw a line between reptile and bird. I’m not saying we know this is what happened. I’m just saying that this is what Mythicism envisions, right or wrong.

Cooke is emphatic that a good theory is the one that explains most of the evidence/data with the minimum number of ad hoc arguments. He’s quite correct for once. But Mythicists feel strongly that our paradigm is by far the most comprehensive approach since it can account for many things that conventional, mainstream Jesus theories ignore or discount, not knowing what to make of them.

Why does Cooke care if secular humanists espouse Jesus Mythicism? My guess is that it is not really any weakness in the theory but rather that he does not want to lengthen the line of defense. He desires respectability for the secular humanist movement, and if the mainstream of conventional academics do not take Mythicism seriously, they will not respect secular humanism insofar as a growing number of secular humanists espouse Mythicism. It is basically a question, I suspect, of public relations. But I may be wrong. It’s just a theory.

Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price is the author of Beyond Born Again: The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, The Case Against ‘The Case for Christ,’ and other books. He is also the host of the podcasts The Bible Geek and The Human Bible.

A leading Mythicist rebuts an earlier critique.

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