The Quest for the Mythical Jesus

Duke Mertz

Reassessing the Mythical Jesus Symposium

The “mini-symposium” in the February/March 2018 issue of Free Inquiry attempted to put to rest the debate between those who contend that Jesus was a man and those who insist he was a myth. This argument was precipitated by Senior Editor Bill Cooke’s articles “Why Secular Humanists Should Abandon the Myth Theory of Jesus” (FI, December 2016/January 2017) and “The Mythical Jesus Argument: What’s the Key Issue?” (FI, October/November 2017). Three responses to these articles were selected to represent the mythicist position in the symposium, but because they focused on rebutting Cooke, they failed to explain the Jesus-as-myth theory or to cite any evidence in favor of it.

Robert M. Price (“Why Jesus Mythicists Should Abandon Secular Humanism”) came closest when he stated that “Mythicism posits an evolutionary process whereby ancient savior myths (Osiris, Tammuz, Marduk, even Yahweh), mystery sacraments, and Gnostic doctrines gradually percolated and mutated.” David Fitzgerald (“Who’s Afraid of Jesus Myth Theory”) tantalized when he noted that the standard opposition to “myth theory is over a hundred years out of date” and “shows no knowledge of what contemporary mythicists are actually arguing.” Michael Paulkovich (“Schooling Some University Professors”) simply said that the “Jesus Myth Theory is not new.” In fairness, all three have written extensively on the subject and probably relied on the reader to have some familiarity with their positions.

Bill Cooke’s response (“It’s Time to Put the Myth Theory of Jesus Aside”), his third foray on the subject, once again rehashed “the forgotten-Yeshua theory” promulgated by “the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.” The symposium was introduced by Tom Flynn’s piece “The Mything Person Department,” in which he stated that the “mythicism/historicity debate has long continued with no resolution in sight.” He then announced that FI will not “carry more articles relating to the controversy for a while.” The controversy is without resolution because only one side of the issue has been explored. While Price, Fitzgerald, and Paulkovich didn’t adequately explain the mythicist position, neither did Cooke.

The Resurrected Myth

The rediscovery of the mythical Jesus was an unintended consequence of biblical research carried out by devout Christians. Near the end of the Enlightenment, theologians began studying the oldest versions of New Testament books to make certain that translations from the original Greek were as accurate as possible. During this process, they noticed a distinct difference between the Gospels and the Epistles. The biographies of Jesus contained quotations from the Old Testament and allusions to Jewish traditions. The letters never referred to the Hebrew books, and on those rare occasions when Jesus or Jewish topics were mentioned, they seemed to be afterthoughts. Comparative analysis of the oldest existing texts of the Epistles indicated that some of the anomalies were the work of later editors.

This discovery prompted a more in-depth analysis of the Gospels, which also uncovered editorial additions. Some were revealed by changes in verb tense or point of view, but the majority were simply conflicting versions of the same incident. For example, there are two resurrection scenes at the end of Mark (16:1–8 and 16:9–20). Whenever it is impossible to determine which version of an event is true, neither can be relied upon. This fact is amplified by a comparative analysis of the five different resurrection scenes in the Gospels (all biblical quotations are from The New English Bible):


Mary of Magdala and

Greeted at Tomb by

Subsequent Actions by Mary of Magdala and Her Companions

Matthew 28:1–20

“The other Mary”

An angel

“Hurried away from the tomb in awe and great joy, and ran to tell the disciples”

Mark 16:1–8

“Mary the mother of James, and Salome”

A “youth”

“Ran away from the tomb, beside themselves with terror. They said nothing to anybody, for they were afraid.”

Mark 16:9–20

No one else


“Carried the news to his … followers”

Luke 24:1–11

“Joanna, Mary the mother of James,” and other women

“Two men”

“Reported all this to the Eleven and all the others”

John 20:1–18

“Simon Peter and the other disciple”

“Two angels”

“She turned around and saw Jesus standing there”

The Gospels go on to recount four completely different descriptions of Jesus’s appearances to the disciples and other followers. These inconsistencies may have prompted German theologian Hermann Samuel Reimarus to conclude that Jesus was a failed Jewish revolutionary who actually died on the cross. His posthumous writings, published in 1778, theorized that the Gospel stories were fabricated by the disciples, who spirited Jesus’s body away in the middle of the night. Reimarus’s hypothesis was too revolutionary for his time and was rejected by most theologians.

The Tübingen School

While the search for editorial insertions continued, other scholars focused on the differences between the Gospels and the Epistles. Ferdinand Christian Baur was one of the leaders in this effort. During the first half of the nineteenth century, he served as professor of religion at the University of Tübingen near Stuttgart, Germany. Baur concluded that the discrepancies were caused by an early schism in the Church, exemplified by the Jewish leadership of Peter in the Gospels, as opposed to the “Gentile” letters written by Paul. In Baur’s estimation, this was a perfect explication of the “dialectic” as proposed by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Progress was the result of sweeping conflicts between worldviews that coalesced into two opposing grand theories—a “thesis” and an “antithesis.” Human advancement came about through a melding of the two extremes with the creation of a “synthesis.” It was the fusion of the conservative theology of Peter with the more vibrant faith of Paul that produced Christianity.

In the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples under Peter were responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Church. In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, there are hints of a different structure involving levels of membership (I Corinthians 3:1–3):

For my part, my brothers, I could not speak to you as I should speak to people who have the Spirit. I had to deal with you on the merely natural plane, as infants in Christ. And so I gave you milk to drink, instead of solid food, for which you were not yet ready. Indeed, you are still not ready for it, for you are still on the merely natural plane.

Consider also the different explanations of the Last Supper. In one of the only instances when Paul quotes Jesus, he describes a communion meal (I Corinthians 11:23–26):

For the tradition which I handed on to you came to me from the Lord himself: that the Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread and, after giving thanks to God, broke it and said: “This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me.” In the same way, he took the cup after supper, and said: “This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.

The Gospel presentations of the Last Supper are quite different. In the first three, it is identified as the Passover dinner (Matthew 26:26–29, Mark 14:22–25, and Luke 22:14–20). The fourth Gospel presents something else entirely. According to John 13:1, “It was before the Passover festival.” John 13:3–5 describes the meal and its attending ritual as follows:

During supper, Jesus, well aware that the Father had entrusted everything to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from the table, laid aside his garments, and taking a towel, tied it round him. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash his disciples’ feet and to wipe them with a towel.

This ritual cleansing was an ancient ceremony known as an agape. It makes no sense that the Gospel writers should differ in their description of the Last Supper unless it never occurred. Or perhaps, it was another event entirely. Problems with conflicting accounts in the Gospel stories led two of Baur’s Tübingen students to different conclusions about the biographies of Jesus. In 1835, David Strauss published his Life of Jesus, which argued that the Gospels were based on historical fact but were given mythical interpretations by later editors. Conversely, Bruno Bauer asserted that the biographies must have had an ancient myth as their source.

Ongoing textual analysis seemed to add credence to both positions. For example, the conflicting birth stories of Jesus were obvious editorial inserts. According to Matthew 2:19–20, Jesus was a “child” when Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. This meant he would have been born around the year 7 BCE. However, Luke 2:1–2 sets his birth year during a Roman census, which could have only been the one ordered by Quirinius in 6 CE. Because the calendar was calibrated without a year zero, there is a twelve-year disparity between the dates. (Church officials split the difference and designated the mid-point as year one.) The other two Gospels, Mark and John, begin with Jesus’s encounter with John the Baptist.

Another problem with the birth narratives is the location of the event. Bethlehem was an ancient cult center established by Jacob to venerate Rachel after she died giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:19–20). The site featured a sacred cave that had been co-opted by worshippers of Adonis throughout the first centuries BCE and CE. It was Emperor Constantine’s mother who ordered the pagan center destroyed and a church erected in its place.

Jesus’s birthday also came into question. The calendar commissioned by Julius Caesar designated December 25 as the winter solstice. Celebrations were held on that date to herald the return of the sun from its descent into winter. Sometime during the first or second century, the festivity became known as the “Nativity of the Sun,” the birthdate of the god Mithras. When Christianity was designated the official religion of the empire, it co-opted the event as Christmas. It is entirely possible that the Mithraic devotion to the sun also prompted Christians to observe the Sabbath on Sunday.

The Classical Record

Among all the Greek and Roman documents from the first century, there are no verifiable records of early Christians outside the Bible. Papyrus and parchment scrolls have a limited shelf life, and for over a thousand years, the only copies were produced by Church scribes. Surely texts that mentioned early Christianity would have been preserved in some reliquary and reproduced. But this never happened. Furthermore, with the number of editorial insertions in the New Testament, it would only make sense that some documents would have been modified to add something about Jesus or his followers. As it turns out, there is only one work that shows evidence of later tampering, and that is The Antiquities of the Jews by the first century Jewish historian Josephus. This twenty-volume history contains two passages that seem to substantiate the New Testament story. Both interrupt the flow of the narrative and employ language that is too “Christian” for a Jewish writer. But the most incriminating evidence against their authenticity comes from comparing them with material in the Bible.

The first reference (Antiquities 18:63–64) recapitulates the Gospel story in a single paragraph. The most troubling thing about the passage is that it uses the word Christians to describe the followers of Jesus. This would constitute the first time it was ever used. It only appears four times in the New Testament. The First Letter of Peter (4:16) cannot be relied upon because that Epistle was penned at a later date by someone purporting to be the disciple. The other three appearances are in Acts of the Apostles (11:26, 11:30, and 26:28), which was written several years after the death of Josephus.

The other passage (Antiquities 20:197–203) describes the trial and execution of James, the brother of Jesus. There is no suitable explanation why such a significant event was not covered in Acts of the Apostles. The author of Acts used Josephus as a primary source. The revolt of Theudas (Acts 5:36) came from the Antiquities. The rebellion led by Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37) was described in the Antiquities and Josephus’s other work, Wars of the Jews. The account of Herod Agrippa’s death (Acts 12:23) also came from the Antiquities. The insurrection led by a Jewish revolutionary known as “The Egyptian” (Acts 21:38) was covered in both of Josephus’s books. And Josephus was the likely source that identified Ananias as the high priest in Acts 23:2. Obviously, the author of Acts was well acquainted with Josephus, so his silence concerning the trial and execution of James leads to the inevitable conclusion that the passage was not part of the original first-century version of the Antiquities.

From the early part of the second century, there are only three writers who described Jesus or his followers. Pliny mentions Christians in a letter written to the Emperor Trajan in 112 CE. Tacitus claims that the great fire in Rome was started by Nero, who tried to deflect his involvement by blaming Christians. The conflagration occurred in 64 CE, at least fifty years before Tacitus wrote about it. Suetonius references a rumor that the behavior of a man named “Chrestus” caused Emperor Claudius to expel the Jews from Rome sometime between 41 and 54 CE. He could not be more specific about the date because he was relating an event that happened sixty years earlier.

Biblical scholars have never been able to explain the paucity of records concerning the origins of Christianity. There were simply too many Greek, Roman, and Jewish officials present for such a religious groundswell—one that captivated the number of people described in the New Testament—to pass unnoticed. In a single instance, three thousand Jews were baptized into the faith (Acts 2:41). The fact that the Bible may have been the only document that reported the story of Jesus was a major cause for concern. The problems were amplified when scholars began uncovering evidence that the Jewish underpinnings of the Gospel stories were also suspect.

The Language of the New Testament

When scholars compared the Gospels and Epistles with other biographies and letters from the first and second centuries, they found that the secular samples were uniformly superior to the canonical texts. Some theologians insisted that the inferior syntax was caused by translating pre-existing Aramaic or Hebrew texts into Greek. These claims were abandoned after linguists realized that the New Testament was not translated into a Semitic tongue until the latter part of the second century, and the language chosen was Syriac. This brought into serious question the long-held assumption that Jesus spoke Aramaic.

The very fact that the New Testament was written in Greek is rather telling proof that it was the language used by the first Christians. If this were not enough, there is the additional evidence provided by the Old Testament citations in the Gospels. Virtually every one of them is misquoted. The most famous example is Matthew 1:23: “All this happened in order to fulfill what the Lord declared through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and bear a son.’” The verse is a poorly rendered translation of Isaiah 7:14. The original Hebrew reads “young woman” instead of “virgin.” The quotations in the Gospels were taken from obsolete Greek versions of the Old Testament that were translated in Alexandria starting in 300 BCE. Some of the misinterpretations are rather amusing. A case in point is the description of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. It appears in all four of the Gospels and is intended to reference the poetic verse of Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice, rejoice, daughter of Zion,

Shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem;

For see, your king is coming to you,

His cause won, his victory gained,

Humble and mounted on an ass,

On a foal, the young of a she-ass.

The last line was a standard device in Hebrew poetry. It was meant to enhance the description of the ass in the preceding line and led the Gospel writers to different conclusions about the type of animal used to transport Jesus. John 12:15 called it an “ass’s colt.” In Mark 11:7 and Luke 19:35, it was simply a “colt.” However, Matthew 21:2 describes: “a donkey tethered with her foal beside her.” British theologian Alexander J. Grieve noted that Matthew “curiously misrepresents the poetic description of one animal … by making Jesus send for two, and even perhaps ride upon both.”

The imprecise Greek interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures also resulted in inaccurate portrayals of Jewish rites and practices. The most egregious of these is the first of three responses to a group of Pharisees who asked Jesus (Mark 7:6): “Why do your disciples not conform to the ancient tradition, but eat their food with defiled hands?” The author of Mark apparently assumed that washing before meals was assiduously observed by all Jews, when it was actually a ceremonial practice performed only by Pharisees. The problem of misinterpretation was only made worse when Jesus rebuked his questioners (Mark 7:7): “Isaiah was right when he prophesized about you hypocrites in these words: ‘This people pays me lip-service, but their heart is far from me: their worship of me is in vain, for they teach as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

The closest any Old Testament quotation comes to matching this is Isaiah 29:13, which contains the expression “honor me with their lips while their hearts are far from me.” However, the rest of the verse is completely different. If the scene was intended to show that Jesus was well-versed in scripture, it achieved the exact opposite result. One can only wonder what real Pharisees would have thought when faced with such an obvious mistranslation.

Jesus then chided his audience for a puzzling practice that allowed grown children to donate to the temple and thereby avoid applying the amount of the gift toward the support of their parents. The author of Mark was obviously unaware that Jewish teaching annulled such payments when the parents were truly needy. So instead of revealing a hypocritical practice by the Jerusalem clergy, Jesus once more displayed his ignorance of Judaic traditions.

In both of these instances, the Gospel author was attempting to discredit the obscure practices in question to explain why they weren’t observed by Christians. The third controversy is more significant, because it deals with the vexing question of Jewish dietary laws. In this case, Jesus makes no mention of scriptural precedent, nor does he offer any rationale to explain why the rules were not observed by Christians. Instead, in Mark 7:14–15 he simply announces that they are no longer necessary. However, in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, the disciples come to an entirely different conclusion when they decide that the dietary requirements should be loosened rather than dispensed with altogether. Because these passages contradict one another, neither position can be trusted as valid.

The Messiah was a legendary hero Judaism and Christianity borrowed from Zoroastrianism. However, the two faiths had completely different interpretations of his mission. To Jews, he would be a temporal king who would extend the sovereignty of Jerusalem over the entire Holy Land, as it had been in the time of David and Solomon. To Christians, he was the heavenly redeemer. Jesus’s Mount of Olives speech (Matthew 24:1–41, Mark 13:1–32, and Luke 21:5–31) attempted to reconcile the two visions. The three versions are virtually identical and begin with a warning about the impending destruction of Jerusalem, as exemplified by Luke 21:5–6: “These things which you are gazing at—the time will come when not one stone of them will be left upon another.’” In Mark 13:13, Jesus declares: “All will hate you for your allegiance to me; but the man who holds out to the end will be saved.” Matthew 24:23–24 issues a stark warning about the coming days: “Imposters will come claiming to be messiahs or prophets, and they will produce great signs and wonders to mislead even God’s chosen, if such a thing were possible.” Amid the discourse is a significant detail, as described in Matthew 24:15–16: “So when you see ‘the abomination of desolation,’ of which the prophet Daniel spoke, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must take to the hills.”

The parenthetical phrase provides conclusive evidence that the Mount of Olives “speech” was originally a written tract added to the Gospels by later editors. To show that it was not just an oversight in Matthew, there is the exact same insertion in Mark 13:14. New Testament scholar Herbert G. Wood explained “that a Jewish apocalypse” was “edited together with genuine utterances of Jesus, in order to strengthen the faith” of later Christians who “were perplexed by the delay in the appearing of their Lord.”

All the Old Testament misquotations and the erroneous references to Jewish rites and beliefs were added by later editors. Even with these additions, the New Testament fails to address any of the important variances between Christianity and Judaism, such as their different Sabbath observances, completely separate rituals and holidays, and the practice of infant baptism versus circumcision. The Jews underwent a worldwide diaspora yet remained faithful to the original tenets of their faith. It stretches incredulity to assume that Christianity underwent a wholesale divergence from a Jewish source. There had to be another explanation.


After the Jewish foundations for the Gospel stories were undermined, the thesis argument in Baur’s Hegelian dialectic collapsed. Yet there still had to be some sort of Semitic source. The principal players were identified by Greek variants of Hebrew names, and the final scenes took place in Jerusalem. A new synthesis was promulgated by the German “History-of-Religions” school at the end of the nineteenth century. Christianity was said to be just one of many faiths formed by the melding of Hellenistic thought with preexisting religious beliefs, a process prompted by the stabilizing influence of the Roman Empire.

Wilhelm Bousset, one of the most influential members of the school, maintained that the new synthesis was a direct result of Paul’s attempts to transform Christianity into a mythical Greek-style religion. This is what led to widespread heresies in the early Church. Many modern academics still espouse this view of the Jesus myth. A different scenario was proposed by Richard August Reitzenstein. He suggested that the Hellenistic themes in Christianity came from mystery cults. This is the view accepted by modern proponents of the mythical Jesus.

New Testament scholarship took an unexpected turn in 1906, with the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus. The author accepted the Mount of Olives “speech” as authentic and portrayed Christ as a religious zealot who truly believed his death would bring about the end of times. Church officials were faced with a dilemma. To counter Schweitzer’s conclusion, they would have to admit that the apocalyptic content in the Gospels was added by later editors. Instead, they dodged the issue. They insisted that understanding Jesus’s message (Greek kerygma) was the only thing that mattered. Their complicated arguments were eventually christened the “Second Quest for the Historical Jesus” by academics who then proposed a “Third Quest” promoting the view that Jesus was “just a man.” While this attempted synthesis was well-intentioned, it failed to address the long-held Christian insistence that Jesus was a son of a god in a trinity who was crucified and resurrected to grant eternal life to his followers. It also ignored the biblical, archeological, and historical evidence that supported Reitzenstein’s thesis that the original Jesus was the mythical hero of a mystery cult.

Mystery cults were pre-Christian sects that recounted the death and resurrection of a son of a god, who was usually born to a virgin mother. The only comparable myth in high school and college mythology courses is the story of Persephone (Latin Proserpina), a daughter of a god, who was abducted by Hades (Latin Pluto), the god of the underworld. After the intervention of the other gods, Hades agreed to allow Persephone to return to the world for half of every year. Her emergence from the underworld signaled the beginning of spring, and her reentry marked the onset of winter. Christian authorities systematically expunged mystery myths that involved sons of gods because they were too similar to the Gospel story. The effort was made easier by the fact that mystery-cult initiates took oaths to keep the rites secret, and those who attempted to explain their beliefs were relentlessly persecuted as heretics and silenced by the early Church.

The original mystery cult worshipped Osiris in Egypt and preached the doctrine of eternal life for its followers. Historians have traced the spread of this notion to the rest of the civilized world during the first millennium BCE. This early religious revival movement co-opted a local fertility god to replace Osiris as the resurrected son in its rites. In Babylon, it was Tammuz; in Anatolia, Attis; in Greece, Dionysus. Legionnaires posted on the border with Persia were inducted into the rites of Mithras. As mentioned earlier, this son of god became extremely popular in Rome. His cult was so successful that several emperors became adherents.

The primary mystery rite was a passion drama held at the spring equinox. The son of god was condemned to death by the god of the underworld or his exemplar. He voluntarily sacrificed himself on the condition that his death would ensure eternal life for his followers. Initiates underwent a ritual death and rebirth through baptism to demonstrate their acceptance of the gift of redemption. In the original Egyptian drama, Osiris was dismembered. In most of the successor faiths, the method of execution was crucifixion. The body of the son of god was interred in a cave, which represented the underworld, and at the climax of the drama he emerged triumphant to signify his resurrection.

Jesus offered himself to be sacrificed to intercede on behalf of his followers. He traveled into the very heart of his adversary’s stronghold in Jerusalem, knowing that he would certainly be arrested. It was in this setting that he confronted the actors who played Herod and his Roman colleague Pilate, with crucifixion the only possible outcome. Their Gospel conversations and the rather extensive monologues that preceded them could not have been witnessed by outside observers, which is rather convincing proof that they were originally part of a dramatic transcript. The birth and resurrection narratives in the Gospels were added later because the original text did not portray either event in a way that could be understood by the uninitiated. The opening scenes may have involved a supreme deity miraculously impregnating Mary, which would explain the immaculate conception and the mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 substituting “virgin” for “young girl.” The resurrection was the most secret of the mysteries, so it may not have been included in the original transcript, or it may have been omitted because it did not make sense out of context.

It was standard fare in ancient accounts for sages to heal cripples and raise the dead, but this does not explain the sheer number of such events in the New Testament. There are nearly two dozen separate miracles, ten of which are shared by at least three of the Gospels. The problems arose when the passion story was committed to writing and accepted as historical fact. Instead of conjuror’s tricks presented as part of a theatrical production, the incidents had to be accepted as actual miracles. An actor in a mystery presentation could pretend to be possessed by a demon until a laying-on-of-hands cured him. In the Gospel rendition, it became an actual exorcism. A player who lay comatose until prompted to awake was now a person raised from the dead.

At some point, the dramatic transcript came into the hands of those who had not been initiated into the mystery cult. They became convinced that it was the biography of a risen savior who promised eternal life to anyone who accepted the story as true. Keep in mind that this only had to happen once. From that point on, the story of death and redemption was so seductive that nothing could stop it from spreading. While the language of the originating Christian mystery cult was Greek, its ultimate source was Hebrew. To identify the sect, it will be necessary to examine the Old Testament.

Old Testament Scholarship

The breakthroughs achieved through the textual analysis of the Gospel stories and Epistles created a desire among Old Testament scholars to undertake a similar approach with the Hebrew books. Their efforts bore immediate results. They recognized that the creation story and Noah’s flood were borrowed from Sumerian fables. They also came to realize that the dates assigned to the compilation of the earliest Jewish scriptures needed to be recalibrated. It had long been assumed that the first books of the Bible were written toward the end of the second millennium BCE. Scholars now recognized that this date was 500 years early. The reevaluation was prompted by a better understanding of the Babylonian captivity.

In 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and destroyed the city. Survivors with desirable talents were deported to Babylon. Everyone else was killed. Judaism was reduced to a small nucleus of artisans and priestly scribes. Fifty years later, the Persians overran the Middle East. One of their first acts was to allow the captured peoples to return to their homelands and re-establish their religious practices. This policy allowed the Jewish clerics to reclaim the land where Solomon’s Temple once stood and receive support to rebuild it. The first exiles reached the ruins of Jerusalem in 539 BCE. Almost eighty years later, in 458 BCE, the prophet Ezra arrived from Babylon with a royal decree granting him authority over the city and the region surrounding it. He also brought along the recently completed Torah. To give the first five books of the Bible greater authority, he claimed that they were authored by Moses.

During the 130 years between the destruction of Jerusalem and its official reinstatement, the Jewish people had reinvented themselves. They were now a theocracy. The household god of their ancestors had been recast into a solitary and nameless deity with unimaginable powers. The Jews were now the chosen people of this “god.” The men had been segregated from everyone else through circumcision. The rite became mandatory on the eighth day of life, and a larger portion of the foreskin was removed. The oral traditions of the priests were committed to writing and included in a world history penned with a new form of calligraphy. The ancient alphabet of the Phoenicians had been simplified into block letters using shorter pen strokes similar to cuneiform inscriptions. As an incentive to return to the City of David and help rebuild it, a stirring epic of reconquest became the centerpiece of the Torah, and the region was recast as the promised land.

Historians now recognize that the Exodus was fictional. During the entire time that it could have happened, Pharaoh’s armies ruled the Holy Land. The Egyptians were the ones who pulled up stakes when the region was invaded by the Philistines and other tribes wielding iron weapons. Nevertheless, during the three centuries of Egyptian rule, the Hebrew tribes became well-versed in the folk tales and legends of the Nile, and many of the early stories of the Bible were taken from them. The biblical archeologist Gary Greenburg identified the Osiris legends as the basis for the tales of the patriarchs. The book of Genesis features several father-mother-son trinities, such as Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac or Jacob, Rachel, and Benjamin. Such triads were also a standard feature of mystery cults.

The Origin of the Trinity

One of the most perplexing issues in biblical scholarship is the origin of the Holy Trinity. It is never explained in the New Testament, and there are only two places where it appears in the form we recognize in prayer and creed. The first occurrence is Matthew 28:18–20, which most Bibles translate as follows:

Jesus then came up and spoke to them. He said: “Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go forth therefore and make all nations my disciples; baptize men everywhere in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (emphasis added)

New Testament scholars have long recognized that the recitation of the Holy Trinity was not part of the original passage. Jesus is speaking in the first person singular throughout, and therefore he would have directed that the rite of baptism be performed in his name. As theologian Alexander J. Grieve explained: “The command to baptize into the threefold name is a late doctrinal expansion. In place of the words ‘baptizing … Spirit’ we should probably read simply ‘into my name.’” When the rite of baptism was performed by the apostles, it was always accorded the simpler formula: “in the name of Jesus the Messiah” (Acts 2:38), “into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16), or “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48). The only other place where the Holy Spirit was included in a statement similar to the standard recitation occurs in II Corinthians 13:11–14. It appears at the very end of the letter, where it could easily have been added as an afterthought.

Classical historians Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy have determined that most mystery cults had levels of initiation that were based on the four elements of antiquity. Earth was excluded, because it was considered the starting and ending points for life. To be inducted into the sects, initiates had to be cleansed by water rites. The next two levels were attained through ceremonies known as elemental baptisms. This hierarchy was laid out by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11–12: “I baptize you with water, for repentance; but the one who comes after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to take off his shoes; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

As previously mentioned, most mystery cults worshipped a father-mother-son triad, and each of the entities corresponded with one of the three elements—and therefore to one of the three levels of initiation. Jesus, who was known by the sign of the fish, was identified with water. Joseph, as the exemplar of God, was the source of fire or divine light. Mary was associated with air, or spirit, a Hebrew feminine noun. When Constantine (who would not adopt Christianity until his deathbed) oversaw the creation of the Nicene Creed in 325 CE, some sort of patriarchal translocation occurred, and the third element replaced Mary in the triad. Instead of “Father, Son, and Holy Mother,” the trinity became the recitation we recognize today.

The Hebrew Passion Drama

Jeremiah 10:3–9 describes “sacred poles” that were featured in the religious practices of the northern Hebrew tribes. They were fashioned from “timber cut from the forest,” which was “worked with a chisel by a craftsman.” Each was adorned “with silver and gold,” fastened with “hammer and nails,” and draped “in violet and purple.” This calls to mind descriptions of the trees or crosses used in the mystery cult rites of Attis and Dionysus, where a lifelike effigy of the son of the god was hung to represent his crucifixion. This is substantiated by Jeremiah 10:5, which compares the totems of the northern Hebrew tribes to “scarecrows.”

The relationship between Jerusalem and the surrounding territories was tenuous at best. The other Hebrews had remained in the Holy Land during the captivity and had not participated in the Jewish religious revival. When they offered to help rebuild Solomon’s Temple, the monotheists rejected the olive branch, because the pagan rites they practiced were not acceptable to the new Jewish vision. It probably galled the theocrats that Samaria, the capital city of the northern tribes, had become the largest metropolis in the Holy Land. In addition, its nearby temple on Mount Gerizim—where Abraham had attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac—had grown into a magnificent religious center.

This is undoubtedly why the authors of the first books of the Old Testament unleashed their invective against the northern tribes. In Genesis 34:1–31, forces led by Levi and Simeon sacked the northern capital city and killed all the male members of its royal house. Instead of attacking the Philistines, the first official act of King Saul was to order the destruction of an enclave of northern clerics (I Samuel 22:18–19). Then there was the lurid tale of Ahab and Jezebel and their deaths at the hands of the usurper Jehu (II Kings 9:30–33). Jehu destroyed the first shrine at Mount Gerizim, and as related in II Kings 10:28, “made a privy of it.”

The Jerusalem clerics expressed such animosity toward their neighbors to the north because they worshipped Baal and other deities (I Kings 18:19 and II Kings 23:4). According to the mythologist James Frazer, an ancient religious center on Cyprus dedicated to “Baal of the Lebanon” observed rites that were indistinguishable from those of the aforementioned Adonis. Adonis is the Greek version of Tammuz, whose mystery cult was so widespread that his devotees infringed on the Jewish quarter during the Babylonian captivity (Ezekiel 8:14). The Greek name was derived from Adon (the Semitic word for “lord”), which was also used by Jews in its plural form, Adonai, as a substitute for God. Baal was a male fertility god described in archeological finds uncovered in 1928 by Claude Shaeffer at Ugarit on the coast of Syria. Baal’s father was El, the supreme god of the Phoenician and Canaanite pantheons. Another deity prominently featured in the archives was the virgin goddess Anat.

El appears at the end of names for Hebrew men, such as Samuel and Daniel, and even the name of Israel. A derivation appears in the Bible as “Elohim,” a name for the supreme deity adopted from the northern Hebrew tribes. As with Adonai, it is a plural form of god. According to the theologian Peter Occhiogrosso, Elohim joins masculine and feminine Semitic words for deity in such a way as to imply procreation. Therefore, Elohim contains the elements mother, father, and child. In a patriarchal society, the offspring would have been a son.

A similar triad was mentioned in a trove of papyrus letters written in Aramaic and dated between the years 400 and 500 BCE. The scrolls survived for more than two thousand years in the dry climate of Aswan and were recovered in the late 1800s by antiquarians. They were written by a group of Hebrew expatriates who were seeking help rebuilding their temple at Elephantine, an island in the Nile River. The documents generally refer to their deity as “Yahu,” which is considered synonymous with Yahweh or Jehovah. However, other papyri contain references to “Herem-bethel,” “Anat-bethel,” and “Eshem-bethel.”

“Bethel” is the name of another shrine established by Jacob (Genesis 35:15). The Hebrew word is translated as “house of God.” The Aramaic ending is intended to show that each entity is a subset of a trinity. In some documents, Herem-bethel is used interchangeably with Yahu. Others identify Anat-bethel as the mother and Eshem-bethel as the son. Anat-bethel is undoubtedly one-and-the-same as Anat, the previously cited Semitic virgin goddess. Linguistic analysis of the male names is inconclusive, but similarities have been suggested with other mystery cult triads.

Old Testament theologian T. Witton Davies suggested that the temple was originally “erected by priests and others belonging to the northern kingdom.” His theory is substantiated by one of the letters that states that the governor of Samaria agreed to help support the rebuilding effort. With its history of tripartite deities, this city in the northern Holy Land is the best candidate for the homeland of the mystery cult that gave rise to Christianity. However, because of a confluence of mistakes in document provenance and research, this fact was almost lost to the historical record.

A Samaritan Sect

In the sixteenth century, a medieval sect of Jews lived near Mount Gerizim. They were the owners of an ancient version of the Torah that came to be known as the Abisha scroll. The document was thought to be a later rewrite of the first five books because Mount Gerizim was used in place of Judean worship centers named in the Hebrew standard. It was written in a strange script and was the only holy book recognized by the sect. The writings of the third-century Christian scholar Origen referred to “Samaritans and Sadducees who receive the books of Moses alone.” From this, Church authorities deduced that the ancient Jewish sect represented the last surviving remnant of the Hebrew northern tribes, and they called them Samaritans.

The determination was erroneous, but it had a long-lasting effect on biblical scholarship. Over time, each of the assumptions embodied in it have been found false, but to this day their calligraphy is referred to as “Samaritan.” The designation persisted even after some of the Old Testament books among the Dead Sea scrolls were found to be written in the same script, and it was recognized as a stylized form of the old Phoenician alphabet. The quotation from Origen that was central to the identification of the sect was also recognized as unreliable. The Sadducees were the Jewish priestly aristocracy. All the Old Testament books were sacred to them, not just the five attributed to Moses. Origen wrote about the subject several centuries after the fact, so he cannot be relied upon as an authority on ancient religious practices in the Holy Land. When he referred to “Samaritans,” he was far more likely talking about the same Jewish sect that lived near Mount Gerizim in medieval times and owned the Abisha scroll.

It is now recognized that this version of the Torah was written in the antiquated Phoenician script because the sect wanted to preserve the original form of the text. It was a recension of one of the very first versions of the first five books produced in Babylon, written before Hebrew block script was developed. It refers to Mount Gerizim instead of Judean worship centers because the original had not been revised by Ezra’s scribes to say otherwise. After the Maccabees conquered the northern Holy Land, the members of this ultra-conservative Jewish sect settled near Mount Gerizim because their scriptures recognized it as the supreme site of their faith.

It makes absolutely no sense to assume that the polytheistic northern tribes were somehow converted into this retrogressive community of Jews. Church officials searched for biblical verses to confirm such an unlikely transformation. There were two possible candidates. As previously mentioned, after the Babylonian captivity the Samaritans offered to help rebuild Solomon’s Temple (Ezra 4:2): “Let us join you in building, for like you we seek your God.” However, as explained earlier, the Jerusalem clerics refused the offer. A later quotation from the same book of the Old Testament quashes the notion that the Samaritans had become monotheists when it summarizes the reasons behind the Jewish refusal (Ezra 9:1–2): “The people of Israel, including priests and Levites, have not kept themselves apart from the foreign population and from the abominable practices of the Canaanites, the Hittites … the Moabites, the Egyptians and the Amorites.”

The second citation that was used to support the idea of a Samaritan Jewish sect deals with an earlier time period, after the leaders of the northern tribes were sent into captivity and other peoples were moved into their lands (II Kings 17:27–28):

The king of Assyria, therefore, gave orders that one of the priests deported from Samaria should be sent back to live there and teach the people the usage of the god of the country. So one of the deported priests came and lived at Bethel, and taught them how they should pay homage to the Lord.

This was taken as evidence that the Samaritans were indeed instructed in the ways of Jehovah. However, the very next verse indicates otherwise: “But each of the nations made its own god, and they set them up within the hill-shrines which the Samaritans had made.” The chapter concludes (II Kings 17:41): “While these nations paid homage to the Lord they continued to serve their images, and their children and their children’s children have maintained the practice of their forefathers to this day.”

Not only was the original worship of a tri-partite Elohim maintained, but it was further supplemented by the religious traditions of new arrivals. During the next few centuries, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, and Greek replaced Aramaic as the language of politics and commerce. Otherwise, the situation remained relatively unchanged until the growing military power of Jerusalem under the Maccabees intervened. Jewish armies invaded the northern Holy Land in 128 BCE. They sacked the city of Samaria and destroyed the temple complex at Mount Gerizim. The survivors were forced to seek refuge in the surrounding Greek cities, known as the Decapolis.

Some of the northern Hebrew exiles retained their separate identity through the worship of their own mystery cult, resisting efforts to adopt more popular Greek alternatives, such as those of Adonis or Dionysus (who turned water into wine, which was served with bread in a communion meal). However, the language of the rites changed to Greek, and the deities in the trinity became Hellenic variants of Hebrew names. Unfortunately, the second- and third-century editors of the Gospels did not realize this. They thought the dramatic transcripts recorded the life history of a real person who journeyed to the seat of his religion in Jerusalem. For this reason, they accepted the Old Testament as part of their canon—not the actual Hebrew books but the imprecise Alexandrian translations. The New Testament editors assumed that Jesus, as a practicing Jew, would have been exceptionally knowledgeable of scripture. Ironically, the Old Testament mistranslations they inserted into the Gospel stories mark them—and Jesus—as Greek-speaking impostors pretending to be Jews.

It may be hard to accept that the ancients based their religious faith on a dramatic rite, but keep in mind that the presentation became the Christian passion story that continues to captivate millions today. The mystery drama was perfected over centuries to descend into the deepest recesses of the human psyche. The presentation allowed attendees to abandon reality and immerse themselves in a stirring pageant that promised eternal life. The mythical climax presented by actors was every bit as meaningful to the ancestral Christians as the Easter rites are to their descendants today.

Recognizing that Jesus was a mythical son of God is not just an esoteric question debated by religious scholars. On the contrary, it is absolutely vital to properly understand and address the appeal of Christianity. While it is easy to dismiss the inconsistencies and the apocalyptic content of the New Testament, the same cannot be said for the parables and other stories. Believers erroneously claim that these timeless ethical messages were the words of a single extraordinary man, when in reality they were accumulated more than two millennia ago by the sect that gave rise to Christianity. While some of these ideas could be considered revolutionary, Jesus was not killed because of them. His crucifixion was mythical. It was the climax of an ancient pagan rite honoring earth’s seasonal cycle of death and regeneration.


Further Reading

  • Albright, William F. From the Stone Age to Christianity. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957.
  • Brown, Raymond Edward, et al., ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1990.
  • Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.
  • Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, Inc., 1922.
  • Freke, Timothy, and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
  • Friedman, Richard Elliott. Who Wrote the Bible? New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, Inc., 1987.
  • Gollaher, David L. Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.
  • Greenberg, Gary. 101 Myths of the Bible, How Ancient Scribes Invented Biblical History. New York, NY: Bristol Park Books, 2000.
  • Laymon, Charles M., ed. The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971.
  • Mertz, Eugene D. The Exodus Sect. Chandler, AZ: Exodeist Press (, 2016.
  • The New English Bible with the Apocrypha. Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, 1970.
  • Occhiogrosso, Peter. The Joy of Sects. New York, NY: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1996.
  • Peake, Arthur Samuel, ed. A Commentary on the Bible. New York, NY: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1920.
  • Van der Toorn, Karel. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Duke Mertz

Duke Mertz took early retirement from a career in finance to work with nonprofit organizations and to write. He is currently vice president of the Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation Board of Trustees in Chandler, Arizona.

Reassessing the Mythical Jesus Symposium The “mini-symposium” in the February/March 2018 issue of Free Inquiry attempted to put to rest the debate between those who contend that Jesus was a man and those who insist he was a myth. This argument was precipitated by Senior Editor Bill Cooke’s articles “Why Secular Humanists Should Abandon the …

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