Why the Christ-Myth Controversy Won’t Go Away

Tom Flynn

In its February/March 2018 issue, Free Inquiry presented a symposium by authors defending—and opposing—the Christ-myth theory: the contention that Jesus of Nazareth never existed in history and should be regarded as mythical. In the introduction to that feature, I wrote:

Was there a historical Jesus of Nazareth? Or is he best understood as, pardon the expression, a mything person? Infidels, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists have been divided for hundreds of years now over whether the scriptural figure of Jesus has some historic veracity (if never as a god-man, at least as a man) or whether Jesus Christ is as utterly fictional as are so many of the claims Christianity has made on his behalf. …

Why won’t mythicism—and its opposite, the scholarly “quest for the historical Jesus”—go away? … over generations, scholars and advocates on both sides have found this vexed question irresistible. What more conclusive proof could one ask for either for, or against, the notion that Christianity’s message rests on some firm foundation?

Recognizing the controversy’s deep-seated intractability, I closed by declaring, “We plan not to carry more articles relating to the controversy for a while—would-be authors of rebuttals, you have received fair warning.”

Which brings us to a more semantic question: Just how long is “a while,” anyway?

When it comes to the Christ-myth theory, about twenty-six months.

Ever since our February/March 2018 feature ran, I’d been in correspondence with the voluble Christ-myth proponent Eugene D. “Duke” Mertz. He’d complained that our earlier feature was lopsided: of three mythicist authors, two (Robert M. Price and David Fitzgerald) were responding to critiques of mythicism* offered by FI Senior Editor Bill Cooke in two previous issues. The third, Michael Paulkovich, focused on rebutting a personal attack on his mythicism. No one, Mertz objected, offered the curious reader a satisfying introduction to what most Christ-mythicists contend.

I had to admit he had a point. But Free Inquiry could scarcely publish something that no one had written. In part because the Christ-myth controversy has been so long-standing, I told Mertz that proponents tend to be deeply dug-in to their positions. This leads to two systematic problems with the existing Christ-myth literature, pro and con, from the standpoint of a curious inquirer newly encountering the topic. First, much of the writing is off-puttingly emotional. Proponents and critics have been hurling the same arguments back and forth for so long that a bitter subtext of “How can you be so blind?” seems more than most of them can avoid. Second, contending authors in these deep-worn trenches tend to presume a daunting amount of background knowledge on the part of their readers. Much of the literature is discouragingly opaque to a reader who can’t decipher long quotes in Greek or Aramaic and doesn’t already know the exact sequence in which the books of the New Testament were composed (as opposed to their sequence in published Bibles) or who Josephus was and just why most scholars think that his remarks about the Christians are largely an interpolation inserted well after his death.

And there’s a lot more where that came from. In the silo of Christ-myth theory and countertheory, the barriers to entry are unjustifiably high.

To his credit, Mertz proposed to write the document whose absence I had decried: an approachable primer that sets forth the core arguments for Jesus’s nonexistence in language that is both accessible to readers not already steeped in ancient languages and biblical criticism, and measured in its tone. That’s a tall order, but after several rounds of drafts and comments, the result was the article you are about to read.

No matter where you stand on the Christ-myth controversy, I think Mertz’s essay will give you a solid introduction to what it’s all about. That’s an impressive achievement in just under eight thousand words.

The companion articles by frequent contributors Mark Kolsen and Mark Cagnetta don’t attempt to explore the topic of mythicism as a whole but rather offer focused critiques of Christian myths in which the mythicality of Jesus stands in the background as a sort of context for their arguments.

So by the power vested in me as editor, I declare that after twenty-six months (or thirteen issues), as another Christian Easter season is upon us, it has been officially “a while,” and the topic of whether Jesus Christ was or wasn’t a historical figure is open once again.

At least for a while.

 


Note

* It’s important to distinguish two senses of the word mythicist. In some quarters, mythicism has become associated with the alt-right in the wake of conferences such as Mythicist Milwaukee. I use the term in its original sense, to denote the position that Jesus is a mythical figure and not a person who actually existed in history.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


In its February/March 2018 issue, Free Inquiry presented a symposium by authors defending—and opposing—the Christ-myth theory: the contention that Jesus of Nazareth never existed in history and should be regarded as mythical. In the introduction to that feature, I wrote: Was there a historical Jesus of Nazareth? Or is he best understood as, pardon the …

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