Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Jesus Myth

As we celebrate Easter today, we would do well to remember what it commemorates: Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Of course, this claim is plenty controversial. I have frequently heard people refer to what is variously called the Jesus myth, the Christ myth, the myth of the resurrection, etc. As I've examined these claims I have found that they are really going back and forth between two definitions of "myth": urban legend on the one hand and mythology on the other. In this post, I'll just address the second of these, since this is how it was originally conceived.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries some scholars argued that the stories of Jesus in the four Gospels were the result of a mythological process that eventually attributed miracles to Jesus, and culminated in the ideas that he was God incarnate and that he rose from the dead. Such a process is very slow, so these scholars assumed that none of the New Testament was written until after AD 150, since this is how long it would take for such ideas to be attached to a historical figure and be widely believed -- at least, there are no examples of such a process happening faster. One school of thought at the turn of the century, the religionsgeschichtliche Methode, sifted through various pagan mythologies to try to find parallels to the stories of Jesus to prove this. Despite the fact that it was a very short-lived movement, it captured the imagination of the general populace. Today, even though it has no scholarly acceptance, it still has plenty of adherents among laymen.

Now there are a few things to note right away: first of all, no serious scholar today dates any book of the New Testament outside of the first century AD. In fact, the New Testament quotes creeds and hymns which nearly all scholars date to the 30s and 40s AD, and these creeds already contain the doctrines of Jesus' divinity and resurrection. For example, Philippians 2:5-11 is a pre-New Testament creed which refers to Jesus as "being in very nature God"; and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is a pre-New Testament creed that states Jesus died, rose from the dead, and appeared to literally hundreds of people. Bearing in mind that Jesus was probably crucified and killed in AD 33, these ideas were present at the very beginning of the Christian movement. The time necessary for a myth of this magnitude to arise is simply not there. Moreover, all of the early Christians from the late first century to the mid-second century affirm the same concept of Jesus that we find in the New Testament. As William Lane Craig wrote:

The letters of Barnabus and Clement refer to Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. Polycarp mentions the resurrection of Christ, and Irenaeus relates that he had heard Polycarp tell of Jesus’ miracles. Ignatius speaks of the resurrection. Quadratus reports that persons were still living who had been healed by Jesus. Justin Martyr mentions the miracles of Christ. No relic of a nonmiraculous story exists. That the original story should be lost and replaced by another goes beyond any known example of corruption of even oral tradition, not to speak of the experience of written transmissions. These facts show that the story in the Gospels was in substance the same story that Christians had at the beginning. (emphasis mine)
Second, the four Gospels (and Acts) do not fall into the literary genre of myth, legend, folk story, or allegory. They are in the genre of historical writing. This is universally acknowledged by New Testament scholars. Those who have claimed that we should read the gospel accounts as a myth or allegory say this should be done despite the genre in which they are written. C. S. Lewis, a literary expert, once wrote the following about the gospel of John (the one most accused of being non-historical):

I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths, all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage ... or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.
This is a very important point: the style of writing in which fictional characters and events are written as if they were historical is a product of the modern age. Trying to apply a contemporary literary genre to the writings of ancient history (and this is what is done by calling them "allegorical" or "mythological") is as irrational as saying the tragedies of ancient Greece were really social commentaries on the neutron bomb.

Now the proponents of the religionsgeschichtliche Methode claimed that we should read the gospels as myth or legend because they contain certain motifs which we frequently find in myths, such as virgin births, or dying and rising gods. But in order to claim this, they had to broaden the definitions of these concepts to such a degree that they could apply to almost anything. This is why it was such a short-lived movement: the "parallels" they found between the Gospels and pagan mythology were absurdly contrived. They had to describe the myths with biblical terminology in order to make the parallels not appear as vague. Anything involving water was a "baptism". Anything involving food and drink was a "last supper".

The same holds true for resurrecting gods. For example, the myth of Osiris, one of the closest and most frequently cited parallels to the resurrection, involves Osiris being killed and his body sunk in the Nile River (sorry; "baptized"). The body is then recovered, stolen, dismembered, scattered, and recovered again. In some accounts, Osiris' sister has sex with the body and gets pregnant before it's buried. Meanwhile Osiris' spirit goes to the underworld and he becomes its ruler. That’s it.

Likewise, there are many myths about gods who go to the underworld in the fall and winter but return to the earth in the spring and summer and cause the crops to grow. This is clearly indicative of the cyclical pattern of nature and hence such mythological figures are sometimes called "corn kings" or "vegetation gods". But to try to compare such stories to the death and resurrection of Jesus can only be done in the vaguest of senses. C. S. Lewis, again, wrote "I myself, who first seriously read the New Testament when I was, imaginatively and poetically, all agog for the Death and Re-birth pattern and anxious to meet a corn-king, was chilled and puzzled by the almost total absence of such ideas in the Christian documents".

Additionally, there are a few other problems with the "myth hypothesis":

-- It is almost universally accepted by scholars that the doctrines of Jesus' divinity and resurrection arose in Israel, and were already present in the 30s and 40s AD. Yet none of the myths that allegedly parallel these beliefs were present in Israel in the first century. Therefore none of them could have had any influence on early Christianity.

-- Most (not all) of the myths suggested that may have influenced Christianity are very late, most occurring in the third or fourth centuries AD -- at least the specific motifs that are cited as paralleling Christian beliefs can’t be traced back any earlier than this. And since these myths existed in societies where Christianity had been present for awhile, if any borrowing was done it was done from the New Testament not by the New Testament.

-- First century Judaism and Christianity were not myth-friendly belief systems. Any attempt to conform them with other religions would have been met with staunch resistance by its followers. Moreover, Judaism was especially hostile to this particular "myth": the divinity and resurrection of a man. This was blasphemous.

-- Most importantly, the mythologies under discussion are completely divorced from history. Jesus was crucified in a year we can roughly estimate, just outside of Jerusalem, under a Roman magistrate we know, in a certain religious and social context, etc.

-- Only Jesus' death was undertaken voluntarily; is for sin; is for his followers; and is a victory. None of the "dying god" myths have these elements. Indeed, they are considered tragedies.

Today we are in the midst of the "Third Quest" for the historical Jesus. One of the primary claims of this quest is that Jesus is best explained in the context of first-century Judaism rather than pagan mythology. Thus, few, if any, New Testament scholars accept these parallels as having any bearing on the historical validity of Jesus' resurrection. It’s a dead issue and has been for some time. The only people who still argue for these parallels are not scholars, although they often try to portray themselves as such.

(reposted from OregonLive)


Anonymous said...

Sorry, still not buying your nonsense.

Jim S. said...

On what grounds?

Anonymous said...

Nicely articulated. I enjoyed it.

Pete Shepherd said...

Very nice. Thanks for the information.

Tyson said...

It's so sad to hear many people regurgitate silly untruths, such as you've shown here.

Another one that I often hear is how biblical text is unreliable because it's been translated so many times. That's silly because we actually have more and better sources to translate from today than when they translated the King James Version, for example. It's not as if we're playing the game "telephone" where information gets degraded. Instead, biblical scholarship has an ever-growing source of textual evidence that confirms what we know to be true.

The Ubiquitous said...

Citations for the creeds?

Jim S. said...

Ubiquitous: Sorry to take so long to respond. Most of my historical Jesus books are in the States and I'm unaware of any single book that deals exclusively with the pre-Pauline creeds. A good book that deals with several of them -- "good" because it gives massive numbers of references to follow-up with -- is Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus by William Lane Craig. This book was a part of his Doctoral dissertation at the University of Munich, written under Wolfhart Pannenberg. It opens with a discussion of the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. However, it's insanely expensive, so don't try to buy it, just check it out or get it via inter-library loan.

The Ubiquitous said...

I dunno. I understand you don't have your stuff with you, but I don't have ILL at all these days. So I'd be left with one pretty anemic creed, which from context is not explicitly a creed. And it isn't even pre-Pauline.

So as much as I appreciate the post, I can't reasonably do anything with it.

Jim S. said...

Please forgive the delay again -- and forgive my obtuseness. I actually have a post with a bibliography that mentions a handful of the texts in question. Most of them are in German though.

I argue there that 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is explicitly a creed and pre-Pauline. Paul introduces it as something his audience was already familiar with and it uses non-Pauline phrasing. So Paul is quoting a creed which most scholars date to the 30s AD and which did not originate with him.

The Ubiquitous said...

Good call, then. But still --- as per pre-Pauline creeds, the more the merrier.