Friday, May 23, 2014

Review - The Quest of the Mythical Jesus

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price

The Quest of the Mythical Jesus

The short introduction to this compilation is credited as an article originally posted on Robert Price’s MySpace page.  It is short, and gives a very brief overview of why he thinks there was no historical Jesus.  Since it was a MySpace post, it offers a simple, radid-fire synopsis of what led Price to reject belief in a historical Jesus.  None of the ideas are developed, no claims are justified and no citations are given – not that I expect otherwise in such a short introduction.  I expect the remainder of the book will go into greater detail on each piece of evidence that is presented here. 

Price admits up front that his views are radical.  Almost no historical or theological scholar accepts the theory that Jesus was never a historical person.  All of these scholars, believer or non-believer, conservative or liberal, accept that there was at least some history behind the person of Jesus, even if that person may not have been a Divine God-Man.  A more liberal scholar may conclude that he was a peasant wisdom preacher.  Maybe an apocalyptic doomsayer.  Maybe a shaman healer or even a failed revolutionary leader in opposition to the Roman occupiers. But a Jesus who started the Christian religion, but did not actually exist?  Not a chance.

Here are the main points that Price touches in his introduction:

* Jesus appears to be one in a long list of contemporary gods who died yet rose again.  The stories of these other gods can all be found in ancient sagas.  If dead and risen Attis, Adonis, Dionysis, Osiris, et al, were all woven in the same mythological cloth, why is dead and risen Jesus held as the one historical exception? 

* The apostle Paul wrote numerous letters that define much of nascent Christian theology, but Paul never cites a historical Jesus for any source quotations.  Since Paul argues against numerous controversies in his epistles, a quote from Jesus would instantly win Paul’s given case.  But Paul never does this.  Why?

* The life of Jesus seems to follow the Mythic Hero Archetype, that is, it seems to follow the trajectory of many well known ‘hero stories’ and His biography can be compared to equally fabulous persons of both literature and undisputed myth.  The story of Jesus follows familiar patterns of fiction.  Is it reasonable to assume that both the outline and details of Jesus’ life are historical if they can be shown to follow established literary techniques?

* Almost every story from the Gospels and Acts can be shown to be re-written or extrapolated material from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Greek poets Homer and Euripides, and the Jewish historian Josephus.  Is it possible that the original Evangelists know what happened in “history” from what they knew of their own revered writings? 

* The central axioms of form criticism cancel each other out.  If what was known of a historical Jesus was transmitted through oral tradition, it had to have been useful to prove some point among the earliest Christians.  Otherwise people would never have bothered repeating and transmitting that oral tradition.    But form criticism also assumes that if a saying attributed to Jesus closely matches the practices of the earliest Christians, it is most likely that those sayings were merely placed into the mouth of Jesus by those Christians, in order to fictively gain Jesus’ approval.

Since Price does not elaborate much on these topics in his brief introduction, I will not expound on them with my own opinions.  I am sure that time will come later in the book.  But for now, it is interesting to compare these items that Price finds convincing with the criterion for historicity that can be found from more mainstream scholars.  I will use the Introduction from Paula Fredriksen’s book From Jesus to Christ as an example.
“To approach our twofold question, we shall read the New Testament texts in three cycles: descriptive, historical, and explanatory contexts… I shall proceed by examining the various images of Jesus conveyed in our chief canonical texts in reverse chronological order … by tracing their backward trajectory, we move chronologically closer to their point of origin, that documentary vacuum inhabited by Jesus of Nazareth.  We stop where our texts leave us, in the Gentile communities of the Mediterranean around the year 50 C.E., some twenty years after Jesus’ execution.” (pp x-xi)
You can catch the methodological category upfront, that the story of Jesus is primarily a matter of History.  We are going to read the Gospel texts, as she says, in their “descriptive, historical, and explanatory contexts”.  We are going to read them, “in their “reverse chronological order” as only a historian could.  We are going to start with the broad and whittle our way back until there nothing left of Jesus except a historical core.  This is a common approach in the few books that I have read on this topic.  We start off with a historian of the New Testament who is qualified to investigate what history can be gleaned from the New Testament.  And with that historian we are going to develop certain criteria, by which we are going to judge certain Biblical texts, and by this process determine a core left over which we can then claim to be what we know of the historical Jesus.  Let us throw away the miracles of Jesus, maybe some of his more outrageous or anachronistic statements, and develop what is left over into some kind of plausible history.  In Paula Fredriksen’s case, the historical Jesus is an apocalyptic visionary of some sort, who predicted the end of the Age by the end of His generation.  Other scholars may see Jesus as a Cynic philosopher or a mystic healer, but in all these cases, the Gospel texts are read as history, by qualified historians in their field, using historical criterion. 

Compare Fredriksen’s historical criterion with Price’s.  Although he does not lay out a clear methodology, compare Fredriksen’s methodology, stated above, with what Price has to say:
“There is no secular biographical information about Jesus.  Even the seeming “facts” irrelevant to faith dissolve upon scrutiny…when we are done, there is nothing left of Jesus that does not appear to serve all too clearly the interests of faith, the faith even of rival, hence contradictory, factions among the early Christians.” (p 19) 
Then later:
“I have not tried to amass every argument I could think of to destroy the historicity of Jesus.  Rather, I have summarized the series of realizations about methodology and evidence that eventually led me to embrace the Christ Myth Theory.  There may once have been a historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer.  If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth.” (p 23) 
“The present volume contains the major essays and papers I have written to set for the case for the Christ Myth theory as well as my best attempts to deal with the major difficulties scholars have pointed out with it.” (p 23)  
In major contrast to Fredriksen and most other Jesus scholars, Price is not compelled by history, and does not appear to approach the Gospels as historical documents.  Price treats the problem of Jesus, not by the criterion of history, but by the criterion of literary analysis.  From reading the introduction and initially browsing the entire book, it appears to me that everything that compels Price to believe that Jesus is a myth is due to his approach of the Gospels as literature, not history.  The history that can be gleaned from the Gospels is not gained by analyzing the text as if it were eyewitness testimony of historical events, but rather by analyzing the motives, and the social and religious societies in which they were written.  The historical value of the Gospels is by studying the authors and their communities, not by studying the stories as history.  The true history of in the Gospels lay behind the scenes.

I am not criticizing either scholar, Price or Fredriksen, for their different approaches to the Gospels.  The historical paradigm is automatically assumed by most Biblical scholars and a historical method is then used on the Gospels.  That seems reasonable to me.  But it seems to me that employing literary analysis on the Gospels should be equally as reasonable, especially in dealing with ancient sagas from alien cultures.  I am sure that there are historians out there who try to dredge some kind of history out of the Beowulf epic, just as Beowulf is analyzed with equal scrutiny by literary critics.  Can each paradigm be applied to the Gospels with equal validity?  I don’t see why not.  Why do we assume that the only people who can study the Gospels in scholarly manner are historians? 

Again, Price does not use this introduction to delve too deeply into any single argument in his case for the Christ Myth theory.  But as I briefly mentioned in my previous article, Price does not use his introduction to properly define what exactly he means by the Christ Myth theory.  I do think this is important in a book entitled, The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems.  As I said in my previous article, the only definition that I found in this book is on page 388,

“The Christ Myth theory maintains that the Christian Jesus was originally a god who eventually became flesh in the imaginations of believers.”

But as I look at all the arguments presented in this introduction, even though none are intended to go into any depth, neither are any of them an argument that addresses Price’s actual definition of Christ Myth Theory.  All of them are de-constructionist in approach, that is, they all pretty much show that Jesus is not as he is presented in Scripture.  Price argues fervently that Jesus could not have done this, He could not have said that, His life seems to fit legendary hero archetypes, everything about Him seems to have parallels in earlier material, etc.  But none of these arguments, that I can tell, directly address the actual claim of Price’s Christ Myth Theory:  that Jesus was originally worshipped as a heavenly deity before the stories of his earthly ministry developed.  The introduction to this book is interesting, and I can get behind a lot of it.  I am particularly intrigued with the literary approach to the research as opposed to the historical approach.  But it is something else to have a theory of the actual origins of Jesus but to not actually address it.  I think that if one were to attempt to demonstrate that Jesus did not exist as a historical person, then the chore of de-constructing the Gospels is only half the battle.  We still have this thing called the Christian Religion that has lasted around 2000 years, and the origins of this religion revolve around alleged historical events involving this guy named Jesus.  If it is demonstrated that those events never happened, the origin of the Christian religion must then be explained.  And from what I understand, this is where The Christ Myth theory fits in:  the origins of the Christian religion began with the worship of a divine Being that in later legend became canonized in our Gospels as a historical man.  If Price is to effectively persuade the reader to take the Christ Myth Theory seriously, he must go into some depth on this pre-Christian worship of a heavenly being named Jesus.  Unfortunately, he did not touch this very important topic in his introduction.

If I have one criticism of the book so far, it is this oversight.  I do not think it is a shortcoming that can be easily ignored.

Next: Jesus at the Vanishing Point


Zoe said...

One thought. If the diety was a pre-Christian one, then would its name have been Jesus?

Dr. Barton said...

Zoe, the short answer would be, "Yes.". There are some reasons to believe that Jesus was more a title than the name of the historical figure that we think of a Jesus. Jesus (or Yeshua) is the aramaicized form of Yoshua (Joshua). The "Dead Sea Scrolls" provide a few hints that some (many?) Jews believed in two messiahs deriving from the time when Moses split his "power" between Joshua (as a military messiah) and Eleazar (as a priestly messiah). Thus, Jesus may have been the title for a messianic figure.

The reason that I go into that is that several scholars (including Margaret Barker) have argued that both Joshua and Jesus were actually based on the idea of Yahoweh manifesting on Earth while Moses / God was his father El. Thus, even within Judaism, there is a precedent for a pre-christian deity named "Jesus".

In addition, there were a number of what seem to be historical figures from about 100 BCE to 100 CE going by the name of Jesus from whom historical details of an earthly life might have been borrowed.

Dave Mack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Mack said...

Dr. Barton, call me curious. Are you the same "Dr. Barton" I have heard submit interesting questions and speculation on Dr. Price's podcasts?...and might you be this blog's author? Okay, I am just plain nosey but enjoying the postings anyway. :-)

HeIsSailing said...

Dr. Barton - thank you for you help answering that question from ZOE. I admit I am interested in some of this stuff, but I am waayy out of my comfort zone when we start talking 'Christ Myth'. But your comment makes me wonder about the picture of Jesus from the book of Revelation. I know a lot of that book is just re-writen from the book of Daniel, but I also have to wonder how much of the conquering Jesus figure from Revelation was inspired by the book of Joshua? Any ideas there?

HeIsSailing said...

Dave Mack, I am the author of this blog, not Dr. Barton. My internet handles is HeIsSailing.

Dr. Barton said...

HelsSailing - What I know of Jesus is materials that I've pieced together from various places with no real structure. Honestly, I've never seen mention of a Jesus / Joshua connection in "Revelation" before. It actually makes some sense that some Early Christians envisioned Jesus, Joshua, and Yahoweh as the same being (in some mystic sense).

What I generally think of with Jesus in "Revelation" is Jesus as the Celestial Christ. As such, he easily substitutes for Yahoweh as the agent of the father god, El.

At least one scholar (and I really wish I could remember who) from the early part of the 20th Century made a very good argument that Joshua was Yahoweh and that his conquest of Israel was a celestial conquest rather than an earthly one (hence the reason why the Hebrews, after Joshua's "death" had to re-conquer all the cities that Joshua had already conquered). Given that, I would say that "John of Patmos" may well have been thinking of Joshua when he was writing "Revelation". What a great idea to explore even if it doesn't work out.

Zoe said...

Thank you for the input Dr. Barton. :)

Dave Mack said...

HeIsSailing, thanks for the clarification. I am enjoying both your blog and Dr. Barton's comments. For the record, I tend to lean toward the "mythicist" position as suggested by Earl Doherty's Jesus Puzzle and expanded upon in Dr. Richard Carrier's On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Admittedly, however, it is all a matter of speculation, insufficient evidence, and how one assesses probabilities. You did mention my favorite quote of Dr. Price that I cite often as well: "If Jesus existed, he is forever lost to us behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth". This pretty much sums it up for me. :-)