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The Gospels as Myths

In providing background to how I began to understand the Bible once I realized that it was not an inerrant revelation from God, I have been giving a kind of history of scholarship on the Gospels, explaining how it was that, before the Enlightenment, virtually everyone understood the Gospels to be Supernatural Histories, and that during the Enlightenment there were scholars who maintained they were Natural Histories.  Now I can complete this short survey by talking about a significant development, one of the most significant in the history of the entire discipline of New Testament studies, in which the Gospels came to be understood as Myths.   Let me stress that I am not saying that everyone started accepting this new view or, more germane to this series of posts, that I agree with this view as I’m presenting it: I’m simply indicating what happened in the field of New Testament studies.  Later I’ll explain its relevance for my views.  This, again, is taken from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

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The Gospels As Myths

Prior to the 1830s, just about everyone understood the Gospels as either supernatural histories or natural histories.  All that was to change in 1835-36 with the earthshattering publication of a two-volume book called The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (the German title was Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet) by the famous German theologian David Friedrich Strauss.  This was an amazing book: nearly 1500 pages of detailed and meticulous argumentation involving every story in the Gospels.  It completely stood the field on its head: a remarkable feat, considering that the author was only 27 years old.   (Its English translation was done by none other than Mary Ann Evans — a.k.a. the novelist George Eliot – herself at a ripe young age of 26.  This was before she teamed up, so to say, with George Lewes and started her own writing career, which was no less brilliant than Strauss’s, though markedly less germane to the subject at hand!).

Strauss disagreed with both of the prevailing ways of understanding the Gospels in his time.  On the one hand, he agreed …

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True Stories that Didn’t Happen
The Gospels as Natural Histories

73

Comments

  1. RonaldTaska  May 24, 2017

    Schweitzer in his classic “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” devotes 3 very important early chapters to Strauss, but I did not realize that Strauss was so young when he wrote his book or that George Eliot translated it. Both are interesting points.

    My first question is that there are some Bible myths, such as the Old Testament story of the woman being assaulted and then cut up and her parts distributed, that seem to convey no truth. How do such Bible myths fit into the idea that they are supposed to convey a truth? I guess it must be a truth I just don’t get yet.

    Is there a difference between a myth, a story, and a legend?

    I guess this myth theory also implies that the authors or the originators of the myths knew that these myths were not about actual historical events and constructed them to illustrate truths. This strikes me as problematic to the myth theory. I guess one could imply that the myth development was a cultural event, not an author trying to illustrate a point, but this explanation gets complicated fast although there is a lot of psychoanalytic literature about myths arising from common human conflicts and issues.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      Yes, I would say some stories are not palatable and meaningful to readers today, even though they were meaningful at one time. Judges 19 (the man who chops up his concubine): the point is that the tribe of Benjamin nearly became extinct because of it’s sin, as the rest of Israel rallied against it. Both myths and legends are kinds of stories. The former involve figures or powers from the divine realm (as I’m using it in this context) the latter with figures that were or theoretically could be real historical figures and their activities.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  May 26, 2017

      The Judges story of the Priest who cuts up his mistress is a textbook example of an etiological myth. Etiological myths are simply origin myths, meant to explain why things are the way they are now via some legendary tale. They fill in gaps in historical knowledge with a plausible yet specious legend. This story is one such example. The purpose of the story is to explain why the tribe of Benjamin in particular was so small and occupied such a small bit of land — sandwiched between Judah and Ephraim as it was. The reason given by the Judges story is that the other tribes went to war against Benjamin, the defilement of the mistress being the casus belli, nearly wiping out the entire tribe. And that’s why the tribe of Benjamin was supposedly still so small in the days the legend was created. (In all likelihood, it probably had more to do with the geography of the hill country.)

      In fact, pretty much the majority of the Bible’s historical accounts before, say, Saul and David, is made up almost entirely of etiological myths and legends. The story of the Tower of Babel is meant to explain why not every nation speaks the same language. The story of Noah and the flood is meant to explain why the nations known to the Bible authors (roughly the western Mediterrean, Middle East and North Africa) could be divided into three main families of languages and cultures — Semitic (Middle East), Hamitic (North African) and Japhetic (European). It also explains why sea creature fossils were found on the tops of mountains (because of the great flood).

      Most importantly, the entire patriarchal narrative, from Abraham to the twelve sons of Jacob, is simply an etiological myth meant to explain: 1) Where the twelve tribes of Israel came from, 2) The affinities and differences between certain tribes (because some are the sons of Rachel, some Leah, some Bilhah, some Zilpah), 3) Why the Israelites share a similar culture and language with the Edomites (because they’re cousins through Esau), 4) Why the Moabites and Ammonites speak a similar language to the Israelites (because Lot was Abraham’s nephew), 5) Why the Arabs share some customs with the Israelites (because they are cousins via Ishmael), and so on and so forth. These were all legends created to explain away these mysteries.

  2. nbraith1975  May 24, 2017

    What’s absurd is a discussion about whether a miracle can happen using natural laws in both your supernatural and natural arguments.

    If one believes there is a creator God then it is not so hard to believe that said God can manipulate natural laws, matter and life itself. In which case, the creator God can make a rock float, turn water into wine, heal any sickness or deformity and restore life to what has naturally died.

    The whole idea of a miracle is that it can’t be explained using natural laws.

    It’s quite obvious that those who don’t believe in miracles think that those who do are idiotic in their thinking and reasoning. It then seems folly for them to use natural law explanations to try and change the minds of those who believe in a creator God who is “behind” all miracles.

    • SidDhartha1953  May 30, 2017

      Good point. All these critical studies are addressed, intentionally or not, to those of us who are unsatisfied by appeals to a creator who, for reasons we can only guess at, arbitrarily suspends or violates the laws of physics, usually at times or places where no one now living can verify that it happened. But it is a good point.

  3. jhague  May 24, 2017

    I know you explained the term “myth” but I think that term will never work well for trying to explain to Christians that these stories such as Jesus and Peter walking on water did not happen but the story is about a truth that did not happen. The Christians that I know will only accept that if the Bible says it, then it truly happened. I used to think that way but through a journey of opening my mind to other books to read and study, I no longer believe that the “myth” stories of the Bible actually happened. Hopefully, there will be way some day to have a discussion with the “everyday” Christians that do not look beyond what they read in the Bible and what their minister tells them at church. A big problem is that ministers and pastors of churches, many who know the things that you and other scholars write about, do not share any of this information with their church members. In fact, most pastors warn the church members to not be led astray by this information.

  4. Wilusa  May 24, 2017

    Um – I can’t see why Gospel stories have to be *any* of these three things! How about a simple “it never happened – and stories like these have been made up about other ‘divine’ characters who were completely fictional”? (I know that’s the case about the miraculous feeding of crowds…by a minor Roman goddess.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      Yup, that’s another option! But the scholars I’ve been talking about are ones who think there is some kind of truth in the Bible, and they’re trying to figure out how that could be.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  May 24, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, from my attempt at reconstructing the historical Jesus for my Jesus novel, I’ve arrived at what you might call a fourth theory, one that I have borrowed from science: the Gospels as Epicycles.

    If you will indulge me in a short history of science, I think you may come to appreciate the concept of epicycles in the context of reconstructing historical accounts. As we all learned in school, for thousands of years it was assumed that the earth was the center of the universe, that it was fixed in space and the stars and planets revolved around it — the so-called geocentric universe. Even the wisest, most learned men of history simply assumed this to be fact. And then, in the 15th century, Copernicus hypothesized a universe where the earth was no long the center, but that everything in the “heavens” was actually revolving around the sun, the earth included. Not just that, but the earth itself was spinning as it traveled around the sun — the so-called heliocentric universe.

    So here’s the thing. From our perspective on earth, it just seems obvious that the geocentric model made more sense. When you looked up at the sky, it looked like the heavens were moving, and it “felt” like we were standing still. So why would Copernicus bother theorizing a different model, and, more importantly, why did scientists take to it? The simple answer is that Copernicus’ model was much simpler. The heliocentric model did not require “epicycles”.

    Okay, so what’s an epicycle? Well, when ancient astronomers looked up at the night sky, they noticed that the planets behaved rather oddly. For example, Mars didn’t move across the sky at a constant speed, and at times it would even appear to move backwards! (This is what astrologists mean when they say “Mars is in retrograde”.) So how did ancient astronomers explain such strange motions? They theorized that the planets weren’t just revolting around the earth, but they were also revolting around point on their path, creating the appearance of slowing down and speeding up, moving forward and moving backwards. This circle inside a circle is what they called an epicycle. By the time the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy created his foundational work on the motion of the heavenly bodies — The Almagest, as the Arabs called it — there were dozens of theorized epicycles used to make the motions of the heavenly bodies fit a geocentric model. The epicycle was a clever work around for a model of the universe that clearly wasn’t true. When Copernicus came along and proposed the heliocentric model, all those epicycles were no longer needed to explain the odd motions of the planets. In the heliocentric model, all the planets moved in much more simple elliptical paths around the sun. So the epicycles went the way of the dinosaurs.

    The reason I’ve taken this much time explaining a rather arcane matter of scientific history is that, in the scientific community, epicycles have become synonymous with the futile, procrustean attempt at making a faulty model work by adding more and more extraneous details. It’s the exact opposite of scientific parsimony! Otherwise known as Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is the most likely true.

    So here’s how I apply this concept to analyzing and categorizing the Gospels. First, why apply epicycles? Well, it’s because you have started off with an incorrect assumption. In the case of the actual epicycles, the assumption was that the earth was at the center and everything revolved around it. Once you’ve boxed yourself into that conceptual corner, you have no choice but to bring in the epicycles. In the case of the Gospels, there were at least three major assumptions: Judgment Day is coming; The Messiah was the harbinger of Judgment Day; to be saved on Judgment Day you best be on the side of the Messiah.

    At no point were any of these three “facts” questioned. All apocalytpic Jews (Pharisees and Essenes) believed this. It was taken as a given. For the first Christians — both Jew and gentile — these three assumptions became the bedrock of their entire faith. However, those people who began with these three assumptions were stuck in a bind (just as those who assumed the earth was the center of the universe were stuck in a bind): these assumptions were simply not true. There’s no such thing as Judgment Day. There’s no such thing as the Messiah. So, clearly, being on the Messiah’s side on Judgment Day is meaningless. So how did the believers prop up these three misassumptions about the world? Yes, they began to add epicycles to hold the Messianic Age model together. Hence why the history of the New Testament — and, indeed, the entire history of Jewish and Christian apologetics — is a history of the slow accretion of epicycles to support a faulty view of the world.

    So why does it state in the Gospels that Jesus walked on water? Because if Jesus really did have a hotline to God, then we would expect God to have bestowed some exceptional powers on Jesus. Ergo, one of those powers is the power to control the natural world, like walking on water or calming a storm or raining fire down on people. And why would God give Jesus these powers? Because Jesus is the Messiah. And why would Jesus need to be the Messiah? Because God would send the Messiah as a harbinger of the eschaton. And why would God send the Messiah as harbinger of the eschaton? So he could prepare the world for Judgment Day. Epicycles piled atop epicycles, all to square the circle that is the assumption of Judgment Day. One faulty model of the world leading to a complex, convoluted attempt at fitting that faulty model to reality.

    That’s why the Gospels exist.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  May 25, 2017

      Just ran across this quote and thought it was apropos to my previous comment.

      And Trypho said, “You seem to me to have come out of a great conflict with
      many persons about all the points we have been searching into, and therefore
      quite ready to return answers to all questions put to you.” — Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho

    • SidDhartha1953  May 30, 2017

      Occam’s razor may be a scholarly-scientific epicycle to work around a point succinctly made by Neil deGrasse Tyson, that the universe is under no obligation to make sense to us. Some astrophysicist or cosmologist, I can’t remember who now, said that the ptolemaic model isn’t necessarily wrong, it fails because we haven’t added enough epicycles and we don’t know how many would be required to make it work. Parsimony and elegance are simplifying assumptions of the rational-scientific paradigm. They are not self-evident truths.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 30, 2017

        Parsimony may not be an absolute fact of nature, but it is a conveniently consistent one.

  6. mannix  May 24, 2017

    Could other examples be Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy? A jolly old elf really doesn’t travel down the chimney and leave gifts after eating cookies and milk; a large lagomorph doesn’t really leave colored eggs and candy, and a Tinkerbelle-like entity doesn’t leave a $2 for every tooth under the pillow (a lousy DIME when I was a kid). Yet on Xmas day presents appear under the tree, the cookies are only residual crumbs; on Easter morning the eggs and candy are on the kitchen table, and edentulous kids wake up to money under the pillow. There’s no mythical trio, but the outcomes are real!

    • turbopro  May 26, 2017

      “You lucky bastard!”

      All I got was a nickel when I was a kid.

  7. Wilusa  May 24, 2017

    But I think the authors of the Gospels believed everything they wrote. They had read or heard – possibly, at many removes – stories others had made up. I think that for the Gospel authors themselves, all the stories would have been in the “Supernatural History” category.

    Anyone with a good imagination can read “meanings” into a text that the author never intended!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      I’m afraid we have no access to what an author intended (even modern authors we can interview!). Thinking that an author’s intentions dictate the meaning of a text has, since the mid-20th century, been called “the intentional fallacy” (by literary critics) (i.e., not biblical scholars)

      • SidDhartha1953  May 30, 2017

        But you have stated elsewhere that you think the authors and their intended audience believed the events they narrated actually happened. Is that why you qualified your explanation of Strauss’s theory of myth, that it’s not necessarily what you are claiming is the best explanation of the problem stories?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 30, 2017

          My view is that we don’t know really what an author thinks, only what he writes. Any claim about what s/he thinks is guesswork. But even if an author thinks a narrative about Jesus is accurate, s/he is almost certainly telling it not to give a history lesson about first-century Palestine, but in order ot make a *point* about Jesus that s/he wants to make.

          • tompicard
            tompicard  June 4, 2017

            Dr Ehrman,

            In writing
            “that we don’t know really what an author thinks, only what he writes. Any claim about what s/he thinks is guesswork”
            Is that consistent with your your statement previous on this blog ( https://ehrmanblog.org/me-and-jesus/ ) that “But Jesus’ entire ethics were completely predicated on the coming kingdom of God.” ?
            Aren’t you making assumptions of Jesus’ intentions for preaching the ethics he did?

            We both accept that Jesus preached
            a) certain ethics, and
            b) the imminent coming of the Kingdom
            But that does NOT imply that the ethical teaching are dependent on the coming Kingdom teaching or vice versa. there may not be a causal relation at all between the two. Unless you present a saying by Jesus that clearly indicates one teaching is subordinate to and dependent upon the other. If so, I would like to know it.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 5, 2017

            My statement was not about what was going on in Jesus’ head, but about how the ethics are justified and explained in the context of his actual teachings. Big dif!

  8. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 24, 2017

    I see the miracle stories as legends because they were believed to be true but can’t be proven.

  9. Jason  May 24, 2017

    1)Was Strauss’s understanding of what a myth is the same as what Metzger meant when he asked why should God not inspire myths?
    2)Does it strike you that a mythical understanding of the scriptures in the sense of either Strauss or Metzger here intentionally denies, ignores or diminishes the importance of the recognition that the scriptural stories were oral traditions for between a number of decades to more than a century before the autographs were created?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      1. I think Metzger simply meant something like a fictional story that involves a divine being doing something here on earth. 2. I think myths can (and usually were) circulated orally as well as in writing.

  10. turbopro  May 24, 2017

    “… a myth is a history-like story that is meant to convey a religious truth.”

    Thanks for this definition prof. Now, given that I am somewhat skeptical, I believe the above statement perhaps leads me to ask please: what is “a religious truth?”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      It is an idea about religion (however one defines that) which a person takes to be true.

  11. dwcriswell  May 24, 2017

    I have wondered this for a long time concerning whether some of the life of Jesus is mythical..I have no problem with Jesus being an apocalyptic prophet but the stories of his teachings concerning human values and life seem just too good to be true. What is the chance the writers of the gospel painted the picture of the ideal human, the person all of us would like to be but none of us can become, and that Jesus was a much less perfect individual being little different than John the Baptist and other prophets of the time?

    Its easier to write an ideal life than to live one.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      My sense is that they did see Jesus this way, and they shaped their stories to reflect their views. Not that there was no man Jesus, but that he has been idealized in the stories told about him.

  12. epicurus
    epicurus  May 24, 2017

    Should Christians who read the Gospels this way also read the stories of the Koran and Book of Mormon as myth in the same way – something that happens? Because if they ditch the infallibility and inerrancy ideas, how do they know their Gospels are messages from God but the Koran and BOM are not?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      I wouldn’t say that anyone *should* read the stories as truths; I’m only saying that some people do so.

  13. godspell  May 24, 2017

    Right.

    But when they tell stories about Jesus talking to people, telling parables, performing faith healings (whether anyone was truly healed or not), confronting Jewish authorities he believes are misleading the people about the proper way to practice their shared faith, and ultimately putting himself in a situation where he will be arrested, interrogated, and put to death by Pilate (a man whose existence we had basically no tangible evidence of until that inscription was found)–that’s history. Not very good history, by modern standards. But by the standards of the time, not so bad, either.

    Even Aristotle, the father of modern science, wrote about fabulist fables he’d read and heard about (that he himself had not witnessed) as if they were real, or at least possible. Though if he had come across evidence they were mere stories, he’d have changed his opinions. The difference about the Gospels is that they are testaments of faith, not philosophical inquiries, so the stories told, factual or not, are approached in an unquestioning manner (even as their authors play with the facts, add to the story, to create a more effective tool to unify the faithful and add to their ranks.)

    Plutarch might write about Romulus and Remus, he might mention the story about their divine parentage and their lupine foster mother as if they were possibilities, but you can sense an underlying skepticism–that he never makes too explicit and confrontational, because myths were just as important to pagan Romans as they were to Jews and Christians–they were the foundation of the Roman state. Highly educated Christians, like Origen, would often express similar skepticism about certain Christian myths being literally true. There were always different types and levels of believing, but basically everyone believed.

    Myths are important now–important even in the history of science. People still tell the story of Darwin’s Finches–how that was the way Darwin discovered evolution. The facts? People knew about evolution long before Darwin, and the finches, while an important discovery, did not lead directly to the theory of Natural Selection (which Alfred Russel Wallace figured out independently, so we didn’t even need Darwin–it was going to be discovered eventually, and it was just a matter of who got there first). Evolution is real, though the precise way it functions remains an open question. But the popular story of how it was discovered is a myth, concocted because the real story requires much more explanation. Most of the photos we see of Darwin are of him as a venerable old whitebeard, even though he was a much younger man when he did the work we remember him for.

    Myths are everywhere–they pervade all cultures, and they pervade the popular understanding of modern history. You debunk one myth, another rises in its place–like the Hydra.

    But without looking at parts of the gospel as mythical (which for a long period of time would have been enough to get you in very serious trouble with the authorities), it’s impossible to understand why the stories are told the way they are. Even while understanding that many of these stories really did happen, and are a honest attempt to record past events–and to reshape them, for devotional purposes. Which everyone was doing at that time. And many still are.

  14. John1003  May 25, 2017

    I don’t think the issue is whether Jesus had the ability to change the natural Laws but God the Father can. If Jesus is God than anything he wills to happen God the Father will accomplish for him. God created the Laws of nature so why can’t be bend it to his needs at will. If strauss wants to doubt the historicity of the miracles on some other basis then it may be so. To say though that Jesus is human so miracles didnt happen doesn’t seem compelling to me. when God stands outside of history and time able to do whatever he chooses. Am I slso suppose to assume God does not exist. Do the Gospels say that the magic of the miracles came from Jesus. I can’t think of a passage where the source of the power of the miracles are even discussed. The Gospels do suggest that Jesus is totally dependent on God the Father. It doesn’t seem like a big stretch to believe that Jesus is relying on God the Father to actually do the miracles that Jesus wills. What am I missing ?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      Yes, that’s a theology that many people have.

    • SidDhartha1953  May 30, 2017

      But what does it mean to say Jesus was fully human if the inherent limitations of humanness could be waived any time they were deemed inconvenient? That’s what I get that Strauss was trying to account for. Strauss’s book, by the way, can be had in Kindle format for 99¢. Too good a deal for me to refuse!

  15. jrhislb  May 25, 2017

    By “history”, do you mean that it must actually have happened? Because surely there were people who did not think all the stories in the Gospels were describing real events before Strauss. (Non-Christians to begin with.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      My sense is that some (not many) people thought that there were non-historical accounts in the Bible. (E.g. Hermann Reimarus) But it was a rare view among Christians (or people in Christian settings)

  16. JamesFouassier  May 25, 2017

    Professor, while we may understand this to be “myth”, what of the intentions of the gospel authors? Did they intend to write “myth” in order to convey some spiritual, philosophical or esoteric truth or meaning? Or did they think that they were reporting historical facts (natural or supernatural regardless)? Or did they mix what they thought was historical with what they knew to be “myth” (either traditions with which they were familiar or stories they spun out of whole cloth) in order to convey a particular message? And if they intentionally created “myth” or embellished some historical datum with made-up traditions, sayings and other non-historical material, what were they trying to accomplish that they couldn’t achieve with more straightforward presentations? Sure, tell a nice story, but then go ahead and explain the meaning in a way that eliminates speculation and makes a point directly and succinctly.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      I don’t think there’s anyway to know their internal mental processes (what they “intended”). No one can even guess what I myself am intending as I write these words — and I’m here for anyone to ask! (And even if I answer I may not be telling the truth, or may not remember correctly what I was thinking at the time, or am being true to myself, etc.!)

  17. tenderwood19  May 25, 2017

    Bart, I’m a big fan and enjoy this blog and watching your videos. I would appreciate some guidance. I’m writing my second novel. The setting is Boaz, AL ( my hometown). Yes, it was named after the Biblical Boaz. I need to contend the story (found in the book of Ruth) is not historical, but mythical ( after reading this post I hope I’m using the term properly). I need to know if I’m correct. I realize you are a NT scholar and might not want to address my question. If so, do you know an OT scholar I might contact? Thanks and I hope to meet you in person someday.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      The book of Ruth is almost certainly legendary, not a historical account.

  18. mjt  May 26, 2017

    So, if I take they gospels as myths, what about the mundane stories, that don’t require supernatural explanations? Jesus went to such and such city, and stayed there for a couple of days. Would someone who views the gospels as myths just take this story at face value?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      Yes, those would simply be stories that either happened or not.

  19. llamensdor  May 26, 2017

    Not being as brilliant as David Friedrich Strauss or Bart Ehrman, but being a pretty good novelist, I call it historical fiction. In other words, some of the gospel narrative is an historical rendering of actual persons and events, but in some cases the characters and events have been embellished and enhanced and re-imagined, and in other cases, characters and events have been invented and inserted in the narrative. Comparing Jesus to Zeus is dangerous, because Zeus never existed and Jesus did. The concept of myth is wrong in the case of Jesus if it implies a complete invention of the characters and the actions

    • godspell  May 26, 2017

      You can compare anything to anything–for all we know, there were real-life figures who contributed to the myth of Zeus–because the versions of stories about him that we have are so far from the source, it’s impossible to form any real opinion on that, or on Abraham and Moses, who aren’t even supposed to be gods (and yet have certain godlike attributes).

      What’s different about Jesus is that we have accounts of him that were written down in the decades following his death. We also have accounts of him from people who were not Christians, and had no vested interest in creating any myths to support his divinity, which they never believed in.

      But if we didn’t have the letters of Paul, or the gospels, or Josephus, or Tacitus–and all of those accounts could easily have been lost–and if the cult had still somehow prospered, and continued for centuries–then we’d have no way to know Jesus really existed.

      As we still don’t know King Arthur existed, since no records of his kingship survive–though there’s reason to believe some version of him did exist, Britain in the period that followed the end of Roman rule there simply wasn’t good at preserving records of its history. Arthur is a myth, even if he really did live, and rule the Britons, and fight the Saxons. As to the Holy Grail, I refer you to Monty Python.

      Jesus is both a mythical figure and an historical one, and for that matter, so are Washington and Lincoln. So are Reagan and Obama. I’d call Trump more of a bad dream, and seriously, who in future generations is going to believe that really happened?

    • turbopro  May 26, 2017

      >> Comparing Jesus to Zeus is dangerous, because Zeus never existed and Jesus did.

      If I may beg your indulgence please: I am curious as to why it is dangerous to compare Zeus and Jesus?

      Also, your explanatory phrase makes the assertion that “… Zeus never existed and Jesus did [exist].” I have no idea if either of Zeus or Jesus existed, and more or less, I’m apathetic about it, and, I do not intend here to gainsay your assertion. Nonetheless, I have friends who pray to Zeus regularly: for my friends, Zeus not only exists, he always existed. Thanks.

      • SidDhartha1953  May 30, 2017

        To turbopro: I’m not being snide, I’m genuinely curious. To your knowledge, is there any organized “cult of Zeus” (or of any other ancient “mythical gods who never existed”? I’ve often wondered how it came about that everyone simply stopped believing in their gods.

        • godspell  May 30, 2017

          In pretty nearly all cases, it’s because they found other gods to worship. The Greeks and Romans became Christians. Many of their ideas were absorbed into the new religion.

          Atheism has its own gods, whether it chooses to admit that’s what they are or not. Science can be worshiped, but that invariably leads to bad science–just as treating religion as if it were fact-based invariably leads to bad religion. Separate realms. You can value both, but you have to know where one leaves off and the other begins.

          Basically, I’m suspicious of anybody who announces his non-belief in something but affixing the suffix ‘ism’ onto it. If you just don’t believe in something, you can simply say that. There’s no need to form a club, which only leads to new dogmas, new orthodoxies. I always wonder whatever happened to calling yourself a Freethinker. “I’m free to think what I want.” But then again, so’s everybody.

          It’s not dangerous to compare Jesus and Zeus, it’s simply misleading, inaccurate. Zeus isn’t a good pagan analogue for Jesus. Jesus would be more analogous to a demi-god fathered by Zeus, such as Hercules or Perseus. And while none of them may have existed, no doubt at all that there were real flesh and blood heroes who inspired their legends. Achilles and Odysseus may not have existed, but we know now that Troy was very real.

        • turbopro  May 31, 2017

          Indeed, as I stated, I have friends who pray to Zeus. And from what they intimated to me, this worship of Zeus never ceased. It may have gone underground, but it persisted.

          See this BBC article –> http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22972610

          As we may surmise, people ceased to believe in gods for all kinds of reasons. For me personally, the various concepts of gods are incoherent–especially so the gods of the organised religions. Take the philosopher’s god, the omni-*-god: how does such a being exist? And ‘being exist’ is a tautology.

          In Mark Smith’s. “The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel,” one may gain a measure of understanding of the history of gods in the Ancient Near East.

  20. joncopeland  May 26, 2017

    I tend to view Matthew and Luke as improvements on the Markan myth, in which the authors, in different contexts, convey different religious truths from a common text. Would it be fair to say that John is improving or even, (further) mythologizing, on the Synoptics? Does John know the Synoptics or even Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      My view is that John did not know the Synoptics. If he did, he certainly doesn’t quote them or give any clear evidence that he knew them (e.g., in verbatim agreements in stories he shares with them).

  21. James Chalmers  May 26, 2017

    It may be that what an author says she’s stuck with, and can’t wiggle out of it by saying “but I intended something else.” And it may be that the reader in interpreting a text should confine themselves to what it says, and not go behind it to explore, on the basis of biographical or historical information, what the author intended. But still, Beardsley and Wimsatt were mistaken if they meant to say one can’t make sound inferences from a text as to what an author’s intentions in writing it were. For instance, one of my intentions is to suggest that the intentional fallacy view was in its heyday taken too far.

  22. James Cotter  May 26, 2017

    why is jesus teaching the following prayer
    ” thy kingdom come . thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”

    is this contradicted by the gospel of john which says, ” my kingdom is not of this world…” ?

    the historical jesus seems to be wanting the kingdom of god here on earth.

    john seems to be saying that it is not of this world

    • James Cotter  May 27, 2017

      when a first century jew says “thy kingdom come…” is the implication
      the theocratic EARTHLY kingdom based on torah law?

      my confusion is that john seems to be taking the kingdom to another location, but jesus seems to be praying for it to come to earth.

      • James Cotter  May 28, 2017

        jesus tells pilate that his kingdom is not “of this world” he said his followers would fight …(strange thing to say if one of his followers clipped an ear)
        but we know that in ot times, god establishes his kingdom on earth, he fights through his children.
        he used the words “to save”
        “saviour”
        “salvation”
        “saving ” all in the sense of fighting to save from danger.
        is john really a marcionite christian influenced by marcions ideas?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2017

          No, John was writing half a century before Marcion began propagating his teaching, and nothing indicates that Marcion was familiar with John’s Gospel

      • Bart
        Bart  May 28, 2017

        Yes, it appears to mean an earthly kingdom. ANd no, John would not have been happy with that view.

        • Eskil  May 28, 2017

          Based on the wikipedia the line “Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven” apparently has been added some times later into bible?

          Critical version of lord prayer (Luke 11:2-4) being: “Father, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, For we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not lead us into temptation.”

          Actually all the references to heaven are missing as well.

          Bart, you have been saying that the variants do not have major impact on Christian faith? Isn’t this at least a borderline case? I do not remember you mentioning lord prayer variant in your books.

          Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_major_textual_variants_in_the_New_Testament

          • Bart
            Bart  May 29, 2017

            I think you misunderstood what I was saying about the theological impact of variants: I’ll try to clarify by adding this to the mailbag.

          • Eskil  May 29, 2017

            Thanks, that will be very interesting! I’ll be waiting for it.

            These additions to the lord’s prayer seems as someone had wanted to insert Plato’s concept of heaven (and hell) as well as hermetic maxim “as above so below” into Jesus mouth. It would be interesting to know when did these additions appear into the manuscripts.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      Yes, you’ll note that John does not have the prayer. The prayer is thoroughly apocalyptic, and John has de-apocalypticized his traditions about Jesus.

  23. Eskil  May 28, 2017

    Jesus’ own teaching method was based on parables and myths. His disciples surely would have continued the same tradition especially if they thought that it was a teaching method of the god. It s bitty that no one says to Jesus in NT for example that if the story about the prodigal son is not natural history, they cannot not believe him but Jesus would most just have replied with yet another parable or myth. It is an odd twist in NT and in Christianity that we should expect Jesus’ followers to only write hard facts when their founder Jesus never did.

  24. jdub3125  May 28, 2017

    Priofessor, are the NT parables always labeled as such by the author(s)? I had a thought that perhaps some miracle stories were actually spoken as parables. In such cases the stories served as teaching lessons and in no way were intended to be historical.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2017

      No, not always. In fact, not usually.

      • SidDhartha1953  May 30, 2017

        A classic example is Lazarus and the Rich Man. It reads like a parable, but because one of the two main characters is named (Abraham is named, too, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone from the standpoint of it being a parable or not) and the text doesn’t begin with the standard, “Jesus told a parable…” fundamentalist preachers will insist it really happened and Jesus knew it happened because, well, he was Jesus.

  25. Ardy  May 28, 2017

    It seems clear that some myths have been incorporated into the gospel. But I have yet to see a direct explication of WHY/HOW these myths made their way into the gospels.

    In my view the early Christians were engulfed in a culture with aN ABUNDANCE of different cults, myths, and superstitions. These alternate beliefs have been detailed by the proponents of mythicism .

    If there was a historical jesus, then his adherents would find themselves competing against these cults making spectacular supernatural claims. , the historical jesus that dr ehrman proposes would pale in comparison to the various competitive myth based cults. IMO Christianity would have died out if it had remained as simply a cult of an apocalyptic preacher who was killed by the romans

    So for me it seems likely that myths would need to have been incorporated into the gospel as competitive marketing devices. For example … your guy was Devine , our guy was divine too. Your guy was raised from the dead, our guy was raised from the dead too. You have a virgin birth, we have a virgin birth. Your guy worked miracles, our guy did even better miracles.

    • jdub3125  May 29, 2017

      Ardy, your viewpoint makes sense. An example is virgin birth, if not the entire birth narrative, which is obvious added fiction, was not a basis for the Twelve to become disciples, and does not contribute anything to the teachings of Jesus as to how his followers should live.

  26. petegoodlion  May 29, 2017

    What is your definition of the difference between a myth and a parable? Do you think the gospel writers used parables to describe Jesus and his teachings mixed in with historical information when needed?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 30, 2017

      There may be a fine line between them, but parables are usually generalized stories (“there was a farmer who….”) and a myth (and a legend) are about concrete historical (or supernatural) figures (“One day Apollonius of Tyana” “And then Zeus decided” etc.)

      • godspell  May 30, 2017

        Hmm. Does this mean all those stories about the Priest, the Minister and the Rabbi are parables? How about the Farmer’s Daughter? Sadly, I’m pretty sure she’s a myth. 🙂

  27. anthonygale  June 3, 2017

    Is there evidence dating around the time the gospels were written to support Strauss’ conclusion? There is no doubt that myths are an ancient genre. Every school child knows of myths from ancient Greece, but I think that most people (lay people at least) think the ancients literally believed these stories (whether that is true or not). Is there evidence from the ancient world indicating that these stories were written with the understanding that they weren’t meant to be taken literally and that most people in fact didn’t take them literally? If so, is there evidence that these types of stories were still being written in the first century and for a Jewish or Christian audience? Given that the gospels were written anonymously, I think it’s hard to say what an unknown person writing from an unknown place (at an approximate time) intended. But if there are ancient writings explicitly discussing the continued practice of writing the genre Strauss suggests, the theory seems more plausible.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2017

      Most of the highly educated Greeks and Romans did not think their myths were accurate desriptions of what really happened. They were rockin’ good stories told, that might have deeper truths. It’s impossible to say what the non-educated folk thought, though.

  28. Benevolent  September 26, 2017

    This personal revelation is what made me interested in Gnosticism. It’s kind of the natural next step when you see the Bible as mythology.

    Probably the biggest deterrant to this understanding would be viewing the Bible as a unified structure. It may have a unified mythology, but the books are different forms. The truths of Genesis are also in the Epistles (not to mention everywhere else….see Andrew Jukes ‘Types in Genesis’)….so then we’re the Epistles commenting on this mythology intentionally or unintentionally? Was Jesus the man’s words intentionally or unintentionally commenting on mythological truths existent in the Old Testament? Were other men doctoring these words to intentionally or unintentionally comment on mythological truths of the OT? Was the book of Revelation aware that it was harmonizing nearly all of Scriptures mythologically? Interestingly, Revelation is the most reflective of traditional mythology…and yet I know people personally who believe it’s speaking to a spiritual process as well as a future event.

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