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What If the Mythicists Were Right: Mailbag November 6, 2016

QUESTION:

It must be difficult going into these types of debates knowing that if Robert Price is actually right, your entire career would be pointless and irrelevant. I certainly don’t believe this, but it must have crossed your mind before?

 

RESPONSE:

This question arose from the debate I had a couple of weeks ago with Robert Price, on whether Jesus existed.  Price argued, as you know, that there never was a historical man Jesus, but that the earliest “Christians” believed in a cosmic Christ, a mythical figure who lived above in the heavenly realm who was crucified by demons in outer space.  This is the Christ attested, for example, he claimed, in Paul.  But later Christians invented a historical figure Jesus out of this Christ, and the Gospels portray this fictitious figure that was simply made up.  Jesus of Nazareth never existed.

And so this question is whether I really can’t entertain this view as an option since, if it were true, I wouldn’t have a career.  My career is based on the history of early Christianity – studying the historical Jesus, the beliefs of his earliest followers, the history and literature of Christianity afterward.  If Jesus didn’t exist, I’d have nothing to study, right?

Ha!  It’s a good question!  Doesn’t the practical implication of the Mythicist position make my scholarship pointless and for that reason it’s something I can’t really consider?

The answer, if I’m being as honest as I can, is …

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The answer, if I’m being as honest as I can, is no.  If the Mythicist position were true, and there never was a historical Jesus, it wouldn’t affect me personally in any radical way.  I would still have my day job.  And the nature of my research would not be very different at all.   That’s because of the historical importance of Christianity, independent of what you think about the historical Jesus.

There are still two billion people in the world who call themselves Christian.  They need (in my opinion) to know where their religion came from.  In my view, it ultimately goes back to a historical figure Jesus, a Jewish apocalyptic prophet from Galilee who proclaimed that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the forces of evil to set up a good kingdom on earth.   In the Mythicist view, it goes back to a celestial being who never lived on earth, a heavenly cosmic Christ worshiped as a sun God who was crucified by demons in outer space and was later transformed into a human being by imaginative believers (not in reality).  If the Mythicist view were right, that is what I would be teaching.  It would still be important to teach it (and obviously interesting!) given the importance of Christianity in our world, as the planet’s largest religion.

This view would also not affect my personal beliefs:  I’m not a believer in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead for the salvation of the world, so coming to think there never was a man Jesus would not affect my own religious perspective.  And it would not affect my sense of the importance of Christianity, either in the contemporary world or throughout history.  It would simply change what I teach.

What I teach now is that there are numerous non-historical features surrounding the traditions of the historical Jesus.  I do not think that the stories about Jesus being born of a virgin in Bethlehem stand up to historical scrutiny, as I’ve explained at length in this post before.  I do not think that the stories of Jesus as the great miracle worker who could walk on water, heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead capture who Jesus in history really was.  I do not think we have fully accurate accounts of Jesus’ life and the events surrounding his death.  As indicated, I do not think that the stories of the resurrection are historically credible.

So what difference to my teaching would the Mythicist position – should I come to accept it – make?  It would mean that I would merely teach a much more radical position, that the man never lived at all.  But it wouldn’t ruin, or even significantly change my career.   My career has almost no connection to the question of whether Jesus existed.  Instead of teaching an apocalyptic Jesus I would teach a mythical Jesus.

I know that many Mythicists wish that I would spend my entire career obsessing over whether Jesus existed or not (they keep wanting me to do debates, and respond to criticisms, and write more about it!).  But most of my academic work – both teaching and research/ writing – is on completely other issues: the interpretation of the writings of the NT (the literary interpretation of which does not depend on whether the person they refer to actually lived), the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the Apocryphal writings of early Christianity (i.e., the Gospels etc. that didn’t make it into the New Testament), the development of early Christian heresy and orthodoxy, the persecution and martyrdom of the early Christians, the Christianization of the Roman empire and hence of the Western world, the use of literary forgery in the early Christian movement, the study of scribes who were copying the books that eventually became the New Testament.

These are the things that I spend my time researching and teaching.  I spend almost no time focusing on the question of whether Jesus existed.  And whether he did or not has almost no bearing on any of these things that I do study.

So, in response to the question, no, I don’t really worry about the matter and don’t think that deciding that Jesus did not exist would have much of an impact on my research, teaching, beliefs, or daily life.  I don’t reject the Mythicist view because I can’t afford to do otherwise.  I reject it because I think it is very bad history.  And I believe in doing good history.  I think Jesus certainly existed, and instead of mounting massive and massively improbable arguments that he did not, Mythicists would be better off turning their time and energies to doing something more productive.

 


What Is Gnosticism? A Blast from the Past
Carrier and James the Brother of Jesus

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  November 7, 2016

    Please extend my condolences to your colleagues in the field of classicism, devoted to the study of Greek and Roman mythology, none of whom ever had jobs at all, since belief in those gods and heroes, even as supernatural beings, has been dead for millennia.

    I’m rolling my eyes now.

    I think the Jesus as Myth people are projecting their own insecurities onto you. The few of them who have ever made any kind of living by propagating bad history.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 7, 2016

    For the fun of it, I started to think about whether there was any way the Mythicists *could* actually be *proven* right. Here’s the only possibility I could come up with: if troves of previously unknown, but undoubtedly authentic, records turned up – records kept by *both* the Romans and the Sanhedrin – showing that crucifixion wasn’t used as a method of execution in Palestine in that era. *Not one* crucifixion, anywhere in the province, while Pontius Pilate was Prefect!

    For some reason, I doubt those troves of records will turn up any time soon…

  3. Epicurus13
    Epicurus13  November 7, 2016

    I don’t know if anyone has already brought this up on the blog, but it seems Richard Carrier has already responded to one of your responses. That being “James the brother of the Lord” I can definitely see how, like you said this could turn into an endless cycle of responses. I’ll put up the link in case anyone is interested. I think its funny like someone else said, I think you do drive Carrier bananas. Oh, on another topic, I talked the librarians at my local library to buy “The Orthodox Corruptions of Scripture” for the selves and have to say I love this book. I’m on the last few pages and as soon as I’m done I’m rereading it. Our little library now has like 7 of your books. http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/11516

    Thanks for all you do Professor Ehrman

  4. Avatar
    Eric  November 8, 2016

    I think the “outer space” connotation for moderns readers/listeners comes across as a little too sarcastic, Bart. It subtly equates the model mythicists have for early Christianity with the Hale-Bopp Heavens Gate crowd.

    As shredded as their model may be under your scrutiny, the cosmological idea of celestial spheres is not quite like the Apollo Program nor Scientology’s “Battlefield Earth”.

    Dante’s “Paradisio”, much more recent than the period the Mythicists speak of, assumes a sublunary, lunary, etc Cosmology that would be analogous to the Cosmology Mythicists attribute to Paul (and mind you, Paul and his contemporaries may very well have held such a cosmology, without believing in a Celestial Crucifixion.)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2016

      I actually never used the term “outer space” to refer to Mythicists’ views until I saw that they themselves did so!

      • Avatar
        Eric  November 9, 2016

        Oh my! then a retract my comment’s thesis. The mysticism stuff I read say a decade ago at least took its pseudo-scholarship seriously as a study; sounds like the crop you are dealing with are more interesting in sarcastically mocking Christian believers (Spaghetti-monster stuff), which is in fact much more boring.

  5. Avatar
    Brian  November 13, 2016

    I just don’t understand how the mythicists account for the New Testament texts and other early writings. On the historical theory, we can explain how stories and texts with a lot of mythical elements came to be using well understood psychological and social processes. According to the mythisists, somebody, we don’t know who, just made this stuff up, we don’t know why, and persuaded a bunch of folks to believe it, we don’t know how. I say, no contest.

  6. Avatar
    John  November 16, 2016

    Question for the next postbag perhaps.

    I have just head Mike Licona say that a majority, albeit a small one, of Biblical scholars think that Mark and Luke were written by the secretary(?) of Peter and the travelling companion of Paul. Do you agree with these figures and do you know how he would have arrived at this conclusion.

    We hear many authors and presenters saying that ‘the majority of scholars think this or that’ even yourself on occasion, how would people who are not involved in the field be able to check these things?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2016

      Yes, if you count fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who, on principle, disallow forgeries in the New Testament, then the “majority” does disallow forgeries!

      • Avatar
        John  November 19, 2016

        Thanks Bart.

        One other thing from the same programme a few weeks ago (you always seem to get e mention somewhere along the line), Gary Habermas said that you had recently backtracked on your views about the empty tomb and that you now accepted it. It was the first I had heard of it and, bearing in mind it was an important part of your book and you had a protracted debate with Craig Evans on it, I find it hard to believe.

        Is it true and if so, why?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 20, 2016

          No, it’s not true. I wonder where people come up with things!

  7. Avatar
    john76  January 17, 2017

    I can’t agree with the mythicist claim by those like Price that the Christology of Jesus at the earliest stages portrays Jesus as a dying/rising GOD. Rather, in Mark, Jesus identifies himself, and is shown to be a fallible human prophet who cannot perform miracles in his home town. In Mark 6:4-5, we read:

    4Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household.” 5So He could not perform any miracles there, except to lay His hands on a few of the sick and heal them. (Mark 6:4-5)

    If Jesus had the power of a God, he would have been able to perform miracles in his hometown. What was really going on was that YHWH was ultimately responsible for Jesus’ powers, and when and how they worked. Jesus’ miracles were from God acting through Jesus.

    This is also illustrated in Mark when Jesus is portrayed as being filled by a power that is not simply controlled by the “WILL” of Jesus. Regarding the woman with the issue of blood, Mark writes in Mark 5:25-34:

    25A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, 26and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse— 27after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind Him and touched His cloak. 28For she thought, “If I just touch His garments, I will get well.” 29Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. 30Immediately Jesus, perceiving in Himself that the power proceeding from Him had gone forth, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My garments?” 31And His disciples said to Him, “You see the crowd pressing in on You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” 32And He looked around to see the woman who had done this. 33But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. 34And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:25-34)

    So, in this case Jesus did not “will” the woman with the issue of blood to be healed (he just realized after the fact that some of his power had been expended), but rather God healed the woman through Jesus (through a conduit).  “God” rewarded the woman because she showed great faith, not “Jesus”.

    Some mythicists appeal to Paul calling Jesus an “angel” to argue for a high Christology, but the Greek word there merely means “a messenger.”

    • Avatar
      john76  January 18, 2017

      Jesus identifies himself as a prophet (Mark 6:4-5), and while different prophets had varying amounts of power (eg. Elijah bequeathed Elisha a double portion of his power to serve as his successor and superior), prophets were ultimately testaments to God’s power, not their own power. So, we see the superiority of Yahweh over the Egyptian Gods when Moses bested the sorcerers of Pharaoh. Likewise, we see the superiority of Yahweh over Baal when Elijah bested the prophets of Baal. Similarly, we see the superiority of Yahweh over Satan when God’s prophet Jesus defeats Satan’s demonic forces and the power of Sin. The point isn’t that Jesus was a God, but rather that he was God’s greatest human prophet who was given the purest expression of God’s power. If Jesus was a God and not merely a prophet, he would have been able to perform miracles in his home town, which he couldn’t (Mark 6:4-5).

  8. Avatar
    Bamayorgo  November 20, 2018

    Just joined the blog and Like to go back and read old posts!
    I am not a “mythcist”, I’m Catholic! But I do like to research. Mythicists cite Origen CC 1.47 “ Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine”. Of any worth?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2018

      No, they’re misreading the comment. Origen is not saying that James was *not* a relation by blood, but that this is not what elevated him to a special position among the other followers of Jesus.

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