Tuesday, 8 November 2011

McGrath blasts the fringe

Did Jesus really exist?

The clash between mythicists and historicists has all the drama of a WWF bout: current contenders include Mangler McGrath vs. Grappler Godfrey, step right up!

It may just be a case of weakened brain cells on my part, but I really don't see what the big issue is. The only question that ultimately counts to most folk is... did the Jesus of the New Testament narrative exist? That doesn't seem a particularly tough one to adjudicate on.

James McGrath has recently weighed in on the side of consensus historicism in The Christian Century. According to James the mythicist position, out on the fringe, is that Jesus "is not just a heavily mythologized historical figure, but pure or nearly pure fabrication from start to finish."

But how heavily is heavily? On the continuum from 0 through 100 where does 'heavily mythologized' cross over into 'nearly pure fabrication'? Exactly what historical content forms the essential kernel of the historical Jesus? Where should you put the stress: a heavily mythologized historical figure, or a heavily mythologized historical figure?

McGrath pulls out three fringe exemplars, D. M. Murdock (a.k.a. Acharya S.), those (unidentified) commentators who view "Jesus as a fictional creation based on Jewish scriptures", and Earl Doherty.

Personally, I don't give 'Acharya S.' the slightest credence. James' criticism is right on the money. Sorry lady, no cred., even discounting the stupid made-up pen name. But what about position two.
"Another strain of mythicism views Jesus as a fictional creation based on Jewish scriptures. Noting the common Christian belief that Jesus was predicted in the Jewish scriptures, they reverse the relation and say that Jesus was invented on the basis of those earlier texts. Historical scholars see things very differently, pointing out the differences between the content of the supposed Messianic prophecies and the life of Jesus—thereby creating difficulties for conservative Christian apologists and mythicists alike."
Again, my poor brain may just be inadequate, but the fact that early Christian writers pulled texts from the Hebrew scriptures to create flesh on a very bare biographical skeleton seems to be pretty indisputable. The issue is whether they created the skeleton as well. That the New Testament writers tore texts out of context, with complete disregard for our current standards of textual criticism, seems a complete no-brainer. Exegesis ain't what it used to be, thankfully. But how exactly does that create difficulties for the mythicist position? The birth narratives, the passion narratives, the miracle stories... which parts are immune from a little (or a lot) of Hebrew Bible oil pastel overlay? If we scraped away the pastel work would we find a beautiful original sketch underneath, some childish scribble, or just a blank canvas?

Less compelling (at least to me) is Doherty's argument that (again quoting James) "Jesus was initially understood as a purely celestial figure believed to have done battle with heavenly powers—and to have been crucified and buried somewhere other than on Earth." But, to give the man his due, he does make an interesting case, 'selectively critical' or not.

The whole question of historicity turns on a judgment about probability, and the hard data at hand is woeful. Is Jesus a fictive character in the same sense as Sherlock Holmes, cut from whole cloth? Not so elementary! Or is he a pastiche made up of characters both real and imagined that have been chucked in the Bible blender? Bultmann would presumably shrug his shoulders and find the whole discussion beside the point. Most of us would find it very much to the point. Think of Jesus and it's almost impossible to distance the name from the vivid oil pastel claims embedded in the Gospels. Jesus: virgin birth, tempted by the devil, water into wine, raiser of the dead, predictive prophet of the Little Apocalypse, multiplier of loaves and fishes, walker on water, crucified, dead, buried, raised, materialising through closed doors, ascended on clouds.

So which of James' joint descriptors - heavily mythologized and historical figure - carries the greatest weight of evidence?

Of course, I really have no idea who's right (though I'm reasonably convinced it isn't anyone called Acharya), but isn't there the feeling that 'whistling Dixie' is an essential strategy on both sides of the debate?

Did Jesus really exist? Maybe it depends on which Jesus are we talking about. Jesus may have been an apocalyptic prophet, or a Cynic sage, or whatever; but first we've got to get past the default Gospel portrait that is still the reigning paradigm in the churches, their preaching and their liturgy.

On the count of three let's all hold our breath...


  1. Jesus existed...uh, no he didn't, no wait, yes he did.

    That's been my experience with it. There is actually not enough evidence to come to a positive conclusion but just enough to suggest the historical probability that Jesus existed.

    IMO, not only should Acharya S. be ignored but also Earl Doherty. Doherty's idea of a purely celestial Christ who lived, died and resurrected in heaven is way over the top. Also, too many passages in Paul's writings have to be explained away.

    Paul's Jesus is human; born of a woman, born under the law, killed by the Jews, crucified by the princes of this world, buried a natural body and on and on and on.

    Doherty has obviously put his conclusion ahead of his argument and is trying to prove his own presumption.

  2. Just to clarify, Sherlock Holmes was not cut from whole cloth. He was based on a professor of medicine, Joseph Bell in Edinburgh who had taught Conan Doyle.

    This fact does not have scholars pooh-poohing those who don't believe in a historical Sherlock Holmes.

  3. So I see in linked article Dr McGrath concedes just a "high probability" for his position whereas Vrider merely assigns a low probability for culturally assumed historicity for 1st century character in question.

  4. Was Christ the "Messiah expected by the Jews?"

    He undoubtedly is, was, and will be, the Messiah for all who have ever lived or died...but He said Himself that He was not the political "messiah-king" expected by the ruling Jewish authorities of the 1st century....

  5. but the fact that early Christian writers pulled texts from the Hebrew scriptures to create flesh on a very bare biographical skeleton seems to be pretty indisputable.

    That's because it is irrefutable.

    There's no way to refute the "historical kernel" thesis since it can be maintained in the face of any explanation of the text no matter how comprehensive.


  6. I usually get a nugget or two from each mythicist writer trying to solve the "Jesus puzzle". I like, for instance, Doherty's insight on the word 'parousia' implying first primitive christians were actually looking for a *first coming* of their heavenly messiah.

    Then there's the impressive intellect of John Allegro who defaults hard to mythicism in the 1960's (way this the new-wave internet-driven trend).

    From Allegro's 1979 book
    "The Dead Sea Scrolls & the Christian Myth":

    Allegro was seeing Essenism as the source of Christianity.
    As the Essenes of D.S.S. fame bridge the gap from 100 BCE to 68 CE

    His analysis uses exegises of Gnostic, Apocryphal & Canonical texts
    as well as philological analysis of word derivations spanning ancient

    He sees the crucifixion of the Essene Teacher of Righteousness in 88 BCE
    as the template for the expected latest Joshua/Jesus[Gr] incarnation.
    (The Essenes living in caves near where Joshua entered the Promised Land)
    This was in 88 BCE when Jewish tyrant Alexander Jannaeus staged a
    mass crucifixion of 800 perceived enemies. This was only a decade or so
    before the Roman crucifixion of thousands of Spartan rebels -- (a kind of Golden Age of Crucifixion).

    He says 1st Christian writer Paul doesn't fix a date or historical setting for
    "Jesus" and the Gospels (written after year 70) were fiction
    to create an appealing historical character.

    The punchline, for me, was Page 227 where the Essene prophecy that the
    'End' would come ~40 years after the Messiah dies (based on 1st Joshua/Jesus
    & wandering in the Wilderness). Thus counting back from the destructive
    apocalypse in Jerusalem, gave 30AD for a "crucifixion" date.
    This "apocalypse" never panned out to a millennial rule -- they seldom do.

    The other Essene rule in the Dead Sea Scrolls
    was that Teachers had to be aged 30 to start (thus Gospel quote Christ was
    about 30 when he commenced his ministry)

    Great detective work by Allegro during the 1960s!

  7. But how heavily is heavily?

    I think you've hit the nail on the head. Perhaps there is enough evidence to support the conclusion that it is less likely than not that Jesus was a pure pure fabrication from start to finish. I still don't see that it makes the Jesus of the gospels a historical person or reconstructions of his words and deeds any less speculative.

  8. I personally think the Constantinian Shift brought in a lot of this mythicist heresy (whilst simultaneously alleging that they were fighting "docetism" which is mythicism by another name).

    I personally believe that the mythicism crept in around the third century, due to so much of the Babylonian mystery religion being promulgated as "Christian" at that time. You fine people will no doubt tell me that rereading Hislop is affecting my brain. Can we agree to disagree peacefully? :-)

    Oh, and by the way, if you didn't get the email, here's more proof that the splinter groups are bad news; say what you will for the Receivership scandal in the 70s, one thing you cannot say, is that the Church was anything other than completely acquitted of any wrongdoing or fraud.

    Witless Weinland, on the other hand? Not so much.

  9. The Allegro thesis that the punctuated equilibrium that was the destruction of Jerusalem triggered the reverse chronological engineering of the Christ myth [70CE - 40 = 30CE - 33.5 = messiah nativity]is somewhat paralleled by Godfrey's meditations here:

  10. mythicpast,

    Try speaking English some time. It does wonders for connecting with other, you know, human beings. As opposed to, say, "theologians."

  11. Backslider,

    The WCG was NOT acquitted of wrongdoing or fraud. Nor was it convicted of either. No final court decision was ever made. The California legislature changed state law to prevent the Attorney General and local DAs from prosecuting certain kinds of cases against religious organizations. As a result, the state AG and LA County had to drop the case. The WCG was certainly NOT acquitted of wrongdoing. That was just a spin later put on by HWA and Stan Rader. Not convicted does not equal acquitted.

  12. Glenn,

    Not convicted doesn't equal inherent guilt, either. Looks like both of us don't have a leg to stand on!