Mythicism, Minimalism, and it's Detractors
Mythicism, Minimalism, and it’s Detractors
By Rook Hawkins
Mythicism and Me
The term ‘mythicism’ has more than one use. It can refer to the mythicizing of a historical figure or it could refer to its opposite, euhemerizing, which is the process of forcing the mythical figure into history. It has been referenced in works which deal with discussions of mythology, mythological concepts, and mythological characters. But the term itself is hardly understood, and when it is read, often it is misunderstood. (Which, perhaps, is worse then having no understanding at all?) It has also been applied to the position of the denunciation of Jesus’ figure as historical. It is this later instance in which I will be leading this discussion, in a very similar manner to that of Philip R. Davies and his brilliant article defending his position against insults far worse then those I have yet received.
I wish to start out with a grievance. In the case of a historical Jesus, it should be made clear that we are not talking about a ‘myth’ at all, but rather as the folklorist would scold us on, we are discussing ‘legend.’ The difference is two-fold. First, mythology is more concerned about origins then it is about characters. Sometimes a legend can contain trace elements of myth. For example, in common literature, the story of the spider biting Peter Parker’s hand is a myth – it is the origin story of Spiderman, who is the legend. Another way to understand the difference between a mythological story and a legendary story is to compare the book of Genesis, which is mythology, to the Gospel of Mark. Mark has very distinct traits that Genesis lacks; for example, instead of focusing on several thousand years, or even a few generations, Mark focus’ on one life, over a span of what seems like a short time, until the death of his character – Jesus, when the story ends abruptly. Mark does not concern himself with origins of the universe, he does not even have an origin story for Jesus, who just appears out of nowhere in his opening chapter. You can see this sort of legendary creation in the stories of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan, who were obviously legendary creations, both of whom have no real origin story (originally) and which the story does not concern itself with the birth of the nation, or the world, but just the individual.
The second instance in which myth and legend differ is the manner in how the story is told. Legendary stories use four specific attributes in their story-telling: (1) interpreting, reinventing, or challenging common folklore, (2) interpreting, reinventing, or challenging stereotypes, (3) use of tropes or metaphors, (4) contains moral teachings. Myth, on the other hand, does not need to focus on these four aspects. The necessity of moral teachings in the origins of man is not always easy to ascertain, because in early ancient Near Eastern myths, it is the Gods – not man – who seem to not be able to get along. Often times it is the God’s folly that leaves man in their predicament with no real way to atonement. Ironically, it is the development of legendary stories where you see the origin of atonement take shape. In the story of Moses, it is he who comes to atone the sins of Israel and releases them from their imprisonment, symbolic of the fall of man, and brings them into a renewed covenant with God, as Abraham had with Yahweh in Genesis. What follows from Genesis is a continuous development of legend, not myth, where understanding the plight of mankind becomes a way to teach ethics as well as explain the folklore of Genesis.
This misrepresentation made by early scholars of the redaktiongeschichte schule – or the redaction history schools- of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has only aided in the continuous misrepresentation of mythicists. It often leads people to assume that Jesus mythicists are comparing Jesus to, say, Horus—a vital God of Egyptian mythological stories about their origins. In fact, the truth of the matter is that Jesus is more like the Jewish legendary traveler—in the purely Odyssean manner—Tobit. In a large sense, mythicists are really legendists, but like all originally-derogatory labels, it is ‘mythicist’ that we are stuck with. I do use the term to describe my understanding of the Jesus legend, but perhaps like Philip R. Davies and his use of minimalism, in my mind I often imagine saying it with quotes surrounding the word. In fact, at the lecture that I gave for the FSGP on my Mythicism, I distinctly went about explaining the difference between myth and legend before even presenting my position, so there would be no confusion later on with where I stood.
So then, what is a Mythicist? To be clear, Mythicism is only defined by the denouncement or even skepticism of the historicity of the figure of Jesus. What this means, plainly, is that if you do not hold that there was a man named Jesus by which the Gospel stories were based on, you are a Mythicist. There is no more to it than that. Suffice it to say, the methods, theology, interpretations, criticisms and beliefs of individual Mythicists are vast and complex and often times conflicting! (We’ll get into this below) So now with that behind us, it is time to move onto what Mythicists are often accused of and expose the flaws with these criticisms.
Mythicism and Religion, Old Scholarship, and the Appeal to Popularity
The major criticisms I receive are often not about my research. In fact the most heard argument against Mythicism is that it’s a minority opinion. This is never said matter-of-factly, but often with the fiction that the Mythicist is a “dogmatist.” (G. Vermes, 2008 ) I say ‘fiction’ because there is no inherent dogmatism in accepting Mythicism. This can be observed simply by reading Mythicist material. If there were some sort of dogmatism, you would expect everyone to have the same perspectives and viewpoints, often out of ignorance and appeals to popularity of particular positions (which you find so often in scholarship, today), and it would have been something taught through education of some sort, passed down from mentor to student, forming some sort of “school of thought”, like the Bultmann school or the Käsemann school, or the much despised (by me) neoAlbrightian school. So let’s review the data.
Acharya S is a Mythicist, but many know my disagreements with her are quite extensive and we differ greatly. She willingly admits to submitting to some “new age” thinking (which I find shocking and downright scary), claiming, of course, that it does not influence her work (which I do not believe). In terms of her Mythicism, I might go so far as to say she is the most ‘dogmatic’ (although I would never say it without clarification). I say this, due to the fact that she does not sway opinions easily, and often holds onto concepts (like Horus being the sun-god, who was crucified, resurrected after 3 days, has 12 disciples, etc.) in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (a read through the ANET’s Egyptian mythology section, with the translated documents, stele, and inscriptions is more than enough to refute a large majority of her claims outright ). I would note, though, that despite these setbacks, she is successful in her endeavors and worth reading to at least gain some additional perspective (although I would advise caution and a thorough review of her claims in modern, up-to-date resources instead of her grossly out-of-date material…Gerald Massey, Dorothy? Really? *sigh*).
Bob Price and I are friends, so perhaps people think I subscribe to everything Bob says, but Bob will openly admit we have disagreements, especially on the subject of Paul and the Epistles, their value, and their dating—as well as how intact they are, what redactions occurred in them, and what should be dismissed entirely. However unlike Acharya, I find a lot of Bob’s ideas compelling. His discussion about Marcion and the development of Luke-Acts in his book The Pre-Nicene New Testament is very interesting and he is probably onto something.
Earl Doherty has recently been cited as some sort of cohort of mine, as if he and I are starting a “religion” together. This is ironic, as I hardly ever speak to Earl. In fact our correspondence can be summed up in two e-mails, both of which were invitations to appear on my radio show, and his response which consisted of him saying he would appear after the completion of a second edition of The Jesus Puzzle. I am actually a bit ashamed to admit I have not read his entire book even though I have a copy of it. All I know of it is what Richard Carrier has told me and from Earl Doherty’s website. I am well aware that Earl has suggested a case for removing Galatians 4:4, which I do not agree with (as I feel it is perfectly fine in the context). He has also made some suggestions about the redating of some of the Gospels to a later period (which I also find unnecessary and unhelpful, aside from Luke-Acts which I do agree came late, probably early-mid second century CE). So any attempt to link my ideas with Earl, despite my respect for him, is ignorant.
There are only a handful of Mythicists who I would say I consider role models and inspiration for my own position. Richard Carrier and I are close in our interpretation of the data, probably closer than any other Mythicist with the exception of my good friend Thomas L. Thompson, who I feel share almost the same opinions regarding the state of the evidence. Both Richard and Thomas feel as I do, that the Gospels represent narrative created by authors whose intent was not to deceive by educate through mimetic edification. We all share the opinion that the Gospel authors used models, and that they and Paul interpreted Jewish scripture to create their Jesus. All three of us agree that somewhere along the way, the edifying character of Jesus became euhemerized into history.
I do not see any sort of dogmatic approach to this subject. Particularly when examining the extrabiblical evidence. Not everyone agrees that Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius are forgeries, for example. Some have presented the case for this; I do not agree (as far as I know, Richard and Thomas don’t agree either). Unlike the opposite side of the coin, those who have accepted the historical Jesus have done so without regards for the direct questions asked in opposition to it. When John Dominic Crossan was on my show, he did not have a very good case for historicity, often doing what most Christian scholars do; he cited Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius, as well as Paul as evidence. When I explained why these were poor sources, he resorted an Appeal to Popularity, which is often the case. This, to me, is dogmatic. His retort was nothing more than a “nuh uh” blanketed with a “they believe it, so I will too” supposition.
Dogmatically, they claim that Jesus had to have existed. And accordingly they state—true to their dogmatic convictions—that “no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus.” (M. Grant, 1977; O. Betz, 1968 ) This is not just hyperbole, but a second fiction. Are there serious scholars who postulate the non-historicity of Jesus? There certainly are. Some of them are named above. I would doubt anybody familiar with scholarship over the past forty years would suggest that Thomas L. Thompson is not a serious scholar. If anybody has read the works of Richard Carrier and Robert Price, they would not be able to make such a remark. So not only is this a fiction but also an Argument from Ignorance. In fact, I would like to flip this on its head, and say that no historical Jesus scholar has seriously examined the case for ahistoricity, often times simply appealing to the maxim left by Bultmann over fifty years ago (R. Bultmann, 1941).
And speaking of Bultmann, it is interesting to note that unlike Mythicists, the historical Jesus scholars often belong to schools of thought, often reflecting either Bultmann or Käsemann, but some (like Bart Ehrman) who resemble in form that of Albert Schweitzer. And people suggest that Mythicists follow old and outdated sources? Yet all three quests are generically based off of the first, initiated by Strauss some two-hundred years ago. Indeed, each new generation of historical Jesus scholar seems to march to the same tune. I recall the first quest failing as a result of the scholars looking down the well of history, seeing their own reflections, and thinking they saw Jesus. The same is true with Bultmann, Käsemann, and Bornkamm. The same is true for J.D. Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Bart Ehrman (as much as I respect them). All of them resort to insults instead of critiques. Bultmann stated that you’d have to be insane to think Jesus never existed without offer any argument or position as to why. Paul Maier has suggested that it is only those with the “shallowest of intellects” who do not accept historicity. Vermes claimed that “dogmatists” are the only ones who doubt that Jesus existed. And recently, Bart Ehrman stated basically the same thing that Michael Grant had said some 31 years ago. These are insults, not arguments. These are reactions, probably out of respect to faith (with the exception of Bart, who I know does not believe), or otherwise out of respect to what they were taught, and are little more than “I’m rubber and you’re glue” childishness. These sort of “faith-based” reactions are more kin to dogmatism than the reasoned, often well-cited remarks of Mythicists like Richard Carrier, Bob Price, and Thomas L. Thompson.
I would also note that an Appeal to Popularity does not work as well as historical Jesus scholars would like. This is another fiction. By suggesting that “everyone believes Jesus existed” one is saying that there is an agreement. But really there isn’t. As I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog, the reality is that the historical Jesus quest is far from uniform. Sure, everyone keeps asserting that Jesus was a historical person – but nobody can seem to find him anywhere! They’ve looked so hard they can’t understand why, in the end, the third quest to find Jesus has failed in the same way the first two before it had.
J.D. Crossan, an Irishman growing up under Imperialist Britain, can only see his Jesus as a Jew, growing up under an Imperialist Rome. Bart Ehrman, an agnostic-atheist who was formerly an evangelical, can only see Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher teaching about the end of the world. Marcus Borg and Shelby Spong, rather liberal Christians, can only see Jesus as a religious revolutionary and reformer. C.K. Chesterton can only picture Jesus in fiction writing, which is what his books more resemble. Luke Timothy Johnson, a very conservative Christian, can only see Jesus as the Christ of the Gospels. Geza Vermes, a Jew who became a Catholic priest wants to paint his Jesus as a religious zealot, perhaps even a Pharisee.
Each scholar would disagree with another on where exactly the historical Jesus fits into their Gospel, and where the legendary Jesus takes his place. Nobody can decide where and to what extent the authors incorporated the historical teachings instead of the ‘kerugmatik’ ones. Why does this happen? Because the assumption they are making can only be made at the expense of taking for granted a large amount of data, ignoring very important edifications and allusions, and in their place, making larger, even more ignorant assumptions and speculations. For information regarding this please read my articles on the historical Jesus quests.
My Purpose: Understanding the Authors of the Bible
I cannot speak for other Mythicists, since all Mythicists are different in purpose and intent, and each of us comes to different conclusions based on our interpretation of the data; but since the detractors of Mythicism would rather present insults than arguments, or would rather assume there is nothing on the table instead of actually presenting the case for Mythicism from a position of intellectual honesty, I will lay out here, briefly, my own concerns with my research. My position deals with a few questions: “Why were the Gospels written?”, “By whom were they written?”, “What genre do they best represent?”, “What is the author trying to tell us, especially if this is not history or memory recall?” and so on. I am not concerned with making assumptions about the author’s intent, nor am I primarily interested in presupposing the genre came to be ex nihilo as a genre sui generis as so many scholars of New Testament studies do.
I am not impressed by the argument that the Jesus of the Gospels is unhistorical (as those scholars of the Jesus Seminar seem to be). I need to know why that Jesus is unhistorical; I want to puzzle out why the authors changed, adjusted, or otherwise ignored history, purposefully changed other Gospel versions while creating their own, who was their audience and what did the authors and the audience really believe? I am not content with just accepting the fact that this Jesus is a legend – I want to know why he was created as a legend. It is easy to assume that the character of the Gospels is based off some historical person, but what does that really answer? What can that tell us? The blunt fact is that it can tell us nothing, because that person does not exist; not in the evidence we have nor in the literature we possess. So why assume that there is some hidden Jesus, that nobody has ever seen, and our evidence does not show, when clearly the authors of the Gospels were not interested in that Jesus. They went out of their way to show us a Jesus that was of their own minds, their own interests. Why? These are the questions I am concerned about.
I approach the questions with a love for the literature, not (as has been suggested) a premature prejudice against it. Nor do I pretend that there are no historical incidents in the Gospel narratives, even if those incidents are often inaccurately dated (perhaps purposefully, not out of ignorance or incompetence as so many historical Jesus scholars would claim) or placed in the wrong chronological order, or even placed in a completely different context that would never have happened in antiquity (The Sanhedrin meeting on Passover eve, for example; or Pilate letting the Jews push him around-a far cry from the murderous, anti-Semitic character described to us by Josephus). However, I feel these incidents play a part on the narrative, as sets—a backdrop like in a play—where the narrative can unfold. Much in the same way that Ithica is the home of Odysseus the craftsman and carpenter, where he, as king, is no longer welcome because of the suitors that plague his household, so too is Nazareth the ‘set’ of the story where Jesus, carpenter, (or carpenter’s son) is no longer welcome, outcast by his own people by the decadence that plagues his Israel. A full and rather intricate FAQ is laid out on my blog (SEE HERE). You will not find a critique of this position in any book or article by a historical Jesus scholar. This position is far too complex (it would appear) and precise for them, and they seem much more interested in just calling me crazy or dogmatic than actually reading an article I’ve written, or dispute any position I’ve taken. My detractors are happy assuming my position rather than reading it, or asking me questions about it. Addressing the issues is the furthest thing from their minds.