Christ Myth Theory

horus

mithra

The Christ myth theory (also known as ‘Jesus mythicism’) is the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament was mythical, although others define it more strictly that Jesus never existed in any form. The thesis that Jesus was invented by the Christian community after 100 CE was first put forward in the late 18th century and then popularized in the 19th century by German philosopher Bruno Bauer who proposed a three-fold argument still used by many myth proponents today: the New Testament has no historical value, non-Christian writers of the first century failed to mention Jesus, and Christianity had pagan and mythical beginnings.

Despite the debate in popular culture and on the Internet, the position that Jesus did not exist is not held by most professional historians, nor the vast majority of New Testament scholars. Classical historian Michael Grant states that, ‘Modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory…[It has] again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.’ Other scholars, mostly based in Europe, however, argue their colleagues should remain more open to this possibility and that the debate on the historicity of Jesus is not over.

Although the question of the historicity of Jesus was the subject of 20th century books by British professor G.A. Wells and others, the suggestion that there was no historical Jesus has seen an upsurge in recent years. Former Anglican priest Tom Harpur argues that Jesus was not a man, but his spirit lives within us. Some writers such as Richard Carrier argue that Jesus was neither a human nor a deity. Most writers, like former Baptist pastor Robert M. Price, however, are more agnostic about the existence of Jesus arguing that events in the Gospels are almost certainly mythical, but allowing that Christianity may have been based on an individual whose followers believed he was the son of God.

For example, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote in 2006 it is ‘possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all,’ and ‘although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as reliable record of what actually happened in history.’ In 2012, he added ‘the evidence (Jesus) existed is surprisingly shaky.’ Similarly, the late Christopher Hitchens stated there is ‘little or no evidence for the life of Jesus,’ arguing ‘the gospels are most certainly not literal truth,’ their multiple authors ‘cannot agree on anything of importance,’ and the ‘contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars.’ While not going so far as to say that a Jesus figure did not exist, Hitchens argues the best argument for the ‘highly questionable existence of Jesus’ are the biblical inconsistencies themselves, explaining the ‘very attempts to bend and stretch the story may be inverse proof that someone of later significance was indeed born.’

Myth proponents argue the gospels were written many decades or even a century after the death of Jesus by individuals who likely never met him and then were edited or forged over the centuries by unknown scribes with their own agendas. They often argue the four canonical gospels were chosen by early church leaders from among dozens of others, frequently contradict each other and contain many details which are historically inaccurate, specifically the Nativity of Jesus. According to some, the letters from St. Paul were written before the gospels and generally refer to a spiritual Christ with no references to his life, parables or miracles. However, critics maintain there are historically verifiable events such as the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus, and even if the Bible is not wholly accurate, it does not mean that Jesus never lived.

Myth proponents point out that there are no surviving historic records about Christ from any non-Jewish author until the second century, adding Jesus left no writings or other archaeological evidence. Using the argument from silence, they cite that Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria did not mention Jesus when he wrote about the cruelty of Pontius Pilate around 40 CE. Some suspect the ‘Testimonium Flavianum’ by Jewish historian Josephus (CE 37–c. 100), a passage that states that Jesus the Messiah was a wise teacher who was crucified by Pilate, may have been a partial interpolation or forgery by Christian apologist Eusebius in the fourth century or by others. There is also speculation that when Josephus called James the Just the ‘brother’ of Jesus Christ in a later passage, he was referring to another Jesus (a mythic Christ may already have been historicized) or he meant a fraternal brotherhood rather than a sibling. Roman historians Tacitus (CE 56– c.117), Pliny the Younger (CE 61– c.112), and Suetonius (CE 69–c.112) all make brief mentions of ‘Christians,’ ‘Christ,’ or ‘Chrestus,’ but myth proponents suggest they may have been forgeries or were merely reporting hearsay and do not mention the name ‘Jesus.’ However, theory critics argue that much of the writings of antiquity have been lost and that there was little written about any Jew or Christian in this period.

Myth proponents claim that certain gospel stories are similar to those of dying-and-rising gods, demigods (sons of gods), solar deities, saviors, or other divine men such as Horus, Mithra/Mithras, Prometheus, Dionysus, Osiris, Buddha, and Krishna, as well as Christ-like historical figures like Apollonius of Tyana. Some argue that stories of Jesus are reminiscent of the ‘mythic hero archetype’ present in many cultures who often have miraculous conceptions or virgin births heralded by wise men and marked by a star, are tempted by or fight evil forces, die on a hill, appear after death, and then ascend to heaven. Suggesting that some parts of the New Testament were meant to appeal to Gentiles as familiar allegories rather than history, some theorists also note that other stories seem to try to reinforce Old Testament prophecies and repeat stories about figures like Elijah, Elisha, Moses, and Joshua in order to appeal to Jewish converts.

The beginnings of the formal denial of the existence of Jesus can be traced to late 18th century France, and the works of French philosophers Constantin François Chassebœuf de Volney and Charles-François Dupuis, who argued that Christianity was an amalgamation of various ancient mythologies and that Jesus was a totally mythical character. Dupuis argued that ancient rituals in Syria, Egypt and Persia had influenced the Christian story which was allegorized as the histories of solar deities, such as Sol Invictus (a Roman sun god). He argued also that Jewish and Christian scriptures could be interpreted according to the solar pattern, e.g. the Fall of Man in Genesis being an allegory of the hardship caused by winter, and the resurrection of Jesus an allegory for the growth of the sun’s strength in the sign of Aries at the spring equinox.

Volney argued that Abraham and Sarah were derived from the Hindu god Brahma and his wife Saraswati, and that Christ was related to Krishna. Volney published before Dupuis but made use of a draft version of Dupuis’ work, and followed much of his argument, but at times differed from him, e.g. in arguing that the gospel stories were not intentionally created as an extended allegory grounded in solar myths, but were compiled organically when simple allegorical statements were misunderstood as history. Volney’s perspective was not purely religious, but had a sociopolitical component, which in the short term acted against it, in that the association with the ideas of the French Revolution and Volney’s influence on Napoleon hindered the acceptance of these views in England. Despite its short term setbacks, the work of Volney gathered significant following among British and American radical thinkers during the 19th century.

In 1835, German theologian David Friedrich Strauß published his extremely controversial ‘The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined’ (‘Das Leben Jesu’). While not denying that Jesus existed, he did argue that the miracles in the New Testament were mythical retellings of normal events as supernatural happenings. According to Strauss, the early church developed these miracle stories to present Jesus as a fullfillment of Jewish prophecies of what the Messiah would be like. This rationalist perspective was in direct opposition to the supernaturalist view that the bible was accurate both historically and spiritually. The book caused an uproar across Europe. The Earl of Shaftesbury called the 1846 translation by Marian Evans ‘the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell,’ and Strauss’ appointment as chair of theology at the University of Zürich caused such controversy that the authorities offered him a pension before he had a chance to start his duties.

German Bruno Bauer, who taught at the University of Bonn, took Strauss’ arguments further and became the first author to systematically argue that Jesus did not exist. Bauer initially left open the question of whether an historical Jesus existed at all. Later, in ‘A Critique of the Gospels and a History of their Origin’ (1850–1851), Bauer argued that Jesus had not existed, and in 1877 in ‘Christ and the Caesars’ he suggested that Christianity was a synthesis of the Stoicism of Seneca the Younger and of the Jewish theology of Philo as developed by pro-Roman Jews such as Josephus. Bauer’s work was heavily criticized at the time; in 1839 he was removed from his position at the University of Bonn, and his work did not have much impact on future myth theorists.

Yorkshire gentleman Godfrey Higgins studied Greek, Latin and law at Cambridge before becoming a soldier, archaeologist and author. His two-volume, 867-page book ‘Anacalypsis: An Enquiry into the Origins of Languages, Nations, and Religions,’ was published posthumously in 1836. In his treatise, Higgins claims, ‘the mythos of the Hindus, the mythos of the Jews and the mythos of the Greeks are all at bottom the same; and … are contrivances under the appearance of histories to perpetuate doctrines,’ and that Christian editors ‘either from roguery or folly, corrupted them all.’ It should be noted, however, the book also includes unorthodox theories such as that the Celtic Druids came from India.

American Kersey Graves was a school teacher and author who wrote the 1875 book ‘The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors.’ Using Higgins as his main source, Graves claims that Jesus did not exist, and instead was based on demigods from different countries who were either crucified or who ascended into heaven. He also claimed that many of these figures shared similar stories, traits or quotes as Jesus. The validity of the claims in the book have been greatly criticized by Christ myth proponents like Richard Carrier and largely dismissed by biblical scholars.

Starting in the 1870s, English poet and author Gerald Massey became interested in Egyptology and reportedly taught himself Egyptian hieroglyphics at the British Museum. In 1883, he published ‘The Natural Genesis’ where he asserted parallels between Jesus and the Egyptian god Horus. His other major work, ‘Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World,’ was published shortly before his death in 1907. His assertions have influenced various later writers such as Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Tom Harpur, and D.M. Murdock. Harpur argues that Massey has been largely ignored by scholars, and despite criticisms from Stanley Porter and Ward Gasque, Massey’s theories regarding Egyptian etymologies for certain scriptures are supported by noted contemporary Egyptologists.

In the 1870s and 1880s, a group of scholars associated with the University of Amsterdam, known in German scholarship as the Radical Dutch school, rejected the authenticity of the Pauline epistles, and took a generally negative view of the Bible’s historical value. Within this group, the existence of Jesus was rejected by Allard Pierson, the leader of the movement, Sytze Hoekstra, and Samuel Adrian Naber. Dutch theologian Abraham Dirk Loman argued in 1881 that all New Testament writings belonged to the 2nd century, and doubted that Jesus was an historical figure, but later said the core of the gospels was genuine. The group wrote in Dutch and focused mostly on the Old Testament. They had some notable followers, but by the early part of the 20th century they had faded out.

During the early 20th century, several writers published arguments against Jesus’ historicity, often drawing on the work of liberal theologians, who tended to deny any value to sources for Jesus outside the New Testament, and limited their attention to Mark and the hypothetical ‘Q source’ (a suggest proto-gospel that was lost). They also made use of the growing field of religious history which found sources for Christian ideas in Greek and Oriental mystery cults, rather than Palestinian Judaism. Jewish historian Joseph Klausner wrote that biblical scholars ‘tried their hardest to find in the historic Jesus something which is not Judaism; but in his actual history they have found nothing of this whatever, since this history is reduced almost to zero. It is therefore no wonder that at the beginning of this century there has been a revival of the eighteenth and nineteenth century view that Jesus never existed.’

The work of social anthropologist Sir James George Frazer has had an influence on various myth theorists, although Frazer himself believed that Jesus existed. In 1890 he published the first edition of ‘The Golden Bough’ which attempted to define the shared elements of religious belief. This work became the basis of many later authors who argued that the story of Jesus was a fiction created by Christians. After a number of people claimed that he was a myth theorist, in the 1913 expanded edition Frazer expressly stated that his theory assumed a historical Jesus.

In 1927, British philosopher Bertrand Russell stated in his lecture ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ that ‘historically it is quite doubtful that Jesus existed, and if he did we do not know anything about him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one,’ though Russell did nothing to develop the idea. Expert in comparative mythology Joseph Campbell, in his 1949 book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces,’ argued that hero stories such as Krishna, Buddha, Apollonius of Tyana, and Jesus all share a similar mythological basis. In ‘The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology’ published in 1968, Campbell stated ‘It is clear that, whether accurate or not as to biographical detail, the moving legend of the Crucified and Risen Christ was fit to bring a new warmth, immediacy, and humanity, to the old motifs of the beloved Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris cycles.’

John Mackinnon Robertson, a Scottish journalist who became a Liberal MP, argued in 1900 that Jesus never existed but was an invention by a first-century messianic cult. In Robertson’s view, religious groups invent new gods to fit the needs of the society of the time. He argued that a solar deity symbolized by the lamb and the ram had been worshiped by an Israelite cult of Joshua for long and that this cult had then invented a new messianic figure, Jesus of Nazareth. Roberson argued that a possible source for the Christian myth may have been the Talmudic story of the executed Jesus Pandera which dates to 100 BCE. Robertson considered the letters of Paul the earliest surviving Christian writings, but viewed them as primarily concerned with theology and morality, rather than historical details. He viewed references to the twelve apostles and the institution of the Eucharist as stories that must have developed later among gentile believers who were converted by Jewish evangelists like Paul.

John Eleazer Remsburg was a school teacher, author, and an ardent religious skeptic who in 1909 put out a book called ‘The Christ,’ which explored the range and possible origins of the ‘Christ Myth.’ Remsburg’s position was that while there was good reason to believe the ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ existed, the ‘Christ of Christianity’ was a mythological creation. He argued that although Jesus may have existed, we know nothing about him, and provided a list of 42 names of ‘writers who lived and wrote during the time, or within a century after the time’ who Remsburg felt should have written about Jesus if the Gospels account was reasonably accurate but who did not. This Remsberg list has appeared in a handful of books regarding the nonhistoricity hypothesis.

William Benjamin Smith was a mathematics professor at Tulane University who around the turn of the 20th century argued that it was implausible that there had been a human Jesus and that the story of Jesus was composed by merging elements from a pre-Christian cult, a solar deity cult and the Hindu god Agni transformed to the Latin used Agnus (the lamb). Smith argued for a symbolic interpretation of the stories about Jesus. He argued that Christianity was a monotheistic Israelite cult that opposed polytheism and as a result had to mask itself and could only speak in symbols. Thus the message of Christianity needs to be decoded, and references to Jesus can only be seen in abstract terms, e.g. in the parable of the Jesus and the rich young man there never was a young man, and the young man symbolizes the nation of Israel.

The ideas of Smith found sympathetic ears in Germany, with Arthur Drews and Albert Kalthoff soon following along the same path early in the 20th century. Drews (pronounced ‘drefs’) was a professor of philosophy at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, Germany. In his 1909 book’ The Christ Myth’ he argued that Christianity had been a Jewish Gnostic cult that spread by appropriating aspects of Greek philosophy and life-death-rebirth deities. In ‘The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus’ (1912) and later in ‘The Denial of the Historicity of Jesus in Past and Present’ (1926) Drews reviewed biblical scholarship as well as the work of other myth theorists of his time, and wrote that his purpose was to show that everything about the historical Jesus had a mythical character. Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev stated that Drews as an anti-Semite argued against the historical existence of Jesus for the sake of Aryanism. Drews took part in a series of public debates with theologians and historians who opposed his arguments.

Drew’s work—which had popularized the ideas of Bruno Bauer, the tutor and Ph.D. advisor of Karl Marx—found fertile soil in the Soviet Union, where Marxist–Leninist atheism was the official doctrine of the state. Lenin, the Soviet leader from 1917 until his death in 1924, argued that it was imperative in the struggle against religious obscurantists to form a union with people like Drews. Several editions of Drews’s ‘The Christ Myth’ were published in the Soviet Union from the early 1920s onwards, and his arguments were included in school and university textbooks. Public meetings asking ‘Did Christ live?’ were organized, during which party operatives debated with clergymen.

Physician and philosopher Paul-Louis Couchoud was influenced by the work of Arthur Drews and argued that Jesus never existed but was invented by the Apostle Paul and that Christianity was a schismatic branch of the followers of John the Baptist. Couchoud rejected non-Christian sources such as Josephus, the Talmud, Tacitus, and Suetonius and argued that the name Jesus was invented through the transformation of Old Testament references such as Exodus 23:20. Couchoud argued that Paul’s affirmation of the divinity of Jesus alongside Yahweh (God) suggested that Jesus was not a historical man, as no Jew could have accepted that relationship. Couchoud developed his ideas gradually through a series of essays and books, including ‘The Enigma of Jesus’ (1923) for which anthropologist James Frazer wrote an introduction, followed by ‘The Mystery of Jesus’ (1924). He wrote additional books on the topic in the ensuing years, embroiling himself in public controversies. Several books were written specifically to rebut his theories including ‘Jesus’ (1933) by  historian Charles Guigneber, ‘Jesus the Nazarene: myth or history?’ (1925) by theologian Maurice Goguel, and ‘History and Myth of Jesus-Christ’ (1938) by French Roman Catholic priest Alfred Loisy.

Dutch autodidact Gerard Bolland argued in 1907 that Christianity evolved from Gnosticism, and that Jesus was simply a symbolic figure representing Gnostic ideas about God (Gnosticism describes a collection of ancient religions that taught that people should shun the material world and embrace the spiritual world). Bolland’s philosophical stance resembled that of Bruno Bauer and he supported a number of the ideas of the Dutch Radical School. G.R.S. Mead was a schoolmaster who advanced the position that Jesus existed but that he had lived in 100 BCE. In his book ‘Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.?’ (1903) Mead argued that the Talmud points to Jesus being crucified c. 100 BCE, and hence the Christian gospels are mythical.

Archaeologist, philologist, author, academic and broadcaster John Marco Allegro argued in ‘The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross’ (1970) and ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth’ (1979) that Christianity began as a shamanic cult centering around the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, and that the New Testament was a coded record of a clandestine cult. Allegro argued that the authors of the Christian gospels did not understand Essene thought, and had confused the meaning of the scrolls and built the Christian tradition based on the misunderstanding of the scrolls. He also argued that the story of Jesus was based on the crucifixion of the Teacher of Righteousness in the scrolls.

Critic Philip Jenkins said that Allegro was an eccentric scholar who relied on texts that did not exist in quite the form he was citing them, and called ‘The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross,’ ‘possibly the single most ludicrous book on Jesus scholarship by a qualified academic.’ Based on the reaction to the book, Allegro’s publisher apologized for issuing the book and Allegro was forced to resign his academic post. A 2006 article discussing Allegro’s work called for his theories to be reevaluated by the mainstream. In 2009 ‘The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross’ was reprinted in a 40th anniversary edition with a 30-page addendum by Carl Ruck of Boston University.

Alvar Ellegård was a professor of English at the University of Gothenburg who in his book ‘Jesus: One Hundred Years Before Christ’ argued that Apostle Paul and other early Christians viewed Jesus as a great prophet who had lived in the distant past, not a contemporary figure who was crucified during their own era. Ellegard argued that neither Paul nor any of his contemporaries had seen Jesus, but only imagined him as a heavenly figure who had lived long ago. Ellegard believed that Paul had a vision and that Paul’s experience during the vision suggested to him that Jesus had been resurrected and that the vision signaled the day of judgement. Ellegård’s argument pivots on the gospels having been written in the second century, and he argued that in the second century the authors of the gospels confused Paul’s visions for real events, and dated them to the time of Pontius Pilate. However, Ellegård states that the theory he presents is not the only possible scenario and agrees that other scholars date the events differently.

Ellegård agrees with other scholars that some of the letters of Paul are genuine and that they present the earliest Christian writings. Ellegård states that Paul may have met Apostle Peter in Jerusalem, but that Peter did not tell Paul about Jesus, and it was Paul who constructed the story of the crucifixion based on supernatural knowledge Paul believed he had received in his own visions. Ellegård writes that his position differs from that of Drews and Couchoud, and he develops arguments similar to those of Dupont-Sommer and John Allegro, and suggests that Paul’s Jesus may have been based on the Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but he states that this was not the Jesus of the gospels.

New Zealand scholar of the New Testament Graham Stanton wrote in 2002 that the most thoroughgoing and sophisticated of the proponents’ arguments were set out by George Albert Wells (b. 1926), emeritus professor of German at Birkbeck College, London, and author of ‘The Jesus of the Early Christians’ (1971), ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ (1975), ‘The Historical Evidence for Jesus’ (1982), ‘The Jesus Legend’ (1996), ‘The Jesus Myth’ (1999), ‘Can We Trust the New Testament?’ (2004), and ‘Cutting Jesus Down to Size’ (2009). British theologian Kenneth Grayston advised Christians to acknowledge the difficulties raised by Wells, but Alvar Ellegård writes that his views remain largely undiscussed by theologians.

Wells presented his key arguments in his initial trilogy (1971, 1975, 1982), based on the views of New Testament scholars who acknowledge that the gospels are sources written decades after Jesus’s death by people who had no personal knowledge of him. In addition, Wells writes, the texts are exclusively Christian and theologically motivated, and therefore a rational person should believe the gospels only if they are independently confirmed. Wells also argues that Paul and the other epistle writers—the earliest Christian writers—do not provide any support for the idea that Jesus lived early in the 1st century. There is no information in them about Jesus’s parents, place of birth, teachings, trial, nor crucifixion. For Wells, the Jesus of the early Christians was a pure myth, derived from mystical speculations stemming from the Jewish Wisdom tradition, while the Gospels were subsequent works of historical fiction. According to this view, the earliest strata of the New Testament literature presented Jesus as ‘a basically supernatural personage only obscurely on Earth as a man at some unspecified period in the past.’

In ‘The Jesus Myth,’ Wells argues that two Jesus narratives fused into one: Paul’s mythical Jesus and a minimally historical Jesus whose teachings were preserved in the Q document, a hypothetical common source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Biblical scholar Robert Van Voorst said that with this argument Wells had performed an about-face while Doherty presented it as another example of the view that the Gospel Jesus did not exist; Carrier classified it as a book defending ahistoricity in a 2006 Stanford University presentation.

Wells writes that he belongs in the category of those who argue that Jesus did exist, but that reports about him are so unreliable that we can know little or nothing about him. He argues, for example, that the story of the execution of Jesus under Pilate is not an historical account. He wrote in 2000: ‘[J. D. G. Dunn] objected [in 1985] that, in my work as then published, I had, implausibly, to assume that, within 30 years from Paul, there had evolved ‘such a … complex of traditions about a non-existent figure as we have in the sources of the gospels’ (‘The Evidence for Jesus,’ p. 29). My present standpoint is: this complex is not all post-Pauline (Q in its earliest form may well be as early as ca. AD. 40), and it is not all mythical. The essential point, as I see it, is that what is authentic in this material refers to a personage who is not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles.’

After teaching for 25 years, Alvin Boyd Kuhn obtained his PhD from Columbia University in 1931. Over the next 30 years, he opened his own publishing house, wrote more than 150 books and essays on religious history, and reportedly gave nearly 2,000 public lectures in the U.S. and Canada. Influenced by Massey and Higgins, Kuhn argued an Egyptian etymology to the Bible, that the gospels were symbolic rather historic, and that church leaders started to misinterpret the New Testament in the third century. He wrote his best-known work, ‘A Rebirth for Christianity,’ shortly before his death in 1963. Author Tom Harpur dedicated his 2004 book ‘The Pagan Christ’ to Kuhn, calling him ‘a man of immense learning and even greater courage’ and ‘one of the single greatest geniuses of the twentieth century.’ Harpur suggests Kuhn has not received the attention he deserves since many of his works were self-published.

The late Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) was one of the most out-spoken atheists of his time. Although he repeated in his writings and public appearances there is no reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth existed as we understand him in the Bible, he did concede the possibility that a charismatic rabbi in Palestine who believed he was the son of God may have become the inspiration for gospel stories written many decades later. To Hitchens, the best argument for the ‘highly questionable existence of Jesus’ are the biblical inconsistencies themselves. In other words, the Bible may have been more consistent if the writers had created a fictional character from scratch. At a 2008 debate in Las Vegas, he used the same logic when he said, ‘It’s impressive to me that the evidence is so thin and … so obviously, strenuously cobbled together because it suggests that there was something going on, there was some character.’ Explaining he did not want to be so profane as to tell believers that there was nothing there, Hitchens concluded that the attempted fraud of the gospels ‘may have worked on stupefied peasants in the Greater Jerusalem area, but really should have no power to influence anyone in this room.’ On the subject of a mythical Jesus, a number of sources attribute the quote ‘Jesus is Santa Claus for adults’ to Hitchens in his 2007 ‘God is not Great,’ but those words do not appear in that book.

Regarded as Canada’s leading writer on religion, Tom Harpur wrote his controversial bestseller ‘The Pagan Christ’ in 2004. Presenting the case that the gospels re-work ancient pagan myths, Harpur builds on research from lesser-known authors such as Alvin Boyd Kuhn when listing similarities among the stories of Jesus, Horus, Mithras, Buddha and others. According to Harpur, in the second or third centuries, the early church created the fictional impression of a literal and historic Jesus and then used forgery and violence to cover up the evidence. Having come to see the scriptures as symbolic allegory of a cosmic truth rather than as inconsistent history, Harpur concludes he has a greater internal connection with the spirit of Christ. The book received a great deal of criticism, including a response book, ‘Unmasking the Pagan Christ: An Evangelical Response to the Cosmic Christ Idea,’ and even a negative review from fellow mythicist Robert M. Price. However, ‘The Pagan Christ’ became Canada’s top-selling book of 2004, received mostly favorable reviews, was translated into six languages, and became the subject of an award-winning CBC documentary. Harpur published a more scholarly sequel called ‘Water Into Wine’ in 2007.

One of the new leading advocates of atheism and the Jesus myth theory is Richard Carrier (born 1969). He obtained a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University 2008 and has authored several books including ‘Sense and Goodness without God’ in 2005, ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ in 2011, and ‘Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus’ in 2012. Carrier rose to prominence when he was featured in the documentary ‘The God Who Wasn’t There.’ He was a member of the short-lived ‘Jesus Project’ (a five-year investigation to examine whether Jesus existed as an historical figure funded by Center for Inquiry) from 2008 to 2009. For several years, he served as editor-in-chief for Internet Infidels (a Colorado-based nonprofit educational organization), and he currently blogs for websites such as ‘The God Contention’ and ‘FreethoughtBlogs.’ Carrier’s scathing review of Bart D. Ehrman’s book ‘Did Jesus Exist’ in 2012 resulted in lengthy responses and counter-responses on the Internet.

American New Testament scholar Robert McNair Price questions the historicity of Jesus in a series of books, including ‘Deconstructing Jesus’ (2000), ‘The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man’ (2003), ‘Jesus Is Dead’ (2007), and ‘The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems’ (2012), as well as in contributions to ‘The Historical Jesus: Five Views’ (2009). Born in Mississippi, he holds a Master in Theological Studies (1978), a PhD in Systematic Theology (1981), and a PhD in New Testament. Having taught religious studies in North Carolina and New Jersey and acted as editor of ‘The Journal of Higher Criticism,’ he is currently the Professor of Biblical Criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute. Price was also a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of writers and scholars who study the historicity of Jesus, arguing that the Christian image of Christ is a theological construct into which traces of Jesus of Nazareth have been woven, until it ended in 2006, as well as the Jesus Project. A former Baptist pastor, Price writes that he was originally an apologist on the historical-Jesus question but became disillusioned with the arguments. As the years went on, he found it increasingly difficult to poke holes in the position that questioned Jesus’s existence entirely. Despite this, he still took part in the Eucharist every week for several years, seeing the Christ of faith as all the more important because, he argued, there was probably never any other. According to his website, he now attends an Episcopal Church in North Carolina where he ‘keeps (his) mouth shut.’

Price believes that Christianity is a historicized synthesis of mainly Egyptian, Jewish, and Greek mythologies. He writes that everyone who espouses the Christ myth theory bases their arguments on three key points: 1) There is no mention of a miracle-working Jesus in secular sources. 2) The epistles, written earlier than the gospels, provide no evidence of a recent historical Jesus; all that can be taken from the epistles, he argues, is that a Jesus Christ, son of God, lived in a heavenly realm (much as other ancient gods, e.g. Horus), there died as a sacrifice for human sin, was raised by God and enthroned in heaven. 3) The Jesus narrative is paralleled in Middle Eastern myths about dying and rising gods; Price names Baal, Osiris, Attis, Adonis, and Dumuzi/Tammuz as examples, all of which, he writes, survived into the Hellenistic and Roman periods and thereby influenced early Christianity. He alleges that Christian apologists have tried to minimize these parallels. He argues that if critical methodology is applied with ruthless consistency, one is left in complete agnosticism regarding Jesus’s historicity: ‘There might have been a historical Jesus, but unless someone discovers his diary or his skeleton, we’ll never know.’

Price argues that ‘the varying dates are the residue of various attempts to anchor an originally mythic or legendary Jesus in more or less recent history’ citing accounts that have Jesus being crucified under Alexander Jannaeus (83 BCE) or in his 50s by Herod Agrippa I under the rule of Claudius Caesar (41–54 CE). He points out ‘(w)hat one Jesus reconstruction leaves aside, the next one takes up and makes its cornerstone. Jesus simply wears too many hats in the Gospels—exorcist, healer, king, prophet, sage, rabbi, demigod, and so on. The Jesus Christ of the New Testament is a composite figure (…) The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.’ Later on Price states ‘I am not trying to say that there was a single origin of the Christian savior Jesus Christ, and that origin is pure myth; rather, I am saying that there may indeed have been such a myth, and that if so, it eventually flowed together with other Jesus images, some one of which may have been based on a historical Jesus the Nazorean.’ He acknowledges that he stands against the majority view of scholars, but cautions against attempting to settle the issue by appeal to the majority.

Irish Dominican priest and theologian Thomas L. Brodie earned his PhD at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome in 1988. He taught Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament in the United States, South Africa and Ireland, and is a co-founder and former director of the Dominican Biblical Institute in Limerick. His bibliography includes scholarly works on subjects such as the Gospel of John, Genesis and the Elijah and Elisha narratives, and his publishers have included Oxford University Press and Sheffield Phoenix Press. In 2012, Brodie published ‘Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.’ In it, he argued that the gospels are essentially a rewriting of the stories of Elijah and Elisha when viewed as a unified account in the Books of Kings, leading to the conclusion that Jesus is mythical. Brodie’s argument builds on his previous work, in which he stated that rather than being separate and fragmented, the stories of Elijah and Elisha are united and that 1 Kings 16:29–2 Kings 13:25 is a natural extension of 1 Kings 17–2 Kings 8 which have a coherence not generally observed by other biblical scholars.

Brodie then views the Elijah–Elisha story as the underlying model for the gospel narratives. Brodie draws his conclusions from two branches of literary studies: ‘First, researchers were recognizing that many biblical texts are rewritings or transformations of older texts that still exist, thus giving a clearer sense of where the biblical texts came from; and second, studies in the ancient art of composition clarified the biblical texts’ unity and purpose, that is to say, where biblical texts were headed.’ In early 2013, it was reported that Brodie had been forced to resign his teaching job and banned from writing and lecturing while under investigation for disputed teaching. Soon after, the Dominican order denied the story and insisted Brodie had already performed three terms as director at the institute and was not intending to serve a fourth, but that the book would be reviewed by a committee of scholars within the Irish Dominicans. The institute’s website indicates the investigation is ongoing.

Canadian writer Earl Doherty (B.A. in Ancient History and Classical Languages) argues in ‘The Jesus Puzzle’ (2005) and ‘Jesus: Neither God nor Man—The Case for a Mythical Jesus’ (2009) that Jesus originated as a myth derived from Middle Platonism with some influence from Jewish mysticism, and that belief in a historical Jesus emerged only among Christian communities in the 2nd century. He writes that none of the major apologists before the year 180, except for Justin and Aristides of Athens, included an account of a historical Jesus in their defenses of Christianity. Instead the early Christian writers describe a Christian movement grounded in Platonic philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism, reaching the worship of a monotheistic Jewish god and what he calls a ‘logos-type Son.’ Doherty argues that Theophilus of Antioch (c. 163–182), Athenagoras of Athens (c. 133–190), Tatian the Assyrian (c. 120–180), and Marcus Minucius Felix (writing around 150–270) offer no indication that they believed in a historical figure crucified and resurrected, and that the name Jesus does not appear in any of them.

American-born biblical scholar and theologian Thomas L. Thompson is Professor emeritus at the University of Copenhagen since 2009. He is now a Danish citizen associated with The Copenhagen School movement of biblical minimalism and the author of a number of books critical of the historicity of the Old Testament. While a student at University of Tübingen in the 1970s, his PhD dissertation on the quest for the historical Abraham was rejected by his examiner Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) since it went against Catholic theology. He was invited to finish his degree at Temple University in Philadelphia where he received his PhD summa cum laude.

In 2007, Thompson wrote ‘The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David.’ This scholarly work methodically argues that the biblical accounts of both King David and Jesus of Nazareth are mythical in nature and based on Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek and Roman literature. For example, he argues that the resurrection of Jesus is taken directly from the story of the dying and rising god, Dionysus. Thompson, however, does not draw a final conclusion if Jesus was real or not, and in a 2012 online article, he forcefully rejects Bart Ehrman’s mischaracterization of his views and the label ‘mythicist.’ He was a fellow of the Jesus Project. Also, in 2012, as part of the Copenhagen International Seminar series, Thompson and Rutgers student Thomas S. Verenna edited a collection of essays entitled ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?: The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus.’ Some argue for the historicity of Jesus, others argue for non-historicity, and some do not try to make an argument one way or the other.

Born in India, Alexander Jacob is an academic, author and translator who received his PhD from the Pennsylvania State University in History of Ideas, and later worked at York University and conducted research at the University of Toronto. Among other themes, he has written on Cambridge Platonism in works such as ‘Henry More’s Refutation of Spinoza’ (1991), ‘Ātman: A Reconstruction of the Solar Cosmology of the Indo-Europeans’ (2005), and ‘Nobilitas: A Study of European Aristocratic Philosophy from Ancient Greece to the Early Twentieth Century’ (2001). Today he is a leading scholar in the study of the ancient Indo-European religions and has found major similarities among them. He has documented many themes, especially in ancient Egyptian religion which appear later in Judaism and Christianity.

Jacob’s work strongly supports the thesis that the Jesus story was the Judaized, historicized version of a very ancient myth which can be described as archetypal (i.e. its origins ultimately lie rooted in our human collective unconscious). His 2012 book, ‘Brahman: A Study of the Solar Rituals of the Indo-Europeans’ provides an overview of his conclusions about the common, solar, cosmological and philosophical orientations of the ancient religions of Sumer, Egypt and India. A key passage states: ‘As for the Christian cult, the fact that it too was derived from the Indo-European cosmogonical notions and dates back, like the Kabbalah, to the time of the Babylonian exile, is clear from the extraordinary story of the death and resurrection of the Christ himself, since this can only be a historicisation of the cosmic drama of the descent of the solar force (Osiris) into the underworld and its later emergence as the sun (Horus) of our solar system.’ According to Jacob, another proof of the mythological basis of the Christ story is the employment of a ‘carpenter’ as the father of Jesus, since this figure corresponds exactly to the creative force Tvashtr of the cosmic man, Parusha, since the name Tvashtr also signifies a carpenter. Jacob writes, ‘The translation of the cosmological myth of Jesus, which is the same as that of Helios/Brahman, as a historical tale set in Roman times in Judaea, is the work perhaps of Jews who called themselves the ‘disciples’ of Jesus, and of Paul, who wished to make the Christian cult an international Jewish one by adding a final chapter to the Jewish history of the Old Testament.’

In his 2006 bestseller ‘The God Delusion,’ evolutionary biologist and former professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins offers the modern John Frum cargo cult in South Pacific Islands as an example of how quickly a myth can become perceived reality among religious followers. John Frum is a figure associated with cargo cults on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. He is often depicted as an American World War II serviceman who will bring wealth and prosperity to the people if they follow him. Dawkins states: ‘Unlike the cult of Jesus, the origins of which are not reliably attested, we can see the whole course of events laid out before our eyes (and even here, as we shall see, some details are now lost). It is fascinating to guess that the cult of Christianity almost certainly began in very much the same way, and spread initially at the same high speed. (…) John Frum, if he existed at all, did so within living memory. Yet, even for so recent a possibility, it is not certain whether he lived at all.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.