Bart Ehrman, 'Did Jesus Exist', discusses Mythicists, those who think the story of Jesus has been totally made up.
After a relative hiatus, the mythicist view has resurfaced in recent years. In chapters 6 and 7 I review the major arguments for this position, but here I want to say something about the authors themselves, a doughty and colorful ensemble. I have already mentioned Earl Doherty, seen by many as the leading representative of the view in the modern period. By his own admission, Doherty does not have any advanced degrees in biblical studies or any related field. But he does have an undergraduate degree in classics, and his books show that he has read widely and has a good deal of knowledge at his disposal, quite admirable for someone who is, in his own view, an amateur in the field. His now-classic statement is The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? This has recently been expanded in a second edition, published not as a revision (which it is) but rather as its own book, Jesus: Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Christ. The overarching theses are for the most part the same between the two books. By contrast, Robert Price is highly trained in the relevant fields of scholarship. Price started out as a hard-core conservative evangelical Christian, with a master’s degree from the conservative evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He went on to do a Ph.D. in systematic theology at Drew University and then a second Ph.D. in New Testament studies, also at Drew. He is the one trained and certified scholar of New Testament that I know of who holds to a mythicist position. As with other conservative evangelicals who have fallen from the faith, Price fell hard. His first significant book, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?, answers the question of the subtitle with no shade of ambiguity.
The Gospel tradition about Jesus is not at all reliable. Price makes his case through a detailed exploration of all the Gospel traditions, arguing forcefully and intelligently. Price has written other works, the most significant for my present purposes being The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems, which is due to be published (as I write) within a few weeks. I am grateful to Robert and the publisher of Atheist Press for making it available to me. That publisher is Frank Zindler, another outspoken representative of the mythicist view.
Zindler is also an academic, but he does not have credentials in biblical studies or in any field of antiquity. He is a scientist, trained in biology and geology. He taught in the community college system of the State University of New York for twenty years before—by his own account—being driven out for supporting Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her attempt to remove “In God We Trust” from American currency. Extremely prolific, Zindler writes in a number of fields. Many of his publications have been brought together in a massive four-volume work called Through Atheist Eyes: Scenes from a World That Won’t Reason. The first volume of this magnum opus is called Religions and Scriptures and contains a number of essays both directly and tangentially related to mythicist views of Jesus, written at a popular level.
A different sort of support for a mythicist position comes in the work of Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. Thompson is trained in biblical studies, but he does not have degrees in New Testament or early Christianity. He is, instead, a Hebrew Bible scholar who teaches at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. In his own field of expertise he is convinced that figures from the Hebrew Bible such as Abraham, Moses, and David never existed. He transfers these views to the New Testament and argues that Jesus too did not exist but was invented by Christians who wanted to create a savior figure out of stories found in the Jewish scriptures.9 Some of the other mythicists I will mention throughout the study include Richard Carrier, who along with Price is the only mythicist to my knowledge with graduate training in a relevant field (Ph.D. in classics from Columbia University)
Tom Harpur, a well-known religious journalist in Canada, who did teach New Testament studies at Toronto before moving into journalism and trade-book publishing; and a slew of sensationalist popularizers who are not, and who do not bill themselves as, scholars in any recognizable sense of the word. Other writers who are often placed in the mythicist camp present a slightly different view, namely, that there was indeed a historical Jesus but that he was not the founder of Christianity, a religion rooted in the mythical Christ-figure invented by its original adherents. This view was represented in midcentury by Archibald Robinson, who thought that even though there was a Jesus, “we know next to nothing about this Jesus.” I will indicate more fully later, I think Wells—and Price, and several other mythicists—do deserve to be taken seriously, even if their claims are in the end dismissed.15 A number of other mythicists, however, do not offer anything resembling scholarship in support of their view and instead present the unsuspecting reading public with sensationalist claims that are so extravagant, so wrongheaded, and so poorly substantiated that it is no wonder that scholars do not take them seriously. These sensationalist books may have a reading public. They are, after all, written to be read. But if scholars take note of them at all, it is simply out of amazement that such inaccurate and poorly researched publications could ever see the published light of day
. IN 1999, UNDER THE nom de plume Acharya S, D. M. Murdock published the breathless conspirator’s dream: The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold.16 This book was meant to set the record straight by showing that Christianity is rooted in a myth about the sun-god Jesus, who was invented by a group of Jews in the second century CE. Mythicists of this ilk should not be surprised that their views are not taken seriously by real scholars, that their books are not reviewed in scholarly journals, mentioned by experts in the field, or even read by them. The book is filled with so many factual errors and outlandish assertions that it is hard to believe that the author is serious. If she is serious, it is hard to believe that she has ever encountered anything resembling historical scholarship. Her “research” appears to have involved reading a number of nonscholarly books that say the same thing she is about to say and then quoting them. One looks in vain for the citation of a primary ancient source, and quotations from real experts (Elaine Pagels, chiefly) are ripped from their context and misconstrued. Still, in opposition to scholars who take alternative positions, such as that Jesus existed (she calls them “historicizers”), Acharya states, “If we assume that the historicizers’ disregard of these scholars [that is, the mythicists] is deliberate, we can only conclude that it is because the mythicists’ arguments have been too intelligent and knifelike to do away with.”17 One cannot help wondering if this is all a spoof done in good humor.
The basic argument of the book is that Jesus is the sun-god: “Thus the son of God is the sun of God” (get it—son, sun?). Stories about Jesus are “in actuality. ased on the movements of the sun through the heavens. In other words, Jesus Christ and the others upon whom he is predicated are personifications of the sun, and the gospel fable is merely a repeat of mythological formula revolving around the movements of the sun through the heavens.”18 Christianity, in Acharya’s view, started out as an astrotheological religion in which this sun-god Jesus was transformed into a historical Jew by a group of Jewish Syro-Samaritan Gnostic sons of Zadok, who were also Gnostics and Therapeutae (a sectarian group of Jews) in Alexandria, Egypt, after the failed revolt of the Jews against Rome in 135 CE. The Jews had failed to establish themselves as an independent state in the Promised Land and so naturally were deeply disappointed. They invented this Jesus in order to bring salvation to those who were shattered by the collapse of their nationalistic dreams. The Bible itself is an astrotheological text with hidden meanings that need to be unpacked by understanding their astrological symbolism. Later we will see that all of Acharya’s major points are in fact wrong. Jesus was not invented in Alexandria, Egypt, in the middle of the second Christian century. He was known already in the 30s of the first century, in Jewish circles of Palestine. He was not originally a sun-god (as if that equals Son-God!); in fact, in the earliest traditions we have about him, he was not known as a divine being at all. He was understood to be a Jewish prophet and messiah. There are no astrological phenomena associated with Jesus in any of our earliest traditions. These traditions are attested in multiple sources that originated at least a century before Acharya’s alleged astrological creation at the hands of people who lived in a different part of the world from the historical Jesus and who did not even speak his language. Just to give a sense of the level of scholarship in this sensationalist tome, I list a few of the howlers one encounters en route, in the order in which I found them. Acharya claims that: The second-century church father Justin never quotes or mentions any of the Gospels. This simply isn’t true: he mentions the Gospels on numerous occasions; typically he calls them “Memoirs of the Apostles” and quotes from them, especially from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospels were forged hundreds of years after the events they narrate. In fact, the Gospels were written at the end of the first century, about thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’s death, and we have physical proof: one fragment of a Gospel manuscript dates to the early second century. How could it have been forged centuries after that? We have no manuscript of the New Testament that dates prior to the fourth century. This is just plain wrong: we have numerous fragmentary manuscripts that date from the second and third centuries. The autographs “were destroyed after the Council of Nicaea”. In point of fact, we have no knowledge of what happened to the original copies of the New Testament; they were probably simply used so much they wore out. There is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that they survived until Nicaea or that they were destroyed afterward; plenty of counter evidence indicates they did not survive until Nicaea. “It took well over a thousand years to canonize the New Testament,” and “many councils” were needed to differentiate the inspired from the spurious books. Actually, the first author to list our canon of the New Testament was the church father Athanasius in the year 367; the comment about “many councils” is simply made up. Paul never quotes a saying of Jesus.
Acharya has evidently never read the writings of Paul. As we will see, he does quote sayings of Jesus. The Acts of Pilate, a legendary account of Jesus’s trial and execution, was once considered canonical. None of our sparse references to the Acts of Pilate indicates, or even suggests, any such thing. The “true meaning of the word gospel is ‘God’s Spell,’ as in magic, hypnosis and delusion”. No, the word gospel comes to us from the Old English term god spel, which means “good news”—a fairly precise translation of the Greek word euaggelion. It has nothing to do with magic. The church father “Irenaeus was a Gnostic” . In fact, he was one of the most virulent opponents of Gnostics in the early church. Augustine was “originally a Mandaean, i.e., a Gnostic, until after the Council of Nicaea”. Augustine was not even born until nineteen years after the Council of Nicaea, and he certainly was no Gnostic.
Taken directly from Bart Ehrman's Book.
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