• Review: The Varieties of Jesus Mythicism

    The Varieties of Jesus Mythicism ed. John W. Loftus and Robert M. Price.

    Of all the books written on Jesus mythicism, there are just a rare few that are scholarly and that hope to contribute something new to your understanding of the new testament texts. This book checks both boxes, and is definitely a must read for all those who want to keep up with mythicist thinking today. What follows is chapter by chapter commentary. Though I find it necessarily the case that I have to use more words on disagreement than agreement, this should not be understood as a negative verdict on the book and everything here should be understood against the background of praise that I provided first.

    Why Mythicism Matters, by Dave Fitzgerald. New version of this essay, certainly a good intro to the book.

    Jesus, by Barbara G. Walker. Quotes Leo X as saying Christ was a ’fable’ that brought much profit, which is apparently a myth. Makes other claims that are doubtful (Does Jesus’ name really mean ’moon-man’?)

    Dying and Rising Gods, by Derreck Bennett.  Very strong and well sourced essay that proves the chapter title. Does not ”prove” that Jesus was mythical, but many dying and rising gods were, which certainly raises the question.

    Christianity is a Western Branch of Buddhism, by Michael Lockwood. The gospel of thomas having an alphabet story about Jesus and a parallel story being told about the buddha is fascinating and fairly reasonable to attribute to influence. The Johannine passages the author argues are derivative from Buddhism seems very much within the realm of coincidence in my eyes. On the other hand, I believe there was literary mimesis between the walking on water stories in Jataka 190 about Buddha and Matthew 14:22-33, with the former emphasizing focus as giving one the ability to do all things and the latter emphasizing faith. So I believe there was interplay between ancient Christianity and buddhism and throughout the ages even (with St. Jehosephat being a Christianized Buddha in the Middle Ages) but doubt strongly that Christianity is nothing more than a Westernized Buddhism.

    The Roman Provenance of Christianity, by Joseph Atwill. The value of this chapter is to save you money on Atwill’s book. Presents a few weak parallels between the gospels and Josephus. One example of his is strong (Josephus taking three men down from the cross and one surviving, as in the gospels) but you need not believe Atwill’s theory to acknowledge or explain that similarity.

    Pauline Origin of the Gospels in the Wake of the Jewish-Roman War, by R.G. Price. Very strong chapter on mythicism. The subtlety of the author’s argument is not to be missed:

    “[The] fact that the Gospels are ahistorical and provide no actual information about a real Jesus, does not mean that the Gospels can merely be set aside and discounted as evidence either for or against the existence of Jesus…If the first account of the life of Jesus is a fictional allegory and all other accounts copy from and build on that story, it tells us that there was no other biographical material about Jesus to go on. Surely later Gospel writers like Luke sought-out additional information about Jesus. The fact that Luke obviously came up empty handed in his first century search for real sayings of Jesus and real anecdotes about Jesus tells us that there were no existing communities that possessed or even purported to possess knowledge of ‘Jesus the man.’”

    I am largely in agreement with the author, with just a few exceptions. Price seems to think Mark wrote to establish an earthbound Jesus and ’correct’ Paul; but earthly narratives were commonly interpreted as allegorical stories about sky gods, as the first century theologian Plutarch attests. There is even a rock solid example of this in the bible when the author of Revelation ”allegorically” places Jesus in Sodom and Egypt (Revelation 11:8) or when the ”prince of the air” Satan appears on earth to tempt Jesus (in a narrative with a fictitious mountain from which all kingdoms can be seen at once) in what is certainly fiction one way or another.

    Price says: ”The Gospel of Mark must have been written by much more than simply a Pauline ‘follower.’ The Gospel of Mark must have been written by someone within the inner Pauline circle. This must be the case because the Gospel of Mark is actually our earliest witness to the collected letters of Paul…

    The fact that the author of Mark has a collection of all seven letters… tells us that this person must have been a part of the community that produced the letters of Paul to begin with. That the writer of Mark had possession of the collection of Paul’s letters tells us that, when the letters were produced, copies must have been made. If the letters were indeed actually sent to the groups they were addressed to at all, what would had to have happened is that one copy was sent while the other copy was retained. The collection of letters comes from the community that preserved the retained copies. That community would have been the intimate associates of Paul. This means that the person who wrote the Gospel of Mark almost certainly personally knew Paul.”

    ‘Mark’ having access to seven letters presumably sent to disparate locations implies that Mark is long after the fact, with enough time for the letters to have been copied many times and eventually brought together again. We would expect that process to take at the least years (possibly decades) and to top it off it would seem ’lucky’ if someone in possession of Paul’s letters just so happened to be among the very first people to have such, instaed of simply being a generation or more later. Price himself at some level sense this I think when he posits that “what would had to have happened is that one copy was sent while the other copy was retained;” why would Paul have done such a thing, as if anticipating his letters would one become scripture. Not to mention it seems like a complex conjecture with no evidence. Much simpler to hold Mark was radically late. I myself see evidence of Markan dependence on Josephus (see my comments on Atwill’s chapter) and thus feel a radically late date of Mark post 100 CE is amply justified. Robert G. Price now agrees.

    Under the Mushroom Tree, by Michael Hoffman. Adds a bit of plausibility to the hypothesis that ancient Christians used psychedelic mushrooms. No evidence presented of first century Christian use, but it remains a plausible conjecture.

    Star-Lore in the Gospels, by Bill Darlison. Fascinating look at how the gospels incorporate the twelve signs of the zodiak. I would like to do more research before commenting further, but it does seem like he has adduced an enormous case for this. I am aware of another book that attempts to make this case (unsure of the name — please mention in the comments if you know the title of the book) and think it would be fascinating to compare the two authors’ reconstruction to see how much convergence there is.

    The Mythic Power of the Atonement, by Robert M. Price. Much of the chapter is on theology and mythicism, not terribly interesting to those of us who don’t care for theology.

    A Sacrifice in Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews, by Earl Doherty. Points that the logic of Hebrews’ own arguments point towards a celestial Christ. Agreed. Argues that Hebrews 8:4 (“if he were on earth, he would not be a priest”) supports mythicism as the author fails to specify ”now.” Agreed, that is a more straightforward, less interpretive approach than the historicist interpretation. I would strengthen this argument by pointing out that via Plutarch and others, we know that some ancients believed the gods lived in the sky and were only on earth in allegorical, sacred narratives while others were like Euhemerus and thought the gods had really been on earth. So, in the world the author of Hebrews lived in, with these two contradictory concepts in the zeitgeist, you’d expect the author to carefully distinguish whixh sidemof the debate he is on. He never clearly articulates Jesus was on earth. He does, however, say many things such as the above that would suggest a sky god, and might suggest only a sky god, since the author is certainly careful to inform us that the sacrifice took place in heaven (as if the author is eager to dispel euhemerism about Jesus’ offering). I find Hebrews 10:5-7 even more supportive of mythicism than he does.

    The Jewish Myth of Jesus, by Stephan Huller fascinatingly points out that the main character of the gospels is most frequently called ”IS” which means man.

    Jesus: Pre-Existent and Non-Existent, by Robert M. Price. Price remakrs ”Either a real miracle-working Jesus would have received ancient attention but didn’t, hence there was no real historical Jesus; or a modest Jesus who was ‘human, all too human’ shouldn’t have received notice but somehow got it anyway!” Seemed like a nonsequitur when I first read it. What if Jesus had just been an inspiring teacher and that was why people remembered him. Then again, Paul, Hebrews and every other pregospel or possibly pregospel document has essentially no teachings of his, and nothing to admire him for beyond getting crucified in a largely unspecified way and offering his blood in the sky as a sacrifice. Jesus was primarily admired for achievements that were unverifiable by ordinary means.

    Mark’s Gospel: A Performed Play in Rome, by Danila Oder Speculative thesis that parts of Mark’s gospel were intended to be performed as a play. The author admits some parts of Mark could not be performed on stage, and given this state of affairs it is hard to see how her hypothesis has much explanatory value (If Mark was not written to be a play, wouldn’t that more readily predict an admixture of some performable and some unperformable events?).

    Is There a Man Behind the Curtain? A Response to Bart Ehrman, by Robert M. Price; A Rejoinder to James McGrath’s Case for Jesus, by Neil Godfrey; Everything is Wrong with This: The Legacy of Maurice Casey, by Tim Widowfield. Though I have some differences with the authors, and in particular feel some of Robert M. Price’s statements can be a touch dubious at times, overall these chapters constitute a solid demolition of some of mythicism’s biggest critics.

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    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."