Defining Mythicism: Myth and History or Myth or History?

As an addendum to the earlier post on Galatians, I see a lot of either/or proposals put forth by certain mythicists and I can’t fathom why.  For example, they will say something akin to:

Jesus is either historical or he was made up.

Or

Jesus is either historical or he wasn’t, he can’t be both.

My first thought is: ‘what world are you living in where the past is so black and white?’

There are so many variables at play that claiming one or the other shows only ones ignorance about the past rather than an understanding of it.  Jesus might very well be historical; maybe he went by another name, maybe his name really was Jesus.  Maybe everything we know about him is made up, but that doesn’t negate the possibility that the figure of Jesus from the New Testament wasn’t based upon an actual historical figure who did do some of the things recorded, albeit in an exaggerated fashion, in the Gospels and Pauline Letters (like the breaking of the bread).  The fact is, we do see figures of the past fully mythologized and some are partially mythologized.  In either case, proposing an ‘either/or’ position is unrealistic and simply wrong.

There are other factors to consider when making these sorts of statements as well; cultural memory (or virtual memory, as my colleagues in Copenhagen would put it), types of literature in question, socio-cultural constructs and limitations, the value of the diachronic vs. synchronic understanding of language, and so on.  One just doesn’t rush to conclusions about black and white positions unaware of these factors and history is too inductive to make claims so strongly.

I am not saying I believe the figure of Jesus was historical–maybe he wasn’t–but what I am saying is that making broad or sweeping generalizations about the past is not helpful and will hurt ones position rather than strengthen it.

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12 Responses

  1. ‘Jesus might very well be historical; maybe he went by another name, maybe his name really was Jesus. Maybe everything we know about him is made up, but that doesn’t negate the possibility that the figure of Jesus from the New Testament wasn’t based upon an actual historical figure who did do some of the things recorded, albeit in an exaggerated fashion, in the Gospels and Pauline Letters (like the breaking of the bread).’

    Sherlock Holmes was based on a real historical person. Of course, the name of that person wasn’t Sherlock Holmes.

    And Popeye was based on a real sailor who did some of the things recorded in the cartoons, such as getting into fights over a girl. Of course, the cartoons are somewhat exaggerated.

    It is pure black-and-white thinking to claim that Popeye and Sherlock Holmes did not exist. It is not helpful and will hurt one’s position.

  2. Comparing Jesus to Popeye is not helping your position one bit, Steven. When people read this sort of comment from you, the only thing they see is ignorance. Not to mention the utter hypocrisy of such a claim. You cannot come at James McGrath for making false analogies when you are doing the exact same thing here. Think before you post.

  3. Are you claiming Popeye was not based on a real historical person?

    It was suggested that mythicists see things in black and white. Either Popeye existed or he did not.

    But it could be that everything is a lot more grey and that people in stories were based on real people, just as Popeye was based on a real sailor.

    What is ignorant or hypocritical about that?

    Please explain for the benefit of ignorant hypocrites like me.

  4. As it happens, I honestly have no idea what sort of analogy I could have made.

    I can’t think of another wandering preacher who had an entourage of a fixed number of disciples wandering around with him,

    I was stuck for an analogy. Could you supply one for me please, as I am too ignorant to know of another wandering preacher who had a fixed number of disciples.

  5. [...] yet another post about Jesus Mythicism at Tom Verenna’s put these simplistic thoughts in my [...]

  6. The broader point: “history is too inductive to make claims so strongly” I agree with, and both sides of the historicity debate would be well advised to take it seriously, but this:

    “Jesus might very well be historical; maybe he went by another name, maybe his name really was Jesus. Maybe everything we know about him is made up, but that doesn’t negate the possibility that the figure of Jesus from the New Testament wasn’t based upon an actual historical figure who did do some of the things recorded, albeit in an exaggerated fashion, in the Gospels and Pauline Letters (like the breaking of the bread).”

    is like saying Huckleberry Finn was based on a real person who wasn’t called Huck and never floated down the Mississippi on a raft with an escaped slave. Any male child Samuel Clemens ever knew or heard of could then be credited with being “the inspiration” for Huck, then, couldn’t they? Would they even needed to have been male? Surely there’s a limit to how generic we’re allowing a historical figure to be? It seems to me there has to be some minimal threshold of specificity in the common factors shared between inspiration and inspired character in a narrative in order to assert that the character actually was inspired by a real person.

    Further, take your example of the breaking of the bread. Every single person who lived in an ancient agrarian society broke bread as often as they could manage, and many, probably most, people even today include some ritualistic practice with the action of table fellowship. If “everything we know about him is made up” I fail to see the difference between that and mythicism, which does not depend on there never having been a Galilean Jew named Yeoshua who on occasion broke bread with a circle of intimates.

    -C.J. O’Brien

  7. Steve, do you think the author of Popeye was hoping his comic would inform readers about facts regarding the “historical” Popeye? Do you think Paul is hoping his readers will accept what he is saying concerning Jesus as facts about Jesus? Do you think Paul’s letters may have just been for the amusement of his readers without connection to his perceived reallity? If Paul’s letters are for simple entertainment, then Popeye is a good analogy. If not then, the question arises, what did Paul think Jesus is? If the answer is a person who lived in reallity, even if it is Judah Doe, who was hung in Antioch for teaching evolution, then we can’t say Paul’s Jesus is a myth with no referent in history. If Paul thinks his Jesus is Adam or Enoch of Genesis, then the issue of mythical founders get kicked back to those individuals historicity (both mythical). If Paul thinks Jesus was a martyr from the Selucid period, then that individual is the “historic” Jesus and the Gospels, fictions suposedly based on the charachter, like the Scorpian King in the movie Scorpian King. Yes their was a King Scorpian of Egypt, no, he did nothing as depeicted in the film. Now since I have no reason to trust Paul that Jesus is ruyling in heaven or was prexistant or anything, I would have to say that Paul’s Jesus is mostly mythical. But there are reasons to suspect that this is a mythic elaboration on a real person just as the Hitler who made an antartic base stocked with crazy flying saucers and aliens from Shangi-La is a myth formed around the real Hitler (is there a law yet on using Hitler in examples?).

  8. Movement from mystery cult to Jewishness is less likely than movement from Jewish movement to mystery cult. If Christianity began as a god-man sacrificed in the heavens by principalities and powers for the salvation of all mankind who would eat his body and drink his blood, how or rather why would it end up turning him into a Jewish rabbi who tried to be the Messiah, entered Jerusalem on a donkey to prove it, caused a disturbance in the temple, and got put to death by Rome for making himself a king (“he says he is Christ, a king….if you let him go you are no friend of Caesar!”, “An accusation written over his head: King of the Jews”) Would Jews be interested in appropriating the mystery cult Savior as their Messiah and moving his crucifixion from the sublunar regions to the earth? Would they desire to make themselves rather than the principalities and powers his executioners? Of course not. But if the movement began as a Jewish Messianic movement whose leader was crucified by Rome for making himself out to be “Christ, a king” and thus an opponent to Caesar, and they tried to somehow carry on the movement after his death, a disaffected convert to Judaism might see in this movement his change to create a spinoff in which the dead Messiah becomes a sacrificed mystery cult god who can offer immortality to his worshipers by their imbibing his body and blood. And so one man–Paul–takes the Jewish movement and changes the crucifiers from Rome to the Jews themselves, making them to be controlled by principalities and powers, and proceeds to put his antisemitism into practice by robbing the Jews of their own Scripture, since he re-appropriates it as his and portrays them as idiots with a veil on their heart who don’t understand their own books, thus making them vagabonds and fugitives on the earth until some mythic time in which they will finally “get it” and “so all Israel shall be saved.” This account of the development of Christianity makes infinite more sense than the impossible movement from mythical mystery religion to Jewish-ish sect that hates Judaism.

    There is more at stake, in other words, than an explanation of how Jesus came to be worshipped as a deity (all mythicists seem to be concerned with) — there is also the explanation of the development of Christian antisemitism to be explained, and the mythicist concept is unable to explain it. Indeed, embracing mythicism is evidence of a lack of concern for this topic.

  9. Movement from mystery cult to Jewishness is less likely than movement from Jewish movement to mystery cult.

    What? That is a very silly comment. It presupposes too much; in fact the entire premise of the comment you make here is a special plea. We first have to accept the premise that Christian origins rest in ‘Jewishness’ and frankly Jewish sects were far too diverse to ever encompass a sort of standard ‘Jewishness’ which one might attempt to locate in Christianity. Second, there were a lot of Jewish mystery cults in the first century and we know some Jewish sects, which were not mystery religions, had rites that resembled Greek mystery cult traditions. Finally, we don’t have nearly enough data to make the claim you do above; it is impossible to support your claim because we don’t have information from all the possible existing Jewish sects in the first century and frankly we don’t have enough information about the sects we know existed at the time.

    If Christianity began as a god-man sacrificed in the heavens by principalities and powers for the salvation of all mankind who would eat his body and drink his blood…

    Also a baseless question. Members of the Attis cult ritually castrated themselves. Are you now going to argue that Attis must have existed historically in order for people to ritually castrate themselves? Of course not. I would make it clear to you, also, that people don’t actually eat body and drink blood when they break bread and drink wine. It is metaphorical, And while Catholics might put their faith in transubstantiation, the fact is that deep down they all know they are only eating bread and drinking wine. They’re not cannibals. Its symbolic. Castration, on the other hand, is not symbolic–its a real bodily mutilation. That should impress upon you the stretch of which people will go in order to participate in a rite in antiquity, regardless of whether or not the founder of that mystery tradition was historical or not.

    why would it end up turning him into a Jewish rabbi who tried to be the Messiah,

    Clearly you are unfamiliar with how the ancient mind worked. Some ancients believed that the Centaurs were once a historical group of horse-lords who had the best cavalry in the world, who were later mythologized. They believed that the Amazons really existed and that the Argo really sailed and they dated these events. Euhemerus argued that all the Gods were once historical figures or kings who were later mythologized. It would be hardpressed for you to show any evidence that these events happened or that Centaurs are really mythologized historical cavalry. Time does crazy things to myths. And every generation has at least one person who attempts to find or locate a historical core to the fictions. Jumping from spiritual messiah to historical messiah (or attempted messiah) is not at all difficult. Especially if one were to base their narratives on the scriptures, which is what the Gospel authors have done.

    entered Jerusalem on a donkey to prove it,

    This event never happened historically. Its a part of the narrative taken from scripture. If there had been a historical Jesus, he did not ride into town on a donkey. So this is actually not useful to your argument.

    caused a disturbance in the temple, and got put to death by Rome for making himself a king

    The disturbance at the temple and the crucifixion are all emulations of scripture. You might argue that these were picked out later to explain historical events (an argument I have never once found compelling) but the fact remains that the possibility exists that none of this had been historical and likely could have been fabrications which were created using scripture. Actually, quite a very common occurrence for Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Christian authors.

    There is more at stake, in other words, than an explanation of how Jesus came to be worshipped as a deity (all mythicists seem to be concerned with)

    I don’t think for a moment that this is all mythicists are concerned with. I’m not sure which mythicists you’re reading, but you’re clearly not reading anything from respectable mythicists like Thomas L. Thompson or Richard Carrier.

    there is also the explanation of the development of Christian antisemitism to be explained, and the mythicist concept is unable to explain it…embracing mythicism is evidence of a lack of concern for this topic.

    Antisemitism didn’t start with the early church and has nothing at all to do with Christian origins which is the foundation of the mythicist position. I’m in complete shock that you think that the question of historicity of the figure of Jesus has any bearing whatsoever on the question of antisemitism. It is absolutely insane of you to raise this concern. Seriously, insane.

    Antisemitism in the Christian community comes in around late antiquity, and during a period of great division in the community. Why in the world would you think for a second that mythicism (or historicism for that matter) is responsible for addressing a question which has absolutely nothing to do with the period you’re talking about? By the time antisemitism had found its way into the Christian church, generations had passed. We don’t have access to that original period and all we have left are fragments which need to be put together. And each fragment has multiple interpretations that go along with it. Most scholars agree that the Gospels do not contain any antisemitism (if for no other reason than the fact that the term ‘antisemitism’ is a modern term rooted deeply in anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence in our contemporary age, and trying to project it into antiquity would be little more than an anachronism), but that the Gospel authors were addressing specific sects of Jews (mainly the sect of the Temple cult). Mythicism doesn’t stand in the way of such an interpretation and any discussion of antisemitism in the early Church is completely unaffected by the fact that Jesus existed or that Jesus never existed historically. Please try to think more critically.

  10. How about this: “The New Testament is either reliable or it is not.”

    Or even this: “Which is more reliable: the New Testament or its critics?”

    Some things in life really are binary. The New Testament is either true or it is not. To take a more nuanced approach by saying it is partially true is to, in effect, say that is is not true. For who wants to swallow a cake that is only partially poisoned?

    Doubt cloaks itself in intellectual respectability.

  11. I believe you’re missing a very important part of the discussion, Mike. The New Testament isn’t a portrayal of one event, but multiple events, people, and sayings, as well as a plethora of sociocultural interactions, tradition, and cultural memory. The historian is not–nor should they ever be–tasked with analyzing the ‘whole’ New Testament as a singular object. Instead, the historian is tasked with the same procedure he finds with every piece of mythologized written evidence of and from the past. That is to say, the New Testament is made up of several books, some more reliable than others, some less. The point is that suggesting the New Testament is either true or not, in this black and white binary fashion, betrays your ignorance of the study of the past and how historians inductively study a collection of texts. One might find that most of it is unreliable, but one does not simply throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    But more than that, Mike; if scholars were to adopt your perspective as a maxim, no one would ever use written works from the past in their historical investigations. Herodotus, Xenophon, Polybius, Livy, Philostratus, none of the works by these individuals would be used in our understanding of the past. That is the real tragedy of your ignorance.

    If you are a Christian, this is an even worse perspective for you, since we find all sorts of miraculous accounts in other ancient literature. And if you adopt a black and white approach to this text, why do you also not apply it to other texts? Why would Philostratus recount miraculous tales of Apollonius if they weren’t true? Why would Livy and Cicero and Ovid recount the event of Romulus’ assumption to heaven only to return in a resurrected form? If you accept one miraculous collection of texts why not another? After all, using your logic, it is either wholly true or completely useless. And one must wonder what methods you would use to determine which is which.

  12. I would really like to be dragged out of my ignorance by Tom.

    Were Popeye and Sherlock Holmes based on real historical people?

    Was Judas based on a real historical person?

    How can I stop being ignorant if I am not told what is correct?

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