Defining Mythicism: Mythical Jesus, Mythicist Jesus, and Tertullian on 1 John 4:3

Landon Hedrick has written an interesting blog post. Here is a snippet:

If you believe that Jesus walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, raised people from the dead, and was himself resurrected from the dead, then you don’t get to dismiss the “Jesus never existed” theory as too silly or crazy to take seriously.


I’m not arguing for mythicism here (I’m not a mythicist). That’s not what I’m up to. Nor am I arguing against it. My point is rather simple: as unbelievable a view as it is, you have no room to dismiss it so casually on the basis of its being totally bonkers if you believe in a magic Jesus yourself.

via Landon Hedrick Blogs: New Rule.

I think it is an interesting perspective. It is definitely worth the read. I can associate with Avalos on being an agnostic about the question, as I am also an agnostic. But I did find this additional comment from Hedrick quite interesting (it is the first comment listed under the blog itself):

According to Hector Avalos (article in preparation), 1 John 4:1-3 at the very leasts suggests that, even at the time of the New Testament writings, there were a group of self-described Christians who did not believe that Jesus had come in the flesh at all.

The passage (RSV) reads:
[1] Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
[2] By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God,
[3] and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already.

But how could there even be prophets saying that Jesus had not come in the flesh if everyone agreed that he was a blood and flesh person all along? So, for Avalos, 1 John 4 suggests that, even at the time of the New Testament writings, Christianity was already divided into what we might call “historical” (if that means a flesh and blood person) and “mythicist” (if that means not a flesh and blood person) views of Jesus.

This passage is noted by Earl Doherty (Jesus Puzzle, pp. 43 and 307).”

What is interesting specifically is that the interpretation of this passage. In the Greek (SBL NT):

Ἀγαπητοί, μὴ παντὶ πνεύματι πιστεύετε, ἀλλὰ δοκιμάζετε τὰ πνεύματα εἰ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, ὅτι πολλοὶ ψευδοπροφῆται ἐξεληλύθασιν εἰς τὸν κόσμον. ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκετε τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ· πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ ὁμολογεῖ Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, καὶ πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν· καὶ τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου, ὃ ἀκηκόατε ὅτι ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἐστὶν ἤδη.

The last verse in this group (bolded above), 1 John 4:3, is where this interpretation really rests. The RP (The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005, comp. and arr. by M. A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont [Southborough, Mass.: Chilton, 2005]) which is noted in the SBL NT, notes an additional section of Greek text:

Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα

Which fits into the verse as such (bolded):

καὶ πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα, ἐκ τοῦ Θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστι· καὶ τοῦτό ἐστι τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου, ὃ ἀκηκόατε ὅτι ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἐστὶν ἤδη.

And the NA27 (another authority, as it were) also indicates that early witnesses (c. 4th century manuscripts) attest to the Greek with the inclusion of Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα. And if we follow this thinking to the early church fathers, Tertullian, in his De praescriptione hereticorum, ch. 34, he writes:

But in his [John – ed.] epistle he especially designates those “Antichrists” who “denied that Christ was come in the flesh,” and who refused to think that Jesus was the Son of God. The one dogma Marcion maintained; the other, Hebion.

This was written in the early third century, meaning that Tertullian was aware of a manuscript which probably incorporated the Greek addition above. So I have to agree that the rendering in English (from the AKJV):

And every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof you have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

So Avalos’ point actually is quite interesting; indeed it would seem that in the third century, at least, and assuming this rendering dates back to the autographa (which we don’t have), in the second century, there had been at least one sect of Christians which did not believe in an earthly, fleshly, human Jesus. This verse is also quoted, to some small extent perhaps, by Polycarp (assuming the letter is authentic), in his Epistle to the Philippians, ch. 7. If the letter is indeed authentic, it would validate an early second century date for the passage.

h/t to James McGrath for posting this and bringing it to my attention.

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