Thursday, December 15, 2016

Why I Am Not a Mythicist, Part I

The Internet has fostered an entirely new and novel ecosystem of thought contagions. It seems that, freed of the interference of the gatekeeping power of the mainstream media, ideas that once seemed beyond the pale can bite down and take a big chunk out of the culture.

Mythicism or Jesus Mythicism, which argues that Jesus never actually existed (or at best was a largely-legendary figure like Homer) is one of those ideas. It was a fringe concept (some might argue it still is) that was taken up by Internet researchers very early on and has made major inroads in this era of "Nones." For instance:

A survey by the Church of England suggests that forty percent of people in England do not believe Jesus was a real person, with "a quarter of 18 to 34 year olds believing he was a mythical or fictional character." 
Mythicism is a follow-on of sorts on the work of groups like the Jesus Seminar, liberal theologians who took a scalpel to the Gospels and declared them to be almost-entirely fabricated, based not on collections of Jesus sayings but on literary invention. A kind of one-upsmanship, if you will.

On the face of it, the argument is compelling. There are no contemporary accounts of Jesus and very few independent references in the immediate period following his purported death. Most of the information we have on him comes from clearly-biased sources.

The accounts in the Gospels are filled with obvious parallels to earlier stories in the Bible and from pagan religions. And the dates in the Gospel stories can't always be squared with what we know from recorded Roman history.

But you would be shocked to find out how little we actually know about many, many historical figures, especially figures from antiquity.

Noted H.P. Lovecraft scholar Robert Price is a well-known Mythicist (and former Baptist minister) and sums up his arguments thusly:

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, Price argues, is that a Jesus Christ, son of God, lived in a heavenly realm, 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.  
Yeah, I don't find any of these arguments remotely compelling. Why? Let's go in order.

1. Scholars will tell you that the region was filled with itinerant preachers and miracle workers. There's no reason for one or the other to be recorded except that he was noticed by a someone who could write. Someone being a Roman bureaucrat, who probably couldn't tell any of these characters apart.

And there's good reason to believe that Jesus was also leading a political rebellion and that alone would be reason for him to be written out of history.

2. Well, this is just weak. What this tells us is that Jesus was the Elvis of his day and was instantly mythologized as soon as he died. This in fact speaks to the power and effectiveness of his ministry, seeing that he was deified even before the Gospels were written.

3. Well, of course. He died. And rumors soon spread among his followers that he rose from the dead, and not-uncommon reaction to such a trauma. And having studied the Mysteries in earnest I can tell you with certainty that the Gospel stories and the Mystery dramas just aren't that similar. The Mystery stories are a lot more psychedelic.

Speaking of which, there was an early variation on the Mythicist argument:

In his books The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970) and The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth (1979), the British archaeologist and philologist John M. Allegro advanced the theory that stories of early Christianity originated in a shamanistic Essene clandestine cult centered around the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. He also argued that the story of Jesus was based on the crucifixion of the Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls. 
Which leads in an oblique way to perhaps the best-known proponent of Mythicism these days, Joseph Atwill, author of Caesar's Messiah. From his site:
...Atwill returned to his studies of early Christianity through the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls.  It seemed incredible that two diametrically opposite forms of messianic Judaism emerged from Judea at the same time.  One sect was waging a religious war against the Romans, seeking a Messiah that would lead them to military victory. Simultaneously, the followers of Jesus were supposedly organizing a religion based around a Messiah that told them to “turn the other cheek” and “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” 
The key came in Josephus’ War of the Jews, which describes Titus’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  The military campaign exactly paralleled over 40 moments in the ministry of Jesus described in the Gospels; an inconceivable coincidence. 
As Atwill presents in Caesar's Messiah, the Flavian Roman imperial family created Christianity to pacify the militaristic opposition to their rule. Even more incredibly, they placed a literary satire within the Gospels to mark their handiwork.   
There's no doubt the Flavians were deeply involved with the development of Christianity and its eventual elevation as official cult of state. Probably from very, very early on. It's also possible that they took the Gospels- under the sole control of Rome for thirteen centuries- and worked in a number of in-jokes that spoke to their interference with this religion.

However, there were all kinds of other Gospels, stories and collections of Jesus sayings that were not included in the Bible. There was a major schism in the Jesus movement that is recorded in the Bible itself. We are conditioned to believe those other stories are apocryphal because the Church says so but we have no other reason to believe they are any more or less authentic than the Gospels themselves. 

Moreover, scholars generally tend to dismiss Atwill's arguments that the Judean insurrection was such a military threat that Rome would need to construct a religion to handle them. What the Romans were probably more concerned with were the Jewish converts within the Empire and the appeal a strict, exclusive and text-based religion had in the squalor and confusion of the time.

Even so, the Flavian project was not universally appreciated in the Roman hierarchy. Though the accounts have been wildly overstated, there were periodic (and often brutal) crackdowns on Christians, right up the beginning of the Fourth Century.

Jesus was clearly mythologized, there can be no argument about that. Real people are mythologized all the time. It doesn't mean they don't exist.

Another prominent Mythicist is the late Dorothy Murdock aka Acharya S. Murdock was a brilliant scholar and prodigious writer but she was also a polemicist who took the work of some extremely questionable historians like Gerald Massey too seriously. Murdock thought that the Apostle Paul was a myth too. 

 In fact, from the odd coincidences between his life and that of Jesus, it has been suggested by not a few people that Jesus Christ is a fictional character based in large part on Apollonius of Tyana, although Christians beginning in early times cast the accusation of plagiarism in the opposite direction. 
In addition to this possible development are striking correlations between the lives of Apollonius and the apostle Paul, who, like Jesus, strangely finds no place in contemporary history, despite claims to his having made quite a ruckus in a populated and well documented part of the world. 
It appears that the stories of both Jesus and Paul were in part fabricated from that of Apollonius. 
The Jesus-Apollonius parallels are well-known in Biblical studies and parallels between the two figures have been commented on throughout history (no less a luminary than Voltaire weighed in on the issue). Scholar Bart Ehrman summed up the controversy:
 ...A supernatural being informed his mother the child she was to conceive would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. He was born miraculously, and he became an unusually precocious young man. As an adult he left home and went on an itinerant preaching ministry, urging his listeners to live, not for the material things of this world, but for what is spiritual. 
He gathered a number of disciples around him, who became convinced that his teachings were divinely inspired, in no small part because he himself was divine. He proved it to them by doing many miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. But at the end of his life he roused opposition, and his enemies delivered him over to the Roman authorities for judgment...
The problem is that Apollonius' story wasn't actually written down until 230 CE or so, and Jesus stories had been very well-circulated by that point. Moreover Apollonius' biography was commissioned by Julia Domna, wife of Septimus Severus, aka the Empress of Rome.

Julia's husband was having a lot of problems with Christians at the time, which I still believe weren't just a case of the Romans being meanies (Severus seemed well-disposed to Christians personally) but of Christians engaging in acts of sedition against the State (acts which later copyists just happened to forget to record in Roman histories).

Given Julia's background- and the mess the Empire was in- she may have thought it advantageous to offer up an alternative religion to the masses. But the subject of ancient hagiographies is germane to the Mythicist argument. 

One of the reasons I not only believe Jesus was a real person but was also a charismatic preacher and leader are a number of thorny problems the Gospel writers feel they need to address. 

Contemporary writers may not have recorded Jesus at the time (and I'm sorry, but the dismissals of quotes like Tacitus' are simple goalpost moving) but I strongly believe that stories about him survived past his death in oral traditions. And then there's the whole issue of John the Baptist, something which even the Mythicists don't seem to want to deal with...