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“Mythical Jesus”: The Fatal Flaws

December 4, 2017

My lengthy posting in which I explained why the “mythical Jesus” claim has no traction among scholars (here) drew (predictably) an attempt to refute it from the “Vridar” blogsite.  I don’t think it succeeds, but readers will have to judge for themselves.  I’ll content myself with underscoring a few things that remain established from my posting.

I focused on three claims that Richard Carrier posits as corroborating his hypothesis that “Jesus” was originally a “celestial being” or “archangel,” not a historical figure, and that this archangel got transformed into a fictional human figure across several decades of the first century CE.  I showed that the three claims are all false, which means that his hypothesis has no corroboration.

  1. There is no evidence of “a Jewish archangel Jesus”.  All known figures bearing the name are portrayed as human and historical figures.  Furthermore, contra Carrier, Paul never treats Jesus as an archangel, but instead emphasizes his mortal death and resurrection, and mentions his birth, Davidic descent, and Jewishness, cites teachings of Jesus, and refers to his personal acquaintance with Jesus’ siblings.
  2. There is no example among “all the savior cults” of the Roman period of a deity being transformed into a mortal being of a given time and place (such as he asserts happened in the case of Jesus).  Carrier claims a pattern, but there is none.
  3. From earliest extant Christian texts (Paul) to the NT Gospels, “Jesus” is a genuine human figure.  To be sure, Paul and other early Jesus-followers believed also that Jesus had been raised from death and exalted to heavenly glory.  They also then ascribed to him a back-story or “pre-existence” (e.g., drawing on Jewish apocalyptic and Wisdom traditions).  But for Paul “Jesus” wasn’t simply a “celestial being”.  And for the Gospel writers, he wasn’t simply a bloke.

My posting was intended simply to illustrate, especially for “general” readers outside the relevant fields, why the “mythical Jesus” view is regarded as bizarre among scholars in the relevant fields, scholars of all persuasions on religious matters, and over some 250 years of critical study.  It is a sad and desperate move for “Vridar” to dismiss this fact by impugning this huge body of scholarship as either gullible or prejudiced, when the only “crime” is a refusal to endorse the “mythicist” notion.  The scholarship that I point to has been shaped by the critical impulses from the Renaissance and “Enlightenment,” all texts, whether biblical or Christian or whatever, subjected to the same critical tests and procedures.  In what other subject would a solid body of scholarly judgement be treated to such foolish disdain?

So, ignoring the various red-herrings and distortions of the “mythicist” advocates, the claims proffered as “corroborating”  their view have been shown to be erroneous.  And this is why the view has no traction among scholars.  There’s no conspiracy.  It’s not because scholars are gullible or lazy.  The view just doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny.

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  1. I had seen and been often try to tell atheists that many atheists admit the existence of a historical Jesus and go on to lead happy and meaningful lives.
    Belief in historical Jesus, for a well informed and objective inquirer, is an act of faith. At least, that’s my own non-professional, non-academic, but rationally-arrived-at opinion.

    • “Shivangi”: We’re not talking about “belief in historical Jesus” (which suggests some faith stance), but a critical judgement of the evidence as to whether there was a historical figure. That’s not “an act of faith”.

  2. ankushgupta72 permalink

    I love this Article and want to thank you for sharing it.

  3. Greg Hillendahl permalink

    Dear Dr. Hurtado,

    This is a question that mainly pertains to your book, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?. BTW, I enjoyed reading the book (just got a copy of it). You mention about the “costs” of becoming a Christian. Could you provide a few remarks about how being a Christian would have been like or unlike being a Jewish person in the first century Roman world? I decided to go back and look at Eckhard Schnabel’s Early Christian Mission (chap. 6) where he discusses some of the anti-Jewish sentiments starting with the second cent. BCE. Thank you. (Should this be under a different [new?] post?)

    • As I explain the book (and in my book, Destroyer of the gods), Jewish refusal to worship the gods was seen by pagans as annoying, but labelled a feature of their nation. But pagans (“Gentiles”) who became Christians had no national tradition to justify their cultic exclusivity, which fellow pagans took as anti-social.

  4. I am, as they used to say, getting along in years. For most of my life, I’ve been an atheist, and for most of those years, I believed that only crackpots could entertain the notion that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. I changed my mind about that after reading Earl Doherty’s book.

    I have never entertained the notion that all historicists are gullible or lazy, or that they are engaged in any conspiracy. What I have seen, in the rare instances when they have presented real arguments in defense of historicity, is a begging of the question. Every such argument, without any exception that I have noticed so far, depends for its validity on the assumption that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth whose followers were responsible for the founding of the religion that evolved into what we now know as Christianity.

    • Doug: Your comment suggests that you’ve not read the best of historical scholarship, or that you’ve read it through blinkered eyes. Historians don’t “assume” Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure–using normal historical procedures, that is the best explanation of the evidence. Not a theological judgement–just a historical one. Read on!

      • They may say they don’t assume it. They may sincerely believe they don’t assume it. A careful analysis of their arguments shows that without the assumption, their arguments don’t prove what they say they prove.

        As for whether I have read the best scholarship, I cannot say. I base my observation on what I have read by those who have most actively and vociferously defended historicity on the Internet, plus two books: Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? and Shirley Jackson Case’s The Historicity of Jesus. I will welcome your suggestions for further reading.

      • Well, Doug, it must be wonderful to have such superior cognitive capacities to those you mention, such that you’re able readily to recategorize their arguments as “assumptions”. History is “proving”, usually, especially ancient history, but instead providing the judgment that best accounts for the evidence. And the overwhelming body of scholars who have done the patient work in question judge that the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth is the best explanation for the early references to a man by this name born, crucified, with known siblings, etc. Those aren’t assumptions but data. But I suspect that nothing will suffice to move your confident position. Be well.

      • For any body of evidence or set of data, there is no explanation that doesn’t depend on some assumptions. I have yet to see a study of the historical Jesus that doesn’t assume his existence. If you think there is one I’ve missed, point me to it.

      • Doug: The essence of critical work is to TEST one’s working assumption. Having one isn’t the problem. And 250 years of testing leads the scholarly community to the view that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure. That view doesn’t REST on an assumption, isn’t the result of an assumption, but of that critical work. Do you get it yet??

  5. John Mitrosky permalink

    Larry you made your point. Your hand is five aces. Mythicists don’t even have a pair of deuces….lol. I am reminded of a comment Goodacre once made years ago, “Let’s talk about something important like Q”,(or Matthew’s other source). Now I am sure we agree that Goodacre is wrong to suggest Q did not exist, but at least this is an interesting problem as compared to the mythicist problem, which is just idiotic, at best.

  6. larryhurdato: Would you mind reinstating my entire message? You posted only the very end of it, destroying its meaning by eliminating its context. Or did only the part you quoted make it to you?

    • Al: I edited out the blather, allowing your basic point. One of the “house rules” on this site is brevity.

  7. Julian permalink

    Prof. Hurtado,

    I just read Neil Godfrey’s reply. He mentions Richard Carrier’s discussion of Philo’s reference to an archangel Jesus. I haven’t read Carrier’s book, so I can’t evaluate his discussion. I’m curious if you have read it. If so, what is your opinion of it?

    • I don’t need to read Carrier. I’ve read Philo. He doesn’t mention an archangel Jesus.

      • Julian permalink

        Yes, I’m sure that you don’t need to read Carrier. Unfortunately, that leaves most of us laypeople in a somewhat awkward position: Do we buy Carrier’s 700+ page book, just so we can read the five pages devoted to his argument about a supposed archangel named Jesus? Or do we just take your word for it that he is wrong? Since you’ve gone to the trouble of telling us that Carrier doesn’t know what he is talking about, would it be too much trouble to look over those five pages and perhaps explain in a little more detail why?

      • Julian: If you read my original posting you’ll see that I reject Carrier’s claim because there is no evidence to support it. It’s that simple. He’s blowing smoke. That’s the problem–no basis for his claim.

  8. Nick: Great line: “and go on to lead happy and meaningful lives”! A little humor helps now and then.

  9. Doug Bridges permalink

    Lord what fools these mortals be…

  10. When someone has an emotional attachment to a belief and it *might* be true, in the sense that it cannot be conclusively proved to be not true, then the mere weight of evidence or scholarly consensus won’t dislodge the belief. Only finding and addressing the emotional root driving the need to believe would have that effect. Not something that historians and scholars are especially equipped or tasked to do.

    • Yes, it is an interesting question why there is such a need to assert the “mythical Jesus” view over against a rather solid body of evidence and scholarly judgment.

      • I suspect it feeds into the ego. A mythicist thinks they’re on the inside track and know something nobody else knows. They see through the truth everyone else misses. The same thing with people who think the Illuminati are sending secret messages through halftime shows during the Super Bowl.

        I often try to tell atheists that many atheists admit the existence of a historical Jesus and go on to lead happy and meaningful lives.

        The problem is also all-or-nothing thinking. If you accept the NT is right about something, you have to accept it’s right about everything. Too many Christians meanwhile think that if the NT is wrong about something, there’s no reason to believe the whole of the Bible is right about anything.

    • thoughtfullydetached:

      Large numbers of ordinary intelligent people (i.e., discerning people without a professional or other vested interest) won’t continue to believe unsubstantiated folk tales as if they are historical, forever.

      Belief in historical Jesus, for a well informed and objective inquirer, is an act of faith. At least, that’s my own non-professional, non-academic, but rationally-arrived-at opinion.

      • Mr. Cannistraro: I’m not talking about “folk tales.” I’m talking about a critical analysis of the data on the specific question of whether there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth around whom a circle of followers formed in Roman Galilee. Let’s keep the matters clear, OK?

      • Al Cannistraro: belief that the historical balance of probabilities points to one thing rather than another being true is a judgement rather than an act of faith. We assume certain things to be true about, say, Socrates or Tiberius or Confucius because that’s what the sources we have say about them and we have no overpowering reason to doubt them.

        It is when people single out one particular historical figure and one set of sources and treat them in a way wholly inconsistent with the way they receive other sources that I begin to suspect that emotional need and not rational historical enquiry is a significant motivating factor.

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