Mythicism as Idea Non-Grata

Mythicism, the notion that the Jesus legend might be better explained as a composite hero myth than as a biographical phenomenon— that it might be a fabric more likely woven together from syncretic strands of Mediterranean and Near-Eastern esoterica rather than from historical memory— is an idea that has resurfaced in the cultural landscape following the publication of the works of a handful of scattered writers like Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price, G. A. Wells, Hermann Detering, Richard Carrier, and a few others. It is by no means a new notion; all of these scholars would acknowledge their debt to those now-forgotten scholars who freed historical New Testament scholarship from the vise grip of ecclesiastical dogmatism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries using their (then) newly acquired historico-critical muscles. Once the Enlightenment had safely established the scientific paradigm as the new, preferred standard of learning and investigation to aspire to (logic replacing faith as the ultimate arbiter of truth), it was only a matter of time before the new methodologies would start to be applied to Holy Writ itself. At the time, scripture had been that which had vouchsafed the authenticity of the traditions of the ubiquitous Christian religion for eighteen hundred years. What secrets might a new scientific examination of these ancient texts reveal?

This was the question that prompted the birth of the “higher criticism” (a.k.a. ‘historico-critical method’). In the post-enlightenment period, as inquisitive minds (Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Hermann Weisse, David Friedrich Strauss, etc.) began to engage these texts from a deductive, historiographical perspective, one requiring a temporary 'willful suspension of belief' in the name of methodological honesty and neutrality, their resulting reconstructions were often very offensive to the scholars and to the clergy of the time, who were quick to denounce them. People tend to get a bit grouchy when their sacred cows are taken out of their glass cases and examined too closely, so despite the diligent and exhaustive work put in by Strauss and Schleiermacher and by those who followed their lead, it could only meet with resistance from both the church and the academy … at first. The stodgy piety and decorum of that bygone era served to ensure that the conclusions reached by the historiographic probings of these men into the origins of the Bible and of the Christian religion would be categorically shunned and reviled by their conservative peers, who were still mired in their devotional, superficial approach to the study of the Bible’s details. Among the shocking new revelations of these higher-critical scholars were:

  • The fact that the Pentateuch could not have been the work of a single, historical Moses, that at least four individual scribes, or "schools" (for lack of a better term), spanning several centuries, were responsible for its compilation.
  • Similarly, the book of Isaiah, was demonstrably a conglomerate of at least three different schools.
  • Mark, contradicting long-held church tradition (cf., ClementºA ... Jerome), was likely the earliest of the gospels in the New Testament to be written.
  • At least several of the epistles attributed to Paul were very probably the late pseudonymous products of an emerging ecclesiastical structure.

These proverbial elephants in the middle of the room (and there were many others) were simply too big and too spooky for those who had authority over the parlors of the time to look at. They continued to denounce and mock those who strayed from the long-established axioms concerning the provenance and authorship of the texts, but one can only ignore an elephant for so long. It took a few generations for the usefulness of the new historico-critical hermeneutic to slowly take hold, but it inevitably did take hold, and as time passed these scholars' ideas became progressively more and more accepted as valid, and even eventually became  the normative interpretation of the evidence. After a great deal of exposition, dialog, and debate of the details involved, academic consensuses were eventually arrived at concerning many things which had previously been believed to be otherwise. Indeed, the ideas of Strauss and later of Bultmann would soon become the fundamental presuppositions that scholars now use as their starting place in their own investigation and analysis of these texts, even to this day. To be sure, consensus is not always arrived at (they are actually the exception, not the rule), but in each of the cases I listed above, at least, after various kinds of higher criticism (redaction-criticism, textual-criticism, form-criticism, source-criticism, among others) were applied to the pertinent texts, the consensus on these matters, though not universal (it never is), is fairly overwhelming.

With time, the conclusions of some scholars became more and more radical. F.C. Baur would found a school of thought in Tübingen that embodied this new historiographic hermeneutic. If the religionist academic hierarchy found it difficult to accept Schleiermacher's opinion that Paul might have written neither of the Timothies, it was absolutely horrified when Baur suggested that out of the thirteen epistles traditionally ascribed to him, only four (both Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans) could be seen as possibly the authentic work of a historical Paul. The others, he said, could be shown to reflect a second-century synthesis of this Pauline core of four with a hazy Palestinian tradition which we know almost nothing about (its texts did not survive but we can at times see some vestigial traces of this sect in the texts that did survive).

F.C. Baur

If that weren't enough, along came Bruno Bauer and the Dutch Radical school. This group saw no reason to authenticate any of the Pauline works. They discredited the lot of them. Some thought Bauer went too far, and he had indeed gone further than anyone had before him, but the crucial thing to keep in mind is that when (Bruno) Bauer argued for the spurious nature of all the epistles, he was using pretty much the very same lines of reasoning that (F. C.) Baur had used to discredit Philippians, Ephesians, et. al. The Dutch were that radical. They would even eventually be as audacious as to bring into question the very historicity of Jesus and of the disciples (Bauer, Pierson, and Loman). As radical as the idea may sound at first, if it turns out that the Pauline corpus is entirely spurious, then we in fact posses no primary sources to inform historiographic speculations on any of it. This prospect is a very disturbing one for those who would base their theoretical constructs (and professional careers) on the basic reliability and historical trustworthiness of the New Testament narratives. Bauer was crossing a kind of asymptotic line that no one had ever dared to cross before, not even Baur, who, when he came to that cliff edge, was compelled to stop by his religious sensibilities. Bauer, on the other hand, dove in with aplomb.

This was shocking. There is a big difference between on the one hand boldly pointing out that the chronology of the gospels as traditionally taught was wrong, that the gospel we know as Mark's very probably came first, and on the other hand suggesting that we have no primary sources whatsoever or that Jesus very probably is primarily a mythic construct. One could accept the former without it affecting one's religious or professional commitment in the least. But to accept or to even consider the latter ideas would require, at the very least, a complete re-examination of the interrelationship between the Christian scriptures and the claims they purport to historically support. In fact, the resistance encountered by the ideas of the scholars of the Tübingen and Dutch Radical schools was proportional to how mythologizing they were. Marcan priority, while an audacious idea at first, was not really all that threatening to the faith itself, and so could reluctantly be brought up for discussion and debated without the awkwardness or scandal that the more radical ideas of Bauer could induce, but the really heavy ideas, like the idea that Jesus didn't "exist" (at least not in the way we have been taught to think he did), was ignored out of hand as a ludicrous proposition, not worthy of serious scholarly consideration. Anything that suggested the basic fictive and tendentious and syncretic aspects of the Jesus story got the silent treatment. The matter was never engaged, never discussed in any real depth, never debated in history departments. Simply cast aside as ludicrous from the outset, no thorough critical academic evaluation of the ideas of the Tübingen and Dutch Radical schools seems to have been conducted. Is it any surprise, then, that so few 'refutations' of these scholars were written?

Albert Schweitzer, who was personally acquainted with a few of the radicals, seems to be one of the only contemporaries who took these guys seriously. He didn't just know of them. He mentioned many of them in his classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and even devoted whole chapters to Strauss and to Baur. Curiously, while he openly disagreed with the Tubingen school and with the Dutch Radicals, he nevertheless praised their rigorous and meticulous methodologies and obviously thought very highly of them. He respected them and considered them scholars par-excellence. Unfortunately, the focus and scope of Schweitzer’s volume did not allow for a full engagement with the arguments of these radicals concerning the Pauline corpus and the historicity of Jesus. Only a cursory summary is sketched in Quest, and in the end, he considered their conclusions to be reactionary and ideologically based, and he went on to put them in what he thought were their proper respective places in the history of historical Jesus studies. So ... yeah ... he disagreed with them. At least he acknowledged them, though, which is more than any of his other contemporaries had done. (An aside: His treatment of these scholars evinces his own particular brand of iconoclasm. Schweitzer was a cool dude.)

The few semi-scholarly works devoted to the "refutation" of mythicism that were penned in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth were no more than  polemical over-simplifications that generally misrepresent mythicist arguments in a way intended to make then seem ridiculous, or else they were exercises in righteous circularity, or were both simultaneously. Very little unimpassioned or non-hostile or unbiased scholarly discussion has been advanced to refute the Christ myth theory. 

This is doubly frustrating. On the one hand, I’m sure that many people (I, for instance) would love to read any collection of such point-by-point scholarly refutations. Why hasn't anyone bothered to do this? On the other hand (here I finally arrive at the problem at hand), by some unfortunate lapse in logic, the long silence the hypothesis engendered has been now co-opted by apologists, who conveniently misread it as if it were evidence of some kind of tacit agreement within the academy that the hypothesis has been discredited. The silence of a stumped room of startled exegetes has over the decades become misinterpreted as the silent ruling of some imaginary consensus. To insist that this silence is a vindication of the standard position by default, however, as some do, is an invalid and premature projection. Is there such a thing as an expiration date on an ignored proposition which would render it invalid after a time? Is there a statute of limitations on the discussion of theories? An eternal green room?

That a majority of New Testament (or any other kind of) scholars have never considered that the dearth of primary sources makes the biographical legend dubious at best—that they accept the historicity of Jesus uncritically, a priori — is unquestionably true. But to call an unexplored assumption a "consensus " is to equivocate. It's a clear example of a semantic fallacy, where the precise meaning or implication of a word or phrase is disregarded (consciously or not) in favor of its more casual, every-day usage. Another example of this fallacy is the common use of the word "myth" to express the idea of a falsity. In an academic sense, the word "myth" denotes a complex of interrelated symbols and stories and archetypes which informs the self-identity and cultural inheritance of a given people. In modern lay parlance, the word simply means "fairy-tale," or worse, "lie." Similarly, the word "consensus" in an academic sense denotes a position commonly held by an authoritative body, a viewpoint arrived at and agreed upon after careful examination and subsequent debate of the pertinent facts and evidence has been undertaken.

Most New Testament scholars happen to be Christians. Even the ones that are not Christian have been enculturated in a thoroughly Christian matrix. Whether a scholar is religious or not, we must keep in mind that what we are dealing with are creedally accepted foundational axioms of a specific ancient religious community, claims which are politically incorrect to call into question, claims for which ultimately there is no way to determine historicity (even if miracles really do happen!). These are things that have not been (that cannot be, not with the texts we have to work with, at any rate) empirically verified; they are simply taken as given.  Now, I am not saying that historicism requires "faith." I realize that there are plenty of secular, Jewish, Hindu (or whatever) scholars who accept historicity as a default. The point is not that historicity requires Christian faith, the point is that even these scholars who are not Christian and hold to this opinion are not doing so through a process of examination and debate, but that they are instead just taking it as a given. It's simply something they've never thought all that much about. There is a very important distinction here. A consensus is not just a majority view. Consensus implies more than passive acceptance of a given, it involves reasoned agreement after rigorous examination of evidence. 

The "consensus" argument is made essentially of nothing more that straw and bravado. Yet there are those who still regrettably appeal to consensus in their argumentation. It is often the frontline defense in a rejection of mythicism, sometimes the only one. It's actually symptomatic of the troubling state of affairs in the field today, where arguing from an authority— in this case no more than a perceived authority, an imagined authority—an embarrassing blunder in any scientific discipline, is let slide in biblical studies. It's even worse, some academics now even specialize in this sort of superficial head counting and quasi-frequentist statistical analysis in their professional NT studies work, meticulously graphing the trends in the literary output of NT scholars, categorizing their works individually and collectively by how they rate on a linear scale, with strict orthodoxy at one extreme and skepticism on the other. In this way they try to show that the orthodox position on any given matter is not only plausible, but normative, and therefore preferable by default (c.f. Gary Habermas).

See the logic? 

If relying on a consensus is a logical fallacy, and that's necessarily a bad thing, what does it say about this tactic if the consensus that one relies on is just imaginary to begin with. It's a puzzling phenomenon to encounter in a field that is supposed to be an academic enterprise. This is the sort of scholarly behavior that Hector Avalos explores in his The End of Biblical Studies, a scathing critique of the currents underlying modern New Testament scholarship (Philip Davies is another vocal critic of such practices). Then, to add insult to injury, backed by their paper-doll consensus, many "historicists" (for lack of a coined term) adopt a haughty, mocking, downright insulting attitude toward the scholars who have exhumed these long-ignored ideas of the Tübingen and Dutch Radical schools, dusting them off for public perusal once more. Whenever I encounter invective language in any academic argument, a little alarm goes off in the back of my head, something like a big yellow sign on a swervy road warning me: 'CAUTION! - PASSION AHEAD.' If cogent arguments were being offered up, instead of over-simplifications, I could understand frustration turning into insult. Where there should be coherent arguments against the ideas presented, I see field of red flags and warning signs, and I will further add that there would be no need for this rancor if the theory was not seen as a personal affront somehow.

It's not just faith that is jeopardized by the Christ Myth, obviously. One could tangentially argue that this out-of-hand dismissal of the hypothesis in the academic community could also be a matter of scholars subconsciously huddling together against a gathering storm, so to protect the means of their livelihood (job security can be a powerful motivating factor). And who could blame these armies of professional exegetes, really, for bracing themselves against such an imaginable end to their tenures? Moreover (and perhaps more poignantly), who really wants to believe that all the work one has devoted so much time and passion to turns out to be a house of cards in the end?

Despite vehement opposition and prejudice, in this less-than-welcoming climate, the new mythicists have appeared on the scene, undaunted, representing the scholars of old, giving the lie to this paper doll ‘consensus,’ and reminding us that the riddles and inconsistencies in the texts, the same ones that once led the old Tübingen and Dutch radicals to advance their appalling ideas, are still glaringly there, and are still as unexplored and as glossed over as ever.

To be fair, though, in closing, let me now admit that more monographs are sorely needed (on both sides of this question). Until historicists can make a solid valid positive case for a historical Jesus, until mythicism can be expressed more cogently than it has been in the past, until detractors stop with the silent treatment, the mockery, and the resident scorn, this issue will continue to be the posturing dance of egos that it currently is. I also admit that I agree that some of the frustration and rancor felt toward a certain variety of infantile cyber-clandestine uninformed trolling on the internet is indeed very much deserved, and I truly empathize with those sentiments. I myself have dealt with their fanatical incoherence on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, this is the internet, where everybody and their proverbial mother can wax authoritative without having read any substantive, truly scholarly works on this (or any other) subject. But it would be a great mistake to not discern the wheat from the chaff in this matter, I think. Though there may be a few loons in the field, it would be a great mistake to throw the whole mess into the flames. To categorically consider anyone who might find mythicism a plausible scenario to be reprehensible, or laughable, or crazy, or anti-scholarly, or what-have-you, in one fell swoop, solely on their sober acceptance or defense of that historical possibility, would be to do a great disservice and insult to many honest, dutiful, able, conversant, diligent, sophisticated, nuanced, credentialed, insightful, and honorable scholars of the past and of the present, who at the very least deserve the respect of their peers.


Further reading:

  • The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos (2007)
    —A must-read critique of the problems with the methods and the motives in New Testament studies.

    Rating: ★★★★★

  • The Tübingen School and its Antecedents by R. W. Mackay (1863)
    — A very informative contemporaneous overview of the movement. It is tangentially pertinent to mythicism.
    . . . . . . . .Free version at

    Rating: ★★★★½

  • The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer (1910)
    —A must read foundational classic.
    . . . . . . . .Free version from the Gutenberg Project.

    Rating: ★★★★★

  • The Journal of Higher Criticism - an online collection of essays by many of the scholars mentioned above. Great resource.

  • Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity by Chris Keith & Anthony LeDonne (editors) (2012) 

  • The Historical Jesus: Five Views (2009)
    —A five-prong discussion on the historical Jesus, edited by Paul Eddy. Price's introductory minority opinion essay serves as a kind of foil for the other contributors to lambast. It is a good example of the irrationality of some historicists when they encounter the idea non grata of New Testament minimalism.

    Rating: ★★½☆☆

  • Cutting Jesus Down to Size by G.A. Wells (2009) —
    ... Wells traces the discipline’s German beginnings, exploring the problems in the New Testament that prompted scholars to revise traditional theories of the scriptures’ origins. Wells then traces the development and reception of these views from the 18th century to today. He persuasively profiles the New Testament as a fascinating but flawed collection of incompatible viewpoints, revealing Jesus as a shifting, ambiguous, legendary figure who reflected the evolving teachings of a fragmented, emotion-based cultic movement.

    Rating: ★★★★★


  1. A nicely done synopsis of the minimalist school of Jesus scholarship and even-handed. I thought that you conveyed the bravery and careful scholarship of these pioneering mythicists quite well. Whether or not they will be proven "right" in the future is beside the point. As I say about my own writings, "I may not be right about everything that I present but I'm more right than most people in the field.".

  2. Thank you for this interesting article.
    Just one little nitpick: when you write "Pearson", I assume you mean (Allard) Pierson.

    1. yes, indeed ... thank you ... i've corrected the misspelling


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