The Quest of the Mythical Jesus

Robert M. Price

When, long ago, I first learned that some theorized that Jesus had never existed as an historical figure, I dismissed the notion as mere crankism, as most still do. Indeed, Rudolf Bultmann, supposedly the arch-skeptic, quipped that no sane person could doubt that Jesus existed (though he himself came surprisingly close to the same opinion, as did Paul Tillich). For a number of years I held a more or less Bultmannian estimate of the historical Jesus as a prophet heralding the arrival of the eschatological Kingdom of God, an end to which his parables, faith healings and exorcisms were directed. Jesus had, I thought, predicted the coming of the Son of Man, an angelic figure who should raise the dead and judge mankind. When his cleansing of the temple invited the unforgiving ire of the Sadducee establishment, in cahoots with the Romans, he sealed his own doom. He died by crucifixion, and a few days later his disciples began experiencing visions of him raised from the dead. They concluded that he himself was now to be considered the Son of Man, and they expected his messianic advent in the near future.

From this eminently reasonable position (its cogency reinforced by the postmortem unfolding of the messiahship of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson) I eventually found myself gravitating to that crazy view, that Jesus hadn't existed, that he was mythic all the way down, like Hercules. I do not hold it as a dogma. I do not prefer that it be true. It is just that the evidence now seems to me to point that way. The burden of proof would seem to belong with those who believe there was an historical man named Jesus. I fully admit and remind the reader that all historical hypotheses are provisional and tentative. This one certainly is. And yet I do favor it. Why?

I remember first encountering the notion that the Jesus saga was formally similar to the Mediterranean dying and rising god myths of saviors including Attis, Adonis, Tammuz/Dumuzi, Dionysus, Osiris, and Baal. I felt almost at once that the jig was up. I could not explain away those parallels, parallels that went right to the heart of the thing. I felt momentary respite when I read the false reassurances of Bruce M. Metzger (may this great man rest in peace), J.N.D. Anderson, Edwin Yamauchi (may I someday gain a tenth of his knowledge!), and others that these parallels were false or that they were later in origin, perhaps even borrowed by the pagans from Christianity. But it did not take long to discover the spurious nature of such apologetical special pleading. There was ample and early pre-Christian evidence for the dying and rising gods. The parallels were very close. And it was simply not true that no one ever held that, like Jesus, these saviors had been historical figures. And if the ancient apologists had not known that the pagan parallels were pre-Christian, why on earth would they have mounted a suicidal argument that Satan counterfeited the real dying and rising god ahead of time. That is like the fundamentalists of the 19th century arguing desperately that God created fossils of dinosaurs that had never existed.

And, yet, all of this scarcely proved that Jesus had not existed at all. Bultmann freely admitted that such myths clothed and shaped the form of resurrection belief among the early Christians, but he felt there had actually been certain Easter morning experiences, visions that might have given rise to a different explanation in a different age. I now think Bultmann's argument runs afoul of Ockham's Razor, since it posits redundant explanations. If you recognize the recurrence of the pagan savior myth in the Christian proclamation, then no need remains to suggest an initial "Big Bang" (Burton L. Mack) of an Easter Morning Experience of the First Disciples.

G.A. Wells, like his predecessors advocating the Christ Myth theory, discounted the gospel story of an historical Jesus, an itinerant teacher and miracle worker, on the grounds of its seeming absence from the Epistle literature, earlier than the gospels, implying that there was no Jesus tradition floating around in either oral or written form at the time Paul and Peter were writing letters. All they referred to was a supernatural Son of God who descended from heaven to vanquish the evil angels ruling the world, then returned heavenward to reign in divine glory till his second advent. Had Paul known of the teaching of Jesus, why did he not quote it when it would have settled this and that controversial question (e.g., paying Roman taxes, celibacy for the Kingdom, congregational discipline)? Why does he seem to refer to occasional "commands of the Lord" in a manner so vague as to suggest charismatic revelations to himself? Why does he never mention Jesus having healed the sick or done miracles? How can he say the Roman Empire never punishes the righteous, only the wicked?

This is a weighty argument, but another makes it almost superfluous. Take the gospel Jesus story as a whole, whether earlier or later than the Jesus story of the Epistles; it is part and parcel of the Mythic Hero Archetype shared by cultures and religions worldwide and throughout history (Lord Raglan and then, later, Alan Dundes showed this in great detail.). Leave the gospel story on the table, then. You still do not have any truly historical data. There is no "secular" biographical information about Jesus. Even the seeming "facts" irrelevant to faith dissolve upon scrutiny. Did he live in Nazareth? Or was that a tendentious reinterpretation of the earlier notion he had been thought a member of the Nazorean sect? Did he work some years as a carpenter? Or does that story not rather reflect the crowd's pegging him as an expert in scripture, a la the Rabbinic proverb, "Not even a carpenter, or a carpenter's son could solve this one!"? Was his father named Joseph, or is that an historicization of his earlier designation as the Galilean Messiah, Messiah ben Joseph? On and on it goes, and when we are done, there is nothing left of Jesus that does not appear to serve all too clearly the interests of faith, the faith even of rival, hence contradictory, factions among the early Christians.

I admit that a historical hero might attract to himself the standard flattering legends and myths to the extent that the original lines of the figure could no longer be discerned. He may have lived nonetheless. Can we tell the difference between such cases and others where we can still discern at least some historical core? Apollonius of Tyana, itinerant Neo-Pythagorean contemporary of Jesus (with whom the ancients often compare him) is one such. He, too, seems entirely cut from the cloth of the fabulous. His story, too, conforms exactly to the Mythic Hero Archetype. To a lesser extent, so does Caesar Augustus, of whom miracles were told. The difference is that Jesus has left no footprint on profane history as these others managed to do. The famous texts of Josephus and Tacitus, even if genuine, amount merely to references to the preaching of contemporary Christians, not reporting about Jesus as a contemporary. We still have documentation from people who claimed to have met Apollonius, Peregrinus, and, of course, Augustus. It might be that Jesus was just as historical as these other remarkable individuals, and that it was mere chance that no contemporary documentation referring to him survives. But we cannot assume the truth of that for which we have no evidence.

A paragraph back, I referred to the central axiom of form criticism: that nothing would have been passed down in the tradition unless it was useful to prove some point, to provide some precedent. I am sorry to say that this axiom cancels out another, the Criterion of Dissimilarity: the closer a Jesus-saying seems to match the practice or teaching of the early Church, the greater likelihood that it stems from the latter and has been placed fictively into the speech or life of Jesus merely to secure its authority. Put the two principles together and observe how one consumes the other without remainder: all pericopae of the Jesus tradition owe their survival to the fact that they were useful. On the assumption that Christians saw some usefulness to them, we can posit a Sitz-im-Leben Kirche for each one. And that means it is redundant to posit a pre-Christian Sitz-im-Leben Jesu context. None of it need go back to Jesus.

Additionally, we can demonstrate that every hortatory saying is so closely paralleled in contemporary Rabbinic or Hellenistic lore that there is no particular reason to be sure this or that saying originated with Jesus. Such words commonly passed from one famous name to another, especially in Jewish circles, as Jacob Neusner has shown. Jesus might have said it, sure, but then he was just one more voice in the general choir. Is that what we want to know about him? And, as Bultmann observed, who remembers the great man quoting somebody else?

Another shocker: it hit me like a ton of bricks when I realized, after studying much previous research on the question, that virtually every story in the gospels and Acts can be shown to be very likely a Christian rewrite of material from the Septuagint, Homer, Euripides' Bacchae, and Josephus. One need not be David Hume to see that, if a story tells us a man multiplied food to feed a multitude, it is inherently much more likely that the story is a rewrite of an older miracle tale (starring Elisha) than that it is a report of a real event. A literary origin is always to be preferred to an historical one in such a case. And that is the choice we have to make in virtually every case of New Testament narrative. I refer the interested reader to my essay "New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash," in Jacob Neusner and Alan Avery-Peck, eds., Encyclopedia of Midrash. Of course I am dependent here upon many fine works by Randel Helms, Thomas L. Brodie, John Dominic Crossan, and others. None of them went as far as I am going. It is just that as I counted up the gospel stories I felt each scholar had convincingly traced back to a previous literary prototype, it dawned on me that there was virtually nothing left. None tried to argue for the fictive character of the whole tradition, and each offered some cases I found arbitrary and implausible. Still, their work, when combined, militated toward a wholly fictive Jesus story.

It is not as if I believe there is no strong argument for an historical Jesus. There is one: one can very plausibly read certain texts in Acts, Mark, and Galatians as fossils preserving the memory of a succession struggle following the death of Jesus, who, therefore, must have existed. Who should follow Jesus as his vicar on earth? His disciples (analogous to the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, who provided the first three caliphs)? Or should it be the Pillars, his own relatives (the Shi'ite Muslims called Muhammad's kinsmen the Pillars, too, and supported their dynastic claims). One can trace the same struggles in the Baha'i Faith after the death of the Bab (Mirza Ali Muhammad): who should rule, his brother Subh-i-Azal, or his disciple Hussein Ali, Baha'Ullah? Who should follow the Prophet Joseph Smith? His disciples, or his son, Joseph, Jr.? When the Honorable Elijah Muhammad died, Black Muslims split and followed either his son and heir Wareeth Deen Muhammad or his former lieutenant Louis Farrakhan. In the New Testament, as Harnack and Stauffer argued, we seem to see the remains of a Caliphate of James. And that implies (though it does not prove) an historical Jesus.

And it implies an historical Jesus of a particular type. It implies a Jesus who was a latter-day Judah Maccabee, with a group of brothers who could take up the banner when their eldest brother, killed in battle, perforce let it fall. S.G.F. Brandon made a very compelling case for the original revolutionary character of Jesus, subsequently sanitized and made politically harmless by Mark the evangelist. Judging by the skirt-clutching outrage of subsequent scholars, Mark's apologetical efforts to depoliticize the Jesus story have their own successors. Brandon's work is a genuine piece of the classic Higher Criticism of the gospels, with the same depth of reason and argumentation. If there was an historical Jesus, my vote is for Brandon's version.

But I must point out that there is another way to read the evidence for the Zealot Jesus hypothesis. As Burton Mack has suggested, the political element in the Passion seems likely to represent an anachronistic confusion by Mark with the events leading to the fall of Jerusalem. When the Olivet Discourse warns its readers not to take any of a number of false messiahs and Zealot agitators for their own Jesus, does this not imply Christians were receiving the news of Theudas or Jesus ben Ananias or John of Gischala as news of Jesus' return? You don't tell people not to do what they're already not doing. If they were making such confusions, it would be inevitable that the events attached to them would find their way back into the telling of the Jesus story. It looks like this very thing happened. One notices how closely the interrogation and flogging of Jesus ben-Ananias, in trouble for predicting the destruction of the temple, parallels that of Jesus, ostensibly 40 years previously. We notice how Simon bar Gioras was welcomed into the temple with palm branches to cleanse the sacred precinct from the "thieves" who infested it, Zealots under John of Gischala. Uh-oh. Suppose these signs of historical-political verisimilitude are interlopers in the gospels from the following generation. The evidence for the Zealot Jesus evaporates.

I have not tried to amass every argument I could think of to destroy the historicity of Jesus. Rather, I have summarized the series of realizations about methodology and evidence that eventually led me to embrace the Christ Myth Theory. There may once have been an historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth. At least that's the current state of the evidence as I see it.