"Jesus as myth" refers to the idea that the narrative of Jesus in the gospels may be considered as part of Christian mythology, and shows parallels to mystery religions of the Roman Empire such as Mithraism, and the myth of rebirth deities. Study of such elements is often, but not exclusively, associated with a skeptical position about the historicity of Jesus.
The theory was first proposed by the historian Bruno Bauer in the 1800s, and it is now supported by some scholars.
History of the theories
The term Jesus as myth covers a broad range of ideas, but most share the common premise that the narrative of the Gospels portrays a figure who never actually lived. Current theories arose from nineteenth century scholarship on the formation of myth, in the work of writers such as Max Müller and James Frazer. Müller argued that religions originated in mythic stories of the birth, death and rebirth of the sun. Frazer further attempted to explain the origins of humanity's mythic beliefs in the idea of a "sacrificial king", associated with the dying and reviving god who symbolizes the death of nature in the autumn and its regeneration in the spring.
The later works by George Albert Wells drew on the Pauline Epistles and the lack of early non-Christian documents to argue that the Jesus figure of the Gospels was symbolic not historical. Earl Doherty proposed that Jewish mysticism influenced the development of a Christ myth, while John M. Allegro proposed that Christianity began as shamanic religion based on the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
The first scholarly proponent of this theory was probably nineteenth century historian Bruno Bauer, a Hegelian thinker who argued that the true founder of Christianity was an Alexandrian Jew, Philo, who had adapted Judaic ideas to Hellenic philosophy. Bauer's arguments made little impact at the time. Other authors included Edwin Johnson, who argued that Christianity emerged from a combination of liberal trends in Judaism with Gnostic mysticism. Less speculative versions of the theory developed under Dutch Bible scholars such as A. D. Loman and G. I. P. Bolland. Loman argued that episodes in Jesus's life, such as the Sermon on the Mount, were in reality fictions to justify compilations of pre-existing liberal Jewish sayings. Bolland developed the theory that Christianity evolved from Gnosticism and that "Jesus" was a symbolic figure representing Gnostic ideas about godhead.
By the early twentieth century a number of writers had published arguments in favour of the Jesus Myth theory, ranging from the highly speculative to the more scholarly. These treatments were sufficiently influential to merit several book-length responses by traditional historians and New Testament scholars. The most influential of the books arguing for a mythic Jesus was Arthur Drews's The Christ-Myth (1909) which brought together the scholarship of the day in defense of the idea that Christianity had been a Jewish Gnostic cult that spread by appropriating aspects of Greek philosophy and Frazerian death-rebirth deities. This combination of arguments became the standard form of the mythic Christ theory. In Why I Am Not a Christian (1927), Bertrand Russell stated that even if Jesus existed, which he doubted, the public does not "know anything" about him.
In recent years, the Jesus Myth has been advanced by William B. Smith and George Albert Wells (The Jesus Legend and The Jesus Myth), as well as by Timothy Freke, and Peter Gandy (co-authors of The Jesus Mysteries and Jesus and the Lost Goddess), and by Earl Doherty (author of The Jesus Puzzle).
There are various contrasting beliefs that fall under the general "Jesus as myth" category. Earl Doherty suggests that Jesus is a historicized mythic figure created out of the Old Testament, whom the early Christians experienced in visions, as Paul says he did. Joseph Atwill, on the other hand, argues that Jesus is the deliberate and malefic creation of powerful Romans of the family of Vespasian, who sought to divide and destroy Judaism. Hence in Atwill's version, there really is a historical Jesus, but he is Vespasian's son Titus, and the gospels are a complex allegory of his conquest of Judea.
Advocates of the Jesus Myth theory do not agree on the dating and meaning of the early Christian texts, with recent advocates like Doherty holding to traditional scholarly dating that puts the gospels toward the end of the first century, and others, like Hermann Detering (The Fabricated Paul), arguing that the early Christian texts are largely forgeries and products of the middle to late second century.
Earliest Recorded References
The earliest references to Jesus are by Christian writers (in the New Testament and its Apocrypha). Here is a list of the few references to Jesus outside of the Christian documents:
- The Antiquities of Josephus (37 CE - c. 100 CE), written in 93 CE, contain two references to Jesus. One of these states that he was the founder of a sect. The authenticity of the text comprising the first reference, the Testimonium Flavianum, is disputed. Grammatical analysis indicates significant differences with the passages that come before and after it, which leads most scholars to believe the Jesus reference was either altered, or added, by persons other than Josephus. The second reference states that in the year 62 CE, the newly appointed high priest "convened the court of the Sanhedrin, and brought before them the brother of Jesus the so-called messiah, who was called James, and some other men, who he accused of having broken the law, and handed them over to be stoned".
- The Babylonian Talmud records "It is taught: On Passover Eve they hanged Yeshu ... because he practiced magic and led Israel astray." There are other references to Jesus which talk about his disciples being put to death, of him being "repulsed with both hands", and of people healing and teaching in his name. Jesus is described as a heretic ("min") but nowhere in the Rabinnic literature is it suggested that he was not a historical figure.
- Tacitus mentions that Nero punished "some people, known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was emperor by the order of Pontius Pilate. But this deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again"
- There are references to Christians in Suetonius and the letters of Pliny the Younger, but they give no specific biographical information about Jesus. However the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan demonstrates that by about 110 CE there were significant numbers of people who would not recant their faith in Christ even under torture or the threat of death, that this was a significant problem for the Imperial authorities, and that neither Pliny nor Trajan suggest that Jesus was not a real historical figure, even though they were keen to stop this "perverse religious cult, carried to extremes"
- Celsus, a second century critic of Christianity, accused Jesus of being a bastard child and a sorcerer. He never questions Jesus' historicity even though he hated Christianity and Jesus. He is quoted as saying that Jesus was a "mere man."
Apparent omissions in early records
Justus of Tiberias wrote, at the end of the first century, a history of Jewish kings (with whom the gospels state Jesus had interactions). Justus' history does not survive, but Photius, who read it in the 9th century, stated that it did not mention "the coming of Christ, the events of His life, or the miracles performed by Him".
The New Testament epistles
It is widely held that the authentic letters of Paul of Tarsus are the earliest surviving Christian writings. However the epistles ascribed to Paul do not discuss Jesus' actual life and ministry in much detail, unlike the Gospels. There are a variety of explanations for this among those who believe in a historical Jesus, while proponents of the Jesus as Myth theory regard it as evidence to support their position.
G. A. Wells suggests that the level of discussion of the "historical" Jesus in all the Pauline epistles except for the Pastorals, as well as in Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, the Johannine epistles and Revelation supports his position, and that in those references to Jesus that do occur within these works, he is presented as "a basically supernatural personage only obscurely on Earth as a man at some unspecified period in the past". Wells considers this to be the original christian concept of Jesus, based not upon the life of a historical figure, but upon the personified figure of wisdom, as portrayed in judaic wisdom writings.
A more radical position is taken by Earl Doherty, who holds that these early authors did not believe that Jesus had been on Earth at all. He argues that the earliest Christians believed in a Platonic cosmology that distinguished a "higher" spiritual world from the earthly world of matter, and that they believed that Jesus descended only into the "lower reaches of the spiritual world". Doherty also suggests that this doctrine was accepted by the authors of the Pastoral epistles, 2 Peter, and various second-century christian writings outside the New Testament. Doherty contends that apparent references in these writings to events on earth, and a physical historic Jesus, should in fact be regarded as allegorical metaphors.
Parallels with Mediterranean mystery religions
Some advocates of the Jesus Myth theory have argued that many aspects of the Gospel stories of Jesus have remarkable parallels with life-death-rebirth gods in the widespread mystery religions prevalent in the hellenic culture amongst which Christianty was born. The central figure of one of the most widespread, Osiris-Dionysus, was consistently localized and deliberately merged with local deities in each area, since it was the mysteries which were imparted that were regarded as important, not the method by which they were taught. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, in their book The Jesus Mysteries, say that Jewish mystics adapted their form of Osiris-Dionysus to match prior Jewish heroes like Moses and Joshua, hence creating Jesus.
Several parallels are frequently cited by these advocates, and often appear, mixed with other parallels, on internet sites. The most prominently cited parallels are with Horus and Mithras. Horus was one of the life-death-rebirth deities, and was connected and involved in the resurrection of Osiris, whose Egyptian name (Asar) is very similar to the root of Lazarus.
In Egyptian myth, Horus gained his authority by being anointed by Anubis, who had his own cult, and was regarded as the main anointer; the anointing made Horus into Horus karast (a religious epithet written in Egyptian documents as HR KRST) - embalmed/anointed Horus - in parallel to Jesus becoming Christ by being baptized by John, who had his own followers, and was especially regarded as a baptizer. Worship of Isis, Horus' mother, was a prominent cult, and the proposal that this is the basis of veneration of Mary, and more particularly Marian Iconography, has some merit.
The suggestion of parallels with such myths, however, has frequently gained little traction in the academic community. Advocates of the Jesus Myth theory citing the parallels are frequently discovered to be citing dubious sources, and are accused of presenting implausible parallels, advocating particular theologies to replace Christianity, and using non standard terms (e.g. anup the baptizer rather than Anubis the anointer/embalmer) which others fail to recognize.
Opponents of the Jesus Myth theory regularly accuse those who advocate the existence of such parallels of confusing the issue of who was borrowing from whom, a charge which was also made in ancient times by prominent early Christians. However, it is notable that, unlike modern opponents, several prominent early Christians, like Irenaeus, actually acknowledged the existence of many parallels, complaining that the earlier religions had copied Christian religion and practices, before Jesus was even born, as some form of diabolically inspired pre-cognitive mockery. Additionally, elements from Mystery Religions are completely absent from some very early Christian texts, such as the Q Document and the Gospel of Thomas.
The worship of Mithras was widespread in much of the Roman Empire from the mid-2nd century CE, and mainstream historians regard it as possible that many Christian practices derived originally from Mithraism through a process known as christianization, including 25th December being Jesus' birth-date, and Sunday being the dedicated day of worship. Mithras was a solar deity, and so was seen as being born just after the winter solstice, and the day each week officially dedicated to him by the Roman empire was later renamed the day of the invincible sun, in turn being renamed Sunday. Similarities between Mithras and the birth-narrative of Luke are also proposed by some advocates of the Jesus myth, since Mithras, as a sun god, was born under the zodiac sign that at that time was known as the stable of Augeas, though these latter parallels are not so supported in the academic community. It is however, agreed that according to inscriptions at the Seleucid temple at Kangavar in western Iran which is dated around 200 b.c.e, contains passage that state it's dedication to "Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras". There are many other examples of virgin births in ancient myths.
- The God Who Wasn't There
- John of Gamala
- Jus Asaf
- Criticism of Jesus
- John Allegro. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth. ISBN 0-87975-757-4
- Joesph Atwill. The Roman Origins of Christianity ISBN 0-9740928-0-0
- Joesp Atwill. =Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus ISBN 1-56975-457-8
- Earl Doherty. The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin With a Mythical Christ? ISBN 0-9686014-0-5
- Alvar Ellegård. One Hundred Years Before Christ: A Study in Creative Mythology. ISBN 0-7126-7956-1
- Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the 'Original Jesus' a Pagan God? ISBN 0-7225-3676-3
- Robert M Price. Deconstructing Jesus. ISBN 1-57392-758-9
- Robert M. Price. The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition? ISBN 1-59102-121-9
- E. P. Sanders. The Historical Figure of Jesus. ISBN 0-7139-9059-7
- Jean Seznec. The Survival of the Pagan Gods ISBN 0691017832
- Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. ISBN 0-8006-3123-4
- Thomas Thompson. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David ISBN 0-465-08577-6
- George Albert Wells. The Historical Evidence for Jesus. ISBN 0-87975-180-0
- George Albert Wells. The Jesus Myth. ISBN 0-8126-9392-2
Supporting a Jesus-Myth theory
- "Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity" by Richard Carrier
- Debunking the Historical Jesus
- "The Jesus Mysteries" by Freke/Gandy
- Jesus Myth - The Case Against Historical Christ
- Claim that the New Testament was a forgery by the Piso family
- John G. Jackson. Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth.]
Supporting a historical Jesus
- Bones of Jesus of Nazareth found — recent (26 February 2007) re-announcement of discovery allegedly relevant to the historical existence of Jesus.
- "A History of Scholarly Refutations of the Jesus Myth" by Christopher Price
- "Did Jesus Exist" a page devoted to the issues raised by the Jesus Myth