The Jesus Puzzle. Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? : Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus
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ISBN/ASIN : 0968601405
Manufacturer : Canadian Humanist Pubns|
Release data : 19 October, 1999
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the best available, but ultimately unconvincing
Earl Doherty has done those of us who are interested in the "Mythic Christ" theory a great service by producing what is probably the best book on the subject in an increasing tide of more mediocre efforts. That he is ultimately unconvincing is less his own fault than the fault of the difficult hypothesis he is attempting to prove: that Jesus never existed as a historical figure, and was entirely a mythic being.
Most Bible scholars will agree that the Gospels present many mythic aspects within their accounts of the life of Jesus. Taking these incidents literally exposes one to derision. To give one example, Thomas Paine had a good time laughing at the story (which appears only in the book of Matthew) of saints arising out of their graves and wandering the streets of Jerusalem after the resurrection. He asked whether they brought actions for ejectment against the people who now owned their homes. The author of Matthew was, of course, hardly concerned with such mundane absurdities; he just meant to express in mythic terms the greatness of the resurrection event and to suggest that it would prefigure a general resurrection to come.
Doherty goes one step further. He suggests that it was ALL a myth. He faces an uphill battle, of course. How did something originally regarded as a myth come to be understood as a historical fact? To understand his theory, we have to understand what Doherty means by "myth." Mythic events, he explains, were believed to have happened; they just didn't happen in ordinary space and time. They happened in a timeless reality in a heavenly realm. Think of Mithras slaying the sacred bull, or the labors of Hercules.
Doherty points to the almost complete absence of any biographical details about Jesus in the earliest Christian documents we have: the authenticated Pauline letters. The usual Christian response is that Paul had already instructed the Gentile believers to whom he was writing about the basic details of Jesus' life and felt no need to reiterate them. Personally, I am not much impressed by this response. Paul covers doctrinal points about Jesus in an almost obsessive manner, and it is hard to believe that he would have never found it necessary to resort to some reference to his life on earth, miracles, teachings, etc. I think Doherty has a strong point here, but he fails to show that Paul did not believe that Jesus existed in historical time.
The problem with Doherty's theory is that Jewish myths are usually tied to historical events. In the first chapter of the book of Romans, for example, Paul says Jesus was a physical descendant of David. King David was certainly believed to have lived a physical and historical existence on earth. There is no indication that Paul believed in a miraculous divine virgin birth. How, then, could Jesus have existed only in a mythic realm?
Doherty also fails to persuade that the references to Jesus in Josephus are entirely interpolated. We know that both Pontius Pilate and Herod existed. Nothing makes it impossible for Jesus, the "Apocalypic Prophet of the New Millenium" as Bart Ehrman terms him, also to have existed in history. To say that he did not requires an explanation of how a completely fabricated myth came both to be viewed as a series of historical events. Doherty ultimately fails to prove his case on this point.
Jesus: The Nobody Who Did Nothing
No competent biblical historian believes that the virgin-born god Jesus who emulated fifty other savior gods by rising from the dead on the third day ever existed. Anyone who thinks otherwise started from predetermined conclusions and distorted the evidence to make it fit. That is not scholarship.
On the question of whether myths that were already 3000 years old were posthumously grafted onto the biography of an anti-Roman rebel so insignificant that contemporary historians did not deem him important enough to mention, scholars are evenly divided. My book, Mythology's Last Gods, takes the position that Jesus was indeed a person from history. So do Michael Arnheim and Martin Larson. Robert Price and G. A. Wells do not, and Earl Doherty does not.
The main argument for Jesus' nonexistence is the absence of his name from non-Christian writings. Extant passages in Josephus are, as Doherty correctly observes, Christian interpolations. But Josephus's "Halosis," quoted by Robert Eisler, described Jesus as a man of simple appearance, mature age, small stature, three cubits high, hunchbacked, with a long face, long nose, and meeting eyebrows, so that they who see him might be affrighted, with scanty hair ... with a parting in the middle of his head, after the manner of the Nazirites, and with an undeveloped beard.
While it is possible that the Josephus passage is a forgery, it is a matter of record that the earliest generations of Christian apologists accepted its accuracy.
That description of an ugly Jesus is one of the proofs that such a man existed. Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria and Andrew of Crete would not have accepted such a description without dispute if their Khristos had been a literary invention whom they could have repainted in any image they wished.
Further evidence lies in the first gospel's acknowledgement that Jesus' family saved him from a lynching by arguing that "He's gone mad," (Mark 3:21) and Luke's acknowledgement that Jesus' first remark to a synagogue audience was, "You're sure to recite this proverb to me: Doctor, heal yourself." (Luke 4:23) Why would Jesus have said such a thing, if he was not as malformed as Josephus described? The gospel authors were attempting to portray Jesus as their ultimate hero, and assuredly would not have included such negative anecdates if they were not stuck with the reality that they actually happened.
In contrast, Robert Price wrote that the gospel story of Jesus matches the pattern of the Mythic Hero Archetype in every detail, with nothing left over. Doherty agrees with that. I do not.
So why four stars for a book whose main thesis I strongly dispute? The answer is that Doherty presents a logical, coherent argument for a purely mythical hero, that I am not prepared to state categorically is wrong. As a historian, I am more impressed by the negative anecdotes that no creator of a totally-heroic mythical Jesus would ever have invented. Doherty likewise gives paramountcy to negative evidence, meaning the absence of any mention of Jesus by writers who logically should have mentioned him if he existed. I can only suggest that the reader reach his own conclusion after reading both my book and Doherty's.
One can tell how effective this lucid, well-argued book is by the spasms of vitriol and misrepresentation from the Christian apologists who review it. When Doherty's non-belief in the God of Abraham is used as evidence of "bias," you know the critic is desperate. Since Doherty doesn't believe in fairy tales, apparently, he must be wrong about the facts.
Jesus Christ is entirely a figure of legend. It's obvious once you examine the evidence and judge whether the story development is more consistent with folklore or history. If the name of the central figure of this folk tale were Paul Bunyon instead of Jesus, no breath would be wasted on arguing the case for historicity. It will take some time before mainstream scholars will admit the obvious (instead of skirting the issue out of fear), but in the future, people will look back at us and wonder why anyone with access to the facts ever thought Jesus was a real person.
Until then, of course, the sun revolves around the Earth. Oops. I mean Jesus existed. Kudos to Earl Doherty, who, just as Galileo worked outside the inbred university establishment of his day, does his excellent scholarship and writing free of Christian or academic establishment bias.
If you are a Christian, read this book only if you are ready to be convinced that the Son of Man never walked the Earth.