Further Reflections on the Historical Jesus and the Mythical Christ

This is a response to an article by Benjamin Cain, which was a response to an article of mine, which was a response to an article of his. I hope that some others are finding this discussion interesting, so that it goes beyond a mere private conversation.

The subject up for discussion is whether or not there was an actual Historical Jesus at the outset of Christianity, or whether the figure appearing in the gospels is a fiction, thus mythical. It can be argued, as Cain does, that this is something of a side issue, an “academic puzzle”, since the core of Christian belief is the supernatural, divine figure, which he rejects. That is the topic that I really want to discuss, and it will be the focus of my next article in this series. So here I’ll just make a few points in response to Cain’s article.

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He had been critical of certain conservative Christian writers whom he deemed to be dogmatic apologists and therefore inauthentic historians, and I heartily agreed. He now complains when I suggest that the same might be true of some mythicists, that I rushed to claim “that mythicists are just as biased as the Christian historians who believe Jesus was historical”. What I actually said was that if you start from such a position, then “your preconceptions might occasionally cloud your judgment”.

It’s interesting, therefore, that Cain should now provide abundant evidence of what he claimed I was alleging. He finds this statement of mine strange: “In any investigation or inquiry, nothing should be discounted on principle”, saying “that strikes me as oxymoronic”. I fail to see the oxymoron; which two terms in my sentence are contradictory? I agree that investigations should be founded on sound principles or axioms, the most important of which is surely that you should not have any preconceptions. Another way of saying that is, do not decide in advance what your conclusions are going to be, or as I originally said, do not discount something on principle.

Cain, on the other hand, is completely comfortable starting with preconceptions and deciding conclusions in advance, for he says that:

  • “the crucial questions are already decided by the atheist’s commitment to another principle, namely that of the critical-historical approach to the Bible and to Christianity’s origin, which amounts to a commitment to the scientific principle of methodological naturalism”.
  • “all methodological investigations presuppose some founding principles which enable certain options to be dismissed out of hand”.
  • “ history as it’s come to define itself in the last few centuries” “rejects all theological interpretations”.
  • he is committed to a “scientific approach to history”, “scientific methods and principles”, “critical-historical and therefore natural terms”.

Cain says that I err in saying that the theological Christ of faith is ruled out by his personal bias: “I have nothing to do with it. My article just reports on the nature of the academic debate”. This seems somewhat strange. If he is committed to a critical-historical approach to the Bible, a scientific approach to history, the scientific principle of methodological naturalism, and a rejection of all theological interpretations, then it’s hard to see how this doesn’t count as personal bias. If he truly isn’t committed to these things, and is merely reporting on the nature of the academic debate, then he should spell this out far more clearly.

Furthermore, his statement that I was quoting was: “We must content ourselves with searching for what’s plausible, whereby we swiftly eliminate the theological Christ…”. I always thought that the pronoun ‘we’ referred to the speaker and others. So how can Cain claim that he has nothing to do with it, and was just reporting on the nature of the debate? If he was merely reporting on that, and wanted to distance himself from that position in order to maintain neutrality, why did he not find some other way of expressing himself?

Cain obviously does not think that any of the above approaches represent prejudice or bias. On the contrary, he must believe that methodological naturalism, a scientific approach to history etc., are “intellectually-responsible, epistemically-worthy principles of reasoning”, requiring no justification, or proof of their absolute validity. He also warns against falling for “fallacies that lead us astray”. While having some limited merit, these two approaches, if committed to exclusively and uncritically, are precisely fallacies to be avoided. I would call them delusions of Modernism.

Cain says that mythicists seek to apply “the science-centered methods of historical inquiry for greater understanding… (which means that their) motive is philosophical in the classic sense”. This is a somewhat vague phrase, and it’s not obvious what it means. I assume he intends something like ‘dedicated to the search for truth’. I always thought, however, that ‘philosophy’ means love of wisdom. I therefore find it hard to see how one can arrive at a greater understanding, or wisdom, if one has such a narrow-minded approach to the subject.

The words ‘science’ or ‘scientific’ in these contexts don’t usually mean an objective search for the truth, as one would hope. They mean, rather, in accordance with the principles of methodological naturalism, in other words so-called ‘Enlightenment’ thinking. By this Cain means that we should “consider all naturalistic explanations before resorting to supernatural ones, since the former are metaphysically simpler”. This would seem to be merely an appeal to Occam’s Razor. This can be a useful tool, but can hardly be said to be an infallible guide to the ultimate truth about the universe, especially if you are ruling out any supernatural factors on principle. If you are committed to methodological naturalism, then you will always find a naturalistic explanation rather than resort to a supernatural one. If Cain cannot see how such an attitude, based on the approaches I listed above, might lead to biased conclusions on the mythicist question, then I don’t know where to start.

This bias is obviously more closely related to the question of the supernatural Christ, rather than the Historical Jesus. However, I am not missing his point, as he claims, that “the debate between Jesus mythicists and historicists occurs within the field of historical investigations, not theological ones”. I completely agree that this is a historical question. It might nevertheless affect your judgment on the latter. Cain says that he doesn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. He does believe, however, that if there were a single figure Jesus, then such a figure would have nothing supernatural about him. I suggest that anyone who starts from this position is likely to find much of the narrative in the gospels not credible, most obviously that the ‘miracles’ will be discounted on principle, and will therefore be far more likely to conclude that the figure portrayed is mythical. (Discounting the miracles on principle is what the ‘scientific’ approach to history has already decided to do. I’ll be discussing this question in the next article.)

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On the question of the Historical Jesus, in my previous article I offered one line of thinking, a coherent and possible theory, based upon scriptural and historical evidence. I am certainly not attached to it, even though I may have given that impression — I was trying to argue a case as strongly as possible — and in my conclusion I said that it might be nothing like the truth. Nor am I attached to a Historical Jesus; I own and have read much mythicist literature, and have found it interesting and informative, if not always convincing. I therefore agree with Cain that faults can be found in any portrayal of the Historical Jesus. I was merely frustrated that in his article he appeared to be favouring the mythicist conclusion, without even bothering to consider, and therefore having to debate, the scriptural and historical evidence against what he was saying. Fortunately my article has now provoked him into doing so. He has provided much interesting detail, which will require close reading and further research. At such time I may respond further. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on specific points.

Cain thinks that I misunderstood his position. This was not the case, and I understood exactly what he was saying. I knew that he wasn’t ruling out the possibility of a historical Jesus. I agree that we know very little, if anything, for certain about the founder of Christianity (if that person is Jesus), because there are problems with the sources, that “the New Testament is filled with self-contradictory religious propaganda rather than historical reports”. I completely agree that there is a strong possibility that the Historical Jesus did not resemble the Jesus of the gospels, and was actually offering evidence that this might be so — that Jesus was a faithful Jew, zealous for the Law, like his brother James. In that sense the Jesus of the gospels might be ‘mythical’, as Cain says. It is therefore not taking things to the extreme to imagine “that the real founder of Christianity was nothing at all like any of the portraits of Jesus in the New Testament”. It is therefore certainly possible that the texts “preserve no detailed information about that founder’s life”. The problem with that suggestion is that the gospels seem to leave various tantalising clues about that life, as I was pointing out. Cain was ignoring all that material in his original article, which is why I put together my response. I therefore do not believe that I was “chasing a red herring”; I was merely presenting evidence that contradicted his presentation, in order to see what his response would be.

Neither was I misled by his suggestion that the historical Jesus might be an amalgamation of Jewish individuals, and was therefore a type. I understood why he might think that. Again I was merely presenting the evidence why that might not be so, which Cain was ignoring in his article. The gospels strongly suggest that Jesus was a single unique individual — the legitimate heir to the throne of Israel from the House of David, contrary to Cain’s suggestion that Jesus would have been “some mostly-unknown Jewish preacher”.

Where we may differ is that, in order to establish a Historical Jesus, Cain is seeking “a unique individual who both founded Christianity and was significantly similar to the Jesus of the New Testament”. If there was no such individual, for him this would suggest mythicism.

I think this is asking too much, and may not fit with the evidence. There could have been a Historical Jesus significantly different from the New Testament figure, and Christianity could nevertheless have been founded. Following the logic of my previous article, there would have been three figures, the elusive Historical Jesus, the founder of Christianity (Paul), and the Jesus of the gospels, a somewhat ‘mythical’ figure created in accordance with Paul’s understanding. This scenario is quite possible, as I was arguing, although obviously impossible to prove. It’s worth noting, however, that it is the precise position of Islam, and to a lesser extent Judaism, which has little interest in any Historical Jesus, since he didn’t turn out to be their expected Messiah. (There is much more to say about this scenario to follow.)

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Cain and I agree that “many interpretations of Christianity’s source of inspiration are possible, since the available evidence is equivocal and tendentious at best”. He thinks that because “the evidence may not be compelling enough to favour any of those theories”, the best option is agnosticism, although he also argues that this great confusion strengthens the mythicist case: “we’re left with no compelling evidence for his historicity”.

Various interpretations are indeed possible, but some may be more likely than others. If evidence has been allowed to remain in the texts which contradicts the official Christian version, despite the texts being “compiled as propaganda for competing Christian communities”, and “forged and canonized in a political process and hand-copied over a period of centuries by Christian ideologues who further rearranged, interpolated, and catholicized or harmonized the texts at will”, then surely those passages are more likely to be authentic than those which obviously conform to later Christian theology. In similar vein, if there remain certain passages which seem to have slipped under the radar of these ideologues, perhaps because they failed to understand the implications, again such passages are more likely to be authentic. The portrayal of the Historical Jesus that I presented in the previous article was based on precisely such passages.

As an example of the first type, Christian belief is that Jesus was divine, the incarnation of God on Earth. One might therefore reasonably conclude that he was infallible, omniscient. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, however, passages remain where he is portrayed as a failed eschatological prophet, someone who believed in the imminent end of the world which, as we all know, never happened. These passages must have been in earlier, now lost, versions of the gospels, and the Catholic editors, even though they would presumably have wanted to remove them, for some reason didn’t. After all, the author of John had no reservations about removing all reference to the eschatological material, allowing his divine Jesus to appear infallible. So what was holding back the editors of Mark and Matthew? How can such passages have been allowed to remain if they were not from an authentic tradition?

As an example of the second type, Christianity is built on the belief that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected. If, however, a close reading of the Gospel of John suggests that Jesus survived the crucifixion, and that these details have been allowed to remain in the text, despite the efforts of the censors, again such an interpretation is more likely to be authentic. In this example it also argues for the historicity of Jesus — whoever heard of a resurrected pagan saviour god surviving his crucifixion? And why would the author of John, of all people, provide an account which suggests that Jesus survived the crucifixion? (If there is any compelling medical or historical evidence which contradicts the details in this article, then I would like Cain, or anyone else, to provide it and argue the case. I would then be happy to concede the point.)

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On the question of the desposyni, Jesus’s blood relatives, I will start with James. I quoted Robert Eisenmann as saying that in the gospels, ‘“no embarrassment whatsoever is evinced about this relationship with Jesus, and James is designated straightforwardly and without qualification as Jesus’ brother”. There is no attempt “to depreciate or diminish this relationship”’. Cain’s response is that this is “straight-up nonsense from Eisenmann”. He refers us to Mark 3:32–35, where he claims that “Jesus says he has no family apart from his religious followers”, rather that “whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” He thinks that this is “a depreciation and diminishment of the biological relationship”, and hypothesises that the story is a later invention, the purpose of which is to encourage Christians to leave their families to join the cult. I’m assuming that this is pure speculation, unless there is some evidence. In any case Cain is misinterpreting the text, where Jesus’s meaning is clearly that people who follow his teaching are more important to him than his biological family, not that he doesn’t have one. This same passage explicitly mentions his biological brothers and sisters, which is the context for his remark.

The same message can be found in Matthew 10.34: “I have come to set a man against his father… and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household”. Again Jesus is clearly saying that his teaching will divide biological families. We have, of course, no way of knowing whether a historical figure ever said these things, or whether Mark and Matthew made them up. I can see no reason to call them straight-up nonsense, however. As Eisenmann correctly says, in the gospels “James is designated straightforwardly and without qualification as Jesus’ brother”.

Regarding the other desposyni, I was aware when writing, as Cain says, that Malachi Martin provided no primary sources for his account of the Pope’s meeting with the desposyni, that he was a controversial figure, and therefore that the story might be unreliable. As I said earlier, I was trying to put together a possible portrayal of Jesus to provoke Cain into dealing with the evidence in various texts, instead of jumping to unwarranted conclusions, as in his original article. I was successful in this, and am grateful for all the information he has provided, and the thought he has put into his detailed response.

On the same question, Eusebius and Africanus may indeed both be generally unreliable for all the reasons that Cain provides, because they are Christian propagandists, and their accounts may be “late and dependent on the gospel tradition”. Regarding Eusebius, I agree with Cain that he is notorious, controversial, unreliable, an advocate of deception, and a Christian propagandist. For similar reasons Cain rejects the anecdotes of Africanus. Is he missing the point here, however? What possible motive could such unreliable propagandists have for inventing a story which contradicted the growing Catholic faith to which they subscribed, i.e. the supernatural, divine Christ, without a human family? Such a story should rather have been an embarrassment.

As Cain says, the New Testament doesn’t regard Jesus’s brothers as apostles. Since he is usually in a hurry to cast doubt upon anything that the New Testament says, one wonders why he is so ready to accept it on this point. Might this not be an example of later Catholic editing in order to downplay the role of his family? After all, the Church later tried to pretend that Jesus didn’t have brothers and sisters, even though the gospels say explicitly that he did. If Eusebius and Africanus are dependent on gospel tradition, it is that Jesus had brothers and sisters, contrary to the Church’s teaching. Why would they invent a story which contradicted this?

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Cain thinks that I am mistaken in saying that “all the gospels were written by followers of Paul”. As evidence he says that “Paul is very far from Matthew, since Paul says the Jewish law is no longer necessary for salvation, whereas Matthew says every jot and tittle of the Law is in effect until the end times. Indeed, Matthew is closest to the Jewish purists and archconservatives such as James, the Jerusalem Church, and the Nazarenes”. Cain is referring here to Matthew 5.17, and another relevant passage can be found in chapter 10, when Jesus sends out his apostles to preach, saying: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

I am happy to agree that these two passages do not suggest Pauline influence on Matthew. But what do they tell us? Given that they contradict the conventional Christian understanding, it would be surprising if they were allowed to remain by later editors, unless they were authentic. They do nothing to advance the mythicist argument. On the contrary, they might be giving us an insight into what the Historical Jesus was actually like, as suggested in my previous article.

These two brief, untypical passages aside, Matthew is by far the most supernatural of the synoptists. He has Jesus:

  • healing by mere touch
  • casting out demons by mere command
  • stilling a storm
  • miraculously feeding the Five Thousand
  • walking on water
  • being transfigured: “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white”.

These ‘miracles’ are also featured in the other Synoptic Gospels, which shows that Matthew is in line with the general Pauline, supernatural Jesus approach, but there is more.

In Mark, at the time of the crucifixion, we have “darkness came over the whole land”, a centurion saying “Truly this man was God’s Son!”, and at the moment of death “the curtain of the temple was torn in two”. Then, on the Sunday morning, “as they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe”.

There is also a reference to the charge against Jesus “The King of the Jews” and we have the chief priests and scribes calling him mockingly “the Messiah, the King of Israel”. This would seem to be a Pauline idea, that the Jews did not recognise the true nature of Jesus, but a Roman did. So the briefest synoptic gospel would seem to have been written under Pauline influence.

Luke, the most ‘Christian’ of the Synoptists, has the same two details at the crucifixion. Even though he could have followed Mark, he surprisingly has the centurion say merely ‘certainly this man was innocent’ ”. On the following Sunday Mark’s version has become “two men in dazzling clothes”.

In Matthew, however, in addition to the contents of the other two accounts, at the crucifixion we have: “The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs were also opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many”. When those attending, including a centurion, witnessed the earthquake, they said “Truly this man was God’s Son!”. Then at the tomb: “Suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow”.

I would be happy to agree with any methodological naturalist that this account is mythical, especially if the author expected his readers to take it literally. But if it is not evidence that Matthew was writing under the influence of a supernatural understanding of Christ, then I don’t know what would be. Would he be saying any of this, or would he believe it even possible, if he thought that Jesus was merely a conservative Jewish religious figure close to the thinking of James?

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Those were my major points of disagreement with Cain. While reading his article, it was intriguing to discover that he has an interest in esoteric Christianity, and Axial age wisdom. It seems therefore that we might also have a lot in common, and I await with interest anything he may write on these topics. I am more wary, however, of his desire to reconstruct Christianity “in pantheistic, existential, aesthetic, and cosmicist terms”. That might be the source of some more exchanges.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, more on Christianity, psychology, science, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com

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Graham Pemberton

Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com

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