Religion, Faith, and Spirituality : Jesus Myth Hypothesis

Jesus Myth Hypothesis

The Jesus myth hypothesis, or simply Jesus myth, refers to the theory that Jesus never existed, and that his story is actually a syncretism of previous myths and mystery religions that were prevalent in the ancient world. According to this theory, the figure of Jesus is a mythical composite character based on earlier belief systems or historical persons. This hypothesis is distinct from Euhemerization—the belief that Jesus was a real person whose life was later mythologized—and Docetism—the belief that Jesus' physical existence was an illusion.

The hypothesis was first proposed by historian and theologian Bruno Bauer in the nineteenth century and was influential in biblical studies during the early twentieth century. Authors such as Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price and George Albert Wells have recently re-popularized the theory, though it carries little weight among the majority of modern historians and scholars. The consensus of most biblical scholars and historians is that Jesus was a historical figure, and the hypothesis of Jesus' non-historicity is rarely discussed in current academic literature.

The term Jesus myth covers a broad range of ideas that share the position that Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the Gospels was not based on a historical person. These theories arose from nineteenth century scholarship resulting from the quest for the historical Jesus, particularly the work of Bruno Bauer, which benefited from the burgeoning field of mythography in the works such as Max Müller. Müller argued that religions originated in mythic stories of the birth, death, and rebirth of the sun.[1] James Frazer further attempted to explain the origins of humanity's mythic beliefs in the idea of a "sacrificial king," associated with the sun as a dying and reviving god and its connection to the regeneration of the earth in springtime. Frazer did not doubt the historicity of Jesus, however, stating, "my theory assumes the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth…. The doubts which have been cast upon the historical reality of Jesus are … unworthy of serious attention."[2] The earlier 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.[3] 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.[4] Most recently Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy have popularized the Jesus-myth concept in their book The Jesus Mysteries.[5] Some, including Freke and Gandy, have suggested that the idea that Jesus's existence is legendary is itself as old as the New Testament, pointing to 2 John 1:7, though scholars of the period believe that this passage refers to docetism, the belief that Jesus lacked a genuinely physical body, and not the belief that Jesus was a completely fabricated figure.

Richard Burridge and Graham Gould note that the Jesus Myth hypothesis is not accepted by mainstream critical scholarship.[12] Robert E. Van Voorst has stated that biblical scholars and historians regard the thesis as "effectively refuted".[13]


Graham Stanton writes, "Today nearly all historians, whether Christians or not, accept that Jesus existed and that the gospels contain plenty of valuable evidence which has to be weighed and assessed critically. There is general agreement that, with the possible exception of Paul, we know far more about Jesus of Nazareth than about any first- or second century Jewish or pagan religious teacher."

Two early proponents of the idea that Jesus was a mythical character were Constantin-François Volney and Charles François Dupuis, radical French Enlightenment thinkers who published books in the 1790s that argued Christ was based upon a combination of Persian and Babylonian mythology.[15][16][17]

The first scholarly proponent was probably the nineteenth century historian, philosopher and theologian Bruno Bauer, a Hegelian thinker who concluded "that the Alexandrian Jew Philo, who was still living about 40 C.E. but was already very old, was the real father of Christianity, and that the Roman stoic Seneca was, so to speak, its uncle."[18] Bauer theorized that Philo had adapted the Greek concept of the "logos" to Judaic tradition, initiating the process that led to the fully developed Christian narrative. He argued that what we now know as Christianity was a form of ancient socialism, and was only clearly defined in the reign of the emperor Hadrian, when, in his view, the earliest gospel - Mark - was written. Bauer "regarded Mark not only as the first narrator, but even as the creator of the gospel history, thus making the latter a fiction and Christianity the invention of a single original evangelist".[19][20] Mark, according to Bauer, was an Italian, influenced by Seneca's Stoic philosophy.

By the early twentieth century, a number of writers had published arguments in favor of the Jesus myth hypothesis, 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' 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, "Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one." Others, like Joseph Wheless in his 1930 Forgery In Christianity, went even further and claimed there was an active effort to forge documents to make the myth seem historical beginning as early as the 2nd century.

In recent years, the Jesus myth hypothesis has also been advocated by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, who are both popular writers on mysticism, in their books The Jesus Mysteries and Jesus and the Lost Goddess. Another proponent is Earl Doherty. Doherty suggests that Jesus was a mythic figure, whom the early Christians experienced in visions. He disagrees with the mainstream scholars on the strength of the case against the theory, and comments that the widespread "contempt" in which the theory is held "is not to be mistaken for refutation." He states that "interests, both religious and secular, have traditionally mounted a campaign against it",[23] and adds that mainstream scholarship is guilty of a "notable lack of proper understanding of the mythicist case",[24] leading to "the non-professional scholar" and "well-informed amateur on the internet" becoming those who he regards as "quite educated (meaning largely self-educated) in biblical research".[24]

Advocates of the Jesus-myth theory also do not agree on the dating and meaning of the early Christian texts, with 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.

A special case is Robert M. Price, a biblical scholar, who does not style himself as a Jesus-myth proponent but tries to demonstrate that if we apply the critical methodology (which has been developed in the area) with "ruthless consistency" then we should come to complete agnosticism regarding Jesus' historicity,[25] and that the burden of proof is on those holding to Jesus' historicity.[26] This position, however, is more closely related to euhemerism than to a strictly non-historical Christ.

The earliest references to Jesus are by Christian writers (in the New Testament, Apostolic Fathers and the NT Apocrypha).

The letters of Paul of Tarsus are among the earliest surviving Christian writings. The epistles ascribed to Paul, who did not meet Jesus during his lifetime, do not discuss Jesus' life and ministry in level of detail used by the Gospels, though they do make several claims that he was human; for instance, "… concerning his Son who was a descendant of David with reference to the flesh..",[27] "… By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh …"[28] or "Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified…." .[29] Barnett lists 15 details gleaned from Paul's letters including: 1) descent from Abraham, 2) direct descent from David, 3) 'born of a woman', 4) lived in poverty, 5) born and lived under the law, 6) had a brother called James, 7) led a humble life style, 8) ministered primarily to Jews, etc.[30]

G. A. Wells argues that the historical Jesus in the Pauline epistles is generally presented as "a basically supernatural personage only obscurely on Earth as a man at some unspecified period in the past".[31] Wells considers this to be the original Christian view of Jesus, based not on the life of a historical figure but on the personified figure of Wisdom as portrayed in Jewish wisdom literature.

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 accepted a Platonic cosmology that distinguished a "higher" spiritual world from the Earthly world of matter, and that they viewed Jesus as having descended only into the "lower reaches of the spiritual world".[32] Doherty also suggests that this view 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.[33] Opponents regard such interpretations as forced and erroneous (for example, in the Pastoral letter to Timothy the author speaks of Jesus as being 'revealed in the flesh').[34]

Mythicists claim significance that Paul never uses the term "Jesus of Nazareth," never claims Jesus was crucified at Calvary or buried in Jerusalem, never accuses Pilate of crucifying him, and insists that Cephas and James never added to his knowledge of the Gospel.
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