Are We All Mythicists?

Interesting conversation by email today with a friend*, who was trying to call me out on my insistence there was a historical Jesus.

We reached the point that these conversations go, where I realise they thought I meant that the Jesus Christ of the NT was historical. I corrected them – the consensus among NT scholars and historians of the early Jesus movement is roughly:

There was a man named Joshua who was a follower of John the Baptist, an itinerant apocalyptic preacher from Galilee who caused a kerfuffle one Passover in Jerusalem and got himself executed.

And that’s about all we can say about him with any kind of historical agreement. All the Sunday school stuff: the birth, resurrection, claims to be the Son of God, salvation, and so on. All that is myth, according to consensus. My friend made this comment:

So basically everything that makes Jesus significant theologically, religiously, culturally, everything. Is all myth? For anything but the most irrelevant details, Jesus is a myth?

–friend (edited for typos)

I’d never thought of it that way, but yes. I immediately thought of Simon Bar Kokhba. Historically a much more substantial messiah, one who made a far, far bigger impact as a historical figure. But 99% of people have never heard of him, because his mythology is pretty modest (though not entirely lacking). The difference between Jesus and Bar Kokhba—the only grounds on which Jesus matters to anybody but a tiny group of historians—is all the post-death mythologization.

I do believe there was a historical Jesus, but it is helpful sometimes to remember how little that matters to most people. The only Jesus that matters to the rest of the world is the Jesus that we all agree was mythical.

* My friend’s theological position is self-proclaimed ‘militant atheist’ — by which I think they mean that they see religion as an active evil in the world that should be resisted. I’ll let them say more in the comments if they wish.


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8 responses to “Are We All Mythicists?

  1. Kay

    I do believe there was a historical Jesus, but it is helpful sometimes to remember how little that matters. The only thing that matters to the rest of the world is the Jesus that we all agree was mythical.

    When I (sometimes) refer to myself as a mythicist, it is exactly for this reason. If 99% of what we read about Jesus is myth, then why concern ourselves with that other 1%? As was said in the quote: irrelevant details. It sounds harsh, but I think it’s the honest position.

    There may have been some guy in ancient Greece named Apollo who inspired stories to be written about him, but I’m not going to argue for his historicity. In fact I might be more inclined to argue against it because if all we have is 1%, why bother?

    I wrote about this in a couple of blog posts way back on Ephemeral Thoughts (gone now) asking why someone would want to be a Christian (from a historical sense) if all they could affirm was that 1%. At that time I was willing to affirm the whole enchilada as historical. To deny any of it seemed weird if I was going to call myself Christian.

    Now I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I might still be willing to use the Christian moniker, but only from a purely mythicist perspective (ala Joseph Campbell). Then again, I’d probably not call myself Christian because literalness and historicity are at the heart of the label.

    Anyway … I’m rambling. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Are We All Mythicists Now? | Irreducible Complexity : Homegrown Religion

  3. I think the bottom line here is whether we commit to naturalism or allow for supernaturalism in our worldview. That tends to color our historical thinking.

  4. Ian

    @Kay, Thanks. I think you can be a Christian without believing in a historical Jesus or even a theistic God. Christian non-realism is a position where you acknowledge that Christianity is a mythological system, but adopt it as your mythological system, the lens through which you understand yourself and the world. I find myself doing that a lot, because the Christian mythos is very familiar to me, so I tend to be drawn to it quickly when I think about ‘spiritual’ issues.

    @Doug. Yes. Although, until we have any reason for thinking anything supernatural exists at all, I suspect we’re better off assuming naturalism. Supernaturalism is an easy idea, but as far as anyone can tell, its only referents are mythological, so as a category it is rather redundant.

  5. vinnyjh

    I am a King Arthur mythicist. I can see no value or explanatory power in a a historical King Arthur hypothesis and it is very difficult for me to imagine there ever being any. There might have been some actual person who contributed in some way to the origin of these stories but there is nothing left of him that makes any difference in our understanding of them.

    On the other hand, I consider myself a historical Jesus agnostic. At this point, I don’t think the evidence is sufficient to determine whether he existed or not, but I can see the potential of the historical Jesus hypothesis to help us make sense of the data although I doubt that anything historical can be recovered from the gospels.

  6. Ian

    @Viiny, thanks for the comment, and welcome to the blog!

    I disagree a little on Arthur. It seems to me to be quite feasible that we might find some pre-C10 document that describes a Romano-British general named Arthur who was instrumental at the battle of Mt Badon. This, I think, would dramatically change our understanding of Arthur. It would, in fact, transform him from a probably-mythological construct to a mythologized historical figure. It would transform our understanding of him. But you’re right, it wouldn’t unwrite the grail romances, it wouldn’t dismantle the round table, nor raise Camelot to the ground. In short, King Arthur matters culturally, but the historical Arthur does not.

    Whatever Jesus might or might not have been historically is irrelevant to most people. The figure that the academic consensus finds is no more the Jesus that everybody cares about than hypothetical Arthur the Soldier is King Arthur of Camelot, or than St Nicholas is everybody’s Santa Claus.

    I suspect that the New Atheist blogosphere has been drawn towards mythicism because this distinction has not been made very clear. And that’s why, when I stick up for the academic consensus on a historical Jesus, I get called things like ‘wannabe Christian’ or ‘so-called atheist’, or ‘apologist’. Whatever we’re arguing about, we need to be clear it isn’t *that* Jesus. When it comes to *that* Jesus, we can agree.

  7. the Siliconopolitan

    Just out of curiosity, are there many atheists who proclaim themselves as mythicists? It seems to still be very much a fringe idea in the circles I frequent. And usually dismissed as irrelevant since very few believers would care about objective research showing the non-existence of a historical Jesus, just as they already do not care about the research that show most of the gospels to be exaggeration, midrash and transvaluation. Not to mention the forged epistles. It simply doesn’t matter to most believers “What is truth?”.

    In some sense, it would be a far bigger boon to modern Christianity to embrace the idea of sub-lunar, celestial Messiah, as I gather Doherty believes were the core of Paul’s theology, since such a belief is indeed removed from the need for miracles. Still supernatural, but now not falsifiable.

  8. Ian

    It is a very small minority of folks I know in real life. But is a very vocal group among internet atheists. To the extent that it is, in places, seen as a kind of criteria of true atheism.

    In my experience few believers have had access to information on the authorship of the NT, or historical Jesus research or early church history. I’m not sure whether they don’t care, but they currently aren’t being allowed to care, mostly.

    Thanks a lot for your comment, and welcome to the blog!

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