What is a Mythicist?

In my recent post, I pointed out the overwhelming academic consensus that there was a historical Jesus, but that the Jesus of the consensus was a pretty irrelevant fellow. All the things that make Jesus important, that make him … well, Jesus … are mythical — according to mainstream scholarship on Jesus.

So if you are a mythicist because it is blindingly obvious that the Jesus Christ of Christianity is a mythical figure, then you’re in agreement with the consensus.

So the same friend mentioned in the last post wrote me:

So if Jesus isn’t the Jesus of the New Testament, and isn’t the Jesus everyone knows, why insist that it is the same Jesus at all? Why not just say that there must have been lots of preachers at the time who were more or less like that three line biography. Lots of JBap followers, lots of wannabe messiahs who got themselves killed, lots of them called Joshua/Jesus.

[NB: I’m going to call the historical figure ‘Joshua’, and the mythical figure ‘Jesus’ to keep them separate here: both English names are valid translations of the same Aramaic name, so I’m not suggesting either is right or wrong].

I interpret this question to mean “What does it mean to say that the Joshua of academic historians is the ‘same’ as the Jesus of Christian mythology?”

The answer is that there is a continuity of people involved, from the followers of Joshua through the key people in the early Christ movement, to the key people in the early church. It seems likely that at least Peter (if not more) was both a Joshua follower, and one of the people who claimed to have witnessed the resurrection. And since Paul (who also claimed to have witnessed the resurrection) claimed to know Peter, we move into the early church with some continuity.

It is in that sense that we say there was a historical Jesus, even while admitting that all we can know about him with any confidence would also apply to other people of the time.

And it is the acceptance of that continuity – a connection of people between an unexceptional historical figure and the exceptional world-impacting faith that arose in his name – which means I am not a mythicist. But the more I talk to self-declared mythicists, particularly in the atheist blogosphere, the more I realize the they often define their mythicism in other ways. Even in ways that would make me and most of the academics I know, mythicists. Well, so be it, I’m never fussed about saying what language is supposed to mean. It means what people use it to mean. But if you want to know why those same people refuse to call themselves mythicists, that is why. Not because they believe Jesus Christ isn’t a mythical figure, but because they believe Christianity traces back to one particular historical figure.


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5 responses to “What is a Mythicist?

  1. Jac

    Most people – including the clergy and those who write about Jesus – have no understanding of his real significance. While its validity may be questioned by those who choose not to believe, the full story is provided in Samuel Mann’s book, “Spirit and Truth, Finding Clarification of Christian Beliefs throught the Words of Scientists, Scriptures, Sages and Seers.” Mann takes it right from the beginning with an explanation of what God is (in a way everyone can understand) and goes on from there to explain soul, mind, will and creation. While he may not be the best writer in the business, he has tackled some of the most prevelant questions about our humanity and our relationship to God as it exists through Jesus. It is worth the time to take a look at this book to discover concepts no one else has explored and to gain insights into all the questions that have perplexed mankind since before the time of Jesus.

  2. Ian

    Jac, thanks for taking the time to post.

    Your comment reads like an advert for a book that was released last week, self-published no less. Rather than a response to what I actually posted.

    Maybe it is the book that for the first time reveals the long awaited truth about the universe that “no one else has explored”, maybe it does provide ” insights into all the questions that have perplexed mankind”.

    Unfortunately from the preview I was able to read for free on Amazon, it appears to do nothing of the sort. It seems to be a pretty average work of Christian New Age, down to the copious quotations from Edgar Cayce and Yogananda on every page.

    If you have something specific to talk about with regard to Jesus, some new insight you can specifically back up without reference to psychic revelations, please do, and please excuse the tone of this comment. Otherwise, good luck with your book. I’m afraid I won’t be buying a copy.

  3. vinnyjh57

    Paul does claim to know Peter, but he never claims that Peter or anyone else was a follower of a historical Joshua. All Paul tells us about Peter is that he encountered the risen Jesus in the same way that Paul had. I personally don’t think that the issue of continuity can be resolved either way.

    It seems to me that “mythicism” had come to be defined as the belief that it is demonstrably more likely than not that no continuity exists between the Jesus of faith and a historical Joshua. I don’t qualify because I don’t think this can be demonstrated, but I nonetheless think that the historical Joshua is unrecoverable and that for all practical purposes, Jesus is mythical.

  4. Ian

    “Paul does claim to know Peter, but he never claims that Peter or anyone else was a follower of a historical Joshua.”

    True, Paul seems to indicate that Peter and James were the key figures in the Jerusalem Jesus movement. But he only gives a hint as to why James was. Peter’s pre-eminence is filled in later by other authors. Do we have a mythical pre-crucifixion Peter in later writings? Perhaps. Seems rather unlikely to me.

    But I can certainly make up a story for it. In fact, if I were trying to cast doubt on it, I’d say it is more likely that Peter claimed to have known Jesus: claimed the other disciples scattered, and made up the denying three times stuff to cover for the fact that he was known not to have known Jesus at some point in the past.

    “It seems to me that “mythicism” had come to be defined as the belief that it is demonstrably more likely than not that no continuity exists between the Jesus of faith and a historical Joshua. ”

    One of the things that frustrates me about the increasing number of discussions I’m having on this is that, I’d like this to be true, but it isn’t. Mostly the self-identifying mythicists in the atheist blogosphere are convinced of the same thing I am: that Jesus Christ is a mythical figure. They aren’t really interested in the possible connection to a C1 preacher who has little in common with the Jesus Christ of faith. But because they identify mythicism with a lack of belief in Christology, they are unfortunately making one side in a rather finely argued historical puzzle into an ideological issue. Which is depressing.

    If most people were aware of what the argument is actually about, I think they’d rightly conclude it was an angel-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument for historians to get off on. The important question, I think, is long settled.

    I’m not suggesting this applies to you Vinny, since it is clear to me that it isn’t.

  5. vinnyjh57

    I would be happy to call myself a “mythicist” in the sense that you suggest, but if I did, I know from experience that I would find myself attacked for thinking that I can prove that Joshua never existed. I have taken to labeling myself a “historical Jesus agnostic” simply because it doesn’t produce such a uniformly negative reaction although it is only a slightly more accurate description at best..

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