Thursday, April 05, 2012

Speaking of Resurrection

I'm back, baby. This is my time of year!
With Easter coming, there's been the unsurprising uptick of historical Jesus talk. This year's chatter brings popular attention to mythicism, the position that Jesus Christ was not a person in history.

The occasion for this development is a Huffington Post article by Bart Ehrman, a very good biblical scholar and former-evangelical-turned-agnostic. Ehrman writes:
In a society in which people still claim the Holocaust did not happen, and in which there are resounding claims that the American president is, in fact, a Muslim born on foreign soil, is it any surprise to learn that the greatest figure in the history of Western civilization, the man on whom the most powerful and influential social, political, economic, cultural and religious institution in the world -- the Christian church -- was built, the man worshipped, literally, by billions of people today -- is it any surprise to hear that Jesus never even existed?

That is the claim made by a small but growing cadre of (published ) writers, bloggers and Internet junkies who call themselves mythicists. This unusually vociferous group of nay-sayers maintains that Jesus is a myth invented for nefarious (or altruistic) purposes by the early Christians who modeled their savior along the lines of pagan divine men who, it is alleged, were also born of a virgin on Dec. 25, who also did miracles, who also died as an atonement for sin and were then raised from the dead.

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine. There are a couple of exceptions: of the hundreds -- thousands? -- of mythicists, two (to my knowledge) actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study. But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

Why then is the mythicist movement growing, with advocates so confident of their views and vocal -- even articulate -- in their denunciation of the radical idea that Jesus actually existed? It is, in no small part, because these deniers of Jesus are at the same time denouncers of religion -- a breed of human now very much in vogue. And what better way to malign the religious views of the vast majority of religious persons in the western world, which remains, despite everything, overwhelmingly Christian, than to claim that the historical founder of their religion was in fact the figment of his followers' imagination?

The view, however, founders on its own premises. The reality -- sad or salutary -- is that Jesus was real. And that is the subject of my new book, "Did Jesus Exist?"
Readers can decide how solid Ehrman's argument is (hint: it's decent but hardly unproblematic or iron-clad), but at least one scholar finds Ehrman's piece wanting. Richard Carrier is a scholar and mythicist; his book on the subject is due out soon. Carrier argues that the historical position has nothing substantial enough to warrant confidence:
To say that the Gospels contain a lot of myth, therefore they “can’t” be entirely myth, is not valid reasoning. They might contain a historical core, they might not. That has to be determined, and is at least an honestly debatable question. As Dr. Thompson admitted. I think on full analysis they come out as completely mythical (most of the attempts to argue otherwise fail on basic logic, as I demonstrate in Proving History, chapter 5). That should at least be a respectable position, even if Ehrman or anyone disagrees with it.

The second century references, meanwhile, cannot be shown to be independent of the Gospels (e.g. the reference in Tacitus, even the Testimonium Flavianum, even if it were completely genuine–and it’s not–says nothing that could not have simply been read out of a Gospel or gotten from any other Christian source relying on one), or to derive from any real source at all (e.g. the Infancy Gospels). And like any other mythic being, the Gospels would not be the earliest versions of the creed; many mythical demigods “died and were resurrected,” some were even “buried” or hung or burned or cut to pieces; that doesn’t make them historical. Thus, in Paul, that Jesus was created out of the “seed of David” (in fulfillment of prophecy) and “born of a woman” are claims that could just as easily be made of any mythical demigod (all of whom were born of a woman, and some of whom were “magically” born from the seed of their fathers, like Perseus, or even, as in the case of Dionysus, their previous corpses). They also said things–none of which were historical. Paul himself only identifies two sources for his sayings of the Lord: scripture and revelation (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23 in light of Galatians 1:18-20). No historical Jesus is needed there.

That leaves nothing.
James McGrath, on the historicist side, engages Carrier's piece. McGrath's thesis is that Carrier's "is a disappointing and ineffective response that will only carry weight with people who desperately want there not to have been a historical Jesus, so much so that they cease to care about historical methods and evidence." McGrath ably defends the argument and closes with this:
Ehrman did not make mistakes in his piece, and if there is infelicitous or ambiguous wording, one should not try to use that against him any more than one should accept the use of ambiguous statements by scientists in an attempt to undermine their credibility. It remains the case, Carrier’s lengthy blog post notwithstanding, that the evidence available leads most naturally to the conclusion that a historical Jesus more likely existed than not. The attempt to manufacture controversy about this is one of the reasons why mythicists are rightly compared to creationists and other denialists.
We could go on with the back-and-forth, but instead let's make some general points about the discussion as a whole:
  • Mythicism is gaining more public credence and notoriety.
  • Some mythicists adopt the position for personal reasons.
  • The mythicist position can be made reasonably (in academic terms), yet this doesn't automatically make it a preferable or even very good position.
  • On the other hand, the historicist position may seem more "natural" (due perhaps to centuries of assuming its truth), but this in itself doesn't make it correct.
  • The historicist position may be better than the mythicist one, but the margin of superiority seems not to be as wide as historicists have traditionally thought.
  • The historicist question, we must remember, is entirely separate from many other questions related to Jesus and Christian belief, such as the resurrection.
Personally, I am a historicist who thinks historicism is legitimately questioned. I also recognize that the historicity question is hardly as interesting as the development of actual Christian beliefs and practices. See, for instance, Larry Hurtado's points on the resurrection,which suggest Jesus was at first believed to have been raised to life in the world to come, not to physical life on earth:
  • The conviction was that it was Jesus of Nazareth who had been raised.  That is, there was a direct connection between the crucified figure who had been active in Roman Judea and the figure of earliest Christian faith.
  • This was not a claim that Jesus had been resuscitated and brought back to life of this world, but instead that God had catapulted Jesus forward into life of the world to come.
  • One immediate implication of this claim was that God had vindicated Jesus against the death-penalty imposed by the earthly authorities.  That is, in the earliest setting, Jesus’ resurrection was very much divine vindication.
  • The likelihood that Jesus had been executed as a messianic/royal claimant meant that God’s resurrecting him vindicated this claim.  That’s probably why the messianic claim about Jesus seems to have been so central in earliest Christian preaching.
  • Resurrection of the righteous was, for many Jews (but not all), a central hope and expectation.  That is, “resurrection”, the personal vivification of people by God was by Jesus’ time already a familiar concept.  This hope seems to have emerged sometime in the “post-exilic” period, and in the time of Jesus was still under debate, the Sadducees the main Jewish party portrayed as denying this belief.
  • The unusual thing about the claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead was that he had been singled out in advance of the resurrection that was to be given to all the righteous.  This immediately meant that Jesus was somehow special, that God had chosen to favor him apart from and in advance of the vindication to be given to the righteous (such as Moses, Abraham, David, etc.).
  • The references to Jesus’ resurrection include the claim that this involved also his exaltation to heavenly glory “at God’s right hand” (the phrase lifted from Psalm 110).   So “resurrection” in Jesus’ case must be understood as connoting his vindication and glorification.  That is reflected in the “post-Easter” references to Jesus as Messiah and as “Lord”, and the assertion that he now shares in the name and glory of God.
  • In short, the conviction that God had raised Jesus from death was central in earliest Christian faith, and also was powerful in generating attendant convictions as well.
As always, the historical and epistemological questions are more interesting and productive. Who cares whether Jesus would vote for Mitt Romney, or whether he died for someone's "sins"? The whole suffering savior stuff could hardly be more boring, as far as I'm concerned.


  1. I see the same problem for the mythicists and the historicists: each of them has the same 75 pieces from a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle and they are trying to figure out what the whole picture looks like. A few of the pieces seem to fit together into clumps (e.g., like the Pauline corpus or the Synoptics), but there is no way to know how many pieces there might be in between those clumps and what they look like. The historicists say that the handful of blue pieces are most likely sky and the handful green pieces are most likely foliage so that's how we should treat them. The mythicists say that the green and blue might be something else, and if they are, every conclusion the historicists have drawn about the big picture is going to be wrong.

  2. Vinny,

    The problem is one that all historians face. We do not and cannot have a "complete" picture (if one even exists) of the past. What we try to understand is who the major players are, what we can know of their lives and activities, what forces were affecting and constraining their behavior, and what impact came of the different events in which they participated.

    The picture puzzle analogy seems incorrect applied to historical study. In the case of Jesus, there really are no pieces to work with, anyway. We're better of talking historically about the Jesus story, the story of a dying and rising messiah and the evolution of a character from a "first redeemed" to a bona-fide redeemer. We're also better off talking about the emergence and development of various Jesus movements.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.