As Dan Brown in his book The Da Vinci Code (2003) writes, “Nothing in Christianity is original.” In recent times a number of people are claiming that the historical Jesus is simply a rehash of older pagan secretive religions, and of the religions of dying and rising gods. This is a view expressed in media such as Zeitgeist, The Da Vinci Code, and Irreligious which attempt to be factual and convincing. But how factually based are these claims? This article argues, in reference to reputable scholars, that these claims are false and, on many occasions, deliberately deceitful in their fabrications.
Who are the Mythicists?
New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman asks, “What is driving the mythicist’s agenda? Why do they work so hard at showing that Jesus never really lived? I do not have a definitive answer to that question, but I do have a hunch. It is no accident that virtually all mythicists (in fact, all of them, to my knowledge), are either atheists or agnostics. The ones I know anything about are quite virulently, even militantly atheist.”
Ehrman’s hunch is correct. Leading or well-known mythicists like Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Brian Flemming, and Bill Maher are committed atheist evangelists. However, very few mythicists have credentials to their name and none are reputable scholars in the field. Bill Maher is a comedian, Dan Brown an author, Brian Flemming a documentary maker, etc. Carrier and Price are credentialed with Ph.Ds, but neither have teaching positions as professors at reputable institutions. None of these individuals have recognized names either; Carrier has contributed very few (I recall only two) peer-reviewed articles in established journals and has received few responses from established scholars. This leaves mythicism at an intellectual poverty in the scholarly arena where very few academics take them seriously or care to consider their work. Those professional scholars who do engage the mythicists will usually respond outside of scholarship, often in a self-published book or on a website or blog. Historian of religion Daniel Gullota reveals that,
“Given the fringe status of these theories, the vast majority have remained unnoticed and unaddressed within scholarly circles. In the rare instances where these theories have been addressed, they are predominantly countered by self-confessed (and typically evangelical) Christian apologists and scholars. Some of the more popular versions of the Jesus Myth theory have been directly challenged by New Testament scholars such as Maurice Goguel, Shirley Jackson Case, James D.G. Dunn, Morton Smith, R.T. France, Robert E. Van Voorst, Susan M. Elliot, and most recently, Maurice Casey, Bart D. Ehrman, James F. McGrath, Candida Moss, and Joel Baden.”
Generally speaking, engaging the mythicists is a waste of time for scholars who have very little free time as it is given their career engagements. This background knowledge is important because it helps us know where the mythicists are coming from and what likely constitutes their agenda. That the mythicists are almost always atheist is particularly informative. Those with the greatest ideological ax to grind with religion are often atheists and what better way to eliminate a religion’s credibility than by proving its founder did not exist historically? Gullota rightly acknowledges that mythicists may “be accused of being apologists for a kind of dogmatic atheism.” This brings us to the next point: what are the mythicists claiming?
The mythicists claim that Jesus Christ did not exist historically. The origin of the Christian religion is based in myth rather than on objective history in the form of a historical individual who really did and said things. There was no Jesus who ministered in first-century Palestine, who underwent trial in Jerusalem, was crucified, and later buried in a tomb. These events were all fabricated for some purpose by early Christians and have since become the religion’s staple narrative. The other major claim is that what we know of Jesus through the gospels is nothing more than a copy of popular dying and rising fertility gods from various locations around the world. Some of these gods purportedly include Tammuz in Mesopotamia, Adonis in Syria, Attis in Asia Minor, and Horus in Egypt.
Scholars reject the claim that Jesus is a pagan copy
Just about every contemporary scholar in the relevant historical specializations rejects the notion that the historical Jesus is a copy of pagan gods. A few voices can be taken as representative of the whole. Tryggve Mettinger of Lund University comments that “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct…” Professor Ronald Nash, a prominent philosopher and theologian, agrees that the,
“Allegations of an early Christian dependence on Mithraism have been rejected on many grounds. Mithraism had no concept of the death and resurrection of its god and no place for any concept of rebirth—at least during its early stages… Today most Bible scholars regard the question as a dead issue.”
New Testament scholar Craig Keener says that “When you make the comparisons [between the historical Jesus and the claims made by mythicists] you end up with a whole lot more differences than you do similarities.”
Michael Bird, a member of the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, says,
“Now I am normally a cordial and collegial chap, but to be honest, I have little time or patience to invest in debunking the wild fantasies of “Jesus mythicists”, as they are known. That is because, to be frank, those of us who work in the academic profession of religion and history simply have a hard time taking them seriously.”
According to James Dunn, “Myth is a term of at least doubtful relevance to the study of Jesus and the Gospels.”
Historian Michael Grant says, “To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars.’
According to Richard Burridge has said, “I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that (that Jesus did not exist) anymore.”
Scholars agree that Jesus lived and that we can know things about him
The most credible religion, New Testament, Biblical, historical, and early Christianity scholars agree that Jesus existed. Issues debated are on what scholars can know about Jesus, and what events and sayings found in the gospels can be deemed likely historical. That scholars engage in these discussions clearly separates Jesus from many of the dying and rising gods that have no place in history as historical figures. As the once skeptical and influential professor Rudolf Bultmann penned, “Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.”
Historian Paul Maier agrees emphasizing the depth of the historical evidence at the historian’s disposal: “The total evidence so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence.”
Professor Craig Evans says that “No serious historian of any religious or nonreligious stripe doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea and Samaria.”
Bart Ehrman, an ideological opponent on the popular level to Christianity, compares mythicism to young-earth creationism, both of which he takes to be absurd,
“These views are so extreme [that Jesus did not exist] 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.”
Mythcists are not credible and reputable scholars
It is clear that the mythicists are not seen as credible scholars. A mythicist like Richard Carrier can indeed have a Ph.D., but this makes him no more credible in the eyes of scholars than a holocaust denier with a Ph.D is deemed credible to historians of Jewish history. Indeed this reflects in the voices of mainstream scholars. The reputable Ben Witherington remarks that “Not a single one of these [mythicist] authors and sources are experts in the Bible, Biblical history, the Ancient Near East, Egyptology, or any of the cognate fields…. they are not reliable sources of information about the origins of Christianity, Judaism, or much of anything else of relevance to this discussion.”
Historian of early Christianity and Judaism, John Dickson writes that “anyone who dips into the thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus will quickly discover that mythicists are regarded by 99.9% of the scholarly community as complete “outliers,” the fringe of the fringe.”
Michael Bird categorizes mythicists as fringe atheists no-one takes seriously, “There is a reason why this view is the sole possession of an energetic bunch of fringe atheists and has never been entertained as a possibility by experienced and respected scholars working in the field of Christian Origins.”
As we noted earlier, the majority of the mythicists are atheists who are anti-religion generally and anti-Christianity specifically. But beyond the theism-atheism debate, few give the mythicists any thought; according to Mettinger,
“From the 1930s… a consensus has developed to the effect that the ‘dying and rising gods’ died but did not return or rise to live again. Those who still think differently are looked upon as residual members of an almost extinct species.”
Scholars know very little about these pagan secretive religions.
The pagan religions mythicists often claim were the resources used by the early Christians to invent Jesus were really only known by those in the relevant communities. Most of the members of these communities had no intention of sharing their views with outsiders. The dearth of data leaves modern historians knowing only snippets of who these groups really were. As Ehrman writes, “We know very little about mystery religions – the whole point of mystery religions is that they’re secret! So I think it’s crazy to build on ignorance in order to make a claim like this.”
C. S Lewis, an atheist turned Christian and a talented writer, explained that “The Pagan stories are all about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when.”
Jonathan Z. Smith, a reputable religion scholar and historian of religion, concluded that “The idea of dying and rising gods is largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.” They are imaginary because the mythicists have to resort to using their own imagination to reconstruct largely unknown history in order to apply it to the historical Jesus and claim parallels.
If what the historian has are very few late and ambiguous texts, many of which postdate Christianity (more on this in the following point), then where, some have wondered, are mythicists getting their alleged parallels from? As Smith noted above, it must come from speculative and imaginative reconstructions conjured up solely in the minds of the mythicists who are driven by an anti-religious agenda.
Most of what scholars know about secretive pagan religions comes after Christianity, not before it.
If most of what historians know of these secretive religions postdate Christianity, then why are mythicists claiming these ideas predate Christianity? Why do they claim that the early Christian community copied elements of these secretive religions when they could not have done so?
Mettinger says that the consensus is that there were no dying and rising gods before Jesus or prior to the origin of Christianity in the early first century CE: “The consensus among modern scholars — nearly universal — is that there were no dying and rising gods that preceded Christianity. They all post-dated the first century.” Mettinger claims that the references to a resurrection of the Greek goddess Adonis “have been dated mainly to the Christian Era”, and therefore did not precede the resurrection of Jesus. No Christian copying could have taken place.
Scholar Edwin Yamauchi writes that “the supposed resurrection of Attis doesn’t appear until after AD 150.” And in the case of Mithra, Ronald Nash explains that “Mithraism flowered after Christianity, not before, so Christianity could not have copied from Mithraism. The timing is all wrong to have influenced the development of first-century Christianity.” Mithraism in its Roman form emerged probably in the late first century CE, so Jesus cannot be a copy of events or stories from that religion.
The Jews were a people who refrained from allowing pagan myths to invade their culture.
In the Old Testament the Jews occasionally rejected their God and engaged in idolatry. Although scholars know this because it is reported in biblical texts, there is no evidence to suggest that anything similar occurred in the Jews of first-century Palestine. In fact, the New Testament confirms that the Pharisees were strict in the application of the law. The Apostle Paul, while still a Pharisee (prior to his conversion to Christianity), authorized the killing of early Christians for their blasphemous claims of a crucified and raised Messiah. It is against this background that Jesus must be viewed. In the words of William Lane Craig: “For Jesus and his disciples they were first century Palestinian Jews, and it is against that background that they must be understood.”
What was this background? Whatever it was, Ben Witherington notes that it was not one in which a bodily resurrection (which the Christians claimed of Jesus) was “a regular part of the pagan lexicon of the afterlife at all, as even a cursory study of the relevant passages in the Greek and Latin classics shows. Indeed, as Acts 17 suggests, pagans were more likely than not to ridicule such an idea. I can understand the apologetic theory if, and only if, the Gospels were directed largely to Pharisaic Jews or their sympathizers. I know of no scholar, however, who has argued such a case.”
William Lane Craig argues this demonstrates that,
“… pagan mythology is the wrong interpretive framework for understanding the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection… anyone pressing this objection has a burden of proof to bear. He needs to show that the narratives are parallel and, moreover, that they are causally connected… It boggles the imagination to think that the original disciples would have suddenly and sincerely come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was risen from the dead just because they had heard of pagan myths about dying and rising seasonal gods.”
Professor Ed Sanders agrees that the historical Jesus can be made sense of within the world of first-century Judaism, “the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”
It is because of this background that Martin Hengel says that “Hellenistic mystery religions… could gain virtually no influence [in Jewish Palestine].”
The gospels are biographical and contain historical information
The gospels and the New Testament literature are the primary sources of information for historical Jesus and the early Christian movement. The gospels, for example, are classified as Greco-Roman biography. Graham Stanton writes that it is no longer “possible to deny that the Gospels are a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of ‘lives,’ that is, biographies.”
New Testament scholar Charles Talbert in his book ‘What are the Gospels’ speaks highly of another influential book that influenced scholars of the true genre of the gospels; he claims that “This volume ought to end any legitimate denials of the canonical Gospels’ biographical character.” Likewise, David Aune, a specialist in ancient literature, suggests that “while the [Gospel writers] clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicated that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened.”
Understanding the genre of any text is important. If an author intended to write romantic fiction it would be different than if he decided to write historical biography. There is intention behind the author’s selection of genre. Archaeology also highlights the gospels’ biographical constitution. As Urban von Wahlde of the Society of Biblical Literature states, archaeology “demonstrates the full extent of the accuracy and the detail of the Evangelist’s knowledge… The topographical references …. are entirely historical… some are quite accurate, detailed and historical.” Although archaeological corroboration is never proof of a text’s narrational reliability, it is usually taken as a clue pointing in that direction by placing narrated events within space and time. According to Ehrman,
“If historians want to know what Jesus said and did they are more or less constrained to use the New Testament Gospels as their principal sources. Let me emphasize that this is not for religious or theological reasons—for instance, that these and these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple.”
Unlike the pagan secretive religions, we can know things about Jesus
With the extensive testimonial and textual evidence at their disposal, historians can know many details about the historical Jesus. Craig Evans says that “the consensus is, look, Jesus existed, he was Jewish, he wasn’t out to break the law. He was out to fulfil it. Jesus understood himself as the Lord’s anointed, that is as the Messiah.”
According to Sanders,
“Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died… the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.” Sanders goes on to say explain that miracle healings and exorcisms are part of what we can know about Jesus, “I think we can be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as a result of healing, especially exorcism.”
Graham Stanton elucidates that “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered.” Peter Tomson explains that “Although he apparently considered himself the heavenly ‘Son of Man‘ and ‘the beloved son’ of God and cherished far-reaching Messianic ambitions, Jesus was equally reticent about these convictions. Even so, the fact that, after his death and resurrection, his disciples proclaimed him as the Messiah can be understood as a direct development from his own teachings.”
Professor Robert Grant suggests that “Jesus introduced a very singular innovation. For he also claimed that he himself could forgive sins… Jesus lived his last days, and died, in the belief that his death was destined to save the human race.” Similarly, late scholar Maurice Casey said that Jesus “believed that his death would fulfill the will of God for the redemption of his people Israel.”
According to Sanders, we can know that Jesus’ resurrection appearances convinced his earliest followers of the resurrection: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”
Leading experts in the field do not doubt that they can know quite a few details about the ministry of the historical Jesus. The consensus is that Jesus existed, that one can know what he set out to accomplish, and what he thought of himself.
9. The Jesus of history does not fit the profile of someone that would be a myth.
Many details from Jesus’ life and ministry do not seem to be likely candidates for myth. The fact that he gained a following seems natural and it is unlikely that those closest to him, like the disciples and other early followers, would have so readily risked their lives and livelihoods for what they knew to be a mythological figure. According to Edwin Judge,
“An ancient historian has no problem seeing the phenomenon of Jesus as an historical one. His many surprising aspects only help anchor him in history. Myth and legend would have created a more predictable figure. The writings that sprang up about Jesus also reveal to us a movement of thought and an experience of life so unusual that something much more substantial than the imagination is needed to explain it.”
C. S. Lewis, whose expertise in literary criticism renders him a helpful voice in this discussion, explicates,
“All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I am prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legend or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”
It is uncontroversial within mainstream scholarships that the gospels do contain historical information on Jesus and his ministry. Numerous gospel depictions of Jesus do not gel with the idea of him entirely being mythological, particularly the baptism and crucifixion.
10. Much of these secretive pagan religions have little to do with concrete history.
Many of the secretive pagan religions and “cults” were founded on the stories of mythological figures that probably did not exist. According to Edwin Yamauchi, “All of these myths are repetitive, symbolic representations of the death and rebirth of vegetation. These are not historical figures…” William Lane Craig writes that “In fact, most scholars have come to doubt whether, properly speaking, there really were any myths of dying and rising gods at all!”
11. The uniqueness of the virgin birth conception
Jesus is famously said to have been born of a virgin. It is not relevant whether or not one accepts miracles such as supernatural births, rather what is relevant is the uniqueness of the virgin birth conception as it is communicated in the gospels. According to scholar Raymond Brown, the virgin birth is indeed a unique phenomenon for “No search for parallels has given us a truly satisfactory explanation of how early Christians happened upon the idea of a virginal conception…”
Historian Louis Sweet writes,
“After a careful, laborious, and occasionally wearisome study of the evidence offered and the analogies urged, I am convinced that heathenism knows nothing of virgin births. Supernatural births it has without number, but never from a virgin in the New Testament sense and never without physical generation, except in a few isolated instances of magical births on the part of women who had not the slightest claim to be called virgins. In all recorded instances which I have been able to examine, if the mother was a virgin before conception took place she could not make that claim afterward.”
Thomas Boslooper agrees, “The literature of the world is prolific with narratives of unusual births, but it contains no precise analogy to the virgin birth in Matthew and Luke. Jesus’ ‘virgin birth’ is not ‘pagan’.” William Lane Craig claims that “The Gospel stories of Jesus’ virginal conception are, in fact, without parallel in the ancient Near East.”
But mythicists have alleged many parallels to other figures who they claim were too born of a virgin. A popular candidate is the god Mithras who was purportedly born of a virgin. However, numerous reasons bring this parallel into question. The strongest objection is that sculptures depict Mithras being born from a rock while holding a torch and a dagger; according to ancient historian Manfred Clauss, “The sequence of images from the mythical account of Mithras’ life and exploits begins, so far as we can make out, with the god’s birth. The literary sources here are few but unmistakable: Mithras was known as the rock-born god.” However, few would view rocks as virgins and that gods born from rocks as virgin-born.
12. Jesus’ death had a radical impact on his disciples
The American journalist and educator Peter Steinfels once questioned, as many others have done, what could have so drastically changed the lives of so many after Christ’s death,
“Shortly after Jesus was executed, his followers were suddenly galvanized from a baffled and cowering group into people whose message about a living Jesus and a coming kingdom, preached at the risk of their lives, eventually changed an empire. Something happened … But exactly what?”
The significance of this has not been lost on scholars. Bart Ehrman boldly states that “We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that… he [Jesus] soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” The skeptic Rudolph Bultmann remarked in his day that “All that historical criticism can establish is that the first disciples came to believe the resurrection.” Scholar Luke Johnson of Emory University claims that “Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.”
Did Jesus really appear in a resurrected body to his early followers and opponents? As interesting as this question is, it is not one we need to answer here. Rather, what we do want to highlight is the unlikely scenario envisaged by the mythicists, which is that the early followers of Jesus went from a fearful “baffled and cowering group”, who had just witnessed their leader be crucified, to a galvanized one, who were fully aware of the possibilities of persecution and even death that faced them for their message, on the basis of a mythological figure who did not exist. This leads historians to the most obvious conclusion: Christianity’s origin only makes sense if there was in fact a flesh and blood historical figure at its root.
13. The uniqueness of the resurrection conception
The resurrection of Jesus is widely recognized to be a unique concept, which brings into question the many parallels mythicists try to draw between Jesus and pagan gods. One such speculative parallel is made to the Egyptian god Osiris. But Ehrman argues that this connection is false for “there’s nothing about them [Hercules and Osiris] dying and rising again… It is true that Osiris “comes back” to earth… But this is not a resurrection of his body. His body is still dead. He himself is down in Hades, and can come back up to make an appearance on earth on occasion.”
Referring to Dumuzi/Tammuz, Mettinger concludes that “there were no ideas of resurrection connected with Dumuzi/Tammuz… The category of dying and rising deities as propagated by Frazer can no longer be upheld.” Edwin Yamauchi asserts that “there’s no resurrection of Marduk or Dionysus… there was no real resurrection of Tammuz. Jonathan Smith agrees stating that “There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.” Evidently the Mithras parallel emerges again, but Ronald Nash is confident that the “Allegations of an early Christian dependence on Mithraism have been rejected on many grounds. Mithraism had no concept of the death and resurrection of its god and no place for any concept of rebirth—at least during its early stages.”
The strongest reason to doubt that the Jesus resurrection conception was borrowed from Pagan religions is that it is unique. The resurrection is conceptualized as physical and bodily, which, it seems, is a unique notion in the history of religions and makes sense in the context of first-century Judaism; as Mettinger writes, “While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions.”