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The Christ-Myth Theory And Its Problems

Robert M. Price (2011)


Additionally, we can demonstrate that every hortatory saying is so closely paralleled in contemporary Rabbinic or Hellenistic lore that there is no particular reason to be sure this or that saying originated with Jesus.

Another shocker: it hit me like a ton of bricks when I realized, after studying much previous research on the question, that virtually every story in the gospels and Acts can be shown to be very likely a Christian rewrite of material from the Septuagint, Homer, Euripides’ Bacchae, and Josephus. One need not be David Hume to see that, if a story tells us a man multiplied food to feed a multitude, it is inherently much more likely that the story is a rewrite of an older miracle tale (starring Elisha) than that it is a report of a real event. A literary origin is always to be preferred to an historical one in such a case. And that is the choice we have to make in virtually every case of New Testament narrative.

The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems

I have not tried to amass every argument I could think of to destroy the historicity of Jesus. Rather, I have summarized the series of realizations about methodology and evidence that eventually led me to embrace the Christ Myth Theory. There may once have been an historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth. At least that’s the current state of the evidence as I see it.

I will argue that it is quite likely there never was any historical Jesus. Some will automatically assume I am doing apologetics on behalf of “village atheism,” as some do. For what it may be worth, let me note that I began the study of the historical Jesus question as an enthusiastic would-be apologist. Eventually quite surprised to find myself disillusioned with “our” arguments, I shifted toward a more mainstream critical position more or less like Bultmann’s. I was even more surprised, as the years went on, to find that I was having greater and greater difficulty poking holes in what I had regarded as extreme, even crackpot, theories. Finally and ironically, I wound up espousing them for reasons I will shortly be recounting.

Wells and others have insisted that it is just inexplicable, on the usual understanding of a historical Jesus, why the epistles never quote him. To be sure, the epistles do contain many gems that sound like variants on sayings that are ascribed to Jesus in the gospels. But none of these are attributed to Jesus by the epistolarians. James D.G. Dunn asks us to believe that Paul and James did mean the reader to detect dominical logia at such points but thought it best to leave them as allusions for those who had ears to hear (“wink, wink, nudge, nudge”). With great respect to a great scholar, I must confess that this seems to me very strained. It is one of those arguments no one would take seriously except as a tool to extricate oneself from a tight spot. Surely if one wants to settle a question by appealing to the words of Jesus, one will make sure the reader understands that they are in fact words of Jesus—by saying so.

Along the same lines, Wells reasons that, if the writers of the New Testament epistles had access to anything like the sayings tradition of the Synoptics, they must surely have cited them when the same subjects came up in the situations they addressed. Is celibacy at issue (1 Corinthians 7:7, 25-35)? Why not quote Matthew 19:11-12? Tax-evasion (Romans 13:6)? Mark 12:17 would surely come in handy. Dietary laws (Romans 14:1-4; 1 Corinthians 8; Colossians 2:20-21) in contention? Mark 7:15 would made short work of that. Controversy over circumcision (Romans 3:1; Galatians 5:1-12)? Thomas 53 ought to settle that one fast. On the other hand, if there were originally no dominical sayings to settle the question, it is not hard to imagine that soon people would be coining them (as they still do today in illiterate congregations where debaters try to gain points by pulling a Jesus saying or a Bible verse out of their imaginations. No one can check to prove them wrong!)—or attaching Jesus’ name to a saying they already liked, to make it authoritative. It makes eminent sense to suggest, in the epistles, that we see early Christian sayings just before their attribution to Jesus.

We can observe the same tendency in the events predicated of Jesus. Scholars have always seen gospel echoes of the ancient scriptures in secondary coloring or redactional juxtaposition, but the more recent scrutiny of John Dominic Crossan, Randel Helms, Dale and Patricia Miller, and Thomas L. Brodie has made it appear likely that virtually the whole gospel narrative is the product of haggadic Midrash upon the Old Testament. Earl Doherty has clarified the resultant understanding of the gospel writers’ methodology. It has been customary to suppose that early Christians began with a set of remarkable facts, then sought after-the-fact for scriptural predictions for them. It has been supposed that Hosea 11:1 provided a pedigree for Jesus’ childhood sojourn in Egypt, but that it was the story of the flight into Egypt that made early Christians go searching for the Hosea text. Now it seems, by contrast, that the flight into Egypt is midrashic all the way down. The words in Hosea 11:1 “my son,” catching the early Christian eye, generated the whole story, since they assumed such a prophecy about the divine Son must have had its fulfillment. And the more apparent it becomes that most gospel narratives can be adequately accounted for by reference to scriptural prototypes, Doherty suggests, the more natural it is to picture early Christians beginning with a more or less vague savior myth and seeking to lend it color and detail by anchoring it in a particular historical period and clothing it in scriptural garb.
We must now envision proto-Christian exegetes “discovering” for the first time what Jesus the Son of God had done and said “according to the scriptures” by decoding the ancient texts. Today’s Christian reader learns what Jesus did by reading the gospels; his ancient counterpart learned what Jesus did by reading Joshua and 1 Kings. It was not a question of memory but of creative exegesis.
Let me survey the Gospel of Mark to illustrate the extent of this midrashic borrowing. At Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11) the heavenly voice conflates bits and pieces of Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 42:1; and Genesis 22:12 (LXX). In the Temptation narrative (Mark 1:12-13), the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness recall both Moses’ period of forty years in the desert of Midian before returning to Egypt and the forty-day retreat of Elijah to the wilderness after the contest with Baal’s prophets (1 Kings 19:5-7), where Elijah, like Jesus, is ministered unto by angels. The Q tradition shared by Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) and possibly abridged by Mark, plays off the Exodus tradition in yet another way. Jesus resists the devil’s blandishments by citing three texts from Deuteronomy, 8:3; 6:16; 6:13, all referring to trials in the wilderness. The recruitment of the First Disciples (Mark 1:16-20) comes from Elijah’s recruitment of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19-21. Likewise, the calling of Levi in Mark 2:14. In the Capernaum exorcism story (Mark 1:21-28) the cry of the demoniac comes directly from the defensive alarm of the Zarephath widow in 1 Kings 17:18. The incident of Peter’s Mother-in-Law (1:29-31), too, is cut from the cloth of Elijah’s mantle. In 1 Kings 17:8-16, Elijah meets the widow of Zarephath and her son, and he delivers them from imminent starvation. As a result she serves the man of God. In 2 Kings 4, Elisha raises from the dead the son of the Shunammite woman, who had served him. Mark has reshuffled these elements so that this time it is the old woman herself who is raised up from her illness, not her son, who is nonetheless important to the story (Peter), and she serves the man of God, Jesus. The story of a paralyzed man’s friends tearing off the roof and lowering him to Jesus (2:1-12) seems based on 2 Kings 1:2-17a, where King Ahaziah gains his affliction by falling from his roof through the lattice and languishes in bed. Mark has borrowed the substance of the withered hand healing (Mark 3:1-6) from the miracle of the Judean prophet of 1 Kings 13:1-7ff. Mark has “sandwiched together” two previous pericopae, the choosing of the twelve and the embassy of relatives (Mark 3:13-35). We must imagine that previous to Mark someone had midrashically rewritten the Exodus 18 story of Moses heeding Jethro’s advice to name subordinates, resulting in a scene in which choosing the twelve disciples was the idea of the Holy Family of Jesus. Originally we would have read of Jesus’ welcoming his family. And as Jethro voices his concern for the harried Moses, suggesting he share the burden with a number of helpers (18:21-22), so we would have read that James or Mary advised the choice of assistants “that they might be with him, and that he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). And Jesus would only then have named the Twelve. Mark, acting in the interest of a church-political agenda, has broken the story into two and reversed its halves so as to bring dishonor on the relatives of Jesus and to take from them the credit for choosing the Twelve (which is also why he emphasizes that Jesus “summoned those that he himself wanted,” i.e., it was all his own idea). Jesus, however, does not, like Moses, choose seventy (though Luke will restore this number, Luke 10:1), but only twelve, based on the choice of the twelve spies in Deuteronomy 1:23. Matthew and Luke (hence the Q source) make an interesting addition to Jesus’ response to the scribes. Luke 11:19-20, as usual, is probably closer to the Q original. Compressed into these verses is an unmistakable midrash upon the Exodus story of Moses’ miracle contest with the magicians of Pharaoh. Initially able to match Moses feat for feat, they prove incapable of copying the miracle of the gnats and warn Pharaoh to give in, since “This is the finger of God” and no mere sorcery like theirs (Exodus 8:19). The Stilling of the Storm (Mark 4:35-41) has been rewritten from Jonah’s adventure, with additions from certain of the Psalms. The basis for the story can be recognized in Jonah 1:4-6; 1:15b-16a plus Psalm 107:23-29. The Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20) mixes materials from Psalm 107:10, 4, 6, 14, and Odyssey 9:101-565. Jairus’ Daughter and the Woman with the Issue of Blood (5:21-24, 35-43) are a complex retelling, again, of the tale of Elisha and the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4). Jesus’ rejection at home (Mark 6:1-6) goes back to the story of Saul as an improbable prophet in 1 Samuel 10:1-27. Mark’s version of the Mission Charge (6:7-13) may have been influenced by the practices of Cynic preachers, but they surely owe something to the Elisha stories. When Jesus forbids the missioners to “take along money nor two cloaks,” he is warning them not to repeat Gehazi’s fatal error; he had exacted from Naaman “a talent of silver and two cloaks” (2 Kings 5:22). The provision of a staff (Mark 6:8) may come from Gehazi’s mission for Elisha to the Shunammite’s son: “take my staff in your hand and go” (2 Kings 4:29a). Luke must have recognized this, since he returned to the same text to add to his own mission charge to the seventy (Luke 10:4b) the stipulation “and salute no one on the road,” borrowed directly from Elisha’s charge to Gehazi in 2 Kings 4:29b. In the story of the death of the Baptizer (6:14-29), Herod Antipas’ words to his step-daughter come from Esther 5:3. His painting himself into the corner, having to order John’s execution, may come from Darius’ bamboozlement in Daniel 6:6-15. The basis for both miraculous feeding stories (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10) is the story of Elisha multiplying the twenty barley loaves for a hundred men in 2 Kings 4:42-44. The walking on the sea (Mark 6:45-52) looks to come from Psalm 107 (LXX: 106): 23-30; Job 9:8b. In debate with the scribes over purity rules (7:1-23), Jesus is made to cite the LXX of Isaiah 29:13, the Hebrew original of which would not really make the required point. Less obviously, there is also a significant reference to Elijah in v. 14, “and summoning the multitude again, he said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand.’” Here we are to discern a reflection of Elijah’s gesture in 1 Kings 18:30, “Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come near to me.’” In Mark 7:24-30 Jesus meets a foreign woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon, who requests his help for her child, and we find ourselves back with Elijah and widow of Sidonian Zarephath in 1 Kings 17:8-16. There the prophet encounters the foreigner and does a miracle for her and her son. In both cases the miracle is preceded by a tense interchange between the prophet and the woman in which the prophet raises the bar to gauge the woman’s faith. The Syrophoenician parries Jesus’ initial dismissal with a clever comeback; the widow of Zarephath is bidden to take her remaining meal and to cook it up for Elijah first, whereupon the meal is indefinitely multiplied. But why does Jesus call the poor woman and her daughter, by implication, dogs? Mark has taken it from 2 Kings 8:7-15. Mark 7:31-37, where Jesus is going from Tyre and Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, and cures a man who is deaf and unable to speak, is a midrash upon Isaiah 29:18 and 35:5-6. We probably ought to add Mark 8:22-26 and 10:46-52 as midrashic fulfillments of the same texts. Jesus’ ascent of the unnamed mountain and his Transfiguration (9:1-13) is Mark’s version of Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai and his shining visage in Exodus 24 and 34:29. The Markan introduction, “And six days later” (9:2), must be understood as a pointer to the Exodus account, where the glory cloud covers the height for six days (v. 16). The glowing apparition of Jesus is most obviously derived from Exodus 34:29, but we must not miss the influence of Malachi 3:2, especially since Elijah, too, appears. Mark connects again with the story of Elisha and the Shunammite (2 Kings 4) in his story of the deaf-mute epileptic (9:14-29). Elisha dispatched his disciple with his own potent staff to restore the Shunammite’s dead son, but he could not (2 Kings 4:31). But Elisha succeeded where Gehazi failed (2 Kings 4:32-35). The account of the disciples jockeying for position (Mark 9:33-37) reaches back to the Pentateuchal disputes between Moses and Aaron and Miriam (Numbers 12) and/or Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16). Mark returns to the same portion of Numbers for his story of the independent exorcist, etc. (9:38-40). The man casting out demons outside of Jesus’ retinue is based directly on Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:24-30). John is a renamed Joshua who protested that “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” i.e., “not following us” (Mark 9:38). Mark modeled 10:13-16, where Jesus rebukes the disciples for chasing children away from him, on 2 Kings 4: again, the story of Elisha and the Shunammite. “And when she came to the mountain, to the man of God, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi came to thrust her away. But the man of God said, ‘Let her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me’” (v. 27). Jesus has just announced his impending death and resurrection, prompting James and John to venture, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we may ask of you … Grant that we may sit in your glory, one at your right, one at your left” (Mark 10:35, 37). This comes from 2 Kings 2:9, “Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you.” Hearing the request, Elijah reflects, “You have asked a hard thing” (v. 10), just as Jesus warns James and John, “You do not know what you are asking for.” The parallel stories of the preparation for the entry into Jerusalem and the passover supper (11:1-6; 14:12-16) alike derive from 1 Samuel chapter 9, where young Saul, while hunting to find lost asses, encounters the prophet Samuel, by whom he is given a special meal and anointed ruler over Israel. Though Mark does not make it explicit, the scene of Jesus entering the holy city on donkeyback (11:7-11) is a fleshing out of Zechariah 9:9. The actions and words of the crowd come right from Psalms 118:26-27. The cursing the fig tree (11:12-14, 20) stems from Psalms 37:35-36. The cleansing of the Temple (11:15-18) must have in view Malachi’s messenger of the covenant who will purify the sons of Levi (3:1-3, as hinted by Mark 1:2 and 9:3), as well as the oracle of Zechariah 14:21b, “And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.” The saying of Jesus is merely a conflation of Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. The parable of the Wicked Tenants (12:1-12) with its vineyard, hedge, wine-press pit, and tower, has grown out of Isaiah 5:1-7 which concerns a vineyard that has a hedge around it, a pit for a wine vat, and a tower. The whole apocalyptic discourse of Mark (Mark’s “Little Apocalypse”) is a cento of scripture paraphrases and quotations: Mark 13:7 comes from Daniel 11:44; Mark 13:8 from Isaiah 19:2 and/or 2 Chronicles 15:6; Mark 13:12 from Micah 7:6; Mark 13:14 from Daniel 9:27 or 12:11 and Genesis 19:17; Mark 13:19 from Daniel 12:1; Mark 13:22 from Deuteronomy 13:2; Mark 13:24 from Isaiah 13:10; Mark 13:25 from Isaiah 34:4; Mark 13:26 from Daniel 7:13, and Mark 13:27 from Zechariah 2:10 and Deuteronomy 30:4. The seed of the Last Supper story (Mark 14:17-31) is Psalms 41:9. Matthew embellishes the enigmatic figure and fate of Judas. He gets the precise amount Judas was paid, 30 silver pieces, from Zechariah 11:11b. That Judas returned the money, throwing it into the Temple treasury, and that the priests decided to use it to buy the potter’s field he drew from the Syriac version (“Cast it into the treasury”), then the Hebrew version (“Cast it to the potter”). How does Matthew know Judas hanged himself? That was the fate of David’s traitorous counselor Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), whom scribal tradition took to be the subject of Psalms 41:9, which the gospels applied to Judas. Peter’s avowal that he will not leave Jesus’ side reminds us of Elisha’s three avowals that he will not leave Elijah (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6). Or Mark may have been thinking of Ittai’s loyalty pledge to David (1 Samuel 15:21). The basis of the Garden of Gethsemane scene (14:32-52) is 2 Samuel chapters 15-16. Judas’ betraying kiss (14:44-45) would seem to derive from 2 Samuel 20:7-10. Mark borrowed from Daniel 6:4 LXX the scene of the crossfire of false accusations during the Sanhedrin trial (14:55-56). Mark 14:65, where Jesus suffers blows and mockery as a false prophet, comes from 1 Kings 22:24, “Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near and struck Micaiah on the cheek, and said, ‘How did the spirit of the LORD go from me to speak to you?’ And Micaiah said, ‘Behold, you shall see on that day when you go into an inner chamber to hide yourself.’” Jesus’ silence at both trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate (14:60-61; 15:4-5) comes from Isaiah 50:7; 53:7. The substructure for the crucifixion in chapter 15 is, as all recognize, Psalm 22, from which derive all the major details, including the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 15:24//Psalms 22:16b), the dividing of his garments and casting lots for them (Mark 15:24//Psalms 22:18), the “wagging heads” of the mockers (Mark 15:29//Psalms 22:7), and of course the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Psalms 22:1). Matthew adds another quote, “He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now if he desires him” (Matthew 27:43//Psalms 22:8), as well as a strong allusion (“for he said, ‘I am the son of God’” 27:43b) to Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20. The darkness at noon comes from Amos 8:9, while the vinegar and gall come from Psalms 69:21. How odd that the first written account of the major event of the Christian story should be composed not of historical memories but of scripture passages out of context! Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:42-47) is surely a combination of King Priam, who comes to Achilles’ camp to beg the body of his son Hector, and the Patriarch Joseph who asked Pharaoh’s permission to bury the body of Jacob in the cave-tomb Jacob had hewn for himself back beyond the Jordan (Genesis 50:4-5). The empty tomb narrative requires no source beyond Joshua chapter 10:18, 22, 26-27. The vigil of the mourning women reflects the women’s mourning cult of the dying and rising god, long familiar in Israel (Ezekiel 8:14; Zechariah 12:11; Canticles 3:1-4). We have not forgotten the Criterion of Dissimilarity; it is now evident that it must extend from sayings paralleled in Jewish sources to stories from the Jewish scriptures. If the gospel episode looks like a rewrite of an Old Testament story, it is multiplying explanations, contra Occam’s razor, to suggest that the episodes also actually happened to Jesus. And the Principle of Analogy applies here as well: which do the gospel stories resemble more closely: contemporary experience or ancient miracle tales? Which is more likely: that a man walked on water, glowed like the sun, and rose from the dead, or that someone has rewritten a bunch of well-known miracle stories?

Strong evidence from ancient stelae and tablets make clear that Baal and Osiris were believed to be dying and rising gods long before the Christian era. There is also pre-Christian evidence for the resurrection of Attis, Adonis, and Dumuzi/Tammuz. All these survived into the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when they were available to influence Christianity. Apologists, understandably, have tried to minimize the parallels. In view of the archaeological evidence, it is only wishful thinking to claim that these other religions borrowed the common themes from Christianity. In any case the priority of the pagan versions ought to be obvious from the simple fact that church fathers and apologists from the ancient world admitted it by arguing that Satan had counterfeited the facts of the gospel and planted them in advance, much as modern Creationists have claimed Satan fabricated and planted the bones of non-existent dinosaurs, just to throw potential believers off the track.

. . . the Mythic Hero Archetype compiled and delineated by Lord Raglan, Otto Rank, Alan Dundes and others from the hero myths, both Indo-European and Semitic. Here are the twenty-two recurrent features, highlighting those appearing in the gospel story of Jesus. They make it pretty clear that it is not merely the death-and-resurrection complex in which the Jesus story parallels myth more than history.
1. mother is a royal virgin
2. father is a king
3. father related to mother
4. unusual conception
5. hero reputed to be son of god
6. attempt to kill hero
7. hero spirited away
8. reared by foster parents in a far country
9. no details of childhood
10. goes to future kingdom
11. is victor over king
12. marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor)
13. becomes king
14. for a time he reigns uneventfully
15. he prescribes laws
16. later loses favor with gods or his subjects
17. driven from throne and city
18. meets with mysterious death
19. often at the top of a hill
20. his children, if any, do not succeed him [i.e., does not found a dynasty]
21. his body is not buried
22. nonetheless has one or more holy sepulchers

Some of the heroes from whose stories scholars abstracted this list of features, this Ideal Type, were historical individuals, but inevitably their lives become encumbered by the barnacles of myth and legend. Dibelius called this tendency the Law of Biographical Analogy. How do we know which ones have at least some historical basis? There will be collateral, “neutral” information about them, e.g., details of upbringing, education, early plans, romances, likes and dislikes, physical appearance. In the case of Jesus there is absolutely none of this “secular” information. Every detail corresponds to the interest of mythology and epic. Again, a basically historical figure will also be tied into the history of his times by well-documented events. Augustus Caesar and Cyrus of Persia would be good examples. Jesus Christ would not be. Consider the fact that at every point where the gospel story appears to obtrude upon contemporary history, there are serious difficulties in taking the narratives as historical.

Who knows what happened? Maybe Herod the Great did try to kill the infant Messiah. Maybe the Sanhedrin did condemn Jesus as a blasphemer and a gutless Pilate finally gave in to their whims. But it does not seem very probable, and probability is the only coin in which the historian trades. He cannot build a story out of things that might possibly have happened. And this means that it is a chain of very weak links that binds Jesus to the circumstances of the first century.

Besides this, there are persistent alternative traditions as to when Jesus lived and died. Irenaeus thought Jesus was martyred under Claudius Caesar. The Talmud makes Jesus the disciple of Rabbi Jeschua ben Perechiah and has him crucified in 83 BCE, when Alexander Jannaeus crucified so many Pharisees. The Toledoth Jeschu incorporated these long-lived traditions. Epiphanius reports them, too. The Gospel of Peter assigns Jesus’ condemnation to Herod Antipas, and (as Loisy suggested) so did one of Luke’s Passion sources.

How is it that such radically different estimates of Jesus’ dates grew up side by side if there was a real event at the heart of it? We have already seen that no historical memory was available to Mark when he composed the first crucifixion account. I am of the opinion that the varying dates are the residue of various attempts to anchor an originally mythic or legendary Jesus in more or less recent history. It would represent the ancient tendency toward euhemerism.

Why did the Christians bother trying to anchor Jesus in recent history? For the same reason that, according to Elaine Pagels’ keen insight, the Orthodox opposed the spiritual resurrection appearances of Jesus and preferred a version in which he showed up in the objective flesh to name apostles and give commands. As Arthur Drews had already posited, the urgency for historicizing Jesus was the need of a consolidating institution for an authoritative figurehead who had appointed successors and set policy (exactly the advantage of Orthodoxy over subjectivistic Gnosticism according to Irenaeus, a true company man). It was exactly the logic whereby competing churches fabricated legends of their founding by this or that apostle: the apostle (or Jesus) could not be much older than the organization for which he is being appropriated as founder and authority. All this implies it is utterly pointless even to ask whether there was sufficient time for legends to grow up around Jesus. Sufficient time—from when? It is anybody’s guess when the tiny mutation of an honorific epithet of some Near Eastern dying-and-rising god took over Jesus as his name (as the Vedic Rudra became too holy or dangerous to say, and worshippers began to invoke him as “Siva,” “Auspicious One”). Some god or savior was henceforth known as “Jesus,” “Savior,” and Christianity was off and running. The savior would eventually be supplied sayings borrowed from Christian sages, Jewish rabbis, and Cynics, and clothed in a biography drawn from the Old Testament. It is futile to object that monotheistic Jews would never have held truck with pagan godlings. We know they did in the Old Testament, though Ezekiel didn’t like it much.

Might there still have been a historical Jesus who, however, has been irretrievably lost behind the stained glass curtain of his own glorification? Indeed. But I should think the burden of proof lies with the one who would affirm such a Jesus.

In Mark’s first feast story, Jesus and his men also sail to the site of the meal. They encounter a group of five thousand men, ??????, males (no explanation is offered for this, a simple vestige of Homer).

In debate with the scribes over purity rules, Jesus is made to cite the LXX of Isaiah 29:13, the Hebrew original of which (“And the Lord said: ‘Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote …’”) would not really make the required point.

All critics recognize the seed of the last supper story in Psalms 41:9, “Even my bosom friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” Frank Kermode has traced (pp. 84-85) the logical process whereby the original, entirely and abstractly theological claim that Jesus had been “delivered up” (????????, Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?”) has been narratized. From God having “handed over” his son for our sins grew the idea that a human agent had “betrayed” him (same Greek word). For this purpose, in line with anti-Jewish polemic, a betrayer named Judas was created. His epithet “Iscariot” seems to denote either Ish-karya (Aramaic for “the false one”) or a pun on Issachar, “hireling” (Miller, p. 65), thus one paid to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Much of the Last Supper story is taken up with this matter because of the mention of the betrayer eating with his victim in Psalms 41. It is interesting to see how Matthew embellishes the enigmatic figure and fate of Judas. First, he knows the precise amount Judas was paid, thirty silver pieces (Matthew 26:15, “And they paid him thirty pieces of silver.”). He knows this from Zechariah 11:11b (“And they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver.”) How does he know that Judas returned the money, throwing it into the Temple treasury (Matthew 27:5, “throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple”) and that the priests decided to use it to buy the potter’s field (Matthew 27:7, “So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field”)? The Syriac version of Zechariah reads: “Then the LORD said to me, ‘Cast it into the treasury, this lordly price at which I was paid off by them. So I took the thirty shekels of silver and cast them into the treasury in the house of the LORD.” The Hebrew of the same verse reads: “Cast it to the potter, etc.” How does Matthew know Judas hanged himself? That was the fate of David’s traitorous counselor Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23b, “And he set his house in order, and hanged himself; and he died, and was buried in the tomb of his father.”), whom scribal tradition took to be the subject of Psalms 41:9 (“Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”), which the gospels applied to Judas (Helms, p. 106).

It is interesting to speculate whether the doctrine of the second coming of Christ did not spring full-blown from Mark’s reversal of order between the Son of Man’s coming with the clouds and sitting on the throne in Daniel 7.

The second analogy/model for a rapid accretion of spurious Jesus traditions lies ready to hand in the explosion of (universally spurious) hadith, traditions of what the Prophet Muhammad had said and done, providing precedents and teachings for devout Muslims, thus supplementing the Koran. And just as some Muslim hadith reflect Rabbinical and New Testament sources, it is no surprise that the gospels should be filled to the brim with echoes of Rabbinical, Cynic, and Stoic materials, as well as maxims first offered in the epistles with no claim that they originated with an historical Jesus. Consider how the reasons for the fabrication of “traditional” stories and sayings of Muhammad correspond precisely to those suggested for gospel traditions by the form critics. The Prophet’s authority was invoked by every group for every idea it evolved: for legal precepts couched in the form of tradition, as well as for maxims and teachings of an ethical or simply edificatory nature. Through solid chains of tradition, all such matters acquired an unbroken tie to the “Companions” who had heard these pronouncements and statutes from the Prophet or had seen him act in pertinent ways. It took no extraordinary discernment on the part of Muslim critics to suspect the authenticity of much of this material: some reports were betrayed by anachronisms or other dubious features, some contradicted others. Moreover, certain people are named outright who fabricated and spread abroad traditions to support one trend or another. Not a few pious persons admitted, as the end of life neared, how great their contribution to the body of fictive hadiths had been. To fabricate hadith was hardly considered dishonorable if the resulting fictions served the cause of the good. A man honorable in all other respects could be discredited as a traditionist without having his religious reputation tarnished or his honor as a member of society called into question. It was, of course, possible to assert, on the Prophet’s authority, that the bottomless pit awaited those who fraudulently ascribed to Muhammad utterances that he never made. But one could also try to save the situation by vindicatory maxims, in which the Prophet had supposedly recognized such fictions in advance as his own spiritual property: “After my death more and more sayings will be ascribed to me, just as many sayings have been ascribed to previous prophets (without their having really said them). When a saying is reported and attributed to me, compare it with God’s book. Whatever is in accordance with that book is from me, whether I really said it or no.” Further: “Whatever is rightly spoken was spoken by me.” The fabricators of tradition, as we see, laid their cards on the table. “Muhammad said” in such cases merely means “it is right, it is religiously unassailable, it is even desirable, and the Prophet himself would applaud it.”
Even if one prefers to reckon according to a historical Jesus who was born in Herod the Great’s reign and perished in that of Pontius Pilate, there is plenty of time available in which to picture the eruption of false Jesus hadith. It certainly seems not to have taken very long in the case of Islam. All the Islamic authorities agree that an enormous amount of forgery was committed in the hadith literature … The Victorian writer William Muir thought that it began during the caliphate of Uthman. It is more likely, however, that it originated during the lifetime of the Prophet himself. His opponents would not have missed the opportunity to forge and attribute words and deeds to him for which he was not responsible, in order to rouse the Arab tribes against his teaching … During the caliphate of Abu Bakr, too, when apostasy had raised its head, it is not unlikely that some of the apostates should have forged such traditions as suited their purpose … During the caliphate of Uthman, this kind of dishonesty became more common. Some members of the factions into which the community was then divided forged traditions in order to advance their faction’s interests. During the first century of Islam, and also thereafter, the various political parties, the heretics, the professional preachers, and even a number of sincere Muslims, all made their contributions to the growing rubbish-heap of false traditions. Sectarian leaders as well as popular edifying story-tellers both forged plenty as they addressed the people following morning and evening prayers. Compared to the volume of hadith generated in the name of Muhammad by interested and imaginative parties, the scope of invention when it comes to Jesus is quite modest. Spurious traditions were coming into being, drowning the genuine ones. There were motives at play behind this development. Some of these new traditions were merely pious frauds, worked up in order to promote what the fabricators thought were elements of a pious life, or what they thought were the right theological views … Spurious traditions also arose in order to promote factional interests. Soon after Muhammad’s death, there were cutthroat struggles for power between several factions, particularly the Alids, the Ummayads, and later on the Abassides. In this struggle, great passions were generated, and under their influence, new traditions were concocted, and old ones usefully edited. The pious and hero-worshipping mind also added many miracles around the life of Muhammad, so that the man tended to be lost in the myth. Under these circumstances, a serious effort was made to collect and sift all the current traditions, rejecting the spurious ones and committing the correct ones to writing. [The need for this work was recognized about a century after the Prophet’s death, but it took another century for the process to get started.] [Muhammad Ismail al-] Bukhari [810-870 CE] laid down elaborate canons of authenticity and applied them with a ruthless hand. It is said that he collected 600,000 traditions but accepted only 7,000 of them as authentic. But even the remainder of Muhammadan hadith seems excessive. Apparently what Bukhari and the others did was merely to catalogue those hadith that were not debunked by their criteria, not that this vindicated them.
The same error attaches to the decisions of New Testament critics who nominate as authentically dominical the sayings that are not obviously disqualified by their criteria of dissimilarity, multiple attestation, coherence, etc. Any or all of them still might be spurious; they just haven’t been “caught in the act.” (“I know of nothing against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.” 1 Cor. 4:4). Just so, there is no particular reason to regard any of the hadith of Muhammad as definitely authentic. We must … abandon the gratuitous assumptions that there existed originally an authentic core of information going back to the time of the Prophet, that spurious and tendentious additions were made to it in every generation, that many of these were eliminated by the criticism of isnads [chains of attestors] as practiced by the Muhammadan scholars, that other spurious traditions escaped rejection, but that the genuine core was not completely overlaid by later accretions. If we shed these prejudices we become free to consider the Islamic traditions objectively in their historical context, within the framework of the development of the problems to which they refer, and this enables us to find a number of criteria for establishing the relative and even the absolute chronology of a great many traditions. Indeed, why not consider the Koran itself as hadith? It appears to be a collection of contradictory and redundant materials on various topics, all ascribed to Muhammad (and thence to Gabriel) in order to secure prophetic authority. When I see how conservatives flock to the suggestion of Harald Riesenfeld and Birger Gerhardsson (admittedly very great scholars) that the canonical gospel traditions be read on analogy with strictly memorized, authorized Rabbinical traditions simply because conceivably the early disciples might possibly have followed such practices, it becomes clear to me we are dealing again with apologetics. Why not consider the analogy of the Muhammadan hadith? The diversity, anachronism, and tendentiousness of the gospel material would seem to me to make the hadith analogy the better fit. (However, we ought to keep in mind Jacob Neusner’s demonstration that Rabbinical sayings-ascriptions are no likelier to be authentic anyway!)

When I find myself considering the relative merits of harmonization strategies, I know I am in familiar territory. I spent a lot of time there as a fundamentalist and an apologist. I do not like the place and do not want to be there.

One of the pillar arguments of the Christ Myth Theory as usually put forth today is the absence from the Pauline Epistles of any gospel-like teaching ascribed to Jesus. If the gospels’ Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant sage and thaumaturge, was well known, at least among Christians, it would stand to reason that such a Jesus would meet us throughout the apostolic letters by way of quotations and anecdotes. But we find no such material. Suddenly, however, such a Jesus portrait appears in the gospels, written after the epistles, and the explanation for this discrepancy, according to Mythicists, is that, between the composition of epistles on the one hand and gospels on the other, the popular Christian imagination (as well as the inventiveness of Christian scribes) “historicized” the originally suprahistorical, spiritual (mythical) savior of whom Paul and the rest had earlier written so much of a dogmatic, but none of an historical-biographical nature. For various reasons it had become desirable in some quarters to posit a recent historical Jesus of Nazareth to whom one could trace oneself and one’s institutional claims of authority. And in this window of time between epistles and gospels, various unnamed prophets (and borrowers and tall-tale-tellers) supplied the many things this Jesus would have, must have, done and said. Such a figure had not existed as far as the epistolarians knew, and so of course there was no such material with which to lard their epistles. But now that the newly-minted material was available, it found the epistle genre altogether too confining and called for a more appropriate format, that of the Hellenistic hero or saint biography, and so the gospels were born.

The second reason for doubting that Marcion knew any written gospel is the astonishing phenomenon of the near-total dependence of the gospel stories upon corresponding Old Testament passages. A raft of scholars including Randel Helms, Thomas L. Brodie, John Dominic Crossan, etc., have shown again and again how this and that gospel passage likely originated as a Christian rewrite of this or that Old Testament passage. What one testament had Moses do, the other had Jesus do. Fill in the name. What did David do? Joshua? Elijah? Elisha? Turns out Jesus did it, too, and even in the same descriptive words! When one assembles the best and most convincing of these studies the results are startling indeed: one can make a compelling argument for virtually every gospel story’s derivation from Old Testament sources. How do we account for this? Why the sudden interest in rewriting the Jewish scripture as a book about Jesus? The Catholic policy was to retain the Old Testament but to reread it as a book about (predicting) Jesus and Christianity. If this procedure were cut off, as Marcion did, what remained? One had to rewrite the Old Testament to make it explicitly about Jesus! In this way, even the Old Testament of the Jews became, as Martin Luther would say, “was Christum triebt.”

Even when monotheism prevailed, vestiges of the old order survived incognito, as in the Song of Solomon, where the love songs of Ishtar Shalmith and Tammuz have been assigned instead to Solomon and a foreign princess.

Dujardin is pretty consistent in seeing Jesus as a direct survival of a Palestinian Jewish Mystery Religion of Joshua. Joshua was associated with Gilgal, which is simply a variant version of the name Golgotha. And there is no Golgotha near Jerusalem. The crucifixion story preserves the sacrificial ritual of a standin for the god Joshua on the ancient “high places,” adorned with menhirs, or stone circles, which is what “Golgotha” means.

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