The God Who Wasn't There: an Analysis
Section 4: Jesus Myth Overview: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Last Updated: Feb 2007
In June 2005, Brian Flemming released a documentary DVD on the Jesus Myth, which is the idea that there is no historical person at the core of Christianity. Flemming proposes that Christ was in fact a being that died and resurrected on a mythical plane, sharing similarities with other saviour godmen of the day, like Mithras, Dionysus and Osiris.
In this final Section, I look at the origin of the Jesus Myth and give an overview of some of the different positions. I strongly urge anyone interested in this topic to follow up on some of these points for themselves, rather than take my word or Flemming's word for anything.
Section 1: Misinformation: Errors in the movie
Section 2: Justin Martyr: What does he REALLY say?
Section 3: Paul and early Christianity
Section 4: Jesus Myth Overview: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
4.1 Origins of the Jesus Myth
4.2 Reviews of the movie
4.3 Earl Doherty's "Jesus Puzzle"
4.4 G.A. Wells
4.5 Freke and Gandy's "The Jesus Mysteries"
4.6 Tom Harpur's "Pagan Christ"
4.7 Acharya S
I refer to Wikipedia articles quite a few times in this section. Users should note that those articles are editable by the public, so can change without notice. However, they often contain links to external sources where the reader can find out more information.
Section 4: Jesus Myth Overview
4.1 Origins of the Jesus Myth
The Jesus Myth has been around for several hundred years now. According to the Wikipedia article on the Jesus Myth:
"The Jesus-myth is a concept associated with a sceptical position on the historicity of Jesus, which claims that Jesus did not exist as a historical character, but functioned instead as an abstract, symbolic, and metaphorical allusion to a higher knowledge. The theory has not found widespread acceptance among mainstream scholars and historians...
The first scholarly proponent of the Jesus myth idea was probably nineteenth century historian Bruno Bauer, who argued that the true founder of Christianity was the Alexandrian Jew Philo. His arguments made little impact at the time. In the early twentieth century, however, a few other scholars published arguments in favor of the Jesus Myth idea. These treatments were more influential and merited several book-length responses by historians and New Testament scholars."
A lot of the misinformation on Jesus Myth websites and in books today has its origin in the 19th Century; and ironically, much was created by liberal Christians of that era. A new mood for rational and scientific explanations for the world around us resulted in an explosion of public interest in pseudo-scientific investigations into topics like Atlantis, psychic phenomena and spiritualism. New discoveries in Egyptology and textual criticism, as well as an interest by the public in Asian mythology lead to a cottage industry in books that stimulated the public's appetite for fantastic theories.
Theories about the origins of religions were especially popular. Many writers wanted to find a commonality between the different religions, and so went out of their way to " promote" similarities between them. The output varied in quality: from the scholarly "The Golden Bough" by Sir George Frazer, to the more infamous "The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviours" by Kersey Graves. When Jesus Mythers like Acharya write that some 19th Century Christians "admitted" there were similarities between Christ and other deities, in many cases those Christians actually were the ones who were trying to fudge the data to create those similarities.
Jesus Myth proponents tend to fall into two groups: the first relies on outdated scholarship and bogus data coming out of the 19th Century. The other group relies on the primary sources from early Christianity. More recent Jesus Mythers like Earl Doherty and G.A. Wells fall into the second group. Flemming's movie falls into the first group.
Today, when "the Jesus Myth" is discussed, most people seem to be referring to Earl Doherty's version. Though Flemming doesn't refer to Doherty in the main part of his movie, he interviews Doherty in the extended DVD edition.
I've debated a number of Jesus Myth proponents over the years. They all believe that their particular version of the Jesus Myth remains unrefuted, though ironically, as in the case of religion, not all Jesus Myth theses can be correct at the same time.
4.2 Reviews of the movie on atheist websites
I went looking for reviews about the movie on the Internet. Atheist websites that commented on the movie were generally complimentary, while theist websites were generally critical. This was not unexpected.
What I did find interesting though, was that few of the atheist websites actually looked into the claims presented in the movie. There seems to have been little attempt to verify ANY of the information presented in any review of the movie. They simply accepted that pagan gods like Dionysus, Mithras and Osiris shared similarities with Christ. Atheist-established internet discussion forums, like Internet Infidels, where questions about the "Jesus copycat" idea had already been thrashed have become more critical, however.
The lack of analysis by atheist reviewers is glaring, especially since Flemming has admitted mistakes in his movie, and Richard Carrier has provided some examples of problems (though Carrier is generally supportive of the Jesus Myth generally). As I said in Section 1, there is too much misinformation on both sides of the fence floating around the Internet. The lack of critical analysis on the subject does no-one any credit.
4.3 Earl Doherty's "Jesus Puzzle"
I've read Earl Doherty's book "Jesus Puzzle" many times, and debated him a few times on the Internet Infidel website as well. He writes most charmingly, and debates clearly and fairly. It was a genuine pleasure to correspond with him. His website is here: http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/home.htm
Earl is like your favorite uncle, who tells the most wonderful stories... but at the end, you always have a quiet word with your auntie to see how much of the story was true. It's not that you suspect your uncle of lying necessarily, but the question of exaggeration does raise itself.
Earl's book is long on speculation and short on evidence. To some extent, this is understandable, and I don't blame Earl for speculating. We have few Christian resources from the First Century, as explained in an earlier section. On the pro side, the evidence that he uses is taken squarely from primary sources and scholarly secondary sources. On the con side, he then builds his case on speculation that goes beyond what the evidence bears, and which eventually turns against the evidence itself.
A case in point is Earl's use of a "fleshy sublunar realm" or "world of myth". According to Earl, pagans of Paul's time believed that the gods acted in a dimension overlapping our own, a dimension in which they believed the stories of their gods actually took place. Paul was a product of a Hellenized Judaism which had absorbed these pagan Middle Platonist views. It was in that "fleshy sublunar realm" that the pagans believed that Attis, for example, took a knife and castrated himself. And, according to Earl, it was there that Paul located Satan's crucifixion of Christ.
The only problem is: the pagans of Paul's time had no such belief in a separate sublunar dimension where the gods acted. As explained in a previous section, many pagans believed that the gods were humans who had later been deified. They believed that the stories about their gods either developed after the person's death on earth, or the legends were allegorical, and thus didn't happen at all. Earl has ruled out that Paul believed that the crucifixion was an allegorical event. But where does that leave the story of the crucifixion then, if Paul was following Middle Platonist views?
After debating with Earl several times on this topic (see the links below), Earl now admits that Paul probably had atypical views about the "sublunar realm". But this negates the very strength of his theory: if Paul can't be placed in the typical views of the day, then the requirement on Earl is to provide strong evidence that Paul fell outside that group. Unfortunately, the evidence simply isn't there and Earl doesn't provide it.
I wasn't the first one to point out this flaw in Earl's theory, and I doubt that I will be the last. Others, including atheists, have rejected his theory on this very point. It must surely set alarm bells that his theory is accepted by those who know little about the views of the people of Paul's day, and rejected by those who do know something about it. Frustratingly, I've found that Earl's supporters simply don't seem to care about this. There is a gaping hole in the centre of Earl's theory, and those who appear to have embraced it simply take Earl on faith that people of Paul's time had a belief in a "fleshy sublunar dimension" in which the gods acted.
I recommend anyone who is interested in Earl's ideas to read John Dillon's The Middle Platonists. Dillon examines the most prominent Middle Platonists in the centuries before and after Paul, and methodically sets out their views with regards to ethics, cosmology and influences. I doubt that anyone can read Dillon and come away with the conclusion that Earl is correct.
For those interesting in learning more on this topic, I suggest reading through several debates that I and others have had with Earl on the nature of the "sublunar realm". I hope that this will encourage people to examine the background to Earl's theory a little more closely.
The following debate involved Earl, me and a number of others, both pro and con Earl's theory. If you don't have any knowledge on Middle Platonism, it may be slightly confusing, but there are a few useful links that may help you find out more:
I wasn't really involved in this debate, which was between Earl and others, on "The Ascension of Isaiah", a text that Earl believes supports his position:
This very long thread discusses Earl's "smoking gun" text, "Minucius Felix". Earl doesn't appear until a few pages in:
This is probably the most interesting thread. Started by Earl, it is called "Dancing with Katie Sarka Under the Moon". It looks at the use of the expression "kata sarka" ("according to the flesh"). But it includes lots of interesting comments on the infamous "sublunar realm":
One of the participants in the debates above, Kevin Rosero, has his own blogspot. Kevin is a moderate Christian who looks at issues pertaining to modern Christianity, including the Jesus Myth, and especially Earl Doherty's theory. His concise writing style allows him to lay out complex arguments in a concise yet easy to read format: http://roseandrock.blogspot.com/ Highly recommended!
4.4 G.A. Wells
Before Doherty and his "Jesus Puzzle" website in the 1990s, G.A. Wells was probably the most prominent Jesus Myther. Like Doherty, Wells sees Paul as writing about a Jesus figure who was a "supernatural personage" that had no relation to the figure later written about in the Gospels.
Wells is an Emeritus Professor of German at Birkbeck College, though he is more widely known as a New Testament scholar. He wrote the first of his "Jesus Myth" books in the 1970s.
In the 1990s however, Wells moved away from a "pure mythicist" stance. As he says here:
"Recent work on Q led me to accept that the gospels (unlike the Pauline and the other early epistles) may include traditions about a truly historical itinerant preacher of the early first century".
As Wells goes on to explain here:
"I have argued that the disparity between the early documents and the gospels is explicable if the Jesus of the former is not the same person as the Jesus of the latter... In the gospels, the two Jesus figures -- the human preacher of Q and the supernatural personage of the early epistles who sojourned briefly on Earth as a man, and then, rejected, returned to heaven -- have been fused into one. The Galilean preacher of Q has been given a salvivic death and resurrection, and these have been set not in an unspecified past (as in the Pauline and other early letters), but in a historical context consonant with the date of the Galilean preaching.
Now that I have allowed this in my two most recent relevant books... it will not do to dub me a "mythicist" tout court."
Articles by Wells can be found here: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/g_a_wells/index.shtml
4.5 Freke & Gandy's "The Jesus Mysteries"
Freke and Gandy's "The Jesus Mysteries" is a truly truly awful book. I honestly cannot say enough bad things about it. Some point to the book's "voluminous notes", but they never appear to actually check those notes for relevance. Doherty and Wells often work from primary sources, but Freke and Gandy too often use out-of-date secondary sources.
They recently released a second book, which I've only skipped through, called "Jesus and the Lost Goddess". Interestingly, in their first book, they suggest that Dionysus-Osiris was crucified, just like Christ. In their second book, they have Christ being dismembered - just like Dionysus-Osiris! I would STRONGLY suggest checking ANY information they provide.
I reviewed this book back in 2003 on a website that no longer appears to exist. Gandy himself responded. I'll reproduce the review and the response shortly.
I've also been involved in discussions of the book several times on the Internet Infidels website back in 2004. One of these threads is "For Magdlyn: Jesus Mysteries: load of old cobblers" (Note that Page 2 degenerates into a light-hearted argument over whether the cover on their second book depicts a man or a woman).
Another review of TJM can be found here: http://www.bede.org.uk/books,jmyth.htm#7
More information, including links, can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Mysteries
4.6 Tom Harpur's "Pagan Christ"
Harpur is the author of the book "The Pagan Christ: recovering the lost light". He is a liberal theologian who has concluded that there is no historical evidence for Jesus' existence, and sees Christianity as evolving out of pagan roots. Using the writings of 19th Century Egyptologists and researchers, Harpur believes that the Egyptian god Horus was the model that lead to the creation of Jesus, who was originally an allegorical figure gradually transformed into a historical person.
Tom Harpur's website is here: http://www.tomharpur.com/
A reviewer went in search of Harpur's sources, and wrote this rather telling review here: http://hnn.us/articles/6641.html
4.7 Acharya S
Acharya S is the author of "The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold". Her website is here: http://www.truthbeknown.com The comments below relate to her website.
Acharya is a rather colorful character in the world of Jesus Mythicism. On her website she quotes John Kaminski as saying "Acharya S is the ranking religious philosopher of our era". Her ideas are so outrageously way-out, it is a surprise that anyone takes her seriously. Yet she has a definite fan base. She is best known for her use of obscure 19th C sources to prop up her ideas. (For a sample of this, see her "Introduction to Suns of God" here.) I've read through her website and skimmed through her book, and they are brilliant resources for anyone wanting to see the kooky ideas that came out of the 19th Century.
Acharya believes that the "Son" of God is the "Sun" of God. As she writes here:
The reason why all these narratives are so similar, with a godman who is crucified and resurrected, who does miracles and has 12 disciples, is that these stories were based on the movements of the sun through the heavens, an astrotheological development that can be found throughout the planet because the sun and the 12 zodiac signs can be observed around the globe. In other words, Jesus Christ and all the others upon whom this character is predicated are personifications of the sun, and the Gospel fable is merely a rehash of a mythological formula (the "Mythos," as mentioned above) revolving around the movements of the sun through the heavens.
For instance, many of the world's crucified godmen have their traditional birthday on December 25th ("Christmas"). This is because the ancients recognized that (from an earthcentric perspective) the sun makes an annual descent southward until December 21st or 22nd, the winter solstice, when it stops moving southerly for three days and then starts to move northward again. During this time, the ancients declared that "God's sun" had "died" for three days and was "born again" on December 25th. The ancients realized quite abundantly that they needed the sun to return every day and that they would be in big trouble if the sun continued to move southward and did not stop and reverse its direction. Thus, these many different cultures celebrated the "sun of God's" birthday on December 25th. The following are the characteristics of the "sun of God":
She believes that the commonality of beliefs between European religions with Asian and South American native cultures is no coincidence. As she writes here:
"... we are in concurrence with the "ancient advanced civilization" theory ("Atlantis") that would allow for one or more centralized civilizations to have spread throughout the world during a very remote period in protohistory, thus taking with it the well-developed Mythos and Ritual, which would then mutate into the various forms found around the globe."
For more information, including links, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acharya_s
Acharya S has provided a rebuttal to the wikipedia link here:
BeastMaster, a fan of Acharya, has written a rebuttal to this review of Acharya which can be found here. Acharya S herself also contributes some lines.
There are many other versions of the Jesus Myth: e.g. Jesus was derived from a cult devoted to the Divine Julius Caesar; Mark's Gospel was a play written by a Roman playwright; Paul was a Roman "secret agent" whose task was to create a Roman-friendly version of Judaism. Sometimes the versions overlap and share similar features. Many rely on the same 19th Century sources that Flemming uses in his movie.
Peter Kirby has compiled a list of theories on the development of early Christianity on his excellent "Early Christian Writings" website here:
http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html Lots of links. Highly recommended!
Bede has reviewed several books on the Jesus Myth here: http://www.bede.org.uk/books,jmyth.htm#7
Richard Carrier says in the movie:
"You have someone make up a fake quote, or misrepresent a document, misrepresent the evidence. [Readers] assume: "This guy wouldn't lie. He wouldn't have made this stuff up." And so they go and repeat it. And so you get the lie repeated many times mostly by people who aren't lying - they really do think it's true. They just didn't check."
For me, Carrier's statement summarizes the data content of Flemming's movie. Flemming has presented misinformation on pagan "saviour figures" that is repeated uncritically from website to website. From the reviews on atheist websites, many people have just accepted this misinformation as fact. After all, Flemming wouldn't lie. He wouldn't have made this stuff up. But unfortunately he just didn't check.
And, while it is true that Paul gives few historical markers in his writings, Jesus Mythers rarely (if ever) attempt to examine that pattern within the context of the literature of the day. Again, there doesn't appear to be any checking... which brings up this point: What are Flemming's sources? Where did he get his information from? While I can't criticize him for including references to his sources in the movie, it has been a year since he has released it, and the research that he said he did has been slow in coming forth. And why no follow ups with interviews with other scholars on some of these points?
There are actually a number of Jesus Myth variations, with Earl Doherty's version the pre-eminent one currently. All Jesus Myth proponents believe that their particular view remains unrefuted, though obviously not all Jesus Myth theses can be correct at the same time. (This is of course a similar situation that religions find themselves in). Which one is the "true" Jesus Myth theory? Flemming appears to have adopted Doherty's version (with a dash of Acharya S or Freke&Gandy), though I doubt that he has investigated Doherty's thesis in any more depth than he investigated Christian origins when he was a fundamentalist.
Finally, I should point out that the reviews of Flemming's movie on atheist websites have generally accepted it on good faith -- and generally uncritically. I hope that my analysis encourages a more skeptical attitude towards Flemming's movie. I think I've presented a strong case that the claims made in the movie should at the least be examined on their merits, rather than assumed to be true. But it is worth pointing about again that I am a Christian, so I may be biased. I urge interested readers to look into claims for themselves, and not take my word or Flemming's word for anything.
What about the evidence for a historical Jesus? Well, that isn't very strong either. But currently scholars -- both religious and secular -- appear to believe that they have enough evidence to come to a conclusion. And until mythicists start to present their cases in peer-reviewed publication, the current consensus that there probably was a historical Jesus at the core of Christianity is a reasonable position based on standard practice of conducting historical research.
End of Section 4. Thanks for reading!
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Last update 28-May-2006: Changes to Acharya section, some rephrasing of other sections
Last update 12-Jul-2006: Removed Robert Price review, removed some comments and updated others from Acharya section
Last update 15-Jul-2006: Added rebuttal on my Acharya criticisms by BeastMaster
Last update Feb-2007: Removed rebuttal on my Acharya criticisms by BeastMaster
Last update Mar-2007: Fixed link, some rephrasing