Scouring in a used-book store a few years ago, I came upon an impressive volume of Catholic apologetics titled “God, Man, and the Universe,” originally published in 1950 in French, then published in English in 1953 by P.J. Kenedy and Sons (apparently the first Catholic publishing house established in the United States). Subtitled “A Christian Answer to Modern Materialism,” the volume featured chapters by an impressive array of mostly French academics, including the great Jesuit scholar Henri de Lubac and the prolific Dominican theologian Yves M.J. Congar.
The chapter titled “The Problem of Christ” (and subtitled “The Myth of Jesus”), written by Henri Fehner, opens with this: “Did Christ ever exist? is the question so many materialists ask; and their way of framing it is a virtual anticipation of the answer.” Fehner then quotes from a work of Soviet propaganda, which contains the humorous claim that many “western European scholars” have “long ago been convinced that the Christ of the Gospel never existed.” As Fehner dryly observes, the specific time frame of “long ago” dates to the “end of the eighteenth century! Before this, nowhere at any time had there ever been any doubt about the historical existence of Christ.”
This basic bit of data will likely surprise some readers. But the “mythicist” school — that is, those who claim that the story of Jesus is entirely mythical in nature, for he never existed — is not only young, it often exhibits all of the hasty brashness and sneering insolence of youth. All of these qualities were taken up recently by the agnostic New Testament scholar (and former fundamentalist Christian) Dr. Bart D. Ehrman in his book “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth” (HarperOne, 2013), which begins exactly where the Catholic Fehner did many decades ago:
“The first author to deny the existence of Jesus appears to have been the eighteenth-century Frenchman Constanin Francois Volney, a member of the Constituent Assembly during the French Revolution. … Several years later [after 1791] a much more substantial and influential book was published by another Frenchman, Charles-Francois Dupuis, who secretary of the revolutionary National Convention.”
Dupuis’ book, titled “The Origin of All Religions” (1795), was over 2,000 pages long and argued — as did Volney’s earlier essay — that all religions are essentially the same, each being variations on a mythology of a “solar deity.” Thus, as Ehrman summarizes, “Jesus too was originally invented as another embodiment of the sun-god.” It wasn’t until the 1850s that a biblical scholar, the “idiosyncratic” German philosopher and historian Bruno Bauer (d. 1882), a student of philosopher Friedrich Hegel, wrote a series of books arguing that the Jesus as an invention of the Gospels writers, heavily indebted to Greek mythology and Roman Stoicism. Another German, Arthur Drews, built on the work of Bauer, and his 1909 book “The Christ Myth” was quite influential, being taken up and used by Vladimir Lenin in his particular variation of atheistic Marxism.
And, coming full circle, it was this Marxist belief that inspired Catholic books such as “God, Man, and the Universe.” But, of course, not all mythicists are Marxists. But mythicists today still rely on some basic arguments used throughout the relatively short history of mythicism; these include three key claims:
1. Everything we know about Jesus comes from the books of the New Testament — and they cannot be taken seriously as works of history as they were written many decades after the facts by authors who were not eyewitnesses.
2. Jesus is not mentioned outside of the New Testament in works by Jewish or pagan authors, further substantiating the first point.
3. The stories of Jesus are based upon pagan legends and myths about dying gods and their resurrections; they have little or nothing to do with first-century Judaism.
These claims are rooted in a combination of anti-Christian bias — especially anti-Catholic prejudice, as found in the writings of supporters of the French Revolution — and hyper-Enlightenment assumptions, which have little regard for ancient sources and place a tremendous amount of faith in supposedly “scientific” evidence. And such an approach, not surprisingly, is based on the premise that anything supernatural or miraculous is, by definition, contrary to reason, logic or evidence.
There is, then, a certain built-in circularity to the mythicist project. This can be seen in a Washington Post opinion piece, titled “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up”, written by Raphael Lataster, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Sydney, and first posted in December 2014 before being retweeted by the newspaper in December 2017. Lataster writes:
“The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity — which gives us reason to question them.”
The blithe sloppiness here is partially due to big assumptions and sweeping judgments — all without any evidence. So, for instance, how is it that four lengthy biographical works written between 25 and 50 years after the death of Jesus, all containing claims to being based on direct witness and firsthand testimony, does not fall under the category of “early sources”? Because, as Lataster states, he assumes the Jesus being described is the “Christ of Faith,” not the “Historical Jesus.” How so? Because, as his essay indicates, they describe supernatural (or “celestial”) characteristics. Lataster further doubles down by essentially saying that the Christian authors cannot be taken seriously because, well, they believe in Jesus Christ. As is so often the case, the elephant in the room is metaphysical assumptions, which throw up a smoke screen when it comes to the historical veracity of the Gospels and the other New Testament texts.
That is one reason (but hardly the only one) that the vast majority of scholars of the New Testament, ancient history, and theology don’t take the mythicists seriously. Yet that scholarly disinterest is a problem, precisely because the mythicists’ audience is not scholarly, even if some mythicists want to be taken seriously by scholars. In my next column, I’ll show how the agnostic Ehrman, the Catholic scholar Brant Pitre, and the evangelical scholar Larry W. Hurtado each offer substantial responses to the basic premises of mythicism.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com).