Myth and the Historical Jesus

When Jesus is deconstructed and when it becomes clear that the Christ of miracle, mystery, and authority never existed, it is a short step to wondering if the Jesus story as a whole is a myth—something made up, perhaps by a creative school, reflecting both the deepest construct and value of human spirituality. But the historical Jesus as such never existed.

Very few scholars of history and of biblical studies draw the conclusion that a Jesus of history never existed. The main division in scholarship concerns how to appropriate Jesus. Was he an apocalypticist or a wisdom-centered teacher? Few question if he ever lived. Still, on a popular level, Jesus understood as a myth, and strictly a myth, seems to be gaining ground. So, was he or wasn’t he? Did he ever live or is it all a good story?

The critical examination of the Christian gospels, especially with the rise of form criticism*, recommends the conclusion that Jesus as the center of Christian dogma emerged in the itinerant preaching of the earliest Jesus movements. Basically, people spoke in the name of a “living” Jesus who had died. Preachers spoke “in the spirit” of Jesus, thus making him alive in their witness. The Gospel of John is the least historical gospel in that Jesus said basically nothing found there. But John is “historical” in the sense that it records the “speaking in the spirit of Jesus” of a relatively early community. We find in the speeches in that gospel characteristic expressions of unknown individuals who spoke as if they were the living Jesus. This was the charisma of the early church, which, of course, eventually needed to be regulated in some form.

The earliest social movements related to Jesus preserved his memory in this way. Sometimes an individual or group might speak “as if” they were Jesus—making up things believed to be consistent with the living Jesus—but sometimes the memory preserved expressed something Jesus very likely did say, or almost said, as a historical being. The parables and aphorisms of Jesus are the case in point. These forms of speech do reflect the voiceprint of a historical person whose basic mode of teaching was preserved, if re-interpreted, in the teaching and preaching of the next generation. Form criticism was all about finding the voiceprint of the teacher that was carried forward in new shapes by the students.

Now comes the myth problem. It all starts by asking how much of the Jesus material is fictional, arising from later generations who spoke “in the name of” Jesus without actually saying anything the historical Jesus said. And how much of the Jesus material can be identified with some confidence as an originating voiceprint, something close to historical? The line between these two questions is often blurry, and it is exactly this blurriness that inspires the possibility that all the material is mythical, that is, made up “in the name of” Jesus. Once that step is taken, the natural conclusion is that there was no historical Jesus.

It is actually hard to prove there was a historical Jesus using conventional forms of history. Jesus was an unknown. We have to remember that the big name in his lifetime was Socrates. Everybody, including Jesus, had heard of Socrates. He was famous. Jesus as a Galilean peasant was not famous, and he had no chance at ever being famous. In light of the rise of Christianity it is hard to imagine that Jesus was so unknown. Added to this is the immediate context in which Jesus lived. He was illiterate, or very likely so, and poor. His community was also illiterate and poor. No one was able to hire scribes to read great works to them, to record great thoughts by them, or send letters home. The Christian gospels recording the popularity of Jesus and his large following is almost certainly imaginary. His crucifixion by the Roman authorities was done without blinking—another nobody in a long line of nobody rabble rousers.

We look at Jesus from the perspective of 2,000 years of history, and he seems to us to be among the greats. Indeed, he is among the greats, but in the immediate experience of his life he belongs to a minor school or movement that was largely ignored and mostly unknown. Accordingly, it is not possible to expect a great recovery of contemporary witnesses to his life and times. What we can expect is second- and third-generation historians mentioning him in light of a new and rising movement that claims him as the true Caesar (the Lord, Savior, and Son of God).

Now, with this, the ancient historians’ attention is grabbed and among them the general questions arise: Who was this Jesus and who are these people? And, by the way, what are we to do with these folks, anyway?

History witnesses to Jesus in this secondary way. Later historians know about the rising movement and relay whatever information they can gather regarding its founder. The information is humble. It concerns that followers call him Christ, that he was related to another teacher named John the Baptist, that he was crucified, that the followers are poor and even ignorant, spreading rumors and lies. This is what we can read in Josephus (minus later Christian redaction), Tacitus, Suetonius, the letter of Pliny the Younger, and others (Mara ben Saparion, Lucian of Samosata, and possibly Thallus).

So why then does the idea that there never was a Jesus not only persist but gain popular assent? The answer here is the plain fact that despite the above, there is no extant contemporary witness to the Jesus of history. The earliest we can get is Paul, who said that Jesus was once historical (2 Cor 5:16) and who met and knew the “brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19). Still, it remains simply true that there has never been found an eyewitness report about any incident in the life of Jesus. This simple fact is often the foundation for believing Jesus was only and purely myth.

The second element that supports the belief Jesus was a myth emerges because this belief is partially correct. Much about Jesus is indeed a myth. Really, much about anybody, including our own selves, is myth. With Jesus, like with Confucius or other ancient teachers about whom nothing contemporary exists, myth is part of the package. The earliest Christian movements did interpret Jesus in light of Jewish scripture—especially the prophets and especially 2 Isaiah. The dying and rising Jesus is consistent both with 4 Maccabees, where there is the notion of divine vindication, and Pagan gods, where there is the notion of regeneration. Jesus, his death and resurrection, fit right in with these common, and universal, mythic patterns. Early Christians could draw upon both Jewish and Greek sources in this regard.

Third, it is just a plain fact that many early Christian preachers spoke in the name of Jesus, saying things that Jesus never said. So, it is true that Christianity created Christ to the extent that the movement created a cache of Jesus sayings that contained both historical and non-historical (inspired) sayings. They are sometimes easy to tell apart. For example, sayings about the nature of Jesus and his divinity are made up; parables about the nature or reality of the Kingdom of God are not. Commentary on parables (on how they should be interpreted) is made up; the use of parables to convey teaching is not. Jesus never said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus did say, “A sower went out to sow” (Mark 4:3). And Mark did interpret the sower parable as an allegory about the quality of Christian believers. So, even within the Christian sources that witness to Jesus, much of the witness is myth. There is not much a historian can do about this situation except understand it. Still, it does not prove the case that Jesus never existed.

We all want something to believe, and sometimes when what we used to feel certain about become questionable, the reaction is to throw the whole thing out. I believed many things as a child about my family that turned out to be myth. I threw out the family when I was a teenager, but when I became an adult I discovered how I was also often a “myth” to my own self (believing things about myself that were not true). When I was an adult, I forgave my family for being human and learned to love in a mature way.

When the historical Jesus becomes someone who can inspire us and teach us about life outside of the Christian myth, this involves, and perhaps is the consequence of, the act of forgiving Jesus for being human. It is part of his fate, even his unfortunate fate, to be one of the greatest myths of human history. But this does not erase the voiceprint of a historical figure. True, it makes Jesus an enigma, as Albert Schweitzer famously said, but it does not eliminate the basic fact of his humanity.

© David Galston

*Form criticism is the analysis of the history of literary units like parables and aphorisms.

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David GalstonDavid Galston is a University Chaplain, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Academic Director at Westar Institute, and academic adviser to the SnowStar Institute in Canada. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity (2012).