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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).

 

Did the Historical Jesus Bring about His Own Death? (EHJ series)

"We don't need to take the apocalyptic Jesus to church; he is already there."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 4 of 9, "Unhearing the Apocalypse," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Chapter 3

Did the historical Jesus know he was going to die? For some of us, this is a non-question that takes us too far into the realm of the impossible. A human Jesus could not possibly have foreseen his own death. But did he want that outcome? Did he, like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, propel himself willingly toward his own death? Did he act in such a way as to bring it about? The word for this is apocalyptic.

Maybe it makes more sense to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher of sorts. Even saying it this way, I feel a drop in pressure. Wisdom teacher? Big deal. Why would history remember a guy who went around spouting aphorisms? I'm not saying, if he was a wisdom teacher, that he didn't stir up controversy—quite the opposite. To forward our parallel with Socrates from last week, recall that that wise man's life ended with a dose of hemlock for all-too-political reasons.

Was Jesus an apocalyptic end-times prophet who incited outrage, even purposefully, with an intent to go out in a blaze of glory? Or was he a wisdom teacher whose cheeky, barbed remarks got him in trouble once too often with the authorities?

We have examples of both in history, including specifically in ancient Jewish history and literature. Anyone who has read the later books of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Elijah stories, will easily recognize the prophet motif. The wisdom motif is there, too, in books like Job and Ecclesiastes, although these books as wisdom are emphasized less often in Christian contexts. I certainly noticed, growing up in the pentecostal tradition that I have since left, that it is very much possible to read such stories as a community while still downplaying any interpretation outside the apocalyptic. I certainly learned that wisdom all occurred inside an end-times framework, and the wisest action of all was submission to the cosmic Christ.

It doesn't have to be interpreted that way, of course.

Wisdom Traditions in Ancient Jewish/Israelite Culture
I opened with a quote from Galston about the apocalyptic Jesus already "being in church." Church rituals, stories and interactions all cater to an interpretation of Jesus as bringing about the end of history as we know it. This being the case, I thought it might be helpful here to share a couple quotes about Jewish wisdom traditions as a way to counterbalance the more dominant apocalyptic view. For instance, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in The Essential Talmud (2010) explains,

The sages themselves said, 'Random conversations, jests or casual statements of sages should be studied,' and sometimes important halakha is derived from chance remarks made without any educational intent. This being so, the actions of the sages are of even greater significance. Everything a sage does in every sphere of endeavor must be carried out in a spirit of truth and should be Torah itself. Disciples often studied closely the behavior of their rabbi in order to learn how to conduct themselves. (138)

Carl S. Ehrlich, in From an Antique Land (2009), helpfully summarizes types of wisdom literature in ancient Hebrew/Israelite culture:

According to James L. Crenshaw's categorization, there are four types of wisdom literature: "natural, experiential, judicial and theological" (Crenshaw 1993). Natural wisdom reflects observations of the real or natural world. This type of wisdom literature in the ancient Near East includes lists of various types and reflects a precursor of what has become known as the method of scientific observation. Experiential wisdom deals with the workings of the world and more specifically of human society. It is closely allied with what may be termed folk wisdom in the modern world. Judicial wisdom deals with the adjudication of disputes and how to settle them. Finally, theological wisdom is the one that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature and is the type that is arguably predominant in the Hebrew Bible, but not necessarily within the book of Proverbs itself, in which experiential wisdom is quite heavily represented. (376)

On the other hand, it's good to remember that just because clever sayings were written down does not mean they were part of popular culture. Gonzalo Rubio, in a discussion of Sumerian literature, calls on a more recent example to show how far divorced an intellectual exercise can be from popular practice in the ancient world, too:

The divorce between production and consumption (i.e., writing and performance) of artistic works is not a particularly unusual phenomenon. For instance, J. S. Bach composed his Mass in B Minor according to the Roman Catholic ordinary cycle in Latin, as an expansion of a Lutheran missa brevis. However, there was no occasion for the performance of such a Mass in Lutheran Leipzig, and there is no indication this Latin mass was commissioned by any patron, such as the Catholic court at Dresden (Wolff 2000: 441–42). By producing such an apparently decontextualized Mass, Bach was establishing a musical dialogue and placing himself within a learned tradition that was initiated by Catholic composers, such as Palestrina. ... [Likewise] many Sumerian literary compositions are thoroughly scholastic and appear detached from performative goals of any kind. (From an Antique Land: 25–26)

Rubio is not saying that scholarly and artistic ventures like Bach's are fruitless, but rather that they belong to a particular community and stream of tradition that may not have touched the lives of everyday people. He specifically uses the word "decontextualized" to convey precisely what came up in discussion in last week's blog: the situation of a new stream of knowledge/performance, or the reason it came into existence. Why did Bach create such a Mass? To continue a multi-generational conversation he found meaningful about a certain genre of music. We don't always think of that as a context, but it was the context for his Mass.

Why did Jesus tell parables? Why did he tell those parables? The religion that developed out of it overshadows the original context, but what was that context, and why was it remembered in such a way that it eventually became an apocalyptic religious movement? Galston introduces his interpretation of life practices and philosophy recommended by the parables in the next two chapters of Embracing the Human Jesus, but for now, where does Galston find wisdom traditions in surviving texts about the Jesus movement?

Everywhere in the Jesus tradition there is evidence of wisdom as the fundamental memory of Jesus. In the canonical gospels, Jesus teaches mainly in parable. In the gnostic gospels, Jesus is almost exclusively a figure of wisdom. And the Apostle Paul is acutely aware of the wisdom tradition that defines his opponents and that he claims to know equally well (1 Cor 2:6). It cannot be said that apocalyptic material holds the same omnipresent characteristic. ... Other Christian options [apart from apocalypticism] that were eventually labeled heretical were originally as prolific as the orthodox tradition and shared with it the wisdom associated with Jesus. (78)

Galston goes on to cite the examples of Diogenes versus Thales to say Jesus not only employed parable but also short pithy sayings known as chreia. Even though this is traditionally a Greek form of wisdom, Galston and Steinsalz share the view that a man like Jesus need not be ignorant of wisdom traditions outside Judaism. "The spiritual world of sages was not closed to external influence or knowledge," Steinsalz explains after citing several examples of rabbinic interest in physical sciences. "'If you are told that there is wisdom among the nations, believe it,' they said" (140). Steinsaltz also observes that some branches of Judaism were aware of Greek and classical literature but purposefully muted their reliance on it, while others, like the Egyptian Jewry, purposefully "tried to combine Greek culture with Judaism" (141).

Returning to the parables, one thing I find very interesting is Galston's definition of a parable as a way to see this world differently rather than transport oneself to another, better world. Case in point: Some of you may be familiar with Wendell Berry's agricultural interpretations of the Bible. I found it helpful to ask myself how Galston's view differs from Berry's, by way of example. Berry's theology is not interested in the historical Jesus, so it doesn't add much to the discussion in that sense, but it's exemplary of an interpretive approach that does not focus on an apocalyptic end that comes from outside the world. Where Berry imagines an almost certain-to-come human-caused apocalypse caused by our failure to work with the earth that sustains us, I see Galston as turning away from that model entirely to a tradition that is complementary to Berry's concern with the impact of human action on the world, but is not apocalyptic at all in that it doesn't imagine a virtually inevitable, destructive end.

To frame this same point in light of Carl Ehrlich's four types of wisdom, I feel that authentic Jesus sayings generally suit experiential and judicial wisdom. What's the right thing to do, and how should we behave when the world does not operate by just and fair rules? These questions rub up against the problem of the Roman elite's displays of military and economic power, so they are not merely moralistic.

I noticed in last week's discussion, however, that we aren't all in agreement or clarity about what sayings of Jesus we would consider authentic, versus what should be attributed to Jesus' followers. I see the parables as largely experiential, but maybe if you include some of the more mystical sayings in your repertoire you see theological wisdom—"that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature"—as more dominant. How many angels can dance on the head of pin? Which answer will get you crucified? Sometimes even the speculative questions can get you in trouble.

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud (Carl Schleicher (fl. c. 1859 – after 1871))

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bibliography

Ehrlich, Carl S. From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near East Literature. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Steinsaltz, Rabbi Adin. The Essential Talmud. London: Maggid, 2010.

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

The Once and Future God

What is the future of God? How can we talk about God, and what do we mean by that word in a postmodern, perhaps even post-atheist world? With these questions Westar Fellows Joseph Bessler, author of A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better, and David Galston, author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, kicked off the first day of Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? with "The Once and Future God" at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. As Joseph Bessler said, "We are living without an end to the story" of what life means, individually and communally. Bessler and Galston, with insights from conference participants and presiders Jarmo Tarkki and John Kelly, tackled this very modern problem by exploring how earlier generations have confronted and explained God conceptually.

Christian Theology's Debt to Plato

Early Christians recognized that the significance of Jesus required a wider context than a simple narrative of his life and teachings. They cast the life of Jesus through the lens of the life of Socrates, which we can see in texts such as 1 Corinthians 1-3, in which Paul is confronted with the problem that the cross is a "scandal" - humiliation in the extreme - in Roman culture. He needed to give the cross a new meaning. To kill Christ was to kill a wise one, and this was something Hellenistic culture had done 500 years earlier, with Socrates. Even the condemnation of the State could not undo Socrates; so, too, the Christ.

Joseph Bessler

Joseph Bessler

It is important to understand that Plato, the student of Socrates, created a foundation for Christianity that lasted over a thousand years, so much so that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) would later describe Christianity as "Platonism for the masses." Plato's theory of the Forms enabled Christians to articulate that appearances are different from reality. What seems like a scandal is in fact, the power of God. There's a sort of longing in Platonism that translates into Christianity, too - a longing, perhaps, for stability. While we can participate in ultimate reality from a Platonic perspective, it's "shadows all the way down." Without guidance, we cannot fully grasp reality. According to Plato, we can reach ultimate reality through reason, which is reliable with proper training. The Christian theologian Augustine would later argue differently, that we cannot reach ultimate reality (God) because of moral fault brought about through moral freedom. This necessitated a savior, the Christ.

God: The Modern Problem

The Platonic view of reality dominated until the 13th or 14th century, when the West shifted toward nominalism, a focus on words and the relationships among words. We have a concept of something not because we know the Form but because we experienced it: a horse is a horse because I saw one, experienced it, and named it. In a world like this, God is free of nature ... and nature is free of God. This shift in thinking about reality simultaneously opened up theology for Protestant revolutionaries and nature for scientists.

David Galston

David Galston

This transition didn't come without losses, however. We can no longer have a transcendental relationship with the universe anymore; we now experience the universe as all there is. What happens to the idea of Jesus if he does not participate in the eternal substance of God? We woke up to the notion that the historical Jesus is really very, very different from the Christ of theology. We are struggling in the wake of this transformation, brought about by modernity, to find the rhetoric for modern religious language.

Modern theologians have attempted to save God: they have explored God as the Word beyond word, God as a mystery in which we participate, God as pluralistic (liberation theology, feminist theology, queer theology), and God as the energy of becoming. All these models struggle with modern language about God. Buddhism offers some help in this situation, inasmuch as it expresses how the world arises all together in relation with everything else. All is defined by relationship, and this fact is experienced as liberating. But we have by no means resolved the issue.

God and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

As modern society gained historical consciousness, theologians like Martin Kahler set aside the historical Jesus as less important, less historic, than the Christ of faith. Theologians didn't do this arbitrarily; the various quests for the historical Jesus are marked by the sociocultural context in which each quest arose. While Kahler found the Christ of faith a better route, theologians like Reimarus and Strauss responded to the hostile environments of their times by appealing to the historical Jesus. The Christ of faith might be associated with princes, but the historical Jesus related with peasants and told parables that upended normal social expectations. The Christ of faith, which society embraced, stood for an important end; the historical Jesus spoke parables without aim, playful in Nietzsche's sense. This opened up the possibilities of Christian language.

Neitzche, too, found a role for the historical Jesus where he rejected the Christ of faith. Neitzche prioritized vitality, forging one's own path, as a direct response to the dominant Christian framework of his era. Neitzche's child, inspired by the historical Jesus, is the one who is open to experience and embodies the "eternal return." Jesus' parables break down the habits of everyday life in a similar way; the stories can be humorous, but they have an edge to them. They are critical. The child, too, is about creativity, critical imagination, seeing things differently. That is the challenge of theology today. Perhaps God as a metaphor has run its course. We need to reawaken our language. The historical Jesus succeeded at that.

A Way Forward

Conference participants asked a variety of questions about the way forward. What role can mystical and ecstatic religious experiences play in our language of God? How do individuals like David Galston and Joseph Bessler, who are both affiliated with particular religious communities, make new language "work" within those communities? What questions will be addressed by the emerging God Seminar?

Want to know more? You can see a video clip and Twitter timeline of live updates from The Once and Future God Q&A Session. Follow @WestarInstitute on Twitter to get updates about future Westar events and projects.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly responded to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly respond to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.