For the last couple months I have dipped my toes, from time to time, into the enticing waters of the myth-history question about Jesus. I find the issue at once fascinating and repulsive, for, while it seems that the entire issue is so set about with difficulties and imponderabilities that it can never be settled, it also arouses fierce passions in those who are engaged in the dispute which I find it hard to understand. I had begun to read Bart Ehrman’s book, as well as Robert Price’s and Richard Carrier’s, but each time that I approach them I find that I reach a point at which I find it difficult to go further. I try to attach significance to this — other than a natural tendency to start on projects and to give them up for lack of interest — and, to a large extent, it seems to me that the problem for me lies in the jello like consistency of the materials involved in the discussion, written materials, traditions, and authorities which give a sense of substance to the discussion, indeed, but which also, I am afraid, simply refuse to stay put.
Let me take an example. I am reading R.Joseph Hoffman’s piece “Controversy, Mythicism, and the Historical Jesus,” which he has put up at on his blog. It is his contribution to a consultation on the historical Jesus called The Jesus Process. When I read it first it seemed very convincing. Especially convincing, it seemed to me at the time, were his comments about the contest between history and myth in early church tradition. He contrasts what he calls the “Hollywood parody of the second century church” with
the leaders of a young religious movement struggling against a tide of religious mythicism. The living tradition that Irenaeus defends is historical tradition,
extending from Jesus to John and the very early church fathers like Papias, and the defence against the mythicisers like Marcion and Cerinthus. Hoffmann goes on to suggest that this early historiography of the Jesus movement
includes before the fourth century a critical element that rivals anything in secular historiography.
And here he refers to Papias’s on the evangelists and Eusebius on Papias’s ability as a reporter.
I’m not in a position to assess these claims professionally. Hoffmann has pointed out before my slight accomplishments in practically every possible field of endeavour, and I’m not prepared to challenge his expertise as a scholar of early Christianity. Yet it seems to me, faced with the claim that what distinguished Irenaeus from Marcion, for example, is Irenaeus’ concern for history against the “anything goes” mythicism of Marcion, is not necessarily the great historical knowledge of Irenaeus, but a need, if there were to be any semblance of authority at all in the early Christian movement, to have some way to fix the tradition in time; and what better way could there be than to claim knowledge of a determinate historical trajectory for both the events and the teachings of the early Christian tradition?
At one point Hoffmann says this:
Put a bit flatfootedly …, the gospels do not show sufficient consistency to be pure legend and are not abstract enough nor sufficiently symbolic to qualify as “myth.”
Yet at the same time (shortly before this), he had already said:
The question of what he [Jesus] taught and the completely useless attempt of various Jesus seminars and quests to isolate authentic sayings will surely go down as one of the most regressive episodes in biblical-studies history.
I find it hard to square the two statements, but both would make sense if we presupposed that what the early church fathers were doing was the historicising of something (possibly something quite non-historical, which would explain the lack of consistency) that was in the process of developing as myth. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to stop a mythmaking process in flight and try to fix it as history? Perhaps we would have something that would “not show sufficient consistency to be pure legend,” and, on the other hand, would not be sufficiently symbolic to match what we think of as myth.
Think of this in terms that are still at the heart of questions about Christian orthodoxy. In face of the critical study of the Bible over the last three centuries, questions about what Christians are to believe often come down to questions having to do with the reliability of the gospel traditions as reflecting the words and deeds of Jesus. And many Christian apologists point to the historicity of the resurrection as a strong ground for belief in the truth of the Christian gospel. However, if trying to isolate the authentic sayings of Jesus is a regressive step, in what sense is it being supposed that Jesus is an historical figure? From the standpoint of the faith of which Irenaeus was an early exponent, a faith rooted in historical events, and supported by the unique teaching of the person at the centre of those events, it would seem strange to say that trying to isolate the authentic teachings of Jesus is regressive, even if, from the biblical-studies point of view, this is how it appears. Of course, this does show how far biblical-studies have strayed from what Christian practitioners of the critical-historical study of the Bible thought they were doing; for it was all along supposed that the critical-historical study of the Bible would not betray, but would, in the end, confirm the faith of the church.
Of course, it did not, which may be why trying to isolate authentic sayings of Jesus is regressive. After all, of what interest can that be except to those for whom Jesus is religiously central or important? But this is precisely the point that the early historicisers of the Jesus legend wanted history to do: to support their claims that there was an historical person at the heart of their faith, and that this was not something that could be freely constructed in the way that Marcion and Gnostics wished to do. That they could point to a moment in history when a man named Jesus was born, and a moment when he died, and what happened in at least some of the intervening years: this was the point of claiming that Jesus really lived and died, taught and acted, in the way that stories about Jesus said that he had. As a priest the Jesus Seminar at the time seemed to me to be important, precisely because it claimed both that Jesus was a figure of history, and that, as a figure of history, certain things could be claimed about him with confidence. Yet, if the attempt to isolate the very words of Jesus himself is regressive, in what sense can he be thought to be a figure of history? Historical figures must be more the ciphers upon which people can erect imaginary lives; the real person, wie er eigentlich gewesen ist, must be discernible amidst the various things that he is said to have said and done. Whether Jesus was a wisdom teacher in the Cynic tradition (as some members of the Jesus Seminar suggested), whether we can discern, beneath the pious patina of the evangelists, a fairly typical early rabbi (as Geza Vermes seems sometimes to suggest), or whether he was, as Schweitzer said, an apocalyptic figure, prophesying the end of the age; if Jesus is an historical figure, we should be able to say, with a reasonable degree of confidence, which one of these he more closely resembled.
But whatever is said on the question of Jesus’ historicity — even if Papias or Eusebius would not have been able to understand what we mean by that question — we cannot, I think, take it, as Hoffmann wishes to, that this is even partially settled by the claim of Irenaeus and other proponents of early orthodoxy, that he was. For they had every reason, in terms of controlling the message, to choose history as a way to do it. If people are going off in all directions, like some people in New Age religion today, each following their own preferred experience or interpretation of whatever is thought to lie at the heart of the earliest Christian movement, then one way of retaining control of the message would be to attempt to fix it in history in such a way as to forbid these uncontrolled and uncontrollable tendencies from dissipating the message in a thousands of short-lived movements each claiming their own tenuous orthodoxy. This would not have been the first to use history as a fixative for belief, and will not be the last either. But the resort to history does not show that we are dealing with history; the most that it can show is that there is sufficient awareness of the dangers of the ungoverned imagination to want to use any available technology to take possession of and control the message.
However, once allow Hoffmann’s point regarding the historical claims of the early church fathers like Irenaeus, and we inevitably must side with the orthodox in the dispute with Gnosticism and Marcion. Hoffmann points out that
[t]he battle between orthodox writers and the Gnostics (and their forerunners) was foremost a battle over the theory of atonement or redemption: if Jesus did not possess flesh, it was thought, he could not have redeemed flesh.
Well, yes, this is true, and this is a good reason for the orthodox to support the notion of an historical figure named Jesus who possessed flesh and so could redeem it. But this also has a tendency to relativise his claim that the mythicist appeal to Hellenistic and other mystery traditions is pointless. It is pointless, Hoffmann claims, because
we have no examples from classical antiquity of a religion that insisted from the beginning on the historical existence of its founder in both explicit and implicit ways and no way of explaining why Christianity would differ so markedly from the cults in this respect.
Of course, we don’t know that this was something insisted on from the beginning. But, even so, since it seems clear that existence in the flesh is a definitive part of the orthodox theory of the atonement, there is every reason to suppose that Christianity might have been a mystery religion in every respect like the others with the exception that it necessitated a real flesh and blood saviour, just as Mithraism depended on real flesh and blood bulls. If so, then the nisus towards historicisation was present within the Christian mystery from the start, as, indeed, it still is — both to control the message, and to provide a redeemer. Is it so certain that the early Christians could not have modified the mystery traditions with which they were acquainted to accommodate a variation on them? If it is not, then it can scarcely be used to suggest that the parallels between the Christian mysteries and other mystery religions –parallels which were eagerly seized on by the Gnostics and other syncratistic movements seeking to indiginise Chrisitianity to local beliefs and practices – are simply inapplicable in the case of Christianity, because Christianity is based on historical events and a real person. For this would have given any of those who wanted to claim that Christianity was unique amongst the mysteries a good reason to stress the historicity upon which they claim their mystery was really based, even in the absence of evidence that it was so based.
I raise these points, not because of my extensive familiarity with the scholarly literature dealing with the historicity of Jesus, but because of the unsatisfactory nature of the history proposed, a history which is really just a cipher, without any determinate content, without any identified sayings of the person whose history it is, and no sign whatever of which events in his life can be considered to have really taken place. As a last example, take the following, only one of the things said by Bart Ehrman in his new book on the historical Jesus. He is talking about the supposed references to Jesus in pagan writings, and, in particular, in this instance, to Tacitus, who spoke of one “Chrestus” in relation to the fires that destroyed parts of Rome during the reign of Nero, for which the Christians were held responsible, some of them in consequnece murdered in particularly hideous ways. Apparently some “mythicists” have suggested that this was a later interpolation into the text, about which, with some justice, Ehrman comments as follows:
But surely the best way to deal with evidence is not simply to dismiss it when it happens to be inconvenient. Tacitus evidently did know some things about Jesus. [p. 55 in the Kindle version]
The use of the strong epistemic word ‘know’ is simply out-of-place here. At most it could be said, as Ehrman seems to recognise in the next paragraph, that he had heard some things about Jesus. (But he still thinks that this is enough on which to base the claim that
high-ranking Roman officials of the early second century knew that Jesus had lived and had been executed by the governor of Judea. )
By this time the claim that Jesus had been crucified by the procurator Pilate would have been well established in the Christian story (even though, more accurately, he should have been known as the Prefect or Governor of Judea). But that he calls him the procurator shows, it seems to me, that Tacitus got his information from Christians, not high-ranking Roman officials. There is no reason not to suppose that Tacitus had heard it. But that he had enquired into the reliability of his sources may reasonably be thought to be doubtful, as Ehrman seems to recognise (and then at once ignores). Pilate was, as I believe, sent home because he was overly harsh in his rule in Palestine. That someone might have been crucified by Pilate would therefore have occasioned no surprise, especially the founder of a dangerous superstition, which is plausibly thought to be Tacitus’ own gloss on the story.