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A History of Scholarly Refutations of the Jesus Myth

by Christopher Price

Earl Doherty has responded to this article here

Elsewhere, I have pointed out that the Jesus Myth is effectively dead as a theory in critical historical studies. Contemporary historians and New Testament scholars generally find recent advocates of these theories so bizarre and uninformed that they are not worth the time to rebut. But as long as there has been a Jesus Myth there have been genuine scholars willing and able to respond to it. This article looks at their work.

bullet Shirley J. Case The Historicity of Jesus
bullet Fred C. Conybeare The Historical Christ
bullet Maurice Goguel Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History
bullet Herbert Wood Did Christ Really Live?
bullet I. Howard Marshall I Believe in the Historical Jesus
bullet R.T. France The Evidence for Jesus
bullet Morton Smith "The Historical Jesus," in Jesus in Myth and History
bullet Robert Van Voorst Jesus Outside the New Testament

A Brief History of the Jesus Myth

The origins of the modern Jesus Myth may be traced back to 19th century historian Bruno Bauer. As he became more and more sceptical of the historical worth of the New Testament, he finally reached the point of denying the historicity of Jesus himself. Few scholars paid him much heed at the time but his work was praised by Frederick Engels - the collaborator of Marx. But as a few more commentators adopted the Jesus Myth, the scholarly community responded with various tracts and articles and speeches (many of which were put forth in German). This opposition was diverse including Jewish, liberal, conservative, Catholic, and Protestant scholars. Eventually, in the early 20th century, some leading scholars published book-length treatments of the Jesus Myth. These scholarly responses seem to have resolved the question as far as historians and New Testament scholars were concerned.

Since then, most Mythologists -- like mathematician William B. Smith and professor of German George A. Wells -- were learned in their respective field but untrained in historical studies. They have solicited few scholarly responses, though the ones I have found are mentioned below. Today, the question of Jesus' historicity is effectively dead in the scholarly community. It's remaining proponents tend to be amateurs who evangelize their creed on the internet. Below, I discuss various treatments of the Jesus Myth by respected scholars in New Testament studies.

A Select History of Individual Refutations of the Jesus Myth

A)    Case, Shirley J., The Historicity of Jesus Chicago, 1912

Case's The Historicity of Jesus is one of the earliest book-length scholarly refutations of the Jesus Myth I have found. Shirley Jackson Case was a "liberal professor" of New Testament at the University of Chicago who denied the supernatural elements of the Gospels. The Historicity of Jesus was published by the University of Chicago in 1912. Fortunately, it is available online at Peter Kirby's website on Christian Origins.

Case begins by explaining the reason for offering a defence of the mere existence of Jesus. It had little to do with the argument's merit. Although Case thought that a scholarly Jesus Myth theory was possible, it had not been forthcoming:

[The Jesus Myth] is often presented with a zeal which challenges attention even when the argument would not always command a hearing. Its advocates are occasionally accused, and perhaps not always unjustly, of displaying a partisan temper not consistent with the spirit of a truly scientific research, yet they sometimes vigorously declare themselves to be working primarily in the interests of genuine religion. Even though their position may ultimately be found untenable, the variety and insistency with which it is advocated cannot well be ignored.

Page 2.

In a helpful chapter, Case addresses the neo-Christians that Jesus Mythologists are forced to imagine as an explanation of Christianity's origins absent a historical Jesus. Though Case concedes the possibility of a sect of Judaism or mystery religion focused on a completely spiritual figure, he forcefully makes the point that there is no evidence that any such sect had anything to do with Jesus or Christianity:

But what value have these facts for the idea of a pre-Christian Jesus? Is he mentioned anywhere in connection with these sects, or in any of the non-Canonical Jewish writings that have come to us from this period? He certainly is not. In what we know of the tenets and practices of these sects is there anything to indicate his existence? Here, too, specific evidence for an affirmative answer fails. It is true that our knowledge of these movements is relatively meagre and mostly secondary. Yet such descriptions as are given by Philo and Josephus are usually thought to be reliable, and nothing appears here to indicate that the worship of a special cult-god characterized any of the sects or parties then known.

Pages 120-21.

Case also effectively refutes the "dying and rising" pagan parallel argument. Overall, the arguments in Chapter 5 have aged well. Though the alternative theories may have changed (but more often have not), the rationale upon which they rest appears to be the same -- a desire to come up with an explanation, any explanation, other than a historical founder. These reconstructions, however, have even less evidence in their favour than the Jesus they deny.

As Case turns to the Gospel evidence, he notes that Mythologists tend to appropriate "liberal scholarship" and take it too far. Though Mythologists claim that their conclusions are the natural extension of liberal scholarship that main streamers are too afraid to see, Case correctly points out that Mythologists use only the negative results of modern historical inquiry, while ignoring the positive results of the same scholarship. Case also argues that Mythologist arguments equating the date of gospel authorship with their explicit mention by the Church Fathers is convincing:

But we are not to imagine that the above data convey any adequate idea of the actual extent to which tradition about Jesus was known and used in the first half of the second century. The external evidence now known to us pertains more particularly to the history of the gospels' rise to prominence than to the fact of their existence. Since they had not been issued under the aegis of any special authority, it was only gradually that they won their way to general recognition. We remember that Ignatius encountered Christians who were unwilling to accept any written authorities except the "charters," seemingly meaning the Old Testament, yet these individuals were doubtless acquainted with all the essentials of gospel tradition as commonly repeated and interpreted in public preaching and teaching. Their demurrer is not a rejection of gospel tradition but a hesitation about placing any writing on a plane with the Old Testament as "Scripture." Thus it appears that the scantiness of reference to the gospels in the early second century is no fair measure of the probability or improbability of their existence at that time.

Pages 207-08.

Case then proceeds to discuss the reliability of the Gospels as witnesses to Jesus' existence -- if not his miracles. He focuses on the Papias evidence, the reference to Jerusalem, the "genuine Jewish background and a Palestinian setting," and "traces of the original Aramaic speech in which the tradition first circulated." All of this takes us back into the Jewish origins of Christianity. Case then spends much time focusing on elements of Mark that he takes to show genuine interest in a real person named Jesus. There is little new here, but the points are well-made and worth reviewing because Mythologists have spent little time grappling with them. 

His chapter on the Pauline evidence at first glance appears abbreviated. In reality, however, there is much valuable discussion of Paul's letters in another chapter, including an effective response to Mythologist attempts to explain away the reference to "James, the brother of the Lord." So, though the chapter itself may not satisfy, the book as a whole has more to offer on this issue.

This work is obviously aged. For example, Case spends much time refuting the notion that the gospels are literary imitations of the Babylonian Gilgamesh. But I was surprised by some of the arguments that are still persuasive against the Jesus Myth. Overall, this book is a valuable read. Not only because of its relevance to historiography and the origins of the Jesus Myth, but because some of its arguments are still well-taken.

B)    Conybeare, Fred C. The Historical Christ London, 1914

British New Testament scholar Fred C. Conybeare, Professor of Theology at Oxford, provided an effective scholarly response to the Jesus Mythologists of his day in The Historical Christ. Like the main focus of his response, Mythologist John Robertson, Professor Conybeare was a member of the Rationalist Press Association. His work Myth Magic and Morals has been viewed as particularly anti-Christian. Perhaps because of statements like this one: "Thus the entire circle of ideas entertained by Christ and Paul are alien and strange to us to-day, and have lost all actuality and living interest. . . . Jesus Himself is seen to have lived and died for an illusion, which Paul and the apostles shared." (Page 357).

Nevertheless, Conybeare's devotion to history exceeded his philosophical biases against Christianity. Conybeare subjected Robertson's Christianity and Mythology to "withering criticism." For example, while responding to the supposedly many "pagan parallels," Conybeare describes the Mythologists as "the untrained explorers [who] discover on almost every page connections in their subject matter where there are and can be none, and as regularly miss connections where they exist." (Page 7).

Though more modern treatments of these issues will likely be more beneficial to readers, Conybeare's arguments still have relevance. The book also reveals how similar all Mythologist arguments seem to be.  Dating the gospels as late as possible and explaining away the Pauline evidence are unavoidable arguments for the Mythologists.

C)    Goguel, Maurice Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History, London, 1926.

Maurice Goguel was a Professor of the New Testament in Paris who wrote one of the most thorough attacks on the Jesus Myth of his time. Fortunately, it has been made available online by Peter Kirby at his website on Christian Origins.

Goguel begins his book by reviewing the Non-Christian references to Jesus. Though he is sceptical of Josephus, he finds more value than most in Tacitus' reference to Jesus' crucifixion under Pilate: "But one fact is certain, and that is, Tacitus knew of a document, which was neither Jewish nor Christian, which connected Christianity with the Christ crucified by Pontius Pilate." (Page 42). His defence of this point is persuasive, but rests on a particular reading of Tacitus' reference to Christianity having been extinguished, but revived. Some have thought this a reference to the resurrection. Goguel thinks it a reference to messianic expectations of Judaism and Christianity.

Goguel then turns to some of the extant alternative explanations of Christian origins Jesus Mythologists had offered. He convincingly shows that Drew's theory of pre-existent Joshua worshippers lacks supporting evidence. He also quickly dispatches the old "Nazareth did not exist" argument, as well as the Mythologist alternative explanation of some sort of "Nazarene" sect unrelated to geography being related to a Jesus figure.

Having shown the weakness of alternative theories, Goguel wades into the substance of his case for the existence of Jesus. First, he argues, though Christianity was vigorously attacked by its enemies from its inception, there is no evidence of any of its enemies denying the existence of Jesus. As he succinctly states:

The importance of this fact is considerable, for it was on the morrow of His birth that Christianity was confronted with Jewish opposition. How is it possible to suppose that the first antagonists of the Church could have been ignorant of the fact that the entire story of Jesus, His teaching, and His death corresponded to no reality at all? That it might have been ignored in the Diaspora may be admitted, but it appears impossible at Jerusalem; and if such a thing had been known, how did the opponents of Christianity come to neglect the use of so terrible an argument, or how, supposing they made use of it, does it happen that the Christians succeeded in so completely refuting them that not a trace of the controversy has been preserved by the disputants of the second century?

Page 72.

Other anti-Myth attacks have levelled this same charge. I have yet to see a substantive response to it.

Goguel next turns to the issue of Docetism in early Christianity. Docetism is the idea that Jesus existed on earth in a human appearing form and did the things written of in the gospels, but denied that he assumed true human form. Marcion is a prime example of such a belief. Goguel provides a succinct explanation of the apparent paradox that spawned Docetism -- the attempt to reconcile Jesus' earthly ministry in apparent human form with his divine nature. Because Marcion and others found the idea of human flesh and divinity irreconcilable, they manufactured a heresy that affirmed the historical reality of Jesus but denied his true humanity. Obviously, this is no Jesus Myth since it affirms the historical Jesus. But Goguel's innovative approach to the issue creates a problem for Mythologists that I had not considered. As he explains, if Docetists were looking for a way out of their paradox, why not return to the supposedly Mythical Christianity?

If the Docetists had had the slightest reason to think that Christ was no more than an ideal person without historical reality, they would not have expended such treasures of ingenuity to give an interpretation of His story which cut Him off completely from too intimate contact with humanity. The Docetists thus appear as witnesses to Gospel tradition.

Page 79.

Goguel then turns to the Pauline evidence. In an interesting aside, he notes that "[t]he majority of those who deny the historical character of Jesus repudiate the testimony of Paul's Epistles." This strikes me as representative of perhaps the only real innovation of modern Mythicism, the attempt to bend Paul's letters to their own purposes rather than insist on their inauthenticity. Nevertheless, Goguel responds directly to one enterprising Mythologist of his time who did attempt to make use of the Pauline evidence. I have to admit that a smile of satisfaction crossed my face as I read Goguel's argument that the supposed division between Paul and the Jerusalem Church offers no support for the Mythologist theory (such as Doherty's "riotous diversity" argument suggests). I have myself addressed this argument in my article on the Apostolic Tradition.

Notwithstanding the opposition (exaggerated by the Tübingen school, but nevertheless real) which existed between the apostle Paul and the Jerusalem Christians, who remained more attached to Judaism and its traditional ritual than he was himself, there existed within primitive Christianity a fundamental unity. Paul was conscious of it when summing up the essentials of Christian teaching. He said: "Therefore whether it were I or they (the apostles at Jerusalem) so we preach and so ye believed" (1 Corinthians 15:11). Upon their side the Jerusalemites had confirmed this unity in offering Paul the hand of fellowship and in recognizing that he had received the mission to preach the gospel to the pagans (Galatians 2:7-10). How is it possible to explain this fundamental unity of Christianity if at its origin there only existed conceptions relating to an ideal Christ and to His spiritual manifestations? Paul insists in the most formal way that his conversion took place without direct contact with the Jerusalem church. He declares himself "Paul, an apostle, not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead" (Galatians 1:1). How is it possible to reconcile this absolute independence of Christianity and the apostleship of Paul with the unity of primitive Christianity unless by the fact that the apostle recognized in the activity of the celestial Christ, to whom he attributed the birth of his faith, the continuation and consequence of the historical ministry of Jesus to which the Christianity of the Twelve and the Jerusalem church owed its origin?

I wish Goguel had spent more time on this argument, but he touched on the basics. The unity of early Christianity and the stress on apostolic authority counts heavily against the entirely mythical Jesus.

He then turns to Pauline passages about the "brother of the Lord", "born of a seed of David" (which I covered here), "He was buried, and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures" and "God had sent His Son, born of a woman". At points I thought I was reading a response to Early Doherty's novel (I supposed) take on the Pauline evidence. Goguel's refutations of Mythic attempts to turn these passages towards themselves take the Mythic explanations head on and finds them wanting. (He even refutes Mythic reliance on the Ascension of Isaiah -- something Doherty also relies on heavily -- , discussing it at length).

After reviewing the Pauline evidence, Goguel rightly and convincingly concludes:

The Epistles of Paul afford then precise testimony in support of the existence of the Gospel tradition before him. They presume a Jesus who lived, acted, taught, whose life was a model for believers, and who died on the cross. True it is that in Paul are only found fragmentary and sporadic indications concerning the life and teachings of Jesus, but this is explained on one hand by the fact that we possess no coherent and complete exposition of the apostle's preaching, and on the other hand by the character of his interests. He had no special object in proving what no one in his time called in question—namely, that Jesus had existed. His unique aim was to prove (what the Jews refused to admit) that Jesus was the Christ.

Page 109.

Jesus the Nazarene then discusses the Pastoral Epistles, the Epistle to the Hebrews (discussed by me here), the Petrine Epistles, the Johannine Epistles, and Revelations, showing how each adds to the historicist case for Jesus and "necessarily presume the existence of the Gospel tradition." (Page 156).

Goguel then takes up a subject I have addressed here, the notion that the early Christians invented their mythological Jesus out of Old Testament whole clothe. The weakness of this argument, of course, is that Jews and Christians were known to have interpreted actual historical events in the light of Old Testament themes and language. It also ignores the very real possibility that Jesus may have intended for his actions -- such as arriving on a donkey -- to be seen as the fulfilment of prophecy. A further weakness of this argument that Goguel focuses on, however, is that the Messiah of Christianity was not the sort of Messiah that Jews saw in the Old Testament:

The history of Jesus bewildered the Jews, so contrary was it to the way in which they conceived the Messiah. The cross of Jesus had been to Paul the object which prevented his belief in what the Christians said about Him. That which was true of Paul was certainly also true of all those who had received a similar education. The Jew Tryphon is prepared to yield to Justin's argument claiming to prove by scriptural demonstration that the Messiah is called upon to suffer, but he absolutely refuses to admit that the Christ had perished by the infamous punishment of the cross. In his eyes, as in those formerly of Paul, the phrase of Deuteronomy remains an invincible obstacle: "Cursed be he who is hung on a tree" (22:23).

Pages 157-58.

Finally, Goguel turns his attention to the Gospel Traditions. He notes the supposed absence of precise chronological references and the "artificial" framework of the Gospel events, but explains them in ways that are incompatible with the Jesus Myth. Indeed, his discussion of the Gospel material at times seems more focused on refutations than establishing the basic reliability of them as evidence for Jesus' existence -- though this too he argues for.

In summary, the impressive strength of Goguel's book is the specificity and thoroughness with which he engages the Jesus Mythologists of his time. Over and over again he raises their objections and arguments and addresses them directly. This strength is best demonstrated by his discussion of the Pauline evidence. Goguel's other strength is the broader objections he raises as to the plausibility of a mythical origin of Christianity, such as the absence of mention of it by Christianity's critics and the rise of Docetism. However, when it comes to the treatment of the Gospel's as evidence for Jesus' existence, more modern efforts are probably more worthwhile. Nevertheless, I highly recommend reviewing this critique of the Jesus Myth. Many of its arguments have withstood the test of time.

D)    Wood, Herbert Did Christ Really Live? London, 1938

An accessible response to the Jesus Mythologists of his day. Wood explained how Mythologists tended to sacrifice sound historical method in an attempt to discredit Christianity. He also relied on discussions of Non-Christian writers, such as Tacitus and Josephus, to undermine the Mythologist position. Although a respected work at its time, more recent treatments on the subjects are a better option.

E)    Marshall,I. Howard I Believe in the Historical Jesus Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977

I. Howard Marshall is a leading New Testament scholar currently working on a commentary to the Letter to the Romans. He is especially well known for his works on Luke-Acts, including Luke: Theologian and Historian and his commentary on The Acts of the Apostles. His book, I Believe in the Historical Jesus, was written in 1972 and is a response to some rather unsophisticated articulations of the Jesus Myth, including the early work of G.A. Wells.

In the introduction, Marshall cogently describes the state of the question by pointing out that in the mid-20th century, one of the few "authorities" to consider Jesus as a myth was a Soviet Encyclopaedia. He then discusses the then recent work of G.A. Wells, who he finds to be imminently unpersuasive:

[A]n attempt to show that Jesus never existed has been made in recent years by G.A. Wells, a Professor of German who has ventured into New Testament study and presents a case that the origins Christianity can be explained without assuming that Jesus really lived. Earlier presentations of similar views at the turn of the century failed to make any impression on scholarly opinion, and it is certain that this latest presentation of the case will not fare any better.

Though writing more than 30 years ago, Marshall was correct that Wells' impact on the scholarly community would be nil. He has convinced no one of importance.

Marshall's own treatment of the question is somewhat unfocused and dated. Despite its title, he does not focus exclusively on the Jesus Myth. Though I highly recommend all of Marshall's writings on Luke-Acts, readers would probably be better served by obtaining more recent discussions of these issues. This is not necessarily due to any deficiency on Marshall's part, but may speak more to the unsophisticated articulation of the Jesus Myth to which he responded.

F)    France, R.T. The Evidence for Jesus London, 1986

One of the few full-length treatments of the Jesus Myth by a leading, contemporary New Testament scholar, The Evidence for Jesus is an inexpensive and accessible refutation of the Jesus Myth. Though The Evidence gives special focus to the arguments of G.A. Wells, it also responds to other radical theories about Jesus--not all of which are Jesus Myths. Yet France indicates that he takes Well's seriously because of his "painstaking attention to detail and a calmly rational tone." (Page 12). Nevertheless, France concludes that Well's basic approach to the issue is flawed:

"[Wells] always selects from the range of New Testament studies those extreme positions which best suit his thesis, and then weaves them together into a total account with which none of those from whom he quoted would agree."

Page 12.

France proceeds to respond to Wells and others on many fronts. Though many sections are valuable, the real strength of the book is France's unapologetic argument that the Gospels provide the best and fullest evidence for the existence and life of Jesus.

France begins with a sober discussion of the Non-Christian evidence related to Jesus. Most of it, such as Tacitus and Mara bar Serapion, he finds offer little direct evidence about Jesus. He then turns to a discussion of the Jewish evidence, providing a thorough discussion of the two references in Josephus--quite forcefully dismantling Well's rather dismissive approach to the subject. After one of the better treatments of the subject in a popular book (though relatively brief), France concludes that "the scepticism which dismisses the Testimonium Flavianum wholesale as a Christian fabrication seems to owe more to prejudice than to a realistic historical appraisal of the passage." (Page 31). As France turns to the Talmudic references to Jesus he finds them of less value than Josephus, but notes that they too provide independent, though indirect, evidence of Jesus' existence and reputation as a miracle worker:

By at least the early second century Jesus was known and abominated as a wonder-worker and teacher who had gained a large following and had been duly executed as 'one who lead Israel astray.' Uncomplimentary as it is, this is at least, in a distorted way, evidence for the impact Jesus' miracles and teachings made. The conclusion that it is entirely dependent on Christian claims, and that 'Jews in the second century adopted uncritically the Christian assumption that he had really lived' is surely dictated by dogmatic scepticism. Such polemic, often using 'facts' quite distinct from what Christians believed, is hardly likely to have arisen less than a century around a non-existent figure.

Page 39.

After discussing references to the historical Jesus in the Epistles of Paul, France frankly concedes that it is from the Gospels that we gain the bulk of the evidence for Jesus. With a scholar's familiarity with his subject, France moves through Gospel questions such as the genre of the gospels, the fluidity of oral tradition, the creativity of early Christians, theological motivation and historical credibility. His discussion of midrash is particularly relevant, showing that mythic attempts to cast the Gospels in such terms fail because evidence that midrash was ever used to invent recent historical episodes is lacking. Page, 100. France also provides an informed, yet common sense discussion, of the differences between the Gospels. Though by no means dismissive of these difficulties, he cautions that normal historical methods should be followed to address them:

Any student of history, especially of ancient history, is familiar with the problem, and any responsible historian confronted by apparently discrepant accounts in his sources will look first for a reasonable, realistic way of harmonizing them.

Page 112.

In short, France spends much of his discussion of the Gospels in effectively responding to the mores sensationalistic claims against their trustworthiness. Time and again France reveals the problems underlying the scepticism many cling to regarding the Gospels. Though the treatments are by necessity brief, they are concise and persuasive. Those looking to dig deeper into these issues will find that France's endnotes provide helpful resources.

France culminates his discussion of the Gospels by examining the intentions of the Gospel writers and provides examples of accurate historical references. He begins by focusing on Luke's prologue and discussing the historical accuracy of Luke/Acts:

In the case of Luke, then, his claim is to be a careful historian who has researched his subject and can now offer the 'truth', and while the case is not entirely one-sided, there seems good reason to believe that his performance, where it can be checked, generally matches his claim. There may be room for debate over details of the information he offers, but there seems little ground for viewing his account of Jesus as substantially at variance with the facts.

Page 128.

France then argues that Mark and Matthew seem to share Luke's interest in presenting historical information. Though he concedes that Matthew seems intent on showing that prophecy was fulfilled by Jesus, France points out that "there is the further consideration that a claim to 'fulfilment' is surely rather empty if the events in which the scriptural pattern is claimed to be fulfilled are known to be imaginary." (Page 129).

France spends more time on John, refuting the outdated notion that it is a "mystical gospel." He accomplishes this by pointing to the author's stated intent of sharing knowledge about Jesus earthly ministry (John 20:30-31), as well as the recent archaeological discovery of the Pool of Bethesda--which matches quite well John's reference in 5:2. (Due to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, as well as the expulsion of Jews from that area, John's knowledge of the pool must be counted as an accurately preserved memory from Jesus' ministry). France also discusses how modern scholarship has come to see that John's account of the Trial of Jesus, by far the longest and most intricate of the Gospels, conforms best to the actual circumstances:

A comparison of the details of the story with what is known of Roman judicial procedure in the provinces in general, and of the peculiar circumstances of Judea in particular, suggests that it is more probable that the additional detail derives from a well-informed circumstantial account of a capital hearing before the prefect of Judea.

Page 132.

If the dating of John to the late first century (or later) are on the mark, the only explanation for John's confirmed accuracy is that he or his community accurately preserved memories about specific events from 60-70 years earlier. This is not the stuff of free creation, but of history remembered.

Having shown that the Gospels were intended to be read as historical as well as theological, France reveals a significant weakness of the Jesus Myth. Even if written later than the modern consensus, the Gospel authors' intent of writing history combined with the confirmed accuracy of many of their references and characterizations show that they are better explained as ancient biographies of a real person who has left behind traditions of his deeds and teachings rather than an entirely mythical creation. All in all, France makes a concise and persuasive argument that the Gospels must be taken seriously as historical evidence for the life, deeds, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Most Mythologists spend only a few pages explaining the Gospels away as being written late, claiming they contradict each other, or by classifying them as "midrash" or "fiction." Until they provide in depth scholarship on the nature of the Gospels' genre and sources, France's arguments show why Mythologists will remain in the margins of scholarly discourse.

The main deficiency of The Evidence is that it gives inadequate attention to the Pauline evidence. Nevertheless, given the scope of the book and the focus on the Canonical Gospels, there is much to be gained by reading it. Considering the price and range of ground covered in a highly proficient manner, I recommend this book.

G)    Smith, Morton "The Historical Jesus" in Jesus in Myth and History (ed. R. Joseph Hoffman and Gerald A. Larue), Buffalo, 1986.

Although Morton Smith's unorthodox reconstruction of Jesus' life portrays him as a magician, his response to the Jesus Myth deserves mention. In his article "The Historical Jesus," Morton Smith gives special attention to G.A. Wells. As Smith sees it, Wells theory is almost entirely based on an argument from silence. The purported silence of Paul especially. Smith points out that a fundamental flaw in Well's approach is that in order to explain just what it was that Paul and other early Christians believed, he is forced to manufacture "unknown proto-Christians who build up an unattested myth . . . about an unspecified supernatural entity that at an indefinite time was sent by God into the world as a man to save mankind and was crucified." (Pages 47-48). According to Smith, Wells "presents us with a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels." (Ibid).

Not only does the Pauline evidence fail to support such a view, this position has less corroborative evidence than the supposedly mythical Jesus whose existence is denied. This is a key insight and one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Jesus Mythologists. No matter how poorly they may assess the evidence for Jesus to be, their own reconstructions of early Christianity are never a better explanation.

I offer Smith more as an example of how even an unconventional liberal scholar assesses the Jesus Myth, than as a recommended purchase.

H)    Van Voorst, Robert Jesus Outside the New Testament Grand Rapids, 2000

Like France, Van Voorst is one of the few contemporary New Testament scholars to devote much time to the Jesus Myth. His treatment is the latest from a respected New Testament scholar that I have found. In Jesus Outside the New Testament, Van Voorst devotes most of Chapter 1 to discussing the Jesus Myth, including a helpful overview of its historical development. At the end of the chapter, Van Voorst helpfully summarizes seven grounds upon which New Testament scholars and historians have continuously rejected the Jesus Myth. The seven points largely focus on G.A. Wells, "since his is both contemporary and similar to the others."

1. Misinterpreting Paul

Jesus Mythologists routinely misinterpret Paul's relative silence about some biographical details of the life of Jesus. "As every good student of history knows, it is wrong to suppose that what is unmentioned or  not detailed did not exist. Arguments from silence about ancient times ... are especially perilous." (Page 14). As Van Voorst explains, "we should not expect to find exact historical references in early Christian literature, which was not written for primarily historical purposes. Almost all readers of Paul assume on good evidence that Paul regards Jesus as a historical figure, not a mythical or mystical one." (Page 15).

2. Dating the Gospels

Van Voorst points out that Jesus Mythologists are forced to offer radically late dating of the Canonical Gospels. Such efforts are not justified by the evidence because Mark was "probably written around the year 70" and Matthew and Luke "probably date to the 80s." Van Voorst also notes that the late dating of the gospels "cannot explain why the Gospel references to details about Palestine are so plentiful and mostly accurate." (Ibid.)

3. Reading Too Much Into Gospel Development

Mythologists often claim that evidence of literary development and errors in the Gospels support the idea that Jesus did not exist. But as Van Voorst points out, "development does not necessarily mean wholesale invention, and difficulties do not prove non-existence." (Ibid). In other words, being well-written does not make you fiction. Nor does making mistakes.

4. Absence of Opposition

Van Voorst notes that Jesus Mythologists have failed to "explain to the satisfaction of historians why, if Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100, no pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus' historicity or even questioned it." (Ibid.) I agree fully with this assessment and find this to be one of the least discussed but most obvious flaws in the Jesus Myth. I would only add that, since Jesus Myths necessarily require a period of development from Mythical Spirit Being to Man God, the absence of internal Christian conflict on this issue (in light of the prevalence of other internal dissension) adds significantly to the weight of this point.

5. Dismissed Non-Christian Evidence

Jesus Mythologists rely partially on "well-known text-critical and source-critical problems" in ancient Non-Christian references to Jesus, but go beyond the evidence and difficulties by claiming that these sources have no value. They also ignore "the strong consensus that most of these passages are basically trustworthy." (Ibid).

6. Agendised "Scholarship"

Jesus Mythologists are not doing history, but polemics. "Wells and others seem to have advanced the non-historicity hypothesis not for objective reasons, but for highly tendentious, anti-religious purposes. It has been a weapon of those who oppose the Christian faith in almost any form, from radical Deists, to Free thought advocates, to radical secular humanists and activist atheists like Madalyn Murray O'Hair." (Page 16).

7. Absence of a Better Explanation

Van Voorst concludes by noting that Jesus Mythologists have consistently failed to offer a better explanation for the origins of Christianity than the existence of Jesus as its founding figure. Though various mythical origins have been attempted, they are even more deficient in corroborative evidence than the existence of Jesus. "The hypothesis they have advanced, based on an idiosyncratic understanding of mythology, have little independent corroborative evidence to commend them to others." Ibid. Obviously, the fanciful--and completely unsupported--reconstructions of early Christianity mandated by the Jesus Myth have proven an insurmountable obstacle.

It is for all these reasons Van Voorst concludes, that "[b]iblical scholars and classical historians now regard it as effectively refuted." (Ibid).

Though Van Voorst's opening chapter is worth the price of admission, the rest of his book is an excellent review of the ancient evidence for Jesus "outside the New Testament." Though not targeted at the Jesus Myth per se, Van Voorst's analysis and conclusions deals blow after blow to it. Jesus Outside the New Testament is the best introduction to all of the usual topics, from the Roman references--Thallus, Suetonius, Pliny, and most importantly Tacitus--to the Jewish sources--Josephus and the Talmud--to post New Testament Christian writings. The term "introduction," however, may be deceiving. Van Voorst deals with each subject in accessible depth, addressing often overlooked objections to such passages as Tacitus' references to Jesus (shown to be without merit). He takes these objections seriously and concedes their merit (admitting that Pliny is not "a witness to Jesus independent of Christianity") or refutes them decisively (showing that Josephus provides two "non-Christian witnesses to Jesus").

Finally, a surprising but welcome feature of this book is that it devotes an entire chapter to "Jesus in the Sources of the Canonical Gospels." This chapter is packed with excellent discussions (and bibliographical references) about the sources of Matthew, Luke, and John. Each section lays out the likely contents of these sources in convenient charts and provides informed discussions of their origins. Perhaps the most insightful discussion is of "L"--Luke's unique material--which Van Voorst concludes was likely a "complete" pre-existing source of material about Jesus. Next he provides enlightening discussions of "M"--Matthew's unique material--and the Gospel of John's "Signs Source." He caps off the chapter with an excellent overview of the "Q" question, accepting the established consensus that it was a source for Matthew and Luke, but chiding its reconstructions by scholars such as Burton Mack and John D. Crossan--noting that "attempts to draw a firm distinction between sapiential and apocalyptic material and to force them into different strata" are "probably wrong." (Pages 166-67). Any Jesus Mythologist who attempts to dismiss these Gospels as second century writings or simply expansions of the Gospel of Mark must deal with the arguments summarized so effectively in this chapter because the real question is not necessarily when they were written, but the nature and province of their sources. So far as I have seen, however, none have.

This books belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in the study of the historical Jesus. I highly recommend it.


In my opinion, the two best treatments of the subject are by R.T. France, The Evidence for Jesus, and Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament. Maurice Goguel's Jesus the Nazarene is a very valuable early refutation that remains powerfully relevant today. I also found Shirley Case's The Historicity of Jesus to be a worthy discussion of the issues. Yet much can be learned from each of the works discussed above, not the least of which is that claims that the Jesus Myth has never been seriously refuted by mainstream scholarship are false. A review of the refutations of the Jesus Myth also reveals just how little their arguments have changed, excepting perhaps the treatment of the Pauline evidence. Earlier attempts appear to have focused on claiming that Paul too was a myth or that his letters were later inventions of the Church. Having seen such arguments appropriately relegated to the dustbin of the scholarly community, more recent Mythologists have attempted to interpret Paul -- and his many apparent references to a human Jesus -- as referring to an entirely spiritual Jesus. So far these arguments have met with the same success as their predecessors: None.

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© Christopher Price 2004.
Last revised: 08 December, 2009