Dateline: September 13, 2000
Was there or was there not some sort of historical Jesus behind all of the stories in the Christian New Testament? Conservative Christians assume that all of the information in the gospels is accurate. More liberal Christians accept that some details may be incorrect, but nevertheless believe that the basic and important information is all correct.
Even more liberal Christians and some non-believers have argued that just about everything we read in the New Testament about Jesus probably represents later additions and mythologization, but still believe that there had to be some sort of real, historical figure behind it all. And here is where the inquiry usually stops - it is uncommon to find acknowledgment of the fact that there are scholars who doubt that there was any historical Jesus in the first place.
Now, it is true that there aren't many who make such a case, but that there are as many as there are would come as a surprise to a lot of people. We still read in contemporary apologetics that no serious scholars question the idea that Jesus really lived - and with this, the apologists fail present a fair case. The fact of the matter is, there are serious scholars who raise such questions - and fortunately for us, there are two recent books about that very topic.
One is Deconstructing Jesus by Robert M. Price and the second is The Jesus Mysteries: Was the 'Original Jesus' a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. These are different, but complimentary books. Price is a member of the Jesus Seminar and a professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute. His is a more traditional examination of Jesus from the perspective of a scholar of Christianity.
Freke and Gandy, however, have very different perspectives to bring to the table. Timothy Freke is an authority on mysticism around the world, while Gandy is a researcher in classical civilization and pagan mystery religions. Their experience allows them to approach Christianity and Jesus from the outside, making connections with pagan religions that might otherwise go unnoticed.
They are definitely different books - Freke and Gandy's book seems to have been written with a more general audience in mind and is easy to read, with summaries of basic information at the end of each chapter. Price's book takes a bit more concentration to read, but for that is more densely packed with detailed information; and while some of the information is the same as contained in The Jesus Mysteries, there is also a lot more.
If you look at the books written by liberal Christian theologians about Jesus, you'll find a bewildering array of Jesuses with all sorts of agendas, ideas, and personalities. Who was this Jesus supposed to be? A political revolutionary? A religious dissident? Maybe a quiet mystic whose life got blown out of proportion? Perhaps he was a cynic philosopher, or just a nobody who got confused with someone else?
All of these theologians are ostensibly trying to get at some sort of 'root' - a truth about Jesus unvarnished by mythology and time. But what's amazing is that they keep coming up with a Jesus that looks like them. Robert Price, in his book Deconstructing Jesus, uses the example of the popular liberal Catholic writer John Dominic Crossan.
He stopped writing his Post-Structuralist interpretations of the gospels after the Vatican clamped down on liberation theology. After he started writing about the nature of the historical Jesus, he came up with one which fit in nicely with.... liberation theology ideas. Coincidence?
None of these writers seems to come up with the sort of Jesus that Albert Schweitzer did: one which is embarrassing. Why is that? Put simply, there are too many historical Jesuses running around. As Price describes it, each of these attempts is the author's own Christology - not unlike the original gospels themselves. They are an effort to get to the heart not of who Jesus was or might have been, but instead the heart of what the figure of Jesus means to the writer.
But none of them really see this. Instead, they imagine that there was indeed some real figure behind it all. This person was so dynamic that he gave rise to a variety of very different movements and religious traditions which were, in turn, brought back together to form the gospels and inspire other New Testament writings. All of the conflicts and contradictions stem from the divergent traditions - but, some of it supposedly refers back to some real Jesus.
The one writer with whom Price spends the most time is Burton Mack. Mack had demythologized a great deal of the traditional beliefs about Jesus, but nevertheless still holds to the idea that there was one person who had input into all of the major facets of the Jesus traditions.
For example, one of the things Mack relies on strongly is Q1 - this would be an alleged collection of sayings by Jesus which would supposedly form the bedrock of the Q document - a document which is supposed to have been used by both Matthew and Luke in writing their gospels.
According to Mack, there is a flavor of personality which unifies all of these sayings and which is therefore consistent with the existence of a real, historical personage who would have said them. But as Price points out, Q1 would also be inconsistent with a historical Jesus.
Over the course of ten pages, Price provides us with parallels between the sayings that are thought to have been in Q1 and sayings from traditional cynic philosophers. According to Price, what we are seeing here is not so much the personality of a person, but of a well-establish movement and philosophical school. In case after case, Price lays down the evidence used by Mack as supporting the existence of a real Jesus and then shows how the evidence can point in exactly the other direction.
It is not until the end that Price really comes down against the idea that a historical Jesus existed. After critiquing what he found to be the strongest arguments from writers like Mack and Crossan, he writes:
Traditionally, Christ-Myth theorists have argued that one finds a purely mythic conception of Jesus in the epistles and that the life of Jesus the historical teacher and healer as we read it in the gospels is a later historicization. This may indeed be so, but it is important to recognize the obvious: The gospel story of Jesus is itself apparently mythic from first to last. In the gospels the degree of historicization is actually quite minimal, mainly consisting of the addition of the layer derived from contemporary messiahs and prophets, as outlined above. One does not need to repair to the epistles to find a mythic Jesus. The gospel story itself is already pure legend. What can we say of a supposed historical figure whose life story conforms virtually in every detail to the Mythic Hero Archetype, with nothing, no secular or mundane information, left over? As Dundes is careful to point out, it doesn't prove there was no historical Jesus, for it is not implausible that a genuine, historical individual might become so lionized, even so deified, that his life and career would be completely assimilated to the Mythic Hero Archetype. But if that happened, we could no longer be sure there had ever been a real person at the root of the whole thing. The stained glass would have become just too thick to peer through.
Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Cyrus, King Arthur, and others have nearly suffered this fate. What keeps historians from dismissing them as mere myths, like Paul Bunyan, is that there is some residue. We know at least a bit of mundane information about them, perhaps quite a bit, that does not form part of any legend cycle. Or they are so intricately woven into the history of the time that it is impossible to make sense of that history without them. But is this the case with Jesus? I fear it is not. The apparent links with Roman and Herodian figures is too loose, too doubtful for reasons I have already tried to explain. Thus it seems to me that Jesus must be categorized with other legendary founder figures including the Buddha, Krishna, and Lao-tzu. There may have been a real figure there, but there is simply no longer any way of being sure.
Most of Price's arguments tend to be negative in nature - he takes information internal to Christianity and argues how and why it does not support the existence of a historical Jesus. This is complimented by Freke and Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries. This book spends more time on positive arguments - they examine all of the amazing parallels between Christianity and pagan mystery religions.
These authors are coming from an interesting perspective. Most books of this nature tend to be from liberal Christians or atheists. I don't know what the religious persuasions of the authors are, but Freke has an honors degree in philosophy and is an authority on world mysticism, while Gandy has an M.A. in classical civilization and specializes in ancient pagan mystery religions. Thus, they would appear to be uniquely qualified to look into the connections between Christianity and other religious beliefs of the time.
On the negative side, they appear to be a bit polemical. They seem to have nothing but harsh words for the orthodoxy that was eventually established (over and above gnosticism and mysticism) and refer to this development as a great cover-up.
However good their scholarship is, such language will inevitably annoy people who might otherwise be somewhat receptive to some of the ideas. At the very least, those who are unreceptive will latch on to such language as a reason to dismiss everything else. But I wonder if, on the other hand, such language will appeal to contemporary pagans?
The authors do create a sharp dividing line between two main camps: Literalists and Gnostics. The latter constituted a tradition which was older and more diverse than Christianity - it was gnosticism which stood behind the pagan mystery cults which flourished throughout the Mediterranean region, possibly starting in Egypt as long as 4000 years ago.
In these cults, mystery was quite literally the name of the game. Members were initiated into ever deeper and more symbolic information. People who just joined were told tales that were to be taken at face value - but if they persevered, they would be initiated into teachings which showed that the literal reading was not the truth. Instead, the story was an allegory for deeper truths about humanity and the universe. Thus, an initiate passed from Outer Mysteries and on to Inner Mysteries.
According to Freke and Gandy, early Christianity was part of the same tradition. Paul's Christ was the 'redeemer/enabler' figure found in them all, and like the other cultic gods, his figure brought initiates into a state of knowledge and salvation.
This early Christian movement was a blending of gnostic mystery traditions and traditional Judaism. It was, in other words, a Jewish version of pagan mystery cults. Unfortunately, the Jews had a problem: other religious traditions could create a mystery cult out of a minor deity in their pantheon, but there was no pantheon in Judaism. This left only the Messiah (Christ) concept to fill the role, and so according to Freke and Gandy, it was adapted and transformed into a savior figure.
But by the early second century, matters had taken a dramatic change. By this time, the whole concept of the outer vs. inner mysteries had been dropped, while a literalist reading of the stories and concepts had become the dominant tradition. Traditionally, it has been argued that Christian gnosticism developed out of orthodox Christianity, but the thesis of the Jesus Mysteries is just the opposite. This book places gnosticism at the origins of Christianity and identifies the later orthodoxy as the interloper and heresy.
Curiously, for gnostic Christianity, the existence of a historical Jesus is pretty much a non-issue. As has been described, the mystery religions presented a picture in which the superficial image was not to be taken literally. They had deeper and more important truths to offer - thus, while they did not argue that a real Jesus existed, they wouldn't have considered it important if he had.
So where does all of this leave the question of a historical Jesus? Not in a good position: at the very least, it has to be admitted that the existence of a historical Jesus cannot simply be assumed as a given and absolute fact.
On the one hand, the evidence of such a person is equivocal at best. People keep trying to write biographies of the man that Jesus was supposed to be, but those biographies keep looking an awful lot like the authors themselves. The authors all pick out different details to focus on and arrive at radically different Jesus-figures.
They can't all be Jesus - so we are left with an embarrassment of riches. There are, quite simply, too many Jesus figures running around. And the unfortunate fact is, once all of the alleged mythology has been stripped away and the remnants of a person are left behind, there just isn't enough left to consider seriously. If there was anyone at the original center of the tradition, we no longer have sufficient information to be sure.
On the other hand, we have a tremendous amount of information which allows us to create amazing parallels between early Christianity and numerous pagan traditions. These mystery religions were popular throughout the Mediterranean region - although they may have started in Egypt, they seem to have spread from one area to the next, always growing in popularity.
The idea that the Christian parallels are just coincidence would stretch credulity to the breaking point. But while it is clear that pagan religions had a strong influence on early Christianity, could there be even more to it? According to Freke and Gandy, there is quite a bit more - early Christianity *was, essentially, a mystery religion. But instead of pagan, it was a Jewish version.
So what is the truth? It's unlikely that we'll ever know for sure. But we do know that history is not as clear-cut as orthodox Christian tradition has told everyone and that the existence of a historical Jesus can justifiably be doubted.