While cruising around the interworld a few days ago I saw this blog post by Bart Ehrman. It is largely an advertisement for his latest book, but the underlying subject piqued my interest.
Granted I’ve been out of the formal world of academia for some time now, so I might be a little behind in my reading and in keeping up with newer (or at least more vocal) groups that posit a variety of alternatives to the common wisdom/learning, but I was completely unaware of this movement of mythicists.
Sure, I’ve heard of Harpur- even read
his silly book The Pagan Christ. Didn’t really give it much thought beyond the brief sensation it caused after publication (and the questions about it I had to field from students- second only to the freakin’ Da Vinci Code in raising my frustration level… but I digress). I really was blissfully unaware that the idea that Jesus was a composite character of pagan source material, and someone who never actually existed, had become an actual movement.
There are always those who will force correspondences and positive comparisons upon diverse traditions. Making something fit into a paradigm to match a preconceived idea or conceit that is just too familiar and therefore must have originated directly out of an earlier tradition… Not necessarily novel. But a movement of “writers, bloggers and internet junkies” presenting the non-historical Jesus? This was news to me.
N.B.– This is not what Joseph Campbell was about. He examined the archetypal themes and characters and demonstrated how similar impulses and explanations could be seen throughout the cultures of the world. He did not attempt to directly equate specific characters with those that came before- or from dramatically different cultural contexts- or suggests that any particular mythic figure was a composite of features of earlier deities.
Nor did he claim that the figures from mythology were not historical figures. As mentioned here, we have evidence that a significant character from Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh, is found in the historical records, described as a king of Uruk sometime between 2700 and 2500 BCE. While his story and characteristics (2/3s divine?) were embellished and enhanced to communicate a specific message, it is pretty much completely accepted that there WAS a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh.
I am (among other things) an historian, specifically an historian of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds of antiquity, and it has honestly never occurred to me to question the historical existence of Jesus. All of the scholarship- primary, secondary, tertiary and on and on- I have examined sees his historical existence as fact.
Do I believe that he was divine/part of some godhead? Yeah, not so much. Or at all. But I have never doubted the fact that he lived in the early 1st century of the Common Era in Palestine, sought to reform the religious tradition in which he was raised, created a stir among others who were like-minded, and profoundly influenced myriad later writers who created a new religious movement based, in part, on his teachings.
Elements of outside influences certainly found their way into the various myths that developed around the historical figure and his (assumed) teachings. One need not look too deeply to see the influence of Zoroastrian dualism in the apocalyptic strands that contributed to the eschatological message that became attributed to Jesus, for example (more on that to come- I am feeling a definite need to be writing about some apocalyptic stuff lately).
I am not as convinced as Ehrman seems to be that there were not archetypal elements woven into the descriptions of the mythological figure, elements that do bear resemblances to other mythological characters and themes. As humans we have ways in which we describe and define the sacred that transcend differences of culture and point to our shared humanity. THAT is why stories and characters and themes recur in different times and places.
Leaving his obvious academic snobbery aside (ONLY “two who actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study” and “there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning n the Western world”, indeed. Could he BE more condescending? I DO have Ph.D. “credentials in relevant fields of study” and still found his comments offensive- the credentials ain’t always the whole shebang, Dr. Bart…), Ehrman is correct in assessing the dubious scholarship upon which the theories of the mythicists seems to be based.
I agree that there is a growing movement of ‘denouncers of religion’ and that these denouncers/deniers are often extremely hostile to the religions that they deride as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘dangerous’. I mentioned this, somewhat in passing, here. Although I am ideologically mostly on the same page as groups like the ‘New Atheists’ (I can never say/think/write that term without the New Bohemians’ song What I Am latching on as an earworm. Shudder), I cannot condone the disdainful and antagonistic manner in which many of the more vocal pundits of ‘science and reason’ over religion express themselves and their position.
We have to work together to overcome the perpetuated illusions that come from clinging to myths (and the doctrines and dogmas derived from them) as ‘Truth’. But bashing each other- and belittling the beliefs that differ from our own- is not the way to do so. I will have more to say about the ‘New Atheists’ in the next little while. For now, suffice it to say that hostile criticism is not the humanistic way to proceed with the necessary dialogue.