A Summary of Biblical Scholarship on the Christ Myth Theory and the Jewish Conception of Jesus
So what do most scholars think about the dying-and-rising gods or the Jewish conception of Jesus? As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Biblical scholars either do not know or do not care. But in this article I am going to provide a summary of some of the latest scholarly discourse on the subject that I have been able to find.
Robert E. Van Voorst
In the 2000 book, Jesus Outside the New Testament, the Biblical scholar and theologian Robert E. Van Voorst said the Toledot “may contain a few older traditions from ancient Jewish polemic against Christians, but we learn nothing new or significant from it. Scholarly consensus is correct to discount it as a reliable source for the historical Jesus.” Strangely, after dismissing the historical significance of both the Talmud and Toledot, Van Voorst comes back to them to say that the Jewish references to Jesus “provide an even stronger case than those in classical literature that [Jesus] did indeed exist…”. Van Voorst ponders over the lack of contemporary Jewish references to Jesus, conceding them to be more corroborative to his existence than the entire Greek language tradition of him, yet Van Voorst does not even consider the possibility that maybe the Jesus of the Talmud and Toledot reflects the “older traditions” about Jesus. Van Voorst wants it both ways: when defending the existence of the historical Jesus, the Jewish tradition is not just a credible independent witness, it is the strongest witness, but when determining what can be said about the historical Jesus, it is derivative and historically worthless.
One of the few people who takes the Jewish sources seriously is Frank Zindler, a biologist, geologist, and linguist who took over the job as editor of the American Atheist Press following the famous kidnapping and murder of American Atheists founder, Robin Murray-O’Hair, the woman who had filed the 1959 case against her son’s school for forcing him to attend Bible readings resulting in the Supreme Court decision that state-mandated prayer or Bible readings is unconstitutional. Murray-O’Hair later slowly convinced a reluctant Zindler of the merits of mythicism, a subject Zindler originally believed would only defame the atheist movement, yet by the time Zindler wrote his self-published 2003 book, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, Zindler did not even consider disproving the gospel Jesus a worthy pursuit and instead painstakingly investigated every possible reference to Yeshu in the Talmud to refute G.R.S. Mead’s thesis that Jesus lived in the first century B.C. It remains as the best (if only) refutation of a first century B.C. Jesus. Zindler goes against popular convention by identifying the Toledot Yeshu as a satirical reaction to an earlier version of the gospel story but argues that Yeshu himself was also ultimately a myth, pointing out that the earliest version of the Talmud, the Mishnah, has the least number of references to Yeshu and that more information comes out as older portions, such as the Tosefta and other books, were added. Although I disagree with his ultimate conclusion that Jesus is 100% mythical since I believe Mara bar Serapion, the Christ bowl, and the stories of the Honi dynasty do provide the necessary evidence to validate the rabbinic legends in the Talmud, I of course think the question of the historicity of Yeshu and Honi the Circle Drawer is an important debate that still needs to be investigated further, and take great favor in the fact that Zindler is one of the few researchers to take the Talmud and the Toledot seriously and agrees with my extremely rare position that B.C. Jesus is earlier than A.D. Jesus.
Robert M. Price
As far as I know, the only academic book before Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus in 2014 that has ever given the Christ Myth theory a fair shake is the 2009 book The Historical Jesus: Five Views. The mythicist case in that book was taken up by the very well-read theologian Robert M. Price, "The Bible Geek", who makes the case that none of the issues that are brought up in the epistles use quotes from Jesus in the gospels when they would have come in handy and that it would be hard to imagine “Peter” in 1 Peter 2:13-14 or “Paul” in Romans 13:3 having a historical Jesus being recently crucified fresh in their minds if they wrote that Roman governors only punish the wicked. Price notes the parallels between Jesus and the dying-and-rising gods and that church fathers like Justin had argued that Satan had counterfeited the gospel in advance to fool humanity in the same way modern Creationists have said Satan planted the bones of dinosaurs. Price notably questions why the dating of the gospel Jesus should be preferred to that of the Talmud and Toledot.
The four Biblical scholars who provide counter-arguments against Price are John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D.G. Dunn, and Darrel L. Bock. Crossan replies that the dying-and-rising gods could not have been Paul’s concept of Jesus because Paul believed in a single apocalyptic resurrection that had already begun, starting with Jesus. This assumes that the Pauline epistles were written by Paul, but aside from that question, there is at least one known dying-and-rising god, Baldr, who is linked to both a yearly death and resurrection and an apocalyptic end-of-the-world resurrection in the form of Ragnarok, the Nordic End Times. Crossan also argues that, in his mind, if Jesus had been invented, there would be no need to create the pacifistic Cynic Jesus as opposed to the violent apocalyptic Jesus, but the fact is that there would be plenty of good reasons to reinvent Christianity as a more pacifistic and forgiving of tax collectors following the disastrous wars with Rome. And despite the fact that Crossan has provided brilliant proofs in his book, The Cross That Spoke, showing that the Cynic sayings come from an earlier literary layer than the apocalyptic sayings in the “Q” source from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, that does not necessarily prove that Cynic tradition came first. Different strands of tradition can layer upon each other so that the apocalytpic tradition could have risen and fallen at different times even before the written tradition began just as the signficance of apocalyptic discourse continued to ebb and flow throughout history afterwards.
Luke Timothy Johnson
Although New Testament scholar and theologian Luke Timothy Johnson agrees with Price’s skepticism towards being able to say very much about the historical Jesus when the same methods of “adult history” used for Napolean or Caesar are applied to Jesus. Despite the fact that Johnson himself is a priest and former monk, Johnson is personally content with Jesus' historical status because Johnson believes that the “real Jesus” is not the historical Jesus but the Jesus of faith. Nevertheless, Johnson thinks Price takes his skepticism too far so that only “those who despair of history altogether” would be convinced of his arguments. Johnson says that the reason “sober historians” dismissed the relationship between Jesus and the dying-and-rising gods is that they do not account for the specific character of Jesus as a failed Jewish Messiah rather than a deity. He cites historical references to Jesus by Josephus, Tacitus and Lucian and points to human details in the epistles such as being descended from David, “born of woman, born under the law”, and that Jesus gave a command concerning divorce that is confirmed by the Synoptic gospels. But there are problems with both references to Jesus in Josephus (more on this later) and Lucian does not give a date for his “impaled sophist”, leaving only Tacitus with a confirmation of the gospel dating for Jesus some 40 years after destruction of the Temple that inspired the apocalyptic portions of the earliest Synoptic gospel. Aside from the ambiguity of the epistle references, we know from second century literature that the heretical Marcionite Christians used shorter versions of the epistles, so there is no reason to assume the canonical version of the letters are the most authentic.
It would be strange if abstaining from divorce was the only core principle reliably associated with the historical Jesus since so many heretical sects, including the Marcionites, the Montanists, and a Syrian sect associated with Justin’s pupil Tatian, taught mass celibacy (which was de facto divorce for converts), not to mention the apocryphal book, Acts of Paul and Thecla, identifying the abstention from sex as not just a core tenant of salvation, but the core tenant. All of this makes it extremely suspicious that 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 portrays Paul very reluctantly allowing marriage -- just to keep lust at bay -- while still advocating for people to try and keep chaste like he does. Matthew 19:10 likewise portrays Jesus giving his judgment against divorce to the disciples who then react by saying -- not to Jesus but to themselves -- that they should adopt celibacy themselves rather than risk making a mistake and being forced into unhappy marriages. Both of these stories sound like an excuse for why it is all right to get married even though everyone already knew that Paul and most of the other apostles originally taught celibacy.
Johnson does not reply to Price’s reference to the Talmud, but in his own book, The Real Jesus, he says the Talmud should not be taken seriously because of its lateness and because of Christian censorship (one has to wonder, ‘then or now?’). Strangely, Johnson does point out in his book that Jesus is condemned in a Jewish trial rather than a Roman one and then stoned to death according to Jewish law, but he does not seem to realize or make clear that this means it could not have happened in the Roman era, because he fails to mention the seemingly important fact that the Talmudic Jesus lived in the century before the gospels! So he dismisses everything the Talmud has to say about Jesus not already present in the gospels yet considers it a verification that he was known as a miracle worker and that Jewish leaders were involved with his death! Perhaps that is why Johnson chose to ignore the subject when Price pointed out the time discrepancy.
James D.G. Dunn
British New Testament scholar and theologian James D.G. Dunn was more hostile, mocking Price’s thesis and subject title, saying that the “fatal flaw” of mythicism is the “improbability of the total invention of a figure who had purportedly lived within a generation of the inventers, or the imposition of such an elaborate myth on some minor figure from Galilee”. But in fact we know from the Johannine epistles that there were “anti-christs” who taught that Jesus did not come “in the flesh” but instead belonged to “cleverly invented myths”, and the only alternative to the “elaborate myth” imposed on “some minor figure from Galilee” would be some famous and historically important fictional figure that somehow no one would have heard of. Dunn also argues that the word stauroo, which is translated as “crucified” in the epistles, could only be referring to Roman crucifixion, but actually it can mean “staked” or “pierced”, matching the Biblical punishment of being stoned and “hung on a tree”. Most Bible readers assume that when the early apostles said that Jesus was “hung on a tree”, it was symbolic for the literal crucifixion on a cross, but in actuality, but why couldn't the opposite be true, that the crucifixion on a cross was symbolic for the literal hanging on a tree? Whereas Dunn in the past had claimed the reason the epistle authors never cited Jesus for their teachings was so the references would be appreciated as secret allusions, Dunn this time points out that Shakespearean scholars typically use “the words of the bard in lectures or letters without always being fully aware of the bards own words”, neither argument of which seems very persuasive to me.
Darrel L. Bock
The Texas evangelical New Testament scholar Darrel L. Bock responds to Price’s reference to Jesus being dated to an earlier era by complaining that Price “ignores the fact that Jesus’ Jewish opponents never argue that he did not exist”. He brings this argument up three times, which once again provides proof of the strange phenomenon of Biblical scholars trying to use Jewish sources they themselves have no serious interest in solely to buttress their own case for a historical first century Jesus. While Johnson could possibly have been ignorant of the fact, Bock’s reply is in direct response to Price using the Talmud’s chronology against the historical Jesus, yet Bock wants to throw it right back at him three times without so much as an acknowledgement that the Talmudic Jesus isn’t a first century Galilean peasant! Bock also cites Justin’s fictional Jew in Dialogue with Trypho as “an extant figure for the disputants on both sides of the Jewish-Christian debate”, but Price points out that even Justin has Trypho say: “But Christ—if he has indeed been born and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves”. This is hardly evidence that the Jews agreed that there was a first century historical Jesus.
In the introduction to The Historical Jesus: Five Views, the theologians editing the book, James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, write that “There appears to be one overwhelmingly common feature within the third quest today—a commitment to taking seriously the Jewishness of Jesus”, which was spurred, according to them, by the need to address the tragedy of the Nazi “Aryanizing” of Jesus, the awareness with which “Jesus” and “Judaism” have been “played off against each other”, and the acceptance that a Jesus divorced from first century Judaism is unhistorical. To Dunn’s proposal that “we should look first of all for the Jewish Jesus rather than the non-Jewish Jesus”, Crossan answers, “Of course,” but with the “footnote” that “the only way such a person could have understood his Jewish eschatology would have been to think of him within Greco-Roman Cynic eschatology”. But as Johnson points out, “searching for a Jewish Jesus is not a historiograhpic principle or criterion but a predetermined goal” and “leaves unexamined the truly difficult question, namely, what constitutes ‘Jewish’ in first century Palestine”. Should it be taken for granted that a Jesus who says nothing that goes into you can make you unclean believed in all of the Levitical purity laws? Considering that Philo said there were many Jews in Alexandria who no longer took the Torah’s laws literally, this assumption should not be taken so lightly.
Despite this supposedly new era of scholarly acceptance of “Jesus as Jew,” only three sentences in the book bring up the subject of the Jewish literary tradition of Jesus in regards to the question of who Jesus was, and ironically enough, only from the writer arguing against a historical Jesus. Biblical scholars of the third quest have gone to massive lengths to explore every scrap of the apocryphal Greek-written gospels ever discovered to pinpoint an evolutionary route for Christianity, yet for all the ink spilled over innumerable books and articles, there is never so much as a few sentences of dismissal for the predominate Jewish conception of Jesus as it stood for over 1000 years, and no different than the silent treatment given to the Christ Myth theory.
R. Joseph Hoffmann
Probably the most virulently anti-mythicist scholar is R. Joseph Hoffman. He refers to mythicists as “mythtics” and “Christ deniers,” says that the Christ Myth theory was “laid to rest about seventy years ago” and argues that “no serious and responsible scholar who makes a thorough study of the discussions of the early church would argue that Jesus never existed.” And since he is hostile to mythicism, it goes without saying that he tries to use the Toledot as proof for the historical first century Jesus either without knowing or admitting the anti-gospel’s first century B.C. setting.
He compares denying the historicity of Jesus to denying the historicity of Tacitus, but the words of Tacitus are not culled together from 40 years of “oral tradition,” written in a different language and edited in different versions to fit various theologies for over a hundred years. We know the people who were around Tacitus, what they wrote, and what kind of lives they all lived. We have no legitimate writings of Peter or James or Mary Magdalene or anyone who knew Jesus face to face. Tacitus, like everyone else we know in ancient history except Jesus, was born into an elite class of wealth and privilege, not born into an impoverished village that should have destined him to eternal anonymity.
In one post Hoffmann wrote regarding some mythicists: “We can just ignore the provocative ignorance of [P.Z.] Myers, Jerry Coyne, Neil Godfrey, and Richard Carrier et al. like so many mosquitoes. Except mosquitoes are tough to ignore, and some carry Dengue and Malaria. If the last two years has proved anything, it is that the spawn of the new atheist movement, like Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, will not be ignored. Insult works. Spew works. Faitheist baiting works. What works works. The disease these buggers spread is ignorance disguised as common sense. They are the single greatest threat, next to fundamentalism, to the calm and considered academic study of religion, touting the scientific method as their Mod Op while ignoring its application to historical study.”
He also writes: “It remains a quaint, curious, interesting but finally unimpressive assessment of the evidence—to quote James Robinson’s verdict, an agenda-driven “waste of time.” Methodologically it disposes of anything contrary to its core premise—Jesus did not exist—in a quicksand of denial and half-cooked conspiracy theories that take skepticism and suspicion to a new low. Like all failed hypotheses, it arrives at its premise by intuition, cherry picks its evidence in a way that wants to suggest that the ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity of texts and traditions are meaningless inconveniences invented by the discipline of New Testament studies, and defends its “conclusions” by force majeure. The myth theory, in short, is a dogma in search of footnotes. Most of the ones it continues to exploit in the form of references, problems, and allusions are a century old. While it is untrue to say that the theory is not taken seriously by responsible scholars, it happens to be true that its most ardent supporters, then and now, have been amateurs or dabblers in New Testament studies and those least equipped by training or inclination to assess an enormously complicated body of evidence.”
Although Hoffmann is right that the majority of mythicists are not professionally trained in New Testament studies, there has been at least one New Testament scholar who had brought the Christ Myth theory to the scholarly press since 1985-86, saying in 1996 that “It is no longer possible to dismiss the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as the “marginal indiscretion of lay amateurs”.” In fact, if you happened upon a mythicist article in a scholarly-published book at the library before 2010, it was probably edited him. In 2007, he chaired a committee called the Jesus Project, funded by the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, part of the Center for Inquiry, which also chaired none other than the “mosquito” Richard Carrier, along with mythicists Robert M. Price, Frank Zindler, and Acharya S., among other scholars with alternative theories to Christianity. In an interview, he said that while he had great respect for the Jesus Seminar, the Jesus Project would be superior in fielding the question of whether Jesus existed at all, adding “I happen – I'm going to say this for what it's worth – I happen to believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist.” That scholar is R. Joseph Hoffmann.
To be fair, Hoffman went on to say "I happen to believe that, but I’m certainly persuadable. You just have to sit me down and show me the historical elements in the gospels which point me in the direction of a plausible historical figure who is more plausible than the alternative explanation for the origins of Christianity." But the discrepancy is still a massive one. Did Hoffmann suddenly change his mind? Apparently, but he does not describe it in such terms. In a May 2012 blog entry, after Neil Godfrey of Vridar.org, one of the “mosquitoes”, suggested that Hoffmann never seriously considered the merits of mythicism, Hoffmann replied, “I am one of a very few scholars who has actually said that the question of the historical Jesus deserves a hearing, but Vridarian noise is making it impossible for anyone to hear.” A very candid moment, but why ask the question if it had already been “laid to rest about seventy years ago”? Why should it be asked if the answer makes you unserious and irresponsible?
Despite Hoffmann’s ad hominem attacks on mythicists, it seems as if only some mythcists that are unserious since Hoffmann continues to have a soft spot for the philosophy professor G.A. Wells, who he calls “The Last of the Gentlemen”, although to be fair, Wells has since updated his own beliefs to include a Cynic Jesus who is separate from the Jesus of the epistles. So is the difference that Wells is more open while Godfrey and Carrier are overbearing and zealous in their attacks on the historical Jesus? Hardly. Both Godfrey and Carrier are slightly agnostic on the question, just as Hoffmann was. Hoffmann himself wrote that current mythicists like Earl Doherty were just rehashing Wells, which initiated the original conflict between Hoffmann and Godfrey when Godfrey emailed him to say that Doherty’s work was original and hardly a rehash of Wells. (If anyone rehashed Wells, it was Wells, who wrote three nearly identical books, though 30 would not have been enough to tilt the scale towards the deserved recognition of his ideas.)
The only excuse Hoffmann gives for being a mythicist himself is from a 2012 blog entry: “When I began my work on Marcion at Oxford, I entertained the idea of the non-historicity of Jesus. I was obligated to because Marcion also toyed with the idea–and rejected it. His sole surviving gospel was his lonely concession to that reality, while his project—to give Paul’s theology pride of place over it—was dominant in his thought.” Given that none of Marcion’s writings have survived and everything we know about him are written decades later by his enemies, who themselves are very likely retrojecting current Marcionite beliefs into the past, this is a very strange explanation. Hoffmann himself pioneered the theory that Marcion did not even live in the second century but must have lived even further back into the past than later Orthodox Christians claimed, so it is pretty surprising Hoffmann is so confident in being sure that Marcion’s personal theology went through such a complicated trajectory in his own shadowy life. But more to the point, Hoffmann makes it sound like his defense of the Christ Myth was only for a short time in 1995, rather than holding a skeptical view of the historical Jesus until 2007. Was Hoffmann not a “serious and responsible scholar” for those 12 years?
One of the most predominant complaints Hoffmann has about mythicism is that while he himself is a “lapsed Catholic”, today’s mythicists are supposedly influenced by the “New Atheism” or “anti-theism” of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and P.Z. Myers, which is hostile to religion in general, and in the case of Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Acharya S, Islam in particular. But while Richard Carrier does make a habit of attacking religion, he certainly does not take it to the level as Harris, Maher and Acharya S., and Neil Godfrey has posted articles criticizing Dawkins and Harris for blaming the use of religion to validate political violence on the religion itself. Price, Freke and Gandy all have positive attitudes towards a non-Literalist conception of Christianity. Mythicism may be heavily associated with atheism, just as Literalism is heavily associated with Fundamentalism, but there is still far more bias, even zeal, among secular Biblical scholars towards the historicity of Jesus that would not be present if he were King Arthur or Zoroaster.
So what changed Hoffmann’s mind? Well, the financial crisis of 2007-08 caused the Jesus Project to be defunded. Hoffmann and Carrier got into argument over Hoffmann’s failure to update a partcularly obtuse and unhelpful article by Carrier before the book was published. And then the writings of Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier and Neil Godfrey started gaining more public notoriety. Hoffmann blames the bad scholarship of mythicists on the fact that they “moved too quickly from loving Jesus in their fundamentalist infancy to feeling that religion had deceived them and then latching on to mythicism, too quickly, as a cure”, a referene to Godfrey's Fundamenals pas, but a strange accusation given his own radical "conversion". Hoffman then immediately accuses Godfrey of doing “a lot of psychoanalysis on the site”.
Hoffmann never gives much in details regarding his history with Carrier or Acharya S., instead writing: “Sadly, they are now the fringe of a fringe, ranging from disingenuous postmen-provocateurs like Godfrey and his minim [Hebrew for "heretics"] to absurdists like Kenneth Humphreys and cultists like Carrier, Doherty and Acharya S. aka Dorothy Murdock—who seems to think my willingness to listen to her arguments was a proposal of marriage. Let me assure her publicly here: No men of God are coming with a wagon to take you away.” Actually, it was a little more than a willingness to listen to her. He called her one of the “leading lights” of the Christ Myth theory when he contacted her to tell her she was “sorry for the pun, one of the chosen” to be a chair in the committee and that his “friend” Robert M. Price had suggested her and that she had been accepted by the fellows. Carrier reports the same sudden shift in characterization, citing an email from Hoffmann saying “I think personally you should be the conscience or historiographer in chief!” because “we need someone with fresh ideas who can keep them honest about the kind of history they (often) are doing”.
Hoffmann has since tried to replace his involvement with The Jesus Project with something called The Jesus Process, including works such as “An Exhibition of Incompetance: Trickery Dickery Bayes” by Stephanie Fisher and “Mythicism: A Story of Bias, Incompetence, and Falsehood”, by Maurice Casey, both of which show a few poor arguments scattered throughout a plethora of personal attacks and psycho-babble. Maurice Casey’s 2014 book Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? goes down the same road of misrepresentation and demonization.
Other than his self-identification with Marcion, Hoffmann never provides much of a scholarly explanation for what so drastically made him change him mind after 2007, but he does provide a personal reason, one he would probably want to take back now as a figure of speech, but which I think is more honest than he intended when he said: “nothing has persuaded me more completely that Jesus really existed than the arguments of the Vridarians. Nothing.” After all, as he said earlier, “Vridarian noise is making it impossible for anyone to hear” him.
Nevertheless, while Hoffman may be the most hateful and hypocritical personality to disparage certain mythicists, the worst historical Jesus book printed by a scholarly press has got to be Bart Ehrman’s 2012 book, Did Jesus Exist?, which despite being a highly-padded 4th-grade level read manages to get the very small amount of information that it relays wrong and be completely smug about it at the same time. His book ends with the conclusion that because mythicists are “staking out a position that is accepted by almost no one else, they open themselves to mockery and charges of intellectual dishonesty.” The mental connection he makes between unpopularity and dishonesty in this one sentence is emblematic of the entire work, not the least because the work itself is both easily mockable and intellectually dishonest.
At the start of his book, Ehrman first tries to show his intellectual superiority by making several corrections in various mythicist books, such as the claim in in Freke and Gandy’s The Jesus Mysteries that Constantine made Christianity the state religion. Ehrman corrects them, saying that Constantine only legalized Christianity and that it was Emperor Theodosius, who made it a state religion. But he's wrong. Even though Constantine himself didn’t convert to (Arian) Christianity until his deathbed, his tax exemption on Christian clergymen made so many wealthy Romans try to convert to Christianity, he had to create another law just to stop it, so Christianity was definitely the "state religion" by any normal sense of the definition. Also, it was not Constantine who first enacted the Edict of Tolerance that first legalized Christianity but Galerius, who ironically was the same man who originally convinced Emperor Diocletian to begin the last great repression in the first place. Some 80 years later, Theodosius made Nicene Christianity the state religion, shut down all the pagan temples and schools of philosophy, then fought a civil war that solidified the Christianization of the Western empire.
Bart Ehrman also corrects Freke and Gandy for claiming the mysteries had anything to do with Dionysus since they were really about Demeter -- except Demeter is the mother of Dionysus. Dionysus’ Roman names were used as titles in the festival.
Ehrman then faults them for saying not all Christians believed the Gospel of Mark was canonical -- but as Ehrman himself wrote in his book Lost Christianities, the first Biblical canon was not Orthodox but Marcionite, and only included the Gospel of Luke and some Pauline epistles. Ehrman then claims that Freke and Gandy said the earliest version of the Gospel of Mark had no resurrection scene of Jesus and that Freke and Gandy failed to add that there was an implied resurrection -- but actually, Ehrman has simply taken the quote out of context. Freke and Gandy did in fact say the early gospel had an “intimation that Jesus had been resurrected as promised”.
Ehrman also tries to correct the “bizarre” claim that there was a war between the Jews and the Romans in the 110s -- but there was: the Kitos War. Ehrman is just not as well versed in the history of the Jewish-Roman wars as he thinks he is and confuses his own ignorance for theirs.
Ehrman also claimed that a certain rooster statue in the Vatican, believed by Acharya S to be linked to a mythical Peter, does not really exist. When Richard Carrier called him out on the fact that the statue did in fact exist, Ehrman tried to say that it was an “offhand remark” and that what he really meant was that there was no rooster statue of Peter, not that there was no rooster statue at all. But Ehrman also went on a Bible study podcast and repeated the exact same accusation, proving it was not just a poor choice of words. Even his very polite fans pointed out on Ehrman’s blog that there is a big difference between not believing someone’s claim and accusing them of inventing it wholesale.
Everyone makes mistakes, but when both mistakes and misrepresentations are made in the act of trying to prove someone else is too incompetent to talk about the subject matter he has based his career on, then it easy to understand why such a person would choose to lie about it rather than own up to the mistake. After labeling all mythicists dishonest amateurs who deserve to be mocked, Ehrman complains that he doesn’t like conflict and that he would rather “get along and search for truth together”, but he then goes on to say that the problem with mythicists is “they are often so prolix and make point after point after point, that it is impossible to deal with them in short order.”
Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? also seems to have different responses depending on who is referencing the same verse. When Biblical scholars debate whether Colossians is Pauline with their “sophisticated tools of analysis”, then there is “wide agreement that the passage appears to be poetic—possibly some kind of hymn (that is what everyone used to think) or a creed (this is more plausible)—and that Paul appears to be quoting it rather than composing it. But even this is debated…” (p. 235, my emphasis). But then, just 10 pages later, when a mythicist refers to the exact same quote, it suddenly becomes a unanimous decision that Colossians is a forgery that “critical scholars have recognized for a long time” and even the idea that it might be based on something earlier is “problematic” (245-246)!
Not surprisingly, Ehrman thinks the Talmud is too “late” to be of any help for the Quest for the Historical Jesus. As with Robert E. Van Voorst, Luke Timothy Johnson, Darrel L. Bock, and R. Joseph Hoffmann, Ehrman either does not know or does not feel it is worth mentioning that the Talmud dates Jesus before the first century, even complaining that G.A. Wells “provides no solid ground for thinking that Paul imagined Jesus to have lived in the remote past—certainly nothing to suggest that his life ended during the reign of King Jannaeus”. Thus, Ehrman implies Wells just made this dating up rather than it being a theory argued by others and backed up by the earliest Jewish sources on Jesus.
Ehrman says that the gospels “go back to Palestinian traditions that can be readily be dated to 31 or 32 CE, just a year or so after the traditional date of Jesus’s death” but the argument is entirely circular: the crucifixion is proven by scripture, which is dated by the crucifixion. Ironically, Ehrman argues that most scholars believe Jesus actually did predict the Temple’s destruction, when actually, that after-the-fact “prediction” is what makes most scholars use to date Mark to the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction in 70 A.D., the same date Ehrman uses. Ehrman also believes the claim made by the second-century Christian elder Papias that he knew witnesses to the apostles despite the fact that Ehrman himself dates Papias 70 to 80 years after Paul’s hayday and 90 to 100 years after Jesus died.
Ehrman also raises one of the most popular and most ridiculous attempts at proving the historical Jesus, by using the Criterion of Embarrassment on the central tenant of the religion he used to belong to and is still spending his life studying.
“Who would make up the idea of a crucified messiah?” So asks the Princeton Theology seminarian.
It reminds me of a scene in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, where the bishop, carrying a crucifix of Jesus around his neck, interrogates Joan of Arc, ironically mocking her by saying: “As, yes, I forgot… God sent us an illiterate peasant to carry out such an important mission!”, referring of course to Joan, not Jesus.
Of course the real question is: who could make up a victorious messiah without needing to explain away all the Romans they keep bumping into?
Despite claiming that he read all the books he is writing against, he often does not show any knowledge of the arguments mythicists have made. For example, one of the most common motifs for dying-and-rising gods is that they are killed while under a tree, and as we saw earlier, being hung under a tree was the same method Yeshu was said to have been killed by, yet Ehrman uses the “hung on a tree” remark as evidence for a historical Jesus without explaining the mythicist position. Ehrman even goes so far as to specifically cite as evidence for a historical Jesus this verse from Revelation: “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” His argument is that if Jesus was “dead” that means he must have lived, which seems to indicate he forgot about the “dying” part in “dying-and-rising gods”.
But what was probably his most intellectually destructive claim, due to the way so many people are now blindly repeating it, is that not only does Jesus not fit the type for the dying-and-rising gods, but that there actually never were any dying-and-rising gods to begin with! Although he claims that even a historian like Richard Carrier or a Second Temple Judaism scholar like Thomas Thompson does not have the pedigree necessary to write a book on the historical Jesus, he nevertheless decides to employ a Biblical scholar, Tryggve Mettinger, rather than a mythologist or Classicist, on the question of whether dying-and-rising gods really existed. According to Mettinger, there were dying gods and there were “returning” gods, but there were no pagan dying and returning gods….. until Christianity!
For example, Ehrman claims that Dumuzi only died and did not rise again. According to Ehrman, the god Adonis was said to have moved between the underworld and the heavens in Classic myth, was later said by the poet Ovid to have died but not returned, and that only from copying Christianity did Adonis worshippers get the idea to combine the two concepts and say Adonis died and then rose from the dead. Osiris is “rejuvenated”, not “resurrected”. None of this is true. The Sumerian story has Dumuzi’s wife Inanna die and rise and Dumuzi’s resurrection is implied in a part of the story that is broken off, but an Akkadian text has Tammuz’s wife Ishtar telling the women that their tears would raise Tammuz from the dead. Samuel Noah Kramer, one of the most famous and most-cited Assyriologists, devotes chapter 21 of his book History Begins at Sumer to “The First Tale of Resurrection” of Dumuzi and his wife Inanna. Orphic Hymn #54 speaks of Adonis being “doom’d to set and rise… reverenced with tears” just as women ritually mourned the death of Tammuz. And Osiris was dismembered before he was brought back to life, so of course it was resurrection.
As poor of a scholar as Did Jesus Exist? made Ehrman look, he looked even worse when Robert Price and Frank Zindler published their retort, Bart Ehrman and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, which showed how Zindler supplied Ehrman with tons of research through email on questions that Ehrman asked him regarding Docetism, Mithraism and Nazareth, only for Ehrman to ignore it, refuse to reply to Zindler, then claim in his book that Zindler supplied no documentation. A defender of Ehrman at catholic.com provides the perfect summary of the correspondence: “This “exchange” looks more like a case of cyber-stalking on the part of Zindler, as Ehrman responds only a few times and eventually ceases to respond at all.”
Bart Ehrman is a best-selling author who is read by more people than all of these mythicists combined, which makes it all the more disheartening that most readers will only get one of the story and the dishonesty used by Ehrman, especially regarding his ridiculous claim that there are no dying-and-rising gods. Whether you believe in a historical Jesus or not, the dying-and-rising gods were absolutely a thing. The dying-and-rising god phenomenon itself should not be taken as proof that a historical Jesus did not exist but anyone who dismisses it as positive evidence towards that possibility is fooling themselves.
Death and resurrection, rejuvenation, or whatever you want to call it, is not the only motif that is associated with the dying-and-rising god. If it was, then it would not be enough of a coincidence to call attention to them as a type. But once you realize that the majority of them are “sons” who are born or die under a tree, they are shepherds and/or fishermen, they have a ritual meal of bread and water and/or wine, and sympathizing with their deaths, typically through ritual weeping, resurrected the god, provided mortals an entrance into heaven, and/or gave eternal life, then it becomes harder to dismiss it all as “parallelomania”, as New Testament scholar James McGrath and Christ Myth theory critic calls it.
I used to think that the silence on the Christ Myth theory was just typical of the kind of assumptions that go along with an interest group such as the historical Jesus. King Arthur historians are probably a little more likely to believe in a historical Arthur simply out of virtue of interest bias, but unlike the case of the Christ Myth theory, you would never run into an Arthur expert who would disparage another Arthur expert because he had a different opinion on the subject. If one King Arthur expert tells you that Arthur was sixth century British warlord, and another tells you that he was a first or fifth century Roman general, and another tells he was a fourth century Scottish prince, are you going to use the fact that they all agree he was a historical person against the person who tells you that he is a myth? Look for any generic reference to Zoroaster and you will learn rather quickly that different sources date him to different periods of time by a factor of a thousand years, yet the fact that Jesus is also dated to different time periods is kept hidden -- knowingly or unknowingly -- by those who pride themselves in being the only true experts with the proper credentials to talk about the historical Jesus. Are the scholars who believe them to be mythical ostracized and dismissed as Arthur-haters or Zoroaster-deniers?
Of course, there are multiple rational interpretations for how Judaism evolved into Christianity. The dying-and-rising gods had a belief in spiritual resurrection and ascent into heaven that is lacking in the Old Testament, but this belief could also have been inherited through Zoroastrianism, the religion of the 6th-century B.C. Persian Messiah Cyrus the Great who freed the captive Jerusalem Jews from their Babylonian Captivity and sent back to rebuild their Temple in Judah's capital.
Like many etymologies, there is often more than one likely ancestral root. Sometimes contradictory ideas are harmonized, like how physical and spiritual resurrection are combined in Revelation 20-21: an End Time story of Jesus returning and judging mankind through destruction and then ruling on earth for thousand years was combined with another End Time story of a New Heaven and a New Earth where everyone is judged by the Book of Life and then enters a new heavenly Jerusalem, causing the editor to come up with an unexplained reason for why the Devil is released from hell after the thousand years to torment mankind only to be defeated a second time.
Most of the parallels have to do with the rituals and symbolism of the religion and not with the hypothetical sayings of Jesus, and not all of these parallels are necessarily direct contributions. The strongest parallels between the dying-and-rising gods and Jesus, like the cross or crucifix as a symbol, fisherman disciples, and the Eucharist are not really instrumental to the historical Jesus, so it is still entirely reasonable to believe in a first century peasant Jesus, but to look at the parallels between the Jesus of scripture and the dying-and-rising gods and say there is no relationship with Christianity, are simply showing a pro-Christian bias, no matter if they are Christian or not. Regardless of whether or when Jesus existed, the popularity of the dying-and-rising gods are still historically relevant in answering how a dying-and-rising Messiah became accepted by over a quarter of the planet's population.
There is plenty of archaeological evidence for Christian symbolism and theology in the cults of Dionysus and Orpheus, and in order to refute the argument that the dying-and-rising gods never existed, I have decided to create a glossary of gods related dying-and-rising-gods and the mystery religions, drawing a direct line from Dumuzi to Adonis to Attis to Dionysus to Orpheus to Ba’al Hadad to Osiris and beyond, showing proof that each god can be correlated to the next through both ancient sources and modern analysis, along with links to verifiable sources. I would like to challenge anyone who does not believe there really are dying-and-rising gods or that they had no relationship to Christianity to read through them and debunk these parallels.
Ehrman and McGrath act as if only Biblical scholars have the right to produce scholarly writings on the historical Jesus, but since the Christ Myth theory relies so heavily on mythology, it really should be the experts in mythology who should be looked into, and it is the groundbreaking studies of mythology from great luminaries such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, James George Frazer and Joseph Campbell, who really solidified the legitimacy of comparative religion despite the quick dismissal of many critics who treat their arguments as formally rebuked without explaining the grounds for which that judgment was overturned. As someone who has put a great deal of time studying mythology, I can tell you that all the religions of Europe and Asia are related to one another, that the dying-and-rising god is a common theme throughout all mythologies, and is as ubiquitous as the sun god and the storm god. In fact, the dying-and-rising god appears to be the original model behind both of them.
Many critics of the Christ Myth theory have pointed out how incredibly different the stories of these dying-and-rising gods are from the gospel story, and that is true enough. There are huge differences between all the dying-and-risings god stories, so much so that even if you are familiar with the myths, you wouldn’t necessarily notice the similarities until looking into them in depth. Throughout high school, I had read lots of books on the Greek mythology and yet I do not remember reading anything about dying-and-rising gods or mystery religions. I knew about the death of Adonis but I didn’t know anything about his resurrection because the books I read were not in depth. There is a big difference between children's mythology, which for the sake of simplicity tends to just combine everything about the god from multiple sources without explaining what came from when or where and historical mythology which tries to place everything in their correct historical context. The latter is what I hope to present, but rather than hiding the similarities within a wall of text that only mythologists would be interested in, I hope to illuminate the web of connections between all the gods through numbered bullet-point proofs followed by citation quotes and source links.
Unlike the scientific truths of evolution, relativity, the carcinogenic effects of smoking, and anthropogenic climate change, all of which have been mathematically proven despite a very vocal “conservative” and “free market” backlash, the truths of history, even those that appear supported by archaeological evidence, succumb to the relatively of our illusory epistemology due to the fact that we can never go back in time and “prove” one historical reconstruction or another. But for all the uncertainties we have in our ability to understand the distant past, I hope that an open-minded analysis of my glossary will stir up the same feelings that I have of a hidden predetermination for how parts of Christianity turned out, even if it is hard to pinpoint when or where it came from, and maybe even produce the same goose bumps I had when I first recognized these mythological parallels myself.