Ehrman names names – a colorful ensemble of mythicists

Ehrman continues his brief history of mythicism by running quickly through a list of some authors whose views touch on the subject. After Bruno Bauer’s career was destroyed by anti-mythicist fanaticism:

The mythicist view was taken up some decades later in English-speaking circles by J. M. Robertson, sometimes considered the premier British rationalist of the beginning of the twentieth century… Robertson argued there were striking similarities between what the Gospels claim about Jesus and what earlier peoples believed about pagan gods of fertility, who, like Jesus, were said to have died and been raised from the dead… while there may have been a man named Jesus, he was nothing like the Christ worshiped by Christians, who was a mythical figure based on an ancient cult of Joshua, a dying-and-rising vegetative god who was ritually sacrificed and eaten.

Here Robertson’s views seems to mirror that of many supporters of an ‘historical Jesus’ – especially when they try to draw a sharp distinction between the ‘Jesus of faith’ whose biography is pretty much laid out faithfully in the Gospels and the ‘historical Jesus’ who was a mortal man and likely did not say and do many of the things ascribed to him by the Gospels. That very little beyond ‘Jesus existed’ can be agreed upon by those who hold this position would seem to indicate that Robertson was right in thinking this Jesus was a cipher.

Many of these views came to be popularized by a German scholar of the early twentieth century named Arthur Drews, whose work, The Christ Myth (1909), was arguably the most influential mythicist book ever produced because it made a huge impact on one reader in particular. It convinced Vladimir Ilyich Lenin that Jesus was not a real historical figure. This, in large measure, led to the popularity of the myth theory in the emerging Soviet Union.

Unfortunately Ehrman is unable to sketch out for his readers the arguments that were found to be so convincing. I’m sure Ehrman will get around to that, eventually…

But I do notice the widespread acceptance of Jesus as a figure of myth in this part of the world is put down to the personality of one man. It couldn’t bet that where christianity is a political force to be reckoned with Jesus historicism is found acceptable, while in regions where christianity is impotent it is at least within reason to suppose this figure is more myth than fact – could it?  But why does it matter in which nations this or the other view might prove more popular?

Ehrman follows this all too brief ‘history’ with a few paragraphs to bring his readers up to date on mythicist authors today. I will not do much more than touc on this section as the living authors have works which can be referenced easily independently of Ehrman’s characterization and they are perfectly able to respond to any valid criticisms offered as well as defend themselves if they find that Ehrman mischaracterizes them or their views.

Ehrman mentions Earl Doherty, Robert Price, Frank Zindler, Thomas L Thompson, Richard Carrier, Tom Harpur, and George A Wells – these are the ‘colorful ensemble’ Ehrman considers to be the contemporary champions of the position that Jesus may well not have existed at all. Why they are any more ‘colorful’ than the card-carrying members of the New Testament academy remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s their ties?

 

 

 

 

 

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Bruno Bauer – mythicist martyr?

Ehrman introduces Bruno Bauer in his brief history of mythicism section:

The first bona fide scholar of the Bible to claim that Jesus never existed was a German theologian named Bruno Bauer, generally regarded among New Testament scholars as very smart and very idiosyncratic… When he started out as a scholar, Bauer concurred with everyone else in the field that there was historically reliable material in the first three Gospels of the New Testament… As he progressed in his research, however, and subjected the Gospel accounts to a careful, detailed, and hypercritical evaluation, Bauer began to think that Jesus was a literary invention of the gospel writers. Christianity, he concluded, was an amalgamation of Judaism with the Roman philosophy of Stoicism. This was obviously an extreme and radical view for a professor of theology to take at the state-supported German University of Bonn. It ended up costing him his job.

I do hope Ehrman intends to revisit Bauer and discuss some of the actual evidence which convinced this smart and careful scholar that Jesus was a literary invention. As it is we are left to wonder what could prompt an academic to go against the  cultural and political prejudices of his time. We are only told by Ehrman that Bauer was ‘idiosyncratic’, that his views were ‘extreme’ and ‘radical’ and that 

…[Bruno Bauer] had virtually no followers in the scholarly world.

Hardly surprising Bauer had virtually no following among scholars when you consider how Bauer was punished for holding the view that Jesus never existed outside the pages of literature. He lost his position, which rather makes you wonder about those who cite ‘no one in academia holds the mythicist view’ when it is evident that expressing that view is apparently enough to get you fired.

Considering how hard people work to obtain jobs in academia, and the prestige that comes with it, you can understand why someone might be loathe to jeopardize their place in academia by even considering the question and keeping your dangerous ideas to yourself. As academic scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann notes

I should also mention that the biggest reason for the shyness of scholars with respect to the non-historicity thesis had/has to do with academic appointments (as in security thereof) rather than common sense. As a middle-of-the road Hegelian like Strauss discovered.

 

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/christ-myth-and-holocaust-denial/#comment-10067

This is not even something that could only happen in the ‘bad old days’ – recently another respected and reputable scholar lost his job when he publicly declared his considered opinion that Jesus was not an historical person: Thomas L Brodie was dismissed from the institution he founded when he revealed his conviction that Jesus was a figure of myth. 

But the ‘no academic mythicists’ mantra rings rather hollow when you realize this is not so much an observation about scholars as it is apparently a statement of enforced policy. In a piece appearing on the Huffington Post website Ehrman stated

…there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html

So not only will mythicists be fired if they are found out, they won’t even be hired in the first place, for no other reason than considering Jesus a myth. It begins to sound like members of a restricted club claiming ‘Jews can’t play golf’ simply because they don’t allow them to join the club.

But I do want to go back and look at some of the words Ehrman uses to describe Bauer and his views: idiosyncratic, hypercritical, extreme, and radical.

It’s not abundantly clear what ‘idiosyncratic’ is supposed to mean here. Certainly Bauer seems to have been bold enough to go against the grain of the times, but that tells us nothing about the value of their approach or their findings. Perhaps it’s just a word used to underscore the ‘mythicists are a minority’ meme Ehrman wants to emphasize, with the implication that there’s something wrong with taking a minority position. And as we’ve seen, steps are taken to make sure it’s a minority position.

And what is ‘hypercritical’ meant to stand for? Literally it means ‘overly critical’, but just how critical is the ‘just right’ amount? The amount that Ehrman is critical? I often hear the term ‘hyper-skeptical’ thrown at atheists because they dismiss claims of magic and other supernatural phenomenon on the grounds that evidence for such things is lacking. Perhaps it’s just meant to mean ‘not credulous enough for my taste’.

Then we have the charge of ‘extremism’. There’s not much one can do with that – I mean how much of a spectrum of views is there? Yes Jesus existed, no he didn’t? Aren’t they both equally ‘extreme’? Or is Bauer’s views ‘extreme’ only to mean ‘unpopular among scholars who want to keep their jobs’? It seems to me that ‘extremism’ is just another scare word flung at a scholar like Bauer in hopes it will stick in the mind of his readers even if only subconsciously.

Then there is ‘radical’ which has a couple of senses to it, one which may well be technically accurate: Bauer’s years of study and scholarship led him to conclude that the very root belief about the origins of christianity – that it was based more or less on the biography of an historical Jesus – turns out to be a false trail. In this sense Bauer is addressing the roots of the whole enterprise, introducing a whole new paradigm, and could be described as radical just as Copernicus’s heliocentric model was a ‘radical’ shift in perspective.

Having grown up during the Cold War I also know that ‘radical’ is often used in a pejorative sense – every time I would read in the newspaper about ‘radicals’ I knew exactly what point of view I was supposed to take about these persons. They weren’t ‘our kind’, they were dangerous. and if not actually evil they were certainly misguided. Certainly for the general reader a less emotionally loaded way of characterizing Bauer’s work could be found?

For those interested in a little more in depth discussion of Bauer I include a couple of links to a blog I highly recommend: Vridar

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/bruno-bauer-through-albert-schweitzer/

and

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/08/18/bruno-bauer-and-today-is-this-not-the-carpenter-chapter-2/

Though perhaps Ehrman will revisit Bauer later in his book, we’ll have to leave it here for now.