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?







Heroes! …and Villains

To continue with Ehrman’s book –

In the last episode you may recall it seems to me Bart Ehrman was positioning himself (and the whole weight of New Testament academia) as the ignored and disdained underdogs in a debate about the existence of a real Jesus in history. Slight miscasting I’m inclined to point out.

But like any Hero, Ehrman must be opposed by a Villain – or better yet a big Gang of Super-Villains. It’d be nice if the had an Evil Plan up their sleeves…

In this story the role of the villain is to be filled by the ‘mythicists’ – those who doubt there ever was a real man named Jesus who served as the catalyst for the creation of christianity and that this figure is a mythical character of literature.

Sometimes Ehrman is (sometimes) inclined to be generous to (some of) them.

[While] none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere in the world)… a whole body of literature, some of it highly intelligent and well informed, makes this case.

But a couple of bona fide scholars – not professors teaching religious studies in universities but scholars nonetheless, and at least one of them a PhD in the field of the New testament – have taken this position and written about it.

…and the smart ones among them need to be taken seriously…

For the introduction this is as far as Ehrman is willing to go in giving (some) mythicists any credit – there are some who (though woefully lacking in proper credentials and the right sort of training and not even professors!) are intelligent and well informed.

But of mythicists in general he paints a less sanguine portrait.

Some of them [mythicist books and articles] rival The Da Vinci Code [the historical Jesus novel] in their passion for conspiracy and the shallowness of their historical knowledge…

..they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a (very) small but (often) loud minority voice. Once you tune in to this voice, you quickly learn just how persistent and vociferous it can be.

a quick Internet search reveals how influential such radical skepticism has been in the past and how rapidly it is spreading even now. For decades it was the dominant view in countries such as the Soviet Union.

Rarely do mythicists define what they mean by the term myth, a failure that strikes real scholars of religion as both unfortunate and highly problematic…

Those who do not think Jesus existed are frequently militant in their views and remarkably adept at countering evidence that to the rest of the civilized world seems compelling and even unanswerable.

…there are several loud voices out there, whether you tune in to them or not, who are declaring Jesus is a myth. This mythicist position is interesting historically and phenomenologically, as part of a wider skepticism that has infiltrated parts of the thinking world

these claims are seeping into the popular consciousness at an alarming rate. Jesus existed, and those vocal persons who deny it do so not because they have considered the evidence with the dispassionate eye of the historian, but because they have some other agenda that this denial serves.

You see, Ehrman has quite a bit more to say, in much stronger terms, about mythicists as a group than the few backhanded compliments he reserves for a few exceptional cases.

This last bit is interesting, as he accuses mythicists of having a ‘passion for conspiracy theories’ yet he boldly proclaims that mythicists have a secret agenda!

But I think I observe in the great deal he does say about mythicists as a class the outlines of a familiar story: a vociferous and militant minority, radical skeptics, have set themselves against the views of the rest of the civilized world: alarmingly, they are infiltrating the thinking world from strongholds such as the Soviet Union to fulfill a mysterious hidden agenda.

Has Hollywood been notified? Red Dawn has got nothing on this.


I have left a couple of passages out of Ehrman’s litany on the diabolical nature of the mythicist menace because I think they deserve a little more discussion than his broad-brush depictions listed above.

Another cliff-hanger to keep you on the edge of your seats!