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Approaching the Jesus Myth with Others

Given the Christmas cheer and the anti-Christian, anti-Jesus rhetoric one typically hears around this time, I thought I might do a simple defence of Jesus’ existence using some of my favourite sources. Out of interest, you might appreciate this small opinion piece in the New York Times involving an interview with Dr. William Lane Craig. It’s always nice to see the media occasionally stepping out to question a mainstream Christian representative and well-respected scholar, instead of promoting the vitriol coming from a community of 30 people in the state of Kansas.

In my experience, the sooner you can get people reading the gospels for themselves the better. I have encountered countless testimonies involving the powerful effects of reading the gospels with an open mind. However, getting people to read or do anything in our instant-gratification, sceptical society can be incredibly difficult. On top of this, how can we possibly get people interested in Jesus if people believe he was just a made-up story? Or if people think that the scriptures are riddled with fantastical exaggerations?

In this blog I will present an approach for helping people get past Jesus Mythicism, followed by several links for dealing with other sceptical beliefs that typically follow this extreme scepticism.

The General Approach

Before going on this journey of discovery with anyone, realise that to genuinely help someone change their mind, it is highly recommended that you converse in person. Any written exchange requires a high level of work and skill to communicate accurately without coming across as dismissive. Regardless of whether you decide to engage in written or face to face exchange, I highly recommend that the entire engagement is filled with questions on your side.  When desiring to get a point across, try to think of questions that might lead them to genuinely ask you to share what you know. Typically, this involves questions that portray your genuine interest in the justification or validity of what they know.

Remember, the best way to communicate is to genuinely treat the person you are talking with as if they know a lot of things that you don’t. Pretend you are learning from a tutor and must write an examination essay tomorrow on the truth of their position. Chances are they do know a lot of things you don’t. Recognising this will likely help you focus on the kinds of questions that help get to the core of the truth, instead of an infinite number of wild goose chases.

In my experience there are several stages sceptics typically go through when rejecting the Jesus narrative.

1 – Jesus was a Myth

2 – The scriptures are unreliable

3 – Jesus was just some dude, not God

4 –The resurrection is unreasonable

Now, not everyone is going to defend all 4 of these unjustified positions, but I typically get the impression that these are the most likely conclusions people will draw, each of which people will defend independently of one another. The first involving the highest scepticism, moving down to the fourth as being the least sceptical. This all being said; most people may present their position as being generally reasonable to accept without much evidence. This happens when people reject Christianity for some other reason more important to them. This means they won’t change their mind based on the evidence you present. Helping them to see that their position isn’t very robust may be where you need to stop, no evidence required, move on to the next doubt they may have.

We recently had a student from the University of Auckland spend an entire year discussing all the evidence for God with our student leaders. Each argument individually was easy to dismiss without justification. However, at the end of the year, when reviewing the broader summary of the Christian story with a street evangelist, the weight of all the evidence became overwhelming. He said it was because of his many conversations throughout the year that the arguments, which were easy to individually dismiss without evidence, became overwhelming evidence to the Christian story when put together with the message of Christ.

Agnostic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who has written books like “Misquoting Jesus” and debated Dr. William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus, openly admits that “It was really the problem of suffering that lead [him] to becoming an agnostic”. So just remember that having this conversation about Jesus being a Myth may just be an important part of a bigger picture for whoever you may be talking to. You cannot expect people to become Christian from this one conversation, so don’t continue shoving evidence in people’s faces in the hopes that they will convert to Christianity right there and then.

Was Jesus a Myth?

Before getting into some of the push-backs you might want to use in a conversation with a Jesus Mythicist, it is very helpful to ask a range of questions to establish where someone is coming from. Even someone who is equipped with their reasons to lecture you on how Jesus never existed should struggle with the following questions. Being a sceptic with a sceptic is the best approach.

  • What is an appropriate standard of determining the historical accuracy of anything?
  • How can we have any confidence in this standard as an appropriate standard for evaluating history?
  • Do you know of any historical scholars anywhere in the world who agree with or teaches this standard?
  • Where should mainstream scholarship be adopting this standard and why aren’t they currently?

These questions may not persuade the sceptic out of their position. However, it may open them up to hearing the following information.

In 2014, Bart Ehrman attended a conference called “Freedom From Religion” where he gave a lecture regarding “what it is like to be an agnostic who writes about religion”. At the end of this talk he was questioned by an audience member who said “I do not see evidence in archaeology or history for a historical Jesus”. Bart Ehrman’s response was scathing. Addressing the audience of sceptics and Atheists, Bart said, “There is so much evidence”, “In the crowds you all run around with it is commonly thought that Jesus did not exist. Let me tell you, once you get outside of your conclaves there is nobody who [thinks this]”. Now appealing to the authority of a single academic is not a good argument, but if someone raises this point, you must emphasise that this is not the point of quoting Bart Ehrman. What you want to get across to the sceptic is that even the most sceptical of any academic scholar will tell you that the Jesus Mythicism movement is a joke. You are using the quotes of Bart Ehrman as testimony and evidence to the reality that academic scholarship is entirely against Jesus Mythicism.

One could go into arguments demonstrating the evidence of why historians come to the conclusions that they do. However, the average person isn’t likely to trust your interpretation of Biblical scholarship let alone understand the significance of well-established principles that undergird the evidence for Jesus’ existence. Therefore, the questioning of the Mythicist’s assumptions and principles is so essential. So long as they think they are justified in their conclusions, it doesn’t matter what counter perspective you may have, most people are unlikely to listen, and it is unlikely to change their mind. What you want to demonstrate is that they have no grounds for asserting anything they currently believe to be true and then demonstrate that there is a vast majority consensus among historians going against their relatively uneducated perspective. Always remember, you have just as much right to play the sceptic of anything they say as they do to you. Make sure to use that as much as possible. Ask them how they came to their conclusions and why you should believe the claims they make, even about the sources of their claims and how you can independently verify their claims and sources. But do this with genuine curiosity, for all Truth is God’s and God has given us the tools and moral witness of the Holy Spirit to discover His Truth.

Bart Ehrman goes on to say in the Q&A “This is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity. There is no scholar in any college or university in the western world who teaches classics, ancient history, new testament, early Christianity, any related field, who doubts that Jesus existed… I think that Atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because, frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world.”

Now, with the understanding that the objective of quoting Bart Ehrman is to provide evidence of a consensus, what we want to do is help our sceptic friend understand that if we are to go against the entirety of a peer reviewed academic industry, we better have a very good piece of evidence ourselves before demanding people explain away our baseless assertions of what is and isn’t appropriate.

If the person you are speaking with then wants to dispute their arguments and evidence that exist for Jesus Mythicism, first ensure that they establish how their views are defended by people who are well educated and scrutinized by others devoting their lives to this study. Maybe encourage them to go into the field of study and prove to the world the accuracy of what they are saying if they are so certain they are correct. Be a loving encouragement throughout. Remember to love your enemies. And if all is lost, propose that you spend time together going through the evidence presented by agnostic and self-proclaimed Atheist scholar of ancient history, Bart Ehrman. He wrote a book just for this called “Did Jesus Exist?”

The Other Stages

When dealing with the other stages of scepticism you will encounter, many of the principles are much the same. Treat the person like they are a subject matter expert from whom you eagerly and innocently want to understand how they came to their conclusions. You should genuinely want to know what evidence they’ve found which lead them to believe what they say, and where you can personally find the sources for such evidence. Although these other stages of scepticism don’t have as much consensus on the subject, they still have very good arguments which have been refined and made easily accessible for the public. This is where having good resources to go through with the person you are discussing with will be very helpful. However, this is probably a series of blogs for another time. For now, I would just recommend watching any of the following to get a solid summary of the arguments. Particularly for guidance around what direction you might want to take a conversation through asking tactful questions.

For people who think ‘The scriptures are unreliable’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0OWYAf2TNA

“Jesus was just some dude, not God”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSQDov6NNp0&index=

“The resurrection is unreasonable”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvTNFrjPjC0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9k3CBwj-ut0&t=

Genesis, Myth and History

Wright makes some good points here. The Genesis 1-3 debate is stalked by generalizations and false antitheses. There is always a real danger in distorting and domesticating the Bible via the preoccupations of our own modern situation. As much as possible, we should start with Scripture and the priorities and structures within the text itself, instead of those of our own context. We should always seek to faithfully and accurately embed the text in its own literary, historical, and canonical context.

Understanding the genre is crucial. Just as, today, different literary genres have different means of making rhetorical effects and of taking about reality, so do the varied Biblical genres. And this diversity of literary forms means we must sensitive to the fact that the Bible contains more (though not less) than propositional truth. This isn’t to say that all literary genres convey truth plus something else but that some genres shape their purposes and priorities differently. Wright is correct to point out that if we reduce a passage (say, a narrative passage) to a number of propositions or single notes we miss the way the (narrative) genre can speak through themes, character development, plot, etc.

Furthermore, the ancient literary categories do not neatly overlap with ours and that is why we must be careful when we talk about biblical genres (I think this cuts against the the current definition of “myth” invented by modern anthropologists as much as it does against a scientific reading). Whatever category we do use for the opening chapters, a fair amount of nuance is necessary.

Even if we do understand the purpose of Genesis 1-3 as primarily theological/mythical, we haven’t escaped the question of whether it belongs to a matrix of thought that implies or is undergirded by historical events and characters (the “primal pair” that Wright affirms). Just because the message is theological, this does not mean that it is not also historical (or that it can be disentangled from the historical). Take some examples in the New Testament (some borrowed from D. A. Carson), where, although the writer is making a theological point, in each case the argument is grounded in and inseparable from a historical claim:

– In Galatians 3, Paul’s theological argument is made via appeal to the order of events in redemptive history. He argues that the law is relativised by the fact that both the giving of the promises to Abraham and his justification by faith preceded the giving of the law.

– In Romans 4, Paul makes an argument about the relation between faith and circumcision that again depends on the historical sequence of which came first.

– In Hebrews 3:7-4:13, the author argues that entering God’s rest must mean something more than merely entering the Promised Land because of the fact that Psalm 95 (which is still calling for God’s people to enter into God’s rest) is written after they were already in the land.

– Again in Hebrews, the theological point of chapter 7 is that because Psalm 110 promises a further priesthood and is written after the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is therefore obsolete.

-Paul’s argument about the reality of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15:12-19.

Wright is correct to say that we must read Genesis for all its worth. And to do this, sooner or later we are going to need to ask what the ancient readers (and other Biblical writers) themselves thought about the correspondence between the Biblical account of creation and what actually happened. It won’t fly to say that the ancient Biblical writers weren’t concerned with history or couldn’t distinguish between fable and reality (observe how much Judges 9 stands out from the rest of that passage). The early chapters of Genesis are certainly not a scientific treatise, but even if we understand that the point of these chapters is explain that all of creation is God’s tabernacle and that creation itself is finite and not divine, are we completely off the hook? We need to ask if the writer is telling us true things about God, and about real people and events that took place in history.

Metastasizing the Christ Myth

What is the relationship between ‘myth’ and the art of following Jesus? Ought we to treat the reports we have in the canonical gospels in the same way as we may treat the tales of Thor, Osiris or Hercules?

This question intrigued Clive Staples Lewis, a professor at the Oxford University and an expert in the elaborate myths of Scandinavia; the ancient tales of gods and men, Yggdrasil and Asgard. For much of his adulthood, Lewis was a spiritual skeptic, but eventually became captured by the claims of Christianity. He came to view the ‘good news’, centered on the person of Jesus and clearly rooted in the time and space of first century dusty Palestinian villages as a true fulfillment of the stories found in so many human cultures. He concluded that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”

To many readers, Lewis is famous (and in some circles infamous)  for incorporating numerous aspects of the Christian story into works of fantasy for children; the Chronicles of Narnia. I read them often as a child and near-completely missed the religious references. Now, of course, these stories make more sense. It was, however, in the process of making sense of them that I was able to understand the brilliant Oxford scholar’s understandings of God’s story and, through his insight, make more sense of the world.

That, of course, is one of the benefits of art. Myths, poetry and art are able to speak to the core of a human person in a way which cold equations and data tables seldom do. Does this mean we should reject rationality and objectivity? I do not believe so. Most people would accept the legitimacy of using a metaphor to add depth to a description and most would acknowledge the need for art and poetry. Eric Metaxas has rather delightfully written:

“For me, the main purpose of art is transportation. I’m not talking about murals on the sides of buses. I’m talking about the singular ability of art to pull us, Alice-like, through the Looking Glass and into other realms.”

In considering Christianity and myth, it is worth explaining a well-known and slightly blurry distinction between myths and legends. Myths are cultural stories unconnected with history, while legends have some kernel of truth concerning distant events buried within them. Perhaps the figure of Jesus, so clearly located within our own world, should not be treated as myth but instead regarded as a legend? Could the details of his exploits simply be clever stories devised with dodgy motives and no more historical than the stories of, say, Maui or King Arthur? This is, perhaps surprisingly, not a difficult question to answer. In a world befuddled by and besotted with claims of subjectivity and religious inclusivism, we can forget that when we turn to the New Testament we are dealing with historical writings which make historical claims of a factual nature. Yes, many claims are difficult to substantiate from outside these pages, but some key ones are not. Was Luke, for instance, the careful historian that he claims (Luke 1:3) – when he talks about historical people, places and happenings? The answer, from various archaeologists and experts on the Roman world, appears to be yes. If Luke, for instance, can be trusted in the small things of geography and government, we are not justified in simply dismissing his claims concerning God and His specific actions in history.

There are of course other objections. Some claim that the details of Jesus’ life sketched in the gospels are clearly derived from earlier pagan sources; a couple of Egyptian gods are prominent, as is Buddhism and other eastern religions. It is argued that the resurrection and accompanying details can be derived from the Mystery Cults widespread in the first century of the common era. There is a quite a bit of scholarship on the topic; for ease of access, there is a good digest of the different arguments on this page at Tekton. To summarise: many of the claims are bogus; a few are most likely a result of Christian influence on other religions; the primary sources for the more-impressive claims are not recorded and there is often a reliance on superficial appearances of etymological similarity without any reason for supposing a real causal link between certain names or themes.

If we are to treat the gospels not as myth or legend but as rooted in history, we should ask how the gospels compare in the essentials with other historical works of the time? Even a cursory look into Classical Studies will show that the records of great leaders such as Alexander the Great are beset by many problems resulting from widely differing sources – yet they are still deemed essentially historical. The broad lines of Jesus’ life have attestation from numerous accounts including many secular references. In the Gospel and other New Testament records we have an embarrassment of riches[1] compared to any comparable secular writings. For the majority of ancient historical works there is a massive gap between the earliest manuscript copies we have available and the original written text. The NT radically breaks this pattern with numerous fragments and even whole manuscript-books from the second and third centuries AD. The once-popular claim that various items in the canon were written in the late second century have fallen foul of papyriological and other evidence. The gospels were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses – period.

If we return to Lewis’ claim: how could a man, a mere human being, be the fulfillment of the inherently nonsensical genre of myth? Skeptics may even find the question nonsensical. But laying the issue of begging the naturalistic question aside, this could only be the case, it seems to me, if this man was in fact something more than legend or myth (empiricists take note: this is what the evidence suggests). In fact, the classical Christian defence, which still has worth today, has from the beginning been eager to refute the claim that the gospel has any association with fable, as Peter wrote: “For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur.” (2 Peter 1:16)

If we can admit where the evidence leads, we will see that the story of Jesus is not too good to be true. And neither is it too true to be any good. Novelist Dorothy Sayers reminds us of the awesome dramatic reality of this story:

“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like other men He had made, and the men He made killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), p. 15).

It is good news: the Creator God is not indifferent to the human condition and has entered into the storybook of history. And he waits, ready to enter into the story of our own lives.

Notes

1. “The textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material… Besides textual evidence derived from the New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 51, 126.