In part one of this series I explained the different reasons I’ve had for studying history, and what ultimately drew me to my chosen thesis topic, The Christ Myth Theory. However I didn’t explain it thoroughly.
The Christ Myth Theory is one of numerous schools that focus on questioning the historicity of something in the past. In part one I briefly mentioned the Saarbrucken School, which questions the historicity of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. A better known school of historicity questioners would be Holocaust Deniers, who question whether or not the Holocaust occurred. These three “schools” of thought are responded to differently.
The Saarbrucken School is niche and only Middle East or Islamic History experts have even heard of the concept of questioning Muhammad’s existence,
Holocaust Denial on the other hand is well known, even if the deniers themselves are not. Holocaust Denial is so despised by the vast majority of historians and common people they are outright rejected, and its proponents are labeled Anti-Semites. Although in theory Holocaust Denial is not inherently anti-Semitic, it is implicitly so.
The Culture Wars
The Christ Myth Theory occupies a strange middle ground between the two. It’s more widely known than the Saarbrucken School, but not quite as wide as Holocaust Denial. This is probably because accusations of Islamaphobia are mostly focused on people who do believe Muhammad existed, and Holocaust Denial became widely known for the trial between Deborah Lipstadt and David Irving, dramatized in the BBC film Denial (Review coming eventually). However, considering the implicit anti-Christian nature of the theory, it wouldn’t be a big stretch to say that much of academia and the media think Christians don’t need to be defended. Also, believing in the theory doesn’t get you labeled a racist like the others will. Because of all this, little attention is given to it outside the religious sphere of the Culture Wars.
In the cultural war between Christians and Atheists, the sides are clearly drawn. Christians want the legitimacy of their religion recognized by society, and Atheists want to remove the legitimacy of all religions, with a particular emphasis on Christianity. Most of this war is focused on the questions of whether or not God exists, and whether or not religion is good for society. There is another front in this war that is weirdly empty, and yet very active, at least online. That field is the Historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, which is the subject of the Christ Myth Theory.
The Four Types of Arguments
The earliest known proponents of the Christ Myth Theory came out of the French Revolution, with Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, and Charles-Francois Dupuis. They were both supporters of the Revolution, and were influenced by the French Enlightenment. In both of their works, Ruin of Empires, and Origin of all Cults, they argue that Jesus is an amalgamation of Near Eastern Myths. This is the origin of what I’m referring to as the Comparative Mythology Argument. This argument focuses on comparing the elements of the story of Jesus in the Bible with other myths. It is the oldest, and most popular argument used to argue that Jesus did not exist. It’s also the least academic of them.
There’s a gap in time between Volney and Dupuis and the next wave, lead by German Theologian Bruno Bauer in the 1840s. Bruno Bauer applied to the Christ Myth Theory the methods of Historical Criticism, which is referred to as Higher Criticism when used on religious texts. Bauer is one of the most prolific contributors to the theory. His method was to question the historical legitimacy of the Gospels, which tell the life of Jesus. These criticisms focus on questioning the authorship of the Gospels, and dating them either later or earlier then they are traditionally believed to have been written. He would also go on to apply the same methodology to the Pauline Epistles. In my research and notes I have been referring to the questioning of historical source’s legitimacy as Argument by Negation. This type of argument focuses on eliminating the historical evidence for Jesus’s existence. It is probably the most academic argument, which means it is also one of the least popular among lay-men.
In the early 20th century, we see the third type of argument was pioneered by an American School Teacher, John Remsburg. In his book, The Christ, he has a chapter dedicated to listing 42 contemporaries of Jesus who did not mention his existence. This argument has been incorporated into later arguments as well, with the list being expanded over the last 100 years. This argument already had a name when I came across it, The Argument from Silence. The purpose of this argument is to delegitimize the existence Jesus by pointing to all the people who would have known about him, but never mentioned him. This argument is fairly popular, but never by itself. It is always incorporated into a bigger thesis, rather than being the foundation of one. I classify it as a separate argument because it is using a different justification than the others.
I’m uncertain of where the fourth and final argument comes from exactly. I refer to this one as the Argument by Misinterpretation. This argument postulates that the gospels and epistles have overtime been completely misinterpreted from what the authors originally meant. And by “Misinterpretation” I don’t just mean we interpret it more liberally today. What I mean is that what we interpret as a story of a historical person who lived and died in the first century A.D., is completely wrong. Some proponents of this theory say that Jesus was never intended to be understood as a historical figure but as an allegorical one. Others say that he was originally understood as a separate god from that of the Hebrews, whose story took place in a spiritual realm. And others yet say that what we misinterpret about the New Testament is that it was actually a Conspiracy by the Roman government to pacify the Jews with a messiah figure who promised to bring success in the future if they patiently waited. These are the types of arguments you will find in any Christ Myth Thesis.
Clearing the Battlefield
This battlefield of the culture wars is largely empty. Publicly, the Christians have won the battle, with Atheists more or less ceding the field. However there is still a contingent of atheists continuing to fight this lost battle. Most Christians have also left the battlefield because it seems like they have won. Only a small group remains, staving off the rocks thrown by the few atheists who refuse to concede. Unlike the other battlefields where the line between Atheists and Christians are firmly drawn, the Historicity of Jesus also has Atheist defenders, who have put facts above sectarianism. But those who remain on the field do so because to them to cede any territory to Christians is to admit they are right about everything. The Christ Myth theory to them is simply another tool for promoting Atheism. “Not only is belief in any kind of god irrational, but the man made god you believe in is also fictional.”
Most works on this theory are focused on either proving it right or wrong. In my senior thesis I’ve decided to go a step beyond the debate of legitimacy, and focus on the Christ Myth Theory as a literature to be studied an analyzed, rather than a thesis to be debunked. I don’t need to debunk it because others have already done so far better than I ever could. But what I figure I can do is contextualize it as an intellectual history. Hopefully doing so can bring the discussion another step closer to ending. But with the internet being what it is, even I find that difficult to believe.