In episode one we introduced what the Christ Myth Theory was and the academic consensus on the historicity of Jesus, and in episodes two and three we covered the primary sources used when talking about the historical Jesus. In this episode we are going to cover the history of the Christ Myth Theory, from its origins in the enlightenment, to its 21st century resurgence on the internet. Let’s get started.
The earliest known Mythicists were a pair of French writers, Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney, and Charles Francois Dupuis. I’ld apologize for butchering those names, but they’re French, so I’m not going to.
In the 1780s Volney went on an expedition across the Ottoman Empire, stopping in Egypt and Syria in order to learn Arabic. While on this journey he took notes, which he eventually published as Travels in Egypt and Syria in 1788. He was also a member of the Estates-General and the National Assembly after Revolution broke out in France in 1789. Inspired by the revolutionary zeal of the era, Volney would publish his most famous work, The Ruins, Or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. The book gives a prediction that at some point in the future all religions would merge into one after they recognized the universal truth underlying all of them. As a side note, the first English edition of this book was Translated by Thomas Jefferson while Volney was visiting Monticello in 1796. But due to the book’s anti-Christian tone, and the presidential election that year, he refused to translate the last few chapters that had the anti-Christian portions, as well asking that his involvement in translating the document not be mentioned.
Working alongside Volney, and very much influenced by his work was Dupuis, who studied astronomy and mythology, which led him to publishing his most notable work, Origin of All Cults, or Universal Religion, in 1795. This work was so influential that it was one of the motivating factors behind Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.
Volney and Dupuis both believed that Jesus was not a historical figure, and that Christianity was an amalgamation of other near eastern mythologies. This would give birth to what I refer to as the Comparative Religion Methodology, which focuses on comparing stories and themes found in early Christian literature with other ancient religions. Those who use this methodology believe that the existence of similarities is enough to believe that there was some kind of spiritual plagiarism, and if one thing is plagiarized, then everything else must be plagiarized as well, ergo, Jesus didn’t exist. This methodology would become the most popular among Mythicists, despite the fact that it is also the weakest, but we’ll talk about that in a later episode.
Comparative Religion would continue its popularity in the following decades, but it would have to rebuild itself from scratch across the English Channal. Due to both Volney and Dupuis being associated with the head chopping French Revolution, their works would have little influence outside France after the fall of Napoleon. In the 1830s it would re-emerge from the mind of Godfrey Higgins in his work Anacalypsis. Higgins studied law but was never permitted to practice it, and when Napoleon threatened to invade the United Kingdom he joined a volunteer militia near York, which he retired from in 1808 after reaching the rank of major. He was a political reformer, advocating for abolishment of Child Labor, as well as for better treatment of the mentally feeble, and campaigned for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.
It was later in life that Higgins became interested in ancient myths, serving as a member in several neo-Druid organizations. In a three volume work called The Celtic Druids he argued that the beliefs and practices of the Druids came from Indian Priests, who he also believed built Stonehenge. Higgins would die before finishing his final work, Anacalypsis, which was supposed to be a history of all religions, which he believed all originated in India, and Atlantis.
Around the same time we saw the rebirth of the Christ Myth Theory in England, we saw it emerge in Germany, but in a very different form thanks to the work of Leopold Von Ranke. Von Ranke revolutionized the field of history by putting an emphasis on using primary sources, and differentiating them from secondary sources. You can learn more about von Ranke from this video by the Cynical Historian, but suffice it to say that von Ranke made the next methodology of the Christ Myth Theory possible.
Along with von Ranke’s standardization of historical study, we also need Historical Criticism. Historical Criticism, sometimes referred to as Higher Criticism, is the investigation of ancient religious texts, searching for the historical context of those documents, and to another extent the historicity of their claims. One of the first writers to put these methods into practice on the person of Jesus was Lutheran Theologian David Fredrich Strauss, who’s work The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, was the first biography of Jesus that didn’t assume his divinity, and treated the new testament documents skeptically, especially when it came to Miracles.
Strauss was not himself a Mythicist, but his writings would form the groundwork for future Mythicists, including ones that attacked him, such as Bruno Bauer. Bruno Baur had been a student Hegel, and in the 1830s he led the attack against Strauss, who criticized Hegel’s methodology in The Life of Jesus and other works. Bauer would first attack the historicity of Jesus in 1841 when he published Criticism of the Gospel History of the Synoptics. Bauer didn’t outright say that Jesus never existed, but that the Gospel’s are an irrelevant source for learning about him. At this point he could be described as a Soft Mythicist, but by the 1850s he would enter the Hard Mythicist camp by publishing Criticism of the Pauline Epistles and A Critique of the Gospels and a History of their Origin. Bauer was not very influential during his lifetime, but since his death he has become more influential amongst mythicists. Between Strauss and Bauer we see the birth of what I call the Source Criticism Methodology of the Christ Myth Theory. This methodology focuses on questioning the reliability and authenticity of the primary sources discussed in episodes 2 and 3.
Bruno Bauer continued to contribute to the Christ Myth Theory into the 1870s, when he published Christ and the Caesars, where he argued that Christianity was a fusion of Roman Stoicism, and Jewish mystery cults, which falls within the Comparative Religion Methodology, but at this time we finally see an American Contributing to the Christ Myth Theory, Kersey Graves.
Born in 1813 to Quaker Parents in Pennsylvania, Graves’ early life is full of mystery. Some sources claim he had no formal education, and others claim he had an academic education. Regardless of what kind of education he had, by the age of 19 he had become a teacher in Richmond Virginia. In the 1840s he spent time living in a Utopian Commune, and experimenting with many new-religions, eventually abandoning religion altogether. His contribution to the Christ Myth Theory came in 1875 with The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors where he compares the story of Jesus in the New Testament to figures in other mythologies. This books borrows heavily from Anacalypsis, though he never cites Higgins, or anyone for that matter. That’s something you’ll find very common among 19th century Mythicists.
Back in England we have another Mythicist contributing to the Comparative Religion Methodology in the 1880s, Gerald Massey. Massey was a poet who claimed to have taught himself hieroglyphics by spending a lot of time at the British Museum. His first book on the Christ Myth Theory, the Natural Genesis, was published in 1883, and it made the claim that the story of Jesus was a retelling of the story of Horus, which is a claim you will find a lot among modern Mythicists. Just like Kersey Graves, you can see how much Massey was influenced by Anacalypsis, and also like Graves, he never cited Higgins, despite the fact that you will find the same story used in all three books, described in almost the exact same way. And none of them are citing sources to back up their claims.
Around the turn of the century there was a resurgence of Mythicism. British Anthropologist, Sir James George Frazer, published the first edition of the Golden Bough in 1890, which looked at the religious traditions around the world, and it became very influential amongst Mythicists, despite the fact that Frazer himself was not a Mythicist. This became such a big issue for Frazer that in the 1913 edition of the book had to state that his theory assumed the existence of a historical Jesus.
In 1900 a Scottish Member of the UK Parliament, John Mackinnon Robertson, argued that Jesus was never a living person but rather a new deity made up by a first century Jewish messianic cult to pray for harvests, using sources from the Talmud to back up his claims. There was also the English School Master George Robert Stowe Mead, who in 1903 argued that the Jesus of gospels was actually referring to a character from the Talmud who was executed about a century earlier than Jesus was believed to have been crucified. These and others gave birth to the third major methodology of the Christ Myth Theory, the Literary Reinterpretation Methodology. This methodology focuses on reinterpreting older documents to mean something different than what they have traditionally thought to have meant. Among these Mythicists it is common to argue that the Pauline Epistles, believed to be the oldest sources about the life of Jesus, were not referring to a flesh and blood Jesus but to a spiritual or allegorical Jesus.
But the biggest name among Mythicists at the turn of the Century was the German Scholar Arthur Drews, who published The Christ Myth in 1909, contributing to the Comparative Religion methodology. This work was so influential that for the next decade there would still be theologians debating its merits. You had orthodox Christian theologians arguing over whether or not a historical Jesus was necessary for Christianity to be true. Some argued that you didn’t need a flesh and blood Jesus, but those who did quickly lost all their orthodox credentials. Ultimately Drew’s book was rejected by biblical historians and theologians, but it would continue to hold water amongst mythicists.
Mythicism would remain pretty quiet during 20th century, living on mostly in the Soviet Union, where it remained part of the Communist Party Line at Soviet Universities until the 1970s. But just as Soviet Universities were abandoning the Christ Myth Theory, a British Professor would revive interest in it within the English-Speaking world.
In 1975 George Albert Wells would publish Did Jesus Exist? Wells was the Professor of German at London University, who wrote extensively about German intellectual history. Aside from Strauss, Bauer, and Drews, there were many writers in 19th century Germany that wrote on the Christ Myth Theory, but due to the language barrier these ideas did not go far outside Germany. This meant that the Source Criticism methodology remained, and up to now largely still is, dominated by German scholars. Wells’ didn’t contribute much in the way of new research for the Christ Myth Theory. Rather, what Wells did was introduce Mythicist texts and ideas to an English-speaking audience that didn’t have access to them before. He continued this path with his later publications such as The Historical Evidence for Jesus in 1982, and Who Was Jesus? A Critique of the New Testament Record in 1989. Wells passed away in early 2017, and by that point his position on the Christ Myth Theory had evolved. Back in 1975 he was a Hard Mythicist, believing that there never was or could have been a historical Jesus, but by the time of his death he had slid into becoming a Soft Mythicist, believing that there was a Historical Jesus, but that the New Testament had nothing to do with him. Unlike most Mythicists I have come across, Wells was the only one that modified his thesis with every criticism it received, which ultimately lead him to his final position on the subject.
After Wells we get other writers who’s primary contribution to the conversation is reintroducing older ideas to a new audience. In the 1990s we have Robert M. Price, who has the notable distinction of being the Only Mythicist with a PHD in Biblical or New Testament Studies. Price’s major contribution has been to reintroduce the Literary Reinterpretation Methodology. Price’s rendition of this methodology argues that the Gospels are actually a form of Haggadah Midrash, telling the allegorical story of a Jewish Wisdom figure. But if you look into Price’s bibliography, he has done far more for the Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft than to the debate over the historicity of Jesus.
Alongside Dr. Price we also have Richard Carrier, who got his start as an editor for and atheist activist. Carrier has the distinction of being the only Mythicist to ever have a PHD in Ancient History. His recent contribution was an attempt to disprove the historicity of Jesus through Bayesian Theory. I still don’t know which methodology I’ve introduced thus far that his thesis would fall under, but for the time being my best guess is Source Criticism.
More and more modern Mythicists try to fuse the different methodologies together, but what this ends up doing in most of their books is that none of their arguments are substantiated enough to make them believable.
But finally we get to the 21st century, and although books continue to be published on the subject, the biggest driver of the Christ Myth Theory today is the internet, and documentaries, starting in 2005 with The God Who Wasn’t There, exploding with Zeitgeist: The Movie, and continuing with the most recent release, Batman and Jesus, the Christ Myth Theory continues to exist, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Now this, of course, is not an exhaustive history of the Christ Myth Theory, but rather a timeline of the biggest points that anyone familiarizing themselves with the subject should know.
Now that we know the history of the theory, we can finally move on to the actual arguments around it, and we’re going to start that discussion in Episode 5 when we begin our journey through the Comparative Religion Methodology.