Busting the Myth of Jesus-Myth Busting

When will writers bent on revealing the shocking / faith-shattering / never before heard or imagined / this proves you believers are stupid / all of the above facts about the “historical Jesus” ever learn that it doesn’t matter? The worship and love Jesus’ followers have for him, the witness and sacrifice and courage and charity he inspires in them, depend not one whit—not a jot or a tittle, to put it scripturally—on what passes for objective historical fact.

The business (and it is big business, indeed) of busting myths about Jesus is a kind of profitable autoeroticism among those who like to feel that they are way too clever to believe such primitive / irrational / unscientific / oppressive / intolerant / all of the above nonsense. They live for the hope that believers will take the bait and argue with them. Many do, and the results often resemble a UN debate without simultaneous translation. Lots of gesturing, dudgeon cranked up to 11, mutual incomprehension, victory claimed by all.

Two such temptations fell my way today, and though I am always up for a good round of this,  I’m going to reel in my dudgeon and just point out why I think believers, particularly of the Catholic sort, might just want to greet this stuff with a there-there pat on the head and go about our business.

Reza Aslan’s “5 myths about Jesus,” published on the WaPo’s Opinion page, has the perfect subhead: Challenging everything you think you know. (Uh, no.) Aslan, of course, is the celebrated revert to Islam from evangelical Christianity who has recently published a shocking / faith-shattering / never before heard or imagined / this proves you believers are stupid / all of the above facts about the “historical Jesus” book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book, though I’m aware of the tizzyfying online reactions it provoked. It’s on my reading list, but not because of the tizzy. I just enjoy reading stuff from reverts of whatever persuasion.) The WaPo piece is well-planned continuing book marketing, but the 5 myths are neither myths nor challenging, unless by some weird twist of fate you have never in your life heard of this Jesus guy and are wondering what the tizzy is about.

The Big 5 Aslan sets before us include Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, his status as Mary’s only child (and thus, by extension, belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity), the number of the disciples (!), Christ’s trial before Pilate, and his burial in a tomb. None of these is a myth in the sense Aslan seems to be using the word—the contemporary connotation of a lie, perpetrated deliberately or by ignorance, that won’t stand up to factual research. All concern interpretations of the New Testament that have been contentious ever since there was a New Testament, and perhaps even before. None should be a surprise to, let alone a challenge to the faith of, Christians who have even the slightest familiarity with the Bible.

Variance in the Gospels about the birthplace of Jesus? Yawn. Only Luke mentions Bethlehem, anyway. Each of the Gospels is tailored to a particular audience and community of believers. (Surely Aslan, with his much vaunted credentials, can’t just be finding this out?  My God, I did a filmstrip on this—beep, beep—in prehistoric times.) Every Christmas, we acknowledge the diversity of the Nativity stories by throwing together in one creche Luke’s stable and manger and shepherds with Matthew’s unnumbered kings/astrologers (the gifts were three in number, but nowhere are the guys counted, nor do their camels make an appearance). After Jesus’ birth, Luke has the family heading home to Nazareth, Matthew has them flying into Egypt. Differences in telling the story do not lies make.

All that Jesus’ brothers stuff is also a very old red herring. The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, which is not held by all Christians, is not a myth to be shattered by “proof” that Jesus had siblings. It’s a truth of faith. Believe in that truth if you will, as I do, and let everybody else wrangle about the word adelphi. (That argument always makes me think Jesus had frat brothers.) It’s very much like the Dan Brown JESUS WAS MARRIED SO YOU ARE ALL STUPID argument. It’s likely, given the customs of the time, that he was married. So what? It’s also likely, given the glimpses we see of his life, that he didn’t have any trouble bucking the customs of the time.

Aslan’s myth #3—“Jesus had 12 disciples”—isn’t even a closely-held belief reputed by exegesis. I don’t know anyone in the world who thinks Jesus had (only) 12 disciples. I had to reread that headline to make sure that’s what it said. I was presuming Aslan was going to claim that the number of The Twelve, those who were sent (apostles), was manipulated by the Gospel writers to match the 12 tribes of Israel. Which, of course, is entirely possible, but again wouldn’t change the significance of the apostolic role. Nope. He spends a paragraph making clear something that wasn’t ever cloudy.

Aslan’s skepticism about Jesus’ trial and burial comes from very well-substantiated historical research. Pilate was Governor Craptastic, and he wouldn’t have wasted a minute on some Zealot. Unless, as Aslan says, there was something that made this Jesus stand out. Well, the Gospel writers—and Jesus’ followers, and I—believe there was. Of course the idea of Jesus’ having had some Law & Order: Judea court trial with Pilate in the role of the judge is ridiculous. (If any of you were thinking that’s what happened, fahgeddabboutit.) Same thing with the burial—Aslan said it just wouldn’t have happened without some great act of generosity on the part of Roman officials and the rich guy who owned the tomb. Which doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened. And such generosity features prominently in some (though not all) of the Passion narratives. But still, Christians have been arguing over where Jesus was buried for ages, and some who hold to the Resurrection don’t even necessarily believe that the disposal of his corpse matters one way or another. Not myth, not news, not challenging.

The other purported mythbuster in this week’s news is Bill O’Reilly, who is promoting his latest ripoff of Jim Bishop (honestly, does the man think all of us who read The Day Lincoln / Kennedy / Christ Died books are dead or too demented to remember?). In snippets of a 60 Minutes interview with Norah O’Donnell aired this morning on CBS, O’Reilly “reveals” the fact that the crucifixion nails couldn’t have been driven through Jesus’ palms—thereby putting the lie to centuries of religious art and all those stigmata-fakers, too, apparently. He says “we” (editorial? royal? O’Reilly and his cowriter? O’Reilly and his co-writer and Jim Bishop? O’Reilly and, as he claims, the Holy Spirit?) can now prove for certain that Jesus never said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” from the cross, because his lungs would have been crushed from the pressure of hanging there, and nobody could have heard him. Norah O’Donnell gives him her best wide-eyed ingenuous breathlessness and gasps, “But he must have said it! It’s in the Bible!” O’Brien assures her that the Bible got it wrong. “We’re sure he said those words,” he says, “but not from the cross.”

Ah, Bill, you’re a Catholic, you’re supposed to know better. The message is true, however you tell the story.

And that’s what to remember in the end. All of this myth-busting may be intended, as my colleague Rebecca Hamilton writes, to make some bigger point that Jesus himself is a myth. To which I say, Yes, he is, and more. In the true sense of the word (which comes from the Greek for “telling”), myth is the language we humans use to talk of things irreducible to facts. Might as well try to “prove” there are no unexpected upset victories—in love, in sports, in life—by demonstrating that no pumpkin has ever turned into a coach, or is capable of it.

But you guys keep writing the books. They’re proof that Jesus has lasting power to fascinate, engage, and challenge us—even the ones who don’t think he existed—beyond what any history might account for.

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  • Melody

    It bugs me that this school of thought is called Historical Critical. Because I know a little bit about oral histories. They were a particular interest of my mother’s; and she did painstaking research of her family and my dad’s family. Her favorite source was the stories which had come down by word of mouth. Talking to this cousin or that great-aunt, she recorded things, some of which had happened a hundred or more years ago. Not all of the accounts matched up 100%. Some events were only told by one person, others by multiple witnesses. Even those didn’t entirely tally. No one was had an Agenda, or was lying. They saw things through the filter of memory, or someone else’s memory. Different things were important to different people. Some things could be corroborated by written records of churches, cemeteries, etc. But not by any means everything. A history emerged, which was as accurate as it was possible to be, but there were probably some factual inaccuracies. It seems likely that the Gospels have some similarities to these oral histories. The myth busters seem to be more interest in deconstructing them and projecting present-day points of view on 1st century AD people; than in taking them as the honest strivings of those trying to hand down the Christian heritage to posterity, guided by the Holy Spirit.

  • joannemcportland

    Should have been clearer. Only Luke mentions Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth. And with regard to Lee Strobel and other biblical literalists, my observation is even more true. Whatever historical evidence might be presented to disprove biblical texts, literalists are going to find a way to read it through the eyes of faith. For Catholics, who are not biblical literalists, theology and science are simply two languages for the same reality. Of course we believe and recognize that God acts in human history and that this revelation is available to all through intellect and logic. But arguments that depend on “It couldn’t possibly have happened in this way or at this time, so it couldn’t have happened, so there is no God” are unlikely to cause earth-shaking apostasy. Those who freak out at discrepancies among the various Gospel accounts but have no problem talking about objective historical truth are on shaky ground.

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      Only Luke mentions Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth.

      -My suspicions you’ve never read Matthew are confirmed. Aw, well, most Catholics don’t read the Bible at least 3-4 times annually, so I can see the justification for your ignorance. I am, after all, one of the few atheists to read the Bible more than 3-4 times annually.

      But arguments that depend on “It couldn’t possibly have happened in this way or at this time, so it couldn’t have happened, so there is no God” are unlikely to cause earth-shaking apostasy.

      -So what arguments would be likely to cause earth-shaking apostasy?