The day when the birth of Jesus is celebrated might seem like an unfavorable occasion to address mythicism. After all, it is a date that has no historical connection with the birth of Jesus, the earliest stories about the event not only contain elements that are patently unhistorical (angels and miracles) but are irreconcilable with one another even on potentially historical details such as dates and geographical movements.
But as historians know, mythical stories grow up around historical figures as well as purely mythological ones. And so the presence of myth is not what matters when it comes to the question of mythicism, but the presence of absence of information that is likely to be historically authentic.
Paul, our earliest Christian source, tells us an important detail about what he believed to be the case with respect to Jesus. In Galatians 4:4 he refers to Jesus as having been “born of a woman, born under the Law.”
Is it possible to entertain doubt about Paul’s information on this point? Of course. People find ways to doubt things that have far clearer present-day evidence in their favor: evolution, climate change, the Holocaust. The testimony of an ancient individual who acknowledges that he had religious experiences and believed in the supernatural is not going to provide the kind of certainty that history can provide about recent events or ancient actions by powerful individuals such as kings and warriors – to say nothing of the even higher degree of certainty that the natural sciences can provide.
But that is simply a facet of the nature of historical investigation into the lives of relatively ordinary individuals in the distant past, and is nothing unique to the case of Jesus.
It remains the case that the earliest individual to mention Jesus in his writings – i.e. Paul – also affirms that he was born. And while it will always be possible to cast doubt on this point, it still must be asked whether there is any particularly good reason to doubt Paul’s clear assumption that the Jesus of which he wrote had been born. Is some convoluted hypothesis of a modern-day mythicist based on what might have been the case ever going to offer a more probable scenario than one that takes seriously that Paul treats the fact that Jesus had been born as something he can mention without any sense of doubt or concern about controversy?
Paul’s information about this, of course, depends not at all on his having witnessed Jesus’ birth. We assume that everyone we meet was born. The statement reflects a conviction that Jesus was a historical individual, not a claim to have witnessed his birth. While it is possible to create some very clever ways to cast doubt on Paul’s information here, if we cannot have confidence in a confident statement made in passing by the earliest writer to mention Jesus, then the only appropriate response is not mythicism but complete agnosticism about Jesus and most matters pertaining to earliest Christianity and its origins.
The reason historians consistently choose cautious confidence over despair at this point is that mythicist treatments of such evidence all involve special pleading of some sort – such as speculating that this passage might be an interpolation, for no other reason that it allows a piece of evidence inconvenient for the preconceived mythicist hypothesis to be ignored or set aside. Historians, by way of contrast, work with the evidence we actually have, and (ideally, if not always in practice) resort to speculation about interpolations only as a last resort, when it seems to be the only or the best way to account for what is otherwise a seemingly inexplicable detail. The existence of a historical Jesus is not such a detail.
It may seem like a futile enterprise to discuss mythicism. Like creationists, mythicists gather in online forums to provide mutual support and encouragement, and to reassure themselves that the mainstream scholarly enterprise from which they dissent is only so much nonsense. In both instances, one is dealing with an overall scholarly conclusion, a theory about the bigger picture which is based on a survey of a range of evidence, rather than depending ultimately on any one single piece of the puzzle. And it remains the fact that in both cases, one has on the one hand experts – whether people who spend their lives researching organisms, genes or fossils, or people who spend their lives reading ancient sources and investigating ancient people both real and imaginary – who uniformly get an impression about the overall direction that the evidence points. And on the other hand, in both cases, there are people whose only claim to expertise is their self-proclaimed immunity from the alleged deception that has overtaken the scholarly community, achieved by dabbling in it in their spare time. And so all other considerations about this or that piece of evidence aside, when it comes to the big picture, who is more likely to be correct, even in the case of an educated guess?
So why not simply ignore mythicism? Because it continues to get media attention. In a context in which 40% of the American populace can dissent from mainstream science, it is crucial that mainstream scholarship continue to patiently explain how its methods work and why it reaches the conclusions it does. But human beings like the feeling of being right about something when most people are wrong, and that will presumably continue to provide an impetus in the direction of fringe theories, no matter how much scholars work to inform the public.
An educated guess by those who have investigated a matter thoroughly will still have more chance of being right than the guesswork of someone who is less well informed about a topic. And so the greatest challenge exists across the board in academia, and is not limited to evolutionary biology or the study of history. It is the challenge to persuade people that it takes more than conviction and guesswork to get closer to the truth. It also takes familiarity with relevant data.
This is something that Maurice Casey in particular has emphasized. And since one thing he has particularly stressed is the need for more scholars working with our early Greek Christian sources to also know Aramaic, let me end by pointing out that Steve Caruso is offering a limited number of free subscriptions to one of his courses in Aramaic. And so if you are working on the historical Jesus and lacking proficiency in the language that appears regularly to be in the background in early Christian material, this is a good opportunity to rectify the situation.