I was listening to John Shuck’s recent interview with Robert Price about the Christ Myth theory. I’ve tried to stay out of these debates, since I see them generating more heat than light on most blogs, but there are a couple of very broad issues that are confusing me.
The historical Jesus consensus seems to me to be simple, intuitive and easy to grasp. The idea that there were wandering preachers with an apocalyptic messages in 1st century Palestine seems certain. It’s only the connection to the Jesus tradition that is questionable. That is to say, someone led the victory at Mount Badon, but what their connection is to the King Arthur legends – if any – is debatable.
The idea that one preacher was named Jesus, and that his failed predictions produced cognitive dissonance and alternate explanations is something that we can see through analogy happening throughout history. The idea that the stories would grow and develop is also something we can see happening in many other cases. So the historical Jesus theory seems to me to be a very parsimonious way of explaining the existence of the Jesus tradition.
In comparison, the Jesus myth theory is far more complicated. It involves gnostic conceptions of God, evolving legends of dying and rising saviors, followers quoting their messiah through revelation, the production and growth of a set of stories that combine these elements and eventually a process of forgetting in which this spectral figure becomes a historical one.
All of this is completely plausible. But as Price is fond of stating, a historian must be concerned with what is probable, not what is plausible. Every fact is open to multiple interpretations, and every set of data points can produce an infinite number of theories. There has to be a way of winnowing down the number of theories, and Occam’s razor is one way.
Why should we prefer the Christ myth theory over the historical Jesus theory? It seems to me to be far more complicated, and it requires counter-intuitive readings of the evidence.
At one point in the interview, Price suggests that one letter mentioning Jesus would be enough to destroy the Christ myth theory. I like Price, but this seems to betray a lack of self-awareness. He is on record as disagreeing with the consensus dating and authorship of nearly every piece of text within the New Testament. What exactly could an archaeologist find that Price could not argue is misinterpreted, interpolated or an outright forgery?
Of course, these arguments would be quite plausible. It’s like the Birthers who suggested that if Obama would just produce his long form birth certificate they’d all just go away. When such a thing was produced they proclaimed it an obvious forgery. Such forgeries do occur, but did anyone really believe that the Birthers would give any certificate a chance?
IIRC, the philosopher Brian Keeley once suggested that some theories – conspiracy theories mainly – may remain unwarranted even if they are historically accurate. They are unwarranted because they require so much skepticism towards the evidence that they essentially destroy the process of history. Belief in them can never be warranted under the standard rules of history, and we’re not ready to give up on history just yet.
I’m wondering if the Christ Myth theory hasn’t reached that point, with its tendency to say that every story about Jesus is really derived from some other story and that every apparent claim is really a cipher for some other claim. Is there any ancient historical evidence that cannot be explained in this fashion?
I’ve been staying clear of the arguments around Bart Ehrman’s new book, Did Jesus Exist. For those arguments, you can go visit Thom Stark or our neighbor James McGrath for the historical Jesus side. For the mythical side, see Richard Carrier. For helpful diagrams, and your own Jesus pie, go see Sabio at Triangulations.
That said, a book review at MIT’s The Tech caught my eye, particularly the closing paragraph:
The historical Jesus that emerges from Ehrman’s mainstream defense is a purely human, miracle-free Jewish male with a very common name living in first century Palestine, who after an unremarkable youth went on to teach things that many others had taught before; one more apocalyptic preacher, among many others at the time, whose predictions were proven wrong within a generation; one more “troublemaker” crucified like countless others by the Romans after a drive-thru trial during the Pilate administration. Being such, the Jesus that can be reconstructed from history with any certainty is, for all practical purposes, as irrelevant as the mythical one, effectively shrinking the debate on his existence from a grandiose quest with theological implications to an inconsequential and endless exercise in academic hair-splitting.
John Shuck gives another review worth reading. He responds to Ehrman’s view of Jesus:
I find his apocalyptic Jesus really depressing. That Jesus is hard to preach. I am not sure if we have to have Jesus resemble Harold Camping to be a real guy. We might be skeptical of a Jesus we admire, but we might also be skeptical of a Jesus we despise. It may be equally hard to accept that Jesus is an onion. Peel off each layer of fiction until you get to…nothing? Give this country preacher a break! I have to encourage the folks, you know?
Shuck also has a worthwhile review of Robert M. Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems. He catches Price in one of his agnostic moods and quotes him:
There may once have been an historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth.
In a way, this isn’t all that far from Ehrman’s position. Ehrman would argue that Jesus probably existed and probably was an apocalyptic preacher. However, beyond that there’s little we can say, because all the details are mired in the religious belief of Jesus’ followers.