Washington and Jefferson: Jesus Mythicists?

Washington and Jefferson: Jesus Mythicists? March 2, 2015

Believe it or not, I’d never heard of DM Murdock until a few days ago. The name seemed vaguely familiar, but it could have been the name of an actor or musician for all I knew. Then I saw a message she sent Aron Ra on Facebook and followed the link she provided. She wrote to him:

Hi there, Aron Ra!

I think you would really like my attached article about Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, including the “hidden” FF Thomas Paine. It contains absolutely fascinating and important information, well cited as usual. Did you know that Jefferson translated a famous French mythicist work that also influenced Napoleon? The author, Napoleon’s tutor and senator Count Volney, was friends with George Washington also and was chased out of the U.S. for being an “infidel,” i.e., atheist. At some point, Jefferson too was deemed “infidel” and “atheist.” One would think this information would be of great interest to historians of atheism as well.

Moreover, as you know too well, Christians are always attempting to make Christians of the Founding Fathers, so they can claim the U.S. is a “Christian country.” Hence, it would be highly germane to factor in this knowledge about Jefferson’s relationship to a very famous Jesus mythicist.

As someone with an enormous interest in the religious views of the founders, especially Jefferson, I followed the link to an article she wrote on the subject in which she argues, or at least strongly implies, that George Washington, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were Jesus mythicists — that is, that they believed that Jesus was a completely fictional character who never existed in the real world at all (as opposed to what I think is the consensus among historians, which is that he was a real person whose story was heavily mythologized, particularly by borrowing earlier myths from the Ancient Near East). I think the case she makes is pretty weak, to say the least. She begins with a quote from Paine:

“The fable of Christ and his twelve apostles…is a parody of the sun and the twelve signs of the Zodiac, copied from the ancient religions of the Eastern world…. Every thing told of Christ has reference to the sun. His reported resurrection is at sunrise, and that on the first day of the week; that is, on the day anciently dedicated to the sun, and from thence called Sunday…”

It’s an accurate quote, from a letter he wrote in the early 1800s, but it does not support the notion that Paine was a mythicist. This is a quote that is consistent with both mythicism and what I’ll call the Standard Position (or SP, from now on). An advocate of both the SP and mythicism could have made this statement. Was Paine arguing that Jesus never existed at all or was he arguing that that those who created the religion of Christianity in the early days borrowed from sun god myths to flesh out the story and turn the man into a divine figure? Let’s ask Paine himself, who wrote this in the very first chapter of Age of Reason:

NOTHING that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.

Jesus Christ wrote no account of himself, of his birth, parentage, or anything else. Not a line of what is called the New Testament is of his writing. The history of him is altogether the work of other people; and as to the account given of his resurrection and ascension, it was the necessary counterpart to the story of his birth. His historians, having brought him into the world in a supernatural manner, were obliged to take him out again in the same manner, or the first part of the story must have fallen to the ground…

That such a person as Jesus Christ existed, and that he was crucified, which was the mode of execution at that day, are historical relations strictly within the limits of probability. He preached most excellent morality, and the equality of man; but he preached also against the corruptions and avarice of the Jewish priests, and this brought upon him the hatred and vengeance of the whole order of priest-hood. The accusation which those priests brought against him was that of sedition and conspiracy against the Roman government, to which the Jews were then subject and tributary; and it is not improbable that the Roman government might have some secret apprehension of the effects of his doctrine as well as the Jewish priests; neither is it improbable that Jesus Christ had in contemplation the delivery of the Jewish nation from the bondage of the Romans. Between the two, however, this virtuous reformer and revolutionist lost his life.

This leaves very little doubt that Paine believed in a real, human Jesus who lived in first century Palestine, who built a following and was put to death, but who also rejected all of the religious mythology that had been built upon those slim facts and turned into a religion. This is identical to the SP on the matter among non-Christian historians today. It certainly is not Jesus mythicism.

The second quote at the beginning of the article is from Jefferson:

“…the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Again, the quote is authentic. It comes from one of the remarkable series of letters written between Jefferson and John Adams in the 13 years before they died (on the same day, July 4, 1826). But it does not indicate mythicism at all, especially in light of the many other statements Jefferson made on the subject in his private letters. Jefferson was a unitarian, as was Adams. They both believed the trinity to be utter nonsense that no intelligent man could believe. That does not mean that they did not think an actual Jesus existed. Thus Jefferson’s famous letter to Benjamin Rush, which was combined with a document he had put together that he titled “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus.” It later became known as the Jefferson Bible. To Rush, he said:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.

It could hardly be more clear that Jefferson believed in a real Jesus, a human being rather than the son of God. And he believed that Jesus was a great ethical philosopher. He further wrote:

In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent. He was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence…

They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian Sophist (Plato), frittering them into subtilties and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.

At this point, it would be folly to assert that Jefferson did not believe in a real, human Jesus who was the basis for Christianity. And the case Murdock makes is astonishingly weak. The argument boils down to this: Jefferson and Washington knew a man, Count Volney, who was a mythicist. Seriously, that’s about all she has.

Verifying the first contention in the “Virginia” article–and that he is the author of same–in Barons of the Potomack and the Rappahannock (182), Conway writes about Volney:

In the last century a wayfarer appeared in some of the Virginia villages and was hospitably received, on the strength of a note he bore in the following words:

“The historian and philosopher Volney needs no recommendation from–G. Washington.”

The implication here is that the mysterious and controversial Count had been introduced to American society by none other than George Washington himself…

In 1795, Count Volney traveled to the United States with the intention of settling in America, and was welcomed by President George Washington personally. At his meeting with Washington, Volney recounted to the amazement of the Americans the exact moves of Napoleon’s military campaigns as they were happening, proving that he knew the French leader well. (Wilson, 306)

The famed globetrotter Volney’s travel guides to the East could be found in Washington’s private library. (Longmore, 221) Also listed in the catalogue of the Washington Collection at the Boston Athenaeum is Volney’s letter to the hostile American theologian Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), regarding a derisive pamphlet the minister had written against Volney’s work. (Griffin, 217)

The Athenaeum collection, which comprises part of Washington’s library from his home at Mount Vernon, also contains Priestley’s various letters to Volney in rebuttal. (Griffin, 170) The presence of these letters in his library demonstrates that Washington was aware of this controversy, which significantly swirled around Volney’s mythicism, as concerned his “conflating the God of Moses with pagan gods.” (Scholfield, 377) Moreover, in the history section of the Athenaeum collection we discover that Washington also possessed a copy of Volney’s The Ruins of Empires, in which the controversial thesis of Jesus mythicism is laid plain. (Griffin, 515)

In consideration of these facts, it is probable that Washington was cognizant of Volney’s arguments in favor of mythicism, even if he did not embrace them fully or publicly.

Okay, so Washington knew him. And of Franklin and Jefferson:

Unsurprisingly considering the exalted company he kept, but highly interesting nonetheless, Volney was also friends with American Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), a known irreverent rabblerouser whom the Count encountered in France:

At Madame Helvétius’s home at Auteuil, he met Benjamin Franklin, then ambassador of the new United States to France, who decisively influenced his views on morality and introduced him to the next ambassador, Thomas Jefferson. (Leopold, 9)

Here we learn that the young Volney had made the acquaintance of not only Franklin, sometime between 1776 and 1780, but also Thomas Jefferson, before the Count traveled to America. In Volney’s subsequent correspondence with Franklin (Wilson, 306), the two evidently discussed philosophy, but Volney’s book on mythicism was not published until one year after Franklin’s death…

Having met in France, between 1790 and 1806 Jefferson and Volney corresponded at least 30 times, which is prolific in consideration of the awkwardness and inconvenience of the medium of the day. During his sojourn in America between 1795 and 1798, Volney visited Jefferson at Monticello. (Leopold, 4) In this regard, in his letter of June 12, 1796 to then-Colonel James Monroe (1758-1831), fifth President of the United States and author of the Monroe Doctrine, Jefferson casually remarks, “Volney is with me at present. He is on his way to the Illinois.” (Jefferson 1829, 335) Volney needs no introduction to Monroe, and it is obvious that he is well known among the American elite of the time.

She goes on to note that Jefferson owned several books written by Volney and at one point even translated one of them from French to English. In light of Jefferson’s own clear statements of his belief in a real, human Jesus, it’s kind of baffling to me that anyone could consider this evidence that Jefferson was a mythicist. I own a lot of books and know many people I do not agree with. Nearly everyone does. This is evidence of absolutely nothing. The case made here is extremely weak and the only way someone could believe that this “evidence” indicates that these men were mythicists is by ignoring their own words and writings on the subject.

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