Are the Gospels Mythic Historiography?

Are the Gospels Mythic Historiography? August 21, 2019

This week I’ve read through M. David Litwa’s new book How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2019). This is a book I fundamentally disagree with, but it is an interesting read, and will probably elicit a whole lot of controversy about the relationship of the Gospels to Mythology. I would love to see an SBL panel on it and hopefully we can review for JSHJ. You can also listen to a podcast interview with Litwa at New Books in Biblical Studies.

In a nutshell, Litwa regards the Gospels as a form of “mythic historiography.” Instead of seeing the gospels as history that over the time became myth, he suggests to the contrary, that they were always a type of mythology that was given the features of history for the sake of apparent verisimilitude.

Let me offer three points of affirmation and then three points of disagreement.

First, the primary strength of the book is in its contention that the Gospels must be located within the literary and religious environment of the Greco-Roman world.

While some interpreters like to major on how Christianity is different to Greco-Roman religions, I take the point from Luke Timothy Johnson and others that we cannot understand how Christianity and Greco-Roman religions are different until we first understand how they are similar. So comparison must precede contrast! Whereas some want to use Hellenistic Judaism as a kind of buffer between “pagan” ideas and Christianity, to avoid any direct borrowing of Christianity from ostensibly pagan sources, Litwa contends that the Gospels draw from the same cultural pool of Hellenistic literature. That is because, says Litwa, “Hellenistic culture was never really ‘outside’ Christianity” (p. 51). Christianity emerged and germinated in this Hellenistic milieu. In addition, Litwa does his comparisons usually without falling into the fallacy that analogy means genealogy, or moving from literal parallel to literary dependence. Litwa is rightly circumspect on the reasons for the similarities between the Gospels and ancient literature preferring to speak instead of “dynamic cultural interaction” or shared “cultural setting” (pp. 47, 62). So I think it is on this point, with a positive comparison of the Gospels with Greco-Roman mythology and its historicalization, that Litwa is offering a courageous thesis on how the Gospels reflect the literary tropes and religious symbolism of antiquity.

Second, Litwa reopens the question of the relationship between Christianity and myth.

The issue of Christianity and myth was a very live issue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century especially when it came to the Gospels. For a long time the Gospels were regarded as a kind of aetiological myth, in effect, an origins story for a religious and semi-divine hero. The reason for the decline of characterizations of the Gospels as mythology are manifold: (1) The decline of the Hellenistic and Jewish dichotomy; (2) The demise of form criticism in its presuppositions, methods, and conclusions; (3) The dismantling of the “divine man” hypothesis as anachronistic and too varied to be of any use; (4) The dangers of using later sources to infer things about Jesus, the Jesus tradition, and the Gospels in the first-century (e.g. Apollonius of Tyana); (5) A general agreement on the genre of the Gospels as biography rather than novel, epic, or fable; and (6) Attention given to social memory and the presence of eyewitnesses as forces that preserved the Jesus tradition.

Now anyone who has studied Greco-Roman backgrounds to the New Testament will know that ancient accounts of miracles, gods descending to earth, and ascensions to heaven are prevalent in Hellenistic literature and are regarded as myth. Many of those myths were otherwise incorporated into standard historical works and subsequent interpreters differed on how to treat them. Litwa’s reopening of the question of the Gospels as “mythic historiography,” where myth has become historicalized, means one cannot escape the question of what modern interpreters are to do given that the Gospels are, in various ways and in varying degree, reflective of the religious, symbolic, and mythic world of antiquity.

As one begins, it is worth remembering that the topic of Christianity vis-a-vis myth is not a new problem. Justin Martyr knew the similarities between the virgin conception of Jesus and that of Perseus, he didn’t deny them (Apol. 1.22; Dial. 70). Justin oscillated between theoretically having no problem with Jesus being born of normal procreation, to regarding the stories as the same yet insisting Jesus was simply superior to Perseus, to considering the Perseus birth story as a serpentine counterfeit to divine work. In any case, Justin wrestled with the category of myth in relation to the Gospels. For others, like Origen, finding myth it the Gospels was no problem, it was a great opportunity to engage in some allegorical exegesis and to uncover the deeper sense of Scripture.

That same wrestling with myth was quite evident in Bultmann’s famous demythologizing program, which, if viewed as a way of addressing a materialistic rather than antiquarian worldview, and if posed as an alternative to de-judaizing the NT, had its advantages. David Congdon has tried to revitalize Bultmann’s demythologizing of the Bible as an exercise in intercultural hermeneutics. That said, Bultmann’s demythologizing program was considered, even by his closest supporters like Norman Perrin, as a crude method since Bultmann wrongly believed he could separate symbol and substance from the Bible (and Litwa offers some good notes on the deficiencies in Bultmann’s program too [p. 220]). Demythologization was mostly abandoned, but it still appears in some form in modern scholarship. For example, the neo-pagan author Sallustius said concerning myth: “Now these things never happened, but always are.” The sentiment is rehearsed in John Dominic Crossan’s account that “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens” as his way of explaining the Lucan resurrection narrative.

Litwa’s conclusion to the book – which feels like a kind of Rudolf Bultmann, Dale Martin, Dale Allison remix – briefly tackles that very issue of the abiding significance of the Gospels as mythological historiography for today. That said, I was seriously weirded out by Litwa’s suggestion that the study of Christianity should be shifted to the mythology courses of Classics Departments. May it never be!

Third – this is my favourite point – this is a book that is going to initially excite Jesus Mythicists and then leave them totally dejected. I sit on the board of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, and we have quite a diverse group of editors, Christians of every kind, some Jewish colleagues, agnostics, and even atheists. We disagree on just about everything there is to disagree on about the historical Jesus. But we all agree on at least two things. (1) Jesus existed as a historical person; and (2) People who say he didn’t are a curious albeit annoying phenomenon. Litwa’s contention that the Gospels are myths made to look historical will initially prompt gasps of excitement and anticipation by the on-line Jesus mythicist community (presumably in whatever basements in their parent’s house they are living in), and their gasps of joy which will be shattered on the rocks of realizing that Litwa himself is not a Jesus mythicist and believes in a historical Jesus since Litwa believes that the existence of Jesus “is the most plausible hypothesis to explain the gospels as literary products” (p. 33). To his credit, he overviews Bruno Baur, Richard Carrier, and Thomas Brodie as exponents of the mythicist view, but then states why it is ultimately unsatisfying and probably ideologically driven.

Of course, as with any book, there are areas that one will naturally disagree with. I have manifold points of earnest disagreement. The usual, “Yes, but …” A few, “Hmm, no, not quite.” And of course, “Oh goodness me, you can’t be serious.”

First, the danger of overestimating Greek hegemony over local cultures.

This might seem like a bit of a red herring, but I think Litwa over-estimates the permeation, accessibility, and predominance of Greek culture everywhere and almost all the time. Litwa asserts that “Linguistically, most citizens of the empire spoke Greek as the common tongue. Even in the ‘boondocks’ of rural Galilee, there remained a dominant cultural ethos privileges the values, art, language, and lore of ancient (‘classical’) Greece” (p. 51). In order for the various literary parallels to have the cumulative effect, Litwa has to assume that people in the eastern Mediterranean are pretty much immersed in Greek language, mythologies, histories, tragedies, and literature. This reminds me a bit of the Jesus Seminar who thought Jesus learned Cynic philosophy, saw the plays of Euripides, and read Herodotus in Sepphoris or something like that.

My doktorvater Rick Strelan has an essay on the languages of Asia Minor and he shows that we should not assume that everyone in Asia Minor knew Greek language, literature, and mythology. You could apply the same argument to Galilee where Aramaic remained dominant. Yes, thanks Martin Hengel, all Judaism was Hellenistic Judaism, but point of order from Mark Chancey, not all Judaism was penetrated by Hellenism in the same way or to the same degree. In the case of Galilee, its Hellenization did not hit full speed until the post-70 period and esp. in the second century. The same applies to Roman Armenia, Syria, Phrygia, and Egypt. We cannot assume that Greek language was everyone’s default setting and Greek culture was everyone’s encyclopedia when local languages and cultures remained not merely extant but dominant.

As a result, I think it is perhaps overstated to assume that Greek mythology was part of the pre-understanding all Jews and Christians, even those in the eastern Mediterranean (p. 52). Yes, it was there, and well known, but necessarily omnipresent and absorbed.

Second, some of the similarities that Litwa makes are superficial.

Litwa is aware of the dangers of “skating over differences based on locality, time, and culture” (pp. 36-37) as well as actual divergences in content when it comes to stories of dying and rising gods. Litwa critiques Richard Carrier and R. MacDonald on those scores. Even so, at a few points, I did feel myself murmuring the proverb, “Physician, heal thyself.” The many similarities that Litwa makes often skirt over the huge differences. For instance: (1) Horace’s rhetorical accolades of Augustus as an incarnation of Hermes are honorific, not ontological, so I find it hard to see an incarnation of divinity in Augustus that’s operating in the same semantic and conceptual theatre as Paul or John. (2) Even if Philostratus’ “Damis” is a fictional character, I’m not sure I’d equate him with the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel. Afterall the second-century church claimed that they had a chain of transmission with John, whether the apostle or the elder, who wrote the fourth Gospel.

Third, the primary intertext for the NT is the Greek Bible (or Septuagint).

A critique I have on Litwa – and other books too like Michael Peppard’s Son of God in the Greco-Roman World – is that irrespective of whatever parallels we find between Greco-Roman literature and the Gospels, the fact remains that Gospel’s primary textual background is the Septuagint, at least at the level of citation, allusion, and echo, in sayings and narratives. That is not to negate or deny a broader Greco-Roman context and broader influences in cultural background. Of course not! But all things being equal, given the scripturalized texture of the Gospels, one will find more often than not, closer connections with Hosea than Herodotus when it comes to the Gospels.

The best example to my mind is the genealogies. While Litwa does a commendable job of comparing the Lucan and Matthean genealogies to Greek ones, I was convinced by my former PhD student Jason Hood that the genealogies are more closely related to the Hebrew Bible and are intended as Summaries of Israel’s Story. That was confirmed by my own study of the genealogies of 1 Esdras. The main influence here is the Septuagint’s genealogies. It is in the Septuagint that we have genuine dependence and influence beyond any Greco-Roman allusion.

In sum, Litwa’s book is a great piece of ancient comparative religious literature, it raises the question of Christianity vis-a-vis Greek mythology, and will infuriate Jesus Mythicists. However, I think he overplays the influence of Greek mythology at the expense of local lore and language, many of his similarities are superficial, and the Gospels should be located primarily in the Jewish world.

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