Jesus as a Magic Trick

Jesus as a Magic Trick August 9, 2016

just say no jesus

Speaking FRANK-ly About Jesus: Critique of alleged evidence of the historicity of  Jesus of Nazareth.

(Ed. Note: This is the 17th post in Frank Zindler’s Speaking Frankly About Jesus blog which is dedicated to the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. This is part I of a mini series debunking “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus“.)  

Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating!

Paragraph eleven of Philip Jenkins’ blog “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus” reads as follows:

“The overwhelming weight of what we know about the emergence of the Jesus Movement between 30 and the 80s, say, shows a potent continuity of historical memory. Bart Ehrman’s latest book… Jesus Before the Gospels raises questions about how far that memory can be reliably used for specific details, for any particular act or saying of Jesus. Fair enough, and let’s debate those points: to say the least, Ehrman is a competent and credible scholar…, although I think he goes too far here. But Jesus’s existence as some kind of myth or false memory? No way. (Obviously, that is not what Ehrman is arguing!)”

Wow! “The overwhelming weight of what we know about the emergence of the Jesus Movement between 30 and the 80s…” Talk about pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Jenkins has extracted the Easter Bunny himself! What we know about the origins of Christianity in any scientific sense is absolutely zilch. To be sure, there are lots of hypotheses and a nascent theory to explain the phenomenon—indeed, I myself am arguing in favor of it—but nothing is known with certainty. We do not know where or when it began—or even if it had a beginning at discrete points in space and time.

Since Jenkins has in fact no real knowledge of how Christianity began, he appeals to the authority (partly) of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus Before the Gospels. Regrettably, I’ve not yet had time to read that book, but it doesn’t matter. Appealing to authority instead of presenting evidence is a fallacy of informal logic. If Ehrman does in fact have proof of “a potent continuity of historical memory,” why doesn’t Jenkins share it with us? Oh, I forgot an important phrase: “…although I think he goes too far here.” Is Bart coming around to my point of view? I can’t wait now to read his book!

Still having no concrete evidence that Jesus of Anyplaceatall ever schlepped the earth, we proceed to paragraphs eleven and twelve:

“Accounts of Jesus as a mythical otherworldly being without worldly roots belong to much later sources, in alternative gospels of the second or third centuries, or later. Citing alternative works from that era—or much later Jewish texts—as if they have some kind of superior hotline to the historical reality of the 20s AD is just not permissible, and is actually scandalous.

 “Let me put this as simply as I can: Jesus is better documented and recorded than pretty much any non-elite figure of antiquity.”

We proceed from one unsubstantiated claim to another, it would seem. Before I challenge the thesis that “Accounts of Jesus as a mythical otherworldly being without worldly roots belong to much later [than what?] sources,” I would like to pose a crucial question: If Jesus of Nazareth—and Nazareth itself—actually existed during the first third of the first century CE, and if solid “chains of tradition” existed from the beginning, how could “heresies” such as the various forms of Docetism and Gnosticism have ever gotten started?

If the Twelve Disciples or Twelve Apostles (not necessarily the same characters if they have any historical basis) had been real and had carried out all the deeds credited to them, how could sects develop that claimed that Jesus never had a real body of flesh and blood? Why wouldn’t all the New Testament authors (as well as all the apocryphal authors!) have known he came from Nazareth? Inquiring minds want to know!

Actually, the earliest strata of the canonical traditions preserve evidence of groups holding a purely other-worldly, Docetic view of Christ with or without a Jesus. Indeed, the Antichrist is defined as a Docetist—someone who claimed that Jesus only seemed (Gk. dokein, “to seem”) to have a body of flesh and blood and suffer real pain!

“1 John 4:3. And every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.”

“2 John 1:7. For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.”

In his famous Anchor Bible commentary The Epistles of John, Father Raymond E. Brown has a lengthy discussion of just who these early Christians were who didn’t believe that Jesus had had a body. He tells us that:

“…Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 3.11.1) says that John proclaimed the Gospel “to remove the error which had been disseminated among men by Cerinthus.” However, Irenaeus goes on to say that the same error had been disseminated “a long time before” by the Nicolaitans “who are an offshoot of the gnōsis falsely so-called.” Since the Nicolaitans are mentioned in Revelation…, one would be more inclined to date them as contemporary with I John (ca. 100), and therefore to date Cerinthus after I John in the first quarter of the second century…” [pages 65–66]

This would date the Docetist/Gnostic opponents of “John” to around the same time that I think the gospel of Luke received its birth narrative. (I think the conflicting genealogies and birth narratives of both Matthew and Luke were created to thwart the Docetic groups by “proving” that Jesus had to have had a body since he had had a completely human lineage and a human, although miraculous, birth. At the same time, his supposed hometown of Nazareth was conjured into being.)

I claimed earlier that many of the Greek words in the Pauline epistles are actually technical terms in various Gnostic religions. These include such terms as aiōn (age, course, world, eternal), stoicheion (element, rudiment, principle), thronos (throne, seat), archē (beginning, principality), archōn (ruler), kosmokratōr (ruler), exousia (authority, power), ektrōma (abortion, “one born out of time”), and many more. One of the most amazing examples of such terms—proving beyond cavil that one of the Pauline authors either was a proto-Gnostic or was making allusion to Gnosticism in one of the allegedly earliest of books in the New Testament—is found in 1 Corinthians 15:8:

“1 Cor 15:8. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of time (ektrōma).”

This is a mistranslation of the Greek. Vridar translates the Greek correctly: “Last of all, he appeared to me as though to the ektroma.” In fact, this refers to the Gnostic doctrine of Sophia and the Aeons. Literally, the word ektroma means “miscarriage,” but in Gnostic myth it is the parthenogenic (virgin-born!) offspring of Sophia (Wisdom). It is the Demiurge—Yahweh—“the god of this world.” In fact, “Christ” (more probably originally Chreistos) is an Aeon in the Gnostic scheme of things.

Once again taking stock, we see that it is true that later, “apocryphal literature” is in fact wildly otherworldly and mystical, but we see that this is nothing more than naturally exaggerated growth from the heavenly Chreistos of the Pauline epistles and the fleshless Jesus of the enemies of the Johannine epistles. It seems ever more clear that the Jesus of flesh and blood who ultimately acquires a genealogy, virgin birth, and hometown is actually a reification—a making concrete of something abstract—of an originally completely supernatural, heavenly tale of Salvation coming to earth. In short, a myth has been turned into alleged history.

And so we come to the last sentence of paragraph twelve: “Jesus is better documented and recorded than pretty much any non-elite figure of antiquity.” I will postpone discussion of this ridiculous claim to when I discuss how Jenkins answers “the claim that ‘There are no contemporary references to Jesus in non-literary sources, bureaucratic or otherwise.” For now we note the weasel words “pretty much” and “non-elite.”

In the next installment we will examine Jenkins’ (mis)-treatment of the claim “Jesus figures in no contemporary secular or non-Christian literary sources.”

Frank Zindler is the past interim President of American Atheists, a member of the American Atheists board of directors, the chief editor of American Atheists Press, and an esteemed academic and activist. 

(Photo credit: Eric Lin via Flikr; https://www.flickr.com/photos/phonescoop/214501602/)

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