Mythologizing Jesus

ron cobb jesus

art by Ron Cobb

In recent days a lot of people on all sides of the equation have been getting their tunics in a twist over what the popular press reports as a “controversy” over “mythological Jesus.”

What the evangelical atheists and the common sense denying fundamentalists all fail to acknowledge is that nobody with two brain cells rubbing together thinks the Jesus depicted in the Bible is a complete and accurate picture of the man in the sense that modern histories and biographies offer a well documented portrayal of their subject.[1]

Lemme explain it as clearly as possible:  Acknowledging that the person we know of today as Jesus of Nazareth has been subjected to hagiographic reporting and analysis that have created a popular conception of who he was, is not / never has been / never will be the same thing as saying that person did not exist, or that teachings and sayings attributed to him are the product of a committee of literary / theological hoaxers.

Let’s walk through the time line, shall we?

Sometimes circa 33C.E. an eccentric rabbi preached a message considered heretical[2] by the religious leaders of his day.  He was executed under trumped up charges, just like several hundred / perhaps thousands of other Judeans of his day.

Between his death and 72C.E., a new religious movement arose among and from his followers.  Internal and external evidence indicates this new religion spread far outside of Judea and the Jewish culture it sprang from.  During this period of time his disciples wrote a series of letters to various local groups of followers, discussing finer points of their theology, debating what certain teachings meant, and establishing protocols for worship.  While lacking any solid biographical data on the eccentric preacher, these letters do indicate a formal and well articulated religious belief based on his teachings existed at that time.

They also indicate they are not the product of a literary hoax.  In 72C.E. the Roman empire eradicated Judea from existence, all the way down to their maps by renaming the land Palestine in the process.  There is no mention of this, no hint of it in the various letters left behind by the disciples; had they been hoaxers attempting to “salt the mine” they would have been sorely remise not to include prophesies about the single most traumatic event in Judea’s history up to that point.

Lemme ask you this question point blank:  If you are a 21st  century faker trying to fabricate a prophetic Jewish religious leader who lived in 1920, would you fail to have him “predict” the Holocaust in your forgeries?

I thought not…

So before the fall of Jerusalem in 72C.E. and the scattering of the Judean people, the beginnings of a new religion were clearly underway.

As mentioned, there was internal debate among the disciples over exactly what the various teachings of their eccentric rabbi really meant.  We have no direct evidence that copies of his teachings and sayings had been collected by 72C.E.[3]

We do have evidence sometime between 72C.E. and 100C.E. that the teachings and sayings were collected into the form we recognize as the Four Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.[4]

Why these four gospels were written then can be deduced by the disciples letters and by known historical events:  The earliest followers not only believed their rabbi had been resurrected after his death but also felt he was going to return in their lifetimes to establish a heavenly kingdom on earth.  When that didn’t occur and as eye witnesses to the events circa 33C.E. began dying off, people saw the wisdom in writing down everything they could remember their rabbi teaching and saying and doing.

Had they been hoaxers, they were putting the cart before the proverbial horse:  Logic would say you establish the bonafides of your bogus religious leader with an official hagiography, sell the rubes on that first, and only then do you begin hashing out purely academic debates about your wholly imaginary religion.

What the early church did was to see the commentaries written first, and only after they were already well established did anyone think to get all the important stuff written down for future generations.

A lot of evangelical atheists will want to dismiss this all right now, but they can’t do that.  This may not be the best evidence we might desire from a historical perspective, but it is the only evidence we have, and the evidence points away from a deliberate hoax and fabrication and more towards a theology that grew organically from a single point.[5]

And this is important because while it agrees that the sparse historical image we have of Jesus of Nazareth has doubtlessly undergone a certain degree of hagiography or “mythicalization”, it is absolutely not the same thing as saying it is entirely false, a myth made up by hoaxers for no discernable reason and with no discernable reward for the perpetrators.

The number of first, second, and third century Christian writings, not to mention their widely spread origins, indicates that if the religion was based on a hoax, it was a hoax with an enormous number of co-conspirators who had nothing to gain through their hoax nor any means of seeing if their hoax was successful or not.

You get the occasional doctored fossil or forged historical document in the real world that manages to pass immediate scrutiny, but they only succeed when they are isolated incidents not open to wide public examination.  When there are thousands of faked fossils, or dozens of bogus documents and they are all open to view, the forgeries become transparently obvious.

Further, when we compare the letters written by the various disciples with the gospels themselves, it’s pretty clear the former represents a wide variety of insights / opinions / writing styles while the four gospels offer a remarkably consistent moral philosophy expressed in a unique and inimitable personal style.

This is not the product of a committee of forgers, but rather the expression of one single, remarkable mind.

There are those who claim the glove maker turned theatrical impresario is not the true author of Shakespeare’s plays but rather some other person wrote them instead.[6]

Fine, let’s play that game:  Whoever that person was who wrote Shakespeare was Shakespeare.

And whatever we may think about Shakespeare the glove maker turned theatrical impresario, it doesn’t alter the fact that some literary genius whom all the existing evidence points to as being a glove maker turned theatrical impresario wrote the impressive body of works we refer to as Shakespeare today.

Whoever the real Jesus was, whatever his real biographical data, that person was the author of some of the most profound moral / ethical / spiritual teachings in human history.

Which pretty much makes him…Jesus.




[1]  And even with scrupulous documentation, copious eyewitness accounts, audio and visual records, even the subjects speaking in their own voice, there’s still huge debates over exactly who these people really were or what the events really mean.  Look at how many differing interpretations exist of Harry S Truman the man and the presidency; or the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy; or the enormous complexities of Johnson and Nixon.  If we can’t agree on the particulars of people and events that occurred under intense scrutiny in our own lifetimes, why is anyone surprised that much of the ancient world is even less clear today?

[2]  i.e., threatened to cost them money.

[3]  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the old saw goes, but we can only play the cards we are dealt, and those cards offer no documentation of the teachings and sayings being recorded at length prior to the fall of Jerusalem.

[4]  There are fascinating articles on how these gospels may have been compiled and in which order, as well as a possible source document for three of them, fragments of other gospels, “sayings” gospels that included various teachings but no linking narrative, and other accounts of the rabbi’s life and teachings that were considered either redundant or at odds with the four main gospels.  That’s what Google is for, folks…

[5]  Skeptics are more than welcome to point out logical holes in the evidence; they won’t find anything believers didn’t discover millennia ago and have been debating ever since.  What the skeptics can’t do is dismiss the only records that exists without offering equal or better proof that those records are fake.  Without contrary evidence, the existing records are the only evidence we have.  Wishing them away will not make them go…

[6]  This is based on the premise that plebians are just too fnckin’ plebian to write Shakespeare.

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