The Case Case Against the Mythtics: Celebrating 100 Years of Mythticism

The University of Chicago Divinity School

The following excerpt from The Historicity of Jesus (1912) by Shirley Jackson Case is an interesting comment on how little the discussion has progressed on the mythicist side in the last full century.

While advances in New Testament studies have made some of his arguments conventional, his chapter three, “An Estimate of the Negative Argument” is one that both contemporary critical scholars and proponents of the non-historicity thesis should weigh.

With Joachim Wach, Case was one of the leaders of the “Chicago School”–outside Germany the leading faculty in the scientific examination of religion (Religionswissenschaft). Unlike many scholars in the Anglo-American biblical studies of his day, Case was as adept in the reading of German scholarship as he was reading studies in English.

As the excerpt suggests, Case sees three fatal objections to mythicist arguments:  Their excessive use of absurd analogies as probative; the appeal to silence; and their tendency to discount all evidence with which they disagree as additions to, or interpolations into, the text.  On the cracking of these three legs, he says, their stool falls.

A liberal and an anti-supernaturalist, Case found in the extreme positions of the mythicists a danger to rational inquiry and commonsense–and worse for his era, a blow to the careful methodologies then being worked out by the Chicago School.

I have retained here the footnotes in original order (which sometimes interfere with the text) and the pagination, for reference, of the 1912 edition of the book.


Chapter III: An Estimate of the Negative Argument: Its Treatment of the Traditional Evidence


Until recently the arguments of the extremists have been more generally ignored than criticized. Very little attention was paid to Bauer’s work, Kalthoff’s views were dismissed rather summarily by the world of New Testament scholarship, Robertson, Mead, Smith, and Jensen were hardly taken seriously, and a similar fate awaited others of like opinion until Drews appeared upon the scene. He has been more successful than his predecessors in arousing critical opposition, and this criticism has come from several scholars of first rank in the field of New Testament study. In view of this success Drews congratulates himself on having “hit the bull’s-eye.”

For the most part these refutations are in the form of published addresses or popular lectures, pointing out the defects of the radical position and restating the case for Jesus’ historicity from the standpoint of modern critical scholarship. But these criticisms do not represent merely one phase or one school of modern thinking; they emanate from various sources. Even a Jewish rabbi has come forward in defense of Jesus’ historical personality,[1] though Jewish interest in this subject would naturally not be great. Nor would it be strange if Roman Catholic scholars should dismiss this question, on which the authority of the church speaks so clearly, without serious discussion. Yet a work like that of Meffert[2] shows an appreciation of the problem and meets it strongly, from the Catholic point of view. The more conservative type of Protestant thought, represented for example by Dunkmann, [3] while sympathizing with the extremists’ condemnation of the “liberal” interpretation of Jesus, stoutly maintains a historical basis for the Christ of faith. Even recent writers of the religionsgeschichtliche school are quite unwilling to carry skepticism to its extreme limit.[4]

[1] G. Klein, Ist Jesus eine historische Persönlichkeit? (Tübingen, 1910; from the Swedish, Aer Jesus en historisk personlighet? Stockholm, 1910).

[2] Die geschichtliche Existenz Christi (Munich, 1904, 1910).

[3] Der historische Jesus, der mythologische Christus und Jesus der Christ (Leipzig, 1910).

[4] Cf. Zimmern, Zum Streit um die “Christusmythe”: Das baby-lonische Material in seinen Hauptpunkten dargestellt (Berlin, 1910); Bruckner, Das fünfte Evangelium

(Tübingen, 1910); Jeremias, Hat Jesus Christus gelelt? (Leipzig, 1911).


As was to be expected, however, the chief opponents of the “mythologists” belong to the so-called liberal school of modern theology. Von Soden replied to Drews at the Berlin conference, and he also issued a small pamphlet[1] in which he sought to show the value of the Christian evidence and to exhibit the defects of the opponents’ position. Jülicher’s lecture,[2] though written with special reference to Jensen’s radicalism, gives less attention to the views of opponents than to a positive statement of the reliability of Christian tradition. After defining the nature of “historical” proof, he dwells upon the worth of our sources of information and condemns Jensen’s methods as erroneous scientifically. Especially noteworthy surveys of the radical movement as a whole are made by Weinel,[3] J. Weiss,[4] and

[1] Hat Jesus gelebt? Aus den geschichtlichen Urkunden beantwortet (Berlin, 1910).

[2] Hat Jesus gelebt? (Marburg, 1910).

[3] Ist das “liberale” Jesusbild widerlegt? Eine Antwort an seine “positiven” und seine radikalen Gegner mil besonderer Rücksicht auf A. Drews, Die Chrislusmythe

(Tübingen, 1910; enlarged from the same author’s “Ist unsere Verkündigung von Jesus unhaltbar geworden?” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, XX [1910], 1-38, 89-129).

[4] Jesus von Nazareth, Mythus oder Geschichte? Eine Auseinandersetzung mil Kalthoff, Drews, Jensen (Tübingen, 1910).


Clemen.[1] Each analyzes somewhat minutely the different phases of the problem, criticizing at length the radical position and setting over against it his own understanding of the valid elements of Christian tradition. Each author has his distinctive purpose, as the subtitles of the several books indicate, but the writers are in general agreement as to their main conclusions. They have handled the problem so candidly and thoroughly that the radicals can no longer justly complain of inattention.[2]

[1] Der geschichtliche Jesus: Eine allgemeinverständliche Untersuchung der Frage: hat Jesus gelebt, und was wollte er? (Giessen, 1911).

[2] Further defenses of Jesus’ historicity, mostly in pamphlet form and from different points of view, are: Beth, Hat Jesus gelebt? (Berlin, 1910); Bornemann, Jesus als Problem (Frankfurt, 1909); Brephol, Die Wahrheit über Jesus von Nazareth (Berlin, 1911); Broecker, Die Wahrheit über Jesus (Hamburg, 1911); Carpenter, The Historical Jesus and the Theological Christ (London, 1911); Chwolson, Ueber die Frage, ob Jesus gelebt hat (Leipzig, 1910); Delbrück, Hat Jesus Christus gelebt? (Berlin, 1910); Dietze, Kritische Bemerkungen zur neuesten Auflage von A. Drews, Chrislusmythe (Bremen, 1910); Fiebig, Jüdische Wundergeschichten des neulestamentlichen Zeitalters

(Tübingen, 1911); Grützmacher, Jesusverehrung oder Christusglaube? (Rostock, 1911); Hauck, Hat Jesus gelebt? (Berlin, 1910); Kühn, Ist Christus eine geschichtliche Person? (Halle a. S., 1910); Loisy, À propos d’histoire des religions (Paris, 1911; chap. v deals with the “Christ-myth”); Rossington, Did Jesus Really Live? A Reply to “The Christ Myth” (London, 1911); Schmidt, F. J., Der Christus des Glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte (Frankfurt, 1910); Valensin, Jésus-Christ et l’étude comparée des religions (Paris, 1911). Surveys of the literature are made by Bacon in the Hibbert Journal, IX (1911), 731-53; Case in the American Journal of Theology, XV (1911), 20-42; Dibelius in the Theologische Literaturzeitung, 1910, cols. 545-52, and 1911, cols. 135-40; Esser in the Theologische Revue, 1911, cols. 1-6 and 41-47; Loisy in the Revue d’histoire et de littérature religieuses (nouvelle série), I (1910), 401-35; Mehlhorn, Protestantische Monatshefte, XIV (1910), 415-21 and XV (1911), 17–27; Muirhead, Review of Theology and Philosophy, VI

(1911), 577-86 and 633-46; N. Schmidt, Intern. Journal of Ethics, XXII (1911), 19-39; Windisch, Theologische Rundschau XIII (1910), 163-82,

199-220, and XIV (1911), 114-37.


In forming an estimate of the value of the negative argument, there are two important questions which one may ask. Does it successfully dispose of the traditional evidence for the origin of Christianity? and, Does it substitute an adequate reconstruction of the history? Bruno Bauer, as we have already observed, was gradually led to his conclusions by his critical examination of the gospels and the Pauline epistles. Consequently the formulation of a new theory of Christian origins was the last stage in his work. Today this process is usually inverted. The radicals come to a study of the New Testament with a fixed notion of the way Christianity arose, hence they are not greatly concerned with the Christian literature except to demonstrate that its content can be explained in accordance with their hypothesis. This method may be legitimate


if it satisfies two conditions, namely, if it treats fairly the traditional evidence which it proposes to set aside, and if its constructive hypothesis is otherwise properly substantiated.

In the first place, is the explicit New Testament testimony to the existence of Jesus as a historical person adequately disposed of on the theory that he never lived at all? If he is not a historical character this supposed testimony to his existence is either fictitious or else it has commonly been misread. Appeal is sometimes made to each of these possibilities.

It has already been noted that several representatives of the modern radical movement think all the New Testament literature is spurious, a late product of theological and literary fancy. But the general arguments for this opinion are open to serious criticism. They commonly ignore, or unceremoniously dismiss, all external testimony for the early existence of the New Testament books. They lay great stress upon alleged parallelisms between Christianity and earlier or contemporary heathenism, inferring that this proves the secondary character of the Christian literature. But the mere fact of parallelism in even a large number of points can hardly prove more than the very


evident fact that the founders of Christianity were men of their own age. Furthermore this skill in discovering parallels often seems greatly overworked, while the distinctive features of Christianity are unduly minimized. Even if the New Testament writers sometimes used gnostic nomenclature, or appropriated ideas and terms familiar to the worshipers of Adonis, it is still perfectly clear that they purport to be preaching a new religion. No amount of parallelism, not even demonstrable “borrowing, ” disposes of the genuineness of these writings unless it can be demonstrated that the personal note contained in them is not genuine and that the idea of newness is itself fictitious. In general this radical rejection of the New Testament evidence seems to rest on unreliable grounds, and is not sufficiently thoroughgoing to touch the heart of the problem.

Especially important in this connection is the treatment of the Pauline letters. According to tradition they were written mostly in the sixth decade of the first century, and they are so definite in their reference to a historical Jesus that their spuriousness, either wholly or in part, is commonly admitted to be a necessary presupposition for the denial of Jesus’ historicity.


Some would maintain that the whole Pauline section of the New Testament literature is a pseudepigraphic product. This theory is not of itself impossible, particularly for an age whose literary method was to set forth teaching under the authority of persons prominent in the past. The names of Moses, Enoch, Elijah, Isaiah, Daniel, were used in this way, so that prominent figures in early church history were quite naturally made to play a similar role. And since the Christians of the second and third centuries rejected some writings put forward under the name of Peter and of Paul, because the marks of pseudepigraphy seemed evident, it is certainly proper in the interests of accurate scholarship to ask whether those who made the canonical selection were sufficiently exact in distinguishing between the genuine and the spurious. The very fact that some pseudepigraphic writings are known to have been in circulation opens the way for the supposition that still more may have been of this character. Indeed present-day criticism of even the moderately conservative type has accustomed us to thinking of the so-called Pastoral Epistles, if not indeed of some other alleged Pauline letters, as belonging in this


class of literature. But if some letters are spurious, then may not all be so? The radicals not only admit this as a possibility but claim it as a probability.

From this conclusion it follows that this literature must have arisen at a time when the supposed Jesus and Paul belonged to so remote a past that there was little danger of any serious difficulty in accepting as real their assumed existence. It is true that among primitive peoples historical feeling is not exacting in its demands. The borderland between fancy and fact is often vague, so perhaps the lapse of only a few decades would make the launching of this fiction possible. Yet it can hardly have been successfully accomplished among men who personally knew the times and places in which these fictitious characters were assumed to have lived. Therefore these letters, if not genuine, must be, at the earliest, second-century products.

But when one examines the argument for the spuriousness and the late dating of the letters, he finds that it amounts to little more than an assertion of skepticism, which on being repeated by its advocates is too easily given the credentials of a demonstration. In all


fairness to the modern radical movement it may be said that its exponents have presented no thoroughgoing argument for the spuriousness of all the Pauline letters. Bauer’s results are referred to occasionally, and the negative position of the Dutch school represented more recently by Van Manen, or the skepticism of Steck, is sometimes cited in this connection. But all of these positions certainly need at least to be revised and supplemented before the world of historical scholarship can be expected to treat them seriously. Jensen’s attempt to derive the Pauline literature from the Gilgamesh legend and W. B. Smith’s criticism of Romans are similarly unsatisfactory. Jensen’s treatment is only incidental to his discussion of the gospels, and Smith’s conclusions have not only suffered severely under the criticism of Schmiedel, but, if valid, scarcely touch the main problem. When reduced to its lowest terms, the argument for the spuriousness of all the Pauline writings seems to be chiefly a refusal to treat seriously the probability of genuineness in the case of any one of these letters. Thus an attempt is made to throw the whole burden of proof upon the one who entertains the more usual opinion that the


chief epistles of Paul are historical documents of first importance. It is fair enough to demand that one justify his belief in the genuineness of these letters, but it is equally fair to point out that the bald assertion of disbelief is not an adequate argument for spuriousness.

A second type of this general skepticism admits the reality of Paul as an important individual for the founding of the new religion, but holds that his letters in their present form are the result of considerable reworking on the part of later Christians. Drews in particular would save Paul in so far as the latter can be cited as the exponent of a religion built upon faith in an idea–the item which Drews regards as central in all religion. As might be expected, the fundamental problems of Pauline study are scarcely touched and no fixed principles of critical investigation are followed. One takes from the literature what he pleases and leaves what he pleases. We are told at the start that no compelling proof for the authenticity of any of the letters can be produced, and yet from them a somewhat elaborate and confident exposition of alleged Pauline thought is derived. Anything in these writings supposedly pointing to the historicity of Jesus is explained otherwise, or is called a later insertion. Finally it is asserted that “the Pauline letters contain no compulsion of any sort for the supposition of a historical Jesus, and no man would be likely to find such there if it were not already for him an established assumption.”

At once several familiar passages demand explanation. For instance I Cor. 11:23ff., describing the last supper on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, seems to point very clearly to a specific event in the life of a historical individual. This difficulty is avoided by assuming that “we have here to do with a clearly later insertion,” at least the reference to the betrayal is “certainly inserted.” Similarly the implication of a historical Jesus in I Cor. 15:5ff. is either another interpolation, or else these experiences are purely ecstatic in character and do not imply, as is commonly supposed, any thought of a definite historical person whose death preceded these unusual manifestations.[1] It is a convenient elasticity of critical method which can allow these options. Again, the mention

[1] Similarly Steudel, speaking of these and kindred passages says: “Wenn diese Stellen nicht eingeschoben sind, dann gibt es im Alten und Neuen Testament überhaupt keine Interpolate.”–Wir Gelehrten vom Fach! p. 65. W. B. Smith also falls into line here (Ecce Deus, pp. 148 ff.).


of “brothers” of the Lord, as in I Cor. 9:5 and Gal. 1:19, is to be understood in the sense of community brotherhood. Yet we are not told why Paul in the same context should not have included Peter and Barnabas in this brotherhood. Moreover brothers in the Lord, not brothers of the Lord, is Paul’s mode of thought for the community relationship. These are typical examples of both the brevity and the method Drews uses in disposing of the Pauline evidence. It is difficult to take arguments of this sort seriously, particularly when they are presented so briefly and with no apparent ground of justification except the presupposition that a historical Jesus must not be recognized.

The gospel evidence is disposed of in a similar manner. To take Drews’s method as a sample of the radical treatment, the earliest external testimony to the gospels’ origin is set aside on the ground of Eusebius’ “notorious unreliability.” Upon the fact, now widely recognized, that the evangelists combined interpretation with historical narrative, is based the broad generalization that all is fiction. The efforts of critical study to determine more accurately the real historical background are


characterized as a “half comic, half sad performance” and a “horrible fiasco.” Yet apparently without any suspicion of the comic, we are asked to believe that so matter-of-fact a circumstance as Jesus’ association with his disciples is merely a variation of the myth about Jason’s search for the golden fleece.

Drews’s handling of the gospel evidence is fairly representative of the radicals’ general method. The more substantial results of the modern critical school of gospel study are not recognized as having any value. All emphasis falls upon the negative aspects of this work, and its most extreme negative conclusions are constantly set in the foreground. Much is made of the critics’ disagreement on questions of detail, and of their inability to fix upon a definite quantum of information, no item of which could conceivably be questioned. We are often reminded of the fact that none of our gospels belong to Jesus’ own generation, that they are all admittedly more or less interested in expounding Christian doctrine, and that many of their ideas may quite likely be colored by current Jewish or heathen notions. But what would all this prove? The immediate conclusion can hardly be, as the radicals would


contend, that there was no historical person Jesus. The only warranted inference would be that the preachers of the second and third generations of Christians were primarily interested in producing edifying narrative about Jesus. For example if it were proved beyond question that the disciples’ interpretation of his death was phrased in terms of heathen notions about the saving value of the death of an imaginary savior-deity, it would by no means follow as a logical imperative that Jesus’ alleged death is fictitious. In fact the logical inference would seem to be that memory of his actual death was a necessary incentive for the new form of interpretation.

The defectiveness of this treatment of the traditional evidence is perhaps not so patent in the case of the gospels as it is in the case of the Pauline epistles. Yet fundamentally it is the same. There is the same easy dismissal of all external testimony, the same disdain for the saner conclusions of modern criticism, the same inclination to attach most value to extremes of criticism, the same neglect of all the personal and natural features of the narrative, the same disposition to put skepticism forward in the garb of valid demonstration,


and the same ever present predisposition against recognizing any evidence for Jesus’ actual existence.

While these criticisms apply to the extremists in general, there is a distinctiveness about Jensen’s method which in a certain sense puts it in a class by itself. For most of the modern radicals the question of eliminating the gospel evidence is one of secondary importance in comparison with the defence of their theory of Christian origins. This is not so true of Jensen. At least whatever his ultimate interest may be, his argument concerns itself primarily with the gospel materials. Moreover his explanation of the gospels’ origin, as a phase of the modern skeptical movement, stands in a somewhat isolated position. While he is approvingly referred to as an example of skepticism, his results have not been incorporated at all extensively into the work of the later representatives of this school. For these reasons his views call for a separate examination.

His theory of gospel origins is that these writings are merely literary imitations of the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. This is thought to be proved by the discovery of a series of parallels between the incidents of the gospel


narrative and the Gilgamesh story. Agreements are found not alone in individual items but also in the successive arrangement of the events. On this latter point the author places much emphasis. Hence the force of his argument can be estimated best by citing a section of the most important parallels, preserving the order of incidents as arranged by the author:[1]

1. At the beginning of the Gilgamesh legend Eabani was created by a miracle at the command of the gods. At the beginning of the Jesus story John was produced by a miracle in accordance with an announcement by an angel.

2. Eabani lived far from men in the steppe (wilderness). John lived in the steppe (wilderness) near the Jordan.

3. Eabani (is hairy and) has long hair on his head. Presumably he is clad with skins. John, as a Nazirite. wears his hair uncut and long. He is clad with a garment of camel’s hair and girded with a belt of leather or skin.

4. Eabani lives as the beasts of the steppe (wilderness) on grass and herbs and water. John lives on what is to be found in the wilderness: on grasshoppers and wild honey, and, like a Nazirite, drinks no wine.

5. Gilgamesh dreams of a star resembling a host of the heavenly Lord who is stronger than he, then of a man (human being), and this star, as well as the man, is symbolic of Eabani who thereupon comes immediately to Gilgamesh. John knows (by revelation) and prophesies of Jesus’ coming as the coming of a man who is stronger than he, and soon afterward this Jesus comes to John.

[1] Moses, Jesus, Paulus, pp. 27-30.


6. To all appearances Eabani afterward flees into the steppe (wilderness). Jesus afterward flees into the wilderness.

7. The sun-god calls from heaven to Eabani in the steppe (wilderness) with kind words and speaks to him of delicious food or loaves and of the kissing of his feet by the kings of the earth. Immediately before his flight into the wilderness the spirit of God descends from heaven upon Jesus and a voice from heaven calls him God’s beloved Son. In the wilderness, moreover, someone (i. e., the devil) speaks with Jesus about bread (which Jesus should make from stones) and about the fact that Jesus should rule all kingdoms of the earth if he kissed the devil’s feet.

8. Eabani returns from the steppe (wilderness) to his abode, the home of Gilgamesh. Jesus returns from the wilderness to his native place.

9. The dominion of [the great serpent and] the great lion is conquered by a god who comes down on a cloud (?) to whom the dominion of the world is to be transferred. The kingdom of heaven and of God is near, which is to be introduced by Jesus’ coming on the clouds.

10. [Conquest of the great serpent.] Expulsion of the demon in the synagogue at Capernaum.

11. A fever plague, Xisuthros intercedes for plagued humanity and in this way probably the plague was brought to an end. Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with fever and Jesus makes her well.

12. Xisuthros builds himself a ship and keeps it ready. A boat is kept ready for Jesus.

13. On an evening Xisuthros, with his family and his nearest friends, enters the ship. On an evening Jesus with his disciples enters the boat.

14. A storm arises and ceases. A storm arises and ceases.


15. Xisuthros lands with his family far from his abode. Jesus lands in Perea opposite his native place.

16. Sinful humanity and most beasts, among them also the swine, are drowned in the flood. Two thousand or more demons, and two thousand swine, are drowned in the sea over which Jesus went.

17. On a seventh day, after an interview with three intimate persons, Xisuthros comes to the top of the high mountain of the deluge and then is deified. After six or eight days, thus certainly originally after a week of seven days, Jesus with three most intimate persons went on to a high mountain and was glorified and called God’s Son.

18. The voice of the invisible Xisuthros out of the air to his ship companions says: You are to be pious. The voice out of the cloud on the mountain of transfiguration says: You are to hear Jesus.

19. Chumbaba adventure. [Apparently omitted but is in a new place.]

20. Gilgamesh reproaches Ishtar for her love affairs and the evils she has done her lovers. John blames Herod for having married his second wife, Herodias, and for his evil deeds.

21. The bull adventure. [Apparently omitted but is in quite a new place.]

22. Eabani dies. John the Baptist dies (at a corresponding place in the story).

And so on until the end of Jesus’ career is reached.

39. [Gilgamesh dies.] Jesus dies.

It is evident that no importance can be attached to any likeness between individuals. At first John is Eabani, then he becomes


Gilgamesh and Jesus is Eabani (No. 5), then Jesus becomes Xisuthros (Nos. 11-17), then Xisuthros is God (No. 18). When John reproves Herod he is Gilgamesh (No. 20), but when he dies in consequence of this boldness he is Eabani (No. 22). In the uncited parallels which follow there is the same confusion: when Jesus starts across the lake with the disciples he is Gilgamesh; when the storm arises he is Xisuthros; again, Gilgamesh represents the rich young ruler, but in the immediately following incident he represents Jesus’ disciples; Jesus is Xisuthros when he gives the loaves to the disciples and they are Gilgamesh, but in the very next parallel Jesus is again Gilgamesh; then Jesus is Xisuthros and Peter is Gilgamesh, though immediately afterward the rich man in hell is Gilgamesh and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom is Eabani, notwithstanding the correspondence between Eabani and John the Baptist at the time of the latter’s death. It cannot be said that the life-story of any hero in the Babylonian legend parallels that of any New Testament character, and indeed, so far as the support of the argument is concerned, the proper names may as well be struck from the list.


As to the resemblance between individual events, it is insignificant and often trifling in content; for example, two characters are alike in that each is in the wilderness–among orientals a natural place for meditation; one has a hairy body, the other wears a garment made of hair; one eats grass, the other eats grasshoppers; and, finally, both die–hardly a remarkable fact when there is no resemblance in the circumstances attending their deaths. But what of the alleged “essentially similar succession of events”? This is not true of persons with whom the action is associated, for, as already observed, first one person and then another is introduced without regard to orderly procedure. Moreover, it is not true that the action, as arranged in these parallels, preserves the order of events in the gospels. The reference to Jesus’ coming on the clouds (No. 9) appears in the gospels not at the beginning of Jesus’ preaching but toward the close. The connection between holding a boat ready (No. 12) and entering the boat (No. 13) is a misrepresentation of the gospel narrative. Xisuthros enters the ship that he prepares and holds in readiness, but the occasion on which a boat is held ready for Jesus

(Mark 3:9) is


entirely different from that on which he enters a boat to go across the lake (Mark 4:35), and an important part of his work in Galilee is done in the meantime. It is exceptionally irregular to place the transfiguration in connection with the story of the Gadarene demoniacs (Nos. 16-18). According to the gospel order a wide gap intervenes in which belong several incidents mentioned later in Jensen’s series. Again, the order of Mark is violated when Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler is placed before Jesus’ reference to the “loaves”; and the order of Luke suffers when the story of the rich young ruler is put before the parable of the rich man in hades.

The alleged points of likeness are even more insignificant when one views them in their original contexts. It is only by a generous omission of the main features of the narrative that a theory of resemblance can be made even plausible. To take a single illustration, the gospel story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation tells of an individual with a new consciousness of his mission in life reflecting in solitude upon the means he will use for its accomplishment. Though he is hungry and has power to turn stones into bread, he will not, for God is more


to him than bread; nor will he ask God to show him favoritism either in the display of unusual acts or in the granting of earthly dominion. These are all inferior motives–temptations of Satan–in contrast with the ideal of perfect submission to the will of God. On the other hand, the portion of the Babylonian legend, of which the gospel narrative is supposed to be a reproduction, pictures Eabani as a wild creature sporting with the beasts and protecting them from the hunter. The latter complains to Gilgamesh, the ruler of the city of Erech, who promises to lure Eabani away by means of a prostitute. The plan succeeds and finally Eabani is persuaded to enter the city and live in friendship with Gilgamesh. Later (lacunae in the records leave the exact connection uncertain) follows the so-called temptation parallel, which, however, is no temptation at all but a speech of comfort and exhortation from Shamash the sun-god. Eabani is evidently restive under the restraints of civilization, and Shamash says, in effect, Why, Eabani, do you long for the harlot, the prostitute? Have you not been supplied with food and clothing at the court of Gilgamesh who will allow you to sit on an easy seat at his right hand


and the kings of the earth will kiss your feet? And when the dawn of morning broke “the words of Shamash, the mighty, loosened the bands of Eabani and his furious heart came to rest.” These narratives certainly have no essential feature in common, and a theory of the derivation of the gospel story from the Babylonian, when the argument rests wholly on internal resemblance, is nothing less than absurd.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of this whole theory lies in its omissions. Large sections of both the gospel history and the Babylonian epic have to be suppressed in order to establish even the faintest semblance of parallelism. Practically all of Jesus’ teaching is overlooked and his career taken as a whole has no counterpart in the epic. There is no character there whose religious ideas, whose inner experiences, whose motives and impulses, whose attitude toward men and God, and whose relations in life have the least resemblance to these traits in the gospel picture of Jesus. In no respect does Jensen’s hypothesis, as a theory to explain the origin of the gospels without reference to a historical Jesus, seem to have any validity.

When once the gospels and the Pauline


epistles have been disposed of, the remaining traditional evidence for Jesus’ existence is easily dismissed by similar methods. The Book of Acts readily takes its place with the gospels and the writings of Paul, while other New Testament books are said either to know no historical Jesus, or to contain only spurious references to him. The testimony furnished by the Apostolic Fathers is similarly estimated as of no account. To be sure, critical historians quite generally admit that Josephus’ principal reference to Jesus is unauthentic. The very language used–the implication of Jesus’ divinity, reference to his miracles, recognition of his messiahship, etc.[1]–seems to mark the material as a Christian interpolation. It is also true that Roman history yields no important data until the second century A. D., and even then the evidence is of a meager sort. Suetonius and Pliny mention Christians, but their words shed no valuable light upon the problem of Jesus’ actual existence. Tacitus, however, explicitly states that the Christians of Nero’s day traced their origin to one named Christ

[1] Ant., XVIII, iii, 3. The reference to James, “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” (Ant., XX, ix, i) is perhaps less open to doubt. See below, chap. viii.


who was put to death by Pontius Pilate in Judea during the reign of Tiberius. This is damaging testimony for the radical position, but its force is avoided in the usual way: either Tacitus is merely reporting from hearsay a fictitious Christian tradition, or the paragraph is a “Christian” interpolation.[1] Neither explanation is satisfactory. The first certainly has no value until the Christian tradition has been shown to be fictitious; and as for the second, the very language of the paragraph, which certainly is not Christian in its point of view,[2] testifies to the contrary.

We need not dwell longer upon the negative treatment of the traditional evidence for Jesus’

[1] This view is mainly a reiteration of the doubts of Hochart, Études au sujet de la persécution des Chrétiens sous Néron (Paris, 1885).

[2] Annals, XV, 44, cf. especially the clause describing the early spread of Christianity after Jesus’ death: “repressaque in praesens exitiabilis superstitio rursum erumpebat non modo per Judaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam, quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque.” Of course it may be urged that this only shows good historical perspective on the part of the artist interpolator. But that would imply that his main object was to testify to the bare statement of Jesus’ human existence. In other words, it must be assumed that the modern radicals’ problem was the supposed interpolator’s problem–a manifest begging of the question. It is evident from the passage in Josephus that the Christian interpolator’s interest was “theological” rather than “historical.”


historicity. Occasional monographs on special topics, like Drews’s Petruslegende and W. B. Smith’s “Judas Iscariot,”[1] illustrate the detailed application of the negative arguments, without, however, strengthening our estimate of their worth. Taken altogether, they signally fail in their proposed disposition of the evidence which has usually been regarded as establishing belief in the historical reality of Jesus. If the possibility of his non-historicity is to be entertained at all it must be brought about by reconstructing, without reference to him, so strong a theory of Christian origins that the traditional view will pale before it as a lesser light in the presence of a greater luminary. Will the radicals’ constructive hypothesis stand this test?

[1] Hibbert Journal, IX, 3 (April, 1911), 529-44; reproduced in Ecce Deus, pp. 295 ff.

6 thoughts on “The Case Case Against the Mythtics: Celebrating 100 Years of Mythticism

  1. I think this whole Mythicist vs. Historicist debate is a false dichotomy.

    Neither are wrong. Perhaps neither are entirely right either?

    Here’s the thing, most people would agree the Gospels are works of historically real fiction.

    That means the Jesus Christ character is largely an amalgam of other things. Mythical, historical, who knows? That’s where the question arises.

    But a 100% historical the Gospel Jesus is not.

    So does that make the mythicist wrong? Not about the Gospel Jesus, I would think. Although I could be wrong.

    However, they do tend to overlook the fact that there are enough viable historical markers to claim the Gospel Jesus had a prototype in reality. That a historical Jesus very likely existed.

    So, it seems, both are right, but not entirely. There is only disagreement in the fact that the one denies the others valid points.

    I for one suggest we stop this silly debate and call it was it is–a literary hypothesis. There was this guy, and then some people wrote a book about him, but not knowing very many details of his life they pieced together sayings and other bits of story telling and made an epic tale which followed the pattern of epic tales of the day, and created a legend from the specter of the real thing which lurks in the penumbra of ancient history.

    Call it: The Literary Hypothesis, and accept the fact that nobody here is exactly wrong, but nobody here is exactly right with regard the mythicist vs. historicist debate.

    At least the Literary Hypothesis accounts for each of what the others neglect to, yet answers all the same questions, as far as I can tell.

    Just a thought. Feel free to take it or leave it.

  2. Pingback: Mythicism around the Blogosphere

  3. When Maurice Casey comes out with his next book, is he going to just critique the mythicist arguments or is he going to make a positive case for the existence of Jesus as well?

    • Hi Matthew: The answer is both: he makes the case for a historical Jesus and refutes all the main mythicist arguments. It’s going to press (T&T Clark) at the end of July.

  4. I guess I should rephrase that:

    Mythicists are wrong to deny the existence of a historical Jesus.

    But they are NOT wrong to state that the Gospel Jesus is almost certainly a fictional construction.

    Meanwhile, Historicists aren’t wrong to point out the fact that there was a historical Jesus.

    But any historicist that goes as far as to say we can purse out the historical Jesus from the Gospels has gone too far.

    That is simply something we cannot know given what we know.

    So neither is entirely wrong in the matter, but it seems that both sides merely want to be pedantic and harp about how much wronger the other is. That’s why I think everyone who partakes in this petty squabble misses the point altogether.

    Quite frankly, it really doesn’t matter what we can know about the historical Jesus. The reason for this is clear–Christians do not, and have never, worshiped the historical Jesus. They have worshiped the Gospel Jesus.

    So in a sense, only dispassionate historians would be interested in this topic at all. And neither hard core historicists or mythicists seem to meet the criteria.

    That’s all.

  5. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival “according to Mark” « Euangelion Kata Markon

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