Friday, February 19, 2010

The Obligatory Jesus Mythicism Post

A couple of weeks ago I waded into an ongoing discussion on James McGrath’s blog concerning “Jesus mythicism”—a topic I know next to nothing about. But a comment I made on one of McGrath's posts on the topic has since been reposted (in whole or in part) on several other blogs (for example, here), and so it seemed appropriate to reproduce that comment here, along with further reflections and elaborations.

For those unfamiliar with the topic, “Jesus mythicism” refers to the Christ myth theory that's currently enjoying a fair bit of popularity among web pundits (especially those hostile to Christianity)—the theory, roughly, that Jesus is a mythical figure constructed by the early church for its own purposes, and that there really was no "historical Jesus" at all.

As someone who isn’t an historian, and hence not schooled in the academic standards of that discipline, I’m not at all qualified to speak to the merits of the arguments put forward by some of the more prominent contemporary mythicists, such as Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle ). But one thing philosophers do for a living is make distinctions, and as I was reading some of the conversations on this topic it seemed to me that it might be helpful to clearly lay out a range of alternative views concerning how the Jesus Christ represented in Church teachings and scriptures is correlated with an historical figure.

One commentator on McGrath's post suggested to me a strategy for laying out such alternatives when he asked, “If it could be shown that there was an actual historical person named Arthur Pendragon, wouldn’t we still think of King Arthur of Camelot as a myth?” Here’s what I said in my comment:

Contrast the following claims:

(1) There was an historic king of the Britons named Arthur, and his life was exactly as described by Sir Thomas Malory in _Le Morte d’Arthur_.

(2) There was an historic king of the Britons named Artur whose impact was sufficiently great that, after being slain by a usurper, those loyal to him would gather secretly to swear allegiance to his bloodline and share stories about him—stories said to come from Artur’s closest thanes. The earliest writings from these communities are by a priest more interested in the meaning of Artur’s life than the details of it. But after a few decades, several followers attempted to write accounts of Artur’s life and sayings based on what their respective communities had preserved. While not historically accurate, they offer clues for anyone wanting to understanding the historic King Arthur.

(3) There was an historic king of the Britons named Artur whose impact was sufficiently great to prompt storytelling about him. This storytelling became quickly severed from actual historic events, becoming interwoven with the creative fancies of bards whose interest lay more in telling colorful tales than in preserving history. Eventually these stories evolved into the legendary figure we now know as King Arthur. But the King Arthur we encounter in the inherited legends has little similarity to the historic figure that inspired the original storytelling.

(4) There was no historic king of the Britons who gave rise to the King Arthur legends. Instead, this figure was wholly an invention of bards interested in creating colorful tales—although the first bard to invent the first King Arthur story borrowed a few of his plotlines from divergent bits of recent events he’d witnessed in his travels, and decided to name his hero “Artur” because he had some vague memory that there was some king by that name who’d lived a generation ago.

Your question gestures to claim (3). As I understand it, Earl Doherty and his followers are making a claim akin to (4) with respect to Jesus. Fundamentalists embrace something akin to (1). Most biblical scholars I know are closer to (2) but allow for elements of (3). The case of (3) is interesting. If we accept it, is there a sense in which there is an “historic Arthur”? I’d say yes, but only in the sense that there is an historic figure who prompted the storytelling—and I’d be quick to add that the character in the stories bears little resemblance to the historic figure. (2) offers more room for dispute about which details are historical.

In subsequent commentary on this set of alternatives, one blogger took issue with positioning biblical scholars in the intellectual space between (2) and (3), saying that the biblical scholars he finds most reliable fall somewhere between (1) and (2). Again, not being an historian versed in the merits of scholars who work in this area, I cannot speak to what view dominates among the best scholars in this area—but as far as my lay impression goes, it appears to fall in the rough vicinity of (2). (I should also note that, in my original comment, I wasn't attempting to make an authoritative pronouncement about where most biblical scholars fall on this issue, but was, rather, simply offering my anecdotal experience with respect to biblical scholars I know).

On another discussion thread, only part of my taxonomy was reproduced—the articulation of (3) and my comment to the effect that if (3) were correct, then the Jesus of the stories would have little resemblance to the historical figure. The discussion that followed seemed to take me as endorsing (3) and therefore as arguing for the conclusion that we can’t learn much about the historical Jesus by studying the Bible.

But this was not my intent. So, in order to help fend off confusion or misunderstanding, let me share a bit about my own view, for what it’s worth. Let me stress again, however, that I am not an historian. I have not systematically evaluated the arguments of Jesus mythicists, nor do I have the credentials to do so. My own view is thus based on impressions that are far less scientific. As such, it is a very tentative position at best.

In outline, my view is that the stories in the gospels have an origin that falls somewhere in a range between (2) and (3). Now both (2) and (3) make room for narratives that are of dubious historicity. The difference is that in the case of (2), the community is intending to preserve stories about a real person that they think are true because those stories are meaningful to them, and there is at least an intent to faithfully pass them on. In the case of (3), something else has come into play--a set of interests that go beyond preserving and perpetuating received stories. In the case of the King Arthur analogy, it's the bards' "interest in telling colorful tales." In the case of gospel writers, it would likely be the interest in making a theological point.

But such an interest can come in degrees. In some cases it is relatively minor, so that the narrative is to a great extent an attempt to faithfully retell an inherited anecdote about the life of one's hero, but there are flourishes of detail that are added (perhaps unwittingly) to emphasize one's theological position. As Bart Ehrman has argued more than once (in my judgment rather convincingly), the portrait we get of Jesus in Mark is decidedly different from the one we get in Luke. Luke's Jesus endures His crucifixion and the time leading up to it with something like serenity, whereas Mark's Jesus seems instead to face it with anguish, even despair. Luke's Jesus models how someone assured of God's providence faces the worst conceivable trials and tribulations (Luke 23:46: "Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit"). Mark's Jesus stands in solidarity with our suffering, even experiencing that pervasive sense of being abandoned by God (Mark 15:34: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?").

But while I get the clear sense that both are theological storytellers, telling the story in ways intended to make their own distinctive theological points, I also get the sense that (at least much of the time) they mean to be weaving together an overall portrait of Jesus that relies heavily on "true stories" about Him preserved by the early church--stories that they wanted to put into their narratives in part so that they could be preserved in that form.

Let me clarify what I mean with another analogy. I'm part of the community of AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project) facilitators. AVP organizes and runs nonviolence workshops in prisons and a range of community settings all over the world, and one of our organizing philosophical concepts is something called "transforming power" (or "TP"--a non-coercive power that can transform negative personal and interpersonal dynamics into positive ones, and which feels less like a power that we exercise and more like one that works through us). Facilitators have their own "TP raps," talks about transforming power and their own understanding of it, informed by stories of TP at work.

There's one particular story that's well known in the AVP community because it so beautifully exemplifies what TP is about...and because it appears in the manual which facilitators use to put together "basic" level workshops. The manual includes several examples of TP raps from some of AVP's pioneers, including that of Fred Feucht. And his rap contains a story about a woman named Marge Swan. According to Feucht, Marge Swan was heading home from the library one evening, walking through Central Park with an arm load of books, when a man approached her aggressively. She turned to him and dumped her books in his arms, expressing gratitude for his timely arrival. He proceeded to walk her home, carrying her books for her. When they got to her building she took her books back from him, thanking him again for his help, and he said something like, "Lady, that's not what I meant to do."

This story was told by one of the facilitators in my basic workshop, and it made such an impression that I've been telling it ever since (meaning for the last twenty years). But although I've been aware that the story comes to AVP largely through Fred Feucht's TP rap in the AVP Basic Manual, I never looked carefully at Fred Feucht's seminal account...until today, when I dug out my basic manual to see what Fred's version looked like.

In the version I've been telling, Marge Swan and her would-be attacker chat as he carries her books for her. That detail isn't in Feucht's account. But it's a good fit with the broader themes of my TP rap. Chatting symbolizes a non-threatening human connection and a mutual recognition of fellow humanity. It's a way of turning the nameless stranger behind you in the grocery line into something more than that. And so, without even realizing I was making it up, I added in that little detail.

But it's quite possible that others add conflicting details. Because of its history, there are many Quakers involved with AVP. Quaker worship is characterized by silence, and there's a strong sense of the transforming power that silence can have. I've heard TP raps that dwell on this point--including discussions of how silence can be a way to clear away the crud that separates us from one another. And I could certainly imagine an AVP facilitator introducing the Marge Swan story into a TP rap in which "the power of silent presence" has been an important theme. Maybe the facilitator envisions Swan and her would-be attacker walking together in silence, simply aware of each other as fellow human beings. And this imagined detail, because it symbolically expresses a point about TP that the facilitator wants to communicate, works its way into the story.

Now I've never met Fred Feucht, let alone Marge Swan. I have no idea how Fred Feucht knows of Marge Swan's story. Did she tell it to him herself, or did he get it second-hand? What details, if any, did he get wrong? Did Marge Swan chat with her would-be attacker, or did they walk together in silence?

I don't know. But when I share Marge Swan's story during AVP workshops and elsewhere, my intention is to pass on a true story--not one I know first-hand, but one that's been preserved within the AVP community, in part because of its capacity to exemplify an important idea that unites members of that community. And the story's truth matters, because a common charge leveled against advocates of nonviolence is that it doesn't work. Here, in the story of Marge Swan, is a case in which it did. The story is preserved in part because here is a real live case of nonviolent methods actually working in the real world to transform a potential crime into a positive human exchange. That's a major reason why this story was preserved within the AVP community. But, as with all such stories, the details vary with the storytellers...sometimes because of simple errors, sometimes because of the broader philosophical or theoretical purposes that motivate the storytelling.

When I read the Synoptic Gospels, many of the stories within them read like that, at least to me. Many don't, but many do. And that's why I'm inclined to treat many of the stories told in the Synoptic Gospels as primarily stories whose origins are of type (2), with elements of (3) creeping in when the theological aims of the authors are particularly at stake.

The Gospel of John is a more complex case, insofar as John’s project seems to be primarily theological. As I read John, his aim is to develop a theology of Jesus by using the “gospel” literary genre, and this theological aim is far more significant to him than the aim of recounting the events of Jesus’ life as accurately as he can. As such, for example, he happily puts into Jesus’ mouth extended theological interpretations of the significance of Jesus’ life and ministry—things it would be hard to imagine being said by the Jesus we encounter in Mark.

This is not to say that the events recounted by John are all or even primarily fabrications—but it does mean, for example, that where John differs from the Synoptics on historic details (such as the timing of the crucifixion relative to Passover), the explanation may lie in John’s theological objectives and the symbolic resonance he achieves by telling the story as he does.

The result is a Jesus who is “mythologized,” not in the sense that John’s Jesus has no foundation in an historical individual whose story parallels the one John tells, but in the sense that John’s narrative is more concerned with theological symbolism than with factual details. As such, my view is that John's Gospel falls more in the vicinity of (3) than (2). That said, I must confess that it's my favorite gospel, precisely because it is the most theological. It may not be good history, but that's not its aim.

For the historian who is concerned with factual details, the question then becomes a matter of sifting through the theological and political aims of the writers, as well as getting past the simple errors that accrue when a narrative is passed down orally within a community for a generation before it’s first committed to paper. While that is going to be hard work, and while that work may very well lead to an understanding of the historical Jesus that differs in many ways from the gospel portraits, I find myself highly skeptical of those who think that once this work is done they’ll find that there’s no historical figure there at all. Once again, however, I must stress that I'm no historian, and these are merely intuitive impressions.


  1. Yes, interesting point re the Marge Swan's story with its potential for embellishments along the way in its re-telling. But a further point is, surely, that the would be attacker is without a name. He could be Tom, he could be Dick, or he could be Harry. The identity in this case is besides the point re the message of non-violent transforming power, or TP. However, when this story is viewed as relevant to the mythicist verse historicist debate, it is the identity of the ‘attacker’ that takes centre stage rather than the TP from such an encounter. The historicists are intent on naming the un-named man as Jesus.

    But back to your original post to McGarth’s blog. Since you provided the link to my post on FRDB, I’m sure you will have read my main point in using your quote - which was that I found your example N0.3 to be very insightful - so much so that I do think this insight could well further this debate - maybe by opening up a way through the present deadlock.

    “So, of the 4 examples given in the blog comment - I would quite happily go with no.3. There is a historical core to the gospel storyline - but that historical core is not Jesus - it is not the carpenter’s son who was crucified. It could be a historical figure that is quite unrelated to that gospel figure, a historical figure that bears “little resemblance” to the gospel Jesus. This is a very important insight by Eric Reitan - an insight that the historicists need to appreciate if they are ever to find the historical core to the gospel storyline that they seek”.

    The historicists and the mythicist both have something to offer in the debate over the gospel story. The historicists seek a historical core. But if there is a historical core to the gospel story - there is no necessity to assume that the historical core is to be found in a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus. And if there is a historical core, a historical figure relevant to the early Christians - there is no need for a mythicist position to deny such a core. All a mythicist position entails is that the Jesus figure in the gospels is not a historical figure, that the Jesus figure is not the historical core.
    ....continued below.....

  2. Is there a historical figure behind the Jesus mythology? A historical figure not underneath the mythology, as though removing all the mythological clothes one will find a historical Jesus instead of an empty shell. Yes, myths do grow around historical figures. Especially historical figures that were deemed to be transformational figures, inspirational figures. However, in developing such a mythology, as with the legends with Arthur, the real historical figure can become overshadowed by the mythology. So much so that the equation that the myth equals, or is synonymous with, the historical figure cannot really be made.

    Myth are free of the constraints of conformity to historicity. Retelling can well cherry-pick elements and ignore others. Embellishments are paramount. And of course, if its a theological myth that is being generated - thus taking things to a different arena from a purely political myth - the mythmakers are able to transform ‘fleshly’ elements into ‘spiritual’ elements. Thus, simultaneously, cutting the cords, cutting the direct link, to any inspirational historical figure.

    In other words, the myth takes on a life and history of its own. Especially so if the TP is not the historical individual, not Marge Swan’ or her would be attacker, but the interaction between the historical person and those who found such a figure inspirational. In fact now that I think of it - one could view the gospel Jesus figure as that TP, the transforming power.

    Logically, no historical figure, however inspirational, has any inherent salvation power. That TP comes only through our human interaction with one another.

    So, while it might be of historical interest as to what historical figure, or figures, that early Christians found to be inspirational - that really is just of secondary concern. Such a figure might as well remain nameless - as in the Marge Swan story. It’s the TP, its the Jesus story, a mythological/symbolic story - because how else is such TP to be expressed in words - that is the bedrock of Christianity.

    The danger for the historicists is not that they will find a historical core to the gospel story - but that when they do find such a core - that they will not like what they find. But then, would they not be failing to see the real relevance of the Marge Swan story - that TP does not arises from naming names but from our interaction with all whom we encounter throughout all of our days....

    To sum up - using your story of the transforming power of non-violent interaction as an analogy for the current did Jesus exist debate.

    The historicists position is like saying the un-named man in the Marge Swan story is Jesus.

    A mythicist can say that the TP power in the Marge Swan story can be likened to the mythological, symbolic or figurative, Jesus of the gospel story. Jesus purely as transformational, ‘salvation’.

    Looks like there is a lot of talking past one another in this did Jesus exist debate!

  3. Very interesting post and comments. I'd like to respond to one thing MaryHelena said: "Logically, no historical figure, however inspirational, has any inherent salvation power. That TP comes only through our human interaction with one another."

    That actually sums up one of the main things at stake in the historical-versus-mythical debate. The orthodox or traditional Christian claim is that we WERE saved through a real historical event, i.e. God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ. A more more modern camp within Christianity (one might call it liberal, or humanist, or post-Enlightenment) claims that human beings generate our own transformative power. There is no need for Jesus to be a real historical figure because the work of salvation is done by *us*, in being inspired by him and emulating him.

    Thus, when traditional Christians defend the historicity of the gospels, one of their main objectives is to defend "salvation by grace alone", effectuated through an act of God in the real historical time that we live in, rather than some form of self-salvation.

  4. maryhelena,

    Much of what you say here is thought-provoking. I agree that there is a great deal of talking past one another in the Jesus mythicism discourse, which is one reason I was motivated to introduce some distinctions.

    I have a question about your use of the Marge Swan analogy. Maybe I'm missing your point. You say that the analogue to Jesus in the Marge Swan story is the unnamed would-be attacker. But as I was approaching it, I was envisioning the analogue to be Marge Swan.

    The AVP story is ABOUT the named character, Marge Swan, and something that SHE did (turning to the attacker and dumping her books in his arms, thereby inviting him to impact the world by helping her rather than by attacking her). Likewise, the stories in the gospels are ABOUT the named character, Jesus, and what HE purportedly did. The unnamed attacker bears a role in the story that is closer to the role of the unnamed people Jesus heals, or so I would suppose.

    The question is whether the story about this named character and the array of things he purportedly did can be traced back to an historical individual, presumably bearing that name (why else choose the name "Jesus" for the stories?), whose actual life activities gave rise to at least some of the stories about him (even if those stories have been changed both because of miscommunication and because of embellishments for theological purposes).

  5. But there would not be a Marge Swan story at all if there was no response from her would be attacker? Its not about what she did, either intentionally or just accidentally, but about what happened between the two people. Marge Swan did not just give something - as though it was within her power to bring about change in her would be attacker. She also, in this case, saved not only her books but possibly her life. (so an analogy with Jesus would break down here). The transforming power, the TP, was a consequence of the dynamic their interaction generated.

    It is this dynamic - this transformational power that I have suggested could be likened to the gospel story of Jesus. Transformational power = code name, Jesus. The unnamed man - no, not at all would I seek to equate this figure with the gospel Jesus. This figure is, using the Marge Swan story as an analogy, simply anyone, and everyone, that we come into contact with.

    In other words, each of us is our own Marge Swan. Everyone we come into contact with is the unnamed man. And, depending upon the dynamic of our interaction, a transformational experience can result. We all, for good or ill, leave our footprint upon the lives of others.

    Yes, we can take the analogy back to the early days of Christianity. But it’s still our own person that is Marge Swan - and yes, we could, if we so wish, put a name to that unnamed man (just as we can do so today). At no time though is the unnamed man, or the named man, the gospel Jesus ,or, in modern terms, the TP, the transforming power.

    Why choose the name Jesus for the gospel story, for the transforming power that the early Christians sought to understand - well, why not? All that name signifies is something along the lines of ‘savior’ or ‘salvation’. Putting a name to, and personalizing a phenomenon that would have been difficult to grasp - would have created a picture that was far more powerful than mere words - as history has well documented.

    That’s all on the physical level - the transforming power that human interaction can generate. On a spiritual level, on an individual level - well, here one can take either the theological route or a purely philosophical/intellectual route, and seek ‘salvation’ through abstract ideas or psychology.

    So, perhaps not where your story of Marge Swan was intent on going - but like your other analogy re Arthur and the developing of mythological ideas - I happen to find it rather insightful....

    Re the did Jesus exist debate. The historicists are involved in a salvage operation, they are trying to rescue a historical Jesus from the mythological wreck - and they have been engaged in this quest for many a year without achieving any success. A mythicist approach to the gospel Jesus storyline has the potential for forward movement within its grasp, it has the potential to break the endless cycle. Sure, many Christians are more than happy with whatever comfort zone they have created. But, religion, like all things, does not stand still - at least not for ever. And there are others, as sincere in their efforts as those in their comfort zones, who desire that things move along....

    In answer to your question re can the stories of the gospel Jesus be traced back to a historical figure by the name of Jesus. The answer, from a mythicist, is NO. But is that not the wrong question to be asking? Does this question not seek to undermine, to negate, the relevance of the gospel Jesus by equating this figure with a specific human figure?

  6. Jendi wrote

    'That actually sums up one of the main things at stake in the historical-versus-mythical debate. The orthodox or traditional Christian claim is that we WERE saved through a real historical event, i.e. God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ. A more more modern camp within Christianity (one might call it liberal, or humanist, or post-Enlightenment) claims that human beings generate our own transformative power. There is no need for Jesus to be a real historical figure because the work of salvation is done by *us*, in being inspired by him and emulating him".

    Yes, could well be, that bottom line, theology is at the base of a lot of the aggro re the mythicist position on the gospel Jesus story. But you know what, the Jews have got by without that Jerusalem temple! Specific theological ideas are not the backbone of religion, they are only its superstructure. Always possible to re-built or make do - or make anew.

    One of the big problems with a literal interpretation of the Jesus story is the crucifixion. The problem is, for the sake of argument, that if the crucifixion was historical, it would mean that the early Christians would have used a miscarriage of justice as the central clarion call for its atonement theories. Bizarre to say the least. Such a theory betrays a complete lack of any moral compass….Hence, we do them an injustice to presume that that is what they did. Much rather take the crucifixion story as being non historical – and that they were proposing a spiritual/theological/intellectual context not a historical flesh and blood context.

    If one really wants to find some time in history when humans were 'saved' - then I'll suggest one must go back a very long way indeed - way, way back beyond the historical time of the gospel story. I'd suggest that that moment in time was when evolution stopped being primarily a physical reality and became an intellectual evolution.....well, something like that........Eve ate the apple and we were all on our way....

  7. maryhelena,

    I’m glad that you’re finding my analogies useful beyond the bounds of my original, narrower intentions. So let’s take the Marge Swan analogy a bit further, to explore what I think you may be getting at. One of the points I made in my original post was that the veridicality of Marge Swan’s story matters to the AVP community because critics of nonviolence often say it doesn’t work in the “real world”—but this story offers a case in which it did.

    But suppose that as the story is told and retold with an eye towards the lessons it can teach us, it inspires more and more people to creatively build human connections at the point of hostility, thereby defusing aggression and transforming relationships.

    The story’s symbolic and universal meaning—its “mythic” meaning where Marge Swan represents each of us, and the unnamed aggressor represents every person we come into contact with—comes to be appropriated by more and more people, and its truth is tested in their lived experience. In a sense, the story no longer needs to be historically accurate in order to refute the “nonviolence doesn’t work” message—because the story has come to operate as a mythic tale whose message about the power of nonviolence has been verified pragmatically in the lives of those who’ve appropriated and lived out the story for themselves. If the story’s message works for those who attempt to live it out, then it operates successfully as a guiding narrative whether or not it is historically accurate. Its value in THIS respect is not contingent upon its historicity.

    But Jendi is right that an important dimension of the Christian narrative, at least for traditional Christians, is the idea that we are transformed/redeemed/saved not by our own efforts but by something that God has done IN HISTORY. God reaches down into the time-and-space-bound realm of human existence, meeting us THERE, in our own finitude, and through that contact does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

    Can the Jesus narrative be divorced from its historicity without THIS message being lost? Or, perhaps the question should be this: What DEGREE of mythicism in the inherited Jesus narrative is consistent with preserving the message that God redeems us through an act of genuine solidarity, expressed by really participating in our corporeal existence?

  8. Yes, I think your sum up re your Marge Swan story - with using Marge Swan as symbolic of ourselves etc - is the sort of thing that I am trying to articulate. It’s that intangible, ‘something’, that arises from interacting with others that is paramount. As that old adage goes - the whole is bigger than its parts. The connection between them all generating its own transformative power.

    Of course, such a take on the Jesus story presents problems for the standard Christian interpretation of that story. As I posted earlier to Jendi, the crucifixion story has serious moral problems. Sure, theology can circumvent these moral problems. But, as I’m an atheist, those theological strategies don’t sit well with me.

    I don’t think that theological ideas should be allowed to set the ‘standard’ re how the gospel storyline re Jesus is interpreted. (and certainly not in any historical quest). A humanistic, a moral, approach to that storyline is possible.

    Indeed, such an approach is going to raise questions re the nature of God. But God questions are not new - and developments in that regard are part of the history of God theories. Lloyd Geering wrote an article, and later a book, dealing with the idea of a Christianity without theism:


    “It is often said that theism is common to Jew, Christian and Muslim. Yet the Christian God and Allah are very different. Jews and Muslims may well be theists, but Christians abandoned pure theism in the early centuries. If the classical Christian teaching in the creeds is said to be theism then it is theism in a radically modified form. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not theism.

    “Theology is highly symbolic. It is more like poetry than descriptive statements. There is good poetry and bad poetry. Similarly, there is good theology and bad theology. What may be regarded as good theology in one age may seem very bad theology in another.

    “This is because, in the first place Christianity made a radical departure from pure theism in the early centuries. And in the second place because in modern times it is taking that radical departure to its logical end, which is the abolition of theism.”

    If there is something to be learned from Geering, it is that ideas about God are ideas that are, and indeed should be, ideas that are always in flux.

    I think the God question, in regard to the gospel story of Jesus, can be viewed from other than a theistic perspective. Because, after all, that perspective is not so much about when God intervened in history - but how he did so. And that is a theistic issue not primarily a God issue.

    Of course, one can believe that there is a God, and still be a mythicist regarding the gospel storyline re Jesus. God concepts are not dependent upon having a historical Jesus and a historical crucifixion. That position is more in line with a theistic God who intervenes in a very specific manner.

    So, yes, to sum up, theism could well be a position that would not want to move from the assumption of a historical Jesus, to a Jesus that is not a historical figure. But is this not short sighted - because a non-historical Jesus, nevertheless, still reflects the very transformational power that a theistic God position is seeking to uphold. And why can one say this - because this is the actual reality. The Jesus myth is where the transformational power lies - it has long since cut the cords, severed the strings, to any historical figure. What we have today is either a theological storyline - or a mythicist storyline which seeks to find some humanitarian benefit, insight, within that legendary story.

    And in that connection - your Marge Swan story was indeed very insightful - so, thank you, for moving my brain along...

  9. Eric,

    I thought your contribution to the discussion at Exploring our Matrix was very constructive. I was disappointed that so few people were interesting in discussing the question of just what it might mean to say that Jesus is a myth. I think it would have been more fruitful.

  10. Vinny--Thanks!

    maryhelena--You've mentioned a couple of times that you find something morally objectionable about the Christian appropriation of the crucifixion, at least if one assumes it was an historical event. I've actually written something on this blog--Hitchens and the Atonement--that is relevant to the ethics of Christian theories of Atonement, so I thought I'd at least direct attention to that post for those who haven't read it.

  11. Thanks, Eric, for the link to your previous post re Hitchens and the Atonement. I have just read it - and, quite honestly, it does not get off first base with me.

    Indeed, one can re-interpret, one can weave pretty sounding threads, but the root, the assumption that it was a historical crucifixion, a miscarriage of justice, that was used by early Christians upon which to build their atonement doctrine, is not only questionable on the historical level - it is questionable on any scale of morality that is worthy to be so called.

    Yes, bad people get away with bad things - that’s life as we know it. And unless someone comes up with some pill or other to make this aspect of living go away - then it behooves us all to do what can be done to develop social structures that encourage positive instead of negative personal growth.

    Hope? On a death bed - hope that there is something beyond the dying of our days? Yes, that may well be a Christian hope - but, of course, that is not only a Christian hope - so Christianity has nothing extra in that line of thinking. Hope as part of our living, of our everyday existence - well, I’m sure you would not want to discredit atheists from any of that - hope lives eternal, its part and parcel of who we all are.

    Joy? Again, atheists and non-atheists are able to find joy in living. A sense of life, a sense of the wonder, not only of what is, but of the possibility that what is does not have to be. Joy in simply knowing that throughout all the pain and suffering that might come our individual way - we have lived life; we have seen its beauty and its promise - even if they at times have eluded us on a personal level. A deathbed wish - no, not of hope of some hereafter - much more simple and achievable than that - simply a smile on ones face.

    Yes, Dawkins has perhaps shot himself in the foot re the quote from his God Delusion book: “attacking God, all gods”. I have said so myself on occasions, in the Dawkins forums. Indeed, one can go on re-interpreting god ideas, making the ideas more relevant to a modern mind etc. (still leaves room for the atheists though.....).

    And, yes, on the religion front, the New Atheists are also in danger of the same pitfall. But the fundamentalists seem to have the upper-hand re their very public face - which does seem to generate a type of atheist kindergarten for lots of the newbies...

    Religion: These are two quotes that I found some meaning in:

    "In summary, it may be said that almost every known culture involves the religious in the above sense of a depth dimension in cultural experiences at all levels — a push, whether ill-defined or conscious, toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behaviour are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience — varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture."
    (Winston King, Encyclopedia of Religion, p 7693)

    “Religion is a believing view of life, approach to life, way of life, and therefore a fundamental pattern embracing the individual and society, man and the world, through which a person …sees and experiences, thinks and feels, acts and suffers, everything. It is a transcendentally grounded and immanently operative system of coordinates, by which man orients himself intellectually, emotionally, and existentially” (Hans Kung: ‘Christianity and the World Religions’, page xvi).

    Re-interpretations - yes indeed - and one can do so with the gospel story in such a manner that does not conflict with moral considerations and is not an assault upon our intellectual integrity. That is the challenge that lies before Christianity.

    Poetry? It’s within us all...

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.