I’ll take a leaf out of many an RS essay here – in talking about mythicism, I’m going to start with Wikipedia.
If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Jesus, and compare it to the entries for other figures such as Julius Caesar, Socrates, or Pythagoras, you might, if you read carefully, notice something interesting: there is a section devoted to the question of Jesus’ existence, and to the “mythical view”, that Jesus did not exist. In fact, there is a separate, and fairly extensive, wiki page devoted to the topic. But there is nothing similar for Caesar, Socrates, or Pythagoras: their existence does not appear to be in doubt. So is the existence of Jesus less certain than that of these historical figures?
There is a group of people who say that it is. These people are most commonly known as mythicists, and the Virtually University course I am hoping to run (if enough people sign up for it – subtle hint) is going to be about the mythicism and the question of Jesus’ existence.
One important thing to understand is that when we discuss Jesus’ existence, we mean the historical existence of a person called Jesus of Nazareth. Saying that Jesus existed historically is not necessarily the same as saying that every story found in the New Testament or every Christian belief about Jesus is true, just as saying that Muhammad lived is not necessarily the same as saying that every Muslim belief about him is correct. Since the 18th century, Biblical scholars have attempted to use historical methods to detach the “real”, historical Jesus from the Christian portrayal of him, with varying degrees of success – or perhaps more accurately, with varying degrees of failure.
Mythicists, however, claim that there is no historical person to detach: they deny that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived. For mythicists, the person of Jesus is nothing more than a religious or literary invention of the Christian church. As evidence for their views, mythicists point to the unreliability of the Christian New Testament as a historical source, the relative lack of ancient references to Jesus from non-Christian sources, and to similarities between the figure of Jesus and characters of Pagan and Jewish mythology.
It needs to be stressed here that mythicism is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Biblical scholars: by this I mean people who have advanced qualifications in and/or teach Biblical Studies at University level. In turn, Mythicists are usually critical of these scholars, arguing that the academic discipline of “Biblical Studies” is compromised, because the methods used by Biblical scholars are flawed, and because Bible scholarship reflects an implicit pro-Christian bias. In fact, one prominent mythicist, Richard Carrier, has rather charming described the whole discipline of New Testament studies as “f****d”. Please note: his words, not mine.
I’ll be open here and say that I’m not a fan of mythicism as a theory or the way that mythicists go about their work. I even have a few problems with the name “mythicism”, and think that other terms should be used instead.
Nonetheless, mythicism raises an interesting set of questions: about the Bible, about how we study Jesus from a Historical perspective, and about how and why certain groups of people deny the consensus position of the academic community. For me, this last question is perhaps the most interesting one, and for A level students, I think it touches on the important problem of how to tell the difference between legitimate academic views and fringe or conspiracy theories.
So... that’s it for my shameless plus for my Virtually University offering. I’ll post some more about my views on mythicism before or during Virtually University. If you’d like to find out a bit more about the mythicist case, you can check out the website of Earl Doherty, a well-known mythicist writer. If you want to understand how New Testament scholars feel about mythicism, you might wish to look here or here.