Because scorn seems to be the most common response to mythicism from academics, I try to note those rare occasions when this idea non grata is actually engaged with some modicum of seriousness and professional respect by the scholar who seeks to refute it. My first encounter with this kind of level-headed approach to refuting mythicism was a debate between Greg Boyd and Robert Price a couple of years ago. Boyd has since co-authored two books with Paul Eddy — The Jesus Legend and Lord or Legend (the latter is a popular condensation of the longer and more-annotated former), which lay out a case against mythicism, an attempt at a rational and systematic approach to the topic. It is clear from the onset that Boyd is a reasonable man who's willing to at least entertain the idea for long enough to construct an argument against it based on his understanding of what he perceives to be the unlikeliness of a Jesus "legend" having taken hold like it did. It is an honest attempt to project the implications of the theory onto a working model. I think his conclusions are wrong, of course, but Boyd's stance is a huge improvement from the simple-minded dismissiveness of most of the current vocal opponents of the theory. As an example of what I mean by Boyd's reasonableness, consider the fact that during a Q&A session at the end of the debate Boyd agreed with Price that none (i.e. "zero") of the so-called "fulfilled O.T. prophecies" held by many evangelicals to foretell Jesus' coming are at all relevant or even refer to Jesus; they are all taken out of context and are useless as evidence. Boyd reasons (correctly) that such a prophetic reading of these passages would require the forcing of a context onto Hebrew stories that had not been there before these gospel authors began to scour the psalms and suchlike in search of scriptural muscle to reinforce their developing tradition. Boyd does not accept these as "prophecies" of Jesus, and this shows me that he is no unthinking lemming intent on defending an indefensible party line. He's trying to be honest when faced with evidence. His arguments, however, in the end turn out to be as full of circular reasoning (such as when he ascribes "eyewitness" status to a gospel ), unconscious equivocation (when he misrepresents "ἀδελφὸν τοῦ Κυρίου" as though it read "ἀδελφὸν τοῦ Ιησοῦ"), special pleading (when he views the will to believe as a valid epistemological tool), that is, all the common apologist fallacies, as some of his less-well-mannered evangelical peers' are.
Instead of trying to catalog all of the errors in Boyd's case, I’d like to focus on just one main trajectory in it, which, if shown to be specious, would render the rest moot, I think. I single it out also because it is the one and only instance where one of his arguments gave me some significant pause for a moment. When I first heard it, this was probably the strongest argument I had heard against the Christ Myth.
Boyd: " First century Palestinian Judaism, I submit to you, is the single worst environment for a legend about a crucified god-man to evolve. […] First, the Jews of the first century, especially Palestinian Jews of the first century, since that was the most conservative area in first century Judaism. They deplored the idea that a man could be God. It was revolting to them. These were people that prayed the Shemmai Israel every day of their life (“Hear O Israel; the lord our God is one Lord”). If they believed anything, it was that God is God and that humans are humans and never the twain shall meet. They were all the more resistant to this idea because it was common for the pagans around them to believe in divine men, that a certain human or an emperor human was a god. As my former professor from Yale has shown in his doctoral dissertation—Carl Holloday has shown in his Oxford dissertation [on] the “Divine Man“—the more the […] Jews were encompassed by these divine man legends, the more resistant they became to them. So the question is this: How do you explain the evolution of a legend about a god-man in an environment that is completely hostile to it? Now, the problem is so severe that a number of the more liberal scholars in the twentieth century began to say ‘maybe the Christian faith, the Jesus story, wasn’t birthed on Jewish soil. Maybe it’s actually a pagan legend. They tried to make that case. It’s called the “history of religions” school. It has been, in my estimation, thoroughly discredited. Hardly anyone, even the most liberal scholars, hold to the history of religions school any more because of just overwhelming evidence against it. For one thing, you have to give the book of Acts and the gospels zero credibility—they have to be entire fabrications because they portray the story as originating on Palestinian soil, and very few scholars are willing to go that far.""And the other thing is that the earliest advocate we have, first spokesperson we have, is Paul. And Paul is thoroughly Jewish. He thinks Jewish. He talks Jewish. His letters are filled with references to the Old Testament (OT). He presupposes a Jewish framework in all of his epistles and the congregation he’s writing to. In fact, a number of scholars have been arguing over the last twenty years especially, the Jesus story, abstracted out of a Jewish context—the OT context—makes absolutely no sense. And so for very good reasons, very few are advocating that now. The Christian faith was born on Jewish soil and that causes this tremendous problem: How do you explain how this, on a naturalistic basis, could evolve?"“We're talking about monotheistic Jews here. They prayed to Jesus. Paul himself prayed to Jesus, often in the same breath as praying to God, the father. This is outstanding. You can show examples of how in some segments — fringe segments— of Judaism people venerated intermediate beings, but as Larry Hurtado and a number of others have argued, never did it cross the line into worship and invocational prayer. Jesus is seen as the judge of the world in Paul, but only God is the judge of the world. He is seen as being the creator of the world, but only God is the creator of the world. Paul says in Phillipians 2 that he is by his very nature God and equal with God. Scholars recognize this a being a traditional hymn, it's already in place in the early church —we're talking twenty–twenty-five years after Jesus lived [that] this is already in place— That's incredible! What explains that? We need to have an explanation for that. [He's] God over all and blessed forever in Romans, and if you accept Colossians and Titus, he is fullness of God in bodily form, and he's our great God and savior. And so the question is this: We need to have a historical explanation for […] What must Jesus have been like to have impacted Jews against all of their cultural and religious presuppositions that this man could be God?"
Before tackling this general reasoning, one minor point should be noted: Boyd’s claim that the History of Religions School (HRS) has been “thoroughly discredited” is a gross oversimplification. His characterization of the intents and methods of the History of Religions School is but a thumbnail caricature of what was in fact a highly influential movement. To hear him tell it, one would think that the HRS merely sought to discredit the church by making these "outlandish" comparisons to the mystery religions and other Pagan spiritual outlets of the day. In fact, the function of the school was primarily to promote the scientific examination of religion through a rigorous multi-discipline historiographical approach to the materials that utilized archeology, sociology, anthropology, comparative religion, and a host of other academic disciplines. It was invaluable for the advancement of our modern understanding of the development of religions generally, and of the origins of Christianity in particular. If the HRS was the dismal failure that Boyd asserts that it was, then someone forgot to tell Hans Conzelmann, Rudolf Bultmann, James Dunn, Geza Vermès, Mircea Eliades, Dom Crossan, Karen Armstrong, and countess other scholars who have since then sought to make sense of the history of Christianity by means of a systematic cross-discipline approach to their research. The legacy of the school is reflected in much of the work done on the Historical Jesus and Christian origins in the twentieth century and on into the twenti-first century. I’m afraid that Boyd is selling it way too short here.
Having said that, I think that Boyd does bring up an interesting undeniable fact in his objections. Judeans of the time would have invariably rejected the notion of such a failed god-man. This is true. Boyd contends that, had they not been compelled to a new faith by the portentous miracles described in the texts, the Palestinian Jews (and those dispersed throughout the provinces) would surely have rejected the crucified god-man doctrines espoused in the Pauline epistles outright as anathema to their culture. The very ‘fact’ that they ‘accepted them’ (so Boyd) is evidence that the historical and supernatural events described in the texts are ‘probably’ true. He further infers from this idea that these first ‘Jewish’ believers were already promulgating these highly advanced christologies and soteriologies as early as the fifth decade of the first century. Alluring at first sight, all this revolves around a single common theme, namely the Jewish background of the story. For Boyd it is a given that the first Christians (in Jerusalem, presumably) were first and foremost Jews who found in Jesus their promised Messiah and then elevated him to a status of mediator god-man. The Jews of Palestine, so says Boyd (and, again, I would not disagree), would never have accepted or subscribed to a dying un-messianic Messiah. This is a major problem for the Christ-mythers as he sees it. But then, did Jews really accept this god-man in this way? I think the texts themselves show that they did not.
I had been reading John Shelby Spong's Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes at the time that I first heard this line of argument, wrestling with what seemed to me to be Spong's forced attempt to find a liturgical continuity between Judaism and christology, and so Boyd's questions were falling on pre-sensitized ears in a way. Until that moment, I had never stopped to consider why we so easily assume that James and Cephas and all their followers were Christians in the same sense that Paul was. On what grounds can one ascribe a Pauline kerygma to a Jerusalem church? We don’t have any reliable texts that can inform us at all on the fate of the reputed disciples. The idea that they were more or less in agreement with Paul theologically could be no more than a presupposition, an unexamined given. Boyd is certainly not alone in holding to this idea. It‘s almost universal— even among liberals, even among seculars who don't care about religion. Just as we saw in part #1, here we have another example of a false consensus which is really just passive adherence to an unexplored notion. It presumes a 'given' continuity between …
- … an actual, historical Jewish peasant sage (Jesus of Nazareth) whose seemingly radical teachings inspired an …
- … esoteric messianic Jewish cult in Jerusalem with James and/or Cephas at its helm(s) which …
- … Paul at first fiercely opposed and persecuted, but eventually converted to, championed, and insisted should include gentiles. Subject to the ‘original’ Jerusalem cult, he became the earliest known expositor and witness of this new ‘fulfilled’ Judaism, writing a series of pastoral letters to churches throughout the Diaspora, some of which he had founded himself.
This supposed continuity from normative Judaism to the Christian faith expressed in the epistles is what vouchsafes the historicity of Jesus for Boyd. His arguments depend on it. In that view Christianity is essentially a revamped form of Judaism. The earliest followers were thorough Jews who only reluctantly, eventually, allowed gentiles into their fellowship (with Paul of Tarsus as their spokesman). Later on, in the process of developing into something distinct from its “mother” religion, Christianity progressively took on a more and more Pagan flavor, until it was basically unrecognizable as any kind of Judaism anymore. This has been the traditional way to see the origins of Christianity. Our image of Paul is influenced by what we've already read in the Acts of the Apostles (the pauline corpus immediately follows Acts in the canon, after all) whose portrayal of the Jerusalem community of devotees is not much more than an idyllic fanfare before the true hero of the story, Paul, enters the stage. But who were these people, really? What did they believe? What was the connection between Jerusalem's authority and Paul's submission to it? What was their parallel devotion to Jesus about? Were they parallel? Simply assuming them to be equivalent based on the Acts' cursory treatment of this seminal period would be too uncritical and too simplistic a way out of the puzzle. The truth is that we just don’t know much about the so-called Jerusalem church.
I therefore challenge that presumed axiomatic continuity and find that appeals that assume a thoroughly Jewish-Christian matrix from which the Pauline variety essentially took its cue are circular, assuming that which they aim to demonstrate. I propose that if it can be shown that these presuppositions are invalidated by no more evidence than the texts themselves, then these Boyd objections, which necessarily project an advanced christology onto the Jerusalem proto-church, are rendered weightless. It is my contention that, since there are no extant contemporary records which might tell us what these original Jewish-James-Christians were all about (either liturgically or rhetorically) other than Paul's condescending (while simultaneously submissive) letters, then we have no basis for attributing any kind of christology to them, particularly in light of the existence of later traditions which can arguably be traced to this group which explicitly oppose Paul’s idiosyncratic thinking. The assumption that the “Jewish” Christianity of the Jerusalem group was akin to that which was emerging in the Diaspora in Jesus’ name (egged on by the Paulinists) although almost universally held, is invalid.
For Boyd's objections to have any relevance, he must first demonstrate:
- the ‘thorough Jewishness’ of the Pauline communities … and …
- a Jacobean christology.
Lacking this, the Boyd objections are meaningless. They are incomplete, half-thought-out apologetic appeals. But one must first demonstrate a continuity before one can appeal to it.
The problem is that there seems to be a hazy gap between what we know and what we think we know. We know that there were some forms of Jesus-adoration which probably preceded Paul’s missionary activity. We know that the Pauline epistles refer to one such group, that of Yacob in Jerusalem, as somehow authoritative, and that Paul desperately sought recognition and legitimatization from it. We think we know that they were ‘thoroughly Jewish’, but we just cannot escape the fact that the only textual corroboration whatsoever that we have from this proto-sect is one side of a heated (if muffled) multi-sided conversation.
I would like to stress before proceeding that it is NOT the Judean origin of the Jesus story that I doubt here. What I question is the implicit continuity that is too easily presumed between the seminal Judean messianic cult of Jerusalem and the Christianity which would later claim it as its direct ancestor. I explicitly say this in case there might be those who grasp onto some sensationalist mischaracterization of what I am actually saying here. I have no doubt that the Jesus legend started in Judea. The NT is replete with symbolism borrowed from the pages of the ancient Jewish scriptures. But it is one thing to examine the Judaic content of the texts and another to ask who the audience of this borrowed symbology within was.
These are two separate questions. In the next installment, I will try to look at the audience first..
These are two separate questions. In the next installment, I will try to look at the audience first..