As Easter comes around again, it seems the internet will be serving us up two things that we now see every year. The first is brainless memes telling us that Easter was originally “a pagan fertility festival”, that the word Easter is derived from “the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar” and that her sacred symbols were rabbits and eggs. All of which is complete garbage. But lately this annual irritation has been joined by a new Easter tradition – articles dusting off the radical “new” thesis by certain “scholars” proposing … that Jesus never existed at all. Yawn.
Psychologist and recovering evangelical Christian Valerie Tarico gave the fringe Mythicist thesis an online boost three years ago, when she wrote an article entitled “5 Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed” which got a run on the Alternet alternative news site. That article rolled out the usual suspects: New Testament scholarship’s crazy old uncle (and keen Trump fan), Bob Price, unemployed blogger (and keen Richard Carrier fan), Richard Carrier, and some guy called Dave Fitzgerald, who once wrote a self-published booklet on the subject.
Most of Tarico’s 2014 article summarises five of the main arguments used by Fitzgerald in that little book, though these are mainly parroting arguments used by Fitzgerald’s “best friend, mentor and hero” Richard Carrier, most of which are also used by Bob Price. As I have detailed at length elsewhere, Fitzgerald’s book – Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All – is pretty terrible, even by the low standards of Mythicist attempts at argument. Fitzgerald reacted to that negative review with the level of objective scholarly gravitas we have come to expect from online Mythicism advocates, calling me a “douche”, a “blog gadfly”, “the Perez Hilton of atheism”, “Bill O’Reillyesque”, “a Fox News pundit”, “His Shrillness”, “his assholedom”,”chicken-shit” and a few other choice examples of urbane academic discourse, and attempted to show that it was me who had got things wrong. So I responded to that in detail as well. I haven’t heard a peep out of him since.
Now Tarico is back on the topic and has interviewed this self-published amateur in a new article, this time on the Raw Story site – “History writer: Jesus probably never existed — here’s why Christianity emerged anyway“. And it contains much of the same stuff, but with some new gems of Mythicist reasoning from Fitzgerald.
Incredulity, Ancient and Modern
Fitzgerald is nothing if not bold and he kicks off the interview with a remarkable statement. When asked by Tarico what led him to his conclusion that it’s likely no historical Jesus existed, he replies:
“Honestly, I’d put it even more strongly than that – now, I actually can’t see how there even could have been an actual Jesus.”
This is a very strong claim. The analysis of history is actually an assessment of two main things: (i) what might have happened and (ii) which of those things is the most likely to have happened, according to an objective and parsimonious analysis of the relevant evidence. The second of those questions is the part that takes up most of a historian’s time and effort, but working out which interpretations are at least possible is the first step. Anyone who knows me, has read my stuff online or has simply just read this far in this article will know that I hold the idea that there was no historical Jesus in low regard, but I am more than happy to accept that it is at least possible – to use Fitzgerald’s language, it at least “could” be true. I just find it very unlikely. Yet here Fitzgerald is going so far as to say he can’t even see how a historical Jesus could have existed.
Unfortunately the reasons he gives for this position are characteristically weak:
“The first red flag for me was realizing just how little evidence actually holds up to inspection at all. Another was seeing how differently Christians talked about Jesus before and after the gospels were written. And then there’s the general level of bluff and bluster and just ridiculously overstated claims of Christian biblical scholars.”
If true, these are all potential reasons, perhaps, to hold that the existence of a historical Jesus is unlikely, but they are hardly sufficient reason to say there is no way he could have existed. Then again, later in the interview Fitzgerald takes a much less hardline tone:
“There’s nothing implausible about Christianity beginning with a wandering teacher and his followers. And it’s no skin off my nose if there was – but that’s not what our evidence points to.”
This is a much more reasonable statement, though what he seems to be saying is “I don’t think that’s what our evidence points to”. Like his mentor and hero Carrier, Fitzgerald has a bad habit of stating his opinion as fact and being overly emphatic even about his opinions.
Next Fitzgerald notes that the idea no historical Jesus existed is not new. This is true – it’s been a fringe idea since the eighteenth century and got some serious scholarly consideration in the late nineteenth century before it was rejected. But he then makes another of his remarkable claims:
“Critics have been pointing out some of these problems since the first and second centuries.”
They have? One of the major flaws in the Mythicist thesis is actually the total lack of anyone in those centuries talking about a purely mythical/celestial Jesus or casting any doubt at all on Jesus’ historical existence. According to Mythicists like Fitzgerald there was supposedly a whole branch of proto-Christianity that did not believe in any earthly Jesus at all. Yet, oddly, in all the early Christian literature about “heresies”, where orthodox writers condemn the variant forms of the faith, we don’t get so much as a hint of any such rival form. By the same token, we have early Christian texts answering the arguments against Christianity by pagan and Jewish critics. But, again, these critics don’t seem to have noticed a whole branch of Christianity that not only didn’t believe Jesus existed on earth, but could also make the claim to be the original form of Christianity. The silence of these sources on this supposed original mythic Jesus form of Christianity, one that is required by the Mythicist thesis, is deafening.
So who does Fitzgerald think was pointing out problems with the idea of a historical, earthly Jesus in “the first and second centuries”? Or in any century at all prior to Mythicism’s first glimmerings in the eighteenth century speculations of Volney and Dupuis? Fitzgerald doesn’t say, though it seems in one of his three new books on the subject, he makes a typically weak argument that such doubts existed. In his self-published Jesus: Mything in Action Vol. II he quotes from Justin Martyr’s dialogue with the Jewish critic Trypho, which has Trypho declare:
“But Christ – if he has indeed been born and exists anywhere – is unknown, and does not even know himself and has no power until Elias comes to anoint him and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.” [Dialogue with Trypho, Dialog 8]” (p. 212, Fitzgerald’s emphasis)
Fitzgerald somehow manages to read this as Trypho questioning “if Jesus wasn’t just an invention of Christians” (p. 211), but Trypho is not saying that at all. The “Christ” he refers to here is the Jewish messiah, who he says has either not been born or, if he has, has not yet been revealed. Then he says that Jesus is not the true Jewish messiah, that the idea he is is “a groundless report” and that in accepting him as the messiah, Christians “invent a [messiah] for yourselves”.
And if this isn’t clear from simply reading what Justin has Trypho say, it’s perfectly clear from doing what Fitzgerald seems to have never done – reading the rest of the text. Trypho makes repeated arguments that not only show he accepted there was a historical, human Jesus but actually depend on that acceptance. For example:
“But this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified.” (Dialogue, XXXII)
“Those who affirm him to have been a man, and to have been anointed by election, and then to have become Christ, appear to me to speak more plausibly than you who hold those opinions which you express. For we all expect that Christ will be a man [born] of men, and that Elijah when he comes will anoint him. But if this man appear to be Christ, he must certainly be known as man [born] of men; but from the circumstance that Elijah has not yet come, I infer that this man is not He [the Christ].” (Dialogue, XLIX)
“Now show if this man be He of whom these prophecies were made.” (Dialogue, XXXVI)
All these are consistent with the statement Fitzgerald quotes from Dialogue VIII where he says that the Jewish messiah has not yet been revealed and so Jesus was not the Jewish messiah. The only way Mythicists like Fitzgerald can try to salvage their weird reading of Dialogue VIII is by saying in these references to Jesus as a man doing or not doing various things (being dishonoured by his death, not fulfilling prophecies, not being anointed by Elijah) Trypho is merely hypothetically accepting the posited Jesus of Christianity merely by way of argument. But this begs the question. Nowhere does Trypho say that’s what he’s doing nor does he say anything that even implies this, so Mythicists are simply reading that contrived assumption in to try to salvage their argument. The clear, parsimonious reading of all these mentions of Jesus is that Trypho accepted he existed but did not accept he was the Messiah.
The Unbelief of the Unbelievers
Fitzgerald then has to account for the fact that the thesis he has championed is not only rejected by Christian scholars, which is hardly surprising, but has also been totally rejected by the overwhelming majority of non-Christian scholars as well. This is an awkward fact that Mythicists have to dance around. After all, if the situation was like that of Creationism and Evolution, where we have devout believers on one side and all the objective experts on the other, it would be clear that confirmation bias was in play. But Mythicists are regarded as fringe contrarians (at best) not only by those with an obvious religious bias but also by leading non-Christian scholars who don’t have a dog in the fight and could not care less if Jesus was an obscure mythic figure or an obscure historical one. Tarico asks Fitzgerald why “there is so much resistance among non-believers to the idea that the person of Jesus could be a composite or a religious myth?” And she notes, correctly, that leading non-Christian scholars like Bart Ehrman (and dozens of others, including many Jews) “would say that it’s because the evidence is against you.”
But Fitzgerald, like all fringe contrarians, doesn’t even countenance that option. He tells us that it must be because the idea is just so radical, saying that when he first considered it “it blew my mind”. Perhaps my mind is less easily “blown” than that of Fitzgerald, but I first considered the idea that he may not have existed at all very early in my study of the origins of Christianity, because it was a logical option to examine for someone who has realised that much of what Christians accept from the gospels is clearly not historical. The next rational question to ask is, “does this mean it’s all made up?” This is not exactly “mind-blowing”, but it’s also not an original question and, as mentioned above, late nineteenth/early twentieth century scholars considered it and rejected it. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, seems to have had his mind so totally “blown” by this obvious question that it has never quite recovered.
He also seems to think that this option is so “mind blowing” that the poor, tiny minds of non-Christian critical scholars simply can’t fathom it and so recoil from even seriously considering it. Again, these are scholars who are trained to question absolutely everything about Christian sources and expose every line, phrase and word in the New Testament to critical scrutiny. They also fully accept ideas about Jesus that are every bit as foreign and contrary to orthodox Christian dogma as the idea that Jesus didn’t exist at all; after all, a historical Jesus who was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who died a futile death is about as far from the Jesus who will be worshipped in churches around the world as a god this weekend as any mythic/celestial non-historical Jesus. Yet somehow these critical scholars can fully accept any number of non-Christian conceptions of Jesus but the simple idea that he didn’t exist at all must, according to Fitzgerald, be too “mind blowing” for them. This makes no sense. As Tarico’s question suggests, they actually don’t accept this idea because it simply isn’t convincing.
Fitzgerald says that he suspects that for many atheists the Jesus Myth thesis may sound a bit crackpot:
“[F]or many atheists, such a jaw-dropping notion raises the same alarms they get when they see crackpots talking about Atlantis or Bigfoot being real, or the moon landings being fake. To be fair, there are several Jesus myth theories that are just nonsense.”
There certainly are. And the truly crackpot versions of Mythicism definitely don’t do the slightly-less-crackpot versions any favours. But any true sceptic should have come across enough fringe theories where you have the overwhelming majority of experts, regardless of background, on one side and a tiny handful of contrarians, mavericks, amateurs and self-published nobodies on the other and had their sceptical alarm bells ring loudly. Mythicism is another one of these, and even before you examine the merits of the arguments, this state of affairs alone hints strongly that the contrarians are very likely to be wrong.
And no Mythicism boosting would be complete without at least one mention of the supposedly significant lack of ancient non-Christian sources mentioning Jesus, despite the fact we have a similar lack for any other early first century Jewish preachers and prophets. Fitzgerald asserts with typical great confidence:
“In my books I detail why the most cited so-called sources outside the New Testament are considered forgeries and why the rest only provide evidence for the existence of Christianity rather than Jesus himself. They all draw their information about Jesus from Christian sources.”
Really? But several of the non-Christian mentions of Jesus aren’t “considered forgeries”. Even if we ignore the fact that most scholars think the mention of Jesus in Josephus Antiquities XVIII.63-64 is original to Josephus, though contains some obvious later Christian additions, the second one in Antiquities XX.200 is regarded as genuine by pretty much everyone. So “considered forgeries” by who? Well, by Fitzgerald and his mentor and hero Carrier of course, though I detail why Carrier is dead wrong on the Antiquities XX.200 reference here. Then there is also the mention of the execution of a “Christus” by Tacitus in Annals XV.44, which is also considered genuine by scholars. So Fitzgerald distorts the facts to fit his thesis yet again.
Fitzgerald makes further excuses for why only a tiny handful of nobodies takes Mythicism seriously. “Basically, more than a few secular historians have inherited the automatic Christian dismissal of any kind of myth theory” he reassures us. This may be true for many historians, but it is not true for those non-Christian scholars who are engaged with or highly conversant with historical Jesus studies. Everyone in the relevant fields studies the way the field has developed over time and that includes the brief period when this question was given serious consideration. They dismiss it because they understand why it was dismissed a century ago. Finally we get this rather fatuous proclamation:
“Ultimately, however, this isn’t a fight between mythicists and historicists; it’s a fight between those that take mythicism seriously (mythicists and historicists alike) and those that simply dismiss it out of hand as something long-since settled.”
This is garbage. Any “fight” at all is between total nobodies like Fitzgerald and his hero Carrier and the few serious scholars who care enough about the public perception of questions like this to bother addressing these fringe-dwellers at all. For everyone else in any relevant field it’s either a silly storm in an internet tea cup or not even on their scholarly radar.
Apocalyptics and Mystery Cults
When Tarico asks him how Christianity arose without any historical founder, Fitzgerald replies:
“The further we go back in Christian history, the more diverse it appears, and the less likely it began with a single founder. Instead there are abundant indications that its origins are tied to the pagan mystery faiths.”
These claims probably sound reasonable to anyone without a detailed grasp of the relevant source material or its Jewish context, but they don’t stand up to much scrutiny. First of all, it’s the much later material that has the most parallels with any non-Jewish pagan mystery cults, while the early material is highly consistent in one key respect – its apocalypticism. Far from being “diverse”, the seven epistles of Paul and the three earliest of the canonical gospels along with Acts are all very consistent about Jesus’ message: God was going to bring down an apocalyptic judgement on the world and re-assert his direct rule over the earth and he was going to do so very soon. So everyone had to repent and fast, because this apocalypse was coming any day. This is actually presented at the very beginning of the story of Jesus in the oldest gospel:
“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. …. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingship of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1: 9-15)
And the same gospel ends its account of his teaching with a description of this coming apocalypse (Mark 13:1-31) which ends with a warning about its imminence:
“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Mark 13:30)
This urgent message begins to be tempered later as some of “this generation” began to die, so we find assurances that at least some of them would still be alive when the apocalypse comes (see 1 Thess. 4:15-17; Mark 9:1 and Mark 14:62). As the first century went on the delay in the coming of the apocalypse meant later gospel writers had to adjust things slightly. So gLuke tones down some of the language he finds in his source, gMark, with its writer removing “in power” in Mark 9:1. This is because for Luke the Kingdom has already “come to you” in Jesus’ own ministry (Luke 11:10). He also changes the prediction that the high priest would see the apocalypse in Mark 14:62, since by the time gLuke was written that high priest was long dead ( see Luke 22:69).
By the time we get to the very latest of the gospels, gJohn, we see the kind of tactics used by all apocalyptic movements when the apocalypse fails to eventuate. Now the coming apocalyptic “kingdom of God” is a spiritual kingdom, available in the present for all who are “born from above” (John 3:3, 5). The apocalyptic message about a coming Son of Man is now absent completely and Jesus has become a divine saviour figure, not a Jewish apocalyptic Messiah.
All this fits perfectly with a Christianity that arose as a Jewish apocalyptic sect centred on a preacher who genuinely thought the coming “kingship of God” would cleanse the earth of the unrighteous and very soon. But it doesn’t fit at all with some kind of “Jewish version of … [the] Hellenistic theology” of the mystery cults. On the contrary, it’s only in the later New Testament texts and the much later Christian material of the following centuries that Jesus becomes anything like a mystery cult saviour and god; in the earliest New Testament texts he is not divine at all. Fitzgerald’s fanciful idea gets things completely backwards.
Fitzgerald, like his “hero and mentor” Carrier, has no knowledge of and it seems no interest in the Jewish context of the earliest Christian sect. So he talks about “the mystery faith savior of Paul”, when what Paul actually describes is a Jesus who is the exalted Jewish messiah – pre-existent second only to God and raised to that status by God after becoming a man and dying, but not divine himself. And Paul loooks forward to Jesus coming again in the apocalypse. As a result of his ignorance of the very religious context out of which Christianity arose, people like Fitzgerald misread texts written by Jews or based on Jewish ideas by looking at them through entirely the wrong filter. Not surprisingly, the results are gibberish.
The Mythicist Dead End
Fitzgerald finishes the interview with the following observation:
“What is important about this argument –and what makes it worth arguing about–is that it shows what we can and can’t know about who or what Jesus really was. Everything we learn from the back and forth of this historical argument – on both sides – helps us call the bluff of anyone who says they know how Jesus wants you to behave or think or vote.”
Unfortunately, the more that activist anti-Christian atheists like Fitzgerald and Carrier hook atheism to the bandwagon of Mythicism, the less credibility they are going to have in any such arguments. Mythicism is a dead end: a pseudo scholarly cul-de-sac inhabited by contrarians and more than a few total crackpots. Genuine, mainstream scholarship on the historical Jesus as a Jewish apocalypticist presents a genuine challenge to orthodox Christian beliefs. Mythicism, however, does not and never will.
(For a summary of the major problems with the Mythicist thesis and the reasons the overwhelming majority of non-Christian critical scholars find it unconvincing, see my article “Did Jesus Exist? The Jesus Myth Theory, Again.” For a more detailed back and forth between two leading proponents of the two rival views, watch agnostic scholar Prof. Bart Ehrman and Mythicist Dr Robert Price meet to debate “Did Jesus Exist” on October 21st 2016. And for those who don’t have a spare two and half hours to watch the whole debate, even Mythicists had to admit Ehrman wiped the floor with Price.)