Jesus Eclipsed: Part 2

In my initial post, I shared a bit about who I am and what led me to write Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts. Here, I want to discuss what the book tries to accomplish.

The book begins with some preliminary matters. The first chapter introduces several pioneers of historical Jesus studies, and the second chapter clarifies the historian’s task, which is to establish probabilities. What most often compromises historical Jesus research is the failure to maintain a clear distinction between what is plausible and what is probable. Let me clarify the problem with two examples that receive more detailed treatment in the book.

Most historicists have acknowledged that the story of Jesus creating a disturbance in the Temple is completely implausible given what is known about the vast dimensions of the area involved and the strong likelihood that Roman troops and Temple guards would have intervened. Even so, many of these same scholars insist that some such event must have occurred because they see no way to account for the story otherwise. In their attempts to salvage the historicity of the incident, they minimize the scope of the disruption by removing implausible elements and then speculate that the Gospels must have exaggerated what really happened. Proponents of this approach seem quite confident that this patchwork of supposition provides sufficient evidence to label the event “probable.” I disagree.

Most mythicists have gone to extraordinary lengths to raise doubts about the meaning of Paul’s reference to “James the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19). They admit that the phrase appears in what critics agree is an authentic Pauline letter. They note that the apostle often uses the word brother in a spiritual sense (true, though no contextual clues support that usage in the present case). Then they insist that there is no reason to think that Paul is talking about a person whom he knows as a biological sibling of Jesus. Proponents of this approach call this sort of speculation “probable” not because it is the best explanation of the evidence but because it provides an excuse to ignore inconvenient evidence. I disagree.

No discussion of the ongoing debate between mythicists and historicists would be complete without rounding up the usual non-Christian sources (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus) and evaluating what they can add to the conversation, and my book has fulfilled that obligation. Scholars agree that—with one important exception—those writers provide no independent evidence for the historicity of Jesus. That exception is Josephus’ second reference to Jesus (Ant. 20.9.1). Of course, the consensus of scholarship is not evidence, but recent efforts to challenge that consensus have not adequately refuted the traditional arguments.

For those unfamiliar with the debate about Jesus’ historicity, my book also offers a chapter that details what the letters of Paul say about Jesus (almost nothing) and then a subsequent chapter that catalogs various gospel traditions that historians have always regarded as dubious: factual inaccuracies, anachronisms, contradictions, and miracles or other incidences of the supernatural.

Three chapters of my book involve an important insight that few scholars have taken seriously enough. In his classic study, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (first published in 1835), David Friedrich Strauss points out an effective criterion for identifying materials in the Gospels that should be viewed as mythical. He observes, “[W]hen we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of [earlier biblical] prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical” (89).

In his book Poetry, Narrative, History [1990], British literary critic Frank Kermode notes the prevalence of this technique: “[T]he creation of fictive history or historicized fiction by the development of ancient narrative germs…is a dominant characteristic of New Testament narrative” (47). In his book Who Killed Jesus? [1995], Dominic Crossan sees the same thing and dubs it “prophecy historicized” (1-4). In his book The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems [2011], Robert Price demonstrates that numerous stories found in the Gospels derive from a use of this technique, which he designates as “Old Testament midrash” (59-263). Clearly, the idea is not new; yet, for some reason, it receives far too little attention.

The real thrust of my book focuses on the significant implications of this one insight, which I have summarized this way: Many stories about Jesus likely owe their existence not to genuine recollections of actual events handed down (distorted?) by oral tradition (as historical Jesus scholars have typically claimed) but to invented memories of fictitious events worked up from Old Testament texts.

Once we realize how many stories about Jesus owe their existence to this practice of recasting some earlier scriptural passage, we will find it rather difficult to argue that the myth surrounding the man relies in any meaningful sense on existing pagan beliefs about dying and rising gods.

Contrary to mythicist claims, the evidence found in early Christian sources suggests not devotion to a divine figure who gradually came to be seen as human but devotion to a human figure who rather quickly came to be viewed as divine. This mythologizing of Jesus took place as the gospel writers tried to show how events in the life of Jesus fulfilled what was written in the Scriptures. The telltale scriptural influences found in so many stories about Jesus have largely obscured whatever it was that Jesus may have said and done to attract a following in the first place.

In the second edition of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer anticipates what is almost certainly now the case: “Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus” (402). That should not be taken to suggest that Jesus never existed; instead, it simply means that it can no longer be shown that the protagonist of the Gospels has any meaningful connection to the man behind the myth. Therefore, in answer to the question, “Is Jesus simply a myth?” a historian can respond, “Probably not, but for all we know, he may as well have been.”

Let me close this post with a word of thanks to John Loftus for allowing me to share my ideas here and with an appeal to those who may find my ideas of interest: “Sir or madam, would you read my book? It took me years to write—won’t you take a look?