Those who do research and then present their findings often discover that there is more work to do. Such was the case in 2010 when David Fitzgerald published a little book called Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed. His award-winning foray into mythicist studies left readers clamoring for more, but serious historical investigation takes time. Now, the long-awaited follow-up is finally available. Fitzgerald’s Jesus: Mything in Action is a three-part work that his fans will undoubtedly agree was well worth the wait.

In the book’s introduction, Fitzgerald reminds his readers of a salient fact—a matter that, though now axiomatic, needs to be reiterated. Scholars have long drawn a clear distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and only one of those figures merits serious discussion by freethinkers. Regardless of what claims anyone makes concerning the existence of a man behind the myth, the protagonist of the Gospels is undoubtedly a fictional character.

In the first volume of his study, Fitzgerald addresses the question of why there seem to be so few historians who are mythicists, and he admits, “We should pay attention to what the experts in the field think” (36). Nonetheless, his ensuing discussion of the situation suggests that the field itself has major problems—in large part because biblical research “remains…dominated by believers,” some of whom (whether intentionally or not) perpetuate an apologetic bias (36). Three problems Fitzgerald has identified receive attention here.

First, with only a very few exceptions, arguments advanced in support of the mythicist position rely on negative findings of historical Jesus research concerning which there has been broad consensus for over one hundred years. As Fitzgerald observes, “The final conclusion reached by mythicists may be controversial, [but] not the evidence cited and the methodology employed to get there” (38). So, it is unfair to suggest that mythicists have taken a stance entirely outside the mainstream of historical Jesus research.

Second, most experts have now grudgingly acknowledged that the criteria of authenticity used to isolate historical elements within the Jesus tradition have failed to deliver credible results. So, as Fitzgerald explains, even the most conscientious specialists in the field “have not followed sound historical practices” (51). In subsequent chapters, he provides specific examples to help readers understand why scholars have now lost confidence in the criteria of authenticity, and he surveys various historical reconstructions of Jesus that were based on these flawed principles, noting that the inexplicable disparity of the results led scholars to reconsider the longstanding acceptance of the underlying methodology.

Third, mythicists have frequently insisted that biblical scholars employed by a church-affiliated institution cannot really afford to voice doubts about the historicity of Jesus, and Fitzgerald has now documented that claim. Of 1,417 “degree-granting institutions of higher education in the United States [that] offer some form of relevant Biblical/Jesus/NT Studies…the majority…have a religious affiliation” (59-60). Of course, not every denominational institution mandates strict faculty adherence to its doctrinal statement, but that is the case for 273 out of 814 schools. And so, as Fitzgerald stresses, many professors have a contractual obligation to affirm the historicity of Jesus (62). For readers who assume that academic freedom is alive and well in other religious colleges, universities, and seminaries, he presents six case studies that summarize how biblical scholars lost jobs for stating views not nearly so controversial as the Christ myth theory (63-79).

Of course, no one can use this data to say how many biblical experts might be closet mythicists; that remains a matter of speculation. However, one can infer from this data that the field of biblical studies is not free from a bias toward religious orthodoxy. In addition, one can infer that doctrinal restrictions on academic freedom reinforce and thereby perpetuate religious orthodoxy within the scholarly guild. Furthermore, if (as the data suggests) the field of biblical studies is dominated by believers, it is no surprise that the strongest mythicist arguments quite often come from outside the academy.

Fitzgerald’s work has many positive aspects, but several deserve special attention. His engaging conversational style makes Jesus: Mything in Action a pleasure to read, and the non-polemical tone of his approach provides a model that other participants in the ongoing mythicist-historicist debate should strive to emulate. He gives a fair hearing to views that challenge his own, always focusing on the cogency of competing arguments and never resorting to personal attacks against those who still have doubts about the mythicist position.

Fitzgerald’s work is well-researched, drawing on an impressive array of scholarship. At the end of most chapters, he provides suggestions for further reading, including various online resources. Like the suggestions for further reading, the endnotes introduce readers to a wealth of research, and that material provides a clear roadmap for anyone who wants to learn more about the issues discussed in this study.

David Fitzgerald has depicted his role as that of “a combat reporter, not a front-line soldier of the Jesus historicist/mythicist war” (83). In other words, he makes no claim that this three-part work presents his own scholarly research; instead, what he provides is a comprehensive resource meant to introduce interested readers to what mythicist scholars have written about the subject, while at the same time identifying significant problems associated with historicist position.

Let me end my review with a quote that Fitzgerald includes in his study, even though the person quoted remains a historicist. The following statement, by Philip Davies, reflects my own view of the mythicist-historicist debate: “I don’t think…that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.” Like Davies, I am convinced that the historicist view best accounts for the surviving evidence, and I defend that view in my own book, Jesus Eclipsed. Yet, like Davies, I also realize that I may be wrong.

So, instead of assuming that the historicist position must be correct, take the time to weigh the pertinent evidence, to consider the competing arguments, and to draw an informed conclusion. Read Jesus: Mything in Action, and see what you think. It is an excellent study!