The State of Scholarly Mythicism

After publishing Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed in late 2018 I have become increasingly engaged in the field of biblical studies and Christian origins. The subject of mythicism is a complex one that is fraught with problems, as is the entire subject of Christian origins, because of the vast array of competing claims in the field, some of which are of dubious academic quality. Nevertheless, I believe that the field is maturing and has reached a point of growing consensus around a model for Christian origins without the existence of a human Jesus. 

The mythicist model of origins that I believe consensus is forming around is one in which the worship of Jesus begins with a celestial deity that certain prophets believe they have identified in the Jewish scriptures. The origin, role, and sacrifice of Jesus is all derived from Jewish scriptures. A collection of writings attributed to someone named Paul advocates for this mythic Jesus. At some point after the First Jewish-Roman War a story we now call the Gospel of Mark is produced. The Gospel of Mark is an entirely fabricated narrative derived from the letters of Paul. The Gospel of Mark is the first story to portray Jesus as a real person in a historical setting, and every other account of Jesus the man ultimately derives from the Gospel of Mark. These various accounts, all derived from Mark, were believed by second century readers to be independently written, reliable historical accounts, and these stories are what led to the belief that Jesus was a real person.

There are various disagreements about the details of all this. For example, was the pre-Gospel Jesus a purely celestial deity who underwent a crucifixion in the heavens or was it believed that Jesus underwent his mythic crucifixion on earth? Was the Gospel of Mark written between 70 and 80 CE in reaction to the First Jewish-Roman War, or much later, perhaps in the second century in reaction to later Jewish-Roman conflicts? Did anyone think that Jesus was a real historical person prior to the writing of Mark?

What I’d like to do here is review major works of scholarship that support this overall model to highlight how these works contribute to the model and where they disagree. The works I will be reviewing are as follows:

The Case Against Q by Mark Goodacre (2002)
Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul by David Oliver Smith (2011)
Mark Canonizer of Paul by Tom Dykstra (2012)
Jesus: Neither God Nor Man - The Case For A Mythical Jesus by Earl Doherty (2009)
On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier (2014)

The order I’ll be reviewing these books in is quite deliberate, and I believe reflects the best way to approach this topic.

The Case Against Q : Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem

For anyone not already familiar with the subject of mythicism I believe that the best introduction to the issues is to start with Professor Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q. I must first note that Goodacre is not a “mythicist”. Professor Goodacre very much adheres to the view that Jesus was a real person, whose life inspired the writing of the Gospels. This may then seem like an odd introduction to the subject of mythicism, but Goodacre’s work is very important for multiple reasons: Firstly, because “Q” is ultimately the elephant in the room in my option. So much of modern biblical scholarship hinges on Q, and yet, as Professor Goodacre shows, Q itself is but an illusion. Q does not exist, and it is upon the fictitious Q that so much of the case for the historicity of Jesus is based. But secondly, The Case Against Q is important because in it Professor Goodacre, himself an established and respected biblical scholar, lays out core criticisms of the field of biblical scholarship. So many of the arguments that Goodacre levies against Q and Q scholarship are actually much broader and apply to the entire field as a whole. What we have in The Case Against Q is a work by an established biblical scholar which shows that the fundamental underpinnings and models of mainstream biblical scholarship are not sound. That’s why this book is so critically important.

The book itself is relatively short, which is another reason that it’s a good starting point for those wanting to delve into this subject. The book also provides a solid grounding in biblical scholarship from a highly respected biblical scholar. Ultimately, Goodacre makes a solid case for the Farrer hypothesis, which holds that the Gospel of Mark was written first, with Matthew having built on Mark and Luke having used both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark when writing his Gospel. Goodacre shows why this provides a far better explanation for the features of Luke than the idea that Luke was using Mark and some separate independent source.

I must state that I myself was skeptical of this position going into the book, but I found Goodacre’s case very compelling. This is all very important because this lays the groundwork for understanding that all of our accounts of Jesus derive from a single story. We start with the Gospel of Mark, and then everyone else copies from Mark or from other stories that have been copied from Mark. There aren't multiple independent sources that attest to the Gospel narrative.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul : The Influence of the Epistles on the Synoptic Gospels

Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul is the perfect follow-up to The Case Against Q. Reading these two books back-to-back should convince any sensible person that Q is nonsense. Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul is written by David Oliver Smith, a retired lawyer at the time he wrote the book. Quite frankly, this is one of the most illuminating works of biblical scholarship I’ve read and puts the works of the vast majority of professional biblical scholars to shame. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. This is, in my mind, an extremely important work of biblical scholarship that deserves significant recognition – and I say this as someone who had independently come to many of the same conclusions that Smith lays out in his book – even still I learned a lot. What Smith does is lay the information out in a very compelling and matter-of-fact way that directly addresses dominant views in biblical scholarship and shows why those views make far less sense than his analysis.

What Smith does in this book is essentially go through the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end and show where Mark makes use of the letters of Paul. He then shows where Matthew and Luke both copy from Mark and how the way that Matthew and Luke extend Mark was also informed by the letters of Paul. He also shows where Matthew and/or Luke use Paul independently.

Smith’s work really extends the case put forward by Goodacre to such an extent that the Q hypothesis becomes laughable. I would say that The Case Against Q makes a solid case against Q and a reasonable case for Luke’s use of Matthew and Mark, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul provides a robust model for understanding the synoptic Gospels that makes so much sense. If Goodacre’s work gets you 75% of the way to rejecting the Q hypothesis, Smith’s work should get you 100% of the way there.

It really can’t be overstated how radical all this really is as well, because mainstream biblical scholars still predominately accept Q and also don’t acknowledge that the Gospels were influenced by the letters of Paul. So what we see here is the building of a case showing that the Gospels are really an extension of the Pauline corpus, and that the letters of Paul are really the source of Jesus’ teachings and the Gospel narrative.

Mark Canonizer of Paul : A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark's Gospel

Tom Dykstra’s book came out shortly after Smith’s and covers some of the same territory, though in a very different way. Whereas Smith works his way through Mark from beginning to end and directly takes on the Q hypothesis, Dykstra’s book provides a historical overview of the case for Mark having used Paul. Dykstra provides much needed background on biblical scholarship itself. Dykstra traces the proposition that Mark used Paul back to the mid-nineteenth century and reviews opposition to such a proposal, showing how that opposition developed into models that became the foundation of modern mainstream biblical scholarship.

Whereas Smith’s work takes on Q, Dykstra takes on “oral tradition”. Whereas Smith’s work focuses a lot of attention on triple-tradition material across the synoptics and covers a lot of ground, Dykstra’s work provides deeper analysis of Mark itself with a richer exploration into the meaning of the story. 

Dykstra provides significant context into the assessment of Mark and its sources and how all of this has been interpreted by scholars over the years. It is important to note that when Dykstra wrote Mark Canonizer of Paul he was not a “mythicist” per se. The book is written with the assumption that Jesus was a real person, though since having published the work Dykstra has adopted the mythicist position and now agrees that Jesus was most likely not a real person.

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man - The Case For A Mythical Jesus

We now come to a major work of mythicism proper. Neither God Nor Man is a revisitation of Earl Doherty’s famous Jesus PuzzleNeither God Nor Man covers a lot of the same ground that The Jesus Puzzle did, but it is updated, expanded and refined, so if you are going to engage with Doherty’s material you may as well read Neither God Nor Man as opposed to The Jesus Puzzle

Having said that, I must say that The Jesus Puzzle can arguably be considered the godfather of modern scholarly mythicism. Certainly The Jesus Puzzle, published in the 1990s, wasn’t the first work to make a case that Jesus never existed, such a proposition goes back at least to the 19th century, but Doherty is the one who really laid out a substantial case for the idea that Jesus was originally conceived of as a celestial being and gave the theory modern force.

The strength of Doherty’s work lies primarily in his analysis of the early epistles and the context he provides for how the epistles fit into broader Hellenistic worldviews. The first half of Neither God Nor Man deals with what Doherty calls the Jerusalem tradition. Here I believe is where Doherty shines and is on solid ground. But the later half of the book is primarily devoted to what Doherty calls the Galilean tradition, and here Doherty departs from the model I outlined at the beginning of this piece. Doherty supports the Q hypothesis and, interestingly, sides with the majority option in biblical scholarship. Here I believe Doherty runs aground, because he then devotes substantial effort to explaining Christian origins in the light of Q.

So while I think that Doherty makes an excellent case for the original worship of a celestial Jesus, he ultimately fails at explaining the development of the Gospels because of his reliance on Q and because he, like so many biblical scholars, gets sucked into trying to construct a Rube Goldberg device with Q at its heart.

This also highlights the issue with Q. If you assume that the Q hypothesis is true, it then necessarily becomes the foundation of your entire understanding of Christian origins. So in my view, the first section of Neither God Nor Man is essential reading for any scholar of Christian origins, while the second section is a somewhat unfortunate detour into the Q hall of mirrors (note that the book actually has four sections, the last of which is devoted to non-Christian accounts of Jesus and is very worthwhile). Nevertheless, it’s worth reading if only to understand the complexities of Q and how Q can be interpreted in-line with mythicist models. This is also why I believe that reading The Case Against Q and Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul prior to reading Doherty’s work is valuable. 

On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt

If Doherty’s Jesus Puzzle is the book that launched modern scholarly mythicism, then certainly Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus may be seen as the most thorough defense of the position. On the Historicity of Jesus is famously the first peer-reviewed book to make the case against the historicity of Jesus.

The greatest strength of On the Historicity of Jesus is also perhaps its greatest weakness, which is the breadth of what it covers. Coming in a 696 pages of dense type, the book covers a lot of ground, which is suitable because the book is essentially a survey of the evidence from top to bottom and an evaluation of many different positions that have been advanced by various writers on the topic, from both pro and anti historicity camps. But this breadth also makes the book daunting and not entirely friendly to the lay reader. On top of that, it also provides many opportunities for detractors to focus on and attack, with many different tangents that can be used to derail a proper assessment of the case.

Nevertheless, the book is essentially required reading for anyone seeking to address or fully understand mythicist positions. Due to the nature of the book, Carrier spends a lot of time reviewing and summarizing the research and proposals of various other scholars, but Carrier does contribute his own unique analysis as well, which is often insightful. 

Carrier draws heavily from Earl Doherty in regard to the origins and nature of early Jesus worship, but pulls away from Doherty when it comes to Q and the development of the Gospels (rightfully so in my opinion). Unlike Doherty, Carrier takes a strong position against the validity of the Q hypothesis, declaring it completely unsupportable. 

Perhaps the most under-powered section of Carrier’s work is his assessment of the Gospels. While Carrier provides many useful insights regarding the Gospels, he doesn’t make use of the Pauline model laid out by Smith and Dykstra. This is somewhat understandable as those books came out while Carrier was finishing up his and they were also not well known at the time. Nevertheless, Carrier makes the case that the Gospels are likely a recomposition of prior works, likely attributing sayings to Jesus that were originally attributed to someone else. But he then fails to connect that idea to the evidence that Paul is the source from which the Gospels are constructed. Yet despite largely missing this point he still provides many important insights into the construction of the Gospels. Again, this is where having read the first three works I’ve reviewed here provides one with important additional information to buttress this broader work.

Ultimately, Carrier’s work supports the basic model I’ve laid out here. Carrier concludes that:

"Jesus began life as a celestial being whose suffering, death and resurrection was known only through revelations (real or pretended) and secret messages in scripture, and who later became a mythically historicized person as a model to follow and hang new dogmas upon." (page 610)
Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed

Having reviewed these other important works that contribute to the model I outlined at the beginning of this piece, I’d like to touch on my own recent publication. The first three works I reviewed don’t explicitly make the case for mythicism. The last two are large sprawling tomes. Doherty makes the case for a celestial Jesus and then tries to explain the development of the Gospels under the Q hypothesis. Carrier covers a lot of ground and raises many interesting points, but doesn’t ultimately argue for a model for the origin and development of Jesus worship. 

What I do in Deciphering the Gospels is start with the Gospel of Mark to show that Mark is a wholly fabricated story in which the character of Jesus is based heavily on Paul and the scenes are concocted from literary references to the Jewish scriptures. I propose that this story is an allegory that was written in reaction to the First Jewish-Roman War. I then build on that to show that every other account of Jesus the man is derived from the Gospel of Mark. Once having established that the Gospels are not based on the life of a real Jesus, I then go on to show that everything anyone has ever “known” about Jesus comes from the Gospels. I show how the way the Gospels were written led Roman scholars to believe that the Gospels were reliable accounts of real events that perfectly fulfilled many prophecies from the Jewish scriptures, and how this is what led to the adoption of Christianity by Roman elites. 

Once having established that all of the material we have about Jesus the person is based on a fabricated story, I then show that the pre-Gospel Jesus was a heavenly deity derived from prophetic scriptural interpretation. I show that there were many mythic stories about figures very similar to the spiritual Jesus preached by Paul the apostle prior to the origin of Jesus worship, along the lines of the case made by Doherty. I then address supposed non-Christian accounts of Jesus and other forms of supposed evidence to show how confusion about basic facts regarding Jesus set-in among early Christian scholars in the second through fourth centuries. I then conclude with a survey of early Christian accounts of other figures from Christian lore, such as Peter, Mary, and various saints and martyrs, to demonstrate that the whole narrative of early Christian history is mythical and ahistorical. 

So by doing this, my book walks through this specific model of Christian origins step-by-step to present a coherent explanation for the origin and development of Jesus worship without there ever having been a real Jesus person. Where I differ from Carrier is, he proposes that Jesus was consciously historicized in order to achieve some goal. I, on the other hand, propose that the Gospel of Mark was the origin of the idea that Jesus was a real person, but that the Gospel of Mark was written as an allegorical tale that was only misinterpreted as real history. This misinterpretation of the story of Mark is what led to the belief that Jesus was a real person. Thus, the historicization of Jesus wasn’t a conscious effort, it was the result of a mistaken interpretation of a fictional story.

My book has its flaws. It certainly isn’t perfect, and I believe I could do a better job if I were to re-write it today. Most notably the explanation for the Q material that I put forward in the book is, I now believe, inferior to the case put forward by Mark Goodacre. I proposed a lost longer version of Mark as the source used by Matthew and Luke, but I now support the Farrer hypothesis laid out by Goodacre instead.

Nevertheless, I think that what my book brings to the table is a coherent and relatively concise model of Christian origins that builds on some of the best scholarship in the field.


There is still a lot to work out when it comes to understanding Christian origins. The key first step, I believe, is overcoming the “tyranny of the Gospels” – establishing that the Gospels are pure fabrications that provide no real description of Jesus or the origins of Jesus worship. Once we acknowledge that Christianity isn’t a religion that was founded by some person who was killed in the 30s CE, we can then explore more sensibly when, why and how Jesus worship began.

The good news is that out of the milieu of various proposals and claims about Christian origins (both historicist and ahistoricist), we have a sensible model that is emerging. It is now a matter of expanding the scope and working out the details. Now that we have a reasonable model for the origins of Christianity without a Jesus person, the next phase of development is using the model to further explain a broader array of evidence.

So in my view, “mythicism” is at a point where we can stop simply “making the case” that Jesus wasn’t a real person  stop simply trying to refute historicity  and really work at explaining Christian origins in light of this ahistoricist model. This isn’t to say that “mythicism is proven”, or certainly not that it is established or accepted, but it’s time in my view to move beyond just arguing against the historical existence of Jesus.