Robert M. Price
I remember a particular Superboy comic book in which the Boy of Steel somehow discovers that in the future, he is thought to be as mythical as Peter Pan and Santa Claus. Indignant at this turn of events, he flies at faster than light speed and enters the future to set the record straight. He does a few super-deeds and vindicates himself, then comes home. So Superboy winds up having the last laugh — or does he?
Of course, it is only fiction! The people in the future were quite right! Superboy is just as mythical as Santa Claus and Peter Pan.
This seems to me a close parallel to the efforts of Christian apologists to vindicate as sober history the story of a supernatural savior who was born of a virgin, healed the sick, raised the dead, changed water into wine, walked on water, rose from the grave and ascended bodily into the sky.
I used to think, when I myself was a Christian apologist, a defender of the evangelical faith, that I had done a pretty respectable job of vindicating that story as history. I brought to bear a variety of arguments I now recognize to be fallacious, such as the supposed closeness of the gospels to the events they record, their ostensible use of eyewitness testimony, etc. Now, in retrospect, I judge that my efforts were about as effective in the end as Superboy’s! When all is said and done, he remains a fiction.
One caveat: I intend to set forth, briefly, some reasons for the views I now hold. I do not expect that the mere fact that I was once an evangelical apologist and now see things differently should itself count as evidence that I must be right. That would be the genetic fallacy. It would be just as erroneous to think that John Rankin must be right in having embraced evangelical Christianity since he had once been an agnostic Unitarian and repudiated it for the Christian faith. In both cases, what matters is the reasons for the change of mind, not merely the fact of it.
Having got that straight, let me say that I think there are four senses in which Jesus Christ may be said to be a “fiction.”
First (and, I warn you, this one takes by far the most explaining): It is quite likely, though certainly by no means definitively provable, that the central figure of the gospels is not based on any historical individual. Put simply, not only is the theological “Christ of faith” a synthetic construct of theologians, a symbolic “Uncle Sam” figure. But if you could travel through time, like Superboy, and you went back to First-Century Nazareth, you would not find a Jesus living there. Why conclude this? There are three reasons, which I must oversimplify for time’s sake.
1) In broad outline and in detail, the life of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels corresponds to the worldwide Mythic Hero Archetype in which a divine hero’s birth is supernaturally predicted and conceived, the infant hero escapes attempts to kill him, demonstrates his precocious wisdom already as a child, receives a divine commission, defeats demons, wins acclaim, is hailed as king, then betrayed, losing popular favor, executed, often on a hilltop, and is vindicated and taken up to heaven.
These features are found world wide in heroic myths and epics. The more closely a supposed biography, say that of Hercules, Apollonius of Tyana, Padma Sambhava, of Gautama Buddha, corresponds to this plot formula, the more likely the historian is to conclude that a historical figure has been transfigured by myth.
And in the case of Jesus Christ, where virtually every detail of the story fits the mythic hero archetype, with nothing left over, no “secular,” biographical data, so to speak, it becomes arbitrary to assert that there must have been a historical figure lying back of the myth. There may have been, but it can no longer be considered particularly probable, and that’s all the historian can deal with: probabilities.
There may have been an original King Arthur, but there is no particular reason to think so. There may have been a historical Jesus of Nazareth, too, but, unlike most of my colleagues in the Jesus Seminar, I don’t think we can simply assume there was.
2) Specifically, the passion stories of the gospels strike me as altogether too close to contemporary myths of dying and rising savior gods including Osiris, Tammuz, Baal, Attis, Adonis, Hercules, and Asclepius. Like Jesus, these figures were believed to have once lived a life upon the earth, been killed, and risen shortly thereafter. Their deaths and resurrections were in most cases ritually celebrated each spring to herald the return of the life to vegetation. In many myths, the savior’s body is anointed for burial, searched out by holy women and then reappears alive a few days later.
3) Similarly, the details of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection accounts are astonishingly similar to the events of several surviving popular novels from the same period in which two lovers are separated when one seems to have died and is unwittingly entombed alive. Grave robbers discover her reviving and kidnap her. Her lover finds the tomb empty, graveclothes still in place, and first concludes she has been raised up from death and taken to heaven. Then, realizing what must have happened, he goes in search of her. During his adventures, he is sooner or later condemned to the cross or actually crucified, but manages to escape. When at length the couple is reunited, neither, having long imagined the other dead, can quite believe the lover is alive and not a ghost come to say farewell.
There have been two responses to such evidence by apologists. First, they have contended that all these myths are plagiarized from the gospels by pagan imitators, pointing out that some of the evidence is post-Christian. But much is in fact preChristian. And it is significant that the early Christian apologists argued that these parallels to the gospels were counterfeits in advance, by Satan, who knew the real thing would be coming along later and wanted to throw people off the track. This is like the desperate Nineteenth-Century attempts of fundamentalists to claim that Satan had created fake dinosaur bones to tempt the faithful not to believe in Genesis! At any rate, and this is my point, no one would have argued this way had the pagan myths of dead and resurrected gods been more recent than the Christian.
Second, in a variation on the theme, C.S. Lewis suggested that in Jesus’ case “myth became fact.” He admitted the whole business about the Mythic Hero archetype and the similarity to the pagan saviors, only he made them a kind of prophetic charade, creations of the yearning human heart, dim adumbrations of the incarnation of Christ before it actually happened. The others were myths, but this one actually happened.
In answer to this, I think of an anecdote told by my colleague Bruce Chilton, how, staying the weekend at the home of a friend, he was surprised to see that the guest bathroom was festooned with a variety of towels filched from the Hilton, the Ramada Inn, the Holiday Inn, etc. Which was more likely, he asked: that representatives from all these hotels had sneaked into his friend’s bathroom and each copied one of the towel designs? Or that his friend had swiped them from their hotels?
Lewis’s is an argument of desperation which no one would think of making unless he was hell-bent on believing that, though all the other superheroes (Batman, Captain Marvel, the Flash) were fictions, Superboy was in fact genuine.
3) The New Testament epistles can be read quite naturally as presupposing a period in which Christians did not yet believe their savior god had been a figure living on earth in the recent historical past. Paul, for instance, never even mentions Jesus performing healings and even as a teacher. Twice he cites what he calls “words of the Lord,” but even conservative New Testament scholars admit he may as easily mean prophetic revelations from the heavenly Christ. Paul attributes the death of Jesus not to Roman or Jewish governments, but rather to the designs of evil “archon,” angels who rule this fallen world. Romans and 1 Peter both warn Christians to watch their step, reminding them that the Roman authorities never punish the righteous, but only the wicked. How they have said this if they knew of the Pontius Pilate story?
The two exceptions, 1 Thessalonians and 2 Timothy, epistles that do blame Pilate or Jews for the death of Jesus, only serve to prove the rule. Both can easily be shown on other grounds to be non-Pauline and later than the gospels.
Jesus was eventually “historicized,” redrawn as a human being of the past (much as Samson, Enoch, Jabal, Gad, Joshua the son of Nun, and various other ancient Israelite gods had already been). As a part of this process, there were various independent attempts to locate Jesus in recent history by laying the blame for his death on this or that likely candidate, well known tyrants including Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, and even Alexander Jannaeus in the first century BC! Now, if the death of Jesus were an actual historical event well known to eyewitnesses of it, there is simply no way such a variety of versions, differing on so fundamental a point, could ever have arisen!
And if early Christians had actually remembered the passion as a series of recent events, why does the earliest gospel crucifixion account spin out the whole terse narrative from quotes cribbed without acknowledgement from Psalm 22? Why does 1 Peter have nothing more detailed than Isaiah 53 to flesh out his account of the sufferings of Jesus? Why does Matthew supplement Mark’s version, not with historical tradition or eyewitness memory, but with more quotes, this time from Zechariah and the Wisdom of Solomon?
Thus I find myself more and more attracted to the theory, once vigorously debated by scholars, now smothered by tacit consent, that there was no historical Jesus lying behind the stained glass of the gospel mythology. Instead, he is a fiction.
1) We deem them myths not because of a prior bias that there can be no miracles, but because of the Principle of Analogy, the only alternative to which is believing everything in The National Inquirer. If we do not use the standard of current-day experience to evaluate claims from the past, what other standard is there? And why should we believe that God or Nature used to be in the business of doing things that do not happen now? Isn’t God supposed to be the same yesterday, today, and forever?
2) The apologists’ claim that there was “too little time between the death of Jesus and the writing of the gospels for legends to develop” is circular, presupposing a historical Jesus living at a particular time. 40 years is easily enough time for legendary expansion anyway, but the Christ-Myth Theory does not require that the Christ figure was created in Pontius Pilate’s time, only that later, Pilate’s time was retrospectively chosen as a location for Jesus.
a) See Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History on the tendency in oral tradition to keep updating mythic foundational events, keeping them always at a short distance, a couple of generations before one’s own time.
b) And even if there were a historical Jesus and we knew we had eyewitness reports, the apologists fail to take into account recent studies which show that eyewitness testimony, especially of unusual events, is the most unreliable of all, that people tend to rewrite what they saw in light of their accustomed categories and expectations. Thus Strauss was right on target suggesting that the early Christians simply imagined Jesus fulfilling the expected deeds of messiahs and prophets.
3) It is special pleading to dismiss all similar stories as myths and to insist that this case must be different. If you do this, admit it, you are a fideist, no longer an apologist (if there is any difference!).
Second, the “historical Jesus” reconstructed by New Testament scholars is always a reflection of the individual scholars who reconstruct him. Albert Schweitzer was perhaps the single exception, and he made it painfully clear that previous questers for the historical Jesus had merely drawn self-portraits. All unconsciously used the historical Jesus as a ventriloquist dummy. Jesus must have taught the truth, and their own beliefs must have been true, so Jesus must have taught those beliefs. (Of course, every biblicist does the same! “I said it! God believes it! That settles it!”). Today’s Politically Correct “historical Jesuses” are no different, being mere clones of the scholars who design them.
C.S. Lewis was right about this in The Screwtape Letters: “Each ‘historical Jesus’ is unhistorical. The documents say what they say and cannot be added to.” But, as apologists so often do, he takes fideism as the natural implication when agnosticism would seem called for. What he imagines the gospels so clearly to “say” is the mythic hero! When, in his essay, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” Lewis pulls rank as a self-declared expert and denies that the gospels are anything like ancient myths, one can only wonder what it was he must have been smoking in that ever-present pipe of his!
My point here is simply that, even if there was a historical Jesus lying back of the gospel Christ, he can never be recovered. If there ever was a historical Jesus, there isn’t one any more. All attempts to recover him turn out to be just modern remythologizings of Jesus. Every “historical Jesus” is a Christ of faith, of somebody’s faith. So the “historical Jesus” of modern scholarship is no less a fiction.
Third, Jesus as the personal savior, with whom people claim, as I used to, to have a “personal relationship” is in the nature of the case a fiction, essentially a psychological projection, an “imaginary playmate.” It is no different at all from pop-psychological “visualization” exercises, or John Bradshaw’s gimmick of imagining a healing encounter with loved ones of the past, or Jean Houston leading Hillary Clinton in an admittedly imaginary dialogue with Eleanor Roosevelt.
I suppose there is nothing wrong with any of this, but one ought to recognize it, as Hillary Clinton and Jean Houston, and John Bradshaw do, as imaginative fiction. And so with the personal savior.
The alternative is something like channeling. You have “tuned in” to the spirit of an ancient guru, named Jesus, and you are receiving revelations from him, usually pretty trivial stuff, minor conscience proddings and the like. Some sort of imaginary telepathy.
In fact I don’t believe most evangelical pietists mean anything by “having a personal relationship with Christ” than a fancy, overblown name for reading the Bible and saying their prayers. But if they did really refer to some kind of a “personal relationship,” it would in effect be a case of channeling. I suspect this is why fundamentalists who condemn New Age channelers do not dismiss it as a fraud pure and simple (though obviously it is), but instead think that Ramtha and the others are channeling demons. If they said it was sheer delusion, they know where the other four fingers would wind up pointing!
Especially in view of the fact that the piety of “having a personal relationship with Christ” and “inviting him into your heart” is alien to the New Testament and is never intimated there as far as I can see, it is amazing to me that evangelicals elevate it to the shibboleth of salvation! Unless you have a personal relationship with Jesus, buster, one day you will be boiling in Hell. Sheesh! Talk about the fury of a personal savior scorned!
No one ever heard of this stuff till the German Pietist movement of the Eighteenth Century. To make a maudlin type of devotionalism the password to heaven is like the fringe Pentecostal who tells you you can’t get into heaven unless you speak in tongues. “You ask me how I know he lives?” asks the revival chorus. “He lives within my heart.” Exactly! A figment.
Fourth, Christ is a fiction in that Christ functions, in an unnoticed and equivocal way, as shorthand for a vast system of beliefs and institutions on whose behalf he is invoked. Put simply, this means that when an evangelist or an apologist invites you to have faith “in Christ,” they are in fact smuggling in a great number of other issues. For example, Chalcedonian Christology, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Protestant idea of faith and grace, a particular theory of biblical inspiration and literalism, habits of church attendance, etc. These are all distinct and open questions. Theologians have debated them for many centuries and still debate them. Rank and file believers still debate them, as you know if you have ever spent time talking with one of Jehovah’s Witnesses or a Seventh Day Adventist. If you hear me say that and your first thought is “Oh no, those folks aren’t real Christians,” you’re just proving my point! Who gave Protestant fundamentalists the copyright on the word Christian?
No evangelist ever invites people to accept Christ by faith and then to start examining all these other associated issues for themselves. Not one! The Trinity, biblical inerrancy, for some even anti-Darwinism, are non-negotiable. You cannot be genuinely saved if you don’t tow the party line on these points. Thus, for them, “to accept Christ” means “to accept Trinitarianism, biblicism, creationism, etc.” And this in turn means that “Christ” is shorthand for this whole raft of doctrines and opinions, all of which one is to accept “by faith,” on someone else’s say-so.
When Christ becomes a fiction in this sense he is an umbrella for an unquestioning acceptance of what some preacher or institution tells us to believe. And this is nothing new, no mutant distortion of Christianity. Paul already requires “the taking of every thought captive to Christ,” already insists on “the obedience of faith.” Here Christ has already become what he was to Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, a euphemism for the dogmatic party line of an institution. Dostoyevsky’s point, of course, was that the “real” Jesus stands opposed to this use of his name to sanction religious oppression. But remember, though it is a noble one, Dostoyevsky’s Jesus is also a piece of fiction! It is, after all, “The Parable of the Grand Inquisitor.”
So, then, Christ may be said to be a fiction in the four senses that 1) it is quite possible that there was no historical Jesus. 2) Even if there was, he is lost to us, the result being that there is no historical Jesus available to us. And 3) the Jesus who “walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own” is an imaginative visualization and in the nature of the case can be nothing more than a fiction. And finally, 4) “Christ” as a corporate logo for this and that religious institution is a euphemistic fiction, not unlike Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse, or Joe Camel, the purpose of which is to get you to swallow a whole raft of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors by an act of simple faith, short-circuiting the dangerous process of thinking the issues out to your own conclusions.
If you’ve ever heard me answer a question, you know I overanswer them by a yard. I’ll probably do the same thing in posing questions. What can you do when you’re a motor-mouth.
These are three questions that I thought might be kind of interesting to talk about. So let me hit number one here. You could think of it as Dr. Rankin does.
The first one. Paul Tillich said that the historical Jesus can never be known with certainty. And that it’s rather what he called the Gospel picture of Jesus as the Christ, the Christian preaching of Jesus Christ, that brings new life to the Christian. Now, what I’m thinking is, why is that not good enough? Why do Evangelicals think it all has to have actually happened, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, in space-time history? What is lost in the more liberal theological approach to that? So that’d be the first one. Why does it all have to have happened historically to be powerful for Christianity?
Second one. Francis Schaeffer again used to say that the Christian need never fear following the evidence wherever it leads because he will never, in a striking phrase, fall off the edge of the earth. That is, he will never find his faith destroyed by the facts. And yet, Schaeffer turns right around and gives a list of approved positions Christians may hold on creation and evolution, the only ones allowed by the Bible. In my experience, Tillich again is right that fundamentalism destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth. Research is by definition open-ended. How can there be any sincere research — for example, the historical Jesus question — when the outcome is dictated in advance by one’s faith? How can there be real open-minded research when you know already your faith will be borne out?
Third one. Slightly different wavelength. Anyone who’s read the promotional flyer for this evening must have been struck by the fact that both of us have come from opposite ends of the religious spectrum and passed each other in the middle as we changed places, even spending time at the same seminary. I once read a book called “The Psychology of Religious Doubt,” which tracked individuals going from a conservative faith to a liberal one, and some that went from a liberal to a conservative one. The author concluded that each way the pilgrimage was an integrative journey away from a style of belief that didn’t meet the person’s emotional needs, toward one that did. And I’m just curious. Do you think that has anything to do with what happened to the two of us?
"Christ a Fiction" is copyright © 1997 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright ©1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.