essays in religious literacy

Jesus mythicism

In Uncategorized on October 1, 2014 at 12:40 am

Did Jesus exist? I had never seriously considered the question before (of course he existed!), until getting swept up in a heated conversation about it in a discussion thread on Facebook. And then articles like this one and this one and this one kept showing up in such an untimely manner Right Where I Could See Them. So I gave in and decided to do some catching up on the subject, and at this point—somewhere in the neighborhood of halfway, if that, through all the reading I ever plan to do on it (for the time being, if I can help it)—I have to say that I’m not any more impressed with the scholarship against the historical existence of Jesus than I was with the scholarship for the existence of planet Nibiru as the alien source of ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations that my students so enthusiastically brought to my attention back when I was teaching a course in Ancient Near Eastern Literature several years ago, which I also wasted more time than I care to admit vetting ( but h/t to Zecharia Sitchin for making it at least entertaining).

Why? I’ll make just this one point for now, and save others for later: “mythical” is not the opposite of “historical”. No Religious Studies scholar with any crediblity uses “myth” to mean “falsehood”. In Religious Studies, to be sure, mythology (like other seminal terms) is always already also a contested term, but the obvious meaning of “myth” in the title of that culturally iconic TV show “Mythbusters” isn’t even in the running. Mythology is, like art, aesthetics, language, and ritual, a complex symbol system for the social and cultural construction of meaning. If you want to make a start toward understanding what mythology is, you might do worse than with the vivid illustration of it provided by this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (in lieu of the full episode, these YouTube excerpts from “Darmok” (season 5, episode 2) will have to do) …

In short, and in general, a myth is a traditional story that tells us something true about the way things are (from our cultural perspective, that is). Euhemerism, allegory, personalism, pseudo-science, etc., are various ultimately unsuccessful attempts to explain the origins of myth, and I’m going to have to add the historicism (!) of Jesus mythicism—weaving various mythic topoi together to invent a pseudo-historical figure to embody them, essentially the polar opposite of Euhemerism—to this list as well. What myths are, instead, is axiological: they concern what we value (and what we don’t), what we regard as virtues (and what we don’t). The kinds of stories we tell about ourselves (and others) influence the (cultural, personal, social) values we hold dear; and the (cultural, personal, social) values we hold dear influence, in turn, the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves (and others). This reciprocal relationship between narrative and life is essential to human social being, and is less relevant to the question of the existence of Jesus than it is to the question of the meaning of Jesus as a figure in history.

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