Atheists Talk: Robert M. Price on “The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems”

Even among those who don’t believe that Jesus was divine, disagreement remains over whether he existed at all. On one side, there are the historicists, who believe that Jesus was a fully human preacher who founded a small cult. On the other side, there are the mythicists, who believe that the cult was formed later and Jesus was hallucinated and/or invented to support the cult.

The academic fight between the historicists and the mythicists is heating up at the moment. A number of leading scholars have released or are about to release books making their cases to the public. In his recent book The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems, Robert Price makes a case for the mythicists.

The Christ-Myth theory … “Worse Than Atheism”? New Testament scholar Robert M. Price, one of America’s leading authorities on the Bible, has assembled in his book evidence that shows that almost the entire “biography of Jesus” is a conscious reworking of earlier literature.It is one thing to say “There are no gods” or “Jesus was not a god, just a man.” It is quite another thing to say “Jesus of Nazareth never existed at all” or that “Christ is a myth.” But scholars have been saying exactly that since at least 1793 when the Enlightenment scholar Charles Dupuis began to publish his 13-volume Origine de Tous les Cultes, ou Religion Universelle, which elucidated the astral origins not only of Christianity but of other ancient religions as well.

New Testament scholar Robert M. Price, one of America’s leading authorities on the Bible, here summarizes much of the scholarship that has led him and a growing number of modern scholars to conclude that Christ — a partial synonym for Jesus of Nazareth — is mythical. Most usefully, Price has assembled evidence that shows that almost the entire “biography of Jesus” has been created from Greek Old Testament stories and themes and even incorporates motifs from Homer, Euripides, and perhaps Aesop. Because readers will have a hard time “taking it on faith” that the Jesus biography is merely a reworking of previous material, broad swaths of “Old Testament” context are quoted in association with each New Testament equivalent, so readers can judge for themselves whether or not Dr. Price’s claim be true: the “Live of Christ” was not fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies; it was, rather, a conscious reworking of earlier literature.

On Sunday, the ever-entertaining Dr. Price will join us to discuss his book. We hope you’ll tune in.

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  1. Didaktylos says

    Another thing that must be taken into account is the tendency for archetypal mythic elements to be incorporated into the biographies of heroic people whose existence can actually be attested. Davy Crockett is an example that springs to mind.

  2. d cwilson says

    I think the question of whether Yeshua of Nazareth was an actual historical figure who have archetypal stories tacked onto accounts of his life or was made up whole cloth is largely an academic exercise. Whether he actually existed or not, the writings of the Apostles that supposedly tell his story and philosophy have done enormous damage and brought suffering to millions of peopleover the last 2 thousand years.

  3. R Johnston says

    I still have yet to have anyone claiming the existence of a historical Jesus adequately explain exactly what they mean. There is a very broad range of possible definitions of “historical Jesus,” and what I see from historicity proponents is a whole lot of vagueness and equivocating about the definitions of important terms. Does name matter? What about Profession? Place of birth? Parentage? Adherence to nonsupernatural biblical anecdotes? The existence of actual disciples during his lifetime? These are all potential building blocks of a historical Jesus, but they’re also factors that could be and often are waved away as irrelevant.

    Did some preacher wannabe-messiah say something that inspired some New Testament author to include it as part of his recounting of the Jesus myth? Was there a Jesus of Nazareth who was a widely known preacher who threw out the moneychangers from the temple, had a crisis of faith in the garden of Gethsemane, and was crucified by the Romans after betrayal by a disciple? These are very different questions and proponents of historicity refuse to be pinned down about which one, or which intermediate possibility, they’re asking.

    Coupled with the obvious equivocations I also see a whole lot of effort put towards attempts to show that the historical record is consistent with the existence of some brand of historical Jesus, with essentially no effort going towards providing actual evidence that some brand of historical Jesus existed. Certainly the weaker versions of a historical Jesus are uncontradicted by the historical record, but there’s still no evidence that they actually existed and they’re so weakly defined as to be uninteresting. People claiming the existence of a strongly defined historical Jesus inevitably end up disingenuously arguing that some weakly defined historical Jesus is not contradicted by the historical record.

  4. Echidna says

    Turn the question around – what contemporary evidence is there for Jesus at all? None?

    I finds the idea that the nativity story is allegory intriguing. It is obviously not historical, citing the an impossible governor for the time. A story only for those that have ears to hear, perhaps? The Navitity story seems to be wishful thinking for a descendent of the Hasmodean Jewish Royal line that the Romans disrupted, Herod marrying the remaining heir, Mariamne, but killing his sons by her. His brother Joseph, however, was killed on the grounds of adultery with Mariamne while Herod was in Egypt. A male child of Mariamne would be King of the Jews. Sound familiar?

  5. Albert Bakker says

    Didaktylos #1, true, but what if there is no attestation of historicity at all. What if there is not even an infinitesimal kernel left when all myth has been stripped away.

    If the christ cult started out with a Jesus figure existing only in the spiritual sense, like proper Gods, Holy Spirits, deamons, talking snakes and what not, then the mythicists are actually the closest to what could be designated as “real Christianity” were it not so that even in the earliest writings there is no clear convergence. Then again such a convergence would be expected from derivation of historical events, in which a core of historicity would survive and not so much of liberation theology on a resurrected God theme of rival sects in a Hellenized Jewish world.

  6. johnhodges says

    I once did a study of the ethical teachings of Jesus, as reported in the four gospels; my findings are here:

    The first three gospels give the same basic picture (hence they are called the “synoptic” gospels). Jesus believed and taught that the end of the world and Judgment Day were coming Real Soon Now, certainly within the lifetime of the people standing there hearing him speak, possibly within weeks or months. “This generation shall not pass away” etc. Very few would be saved, most would be condemned to a fiery Hell. To prepare for this day, he told his followers to take drastic action. Abandon your Earthly families and give your loyalty to God and your fellow believers. Sell everything you own and use the money to do good works. Avoid getting any Earthly reward for your good works. Follow the Law of Moses down to the last iota (except for the dietary laws). Overfulfill the Law, abstain from all sin even in your thoughts, even to the point of self-castration to avoid thoughts of lust. Practice strict Nonviolent Nonresistance, be a pacifist. Do not judge others, that is not your job, focus on purifying your own character, seek to “be perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect.”

    The gospel of John is very different. It was (by the available evidence) written more than 70 years after the alleged time of Jesus, after that generation HAD passed away. It never mentions the Apocalypse or Judgment Day or Hell, and all of the drastic ethical teachings have been simply deleted. There, Jesus is reported to say that to get to Heaven you believe in Jesus, take Communion, and be nice to fellow believers.

    I don’t see (or feel) any need to deny that there was some real person who taught what Jesus is reported to have taught in the Synoptic gospels. For me, it suffices to point out that the Jesus that contemporary Christianity worships is drawn entirely from the gospel of John, and does not remotely resemble the Jesus described in the Synoptics. Who, by the way, was wrong about the Apocalypse, and therefore was not any kind of Divine Being.

  7. J. J. Ramsey says

    trazan, I was thinking of being snarky and pointing at the “Answers in Genesis” site as a resource for the skeptic. Instead, I’ll point out that the “Jesus Never Existed” site uncritically lists Kersey Graves as a “Pennsylvanian Quaker who saw through to the pagan heart of Christian fabrications, though rarely cited sources for his far-reaching conclusions,” with no hint that Graves is well-known for spewing pseudohistorical claptrap. This site also tries to argue that Nazareth didn’t exist, and that the evidence of habitation is somehow consistent with the Nazareth site really having been a “family farm,” the dodgy logistics of having only a single family apart from a community notwithstanding. The claim that the Nazarenes were a Jewish-Christian sect is more claptrap, with support coming mainly from table banging and an uncritical use of an unreliable source that dates from the 4th century, namely the Panarion.

    I suggest also looking at Thom Stark’s “The Death of Richard Carrier’s Dying Messiah,” which shows the degree to which Carrier himself has mangled facts and reason to justify one of his mythicist arguments.

  8. R. Johnston says

    I don’t see (or feel) any need to deny that there was some real person who taught what Jesus is reported to have taught in the Synoptic gospels. For me, it suffices to point out that the Jesus that contemporary Christianity worships is drawn entirely from the gospel of John, and does not remotely resemble the Jesus described in the Synoptics. Who, by the way, was wrong about the Apocalypse, and therefore was not any kind of Divine Being.

    Theologically speaking it certainly doesn’t matter whether or not there was some sort of historical Jesus given some specific definition of “historical Jesus.” But truth matters, and methodology matters. People who proclaim that there’s some sort of strong evidence, or even any significant evidence at all, for a historical Jesus are using a broken methodology to come to their conclusions if they’re using any kind of methodology at all. They are at best severely equivocating over definitions and unclear on the concept of what evidence is. They are thinking in a way that will lead them to more generally draw unwarranted or false conclusions, and that does matter.

    There are a lot of “conclusions” skeptics take the time to argue against, not because the “conclusion” itself is necessarily harmful or even notable but because of the sloppy and biased thinking that necessarily amounts to a post-hoc rationalization of a “conclusion” that’s really an unsupported assumption believed in out of a desire to believe. Historical Jesus is somewhere between Bigfoot and a black Confederate soldier.

  9. ROO BOOKAROO says

    Stephanie Svan:

    Perhaps you are yourself unaware of it, but I wish you had mentioned the fact that Robert Price, in this book, has reviewed and presented anew the major arguments of John M. Robertson, Arthur Drews, William Benjamin Smith, Paul-Louis Couchoud, and George Albert Wells, many of them diligently catalogued and critically examined by A.D. Howell-Smith, Archibald Robertson, and Herbert Cutner.

    All current writers who deny the historicity of Jesus use this font of material, most often without mentioning the sources of their arguments, their quotations, and conclusions.
    Gone is the antiquated 19th c. and early 20th c. habit of crediting each idea, each assumption, each criticism to its early author. G.A. Wells may be the last survivor of this 19th c. ethics of German scholarship.