Maccoby vs. Doherty; some thoughts on the mythicism theory

My last few posts have been laying some background for how I reached my current position on the origins of Christianity . What I want to do in this one is write about why I currently believe in a historical Jesus (that is, an actual real-life person who started the movement that became Christianity) rather than being a mythicist (a believer that Jesus’s story was entirely mythical from the start). The reason for this is that, as planned, I’m currently doing  Richard Carrier’s online course on the issue, which I want to blog about when and if I get the chance. If I start out with an explanation of why I hold the position I now hold, then that’ll give some background for my thoughts on the course, and it will be possible to see whether and why my position has changed by the end of the course.

I should say that, although the mythicist position certainly seems to raise a lot of good questions, it isn’t one that I’ve gone very far into; I’ve skimmed through parts of Earl Doherty’s wesbite and The Jesus Puzzle, his first book on the subject (now out of print and superseded by further books on the topic, so it seems a fair guess it doesn’t represent his most up-to-date views), but that’s all. So it is indeed quite possible that when I read more about it, I’ll end up changing positions on the matter. This is my view so far.

As I wrote in my last post, my main influence on the issue of how Christianity originally started was Hyam Maccoby. Maccoby’s theory, stripped down to the bare bones, is that Jesus was a would-be Jewish Messiah like several others of the time, and that, following his death, his followers continued his movement in the same vein under the belief that he was going to be miraculously resurrected to lead it again; however, the movement was then subverted by other influences in this heavily pagan society, and ended up as something much more akin to a pagan mystery religion (with a heavy dash of Gnosticism thrown in) but still retaining a strong residue of its original Judaism. Maccoby goes into much more detail about this, of course, but those are the essential points.

Doherty’s theory, on the other hand, is that things happened the other way round; that Christianity started as a pagan mystery religion with a mythical central character, and only later was the story of the supposedly real-life Jesus assembled around the myth. He backs this up with a lot of evidence that Paul, and others writing at the time, showed no real interest in Jesus’s life at all, seeing him, instead, exactly as any follower of any mystery religion in those days might have seen the god he worshipped; as a shadowy semi-divine figure whose importance lay not in his life or teachings but in a sacrifice that might have taken place in another realm; from this, he argues that that was what the religion was at the time, and the supposed story of Jesus’s human life on earth was invented later, partly from a collection of apocryphal sayings that was current at the time and that was attributed to the Jesus-figure when the gospel-writers felt the need to place the demigod’s story in the human realm.

As I recall, Doherty makes a very good case for the first part of this (the point that Paul sees Jesus as a mystery-religion demigod-type figure rather than as an actual human being). Of course, this is also explicable under Maccoby’s theory, according to which Paul (who of course never knew Jesus in life even if the stories about a historical Jesus are true) was subconsciously inspired to create a mystery religion based on the real character of a man who’d been crucified for claiming to be a Roman Messiah; this would also lead to Paul seeing Jesus in much that way, with little interest in his human life. But that’s a convoluted explanation, and, if that was the only part of the story to be accounted for, I’d prefer Docherty’s explanation on grounds of simplicity. The problem is, however, that it doesn’t really account for the other half of the equation; how the Jewish aspects got into that syncretism to the extent that they did.

In the Gospels, Jesus is presented as a Jew who claims the title of ‘Messiah’. And his followers are portrayed as understanding this in the typical way it was understood in Judaism; an earthly descendant of David’s line whose coming would herald the liberation of Israel from her enemies, and who would then rule Israel as a human king, like the King David from whom he would be descended. If a pagan religion were writing a real-life story for their legendary hero, why would they make him a figure from such a different culture, claiming a mission that was (at the time) understood in such a different sense?

All four Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified by the Romans for claiming to be King of the Jews. Yet, at the same time they’re clearly embarrassed by this point and go to considerable lengths to try to explain it away (portraying the Sanhedrin as a bloodthirsty lynch mob and Pilate as a mild-mannered, fair-minded man acting against his will in crucifying Jesus – both highly improbable on what we know from elsewhere). Of course, it’s easy enough to explain why the Gospels would want to downplay the point that the leader they’re talking about was a rebel Jew put to death by the Romans for what amounted to sedition – that wouldn’t have gone down very well at all in the time period when the Gospels were written – but, in that case, why put that awkward point in there in the first place?

Jesus is portrayed as having attitudes towards Sabbath healing that would have been entirely in line with Pharisaic thinking, which he argues using Pharisee-type expressions (see my previous post on Maccoby’s arguments). Yet he’s portrayed as having those arguments with the Pharisees, who are presented as opposing him on this matter. Again, it’s not hard to see why the Gospel-writers might have wanted to portray Jesus as being in opposition with the Pharisees rather than holding their views; but again, in that case, why put those details about Jesus into the story in the first place?

The Jewish scriptures suggested that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Matthew and Luke go to some lengths to explain to us that, yes, he was born in Bethlehem. The problem is, both of them also say that he grew up in Nazareth. And their explanations for why he was born in one place and grew up in another are individually improbable and collectively completely contradictory. There is no serious doubt that the Nativity stories are invented to make the story of Jesus’s life harmonise with the Mican prophecy. But why would Matthew and Luke both independently invent the detail that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, when they are both going to such lengths to explain this away?

Why does the issue of observance to Jewish law come up repeatedly as an issue (Acts 10, Acts 15, Acts 21:20 – 26, Galatians 1 – 3)? Even if some Jews were following this pagan religion, surely that in itself would be such a major act of apostasy that they would also have abandoned such precepts of their law as circumcision and dietary law? How many Torah-observant Jews were likely to be found in this sort of pagan religion?


Now, of course, all of these anomalies are very easily explicable under the historical Jesus theory; stories about Jesus’s actual life and deeds would have continued to circulate along with the increasing number of myths, and couldn’t quite be suppressed or ignored completely. If it was common knowledge that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, claimed to be the Messiah, argued a particular view of Sabbath-keeping, and was crucified by the Romans, then the gospel writers would have been stuck with those stories. And, since the movement would have started out among observant Jews, discussions and differences of opinion on the subject of keeping Torah law would certainly have come up once it spread to Gentiles as well.

Under a mythicist theory, however, these points are harder to explain. It’s completely possible that they can be explained, but ‘The Jesus Puzzle’, at least, doesn’t seem to do so. Admittedly my reading of it wasn’t that close or detailed, so, if I’ve missed something, my apologies to Doherty; but I couldn’t find any explanation of these points within it, and Doherty seemed very vague in discussing just why Mark would frame Jesus’s story in the way he did.

So, that is my issue with the mythicist theory. I have no doubt at all that a pagan religion could have gone on to develop stories in which its mythical founder was described as a historical person (this is, in fact, known to have happened with other mystery religions). I just have doubt that this religion could have developed this particular description of a historical person.

But, of course, there may be good explanations for those anomalies that I just haven’t thought of. So, I’m looking forward to learning more on this course and seeing whether there are any answers to those questions; and I shall update my views and this blog accordingly.


About Dr Sarah

I'm a GP with a husband and two young children.
This entry was posted in Did Jesus exist?, Hyam Maccoby, Theories - How Christianity Started and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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