MYTHICISTS AND HISTORICISTS

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You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
nor look through the eyes of the dead,
nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either,
nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
— Walt Whitman

 

In 1596 a cobbler was brought before a tribunal in Amsterdam on charges of heresy. In spite of his blue-collar background, the shoemaker had taught himself Latin and Hebrew in order to bypass the Dutch clergy and make his own study of the Bible. The incident is recounted in Still Life With a Bridle, Zbigniew Herbert’s lyrical and brilliantly observed essay collection. (Do buy the book to see how it all turned out.)

Our ambitious shoemaker was a Historicist; that is, he believed in a flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth, albeit one thoroughly demoted from his status as the Son of God. Thomas Paine, on the other hand, the most famous pen-wielder of the American Revolution, was a Mythicist. In part III, section 4 of The Age of Reason, he wrote:
These repeated forgeries and falsifications create a well-founded suspicion, that all the cases spoken of concerning the person called Jesus Christ are made cases, on purpose to lug in, and that very clumsily, some broken sentences from the Old Testament, and apply them as prophecies of those cases; and that so far from his being the Son of God, he did not exist even as a man — that he is merely an imaginary or allegorical character, as Apollo, Hercules, Jupiter, and all the deities of antiquity were. There is no history written at the time Jesus Christ is said to have lived that speaks of the existence of such a person, even as a man.

In other words, Paine believed Jesus of Nazareth was entirely a fiction. (The Age of Reason, incidentally, published in three parts between 1794 and 1807, became a bestseller.) Clearly the idea that Jesus never existed isn’t new. What is new is that the idea is gaining currency. So much so that renowned biblical scholar Bart Ehrman felt the need to pen, or rather key (who writes without a keyboard anymore?), a book called Did Jesus Exist?, which (no doubt deliberately) shares the title of a book by GA Wells, a scholar among the contemporary Mythicists Ehrman attempts to refute. (Wells, it should be noted, has somewhat modified his position since presenting his original thesis.)
If you read Ehrman’s book without the benefit of having made some sort of in-depth study—formal or otherwise—of the Bible, or if you fail to give equal attention to the counterarguments of those who have, Ehrman’s case seems persuasive. It is rather convincingly refuted, however, in Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus (another play on titles; this time the allusion is to Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first published in 1906 in German). In this collection of essays, Frank Zindler, Richard Carrier, and Earl Doherty, among others, take Ehrman thoroughly to task, highlighting some rather unscholarly mistakes and some that are downright embarrassing.

My own awakening to the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth probably never walked the Earth began with Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy’s book The Jesus Mysteries. I knew virtually nothing about the Mystery religions before Garrett Gilmore, an American ex-pat living in Istanbul, loaned me his copy. I read it with great interest although even as I did so, I saw numerous signs that Gandy and Freke were fudging the evidence … skewing translations, lumping Mysteries gods together to make it easier on the reader, adding too much paint-thinner to their pigments. Nonetheless, there was plenty of material in the book to raise serious doubts in my mind about whether Jesus had been an actual man.

I went on to read Samuel Angus’s 1925 classic, The Mystery-Religions, A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity and Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion. Having already read The Golden Bough (a reprint of the two-volume, 1890 edition), Joseph Campbell’s Occidental Mythology, as well as other books dealing with the evolution of mythologies and religions, it became obvious that the dying-rising aspects of Jesus had been borrowed from much older Mystery cults.

Despite the fact that my father, the late Robert E. Czyz, Sr., was an atheist and had raised his children as atheists, I was firmly in the camp of the Historicists—until reading The Jesus Mysteries. I wasn’t, however, quite convinced. The two scholars whose works led me to defect to the Mythicist camp are Robert Price and Earl Doherty (Doherty is a classicist, and while he does not have a PhD, his cogent arguments and command of logic more than make up for the absence of post-surname letter clusters). Price’s Deconstructing Jesus and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man were nothing short of revelatory, as was Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle.

Around 2006, while living in Istanbul, I was browsing the Internet for books about the Dead Sea Scrolls (I knew even less about them than I had about the Mysteries) and came across a number of provocative observations made by John Allegro, several of which found their way into the novel. Like my protagonist, I made frequent trips to Istanbul’s Market of Second-Hand Booksellers, and on one of these trips I came across Robert Eisenman’s James, the Brother of Jesus. I found Eisenman’s interpretation of the Qumran legacy persuasive although I’m well aware many scholars (Ehrman among them) disagree with Eisenman’s conclusions. I’m also indebted to Mr. Eisenman for his interpretation of the written material, biblical and otherwise, relating to James the Just.

Another book that shaped my view of Christianity and early Christian history is Helmut Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels. While Koester is a Historicist, he is an objective observer, and his book perforce contains material that seriously challenges the Gospel portrayals of Jesus. I should also mention Frank Zindler’s four-volume collection Through Atheist Eyes, which, though I came upon it only recently and have read very incompletely, has confirmed much of what I have come to believe and furnished a number of compelling details that add a little more resolution to the overall mosaic.

For those who cling to Ehrman’s thesis that there was a historical figure known as Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman himself has rather disturbing news: Jesus of Nazareth was neither divine nor “the suffering Messiah.” In Jesus Interrupted, he points out that both of these concepts are Christian inventions. In other words, the most ardent defender of the historical Jesus categorically denies both Jesus’ divinity and a literal reading of the Gospels. Robert Price, an avowed Mythicist, sometimes avers that maybe, possibly, there is some shadowy likeness of Jesus to be found in the first century, but once we strip away the falsehoods and deliberate fictions, there is so little left, nothing definitive can be said about him.

A novel such as The Christos Mosaic necessarily depends on the work of scholars whose works, in turn, depend on the work of still other scholars. While I’ve acknowledged my intellectual debt to scholars and authors who have scrutinized scripture (above), there are two other writers whose books were vital to my research: Peter Watson, author of The Medici Conspiracy, and Roger Atwood, author of Stealing the Past. Both books discuss in disturbing detail the unmitigated cultural disaster known as the black market for antiquities and both are engrossing if dismaying reads.

Frank Zindler, a polymath and tireless researcher no matter the field, mentions somewhere among his numerous essays that he has seen one paradigm shift (continental drift was a radical idea when first introduced), and he would like to see another in his lifetime: the recognition that Jesus of Nazareth is as much a mythical figure as Osiris or Dionysus.

I’m somewhat less ambitious. I hope this novel will lead readers to do their own research (like our cobbler) and perhaps heed Emerson’s exhortation to establish “an original relation to the universe.” It’s time to admit that Jesus—in the absolute best-case scenario—was merely a man, and a man of his time at that—not the Son of God (a rather odd concept to begin with, as if God would need to procreate, an act that would belie His perfection since He should be able to accomplish whatever He wills without a son, a holy spirit, or any other helpmeet), not a prophet (Jesus didn’t even predict the discovery of the two continents where he’d eventually have more followers than anywhere else), not even terribly original. It is time to stop looking outside ourselves for a savior and start doing the work on our own. We don’t need superpowers or magic despite the films breaking box-office records by pandering to this savior complex. Whatever your perspective happens to be—Historicist, Mythicist, agnostic, Muslim, Jew, atheist, or something else—I think Professor Cutherton’s dictum applies: the unexamined faith is not worth believing.

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