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Christ Myth and the Voice of Jesus

Posted on: December 07, 2014


Christ Myth and the Voice of Jesus

The “Christ myth” is the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth, as a historical figure from the first century, never existed. However, the proposition that Jesus never existed is really a minor point. Many Christ myth proponents say that Jesus may well have existed, but the point is the myth and not Jesus. So, really, the question is what is the important “myth” in the Christ myth claim?

I will take my lead from Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963), who was a scholar and proponent of the fundamental importance of myths. Kuhn can be understood as the classic statement of the Christ myth. Kuhn earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University and was among the first qualified scholars to take this position.

Remember, myth (mythos) in Greek means “story.” It is not an “untruth” but a story about truth or believed truths. Boyd called ancient myths “the repositories” of sublime knowledge. And he held this very basic point of reference: the first and primal myth of humankind is the division between spirit and matter. He saw in the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the expression of this primal myth. It means that “being” or let us call it “awakening” can only take place with this primal split between spirit and matter (subject and object). Matter is our physical self, and spirit is our mind. Human beings become, or can become, conscious of original being through the awakening of their minds.

Kuhn and many since Kuhn found the primal myth in ancient Egypt. Though this myth is told across cultures in the guise of different deities, Kuhn found it especially significant in the Egyptian tales of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Osiris particularly is a death and resurrection deity who saves or redeems his followers. The cycle is repeated in the Greek god Dionysus, and consequently many see the myth of Christ retold according to the Osiris-Dionysus pattern.

Jesus Christ is the stone the builder rejected, and a rock is the symbol of permanence. It is also that from which Osiris emerged.
Christ is the resurrection and the life. This is pretty much exactly who Osiris was. As the god of the underworld, Osiris among other things was the hope of resurrection.
Jesus Christ as the Son of God is the redeemer, the one who restores. Horus was also the son of God and a redeemer. He restored the dead Osiris and thus restored hope.
The true light of Christianity, which is the awakened inner spirit, is the common teaching of Gnosticism and the true understanding of Christ.
Christianity did not appear in history, it evolved. It is derived from the Pagan mystery cults. To understand Christianity truly is to understand its Pagan myth, which is its light.

There are some problems with the Christ myth idea, but I want initially to speak in its favour. It is certainly the case that death and resurrection are part of a mythic pattern, and it is no doubt true that Christianity developed in the context of Pagan cultures with these themes all around. The ancient writer Celsus (177 C.E.) was quick to point out, in a work that survives only in fragments, that early Christians did not believe anything particularly different from their Pagan neighbours. Celsus was right. Christianity in its rise was certainly informed both by its Jewish heritage and its Pagan environment.

This conclusion, however, does not really say anything about whether or not Jesus was a historical being. Rather, it assumes ancient mythic patterns, by which we can understand the “Christ,” are sufficient evidence that the historical Jesus did not exist. In this assumption, the question of the historical Jesus is made silent or at least irrelevant. I think that this silencing of Jesus is not only an impoverishment of learning but also an incorrect conclusion.

The Christ myth proposition does not take into account historical criticism, especially Form Criticism. It relies almost exclusively on comparative analysis. The consequence is that the hallmark of the historical Jesus, the parables and aphorisms, are not seriously studied. Rather they form only part of the larger myth complex, which reduces the parables to allegories, to stories about the Story. The Christ myth seeks to find what is the same about Jesus and Dionysus and Osiris. But the historical Jesus question is the opposite. It uses historical critical method to seek what is different in the Jesus story.

To put this in a more complicated way, the quest for the historical Jesus is not about finding a biography. It is about finding an epistemic identity. The simple way to say this is to use the phrase of the Jesus Seminar: the historical Jesus is about a historical voiceprint. Whether that voiceprint is a biography, that is, a single individual, or a product of a group, is unanswerable. However, can a voiceprint be identified against the background of everyday life in first century Galilee? The Seminar concluded that such an identification can be made.

It can be said that for both Christ myth people and Jesus Seminar people “Christ” is a myth. Jesus Christ is a particular construction of Christianity in which Jesus is like a dying and rising god. But this fate is not the fault of Jesus and is not the point of parables. The parables of Jesus are epistemologically identifiable exactly because they are not allegories, do not refer to God, and are not about mythical expectations. A sower goes out into a field to sow grain. This parable is not about how to or who can be successful, which is a common theme and an allegorical interpretation. Opposite to mythic expectations, in the parable the sower is a failure. God does not rescue him. There is no light at the end of this tunnel, and no spark of life inside heart of the main character. This sower fails. He does not get the big crop, and he certainly wasted a lot of seed trying. The parable brings us face to face with the pathos of a peasant’s life. It is truly a “historical” parable not about hidden allegory but real life. It belongs to a historical person, someone who knew what it meant to be a peasant in the Roman Empire. It is an epistemologically identifiable story; it is a voiceprint of a human being.

The historical Jesus was a nobody in his time. Evidence of his existence is actually hard to find. Yet, it is neither monuments nor texts that tell us about Jesus. It is a voiceprint. In its evident humanity and humility, the voiceprint is the historical evidence of the historical Jesus.

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