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The Pagan Christ
December 20, 2004 9:48 PM   Subscribe

"The Pagan Christ" by Tom Harpur would make a great stocking stuffer! Just in time for Christmas! Anyone up for some Apollonius vs. Jesus Christ? Which tradition was the original, and which was the copy-cat? Apollonius' tale is eerily familiar, as are the tales of many other pagan figures. Was the historical Jesus [mefi] padded with stolen pagan ideas? Some go as far as to suggest a historical Jesus never existed. Gasp.
posted by Kleptophoria! (51 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
All Hail Satrunalia!!

Er all hail Belatine...

Er something like that...
posted by Balisong at 10:05 PM on December 20, 2004


Don't forget a couple of tickets to Corpus Christi and a copy of the Man Jesus Loved ;)
posted by aliendolphin at 10:13 PM on December 20, 2004


jesuspuzzle.com: i don't trust any sites promoting radical theories that are all center aligned.

crazy ideas ideas should at least come with some vestige of design sensibility.
posted by flaterik at 10:33 PM on December 20, 2004


i don't trust any sites promoting radical theories that are all center aligned.

What are you, educated stupid? ;)
posted by First Post at 10:40 PM on December 20, 2004


The biography of Apollonius makes for interesting reading...
posted by tamizhan at 10:54 PM on December 20, 2004


The goddess material pioneered by Marija Gimbutas is kinda related and an interesting read. The idea is that the female goddess figure is the mother and lover of the god figure, who rises and falls in maturity with the seasons as did the grain. Osirus, Dyonysis, Orpheus and a bunch of others supposedly fall into this category of 'son/husband' god figures. Jesus comes late in this history and represents a twist in the myth in that he is not associated with a divine female figure (well - Mary - but she is not quite a goddess).
posted by sirvesa at 11:25 PM on December 20, 2004


Of magicians, miracle workers, saints and sinners of early Christianities and other mystery religions--including but not limited to Valentinus, Simon Magus, Mithras, Marcion, Manicheans, Mandeans, the Winged Hermes, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary, among many other Apocrypha and Pseudepigraphica, the Cathars and Apollonious of Tyana. Not to mention Philip K. Dick.

Into The Gnostic
posted by y2karl at 12:20 AM on December 21, 2004


While checking out Tom Harpur a few months ago I came across a critique by W. Ward Gasque at History News Network. There is a rebuttal by Harpur In the discussion at the bottom (well, hard to make specific attributions on the internet, but here is the Historical Jesus discussion from rabble.ca that is referenced).

Clearly this is an inflammatory issue. The topic is intriguing, but I haven't looked into it beyond the very superficial - at that level the arguments against a historical Christ seem very strong. Still, the Gasque critique is worth a look.
posted by Chuckles at 4:02 AM on December 21, 2004




Is this in any way related to Cracker's "Eyes of Mary"? I believe that song's parenthetical title is "The Pagan Birth of Jesus".

Wild.
posted by Eideteker at 4:53 AM on December 21, 2004


Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most attested figures of antiquity, in terms of multiple, independent attestation. If we're doubting Jesus existed, we have to doubt Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and everybody else before, say, the 1700s.

That's not a ringing endorsement for the gospels, mind you; all we've really got solidly set is that there was some guy named Jesus, and he was crucified, but his followers didn't let that get in their way.
posted by jefgodesky at 5:02 AM on December 21, 2004


jefgodesky: I'd have to disagree with your equivocation between the historic attestation of Caesar and Jesus. With Jesus, virtually none of the attestations we have are original documents, and those that are come from people who were not contemporaries with him.

Meanwhile, Caesar was having his name chiseled on temples and having statues constructed honoring him while he was still alive. Just considering inscriptions, we have many original, contemporaneous accounts that Caesar existed. As I understand, there is no similar original, contemporaneous documentation of Jesus' existence.

That's not to say anything about their relative divinity, or anything. Or to suggest that Jesus didn't exist. Just that it would be probably an error to equate the rigor of their respective historical attestations.
posted by darkstar at 5:39 AM on December 21, 2004


I was considering historical evidence, as opposed to archaeological. If we're including inscriptions, then you're quite right. If we're only looking at documents, then the comparison still holds.

But I probably went a little overboard with Julius Caesar, who wrote the Gallic Wars. I'll just stick with Alexander the Great, then.

Several accounts of Jesus' existence are near-contemporaneous, if we accept a traditional date of c. 30 CE +/- 10 years for his death, then Q and Mark may appear within as little as a decade of that. Mark is usually dated to 70 CE, but this is in fact the late extreme, based on the extrapolition of Mark's "Little Apocalypse" into a blatant depiction of the Jewish War in Matthew. Meanwhile, I remember one scrap of Mark with Pilate's question, "What is truth?" being dated to something closer to 40-50 CE. Q, of course, is impossible to date, but given the pithy, Aramaic nature of its content, is more likely to be sooner than later.

It's at least as good as the early accounts of Alexander, which also include a virgin birth.
posted by jefgodesky at 6:38 AM on December 21, 2004


Great stuff. But the story of the announcement of the "death of Pan," just prior to Appolonius's birth, always confuses the helloutta me. Anyway, it's interesting that Christians of the time interpreted the story as a sign of the end of Paganism, and Appolonius is obviously a facet of the Christ/savior-out-of-the-East/virgin-birth archetype.
posted by Shane at 6:47 AM on December 21, 2004


Several accounts of Jesus' existence are near-contemporaneous, if we accept a traditional date of c. 30 CE +/- 10 years for his death, then Q and Mark may appear within as little as a decade of that. Mark is usually dated to 70 CE, but this is in fact the late extreme, based on the extrapolition of Mark's "Little Apocalypse" into a blatant depiction of the Jewish War in Matthew. Meanwhile, I remember one scrap of Mark with Pilate's question, "What is truth?" being dated to something closer to 40-50 CE. Q, of course, is impossible to date, but given the pithy, Aramaic nature of its content, is more likely to be sooner than later.

What about attestation not produced by early christians (or those who would become the first christians) and definitely contemporary? I've only ever heard of one in Josephus, and there's still some debate if it's actually a reference to Jesus or another messianic figure of the time, if I remember correctly. Are there others? I guess that isn't so much a question of his existance as it is of his importance at the time.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:59 AM on December 21, 2004


Oh, and I find Harpur's ideas intriguing but the responses page leaves a bad taste in my mouth, particularly the last bit on James Patrick Holding. It doesn't respond to whatever Holding said about the book, but just jumps to why you shouldn't listen to him.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:10 AM on December 21, 2004


I was considering historical evidence, as opposed to archaeological. If we're including inscriptions, then you're quite right. If we're only looking at documents, then the comparison still holds.

Ah, but the devil is in the details...

When do the Gospels start to show up in the wider record of Christian writings? If Mark is as early as 70, and all four had been written by 100, why do none of the early Fathers—the author of 1 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas— writing between 90 and 130, quote or refer to any of them? How could Ignatius (around 107), so eager to convince his readers that Jesus had indeed been born of Mary and died under Pilate, that he had truly been a human man who suffered, how could he have failed to appeal to some Gospel account as verification of all this if he had known one?

Eusebius reports that in a now-lost work written around 125, bishop Papias mentioned two pieces of writing by "Matthew" and "Mark." But even these cannot be equated with the canonical Gospels, for Papias called the former "sayings of the Lord in Hebrew," and the description of the latter also sounds as if it was not a narrative work. Moreover, it would seem that Papias had not possessed these documents himself, for he simply relays information about them that was given to him by "the elder." He makes no comment of his own on such documents (in fact, he continues to disparage written sources about the Lord), while Eusebius and other later commentators who quote from his writings are silent about him discussing anything from the "Mark" and "Matthew" he mentions. All that Papias can tell us (relayed through Eusebius) is that certain collections of sayings and anecdotes (probably miracle stories) were circulating in his time, a not uncommon thing; the ones he speaks of were being attributed to a Jesus figure and reputed to be compiled by legendary followers of him. What is most telling, on the other hand, is that even a quarter of the way into the second century, a bishop of Asia Minor writing a book called The Sayings of the Lord Interpreted did not possess a copy of a single written Gospel, nor included sayings of Jesus which are identified with those Gospels.

Only in Justin Martyr, writing in the 150s, do we find the first identifiable quotations from some of the Gospels, though he calls them simply "memoirs of the Apostles," with no names. And those quotations usually do not agree with the texts of the canonical versions we now have, showing that such documents were still undergoing evolution and revision. Scholars such as Helmut Koester have concluded that earlier "allusions" to Gospel-like material are likely floating traditions which themselves found their way into the written Gospels. (See Koester's Ancient Christian Gospels and his earlier Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den apostolischen Vatern.) Is it conceivable that the earliest account of Jesus' life and death could have been committed to writing as early as 70 (or even earlier, as some would like to have it), and yet the broader Christian world took almost a century to receive copies of it?

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?


from

Was There No Historical Jesus?

See also

Historical Jesus Theories
posted by y2karl at 8:00 AM on December 21, 2004 [1 favorite]


Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most attested figures of antiquity, in terms of multiple, independent attestation.

Wow, you really think so, huh?

Dig a little deeper.
posted by rushmc at 8:46 AM on December 21, 2004


I'm currently reading "When Women Were Priests" and I'm seeing a lot of what y2karl links to there. So much has been lost and destroyed from that period of history that it is sometimes difficult to get a verifiably accurate picture. I love reading the writings that were rejected by the early "church."

One question for the fundies:

If Jesus were born of "immaculate birth", then how come his lineage to King David is recounted through the bloodline of Joseph? No, really, why?
posted by nofundy at 9:25 AM on December 21, 2004


I think that a more accurate comparison is between Jesus as an historical person and Socrates as an historical person.

Both survive for us through second-hand writings that purport to document their teachings (Socrates got the better end of the deal, as Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato are really good writers, and the Evangelists not so much).

Jesus has the slight edge, here, with a mention in near-contemporary history (if one accepts the passage in Flavius Josephus'Antiquities about the removal of Ananus the Sadduccee from high office as authentic [obviously the blather about how Jesus was the Messiah, etc., was an interpolation into the Antiquities by Christian copyists, but the business about Ananus passing sentence on James, Jesus' brother is unlikely to have been so]).

And both Jesus and Socrates have a tremendous folk tradition surrounding their lives and works. And yet, in those second-hand accounts, there are flashes of real insight and passages that seem (to me, at least) to capture a distinctive and authentic voice and way of thinking.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:34 AM on December 21, 2004


nofundy, the "immaculate Conception" does not refer to Jesus' birth, but rather to Mary's.

As for the "Jesse's lineage"/"Son of David" stuff, what I was taught in CCD (Catholic Sunday school) was that Jesus was the "son of David" in that he, too, was a great spiritual leader (i.e., it was a metaphor), and that, through Joseph's adoption of him, he had been accepted into Jesse's lineage (i.e., the tribe of Judah), thus uniting two great tribes (Mary was a Levite).

This is all irrelevant to my belief today, but it doesn't seem inconsistent. Dynastic adoption was very common in the ancient world, especially where important lineages were to be continued. Nobody at that time would have blinked an eye at a man's saying that his wife's son by someone else (even if that someone else were the Holy Spirit) was now, officially, part of his lineage.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:42 AM on December 21, 2004


If he did exist, the historical Jesus left virtually no traces. Unlike, say, Buddha or Mohammed who lived to ripe old ages and met many people who wrote stuff down, the historical Jesus was not around long enough to have left any concrete traces. Other similar religious figures engaged in public debates with other religions, debates that were recorded and publicised, and they also set up academies or monasteries or organisations with records of public works and missionary activity.

None of this exists for early Christianity. At the same time that the putative Jesus was wandering around Judea (and for generations earlier), the Buddhists had been sending missionaries to greece, China, Sri Lanka, Afhganistan, and North Africa.

We know this because as well as being recorded by the Buddhists themselves, their arrival and presentations were recorded by chroniclers in those countries. In fact, there's a good deal of evidence that many of the Hellenic ideas of Stoicism and Gnosticism, which so influenced early post-Pauline Christianity, stemmed from the cross-fertilization of Graceo and Indian cultures via the Bactrian Kingdoms of Central Asia.

This cultural influence spread both ways. It was thanks to the Graeco influence that the first sculpture representions of the Buddha were done... in the Graeco-Bactrian territories, in a Hellenistic style with togas and classic Greek rhetorical body poses.

Anyway, literal Christians seem to be woefully uninformed about what constitutes historical evidence. the ancient world was full of people writing things down as they happened, sometimes compulsively. Nobody outside the cult recorded alleged contemporaneous accounts of the historical Jesus.

I thought faith alone was sufficient?
posted by meehawl at 10:02 AM on December 21, 2004


Nobody outside of Socrates's followers recorded alleged contemporaneous accounts of the historical Socrates, either, meehawl--even if you're not buying the Flavius Josephus reference to Jesus in the Ananus matter.

I would suggest that the second-hand accounts of both Socrates's sayings and Jesus' sayings by their respective followers have inspired millions of people worldwide.

I'm also interested to know what contemporaneous sources you have on Buddha himself. Everything I've ever read about Buddha suggests that his sayings were not committed to paper until the 1st century BCE.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:09 AM on December 21, 2004


I would consider Josephus a little late to count as contemporaneous; he's writing about the same time as John, which is total rubbish as a historical source. The "Testimonium Flavium" is usually hotly contested, but I tend to agree with Wilson's argument that it drips with typically Josephan, back-handed sarcasm. The following bit about the Jewish woman raped by a centurion and calling it the immaculate son of a god makes even less sense without it, and Josephus' references to James--who is a significant figure in his story--don't make as much sense without some mention of this brother he keeps mentioning.

y2karl, your quotes are taking all of the latest possible dates, which seems unlikely for any random set of ranges that the true value would always be the latest extreme. But they also rely on the reasoning, "If they existed, why weren't they cited?" This assumes the canonical gospels enjoyed some special pride of place prior to Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 185. There were quite a few gospels floating around, and the canonical gospels were all written originally for particular niche communities. Why would we expect them to have any kind of availability outside of those communities? The lack of citation by the early Christian writers is not evidence, but there is evidence on which to date them.

The Pauline epistles are near-contemporaneous, as are a few of the earliest gospels (of the canonical gospels, only Mark could possibly be in this group--and even that is contested).

However, the gospels frequently contradict one another, and the multiply, independently attested material in them is a very small subset. I'm not saying we have historical evidence that Jesus was born of a virgin on December 25, I'm saying that to discount the existence of some historical personage (most likely, I think, J.D. Crossan's itinerant Jewish Cynic sage), is an overreaction that is born, I think, more of contempt for modern Christianity, because the historical evidence certainly does not support such a contention whatsoever.

* Not that I'm necessarily against contempt for modern Christianity, either, but I don't like other things--like historical accuracy, or other religions--getting caught in that crossfire.
posted by jefgodesky at 10:25 AM on December 21, 2004


On co-opting of paganism, let's not forget The Psychedelic Secrets of Santa Claus.
posted by gregor-e at 11:08 AM on December 21, 2004


Everything I've ever read about Buddha suggests that his sayings were not committed to paper until the 1st century BCE.

I'm not quite sure what 1st century BCE event you are referring to. The 1st Buddhist Council in 5th century BCE was the first to attempt to agree on a compromise canon. There were second and third councils, in 383 BCE and 250 BCE, which consisted mostly of the usual politicking you find in maturing religions.

There's a difference between recording or agreeing exactly what someone said, and merely noting the sources that attest to the person's existence or their interaction with the same.

After Buddha died, for example, his ashes were distributed to many of the kings within the Buddhist sphere of influence. Buddha had intervened with several of them to diplomatically resolve border dispute. Buddha's refusal to take sides during the border war between King Ajatasatthu and King Pasenadi Kosala is a classic example. Ajatasattu is stated to have ruled from about 551 to 519 BC, the Haryanka dynasty reached its zenith during Ajatasattu's rule Ajatasatthu seemed to have made his peace with Buddha and arranged to receive some of the dead Buddha's ashes, to build a reliquiary/temple around them. He probably knew it would be a good tourist attraction. He was into building - he would later build the fortress of Pálátiputta, which later became the capital of Magadha.

Don't forget that Buddha came from a noble family - he and his relatives were well-versed in dynastic politics. Ajatasattu 's father, Bimbasara, visited Buddha before he renounced politics and claimed enlightenment, to discuss an alliance following his assimilation of the kingdoms of Vaisali and Kosala. The kingdom of ,a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magadha">Maghada kept scrupulous records. There's even a record that Bimbasara suspended river crossing tolls for all religious pilgrims (Jains, Buddhists, Hindus) because Buddha was stopped from crossing a river because of his professed poverty.

In any case, there are also Vedic records as well as Buddhist records, and the Vedas are not really the first place you would expect people to be diligent about recording the fictitious accounts of their religious rivals.

i think the key thing is that the different dynasties recorded the very year of the death of the Buddha, and renewed their politicking that would eventually lead to the 1st Buddhist Council.

I note further that there are plenty of contemporary accounts of the debate between followers of Buddha and Mahavir (important Jainist founder figure). Both presented themselves as Hindu reformers, though different enough from the earlier Hindu Sankara reformer to evolve as breakway. Sankara's metaphysics was always a bit too complex for easy dissemination. Anyway, the main point of contention between Buddha and Mahavir was that Buddha rejected ascetism while Mahavir made it primary.
posted by meehawl at 11:30 AM on December 21, 2004


Also, there are people who argue that Mohammed never existed (or if he did exist, he didn't write the Qu'ran), and the controversy about whether or not the first Buddha was an historical person, and/or whether or not all of the sayings attributed to that historical person were said by him, etc., was an endless topic of discussion in nineteenth century Germany.

Let's say this: Three of the world's major religions are based on the sayings of three charismatic figures (Gautama Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed); no contemporary writings by any of the three have ever been discovered; all of them survive through writings compiled by their followers; within the hundred years after their death, each became the inspiration for a growing religion; and there are a great number of supernatural stories told about each figure that have become part of those religions' traditions.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:33 AM on December 21, 2004


meehawl, the earliest extant Buddhist scripture, as far as I know, is the Pali canon, which dates to the first century BCE. The events you discuss in your post above are, as far as I know, all known to us today through oral traditions not transcribed until centuries later.

It seems to me that you're not being consistent with what constitutes "proof" or "contemporaneity" as you look at historical Jesus and historical Buddha.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:39 AM on December 21, 2004


Nobody outside of Socrates's followers recorded alleged contemporaneous accounts of the historical Socrates, either

Aristophanes was hardly a follower of Socrates. My memories of The Clouds has gotten pretty foggy, but I don't recall it being a very flattering portrait of the philosopher. They certainly knew each other, but it's quite a leap from drinking buddy to student. Aristophanes didn't seem to have much truck with speculative philosophy, period, much less Socrates' rarefied thoughts on truth, love, etc..

I'm not very well read in the area, but it a historical Jesus seems likely to me. In between all the special effects, some of the more personal passages from the Gospels, like the one about Jesus' poor reception in his hometown, seem to point to a real flesh-and-blood-and-BO guy. A guy whose actual teachings seem to have been, both accidentally and deliberately, plastered over with multiple layers of myth.

Not that mythological thinking is bad, but I think the actual story of Jesus' life would be far more interesting and instructive than several conflicting, mythologized, secondhand versions of it.
posted by crake at 12:06 PM on December 21, 2004


The actual existence of Buddha or Socrates does not seem as significant as that of Jesus or Mohammed because neither of the former claimed, or had claimed on his behalf, godhood or special relationship with god; all of their good work, more or less, is contained in their words which can and are judged on their own basis.

If Jesus or Mohammed did not actually exist as essentially the person claimed by adherents of the religions based on their words and works, then those religions are without meaning. I'm not saying that neither of them didn't exist, or that either was not the person claimed by adherents but there is a pretty huge difference in the significance of their actual existence from the first pair.

As to the contemporaneous writings question, specifically in the Christian sphere, the aspect that completely baffles me is captured well by this quote from jefgodesky:

"However, the gospels frequently contradict one another, and the multiply, independently attested material in them is a very small subset."

How can any Christian denomination claim (their version) of the Bible is the literal word of god in the face of such known facts?
posted by billsaysthis at 12:06 PM on December 21, 2004


all of them survive through writings compiled by their followers

Aside from children, is that not how most of us survive past death? Or as names of cocktails or buildings? As I mentioned, Buddha's existence, along with Mahavir, is substantiated by contemporary non-Buddhist, non-Jain accounts. There's a world of difference between recording someone existed, and claiming you have the full monty on what they said.

Mohammed extracted tribute and wives, and received foreign emissaries. His existence seems to be as concrete as other middle eastern potentates of the time.

Jesus seems not to have interacted with a single diariest or chronicler of the time. He led no victorious armies into battle, and no records remain of his correspondence with other scholars of the day. Finally, there is no unequivocal record of his demise, and the disposal of his body. Nobody outside his circle noticed when he died, and there were not state funerals or transfer of relics.

I am not saying that I know what any of these people said. I am saying there is a continuum of probability of their historical existence, and that Mohammed has the strongest case, Buddha and Mahavir are next, and the case for the historical Jesus is rather weak by comparison. The closest you get to are some recovered scribblings by the Essenes and the Nazorenes about "The Redeemer" or the "Son of Man", without any specifics and no names or locations.

There were so many self-proclaimed Jewish messiahs wandering around raising rabble armies between 150BCE and 100CE that it's hard to identify a particular one with any of the mystical writings.

You can even make a good case that Philo constituted a Hellenized Jewish Messiah in the Stoic tradition, but that he was relctant to assume the role. In the case of Philo, we know that in 40CE he was part of a delegation to Caligula pleading for protection of the Alexandrian Jews against racist mobs. I note further that one of the earliest acts by the Christian theologians during the 1st and 2nd CEs was to comprehensively assimilate basically all of Philo's exegisis to remove a potential rival to their version of Hellene/Jewish syncretism.

To take an earlier example mentioned: we have no writings by Socrates, but we ascribe a high probability to his existence given that several contemprorary accounts mention hi, either directly or in passing.
posted by meehawl at 12:17 PM on December 21, 2004


all of them survive through writings compiled by their followers

Aside from children, is that not how most of us survive past death? Or as names of cocktails or buildings?

No! There are rivals and impartials as well as followers.

It becomes clearer and clearer that the essential question of a historical Christ is the most superficial irrelevancy. There is no evidence at all, it would seem.
posted by Chuckles at 1:00 PM on December 21, 2004


At the very end of grabbingsand's link (which attacks the idea that Jesus is a myth) we find:

Their views are the result of a fallen and sinful human nature, of rampant egotism and arrogance, and nothing more.

Now I understand; it's all so simple now. Not to believe in Jesus is a sin. How much more evidence do you need?
posted by telstar at 1:02 PM on December 21, 2004


Chuckles, you should read a lot more of the historical Jesus literature before you condemn it; there's plenty of evidence. The claims contrary are made primarily by those who've made that decision long before they take the time to investigate the matter.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:23 PM on December 21, 2004


Gimbutas didn't exactly pioneer those ideas. She did, however, bring them into the realm of academe.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:50 PM on December 21, 2004


Chuckles, you should read a lot more of the historical Jesus literature before you condemn it; there's plenty of evidence. The claims contrary are made primarily by those who've made that decision long before they take the time to investigate the matter.

If that is the equivalent of saying I should read the bible I'm not interested. I am interested in more historical understanding, but I have read a couple of the arguments and counter arguments and the following seems pretty clear:

1) Christian stories, beliefs and practices are based on other religious ideas from various sources

2) People really do believe in the bible

3) How could we possibly know one way or the other about an obscure figure from 2000 years ago

Further, I think claims like jefgodesky's are damaging to a secular historical understanding.

(I think I should have withheld my previous comment... I guess this late in the thread derailing into a debate isn't so bad, but I feel a little guilty about it anyway.)
posted by Chuckles at 2:06 PM on December 21, 2004


Ooopss! I stand firmly by the belief that there are two different jefgodeskys. Otherwise the previous post would look foolish, and that simply isn't possible!
posted by Chuckles at 2:09 PM on December 21, 2004


And yet, in those second-hand accounts, there are flashes of real insight and passages that seem (to me, at least) to capture a distinctive and authentic voice and way of thinking.

That strikes me as a totally unsupportable claim. As often as not it is second-hand ideas, popular wisdom, or a pastiche of various thinkers that gets recorded into history and often misattributed. There is no way to point to "a distinctive and authentic voice" in what is supposedly recycled from Jesus' words in the way that one can find in Shakespeare, for example.
posted by rushmc at 2:14 PM on December 21, 2004


I read the book in question. The ideas are certainly interesting. What's lacking is (a) an objective tone -- the author goes out of his way to be preachy about the virtues of believing in a mythical, rather than literal, Christ, and (b) footnotes, citations, etc. As an academic reader, I can't imagine writing a book like that without documenting each and every claim.

Still, it's interesting reading.
posted by greatgefilte at 2:17 PM on December 21, 2004


If he did exist, the historical Jesus left virtually no traces.

That was certainly true... UNTIL NOW:

Historical Christian Site Said to Be Found





Heh. Sorry to be overly dramatic. But it is a related link, anyway...
posted by soyjoy at 2:27 PM on December 21, 2004


Chuckles, my background is primarily in anthropology, but I'm widely read in history. Historical Jesus studies happens to be a favorite topic of mine (actually, Google Scholar turns up a rough draft of a paper [PDF] I did two years ago on the period), but a little web search will quickly illustrate that I once had some cachet in the post-Roman British scene. Not only does that period share with HJ studies the discipline required to work with such scanty sources (frankly, after post-Roman Britain, HJ studies seemed like a veritable orgy of reliable sources), but also taught me a lot of things about unreliable sources and fanatically held legends and myths.

I'm heavily influenced in this by John Dominic Crossan, but I also have Meyer's Marginal Jew sitting on my bookshelf, as well as an assortment of other, similar tomes, to say nothing of a whole shelf of such primary sources as the complete works of Josephus (which is a dry read, to say the least).

My objection to "the Jesus Myth" is not as a Christian (I don't consider myself one; neither do most Christians, though the Gnostics may occasionally invite me over for drinks), but simply on the grounds that the evidence contradicts it. The rigor of historical attestation being expected of a peasant Jew in Galilee prior to his explosion in popularity when the Emperor Constantine found his cult politically expedient is set at such an incredibly high level, that if we were to use it across the board (which would only be fair), almost all human history prior to the past few centuries would fall into an unknowable void. My love of epistemology in general, and Humean skepticism in particular, has taught me that nothing of the outside world is truly "knowable," of course, but there are varying degrees of knowability--ranging from the existence of G-d to the existence of England. I always had my doubts that England was a conspiracy of cartographers....

I was overzealous adding Caesar, but the Alexander comment was actually a paraphrase of a tenured history professor. Was it Crossan? At any rate, most classicists will readily tell you that Jesus of Nazareth has a larger contemporaneous corpus citing his existence than nearly any other figure in antiquity.

That's existence; all we know is there was someone named Jesus in Judea, who was crucified. Everything else is up for grabs. That's hardly a ringing endorsement of Christianity, and leaves plenty of room for criticism. Personally, I see the historical Jesus as a radical hippie anarchist, and Paul as a scheming bastard who created inverted all of Jesus' teachings to create Christianity, in order to change the religio licita form of Judaism recognized by Rome, so that he could have a chance at the high priesthood. I also think the only reason it ever became anything more than an interesting mystery cult, was because it helped Constantine in asserting his power over the entire empire after Diocletian's separation.

And damn you, Chuckles, for finding me out!
posted by jefgodesky at 2:47 PM on December 21, 2004


I'd just like to thank everyone for commenting. There's a lot of interesting stuff that you all have linked, and I've found the conversation fascinating so far.

I did a paper on Apollonius for a New Testament studies class that would have received an A+ if not for my going over the page limit. I guess that's the best reason to lose marks if I ever heard of you. The research was certainly interesting, though difficult. Studying Apollonius was sort of like a mini version of studying Jesus. Controversy and confusion all over the place.

The existence of a historical Jesus is made more difficult by the sources we have available. My prof last semester said we have something like 6000 New Testament manuscripts and fragments (that have been already examined, as there are more coming) and that no two agree with each other. It's pretty hard to even figure out what the evangelicals really said about Jesus.
posted by Kleptophoria! at 4:38 PM on December 21, 2004


meehawl, you still seem to be playing both ends against the middle--you say that the evidence for Jesus is lacking because it was put in writing after his death, but you say that the evidence for Buddha is solid, even though that was put in writing long after his death.

Do you have actual contemporaneous sources for the existence of Gautama Buddha that you haven't linked to? Sources that exist in writing from the time of Buddha? Because unless I am radically misunderstanding what you're talking about, the histories to which you refer are orally transmitted traditions that were written down after a) the death of Buddha, and b) the growth of the religion founded around his ideas.

I may not be following you, but it seems to me that you're saying, on the one hand, "records of political decisions made re: Buddha's followers after his death prove his existence", whereas you don't seem to believe that records of political decisions made re: Jesus' followers after his death prove his existence. Why not?
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:59 PM on December 21, 2004


rushmc, as often as not Shakespeare gives us "second-hand ideas, popular wisdom, or a pastiche of various thinkers". I still feel like I have a sense of Shakespeare's voice.

Perhaps more accurately, I should say that I feel like I have a sense of Socrates's voice, Jesus' voice, Buddha's voice, and Mohammed's voice, just as I would have a sense of Samuel Johnson's voice even if I had never read anything written by him, thanks to Boswell's Life.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:02 PM on December 21, 2004


Nobody outside of Socrates's followers recorded alleged contemporaneous accounts of the historical Socrates, either
Strepsiades
Socrates! my little Socrates!

Socrates *loftily*
Mortal, what do you want with me?

Strepsiades
First, what are you doing up there? Tell me, I beseech you.

Socrates *pompously*
I am traversing the air and contemplating the sun.

Strepsiades
Thus it's not on the solid ground, but from the height of this basket, that you slight the gods, if indeed....

Socrates
I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above; for the earth by its force attracts the sap of the mind to itself. It's just the same with the watercress...

Strepsiades
And what is it I am to gain?

Socrates
You will become a thorough rattle-pate, a hardened old stager, the fine flour of the talkers....But come, keep quiet.

Strepsiades
By Zeus! That's no lie! Soon I shall be nothing but wheat-flour, if you powder me in that fashion.

Socrates
Silence, old man, give heed to the prayers.
In an hierophantic tone
Oh! most mighty king, the boundless air, that keepest the earth suspended in space, thou bright Aether and ye venerable goddesses, the Clouds, who carry in your loins the thunder and the lightning, arise, ye sovereign powers and manifest yourselves in the celestial spheres to the eyes of your sage.

Strepsiades
Not yet! Wait a bit, till I fold my mantle double, so as not to get wet. And to think that I did not even bring my travelling cap! What a misfortune!

Socrates *ignoring this*
Come, oh! Clouds, whom I adore, come and show yourselves to this man, whether you be resting on the sacred summits of Olympus, crowned with hoar-frost, or tarrying in the gardens of Ocean, your father, forming sacred choruses with the Nymphs; whether you be gathering the waves of the Nile in golden vases or dwelling in the Maeotic marsh or on the snowy rocks of Mimas, hearken to my prayer and accept my offering. May these sacrifices be pleasing to you.

The Clouds By Aristophanes
ah, misunderstood, misconstrued or misrepresented, but, all the same...

Socrates. got. mentioned. in. his. home. town. in. writing. in. his. own. lifetime.

That is a great deal more than you can say for the historical Jesus.

Aristophanes gets mentioned in the Symposium but one can not construe that he was Socrate's follower from what he said there and I have yet to find him described so anywhere in classical literature. See also--


Is there any way to check Plato’s picture of the trial against the views of the average Athenian?

We do have one piece of evidence which shows that even 50 years after the event, when there had been ample time for reflection and remorse the Athenians still regarded the trial as political, and the verdict as justified.

Where did you find that?

In a speech by the famous orator Aeschines, the great rival of Demosthenes, in the year 345 B.C., just 54 years after the trial of Socrates. This bit is well known to scholars but its significance has never been fully appreciated. With the clue Aeschines provides, we may begin to reconstruct the Athenian political realities. Aeschines cited the case of Socrates as a praiseworthy precedent. "Men of Athens," he said to the jury court, "you executed Socrates, the sophist, because he was clearly responsible for the education of Critias, one of the thirty anti-democratic leaders."


I.F. Stone Breaks the Socrates Story

Written mention again within fifty odd years of his death.

The Search for the Historical Socrates

The Problem of the Historical Socrates
posted by y2karl at 6:06 PM on December 21, 2004


Yes, my bad about Aristophanes (made more embarrassing by the fact that I actually studied the classics for years).
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:21 PM on December 21, 2004


This is like every course I've ever taken in university coming into a single thread. Hooray for second-year political theory.

Nice links on Socrates.
posted by Kleptophoria! at 6:58 PM on December 21, 2004


50-odd years after death counts as contemporaneous? Then I've limited myself by far too much; if that's the case, then there's quite a bit of contemporaneous material that mentions a historical Jesus! That adds quite a few gospels, and includes all of the epistles.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:20 AM on December 22, 2004


Isocrate's mention of Socrates was not by a follower of Socrates, let it be noted, and no exegesis is needed for the date, which is not provisional. As for a mention of the historical Jesus by a contemporary in his own supposed lifetime, there is nothing...
posted by y2karl at 7:52 AM on December 22, 2004


Even though I'm not a Christian, the notion that Jeshua bar Josef didn't exist kinda makes me twitchy. Since none of the gospels are exactly the same, but have the same general storyline, I've always chalked it up to two things:

1) Jesus was a real man of faith, who really believed that he could open the temple back up to everyone, not just the elite members of society and...

2) He and his disciples went out of their way to craft their appearance to make it look as though Jesus had fulfilled all of Daniel and Elijah's prophecies of a Messiah.

My reasoning? It says right in the text, in all four gospels, that Jesus knew the prophecy that the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem on an ass just before Pesach, and he deliberately sent some of his men to get an ass just so he could do that.

A truly mythical character would have had a reason to coincidentally be on an ass, and just happen to ride into Jerusalem just before Pesach. The man the gospels describe deliberately cultivated that image, he didn't naturally slip into it.

This is not to mention the literary parallels between Moses and Jesus, as well as the literary allusions to previous prophecy. By Jewish prophecy, Jesus still didn't fit the Messiah bill because Elijah did *not* come back to trumpet the arrival of the Messiah like he was supposed to, but yet, the Last Supper takes place over Pesach, where one of the rituals is to pour a fifth glass of wine for Elijah.

I think the authors of the gospels probably did take quite a bit of liberty in applying the myths of Appollonius, Horus, and other resident gods to Jesus- the ability to consume and integrate local beliefs is one of the reasons that Christianity made such an impressive march across the globe. Tthe man himself cultivated the image of a Messiah, the writers of the gospels told the story of a man who could have been the Messiah and employed literary license to enhance that image.

After all, even they doubted and fled when Jesus was arrested (leaving the women alone to accompany him to his death,) and how could they truly doubt if these men had truly seen the absolute miracles of faith the Christ was supposed to have performed?
posted by headspace at 6:15 PM on December 22, 2004


The man himself cultivated the image of a Messiah, the writers of the gospels told the story of a man who could have been the Messiah and employed literary license to enhance that image.

As did any number of Gnostic interpeters and miracvle performing messiah wannabes of the time--Marcion, Valentinus and Simon Magus, to name but a few known from Pagan and Early Christian sources. Indeed, some scholars argue that the Dead Sea Scrolls appear to refer to not one but two and possibly three separate Messiahs as well.

While some of the Christians proclaim [that] they have the same god as do the Jews, others insist that there is another god higher than the creator-god and opposed to him. And some Christians teach that the Son came from this higher god. Still others admit of a third god - those, that is to say, who call themselves gnostics - and still others, though calling themselves Christians, want to live according to the laws of the Jews. I could also mention those who call themselves Simonians after Simon, and those naming themselves Helenians after Helen, his consort. There are Christian sects named after Marcellina, Harpocratian Christians who trace themselves to Salome, and some who follow Mariamne and others who follow Martha, and still others who call themselves Marcionites after their leader, Marcion.

Celsus

As no Messianic monopoly had yet been established, the market was highly competitive.
posted by y2karl at 2:02 PM on December 23, 2004


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