Friday, March 12, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (7)

Historicists often criticize mythicism because it fails to adequately answer the question of how Jesus’ disciples were able to convince large numbers of Jews that a crucified criminal was actually the Messiah. The mythicists sometimes respond by pointing out that this assumes the historicity of a crucified criminal, but I have another problem with the question. Is it the kind of question that we can even expect a historian to answer? Isn’t it really a question more properly with the realm of psychology, sociology, or perhaps anthropology?

If we were to seek an explanation for why large numbers of people came to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and why they uprooted their lives to follow him across the country, would we even think to ask whether there was some historical basis for his claim that he had translated the book of Mormon by sticking his head in a hat and reading off golden plates with seer stones? Wouldn’t we first look to sociology and psychology in an effort look to understand the circumstances under which the religious manias arise? Wouldn’t we try to figure out what was going on during that particular time that made so many people susceptible to a charlatan like Smith.

When investigating the origins of Christianity, the historian must take into account a phenomenon that has been observed to occur repeatedly throughout recorded history, i.e., gullible people who want to believe in a supernatural meaning for their lives can be taken in by a charismatic person who fills their heads with fantastic stories and ideas that he claims were revealed to him by God. They do so because the religious experience meets some psychological or sociological needs, not because of the historical basis for the stories they are told.

I don’t doubt that the idea of a crucified Messiah would been contrary to Jewish expectations in first century Palestine (although the fact that so many Jews did accept it would seem to suggest that it was no bigger stumbling block to belief than the idea of the Messiah making a trip to America was to Joseph Smith’s followers). However, I would think that almost all religious movements are characterized by some elements that would have violated the prior expectations of the people who became persuaded. I would also think that the explanation for why that element came to be accepted is much more likely to lie in the psychological need it met in the people who accepted it than in the historical basis for the element


  1. Moreover, doesn't the question "Why did Jews believe in a crucified Jesus?" presuppose that whatever Jewish Christian church there was shared the same theology as the Pauline Christian church? Isn't that part of the historical question that historicists have yet to verify?

  2. Dan M.,

    I think the question assumes many facts not in evidence (as the lawyers might say, however, I think that there are some scholars who argue for considerable independence between what Paul's gentile followers believed and what the original disciples' Jewish followers believed. I'm not really sure what the standing of such theories are in the academy these days.