Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Getting Behind the Myth Making

After his death, George Washington was mythologized for propaganda purposes as the “Father of His Country.” Stories like the one about the child who could not lie about chopping down the cherry tree were invented to present him as the embodiment of every virtue for which the new nation wished to think it stood.  This image helped create a sense of identity for the fledgling United States. Historians have always struggled to get behind those myths to understand who the man really was.  Even thought there is a wealth of primary source material that predates the myth making, historians have had found it incredibly difficult to get a grip on the Washington.

With Jesus of Nazareth, we have nothing that predates the myth making.  Our record starts with the letters of Paul who knew only the supernatural being who made himself known by appearances and revelation.  Paul may have thought that this supernatural being had once been a man who walked the earth, but Paul did not know that man and doesn't seem to know anything about what he said or did.  Neither is there much in Paul to indicate that he thought that any of his contemporaries had known the man.  Even if there was a historical Jesus, our record of him starts with the myth of the exalted being who was raised from the dead.

I have little patience with historicists who claim that doubting Jesus' existence is akin to doubting that man landed on the moon.  If man landed on the moon, we would expect to have evidence that is so overwhelming that no rational person could doubt it—and we do.   On the other hand, if the historical Jesus of secular scholarship existed, we wouldn't necessarily expect to have much evidence of him at all.  Such a man could easily have come and gone without leaving any trace in the historical record that would still be discernible after two millennia.  Unlike a George Washington, Jesus of Nazareth wouldn't have left the kind of historical footprint during his life that would give us any hope of being able to separate the reality from the myth making that took place after his death.

1 comment:

  1. The George Washington example is a good one. If George Washington didn't exist, we would need a whole lot more hypothesizing to explain the US revolution. There would be just too many ad hoc variables to supplant another explanation. But Jesus? All of the theology existed before the Christ-myth; that's where the Jews got it from. A historical Jesus isn't as necessary to explain the movement like a historical George Washington.

    Could Christianity have started with a mythical Jesus? I'm pretty sure it could have. All it would have taken was someone to get the bright idea that Philo's Logos took human form and died for our sins and was resurrected from the dead like many other dying-rising gods that diaspora Jews must have obviously known about. Something that simple just doesn't have an analogue with Washington. Which is why it should be considered, at the least, irresponsible for one to compare doubts about the existence of Jesus to doubting heliocentrism.

    Maybe someone sides with historicity in the long run, but one should compare Jesus with something more historically analogous like Socrates. That would be the responsible thing to do, not Holocaust Denial.