What is mythicism?

The question is harder to answer than might first be suspected. I’ve been waiting a few years for the word “mythicist” to appear in dictionaries—applied, that is, to the Christ myth theory. To my knowledge, it hasn’t yet. “Mythicist” in mainstream dictionaries still refers to (1) a student of myths, or (2) an interpreter of myths. Wikipedia makes a disparaging nod in the direction of mythicism by calling it a “19th century theology.” Those who hold the view today are, presumably, passé.

About a century ago, “mythicist” (Eng.) and “mythiste” (Fr.) did refer to those espousing the Christ myth theory. But then the mythicist point of view was effectively forced out of discussion. Since the closing decades of the 20th century, mythicists have been slowly and laboriously clawing their way back to relevance. Of course, we still aren’t quite there yet. Landmarks in the New Mythicism are largely anglo-american: the books of G. A. Wells in Britain (1970s -present), Doherty’s “The Jesus Puzzle” (1999/2009), Price’s books including “Deconstructing Jesus” (2000), Zindler’s “The Jesus the Jews Never Knew” (2003), Carrier’s several books including his recent “On the Historicity of Jesus” (2014), and my “The Myth of Nazareth” (2008) and “NazarethGate” (Dec. 2015).

When I first wrote this article towards the end of 2012, the word “mythicist” was still neither used by, nor even known to, the majority of biblical scholars. Now in 2016 that is changing—a little. The built-up resistance to this concept which attacks the very foundations of western civilization is of course enormous. “Mythicist” still appears almost exclusively in discussions by mythicists themselves, and we are relatively few in number. It is very much a technical term on the fringe of biblical studies. At the beginning of the new millennium there was not even consensus on the form of the word: “mythist” or “mythicist.” The latter has prevailed, and “mythist” is sometimes used today more or less in caricature by those who seek to delegitimize Jesus mythicism.

With the appearance of Bart D. Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (2012) mythicism took a significant step closer to the mainstream of discussion. Ehrman’s book has (predictably) sold well and has functioned to bring Jesus mythicism before a general readership for the first time in history. DJE? sought to defend the historicity of Jesus, but it was not altogether successful if one judges by the varied reactions. As of this writing, the 262 customer reviews on amazon.com average out to 3.7 stars out of 5—not bad, but given the culturally built-in support for his position, “mediocre” is probably a more accurate assessment. The 80+ reviews by mythicists themselves, found on this site, are uniformly critical and (in my admittedly biased opinion) far more objective.

With mythicism receiving more exposure, I took a closer look at the word and the ways in which it is being used. What I discovered was in some ways surprising.

Semi-mythicism and euhemerism

A mythicist is one who concludes (A) that Jesus of Nazareth never existed and also (B) that no human prophet lay at the origin of Christianity.

That is how I define a “mythicist.” The definition has two components. However, what do we call those who, like myself, embrace only the first part but not the second? For example, I personally have concluded that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. Yet I also suspect that a human prophet lay at the root of the Christian religion. Others have thought similarly, most notably Alvar Ellegard in his 1999 book Jesus One Hundred Years Before Christ.

Hence, for the view that there was indeed a prophet at the origins of Christianity—but not Jesus of Nazareth—I use a different term: “semi-mythicist.” My research has revealed that such a prophet was known to the Talmud, namely, as Yeshu ha-Notsri. This seminal figure may have overlapped with the Teacher of Righteousness of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and perhaps also with John the Baptist— (on this see “NazarethGate” Chapter 14). Of course, I am quite convinced that the biography of Jesus of Nazareth was invented out of whole cloth. So (for me) the following sequence obtains:

(1) a prophet –>
(2) a false biography (Jesus of Nazareth) –>
(3) the second member of the divine Christian trinity.

The above makes me a euhemerist, and so we see that there is no conflict between euhemerism and mythicism. Anyone who thinks that a human lies at the root of Christianity (even if that human was not Jesus of Nazareth) is a euhemerist—for that human was eventually deified. The Christians get around this by saying that Jesus was God from the start. I happen to be an atheist and don’t buy into that doctrine nor deification—nor into the false biography of Jesus. But I am still both a euhemerist and a semi-mythicist. This is altogether too nuanced for most people and so, in casual parlance, I am simply a “mythicist”—one who denies the existence of Jesus of Nazareth (the “common” definition of the word).

Mythicism and docetism

Mainstream scholarship (as noted above) still hardly recognizes the term “mythicism” and its cognates. The reason is clear: scholarship is not ready to seriously engage with the issue (and will put off doing so as long as possible). Such engagement would not only acknowledge the existence of the mythicist view but would also accord it a measure of legitimacy. However, times they are a-changing.

Scholarship has since ancient times (I arguably include here the Church Fathers as “scholars”) been enamored of a somewhat related term: “docetist” (from the Greek, dokein “to seem”). The use of this term in reference to Jesus (the only use it’s ever had, AFAIK) has always appeared odd to me. Wikipedia defines docetism as: “the doctrine according to which the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and thus above all the human form of Jesus, was altogether mere semblance without any true reality” (Norbert Brox). It continues: “Broadly it is taken as the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his physical body was a phantasm.” Wow. According to this definition, we are supposed to believe that there were people in antiquity who thought Jesus was a disembodied spirit that haunted the Galilee and Judea talking with Scribes, Pharisees, disciples, and sinners… Furthermore, there were so many such ghost-believers that they constituted a particularly dangerous threat to the new religion, as evidenced by the repeated obloquy cast upon them by the Church Fathers. I find all this hard to believe. It doesn’t add up.

It has long been my suspicion that the reason the Church Fathers were so incensed at “docetists” is because those people were going around saying that Jesus of Nazareth simply never existed—period. Another way of saying this is that Jesus “had no body.” This would be especially cogent for those who insisted that “Jesus” (meaning “savior” in Hebrew) was strictly a spiritual entity. This, in fact, appears to have been the theology both of James the Just and of Paul—if one reads the latter’s epistles carefully. Some of those naysayers of the bodily nature of Jesus may also have lived in Palestine in the time of Pontius Pilate, or had parents who did. They certainly knew that no awe-inspiring God-man operated in the Galilee at the time, walking on water, raising the dead, and generally carrying on in a way that the whole world would have taken notice! They knew better. Unfortunately for the emerging Catholic (Roman) church, these people immediately gave the lie to Christianity and were poised to pop the new religion’s balloon in one stroke. Indeed, hardly a greater threat to the new religion could be imagined. Thus, a great mass of virulent anti-“docetist” literature exists from ancient times, literature that shrilly stresses the corporeality of Jesus. This in itself suggests to me that the docetists were in fact ancient mythicists.

So, the docetists weren’t merely a bunch of wierdos who thought Jesus “existed” as a phantasm. Rather, the docetists were the mythicists of early Christianity. Yes, they denied the existence of Jesus “in the flesh.” But that’s just one component of their more massive denial: that Jesus of Nazareth never existed! Indeed, if the Nazarene of the gospels didn’t exist, then there would indeed have been many docetists/mythicists. And, in fact, it appears that there were.

Scholarship—if it takes notice—will certainly vehemently oppose my equating of docetism with mythicism. After all, to admit this definition of docetism would be to admit that there were Jesus mythicists in ancient times. This is even more dangerous than admitting the existence of mythicists in modern times!

Splitting hairs: possible technical definitions

(1) Jesus mythicist—Concludes that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as a human being. He was invented. [Jesus mythicists may believe that “Jesus” was also purely spiritual—see next entry.]

(2) Docetist—Believes that “Jesus” was/is purely a spiritual entity. [Hence, docetists were/are also Jesus mythicists.]

(3) Semi-mythicist—Concludes that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as a human being (see 1 & 2), but also maintains that a human prophet lay at the origin of Christianity (e.g., Yeshu ha-Notsri, the Teacher of Righteousness, John the Baptist).

(4) Mythicist—A catch-all term proposing that Jesus of Nazareth never existed and also that no human prophet lay at the origin of Christianity.

At this time, the above terminology is probably too complex to be workable for more than a few people. “Mythicist” will no doubt continue to function as a shorthand term for all the above four categories, with the current focus on number (4), and the remaining categories generally not clarified.

The tradition uses the term “mythicist” only for modern deniers of the historicity of Jesus. It adamantly rejects the possible existence of such deniers in ancient times, preferring the loose term “docetist” with ridiculous implications attached. However, there certainly were Jesus mythicists, semi-mythicists, and mythicists (generally speaking) in the early Christian centuries. Whether there were any “docetists” as the modern and ancient church tradition defines them (believers in a walking phantom) I am not so sure.

—René Salm
(Updated Dec. 3, 2016)

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website www.NazarethMyth.info.

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