Scholars mentioned: T. Brodie, H. Detering, E. Doherty, N. Lemche, D. MacDonald, R. Price, R. Salm, T. Thompson.
Readers of this blog recognize its dedication to mythicism—as in ‘Jesus mythicism’—the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist as an historical figure. However, at this time in history when pressure is rapidly building in support of the Christian mythicist position, a different (yet equally important) kind of mythicism is also gaining ground… We can term it Jewish mythicism—the conviction that assumptions about Judaism’s past are (also) mythological.
The Yahwist cult (what we today term Judaism) began as prophetic literature in the eighth century BCE. It may have been a very small, elitist cult for centuries thereafter, not becoming widespread among the people of Judea and Samaria until well after the return from exile of Jewish aristocrats in the late sixth century. Judaism’s greatest claim to the land in antiquity is undoubtedly the small Hasmonean Kingdom which lasted a brief century (140–40 BCE). Incidentally, the Hasmonean rulers were exceptionally Hellenized, and it is entirely valid to question how “Jewish” they really were. But there was indeed a temple, a priesthood, a Sanhedrin, and—by then—Jewish customs and literature. So, yes, there was some Jewish presence in the land during the centuries before the common era, a presence that quickly ended with the diaspora beginning after the First Jewish War of 70 CE.
The claims contained in Jewish literature are, of course, enormously inflated beyond the meager facts stated above. They include a “promised land,” multiple covenants with God, a conquest under Joshua, and a Davidic kingdom—none of which have ever existed within the realm of reality. The modern claim that the land of Israel once belong to Jews and, hence, is in some way their rightful possession is, by any accounting, “debatable.”
Scientific, biblical scholarship is thus enormously threatening to the modern Zionist claim of “right of return” to land that once “belonged” to Jews. Without Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the history enshrined in Jewish scripture is not factual but invented and self-justifying. There is no reason at all for any other people to credit that history, one probably formulated no earlier than the Hellenistic period (see next post). In fact, there is no reason even for Jews to credit their own “Primary History” found in the books of Genesis through Kings. Modern scholarship is demonstrating that history to have been entirely invented.
I do not think the contemporary burgeoning of Christian and Jewish mythicisms is entirely coincidental. This amazing simultaneity reflects several new realities: a Catholic Church in retreat (consider the ongoing pedophile and financial scandals); the rise of a “New Atheism”; and the final maturation (or ‘digestion’) of two centuries of liberal scholarship dealing with the Old as well as the New Testaments. Sociologically, the “nones” (people not affiliated with any religion) are now the fastest growing segment of Western society. Clearly, the world is preparing itself for new paradigms. Those paradigms will go beyond both both Judaism and Christianity…
I have long felt that ours is a special generation, an era of transition and breakthrough—from the Christian worldview to something new. I don’t use the moniker “post-Christian” because we’re not there yet. But I strongly sense that we’re well on the way, that western civilization is ready to shed two thousand years of adoration to a crucified savior.
A second breakthrough is that of Dennis MacDonald, who has (also exhaustively) shown that the evangelists drew upon Homeric epics—again, for the story of Jesus.
Both of the foregoing scholars have demonstrated that the evangelists were hardly casual, superficial, or naive recorders of recent events. They were calculating, educated persons of considerable invention, cleverness, and skill. Knowledge of the Homeric corpus was a commonplace for educated Greek speakers in antiquity—including for Hellenist Jews of Egypt-Palestine-Syria. Such Jews would also have been very familiar with Jewish scripture. Thus, the work of Brodie and MacDonald suggests that the evangelists were educated Hellenist Jews, probably living in a large metropolis such as Alexandria or Antioch.
My own work may qualify as a third breakthrough, in that it has gone far toward showing that no Nazareth existed at the turn of the era. This conclusion supports the insights of Brodie, MacDonald, and others, in showing that Jesus ‘of Nazareth’ is fictive.
The ‘apostle’ Paul is also questioned as a historical character by certain scholars (Price, Detering) who have inherited the mantle of the Dutch Radical School. We are finally reaching the perspective where we can appreciate that the formative ‘yeast’ of Christianity (at least at the stage we are considering) was not Jesus at all, but was a doctrinal idea, namely, the Pauline kerygma: that the Son of God and ‘savior’ (Jesus/Yeshua) atoned for our sins on the cross, once and for all time. It appears at first such a savior was a spiritual abstraction, as discussed in the Pauline epistles and as the work of Earl Doherty emphasizes. Subsequently, however, that abstraction became clothed with the familiar but false biography of Jesus of Nazareth as found in the gospels.
Old Testament mythicism
Equally exciting breakthroughs have recently taken place relating to Jewish scripture. I’ve noted above that only the most naive still maintain the historicity of the patriarchs from Abraham to Moses. Major biblical figures and entities associated with “ancient Israel” are now increasingly in doubt, as archeology fails to support the historicity of the Exodus, the Conquest, the Davidic empire, as well as the existence of King David, King Solomon, and the First Temple. Without these vital historical underpinnings Judaism becomes an eviscerated religion, a nexus of fantastic claims and hubris, albeit mixed with some high ethical prescriptions and much great literature.
In the next post we will examine recent and astonishing theories relative to the origins of Jewish scripture. As with New Testament studies, the Old Testament field is undergoing massive reappraisal. Too many scholars of ability are poking too many holes in the bow of that sinking ship. The long-standing Documentary Hypothesis—the backbone of scholarly understanding of the ‘Primary History’—firmly remains majority opinion. But it now needs tweaking, if not a complete overhaul. Stay tuned.—René Salm