The impotence of biblical studies

Jesus mythicism
and the impotence of Biblical Studies, or:
biblical scholars and gradeschoolers

A statement by René Salm

In his book The End of Biblical Studies (2007) Hector Avalos writes that “attending a session of an annual meeting [of the SBL] is a study in irrelevance” (p. 308). It’s probably one of the milder statements in the book. In fact, scholars have only themselves to blame. For decades now they’ve not only busied themselves with minutiae in which no one else is interested but have (more egregiously) confined their vision to the safe parameters of Sunday School and synagogue—which is, after all, the historical vision of your average gradeschooler. I submit that this linkage between scholars and gradeschoolers should be kept in mind for, despite their demonstrated erudition, biblical scholars are amazingly timid when it comes to challenging the cultural delusions that presently pass for religious history. Biblical scholars examine minutiae with care but steadfastly refuse to connect the dots. It’s a curious situation, a little like going to the store and paying the money but not bringing home the bacon. Well, we all know the reason: aligning themselves with popular opinion and institutional power, scholars continue to steadfastly refuse to seriously consider anything which might shake the tent of tradition. I mean, their jobs are at stake.

Over half the U.S. teaching posts in biblical studies are in confessional institutions of higher learning (Avalos:316). Since there are not many teaching posts to begin with, that leaves very few positions where any serious consideration of non-traditional views could be expected. But, of course, even in public institutions there is enormous pressure to toe the traditional line and not to make waves, if only because tenure for religious studies professors in public institutions is declining precipitously and part-time employment is greatly increasing. I commiserate. Biblical Studies profs have families to feed, papers to grade, and all those minutiae to examine—besides vacations in Disneyland to plan and the unceasing pressure of publishing. Life is tough—except perhaps during the summer, and when on sabbatical in Oxford, and when attending all those conferences paid for by the boss…

Where does that leave an idea like “Jesus didn’t exist”? Mercy! Is there any idea better calculated to get religious studies professors running for the exits? With Jews the situation is similar—simply substitute “David” for “Jesus” in the above question and watch the room empty of academics.

There have always been a few courageous souls willing to challenge powerful religious institutions. Before the Enlightenment such people were burned at the stake. Afterwards they were merely excommunicated (Turmel) or sacked (Bruno Bauer). While the Church today retains its Index Librorum Prohibitorum and its various ecclesiastical weapons, the biggest threat to freedom of expression (for that is the core issue in biblical studies) remains economic. Today job insecurity is the stick that insures religious conformism. There are also carrots, such as (what Avalos calls) the media-publishing complex, an industry capable of generating wealth for religion professors willing and able to write for the masses.

Enter Dan Brown

However, the masses like to be titillated, not educated. So if a professor is willing to entertain some outlandish possibility, e.g. that Jesus had a wife, or had offspring, or that items truly associated with his existence have been found—such as the nail which entered his feet, the shroud which imprinted his sweat, or even the bones of his alleged brother—well, that professor might sell millions of books as did Dan Brown. Of course, he will also have crossed over the line into fiction. But, truth be told, the Christian world crossed over that line two millennia ago. After all, only footnotes, academic stuffiness, and a fascination for minutiae separate writing for the Journal of Biblical Literature from writing the escapades of “religious symbology expert” Robert Langdon. On the one hand Brown and his ilk write “fiction,” while on the other hand sincere and quite learned people write biblical “history.” Nevertheless, both ventures are sorties into equally delusional worlds.

What is fiction? What is fact? When it comes to religion the difference is often in the eyes of the beholder. One problem voiced by the tradition is that people reading The DaVinci Code cannot separate fact from fiction. In his 2008 book The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide, James H. Charlesworth devotes a whole section to the question, “Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?” An internet source ( reports: “The Catholic Church has had to hire special teams of people to stand along a ‘route’ of various sites presently being visited by gullible people who believed many elements of Brown’s ‘fiction’ to be quite true (as he claimed it was) in order to inform them that what the book purports is untrue, inaccurate or in many cases, a complete invention.”

Jesus mythicists might learn from this. Perhaps we should hire special teams of people to stand at various Israeli sites presently being visited by gullible people who believe many elements of the bible’s “fiction” to be quite true in order to inform them that what the book purports is untrue, inaccurate, or in many cases a complete invention.

The above source’s arguments (based on the work of a certain D. James Kennedy, Ph.D) offer further insights into the contemporary blurring of fact and fiction when it comes to religious matters. Its most egregious accusation is Dan Brown’s claim that “The New Testament is false testimony.” Gee, I thought that even mainstream scholars had been arguing this for a long time. So what’s the problem? It can only be that this view is now leaking outside of scholarship. That is what scares the bejeebers out of the tradition: dangerous material that was for so long embargoed within the confines of academe and relegated to obscure journals is now being broadcast to the masses who go to Church. Oh oh. I see a paradigm change on the way—with The DaVinci Code as vector… Score one for Dan Brown.

The second error which our source villifies is Brown’s assertion that “The doctrine that Jesus was divine was created by a pagan emperor in the fourth century, Constantine, for the purposes of manipulation: ‘It was all about power.’” Gee again. A Roman emperor (and Christian saint) manipulating religion for the purposes of power? How uncouth. But the real thrust of this objection is the notion that in the fourth century the divinity of Jesus could even have been in doubt. Of course, scholars have long known this to be the case. We have a name for that doubt: Arianism. The problem, again, is that this uncomfortable historical fact is no longer confined to academe but has now reached the masses. Score another for Dan Brown.

Admittedly, Dr. Kennedy then wins a couple of points. He’s right: Jesus was not married to Mary Magdalene. But wait a minute—we’re talking about a myth here, right? Dr. Kennedy’s statement should read: “According to the Christian myth Jesus was not married to Mary Magdalene.” However, the mythical characters “Jesus” and “Mary Magdalene” can be whatever any mythmaker wishes. Score another for mythmaker Dan Brown.

At this point our disgusted source then objects to Brown’s view that “Christianity was based on pagan religions ­such as the mystery religions.” Yet many generations of scholars have shown that Brown is, in fact, on pretty firm ground here. The only quibble I personally have is whether Christianity was based on pagan religions or whether it only borrowed from them. Score at least another half point for Dan Brown.

Where does this leave us?

Both the religious man and the novelist are motivated by myth. The one praises an object of faith and the other writes whatever will sell. On the other hand, the researcher who seeks to understand Christian origins is playing a very different game—and a difficult game. He is immediately confronted with the products of two millennia of assiduous mythmaking and with the repeated preening of texts which long ago jettisoned unwanted elements. Then too, there is the question of tendentious translations which ensure that the public receives a “sanitized” version of scripture (Avalos). Translations, of course, should not factor into scholarship which deals with the original languages. At any rate, the repeated selection, censorship, and revisionism of scripture has produced a veritable farrago of material, material which has long defied sincere and persistent efforts to shed light on actual events two thousand years ago. If researchers are to break the “intellectual blockade” which is still very much in force in the West, they must expand their toolkit to include unsanctioned texts (Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi scriptures, pseudepigrapha), they must expand their methods by using uncensored channels such as the internet, and they must persist in considering possibilities currently quite off limits in academia, possibilities ranging from Jesus mythicism to Dutch Radicalism to the semi-mythicism of G.A. Wells.

It should be stated plainly: biblical researchers who approach the study of Christianity with a posture of faith render themselves intellectually impotent. Nota bene: this in itself does not assert that faith is useless (though I indeed believe faith to be quite useless). It is simply the recognition that faith operates in a self-validating realm apart from reason and science. Faith cannot and should not make scientific claims. That simple declaration is still not understood by the majority of biblical scholars, i.e., those who approach their work with a confessional bias. This is why, once again, those scholars are the emotional (if not intellectual) peers of gradeschoolers.

“Faith-inspired research” is an oxymoron. What passes for religious research in confessional settings across the U.S. is not research but apologetics. Biblical studies in the U.S. have historically not been “research” so much as a defense of the tradition against the continuing progress of science. At heart, biblical studies as currently conducted are not science but obstructionism. They are a quest for legitimacy. In sum, the intermingling of Christian (and Jewish) faith-based perspectives within the field of religious studies is a powerful reason why, year after year, those studies don’t “get anywhere” despite the frenetic activity of thousands of scholars. Individuals, however, are only partially to blame. As mentioned above, the hands of scholars are quite tied by what they are permitted to “find” and what is “forbidden.” Hence the “intellectual blockade” noted above.

Though past censorship and present obstructionism hamper the sincere researcher, to these must be added a third obstacle: the much compromised nature of the primary texts themselves which, as religious documents, are tendentious ab ovo. In other words, the researcher starts with texts which are ahistorical. Perhaps a better way to phrase this would be that we are starting with texts which are (at most) incidentally historical. After all, religious literature was not written with the intention of reporting anything that we would today call “history.” The books of the Bible and the scores of pseudepigraphical/apocryphal works outside it were written to justify, to persuade, to convert, and sometimes merely to awe. “Accurate history” is neither to be expected nor derived from this concatenation of motives. Given these several and considerable drawbacks, it is not surprising that biblical studies are largely futile.

A changing landscape

Thankfully, the situation which has existed for so long appears to be finally changing. Beginning with the Enlightenment western civilization has gradually broken away from the Church’s monopoly of learning. Three centuries of biblical scholarship have opened wide cracks in the façade of Christianity, a religion whose authority ultimately rests upon scripture. Many generations of researchers—not only fringe academics but also mainstream scholars—now acknowledge that both the Christian and the Jewish scriptures are rife with contradictions, improbabilities, and not a few impossibilities. Belief in the inerrancy of scripture increasingly commands less respect in biblical studies. Such scholarly skepticism may irritate the tradition, but the major bugaboo is the possibility that rank skepticism could become generalized in the non-academic public at large. The present fear of churchmen everywhere is that the man and woman in the pew might learn what liberal scholars have actually known for a long time.

The present generation possesses unprecedented tools when it comes to investigating Christian origins. At our disposal are large bodies of religious material fortunately discovered in the 20th century, material which has largely escaped the Church’s censorship. This primary material includes texts from the Cairo Genizeh, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi Gnostic library. Today we possess substantial material from the early Christian centuries reflecting heterodox views of both Christianity and Judaism. Those views may not guarantee a perfectly accurate account of Christian origins, but they are certainly facilitating a more objective account than was previously possible.

We now live in a between-times when the mythicist of yesteryear is emerging from the cellar to the shock and dismay of the prim and proper inhabitants of the upper floors. The cellar dweller, long relegated to obscurity and darkness, is demanding a place at the dinner table. Nay, more—he is claiming that the house belongs to him and that the dwellers above are no more than squatters. It is a serious claim, for he seems to have considerable information of a sensitive nature which has long been suppressed.

Today, the view of Jesus held by all churches now confronts a radically dissimilar view that threatens the very foundation of those churches. The mythicist is bringing forward evidence that Jesus never existed. He is doing so with arguments based upon well-reasoned scholarly data. Right now it is fashionable to lampoon mythicism as a crank view held by a tiny number of fringe amateurs, a view that has ‘suddenly’ appeared and which must soon pass. But this is ill-taken. Jesus mythicism has its roots in scholarship itself and has been around for a long time. Like a plant whose roots have long been hidden underground, its flourishing at this time is not an aberration but a sudden blossoming above ground, the natural result of a process which has benefited from a good deal of preparation.

Finally, I’d like to say that mythicism involves more than Jesus. The mythicist shows that Peter never existed, that the apostles never existed, that Paul too may be a fiction, and that most of the episodes in the New Testament are the stuff of imagination. The mythicist claims that there was no virgin birth, no multiplication of loaves, no walking on water, no bodily resurrection from the dead, and no atonement for anyone’s sins. He has the tools to demonstrate that Christianity as we know it was a late arrival fashioned by Greeks for Greeks, with a fantastic God-man as unbelievable as is the Superman of our comicbooks. The mythicist is able to put the lie to Christian lies, is able to show that no Bethlehem nor Nazareth existed at the turn of the era, and that Jesus is quite as fictive as the Wizard of Oz.

A wholesale and very radical rewrite of Christian origins is the only possible outcome of current investigations into Christian origins. Academe has made it perfectly clear that such a rewrite will not come from within its hallowed halls. By default, then, we see the cutting edge of biblical studies increasingly populated by those outside of academe, including educated and committed amateurs.

The mythicist must be taken seriously, for he is increasingly showing that his case is demonstrable. The Christian, on the other hand, has shown that only his faith is demonstrable.

—René Salm
(First uploaded 7/9/12)

About René Salm

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

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