Longtime readers may remember that religion used to be a primary, rather than incidental focus of this blog. It may be the case that writing for Canadian Atheist and then moving to Freethought Blogs took some of the fun out of being a combative atheist. It could just be that I had more pressing questions rattling around in my brain. At any rate, I haven’t done a pure religious critique in a while, so pardon me if the rust shows through.
I read the Old Testament when I was in high school. Being a longtime fan (and voracious reader) of Greek mythology, I immediately recognized the stamp of myth on the stories of Jonah and the Giant Fish, Noah’s Ark, the Walls of Jericho, you name it. Stories are important cultural signifiers that transcend generations and give us some common ground. It didn’t strike me as particularly peculiar that a group of nomadic people whose written language arrived many generations after many serious events in their history would have kept their history alive in story form. It seems equally non-controversial to imagine that, as stories tend to do, the histories and the fables and legends became blended over multiple tellings. For someone who, even at the time, wasn’t a literalist believer, the idea that a literal super-strong Samson probably didn’t actually exist in the way he’s depicted didn’t matter much to me. What was important were the lessons of the Bible. It would take me a few more years to realize how monstrous many of those lessons actually are.
Similarly and non-coincidentally, I began to view the New Testament as a work of fictionalized history. At the time I thought Jesus was probably literally real, and that the writing in the Gospels needed to be viewed in context of the politics of the time. Understanding the tension that would have existed between, for example, the Pharisees and the Roman Empire at the time, helped put things like the Sermon on the Mount into a reasonable context – Jesus wasn’t speaking for eternal attribution, he was talking about the issues of the time. Judas wasn’t some evil conniver, he was a run-of-the-mill political zealot who sought to install new leadership by betraying the old one. And so on, in a most run-of-the-mill sort of way.
Eventually, this line of thinking brought me fully into the “mythical Jesus” camp. I no longer believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth (somewhat obviously), but I also have some pretty serious doubts that a single person like that ever existed. It’s entirely probable to me that a number of different stories about popular political figures in and around that time were relayed orally, and eventually began to become attributed to a single figure who was the head of a popular Jewish movement. Many of the day-to-day details about Jesus’ life and times are conspicuously absent from the Gospels, which are instead replete with dubious ‘miracles’ and apocryphal fables about, essentially, a wandering magician with a flair for rhetoric. Whatever historical basis there may actually be for Jesus is almost certainly buried under a pile of stories relayed around several Judean campfires, in the same way that the stories of the Old Testament were propagated.
The apologist’s response to the idea of a mythical Jesus is… let’s just say it’s not exactly the most convincing argument I’ve ever heard:
There is not enough time for myths and legends to have been developed and incorporated into the Gospels. Several generations have to pass before the added mythological elements can be mistakenly believed as fact – instead there is only twenty years (50 AD’s) before we find documented information about Jesus – containing all the main claims of Christianity!
And lest you accuse me of picking only the lowest-hanging cherries here, the claim is repeated again and again and again and again ad nauseam. The first time I heard someone say this, I thought he was joking. But no, the idea that a people whose lives and histories were steeped in myth and miracles couldn’t have created a mythologized history in 30 years is meant to be taken seriously.
I read this story in Salon (yeah, I know, but bear with me) the other day:
He was right. Texas Gov. Rick Perry wrote a July 11 Washington Post Op-Ed bashing “isolationism” on Iraq and rebuking Paul’s attempt to remake himself in Reagan’s image. Because Reagan has become an actual political deity among Republicans, Perry’s attacks on Paul veered creepily into accusations of insufficient reverence for the one true Reagan: “Paul conveniently omitted Reagan’s long internationalist record of leading the world with moral and strategic clarity.” Perry invoked the glory of Reagan eight times throughout the op-ed (not counting the accompanying picture caption) and made about as clumsy and obvious a grasp for the Gipper’s legacy as can be imagined: “I personally don’t believe in a wait-and-see foreign policy for the United States. Neither would Reagan.”
The general thesis of the story is that Republican political figures, jockeying for position as a presumptive Presidential frontrunner, are hitting each other over the head with Ronald Reagan’s tombstone. Since they both assert that they are the true heir to the throne of Saint Reagan, but they disagree, they can’t both be right (they can, however, both be wrong). It’s a more-or-less typical “Republican party implodes” piece that is Salon’s regular fare, but in this case I think there’s something quite useful that can be gleaned from this story.
This is a picture of Ronald Reagan:
We can be pretty close to certain that this is actually a picture of Ronald Reagan because he was alive during a time when there were cameras. He was televised giving the speeches he gave. There were lots of speeches, allowing historians to cross-reference numerous statements (from The Gipper’s mouth directly) to build a consensus of what his positions on, say, foreign policy actually were. A presidential library exists, filled with artifacts and copies of speeches and correspondence and lots of other useful items that could be used to establish that a) Ronald Reagan actually existed, and b) he held a certain set of beliefs.
This is probably not a picture of Jesus of Nazareth:
While most Christians would probably identify this as an image meant to represent Jesus, nobody could really say whether or not Jesus looked anything like this. That’s because Jesus didn’t live in a time or place where it was possible for someone like him to have a portrait taken. There were no scribes travelling with him, and (obviously) no video cameras or tape recorders. Nobody really thought, at the time, that Jesus’ legacy was going to have such an outsized impact, so nobody really thought to scrupulously collect, document, and preserve artifacts or correspondence or anything of that nature. Indeed, most of the methodologies used by contemporary historians wouldn’t be invented for several hundred years, so to expect such things is naive at best.
How long does it take for a myth to be created?
Ronald Reagan died in 2004, 15 years after the end of his term in office. Assuming, facetiously, that 1989 marks the end of the time when Ronald Reagan’s political opinion was sought or offered or recorded (it almost certainly doesn’t), Reagan’s legacy stops 25 years ago. It has taken about 25 years, therefore, for there to be serious disputes and distortions of historical fact over Reagan’s teachings from among his own self-professed followers. This is to say nothing of the criticisms and disagreements put forth by his detractors. Within 25 years (or 10, if you start counting from when he died), Reagan’s political beliefs and even some basic facts about his life have become the topic of some fierce debate among his acolytes and opponents alike. And that’s without anyone believing that Reagan was literally an avatar of Yahweh.
The supposed time of the death of Jesus of Nazareth was something like 2000 years ago. Biblical scholars differ on the exact date range, but there appears to be (based on some quick Googling) a consensus that the Gospels were written something like 70 years after the event. Let’s be generous and cut that down to 50 years, simply for the sake of argument. I’ll also grant the assertion, again for the sake of argument, that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses and/or based on the accounts of eyewitnesses (although I certainly don’t accept that this is true). I will also, in a fit of generosity worthy of Dorcas herself, assume the total good faith of those writing the accounts. I need not rely on the totally plausible idea that people thinking to write about Jesus’ life and teachings might have a vested interest in portraying him in the best possible light and adding/omitting information when they consider it practical to do so. My argument is not troubled at all by granting the assertion that the Gospels represent a best attempt to accurately portray the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, written some 50 years after his death.
Why? Because it took 25 years for Reagan’s acolytes to become profoundly confused over Reagan’s legacy and its lessons. If we grant the ultimate assumption above – that Messrs Rand and Perry are interpreting in good faith – then we have two prominent Republicans with a fundamental disagreement over what Ronald Reagan would have counseled on foreign policy. Twenty years. Well short of the “too short for myth-making” span of 50 years between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. And this is in the face of the aforementioned abundance of documentation of Reagan’s life and work. Both of these men were, in a sense, “eyewitnesses” to Reagan’s political beliefs and practices – they were certainly alive and politically active during the 1980s. They are undoubtedly personally acquainted with people who served under Ronald Reagan. And yet, the invocation of the teachings of a mythical Ronald Reagan abound – a Ronald Reagan that both did and did not support foreign interventionalism.
Now, let’s acknowledge that there is at least some evidence suggesting that the confusion over Reagan’s legacy is, at least in part, intentionally mythologized. That instead of remembering him as the president who illegally sold weapons to Iran and narrowly escaped impeachment, we remember him as a towering giant of foreign policy acumen and intellect who single-handedly devoured the Berlin Wall and had Communism for dessert. Or at least we are asked to take such remembrance seriously. Regardless, in the face of an abundance of evidence (physical, eyewitness, recorded, etc.), such mythologizing should be impossible, or at least difficult.
It didn’t even take 25 years to create a myth about Ronald Reagan. And we are asked to take seriously the idea that, in a time where no evidence was available, no (or very few) records were kept, mythologizing was common, and the stakes were literally about everlasting life or death, a mythical Jesus is simply not possible. Even if you accept the pull-quote at the beginning of this piece as accurate, that only twenty years had passed between Jesus’ death and the first Gospel, the central claim that mythology takes generations to take hold is patently absurd. We can see, in real time, evidence that myth-making can happen in much shorter a period than that.
Remember that time that Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from her house? No, you don’t, but there’s a pretty good chance you remember remembering that. That’s how short a time it takes for quotes to be misattributed, misremembered, or fabricated outright. Hell, I’ve had things that were written on this blog that are less than two years old transformed into a pathetic meme about how I want to intentionally infect people with AIDS. Rebecca Watson’s “guys, don’t do that” was transformed into an angry penis-choppin’ diatribe in less time than it takes to say ‘I am laid low by the matriarchy‘. If I’m being asked to take seriously the idea that the Gospels couldn’t be mythical because twenty years is too short a timeframe for such myths to be created, well, I guess I’ll just have to believe my lyin’ eyes.
Now if you’re not a literal believer, this may not be a problem for you. It certainly wasn’t for me, at one point. Whether or not an individual Jesus existed to whom all of the Gospel stories can be attributed is unimportant. You can still believe that Jesus’ teachings are profoundly moral (which I once accepted but no longer do), even if like Homer or Aesop, he is only a convenient narrative device for the content. You can, as a figurative believer, simply treat the Gospel as a set of parables within a parable, with a bit of political drama at the end thrown in as an early form of clickbait (This Guy Was Executed by Rome, and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next – although you’d better believe it because otherwise you’re going to Hell). But then the question has to be asked: without any literal belief in the Jesus story, are you still a Christian? My answer to that question was ‘no’; I’m sure others have managed to answer ‘yes’.
But let us not accept as anything other than risible special pleading the claim that “there wasn’t enough time for myths about Jesus to enter the Gospels”. Political ambition, the desire to fulfil previously-written prophesies, the propensity for mythology, the usefulness of mythology to spread stories and ideas, all of these factors and more make it far easier to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is mythological than that he literally sent a bunch of demons into a herd of pigs. Just as is currently happening, before our very eyes, with the ghost of Ronald Reagan, and a herd of GOP politicians.