Guest writer Roo Bookaroo.
Scholar and independent researcher 'Roo Bookaroo' has an educational background which extends across philosophy, history, linguistics and science. He has a particular interest in the Greco-Roman world.
With no Christian roots, Roo has written a biography of Arthur Drews, a pioneer in Jesus denial, and wholeheartedly endorses Drews's judgement that Christianity is a cultural fossil, no longer appropriate to the modern age of critical inquiry, of scientific and economic progress. Roo is presently working on a re-edition of Drews' 1912 masterpiece, The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus and below offers his analysis of the belligerence shown towards mythicists from erstwhile sceptics in the academic establishment.
Why R. Joseph Hoffmann's rage against modern mythicists?
Judged by the censorship that he exercises over his internet blog, Hoffmann's ego inhibits his ability to acknowledge his mistakes or, in the worst examples, scholarly malpractice. He can be both cavalier and nitpicking with equal aplomb, just as long as he "wins". Somewhere along the line, Hoffmann seems to have lost his sense of historical professionalism, and he is not completely trustworthy in his evaluations.
But there’s another subtle factor in Hoffmann’s rage against mythicists. It is the loss of prestige and pre-eminence of the leading New Testament scholars.
I. The First Wave of Skepticism: Against the Supernatural in the Christian Story and the Divinity of Jesus Christ
Historically, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum and to the current dispute between historicists and the so-called “mythicists”, essentially “Jesus existence deniers”. Archibald Robertson, in his fine book “Jesus: Myth or History?” (1946) rightly sensed that the historical dimension of the dispute was most significant.
Skepticism about the New Testament writings started early, with the first critical battle focusing against the supernatural religion and the divinity aspect of Jesus.
The first critics were not proposing any theory, any new religious ideas. They had no agenda. They were primarily reacting to the creation of fables concocted by Christian propagandists, by objecting to them and denouncing them.
Hoffmann, laudably, produced exciting books about Marcion (1982-4, his Ph.D. thesis), the first major fabulist and propagandist, and about Celsus, Julian, Porphyry, all first-class Roman skeptical critics. Those studies are wonderful credits to a “serious” NT scholar.
These initial skeptics were never the first to invade the Forum. It was the Jesus followers who came to the market place with their placards and banners proclaiming:
“Yes, We Can!”, “Yes, We Can! Follow Jesus!” “Yes, we can save mankind from its sins by coming to Jesus!” “Follow Jesus! and Be Saved! For ever! Or else, watch out …”
“How come?” asked the skeptics, in astonishment. “Why can this unknown, bedraggled, and illiterate vagrant Jew save us? And save us from what? Who is he, after all? What’s the proof of all this new nonsense?”
And all through the first centuries the doubters became more and more vociferous against the insidious creep of Christian propaganda.
“Because he is the Son of God, that’s why! Jesus’s come down to earth to save us from our sins! Period. Follow Him or go to Hell!”
“How so? And what sins are you talking about? How come God deigns to send us a son? Why should we believe this kind of highfalutin story?”
And so, throughout the history of the West, skeptics continually kept denouncing the godliness of Jesus.
“Baloney, Jesus is not divine. Jesus cannot be divine. The whole story is a fabrication, a fraud, a scam, the greatest con game perpetrated on mankind. A justification for the existence of the Church, its power, its wealth, its intolerance and fanaticism.”
Throughout the centuries, skeptics kept hammering on the claims of Jesus’s divinity.
“This cannot be a son of God, no way. He was just a man, a preacher, a fanatic, some kind of trouble-maker. He had delusions about himself. The end of the world? Sheer insanity. Some mental disorder about a mission ordered by God.”
This skepticism went on for 1,500 years, without making any decisive progress, remaining an exciting, but marginal, dangerous, protest.
It took the invention of printing to break the stranglehold of the Jesus fanatics on the access to their holy books.
Once translated (in spite of the death penalty) and the sacred texts examined, doubts became more urgent and loud, spread by the infant press.
The explosion of the Enlightenment and the diffusion of their books, articles, essays, letters, and sermons — with the likes of Voltaire, Baron d’Holbach, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Taylor, Richard Carlile — threatened the whole control that the Christian Church had established on Western society.
What we now retrospectively call “historicism” became the hallmark of the skeptics during the whole 1750 – 1900 period.
II. The Second Wave of Skepticism: Against the Very Existence of Jesus — From Historicism to Radicalism
Once a solid base of critical review had been established by the Enlightenment thinkers, a second wave of criticism emerged, and it was directed at the existence of Jesus itself.
The skeptical doubters of the Enlightenment, became even more concerned:
“Pray, tell us, about this son of God, did he even exist? Looking at the texts, it’s not that sure at all!”
The skeptics, studying more and more books — with better and better glasses allowing them to read the fine prints and deciphering published manuscripts and new-found scrolls — were becoming “radical”, going beyond their critique of Jesus’s divinity, now assumed secured, to become “Jesus existence deniers”.
All this new development was truly remarkable: the first phase of skepticism had done a very good job in denouncing the divinity of Jesus. A huge series of “Lives of Jesus” had followed, inundating the market. They had transformed Jesus into a Romantic hero in the 19th century mold, another “Great Man” shaping the history of mankind in glorious fashion, in fact “the greatest of men” as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ernest Renan, then Albert Schweitzer started rhapsodizing. It’s a theme that can be found everywhere, even today.
“Jesus, of course not a god, but what a guy! The greatest influence on world’s civilization, the greatest moralist the world has ever known, nobody else comes up to his ankles, society couldn’t function and behave without him, and so on ...”
But the first-wave skeptics hadn’t gone far enough. David Strauss’s doubts gave way to Bruno Bauer’s new and outrageous kind of skepticism: radicalism. Jesus was a fiction. He had never existed. The Gospels took us for a ride. The Dutch Radical School followed suit, carrying the doubt to its extreme:
“And what about Paul’s letters? Just look at them! Those are not letters! As long as a book! No way! They’re propaganda, all made up to sell his crazy ideas! What a strange character! And what about him, too? Not so sure about him, either.”
First-wave skepticism about the genuineness of Christian writings and the phony divinity of Jesus had gone as far as it could, the “radicals” were now striding on front stage and raising doubts not just about the existence of Jesus, but also that of Paul.
Skepticism had entered a second phase. Not only was the so-called divinity of this illiterate Jew denounced as a pure scam, but the radicals insisted that Jesus’s very existence as a mere, earthly man had been fabricated by the pious story-tellers. The whole Christian story looked more and more like a giant forgery.
The Enlightenment had been in the 18th century the discovery of Reason and the power of critical thinking over faith. The 19th century was the discovery of the application of “critical inquiry” to history, including history of evolution and history of religious beliefs. Radical skeptics seized on “historical criticism” and flourished in this new intellectual environment, pursuing the authenticity of the past and sifting out the fictional in the New Testament stories.
In the last part of the 19th century, this radical new thought exploded in public. The anthropological studies of James Frazer on primitive religion paved the way:
“This Jesus. Handsome like a movie star. As clever as Ulysses. Could bring people back from the dead. And himself too! Only three days in the tomb, and he could lift off, like that, no problem. He was some kind of a Superman."
Jesus probably never existed. Just another “dying-and-rising God”, to be repeatedly eaten by his followers as a sacrament. The whole story was a scam, not just the “Son of God” bit, and the phony salvation promise, but the very historicity of the character.
This opened the gates to an avalanche of key books in the 1850-1950 period, which truly was the golden age of "Historical Criticism" in the study of the origins of Christianity. Here is a short list of the most significant titles, all great classics (only 58 out of thousands), many now available online [for a complete list with links see also: scholars].
Bruno Bauer, 1850-2 A Critique of the Gospels and a History of their Origin (4 vol.)
Charles Bradlaugh, 1860 Who Was Jesus Christ? What Did Jesus Teach?
Robert Ingersoll, 1872 The Gods
Walter Cassels, 1874-9 Supernatural Religion - An Inquiry Concerning the Reality of Divine Revelation
Bruno Bauer, 1874 Philo, Strauss, Renan and Primitive Christianity
Bruno Bauer, 1877-9 Christ and the Caesars: The Origin of Christianity from Greco-Roman Civilization
Allard Pierson, 1878 The Sermon on the Mount
Thomas William Doane, 1882 Bible Myths and their Parallels in Other Religion
John E. Remsburg, 1884 Bible morals: twenty crimes and vices sanctioned by Scripture
Edwin Johnson, 1887 Antiqua Mater: A Study of Christian Origins
Willem Christiaan [W. C.] van Manen, 1890, 1891, 1896 Paul
John MacKinnon [J. M.] Robertson, 1900, 1910 Christianity & Mythology
John MacKinnon Robertson, 1903 Pagan Christs
George Robert Stowe [G.R.S.] Mead, 1903 Did Jesus Live 100 BC?
Albert Kalthoff, 1904 The Origin of Christianity: New Contributions to the Christ Problem
Thomas Whittaker, 1904, 1933 The Origins of Christianity, including An Outline of Willem C. Van Manen's Analysis of Pauline Literature (with Van Manen's English reviews of Acts, Romans, and 1 & 2 Corinthians).
William Benjamin [W. B.] Smith, 1906 The Pre-Christian Jesus: Further Studies on the Origin of Christianity
John E. Remsburg, 1906 Six Historic Americans [Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Grant, founders of the American Republic, all Deists and Freethinkers]
John E. Remsburg, 1909; The Christ: A critical review and analysis of the evidences of His existence. (Reprint 2007, The Christ Myth)
Peter Jensen, 1909 Moses, Jesus, Paul: Three Variations on the Babylonian Godman Gilgamesh
Mangasar Magurditch Mangasarian, 1909 The Truth About Jesus — Is He a Myth?
Arthur Drews, 1909 The Christ Myth
Arthur Drews, 1910 Hat Jesus gelebt? ("Did Jesus Exist?", transcription of the debate on Arthur Drews's "The Christ Myth" , held on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 1910 in the Zoological Garden in Berlin)
Johannes Weiss, 1910 Jesus von Nazareth: Mythus oder Geschichte? Eine Ausandersetzung mit Kalthoff, Drews, Jensen. ("Jesus of Nazareth: Myth or History? A discussion with Kalthoff, Drews, Jensen")
Arthur Drews, 1910 Die Petruslegende, ein Beitrag zur Mythologie des Christentums, 1910, 1924 (Transl. Frank Zindler, 1997 The Legend of St Peter, A Contribution to the Mythology of Christianity)
Mangasar Magurditch Mangasarian, 1911 The Bible Unveiled
Gustaaf Adolf [G. A.] van den Bergh van Eysinga, 1912 Radical Views about the New Testament
Shirley Jackson Case, 1912 The Historicity of Jesus
William Benjamin Smith, 1912 Ecce Deus: Studies of primitive Christianity
Arthur Drews, 1912 The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus
Frederick C. Conybeare, 1914 The Historical Christ; or, An investigation of the views of Mr. J. M. Robertson, Dr. A. Drews, and Prof. W. B. Smith
H.W.Ph.E. van den Bergh van Eysinga, 1917 The Christ Mystery
John MacKinnon Robertson, 1917 The Jesus Problem: A Restatement of the Myth Theory
Arthur Drews, 1921 The Gospel of Mark, a Witness against the Historicity of Jesus
Paul-Louis [P. L.] Couchoud, 1923 The Enigma of Jesus
Paul-Louis Couchoud, 1924 Le Mystère de Jesus ("The Mystery of Jesus")
Maurice Goguel, 1925 Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?
Joseph McCabe, 1925 The Myth of the Resurrection
Arthur Drews, 1926 The Denial of the Historicity of Jesus in Past and Present
Joseph McCabe, 1926 Did Jesus Ever Live?
Paul-Louis Couchoud, 1926 First Edition of the Paulina
Joseph Wheless, 1926 Is It God's Word? An Exposition of the Fables and Mythology of the Bible and the Fallacies of Theology
Joseph Wheless, 1930 Forgery in Christianity
Paul-Louis Couchoud, 1930 La Sagesse Juive: Extraits des livres sapientiaux ("Jewish Wisdom: Excerpts from the Wisdom books")
Paul-Louis Couchoud, G.A. van den Bergh van Eysinga, & Robert Stahl, 1930 Premiers écrits du christianisme ("Early Christian Writings")
Paul-Louis Couchoud, 1930 Apocalypse (Transl., 1932 The Book of Revelation : A Key to Christian Origins)
L. Gordon Rylands, 1935 Did Jesus Ever Live?
Paul-Louis Couchoud, 1937 Jésus : Le Dieu fait homme ("God made man"), (Transl., 1939 The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginning of Christianity)
Rudolf Bultmann 1941 The New Testament and Mythology (Transl., 1948 Kerygma & Mythos)
A. D. Howell Smith, 1942 Jesus Not a Myth
Joseph McCabe, 1945 A Biographical Dictionary of Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Freethinkers
Archibald Robertson, 1946 Jesus: Myth or History?
Joseph McCabe, 1948 A Rationalist Encyclopedia
G.A. van den Bergh van Eysinga, 1950 Christianity as a Mystery Cult
Herbert Cutner, 1950 Jesus — God, Man or Myth? An Examination of the Evidence
Archibald Robertson, 1954/62 The Origins of Christianity
William Benjamin Smith, 1957 The Birth of the Gospel: A Study of the Origin and Purport of the Primitive Allegory (posthumous publication)
And so, suddenly, the new brand of “radical” skeptics turned on their erstwhile allies, the skeptics of the first wave — who were now labeled “historicists” — for their timidity towards the new ideas.
As Archibald Robertson so aptly described, a new divide was created: the second-wave skeptics, the radical Jesus deniers, no longer fighting the classical apologists, now were battling against the rear-guard defenders of Jesus’s existence… the historicists.
Skeptics had spent centuries attacking Jesus, the Church and Christianity, uninterested in the marginal and inconsequential question of whether Jesus had really existed, and, lo and behold, they were suddenly pushed in the role of the last bastion in the defense of Jesus’s existence.
“Jesus non-existing? What a joke! Look, he’s better known, better documented than Alexander the Great, better than Julius Caesar, better than Napoleon, or Theodore Roosevelt!”
The historicists, clinging to the memory of the first-wave pioneers, were becoming, willy-nilly, the new defenders of the core of the Jesus legend. This provided the final ironical twist of history: The historicists, who had started the fight against the divinity of Jesus, were now facing the radicals, and had become the NEW APOLOGISTS.
III. The Rage of R. Joseph Hoffmann Revealed
This strange group of “historicists” welcomed all the refugees, and absorbed the drop-outs and emigrants from the faith. R. Joseph Hoffmann is the epitome of that last-guard activism.
For the whole of the 20th century, historicists had controlled universities and main publishing houses. Mythicists were allowed their splash in public, a factor of curiosity, but they were relegated to the fringe and the marginal existence of freethought free-lancers, without a job assuring them of a stable income.
How could you generate cash and support a family as a “Jesus existence denier”? All the way from Thomas Paine and Roger Taylor, all through the 19th and 20th centuries, radical skeptics had to rely on sensational journalism, giving lectures and conferences, writing history books, making friends with obscure publishers for survival like Richard Carlile, or holding librarian jobs. Only in Holland, were the radicals able to get university jobs.
But with the new technology of communication, the Internet and self-publishing, a new era has dawned, and a second stranglehold broken. Radicals and Jesus deniers, for the first time in history, can at last reach the large public and produce a voice that can be heard, and even make some money by setting up a little commerce on the side — books, ebooks, conferences, DVDs, films, lectures, trips to Mexico, Israel, Italy, Greece, or Egypt, tapping an immense market of working people eager for easily digestible popularizations of the new ideas on religion, without the arcane and rebarbative apparatus of “serious” scholars — and plain begging for donations, in the old-fashioned Christian way.
It is this feeling that academic biblical scholars, including the most gifted ones (among whom Hoffmann certainly lists himself), are losing the control of the research that they had long monopolized through the control of the great university libraries, their Ph.D. degrees, and their expensive professional journals.
Suddenly, thanks to the Internet, a tsunami of commentaries is drowning the landscape, and the academic scholars are suddenly appalled and frightened by this new “single greatest threat, next to fundamentalism, to the calm and considered academic study of religion.” (So dixit Hoffmann)
Not only is the new voice growing beyond all expectations but it has become unstoppable. The Great Manitous of the field, like Hoffmann, are losing their prestige and pre-eminence. Worse, some brave souls do not shy from ridiculing their know-it-all pomposity.
Which is why these academic scholars have faithfully kept to the original skepticism of the first wave, satisfied with their critique of Jesus as a Godman, but stubbornly clinging to their fundamental belief in Jesus as a historical figure.
In the process these descendants of the first-wave skeptics turned against their own offshoot, the radicals, the Jesus existence deniers. The First-wave skeptics had been the real McCoy, the original unbelievers. And, lo and behold, their modern avatars in the second wave had become, by force of unpredictable circumstances, the “New Apologists.”
In the new cacophony, the voices of the sophisticated experts are getting muffled. This is what is really tormenting the likes of Bart Ehrman and R. Joseph Hoffmann. The self-selected experts of New Testament studies no longer control the public debate. Jesus deniers are being heard in larger numbers. Bart Ehrman and Joseph Hoffmann are forced to acknowledge the new landscape, and to make a public effort to salvage their credibility.
“Did Jesus Exist?” Bart Ehrman, in his recent book, was not capable of convincingly dealing with his own question, and is getting trounced all around as an easy butt of cynical criticism.
Hoffmann, educated by Catholic nuns, has retained a sentimental affection for the Church. He thinks that he can salvage his dear Jesus from being thrown into the dustbin of history. He can do a far better rescue job. His “Jesus Project” went nowhere, and now his “Jesus Process” is sinking into an abyss of insults and vituperations (what he calls “doing irony”), and with a motley crew, has turned into a farce.
His last resort would be to attempt one grand, definitive, “refutation” of mythicism, something that eluded Bart Ehrman, as Hoffmann has mischievously pointed out. Should we all be holding our breath waiting for that epoch-making book? Will it ever appear? And can it be the knock-out “refutation” Hoffmann is dreaming of? The final “estocade” to a vigorous Non-historicity thesis?
Make no mistake, Hoffmann’s personal anchorage in Catholicism explains his fondness for his beloved Jesus.
But there’s also, barely muted behind a grating barrage of ironical putdowns, the anxiety of academic desperation — the Barbarians are again at the gates of Rome.
This gnawing presentiment of a new turn in the direction of research and publication, and the bitter feeling of the Great Manitous losing control of the conversation are significant factors in the ill-disguised rage of Hoffmann against the current breed of Jesus deniers.
Hoffmann may well be justified to be worried. Given the exponential speed of Internet diffusion, in a few decades, the mythicists’ notion of the non-existence of Jesus — that the Jesus story had all been just that, a fiction — may well become accepted, like a Richard-Dawkins meme, as a commonplace fixture of Western culture, exactly as it took time for Darwin’s new concept of evolution by natural selection to become accepted.
Roo Bookaroo — 2012/06/28
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
For your copy order:
Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and
no material herein is sold for profit.