Is Jesus a Myth?
Most 20th century Highlanders view Christianity very much as Pontius Pilate viewed it: a load of rubbish, and sinister to boot. If asked why, you’d expect them to draw themselves up to their full intellectual height and tell you that modern science has put an end to that sort of nonsense. But what’s been interesting since Richard Dawkins’s ‘Tour of the Hebrides’ has been the number of voices offering a different argument, and telling us that they reject Christianity not because Darwin eliminated the Creator, but because the gospels are no more than a collection of ancient myths and fables.
It’s tempting to respond by asking, with C. S. Lewis, how many ancient myths and fables such people are actually familiar with. Are they saying that from their vast knowledge of Accadian, Babylonian and Latin myths they can tell one a mile off, and know at once that the Gospel of John is no different from the story of Romulus and Remus, who were sired by Hercules, abandoned by their mother and suckled by a wolf, before Romulus went on to found the Eternal City, Rome?
This is certainly not the sort of stuff St. John thought he was writing. He thought he was a reporter, answering, often in meticulous detail, the questions, Who? What? Why? Where? and When? His gospel is not some once-upon-a-time thing set in a land-beyond-the-sea, but one where we meet real people, like the Reverend Professor Nicodemus, D.D., who hasn’t a spiritual clue; and the Woman of Samaria, who is now shacking-up with her sixth man; and the bachelor, Lazarus, who lives in Bethany with his unmarried sisters, Mary and Martha. If these are mythological beings, they’re very odd ones: neither heroically evil nor heroically good, but so ordinary as hardly to be worth inventing.
Myths don’t suddenly appear overnight. They develop over centuries at a safe distance from the world they purport to explain. By contrast, the earliest New Testament documents were written not much more than ten years after Jesus’ death, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to debunk their ‘myths”. Neighbours could have proved that Jairus’s daughter was never raised from the dead; local residents could have rubbished the story that once, near Tiberias, Jesus fed five thousand people with five scones and two sardines; and guests could have ridiculed the idea that at that wedding in Cana of Galilee Jesus turned water into wine. Imagine the fuss if my admirers announced that forty years ago, at a wedding in Uig, I turned water into whisky.
And above them all stands the Myth of the Empty Tomb. Just a few weeks after Jesus’ death, St. Peter is preaching the resurrection to thousands gathered in the open air. Yet nowhere in either Jewish or Roman history is there any denial that the tomb was empty. Jesus was buried only an hour or so before the beginning of the Sabbath (so precise are the chronological details of this “myth”), yet by early Sunday morning his body was gone; and no one’s seen it since.
Besides, the story of the Empty Tomb, particularly as told by Mark, has all the hallmarks not of myth, but of brilliant reporting. Apart from all else, it gives the central, heroic role to women, even though in Jewish culture a woman’s testimony was not admissible in a court of law. Why would a myth-maker choose such poor witnesses?
And the details of the story are so graphic! They wait till the Sabbath is over (just); they set out as soon as the sun begins to rise; they’re dead-worried as to how they can ever move the stone from the entrance to the tomb; they press on regardless (“We’ll work something out when we get there!” In a myth, one of the girls would have moved the stone with her little finger).
Most remarkable of all is the ending. According to modern editors, Mark’s Gospel ends at verse 8 of Chapter Sixteen, with the statement that the women fled, “for they were afraid.” Is there any myth in history with such an ending?
Not that it ended there, of course. The alleged fabricators of the myth pledged its truth by being prepared to die for it. They had seen him die, they had seen him dead, and they had seen him risen, and for him they would lay down their lives. A novelist’s faith in her artistic integrity is one thing. To let yourself be crucified (as St. Peter was) because you think the fictional character you have created is actually real, is a bit ridiculous.
The point of the gospel myths, presumably, was to prove that Jesus was the Son of God. But this, too, is very odd. Why, if this was their intention, did they not only place his death at the very heart of their message, but go out of their way to report that he didn’t die a “fine death”? Stoic martyrs died “without fear and without hope”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as he walked to the noose, took leave of his fellow prisoner with the words, “This is the end: for me, the beginning of life.” By such standards, the makers of the Jesus-myth were downright stupid: their hero was frightened as he contemplated his end. What was worse, he died disowned by his very own God, and crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”
Such a man makes a poor myth, and as a god he’s not fit for purpose. Imagine what Alister Campbell would have said? If there’s one thing dafter than “doing god”, it’s doing a crucified one.
Then there is the little matter of the myth-makers themselves. Some parts of their “myths” are clearly not myths. It’s not a myth that there is such a thing as the Sermon on the Mount. Nor is it a myth that there are such brilliant parables as the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, and such great stories as the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Wise and Foolish Virgins.
Who composed these remarkable pieces of literature: some unknown fisherman; a syndicate? Everyone in the early church knew who the Great Preacher was, just as they knew who wrote the Gospel of John.
Of course, if it’s all a myth, they should have worshipped John, not Jesus, because if that fisherman spun that book out of his own imagination, the world has never seen his like, and never will.
This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press, 8 February, 2013.