John E. Remsberg
[HTML and editing by Cliff Walker, 2000]
The Christ a Myth
The conceptions regarding the nature and character of Christ, and the value of the Christian Scriptures as historical evidence, are many, chief of which are the following
1. Orthodox Christians believe that Christ is a historical character, supernatural and divine; and that the New Testament narratives, which purport to give a record of his life and teachings, contain nothing but infallible truth.
2. Conservative Rationalists, like Renan, and the Unitarians, believe that Jesus of Nazareth is a historical character and that these narratives, eliminating the supernatural elements, which they regard as myths, give a fairly authentic account of his life.
3. Many radical Freethinkers believe that Christ is a myth, of which Jesus of Nazareth is the basis, but that these narratives are so legendary and contradictory as to be almost if not wholly, unworthy of credit.
4. Other Freethinkers believe that Jesus Christ is a pure myth -- that he never had an existence, except as a Messianic idea, or an imaginary solar deity.
The first of these conceptions must be rejected because the existence of such a being is impossible, and because the Bible narratives which support it are incredible. The second cannot be accepted because, outside of these incredible narratives, there is no evidence to confirm it. One of the two last is the only true and rational conception of the Christ.
Jesus Christ is a myth. But what do we understand by the term myth? Falsehood, fable, and myth, are usually considered synonymous terms. But a falsehood, a fable, and a myth, while they may all be fictions and equally untrue, are not the same. A falsehood is the expression of an untruth intended to deceive. A fable is an avowed or implied fiction usually intended to instruct or entertain. A myth is a falsehood, a fable, or an erroneous opinion, which eventually becomes an established belief. While a falsehood and a fable are intentional and immediate expressions of fiction, a myth is, in most cases, an unconscious and gradual development of one.
Myths are of three kinds: Historical, Philosophical, and Poetical.
A Historical myth according to Strauss, and to some extent I follow his language, is a real event colored by the light of antiquity, which confounded the human and divine, the natural and the supernatural. The event may be but slightly colored and the narrative essentially true, or it may be distorted and numberless legends attached until but a small residuum of truth remains and the narrative is essentially false. A large portion of ancient history, including the Biblical narratives, is historical myth. The earliest records of all nations and of all religions are more or less mythical. "Nothing great has been established," says Renan, "which does not rest on a legend. The only culprit in such cases is the humanity which is willing to be deceived."
A Philosophical myth is an idea clothed in the caress of historical narrative. When a mere idea is personified and presented in the form of a man or a god it is called a pure myth. Many of the gods and heroes of antiquity are pure myths. John Fiske refers to a myth as "a piece of unscientific philosophizing," and this is a fairly good definition of the philosophical myth.
A Poetical myth is a blending of the historical and philosophical, embellished by the creations of the imagination. The poems of Homer and Hesiod, which were the religious text books of the ancient Greeks, and the poetical writings of the Bible, which helped to form and foster the Semitic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism, belong to this class.
It is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish a historical from a philosophical myth. Hence the non-agreement of Freethinkers in regard to the nature of the Christ myth. Is Christ a historical or a philosophical myth? Does an analysis of his alleged history disclose the deification of a man, or merely the personification of an idea?
The following hypothesis, written by Mrs. Besant, of England, is, to a considerable extent, an epitome of the views of Strauss, who, in his masterly "Leben Jesu," adopts the historical myth:
"The mythic theory accepts an historical groundwork for many of the stories about Jesus, but it does not seek to explain the miraculous by attenuating it into the natural.... It attributes the incredible portions of the history to the Messianic theories current among the Jews. The Messiah would do this and that; Jesus was the Messiah; therefore, Jesus did this and that -- such, argue the supporters of the mythical theory, was the method in which the mythus was developed.... Thus, Jesus is descended from David, because the Messiah was to come of David's lineage; his birth is announced by an angelic visitant, because the birth of the Messiah must not be less honored than that of Isaac or of Samson; he is born of a virgin, because God says of the Messiah, 'this day have I begotten thee,' implying the direct paternity of God, and because the prophecy in Is. vii, 14, was applied to the Messiah by the later Jews; born at Bethlehem, because there the Messiah was to be born (Micah v, 2); announced to shepherds, because Moses was visited among the flocks, and David taken from the sheepfolds at Bethlehem; heralded by a star, because a star should arise out of Jacob (Num. xxiv, 17), and 'the Gentiles shall come to thy light' (Is. Ix, 3); worshiped by Magi, because the star was seen by Balaam, the magus, and astrologers would be those who would most notice a star, presented with gifts by these Eastern sages, because kings of Arabia and Saba shall offer gifts (Ps. lxxii, 10); saved from the destruction of the infants by a jealous king, because Moses, one of the great types of the Messiah, was so saved; flying into Egypt and thence returning, because Israel, again a type of the Messiah, so fled and returned, and 'out of Egypt have I called my son' (Hos. xi, 1); at twelve years of age found in the temple, because the duties of the law devolved on the Jewish boy at that age, and where should the Messiah then be found save in his Father's temple? recognized at his baptism, by a divine voice, to fulfil Is. xlii, 1; hovered over by a dove, because the brooding spirit (Gen. i, 2) was regarded as dove-like, and the spirit was to be especially poured on the Messiah (Is. xlii, 1); tempted by the devil to test him because God tested his greatest servants, and would surely test the Messiah; fasting forty days in the wilderness, because the types of the Messiah -- Moses and Elijah -- thus fasted in the desert; healing all manner of disease, because Messiah was to heal (Is. xxxv, 5-6); preaching, because Messiah was to preach (Is. lxi, 1-2); crucified, because the hands and feet of Messiah were to be pierced (Ps. xxii, 16); mocked, because Messiah was to be mocked (Ib. 6-8); his garments divided, because thus it was spoken of Messiah (Ib. 18); silent before his judges, because Messiah was not to open his mouth (Is. liii, 7); buried by the rich, because Messiah was thus to find his grave (Ib. 9); rising again, because Messiah could not be left in hell (Ps. xvi, 10); sitting at God's right hand, because there Messiah was to sit as king (Ps. cx, 1). Thus the form of the Messiah was cast, and all that had to be done was to pour in the human metal; those who alleged that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, adapted his story to the story of the Messiah, pouring the history of Jesus into the mould already made for the Messiah, and thus the mythus was transformed into a history."
The foregoing theory, with various modifications, is accepted by a majority of Freethinkers at the present time.
The hypothesis that Christ is a philosophical myth, based, like the preceding one, upon the Messianic idea, is thus presented by T. B. Wakeman:
"Never was there an example of a word becoming a believed person, under this law of materialization, more plainly and evolutionally than the 'Messiah' and 'Son of Man' of the Hebrew prophecies.... The Christ, 'Jesus,' was no man, for the reason that he was prophesied and visionated into this world and life to do a work that it would be utterly absurd to suppose a man could ever do. The Romans had killed, and could easily kill, every man who had tried to resist their oppression. Now the God Yahweh by his 'eternally begotten son,' spiritized as the 'Son of Man,' that is the 'Soul of the State,' as Shakespeare makes Ulysses say it, must, in order to be of any avail appear with supernatural powers. He was the personified people, Israel; he had been crucified alive, in their subjection and massacre even to the death and Hades. But by supernatural power he, the Israel, would rise again and bring the final judgment backed by the infinite power of the nation's Father, Yahweh. It was only a Spirit-God who could do this -- nothing less could be originated, or thought of, or provided, for such a superhuman purpose. A person, a man, a reformer, a weak edition of Socrates, or Savonarola or Bruno! How absurd! The human heart in its despair by its imagination, brought a God into the world to do a God's work. 'No man,' said Napoleon; 'nor a God,' says Science, except the idea. Such it was that finally united the millions of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America, in a dream so intoxicating that it dares not to be awakened though the dawn of Science is here."
Mr. Wakeman argues that the silence of history for one hundred years after the alleged appearance of Christ can be explained only upon this hypothesis of an ideal Christ. To this the advocate of the historical mythus may, I think, very properly reply: History, for the most part, takes cognizance only of noted men and important events; and while this silence precludes the existence of the supernatural Christ of Christians, and even that of the human Jesus of Renan, it does not necessarily preclude the existence of an obscure religious teacher and an insignificant sect which subsequently, by a chain of fortuitous circumstances, became the mightiest among the religions of the world.
Again, this hypothesis presupposes a considerable degree of intellectuality on the part of those who evolved this ideal Christ, while tradition represents the founders of the Christian religion as grossly ignorant. Had this Christ originally sprung from the Hellenistic Jews of intellectual Alexandria instead of from the Jewish dregs of illiterate Galilee, Mr Wakeman's theory would appeal with surprising force. Still it must be admitted that some of the earliest Christian sects denied the material existence of Christ.
Another philosophical hypothesis, the astronomical, which regards Christ as a solar myth, is advanced by Volney.
"These mythological traditions recounted that, 'in the beginning, a woman and a man had, by their fall, introduced into the world sin and misery.'
"By this was denoted the astronomical fact that the celestial virgin and the herdsman (Bootes), by setting heliacally at the autumnal equinox, delivered the world to the wintry constellations, and seemed, on falling below the horizon, to introduce into the world the genius of evil (Ahrimanes), represented by the constellation of the serpent.
"These traditions related that the woman had decoyed and seduced the man.
"And, in fact, the virgin setting first seems to draw the herdsman after her.
"That the woman tempted him by offering him fruit fair to the sight, and good to eat, which gave the knowledge of good and evil.
"And, in fact, the virgin holds in her hand a branch of fruit which she seems to offer to the herdsman; and the branch, emblem of autumn, placed in the picture of Mithra between winter and summer seems to open the door and give knowledge, the key to good and evil.
"That this couple had been driven from the celestial garden, and that a cherub with a flaming sword had been placed at the gate to guard it.
"And, in fact, when the virgin and the herdsman fall beneath the western horizon, Perseus rises on the other side; and this genius, with a sword in his hand, seems to drive them from the summer heaven, the garden and dominion of fruits and flowers.
"That of the virgin should be born, spring up, an offspring, a child, who should bruise the head of the serpent, and deliver the world from sin.
"This denotes the sun, which at the moment of the winter solstice, precisely when the Persian magi drew the horoscope of the new year, was placed on the bosom of the virgin, rising heliacally in the eastern horizon. On this account he was figured in their astrological pictures under the form of a child suckled by a chaste virgin, and became afterward, at the vernal equinox, the ram, or lamb, triumphant over the constellation of the serpent, which disappeared from the skies.
"That, in his infancy, the restorer of divine and celestial nature would live abased, humble, obscure and indigent.
"And this, because the winter sun is abased below the horizon and that this first period of his four ages or seasons is a time of obscurity, scarcity, fasting and want.
"That being put to death by the wicked, he had risen gloriously that he had reascended from hell to heaven, where he would reign forever.
"This is a sketch of the life of the sun, who, finishing his career at the winter solstice, when Typhon and the rebel angels gain the dominion, seems to be put to death by them; but who soon after is born again, and rises into the vault of heaven, where he reigns."
Count Volney's portraiture of the second member of the Christian godhead is, for the most part, accurate. Numerous other analogies between him and the ancient sun gods might be named.
It is the belief of many, however, that these solar attributes of Christ are later accretions borrowed by the Roman Catholic church from the pagan religions which it supplanted.
While all Freethinkers are agreed that the Christ of the New Testament is a myth they are not, as we have seen, and perhaps never will be, fully agreed as to the nature of this myth. Some believe that he is a historical myth; others that he is a pure myth. Some believe that Jesus, a real person, was the germ of this Christ whom subsequent generations gradually evolved; others contend that the man Jesus, as well as the Christ, is wholly a creation of the human imagination. After carefully weighing the evidence and arguments in support of each hypothesis the writer, while refraining from expressing a dogmatic affirmation regarding either, is compelled to accept the former as the more probable.