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Christ myth theory

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[T]here have always been scholars who either wondered whether or positively doubted that Jesus of Nazareth, the man toward whom Christ-following orients itself, actually existed. Such doubts and propositions are all welcome in historical research, along with every other hypothesis about the nature (thoughts, intentions, actions, teaching) of this Jesus, if he did exist.... History is not religion, and its practitioners cannot be preachers, advocates, or polemicists.
Steve MasonWikipedia's W.svg[1]

While Christ myth theory and Jesus myth theory are used as synonyms they don't really have the same meaning.

One of the biggest problems with the "Christ myth" is what it actually means is all over the freaking map largely because Volney and Dupuis had different views regarding the Christ myth, which resulted in a large range of ideas being called "Jesus myth theory", "Christ myth theory", or "Ahistorical Jesus" (including ones that accept Jesus existed as a human being).

Modern origins[edit]

Discounting the idea that docetism is part of the Christ myth, the concept goes back to the 1790s with the ideas of Constantin-François VolneyWikipedia's W.svg and of Charles-François DupuisWikipedia's W.svg.

However, Volney and Dupuis did not agree on a definition of the Christ myth. Dupuis held that there was no human being involved in the New Testament account, which he saw as an intentional extended allegory of solar myths. Volney, on the other hand, allowed for confused memories of an obscure historical figure to be integrated in a mythology that compiled organically.[2] So from nearly the get-go the modern Christ Myth theory had two parallel lines of thought:

  1. There was no human being behind the person portrayed in the New Testament.
  2. Confused memories of an obscure historical figure became woven into the mythology.

For the most part, the no human being behind the New Testament version is presented as the Christ myth theory, ignoring Volney's confused memories of an obscure historical figure version.

In fact, as the John Frum cargo cult shows, even in as short a time as some 11 years after a message starts being noticed by unbelievers, the question of the founder being an actual person or a renamed existing deity is already unclear[3] and in a few more years the oral tradition has forgotten the possible human founder (illiterate native named Manehivi who caused trouble using that name from 1940 to 1941 and was exiled from his island as a result) and replaced him with a version (literate white US serviceman who appeared to the village elders in a vision on February 15, late 1930s) better suited to the cult.[4][5]

Meanings of "Christ myth theory"[edit]

[W]e shall land in considerable confusion if we embark on an inquiry about the historical Jesus if we do not pause to ask ourselves exactly what we are talking about.
—New Testament scholar Ian Howard MarshallWikipedia's W.svg, I Believe in the Historical Jesus[6]
  • Jesus is an entirely fictional or mythological character created by the Early Christian community. (Effectively Dupuis' position)
  • The Christ myth may be a form of modern docetism.[7]
  • Jesus agnosticism: The Gospel story is so filled with myth and legend that nothing about it including the very existence of the Jesus described can be shown to be historical.[8]
  • Jesus began as a myth with historical trappings possibly including "reports of an obscure Jewish Holy man bearing this name" being added later.[9][10] (Effectively Volney's position)
  • The Gospel Jesus is in essence a composite character (that is, an amalgamation of several actual individuals whose stories have been melded into one character, such as is the case with Robin Hood), and therefore non-historical by definition.[11][12]
  • Jesus was historical but lived around 100 BCE.[13][14]
  • The Gospel Jesus didn't exist and GA Wells' Jesus Myth (1999) is an example of this.[15] Note that from Jesus Legend (1996) on Wells has accepted there was a historical Jesus behind the hypothetical Q Gospel and that both Jesus Legend and Jesus Myth have been presented as examples of the Christ Myth theory by Robert Price and Eddy-Boyd,[16] while Richard Carrier has used them as examples of an ahistorical Jesus.[17]
  • Christianity cannot "be traced to a personal founder as reported in the Gospels and was put to death in the circumstances there recorded."[18] A Jesus who died of old age, only preached 'End of the World is nigh' speeches to small groups, or was killed outside the 26-36 CE reign of Pontius Pilate would fit under this version.
  • The Christ myth is "the theory that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single identifiable person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition.[19] For Ehrman a Jesus who existed but didn't found Christianity would be a "mythical" Jesus.[20] (This would make Remsburg's position "mythic" even though he accepted Jesus existed as a human being because Remsburg believed Jesus preached a form of Judaism which was turned into Christianity by his followers. It would also make Isræl Knohl's Jesus who used ideas and the followers from a previous 1st BCE messiah "mythical".)
  • "This view [Christ Myth theory] states that the story of Jesus is a piece of mythology, possessing no more substantial claims to historical fact than the old Greek or Norse stories of gods and heroes..."[21][22] Remsburg held to the idea that Jesus the man existed (in some manner) but the various accounts that survive tell us nothing truly historical about that person. There are modern examples of stories of known historical people "possessing no more substantial claims to historical fact than the old Greek or Norse stories of gods and heroes" -- George Washington and the Cherry Tree; Davy Crockett and the Frozen Dawn; Jesse James and the Widow to mention a few. King Arthur and Robin Hood are two more examples of suspected historical people whose stories, as told, are almost certainly fictional in nature.
  • Christ myth theories are part of the "theories that regard Jesus as an historical but insignificant figure."[23]
  • Jesus actually existed "but had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity"[24] In other words Jesus either took over an already existing Christian movement or his movement was turned into Christianity after he died. Michael O. Wise, points to a messiah in 72 BCE[25] while Israel Knohl points to a messiah who died 4 BCE[26] who could have left movements in their wake that Jesus directed into what became Christianity by the 2nd century.

Meaning of fiction[edit]

In the Jesus: Fact or Fiction? debate between Dr. Robert Price and Rev. John Rankin, Price states that "there are four senses in which Jesus Christ may be said to be a fiction":

  1. "The central figure of the gospels is not based on any historical individual", i.e. the Jesus of the Gospels is little more than "a synthetic constructWikipedia's W.svg of theologians, a symbolic 'Uncle Sam' figure."[note 1]
  2. "The "historical Jesus" reconstructed by New Testament scholars is always a reflection of the individual scholars who reconstruct him" to the point that "even if there was a historical Jesus lying back of the gospel Christ, he can never be recovered. If there ever was a historical Jesus, there isn't one any more."
  3. "Jesus as the personal savior, with whom people claim, as I used to, to have a 'personal relationship' is in the nature of the case a fiction, essentially a psychological projection, an 'imaginary playmate.'"
  4. "Christ is a fiction in that Christ functions, in an unnoticed and equivocal way, as shorthand for a vast system of beliefs and institutions on whose behalf he is invoked."

Again many apologists either forget or ignore the more moderate definitions in favor of those that turn the Jesus Myth theory into a strawman.

Examples of the confusion regarding the meaning of "mythist" and "Christ myth theory"[edit]

David Strauss[edit]

"The gist of his position was in a large measure like the mythical theory of David Strauss, which created a sensation fifty years ago. Strauss held that there was verily a historic Christ, but that a vast mass of miracle and supernatural wonders had been woven like wreaths around the head of Jesus. Drews goes further. He alleges that there never was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth."[28]

Arthur Drews[edit]

"In wide circles the doubt grows as to the historical character of the picture of Christ given in the Gospels. [...] If in spite of this any one thinks that besides the latter a Jesus also cannot be dispensed with; but we know nothing of Jesus. Even in the representations of historical theology, he is scarcely more than the shadow of a shadow. Consequently it is self-deceit to make the figure of this 'unique' and 'mighty' personality, to which a man may believe he must on historical grounds hold fast, the central point of religious consciousness." (Drews, Arthur (1910) The Christ Myth)

John M. Robertson[edit]

"[John] Robertson is prepared to concede the possibility of an historical Jesus, perhaps more than one, having contributed something to the Gospel story. "A teacher or teachers named Jesus, or several differently named teachers called Messiahs" (of whom many are on record) may have uttered some of the sayings in the Gospels.[29]

  1. The Jesus of the Talmud, who was stoned and hanged over a century before the traditional date of the crucifixion, may really have existed and have contributed something to the tradition.
  2. An historical Jesus may have "preached a political doctrine subversive of the Roman rule, and thereby met his death"[30]; and Christian writers concerned to conciliate the Romans may have suppressed the facts.
  3. Or a Galilean faith-healer with a local reputation may have been slain as a human sacrifice at some time of social tumult; and his story may have got mixed up with the myth.
  4. The myth theory is not concerned to deny such a possibility. What the myth theory denies is that Christianity can be traced to a personal founder who taught as reported in the Gospels and was put to death in the circumstances there recorded"[18]

John Remsburg (Remsberg)[edit]

John Resmburg's 1909 The Christ has a list of 42 historians during or shortly after the supposed times of Jesus who should have, but did not record anything about Jesus, his apostles, or any supposed acts that we find only in the Bible making him a popular source for armchair Christ Mythers generally in the Jesus didn't exist as a human being vein. The problem is that is not what Resmburg was doing:

This volume on "The Christ" was written by one who recognizes in the Jesus of Strauss and Renan a transitional step, but not the ultimate step, between orthodox Christianity and radical Freethought. By the Christ is understood the Jesus of the New Testament. The Jesus of the New Testament is the Christ of Christianity. The Jesus of the New Testament is a supernatural being. He is, like the Christ, a myth. He is the Christ myth. [...] It is not against the man Jesus that I write, but against the Christ Jesus of theology [...] Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus of humanity, the pathetic story of whose humble life and tragic death has awakened the sympathies of millions, is a possible character and may have existed; but the Jesus of Bethlehem, the Christ of Christianity, is an impossible character and does not exist. [...] 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.

Resmburg's work was to show the total disconnect between the records we have and a possible human Jesus; it did not support the idea Jesus didn't exist as a human being.

G. A. Wells[edit]

Wells accepted that there was a 1st century Jesus in both Jesus Myth (1996) and Jesus Legend (1999)--yet these books were labeled as examples of the Mythical Jesus Thesis, defined as the idea of "Jesus tradition is virtually--perhaps entirely--fictional in nature" (sic) in Eddy and Boyd's 2007 The Jesus Legend Baker Academic on pp. 24.

Other people on both sides of the issue have similarly labeled these books as Christ myth books:

  1. "The year 1999 saw the publication of at least five books which concluded that the Gospel Jesus did not exist. One of these was the latest book The Jesus Myth by G. A. Wells, the current and longstanding doyen of modern Jesus mythicists."[15]
  2. "Christ-myth theorists like George A. Wells have argued that, if we ignore the Gospels, which were not yet written at the time of the Epistles of Paul, we can detect in the latter a prior, more transparently mythic concept of Jesus... [31]
  3. "In recent years the existence of Jesus has been debated heatedly on the Internet. The most thoroughgoing and sophisticated statement of this theory has been set out in five books by G. A Wells; the most recent is the Jesus Legend (1996)".[32]

Based on his 2014 book, Carrier uses "ahistoricity" (i.e. not Christ myth, but not historical either) to classify G.A. Wells work.

Books by contemporary scholars defending ahistoricity:

  • George Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus (1988)
  • Who Was Jesus? (1989)
  • The Jesus Legend (1993)
  • The Jesus Myth (1998)
  • Can We Trust the New Testament? (2005)
  • Did Jesus Even Exist? (2006)

Wells himself in his The Jesus Legend stated "[In Did Jesus Exist] I agued that Paul sincerely believed that the evidence (not restricted to the Wisdom Literature) pointed to a historical Jesus who had lived well before his own day; and I leave open the question as to whether such a person had in fact existed and lived the obscure live that Paul supposed of him. (There is no means of deciding this issue.)[33]

This sampling over the course of 100 years shows the problem with defining the terms "mythist" and "Christ Myth theory"--the terms have been used with people have accepted the existence of a flesh and blood Jesus in the 1st century, but do not accept the Gospels as an accurate description of the life of that man as well as those who say there is no flesh and blood Jesus to be found.

See also[edit]


  • Barker, Dan (2006). Losing Faith in Faith. 
  • Bromiley, Geoffrey W., ed (1982). International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: E-J. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0802837851. 
  • Bromiley, Geoffrey W., ed (1995). International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: E-J. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0802837820. 
  • Carrier, Richard C. (2014). On the Historicity of Jesus. Sheffield Phoenix Press. ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2. 
  • Dodd, C. H. (1938). "Christ Myth Theory". History and the Gospel. Manchester University Press. 
  • Dundes, Alan, ed (1984). Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520051928. 
  • Eddy, Paul R.; Boyd, Gregory A. (2007). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Academic. 
  • Frazer, James George (1913). The golden bough: a study in magic and religion. 9. London: Macmillan. p. 412. 
  • Grant, Michael (1995). Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels. Scribner. 
  • Holding, James P. (2008). Shattering the Christ Myth. Xulon Press. ISBN 978-1606472712. 
  • Houlden, J. Leslie, ed (2003). Jesus in history, thought, and culture: an encyclopedia. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio. ISBN 978-1-57067-856-6. 
  • Lal, Brij V.; Fortune, Kate (2000). The Pacific Islands: an encyclopedia. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0824822651. 
  • Lossing, Benson J. (1850). Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution. II. 
  • Marshall, Ian Howard. I Believe in the Historical Jesus. 2004: Regent College Publishing. 
  • Price, Robert M. (2000). Deconstructing Jesus. Prometheus Books. 
  • Price, Robert M. (2009). "Jesus at the Vanishing Point". In Beilby, James K.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. InterVarsity. 
  • Price, Robert M. (2012). The Christ-Myth and Its Problems. 
  • Robertson, Archibald (1946). Jesus: Myth Or History. 
  • Russell, Bertrand A. W. (1927). Why I am not a Christian. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415325103. 
  • Walsh, George (1998). The Role of Religion in History. Transaction Publishers. 
  • Worsley, Peter (1957). The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo" Cults in Melanesia. London: Macgibbon & Kee. 


  1. An interesting comparison, given that Uncle SamWikipedia's W.svg is purported to be based on a real personWikipedia's W.svg but there was a 'Uncle Sam' reference in the original 1775 "Yankee Doodle" lyrics.[27]


  1. Mason, Steve. "Sources that Mention Jesus from Outside the Circles of Christ-Followers". p. 1.
  2. Wells, G. A. "Stages of New Testament Criticism," Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 30, issue 2, 1969.
  3. Guiart, Jean (1952) "John Frum Movement in Tanna" Oceania Vol 22 No 3 pg 165-177
  4. Worsley 1957, pp. 153-159.
  5. Lal & Fortune 2000, p. 303.
  6. Marshall, Ian Howard. I Believe in the Historical Jesus. Regent College Publishing, 2004, p. 27-29.
  7. Grant 1995, p. 199.
  8. Eddy & Boyd 2007, pp. 24-25.
  9. Walsh 1998, p. 58.
  10. Dodd 1938, p. 17.
  11. Price 2000, p. 85.
  12. Something like this may be behind The Legend of Polybius
  13. Price 2009, p. 65.
  14. Mead, G. R. S. The Talmum 100 Years B.C. Story of Jesus", "Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.?", 1903.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Doherty, Earl "Book And Article Reviews: The Case For The Jesus Myth: "Jesus — One Hundred Years Before Christ by Alvar Ellegard" review
  16. Eddy & Boyd 2007, p. 24.
  17. Carrier, Richard (2006) Did Jesus Even Exist? Stanford University presentation May 30, 2006
  18. 18.0 18.1 Robertson 1946.
  19. Doherty, Earl (2009)Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. Age of Reason, pp. vii-viii
  20. Ehrman, Bart (2012) Did Jesus Exist? Harper Collins, p. 12
  21. Bromiley 1982.
  22. Bromiley 1995.
  23. Wood, Herbert George (1934) Christianity and the nature of history. New York: MacMillan / Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 40
  24. (Ehrman 2012, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne. ISBN 9780062206442. pp. 12.
  25. Wise, Michael O (1999) The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ HarperOne
  26. Knohl, Israel (2002) "The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls University of California Press
  27. Lossing 1850, Supplement XIV.
  28. (February 06, 1910) "JESUS NEVER LIVED, ASSERTS PROF. DREWS; Stirs Germany Deeply by Publicly Attacking Basis of the Christian Religion." The Times.
  29. Robertson, John M (1910) Christianity and mythology
  30. Robertson, John M (1916) The Historical Jesus: A Survey of Positions
  31. Price, Robert M (1999) "Of Myth and Men A closer look at the originators of the major religions-what did they really say and do?" Volume 20, Number 1 (Winter, 1999/2000) Free Inquiry magazine
  32. Stanton, Graham (2002) The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford University Press, p. 143.
  33. G A Wells The Jesus Legend Open Court Publishing Company 1996 p. 19.