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A Historical Introduction to the Christ Myth

This article is adapted from the Introduction I wrote for the book Shattering the Christ Myth (2008), edited by J. P. Holding. The book provides detailed rebuttals of many of the conspiracy theories that purport to show that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. This article compares the Christ Myth to the theory that Shakespeare did not write his own plays, before examining the various authors who have tried to sell the idea that Jesus never lived.

A Non-Question: Who Really Wrote the Works of Shakespeare?

eep inside the vaguely fascist edifice of the University of London’s Senate House is a room that the university authorities view with some embarrassment. It forms part of the library and is mainly used for seminars and evening studies. I spent many happy hours there myself learning how to read Anglo Saxon manuscripts. Before class began, I once took the opportunity to scan the spines of the books that line the room’s walls. They formed an incoherent collection relating to late Tudor literature, textual criticism, cryptology and William Shakespeare. I learnt from the professor who took our class that the books all belonged to a certain Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (d. 1914) who donated them to the library, with a substantial sum of money, on condition that they remained together in their original cabinets. The library was not too keen on the books but it wanted the cash so the deal was struck.

You almost certainly haven’t heard of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence and neither had I until I found myself sitting in his room. So, why is the University of London embarrassed about him? Well, imagine if the library at Yale had a Graham Hancock Room full of books devoted to proving the existence of Atlantis. Or that Princeton accepted the Dan Brown Collection, containing the source material for the Da Vinci Code. That is how most academics feel about the life’s work of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence – for he set out to prove that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare.

In fact, you could fill a fair-sized library with all the volumes from the subgenre devoted to showing that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. It is not just Sir Francis Bacon who is fingered. Christopher Marlowe is the current culprit of choice, even though he died before most of Shakespeare’s plays were written. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was a blameless Tudor aristocrat who was no more capable of penning King Lear than I am, but several ‘researchers’ have produced books claiming that he did just that. There is even a special name attached to those who deny the blindingly obvious fact that Shakespeare wrote his plays. They are called anti-Stratfordians.

Capacious though the output of the anti-Stratfordians may be, it has evinced little or no reaction from mainstream Shakespearean scholarship. Most critics do not want to give the harebrained idea any more exposure than it receives already. However, Professor Sir Brian Vickers, in the guise of a book review of the latest anti-Stratfordian tome, gave the whole lot of them a good blasting with both barrels in the Times Literary Supplement in 2005. And Professor Jonathan Bate (1958 –) devoted a chapter in his excellent book The Genius of Shakespeare (1997) to trying to understand the reluctance of so many people to give the Bard his due. It is worth mentioning that Vickers and Bate, eminent scholars that they both may be, agree on almost nothing apart from the absurdity of the anti-Stratfordians. Indeed, I would be reluctant to have them both of them around for tea at the same time in case their disagreement on the virtues of the First Folio descended into physical violence.

Bate suggests there are three reasons why people are prepared to believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. The first is the lack of any original manuscripts. We tend to make a fetish of a certain kind of physical evidence and when it is not present, become unreasonably sceptical about everything else. As it happens, several documents signed by Shakespeare do exist but these not include any of his plays.

The second reason is that most people do not have a sufficient background in the subject to properly evaluate the evidence. Anti-Stratfordians tend to be amateurs who have not read enough on Elizabethan theatre to see just how wildly implausible their ideas are. Let me give you an analogy. I can recognise the difference between a Yorkshire and Lancashire accent without very much trouble because I am English. I would never mistake an Irishman for a Scotsman. On the other hand, when I was living in New Jersey, I was frequently assumed to be Irish and had no idea that Californians sound different to Texans. Distinguishing accents isn’t something you tend to be taught. Rather you learn it by experience and by being immersed in a particular culture. It’s the same with history. If you have been studying a period for long enough, ideas like the anti-Stratfordians’ are as obviously incongruous as a baseball bat on a cricket pitch.

The third reason that Shakespeare is frequently denied the credit for his plays is that after he died, he was deified. His reputation today is so stratospheric that it seems implausible that a grammar school boy from a small town in the Midlands could have achieved what he did. Much is made of the fact he never went to university or that he had bourgeois origins. Surely the man who reached such heights of greatness must have been born of the nobility or at least attended Oxford or Cambridge. The normality of Shakespeare’s life trips us up. He was a successful business man and professional actor as well as playwright whose career we can trace quite accurately. Furthermore, he was recognised as extremely gifted during his lifetime. It made him rich.

Even though this article is about the theory that Jesus never existed, I have begun with this digression on Shakespeare to illustrate that there is nothing unique about any conspiracy theory. They are all made up of similar elements and thrive in the same environments. All three of the reasons Jonathan Bate suggested in his book for the popularity of conspiracies about Shakespeare are present in the Christ Myth. For instance, there is no direct contemporary evidence for Jesus and we do not possess the original manuscripts of any of the Gospels. Christ Myth theorists are amateurs to whom professional scholars pay little attention. And finally, Jesus is worshipped as God. But the problem is the same as with Shakespeare – how could a religion be started by a Galilean peasant whose message spread around the world. There must, say the conspiracy theorists, be another explanation.

The similarities do not end there. The nature of the evidence brought forward by conspiracy theories is much the same whatever the subject. There is a false belief that we have relatively little contemporary evidence for the life of Shakespeare or Jesus. In fact, we know far more about both of them than almost any other personage of their times, barring military heroes and royalty. Likewise, the theorists tend to present contrived readings of the relevant texts, claiming they provide clues that simply do not stack up to careful analysis. Furthermore, the perfectly good testimony we do have for the orthodox view is rejected by the conspiracy theorist for bogus reasons. For Shakespeare we are told that all his fellow actors were in on the deception. While with Jesus, we are told we cannot trust any Christian text. In other words, the people most interested in both Jesus and Shakespeare, their followers and colleagues respectively, should be debarred from giving evidence.

Introducing the Christ Myth Conspiracies

Among the earliest efforts to debunk the Bible was a short tract called The Three Imposters written by an anonymous hack. It appeared in about 1700 purporting to be of medieval origin but was actually a seventeenth century fake. It created quite a stir among the intelligentsia of London. The three imposters in question were Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Although the author did not deny they existed, he claimed they were charlatans rather than men of God. Other sceptical works appeared through the eighteenth century, including David Hume’s Natural History of Religion (1757), Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776 – 89) and Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason (1794 – 1807). Although radical and owing little to the common piety of their time, none of these books suggested that Jesus never lived. Rather, they tended to reduce him to a man buffeted by the forces of history.

The success of the natural sciences through the eighteenth century encouraged many thinkers to put other subjects on the same pedestal. It was thought that by adopting the methods of science, the humanities could emulate its success. The pioneer of scientific history was Leopold von Ranke (1795 – 1886), a German aristocrat who spent most of his academic career working for the Prussian crown. He laid down a very simple historical method. All historical materials were to be divided into two categories – primary sources and secondary sources. The former were to consist exclusively of eye-witness reports and contemporary documents. These, said von Ranke, were reliable and the historian should base his work upon them. Everything else was dumped into the secondary-sources box. According to von Ranke, this stuff was useless for history. The problems with this rigid approach are obvious, but the ‘scientific’ flavour of the method found favour in the nineteenth century. It was not long before it was used on the documents in the New Testament. The most famous book ever on the historical Jesus is called simply The Life of Jesus (1835). It was written by a German Lutheran professor called David Strauss (1808 – 74) and translated into English by the famous novelist George Eliot (1819 – 1880). Von Ranke’s methodology informed Strauss’s book on every level and he extremely concerned to pick out the eyewitness kernel from the New Testament. Even this book did not assert that Jesus was a myth, but it did lay a substantial amount of the groundwork by making now-traditional assertions about the unreliability of the Gospels.

Von Ranke’s method was called source criticism and when applied to biblical studies became known as higher criticism. Before long, radical scholars based at the University of Tübingen and in Holland started to use higher criticism as a method of forwarding their political agenda against the Lutheran and Calvinist Churches. As the stakes was raised, later and later dates were proposed for the Gospels and Paul’s letters began to be ejected from the canon. Soon the higher critics had agreed that there was nothing in the New Testament that met von Ranke’s test of primary evidence. Jesus was lost behind an alleged veil of later Christian interpolation. Still, even as the twentieth century dawned, it was hard to find anyone who would seriously assert that he never lived.

Hard but not impossible – especially if you extended your search beyond the confines of trained scholars. There were, as ever, amateurs ready to rush in where the experts feared to tread.

The Origins of the Christ Myth

The earliest writer to definitely assert that Jesus never existed was a German called Bruno Bauer (1809 – 82). He was a theologian who lost his licence to preach due to his radical leftwing politics. His voluminous books were never translated into English but did catch the eye of Friedrich Engels (1820 – 95), the collaborator of Karl Marx (1818 – 83). In Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte und der Synoptiker (1841/42) and later works, Bauer suggested that the story of Jesus had been invented from the whole cloth by the evangelist, St Mark, who had then convinced everyone else of his Gospel’s authenticity. Any earlier references to Jesus were, according to Bauer, interpolations added to documents at a later date. Given the shortcomings of his thesis, it is no surprise that Bauer had little impact on mainstream scholarship. Even later supporters of the Christ Myth, like John M. Robertson, failed to find him convincing.

In the late-nineteenth century, the term by which atheists preferred to describe themselves was ‘rationalist.’ There were several small societies devoted to the cause and also a publishing house, the Rationalist Press Association, which arranged for several books by German anti-religious writers to be translated into English. Among them was Arthur Drews (1865 - 1935), a professor of philosophy at the University of Karlsruhe, whose book The Christ Myth (1911) probably gives us the earliest full length treatment of the thesis in English. Drews wrote that “he had hoped until lately that one of the historians of Christianity would himself arise” to champion the theory that Jesus never existed. He was disappointed and became the first in a long line of amateurs to offer his own ideas which real historians had no interest in promoting.

Drews, together with the other early-twentieth century Christ Mythologists, based his work on the concurrent history of religions school best represented by The Golden Bough (1890) of Sir James Frazer (1854 – 1941). Frazer and his colleagues tried to find overarching themes that provided a universal framework for human mythology. It seemed logical at the time that this framework could also be used to explain the development of Christianity. Drews also devoted plenty of effort to attacking the traditional sources for the historical Jesus. The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus (1912), incidentally translated into English by the rogue friar Joseph McCabe, contains almost all the same arguments about the references to Jesus in Tacitus, Josephus and the rest that are now scattered over the internet. It is remarkable how little Christ Myth arguments have developed over the last one hundred years. If anything, Drews is even more extreme, following the Dutch Radicals such as W. C. van Manen (1842 – 1905) in claiming that all Paul’s letters are forgeries.

Arthur Drews was the main influence of Britain’s most important early Christ Mythologist, John M. Robertson (1856 – 1933). He was a self-taught journalist and radical politician who held a seat in Parliament for the Liberal Party from 1906 to 1918. While the rest of the country was fighting the First World War, Robertson published a two-volume exposition of his views on Jesus. The first, The Historical Jesus (1916), is an attack on contemporary liberal scholarship for not being radical enough. The second, The Jesus Problem (1917), sets out his own thesis that the Jesus of Christianity is actually a development of some sort of pre-Christian myth. One has to wonder what Robertson’s constituents made of all this literary activity when there was a war on.

Over in the United States, the Christ Myth flag was being flown by the mathematician, William B. Smith (1850 - 1934). Smith added an additional weapon to the mythologists' armoury, that of reading new meanings into texts that appear to say something quite different. He deployed this method in his last book The Birth of the Gospel (1957), not published until some years after his death, which claimed that Christianity was a product of the Jewish Diaspora and had no real connection to ancient Judea or Palestine. Another American Mythologist was John Remsburg (1848 – 1919) whose book The Christ (1909) claimed that Jesus Christ was a pagan god and that Jesus of Nazareth was completely lost to history.

The generation of Christ Mythologists represented by Smith and Robertson died out in the 1920s. They had based their work on theories from the history of religions school but scholarship itself moved on, leaving the Christ Mythologists high and dry. They looked like scientists who had based their theories on the ether while the rest of the world got on with discovering quantum mechanics. A few amateurs trudged on. In France, there has always been an anti-clerical party to provide a market for the Christ Myth. P. L. Couchoud’s The Enigma of Jesus (1924) was even translated into English with a forward by none other than Sir James Frazer (himself now something of a historical relic). Couchoud was a medical doctor whose qualification to write about Jesus was that, according to Frazer, he had “written an interesting volume of Oriental wisdom and poetry.” A later French effort, La Fable de Jesus Christ (1967) by G Fan, is notable only for using another standard part of the mythologist’s modus operandi – that of arbitrarily assigning late dates to the sources to impeach their reliability.

Among English speakers, the torch was kept flickering by minor figures like Archibald Robertson (Jesus: Myth or History? (1949)) and H. Cutner (Jesus: God, Man or Myth? (1950)). The Christ Myth hit rock bottom in 1968 with the publication of The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by John Allegro (1923 – 88). Unlike all the other writers we have met, Allegro was no amateur which makes his book all the stranger. He was one of the scholars who had been instrumental in wresting the Dead Sea Scrolls from the hands of the bureaucrats who had been preventing free access to them. However, his long battle with officialdom took its toll and he became convinced that a conspiracy existed to keep the Dead Sea Scrolls out of the public eye. The other contributing factor to The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross was the hippy counter-culture of the 1960s with its emphasis on psychedelic drugs and sexual imagery. The book caused a bigger splash in the public imagination than many Christ Myth theories, but it destroyed Allegro’s academic reputation overnight.

It was not until 1971 that the Christ Myth burst back into life with the work of a polite and erudite Professor of German from Birkbeck College, University of London, called George Albert Wells (1926 - ). In one sense, Wells is a return to the tradition of Drews and Robertson. He is a well read amateur with a fine prose style. Of all the Christ Mythologists, no other is quite so much of a pleasure to read. His atheist credentials are impeccable – he was chairman of the Rationalist Press Association and still gives talks to university humanist societies even now he is in his 80s. But as a proponent of the Christ Myth, he suffers from being almost too honest and has frequently changed his mind on key questions.

For his first book The Jesus of the Early Christians (1971), Wells took advantage of his fluency in German to read the radical work of Drews, Bauer and others. He had access to all the books that had never been translated into English. The result was a restatement of the early-twentieth century argument that used pagan parallels and interpolation as its main planks. The book was released by a trade publisher and received critical reviews in some academic journals. None of his later works received the same sort of attention.

Wells’s next book Did Jesus Exist? (1975), accepted some of the criticisms of his earlier work and was based on adopting the most radical possibilities among mainstream scholars. As it is often possible to find someone in the academy who will take an extreme view on one particular topic, Wells could construct his thesis from a mosaic of scepticism to produce the overall conclusion that Jesus never existed. That none of the scholars he based his case on would have agreed meant Wells was no longer being taken seriously by the scholarly mainstream. The Historical Evidence for Jesus (1982) dumped the interpolations and pagan parallels in favour of Jesus as a Jewish myth. In it, Wells also launched a fierce attack on previous proponents of the Christ Myth, blaming them for its lack of acceptance. “The books by Fau, [William B.] Smith and Allegro,” Wells wrote, “do much to explain why serious students of the New Testament today regard the existence of Jesus as an unassailable fact.” Wells’s criticism of Smith could apply to almost any Christ Mythologist when he says “It is difficult to produce decisive evidence against scholars who insist on finding hidden meanings in plain statements.”

For Wells himself, it was too late. He was already tarred with the same brush. The Historical Evidence for Jesus was published by Prometheus rather than a conventional publishing house and ignored by the review editors of academic journals. Nevertheless, he kept going. The Jesus Legend (1986) postulated that Jesus lived in 100BC but Wells dumped that theory for his next book. By the 1990s, he had dropped the Christ Myth altogether. When I met him briefly in 2003, he accepted that Paul knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem. He also believed that the teaching of Jesus that we find in the Gospels had come from a real Galilean preacher. He just didn’t accept that they were one and the same person. I suppose that Wells has gone from believing that there was no historical Jesus to concluding that there were two of them. This is an improvement of sorts.

The Contemporary Scene

If G. A. Wells has fallen from the faith, the doyen of today’s Christ Mythologists is Earl Doherty from Canada. Through his book, The Jesus Puzzle (1999), and his website, he has attracted a considerable following among the internet’s atheist community. His work is critiqued in detail later on in this book and so I will content myself with noting that much of what he has to say has been prefigured in the early-twentieth-century works we have discussed in this introduction. Doherty has even accused G. A. Wells of not being radical enough, a position that Wells himself finds novel.

Earl Doherty is not the only Christ Mythologist active today. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy produced a surprise bestseller with their breathlessly sensationalist The Jesus Mysteries (1999). Their thesis, if we can dignify it with such a name, is based on the same pagan parallels that even most Christ Mythologists have decided to reject. Freke and Gandy never let their ideas become burdened by the facts, launching themselves on flights of speculation that no serious scholar would even countenance. Even amulet that they use as the picture on their front cover had been denounced as a fake over fifty years ago. The authors were aware of this inconvenient fact but chose not to mention it in their book. They have followed up The Jesus Mysteries with books firmly based on New Age mysticism which take them beyond the bounds of fringe scholarship.

I cannot pretend that this brief survey of Christ Mythology is exhaustive. Recently, for example, Joseph Atwill has published his Caesar's Messiah (2005) which contains a theory that is far-fetched even by the standards of the Christ Myth. It has also become the foundation of a trashy novel in the same genre as Dan Brown called The First Apostle (2009) by James Becker. Nor can this article even touch on the array of atheist websites on the internet that have sprung up to promote the ideas of Doherty and Wells. However, there are three general themes which I think run through Christ Mythology throughout its history for the last century and a half. The first is that all its proponents, with very few exceptions, as not specialists in the New Testament but amateurs dissatisfied with the scholarly consensus. Christ Mythologists continue to blame real scholars of theological bias for not taking their ideas seriously and scholars continue to ignore them. The second theme is that the arguments against Jesus existing have not changed much. Indeed, the internet has probably revived the few that had thankfully passed away. Finally, the Christ Myth is and always has been a conspiracy theory. It is those who oppose it rather than those who support it who should rightfully be called sceptics.

© James Hannam 2009