Below is a talk by “countermissionary” and “Jewish apologist” Rabbi Tovia Singer regarding “Jesus mythicism” or the opinion that Jesus Christ is a mythical figure. Initially, I thought Singer would adhere to the typical “historical Jesus” party line, proffering “proofs” that have been rebutted for centuries. I was pleasantly surprised at certain parts as I watched, amused particularly when Singer blurts out some frank truths about vested scholars. I do not concur with his evemerist conclusion about this debate, however. See my commentary below the video.
Firstly, it needs to be clarified that asserting Jesus is a myth is not quite the same as saying “Jesus didn’t exist.” The latter is a negative, and common perception is that one cannot prove a negative. Regardless of whether or not that perception is correct, there were plenty of Jesuses in antiquity, so one or more Jesus did exist. However, it is not any of their biographies in the gospel story, which turns out to be myth historicized, not literal history or history mythologized.
Secondly, as concerns Singer’s description of mythicists, in reality there are not two camps of mythicists, one which opines Christ is a myth through and through, and one that believes there’s “some guy” at the core of the story, to whose mundane biography were added fabulous fairytales. This latter camp is, in fact, called “euhemerist” or “evemerist,” not mythicist. While both groups doubt the gospel story as “history,” these two represent contradictory perspectives.
“There are three positions regarding the gospel story: 1. Literalist; 2. evemerist; and 3. mythicist.”
Hence, there are three positions regarding the gospel story: 1. Literalist; 2. evemerist; and 3. mythicist. The large body of Jesus mythicist scholarship over the centuries demonstrates clearly and abundantly that the former two perceptions are unsustainable scientifically and logically.
An inaccuracy like this one indicates unfamiliarity with this body of mythicist literature, such that one is not actually an expert on the subject. It takes years to master all of this material with extensive and detailed arguments dissecting the gospel story and showing it not to be history and where its elements come from.
The rabbi tries to avoid taking sides by saying “we can never be sure of anything” from antiquity and history, but that claim is fallacious. Not only can we be sure of many things from antiquity but also we are sure of them, from ancient writings, artifacts and ruins, for example. There remain mysteries, and much has been destroyed and lost forever, but we have been capable of comprehending our past history in significant enough part that we can make definitive statements about many aspects.
Singer also states that mythicists claim Jesus was “made up out of whole cloth” because “there is not a single contemporaneous author who wrote one word about him.” While the latter is assuredly true, and we are glad to see a Jewish authority acknowledge it, the mythicist case does not rest on this reason alone. On the contrary, establishing a lack of a historical record is just the beginning of mythicist scholarship.
Unfortunately, many scholars, researchers and skeptics become stuck in this “Mythicism 101” and never get to the “good stuff” of where the Christ myth comes from and what it means. After that mere shallow surface is where the bulk of my work comes in and where the whole subject becomes very fascinating.
Not ‘Made Up Out of Whole Cloth’
Also, mythicists generally do not claim Christianity is “made up out of whole cloth,” in other words from nothing. What we do say is that pre-Christian mythical motifs, religious traditions, wisdom sayings and Old Testament scriptures were combined together to create a mythical godman. These motifs and other elements already existed and certainly were not just “made up out of whole cloth” at the time of Christianity’s creation.
We are saying also that the creation of this mythical figure is little different from the mythography that produced the deities of ancient Greece, Italy, Egypt, Babylon, Canaan, Persia and India, among so many others worldwide. Mythography or mythmaking is an art form that has been perfected over a period of many thousands of years, producing numerous gods and goddesses who were never real people. We do not describe this global mythography as “making up out of whole cloth”; yet, these numerous mythical deities assuredly were not historical. The same can be said about Jesus Christ, as he does not merit special status in the vast world of mythmaking by having a “historical” core.
The Walking Dead
Singer cites the passage in the gospel of Matthew (27:52-53) in which dead “saints” rise from their graves to wander the streets of Jerusalem. It is true that this episode does not appear in the historical record and is impossible scientifically, thus making the case for it being non-historical. Adding to the reasons for doubting this fabulous episode is a motif from the myth of the Greek god Dionysus that also reflects its mythical nature. As I write in Did Moses Exist? (365):
Since antiquity, grape juice and wine have been perceived as the “blood” of both the fruit itself and of the vine and wine deity. After it was pressed, the grape juice would flow into underground pots, depicted as the god “cultivated in the underworld.” Out of this tomb, Dionysus was said to reemerge during the festival of Anthesteria, in February, when “the urns were opened, and the god’s spirit was reborn as an infant.” The “graves of the dead released their spirits as well at this time, and for the three days of the festival, ghosts roamed abroad in Athens.”
As we can see, studying ancient myth reveals where many elements of the gospel story may come from, going well beyond the debate of whether or not a “historical Jesus of Nazareth” existed.
Josephus, Pliny and Tacitus
The rabbi also raises the infamous Jesus passage in the writings of ancient Jewish historian Josephus, called the “Testimonium Flavianum.” It is good to see a modern Jewish apologist declare this passage a forgery in toto, possibly composed by Church historian Eusebius, a conclusion reached by many others. Singer might enjoy my recent paper and article concerning the linguistic analysis by Dr. Paul J. Hopper that demonstrates the entire TF to be an interpolation.
Singer likewise brings up the Roman historian Pliny the Younger as “the first non-Christian ever to mention Jesus.” This claim of Pliny as “evidence” of a historical Jesus is quite common, but it too has been rebutted repeatedly within the Jesus mythicist literature. Upon close scrutiny and as Singer subsequently states, the Pliny passage does not “mention Jesus” but discusses “Christians,” named from the Greek Christos, meaning “Anointed.” Nevertheless, there were many people in antiquity with the title of Christos – or, as it may have been originally, Chrestos – so this paragraph would not necessarily serve as evidence of a “historical Jesus of Nazareth.”
The rabbi moves on to a discussion of the Roman historian Tacitus, another “proof” proffered widely by Christian apologists. Like Pliny and Suetonius, the value of Tacitus becomes nil upon closer examination. As noted by The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia:
The only definite account of his life and teachings is contained in the four Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All other historical records of the time are silent about him. The brief mentions of Jesus in the writings of Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius have been generally regarded as not genuine and as Christian interpolations; in Jewish writings there is no report about Jesus that has historical value. Some scholars have even gone so far as to hold that the entire Jesus story is a myth…
(For more, see “Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius: No Evidence for Jesus“)
New Testament Scholars are ‘Very Biased’
Singer properly wonders why scholars are so adamant in declaring that Jesus existed as a historical figure, when there is so little evidence. He explains that the fervent clinging to this unproved position exists because to believe otherwise would suggest these New Testament scholars and theologians’ lives are a waste. Singer next says these scholars “cannot be taken seriously” and are “very biased” but not “bad people,” further remarking:
When they say, “How come no New Testament scholars – even those who are not Christians – don’t believe in this [mythicism]?” Well, the reason is because you’re now saying that their life has been studying, you know, Casper the Friendly Ghost. So, therefore, don’t be swayed by the absolute consensus among New Testament scholars that Jesus did exist. They have everything at stake, because their life has been absolutely meaningless.
At that point (6:25), Singer seems to be discussing New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, saying:
People often go, “Well, this guy’s agnostic. He’s written 30 books about Jesus. He doesn’t believe in God, but he’ll go crazy if you tell him Jesus never existed.” There’s a reason why. These people are not bad people. This professor from Harvard – she’s not an idiot. But you are saying to them, your life is meaningless. So, they are really the worst people to ask if Jesus existed, because of this bias.
We all seem to be impressed by the consensus of New Testament scholars, but imagine being a New Testament scholar and saying that he never existed. What are you doing? Like studying the texts – you’re studying about the Road Runner? About Bugs Bunny? I mean, you’re saying your life is about nothing.
“New Testament scholars are really the worst people to ask if Jesus existed, because of [their] bias.”
As many know, Ehrman misrepresented, defamed and libeled several of us in his book Did Jesus Exist?, and he definitely “goes crazy” when confronted with Jesus mythicism, about which he is admittedly ignorant.
Evemerism v. Mythicism
Despite his protestations against other “very biased” scholars’ conclusion without any real evidence that Jesus existed, Singer claims again that no one can know what really happened but it is likely that such a person did exist. Hence, the rabbi is an evemerist, but he believes in this way only because there were plenty of apocalyptic preachers in the Levant during Jesus’s alleged era. Singer’s case is standard evemerism, with the added “counterintuitive” view that the “fiction” in the New Testament necessary to inflate this person beyond his mundane biography actually indicates his existence! The rabbi takes the supposedly earliest gospel, Mark, and discusses various embellishments and plot devices.
Here Singer joins all those trying to create a biography from what amounts to nothing solid – truly “out of whole cloth” – as remarked upon by professor of Judaic and Religion Studies at Brown University Shaye Cohen in “From Jesus to Christ”:
Modern scholars have routinely reinvented Jesus or have routinely rediscovered in Jesus that which they want to find…
In this quest to add his own Jesus to the pack, the rabbi raises up the placement of Jesus in the supposed town of Nazareth, which Singer correctly asserts is missing entirely from the historical record of the relevant era, i.e., the first century AD/CE and previously. However, the Nazareth element is fallacious, because the text actually indicates “Jesus the Nazarene,” a member of a pre-Christian religious sect evidently included in the gospel tale for political reasons.
We would submit, therefore, that all these stray bits and pieces of fiction or myth were combined together for numerous reasons, because of popular pre-Christian deities, sects and cults, not because of a single historical Jewish preacher. The literalist and evemerist views of the gospel story can be maintained only by ignoring the pre-Christian myths, traditions and rituals upon which this mythical godman was predicated. When one studies the subjects of comparative religion and mythology dating back thousands of years in a widespread but relevant region, it becomes clear no historical core to the gospel onion was needed, just as was the case with the gods Hercules, Osiris, Mithra and countless other deities.
Out of Egypt
In discussing the role of Egypt in the gospel story, as in “Out of Egypt, I have called my son” (Matthew 2:15), Singer would have done well to avail himself of my book Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection, which shows much of the mythology that evidently influenced the Jesus myth. This verse in Matthew also reflects Old Testament midrash (Hosea 11:1), so no historical personage is necessary here either. Between the pre-Christian myths and midrash of OT “messianic scriptures,” there is no need for any historical individual at the core of the gospel story.
Singer’s questions as to the “whys” of including various elements of the disjointed gospel story are explained also by pre-Christian myths, not “just making it up” for no reason. Hence, the NT fictions or myths do not indicate counterintuitively or illogically a real person. Rather, the gospel fiction indicates people writing decades to centuries after the supposed events who did not know the region and who were drawing from pre-Christian myths and OT midrash. Again, there is no need for a historical person, and it does not make “more sense” to suggest as much, as the rabbi does.
Singer agrees that there is no evidence of such an individual but then he claims that the existence of such an individual is “likely.” Knowing the art of mythography and pre-Christian religion and myth very well, we assert otherwise: The highest probability is that this figure is mythical, created in the same fashion as his many mythical predecessors in cultures around the world for thousands of years. This mythography includes many stories in the Jewish Torah, with Moses and others likewise representing mythical and not historical figures.
Roman Elite Not Pushovers
Indeed, it makes no sense that the Romans would fall down to worship an unknown preacher, rebel, revolutionary, healer, sage or philosopher from Judea or Samaria, part of the hated backwater of the empire. To suggest that the Roman elite were gullible enough to find convincing the gospel tale – supposedly embellished around this utterly insignificant Jewish preacher or rebel – such that they tossed away their ancient religion, as well as that of the Greeks, Egyptians and so many others in the empire, is naive and unscientific.
With all their powerful deities and the numerous others around the Mediterranean, the Roman authorities would not be impressed by tall tales about a supernatural Jewish messiah not found in the historical record of the day. This notion of an irrelevant individual buried underneath the myriad layers of the fictionalized gospel story may represent a common perception, but it is too simplified and erroneous. The bottom line is that no sophisticated Roman senator or other dignitary or powermonger would fall for such a ploy.
The reason Romans would take to such a tale is because some of them were involved in its creation and the bulk of them already worshipped deities of the same kind but of different ethnicities, such as the “sons of Jove/Jupiter” discussed by the early Church father Justin Martyr (fl. 150 AD/CE) in his First Apology:
Chapter 21. Analogies to the history of Christ.
And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter… (Roberts, A., Anti-Nicene Fathers, 1.170)
In the end, the best summary of this discussion is that the “Jesus Christ” of the New Testament is a fictional compilation of characters, not a single historical individual. A compilation of multiple “people” is no one. When the mythological and midrashic layers are removed, there remains no historical core to the onion. The gospel story is mythology historicized, not literal history or history mythologized.
Virgin Mother Goddess of Antiquity
Neith, Virgin Mother of the World
Mithra’s Virgin Mother, Anahita
Isis, Virgin Mother of Horus
Dionysus Born of a Virgin on December 25th
Attis Born of a Virgin on December 25th
Was Krishna’s Mother a Virgin?
Star Worship of the Ancient Israelites
What is the mythicist?
Bart Ehrman caught in libel and lies?
Bart Ehrman errs again – this time about virgin births
Did Moses Exist?
Religion and the PhD