Friday, July 17, 2009

Review of Jesus Mythicist Books

Gospel Fictions by Randel Helms

This is a must read for anyone fascinated by the symbolism and mythology in the gospel accounts. My favorite parts were:

* Comparison of a buddhist legend to Matthew's story of Peter walking on water. Apparently there was an old story about a disciple of Buddha who began meditating on the Buddha and walked on water. He came out of his meditation, saw the waves and became frightened, and sank. He then regained his meditation and was again able to walk on water. (p.81) This may sound incredible that the early Christians would have known about a Buddhist legend, however, Helms informs us that there were Buddhist missionaries telling this tale in the middle east as early as the second-century BCE.

* Comparison of Jesus' raising of Lazarus to an Osirus myth. Apparently "Lazarus" the greek form of the Hebrew "Eleazar" is similar to the Jewish form of Osirus (El-Osirus). Both Lazarus and Osirus are raised after 4 days, one in Bethany and the other in Anu (Which is semitized as "Beth-annu"). There are several other similarities between the stories, though I am not sure they are meaningful. The similarities presented here are intriguing, but not conclusive.

* Helms' incite (p.128) that the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus' death is symbolic: The curtain was of the place called the Holy of Holies, where God was thought to dwell. When the temple curtain was torn, the division between man and God was broken. Helms doesn't quite put it like this, but this what I take from what he wrote.

Helms has many other fascinating viewpoints, and I can't list them all here. Overall he does a great job of showing how nearly all of the gospel stories come from the Old Testament. I give it a 90 out of 100.

The Historical Evidence for Jesus by G. A. Wells

The good aspects of Wells' book is that it is highly educational about why certain books of the bible are not accepted as authentic. His chapter on the "shroud of turin" is likewise very educational (if not a bit outdated, he wrote this in 1988 before carbon-14 tests had been done on the artifact).

Wells' thesis is not that the earliest Christians disbelieved in a historical Jesus, but that they did not believe Jesus had lived recently. As evidence for this, he cites the Apostle Paul's silence about Pilate and his complete silence about anything that would clearly place Jesus in the first century CE. To those who argue that Paul's silence would not matter because those to whom he was writing already knew about all this, he stresses how often Paul speaks of Christ's death by crucifixion.

There is, however, a critical problem with Wells' thesis: Paul's reference in Galatians 1:19 to James, the "brother of the Lord". On pages 167-174 Wells attempts to explain this. He cites a scholar writing in 1927 (!) who suggested that the phrase "brother of the Lord" might have referred to a "zealous sect" of Christians. He explains away the reference in Mark to Jesus' brothers as a pious lie intended to combat Docetism by giving Jesus brothers in order to emphasize his fleshly existence. He later argues that the only prominent James in the church was "James the son of Zebedee" and not anyone referred to as a brother of the Lord (the book of Acts never names James as a brother of the Lord). As further support for his position, he points us to Matthew 28:8-10, in which Jesus calls the disciples his 'brethren'.

I must say I don't find this completely convincing. I think that perhaps if one took Mark as being allegorical, then the argument could be strengthened. But Wells does not take this view, and so I do not find his particular formulation of mythicism to be convincing.

Overall I view Wells' case as being very weak, although his book was a decent read. I'd give it a 70 out of 100.

Don't forget that I'm still planning on reviewing Jesus: A Very Jewish Myth (I've already read it) and I'm also planning to review The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert Price as soon as I read it.

I've also tentatively decided not to enter the Jesus Mythicist contest, on the grounds that the preliminary research I've done has made me realize that I may not have the skills to interpret these ancient works.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please stop recommending books. I can't keep up with my reading. :)

Thanks for posting these. I got Wells book from the inter-library loan system here in Ohio. It is next after Wright's Evolution of God and Jeff Sharlet's book The Family.