A Muslim’s Response to Mythicists

A Guest Article by Andrew Livingston

Christ mythicism
is the notion that there never even was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth. The whole thing, right down to the very existence of the man himself, was pure myth from start to finish with no basis of any sort in any real events. The mythicist movement technically has been around for a couple of centuries now and yet only recently has gained any publicity in America. A lot of people have spoken out against it but for some reason you don’t hear a whole lot from Muslims—or for the most part anyone who isn’t a Christian apologist. That you might, dear reader, be disinclined to care what they have to say about anything is a sentiment I can understand. So this Muslim here is perfectly willing to explain.

Now that I think of it, a lot can be explained just by looking at the very word “mythicism” itself. I personally dislike the terms “myth” and “mythology” just in general (even when they’re being applied to a long dead pagan religion), seeing as these words demonstrate superlatively the frightening power of language to bias the human mind. Lie back in your chair and take a moment to ask yourself right now what exactly you think the difference is between a myth and an urban legend. I don’t know what answer you’ll come up with but it seems to me that the only difference is how old the story in question happens to be. When you find dubious a commonly circulated tale that originated in the past ten years, it’s an urban legend; when you find dubious a commonly circulated tale that originated a thousand years ago, it’s a myth. The one true difference in meaning between those two words comes from an underlying assumption buried in your subconscious like a landmine.

This pernicious assumption is: history is not merely the collective whole of past events but a process—specifically, a process of constant improvement, in which the human race gets better and better with each passing century like an ignorant and obnoxious child growing into wisdom and maturity. Modern people are civil and enlightened; ancient people were a bunch of dung-slinging savages. When you learn to spot this assumption at work (it’s hard for anyone to avoid it consistently) you’ll find it infects your thinking on a wide range of issues. And this one is no exception. An urban legend sounds like an anomaly that’ll naturally pop up from time to time among normally rational people. Calling something a myth makes it sound inevitable. What else would you expect from stories that originated during what Richard Carrier called “an age of fables and wonder”? [1] Of course people back then would have believed such silly things! They were superstitious dimwits!

Perhaps all it will take is this simple switch in terminology to get you started on the right track. The problems you encounter when you’re on what people call “the quest for the historical Jesus” aren’t markedly different from the problems you encounter when, say, trying to work out the personality, beliefs, and biographical details of William Shakespeare—a man who lived just a few centuries ago, who was very widely known in his own time, and who nonetheless left us with little to nothing of himself except for some play manuscripts which lack a discernible origin, a couple of legal documents with minor information like the date of his baptism, and a lot of contradictory and sometimes incredible stories told via word of mouth by contemporaries and people who lived soon after. Told, you might put it, through oral tradition. Resulting in a lot of urban legends.

Or perhaps a more direct analogy is needed:

“Think of everything we do not know about the reign of Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea. We know from the Jewish historian Josephus that Pilate ruled for ten years between 26 and 36 C.E.. It would be easy to argue that he was the single most important figure for Roman Palestine for the entire length of his rule. And what records from this decade do we have from his reign? What Roman records of his major accomplishments, his daily itineraries, the decrees he passed, the laws he issued, the prisoners he put on trial, the death warrants he signed, his scandals, his interviews, his judicial proceedings? We have none—nothing at all.

I might press the issue further. What archaeological evidence do we have about Pilate’s rule in Palestine? We have some coins that were issued during his reign. One would not expect coins about Jesus (since he didn’t issue any). And we have one—only one—fragmentary inscription discovered in Caeserea Maritima in 1961 that indicates that Pilate was the Roman prefect. Nothing else. And what writings do we have from him? Not a single word. Does that mean he didn’t exist? No.” (Bart Ehrman) [2]

That’s just ancient history for you, dear reader. Paucity of sources—sometimes over surprisingly famous people—is a problem you will come across in discussion of the very most mundane secular subjects. Yet the mere fact that there is a mystery in the first place doesn’t automatically mean that there’s no solution to it. Oral tradition distorts and oral tradition obfuscates—but just as there is a limit to how trustworthy anonymous preachers could be when they write down stories that have already gone around through word of mouth (as is the case with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—or whatever those authors’ actual names were) so too is there usually a limit to just how utterly unrecoverable the original facts can get. As John Crossan explained:

“James Dunn, writing about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, notes that ‘in every case where a number is given, there is precise agreement between all four Gospels—2,000 denarii…5 loaves and a fish…5000 men…12 baskets of fragments’…From that perfectly correct observation, he draws the following conclusion:

‘The fixed points seem to have been the numbers; the other details of agreement are mostly contingent on them and would almost inevitably be involved in the unfolding of a story round these details. But this is precisely what we would expect in oral tradition—fixed points of detail which the Christian retelling the story would elaborate in his own words, so that while language and other detail might diverge, and diverge quite markedly…the substance of the story remained constant’.

…But do human memory and oral tradition operate by recalling such numbers exactly and recreating the story around them, or by remembering the story’s core, gist, or outline and recreating those numbers in performance? And if the latter case is more likely, the absolute persistence of those specific numbers in both intra- and extra-canonical versions must indicate very early ritualization of the story.” [3]

In a nutshell: if you want to catch a glimpse of a real Jesus in these texts the trick is finding a way to see past all of the embellishments and allegorizings. Sometimes that trick can be pulled off; sometimes it can’t; and sometimes it’s not even necessary. Sometimes the story you’re reading is probably at least more or less true as reported.

If you want to see what I mean about recoverable information lying beneath the “mythical” elements (if we must use that word) then consider the following passage from John chapter 3. As you read this I want you to pretend that you’re encountering the story for the first time without the slightest notion of who Jesus or John the Baptist were. You’ve never heard of Christianity. You don’t know anything. And when you open up this alien artifact people call “The BIBB-lee” or however it’s pronounced your eyes randomly fall upon the following words:

“…Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with [John the Baptist and his followers] and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized…” [4]

You then find that the next paragraph reads like this:

“A discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’”

Tell me, is that what you were expecting to see? Even if you have no notion of what a baptism, a Jew or a Jesus are you’ll still pretty distinctly get a sense that those opening two sentences starting with, “Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside,” are establishing these “John” and “Jesus” people as equals, perhaps partners. Then out of nowhere the matter-of- fact encyclopedic-sounding narrative transforms into an obviously contrived monologue wherein John explains, in a way that sounds suspiciously on the nose, why Jesus must be exalted over himself. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Without any prior knowledge of The Bible wouldn’t you find it entirely natural to conclude that here a true story got interrupted by an untrue accretion?

If you still don’t see my point, Dr. Shabir Ally went into a lot more detail about this: watch from 10:06 to 15:30 in the following video.

Dr. Ally there was explaining what form criticism can show us. As I’ve told you, though, it isn’t always necessary to dissect the text so as to find some truth in it. Sometimes even the very most skeptical mind should find no reason at all to disbelieve what he’s reading. Consider Matthew chapter 8, verses 19-20:

“…One scholar came up to [Jesus] and said to him, ‘Teacher, I’ll follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus says to him, ‘Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Adam has nowhere to rest his head.’”

As The Jesus Seminar (whose translation I was using there) explained:

“The language of this saying is distinctive—it is not typically Christian, nor does it echo a common Judean sentiment. The phrase ‘son of Adam’ does not refer in this context to the messianic figure from heaven, but to ordinary human beings; the phrase is sometimes used as another way of referring to oneself in the third person…If Jesus is referring to himself, as some scholars think, the saying suggests that Jesus is homeless—a wanderer, without permanent address, without fixed domicile…Jesus warns a prospective follower that discipleship entails a homeless existence. [There is a] similarity of this kind of behavior to the Cynic teachers of Jesus’ day…” [5]

That sounds to me like a pretty convincing list of reasons. And if even one passage about Jesus is true (indeed, even had that passage been the only one), it means that Jesus must have existed.

In the end, though, I wonder how much difference it could make even if a mythicist is reading this and conceding every single portion of what I’ve said. You see, there’s a speech I’ve heard mythicists give time and again, to the point where I’d be surprised if it doesn’t sum up some common mindset. A one-sentence summary of said speech would go: “Yeah, I guess for all we know there was a real person named Jesus but if that stuff I’m supposed to believe about him isn’t true anyway what difference does it even make?” That would be a strange attitude to have about a much more minor subject if you’re a person who considers himself an advocate for “free thought” fighting against anti-intellectualism in the name of Science and Knowledge: “Who cares about facts?! I don’t need those, I already know what’s important!”

What interests me all the more is how similar this all-or- nothing mentality is to that of a Bible-thumping Christian fundamentalist. Don’t they always feel exactly the same way? If Jesus wasn’t the incarnate Deity come to rescue us from our sins then you may as well forget about him altogether. If one verse anywhere in The Bible is false, you may as well call the whole book useless. Sure, there could exist somewhere a number between 100% and 0% but what’s the use in speculating about such outlandish things?

Exactly. The same. Mentality.

If life actually worked that way, with everything being so very simple, life would not be much worth living. The devil is in the details.

And sometimes, just sometimes, God can be found there too.


[1] “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” by Richard Carrier.
Accessed Monday, December 11th, 2017.

[2] I don’t have a copy of “Did Jesus Exist?” sitting in front of me at the moment so I transcribed that from a video on Bart Ehrman’s Youtube page in which he reads some of its text aloud.

[3] John Dominic Crossan, “The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus”, page 68. 1998 Harper San Francisco. (If the page number is different in your edition, know that I was citing from chapter 4: “Does Memory Remember?”)

[4] New Revised Standard Version.

[5] “The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”, pages 160-161. A Polebridge Press Book, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993.

Categories: Atheism, Bart Ehrman, Biblical scholarship, Christianity, Guest Post, Islam, Jesus, Scholarship

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