I came across an article called “The Quest for the Mythical Jesus” written by Duke Merz published at the Free Inquiry. I wanted to respond to some of the content of that article.
In the article, Merz attempts to explain the origins of the Jesus Myth Theory. I will quote it at length:
The rediscovery of the mythical Jesus was an unintended consequence of biblical research carried out by devout Christians. Near the end of the Enlightenment, theologians began studying the oldest versions of New Testament books to make certain that translations from the original Greek were as accurate as possible. During this process, they noticed a distinct difference between the Gospels and the Epistles. The biographies of Jesus contained quotations from the Old Testament and allusions to Jewish traditions. The letters never referred to the Hebrew books, and on those rare occasions when Jesus or Jewish topics were mentioned, they seemed to be afterthoughts. Comparative analysis of the oldest existing texts of the Epistles indicated that some of the anomalies were the work of later editors.
This discovery prompted a more in-depth analysis of the Gospels, which also uncovered editorial additions. Some were revealed by changes in verb tense or point of view, but the majority were simply conflicting versions of the same incident.
First of all, the origin of the idea of Jesus as a myth did not begin with biblical scholars. It began with thinkers during the French Revolution who were a part of the sweeping away of traditional Christian religion. Their training was not in biblical studies nor was it from studying Greek manuscripts. See for example this post.
That aside, I can assure you that it did not take until the Enlightenment or the examination of Greek versions to discover there were differences between the Gospels and the Epistles.
And the claim that the Gospels contained references to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish traditions and the Epistles did not? That is nonsense. Read through the Epistles, take a look at Romans or Galatians, they are filled with both. This claim seems to be assuming the reader has not read any of the New Testament.
Regarding the editorial editions, that did not come with the Enlightenment. This would have been noticed as early as the 1500s with Erasmus’s Greek New Testament.
What Merz is trying to do is get us to the German scholars who begin to wrestle with the historical Jesus. I will get to that in a future post.
Right now, I just want to demonstrate that he has not done well with setting it up. It is not the case that earlier Christians had no idea that there were differences between the Gospels. It was in the early centuries of the church that scholars recognized that Hebrews was not written by Paul. They worked through other issues as well.
The idea that the church was completely naive about the Bible before the Enlightenment and then afterwards, scholars suddenly noticed things that they never noticed before.
I will say that the Enlightenment did make some question the existence of the supernatural. This will impact some of those German scholars who would eventually attempt to reconstruct a historical Jesus without miracles.
I will examined what he has to say about the further development of the Jesus Myth Theory in my next post.
If you are interested in learning more about the development of Greek editions of the New Testament, I recommend this book:
Please note, this is an Amazon affiliate link,
I wish to correct this. Actually, the earliest evidence of the Christ Myth theory I have found is rebuttals to it in the 17th century. The first and earliest confirmed one would be Hugo Grotius, who specifically defends Jesus’ historicity by referencing the works of Tacitus, Pliny, and Josephus (one does not need to defend Jesus’ existence if people all concede he existed). However, the more clear case of this is Edward Stillingfleet in the 1670s, who responds to a “deist” (likely Herbert of Cherbury, and the title of “deist” is more polemical than accurate) who was apparently arguing that Jesus may have not existed. I have actually compiled a whole list of references to the Christ Myth debate prior to Volney (who also wasn’t a mythicist) and Dupuis with some brief commentary (and translation where necessary) here: