Jesus Traditions and Popular Mythology in the Roman Empire

The Jesus Project was started in 2007 as a forum for skeptical biblical scholars, both professional and amateur, to conduct a 'scientific' investigation of the historicity of the Jesus traditions in the New Testament. Their sessions resulted in an edited volume, Sources of the Jesus Tradition, published last year. In this post I want to take a closer look at an essay by classicist Justin Meggitt called 'Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions', which provides an alternative, skeptical model of the transmission of Jesus traditions in early Christianity. As Meggitt puts it:
When the popular cultural contexts within which stories about Jesus were first told or retold are taken into account, it becomes apparent that they are likely to be characterized by far more creativity, improvisation, idiosyncrasy, and inconsistency than has hitherto been assumed by most New Testament scholars. Far from being careful and cautious in their handling of such traditions, the earliest Christians appear to have been largely indiscriminate or partisan in their judgments and, for the most part, show little concern about questions of historicity that so preoccupy current scholarship. (p.55)
Meggitt further notes that "Most scholars have tended to underestimate or pass over the potential for myth-making in the initial years of movements that made claims, of one kind or another, about the figure of Jesus." (ibid) He finds that mainstream scholarship typically confines that potential to the beginning and end of Jesus' life (the virgin birth and resurrection stories, respectively), and is driven largely by two assumptions that he finds questionable: 1) the central traditions of the Synoptic Gospels at least go back to Jesus himself, or were somehow determined by his actual impact, and 2) these traditions were transmitted in a controlled fashion by communities of believers either corporately or through the authority given to authorized eyewitness. Meggitt argues to the contrary that "the license and creativity of those who relayed stories about Jesus is likely to have been so great that the association between many traditions and specific historical events that may have been their original genesis is largely unrecoverable." (p.56)

In response to this thesis, I will argue that while Meggitt presents an erudite and convincing portrayal of the context of popular myth-making in the early Roman Empire, he does not sufficiently engage with details of the early Christian texts which suggest that, unlike popular retellings and 're-imaginings' of pagan stories about heroes and gods, Jesus traditions in the canonical Gospels were in fact handled with considerable care and concern for accuracy and reliability.

Meggitt devotes the bulk of his essay to a reconstruction of the context of popular myth-making in the early Roman Empire. By 'popular' he means to expand our perspective beyond the concerns of the literary elite and focus on the practices of 'ordinary' people in learning, retelling, and passing on myths, which he defines as "a popular story about a god or hero." (p.61) This use of the term myth does not imply a judgment on whether the story is historical or not, but Meggitt does suggest that myths typically included material that was "neither true nor probable." (p.62) 

Having defined his terms Meggitt goes on to describe early Roman myth-making in detail. His first point is that such mythmaking was intrinsically open-ended. He quotes John Gould:
The...absence of finality is characteristic of Greek myth. Greek myth is open-ended; a traditional story can be re-told, told with new meanings, new incidents, new persons, even with a formal reversal of old meaning...The improvisatory character of Greek myths is not just a literary fact...It is not bound to forms hardened and stiffened by canonical authority, but mobile, fluent and free to respond to a changing experience of the world. (p.62)
As a consequence of this open-endedness (Meggitt cautions that even though the above description is that of Greek myth, it applied more generally throughout the Empire) popular myth-making was quite fecund: "Even when knowledge of written, canonical versions of a myth became widespread, as was the case with Virgil and Homer, further myth-making could continue apace, often involving the deliberate rewriting and reordering of these written accounts." (p.64) Myth-making was also pluriform. Though a minority of critics was concerned with separating the wheat from the chaff and discerning a historical kernel behind the exaggerations of mythology, "for most people there were no significant problems caused by the persistence of multiple versions of the same myth, even when they flatly contradicted one another, and no particular reason to choose between them." (p.65) This fecundity and pluriformity were no doubt encouraged by the fact that, since most people in the Empire could not read or write, they did not have very detailed knowledge of written versions of the myths. 

People also had quite varied attitudes towards the historicity of these myths. Meggitt notes that while there was some skepticism about the existence of gods, pretty much everyone believed in the existence of heroes: "during the period...from the fifth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D., absolutely no one, Christians included, ever expressed the slightest doubt concerning the historicity of Aeneas, Romulus, Theseus, Heracles, Achilles, or even Dionysius; rather, everyone asserted this historicity." (p. 68, quoting Paul Veyne) The interpretive method known as euhemerism, the idea that stories about gods and heroes were actually exaggerated stories about historical human beings, helped some of the more skeptical critics maintain belief in their existence. Finally, the open-endedness of myth was enhanced by its transmission process, which was largely informal. Even though people did learn about myths through formal education, most of their knowledge was from hearing freelance raconteurs at festivals, plays and funerals, or from nannies and maids at home (perhaps the most interesting observation in the essay concerns the role of women in domestic contexts in transmitting myths, such an essential part of culture). 

Up to this point I have merely summarized Meggitt's article because there is not much to object to in his reconstruction of the context of popular myth-making in the Roman Empire. His citation of sources is extensive and he generally draws sound conclusions from them. There can be little doubt that popular myth-making was fecund, pluriform and transmitted via informal processes. The question, however, is whether the creation and transmission of Jesus traditions as we find them in the canonical Gospels is best understood within the context of popular myth-making. I highlight the phrase in italics because it reveals the fundamental weakness in Meggitt's argument, as we will see below.

Having drawn up a model for understanding the dynamics of popular myth-making in the ancient world, Meggitt then turns to the New Testament sources for evidence of his model at work among the early Christians. He first of all notes, and rightly, that "the production of myth, the spinning of stories about Jesus, was a concern in some early communities." (p. 70) Indeed, "In a number of places in the New Testament, the authors are keen to distinguish themselves from those whom they complained purveyed myths about Jesus." (ibid) For example, Peter insists that "we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty." (2 Peter 1:16) Paul, on his part, urges Timothy "to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations." (1 Timothy 1:3-4) Paul further warns that "the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths." (2 Timothy 4:3-4; I should note that Meggitt is neutral on whether these letters are pseudepigraphical or not)

Meggitt finds further evidence that myth-making was rampant in the early communities from the fact that there seem to have been several such communities with few if any ties to the Jerusalem church, with extremely limited knowledge of Jesus. As examples he cites Apollos, a charismatic teacher active in Alexandria, who originally "knew only the baptism of John" (Acts 18:25), until Priscilla and Aquila more accurately explained the Way to him. (Acts 18:26) There is another example of a group of disciples in Ephesus who only knew the baptism of John, who subsequently had to be re-baptized and educated about the Holy Spirit's role in redemption. (Acts 19:1-7) Meggitt also cites Origen's statement that "from the very beginning, when, as Celsus imagines, believers were few in number, there were certain doctrines interpreted in different ways." (Origen, Contra Celsum, 3.10ff) From the example of Paul beginning to convert Gentiles without first consulting the Jerusalem church Meggitt concludes that "the Jerusalem church did not function as arbiter of tradition and authority among all those who propagated faith in Jesus in the empire, despite its ideological significance in early Christian historiography." (p.75) He finds more plausible a model of Christian origins which allows for the possibility of "only distant or tenuous relationships between some of the groups that emerged and the co-existence of complementary and competing conceptualizations of their origins." (p.76)

Finally, Meggitt disputes the notion that "Christian communities, collectively or as a consequence of the ongoing presence of credible eyewitnesses, controlled and delimited the traditions so that innovations of a fundamental kind were impossible." (p.76) He claims that "Nowhere can we find any explicit statements about communities or representatives of communities making collective judgments on oral early Christian sources." (p.77) Indeed, "From what we know about how early Christians went about sifting the wheat from the chaff when judging the traditions about Jesus, it seems that this was not a collective activity nor one that particularly concerned communities, but rather an initiative of particular individuals within the churches."(ibid) As examples he cites Luke (Luke 1:3) and Papias (Eusebius, Church History, 3.39), the latter being particularly telling because, all protestation to the contrary, "he appears to have been as drawn to sensational paradoxa (marvelous tales) as anyone else, and his judgments about the veracity of traditions were disturbing to later Christians."(ibid) He then cites the Gospel of John as evidence that "traditions about Jesus were legion and most early Christians had no difficulty with this...the author makes it clear that he has selected only a few traditions for inclusion in his Gospel, but the criteria for selection are expressly theological. He does not show any concern about the authenticity of traditions he does not include...John nowhere shows any evidence of either doubting other traditions nor some collective process in authenticating the material he includes. Indeed, John's apparent indiscriminate attitude towards traditions about Jesus appears to share much with the popular genre of paradoxography..." (p.78) To the claim that the interdependence of the Synoptics shows a conservative tendency in the transmission of Jesus tradition, Meggitt counters that "Matthew's use of Mark is, for example, characterized by the widespread abbreviation, addition, omission, conflation, elaboration, and reordering of material, and displays a degree of license indistinguishable from that apparent in the way that Greek, Roman, and Jewish writers of the time made use of their written sources." (ibid)

To anyone familiar with the New Testament, many of these claims will seem dubious, and with good reason. In contrast to the first part of the essay, Meggitt's handling of the New Testament material is quite sloppy. That there was concern about widespread myth-making in the early Christian communities cannot be doubted. However, his use of the accounts in Acts of believers with only tenuous connections to Jerusalem and with partial knowledge of Jesus, or who acted without the consent of the Jerusalem church, is completely undermined by his failure to highlight the conclusion to all these accounts: these groups were soon set right by apostles with close connections to Jerusalem, like Priscilla and Aquila and Paul.  Apollos received more accurate instruction in the Way, the believers in Ephesus were baptized, and Paul went before the Jerusalem leaders to ascertain whether his gospel was in line with previous teaching. (Galatians 2:1-10)

Meggitt's distortions of the Gospel sources are particularly egregious. He claims that "John nowhere shows any evidence of either doubting other traditions nor some collective process in authenticating the material he includes." He is right on both counts, but draws the wrong conclusions from these facts. John does not dispute other traditions because that is not his focus (although surely the very selection and formatting of the Gospel implicitly counters other, erroneous interpretations of Jesus' significance), and he does not allude to some collective process in authenticating his materials because he himself as an eyewitness was the source of the material included in the Gospel. (John 19:35; 21:24) Furthermore, the mere fact that John highlights his selectivity in the traditions he chose to recount and acknowledges the existence of other traditions about Jesus in no way implies that he accepted them all. Meggitt erects a highly dubious argument from silence when he suggests that John had no concern about the authenticity of traditions he did not include. How does Meggitt know about this lack of concern when John nowhere explicitly engages with other traditions? This would be like suspecting a historian of accepting Holocaust denial accounts simply because the historian nowhere critically interacts with them, or acknowledges the existence of other historical accounts of the period without explicitly critiquing them.

Several of Meggitt's claims fall under the 'true but irrelevant' category. For example, he suggests that in claiming eyewitness authority Peter was "defending himself from others who judged that the traditions the author himself proclaimed were myths." (p.70) As Sherlock Holmes would say in the recent movie, we now have a firm grasp of the obvious. Does the mere fact that other people thought Peter was purveying myths about Jesus evidence that he was? Meggitt also notes that sifting the wheat from the chaff of Jesus traditions seems to have been a preoccupation of individuals rather than whole communities. What is this supposed to imply? That these individuals would not have been able to do a good job of this sifting? From the fact that Papias was not always the best sifter of tradition, are we to infer that Luke or John weren't? And in fact there is evidence that whole communities were concerned with the preservation of accurate information about Jesus. For example, Paul praises the Corinthian congregation because "you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I passed them on to you," (1 Corinthians 11:2) traditions including accounts of the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) and Jesus' death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

But the biggest problem with Meggitt's argument is that his thesis of rampant myth-making among the early followers of Jesus can be granted without this having any implications for our assessment of the reliability of the canonical Gospels. Even if the Jerusalem church with its collegium of authoritative eyewitnesses could not control every story about Jesus circulating in the early communities, they did not have to in order for reliable accounts to have made their way into the Gospels. I have addressed this issue in an earlier post (Eyewitness Control of the Gospel Tradition: A Game of Whack-a-Mole?). Even though wild stories may have circulated about Jesus which the eyewitnesses could not stamp out, they themselves knew the truth and remained within the early communities for a long time after Jesus' death. Luke explicitly claims to have derived his information from "those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning." (Luke 1:2) Quoting from my previous post:
The only issue which concerns us is, was the Jesus tradition accurately preserved along the currents that fed into our canonical Gospels? Here it is important to remember that despite some skeptics' claims, the evangelists did not just write down whatever they heard on the street. The evangelists clearly devoted meticulous effort to the theological and pastoral presentation of their material, and we should imagine this effort being extended to the research they did in the traditions their communities had inherited. True, the average believer may have been content to accept whatever she heard about Jesus from friends or passers-through, but given the above evidence of the apostles' interest in making sure the official story was passed on and the efficient communication networks they had available we can be fairly confident that for the careful investigator the truth was there to be found.
Meggitt does not interact at all with the evidence which suggests that the evangelists were in fact keenly interested in recording accurate information about Jesus. There are Luke and John's claim to eyewitness testimony, a claim corroborated by the fact that much of the Gospel material is in precisely the format which would be expected of 'personal event memories' (see Robert K. McIver's fascinating new book, Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels). There is also the evangelists' choice of genre for recounting the life of Jesus, the Greco-Roman bios, and as David Aune reminds us, "the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman bibliographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicates that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened." (quoted here) There is, furthermore, plenty of evidence that they were actually successful in doing so (too copious to go into here; see, for example, Chris Price's documentation of Luke's geographical, historical and political accuracy). Finally, it is doubtful that the stories about Jesus should even be thought of in analogy to stories about gods and heroes who lived in the distant past (perhaps more relevant would be the exaggerations and distortions surrounding the life of figures such as Yohanan ben Zakkai that Meggitt aludes to, but the argument is not made for the similarity between the two traditions).

In sum, while Meggitt presents a convincing portrait of popular myth-making in the Roman Empire and we can grant that myth-making about Jesus sprung up quite early and was hard to suppress (I also agree with his point that many scholars are too quick to discount the potential for myth-making in the early years of the Jesus movement; I have always found the 'too little time for legends to take hold' argument quite ridiculous), he does not make a good case that these facts should undermine our confidence in the canonical Gospels.


steve said…
Thanks for the fine post, JD.

One further problem: Let's take his example of Virgil. Yes, Virgil was rewriting Homer to some degree. But by that very token, Virgil was aware of the fact that he was *inventing* a new narrative. Even if he thought some of the traditional Homeric elements were factual (as well as Roman legends about Romulus and Remus), he was filling in the gaps with consciously imaginary details.

So Meggitt would have to argue that the Gospel writers were doing the same thing.
Jason Pratt said…
Excellent post JD!

I may add that the final text of GosJohn does in fact contain an explicitly avowed correction, by the author, of a tradition received by the text's initial audience: namely the tradition that the author would not die before the return of Christ. This is included as an afterthought to a set of information that cannot be construed as competition with other tradents (and especially affirms the importance of Simon Peter as a church leader despite his failure during the denials): the author takes the opportunity to correct a mistaken impression that had apparently sprung up concerning Jesus' words concerning him.

The offhanded opportunistic character of this part of the narrative isn't, in its form, something that would be invented by disciples of the author to overcome the problem of his recent death, as the incident comes attached as a sort of footnote to an epilogue chapter where the focus is on affirming the importance of Simon Peter--a man who, on the theory of post-Johannine authorship of this epilogue, had to have preceded John (whichever John this is) in death by several decades!

It is of course quite possible and maybe even probable that the epilogue was written (whether original to the text or as an addition after initial circulation) after the death of Peter, although even then the form takes a piece of received tradition of obscure meaning and clarifies what it means (Peter will die by crucifixion). But the tonal focus is still on Peter; the beloved disciple's importance is primarily that of being an eyewitness to this scene, and his forthcoming service to Christ is affirmed in very vague ways (according to the story details) which the author (whether John or post-John) doesn't bother to elaborate on.

The overall structure of the epilogue material, consequently, weighs heavily toward the author taking the opportunity to correct a mistaken tradition about himself (and also, tangentially, about Jesus) so as to prevent potential problems should he die before the return of Christ.

I suspect quite a bit of the variance between accounts by the authors results from their attempts to quietly correct material to what they believed to be a more accurate form. (I have a pet theory about GosMark's young man along that line, for example--a correction attempt that got authoritatively nixed by someone with more authority than the author!) But with the epilogue of GosJohn we can see it explicitly happening (although the correction isn't of material surviving otherwise in canonical accounts).


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