Jesus, Myth, and Metaphor

[Note: With me being busier than usual lately, I thought I would dredge up some old material. Years ago at the old FRDB discussion board, I posted the following (edited for format and clarity) in response to a general repudiation of Jesus' historicity by contributors there on a thread called "The Best Case for an Historical Jesus."[1]]
 
'I've heard it said often that Paul knew nothing of the historical Jesus. Now I confess that I lack the education in Biblical Studies, Historiography, or Ancient Languages supposedly required to understand the intricacies of the arguments in support of this thesis. But I do know that mythicism entails a mythical interpretation of Paul. I decided therefore to personally review Paul's letters, starting with Romans (generally accepted as authentic), his first in the canon, and got no further than this:
 
"Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:1-4).
 
So three verses into Paul's writings and we have what for all the world appears to be a reference to Jesus born into the world as a flesh-and-bone person. (Galatians 4:4 suggests the same, in that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law.") Evidently the emphasized portion has been described as cryptic, or perhaps ambiguous, by some, but it is commonly used by Paul in reference to physical realities (except when speaking of the flesh as the "sinful nature," which clearly Paul would not say of Christ, let alone in the context of his birth and resurrection by the "Spirit of holiness"). This passage seems to me, then, to indicate an important theological point on the part of Paul – that Jesus, though Lord and Messiah, was born into our world as a man. That is, Jesus was both Son of David and Son of God. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles (Greeks), and his decidedly theological message centered on Jesus' fundamental identity, so he had little need to rehash the various historical circumstances of the life of Jesus (other than his becoming a man for the purpose of salvation). Besides, it may well be that his audience was already immersed in the various writings and oral traditions that made up the Gospels.

At the same time, Paul was keenly aware of proto-Gnostic movements afoot at the time, as his apologetic addresses to the Corinthians and Colossians indicate. Best known primarily for his direct witness to the overwhelming power of Christ, Paul was nonetheless, and perhaps for that very reason, reminding the Romans of Jesus' genuine humanity (historicity) in the introduction to his theological magnum opus. For this reason and others, I don't buy Bultmann's miracle = myth assumption, which leads to the false history-or-myth dichotomy that too often dominates discussions of Jesus and historicity. It really makes more sense of the facts to say that an ongoing, seemingly unresolvable dispute over Historical Jesus vs. Mythical Jesus points to an original, Traditional Jesus, the God-man who incorporates both historical and theological elements. In other words, the current controversy amounts to prima facie evidence that the apostles, church fathers and church councils had it right all along.

Now it's generally understood that the apostolic writers as a group (including Paul, and especially John), along with the early church fathers, took great exception to Docetism, which could be roughly defined as the belief that Christ was a spirit who merely "appeared" in the flesh. It hardly makes sense to say that otherwise strident anti-Docetists and anti-Gnostics like Paul were really mythicists at some mysterious deeper level. And if they were not mythicists, is it reasonable to suggest that they should have gone out of their way to anticipate twenty-first century historical criticism and formulate a preemptive "response"? To me, trying to demonstrate that Jesus wasn't a myth is like trying to demonstrate that we aren't all currently living in The Matrix, or that the axioms of logic aren't merely social constructs. Once called into question, the most obvious truths become notoriously difficult to prove.'
 
To this the mythicist Earl Doherty replied:
 
'Apparently you did not finish your reading of the Pauline epistles, or did not pick up on the fact that Paul speaks of "flesh" and "body" in quite mystical ways which do not refer to physical realities. He regularly refers to the "body of Christ" of which believers form the limbs, Christ being the "head" (as in 1 Cor. 12:27, or Col. 1:18, or Eph. 1:22-23 in which the church becomes Christ's "body.") In Eph. 2:14-16, Christ "abolishes the Law in his flesh" with the result that "he might create in himself a new man out of the two, and in this one body reconcile both [Jew and gentile] to God through the cross." Hebrews, non-Pauline, speaks of Christ's "flesh" as the "curtain" through which believers can enter the new sanctuary where Christ made his sacrifice (in the heavenly world) by offering his blood. Here, "blood" is clearly presented as a form of non-material/earthly blood in a non-earthly dimension.
 
There is no support for finding an 'out' here by declaring that all these things are metaphors or allegories. Paul never states or treats them as such. They seem to be literal concepts within a mystical, spiritual dimension. When he wants to present an allegory, Paul states it as such, as in Galatians 4's allegory of the sons of Abraham. And even there, the phrase kata sarka is applied in some kind of mystical way, since he makes it a point of applying it only to one of the sons, while declaring the other was born kata pneuma. (Would they not both have been born kata sarka if all the phrase meant was a literal physical birth?)
 
It is also possible to understand the kata sarka of Romans 1:3 as not referring specifically to Christ's flesh itself, whether material or spiritual, but rather is a phrase which conveys the idea of being 'in relation to flesh, to the fleshly realm,' or if you like, even the world of human flesh. A similar form of non-literal meaning one finds in 2 Cor. 5:16. The phrase, then, describes Christ's relationship to the human David, but not in the sense of physical descent. Whether he understood it or not, he got it from scripture which states that the Christ will be of the seed of David. Even the word "seed" in Romans 1:3 need not have a literal meaning, as we know from Romans 9:6-8 and Galatians 3:29, where the gentiles are Abraham's "seed" even though they are not physically descended from him. Even Christ, declared to be Abraham's "seed" in Gal. 3:16, is said to be so solely on the basis of a single word in scripture, with no appeal made to him being in a physical descent from Abraham.
 
Also, if you know any of the OT Pseudepigrapha, you would realize that Jewish sectarian writers were very capable of presenting pictures of activities that go on in various layers of the heavens which have very human-sounding descriptions, but involve spiritual equivalents.
 
So things are not quite as straightforward as you might imagine.'
 
And to Doherty I answered (again edited):
 
'It would be a non sequitur to suggest that Paul's use of various terms in a mystical-spiritual context prohibits him from using them in a historical context. If he is like virtually every writer ever born, he frequently uses the same terms in different contexts, with different meanings emerging as a result. Understanding this fact is one of the guiding principles of biblical exegesis, indeed of verbal communication generally. And context here offers a "clue" to Christ's historicity, namely reference to "resurrection from the dead" (v. 4). This refers to the same phenomenon which Paul explains quite thoroughly in 1 Corinthians as a dead physical or fleshly or corrupt body being transformed into a living spiritual (spiritually whole, hence "glorified") body and thereby rising bodily from a physical death, i.e., a death experienced in historical time and space. From this perspective, it is no wonder that Pilate, a mundane Roman official, should be found playing a prominent role in the execution of Christ.
 
Like any other author, Paul is under no obligation to explain his use of literary devices, not even as he is using them. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis and many other scholars and theologians have pointed out, it is virtually impossible for humans to speak at any length of spiritual realities without earthly referents and anthropomorphisms. That fact should not be taken to mean that such references are literal depictions of the spiritual realm. Even if kata sarka referred strictly to physical, corrupted flesh, it would not prevent other phrases from being used in comparison to it for a theological purpose. Although I have not studied the particular language to nearly the same extent as you, I would say that the very point Paul is making in Galatians 4, that there is a vital difference between physical and spiritual realities, underscores the pointedly physical or "fleshly" connotation of kata sarka.

As for the metaphor or analogy of a physical body in 1 Cor. and elsewhere, it's obvious enough to me that the various bodily appendages should not be expected to exactly correspond with individuals constituting a quickly growing population of believers. The truth of that contention becomes all the more evident in light of Paul's other metaphors for the church, such as a household (many bodies rather than one) or a building (an altogether non-biological structure), which are clearly not compatible with a single literal body. The church cannot literally be all those entities at once, whereas its functions and characteristics can be described legitimately and concurrently with multiple metaphors.
 
Now regarding allegories: There appears to be a false dichotomy at work here. We supposedly know that Paul did not use allegories when he did not state it as such, because, after all, we know that when he does use allegories "he states it as such." Left unaddressed is the distinct likelihood that Paul often used figurative language but did not always announce the fact. Recall the many instances in the Gospels involving both scenarios -- where the evangelist states that the story to follow is a parable, while Jesus tells the same story without calling it a parable.
 
Of course it is possible to read kata sarka here as a reference to some flesh other than Christ's, especially when there appears to be no great difference between being born directly into human flesh and being born in relation to "the world of human flesh" -- whatever the latter is supposed to mean exactly. Given Paul's immediate context and his general appreciation as a Jew for the role of history in the plan of God (a major theme of Romans as it happens), however, mythicism seems the less plausible interpretation.
 
In a sense I agree that "things are not quite as straightforward" as we would like. That's precisely why I drew the comparison between Christ-myth theories and epistemological idealism. Once we openly call into question the obvious, like the objective reality of the physical world we live in, or in this case the prima facie textual evidence indicating apostolic belief in the Incarnation (hence historicity) of Christ, all sorts of strange possibilities begin to emerge.'
 
So ended my brief exchange with Doherty and my participation in that thread, though the discussion continued involving other contributors for a few more pages. That was almost fifteen years ago, so I'm not sure how our respective arguments would hold up today. But given that "Christ myth" theories refuse to go away, I thought some
readers might find it interesting.





[1] "The Best Case for an Historical Jesus," posted at the Freethought and Rationalism Discussion Board (archives), 2002, http://bcharchive.org/2/thearchives/showthread70fb.html?t=283124&page=13. My part in the conversation takes place at the bottom of page 13.

Comments

im-skeptical said…
It seems that some form of mythicism was around from the very beginning of Christianity. Many scholars believe that some of Paul's writings (for example Rom. 1:1-4) were intended to rebut the idea of Docetism (Jesus didn't exist in the flesh). But that implies that Docetism predated the earliest books of the NT.
Joe Hinman said…

docetism is not like mytyerism, they did not deny taht Jesus existed,they admitted there wasan entity there they just thought it wasn't flash and blood.
im-skeptical said…
I understand that, Joe. They were Christians. They were very early Christians who never believed that Jesus existed as a human being, the same thing that mythicists are saying now. And remember that the doctrine if the trinity was still not invented. The Docetists were declared to be heretical, and their views were suppressed. But even the Paul's writing contained no stories about the life of Jesus. All he said was that he was a person of the flesh. No virgin birth, no miraculous feats, no life events, nothing. Even the resurrection was a "in the spirit", according to Paul. Both Paul and Matthew expressed an Adoptionist view of Jesus, which also eventually became heretical. But consistent with the Docetists, neither of them made any description of the life of the man, and Matthew only spoke about the life of Jesus after his adoption as the son of God. It was the later gospels where the stories of the earlier life of Jesus were fabricated for the first time. And I don't use the term 'fabricated' loosely. There are obvious discrepancies between them, and obvious embellishment over time.
Don McIntosh said…
Edits: Retitled, and fixed formatting in a couple of spots.
Anonymous said…
IMS: Both Paul and Matthew expressed an Adoptionist view of Jesus, which also eventually became heretical. But consistent with the Docetists, neither of them made any description of the life of the man, and Matthew only spoke about the life of Jesus after his adoption as the son of God.

I am guessing you mean Mark, not Matthew?

I find it interesting that Paul believed Jesus was adopted as his resurrection, and so has nothing in his letters of Jesus before that, while Mark has Jesus adopted at his baptism, and has nothing of his life before that.

Relatedly, I think the best argument against mythism is from extrapolation. Mid first century, Jesus was part of the trinity. Before that, in John, Jesus was divine and eternal, before that in Luke and Matthew, Jesus was the son of God from his birth. Back a bit more, Jesus was the son of God from his baptism. Even further back, Jesus was adopted at the resurrection. The obvious next step back would be Jesus fully man, not adopted, not divine.

Pix
im-skeptical said…
Yes, I meant to say Mark. The earliest of the gospels.

I think you're right. This is something Christians ignore. Even if there was an actual man the stories are based on, it should be clear from a historical perspective that he was nothing like the embellished versions that evolved over the following century.
Joe Hinman said…
m-skeptical said...
I understand that, Joe. They were Christians. They were very early Christians who never believed that Jesus existed as a human being, the same thing that mythicists are saying now. And remember that the doctrine if the trinity was still not invented. The Docetists were declared to be heretical, and their views were suppressed. But even the Paul's writing contained no stories about the life of Jesus.


no they were not Christians,they were Gnostics who took on christian affectations,Gnostics took on affectations of other faiths they were a faith in their own right, There alsoi Jewish Gnostic,


All he said was that he was a person of the flesh. No virgin birth, no miraculous feats,

obviously they weren't hung up on that stuff like you are, they didn't need to emphasize it it. It neither embarrassed then nor convinced them,

no life events, nothing. Even the resurrection was a "in the spirit", according to Paul. Both Paul and Matthew expressed an Adoptionist view of Jesus, which also eventually became heretical.

Paul's view is not adoption, ut is irrational to expect the to abide by a nicotine that had not yet evolved, The chruch had not yet asked those questions so it wasn't time to deal with them,

But consistent with the Docetists, neither of them made any description of the life of the man, and Matthew only spoke about the life of Jesus after his adoption as the son of God. It was the later gospels where the stories of the earlier life of Jesus were fabricated for the first time. And I don't use the term 'fabricated' loosely. There are obvious discrepancies between them, and obvious embellishment over time.

that supremely logical to argue that because did not talk about such details non one did,
It;also stupid to willfully miss the point,JESUS WAS A FLESH AND BLOOD MAN WITH A FAMILY AND AN ANCESTRY SO HE WAS NOT A MYTH OR

Joe Hinman said…
How many ears must one man have, how many times can you real the truth before it sinks into your pea brain.

The Gospels are not the original writing of the Jesus story,they use preexisting material, in both oral and written traditions. So those ideas and stories were floating around for a couple decades before the Gospels appeared in the form in which we know them.
im-skeptical said…
obviously they weren't hung up on that stuff like you are

If they weren't hung up on stuff like that, then why did the later gospels devote so many words to it?. It makes much more sense that the earliest stories of Jesus didn't talk about things that had yet to be invented. Just like your excuse for the reason they didn't describe a Trinitarian view of Jesus as God-man. It hadn't yet been invented. What we DO see is a very clear progression of the narrative as time goes on. And if you think you have evidence that accounts of Jesus' early life were part of the existing written and oral tradition when Mark was written, what evidence do you have for that? As far as I know, there is none.
Joe Hinman said…
im-skeptical said...
obviously they weren't hung up on that stuff like you are

If they weren't hung up on stuff like that, then why did the later gospels devote so many words to it?. It makes much more sense that the earliest stories of Jesus didn't talk about things that had yet to be invented.

that was my argumemt Albert. It wasn't a problem yet, The fact of Jesus being born of Mary and coming from Nazareth ect was true but no one spoke of it in that way it was not yet an issue.


Just like your excuse for the reason they didn't describe a Trinitarian view of Jesus as God-man. It hadn't yet been invented.

Nio Creed calls him a God,an this is not Orthodox doctrine, no reason to expect Proto doctrinal speech to use that phrase,but we do find statements that predate the Gospels that embody divinity for Jesus, The statement in GTOM where he says "In Flesh I came down from heaven" totally anti-Gnostic statement pre dates Gospels.


What we DO see is a very clear progression of the narrative as time goes on. And if you think you have evidence that accounts of Jesus' early life were part of the existing written and oral tradition when Mark was written, what evidence do you have for that? As far as I know, there is none.

fits perfectly with my theology of a progressively unfolding revelation. You are stuck in 19th century comic book unthinking where God is big man in sky and must reveal all on stone tablets at one time has and totally literal,
im-skeptical said…
progressively unfolding revelation

That's one way of putting it. Another would be progressively developing myth.
Joe Hinman said…
that's ignorant. It none of the classic features of myth
im-skeptical said…
If the story was about anybody but your Jesus, you would agree with me.

Popular posts from this blog

Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Jonah and U2’s Pride in the Name of Love

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

How Should I Be A Sceptic -- belief and reason

Kierkegaard's Knights of Faith and the Account of Abraham

Bayes Theorem And Probability of God: No Dice!

The Origin of Life and the Fallacy of Composition

If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?