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The History of Mythicism

by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S

In our quest to determine what is "mythicism," we discover that this movement was epitomized by Dr. David F. Strauss, who had come out in 1835 with The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, a book highly critical of Christianity that pointedly identified as myth much of the gospel story regarding Christ. Strauss was not an atheist or skeptical mythicist, however, as he did not dismiss the gospel story as "mere" fairytales. Rather, being a Christian minister, he attempted to imbue the Christian mythos with spiritual, if not allegorical, meaning. This perspective represents one plank of the mythicist position, as mythicism in its totality does not dismiss myth simply as something fabricated but instead recognizes the ancient wellspring of profundity and comprehension from which it draws. It appears that Strauss was encouraged in his efforts by the success of German biblical criticism—most widely known through the group called the "Tübingen School," as established by Dr. Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose own work in comparative religion was considered "revolutionary."

Such doubt was evidently not enough for Dr. Wilhelm Traugott Krug (1770-1842), heir to the seat of famed philosopher Dr. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who called for an even stronger declaration of Christianity's mythical nature. Krug's solicitation was answered by another German scholar and theologian, Dr. Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), who published his first mythicist work in 1840. This book, Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte des Johannes, took the perspective that Christ was a mythical character based on Jewish, Greek and Roman religious ideas and mythology, created during the second century, with the gospel of John, for instance, being a product of the Jewish community out of the large and important Egyptian city of Alexandria. These Jews represented a sort of "third party" in addition to the "first party" stricter followers of Judaism, who depicted God as "wholly other," separate and apart from humanity, while the "second party" is that of the Pagans, who "leant towards the union of God and Man." Bauer's perspective vis-a-vis this third party is summarized by Christian apologist Rev. George Matheson:

"It consisted of those Jews at Alexandria who, after the conquest of their country by Alexander, had chosen to forget the land of their fathers, and had sought as much as possible to amalgamate their manners and religion with the religion and manners of the surrounding Gentile nations." (Matheson, 149)

Although they brought forth novel notions, Baur, Strauss and Bauer were preceded in fact by many others who stepped out from the shadows of the Inquisition to voice unpopular ideas that had doubtlessly circulated surreptiously for centuries. Indeed, prior to this seemingly sudden burst of mythicism appeared the voluminous writings published in 1795 by Professor Charles François Dupuis (1742-1809), as well as those of Count Volney (1757-1820) and Rev. Dr. Robert Taylor (1784-1844), who spent three years in prison in the late 1820's and early 1830's for two convictions of "blasphemy," based on his popular lectures asserting that Christ was a myth. This punishment did not deter Taylor from publishing a number of books on the subject, including The Syntagma (1828), The Diegesis (1829), and The Devil's Chaplain (1831). Yet, his ordeal was so horrifying that it haunted evolutionist Charles Darwin, who feared his own writings would land him a similar fate. Following this brouhaha, in 1840 an individual wisely maintaining his anonymity by calling himself merely a "German Jew" (J.C. Blumenfeld?) published a series of pamphlets in a volume entitled, The Existence of Christ Disproved by Irresistible Evidence.

Strauss and Bauer were also succeeded by the publication in 1841 of The Christian Mythology Unveiled, whose anonymous author later published under the name of Logan Mitchell. Mitchell was followed by lay Egyptologist Gerald Massey (1828-1907), whose monumental works highlighted the comparisons between Christianity and the Egyptian religion. Another earlier scholar who extensively dipped into mythicism was Sir Godfrey Higgins (1772-1833), although he was not a mythicist per se but an evemerist who believed that under all of the mythical attributes of various godmen lay a "real person." This evemerist or euhemerist perspective, named for the Greek philosopher Euhemerus (4th cent. BCE), who posited that the gods of old were in reality kings and assorted other heroes who were deified, remains one of the most commonly held opinions regarding Jesus Christ, along with the believing and mythicist perspectives.

The evemerist position has been popular enough for a definition to be widely available in dictionaries and encyclopedias, while the mythicist position does not likewise enjoy such a widespread recognition. Considering that mythicism was the major thrust of many well respected scholars for centuries in Europe, this oversight would seem to be both contrived and egregious. We hope that this article will help to establish this previously marginalized and ignored position as a viable option worthy of respect and scientific study.

Much of today's mythicism is traceable in reality to the French scholar Dupuis, although earlier inferences may be found, for example, in the comparisons of the Hebrew prophet Moses with the Greek god Dionysus/Bacchus—also known as Mises. As I relate in my book The Gospel According to Acharya S (71-72):

In the writings of...French scholar Voltaire [1694-1778] we find the same basic information:

"The ancient poets have placed the birth of Bacchus in Egypt; he is exposed on the Nile and it is from that event that he is named Mises by the first Orpheus, which in Egyptian, signifies 'saved from the waters'... He is brought up near a mountain of Arabia called Nisa, which is believed to be Mount Sinai. It is pretended that a goddess ordered him to go and destroy a barbarous nation and that he passed through the Red Sea on foot, with a multitude of men, women, and children. Another time the river Orontes suspended its waters right and left to let him pass, and the Hydaspes did the same. He commanded the sun to stand still; two luminous rays proceeded from his head. He made a fountain of wine spout up by striking the ground with his thyrsis, and engraved his laws on two tables of marble. He wanted only to have afflicted Egypt with ten plagues, to be the perfect copy of Moses."

Voltaire likewise names others preceding him who had made this comparison between Moses and Dionysus/Bacchus, such as the Dutch theologian Gerhard Johann Voss/Vossius (1577-1649), whose massive study of mythology has never been translated from the Latin, and Pierre Daniel Huet (1630-1721), the Bishop of Avranches. Another commentator was French novelist Charles-Antoine-Guillaume Pigault-Lebrun or "Le Brun" (1753-1835)...

In The Gospel, I further discuss the use of the word "Mises" or "Mise" in ancient Orphic hymn pertaining to Dionysus/Bacchus, as well as relating the analysis of such by Bishop Dr. Simon/Symon Patrick in the 17th century. Unlike Voltaire, Dupuis, Volney or Taylor, however, these earlier individuals could not be deemed "mythicists" in the sense that they believed the biblical figures to have been myths; rather, they were attempting to trace the derivation of the Greek and Roman myths to the Hebrew religion, which they believed to be "historical." 

In Essays on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton's Theology (26), James E. Force and Richard H. Popkin trace this blossoming of mythicist thinking to the intellectual crisis brought about by the discovery of "polygenetic evidence concerning the origin of the first men and the polytheistic evidence concerning the nature of man's first religion." Explaining further, Force and Popkin remark:

"The data indicating that the varieties of mankind could not be encompassed within Biblical history, chronologically or geographically, and that the varieties of human belief could not be squared with the Biblical account raised most serious problems about the then generally accepted Jewish and Christian framework."

This "skeptical crisis" led to the publication of much scholarship addressing ancient mythology and polytheistic religions, including the massive work by the liberal "Christian apologist" Vossius, published in 1641, which, again, sought to salvage the Judeo-Christian tradition by making the ancient Greek and Roman myths, etc., derivative of the Bible's "history," rather than the Judeo-Christian "history" in fact representing myths based on these other religions.

The goal of Vossius's tremendous effort may be, as described by Force and Popkin, to depict "various pagan mythologies as picturesque descriptions of historical events, of natural phenomena, or of social conditions clothed in remnants of Judaism and Christianity." (29) While this position constitutes the recognition of important comparisons between Judeo-Christianity and the Pagan religions, mythicism turns this perspective on its ear and asserts that the former represents a historicized and Judaized version of the latter. This form of true mythicism, in fact, followed on the heels of this Vossian scholarship, to the degree that it became an all-consuming occupation for a generation of scholars throughout Europe and in the U.S. The mythicist position today largely revolves around this latter premise, which was significantly developed also in the multivolume work by Dupuis at the end of the 18th century. The French scholar's influence included many of the European elite, such as not only Volney but also Napoleon Bonaparte, who, following his personal tutoring by Dupuis and Volney, is said to have remarked that the question of Jesus's historicity was a good one. Certainly after Dupuis mythicism was no longer confined to viewing only non-biblical characters as being largely or wholly mythical, as in a German work from 1815, we find reference to "biblische Mythicismus" or "biblical mythicism." (Jenaische, 383)

In addition, many centuries before any of this mythicist scholarship—which appeared in a variety of languages and which remains widely unknown—we find in the earliest times of formalized Christianity voices of dissent who doubted the historicity of various biblical tales, whether from a mythicist or evemerist position. These voices include those known today only through their detractors, such as the Jew Trypho, assailed by Church father Justin Martyr (c. 150 AD/CE), and the Pagan philosopher Celsus (2nd cent.), harrangued by Church father Origen (c. 185-254). Neither of these critics appeared to have blindly accepted the tales of the Christians as being any more historical than those of the Pagans, and they were certainly not alone in this doubt over the centuries. Naturally, however, for the long stretches when the Catholic Church and its Inquisition reigned supreme, this opinion was not readily articulated, and the rampant illiteracy of the time also did not help this thrust of scholarship. The wholesale burning of hundreds of thousands of book has likewise left a huge void in our collective literary past that largely prevents us from following the mythicist trail from antiquity.

Individuals who continued the mythicist position into the modern era include John E. Remsburg (1848-1919), Dr. William Benjamin Smith (1850-1934), Dr. John M. Robertson (1856-1933), Dr. Arthur Drews (1865-1935), Edouard Dujardin (1861-1949), Herbert Cutner (fl. 1950), Dr. John Jackson (1907-1993), Dr. Frank Zindler, Dr. Robert Price and Earl Doherty. I myself have three published books specifically about the mythical nature of Jesus Christ, while a fourth investigates the non-historical character of the gospels:

The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold
Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled
Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection
Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The Christ

The first three texts in this list delve specifically into comparative religion and mythology, demonstrating that there is little original or "historical" about the Christ myth as a whole. The last inspects the canonical gospels themselves to see whether they could possibly be considered reliable history. These various approaches constitute the main planks of mythicism in a nutshell.

A popular form of mythicism may be seen also in the first part of internet movie "ZEITGEIST," which purportedly has been viewed over 100 million times worldwide and for which my work served as a significant source. Comedian and cultural commentator Bill Maher's "Religulous" also touches upon the subject.

For more, see the article "What is a Mythicist?"


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