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Demythologizing Jesus:
Making the world safe for unbelief

by James Hitchcock
December 7, 2001

"The Jesus Mysteries: Was Jesus a Pagan God? -- Completely undermines the traditional history of Christianity that has been perpetuated by the Church. Presents evidence that the Jesus of the New Testament was a mythical figure." This caught my eye in a recent catalogue of books, not because it is a new idea but precisely because such "studies" keep appearing decade after decade.

There continue to be more books about Jesus than about any other figure in all of history, and by now they have covered almost every possible position. At one end are those based on a complete acceptance of the reliability of the New Testament. On the other, I doubt that anyone will ever get farther than a man named John Allegro, who about forty years ago proposed that the Apostles were consuming a psychedelic mushroom which they personified with the name of Jesus. We need to distinguish real scholarship about Jesus from crackpots, but that is not always obvious -- Allegro held a position at Cambridge University.

One difficulty with distinguishing the respectable from the crackpot is that, if one decides that the Gospels are not really historical documents, there is not much left to rely on with respect to Jesus. Outside explicitly Christian sources there are only a few bare mentions of his name in the first century.

Thus someone who treats the Gospels as unreliable necessarily embarks on speculation -- Jesus as a revolutionary, as announcing the end of the world, as a Jewish rabbi, as proclaiming the end of Judaism, as an ethical teacher, as a magician. Anyone involved in scholarship knows how fragile such speculations are. For later periods of history there are usually abundant sources, but even then theories based on solid evidence regularly get discarded.

But with virtually no sources except the Gospels, speculators are compelled to read into Jesus whatever they want to see there. The best current example is the Jesus Seminar, composed of certified scholars who have distinguished those things which Jesus "really" said from those which the New Testament merely claims He said. Not surprisingly His "real" words are all things a modern American secularist could readily accept -- no nonsense about miracles, rising from the dead, hell and damnation, etc.

Except for those derided as "fundamentalists", there is only one unifying principle in all this, and that a negative one - the New Testament is not historically reliable. The whole spectrum -- from Allegro to those who would stop with questioning the Nativity story or the miracle accounts -- agree on that much. If scholarly study leads to this conclusion, one might assume that the scholars would also reach a consensus with respect to Jesus, some way of getting behind the Gospels. But, since there is no way of doing that, the revisionists inevitably contradict one another. Their positions are ultimately incompatible.

After a time it begins seems rather like a man who is told he has cancer by a doctor who then dies. The patient begins visiting other doctors, but each new physician gives him a different diagnosis, all of them agreeing only that he does not have cancer. A sensible man after awhile might begin to suspect that the original diagnosis was right after all.

The new book claiming that it "completely undermines the traditional history Christianity has perpetuated" scarcely needed to be written, given the flood of studies, dating back l50 years, which have "demythologized" the New Testament. Why then do such books keep appearing?

In a way it is a testimony to Jesus' Resurrection. People keep producing new theories to discredit the historical Jesus because, for some reason, His power and authority never die. Almost the whole work of "demythologizing" was completed by l850, so that what the churches say about Jesus need no longer be taken seriously. Yet somehow His power continues, and even increases.

The purpose of each new book is to weaken the spiritual authority of Jesus, as mediated through Christianity, to make the world safer for unbelief. Such authors are not really interested in what may have happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, but they are very interested in what is happening right now.

James Hitchcock
6l58 Kingsbury Ave.
St. Louis, Mo. 63ll2
E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

James Hitchcock,
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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