In a recent CNN article, a mythicist named Timothy Freke claimed that Jesus didn’t exist. He based his argument on an ancient amulet showing the crucifixion of the god Dionysus and calling him the “savior” of mankind. In fact, Freke claims that 1st century Jews invented a Jewish savior to counter Dionysus.
Naturally, he put his thoughts into a book.
Freke has lots of company. For example, Robert Price, a former Baptist pastor, wrote his own book in which he agrees with Freke that Jesus never lived.
|State of Dionysus|
The problem isn’t that these two scholars, and many more, are trying to sell books by pimping controversial arguments. Nor does it matter that they are trying to prove Jesus didn’t exist.
The problem is that all of this is old news.
Dionysus, for example, is just one of 17 recognized savior gods in the ancient Middle East, many of whose life and death paralleled claims about Jesus yet preceded him for centuries. But that information has been detailed since the mid-1800s. So are claims that Jesus was a magician or a king for a day and then sacrificed or is just imaginary.
None of that matters. The current debate over the existence of Jesus says more about the state of scholarship than Jesus. After all, Christianity is the world’s largest religion and isn’t going to vanish anytime soon, whether or not the Christian deity really lived or didn’t.
The truth is that most people don’t seem to care. They also don’t know that the questions swirling around the existence of Jesus are old hat.
There are several reasons why such time-worn claims are being recycled. In the first place, much of the past debate in the field of religious history took place in the shadows of academia. The arguments pro and con were swapped in conferences and scholarly journals. The public had no idea. If some of it leaked out, organized religion had enough authority to overawe scholars and bury evidence.
That’s what happened until the 1980s when use of the internet began to spread. I remember trying to become part of an early chatroom devoted to religious history. There was only one at the time, and it was dominated by believers. I stopped participating since others had no interest in any factual information. Today, multiple such sites exist with reams of good, solid research appearing on line.
No one today can simply spout a religious claim and expect it to be automatically accepted.
The spread of knowledge, however, has not increased the ability to sift and analyze the data. Not all religious claims are inherently wrong; not all arguments against religious beliefs are automatically correct either. Anyone facing the welter of data must be able to discern both the motives of the researcher as well as the quality of the information.
That ability seems to have vanished under the weight of incessant tests. By taking multiple choice exams, students today are being taught there is always a correct answer That’s simply not reality, especially in a field like religious history where nuances fill every cranny.We only know so much what happened in ancient times and are uncovering new tidbits all the time. However, students simply learn a “fact” to answer a question and then move on.
At the same time, we have stopped looking at history and only see the immediate. That’s a direct result of our technology and the overwhelming amount of bytes that fill our computers, TVs and phones. No one can keep up or, for the matter, remember what happened in the past.
As such, then, a mythicist – another in a long series of invented fields -- can recycle ideas from a century or so ago and make it seem new. It’s new to him. Everything is. It’s new to those who read his book. They don’t know any better.
And the same "startling" claims will be repeated a few years from now again, and a few years after that, ad nausea.
There’s no reason to bother with new research anymore. The old, forgotten stuff will do just fine, even when the topic is someone as significant as Jesus.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University. You can reach him at email@example.com.
He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Comparative Religion for Dummies. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.