There aren't too many areas where some New Agers and some dedicated atheists find common ground, but one of them is the question of the historical reality – or unreality – of Jesus Christ. If you Google Jesus + myth, you'll come up with thousands of websites arguing that Jesus never lived – that he was invented by his earliest followers, who were influenced by astrology, numerology, pagan myths, and even Hinduism.*
Enter Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman is a professor of New Testament studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He is not a Christian; he describes himself as an agnostic inclined toward atheism. So we’re not dealing here with a conservative or fundamentalist Christian committed at the outset to the accuracy of biblical accounts. Quite the contrary; Ehrman is very skeptical of much of the material reported about Jesus in the Gospels, and believes that what we can know about him with any high degree of certainty is limited to only a few core statements.
Nevertheless, he is convinced that Jesus was a real historical figure. And in this he is far from alone. As Ehrman takes pains to point out in Did Jesus Exist?, virtually all of his colleagues in academia agree with this basic proposition. He writes:
I should say at the outset that none of this [Jesus-as-myth] literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world)….
But a couple of bona fide scholars – not professors teaching religious studies in universities but scholars nonetheless, and at least one of them with a Ph.D. in the field of New Testament – have taken this position and written about it. Their books may not be known to most of the general public interested in questions relating to Jesus, the Gospels, or the early Christian church, but they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a (very) small but (often) loud minority voice….
The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be "mythicists" – that is, those who believe that Jesus is a myth…. His life and teachings were invented by early storytellers. He never really lived….
The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist.
Much of the book is devoted to backing up this claim with an extensive and highly interesting discussion of ancient literary sources. I won't attempt to summarize this presentation, which is both readable and concise (though sometimes a bit repetitive). I think any open-minded person – anyone not already committed to the mythicist perspective – would find it convincing.
Having established with a very high degree of probability that there was a real person named Jesus operating in first century Palestine as a prophet and wonderworker, and that he was crucified by the Romans around the year 30 A.D., Ehrman goes on to critique the more serious proponents of the Christ-myth hypothesis. But early on, before he deals with the scholars who need to be taken seriously, he has a little fun with the non-scholars who've tackled this subject in popular books and on innumerable websites.
Since these are the authors who seem to have the most influence in both New Age and materialist circles, it's worth quoting some of what Ehrman has to say. In what is quoted below, the material in square brackets is Ehrman's, not mine.
In 1999, under the nom de plume Acharya S, D. M. Murdock published the breathless conspirator's dream: The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold….
The book is filled with so many factual errors and outlandish assertions that it is hard to believe that the author is serious. If she is serious, it is hard to believe that she has ever encountered anything resembling historical scholarship. Her "research" appears to have involved reading a number of nonscholarly books that say the same thing she is about to say and then quoting them. One looks in vain for the citation of a primary ancient source, and quotations from real experts (Elaine Pagels, chiefly) are ripped from their context and misconstrued....
The basic argument of the book is that Jesus is the son-god: “Thus the son of God is the sun of God."...
Just to give a sense of the level of scholarship in this sensationalist tome, I list a few of the howlers one encounters en route, in the order in which I found them....
The "true meaning of the word gospel is 'God's Spell,' as in magic hypnosis and delusion" (45). [No, the word gospel comes to us from the old English term god spel, which means "good news" – a fairly precise translation of the Greek word euaggelion. It has nothing to do with magic.]....
The church father “Irenaeus was a Gnostic" (60). [In fact, he was one of the most virulent opponents of Gnostics in the early church.]
Augustine was "originally a Mandaean, i.e., a Gnostic, until after the Council of Nicaea" (60). [Augustine was not even born until 19 years after the Council of Nicaea, and he certainly was no Gnostic.]
Ehrman has even more to say about the hapless Acharya, with whom I had a brief contretemps online way back in 2007 (see the comments thread of this post). Even in that discussion, Acharya managed to produce another "howler," when she misidentified the author of Revelation as James (it was someone named John; he identifies himself in the text.)
My impression, however, is that the sun-god theory takes a backseat in popularity to the evergreen notion that Jesus was just another instance of a dying-and-rising pagan god, a view that enjoyed considerable popularity in the early 20th century after the publication of James Frazer’s famous work The Golden Bough. The trouble is that Frazer's understanding of pagan mythology was deeply flawed, and the gods he described as being resurrected were not actually seen that way in the ancient world.
As one example, it is sometimes said that the Egyptian god Osiris was resurrected after his dismembered body was reassembled by his sister Isis. This is incorrect. Osiris did not come back to earthly life. The ancient Egyptians believed that the body had to be intact in order for the soul to survive, which is why they placed so much emphasis on mummification and preservation of the corpse. The point of reassembling Osiris’s violated corpse was to allow his soul to journey to the afterlife, which (we are told) it did.
As Ehrman notes, today's main popularizers of the dying-and-rising God theory as applied to Jesus are Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, authors of the 1999 book The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? Ehrman writes:
In [Freke and Gandy’s] view, … Jesus was not a sun-god. He was a creation based on the widespread mythologies of dying and rising gods known throughout the pagan world....
This divine figure was called by various names in the pagan mysteries: Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Bacchus, Mithras. But "fundamentally all these God men are the same mythical being" (4). The reason that Freke and Gandy think so is that supposedly all these figures share the same mythology: their father was God; their mother was a mortal virgin; each was born in a cave on December 25 before three shepherds and wise men; among their miracles they turned water to wine; they all rode into town on a donkey; they all were crucified at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world; they descended to hell; and on the third day they rose again....
What, for example is the proof that Osiris was born on December 25 before three shepherds? Or that he was crucified? And that his death brought atonement for sin? Or that he returned to life on earth by being raised from the dead? In fact, no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods).
As he did with Acharya, Ehrman lists a series of blunders committed by Freke and Gandy in their magnum opus. Again, words in brackets are Ehrman's.
Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Empire (11). [No, he did not. He made it a legal religion. It was not made the state religion until the end of the fourth century under Theodosius.]
Eleusinian mysteries focused on the godman Dionysus (18, 22). [Not true. These mysteries were not about Dionysus but about the goddess Demeter.]
"Descriptions by Christian authorities of Christian baptism are indistinguishable from pagan descriptions of Mystery baptism" (36). [How could we possibly know this? We don't have a single description in any source of any kind of baptism in the mystery religions.]
The Romans "completely destroyed the state of Judaica in 112 CE" (178). [This is a bizarre claim. There was not even a war between Rome and Judea in 112 CE; there were wars in 66–70 and in 132–35 CE.]
After having disposed of both the popular and the more scholarly mythicists, Ehrman devotes the last portion of his book to a discussion of what we can really know about the historical Jesus besides the mere fact of his existence. This is basically a recapitulation of his earlier book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, arguing that Jesus foretold the imminent end of the world and sought to bring it about by his own self-sacrifice.
Here I'm not so sure I agree with Ehrman; I'm more inclined to the view proposed by N.T. Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God. In brief, Wright believes that Jesus was not prophesying the end of the world but the destruction of Jerusalem – a prophecy that came true in 70 A.D. when the Romans crushed a Jewish uprising and destroyed the Temple, which was the focal point of Jewish religious observance at the time. Though Jesus is reported as using eschatological language – the sun and moon will go dark, etc. – Wright shows clearly that this type of language was used by Hebrew prophets throughout history in a poetical and metaphorical way to highlight predictions of political and military catastrophe.
If this is true, where did we get the idea of the Second Coming, which is so central to later Christian thought? One possibility is that reports of Jesus' resurrection led to the conviction that the end of the world was nigh, inasmuch as some first century Jews believed that the End Times would be accompanied by a general resurrection. Jesus, then, was seen as the "first fruits" (Paul's phrase) of the coming resurrection of all humanity. This could be why Paul and other early Christians expected the end to come soon, even if Jesus himself had not made any such prediction, at least during his earthly ministry.
I find Wright's thesis pretty convincing, though Ehrman's viewpoint is more in line with the scholarly consensus today.
In any case, regardless of what Jesus may have taught about the end of the world, he certainly did exist; he was not invented out of whole cloth as a sun-god, a dying-and-rising god, or any other mythic pagan archetype. This is the main point of Ehrman’s book. For those who may have been tempted to think otherwise by the trendiness of the mythicist position, Did Jesus Exist? is most highly recommended.
*… and even Hinduism. Ehrman tells us of a 1791 essay by Francois Volney, who claimed that the early Christians “derived Jesus's most common epithet, ‘Christ’ from the similar sounding name of the Indian God Krishna." This, of course, is ridiculous; the word Christ, or Christos in ancient Greek, means “the anointed,” and as such is a straightforward translation of the Hebrew word messiah, which also means "the anointed." Needless to say, it is exceedingly unlikely that any first century Palestinian Jews had the slightest knowledge of the Hindu pantheon. And Christos doesn't sound all that much like Krishna anyway.