Sunday, 8 January 2017

Centenary - The Jesus Problem* by J M Robertson

This week I bought two books about King Arthur; one of them was recommended as the best of those arguing Arthur really existed and the other the best of those arguing the opposite. By the time I've read both I hope to be in a position to make an informed judgement on the question. Like many people I'm tempted by the romantic notion that the hero's origins are based on real history, but I'm also bound to acknowledge the world's mythologies are full of tales about the exploits of heroes who turn out to be historicised demigods of antique religions rather than real people. I want to know which argument is the more persuasive in Arthur's case.

Palace of AugustusIt is just such a question about historicity – in this case of Jesus - that J M Robertson examined one hundred years ago. Naturally this question aroused much stronger passions than King Arthur. Nevertheless, though Robertson cannot restrain his annoyance with commentators who employ poor scientific method, he gives due credit to scholars whose careful analysis reaches different conclusions from his own. He himself disclaims prejudice. “The present writer,” he says, “reached the myth-theory not by way of propaganda but as a result of sheer protracted failure to establish a presupposed historical foundation.” He arrives at the conclusion that the subject of his enquiry is the product of reverse Evemerism.

Evemerism or Euhemerism is the process of turning a real person into a demigod by the accretion of myth. Reverse Evemerism or historicisation creates a factitious human history for a mythological deity, and this is what Robertson claims to have found here.

Either mutation poses problems for scholars seeking knowledge of the distant past. Oral re-tellers and subsequent writers of history are unlikely to advertise their embellishment of the record or even to judge such behaviour immoral. Particularly before the invention of printing, documentary copyists' mistakes, interpolations and downright forgeries coincided with accidental and deliberate destruction of alternate written versions. Today we need a whole science of textual analysis aimed simply at discovering what an ancient document originally said.

Fragments of New Testament documents dating to the Second Century AD have been found, but the earliest whole books date from around 200 AD and the earliest complete testament from the fourth century. These are, in short, copies of copies. We don't have originals.

There are similar difficulties attached to the copying of old secular writers such as Josephus or Suetonius. In addition it's difficult to judge whether these are describing history based on impartial records or deriving their material directly or indirectly from a Christian tradition already widespread at their time of writing. Hearsay could be taken as history at the time, and where even that was lacking a historian would simply make it up. Tacitus, for example, could have had no idea what Calgacus said to his army before the Battle of Mons Graupius but quoted more than a page of the Scottish leader's harangue anyway.

In addition it was normal for a famous person to be credited with things done subsequently by other, anonymous, people. Nearly every great work of civil engineering beside the Euphrates came to be ascribed to Semiramis, who may herself be legendary.

It was generally assumed in Asian and Hellenic cultures that intervention of the gods in the world of men was a common thing. Naturally such interventions would often be attended by miraculous events, but if none appeared in early records they could easily be interpolated later. Sexual relations between gods and humans gave rise to demigod offspring such as Achilles or Heracles who possessed great powers. In addition the gods themselves would take human form. Some, for example, fought and were even wounded in the Trojan War.

Among the figures brought to us by Reverse Evemerism seems to be the early Israelite leader Joshua. There is little evidence of any reality behind his military campaigns. However there is evidence of his cult in Samaria and elsewhere. Yehoshua, or Yeshua, is the same name ('God Saves') that comes down to us by a different linguistic route as Jesus. Even if his Old Testament book dates only to the Babylonian captivity it predates the putative historical dates of Christ by half a millennium. Robertson emphasises this evidence of a pre-existing Jesus cult.

Another possible cult involved the annual sacrifice, later symbolic, of a figure called Jesus Barabbas (Jesus, son of the father). The custom may well have involved investing a private man with the insignia of royalty for five days and then putting him to death, a tradition which could explain the apparent rapid change of mood of the Jerusalem mob in the biblical account of Holy Week.

The ancient tradition of propitiation of the gods by way of human sacrifice initially often involved the sacrifice of kings, but this practice soon evolved into sacrifice of king-substitutes such as Barabbas. Associated with the sacrifices was frequently an initially cannibalistic, later symbolic, meal. The custom may have evolved all the way from its bloody origins to a harmless masque or mystery play.

Interestingly, Robertson hypothesises that the lost Q source of the gospels may in fact have been just such a play. For the illiterate masses a play might have communicated better than readings from a book. Moreover a play performed in secret would enable early Christians to avoid having incriminating documents in the possession of their churches.

Not only was the invention of monologues, as we've already seen, a part of writing history at this time but several scenes from the gospels make a lot more sense when viewed as transcriptions of scenes from a play rather than records drawn directly from life. This is especially true where there is no obvious way for the gospel writer to have had access to witnesses. The temptation in the wilderness, the prayer in Gethsemane and the trial before Pilate are all examples.

“What inferribly happened,” says Robertson, “was a dramatic development, by Gentile hands, of a primarily simple mystery drama, consisting of the Supper, the death, and the resurrection, into the play as it now stands transcribed in the synoptics, with the Betrayal, the Agony, the Denial, the Trials, and the dramatic touches in the crucifixion scene. At some point, probably by reason of the Christian reaction against all pagan procedure, the play, which in its present form must always have been special to a town or towns, was dropped.”

The reasons for the Gentile interference with a movement which originated as a Jewish sect and continued to use Jewish synagogues for much of the first century was firstly the Pauline schism, which eliminated aspects of strict Judaism in order to preach to non-Jews, and secondly the collapse of the Jewish branch of the movement following the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD and the failure of the second coming to materialise. The Ebionite survivors of the Jewish branch were in due course attacked as heretics by the gentile branch because of their refusal to accept the divinity of Jesus.

Roman Forum
Meanwhile the gentile myth makers drew heavily on existing myths to give flesh to the bones of their reverse Evemerism. The equivalent of the Temptation, for example, where a goat-legged figure stands beside a young god on a mountain-top is found in Babylonian culture (the goat-god and the sun god) and in Greek (Pan and Zeus, Marsyas and Apollo); the turning of water into wine is an annual Dionysiac rite and so on.

Because the mythical accretions arose in many different cult centres there were many different versions of the gospels which could never be fully harmonised. Not only does the alleged teaching of Jesus accordingly contain internal contradictions but it all has precedent in earlier Jewish thought, with the exception of the imminence of the Kingdom of God. The alleged facts and events of Jesus's life are also incompatible with each other.

The central point of the story, however is the ancient ritual. “The main ethical content of the Christian system,” says Robertson, “the moral doctrine by which the Church has lived down till the other day, is the ethic-defying doctrine of the redemption of mankind by a blood sacrifice — a survival of immemorial savagery.” 

In the subsequent century mainstream academic thought has moved away from the myth theory espoused by Robertson, insisting that at least some episodes of the life of Christ are historical. Traditionalists who insist that all are historical are however fairly easily confounded. It is not unreasonable to say that when once we begin to pick and choose the parts we will sustain, Robertson's principle is necessarily conceded. If we readily accept Apollo or Ishtar as mythical figures, despite the fact that they were worshipped as gods and that many stories were told of their doings, it is not enough simply to assert the same cannot be true of Jesus.

However, my research is not finished. Having read what I consider to be a first class negative argument I am now looking for a first class positive one. I stress that by first class what I mean is a scholarly, well-researched work that proceeds from the evidence to a conclusion and not vice-versa. The world is full of people who can work backwards from their preferred answer, selectively choosing evidence that suits it. I am looking for a demonstration of historicity worthy of the challenge that Robertson presents. If you know of one, please tell me about it.

*The Jesus Problem by J M Robertson is downloadable from from Project Gutenberg