Mythicism, Resurrection, and the Historical Question

Let’s begin with the Mythicist claim that the earliest Christian writers – Paul and other Epistle authors, had no concept of an earthly Jesus, but only a concept of an eternal, heavenly “Son” figure unconnected to the purportedly historical Gospel Jesus. However, Jews in Jesus’ time did have a concept of body-soul dualism, and a belief in congress between mortals and non-corporeal spirit beings, among which beliefs was that the eternal Son was known via scripture and revelation – but not necessarily as a human being who had recently lived on earth.

For example, there is the account of Saul bidding the Witch of Endor to summon up the spirit of Samuel. Now if Samuel had not been called up as a spirit or soul, how then could he have been called up at all?  Jews believed that the righteous would only be raised up bodily on the last day at the general resurrection, but of course, this had not yet happened, and Samuel was not excluded from this condition. This almost coerces us to think that Samuel manifested to Saul as a spirit entity, not a physical body. The whole concept of Sheol demands some kind of a spiritual survival, no matter how minimal and subdued. People in Sheol had a dim consciousness, but had not yet received a resurrection body. The same holds true for Jesus’  reference to dead people dwelling in Abraham’s Bosom – where conscious beings live, but not in-or-as-bodies – again, because of the simple fact that the general resurrection had not yet occurred. And it is assumed in Jesus’ promising the “Good Thief” on the cross that “this day you will be with me in Paradise” – obviously Paradise was a repository for the souls of the dead, at least until the last day when the dead would be reunited with their former bodies.

Jews also “peopled” heaven with non-bodily figures who could be perceived in spontaneous mystical experience, or achieved through a practice of  “ascent to the heavens”. Paul himself expresses body-soul dualism when he says he ascended to heaven, “whether in the body or out of it, I do not know”. Thus for Paul, his own consciousness was separable from hisbody and could have experiences – even revelations – that are separate from physical sensation and data transmitted through the senses.

Jewish non-bodily thought can be found in any number of particular situations, e.g., Herod’s belief that Jesus was “John the Baptist – returned”. Obviously Herod was thinking of the Baptist’s spirit, surviving in the afterlife for a brief time, and then “incarnating” or even possessing Jesus. Both Jesus’ friends and foes insisted that he “had” – i.e., that he possessed, or was possessed by – a spirit. His friends called it the Holy Spirit, and his enemies called it Beelzebub. In those days, the spirits of the dead could also possess the living (and this type of possession is the most common in Judaism to this day in the form of the dybbuk). In any case, physical resurrection cannot be fit into the “Jesus is the return of the Baptist” scenario. Nor does it match the concept in the books of Maccabees, which invokes prayer for the dead, an idea that presupposes that there are conscious souls in the afterlife.

It is important to know that, pertaining to Christian origins, we are not talking mainstream theologies,  but rather with idiosyncratic sectarian ideas, such as the notion that Jesus’ resurrection was merely the first “rising” in preparation for the general resurrection, and as such, it signaled that the end times had begun. The Jewish elite never persecuted “the Twelve” et al for believing that Jesus had been raised – they may have considered it a strange idea, but they didn’t condemn it as heresy. The question before us is the nature and quality of resurrection as it applies to the specific case of Jesus and primitive Christianity.

Regarding  Jesus’  “bodily” resurrection, the Gospel narratives are ambiguous. If the risen Jesus was a resuscitated corpse, then all of his appearances should have been reported as being bodily. But they aren’t. His “body” does things that no body can do: it can levitate, bilocate, appear and vanish at will, disguise its form, and pass through solid obstructions.

The Gospel resurrection appearances are a mix of physicality and non-materiality … but Paul’s risen Christ is completely non-corporeal. Paul’s Christ doesn’t look like any person – on the contrary, He is only a light and a voice – and of course from then on, an indwelling Spirit. Paul never sits down with Christ to break bread as in Luke’s Emmaus account, or probe His wounds, as in the Johannine “doubting Thomas” narrative. That’s simply not Paul’s Christ, even if Paul acknowledged some kind of prior earthly existence for Him. For Paul, the heavenly Christ apparently eclipsed Jesus of Nazareth, to the point that Paul rarely if ever mentions the Nazarene.
Relative to Mythicism’s claims, opponents remind us that the Epistles are not biographical texts, so of course we wouldn’t expect them to say much about the historical Jesus. I don’t really buy that argument, because since Paul and the Epistle authors were preaching a celestial Son revealed in the hearts of believers (Paul: “God was pleased to reveal his Son IN me”), they would have needed to cite – and cite frequently – the heavenly Son’s direct connection to the purported existence of Jesus the Galilean carpenter – if such a tradition preceded the Epistles. And the more citations, the better the buttressing of the supposed connection between the earthly Jesus and the heavenly Son.

But the Epistles – whether Pauline or not – don’t give any hint of their cosmic Christ being meaningfully connected to the so-called historical ministry of a human Jesus. They make no citation of foundational themes such as the Sermon on the Mount/Plain; no mention of Jesus’ cures and exorcisms; nothing about Jesus forgiving the woman who washed his feet; no mention of Jesus’ “Parables of the Kingdom” which are acknowledged by most scholars as the most distinctive aspect of Jesus’ teaching; no mention of the calling of the disciples, whether in Galilee or in Judea; nothing about Jesus’ own foundational experience – his baptism by John in the Jordan; no mention of Pilate, Judas, Peter’s cowardice; no reference to the scene of the Beloved Disciple leaning back on Jesus’ breast at the last supper; no Mary Magdalene; no Lazarus; no Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, etc., etc. ad infinitum.

How much more effective their preaching would have been, had they buttressed their mystical, non-material Christ with examples from his earthly career. But there are virtually none. (Paul, at most, seems to think that Jews of his own generation were being persecuted as punishment for crucifying the Lord in Sion/Jerusalem; and he also mentions that Jesus’ mission had only been to Israel [an idea that is supported by the Gospels], just as Peter’s was to the Jews and Paul’s was to the Gentiles. But beyond very minor “nods” like these, the Epistles do not bring the ministry Jesus and his world-changing message into their argumentation.)

Again, how much more effective their efforts would have been had they said things like, “Brethren, we are blessed to have seen His glory in visions, and to know him in our hearts. But how fortunate are those who knew Him according to the flesh, who felt His touch, heard his words, and traveled with Him throughout Judea. Seek out their testimony and learn from them”. Or, even better yet, had they said things like, “You have suffered much from lack of meat, wine, and shelter. We are the poor. But take heart from the example of the Lord, who when he was still on the earth, like us, thirsted, was hungry, and had no place to lay his head”.

Had Paul and the Epistle writers actually possessed a store of extensive knowledge about the historical Jesus, surely they would have written multiple texts in the vein of the above two examples. But they didn’t. This implies one of two things:

Either they deemed Jesus’ earthly ministry, acts, wonders, and teaching as unimportant (at least in contrast to the importance of the cosmic Son);

or there was simply no actual record of a historical Jesus for them to consult and quote – hence his example wasn’t there to be cited.

Otherwise, they would have cited his earthly example almost ad nauseam as the originating, reliable buttress for their heavenly Son teaching. But they don’t. And to me, this is not just a remarkable lack. It is a Screaming Silence.

I’m not a Mythicist, but this Silence is deep and dark. A few Epistolary peeks into-and-about Jesus being recently crucified in the capital, preaching only to Israel, etc., are simply not enough to effectively penetrate the great Silence.

Thus, if Jesus did most of the historical things recorded in the Gospels, why did virtually none of these crucially important things make it into Paul and the Epistles? As already mentioned,  the Epistles weren’t trying to be biographical documents. But even so, their utter separation of their cosmic Christ from the purported historical existence of the Galilean sage – on whom the visionary revelations are traditionallly assumed to be based – is, for me, jaw-droppingly astonishing.

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