Jesus: Myth or History? A Dutch Debate

“Jesus never existed”. With this headline a Dutch newspaper (Trouw, February 2, 2015) introduced the latest thoughts of a colleague of mine (Edward van der Kaaij) about Jesus. He has reached the conclusion that Jesus never existed as a historical person. Instead, he claims, all elements of His story do stem from old myths. Egypt is seen as the place of birth of these mythical stories about Jesus. The dying and rising deity is the kernal of the Osiris myth in Egypt, which originates out of the archetype of the sun: going down and rising every day. Paul became acquainted Osiriswith these myths in Tarsus, by means of Jews who fled from Alexandria and imported these myths. No wonder then, Van der Kaaij claims, that the historical Jesus isn’t mentioned in the letters of Paul. For him, Jesus is a mythological figure.
What is the conclusion of all this? It brings us, so Van der Kaaij believes, to the heart of the Christian faith: in everything alive is some sort of power of life. A divine spark. And Christianity is about the discovering of that divine spark…

So far for the thoughts of my colleague. As you could imagine, his utterances raised many critical comments, for example from Free University professor Gijsbert van den Brink. He points out that Van der Kaaij derives his theories from the book The Jesus Mysteries, written by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. But as Van den Brink points out, this book hasn’t been taken seriously by New Testament scholars. In fact, its content seems to be nothing more than old Gnostic theories in a new coat. Describing the Christian faith in terms of a Gnostic myth has nothing to do with the Credo of the church. I agree with these criticisms. But in this post, I will point out some of the more implicit difficulties with this kind of thought.

Let me start with a quote from an interview with Van der Kaaij.

“I aim to prove that the historical Jesus never existed, because I think that the opinion He did exist does harm to the understanding of the Bible. (…) In Paul’s letters, you don’t read about the existence of the historical Jesus. Paul actually wrote his letters before the gospels were written. The only source of the historicity of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark. Matthew and Luke draw on that source. But I endorse the theory that in Alexandria, once an important harbour city, the Jewish version of the old myth came into existence. Finally, Christianity has been imported by Alexandrian Jews, who had to flee. In that way, it ended up with Paul in the port city of Tarsis. (…) The origin of the Gospel is mythical, so Jesus is a mythical figure too.”

First of all, there are problems with the underlying theory of knowledge here. Take for example the line: “I aim to prove that the historical Jesus never existed, because I think that the opinion He did exist does harm to the understanding of the Bible”. Imagine someone saying: “I aim to prove that slavery never existed, because I think that the opinion that slavery did exist does harm to human dignity”. No one would take this kind of wishful thinking seriously.

Then, there is a another epistemological problem regarding the status of theories and evidence. We hear him say: “I aim to prove that the historical Jesus never existed” and “I endorse the theory…”. To endorse a theory about the origin of the gospels is very different from proving that the historical Jesus never existed. In fact, proving the non-existence of Jesus asks for a refutation of all the available evidence, even the slightest hint. Van der Kaaij seems not even to have started with proving that.

A third problem has to do with logical reasoning. Does it follow from “The origin of the Gospel is mythical”, that  “Jesus is a mythical figure too”? Not at all. Suppose I will write a fairy tale about the Dutch king Willem Alexander. Does that mean he becomes a fairy tale figure? Of course not. In short, Van der Kaaij seems to conflate the (onto)logical status of the story with the (onto)logical status of its content.

Another problem concerns the implied ontology in Van der Kaaij’s words. He seems to locate the heart of christian faith in the ‘old archetype’ of the dying and rising deity. Other religions, like the Islam or Buddhism, are in fact different forms of the same archetype. It means that the New Testament can’t contain anything really new. It means that believing boils down to the discovery of what is already there, inside of each of us. There is nothing new under the sun. And there can’t be. But that means an ontology of necessity. Then Jesus not only never existed, but He, God incarnate, the best possible Person, could not even have existed. Proving that requires nothing less than a kind of reversed ontological argument of Jesus’ – and by implication God’s – non-existence.

Van der Kaaij seems not to be aware of these problems. He also seems unaware of an impressive theological tradition in which the roots of Christian faith have been explored in its historical dimensions, including the relation with other religions. The great Dutch scholar Van der Leeuw - portretGerardus van der Leeuw, for example, devotes in his book De primitieve mensch en de religie [Primitive man and religion] (1937) several pages to the concept of myth, in relation to logos and history. He says:

“In Mythos nor Logos anything happens. In history something new,  not repeated, is acknowledged and experienced. Something happens. History saves from the mythical circle and the logical formula. (…) In this the formidable meaning of Israël’s belief in God is revealed. While the whole of older humanity is convinced that the events of the world form a cycle, comes Jahweh’s history instead. (…) This, however, does not take the mythical (in general sense) out of history.” (p.119)

For Van der Leeuw ‘myth’ is (in contrast with popular usage) not equal to not-true en therefore has its legitimate place. But its true meaning is only seen in the light of faith. Faith reveals the meaning of Mythos, Logos and History in the shape of the history of salvation (p.123). For Van der Leeuw, Jesus Christ: Myth or History? is no opposition. One final quote: “Jesus Christ is Mythos pre-done, He is the Logos incarnate, He is human history and divine reality at once”.