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”.

The Theology of Father Brown

It sounds rather pretentious: ‘The Theology of Father Brown’. Like ‘The Theology of John Calvin‘ or ‘The Theology of Karl Barth‘, to mention just two random titles.  It sounds rather peculiar too. The theology of a fictional character, what is that supposed to be? But think of Dante and his Divina Commedia. Think of Milton and his Paradise Lost. Think of C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia. Gilbert Keith Chesterton and FrancesTheology clothed, or should we say disguised, in fiction. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are of a different league of course. Does it make sense to question these detective stories about their theology? Well, it seems so, at least according to the great Dutch phenomenologist and theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw. In 1944 he wrote an article ‘Het detective-verhaal als spiegel van dezen tijd’ (‘The detective-story as a mirror of the times we live in’). Van der Leeuw rooted in the so called Dutch  ‘Ethical Theology’. Many of the ‘Ethical theologians’ (like J.H. Gunning jr., Is. van Dijk, and many others) wrote about literature (Dante, Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc.). It is a very interesting tradition of engaging theologically with literature. So, let’s have a look into the theology of Father Brown…

Let me first mention a few facts about the author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936). He definitely was a flamboyant man and a brilliant writer. He wrote columns, stories, poems, books, and so forth. In his youth he felt himself attracted to occultism, but, thanks to his wife Frances Blogg, he was lead back to the (Anglican) Church. He often referred to himself as an ‘orthodox Christian’. In 1922 he became a member of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the final step in a long process, which was reflected in his many writings. Besides his polemic and apologetic writings, like for instance Orthodoxy (1908), he became also famous by his 51 fictional Father Brown detective stories. Chesterton based the character of detective-priest Father Brown on a parish priest in Bradford, John O’Connor, he knew well and who was intimately connected to Chesterton’s gradual turning to Roman Catholicism. Chesterton endowed the character of Father Brown with a charming combination of clumsiness and wit. Let me give, with this in mind, a sketchy outline of the theology implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the (early) Father Brown stories.

1. Chesterton presents Father Brown repeatedly as a man of reason. Take for example ‘The Resurrection of Father Brown’ (from: The Incredulity of Father Brown). In the story everyone is convinced that a miracle has happened. Only Father Brown refuses to believe in a miracle.

By the way,’ went on Father Brown, ‘don’t think I blame you for jumping to preternatural conclusions. The reason’s very simple, really. You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything.  There are thousands balanced on it today; but it’s a sharp, uncomfortable edge to sit on. You won’t rest till you believe something; that’s why Mr Vandam went through new religions with a tooth-comb, and Mr Alboin quotes Scripture for his religion of breathing exercises, and Mr Fenner grumbles at the very God he denies. That’s where you all split; it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things. But though it wanted only a touch to tip you into preternaturalism about these things, these things really were only natural things. They were not only natural, they were almost unnaturally simple. I suppose there never was quite so simple a story as this.’

Father Brown is, time and time again, presented as a reasonable thinker, not in spite of his belief in God, but because of his belief in God. Chesterton seems in his books especially fond of mocking French defenders of reason and logic. Invariably, they turn out to The Innocence of Father Brownaccept all kinds of irrational beliefs and opinions. To be sure, in the theology Father Brown mystery is not passed by. Miracles do exist, but only the real miracles. In ‘The Wrong Shape’ (from: The Innocence of Father Brown) “The modern mind always mixes up two different ideas: mystery in the sense of what is marvellous, and mystery in the sense of what is complicated. That is half its difficulty about miracles. A miracle is startling; but it is simple. It is simple because it is a miracle”.

2. An interesting question would be whether for Chesterton the domain of reason is limited to the realm of natural things, in contrast with the supernatural as the domain of faith. In that case, he would embrace the  dualistic theology  of the Counter-Reformation, as pointed out by Henri de Lubac and others. It seems to me however, that Chesterton doesn’t fit into such a dualistic scheme. Take for example this saying, already quoted above, from ‘The Resurrection of Father Brown’: “… it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things”. As far as I can see, this is a basic Augustinian position: it’s natural for man to long for God. Finding God is ultimately like coming home, not arriving in a strange country.
Chesterton stuffs his stories with lots of hints in this direction. For example: “The Christian is more modest,” muttered Father Brown; “he wants something” (in ‘The Wrong Shape’).

3. There is another feature of Father Brown’s theology that strikes me as Augustinian. It is his emphasis on the sinfullness of human nature. The best illustration of this feature in the Father Brown stories is offered in the following passage from ‘The Hammer of God’. “How do you know all this?” he cried. “Are you a devil?” “I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.” So, the knowledge of his own evil heart enables him to trace the evil thoughts and deeds of others. It’s no coïncidence then in Chesterton’s book that precisely a priest turns out to be a clever detective.
In fact, the emphasis on man’s sinful nature is no sad or negative message. Take for example his passage from ‘The Three Tools of Death’, where a daughter caused, unknowingly, the death of her father:

“Don’t you see it was because she mustn’t know?” “Mustn’t know what?” asked Merton. “Why, that she killed her father, you fool!” roared the other. “He’d have been alive now but for her. It might craze her to know that.” “No, I don’t think it would,” remarked Father Brown, as he picked up his hat. “I rather think I should tell her. Even the most murderous blunders don’t poison life like sins; anyhow, I think you may both be the happier now.”

Sin is not the real problem, the denial of sin is! Or, to put it differently, the real sin is the denial of your own sinfullness, the evil in your own heart. “The foulest crime the fiends ever prompted feels lighter after confession; and I implore you to confess” (from ‘The Eye of Apollo’). The reverse side of this is that without repentance things will deteriorate. As Father Brown puts it in ‘The Flying Star’: “Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.”

4. A last distinctive feature of Father Brown’s theology is the emphasis on humility. We heard Father Brown already saying that the Christian is ‘more modest’. Let me give another example, from one of the earliest stories: ‘The Queer Feet’ (in The Incredulity of Father Brown). “Odd, isn’t it,” he said, “that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man?” Passages like this, emphasizing the contrast between high and low, pride and humility, are nearly omnipresent in these stories. In  ‘The Hammer of God’ Chesterton writes:

“Look at that blacksmith, for instance,” went on Father Brown calmly; “a good man, but not a Christian — hard, imperious, unforgiving. Well, his Scotch religion was made up by men who prayed on hills and high crags, and learnt to look down on the world more than to look up at heaven. Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”

In the same story, Father Brown says about the murderer: “He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.” In short: kneeling before God is essential to retain our humility. And, I’d like to add, our humanity.

BBC Father BrownThere is, of course, much more to be said about the theology of Father Brown. His aversion to puritans, and especially Scottish puritans, for example. Or we could ask how Christ is brought to the fore in these stories. And we could compare our findings with other books of Chesterton, like Orthodoxy  or Everlasting man. But that would lead to another topic: the Theology of G.K. Chesterton.
Anyway, I hope you will agree with me, on the basis of what here has been said, that the Father Brown stories remain worth reading (and watching!), not only because of their plot and humor, but also because of their theology!


Gerardus van der Leeuw on ‘primitive mentality’

Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950) was a true polymath. He was in his day an expert in the field of phenomenology of religion. He was a leading liturgist in the Netherlands. His writings about art are still widely read. Besides he served as the Secretary of State for Education and Science (1945-1946).

In his book ‘Primitive Man and Religion’ (only edited in Dutch: “De primitieve mensch en de religie” [1937]) Van der Leeuw wrote about the concept of primitive mentality. It was coined by Levy-Bruhl in the early twentieth century and Van der Leeuw  discusses this concept quite extensively.

Van der Leeuw stresses in his discussion the fact that this so-called ‘primitive mentality’ shouldn’t be interpreted in an evolutionary way. We are not talking about an outdated mindset. On the contrary, Van der Leeuw emphasizes that this primitive mentality is still part of modern man. However, it is largely suppressed in our day. We act and live according to our ‘modern mentality’. But what, we might ask, is then the difference between primitive and modern mentality? Van der Leeuw lists eight ‘aspects’ of the primitive mentality in contrast to modern mentality. I will single out three of them, which I consider to be the most important.

1. Van der Leeuw points out that for both mentalities the world is ‘given’. However, the way we deal with this ‘givenness’ differs largely. Modern man asks how we experience the world, what we know of it, what we can do with it. Modern man seeks to ‘handle’ the given world, makes it to an ‘object’. Wood is ‘material’, which can be used to make something. Primitive man on the contrary doesn’t see the world as object, but as subject. He doesn’t look for opportunities to handle the things he meets, but tries to discover its power. Everything has power, life, holiness. Primitive man seeks, not to handle, but to relate to this power, this holiness in every aspect of life.

2. Modern man thinks analytically. He is used to divide reality in parts and bits, in order to get a better understanding. Primitive man thinks synthetically. His thinking is directed to the totality. Modern man makes generalizations and abstractions; whereas primitive man doesn’t. Modern man thinks and speaks in general terms, whereas primitive man thinks and speaks in concrete ways. I’d like to remind that the notions modern and primitive man don’t stand for distinct periods in human history, nor stand for different kinds of civilization. Both modern and primitive mentalities are, according to Van der Leeuw, a lasting part of humanity.

3. A third difference involves the way we participate in reality. For modern mentality, it’s obvious that a person could be present only at one place at once. But for primitive mentality, it’s not obvious at all. Van der Leeuw provides the example of an Indian, who just became a father. He isn’t allowed to see his child the first weeks, but he acts as if (to use an expression which is thoroughly modern) he is present with his child and his child with him. The first weeks he limits his journeys, in order not to fatigue his childs. He avoids trespassing the creeks, in order to avoid the bad influence of waternymphs. For the primitive man living means participating in reality. The differences between these to mentalities becomes obvious in our use of the term ‘symbol’. For modern man a symbol is a kind of allegory which shows us something; for primitive mentality it means participating in its reality.

Van der Leeuw describes these differences in mentality primarily as a phenomenologist of religion. However, he doesn’t hide his regrets about the (relative) loss of primitive mentality in the contemporary culture. According to Van der Leeuw the loss of this primitive mentality causes a loss of ‘unity of life’ (“eenheid des levens”). This loss of unity of life affects the realm of religion (liturgy!), art and indeed the whole culture. For this reason Van der Leeuw seems not to be optimistic about the developments he observed before, during and shortly after World War II.

In short (and applied to the subject of my research) Van der Leeuw’s thoughts on primitive mentality signal a loss of this mentality in our modern society, which blocks a proper understanding of liturgy and the sacraments. Fortunately, his own works in liturgics and sacramental theology provide a good remedy!

Van der Leeuw, Howatch and Sacramental Ministry

Somewhere in the 1990’s an interesting article appeared in our faculty-bulletin in Utrecht (called ‘Areopagus’). One of the most promising students then wrote about a theological book: ‘Praktische Theologie‘ from Gerben Heitink (in translation: Practical Theology: History, Theory, Action Domains). I’ve lost the context of his article, but I remember he wasn’t impressed at all. His chief complaint was that it didn’t help you to find your way on the road to ministry. I had to study this book for my exams and agreed wholeheartedly with him.

However, in his article he presented to his readers a couple of alternatives. Gerardus van der LeeuwHe mentioned in the first place the name of the Dutch phenomenologist of religion and theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw. His book ‘Sacramentstheologie’ (‘Sacramental Theology’; no English edition available) was a much better choice according to him. More theological, more inspiring, more in touch with the vital tradition of Christianity. At that time I hadn’t read the book, although I was – to some degree – familiar with the thoughts of Van der Leeuw. But his recommendation was sufficient for me to start reading the book at once.

He mentioned another author, of which I had never heard at that moment: Susan Howatch and her Starbridge novels. Since that moment I began to look for her books. It took a bit of time before I could lay my hands on them, but finally I read nearly the complete series (except for one). Glittering ImagesThey struck me, especially the first three (‘Glittering Images‘; ‘Glamorous Powers; ‘Ultimate Prizes‘), with a leading role for the charismatic priest Jon Darrow. Are these novels excellent literature? No. To mention one thing: the plot is too predictable. Are they a good read? Yes, at least for me they were. They are indeed brilliant in the sense mentioned by my fellow student in Utrecht. Compared with Heitink’s Practical Theology for example the reading of these novels was much more inspiring. I know, these books are products of fantasy. And identifying with, for example, Jon Darrow might be tempting, but dangerous as well. Imagine yourself hunting for demons in your congregation… It is all true, but in the end I found myself wondering how I could serve, in my own modest way, but nonetheless such that it was somehow infused with the same presence of Christ.

When I saw that I realised that the link between Van der Leeuw and Howatch was less coincidental then it seemed. Both authors show what a sacramental theology might look like. Van der Leeuw wrote a phenomenological and systematic account of sacramental theology. Susan Howatch shows how it can look like in ordinary life. That is what I needed when I was reading the article in the nineties. That’s what I’am still in need of, working in the church as a minister. This work is not glamorous, nor glittering. But it still might be ‘sacramental’. At least, that’s my desire. With the word ‘sacramental’ I have in mind what Van der Leeuw wrote in another book of his (Liturgiek): “In the sacramental act God uses our actions for His”. That’s what I’m still looking for in practice and in Practical Theology. Thanks to Van der Leeuw, thanks to Howatch and thanks, of course, to the impeccable taste of my fellow student.