The Christ Myth Theory In Question

  • I’m doing an exchange with Richard Carrier on The Christ Myth Theory. Below are my general thoughts:

I think mythicism misses the mark because it is so focused on what Jesus is supposed to have done as the ultimate blood magic death, it ignores what we did to Jesus.  The form of the gospels have caused some confusion because information about Jesus is attained by mining scripture.  However, this is what the DSS writers did with their Teacher of Righteousness, and so the haggadic midrash technique seems to be applied to historical people like John the Baptist as the new and grater Elijah.  Moreover,

  • Plutarch’s preface to the Vitae Parallelae: Alexander et Caesar or Life of Alexander: For it is not histories we are writing (historias graphomen) but lives (Bious); it is not always the most famous deeds which illuminate a man’s virtues and vices (aretes e kakias ); often a clearer insight into a man’s character is revealed by a small detail, a remark, or a joke (pragma Braxu … rema … paidia), than by battles where tens of thousands die, or by the greatest of conflicts, or by the siege of cities (Walsh, citing Plut. Vit. Alex. 1.2).

Jesus as an excessive sacrifice (the agapetos) seems to suggest irony in the Greek literary matrix.  It would be like saying the death of 100 pure goats and 100 scapegoats would cancel the need for further sacrifice, and so the tearing of the temple curtain raises the question if what is also at work is the fact the world committed such an egregious crime against the agapetos that no sacrifice could ever fix it. 

We have “gospel” as the satire/parody image from Aristophanes’ The Knights. In The Knights by Aristophanes (424 BCE), the comic character Paphlagon proposes an “excessive sacrifice” (which in the gospels becomes the sacrifice of God’s most beloved agapetos) of a hundred heifers to Athena to celebrate good news: euaggelion (Aristophanes, The Knights, 654-656)—as though cultivating favor from the divine is now becoming the one who cultivates the greatest bribe for the god. We see further evidence of lampooning the idea of “good news” in the Old Testament. Just as Jesus as the beloved (agapetos) excessive sacrificial messenger of God is put to death for delivering/proclaiming the God’s word (logos), the New Testament writers would have been working from The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament), which uses the word in 2 Samuel 4:10: “when a man told me, ‘Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news [euaggelia], I seized him and put him to death in Ziklag.” 

Right in the Eden story, we find a duality with sin.  There is the retributive component, but also transformation of their eyes being opened to their nakedness.  We see this again with Jesus’ death in Luke and Paul in Acts.  In Acts, after a period of physical blindness (Acts 9:9), Jesus removes the scales from Saul’s eyes and heart, but the retributive component is now internal – how he must suffer/self-deny for Christ: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).”

The retributive nature of vicarious atonement seems to contradict Jesus’ teachings, such as in Matthew: “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, but I say …”  Dr. Richard Beck says

  • “I think it’s noteworthy how, in the Old Testament, there isn’t a whole lot of metaphysical mechanics involved in God’s forgiveness. No great theory of atonement is floated about how God needs to jump through some hoops to remit our sin. All that seems necessary is honesty and confession. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51.17). Admitting our guilt. I think of David’s response to Nathan’s confrontation: “You are the man!” Once David owns his sin his relationship with God is restored. Yes, there are consequences, but honesty mends the relationship.  Perhaps it is that simple. The sin is easily dealt with, but it’s the hiding, lying, avoidance, denial, silence and obfuscation that is killing us. Maybe all God wants from us is the truth.”

The binding of Isaac by Abraham was not a sacrifice, but a near sacrifice with two important points. By killing his son, Abraham would lose his firstborn, as well as the future people that he was supposed to found. The later sacrifice system would be a reminder of the faith and obedience of Abraham. The daily sacrifices further would have the positive content that people as servants were literally attending to the food needs of God literally indwelling in the tabernacle.  Anderson comments: 

  • “Happily for us, the story of the passion in the Gospels makes no mention of Jesus ‘paying God back’ for the cost of our sins. As David Yeago has observed, ‘There is no invisible transaction going on behind the scenes of the narrative we rehearse each Passiontide. Jesus is doing just what appears in the story: he is being faithful to his Father even to death, and in this way realizing in himself, in his own person, the covenant partnership that is Israel’s vocation and God’s ultimate purpose for the whole human race.’ (Anderson, 2023, p. 317). 

Part of the confusion of penal substitution mythicism proponents is that they misunderstand the purpose of the sacrificial system, such as that the blood of the pure goat is meant to purify the holy site so that God can dwell among the people. Regarding the tamid, Gary Anderson comments: 

  • “For our purposes, the key feature to observe is that the tamid sacrifice is not an atonement rite. There is a tendency among Christian readers to presume the centrality of atonement in Israel’s cultic life. Because Christ’s sacrificial death is an atoning act, and since it brings the sacrificial system of the Old Testament to closure, it is easy to understand why theologians have inferred that Israel’s cult was one large atonement mechanism. But as biblical scholars have repeatedly argued, this understanding grossly misrepresents the character of the tamid sacrifice. Jonathan Klawans is right on target when he writes: “The typical understanding of the way daily sacrifice [= tamid] and grave sin are related is, I believe, backward. It is not that the daily sacrifice undoes the damage done by grave transgression. Quite the contrary: grave transgression undoes what the daily sacrifice produces.” Klawans goes on to observe that the difference between these two formulations is of fundamental importance. ‘What it boils down to,’ he argues, ‘is whether a sacrifice is considered, in and of itself, a productive act. Those who argue that expiation is at the core of all or most sacrificial rituals ultimately view sacrifice not as something productive in its own right but as a correction or a reversal of something else that was wrong.’ The question then becomes in what way is the tamid a productive act? That is, in what way is it an action that does not simply remove an error, but possesses a good internal to itself; an act that one would wish to undertake even if there was no sin to remove? The answer to this question, as we noted earlier in chapter 4, lies in the immediate literary context of the tamid rite (Exod. 25-40): the installation of the deity into his new home. As Jeffrey Tigay has shown, the running of the temple is modeled on a royal palace.  Service of the human king becomes an analogy for service to the King of kings. Like any king, God needs a house suited to his majesty. On this understanding, sacrifice can be construed as the provisioning of the deity’s banquet table. It is simply one among a number of ritual acts that symbolize the miraculous availability of God within the temple and provide a liturgical means of displaying one’s service and devotion to God. Within the biblical narratives, the tamid sacrifice is the single most important feature of the liturgical life of the temple. The tremendous importance of this sacrifice is certainly related to the fact that it—unlike the other dimensions of temple life—required daily maintenance and upkeep by the community of worshippers. In other words, this mode of affording honor and reverence toward the deity is unique, insofar as it requires constant human attention. (Anderson, 2023, pp. 322-324). 

Obviously, the positive content of the sacrifice was to remember and remind God of the self-sacrifice of obedient Abraham and willing Isaac, and how all people are born out of that level of obedience and faithfulness.  McGrath notes regarding 1 John

  • “there has been significant discussion of the Greek word used there, hilasmos, but it is the one used in the LXX of Leviticus 25:9 as a way of referring to the Day of Atonement. If one doesn’t think that the meaning of the Day of Atonement ritual was substitutionary (on which I recommend Gordon Wenham’s treatment in his commentary on Leviticus), then there’s no reason to think that 1 John understood Jesus’ death to involve substitution, much less penal substitution.”

With the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ death, the point seems to be people realizing their error against God’s beloved.  So, Plutarch wrote a book of biographies called Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives, at the beginning of the second century. It is considered a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information and traditions about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived. One of them, Cleomenes III, was a Spartan King and radical political reformer. Cleomenes was stabbed in his side and his body was crucified around 220 BCE. As he hung on the cross, a snake coiled around his head and prevented the birds from mutilating him. A group of women were watching this. When the King of Alexandria saw this, he was suddenly seized with fear. Maybe this was a righteous man, beloved to the gods. So, he gave the women the rights to perform purification. Plutarch then says the Alexandrians started to worship Cleomenes, and would come to the cross and address Cleomenes as a hero and son of the gods. [see Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, “The Life of Cleomenes,” section 39]

In this light, we can see Jesus’ death as a catalyst for a change of heart (metanoia) of the soldier at the cross from Jesus as enemy to Jesus as wronged agapetos:

  • – Soldier in Mark, in awe of Jesus’ obedience/faithfulness/trust in God despite terror (“Truly this is God’s Son”)
    – Soldier in Matthew: in awe at the anger and power of God at the wrongful death of his specially beloved (“Truly this is God’s Son”)
    – Soldier in Luke: in awe of Jesus’ forgiveness and confirmation of the fulfillment of God’s moral influence plan (“Truly this is an innocent man”)

(For the awe above recall Plato’s point that wonder/awe was the birthplace of philosophy.)

With Luke, Ehrman points out the forgiveness verse cited above is missing from the Codex Bezae, but seems to have been removed there by a scribe as polemic against the Jews (see Ehrman, 2019). 

I tend to think the transformation of the soldier at the cross is a polemic against Paul’s thought that the cross is ultimately meaningless because ” If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins (1 Cor 15:17).”  But anyway, it’s a good example of how the cross is not just about what Jesus accomplished, but how we come to see the error of our ways in what we did to him – like the people coming to understand that they wrongfully killed Socrates..

When Paul quotes the creed in 1 Corinthians that Jesus “died for our sins,” its murky.  I could just as well say Christ died so my sin debt is paid for, but conversely, I could say Christ died for my sins to make them conspicuous so I could realize them and repent: Psalm 19:12 indicates our sins that are hidden to us:  “…But who can detect one’s own errors? Clear me from hidden faults.”  Seeing ourselves in those who killed Jesus on the cross is the vehicle through which the holy spirit can make conspicuous and convict us of our sin nature, resulting in a repenting metanoia or change of heart/mind.  Our transformation is not just active, but also passive (Romans 12:2), the truth of the cross washes over us. 

STRONGS NT 3341 emphasizes that metanoia is especially the change of mind of those who have begun to abhor their errors and misdeeds, and have determined to enter upon a better course of life, so that it embraces both a recognition of sin and sorrow for it and hearty amendment, the tokens and effects of which are good deeds.  “7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving/restoring/converting (Hebrew mə·šî·ḇaṯ;  “turning” in the LXX the New Testament writers would have been working from) the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; 8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;  …But who can detect one’s own errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:7-12)

So, I think the Jesus story is meant to dis-close and make conspicuous our hidden sinfulness so we can repent.  Faith without a change of heart is meaningless because you will just keep on sinning.  This of course makes sense if the world killed Jesus, not sky demons in outer space.  Faith then is belief that Jesus was the son of God and hence the true horror of the crime against God.  It is not the faith of conservative evangelicals, since James said demons believe too.

The gospels seem to be Dystopian Satire.  This is satire, not history.  So, for instance Jesus is per Isaiah 53:3  Denied Justice by Pilate, (perhaps) lied to by God, abandoned (at arrest), betrayed (Judas), failed (disciples get violent at arrest), and denied (Peter) by his followers, Jesus’ family and contemporaries regarded him as delusional, possessed by demons, or insane, conspired against and mocked by the Jewish Supreme Council, turned against by the crowd – and as a capstone given a dishonorable burial in Mark (either no burial as an enemy of the state by the Romans [Ehrman] or a criminal burial according to Jewish custom [McGrath – we don’t have records of Jews complaining the Romans weren’t letting them bury their executed dead]).  And, there is the gross illegality of Jesus’ trial which transgressed a whole host of Jewish customs and laws, not the least of which was the Jewish Supreme council meeting on Passover eve! The exaggeration of the evil of Jesus’ world is meant to highlight the world’s culpability in Jesus’ death.

Scholars estimate those conducting Jesus’ trial broke at least 18 of the Mosaic laws/customs that were meant to protect the accused, characterizing it as an illegal trial where Jesus was fraudulently convicted.  For example,

•          The testimony of an accomplice was not allowed. Therefore, Judas could not accuse or witness against Christ.

•             The accused could not be questioned by a private individual. Christ was taken to Annas (Caiaphas’ father-in-law and the former high priest) and then Caiaphas.

•             No legal proceedings could take place at night.

•             The Sanhedrin (Jewish judges) could not bring charges. Witnesses had to do that. But indeed, the Sanhedrin brought charges. Then they sought for and brought in false witnesses.

•             Capital offenses could not be tried on a preparation day for a Sabbath or high holy day and the Passover began the next evening.

•             Capital trials had to last more than one day to allow for great consideration on the part of the judges.

•             There had to be two or three agreeing witnesses and they had to cast the first stones at the criminal. If witnesses were untruthful, they were to receive the same punishment themselves.

•             The accused had to have a “friend in court” to defend him. Jesus had none.

•             No one can accuse himself. Jesus agreed that He was/is who He claimed to be.

•             The high priest is not allowed to grandstand. Caiaphas rent his clothes and accused Christ of blasphemy.

•             The accused must be given ample time to defend himself of any accusations.

•             If with a capital crime the decision is unanimous against the accused, the case is actually thrown out. Any members of the Sanhedrin who may have defended Christ were not invited to this court session. The court found unanimously against Jesus, so He should have walked free.

•             The trial was held at Caiaphas’ palace instead of at the proper court. The next morning part of the Sanhedrin convened at the proper place to make things look legal.

•             Any sort of bribery disqualifies a member of the court. The court bribed Judas to turn on Christ.

•             The judges are not allowed to assault the accused.

•             When the Sanhedrin took Jesus before Pilate hoping for a death sentence to be carried out according to Roman law, they changed the charges from blasphemy to treason, illegal under the Law of Moses. (Wingo, 2009)

Price comments regarding the illegality of the trial with the Sanhedrin in Mark:

  • Mark borrowed from Daniel 6:4 LXX the scene of the crossfire of false accusations (Helms, p. 118): “The governors and satraps sought (ezetoun) to find (eurein) occasion against Daniel, but they found against him no accusation.” Of this Mark (14:55) has made the following: “The chief priests and the whole council sought (ezetoun) testimony against Jesus in order to kill him, but they found none (ouk euriskon).” (Price, 2005)

Seeing ourselves in those who killed Jesus on the cross is the vehicle through which the holy spirit can make conspicuous and convict us of our sin nature, resulting in a repenting metanoia or change of heart/mind.  Our transformation is not just active, but also passive (Romans 12:2), the truth of the cross washes over us.  As I said above: Psalm 19:12 indicates our sins that are hidden to us: “But who can detect one’s own errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” Paul says following Jeremiah the law is written on the hearts of Jews and gentiles, but the cross needs to circumcise the heart to let ourselves be crucified with Christ and resurrected as a new person.  This idea of the face of the suffering other (widow, orphan, stranger, and enemy) that elicits an infinite responsibility in me will be familiar to the student of postmodern ethical theory and the work of Jewish philosophers Levinas in “Totality and Infinity” and “Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence,” and his dialogue partner Derrida in his essay “Violence and Metaphysics.”

The gospels exaggerate the horror of Jesus’ world for effect, so we see how Jesus was wronged by us and so inspire repentance. 

Another example of satire is the temple tantrum episode.  Mark cues us to the parody nature of the account because the temple area is huge and would have had armed guards on hand to prevent just such a disturbance. Just as Mark points out the people are taught in parables so they won’t understand or be saved, while the disciples are given the keys, perhaps the absurdity of the temple tantrum is pointing to a deeper truth.  Although this isn’t reflected in the text, Jodi Magness and some other scholars suggest it seems the tantrum may have a more essential meaning of opposition to a new annual tax being instituted by the temple.

In any case, what Mark seems to be doing is putting into literary conflict Jesus’ two fundamental phronesis Law principles of (i) Love of God, which is demonstrated through (ii) Love of Neighbor (eg the love of enemy, which is in both Q and Paul) because while the assault on the temple was done in God’s name, it failed the love of neighbor to the extent of love of enemy we find in Paul and Q.  So, we have the contrast of righteous indignation with the sin of temper tantrums, and the result Jesus got put on the Roman hit list. 

In this regard, Paul talks about parabasis, ton parabasewn charin, to create transgressions (Strongs NT 3847), i.e., that sins might take on the character of transgressions, and thereby the consciousness of sin be intensified and the desire for redemption be aroused (Romans 5:20; Galatians 3:19). In fact, the apology/defense for God here is that the Law was given in full knowledge the people would pervert it while simultaneously claiming to adhere to it, specifically so Jesus would come on the scene and with his unjust torture and execution reveal their hidden vileness and awaken the law written on their hearts:  “But law came in, so that the trespass might increase, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20).” The Law was given “because of transgressions:” its real effect was to provoke and enhance them: “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. 13 Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin that was working death in me through what is good, in order that it might be shown to be sin, so that through the commandment sin might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:12-13).”  In other words, the world turning on the law incarnate in Jesus made our sinfulness conspicuous and disclose the law written on our hearts, inspiring repentance.  Justification didn’t come through the law (for otherwise Christ died in vain, Galatians 2:21), but rather the law made possible recognition of the lowly state you were in.  Christ taught the spirit of the law as strict beyond measure and impossible to follow (eg., adultery is even a lustful eye) to awaken people by the degree they missed the mark.

It’s not just being sorry but a total transformation of outlook and approach whereby one’s former thoughts and actions appear vile to you – revulsion, so you become allergic to sin.  For instance Paul writes “I grieved you with my letter, I do not regret it. Although I did regret it (for I see that that letter caused you grief, though only briefly), 9 now I rejoice, not because you were grieved but because your grief led to repentance, for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor 7:8-10).” 

For Rabbi David Rosenfeld this means by us causing a horrific inhumane death for the scapegoat animal (Jewish tradition otherwise promotes humane sacrifice, whereas the scapegoat is torn apart going down the cliff), in the scapegoat we can see the excess of violence our past sins have caused—arousing our guilt and inspiring true repentance


Anderson, Gary A. 2023. That I May Dwell among Them: Incarnation and Atonement in the Tabernacle Narrative. Eerdmans