What is a Mythicist?
by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S
In existence for many years, the term "mythicist" has come into greater currency of late, because of the increasing popularity of one of its main foci: To wit, the evident non-historicity of the New Testament character Jesus Christ. Although the concept goes back into remote antiquity, the word "Mythicist" seems to have made its way originally into mainstream literature during the first decades of the 1800's, in German writings regarding theologian Dr. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), whose book The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, was first published in 1835. One of the earliest usages of "mythicist" in English occurs in a translation of an earlier German text reflecting the Straussian debate at the time, as related by the Jesuit priest Rev. Adrien Nampon in 1869:
"'Strauss is not consistent,'" said Krugg [sic], the successor of Kant in the chair of philosophy at Koenisberg, 'we must therefore look for a bolder mythicist, to appear some day, who will accuse his predecessor of timidity, and maintain that all which the documents of Christianity relate of its Founder, is mythical, without any exception.'" (Nampon, 264)
Regardless of the criticism, so strongly did Strauss define the burgeoning field of gospel skepticism that we find a reference to "Straußschen Mythicismus"—Straussian Mythicism—in a chapter about his book in Kritische Prediger-Bibliothek by Dr. Johann Friedrich Röhr, published in 1836. This mythicism was likewise called the "Mythical Theory," often specifically as concerned Strauss. Hence, in a sense, Strauss was the exemplar of a mythicist in its modern usage. For his intellectual endeavors—which in fact were very bold and courageous at the time—Strauss lost his livelihood. Indeed, when he attempted to take up his new occupation as a professor of Theology at the University of Zurich, Strauss was assailed by people from the surrounding environs in Switzerland who, riled up by their clergy, "took up arms, and declared their determination to prevent his coming, calling him 'a heretic and an unbeliever.'" (Strauss, Opinions, iii)
The History of Mythicism
In our quest to determine what is "mythicism," we discover that this movement was epitomized by David Strauss, who had come out with a book critical of Christianity that pointedly identified as myth much of the gospel story regarding Christ. Strauss was not an atheist or skeptical mythicist, however, as he did not dismiss the gospel story as "mere" fairytales. Rather, being a Christian theologian, he attempted to imbue the Christian mythos with spiritual, if not allegorical, meaning. This perspective represents one plank of the mythicist position, as mythicism in its totality does not dismiss myth simply as something fabricated but instead recognizes the ancient wellspring of profundity and comprehension from which it draws. Strauss was evidently encouraged in his efforts by the success of German biblical criticism—most widely known through the group called the "Tübingen School," as established by his professor Dr. Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose own work in comparative religion was considered "revolutionary."
Such doubt was evidently not enough for Dr. Wilhelm Traugott Krug (1770-1842), heir to the seat of famed philosopher Dr. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who called for an even stronger declaration of Christianity's mythical nature. Krug's solicitation was answered by another German scholar and theologian, Dr. Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), who published his first mythicist work in 1840.
Although they brought forth novel notions, Baur, Strauss and Bauer were preceded in fact by many others who stepped out from the shadows of the Inquisition to voice unpopular ideas that had doubtlessly circulated surreptiously for centuries. Indeed, prior to this seemingly sudden burst of mythicism appeared the voluminous writings published in 1795 by Professor Charles François Dupuis (1742-1809), as well as those of Count Volney (1757-1820) and Rev. Dr. Robert Taylor (1784-1844), who spent three years in prison in the late 1820's and early 1830's for two convictions of "blasphemy," based on his popular lectures asserting that Christ was a myth. This punishment did not deter Taylor from publishing a number of books on the subject, including The Syntagma (1828), The Diegesis (1829), and The Devil's Chaplain (1831). Yet, his ordeal was so horrifying that it haunted evolutionist Charles Darwin, who feared his own writings would land him a similar fate. Following this brouhaha, in 1840 an individual wisely maintaining his anonymity by calling himself merely a "German Jew" (J.C. Blumenfeld?) published a series of pamphlets in a volume entitled, The Existence of Christ Disproved by Irresistible Evidence.
Strauss and Bauer were also succeeded by the publication in 1841 of The Christian Mythology Unveiled, whose anonymous author later published under the name of Logan Mitchell. Mitchell was followed by lay Egyptologist Gerald Massey (1828-1907), whose monumental works highlighted the comparisons between Christianity and the Egyptian religion. Another earlier scholar who extensively dipped into mythicism was Sir Godfrey Higgins (1772-1833), although he was not a mythicist per se but an evemerist who believed that under all of the mythical attributes of various godmen lay a "real person." This evemerist or euhemerist perspective, named for the Greek philosopher Euhemerus (4th cent. BCE), who posited that the gods of old were in reality kings and assorted other heroes who were deified, remains one of the most commonly held opinions regarding Jesus Christ, along with the believing and mythicist perspectives.
Although many people believe evemerism to be a "reasonable" position, often expressing that, while they do not believe Jesus was the Son of God, they do believe he was a "real person," the fact is that there simply is no evidence for this "real person," such as any historical record. Moreover, when the mythological layers are peeled, there remains no "historical" core to the onion. Evemerism is generally the result of skepticism as concerns miracles, yet lacking an in-depth knowledge of the mythicist position. To paraphrase Massey, a composite of 20 people is no one.
The evemerist position has been popular enough for a definition to be widely available in dictionaries and encyclopedias, while the mythicist position does not likewise enjoy such a widespread recognition. Considering that mythicism was the major thrust of many well respected scholars for centuries in Europe, this oversight would seem to be both contrived and egregious. We hope that this article will help to establish this previously marginalized and ignored position as a viable option worthy of respect and scientific study.
Individuals who continued the mythicist position into the modern era include John E. Remsburg (1848-1919), Dr. William Benjamin Smith (1850-1934), Dr. John M. Robertson (1856-1933), Dr. Arthur Drews (1865-1935), Edouard Dujardin (1861-1949), Herbert Cutner (fl. 1950), Dr. John Jackson (1907-1993), Dr. Frank Zindler, Dr. Robert Price, Earl Doherty and others. I myself have three published books specifically about the mythical nature of Jesus Christ, while a fourth investigates the non-historical character of the gospels:
The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold
Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled
Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection
Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The Christ
The first three texts in this list delve specifically into comparative religion and mythology, demonstrating that there is little original or "historical" about the Christ myth as a whole. The last inspects the canonical gospels themselves to see whether they could possibly be considered reliable history. These various approaches constitute the main planks of mythicism in a nutshell, which often highlights the astrotheological origins of the myths, such as I demonstrate throughout my books, articles and ebooks, including:
Jesus as the Sun throughout History
The Companion Guide to ZEITGEIST, Part 1
A popular form of mythicism may be seen also in the first part of internet movie "ZEITGEIST," which purportedly has been viewed over 100 million times worldwide and for which my work served as a significant source. Comedian and cultural commentator Bill Maher's "Religulous" also touches upon the subject.
The Definition and Value of Mythicism
The term "mythicism" as it has come to be developed in the present day may be defined as I have done in my book Christ in Egypt (12):
Mythicism represents the perspective that many gods, goddesses and other heroes and legendary figures said to possess extraordinary and/or supernatural attributes are not "real people" but are in fact mythological characters. Along with this view comes the recognition that many of these figures personify or symbolize natural phenomena, such as the sun, moon, stars, planets, constellations, etc., constituting what is called "astromythology" or "astrotheology." As a major example of the mythicist position, it is determined that various biblical characters such as Adam and Eve, Satan, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, King David, Solomon and Jesus Christ, among other entities, in reality represent mythological figures along the same lines as the Egyptian, Sumerian, Phoenician, Indian, Greek, Roman and other godmen, who are all presently accepted as myths, rather than historical figures.
It should be noted that the mythicist position importantly serves as a bridge between theism and atheism, as it does not seek to discount or denigrate the long and exalted history of thought concerning religion and mythology, dating back many thousands of years, as manifested in the religious and spiritual practices of man beginning millennia ago and continuing since then. The pinnacle of mythicist cultures—more specifically those based on astrotheology—can be seen in the massive and profound civilization of Egypt, for example. Rather than being ignored and dismissed, such wondrous creations should be explored and treasured as unique and glorious contributions to the overall human accomplishment. The astrotheological aspect of mythicism is expressed in remarks such as those by the ancient Greek writer Diodorus Siculus (c. 90-21 BCE):
"Now when the ancient Egyptians, awestruck and wondering, turned their eyes to the heavens, they concluded that two gods, the sun and the moon, were primeval and eternal; and they called the former Osiris, the latter Isis..." (Murphy, 14)
Latin writer Macrobious (c. 400 AD/CE) also wrote about the astrotheology of the ancients, asserting that "all the gods of the Greek and Roman mythology represent the attributes of the one supreme divine power—the sun." In the modern era, archaeologists and archaeoastromers have confirmed this ancient astrotheology in numerous sites throughout the world, as summarized by astronomer Dr. Edwin C. Krupp in In Search of Ancient Astronomies:
"At Stonehenge in England and Carnac in France, in Egypt and Yucatan, across the whole face of the earth are found mysterious ruins of ancient monuments, monuments with astronomical significance. These relics of other times are as accessible as the American Midwest and as remote as the jungles of Guatemala. Some of them were built according to celestial alignments; others were actually precision astronomical observatories... Careful observation of the celestial rhythms was compellingly important to early peoples, and their expertise, in some respects, was not equaled in Europe until three thousand years later."
The mythicist position brings forward the ancient astrotheology as expressed in these numerous cultures and ties it into the more modern religious traditions, which in many aspects are simply rehashes of the earlier religion and mythology of antiquity: To wit, Jesus Christ is a mythological character along the same lines as the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumerian, Phoenician, Indian or other mythical gods, goddesses, godmen and heroes.
In modern times, there exists a real reluctance within the hallowed halls of academia to delve into mythicism, despite the mountain of fascinating evidence, expressed now and again by individual scholars within a variety of fields. With the treatment endured by Dr. David Strauss and others, this hesitancy may be viewed as understandable. However, the burying of this massive body of astromythological information, which reflects virtually the entire modus vivendi of certain cultures such as that of ancient Egypt, has been at the core of much cultural degradation and loss. The resurrection of this ancient astrotheological knowledge as one of the foundations of mythicism may indeed constitute one of the most important, world-changing events we can strive to achieve.
Again, the mythicist position allows us to step outside the theist-versus-atheist box and to value the vast human creation of religion and mythology, without being either antagonistic toward it or believing it as dogma. Mythicism goes beyond the ceaseless theist-atheist debate, in fact, which is in the end futile, since cases for both perspectives can be and have been made ad infinitum, under a variety of circumstances, and since experience shows us that this discussion will never be resolved—except, indeed, in the mythicist position, which neither believes nor dismisses but which understands and appreciates humanity's longstanding interest in religion and spirituality. The mythicist position does not necessarily accept religious traditions as being based in third-dimensional reality and history. Nevertheless, mythicism itself is rooted in reality and is an end product of freethought and scientific endeavors as well as recognition of profound human imagination and creativity. The mythicist position has much to offer, allowing us to create greater harmony by acknowledging and enjoying the similarities and differences in religious traditions founded upon valid evidence grounded in natural phenomena.
Sources & Further Reading
Force, James E. and Popkin Richard H., Essays on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton's Theology, Springer, 1990.
Jenaische Allegemeine Literatur-Zeitung vom Jahre 1815, IV, Leipzig, 1815.
Matheson, George, Aids to the Study of German Theology, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1876.
Murphy, Edwin, The Antiquities of Egypt: A Translation, with Notes, of Book I of the Library of History of Diodorus Siculus, Transaction Publishers, 1990.
Nampon, Adrien, Catholic Doctrine as Defined by the Council of Trent, Peter F. Cunningham & Son, Philadelphia, 1869.
Röhr, Johann Friedrich, Kritische Prediger-Bibliothek, Johann Karl Gottfried Wagner, 1836.
Strauss, David Friedrich, Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet, Verlag von C.F. Osiander, Tubingen, 1835.
—The Life of Jesus, or A Critical Examination of His History, Taylor, Smallbrook, Birmingham, 1844.
—The Opinions of Professor David F. Strauss, as Embodied in His Letter, John Chapman, London, 1844.