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The Big Question

How do we know Jesus wasn’t just a myth?

By John McTavish

This is one of those questions that raises questions. What’s wrong with myth in the first place? Why can’t myths be profound ways of expressing a truth that is real but not necessarily historical?

The story of Adam and Eve, for example, is surely more mythical than historical, but not for that reason untrue. Surely, too, there are mythical or legendary elements in the story of Jesus. The star of Bethlehem, for example, or the raising of the saints from their tombs at the time of Jesus’ death. No doubt, these are all poetic or mythical ways of attesting to the earth-shaking significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

However, it doesn’t follow that everything in the Bible is the stuff of myth. The Bible concerns the spiritual journey and messianic hopes of a people whose descendants are with us to this day, living all over the world. The Jewish people are not characters in a religious fairy tale. They’re real people, and so, too, is the Jew from Nazareth who is presented in the New Testament.

We often get annoyed when literalists refuse to make necessary distinctions between poetry and prose in the Bible. But who can blame them for getting annoyed with us when we talk as though there’s nothing but poetry and myth in the Bible?

Granted, poetic elements are sometimes woven into the telling of Jesus’ story. But the story itself concerns a real person who breathed with our lungs, blinked in the sun with our eyes, ate our food and experienced first-hand the joys and terrors of our human life.

St. Paul, who could theologize with the best of them, once summed up his faith by saying, “To me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). And from a prison cell he wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). Does that sound like a man embracing a mythological pipedream?

The first epistle of John puts it even more plainly: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).

The New Testament writers make it clear that God is revealed, not through abstract ideas or religious mythologies, but through a real flesh-and-blood human being: “The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14).

But then how do we know the Bible can be trusted here? Sure, the Bible says Jesus is a real flesh-and-blood human being and not a myth. But how do we know the Bible knows what it’s talking about?

Tom Harpur, author of The Pagan Christ, argues that Jesus did not exist but is a fictional, universal archetype. He points out that there are myths outside the Bible concerning dying and rising gods, so why shouldn’t the Bible’s own story about a dying and rising God be a myth also?

It’s true that the biblical writers did, at times, draw from surrounding cultures. Nevertheless, the Jews remain the Jews, both in the New Testament and the Old, and mythology was never really their thing. They might make some use of it, but at the end of the day, their faith is grounded in historic people and real events.

Yet people continue claiming that Jesus is a myth. Why? Maybe they simply prefer a religion where the soul is at liberty to go on chattering away to itself. When Jesus is real, we have to stop chattering and listen to him, whether we like what he’s saying or not.

To be sure, no serious historian today doubts that Jesus existed. If Jesus hadn’t walked this earth, we would need a very elaborate hypothesis to account for the numerous and remarkable stories about this man, as well as the Christian movement that emerged around his teachings.

It’s true we cannot prove that Jesus is a historic character (let alone the Son of God) any more than the critics can prove he is a myth. Both parties can only examine the evidence and draw the conclusion that makes sense to them. Luke’s Gospel, incidentally, may be a good place to start, along with Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians. And then, if we’re so moved, take the leap of faith.

But it is a leap. We’re going to have to wait until we die — and who wants to rush that process? — before faith gives way to sight.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
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