The Jesus Myth: Barbara G. Walker

The New Testament writings are hardly more reliable than fairy tales.

By Barbara G. Walker

Thanks to centuries of the most insistent and aggressive indoctrination campaign the world has ever seen, the biography of Jesus is familiar to more people than any other. Socrates, Charlemagne, Shakespeare, Napoleon: there are many who have never heard of them, or who only vaguely recognize their names. But all of Western civilization and most of the rest of the world “knows” Jesus’ life story.

Everybody “knows” that Jesus was begotten by a god and born of a virgin, attended by angels, shepherds, and gift-giving wise men. His infancy was threatened by an evil king who had babies slaughtered in a futile effort to kill him. When grown, he gathered a group of 12 disciples and went about teaching that his adherents would gain eternal life. He walked on water, healed the sick, exorcised devils, made the blind see and the lame walk.

He was anointed with chrism and thus made into a Christ (which means “anointed one”) by a mysterious woman who may or may not have been his lover, depending on which gospel you read, and who was the sole official annunciator of his later resurrection. After a triumphal procession accompanied by waving palms and the traditional obsequies of a sacred king, he attended a meal at which he was symbolically cannibalized, the eating of his flesh and blood deemed necessary for his followers’ absolution. Then he was scourged, crucified, died and descended into the underworld. Later he returned to earth, apparently alive again, and then ascended bodily into the sky, where he somehow still lives and pays attention to all the doings of humanity. These things are “known,” and commemorated every year, over and over.

But during the past century or so, scholars have shown that all these “known” details of Jesus’ life story are mythic: that is, they were told for many centuries before his time about many previous savior-gods and legendary heroes in pre-Christian lore. Not a single detail of Jesus’ life story can be considered authentic. Some investigators have tried to peel away the layers of myth in search of a historical core, but this task is like peeling the layers of an onion. It seems that there is no core. The layers of myth go all the way to the center.

One of the problems faced by Christian scholars is that there is no record of Jesus’ existence in any contemporary source. The earliest literature concerning him was written by Paul, who never knew him or anyone else who might have known him, and who never heard anything about his life story. Paul mentioned none of these now-so-familiar details, which were added much later by unknown writers who pretended to bear the names of various disciples, and who sprinkled their writings with mythic data gathered from sacred-king traditions of contemporary Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Persian, and Levantine salvation cults.

Educated theologians know this perfectly well, yet they maintain the pretense of apostolic authorship and keep the truth hidden from lay congregants. Undeniably, Christian leaders have a vested interest in maintaining the myth.

The synoptic gospels now accepted into the canon are only a small remnant of perhaps hundreds of proto-Christian gospels extant during the first few centuries B.C.E. and C.E. Also, they bear the marks of extensive interpolation, revision, and reinterpretation added by church authorities centuries later. As reference works, the New Testament writings are hardly more reliable than fairy tales.

Tom Harpur, a former priest and New Testament professor at the University of Toronto, writes that “there is, in the extant Jewish literature of the first century, not a single authentic reference to the founder of Christianity. . . no contemporary nonChristian writer even knew of Jesus’ existence.”1

For a possible hint of Jesus’ historicity, Christian authorities relied heavily on a single brief paragraph in the works of the respected Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was born in 37 C.E., served as governor of Galilee, and traveled extensively in the very same area where Jesus allegedly lived and taught. If anyone was in a position to report the wonder-workings of a local holy man in his own parents’ generation, it was Josephus, a dedicated reporter of minute details. Yet in all his voluminous works, the single paragraph says only that Jesus was: “a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”2

The problems with this famous passage are many. First of all, it is noticeably out of context with the surrounding material. Second, it did not appear in the early copies of Josephus’ works, nor in the second-century version quoted by Origen, who would certainly have mentioned it if it had been there. It does not appear until the beginning of the fourth century, and is first quoted by Bishop Eusebius, the enthusiastic advocate of what he called “holy lying” for the greater glory of the church, known to have been responsible for many interpolations, revisions and blatant forgeries.

Moreover, Josephus was a Jew, and would hardly have referred to Jesus’ ministry as “the truth” or “wonderful things,” nor would he have called Jesus “the Christ.” Neither could he have mentioned “the tribe of Christians,” for there were no Christians in his day. Christianity did not get off the ground until the second century. Dan Barker writes: “Christians should be careful when they refer to Josephus as historical confirmation for Jesus. It turns around and bites them. If we remove the forged paragraph, the works of Josephus become evidence against historicity. If the life of Jesus was historical, why did Josephus know nothing of it?”3

Philo Judaeus was born at the beginning of the Christian era and lived until long after Jesus’ time. “He wrote an account of the Jews covering the entire time that Jesus is said to have existed on earth. He was living in or near Jerusalem when Jesus’ miraculous birth and the Herodian massacre occurred. He was there when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He was there when the crucifixion with its attendant earthquake, supernatural darkness, and resurrection of the dead took place–when Jesus himself rose from the dead, and in the presence of many witnesses ascended into heaven. These marvelous events which must have filled the world with amazement, had they really occurred, were unknown to him.”4

Another historian, Justus of Tiberias, a native of Galilee, wrote a history covering the period of Jesus’ lifetime. His work is lost, but the Christian scholar Photius read it in the ninth century and expressed amazement that it contained “not the least mention of the appearance of the Christ.”5

However, mythical mentions of the Christ figure are numerous throughout the ancient world. In addition to the title of Christos, they had names like Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Dionysus, Orpheus, Mithra, Tarnmuz, Heracles, Hermes, Aleyin, and Iasus, Iasion, Jason, Jesu, Yeshua or Jeud; these latter applied to the “only-begotten son” of the god-king Isra-El, who was “dressed in royal robes” and sacrificed by his heavenly father.6

Most of the savior-gods were identified with the edible flesh and blood of the earth, meaning the bread and wine harvested, consumed, and resurrected with the next planting. Osiris, Adonis and Mithra were all eaten in the form of communion bread, declared to be the god’s flesh, which the worshipper thus made a part of his own flesh in order to share the god’s resurrection.

Adonis was miraculously born of a temple maiden in Bethlehem, which means “the House of Bread.”7 He was called the Bread of God, which became the worshiper’s body also, as in John 6:56: “He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me and I in him.”

The sacrificed god Dionysus, another son of the Heavenly Father, first performed Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at temples in Sidon and other places, representing the rain of heaven fructifying the vine. In Alexandria, the Dionysian/Christian miracle was demonstrated literally by means of an ingenious system of siphons invented by an engineer named Heron, to enhance the awe of the faithful.8

Such symbolic rituals were echoes of earlier human sacrifices and eucharistic cannibalism of sacred kings, which gradually came to be replaced by animal sacrifices and then by the more economical approximations, still known today. Human victims in earlier times were generally surrogates for the king, and not infrequently willing volunteers, who were given kingly status just before their deaths and were convinced that their martyrdom would result in their instant elevation to godhood and eternal bliss in heaven. Such was the meaning of Jesus’ regal entry into Jerusalem, his robe of royal purple, and his thorny crown of myrrh twigs, traditionally given to “those who were led out to execution.”9

Before their immolation, sacred sacrificial victims were hailed by various titles identifying them with the god, such as Good Shepherd, King of Glory, Lord of Death, Sun of Righteousness, Light of the World, Lamb of God, or Logos (the Word). Adonis was the Lord (Hebrew Adonai, the name applied to Jesus) and the Bridegroom, another Christian title. Mithra was the Son of Man and the Messiah. Dionysus was King of Kings and God of Gods. Mystery cults everywhere celebrated god-sacrifices in either fact or symbol, always equating the dying god with his followers’ hope of life everlasting.

According to the Roman writer Celsus, the empire was teeming with miscellaneous vagabonds aspiring to such titles, claiming to be gods, sons of God or saviors, prophesying the end of the world and their own glorious return from the dead at the End of Days.10 Celsus scoffed at the alleged Christian miracles as no more than “common works of enchanters” who perform for a few coins. “The magicians of Egypt,” he said, “cast out evil spirits, cure diseases by a breath, and so influence some uncultured men, that they produce in them whatever sights and sounds they please. But because they do such things shall we consider them the sons of God?”11

Nevertheless, the Eastern provinces swarmed with self-styled Messiahs and Christs, so that the gospels’ version is most likely to have been a composite picture drawn from an era of widespread credulity and superstitious dread.12 As we might perceive in our own day, fundamentalist superstitions tend to flower in periods of cultural decline, when a formerly enlightened civilization begins to feel threatened by forces of decay both without and within.

The philosopher Porphyry–most of whose books were later destroyed by the Christian Church–disapproved of cannibalistic sacrifices even in effigy. He called it “absurd beyond all absurdity, and bestial beyond every sort of bestiality” that people should believe themselves able to gain eternal life by eating human flesh and drinking human blood.13 Yet the flesh and blood of sacred bulls, lambs, goats and pigs, supposedly embodying the god-spirit, were also used as media of connnunion: hence the Lamb of God and curious demi-divine monsters like the Minotaur. Skeptical Roman writers like Cicero renounced the whole notion altogether. He said, “When we call the bread Ceres and the wine Bacchus we use a common figure of speech, but is anyone so insane as to believe that the thing he feeds upon is a god?”14 Well, yes. The entire Christian world was precisely that insane for at least 1,500 years.

The Essenes produced a number of fanatical monks who served as sacrificial scapegoats within their communities, each bearing such titles as Christ, Messiah of Israel and Teacher of Righteousness. In atonement for the sins of the whole congregation, these “Christs” willingly suffered scourging and other physical punishments, much as later Christian ascetics abused their bodies in various ways to help cleanse the world of sin–so they thought.15 According to Epiphanius, “They who believed on Christ were called Essenes before they were called Christians.”16

These groups were greatly influenced by Persian worshippers of Mithra, the ancient Magi or “magicians” who attended the savior’s miraculous birth, and their prophecies of the oncoming Doomsday with its sharp division between the saved and the damned: those who would go to dwell forever in heaven with the solar deity, Light of the World, and those who would dwell forever in underground darkness with the evil Great Serpent and his armies of demons, rebellious angels who had defied the heavenly father and had been cast down to their punishment. Mithra’s cult was hugely popular in the later Roman empire and contributed much to the Jesus myth, including even the service of Mass, which was based on the Persian mizd, translated into Latin missa, featuring wafers marked with a cross.

According to Ezekiel 8:14, priestesses in Jerusalem continued to celebrate the cult of Tammuz, the Heavenly Shepherd or Only-Begotten Son, whose blood fertilized the whole earth when he was killed each year on the Day of Atonement. He was slain in the form of a lamb, but this incarnation was understood to be a substitute for earlier human sacrifice. He reappeared in the New Testament as Thomas, sometimes viewed as Jesus’ twin, who became known as Doubting Thomas for questioning Jesus’ miraculous return to life. The gospel writer declared that Thomas finally accepted Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28), indicating the older savior’s deference to the newer one. However, 1,000 years later Syrian farmers were still sacrificing to their grain god Ta-uz, who was considered essential to the welfare of the crops, and women were still bewailing his annual demise just as they did in the time of Ezekiel.17

Realizing that the Jesus myth was really a concatenation of pagan ideas and practices, early Christian fathers decided to account for this by calling all the previous gods demons, and declaring that Satan in his omniscience had foreseen the coming of the true Christ, and had invented all these earlier imitations just to confuse people.18 Even St. Augustine had to admit that his religion existed “from the beginning of time,” and came to be called Christian only after the lifetime of Jesus.19

Gospel teachings attributed to Jesus have been found in earlier texts, often word for word, some–like the famous Beatitudes–in Buddhist scriptures. The Golden Rule was not a Christian teaching, but a Tantric Buddhist expression of karmic law, repeated in the proverbs of Egypt’s Goddess Maat, the Mother of Justice, and those of Greece’s Goddess Dike, ruler of fate, and those of the Jewish sage Hillel.20 Nothing truly original has been found in any of the Jesus traditions, and the wonder-tales that used to compel belief because of their very incredibility are now dismissed as crude anachronisms persuasive only to the most naive and credulous minds.

Tom Harpur’s recent book The Pagan Christ urges that the pagan roots of the Jesus myth should now be recognized and embraced because, in effect, they are all we have. Still, it may seem a tad hypocritical for theology to embrace these roots after officially declaring them false and devilish for so many centuries. Harpur himself says: “This great world religion actually rests on a foundation of falsehood and forgery.”21 Christian authorities try to conceal this fact, but it is leaking out and demands to be acknowledged.

The fundamentalist question, “Do you believe in Jesus?,” is usually satisfied by a simple yes–or offended by a simple no–but the question is not really so simple. There are many differing beliefs involved. For example, do you believe that Jesus was a god-begotten, virgin-born, yet somehow human miracle-worker who died long ago, yet still lives, and will return to earth when the world ends, which is going to happen any day now? Or, do you believe that Jesus was one-third of a trinitarian god who, though supposedly omnipotent, could think of no better way to forgive human sins than to have himself crucified? Or, do you believe that Jesus was the only-begotton son of a cruel Father who demanded his painful death? Was he god or human? Both? Neither? Did he really live? Did he really die?

Do you believe that Jesus may have been a martyr to his own beliefs, thinking that his blood would magically confer immortality and that his self-sacrifice would make him a god? Do you believe that his biography has been accurately reported, even though none of the reporters ever knew him, often contradict one another, and their texts have been variously altered and amended for 15 centuries? Do you believe that Jesus’ words have been accurately quoted, even though they have been found in many sources older than Jesus’ time? Or do you believe that Jesus was actually a composite of pagan saviors, created from an assortment of similar myths that were popular at the time? Or was he, like many other cult heroes, an obscure fanatic whose frustrated ego led him to style himself a supreme incarnation of the divine?

The truth is that we will probably never know what Jesus was, or even if he was. But it is fairly clear that he was connected with the mythos of pagan saviors, who were mostly nature deities, representing the eternal cycles of life and death. In this respect, their myths might point toward an updated religion more firmly founded on the realities of our world.

Once the Jesus myth is more widely understood as a composite relic of a credulous past, we may be able to go forward toward a more satisfying set of spiritual hopes and insights, and leave behind the simplistic magics of a less enlightened people. We have “modernized” nearly every other aspect of our Western culture. Perhaps it is time to modernize its religion into a form that enlightenment may embrace without insulting its own intelligence.

1. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ: Recovering The Lost Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2004, p. 163

2. Barker, Dan. Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist. Madison, WI: FFRF, Inc., 1992, pp. 361-362

3. Ibid., p. 363

4. Ibid., pp. 360-361

5. Ibid., p. 361

6. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough. New York: Macmillan, 1922, p. 341

7. Ibid., p. 402

8. de Camp, L. Sprague. The Ancient Engineers. New York: Ballantine, 1960, p. 258

9. Keller, Werner. The Bible As History. New York: William Morrow, 1956, p. 376

10. Smith, Morton. Jesus The Magician. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 117

11. Doane, T.W. Bible Myths And Their Parallels In Other Religions. New York; University Books Inc., 1971, p. 272

12. Brandon, S.G.F. Religion In Ancient History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969, p. 248

13. Smith, op. cit., p. 66

14. Duerr, Hans Peter. Dreamtime: Concerning The Boundary Between Wilderness And Civilization. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1985, p. 306

15. Augstein, Rudolf. Jesus Son of Man. New York: Urizen Books, 1977, p. 108

16. Doane, op. cit., p. 426

17. Frazer, op. cit., p. 392

18. Robertson, J.M. Pagan Christs. New York: University Books Inc., 1967, p. 112

19. Doane, op. cit., pp. 409-411

20. Reinach, Salomon. Orpheus. New York: Horace Liveright, 1930, p. 217

21. Harpur, op. cit., p. 54

Barbara G. Walker, an atheist, is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions. She lives in Florida. She has worked as a dancer, a journalist and her books on knitting are staples in the industry.

Freedom From Religion Foundation