Chapter 5

Jesus and Myths

Some learned men, in seeking a way to account for the Jesus of the New Testament without accepting the reality of his existence, have sought to set up a notion like this: It is true that the evangelists did not invent this character, yet Jesus never really lived; he is only the myth of Hebrew history.

We are to think of Jesus, they tell us, as we do of the Greek Theseus, of the Egyptian Isis and Osiris, of the Thor and Odin of the Scandinavian legends, of the Hindustanee Vishnu, or of Buddha, and of scores of other myths that belong to the poetry, traditions, superstitions, and religions of other nations. Much scholarship has been mustered into the service of this notion. All this may appear more absurd than serious to one whose education has made Jesus of Nazareth real to his thoughts. It may indeed be so; but we must be fair even to those who seem to us to advance absurd views. I cannot doubt that some able and sincere minds have accepted a theory of Jesus that makes him out only a Hebrew myth.

Let us look at this history in a common-sense way, without burdening these pages with tiresome and confusing quotations. There are some things which may be plain enough to those who are unlearned in the writings and legends referred to—some things that the learned cannot deny. Myths are growths, and whatever grows—whether a tree, a man, a thought, or a legend—grows under certain laws that cannot be violated. There may be some laws under which myths develop unknown to me. But some of these laws are unmistakable. I mention them, and you will see for yourself that none of them are observed in the story of Jesus. The story we find in the evangelists violates them all. If the conceptions among other nations that are called myths are myths then Jesus cannot be counted among them.

1. Myths originate and, as conceptions, are complete before written history. In all nations the earliest historians relate mythological stories that antedate all letters and all records. In some nations a fragmentary history went to a sort of record before there was a true written language. Rude pictures engraved on stone or painted, and what are called cuneiform characters, such as are found on the bricks or clay cylinders among the ruins of Ninevah and Babylon, and such hieroglyphics as are found on ancient tombs in Egypt, in Mexico, and other countries—these tell us of national myths that belonged to a period ages before even these crude attempts at writing were made. The principle—it is invariable as a law—holds good in every nation that has a myth or written history of any sort.

But the Jesus of the evangelists appeared, and the story of his life was written, long after the most eventful and important history of the Hebrew race was recorded.

2. About all myths there is something grotesque if not monstrous. They are exaggerations of men or animals. Sometimes they are natural forces represented as becoming incarnate in some fantastic shape. If in human form the mythical characters are gigantic, strange, verging upon the unnatural and impossible. But Jesus appears as a man, simply; he has not a personal peculiarity to set him apart from his neighbors and companions. Not a word in the story suggests any thing abnormal or even singular. There is not a word to tell us of his personal appearance; there is no suggestion of any thing un-human or extra-human in his form or manner as he appeared among men. The halo about his head you see in pictures is the pretty conceit of the painters; there is not a hint of this, or any thing like it, in the story of the evangelists. There is not so much as a word concerning his complexion, his stature, the color of his hair or eyes, or the tones of his voice. He is just a man among men—one who might have walked unnoticed in the streets of Jerusalem.

Read what the old books tell you of Grecian, Roman, Egyptian, and other myths. How strange they are, how different from men! Jesus appears as a man, and the evangelists have not one word to indicate that he was peculiar in appearance in any respect.

3. Myths reflect their time, place, and race. This statement is without exception. Theseus is of ancient Greece and is Greek in every sinew and lineament. Odin and Thor come to us out of the dark German forests, and are but exaggerations, in their virtues and vices, of the might barbarians who dwelt in them. Isis and Osiris are as like Egypt as the desert, the Nile, and its mysterious sources. Bel-Merodach is as like Chaldea as the valley of the Euphrates and its lost civilization could make him. Vishnu is as Hindustanee as the Ganges and its terrible jungles and the fierce beasts that made men afraid. And so of them every one, from the loftiest and noblest conceptions of god-like men that ever inspired the Greek imagination with great ideals down to the meanest and most devilish that ever filled the superstitions of African or Australian bushmen with terrors. But in Jesus there is not a trace of coloring from any scene or period in Hebrew history, from Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees to the days of Caesar Augustus.

4. In all nations myths defy chronology; they are without dates. In the imagination of their people they seem to have existed not only from the beginnings of national life, but to have gone before it. Think of any of them—those that have come down to us from ancient nations, as well as those that still hold their place in the folk-lore of barbarous peoples. They are all without dates. We do not read of Isis and Osiris appearing in the capital of Egypt in the days of Rameses II.; the Egyptian gods are older than any of their dynasties and lived before men kept genealogies. And so of all the gods of mythology; they are without contemporaries known to any history. Myths precede the invention of calendars; if time was counted at all the years were without dates. How utterly different is the story of Jesus, that some men tell us only a Hebrew myth!

Of Jesus and the time of his appearing it is written:
"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria." Augustus was emperor; Cyrenius was governor in Syria; Herod was king in Judea.

5. Myths defy topography as they do chronology; they are not only without dates, they are without definite localities. They appeared not only some when that cannot be fixed in time, but somewhere that cannot be fixed in time, but somewhere that cannot be found as a place. Their origin is shrouded in mystery. Some of the contemporaries of Jesus made it a point against him, "As to this man we know whence he is."

In the story of Jesus we are told of places with such exactness that the statements of the evangelists are to this day the best guides to the scholarly men who make explorations in order to find relics and fragments of lost history in Palestine. They do not tell us of Jesus as appearing somewhere in their country, as Galilee, Samaria, Judea. They tell us of Nazareth, Bethlehem, Bethsaida, Capernaum, Bethphage, Bethany, the Mount of Olives. They tell us of the "beautiful gate of the temple" which, he and his disciples looked upon, and of "Jacob's well" "near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph"—the very spot where Jesus sat to rest, while his disciples went to Sychar to buy bread of the baker—the well from which a woman of the Samaritans drew water and gave him to drink.

6. Myths are not completed at once. They require a long time—ages—for their development. But the conception of the character of Jesus comes into the thought of men with his manifestation and abides through the centuries that have followed as it was first given to the world.

There is absolutely nothing like it in all Hebrew history that went before him, as there is nothing like it in the history that comes after him. And the conception of Jesus that is given by the brief accounts of the evangelists is so finished, so complete, that the attempts of after times to add to it in the stories of the so-called apocryphal gospels have utterly failed of their design. No marvelous stories, handed down from one generation to another, have in the least added to or taken from the Jesus of the evangelists. What Jesus signified when the gospels were written he has been through the centuries that have followed him. What he was then he is today.

7. All myths belong to the infancy, never to the age of any nation. They spring out of the morning mists; they never appear in the light of day. If the story of Jesus had been placed in Chaldea, before the call of Abraham, it also would have belonged to the infancy of a race. To harmonize with the laws that govern the development of myths the story of Jesus should have anticipated the first chapters of Hebrew history; it should have been placed in that uncertain period that includes the dispersion from Armenia, the second cradle of the human race.

But the story of Jesus is given to the world, fresh and complete, with not one hint of it in all preceding history, in the last years, the closing days of Hebrew national life in Judea.

The story antedates but a little while the destruction of Jerusalem by Vespasian and his Roman legions; when Jesus was born Augustus was emperor; when Jesus entered upon his ministry Tiberius Caesar was in the fifteenth year of his reign; his lieutenant, Pontius Pilate, governed Judea as a subject province, and his soldiers kept the peace in the holy city.

Consider how impossible it is for myths to originate after written history, in the sun-glare of life in a full-grown nation. Even the pretty stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table belong to that far-away period in England when there was no written history worth the name, when letters were almost unknown, when all was young and fresh and ignorant and the fairies still ruled in the forests.

Think of a myth starting up today in London under the shadow of St. Paul's and Parliament House. Think of the world in our time talking of "Chinese Gordon" if there had lived no "Chinese Gordon." If the people who have letters, and write histories, and "turn the world upside-down" with the gospel story, should leave the poor savages of the Congo Valley to themselves, thousands of years from our times Livingstone and Stanley will live in African traditions as godlike men; and so new myths will be born, will grow and fix themselves in the legends of these lands where they have done many wonderful works—but London and New York will breed no myths concerning Livingstone and Stanley.

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