The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy by Burton L Mack.

Burton L Mack The Christian Myth

This volume summarizes the state of studies of early Christianity by Burton Mack at the outset of the 21st-century. Mack’s previous work had included research into the hypothetical Q sayings text of primitive Christianity as well as the mythic basis for the gospel of Mark, and in The Christian Myth he sets forth his principles of academic method for the study of Christian origins and advances a theory of social interests driving the formulation of Christian myth, while denying any explanatory power to the Luke-Acts narrative as such. Much of the content of this book was originally written in connection with a seminar under the auspices of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and an offshoot in the North American Society for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

Although this book is fairly short, and (in my view) accessible in style, it really is addressed to fellow scholars. There is no coddling of “Christian belief,” and a fairly robust argument is supplied as to why having done so has undermined the entire intellectual enterprise of New Testament studies. A lot of the book is dedicated to demonstrating the relevance of questions about the origins of Christianity to contemporary American society, but it often presumes that the reader will share Mack’s views on contemporary social justice. Reading Mack more than a decade later, I fear that much of his assessment of the pluralistic state and direction of our society was a little over-optimistic—not that he didn’t recognize hazards.

The key precedent studies repeatedly referenced by Mack are Jonathan Z. Smith’s excellent monographs Drudgery Divine and To Take Place. Mack’s method includes application of the ideas of Durkheim’s sociology, and he thoroughly rejects notions of “Christianity” oriented to the interior relationship of individuals to their God. He indicts (in passing) Rodney Stark’s account of Christian origins as blinkered by modern assumptions considering Christianity to be a mode of individual salvation. In general, this book makes Mack’s relations to other scholars highly transparent, and there is assorted end matter where these connections are dealt with even more explicitly.

I have a terminological quibble with Mack, in that he often uses the word traditional—which implies a sort of legitimacy conferred by a tradition—in cases where the more diffident customary would suffice. I’m sure the implication to which I object is not really what he intends, though. On the whole, I enjoyed this book a great deal, and I would recommend it to scholars of religion, clergy (Christian or not), and social activists. [via]