The God Who Wasn't There

Closely related to supposed parallels is the claim that the stories of Jesus are folklore. Flemming interviews the late Alan Dundes, Professor of Folklore at UC Berkeley to make his point. Dundes says,

There are these other Gospels and there are the Apocrypha after all. There are apocryphal New Testament and apocryphal Old Testament stories that were frankly too folkloristic and they got thrown out because people thought these couldn't have happened and therefore we got rid of them. But, of course, some of the apocryphal stories are as interesting as the regular Bible.... If you take away the folklore from the Bible, you don't have a heck of a lot left except beget, beget, beget, beget.

In support, Dundes notes twenty-two points common to ancient hero traditions. He does not say how many points match with Jesus. However, he comments on remembering that Jesus shared a lot of them. Flemming then provides a chart on which he lists the twenty-two points of interest mentioned by Dundes, after which Flemming notes either a match or a no match.

  1. His mother is a royal virgin. Flemming’s evaluation: Match. My evaluation: Virgin, yes. Royal, no. (0.5 match)
  2. His father is a king. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Joseph was a carpenter, not a king. It has to be noted that the Gospels report Jesus calling God his father. But this is not similar to the hero tradition. But I’ll be generous. (0.5 match)
  3. His father is a relative of his mother. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: We wonder how Flemming sees in this a match. Perhaps Joseph and Mary are distant relatives as Jews. But this is unimpressive and a strain at best. Moreover, if Joseph is regarded as the father of Jesus, he was no king. So, there would be no match in number two. (No match)
  4. Circumstances of his conception are unusual. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: This seems to be a bit of an overlap with the first point. However, I’ll be generous: (1.0 match)
  5. He’s reputed to be the son of a god. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Match (1.0 match)
  6. At birth, an attempt is made by his father to kill him. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Herod was not the father of Jesus. Notice that Flemming employs three different fathers for Jesus in order to find his matches (God, Joseph, Herod). Nevertheless, an attempt was made to kill Jesus. (0.5 match)
  7. He is spirited away and saved. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: I don’t know what Dundes means by “spirited away.” Although there was no ethereal escape, Jesus’ parents fled with him to Egypt. (1.0 match)
  8. Foster parented in a foreign country. Flemming: No match. My evaluation: (No match)
  9. We’re told nothing of his childhood. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Although Luke’s Gospel mentions little of Jesus’ childhood, the amount is insignificant compared to his adulthood. This is easily explained given that the genre of the Gospels is ancient biography, which typically only spoke of the subject’s adulthood. Thus, this attempt is unimpressive. (No match)
  10. Upon reaching manhood, he returns to his future kingdom. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Although Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom being in the present, he realized that the kingdom in which he would reign was in the future and not of this world. (No match)
  11. He has a victory over a king, giant, or dragon. Flemming: No match. Jesus did resist Satan and Paul later speaks of Jesus’ having defeated Satan. My evaluation: (1.0 match)
  12. He marries a princess. Flemming: No match. My evaluation: (No match)
  13. He becomes king. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Heroes become king on earth during their lifetime. This is not the case with Jesus. Nevertheless, since he was considered at least a king by his disciples, I’ll be generous and assign it a full match (1.0 match).
  14. Reigns uneventfully. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: The life of Jesus was filled with conflict, which led to his execution. (No match)
  15. Prescribes laws. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Match. (1.0 match)
  16. He later loses favor with his subjects. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Jesus was not king on earth. Thus, it is difficult to lose favor with subjects you do not have. Granted, early in Jesus’ ministry his hard teachings led many to abandon him. But this is not a parallel to a king who loses favor with his subjects, having reigned for a while. One may point to Jesus’ positive reception in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday followed by those who called for his crucifixion on Good Friday as being a loss of favor. (1.0 match)
  17. He is driven from the throne of the city. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Jesus was not driven off of his throne to a place outside of Jerusalem. (No match)
  18. He meets with a mysterious death. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Death, yes. Mysterious, no. (0.5 match)
  19. His death is often at the top of a hill. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Match. (1.0 match)
  20. His children, if any, do not succeed him. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Jesus had no children, unless you believe The Da Vinci Code. That this is a match is a strain at best. (No match)
  21. His body is not buried. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: All accounts, from the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 through all four Gospel accounts report Jesus’ burial. (No match)
  22. Nevertheless, he has one or more holy sepulchers. Flemming: Match. My evaluation: Today there are two sepulchers thought to have belonged to Jesus. But the garden tomb was not discovered and thought to be the possible tomb of Jesus until the late 1800s. Most archaeologists believe that Jesus’ actual tomb is located in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. (No match) 

Flemming adds up 19 matches out of a possible 22 and lists Jesus as coming in third place. My evaluation, given 2.5 matches out of generosity plus granting a match that Flemming did not, reveals only ten matches. Are ten matches of 22 enough to note a definite parallel? Greg Boyd has noted that William Wallace meets nearly every characteristic of a folk hero and yet we know Wallace was a historical person and that most of the points are true. Caesar Augustus was a historical person and a contemporary of Jesus. He has ten matches.[61] That’s the same as Jesus. But no one questions the existence of Augustus as a result.

Dundes provides a few examples of folktales such as the story of William Tell and claims these derive from the tale of Oedipus, who saw himself in competition with his father for his mother’s attention. Is there any hint of this in the Gospels? Are the Father and Son vying for the attention of Mary? Such would seem to be a stretch.

Flemming also interviews Barbara and David Mikkelson, who run the aforementioned web site on urban legends: Flemming asks them for an example of a story that started as fiction and then came to be regarded as real. Barbara responds that there are what are called “glurge” stories on “Glurge” is a term coined by one of their viewers. These are stories that were written and posted as fiction, only to be referred to later by others as factual accounts. Now, of course, no one would deny that glurges and urban legends occur. But merely showing that they exist does nothing to establish that Jesus is the product of the making of an urban legend. A similar argument to what Flemming proposes is the following: Fiction movies exist. “The God Who Wasn’t There” is a movie. Therefore, “The God Who Wasn’t There” is a fiction movie.


[61] According to Suetonius, the circumstances of Augustus’ conception were very unusual. His mother Atia was in the temple of Apollo at midnight and fell asleep. Apollo took the form of a snake, crawed into Atia and impregnated her (1.0 match). Thus, as Son of Apollo, Augustus is thought to be a Son of a god (1.0). He was foster parented in another country in the sense that his great uncle Julius Caesar made him his heir probably in his mid-teens and took him to war with him (0.5 match). We are told little of his childhood (1.0 match). Upon obtaining manhood, he returns to his future kingdom (1.0 match). Although he did not have a victory over a king, giant, or dragon, his victory over Mark Antony was huge. Antony was a much stronger opponent with the authority and backing of the Senate behind him (0.5 match). He became king (1.0 match). He reigned uneventfully. The Pax Romanos or glory days of Rome occurred during the reign of Augustus (1.0 match). He prescribed laws (1.0 match). His child was not his successor. Rather his son-in-law Tiberius succeeded him (1.0 match). His body was cremated rather than buried (1.0 match).

© 2005 Mike Licona
Used on by the kind permission of Mike Licona.
Other resources by Mike Licona are available from his website

This article is reproduced by the kind permission of Mike Licona from his website