Mack, Burton L.

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Mack, Burton L.


Education: Ph.D.


Office—Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, 831 N. Dartmouth Ave., Claremont, CA 91711.


Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA, retired as professor of the New Testament.


Logos und Sophia: Untersuchungen zur Weisheitstheologie im hellenistischen Judentum, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (Göttingen, Germany), 1973.

(Editor, with Frederick E. Greenspahn and Earle Hilgert) Nourished with Peace: Studies in Hellenistic Judaism in Memory of Samuel Sandmel = [Sefer zikaron li-Shemuel Sandmehl], Scholars Press (Chico, CA), 1984.

Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira's "Hymn in Praise of the Fathers," University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1985.

A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins, Fortress Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1988.

(With Vernon K. Robbins) Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels, Polebridge Press (Sonoma, CA), 1989.

Rhetoric and the New Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1993.

Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1995.

The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy, Continuum (New York, NY), 2001.


A retired New Testament professor at the Claremont School of Theology in California, Burton L. Mack has been interested in the origins of Christianity and the mythology behind Jesus Christ. In his writings, he has been a skeptic of beliefs in Jesus' divinity and the performance of miracles, asserting that the traditional stories about Jesus' life were created by his later followers and that the books of the New Testament cannot be used as clues to the historical past, but are rather mythmaking creations. Mack expresses his theories in such books as The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins and The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy, which have garnered considerable critical reaction.

Mack is recognized as a scholar of the Q1, Q2, and Q3 works, which are collections of ancient writings predating the New Testament (the "Q" stands for a German word, Quelle, which means source). In The Lost Gospel he focuses on Q1, the oldest of the three, using it to discuss what he feels were the original teachings and intentions of Christ and his early followers. Many scholars agree that the writings contained in Q may later have been drawn on by the authors of the books of Luke and Matthew, though not Mark. Experts on the Book of Q, noting that it is not an actual self-contained book but a collection of variously selected writings from many authors who wished to record Jesus' words, debate its content, its sources, and even whether it was originally just one book. Mack, however, relies on Q heavily for his argument that many of the quotes attributed to Jesus in other Gospel books were never spoken by Him, and that early Christians did not believe Jesus was divine or that he went through a resurrection. Instead, Jesus, Mack maintains, was a sage of the Greek Cynic school originating in Greece, and his various groups of followers only later organized to create a mythology around Him. In short, Mack asserts that the books of the Gospel are imaginative works and should not be relied upon as records of history in any way.

A number of critics have picked The Lost Gospel apart. In a Commonweal review, for example, Luke Timothy Johnson considered Mack's arguments considerably flawed, pointing out what he felt were no less than nine misguided assumptions, including: that the material found in Luke and Matthew derives from the same source; that redactions between the various Q sources can be clearly demarcated and can follow the development of the Christ cults successfully; that scholars currently have all the source material that was used by the Gospel authors; that the "Christ Cult" created the myth of Jesus' death and resurrection; and more. "So mesmerizing is this progression, and so similar to the procedure of well-respected researchers … that only when the dust clears is it apparent that the entire show has been the purest flimflam," concluded Johnson. Pheme Perkins, writing in the Christian Century, also found Mack's reasoning flawed, noting in particular: "The case for presuming that the different types of sayings in Q can be assigned to chronologically discrete strata and can thus generate a history of the Q people is also much weaker than Mack acknowledges." The critic added, "The allegation that Greek Cynic philosophers provide the appropriate context for reconstructing and then interpreting the sayings of Jesus is problematic. The assumption that Cynicism constituted a major movement is dubious." Although America reviewer Daniel J. Harrington also remarked on the "improbable leaps of logic" contained in the book, he concluded that The Lost Gospel is "a fascinating (though very debatable) reconstruction of Christian origins."

Similar objections have also been printed about Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth and The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy, in which he continues his thesis that the story of Jesus is mythological only. Mack, however, also adds that the mythology of Christ has served to create a modern, autocratic culture in the West. Of the former, National Catholic Reporter contributor Michael O'Connor felt that Mack's goal of spreading knowledge about the Q source is a worthy endeavor. He suspected, too, that Jesus Seminar scholars, the group of New Testament experts who have sought to conclude which quotes attributed to Jesus were actually spoken by Christ, would enjoy Mack's book. On the other hand, O'Connor commented that mythologizing Christ's acts does not necessarily imply fabrication, but that in another "sense, myth implies not falsehood but truth, not primitive, naive misunderstanding but an insight more profound than scientific description and logical analysis can ever achieve." Steve Schroeder, writing for Booklist, focused on how Who Wrote the New Testament? serves as "an invitation to cultural selfcriticism" and applauded it as a "comprehensive synthesis of New Testament scholarship." A Publishers Weekly writer declared it "one of those rare volumes that … makes one wonder how we could possibly have lived without it."

The Christian Myth further discusses how Christianity originated, its social logic, and how it has affected the course of civilization. Again, Mack's analysis met with resistance. Anthony J. Tambasco stated in Theological Studies that the author errs by defining theology purely in sociological terms and in using a "restrictive definition of myth." "Mack is unable to account for the fact that Jesus became the object of myth-making in the first place," pointed out Charles Wanamaker in Interpretation, who added: "This alone implies a historical uniqueness that Mack denies." There is little doubt that Mack's arguments have disturbed the Christian community, but as Booklist critic Schroeder remarked in his review of The Christian Myth, quoting from the book: "Some may find Mack's critique unsettling, but being unsettling in the study of religion ‘may finally be worthwhile.’"



America, December 6, 1986, Daniel J. Harrington, review of Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira's "Hymn in Praise of the Fathers," p. 367; March 12, 1994, Daniel J. Harrington, review of The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins, p. 20.

Booklist, December 15, 1995, Steve Schroeder, review of Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, p. 670; September 1, 2001, Steven Schroeder, review of The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy, p. 19.

Christian Century, July 28, 1993, Pheme Perkins, review of The Lost Gospel, p. 749.

Commonweal, December 3, 1993, Luke Timothy Johnson, review of The Lost Gospel, p. 18.

Interpretation, January, 1995, M. Eugene Boring, review of The Lost Gospel, p. 108; April, 2003, Charles Wanamaker, review of The Christian Myth, p. 222.

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 1995, Michael O'Connor, review of Who Wrote the New Testament?, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1993, review of The Lost Gospel, p. 72; November 13, 1995, review of Who Wrote the New Testament?, p. 37.

Theological Studies, September, 2003, Anthony J. Tambasco, review of The Christian Myth, p. 660.

Time, January 10, 1994, Richard N. Ostling, review of The Lost Gospel, p. 38.