Against Mythicism: A Case for the Plausibility of a Historical Jesus

A position that appears to be growing in popularity in atheist and rationalist
circles is known as ‘mythicism’. According to this position we have no adequate
reason to believe that the gospels refer to a historical figure called Jesus at
all. This position of strong scepticism holds that the gospels are entirely
mythological texts and that we are mistaken in reading them as embellished
accounts of a man who lived and preached in the Middle East around 2000 years
ago. I disagree with this position for a number of reasons. In particular, I
contend that the apocalyptic material found on Jesus’ lips and the hopes for a
very real earthly historical transformation strongly suggest that there is an
underlying historical basis to the claims that a man named Jesus made
‘prophetic’ statements about events that were expected to happen within his
lifetime, and that this historical figure was considered by his band of
followers to be the long awaited Messiah. The fact that hopes for
eschatological transformation and claims of the coming of a Messiah are nothing
more than religious mythological notions does not preclude there having been a
historical figure to which these hopes were attached.

In the following article I will examine the strange and fascinating case of
Haile Selassie, a figure proclaimed by followers of the Rastafari religion to
be both the Messiah and the literal incarnation of God on earth. I intend to
demonstrate the extent to which a real historical figure can be hugely
mythologised by his devotees, indeed mythologised to such an extent that were
there no non-religious records of Selassie’s life, there would undoubtedly be
those who would apply the same ‘mythicist’ arguments to the question of his
historical reality. I will argue that the case of Haile Selassie provides us
with a model that seems very similar to what occurred with the mythologisation
of Jesus by early Christian writers, and that, just as Selassie existed,
despite all the unhistorical mythology that has been attached to him, so it is
also plausible to accept the existence of a real historical Jesus beneath the
mythological embellishment of his life.

In the early Twentieth Century, a movement developed among black people which sought to fight back against years of imperial rule
and oppression of Africans and people of African descent. Ideologues such as
the ‘Back to Africa’ black nationalist Marcus Garvey presented
a vision for African regeneration in which black people would return to Africa
and rule themselves, with the hope of a renaissance of African civilisation and
the building of a new pan-African nation. This was a time in which followers of
this movement were looking for a great leader who would come and bring these
hopes to life. In a similar scenario to that of the Jews of 2000 years ago,
there was a sense that the coming of a messianic figure was at hand.

On July 23, 1892, a boy
named Tafari Makonnen was born in Ethiopia.
This boy, who was to be given the religious name Haile Selassie (‘Power of the
Trinity’) was raised with a wide ranging education, taking in both Shoan
Amharic traditions and Western history, languages and statecraft.[1] At
the age of 13, Selassie became Dejazmatch (the Ethiopian equivalent of a
Count or similar nobleman) of part of Harage province, and he went on to become
Ethiopia’s regent from 1916 to 1930 and Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.
Garvey ‘prophesied’ ‘Look to Africa where a black king
shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer’ [2]
and shortly afterwards, on 2 November
, Selassie was crowned as Emperor in an extravagant
Cathedral ceremony attended by an international audience of royals and
dignitaries. As Emperor, Selassie took on the titles ‘Lord of Lords’, ‘King of
Kings’ and ‘Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah’, titles which were
traditional for all Ethiopian Emperors but which he reportedly ‘gloried in’.[3]
Selassie had pretensions of being a direct living descendant of the Biblical
King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba but was nonetheless an ostensibly devout
Orthodox Christian who made no further claims to spiritual power or authority.[4]

As Emperor, Selassie was a moderniser and a reformer, but these reforms largely
benefited Ethiopia’s land owning classes and outside his circle of admirers and
devotees Selassie is widely regarded as a ‘feudal autocrat’ and ‘a tyrant who
enslaved the peasants’ of Ethiopia.[5,
6]  In
2000, Ethiopia’s government stated that ‘Selassie’s reign was marked by its
brutality and extreme oppression of the Ethiopian peasants’ and spoke of its
continuing efforts to trace millions he is believed to have deposited in foreign
bank accounts.[7]
Selassie ‘ruled over a system that created a small class of wealthy landowners
but kept most subjects in abject poverty’ and during a famine towards the end
of his reign that killed hundreds of thousands ‘his moral authority was
undermined by images of him feeding his pets prime meat while his people

Selassie’s reign was cut short when Marxist revolutionaries deposed him,
placing him under house arrest. He died in mysterious circumstances and many
believe he was murdered by his captors. Certainly, his remains were
contemptuously and unceremoniously buried beneath a toilet. On November 5, 2000 his bones were
finally moved to a tomb in Addis Ababa‘s
Trinity Cathedral, in an Imperial ceremony presided over by the Ethiopian
Orthodox Church, although shunned by the Ethiopian government for the reasons
stated above.

This very brief overview of Selassie’s life demonstrates a very human ruler,
someone who was clearly a fallible character, a man who fell
prey to human weaknesses such as decadence, delusions of grandeur, and the
desire to subjugate those over whom he had authority. None of this is
particularly shocking or unexpected, given the context. For the followers of
the Rastafari religion, however, Selassie is a figure of devotion whose
hagiography bears almost no relation to the historical figure,
and even within his own lifetime Selassie was hailed by thousands as living
incarnation of God. Indeed, for Rastafarians, Selassie was ‘the Almighty on
earth in the flesh of Man’, ‘the head of creation’, ‘the God of all ages’,
‘immortal’, ‘omnipotent’, and ‘the world’s greatest political leader of the
twentieth century’ whose ‘works for the unification of humankind, equal rights
and justice are unparalleled’.[9, 10, 11, 12]

Under the influence of Garvey, many black nationalists in Ethiopia and beyond
concluded that Selassie was the awaited African Messiah, the man who had been
sent by God to save the black race and lead it into a new era of greatness in
the ‘promised land’ of Ethiopia. For Rastafarians, the coming of Selassie is
prefigured in Old Testament prophetic texts and amongst the proofs of his
messianic and divine status are various miracle stories and tales of Selassie’s
unparalleled wisdom. First, there are signs in ‘the heavens’, as we see in
Rastafarian accounts of Selassie’s birth and youth. In a typical Rastafarian
narrative we read:

His birth had been foretold by astrologers and chaplains.
They reasoned that the planets of  Neptune and
Pluto, would intersect in July 1892 having started moving towards each other
493 years earlier in 1399. This would in turn influence the constellation Leo, that is the house of Judah.
They also foretold the great drought that started in 1889 and was broken at the
moment of the child’s birth thus confirming his identity and destiny.

On the fortieth day of His life He was baptised according to custom and given
the name HAILE SELASSIE which means POWER OF THE TRINITY. At the moment of
baptism He became totally aware and although this knowledge faded at the time,
it returned as He grew. His  teachers were
astounded at the depth of his knowledge and standing (understanding) of Incient
religious texts. He could also converse with animals; and savage beasts became
docile in His presence.[13]

Another account states that:

At an early age, He displayed an exceptional understanding
of Ethiopia‘s
ancient religious texts. In addition, it has been said that he could speak to
the animals; He would be seen in the presence of leopards and lions. In His
presence, these ferocious beasts were tamed.[14]

And here is a more detailed account, including a miracle

The world should know that he is the Almighty, it is
prophecised, the prophecy has been fulfilled, open your eyes and look. Haile
Selassie from his youth, was a mysterious person who was said to have been
feared by priest and other persons working in the palace … Their is a story
about Haile Selassie in his youth, his father & mother was astounded by his
vast knowledge and wisdom of and from the bible. They brought in priest to talk
with him to ask him where he knew all these things from, Haile Selassie knew
books that aren’t printed in the bible, like the 8th, 9th & 10th books of
Moses, the Dead Sea Scrolls, he would know line for line. The priests would ask
him questions and he would call them to tell them the answer in their ears and
the answers he would give would frighten the priests away, and some would never
return to see him. At one time their were two priests talking to Tafari, who had
claimed he talks to animals and the wild beasts in the jungles of Ethiopia, One
of the priests asked Tafari to draw one of these animals, so Tafari requested
for crayons and a piece of paper and began to draw it formed into a dove of
bright multi-colors and before the priest could question Tafari about the bird
on the page he was dumbfounded when he saw it arise off the paper and fly
through the window, the two priests hysterically left the palace and never

So, in Rastafarian accounts of the coming of Selassie we
find the notions that planetary phenomena indicated the coming of a divine
figure, that at the moment of Selassie’s birth a drought miraculously ended,
that the young Selassie astonished religious leaders with his wisdom, that the
child could converse with dangerous animals, and even that he was able to make
a drawing of a bird come to life. There are obvious parallels here with the
Jesus story, in which we find a star leading  ‘wise men’ (most likely
astrologers) to seek out the newly born Messiah, and a child who stunned
religious leaders with his understanding (Luke 2: 41-52). The story of the
drawing of a bird coming to life also has interesting parallels. In an early
(2nd or 3rd Century CE) non-canonical account of Jesus’ youth, ‘The
Infancy Gospel of Thomas
‘, we find a tale of Jesus making clay birds which
he then brings to life, and this story is also repeated in the Qur’an.

For Rastafarians, many aspects of Selassie’s life are found in Biblical
‘prophecy’. So, for example, we find this interpretation of the story of a
drought ending upon the birth of Selassie:

The birth of "Tafari" gave back to the land
Ethiopia the Divine Blessing as in Genesis 1 v1, "In the beginning God
created the Heaven and the Earth." as in Genesis 1 v2, "…and
darkness was upon the face of the water."  The birth of "Tafari"
on that stormy night in the year of St. John 16th Hamle 1885 (23rd July 1892) represents the
fulfillment of Genesis 1 v2. Lighting and Thunder with Flooding, the Spirit
(Tafari) of God moved upon the water. A good "Omen" to Ethiopia.[16]

Further Biblical associations are given with regard to
Garvey’s ‘prophecy’ of the coming of a great African king and ‘Redeemer’ and
for some he is seen as a ‘mighty Prophet’ and ‘greater John the Baptist’.[17] Likewise, the ceremony in
which Selassie was made Emperor is seen to involve the literal presence on
earth of the Biblical Samuel:

The Ancient Rites of Anointment performed by Abuna Krilos
(The Prophet Samuel returned) 2nd November
on the person of Rastafari. Transfigurated the person to the
Eternal Godhead Haile Selassie I "’Might of the Trinity’; The Christ; The
Messiah; The Anointed One", who has returned to reign as The Lion of the
Tribe of Judah; The Root andoffspring of King David", fulfilling
Revelation 5 v5.[18]

Selassie’s resistance to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia
and his subsequent European exile is reported to have been attended by miracles
and to have been prophesied in the Old Testament. According to one tale, ‘While they where launching their bombs at Ethiopia one
fell directly by King Selassie’s foot, the King put his foot upon the bomb and
said, "This bomb will not go off in my country," and it never did to
this day’.[19]
And of the exile we read:

Haile Selassie I, 1936 leaving Ethiopia for Europe and
Geneva, and the League of Nations, fulfilled this prophecy of Isaiah, when the
King prophecy against the democracy of Europe and predicted the 2nd World War.
This fulfillment established Emperor Haile Selassie I as the Prophet.[20]

On April 21, 1966,
Selassie conducted a State visit to Jamaica,
an event that has entered the Rastafari calendar of holy days as ‘Groundation
Day’. Selassie’s arrival in Jamaica
was met with an extraordinary outpouring of religious devotion. Despite the
fact that the vast majority of Jamaican Rastafarians had never seen Selassie
before, his cult had spread widely among the population, who fervently believed
him to be the prophesied black Messiah and incarnation of God. A report from
the Jamaican newspaper The Jamaica Gleaner recalls the events of the
day, when a crowd of 100,000 gathered to greet their God:

The heat that rose from the tarmac of Kingston’s Norman
Manley International Airport was nothing compared to the level of expectation
that was seeping through the thousands gathered on the tarmac that 21st day of
April, 1966. The day was declared a public holiday in honour of the Emperor and
people had started arriving from Wednesday night from places near and far, to
form the largest crowd to have ever assembled at the Norman
Manley International
. They came to the airport
any way they could ­ by car, by truck, by bus, by bicycle, by foot. Drum beats
and chants were heard almost non-stop, providing an almost hypnotic rhythm. The
smell of ganja wafted through the air completing a welcome unprecedented in
size and expectation for the Emperor on his first state visit to Jamaica.

Brother George Huggins of Accompong, explained the
enthusiastic welcome, "it is hard to put in words what seeing this man,
this great man, the Lord of lords, in Jamaica
meant to us in the Rastafarian community. We had heard so much about him for so
long." On the tarmac, some waved palm leaves, some red, green and gold
Ethiopian flags, and some blew the Maroon cowhorn known as the abeng in
welcome. Everyone kept their eyes on the sky wondering when the plane carrying
His Imperial Majesty from Trinidad and Tobago
would arrive. Rain began to fall and the crowd continued to wait, hoping even
for just a glimpse of the plane through the thick clouds that had formed.

When the insignia of a roaring lion and stripes of red, green and gold finally
came into view, the rain stopped. People shouted, "See how God stop de
rain." The sound from the crowd was deafening as masses of people rushed
to get closer to the island’s distinguished visitor. The crowd simply broke
down any barriers that stood in their way in their eagerness to position
themselves as close as possible to the "King of Kings."[21]

Today, the date of this visit continues to be commemorated
by Rastafarians, who mark ‘Groundation Day’ with music, chanting, and prayer.[22]
As with many other events in Selassie’s life, Rastafarians report miraculous
phenomena on that day. For devotees, the ending of rainfall and the emergence
of sunshine that occurred as Selassie’s aeroplane arrived is seen as another
nature miracle (‘See how God stop de rain’) and there are reports of the
presence of doves in the sky and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy:

On Thursday the 21st of April, at the arrival of our Divine
Majesty, there was great signs and wonders in the Heavens. At his arrival the
firmament became dark, the sun withdrew its shining and there came out of the
Heavens thunder, storms, hails of lightening and great rain appeared in the
Heavens; this all happened in a moment; it was a moment of inclement
weather.  There appeared in the Heavens a flock of white doves, followed
by the appearance of the sun in all brightness with the arrival of a plane
which landed at the Palisades Airport.

At that hour the weather became serene as before.  There were raised up
great shouts of jubilation, because the King of Zion had come.  Here
Psalms 18 is fulfilled, “He Bowed the Heavens and came down and darkness
was under his feet, and he rode upon a cherub and did fly upon the wings of the
wind. He made darkness his secret place; His pavilion round
about him were
dark waters and thick clouds of the skies.  At the
brightness that was before Him his thick clouds passed,
hall stones and coals of fire.”[23]

The Jamaica visit also led to the conversion of the wife of
reggae star Bob Marley, Rita, to the Rastafari religion, after she claimed to
see the mark of the stigmata on Selassie’s hand as he greeted the crowd.[24]
For her, this ‘miracle’ was proof that Selassie was indeed the promised Messiah
and the incarnation of God.

The hysterical devotion that greeted Selassie in Jamaica
was surprising, even disturbing, and he refused to leave the plane for 45
minutes until his safety could be assured. Selassie did not consider himself to
be the Messiah nor to be divine. He was a Christian and there are reports that
officials turned Rastafarians away from his palace gates for fear of upsetting
his religious sensibilities.[25]
These facts have had no effect on Rastafarian belief and even Selassie’s death
has done nothing to dampen their convictions that he is God and the saviour of Africa.
In what is perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the Rastafari belief system, most
Rastafarians refuse to accept that Selassie died at all.

In the initial period after Selassie’s death and the throwing of his body into
an unmarked pit, Rastafarians maintained that either Selassie was still alive
and hidden from view, taking shelter in some undisclosed location from where he
would eventually emerge and lead Ethiopia to salvation, or that he had ascended
bodily into heaven and would soon return to re-establish his rule on earth. The
subsequent discovery of Selassie’s bones and their reinterment has done nothing
to disabuse Rastafarians of these notions. The answer is simple: the bones were
not his and he is still alive. Just as news of Selassie’s death in 1975 was
presented by Rastafarians as ‘a trick of the white media to undermine their
the same is said of his bones. While some Rastafarians attended Selassie’s
funeral in 2000, they were simply there to observe the proceedings and were

A Sudanese Rastafarian who had settled in Ethiopia
told the BBC: ‘Haile Selassie is King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and the
conquering lion of the Tribe of Judah. He is everything to us Rastafarians and
we will never accept that he is dead’.[27] A
Rastafarian leader from Trinidad and Tobago
claimed: ‘We do not believe that he is dead. We communicate with him in spirit
daily. Haile Selassie is very much alive’.[28] Rita Marley
agreed: ‘Rasta people will be all loving his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile
Selassie I. There is no end of his reign’.[29]

Looking at the status of Haile Selassie in the Rastafari religion we find the

  • The coming to earth of a
    messianic figure who was prophesied in the Old Testament
  • A birth accompanied by
  • A child with immense divinely
    given wisdom who possessed miraculous powers
  • A Messiah whose actions were
    prefigured in Old Testament writings
  • A man who could perform
    miracles and in whose presence miracles occurred
  • A man who was worshipped and
    held to be divine by thousands who had not even met him
  • A man who was the incarnation
    of God and who continues to live on despite evidence of his death
  • A man who is prayed to and
    communicated with by his followers
  • A saviour who will one day
    return to gather up a chosen people who will live under his rule in a kingdom
    of God

Despite the facts related to
the actual historical figure of Selassie, as we see, Rastafarians have built an
extensive religious mythology around him, and even did so within his lifetime.

The story of Haile Selassie and the development of the Rastafari religion has interesting significance to the question of the
historicity of Jesus. Haile Selassie is manifestly a historical figure, but imagine what might come from the following scenario. Imagine
if, at some point in the future, the earth suffered a huge civilisational
collapse and the vast bulk of the historical record was lost. Imagine then that
humans managed to slowly rebuild civilisation and that thousands of years from
now historians were trying to piece together facts about the Twentieth Century.
Imagine then that the only records of Selassie’s existence that had survived
were the devotional accounts of Rastafarians. The only story historians would
have to work with would be made up of layers of mythology. The story of
Selassie, a man who arose in a time in which Ethiopians were excitedly awaiting
the coming of a Messiah, would be filled with references to the fulfillment of
Old Testament prophecies, stories of miracles, tales of God walking the earth,
and the denial of the reality of the Messiah’s death. They would read that
Selassie is still alive and that part of the proof of this is that followers
can ‘communicate in spirit’ with him.

As a result of this, surely there would be some who would adopt a ‘mythicist’
position with regard to the historical Selassie. It would be argued that
despite references to a specific historical period and the interweaving of
elements into Selassie’s story that suggest the factual existence of some
historical character beneath all the mythology and stories of miracles there
was in fact no Haile Selassie. Selassie would be presented as an entirely
fictional figure dreamed up by black nationalists who created a mythical
figurehead to galvanise the movement and give hope to its followers. It would
be said that later followers misunderstood this narrative approach and
mistakenly took Selassie to be someone who had actually lived. The original
Rastafarians, it would be said, never intended to present a story of someone
who really existed.

I wish to argue that the phenomenon of Haile Selassie goes some way to
presenting a case for the plausibility of a historical Jesus beneath the layers
of mythology and religious devotion that have been overlaid onto his story.
Indeed, we find a very similar scenario. The Jews of Jesus’ time had long
endured oppression and a belief had spread that God was going to send a Messiah
to His people who would gather them up and institute a reign of righteousness.
Among the many Messianic hopefuls we find at the time, there is Jesus, a man
whose original message was arguably apocalyptic in nature and who wandered a
relatively small area preaching the coming of the Kingdom
of God
. His early followers
believed Jesus, for whatever reason, to be the awaited Messiah and in writings
many years after his death and supposed resurrection we find him presented as a
saviour figure whose coming and whose actions were prophesied in the Old
Testament. He is variously proclaimed as a prophet and as a divine being whose life
was permeated with miracles, who had supreme wisdom,
who cheated death, and who will ultimately return to save his followers.

The difference between my hypothetical scenario of civilisational collapse
above and the case of Jesus is that while the loss of modern media and
historical records would be necessary for Selassie’s existence to be called
into question, there actually are no non-religious accounts of Jesus available
to us. However, this is not really particularly surprising. Outside his immediate
circle, Jesus was an incredibly marginal figure. Assuming he did exist and was
indeed crucified by the Romans, the most we could realistically hope for would
be some brief Roman note of his execution. The notion that there should be all
sorts of extra-Biblical material covering his life presupposes Jesus was seen
as important by major figures and writers of his day, which he obviously
wasn’t. People who ask why, if Jesus did so many amazing things, he isn’t
spoken of widely might also like to ask why the supposedly miraculous aspects
of Selassie’s life are found only in Rastafarian writings. The same answer
holds true for both: the majority of the Gospel accounts of Jesus and his life
are plainly unhistorical or greatly exaggerated, as are the majority of Rastafarian
beliefs about Selassie. We have many non-religious records of Selassie because
he was a significant historical figure independently of Rastafarian beliefs
about him. If Selassie was simply an obscure itinerant African preacher and not
a political figure, it is possible that we may have only religious records even
of him.

What the strange case of Haile Selassie demonstrates is that it is perfectly
possible for a real historical figure to become so overlaid with mythology and
religious notions that very little factual historical data remains. I contend
that the same principle applies to the historical Jesus. That there was a
historical figure, most likely a Jewish apocalyptic preacher, whose story was
greatly embellished by devotees who misrepresented and exaggerated him in many ways seems to me entirely plausible. That there was no
historical Jesus, and that the gospel accounts in their entirety are
mythological texts that do not – and were never intended to – refer however
obliquely to an actual historical figure seems to me an argument that takes
scepticism a step further than it can justifiably go. In common with much of
the scholarly community, I am of the view that mythicism cannot adequately
account for the very historical hopes of early Christianity, particularly its
insistence that the apocalyptic Kingdom is at hand, a Kingdom that was to be on
earth and a Kingdom that was seen to be at hand precisely because a charismatic
figure proclaimed as the Messiah had announced this to be the case.

Jesus as we find him in the New Testament is undoubtedly a figure far removed
from the historical character who fired up the hopes
of his earliest followers. Haile Selassie as we find him in Rastafarian
devotional literature is also very far from the historical figure we know to
have existed. The case of Selassie demonstrates the extent to which a real
historical figure can quickly become mythologised to such a level that he
becomes barely recognisable as the human being that he actually was. I contend
the same is true of the historical Jesus, and that the fact that the ‘accounts’
of his life that we have are so manifestly devotional and filled with
mythological content is not in itself a definitive argument for the absence in
history of a figure on whom they are, however fantastically, based.

Edmund Standing holds a BA in Theology & Religious Studies and an MA in
Critical & Cultural Theory. His other articles on this website can be found
in the articles archive. He also writes for Harry’s Place
and Jewcy.

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