Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty



Luis and Janet write:

   Your articles bring insight and clarity to points that must
bother thinking Christians, or anyone who has tried to make
sense of Christianity itself.  This is a most welcome addition
to the Secular Web.

Steven writes:

   I believe that critiques of Jesus' historicity ultimately fail.
I think the references in Josephus have some validity...I don't 
put Acts in the second century.  I think it was written by a 
companion of Paul, who did some research to try to find out about 
a real Jesus...John's Gospel differs in a lot of respects from the 
Synoptics, but does seem to have some historical validity.  For 
example, the embarrassment about the baptising of Jesus by John 
the Baptist in John's Gospel does seem to point to a real event...

Response to Steven:

Josephus and Christian Forgery / "Brother of the Lord" / John's Jesus

[Note: The Josephus question, including consideration of the phrase "brother of the Lord," is dealt with at length in Supplementary Article No. 10: Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question. Please see that article, which replaces my earlier remarks to Steven.]

. . . You are also a pretty rare voice these days in giving the Gospel of John "some historical validity." John's picture of Jesus is just too fundamentally divergent from the others. The Fourth Evangelist's embarrassment over Jesus' baptism by John was a reaction to the story of this 'event' which he found in the Synoptic Gospels, not to the event itself as an historical incident with which he was familiar. (Mark, who undoubtedly invented the story, felt no such embarrassment, presumably because it fitted his 'adoptionist' presentation of Jesus; whereas John is concerned with making his Jesus an uncompromised deity from heaven who would never undergo such a thing.) John is full of signs that he adapted in his own unique way the Synoptic presentation of Jesus' life and death, things he knew nothing about until he encountered some form of the Markan-based Gospels. He made the new historical Jesus fit his own Christology, his community's view of the spiritual Christ, a revealer Son who saved by being the intermediary for knowledge about God ("whoever eats this 'bread' shall live forever"). The cross, borrowed from the Synoptics, was adapted as a means to this end; it is not any atoning sacrifice for sin as the Markan group essentially have it. (See my Supplementary Article No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John for more on this.)

Finally, for the date of Acts, I would recommend John Knox's Marcion and the New Testament, whose views some more recent scholars concur with (e.g., Townsend). An early date for Acts, let alone that it was written by a companion of Paul, cannot be supported and is largely rejected now by mainstream scholarship.

Lynn writes:

   As a short comic once said "verrry interesting".  
Congratulations on pulling together many threads.
Comments and questions:
1. I've always found it significant that there were no 
references to the birth "miracles" later in the Gospels.  
Are there any external references to the Magi or the 
slaughter of the innocents?  I have never heard of any.
2. I have also found it fascinating that there were 
supposedly cults of John the Baptist that survived for 
centuries - or so I have read.  And at least one author 
postulates that Jesus and John were of the same family 
working for the re-instatement of the Hasmoneans.  Do 
you have any insight into the John cult as it relates 
to your hypothesis of a widespread cosmic Christ cult?
3. I am fascinated by your early cosmic Christ cult to 
explain the rapid spread of Christianity.  This radically 
contradicts what I had previously thought convincing - 
the gradual accretion of messiah, son, deity, and deity
from all time, to the growing concept of Jesus.
4. I am not clear how the lack of any historical Jesus 
can be consistent with the various Nazarene cults which 
seem to have prospered for centuries in a few locations.  
Has the evidence of these cults been exaggerated or

Response to Lynn:

The Magi / Cults of John the Baptist / Jewish-Christian Sects

There are no references in any contemporary or later non-Christian documents (and no Christian ones outside Matthew until a few later apocryphal writings deriving their 'information' from Matthew) to the Magi or the so-called slaughter of the innocents. The latter is suspiciously like the similar legendary act of Pharaoh at the time of Moses' birth (Exodus 1:22). It may also have been influenced by Herod's notorious execution of so many of his own family members in the paranoia he felt during later life that plots were being hatched against him. Josephus' silence on this Matthean incident should be conclusive.

As for cults attached to John the Baptist, the first thing to be noted is that we can cast little more light on this figure than we can on Jesus. Some scholars refer to the "Quest for the historical Baptist", and express as much frustration with it as they do over the quest for the historical Jesus. (See the article of that name by John Reumann in Understanding the Sacred Text, p.183.) In Josephus we at least have a brief reference to him which is very unlikely to be a forgery (Antiquities of the Jews, 18, 5), but he makes no link of John to a Christian sect, let alone a Jesus. Reumann (p.183, following Enslin) suggests that "John and Jesus probably never met," that John was introduced into the Gospel story to serve as the messenger who was widely expected to herald the coming of the Lord. Malachi prophecied the coming of Elijah to prepare for Yahweh's arrival to establish the Kingdom. The evangelists needed an actual historical figure (since Elijah himself had not put in an appearance) to herald Jesus' coming. Actually, John first appears in Q, before any of the Gospels were written, and if we look at the layer Q2, we can see that in the earliest thinking, John was regarded as heralding the new preaching of the Kingdom as conducted by the Q community itself. Only later when a founding Jesus was developed did the figure of John have to be aligned with him and serve as his herald, and this role was carried over into the Gospels. (See my Part Three article.)

John was only one of probably many Jewish prophets of the time (he received special notoriety because of his execution by Herod Antipas, which is recorded by Josephus) who advocated repentance and practiced baptism, though not with a mystical meaning as Paul rendered it, but as Josephus says, for purification of the body as an adjunct to the repentance which purified the soul. Such baptist-type sects involving washing rituals were part of a renewal movement of the time which hoped to induce God to restore Israel. It is possible that a following did form around John the Baptist, or one after his death, though not significant enough for Josephus to mention it.

On the other hand, the existence of a sect specifically acknowledging John the Baptist as its founder is entirely based on an interpretation of the Gospels, i.e. from the perceived desire of the evangelists, especially John, to 'put down' the Baptist as subordinate to Jesus and make him declare himself as such. The reference to 'disciples of John' does not prove the existence of a later cult based on him. We have no independent witness to such a thing. Thomas L. Brodie points out that the reference in the third century Pseudo-Clement is problematic, and is based on varying secondary translations of a lost original. It cannot make secure any theory of a late first century Baptist sect.

Your question about the "Nazarene cults" is more complicated. (You probably have in mind those groups which come under the general heading of "Jewish-Christians", like the Ebionites, the Nazareans, the Elkasaites, etc.) A scholar like Burton Mack would be anxious to see these as survivals of his co-called "Jesus movements" which are supposed to have begun as responses to Jesus the teacher and did not consider him divine.

The Ebionites, for example, came to regard Jesus as a prophet Messiah but not the son of God. The trouble is, all these groups flourished after the first century, and the recording of fragments from their documents (as in Epiphanius and Hippolytus) come from the third and fourth centuries. Besides, there is much confusion among such preserved fragments (see below). Any evaluation of what their views of Jesus/Christ were in the earliest stages of their faith is an extrapolation backwards. Even the prominent tradition that the precursor of these movements was the remnant of the original Jerusalem church which at the height of the Jewish War fled Judea for Pella, a city in the Transjordan, is based on a fourth century report of the second century writer Hegesippus—and we know how notoriously unreliable (not to mention naive and tendentious) were later Christian traditions about the early period.

There is great difficulty in tracing later Ebionite views back to the Jerusalem community known to us through the letters of Paul, who, by the way, gives us not an inkling that Peter and James' view of Jesus was so radically different from his own. Theories that the later Jewish-Christian view of Christ as only a human man was the original expression of the Christ movement are impossible to maintain with any credibility. (Burton Mack's position—or "suspicion"—in his recent Who Wrote the New Testament?, that the Jerusalem group was of the "Jesus movement" type, not regarding Jesus as divine, is unsupportable from the only firm evidence we have (Paul's letters) and constitutes one of several notable flaws in his overall scenario. See my review of this book in the Book Review section.)

The progression of Gnostic writings during the second century, in my estimation, shows that groups outside the orthodox mainstream could adopt the newly-developed historical Jesus and impose it on their own view of a mythical savior figure. The Gospel of John shows this as well. So the simple answer to this question is that these Jewish reform sects essentially adopted those elements of the emerging Jesus figure which they could fit into their own views. They came to regard Christ's mission not as one of redemption but as one to teach, uphold the integrity of the Jewish Law, and condemn the sacrificial cult. (These were the primary concerns of these sects; Jean Danielou says that "only Jesus distinguishes the Ebionite doctrine from pure Essenism.") None of this is surprising. Fragments show (see below) that these sects probably began with beliefs in some kind of angelic Son or Messiah; as such, they would have existed on the fringes of the larger picture of the spiritual Christ cults. The figure of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation of all these expressions of a heavenly being became a juggernaut no one could resist.

Judging by the fragments later preserved of the second century Gospels of the Ebionites and the Nazareans, it is thought that these Jewish-Christian sects based their Gospels largely on Matthew, itself the most Jewish of the four canonicals. This would indicate that such sects grew out of the same milieu which produced the Matthean community. The nature of the Ebionite sect's original belief in Christ is illustrated by one of the fragments preserved by Epiphanius:

This angelic origin for Christ contradicts other sources about the beliefs of the Ebionites, that Jesus was entirely human, illustrating the confused (and much lamented) state of the preserved traditions. I suspect that over the two centuries of the sect's development, it may have moved toward an entirely human Jesus; or this divergence may reflect a range of sects. In any case, the above fragment shows that from a spiritual, angelic Son of God who revealed the doctrines of the sect, Christ has evolved into a being who "came" to earth to actually preach these doctrines. This is the fundamental dynamic in sectarian development leading to the invention of a human Christ. The Proclaimed (the sect's doctrines and the spiritual heavenly figure who revealed them) evolves into the Proclaimer (a human who was actually on earth to do the preaching). As I say in my Part Three article, the activity of the sect crystallizes into a founder figure who is seen to have established the group and first promulgated its doctrines. This tendency is a common feature of sectarian behavior around the world and it is on this basis that we should interpret the evolution of the various stages of Q (from the heavenly 'personified Wisdom' to Jesus, the child of Wisdom).

The extent to which these sects could form their own myths even when adapting a Gospel like Matthew is illustrated by the first fragment from the Gospel of the Hebrews:

Another fragment says:

Such traditions point to ideas which ignored or were prior to the Nativity story developed by Matthew. This Gospel also makes James the Just a participant at the Last Supper and the first witness to Christ's resurrection. Since James would have been a key figure in the legendary beginnings of these sects, one can see how tendentious all reports about 'historical events' were in Christian records, and consequently how unreliable we must judge all information in the Christian documents, including those which ended up in the canon.

(For a discussion of these fragments, see New Testament Apocrypha, ed. W. Schneemelcher, vol. 1, p. 153f and 158f.)

Finally, the Elchasaites are a very interesting group. Their later traditions said they were formed around the year 100. They too seem to have been a schismatic Jewish sect close to the Essenes. According to Hippolytus, they also believed in a Son of God who was an angelic being (a giant one), and that he had granted to the founder Elchasai visions and knowledge. (The Holy Spirit was also a giant female angel.) The problem is, no external evidence for this sect exists before 220, and the founder of the sect is judged by several scholars never to have existed. The sect's "Book of Elchasai", based on a Hebrew term meaning 'Hidden Power', seems to have been later understood as the book of the man Elchasai, invented as the recipient of this knowledge. Not all sects are without founders, of course, and in some cases an actual founder will be aggrandized and accumulate all sorts of legends. But in the case of those that lack a single founder, growing instead out of a coalescing group as in the case of the Q community, or the Hebrew 'race' as a whole, the invention of a founding figure or patriarch is a natural, even inevitable occurrence. That the former was not the case with Christianity, is a judgment that comes from the study of the movement as a whole and all its surviving documents.