Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty



Tony writes:

    Thank you so much for your site, and the intense research 
you must have put into this work. I came to the same 
conclusion, just from reading the Bible. I never knew that 
this information was out there to support my views. Again, 
I salute you for your great work.

Tom writes:

    I somehow stumbled upon your “The Jesus Puzzle” site. 
This is mind boggling. The research appears exhaustive 
and systematic. This is the first I have been aware of 
credible-appearing scholarship from the angle of a possibly 
non-existent historical Jesus.

Scott writes:

    Thanks for putting your paper on the net. I think you 
are absolutely right. I was raised Christian and something 
always struck me as strange about the way Paul said stuff, 
but I could never put my finger on it.

Etinger writes:

    I believe that your whole website has been inspired by 
Satan. The scholarship isn’t even accurate. There are many 
logical flaws. For example you said that the Gospel writers 
had Jesus teach on the Old Testament Law, however there 
are so many things that Jesus did not teach on which were 
far more important than the things he did speak on, such as 
circumcision. Anyway, I won’t waste my time.

Abe writes:

    In one of the Gospels Jesus is quoted as telling some 
of his followers that they would still be alive at the time 
of his glorious return on the clouds. If this Gospel was 
written in the second century, wouldn’t that have appeared 
to all who read it as a false prophecy, since nobody from 
c.33 CE would have been alive at that time? Could this 
indicate that the Synoptics had to be written within 40 to 
50 years after the supposed time of the crucifixion?

Response to Abe:

“The present generation will live to see it all. . .”

My view of the Gospel of Mark is that it was written as a piece of symbolism and midrash. The pre-passion ministry of Jesus represented the beliefs and activities of the preaching community of which Mark was a part, while the passion story, constructed in midrashic fashion out of passages from scripture, gave a new significance to the traditional tale of the Suffering Righteous One. Mark and his initial audience would have known that the Gospel was symbolic and that its central character Jesus of Nazareth served partly as an allegory of the life of the community itself. Consequently, Jesus’ ‘prediction’ represented the predictions that were being made at the time the Gospel was written, and thus the problem of fulfilment would only have arisen a generation or two after the writing of Mark.

One might ask how those who started to view the Gospel story as historical (sometime in the first half of the second century) felt about the inordinate lapse of time following Jesus’ supposed prediction. No doubt they found ways to rationalize it, just as believers over the centuries since then have been forced to do so. Papias, by the way, a bishop of Hierapolis some time in the 130s or 140s, is reported to have claimed that those raised from the dead by Jesus survived into the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138), so perhaps the Gospel of Mark could safely have been written even well into the second century!

However, I do not date Mark in the second century, but prefer a date around 85-90. (My new book, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin With a Mythical Christ? discusses these matters at length, including the question of the dating of Mark.)

Robert writes:

    I think your research is remarkable, but there seems 
to be two questions that ought to be resolved:
(1) Why would the first gospel (Mark) portray Jesus only 
as a great prophet, and the last canonical gospel (John) 
portray him in line with the supposedly original, cosmic 
savior-god concept? Isn’t this the reverse of what we 
would expect from your theory? 
(2) Why didn’t pagan and Jewish opponents of Christianity 
dispute Jesus’ historicity?

Response to Robert:

Mark’s Jesus as merely a Prophet / No Pagan Mythicists

The previous response to Abe goes part way toward answering Robert’s first question. This has always seemed a perplexing point, in that the cultic Christ’s line of development begins at the highest point of divinity (in the epistles) and moves toward an earthly figure, whereas the Gospel Jesus begins near the opposite end of the spectrum and moves in a reverse direction, toward the Jesus-as-God declarations of Councils like Nicaea.

The explanation is that these two expressions began from distinct phenomena—in fact, from the two separate elements which went into the composite entity which Christianity became. The epistles represent belief in an intermediary, redeeming divinity who had nothing to do with an earthly career, whereas the Gospel of Mark grew out of the Galilean kingdom-preaching movement, also represented by the Q document.

Mark’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the pre-passion part of the Gospel, was essentially a representation of the Markan community’s own activities: prophetic, teaching, miracle-working. Any divinity for Mark’s Jesus is muted, depending on how one interprets such features as God’s reference to Jesus as his “Son” (Mk. 1:11), the demons’ reference to Jesus as the “Son of God” (3:11), or the centurion’s faith statement in 15:39 (“this man truly was [a] Son of God”). Thus, the human dimensions of the Gospel Jesus predominate in the picture Mark has created.

On the other hand, the death and resurrection, and the intimations of an atonement doctrine (10:45) seem to suggest that Mark is also allegorizing the cultic figure of Paul’s “Christ Jesus” who underwent a redeeming death and rising in the supernatural world. That Mark subscribes to some concept of a spiritual, intermediary “Son” seems evident from 13:32: “But about that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; only the Father.” And identifying Jesus with the End-time Son of Man (although just how this apocalyptic figure was viewed by the Markan and Q communities in regard to a divine nature is not sure) renders the character of Jesus of Nazareth more than a simple human prophet.

Jesus in the Gospel of John gives the impression of being a ‘progression’ on the Synoptic Jesus for two reasons. One is the Logos hymn which was attached to the beginning of the Gospel, probably at a late stage of redaction in the middle of the second century. This Prologue reflects the pervasive philosophical thinking in that period about “the Logos/Son,” as encountered in the apologists. The other is the fact that the Johannine community seems originally to have been based on a heavenly, mystical “Revealer Son” (the ‘teachings’ placed in Jesus’ mouth about himself as found in the Gospel) who was regarded as the spiritual channel to saving knowledge of the Father. The Johannine community was a sectarian entity (located in Syria) which was distinct from the Galilean kingdom movement. When the Synoptic story of Jesus of Nazareth was grafted onto the Johannine faith in this Revealer Son, sometime in the first half of the second century, it was not allowed to submerge the characteristics of that spiritual figure, and thus the Jesus of John seems more ‘cosmic’ and divine than the Markan one.

The simple answer to Robert’s second question is that no pagan or Jewish opponents of Christianity, by the time Christians were declaring their belief in an historical founding figure, would have been in a position to disprove his historicity. This would have been close to a century after the ‘fact,’ following a particularly disruptive period of Palestinian history, including one and eventually two catastrophic Jewish Wars. What records or memories would have existed to be drawn upon to make such a case? And if such a disputation was put forward, it would simply have been ignored and would not have survived in any written record. What does survive is the record within Christianity itself that some disagreed with the declaration that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” (See also next response.) 1 John 4 labels such views “Antichrist,” and Ignatius of Antioch fulminates against those who do not preach a Jesus born of Mary who died under Pontius Pilate, calling them “beasts in the form of men.” If Christians, excited about a new founder figure who was said to have undergone the experiences told of in the Gospels, rejected even opposing views by fellow-Christians, how much attention would they have given to objections voiced by pagans or Jews?

John writes:

    Congratulations on your site which I appreciate for its 
scholarship and your clear and courteous replies. After 
following the historical quest and reading Crossan, Mack 
and Spong I consider your conclusions to be more plausible. 
Could you answer some queries. . . .

Response to John:

Docetists in 1 John and Ignatius / Gnostic vs. Orthodox / Rival Apostles / en sarki

1. You mention the references in 1 John and Ignatius to those who disbelieve the incarnated Jesus are not references to docetists. What are the arguments?

In 1 John 4:1-3 (paralleled by 2 John 7-8), reference is made to those who do not confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” The spirit that motivates these “false prophets” is not from God, says the writer, but rather from the predicted “antichrist.” In other words, these competing claims are the product of perceived inspiration, a concept that usually relates to the interpretation of scripture. Docetic positions are not generally presented as justified by scripture, they are philosophical positions about the inability of true divinity to enter the world of matter and human flesh.

The discussion in 1 John 4 is not conducted along anti-docetic lines; no arguments of that sort are found anywhere in the epistle. Perhaps recognizing this, few commentators actually interpret this issue as a docetic one. J. H. Houlden (First Epistle of John, p.107) says that “the view being refuted is that because Jesus was human, he could not have been wholly one with the Messiah, for man’s ‘Savior’ must be a purely spiritual, quasi-angelic being.” What part of the epistle’s text Houlden draws this interpretation from is not immediately clear. Kenneth Grayston (The Johannine Epistles, p.121) openly denies any docetic content: “The implied contrast [between the two spirits] is not between a Christ who came in the flesh and a Christ who was present in appearance only, but between accepting Jesus as both Christ and Son of God and discarding Jesus for the benefits of the Spirit.” This, again, seems more a personal interpretation by Grayston than anything said by the epistle writer. R. E. Brown (The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible 30, p.492-4), after analyzing three possible ways of translating the key phrase, concludes: “The import of that [his preferred] translation is to put emphasis on the person modally understood: there is no separation between “Jesus” and “Christ,” and the individual involved must be understood in terms of his career in “flesh.”

All of these analyses seem to owe more to 20th century theological creativity than to the actual content of the passage, which appears on the surface to refer to a dispute over whether Christ actually entered the material world of flesh. Admittedly, there is little to go on even for the latter interpretation other than the words themselves, but at least it is recognized by most scholars that the issue is not about docetism.

With Ignatius, the matter is a little different, since the bishop of Antioch deals in his series of letters with two separate issues: one (represented by passages like Trallians 9), that Jesus was a man of David’s line, born of Mary, crucified by Pilate, a biography some are said to be denying; the other (in passages like Trallians 10), that “his sufferings were genuine” and that “he had a real human body.” The latter is, of course, a docetic issue. This was a time when Cerinthus and other early gnostics were said to be operating, although the docetic position Ignatius is countering is not of the reputed Cerinthus variety.

I deal with the question of Ignatius and docetism at length in Appendix 3 of my new book, but I will quote here a couple of paragraphs from that discussion:

2. You state “. . . a form of Christian faith . . . gnosticism clearly preceded the establishment of orthodox beliefs.” It is my understanding that gnosticism, like Christianity, resulted from the melding of Greek thought and Jewish religion (specifically Platonic philosophy and Genesis) and was a separate strand from the sacrifice story of the Christ cult of Paul. What reference is there to it clearly preceding orthodox Christianity?

I don’t know the context of the statement you quote (which shows that even I need an Index to my site!) but I would not have made such a sweeping, unqualified claim. Rather, such a situation would apply only in certain areas, like Egypt and parts of Syria. That is, the record shows that gnostic forms of belief were in evidence in such locations before those which later became “orthodox.” The classic and groundbreaking presentation of such evidence is, of course, Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.

3. Do you have any thoughts on who are the adversaries that Paul, etc., are referring to in polemics as follows: super apostles (2 Cor. 11), devoted to myths and genealogies (1 Tim. 1:3-4), deny Jesus Christ, dreamers . . . slander celestial beings (Jude 1:8)?

Judgments as to who the various unnamed apostles referred to by Paul in his letters, as well as those condemned by other epistle writers, usually revolves around what relationship they may have had to the Jerusalem apostles around Peter and James, and how they would best fit in with the orthodox picture of an apostolic Christian movement proceeding out of Jerusalem in response to Jesus’ death and resurrection. My position is that there was no such centralized apostolic movement, and that the apostles Paul encounters in the field (usually rivals) are much like himself, men who are convinced they have been called by God through the Spirit to go out and preach salvation through belief in a redeeming Son and Christ. Where they actually come from is anyone’s guess. The “super-apostles” of 2 Corinthians 11:5, whom Paul goes on to call “sham-apostles, crooked in all their practices, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (11:13), cannot be equated with the Jerusalem apostles, since Paul would never vilify or reject the latter to that extent. Other references in the epistles, such as John itemizes, are probably to groups within believing communities who have been exposed to different doctrines and traditions. Commentators often speculate as to their identity, but usually end up simply labeling them according to the quoted doctrines or practices they hold. This does not go very far toward answering the question, or providing us with a proper picture of the whole Christian phenomenon. For my own view of the apostolic movement of which Paul was a part, see my Supplementary Article No. 1: Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate.

4. Are there any other references in ancient literature for the phrase ‘en sarki’ similar to Paul’s use of it (ie, ‘in the realm of flesh, first heaven’)?

Unfortunately, none I am aware of. Julian the Apostate speaks of the god approaching “matter” or operating within certain layers of the universe which occupy an intermediate level between the changing and the unchanging (Appendix 6 in my new book discusses at some length the question of the location of the myths of the savior gods), but he does not employ the word “flesh” (sarx) in this connection. Contemporary with the beginnings of Christianity, writings about the savior gods are virtually non-existent, as the devotees were sworn to secrecy about the rites and their significance. In any case, such writings would probably not have survived once Christianity became predominant and the mysteries were driven into extinction.

Peter writes:

    I would like to congratulate you on your “The Jesus Puzzle” 
homepage. I had always taken for granted that there had to be 
an historical Jesus of some sort, and that the church and the 
Roman state had managed to suppress unpleasant historical 
evidence. I must say that your version is more convincing. 
I read Paul’s letters and the one to the Hebrews again, and 
it really became quite clear.
    Could you tell me whether later non-Christians who analyzed 
Gospel Christianity deeply could also be aware of what you 
described? For instance, the emperor Julian, who was well 
versed in Neoplatonism and the New Testament, could have 
reached the same conclusions by reading Paul’s letters. Is 
there any evidence of that?

Response to Peter:

Julian the Apostate as New Testament Exegete?

How much of the New Testament Julian had studied I don’t know, and whether from reading Paul’s letters he could have reached the conclusion that no Jesus had existed is difficult to say. The mythicist conclusion is to a great extent dependent on modern exegetical techniques and on such things as an understanding of Q. One might argue that Paul’s silences on the Gospel Jesus and his portrayal of Christ as an entirely spiritual being could have led to a suspicion in the mind of someone like Julian that he was speaking of an exclusively heavenly figure, but there is no evidence, as far as I know, that Julian attempted that kind of critical analysis of the New Testament record.

John writes:

    Doesn’t it seem surprising that Christians of today argue 
that the apostle Paul had no need or desire to mention the 
acts or words of Jesus? I have no knowledge of any preacher 
of any Christian faith today that dismisses the deeds of their 
savior to the level Paul did. Since  modern Christians accept 
the Gospel narrations as true, they refer to them often as the 
canon of the teachings of their master. It would be almost 
unthinkable for a preacher / pastor / bishop / elder, etc. not 
to mention Jesus’ life and teachings while explaining their 
faith,  especially to non-Christians. Indeed, there seems to be 
a debate as to which is the “most Christian” among Christian 
churches, with the deciding factor being how much their 
respective doctrines rely on the Gospels, or “Jesus’ own words,” 
as opposed to other sources. Paul would do poorly today as a 
Christian preacher.
    To use the founder of Mormonism as an example, Joseph 
Smith’s conversion story was told and retold by all his 
successors. Church members tell it to each other over and 
over again, even though they all know it very well. They 
visit and honor the places where he prayed or taught. If you 
ask any Mormon about their faith, you will be told about 
Joseph as a young boy wanting to know the truth, how he 
prayed in the spring of 1830, how he organized the church, 
what he taught, what he wrote, his persecutions and his 
death at the hands of an angry mob. His public life was very 
short, with very few followers at first, and yet, there is a 
vast amount of data available about him. There are portraits 
and engravings painted by peers, manuscripts with his original 
writings, transcripts of his teachings, biographies, anecdotes, 
etc., etc. All this information was produced by both apologists 
and detractors, as well as by impartial observers.
    How much more should early Christians have  told and retold 
the doings and sayings of the Son of God come to earth? It 
defies reason that they would only mention sporadically that he 
was “crucified for us.” If Paul’s readers thought he was talking 
about a recently living person they would have wanted more 
information about that all-important event. If Jesus did so 
many things that “the world could not contain all the books that 
should be written” (John 21:25), how come the books that there 
are amount to so little?
    Obviously my intent with this letter is not to preach to 
the choir, and your brilliant articles do a much better job 
than my passing comments at defending your theory. I guess it 
just feels good to add my opinion to the pot. Thanks and keep 
up the good work.

Response to John:

The Silence on Jesus the Man in Early Christianity

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Observations like yours show that the argument from silence is indeed a compelling one. It cannot be dismissed with the disdain usually accorded it by those unwilling or unable to face the overwhelming implications of the void on the human Jesus found in the early Christian record.

Tom writes:

    After reading Crossan and your review [of Crossan’s recent 
The Birth of Christianity], and being amazed at the 
speed with which Crucifixion-and-Resurrection Christianity 
expanded, I’ve been wondering if Pauline sect(s) could have 
existed in Jerusalem prior to 30 CE, perhaps as early as 10-20. 
I know of no evidence of such early beginnings, but will the 
idea stand up as an hypothesis? Do we have any information 
which would contradict it?

Response to Tom:

When did Christianity Start?

If Galatians is basically a reliable document, we can date Paul’s ‘conversion’ to the early 30s CE. Everything Paul says leads us to assume that he was converted to a faith movement which already held the beliefs he adopted. In other words, Paul did not invent the Christ cult, though he no doubt brought some of his own thinking to it. How long was “Christ belief” in existence before that? The sectarian community around Peter and James existed in Jerusalem, though the cult seems to have been more widespread. Paul refers to it as “the churches of Judea in Christ” (Gal. 1:22) and he is later active in places like Antioch (Gal. 2:11) which already have established congregations, though we don’t know for how long. The same is true of Damascus (Gal. 1:17, 2 Cor. 13:32), which had a persecuted Christian community—if Acts can be relied upon here—before Paul’s conversion.

Persecution by the religious authorities implies a community well-established and widespread, which could well indicate that the cultic Christ movement was at least a couple of decades old. But we have no firm evidence. A pre-Pauline ‘hymn’ like that quoted in Philippians 2:6-11 contains sophisticated theological concepts, again implying a movement that has been around long enough to develop such things. But there is no way of knowing how long before the writing of Philippians (presumably in the 50s) such a piece of liturgy was in circulation. That it goes back to pre-30 CE days is impossible to say.

One final observation: The “seeings” of the spiritual Christ recounted in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 preceded Paul’s own vision (15:8), which may or may not be equated with his conversion experience. (I would tend to regard it as a post-conversion event.) But Paul’s comments do not suggest that the experiences of the others marked the inauguration of the sect or its belief in a spiritual Son (unlike my reading of Hebrews 2:3-4 or 1 John 1:1-4, which I see as prompting the beginning of these sects’ beliefs). Just when the group around Peter and James did form, and what were its original purposes and beliefs (“brethren in the Lord” may have referred to God and not to the Son/Christ) cannot now be uncovered. The development of a doctrine about the Son, within a group or groups formed to prepare for the Day of the Lord or to study the question of God’s salvation plans, may have taken place over time, to climax in a series of revelatory experiences, traditions about which ended up in 1 Corinthians 15. (See my Supplementary Article No. 7: Transfigured on the Holy Mountain: The Beginnings of Christianity for a fuller discussion of these questions.)

Arne writes:

    Where does the name [Jesus] come from? Philippians 2:9 
says: “Therefore has God exalted him, and given him the name 
that is above all names.” In the next verse (10) this name 
seems to be the name Jesus. It seems to me that from this 
text we may conclude that the name Jesus was given to him 
after his death and exaltation. If this is correct, the myth 
that Paul is quoting gives the name “Jesus” to Christ after 
he had returned to heaven, meaning that it does not refer 
to an historical person.

Response to Arne:

Philippians 2:6-11: Naming Jesus

You may be right. Literally, “Jesus” means “Yahweh Saves,” an ideal name for a savior god who was the Son of Yahweh and his agent of redemption. If the name “Jesus” was the name of a human man who came to be regarded as the pre-existent Son of God, it does not seem natural that the writer of this hymn would have declared it to be given to him only after death and to be “the name above all names.” However, if we regard the Son’s death and exaltation as the saving acts of a spiritual being who has just, by those acts, fulfilled his destiny and role in God’s plan, then that is the moment when the hymn writer might well conceive that such a name was bestowed upon him, the moment when he took on his full powers and received the obeisance of all the “knees and tongues” in the universe.

On the other hand, there is a way out of this problematic interpretation, and some scholars have taken it. The “Name” given to the one who died and was exalted may not be “Jesus,” but rather “Lord,” which appears in the final verse (2:11) of the hymn: “And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The point is at best ambiguous, although the repetition of the word “name” in verse 10 would suggest that “Jesus” is the name in mind in verse 9: “(9). . . and gave him the name that is above every name, (10)that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.”

F. W. Beare (Epistle to the Philippians, p.83) regards the name in mind as “Lord,” as do others. Kenneth Grayston, if I understand him correctly (Letters of Paul to the Philippians and the Thessalonians, p.29), regards the name as “Jesus” but sees this as being a name of God; or, Grayston may be referring to the unspoken Name of God, the tetragrammaton, which is “the name above names,” implying that the hymn writer was saying that Jesus became fully associated with God only after his resurrection, a form of adoptionist christology. Such thinking, however, could have been applied to an entirely spiritual Son, an idea borne out by the opening verse, which says that this unnamed divine figure “did not seek to snatch at equality with God,” but rather achieved that equality through the process of descent/humiliation, death and exaltation.

Unfortunately, we know so little—which is to say, nothing—about the provenance of this hymn, who wrote it, where or when, the nature of the originating community and its thought, that almost any interpretation of any of its parts is possible.

To swing the argument back in Arne’s direction, I’ll quote from an article by Robert M. Price, Jesus Seminar member and co-editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism. In his “Was Jesus = John the Baptist Raised from the Dead?” he says:

PLEASE NOTE: I cannot reply to readers who do not supply at least a first name. Nor can I make use of an e-mail address which does not contain an identifiable name. I realize that sometimes leaving off a name may be an oversight, but if comments and objections are to be given the courtesy of a reply, that courtesy should also be extended by the reader in identifying him or herself.

To: Next File