Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty



Dan writes:

    Thank you for posting your articles on the Jesus Puzzle. 
Finally, someone has tried to construct Christianity from the 
writings of the first Christians, instead of trying to use 
those writings to prove a theological position one already 
believes is true.
    I for once am now beginning to feel liberated from the 
specter of this Jesus of Nazareth.

David writes:

    I came across this web page by accident, and I have read 
it end to end. I don't know whether to damn you for destroying 
my faith in Christianity or to thank you for setting my mind 
free. Suffice to say that when your hypothesis answered many 
questions I myself had, I found your arguments irresistible. 
I was always curious about the striking similarities between 
Christianity and the ancient mystery cults. I never could 
understand how good, devout Jews could embrace a god-man savior.
    So may I ask, who are you? What part do you play in the 
Jesus Seminar and other biblical research groups?
    Scratch Osiris, Attis and Jesus. . . . Allah and Buddha, 
here I come!
Response to David:

Opening Windows

And why would one want to 'set one's mind free' in regard to Christianity, only to place it into servitude again in regard to some other, equally unsupportable philosophy of the unknown and unknowable? We have reached our present moment under the sun, not through beliefs in Osiris, Attis, Jesus or Allah, but by revealing the world we live in through the exercise of science, and understanding it through the light of reason. Faith in the unobservable—and usually irrational—has always obscured that understanding, and distracted us from focusing on and bettering the only world we can truly know and be sure of. Moreover, it has served principally to divide us, since religious belief has never been universal or united, and never will be, whereas the laws of science and reason operate everywhere and provide a solid basis for human knowledge, progress and ethics.

A sermon? Well, I get preached at myself often enough. I reproduce in the Reader Feedback only a small portion of the condemnatory and irrational mail I receive. Perhaps it would not be out of place to devote some of these thoughts to the significance of the 20th century's dismantling of the Christian myth, and indeed the myth of the mystical and supernatural in general. It is long past time that we should leave it all behind.

As in David's letter, I often get asked to supply more biographical information. There are a number of reasons why I usually decline. Partly, I am a private person, uninterested in inflicting my life history on the innocent web surfer. I have said that my 'credentials' include a degree in Ancient History and Classical Languages, but I play no part in the Jesus Seminar or any other biblical or academic research group, though many in that area are familiar with me, through my website and the occasional publication. With a few I have correspondence, while the majority pointedly ignore me. But perhaps my non-involvement in the established discipline and my relative anonymity serve to demonstrate that we are all capable of freeing ourselves (I was a Christian myself, in much younger days) from irrational and unfounded beliefs, no matter how long their history or widespread their acceptance. It shows that we are all capable—or should be—of arriving at reasoned conclusions and judgments of the evidence, regardless of how overlaid the latter has been with blind and imposed tradition.

We not only live in interesting, challenging times, we are potentially on the edge of true change. If this reader has had a window opened, it is my sincere hope that he does not simply close it again with a different lock.

Mike writes:

    I appreciate your efforts to make the results of your 
research, as well as the ideas of your contemporaries and 
formative influences, available for laymen such as myself. 
Please keep up the good work.

Luis writes:

    Well, first of all, what a nice piece of work!
    There is something, however, that seems not to fit. 
There is no doubt that the Jews expected a Messiah, and 
even that this expectation increased in the two centuries 
just before the destruction of Jerusalem. And that this 
Messiah was expected to be one individual man. From your 
argument, however, it seems that Paul regarded "Christ" 
[the Greek translation of Messiah] as a theological entity 
not corresponding to a real man.
    I don't mean that this is impossible, but I feel that 
this strange change of meaning for such a strong and repeated 
word needs more explanation. First from a man who would save 
Israel and lead it to a position of hegemonic power in the 
world . . . then it becomes a theological abstraction, so 
complicated that perhaps not even Paul could understand it 
correctly. And at last it became again a man, who would again 
save Israel . . .
Response to Luis:

Jewish and Christian Messianic Ideas

As with most generalizations in historical research, the Jewish 'expectation of a Messiah who was an individual human man' is something of an oversimplification. I'll quote from the Introduction to Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters (ed. Kraft & Nickelsburg, 1983), p.19:

The first extant use of the term "Son of David" comes only in the Psalms of Solomon (No. 17), written in the first century BCE, though the idea itself is older. Other so-called messianic prophecies (eg, Ezekiel 29:21) are often less specific. The concept of the apocalyptic Son of Man, based on Daniel 7, is found not only in the Gospels, but in Jewish documents as well, the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra, where he is clearly a heavenly figure of some sort, not a mere human. The New Testament Book of Revelation offers all manner of expected 'messianic' figures and motifs which are prophesied as playing a part in the coming judgment and upheavals to be visited upon the world.

In the face of all this variety, especially those leanings in some circles of Jewish thought toward a divine or semi-divine messianic figure, the Pauline version of "Christ" no longer seems to be an inexplicable aberration. Moreover, we should always leave room for the truly innovative, which certain aspects of early Christian belief may have been. In any case, if we are to regard early Christianity as a Jewish (or Jewish-rooted) expression of the widespread savior-god impulse of the era, what other name might they have come up with for that Jewish version? I suggest that both "Jesus" (Yahweh Saves) and "Christ" (Messiah/Anointed One as a savior figure) would have offered themselves in a compelling way. I see no difficulty in regarding this as a good "fit." On the other hand, some 'Christian' lines of thought, as reflected in documents like the Shepherd of Hermas, failed to use either or both names, Jesus or Christ, which is one good indication that no historical figure who bore such names began the movement.

Alisdair writes:

    I very much enjoyed your site on the question of the 
historical Jesus. I think you make an excellent case for the 
non-historicity of Jesus.
    However, I am at present skeptical of the thesis. The 
essential idea is that a mythical savior god who appears in 
the writings of Paul later accretes a historical narrative 
and becomes identified with a religious rebel executed by the 
Romans. But there are a number of objections to this idea that 
I think are potentially fatal.
    One is that the normal process in religion is that ordinary 
people accrete more and more supernatural and god-like powers 
in the course of the development of a religious myth. . . . 
But if the non-existent Jesus idea is correct, this process 
is reversed.
    Second, execution by crucifixion was a shameful death, 
reserved for slaves, rebels and criminals. Isn't it very 
implausible that the Christians would attribute this mode of 
execution to their savior? What is worse, as appears clearly 
from the Gospels, they have to go out of their way to exculpate 
the Romans. Why would they invent a shameful death that they 
subsequently have to explain away? On the other hand, if Jesus 
was a real person about whom certain embarrassing but undeniable 
facts were known through oral tradition, then there is nothing 
to be explained.
Response to Alisdair:

Fitting Jesus into "Normal Religious Processes"

The "normal process in religion" is to believe in gods who inhabit heaven or the world of myth, not to elevate a humble Jewish preacher to full divinity, the Son of the God of Abraham. Such gods often have spun about them elaborate myths and stories which seem to take place in an earthly setting, but in some primordial time. Even here, there is a big distinction between this and an example Alisdair puts forward of a recent Indian guru having increasingly "god-like powers" attributed to him. History is full of historical figures (some presumed) who have later been lionized, mythologized, even said to be fathered by some god or other, such as Julius Caesar, or the Greek Heracles, but this is a far cry from the supposed figure of Jesus of Nazareth, elevated to full Godhead—among Jews, no less—and rendered a cosmic power that created and controls the universe, all before his corpse had scarcely enough time to turn cold. And losing in the process all notice of his earthly career.

In any case, no matter how "normal" other examples in religion may be, the fact that the Christian process may go against such a grain is not a valid argument that it was impossible. In fact, in the case of Christianity I suggest that there were a variety of factors coming together to create a complex, and in some ways unique, picture.

As I interpret the record, a distinct and essential feature in the development of an historical Jesus, took place on a human level, in the tendency of one sectarian group—in this case, the kingdom-preaching movement centered in Galilee as represented by the Q document—to invent for itself a glorified founder figure who had first preached its ethics, worked its purported miracles, and prophesied its apocalyptic expectations. Parallel and separate to this, early Christians such as Paul preached a savior-god who pointedly did not have an earthly biography, and these two elements were brought together for the first time in the Gospel of Mark, perhaps entirely for symbolic and teaching purposes. The later "historicization" of the Gospels by subsequent Christian generations created the distorted picture that we are all trying to "fit" into the normal processes (whatever they may be) of religious expression.

As for the character of ancient world crucifixion, we should not bring these historical preconceptions to the initial Christian view of it. By such a measure, Attis' castration might be regarded as equally shameful, or Osiris' dismemberment an equally difficult embarrassment, yet both these savior gods had no shortage of followers. Christ's crucifixion, for Paul, took place in the spiritual world at the hands of the demon spirits, a 'truth' that Paul found in scripture, and it probably gave him no embarrassment (though he could admit that it was "folly" by worldly standards). Indeed, he revels in the fact that Christ "became for our sake an accursed thing" (Galatians 3:13), again based on the holy word of scripture.

We must remember that the entire system of salvation through savior gods was based on those divinities undergoing the same things that their devotees on earth did, which included the shameful and the embarrassing. One only has to consider how modern Christians also revel in all that Jesus supposedly underwent on Calvary, not only as a sharing in humanity's misfortunes, but as the necessary prelude to the great reversal of glorification and resurrection, which believers themselves look forward to undergoing. It is not at all "implausible" that the early Christians would attribute this mode of execution to their savior, either in the mythical or the 'historical' phase, especially if they found its basis in the sacred writings, as Paul tells us (1 Cor. 15:3). As for exculpating the Romans, this was not designed to "explain away" the nature of Jesus' death, it was to place the (symbolic) blame for that death on the Jews, and perhaps to avoid antagonizing the gentile readers of the first Gospel story.

Jaylene writes:

    As a Christian, your website upset me. I was not impressed 
to see scriptures twisted so that they fit your needs. . . . 
Taking the verses out of context does not prove a point, it 
only misleads people.
    You claim that the four Gospels do not back each other up. 
Have you ever had four friends who try to retell a story? Each 
one of them is going to notice and miss certain points. Not one 
of the Gospels contradicts another. Some just have parts that 
others don't. I'm sure your friends tell stories differently as 
    I'm not saying that there was no spiritual part to Christ's 
death. But if it was only a spiritual death, what is the point?
Response to Jaylene:

Scripture out of Context / Gospel Contradictions

On the contrary, to address Jaylene's first point, I would say that I consistently analyze a passage by considering its context, the "verses that come before and after." My book and site articles are full of instances where I argue that the traditional meaning assumed in a passage is often not borne out by the surrounding material. Romans 1:3 ("of David's seed") and Galatians 4:4 ("born of woman") are cases in point. The former is information Paul clearly says in verse 2 that he derived from scripture, not historical tradition; while the latter is compromised by, among other things, verse 6 which says that God has sent only the "spirit" of his Son. (For a fuller discussion of these key passages, see my Article No. 8: Christ as Man: Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person?)

New Testament scholarship has a long history of forcing meanings into passages which go against what the words themselves or the context say, or which contradict other sentiments in the same or different documents. Reading the Gospels into the epistles is one of the common procedures of traditional New Testament scholarship; examples are legion, as a perusal of my site, especially the Supplementary Articles, will show.

On the question of contradictions within the Gospels themselves, it is a bit naïve, and uninformed, to continue to regard the four accounts as independent eyewitnesses to presumed historical events. Scholarship has long proven that the Gospels show clear literary dependencies: later ones copied and reworked earlier ones. If the evangelists reveal no compunction about altering their sources and creating contradictions in the process, this shows that they had no concern for historical accuracy, possibly because they did not regard their accounts as representing actual historical events. Such an interpretation came only later.

Those contradictions would fill a long list. Some exist between Matthew and Luke, who independently, and probably unknown to each other, reworked Mark for their own purposes. The most glaring are the virtual total disparity in their Nativity stories, and the incompatibility of their genealogies for Jesus and their post-resurrection appearances. The details and sequences of the latter cannot be reconciled, nor reconciled with those of John. (Mark originally had none at all.) Contradictions abound in the area of contexts for Jesus' teaching. Take the Lord's Prayer, for example. As I say in The Jesus Puzzle (p.162), "This is arguably the most important and enduring thing Jesus is ever recorded to have spoken. And yet . . . Matthew includes it in the Sermon on the Mount, delivered to vast, attentive crowds. Luke offers it during the journey to Jerusalem, a private communication at the request of the disciples who ask, 'Lord, teach us how to pray.' " Is this faulty memory on the part of the apostles? A case of certain traditions leaving something out? Hardly.

Nor is it faulty memory which caused John to excise the establishment of the Eucharist, or the episode in the Garden of Gethsemane. And if the memory of what day it was in relation to Passover on which Jesus' crucifixion took place could not be accurately preserved (John clearly contradicts the Synoptics), could any tradition be trusted? But all these 'contradictions' and many others are deliberate measures on the part of each evangelist to fashion his Gospel to fit his own agenda.

Finally, Jaylene laments that if it was only a spiritual death, "what is the point?" She fails to realize that such feelings of inadequacy would not have been shared by the ancient mind. In the Platonic universe most people imagined around them, the spiritual dimension was very real and very significant. That was where God and gods operated. That was where the salvation processes of the mystery cults took place. All the savior deities had performed their redemptive acts in the spiritual/mythical world. When Christianity eventually came to place its redeemer on earth in recent history, it was entering new territory—and ensuring its own long-term survival.

Since then, of course, our views of the universe have changed dramatically, and Christian thinking has been forced to change along with them. But the mark of a vibrant religion, or philosophy, is the ability to evolve, and the figure of Jesus is perhaps the most vibrant and adaptable invention in humanity's long history of creating for itself imaginary forces and wishful saviors.

Andrzej writes (from Poland):

    Thank you for new ideas that have brightened my mind.
    I'd like to ask you whether Christianity as a movement 
was present in Rome in the time of Claudius. As far as I 
know Jews were forced to move out of Rome because of a 
certain figure: Chrestos was his name. Can we identify 
this movement with that one which is known from the Acts 
of the Apostles and focuses around Priscilla and her 
husband Aquila who had arrived from Rome?
    If we prove that Christianity existed even before 
Jesus is commonly thought to live, we also prove it as 
nothing to do with the hypothetical figure of Jesus. Is 
such a proof possible?
Response to Andrzej:

Chrestus, Priscilla and Aquila

Any link of the expulsion of Jews from Rome by Claudius with Christianity is entirely dependent on an obscure reference in Suetonius (Claudius 25). There it is said that Claudius "expelled from Rome the Jews who were constantly rioting at the instigation of a certain Chrestus." But who or what is "Chrestus"? Many have wished to see this as a reference to Jesus, a misspelling or misunderstanding of the word Christ, but this is simply speculation. Even if it were a reference to Christ, there is no reason why this could not be the spiritual Christ; that is, certain Jewish sects in Rome were of the cultic variety that worshiped, and probably expected the imminent arrival of, a mythical Son, somewhat like the Jerusalem group around Peter and James spoken of by Paul.

The probability, however, is that the reference is to simple Jewish messianic agitation of the apocalyptic variety, with no specific 'Christian' connotation ("Christ" being the Greek word for "Messiah"). "Chrestus" may possibly have been a local Jewish agitator, though if he were responsible for a general expulsion of the Jews from Rome, we might expect him to show up in some other historical record. Even if one could read a Christian or historical-Jesus understanding into Suetonius (which would be wishful thinking), this Roman historian was writing around 120, and he could have been influenced by the new Christian hearsay/tradition of the time about an imagined historical founder—the same hearsay which likely led Tacitus to describe Jesus as a man crucified by Pilate. Suetonius may himself have been led to believe that this "Chrestus" figure was a human person.

Acts is highly unreliable as a source of accurate information on this (or any) point. Not only was this document probably written in the second century (many modern scholars increasingly date it anywhere between 115 and 150, and there is no attestation for it before the 170s), Acts itself does nothing to clarify the reason for Priscilla and Aquila's expulsion from Rome. The author may be working with traditions about the two figures which after the better part of a century's passing were far from authentic. Or he may have been consciously reworking them for his own purposes. It is perhaps significant in regard to Acts' reliability that Paul nowhere refers to these characters in connection with his own activities. Their names appear only in lists and greetings appended to a few letters. One of these is in the final chapter (16) of Romans, which many doubt to be authentic to the original epistle. The same might be true of 1 Corinthians 16:19. And the only other epistolary reference to them is at the end of 2 Timothy (4:19), which is widely regarded as a second century piece of writing.

If Romans 15:23 can be trusted, the Christian community in Rome was in existence "for many years" prior to Paul writing this letter, which would carry Christianity in the capital of the empire back to perhaps the early 40s at least. But it is probably impossible to demonstrate that the movement existed prior to the traditional date of Jesus' death. It is true that Christian communities in Damascus and Antioch seem well established very shortly after that time, and "christological hymns" found in Paul's letters are not only presumed to predate him, they show a well-developed and sophisticated theology which is not likely to have sprung up overnight. The same is the case in regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews, which many have dated prior to the Jewish War. But to use all this to extrapolate 'Christ belief' back into the 20s of the first century, let's say, while not an unreasonable concept, cannot be supported in a conclusive way.

Warwick writes:

    Could you please advise me on the age of Paul when he wrote 
his text. Would he have been a rather old man and how many years 
after Jesus' death would the writing have taken place? He must 
have had a rather good memory.
Response to Warwick:

Paul's Age and Powers of Recollection

From indications that are at best vague, Paul's year of birth is usually placed between 1 and 10 CE. This would put him somewhere around the age of 50 during the period when he wrote most of his extant letters. This chronology, however, is dependent to a great extent on Acts, and it is probably impossible to know how far Acts can be relied upon even for basic data such as this. (Those who regard most if not all of the Pauline corpus as a second century product would say that Paul's entire career, when it took place and what it consisted of, is of the utmost uncertainty.)

As for the quality of Paul's memory, to judge by the epistles, he seems to have forgotten virtually everything there was to know about Jesus' career on earth. In that, he was part of a wider epidemic among early Christian writers who had apparently partaken of the waters of Lethe.

Farrah writes:

    You speak such blasphemy about Jesus who died for your sins 
and the world, who rose on the third day and ascended into heaven 
where he now sits at the right hand of the Father. There will 
come a time when you will have to bow down to him and your tongue 
will confess that He is Lord.
Paul writes:
    I say "hello" to you, spirit of antichrist. How did I know 
it was in you? Well, that was an easy one.
    "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits 
whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone 
out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every 
spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh 
is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ 
is come in the flesh is not of God. And this is that spirit of 
antichrist, whereof ye have heard that is should come; and even 
now already it is in the world." [quoting 1 John 4:1-3]

    It is not you but this spirit within you who is so adamant 
about no historical Jesus. Someone who has studied about Yeshua 
haMaschiach as much as you need to receive him as your Lord and 
Savior. . . .[further mystical Jewish references and admonitions]
    Repent NOW. Lest you be given up completely.
    "To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the 
flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." 
[quoting 1 Corinthians 5:5]
John writes:
    Hello. I would just like to say that in an ever quickening 
world, that we sometimes lose sight of the truth. How can we 
today know the truth when it is 2000 years old? It all comes 
down to faith. Do you have faith, sir?
Response to Farrah, Paul, and John:

Faith, Truth, and the Antichrist

It is probably only in the last half century that a significant portion of the population of western society has developed the capacity to recognize that, for the most part, religion and rationality are fundamentally incompatible. Just why that insight evolved in the latter half of the 20th century might be difficult to say. When I was young I read a science-fiction story—I believe it was by Poul Anderson—called "Brain Wave." One morning, everyone woke up to find that they were many times more intelligent than they had been the night before. Even animals were capable of rudimentary thinking. Astronomers presently discovered that the earth had just exited from a large swath of the galaxy that was permeated by some sort of magnetic cloud which slowed down neuronal impulses. The earth had been passing through it for several hundred thousand years. Free of it now, the human brain worked ten times faster. Unfortunately, we weren't out of the woods entirely, but I can't recall the sticky situation humanity now faced or how the story ended.

As far as I know, the earth did not emerge from a galactic cloud around the middle of the 20th century, but in a real way, western society as a collective entity found a way to free itself from a long era of credulity and subservience to irrational ideas. It does not take a majority of the members of such a society to become unbelievers for this to occur. Somehow, in the post-Second World War era, in that place inside itself where a society as a whole dwells, much of the western world adopted a more secular and skeptical outlook, and was soon no longer accepting of religious control over its institutions and expressions.

In a context of understanding (at least, for the most part) the physical nature of the universe, of understanding (again, for the most part) the long and fascinating evolution of life and human intelligence on this planet, the persistence of beliefs such as Farrah's, that deities descend from a heaven to earth to sacrifice themselves for human transgressions, then reascend to sit beside other deities, together to await a day of universal judgment and obeisance, is profoundly regrettable. To declare, as Paul does, that failure to believe in certain religious doctrines spells possession by an evil spirit and a fate of eternal damnation, shows that we still have a considerable way to go.

Paul's quotation from 1 John 4 illustrates the caliber of some of the thinking we are up against. Note that the writer of this epistle (or at least this portion of it, since the letter is a layered document, added to over time) seeks to differentiate between 'true' and 'false' spirits claimed to be from God. And what is the standard by which he judges? Those that are 'true' are those which conform to his own convictions. Those which do not are from Satan, and labeled "antichrist." Paul gives me the same label, no doubt employing the same scientific method.

What we can and should recognize from that 1 John quotation is that as long ago as the end of the first century CE, people—even Christians—were declaring that Jesus Christ had NOT been to earth. Such people, as 1 John 4:5 and 2 John 10-11 show, were listened to by some of the Christian world and even welcomed into Christian homes. That such a denial of the historical Jesus was widespread in the movement so early, and around the same time as the earliest witness to a belief in such a figure, would, by rational standards, place some legitimacy on the idea that Christianity did not begin with the Gospel Jesus, but that he was a later evolution which took some time to establish itself and become universally accepted.

John asks me if I have "faith." Faith functions in the absence of knowledge. With knowledge, one doesn't need faith. But is knowledge absent because it can't be obtained, or is it shunted aside because faith is preferred? John suggests that the "truth" has been obscured by the passage of 2000 years. If so, how is it to be ascertained? Shall we base it on our best efforts, founded in rationality and science, to examine the record and arrive at an understanding of the past, or should we throw to the winds everything our evolving minds have achieved and base it on outlandish doctrine and unexamined trust in ancient writings that were the product of a primitive age far more ignorant and superstitious and lacking in critical thinking than our own? Do we continue to echo Paul, who condemns the "wisdom of the world" while admitting (in 1 Corinthians 1:18-24) that his own message is "a folly and a stumbling-block"? The past 2000 years has not served to obscure the "truth." It has been a long and difficult rite of passage which has brought us to the point where we can now choose to abandon the unfortunate heritage of ancient world thinking that is summed up in Farrah's gospel and Paul's maledictions.

John's "quickening world" may not be an actual acceleration of humanity's brain cells on emerging from a galactic cloud, but the image may not be that far from a metaphoric 'truth.' Let's not turn our backs on our new-found capacities and plunge the planet back into the fog of unreason.

For Reader Feedback on my recently-published book The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ?, the reader may visit the special file below. It also contains further thoughts on contemporary attitudes and why it is often difficult for the "no-Jesus" theory to gain a proper hearing, especially in mainstream New Testament scholarship.

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