Was There No Historical Jesus?
by Earl Doherty



Michael writes:

    I am thankful and relieved to have found you & your articles! 
I'm shamelessly excited!! It seems my search for more information 
is complete. Many, many questions have finally been answered!!

Buzz writes:

    The Jesus Puzzle is a superb book! Well-researched, extremely 

Sammi Ruth writes:

    Your book is the one I have been looking for for many years. 
I have been an atheist all my life. I am 80 years old. Congratulations 
for a job so well done I am thrilled with it.

Chris writes:

    I was informed about your website by the Happy Heretic and have 
found it fascinating. I have been an atheist for about 25 years now, 
I used to be on the fence regarding the historical Jesus but not any 
longer. Although I have read both sides of this argument on the net 
before, no one has put the mythical case as thoroughly as you do and 
now I am convinced. 
    I must disagree however when you say that this information has 
any implications for orthodox Christianity. Thomas Paine's book the 
Age of Reason systematically demolished the credibility of the Bible 
and Christianity over two hundred years ago, Christians all over the 
world simply ignored it and carried on as if nothing had happened. 
You can see from the responses that you see on your feedback pages, 
these people aren't truth seekers, their brains have been completely 
ossified by indoctrination. Something that I found to be incredibly 
profound and poignant was in RF Set 16 under the heading Myths and 
Illusions of Mind and Soul, the last paragraph brilliantly hammered 
home by the inclusion of the message from Zak. I am working my way 
through your feedback pages now and I am continually struck by the 
fact that your detractors have simply no ammunition with which to 
shoot you down.

Luke writes:

    I will be praying for you to see the Light. Otherwise you are 
doomed to hell.

George writes:

    In looking at your web sites and your so-called studies it is 
obvious that you have never met the living Jesus. Yes, He is alive. 
He is as he claimed to be. The test is this, If you will believe 
that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and raised from 
the dead and that he ascended to the father then He will forgive 
your sins and make you a new spiritual creature. He is returning 
soon and all of you disbelieving will desolve [sic] away, but 
then it will be too late. If you want faith then ask God for it. 
Otherwise, you join those who do not accept the work that God has 
done and go to your doom with most of the wicked and unbelieving 

Chet writes:

    As a confirmed atheist, I have thoroughly enjoyed all the 
hours that I have spent re-reading the Jesus Puzzle on the Internet. 
I just would like to convince the "believers" that our 21st Century 
scientific knowledge of our universe is much more amazing, wonderful, 
and "spiritual" than anything ever found in the "Holy Bible"! 
Biological evolution of species and galaxies and solar systems 
completely eliminates any "god".

Stephen writes:

    I have finished reading your first installment of "Challenging 
the Verdict" [Part one of my book review of Lee Strobel's The Case 
For Christ]. My congratulations on a superb piece of criticism—
readable, intelligent, thorough, good-humoredly colloquial yet 
argued with passion, patience and precision (a feat of balancing!). 
I am eagerly looking forward to your next installment. [Part Two is 
now on the site.]

Steve writes:

    Once again you are proving that you are one of the best 
authorities when it comes to debating fundamentalist Christians. 
I can't thank you enough for all the clear unbiased information 
on your site, and I look forward to part 2 and 3 of your latest 
    P.S. I gave my friend your website address, but he refuses 
to even look at it. The minister at his church told him you were 
THE spawn of the devil, and that you have destroyed the faith of 
many in his congregation. (It must be nice to be so famous all 
the way here in Australia.) Personally, I would have thought that 
any intelligent person would listen to both sides of the "story" 
and make a judgment for themselves. Then again, the God of the 
Christian bible never seems to reward free thinking.

Brian writes:

    I have been reading and relishing your 'cross-examination' of 
Strobel's The Case For Christ. Kudos! I read that book a while back, 
at the behest of a local minister. I found the book to be one-sided, 
overzealous, clumsy. Strobel and his band of merry literalists seemed, 
even to my novice NT education, to be playing fast and (very) loose 
with their 'facts'. Your deconstruction of the author's tenets and 
supporting cast are spot on.
    Your work continues to shine the light on a much more plausible 
reality. Many thanks.

Kevin writes:

    I am enjoying your 'cross-examination' of Lee Strobel's book 
immensely. I purchased and read your book some time and ago and I 
continue to use it as a reference.

Brett writes:

    Well, whether you believe in Christ or not, that is your decision. 
I put money that if you asked any of the people in hell they'd tell 
you that he is real. There isn't a single person in hell that doesn't 
believe in God. God says that every head shall bow and every body 
shall kneel before the Lord God. So whether you know now or not you'll 
be finding out when you die because as you burn I hope you remember 
the book you wrote and told everyone God wasn't real. You might need 
to write a sequel after you die telling everyone how hell feels.

Joe writes:

    You write: "...And yet, as in the case of any other Deity's work—
to our misfortune—the end result has been less than ideal. That great 
syncretistic synthesis, the creation of a new religion around Jesus 
which seems to embody all the ancient world's prior manifestations, 
has not given us a product which subsequent history can be entirely 
proud of: philosophically open, politically tolerant, scientifically 
innovative, or socially enlightened." [from the book review of Robert 
M. Price's Deconstructing Jesus]
    This is so true. Many of us on the "inside" feel this way as you 
do. It is our hope that Christianity's legacy will be to work through 
the triumphalisms that have led to our predicament. It would be the 
ultimate irony but Christianity may be the sacrificial lamb for Western 
(now world?) culture, cleansing us of the oppressive institutional 
demons that plague us.
    I feel very strongly that we (especially devotional Christians) 
need to look at Christian origins openly and honestly as you have  
done. While I feel that we really have only scratched the surface in 
considering the many possibilities as to what the true historical 
core(s) might look like, I admire and greatly respect the work you 
and others have done. I am ready to go where the truth would lead us 
just as any historiographical enterprise where we have little or no 
personal stake.

Julianne writes:

    If God was small enough for our minds He wouldn't be big enough 
for our needs.
    Not everything makes sense. Not everything is true. GOD, is true. 
I do not believe this because of the Bible, or because of what a 
pastor says. I believe it because of how Jesus Christ has worked in 
my heart and how the Holy Spirit has transformed my life once I 
accepted Jesus Christ into my life and devoted my life to Him. The 
Bible backs up my faith and is a tool God gave us to grow closer to 
    I pray that He will soften your heart to the truth.

Gary writes:

    I have been going through your website for the last two months 
and have found it totally fascinating and ever so freeing. I quite 
agree with your theory as I feel it answers a lot more questions 
than it raises.
    I especially enjoyed your novel [The Jesus Puzzle, posted on the 
site, not to be confused with my published book The Jesus Puzzle: Did 
Christianity begin with a Mythical Christ?]. I think where the main 
character explains his research to David and Phyllis is an excellent 
pattern I can use for putting forth your ideas to others. I can 
certainly identify with his and their reactions as this new way of 
viewing the whole Christian story certainly does leave somewhat of 
a void upon first hearing. However, for my own development, it has 
deepened my spirituality.

Ethan writes:

    It is such a relief to finally read a book about Jesus that  
makes sense of the available evidence. I have no doubt that further 
investigations will clarify some points, but "The Jesus Puzzle" is a 
huge step in the right direction. It is refreshing to see conclusions 
based on a straightforward interpretation of the early Christian 

Abe writes:

    As a former history student and current history buff I would have 
to say that your attempt to piece together the truth about Jesus from 
the existing fragments is one of the most fascinating examples of 
historical research I have encountered. It's interesting how many 
people love fiction in which a detective of some sort sifts through 
clues. Here you are doing the same thing in real life, and about an 
important subject to boot, and relatively few people take notice. If 
there were any justice your book should sell as many copies as the 
latest Mary Higgins Clark!

Phillip writes:

    I am at Birmingham University in the UK and am currently doing a 
degree in Theology. However, I believe I am in the minority among my 
fellows in that I more or less agree with you and your appraisal of 
Jesus' historicity.
    As you may know, the Biblical studies faculty here are notorious 
for their refusal to believe in the hypothetical Q document. I have 
to say that I agree with them in this regard. I was wondering how far 
you consider this position to be a live one and also to what extent 
do you think a removal of Q from theoretical consideration would alter 
the 'mythicist' position, as all those people who agree with us seem 
to take Q's existence for granted.
Response to Phillip:

The Existence of Q and the Mythicist Position

I find Phillip's choice of language telling. The Birmingham University Biblical studies faculty "refuses" to "believe" in the "hypothetical" Q document. I, along with a majority of New Testament scholars today, have come to the conclusion that a sayings document which modern scholars have designated "Q" (for the German word Quelle, meaning "source") did exist in the first and early second centuries, and that it was independently used by Matthew and Luke, though they may not have used precisely the same version. This is not a "belief" or taken for granted. It is a deduction based on evidence and logical grounds. A "refusal to believe" suggests an adamant unwillingness to consider that evidence, for whatever reasons. As for Q being an "hypothesis," this is correct. But I have usually found that the word, in the mouths of those who resist the idea of Q, is used in a derogatory fashion, as though Q were entirely conjecture with insufficient evidence to support it. Which is, of course, not the case.

This is not to say that there are not alternative positions being put forward which argue for a Gospel world without Q. But when these are measured against the Q option, they are found wanting to a far greater degree. They contain many more problems than does the Q hypothesis, and Q's minor problems have relatively easier solutions. The usual alternative to Q involves the proposal that Luke used Matthew, but this faces so many difficulties it should be rejected. (Some of those difficulties are noted in the next Response.)

I am not going to argue the case here (I devote an Appendix in my book to the question). In regard to Phillip's query, I would say that the mythicist's case would be easier without Q. If everything in the Gospels could be seen as proceeding from the pen of the evangelists, one would have even less Gospel material that might be traceable back to an historical figure. (Those elements in common between Matthew and Luke are generally identified by the non-Q position as deriving from Matthew himself; otherwise one is simply reinventing Q.) The Jesus Seminar, for example, base their picture of the "genuine" Jesus almost entirely on the roots of Q as they have excavated them, with some corroboration claimed to come from the Gospel of Thomas. (Without a Q, Thomas has to be seen as derived from the Synoptics, and this too is a difficult position to support.)

The beauty of Q is that it gives us a glimpse into the background out of which the Gospels arose, the kinds of sectarian and reform activity going on in places like Galilee, its evolution throughout the mid to late first century, and the roots of some of those ideas in non-Jewish antecedents like the Cynics. To understand how the Q content arose out of diverse sources, how it evolved in typical sectarian fashion to be eventually placed at the feet of a glorified founder figure—who seems, according to indications within Q itself, not to have actually existed even as a non-divine sage in Galilee—is an exhilarating process. The appeal of an alternative without Q (apart from certain 'confessional' advantages for some) is one I have always found difficult to understand.

Colin writes:

    One of the arguments you put forward for the existence of Q is 
the fact that the Q sayings occur in Matthew and Luke respectively 
in different contexts. One example you give is the Lord's Prayer. 
Can you give me, say, 10 more examples.
Response to Colin:

Q Sayings in Different Contexts in Matthew and Luke

I could give a few dozen, since every stand-alone saying of Jesus identified as coming from Q is placed in a different context within their Gospels by Matthew and Luke. This excludes three extended anecdotes which Matthew and Luke share, which can be seen as having stood in that developed form in the Q used by the two evangelists: the dialogue between Jesus and John (Lk./Q 7:18-35), the Healing of the Centurion's Servant (Lk./Q 7:1-10), and the Beelzebub Controversy (Lk./Q 11:14-22). The Temptation Story was probably also fully developed in Q, though it was in a class by itself and the latest addition to it.

All other sayings in Q can be deduced as having stood on their own, without contexts or even the name of Jesus attached to them, since the common material in Matthew and Luke is restricted to the sayings themselves. The contexts, the set-up lines, the 'filler' bits which sometimes serve to link more than one saying together to create a larger unit, are always totally different between the two evangelists.

(The one exception is the set of three chreiai in 9:57-62, in which Jesus responds to three successive questions. However, considering that in the Gospel of Thomas only one of these sayings is present and without any chreic set-up, one can deduce that this composite set has been put together some time during Q's development, at a later stage of redaction. An editor formed the three-chreia exchange out of earlier separate sayings. The same process seems to have created the 'Jesus and John dialogue' since it too contains an individual saying which stands alone in Thomas, indicating that the dialogue is an artificial creation and never took place.)

But let's look at a few examples. I'll briefly mention the Lord's Prayer which Colin noted. In Matthew it is part of the Sermon on the Mount before a large crowd (6:9-13). In Luke, it is given privately to the disciples while on the way to Jerusalem, in answer to their query: "Lord, teach us how to pray" (11:1-4). Both the general context and the lead-in material is totally different. In the Q document, it is likely that this "prayer" simply stood alone.

The so-called mission instructions in Matthew 10:1-15 and Luke 10:1-12 contain sayings about what those appointed by Jesus are to do in their itinerant preaching. The two Gospel writers have heavily redacted these instructions, so that it is impossible to ascertain what their original wording might have been in Q. But their settings are also quite different. In Matthew, these instructions are given to the twelve disciples, which Matthew names, and the event takes place during the ministry in Galilee. In Luke, Jesus is appointing seventy-two apostles to precede him, in pairs, through the towns and villages on the way to Jerusalem. It would seem that no context within Jesus' ministry, or set-up lines introducing these sayings, was present in Q. It follows that in the original traditions on which Q is based, it is very possible that they were not attached to a Jesus figure at all, but simply represented the standing directives which the Q missionaries followed—a kind of instruction manual.

A complex of linked sayings appears in Matthew 10:26-33 and Luke 12:2-9: "There is nothing covered up that will not be uncovered . . . Do not fear those who kill the body . . . Are not two sparrows sold for next to nothing?" and so on. In Matthew, Jesus is reassuring the disciples during his mission instructions. Luke has led into these sayings by warning of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, while Jesus is on the journey to Jerusalem. Again, the deduction is that only the bare sayings stood in Q, with no context relating to Jesus or his ministry.

The parable of the lost sheep is found in Luke 15:1-7, in Matthew 18:12-14. Matthew's lead-in comes a few verses earlier, in 18:1, "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' " Jesus answers with several sayings, including the lost sheep parable. Luke leads into it this way: "The tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him, at which the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.' He answered them with this parable . . ."

Compare these two little passages: "The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith'; and the Lord replied, 'If you had faith no bigger even than a mustard-seed, you could say to this sycamore-tree, "Be rooted up and replanted in the sea"; and it would obey you.' " (Luke 17:5-6); and, "Afterwards [following the apostles' failure to drive a devil out of an epileptic boy] the disciples came to Jesus and asked him privately, 'Why could not we cast it out?' He answered, 'Your faith is too weak. I tell you this: if you have faith no bigger even than a mustard-seed, you will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there!", and it will move; nothing will prove impossible for you.' " (Matthew 17:19-20). One or the other evangelist has altered the content, but the basis of the saying is the same. The set-up lines and context are completely different.

In every case where we are dealing with individual sayings or chains of loosely linked sayings (again, this excludes those three or four extended and structured anecdotes which are redactive constructions out of earlier material—see above), there is no instance where the placement of those sayings is in a common setting within Jesus' ministry, or where the lead-in or filler lines are the same. If we were looking at one or a few isolated cases, it could perhaps be argued that one or both of the evangelists had simply changed the context they found in Q. But when the same diversity of context between Matthew and Luke is present in the case of every stand-alone saying in Q, we can assume that this is because Q, in its early stages, was simply a list of sayings with no associations made to a Jesus or a ministry. In the course of Q's evolution, when a Jesus was added to the background of the document and a few extended anecdotes were formed around him, no contexts were added to the great bulk of the stand-alone sayings, though these may have been rearranged into new blocks.

If that great bulk had from the beginning arisen out of oral traditions attached to Jesus, what are the chances that no contexts would have been supplied or preserved? If the Q community had indeed been founded by a charismatic sage whose memory was the impetus to the movement's continuation, what are the chances that almost no traditions about Jesus the man, his character and deeds, would form part of the content of the Q document? It has become a maxim to say (as does J. D. Crossan, for example) that the focus in the community was entirely on Jesus' sayings and not on his person. A better explanation than to suggest such a bizarre development would be that most of Q's history was as a collection of sayings per se, the teachings and directives of the Q community (perhaps regarded as the product of personified Wisdom) and only at a late stage was a Jesus figure introduced as the originator of the sayings, as the personification of the Son of Man, and as the superior to John the Baptist. (Though not as the "Messiah" which is a term never used in Q.)

Another conclusion that can be drawn from the lack of common contexts is that Luke is not likely to have copied Matthew, thus invalidating the non-Q position. The chances that Luke would have borrowed so many sayings from Matthew and yet never have taken over any of their settings or set-up lines (whereas he often does when he is taking from Mark—for example, Lk. 6:1-5 = Mk. 2:23-28, or Lk. 18:15-17 = Mk. 10:13-15) is almost impossible to conceive. When one adds the fact that Luke never preserves Matthew's order of this 'Q' material, that some of those common sayings are more primitive in the Lukan versions, that Luke fails to reproduce key material from Matthew such as elements of the latter's Nativity story, and so on, the claim that Luke used Matthew becomes untenable. Such a claim is usually reduced to an exercise in trying to explain why Luke shows no sign of copying Matthew.

Ivan writes:

    Your book is so superb. I have known that true physical evidence 
of a 'real' person was non-existent, but it's fabulous how you get 
into the psyche of the people of the first and second centuries.
    I do have a question: what are the earliest extant copies of 
early documents - such as Paul's letters?
Response to Ivan:

Earliest Extant Copies of the New Testament

Manuscripts which contain the entire New Testament, such as the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, are datable to the 300s. Earlier fragments of Gospel texts date from the 200s; parts of several letters of the Pauline corpus, Hebrews and Revelation come from the 200s as well.

Prior to 200, we have a single scrap, the famous Rylands P52 fragment containing a few verses from John 18. Most date this fragment to the period 125 to 160 (see Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus, p.94). The miniscule amount of text it contains is of no value in knowing how much of John at this stage agreed with the canonical version, or to whom the writing was attributed. Justin Martyr, writing in the 150s, shows no knowledge of John, though he quotes from Gospels later attributed to Matthew and Luke.

As for more recent claims that certain fragments of Mark and Matthew can be dated to the mid-first century, such claims have been discredited by more sober scholars as fanciful and unsupported by careful examination of the evidence. For more on these points, see my Response to Glenn in Reader Feedback No. 5.

Carl writes:

    At least twice in Acts, Jesus is said to have been hanged on a 
tree. Does this suggest a connection with Jehoshua of the Babylonian 
Gemara, the son of Pandira and Stada, who was stoned to death as a 
wizard and hanged on a tree? Did the writer of Acts know nothing 
about the crucifixion? Or is 'hanged on a tree' just another way of 
saying 'crucified'?
Response to Carl:

Hanged on a Tree

Personally, I suspect that Acts has preserved an early form of expression, in which the Christ myth characterized Jesus' death as a 'hanging on a tree.' 1 Peter 2:24 refers to the "tree" on which Christ's body "bore our sins." The writer of this epistle shows no sign of being familiar with any Gospel traditions about the crucifixion; he describes Jesus' suffering and humility (2:22-23) by paraphrasing Isaiah 53. In the pre-Pauline hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, it has been suggested that the words "even death on a cross" are Paul's addition to a reference to Jesus' death which contained no specifics. In the Ascension of Isaiah 9:13, a late first century Jewish sectarian work, the Son who descends through the layers of heaven is "hung on a tree by the god of that world," meaning Satan. This seems to be part of the myth of a Christ slain in the spirit world by the evil demons. (For more, see Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?)

All of it may have been determined by Deuteronomy 21:23, something Paul refers to in Galatians 3:13: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.' " Since scripture was the source of information about the divine Christ, the mythical savior god of earliest Christianity, this verse may have supplied some ideas about how he had died.

Whether the reference in the Talmud to Jesus being "hanged" is picking up on that early viewpoint is difficult to say. The Talmud also says he was stoned, and in the city of Lydda, not in Jerusalem. Other references place him around 100 BCE, and the early second century CE. Clearly, the rabbinic 'traditions' of Jesus were very hazy, if not even his crucifixion, let alone the time and place it occurred, was a universally established memory. One might think that the Gospel story was not widely known among the Jews, since not a single Talmudic reference to Jesus takes cognizance of the role of the Romans in the crucifixion, something they might be expected to appeal to, rather than simply assume Jewish responsibility.

William writes:

    I'd firstly like to thank and congratulate you for your 
tremendous works, The Jesus Puzzle and your website. A friend 
from Chicago brought me a signed copy of your book and I'm proud 
to own such a superbly authoritative work on the subject - and 
one extremely sober and even-handed in its analysis.
    I am now quite intrigued by the rather shadowy figure of 
John the Baptist in the New Testament. From The Jesus Puzzle 
you seem not to doubt his existence as a historical figure but 
other books (e.g., The Jesus Mysteries) seem to place him in an 
allegorical role - as that of Jesus himself.
Response to William:

Existence of John the Baptist / Did Salome Dance?

I think this is a misinterpretation of The Jesus Mysteries. The authors don't reject John as a mythical figure, only his role in the Gospels. In my view, John entered the Gospels through Mark, who drew on traditions of the Q preaching movement of which he was a part, even though he seems not to have possessed a copy of the Q document used by Matthew and Luke. Even in Q, if one examines the early-strata traditions about John, one finds that he has no connection to a Jesus figure. Rather, he is prophesying the imminent arrival of one who will baptize with fire and separate the wheat from the chaff (Lk./Q 3:16-17). This is clearly not a prophesy about a teacher of wisdom contemporary to himself, but about the coming Son of Man, an End-time apocalyptic figure (derived from Daniel 7:13) which the early Q sect was expecting. Only at a later stage of Q's development, once a founding figure was introduced, was an artificial connection made between John and this new Jesus (if that was the name originally given to him). As I pointed out to Colin above, the dialogue between Jesus and John, as found in Q, shows signs of being a redactive construction out of earlier distinct pieces.

The epistle writers show no knowledge of John the Baptist, never referring to him. Nor do they refer to any baptism of their Jesus, despite the attention Paul pays to Christian baptism and its meaning. I have no doubt that John the Baptist had nothing to do with the early cult of Christ, and that even the Q community adopted him as a mentor and predecessor only a couple of decades after his death. The preaching about the Son of Man put into his mouth in Q may well have been a misrepresentation of John's preaching, which was probably about the arrival of God himself on the Day of the Lord.

The fact that Josephus describes John the Baptist in his Antiquities of the Jews (18.5.2) is probably sufficient evidence that John existed. However, Josephus does not connect John to a Christian movement, much less to a Jesus. He also makes no mention of the manner or circumstances of John's execution by Herod, neither the beheading nor as the consequence of Salome's dance. In fact, in giving the reasons for that execution, Josephus states that it was because of John's influence over the people and the fear that he might incline them to rebellion. Josephus recounts many colorful incidents in his histories, and there is no reason to think that he would have been unaware of, or would have chosen to be silent on, the lurid aspects of the affair, if Salome's dance were historical. Mark may have been incorporating a popular legend about John's death, or exercising his own creative imagination.

One point might be noted in passing. Josephus' account of John's fate makes it clear that even the Jewish authorities had the power to arrest perceived troublemakers and dispatch them with not much recourse to due process. If Jesus were going about doing anything like the things the Gospels attribute to him, the miracles, the preaching to huge crowds, the subversive teachings that society was about to be overthrown with the meek inheriting the kingdom, there can be little doubt that he, too, would have been very quickly seized and disposed of. This sort of consideration alone calls into question the historical reliability of the Gospel account.

Fay writes:

    Is there any other reference to Herod's killing of the baby boys 
under two, to be found outside the New Testament? Or is this just 
another later interpolation to give the savior the same status as 
Response to Fay:

Did Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents Take Place?

No, there is no reference in any historian of the time, including Josephus. And yes, the close parallel with the birth story of Moses in Exodus, which features a slaughter of Hebrew babies by Pharaoh (later enlarged on in Jewish tradition to interpret as Pharoah's desire to kill a newborn infant who was prophesied as the Hebrew deliverer), would indicate that Matthew was simply giving his character the type of birth circumstances that were associated with great figures. Similar birth stories were attached to the patriarch Abraham, Sargon the Great of Assyria, and the Roman emperor Augustus.

Josephus chronicled Herod's bloodthirsty reign quite faithfully, and there can be little doubt that if such an event happened at Bethlehem, only five miles from Jerusalem, he would have known of it and mentioned its occurrence.

Michael writes:

    Odysseus and Hercules had several centuries to grow their 
stories. How did Jesus become so real in only three or four short 
decades? Particularly if you claim that Paul had no awareness of 
such a tradition. This would essentially mean that the entire Jesus
legend was created between c. 55-75 AD. Besides, your argument seems
to date the invention of the mythical [fictional] Jesus of the Q 
community prior to the creation of the first Gospel narrative (Mark 
is commonly held to have been written not long after 70.) Wouldn't 
there have been some actual recollection of what events actually 
took place 40 years earlier?
    If you are correct, where did such Gospel stories come from? 
Who was telling those first stories, and why? I am also wondering 
why the Q community chose "Jesus" as the name for their founder.
    One more thing, what of Romans 15:8-9: "For I say that Christ 
became a minister of the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, 
to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, but so that the Gentiles 
might glorify God for his mercy." If Jesus is a purely spiritual 
being, to whom was he ministering?
Response to Michael:

Growth of the Jesus Legend / Name of the Q Jesus / Jesus 'Ministering' to Jews

There are a number of unfounded assumptions here. The key point is not when the first Gospel was written, with its first recorded version of a Jesus story. It is when that story came to be regarded as an historical account of an historical person. Although I tend to date Mark late in the first century, perhaps around 85-90, the same argument would apply even if the first Gospel were written soon after 70. I would maintain that Mark did not regard his story as history, that it was basically an allegory with a symbolic Jesus character who represented both the Kingdom-preaching community of which Mark was a part and the death and rising of the savior god Christ Jesus (as preached by the likes of Paul), set in an earthly story in recent history.

The record would indicate that the wider Christian world throughout the rest of the first century, and many parts of it well into the second century, had no knowledge of this Gospel story. Thus, the "legend" of Jesus of Nazareth did in fact take quite a long time to develop over the purely spiritual Christ of the earliest Christians like Paul. There is also a distinctive feature here, in that Mark and his successors provided the raw formulation of that legend, drawing mostly on Old Testament precedents through the process of midrash. This was something that was relatively sudden and a literary event, not a long-term evolution of oral traditions.

There is one limited qualification to that. There was a certain amount of 'development' before Mark's time, in that the Q community, over the course of a few decades, turned a record of their own teachings and practice into the record of one who had originated those things, a presumed historical founder of the sect. Mark drew on that evolved tradition. The development of a Q founder, however, probably took place following the Jewish War, and such a great upheaval would have masked the different historical reality of the previous period. Moreover, that tradition of a Galilean sage was as yet quite limited.

As to why the Q sect called its founder "Jesus," the better question is, did they in fact do so? We can't tell from the record. If the Q document contained a different name, Matthew and Luke would have changed it to Jesus, in conformity with Mark's character, and Mark's name would have been determined by the Christ-cult side of things which he artificially joined to the Galilean Kingdom tradition. There is also the possibility that by the time Luke and Matthew got their hands on Q, the name of its founder had been changed to Jesus, under the influence of the Gospel of Mark. I consider it a strong possibility that Mark's community, in the meantime, had come into possession of a copy of Q, equated it with the character in their Gospel, and brought the names, if they were different, into alignment. Both documents would then have arrived together in the communities of the later Synoptic evangelists.

Why did Mark write his allegory? This sort of literary device was common in the ancient world, and especially among the Jews. Some books of the Old Testament (such as Esther), and parts of many others, such as episodes in the story of David, were designed to convey lessons, to create a mythology for Israel, and may not have been initially presented as actual history. Much in Mark's story can be best understood as intended to convey lessons to the community, to demonstrate that it fulfilled the themes of Jewish history and promise.

Finally, Michael points to Romans 15:8-9. But standard translations tend to read more into these verses than is evidently there. Is Paul saying that Christ ministered to the Jews? Literally, the wording is: "Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs." Is this a reference to an earthly ministry? Who knows, with such a cryptic statement? In fact, the verb/participle is in the perfect tense, has become, which has a 'present' ongoing implication. Paul could simply be saying that the spiritual Christ, operating in heaven, is now servant to the Jews, working on their behalf and for the conversion of the gentile. This is pretty weak stuff to support an historical Jesus.

Peter writes:

    I've been praying over this letter for a couple of weeks now. 
I have visited your site several times and have actually downloaded 
it onto my laptop for review and analysis. I am not the scholar that 
you are but I have studied my faith in comparison to many others for 
well over twenty years and am convinced of its truth and that its 
truth will stand in spite of all opposition.
    I have read some criticism by those you have angered and I do 
not wish to be grouped in that camp. I have also read some comments 
by those who believe you have helped them or who hold the same views 
as you. I was struck by the realization that most of them praise you 
because you have proved something to their satisfaction which they 
had already believed, or proved there was no reason for them to 
believe what they didn't wish to believe anyway. This brings me to 
the one question I wish to ask you: "What if you are wrong?"
    I do not believe that to be a Christian is to turn off all 
intellectual inquiry. I recall a time long ago in elementary school 
that one of my classmates who noticed my great interest in science 
told me, "If you are a Christian you can't believe in science, it 
teaches evolution." I have never agreed with that sentiment. I do 
not believe in evolution not because it is a powerful enemy but 
because upon closer examination it has proven to be utterly 
ridiculous. For me, being a Christian has enhanced my enjoyment of 
this world and all the wonder within it, wonders for which I daily 
praise my God. I look forward to an eternity with Him being able to 
praise Him more completely than I ever could here in this life.
    But this innocent statement by a long ago child did cause me to 
begin to walk the path of open and honest inquiry. I have always 
been willing to evaluate, from as unbiased a stance as possible, 
philosophies that contradicted that of my own faith and have yet to 
find any that are unified with reality or as consistent, fulfilling, 
and rewarding if followed in daily living. I have seriously 
considered, as did Paul, the value of the Christian life if Jesus 
never lived as the Bible says He did. For me, as for Paul, it would 
mean that life would have no ultimate meaning, that this minute is 
important only because I am here now to live it, my hope in eternity 
would be false and I would in Paul's words, be the most to be pitied 
among men. But I would have lost nothing since my hope in eternal 
life would never truly have existed, and if I continue to hold this 
nonexistent hope I gain satisfaction in this life and lose nothing 
in the long term for there never would have been a reward to be lost.
    If what I believe to be true is actually false I have lost 
nothing of value for it never was there in the first place. If, 
however, what you believe to be true is actually false you have 
lost everything worth living for, all that I hope for. All I am 
asking is this: Can you accept what would happen to you if you are 
wrong? Maybe more importantly, can you accept what would happen to 
your students if you are wrong?
Response to Peter:

Fearing the Fear Itself

This is a powerful letter. It more than illustrates the strength, the appeal, the grip, which religious belief has always had on the minds of human beings. I have no doubt that the impulse to belief in gods and the supernatural, and especially in a personal afterlife, has served an important purpose in the evolution of the mind and its ability to cope with the world. I also have no doubt that this situation is changing, and that we may be starting to emerge from that long need and enthrallment.

It may well be that many of those who accept my position on the historical Jesus, or on any expression of an 'atheistic' stance, do so because they have already arrived at a similar viewpoint, or do not wish to continue to feel obligated to believe in something they can no longer accept. We all look for justifications to support personal judgments and preferences, or from which to derive those things. The important thing is to do the looking. Peter says he has openly and honestly examined the tenets of his faith, and I take him at his word. Many others who write to me, including some that I've quoted in this Reader Feedback, clearly have done no such thing. But I question his reasoning on making the choices he presents.

If someone came to my door and told me that if I didn't wear black for the rest of my life I would be doomed to some horrible fate, or if some influential body in society maintained that in order to reap a reward all of us ought never to open more than one eye at a time, what should be my reaction if I spoke out against such views and someone came to me and asked, What if you're wrong?

The finest quality of the human mind is its ability to reason, to evaluate, to judge. Far better that in exercising those abilities we arrive at radical new views ( temporarily so) than that we blindly follow what others tell us, or previous generations have handed down. Herd mentalities have never produced social or intellectual progress. Unfortunately, religion is a system that almost always entails a set of rewards and punishments. They are part of the mechanism it has developed for its own survival, to ward off the threat of reason. An open, scientific examination of its doctrines is almost always fatal, and thus the danger presented by those who exercise the mind's ability to question or reject religion's tenets is more often than not countered by threats or appeals to that set of rewards and punishments.

But if our questioning leads to the rational rejection of the entire system, such considerations lose their effect. The carrot and the stick are robbed of their appeal and their threat when it is perceived that they are simply a part of the package. The belief that faith in one historical set of doctrines is the sole avenue to eternal salvation, or that rejection of them will result in eternal horrific punishment, will hardly survive the reasoning mind any more than would the proposition to wear black and keep one eye closed. The prospect of being wrong holds no terrors.

That fellow-child's voice may have prompted Peter toward honest inquiry, but it also reveals the reason why we need this inquiry. Already, indoctrination had told that child that because a religious dogma was in conflict with science, science had to be rejected. The basis to our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in had to be cast aside in favor of ancient words in an ancient set of writings and belief systems rooted in primitive times and modes of thinking. How far along the path to intellectual suicide had that child already traveled? If today the vast majority of scientists have arrived at the principle of evolution as the most compelling explanation for the nature and diversity of life on earth, for the physical record one finds in the earth itself, one wonders on what basis Peter finds it "ridiculous." Perhaps his attitude toward evolution as a "powerful enemy," if I have interpreted him correctly, supplies an insight.

Peter suggests that if he chooses to hold to a belief which turns out to be untrue, he may be pitied but he will have lost nothing. I think he will have lost a great deal. He will have lost the opportunity to focus on the life he lives in the present, on the world into which he was born and which constitutes our sole guarantee. He will have lost the chance to regard all of his fellow human beings as of equal status, regardless of what they do or don’t believe in, rather than be forced, as many have expressed it in this feedback file, to consign the bulk of the race to some unspeakable fate. He will have lost the exhilaration of understanding the world around him, its amazing history, the processes which have led to his own formation. He will have lost the chance to exercise his own powers of rationality and judgment, to turn to his own wisdom for moral guidance instead of the words of a long-dead culture and more primitive time, to join the world of modern scientific discovery. He will have lost the chance to cast off the heavy mantle of sinfulness and fear, of the necessity to pacify and prostrate oneself before an insatiable Deity, which religion always seems to lay on poor humanity’s shoulders. Such losses are not to be lightly dismissed.

Is there indeed no meaning to life without religion, as Peter suggests? Those admonitions to wear black and keep one eye closed may be preventing us from enjoying all the colors of the world, from perceiving everything there is to perceive, in its true depth. Perhaps there is a better eternity to spend than one praising a God. What if another meaning, a meaning more satisfying and rewarding, involving a deeper understanding of our own nature and that of the universe, were being masked by the perpetuation of that ancient system, no matter what purpose it may hitherto have served?

Whether there is such a meaning, we may not know yet. But we'll never find out as long as we try to suppress those abilities of the human mind or succumb to the indoctrinated fear of being wrong.

N. M. writes:

    I read your book and several others on the subject. needless to 
say i feel bad if it's true, but what I'm after is truth no matter 
where it leads. So, do you believe in a mystical jesus like a gnostic 
religion? Can you tell me whom you pray to if you do? And what do you 
think about the after life if christianity is a myth? I can't ask 
anyone i know because they would say i was going to hell for asking. 
Is there any proof at all that Jesus and mary and Joseph are real? 
    How did it get so out of hand?
    Sincerely appreciate any insight on the subject.

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