Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
Reader Feedback and Author’s Response
Set 23: July 2004

Lately there has been a noticeable shift in the nature of the comments and queries I receive. More of them are showing an interest in the broader topic of religion and rationality. Many messages, of course, continue to be negative toward my position on an historical Jesus, but there also seems to be a growing concern 'out there' with what is perceived to be a disturbing trend toward irrationality and the suppression of critical thinking in North American society where religion is concerned. Consequently, in this Reader Feedback I am prefacing the regular Queries and Responses on the Jesus question with an expanded section in which, along with the usual quoting of general remarks about the website, I discuss comments being made in regard to Religion and Rationality. As part of this, I have devoted more space to reproducing those readers' viewpoints, positive and negative, as they are inherently interesting and deserve to be heard. Replies to queries concerning the historical Jesus question will continue to follow the usual format, and are listed by name and subject heading on the Index page, while the R & R comments will be without headings and not listed in the Index.

Robert writes:

     I am writing to let you know that on a recent forum a writer declared that you had denounced your own works and embraced Christianity. Feeling that I know your point of view quite well, I assured the writer that they were in error. But if they aren't in error, I would be curious to know what might have brought you to recant.
     Thank you for your contribution to reason.

E.D.:  Thanks for letting me know about my recent conversion. If you hear any further information, I'd be interested in knowing how it came about, and how I let the world know about it. My web site, as you can see, is still in existence, without any attached denunciations. There have been no book burnings, and there are still many cartons of both The Jesus Puzzle and Challenging the Verdict available for sale.

Ron writes:

     I just wanted to say that I appreciate your clear and concise writing on the subject of religious mythology. I have struggled for many years with teachings forced on me in Christian education establishments, namely Christian Brother Colleges where I was victimised and ostracised for not being Catholic. My clarity and peace of mind has finally been established through reading the publications of yourself, Richard Dawkins, Robert Price, Irshad Manji, and last but not least Mr. Darwin's Origin of Species.

Brian writes:

   I make regular visits to the Jesus Puzzle site. Just to make sure it's still there, still being updated, still an information source I can point people to.
   I remember reading several years back that you were 72 years of age. My parents are both 76 now, and doing well health-wise. But I am increasingly aware of their mortality. It is with that disclaimer that I offer my best wishes on your health, happiness, and intellectual veracity. As I have found your thesis/work to be a continued source of rational thought, reason, hope and inspiration, I am also aware that none of us live forever. To that extent, it is important to me to align myself with those ideas and philosophies that reflect and expand on my own ever-evolving ideas. May you and your efforts continue to thrive in this world.

E.D.:  Please don't rush me, I've got another decade to go before I hit 72! But thanks for your good wishes for my health, although you are right: none of us will live forever. Nothing in the observable universe suggests things are set up that way. In fact, evolution proceeds because we all die and make room for further developmenthopefully of a progressive nature. Religion is a way of avoiding and denying that seemingly unforgiving reality of life. (I will have more to say on this topic in further responses below.)

Bruce writes:

   I just wanted to say that the numerous responses on your website, indicating that your readers have actually come to understand much better what the New Testament is all about, is one of the very few examples out there of someone actually changing people's minds about the subject of Christianity. Your language is simple enough for much of the ordinary readership to understand, and keeping your comments at the level of common sense is what makes it particularly effective. That is why I ordered 5 books from you, because I have some hope that, in passing these around, the simple clarity of your work will persuade where more jargon-laced material would discourage the reader after a few pages.  
     Most of my friends are Christian and have absolutely no clue, for example, that the gospels are not eyewitness testimonies, that Matthew copies Mark, and on and on.  None of my friends have ever heard even a peep about the utter lack of history in the epistles and the devastating implication that has regarding the historicity of the (later written) gospels. I think you have rightly recognized that the epistles are truly the key to understanding the ahistorical nature of the gospels. If the smoking gun in the New Testament is the suspicion that the gospel "history" is nothing but Old Testament borrowings, then the epistles are the bullet that shoots the "oral history" origin of the gospels dead in its tracks.

Frank writes:

   Thank you for your clear and convincing research into the development of Christianity and for a convincing demonstration that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. For years I have had doubts and questions that no one could answer satisfactorily. I very much enjoy your writing style and your clear presentations.
   Unfortunately, most otherwise intelligent Christian people will likely never accept the mythicist explanation. They simply have too much emotional investment to change, or even listen to the data. I do hope someone will present a credible counter-argument; it would be most interesting to read/study.

E.D.:  It certainly would, though we are still waiting. Most mainstream scholars have a pretty abysmal understanding of the mythicist argument and to the extent that they respond to it at all usually appeal to old and timeworn objections that have long been answered. It's a little like the Creationists' constant appeal to the Second Law of Thermodynamics in 'disproving' the possibility of evolution on earth, despite the fact that a fourth-grade student can offer an easy explanation for it. What's more difficult is getting them to listen.

Robert writes:

   The first reading of The Jesus Puzzle provided a compelling case for me. It was more of an organized approach to my eclectic dabblings and resolution to a myth-leaning view I have dubbed the "composite" approach. As I considered discussions of your work on message boards such as I discovered the best way to handle the opposition was to return to your work. A more thorough reading with these critiques in mind has made your work stronger than my first read.
   One of the disappointing features of "mainstream" scholarship is imputing altruistic motives into the Christian literature. Frankly, this is special pleading and goes against centuries of deception, fraud, and forgery in biblical tracts and religious practice. I suppose you've done well in not inciting dismissive opposition by avoiding such frank terms. But on the other hand, this heritage is evidencial. The Bible is among other things a set of political documents, with associated objectives of power and control. The invention of the historical Jesus was a political necessity in consolidating disparate "Christ" movements. This was amplified by the eventual one state/one religion approach of the Romans. Viewing biblical literature from the special-pleading stance of "they wrote what they believed" is worse than naive. I suppose you are to be congratulated for striking a diplomatic balance between calling it like it is and not insulting the deluded.

Richard writes:

   I still love reading your essays, Mr. Doherty.
     So many words are shed for such malady! Mainly I enjoy the texture and rhythm of your ideas as they merge and fade in and out of logic and myth. It is like reading a great music score with all its themes and counterpoints and cadences and modulations!
     It is an art form akin to a dream! No, I am not saying what you do is not important! It is very important; but oh how we struggle to unwrap the cloak of myth from around our sad browsall cast in hapless madness we are! Dreaming of gods; saints; miracles and heaven's relief from non-existing sins, hells, devils and evils!
     What an absurdity we humans are as we cannot just see the face of the world as it is: Just trees, lands, skies full of stars and planets; animals and birds! Alas, we must image metaphysics to be real when all there is the rock hard realm of nature-reality (blame Plato for that cursed idea I suppose).
     Keep up the good workthe gods deserved to be buried in their mythic graves once and for all time (such mischief they do weave amongst men)!

E.D.:  And atheism is accused of lacking poetry!

Thomas writes:

  Although I have pursued my own study of the origins of Christianity for the last several years, it was not until just recently that I happened upon your web site and two of your books. All I can say is: Bravo! From my own readings and experience (I am not nearly a so-called "expert") I can appreciate the enormity of your task. Virtually the entire academic world and the overwhelming majority of the "religious" populace have presumednot proven, nor scientifically tested, nor even considered, for that matterthat your central hypothesis is wrong! To even hint that there may not have been a unique historical personality named "Jesus" behind the creation of Christianity is automatically regarded as intellectual blasphemy. Of course, I am sure that I do not need to inform you of your opposition's presuppositions and biases.
    Admittedly, my own first reaction to the idea that the historical Jesus was a pure fiction was one of unwavering dismissal. After about a year of open-minded research and study I still accepted the "party-line" that the historical Jesus must be buried under the words, beliefs and customs of later believers. "Jesus" had become the "Christ" in the minds of these later disciples, but surely the original Jesus lay buried beneath these later attributions and accretions. After a careful, objective consideration I realized that the prospect of creating a unique historical biography or even broad outline of "Jesus" was a virtual impossibility. The sheer breadth and diversity of interpretations of the central Christian writings by so-called historical Jesus scholarsfrom around the worldbegan to shake my confidence that even a scientific methodology for uncovering a historical Jesus could be formulated. Of course, I lost my confidence because I was inadvertently making an assumption, an assumption that all of the scholars I was studying madethat there MUST have been a real man named Jesus underlying the earliest Christian writings. After more than a year of study I abandoned this assumption and started to read the evidence under a new hypothesis: that the "Christ" of Hellenistic-Judaic mythology had become the "Jesus" of history.
    Under this new hypothesis the entire development and growth of Christianity in the first several centuries of the Common Era began to make much more sense to me. I can only hope that with more time, and because of the work that individuals such as you perform, more people will begin to question the assumptions they have made.

Jeff writes:

   You make a compelling case for the myth theory. I have a special love for myth and legend, and enjoy watching how they develop over time. The picture you paint dovetails nicely with how we know other legends developed, King Arthur and William Tell, for instance. If you're right, the last two millennia in the West have been lived under one of the most incredible and fascinating myths ever to come into being.

E.D.:  Yes, and if somehow that realization were to pervade our society overnight, it would produce a trauma of staggering proportions. The social organism would probably not be capable of handling it and thus resists even considering the idea. It will be a slow and painstaking process.

Claude writes:

     Your website brings hope that a better world can be foreseen for our kids, though at this tremendously slow pace taken by humans to acquire a new sense of life. Being myself addicted to seeking the truth, your work stands as the best reference in achieving that goal, along with other skeptic web sites. Many thanks for that. Throughout ongoing readings in the last ten years, I practically rediscovered nature through your eyes and those of Gould, Dawkins, Randi and others.  One thing that strikes me each time is the apparently unbridgeable gap in opinion and perception between religious people and skeptics of all ascent [?]. Considering all that has been said from both sides, one point stands out as, I think, a big misunderstanding of human nature. This misunderstanding led and still leads to larger than natural expectations about what we really are and what we would like to be.
      As a geologist, I was soon introduced to large, mind-boggling numbers, either in space and time. So much for creationists!  Having learned that the human race came quite late in the history of life on earth, it was an easy step to believe that mankind for sure cannot show all signs of perfection. As the wonderful story of Vardis Fisher unfolds, one can understand that the passage between animal instinct and moral-driven behavior was a slow and empirical process. My point is that we tend to forget that this stage is still at play nowadays. Despite the perception that we realised major achievements in the last 50,000 years, this lapse of time represents only the glimpse of an eye on an evolutionary perspective (even with the meme vs gene effect). But religions made mankind atop of nature. With that in mind, there is no way to connect what we are from where we belong. Instinct and animal behavior are still very present in our day to day life.  Recognizing that would already be something we can cope with. Instead, each action bearing such behavior puts ourselves in the land of evil. Of course, those instincts sometimes bring bad news but as history showed, dismissing them totally proved to be a lot worse. I like to think that real accomplishment has to rely on the knowledge of our very nature.

E.D.:  One of the greatest 'sins' of religion is the disconnect it produces between human beings and their environment. Without an understanding of what we are and how we came about we can never realize our full potential or create a healthy species. Currently in North America, society is approaching a state of scientific illiteracy through the widespread suppression of the teaching of evolution in our schools. Racism, tribalism, religious fanaticism will never be eradicated while we remain largely ignorantor in denialof our true nature and that of the universe we live in.
     Claude refers to the "Vardis Fisher story" known as The Testament of Man. While this series of eleven historical novels has been out of print for decades, it still stands as western literature's most powerful creation in representing evolution's long process of human self-understanding. See the Age of Reason website for a reprint of my series of reviews of Fisher's amazing work:

Bruce writes:

     I have been given a Lee Strobel book to read and think through.  It is "The Case For Faith". In reading the first 30 pages I was again amused and amazed at how, under the frame of a religious belief system, all reasonable data is filtered to only present the thoughts and beliefs the particular person or religious group wishes one to 'see' or offer 'proof' of.  The same as in politics, right?
     As such, I was interested in using this great toolthe Internetto do some research and try to find further information about the author, Lee Strobel.  This opened to me your opinions and input and the website.  As is usual, you and this website have been able to put most eloquently into words my feelings and perceptions about our existence as a thinking creature who is struggling to comprehend how we have come to this level of development within the vast cosmos of swirling matter.

Ron writes:

      When I was in the sixth grade we were studying fossils, while at Sunday school the subject was the creation. Well, a light went on in my head that told me something was wrong here.  I asked my Sunday school teacher how can there be such a discrepancy and she said to me something like "maybe one God day is equal to a billion Earth years."
      This explanation never sat well with me and from that time on I have searched for what really is the truth.  The PBS series opened my eyes to things I never knew, but I have to say your website, especially the section on the Epistles finally put it all together for me.  I find it hard to believe how anyone cannot see what is happening here.  My only conclusion is that people want to believe in an afterlife SO bad that they will blind themselves to the truth to do so.
      Of course I would too, but not at the (cost) of ignorance and false hope.  What is so bad about being born, living and dying anyway?  Once you come to the reality of it, it really is no big deal and simplifies things.  While I am at it, it always gets to me that Christians feel atheists cannot be just as moral as them either.  
      Even before I read anything from you, I too wondered if Jesus actually did exist.  I do not think even you can say with a hundred percent certainty that he might not have.  I felt that at best he may have been a good person who walked the land preaching to lead a good and just life in the Jewish tradition, sorta the Ghandi of his time or just one of many of those who preached apocalypse for the Romans, and it all just got out of hand.  At this point however I now tend to agree he may have been nothing more then a spiritual figure.    
      This brings me to an interesting question.  Why even among atheists are we in the minority as far has his actual existence is concerned?  All atheists would have to agree the Gospels are fiction and if that is the case how much of a step is it to assume the lead character is too?  True, some books of fiction are based on real people, but many are not, so why the discrepancy here?  It makes no sense to me.  The James Bond books are based on an acquaintance Ian Fleming knew, but James Bond himself is total fiction.
      Most of my questions as to what most likely happened have been answered, but I am still a little up in the air as far as Peter is concerned.  I do feel, like Paul, he was a real person, but was he just one of the leaders of the spiritual Christ movement or possibly one of the founders of it along with James and how long was this movement going on?  Do you think it started long before 1 CE?  How do they fit into this whole picture?
      I have often asked myself at what point will all religion finally be put to rest?  So far the only answer I can come up with is that at some point in the not too distant future we will by radio telescope finally make contact with other worlds.  I wonder what will happen when their religions, and I assume they will have some, will not have heard of Jesus?  Will this be the straw that breaks the camel's back?  Of course if they have heard of him, then I guess you and I are in a lot of trouble.

E.D.:  I wouldn't lose sleep over it. What would be most interesting about human contact with an alien species who had never heard of Jesus would be the reaction of some Christians. I wonder how many would simply appeal to various scriptural passages and dismiss the entire alien race as "unsaved" because they had never heard of the one true Savior. After all, they did the same during the phase of this-world exploration and discovery.
     As for the beginning of the Christian movement, my feeling is that Christ-belief was not long in existence before Paul and the Jerusalem group around Peter and James that he witnesses to. A 'guess' would be a couple of decades or so before Paul's conversion. His words suggest that it was a relatively new phenomenon he attached himself to, though of course it grew in part out of older precedents.

Paul writes:

      Thanks for your tireless research into the Jesus myth. I know, it's not truly tireless, and your work has obviously required many sacrifices on your part. Still, it looks more like the efforts of a team of dedicated scholars, rather than one person. Well done, very well done. Of course, the question remains...will Christians be convinced? And the answer, for the most part, is "No."
   There's a part of me that finds it funny when Christians get so worked up by mythicist research. Personally, I think myths and folklore are like poetry, and I would no more dismiss them than I would dismiss any of the arts. The problems emerge when people use every violent means at their disposal to force history to conform to a mythic worldview. But what's funny to me is that there is nothing in your critique that would prevent someone from being motivated by a purely spiritual Jesus.
   Why are people so upset by your work? Why can't they just love the myth as myth?

Michael writes:

   My goodness, some of these kind folks are practically foaming at the mouth.

Gary writes:

   Your standards are fraud, and for a very obvious reasonyou are trying to destroy someone else's realities (Christians), and the easiest way to do that is smearing while calling it reason. Since you have no stake in the outcome, mockery is as good as honesty. Specifically, you try to prove points which would not be relevant if true. Rabbinical literature shows exactly what it should be expected to show. The Jews had no interest in Christ until Christianity became significantly developed. By analyzing the details you claim it shows something, while it shows nothing.
   Another example (from your twelve points) is the claim that Christ is only referred to in spiritual terms rather than as an actual person. It's a total contrivance with no relationship to reality. The standard is to smear the subject, and you pretend to be creating some higher standard of reason. It's nothing but degeneracy. All you are proving is that atheists operate at the level of degenerates.

E.D.:  The writer identifies himself as a "moral philosopher".

Landon writes:

     Well, your website is an interesting one. I'm currently writing a paper for a class on the impact of Jesus upon American culture. Your books and website are great material for me, because they prove just how important Jesus is to this culture.
     Let's face it, for one reason or another you feel compelled to attempt to rip people away from their faith. Why does it matter if people believe in Jesus Christ to you? I mean does it do you any specific harms? It must do something, because you are not content to merely just sit with your unbelief, but you have to work hard at convincing others to believe the same thing you do. You embrace faith, then, just a different kind. The intriguing thing is that without Jesus you wouldn't have a job. What would a man like yourself do? I'm also curious to know why you seem to lack a hatred of Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Confucious, etc. They, too, attempted to get the world to believe in something. Is there something about Jesus Christ that personally bothers you? I'm just curious here. I don't want to call you bad names and insult you, but I am interested in why you hate the notion of Jesus Christ. If one were to follow his teachings, would they be worse off? I mean you call yourself a humanist, and to me the teachings of Christ are indeed very humane. What makes life better without Christ as opposed to those who actually do indeed believe in Him? I'll grant you that there is a lot of mystery and strangeness surrounding the character of Jesus Christ. I do not know everything, and I will claim that. However, to claim he does not exist and to try and prove that everything about Christianity is a great big lie seems a bit extreme on your part. Can't you just rest comfortably in your own un-belief? I guess not. Well I do believe that absolute Truth exists, and when I read stuff by you and others who hate the notion of Christ, it does not anger me so much as make me hurt for you. There is a loving God, Mr. Doherty, who went through hell for you. You have made the choice to reject him and even go so far as to spend your life trying to dis-prove him. He loves you anyway. This will not mean a thing to you, but I will be praying for you. My God says that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, and I am righteous because of Christ's sacrifice. My prayers will be heard. Ultimately it is your choice still....

E.D.:  What Landon and many other Christians cannot understand is that it is possible for a non-believer to hold as passionately to the principle that we ought to conduct our lives and construct our philosophies according to our best efforts to understand reality, and to use evidence and reason to arrive at such an understanding. Rather than "faith" this is a commitment to knowledge, to a rejection of superstition, of fantasies which have no reliable basis, and the idea that a privileged group can be party to divine revelation, dividing them from all those who do not share the same illusions. Landon asks rather naively what can be the "harm" in these things (see next message). I will also assure him that one can work for the alleviation of such harm without being motivated by "hatred." In a debate a few years ago between a theist and Eddie Tabash, the well-known American atheist debater, Tabash answered a question about his motivations with something like this: "Eddie 3:16 - The atheist so loved the world that he devoted his life to trying to save it from irrationality." I may not have remembered it exactly, so let's just say I offer this as my own paraphrase.

Matt writes:

   I am not surprised as to why you have gone to this length to try and prove some point. Men love themselves and believe that they can get to heaven on their own, if they even believe in a heaven....It is the hardest thing in the world to have to admit that you are a sinner and you are guilty before God....[We think] we just have to do good and be gracious to others and we will be accepted....[This] has become the biggest deceit that the Devil has used to lure men into his lies. He has convinced society that God won't throw anyone in hell or judge a righteous man. The Devil has taken that guilty feeling totally out of our minds. God won't find me guilty, I am just....This is the Devil's lie....Guilt is the feeling of being guilty of an offense....That feeling is the same feeling that Daniel had in his prayers in Daniel Chapter 9. Isaiah had the same conviction in Isaiah 6. Men are dirty and we need God's help. No man is justified without an atonement or shedding of blood. In Leviticus you see that no man can come to God in his temple without the shedding of blood. No man could come to God except through a priest....Jesus, my friend, fulfilled God's objectives and by his shedding of blood we are found righteous in God's eyes....Jesus is so real that the proof is insurmountable....God wants us to know his love. Satan has deceived mankind and made us think that we can't have a relationship with the Almighty....Islam and no other religion has the power that Christ has. Christ is real, and I know it more than a shadow of a doubt....[about a quarter of Matt's message]

E.D.:  There have been few letters to me that can better answer Landon's question in the previous message about the "harm" of irrational belief. For the religious mind, being "righteous" and doing good is clearly not enough, if it is not accompanied by a pervading sense of guilt based on the principle that human beings are inherently "dirty" and of no intrinsic worth. What demons haunt Matt's mind and the minds of so many like him! They live their lives under the specter of an horrific eternal punishment, created by their "Righteous God." They cower before a powerful king of evil whom God allows free rein, who has cast his spell over the world and its people, deceiving them into believing that simply being good is insufficient, that one can live without a crushing sense of guilt and degeneracy, that a loving deity would never consign them to the fate of Hell. They are enslaved, chapter and verse, to a set of ancient writings whose ideas are often primitive and destructive to the human spirit. They owe allegiance to the concept of a God who demands the blood of torture and murder, even of his own Son at the hands of men, to forgive those same human beings their sins and allow them into heaven. They hold the conviction that other groups of humans on this planet who follow different sets of dogmas (or none at all) are inferior or even evil, and doomed to destruction. Many subscribe to the fantasy that believers will be taken up in "rapture" while everyone else "left behind" will endure the horrors of an apocalyptic End-time. Can such beliefs held by a significant portion of the population produce a healthy society? Can they create healthy minds? Can a nation be governed wisely by executives and legislators who subscribe to such tenets, who believe in the literal existence of Satan, that Armageddon is around the corner and the anti-Christ is coming to wreak havoc on the world, that the Jews need to return to Israel in order to be destroyed in a great conflagration in fulfillment of some fantastic imagined prophecyindeed, that their Deity has communicated these and many other important things critical to salvation through cryptic passages buried in millennia-old 'prophetic' writings? A visiting alien observer might be forgiven for thinking that such a mad and debilitating set of beliefs could never be found outside a lunatic asylum. When one adds to this litany the fact that the faith community is regularly engaged in trying to impose their dogmas on the law of the land, threatening social order, education and human rights, one may come to understand why many in the non-believing community devote so much time and energy in the effort to save themselves and society from such irrationality.

Bob writes:

    You approach God's providence as though you are in the same dimension as God. You will never understand God from this perspective.

E.D.:  These two seemingly simple sentences contain a wealth of fallacy, and illustrate the morass of woolly thinking that often encompasses religious claims. The most common "out" for the religious debater is that we cannot understand the mind of God. This 'explanation' is only introduced, of course, when the believer encounters a situation in which difficult problems have been presented by the non-believer. In such cases, God is claimed to operate according to principles which our merely human brains cannot comprehend, that our rules of logic, science, fairness and compassion are inadequate and don't apply to the divine mind. But on what basis does the believer claim such a thing? If no one can comprehend God or his principles of behavior, how do we know that he indeed does have a set of his own, that they are 'beyond' ours or operate according to some superior law? To know this would require that we have some knowledge and understanding of the divine dimension, which is the very thing Bob claims we do not enjoy from the vantage point of our human perspective.
    And yet the believer has no hesitation in claiming that we can know that such a dimension does exist and that the Deity does operate under principles not in conformity to our own. In other situations, he has no hesitation in claiming that God thinks and acts in such-and-such a fashion. On what basis does he know this if he has already acknowledged that the human mind is incapable of such an understanding? We are caught in a circular bind here. I do not accept that our avenue of such 'knowledge' is through revelation or scripture, as there is no objective evidence that such sources are anything more than the statements of earlier men who claimed that they were a party to divine understanding or had received divine direction. This is simply the blind leading the blind, the deluded the continuingly deluded.
    I am reminded of a debate I attended involving Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the existence of God. A questioner afterwards asked: "What if God is a Being who is 'above' all these things?" This was in reference to the principle of causality, in that if all things require a cause, how can God be uncaused. Barker rightly asked: "But what does that MEAN?" What meaning can it have to say that God is "above" such principles? How can we know that it is possible for anything to be "above" them? Logically, we cannot know, because everything that we "know" comes from our presence within and understanding of the universe we inhabit. How do we even comprehend the very principle of "being above" this universe and its laws? If we have no knowable referent for such a state, then it is a meaningless phrase to us. What it constitutes, in point of fact, is simply an attempt to escape the dilemma of the uncaused God. It is an attempt to define the thing you want to defend in such a way as to circumvent the valid and otherwise insurmountable objections to it. But as Barker pointed out, the questioner has no idea what his question means, he doesn't understand it logically or have any independent example to point to as an illustration of being "above" the laws of the universe. Consequently, such an 'explanation' has no force whatsoever.
    Bob, here, is in the same fix. He has no way of "understanding" his God because he does not inhabit the divine dimension, and he has already admitted that from our perspective we do not have such an understanding. Yet he confidently declares not only that such a dimension exists, but that believers like himself can pronounce upon it and upon God's workings, even though they have no accessible reference point for those pronouncements. But Bob is right. From my perspective, I will never understand God. And if God has given me so little capacity to understand him (short of surrendering my reason and experience to embrace wishful thinking under threat of eternal punishment), I maintain that such a deity is more than deserving of being ignored and rejected, and that the thinking, rational person can do no less.


"Just Looking" writes:

   Is Hell a punishment from God or the simple result of a Free Will choice made by non-believers? What other punishment allows the one being punished to freely choose the punishment or not to be punished? Perhaps not an infinite number of choices (2), but choices none the less.

E.D.:  Rather than face the reprehensible nature of the concept of hell, with all its implications for claims of a loving God, and reject that concept as untenable, this reader has recourse to a rather dubious piece of logic. By nature, all punishments are consequences of supposedly "free will choices" so I am not sure how he views this one as different or why he feels that it solves the problem. (Note that he also subscribes to the opinion that non-believers are fated for eternal punishment.) In general, on what do we base our usual "free will" decisions as to how to act or not act, including how to believe or not believe? We do so on the basis of their consequences, for ourselves and others, on their 'morality' and acceptability within society, on the exercise of our personal judgments. Our education, our ability to think critically, our sensitivity to the well-being of others, and so on, are ideally the basis on which we develop as human beings to a position of being able to make good choices. Supposedly, society does its best to train its members to give them that capacity. While it does not threaten a hellish eternal punishment to those who in its view make the wrong choices, it does set consequences which will hopefully be a deterrent to them.
    What has God done in that regard, especially in the matter of correct belief? Has he personally revealed himself to all so that there can be no doubt of his existence? Has he ensured that we have clear means for understanding his wishes and that his commandments are reasonable? Has he seen to it that there are not many conflicting pictures of him, many incompatible claims about the best means of approaching him, receiving his approval, enjoying "salvation"? Has he established objective and rational standards for arriving at all the right conclusions, so that we have a reliable basis on which to make those "free will choices"? 
    Apparently not, for objectivity and rationality are anything but the basis on which religions make their claims. No government on earth would set up a system of requirements and punishments which have as little grounding in verifiable reality as God apparently has. No parent would impose regulations on their child while never giving them direct personal contact (in an objective sense, not an allegedly intuitive or mystical one), communicating with them through obscure and unreliable channels, and failing to make their relationship compatible with the standards of reason and morality which our own human nature has struggled to achieve.
    No, definitely he has not, and God himself has admitted it. Paul in 1 Corinthians (allegedly the divine word) puts it quite blatantly: "This doctrine of the cross is sheer folly to those on their way to ruin, but to us who are on the way to salvation it is the power of God....Scripture says, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the cleverness of the clever.'....God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish....He chose to save those who have faith by the folly of the Gospel....Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than man's strength....To shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness....There is no place for human pride in the presence of God."
    Clearly, the thinking man and woman have the dice loaded against them. All the principles of rationality and fairness are meaningless in the face of the divine system God has revealed to believers like Paul, and our free will choices had better not be based on such principles, or we are eternally doomed. Paul has defined the Christian gospel as "folly," he has condemned the world's efforts to achieve the "wisdom of the wise" as leading only to ruin. Any attempt to gain such wisdom, to acquire a pride in ourselves, will be beaten down. God has created us into a world that is anathema to us, whose principles of order and logic, beauty and pleasure, equality and freedom, are nothing less than our undoing, the path to our damnation. And in the face of that cosmic contradiction, we are expected, required, to make the "right" choice, else we suffer the most dire of punishments. How the mind of so much of humanity came to arrive at such a morbid and self-destructive philosophy is one of the mysteries of our world. Curing it will not be an easy task.

Todd writes:

     I am (or was) that quintessential fundamentalist Christian that you so accurately characterize in the various essays on your site. I am writing to you now because I have, in the months since reading (by no means a scholarly work!) The DaVinci Code, become increasingly aware of the huge inconsistencies between what I was raised to "know" and what I have come to understand are the facts. Since that fateful read, I have been insatiable in my pursuit of this "other" worldview and have read over twenty books on biblical criticism, history and theology on both sides of the issue. Needless to say, for me, this is a very significant issue.
     What I wanted to ask you is this: Should the rationalist perspective prove to be the only tenable one, how do I look at death and eternity? Is it all over? What hope is there for anything other than the here and now? I know that you don't know (in the objective sense of the word) any more than I or anyone else but, I am interested to hear how you deal with that. It seems kind of hopeless, perhaps even nihilistic.
     I would like to commend you on your knowledge, logic and scholarship. It is profoundly true that faith—of whatever stripe—should be consistent with reality.

E.D.:  See next message.

John writes:

     I have recently come across your website and your work and I must say it is quite an impressive body.
     I have a couple questions for you.  I'll tell you up front that I have been a believer since I was a young child.  While I certainly have had my doubts in the past (anyone who says they haven't isn't being honest with himself), I'm sure that the chance of you persuading me is probably only slightly more than me persuading you.  That said, I have no desire to argue with you in any way.  In fact, I find the ignorance and bile spewed by many of your so-called Christian attackers repulsive.  
     My questions revolve around things I have not been able to find on your website.  Who is Earl Doherty?  What does he believe (I see lots about what you don't believe, but not much about what you do)?  And, my biggest question, from what does he derive such a passion for disproving a historical Jesus?
     Mr. Doherty, I'm not a pastor, I'm not an apologist, I'm not an author, I'm just a guy.  Honestly, not even a terribly brilliant one at that.  One thing that I've always wondered, though, is why someone would have such a passion to discredit Christianity.  From my perspective, I can definitely see a goal.  Under my belief system if I persuade someone, they live forever.  I don't understand the goal from your perspective, though.

E.D.:  The question about what I believe and why I may have my own passions have probably been answered to a great extent in previous comments. As to "who" I am, I too am simply an ordinary person, "just a guy" as John puts it of himself. Like many others in our society (even if we are in a minority), I found a way to step outside the received wisdom and indoctrination of my upbringing and environment and ask questions, to wonder, to think for myself, and to arrive at my own judgments. It happened that I had an interest and education in a related field (history and classical languages) and decided one day to apply all these things to the question of Jesus' existence. With enough perseverance and independence of mind, almost anyone could do the same. Like many others, too, I was disturbed by the negative effects religious belief has had on society and individual lives, and I decided to try to do something about it. Again, almost anyone could do the same.
     John suggests that his goal, and that of his belief system, is to persuade people that they can live forever. His implication is that this is the most desirous of goals and that people should want this most of all
—and at whatever cost. But there is the crux of the matter. Along with John's conviction goes another implication: that even if he's wrong, people haven't lost anything. I would beg to differ. It is the very context of that goal almost all religions seem to share which creates such problems. In responses above, I have given some idea of the "harms" that religion can produce: divisions on individual, societal and international levels, exaggerated feelings of guilt and unworthiness, a surrender of rationality and the misunderstanding of our own natures and that of the world around us, the adoption of often absurd and ruinous doctrines. (The Catholic Church's quite successful international campaign against birth control, to note one simple example, is helping to dig the grave of this planet.) If religion's ideas of an afterlife and how to reach it successfully are in fact wrong, have we truly lost nothing by adhering to them? If this life is all that we have, will its quality and enjoyment not have suffered if visions of heaven and eternal spiritual bliss are nothing but misguided and distracting fantasies?
     Is it the ultimate personal or collective good that each one of us should survive for an eternity? In a universe of constant change, evolution, life and death in an often painful struggle and progression toward we know not what, should we expect the apparent anomaly that each being, each consciousness coming into existence along this long road should continue forever? The fact that the universe certainly seems to militate against such a thing has led to the adoption of religion, to the creation of a whole dubious super-natural dimension which the world we inhabit can offer no objective indication of. It seems that only in such a fantasy realm can a continued personal survival be postulated. Moreover, we must attribute such an incongruous system to a Deity, and convince ourselves that it is reasonable to believe that the Creator would set up this kind of system. But is it reasonable to suppose that an all-powerful, all-loving God would create a universe of our sort, on its vast and incomprehensible scale, simply to provide an ante-chamber, a testing ground, for a completely different kind of universe meant to house us in eternal happiness? Why not create us directly to that heavenly abode? Why is the testing required, why this complex and perilous little prelude to eternity? To ascertain whether we are "worthy" of it or not? Why would the Deity think this was necessary or reasonable to impose on his own creations, attaching it to so much at stake? Does a parent "test" his child before deciding to give it all the benefits within its power to give, to try to save the child it has created from the world's pains and problems? Does the sensible parent separate herself from her child during the trial, weigh it down with all manner of disadvantages that can lead to failure (including the ability to doubt or be unaware of her existence, itself a measure of failure), set up a horrific punishment if the child succumbs to those disadvantages, and so on? Would we call a parent rational and loving if this was their procedure? What then do we call a God who so acts? How do we judge a Deity whose historical path of events toward salvation or destruction entails serpents and apples, Original Sin, universal floods, fathering a divine son on a human virgin and having such a progeny tortured and crucified by the very people he has been sent to forgive and rescue, this being the only means by which God chooses to grant that forgiveness?
     There are just too many absurdities and contradictions in such a view of reality, and so the rational person must reject it.
     But what is the alternative? Is the fear of death so great that we will accept anything that offers hope of an alternate fate? Does wishful thinking win by default? What does the non-believer have to offer in the long run, after the present life
—with its potential improvement once free of the impairments created by religious dogma—has run its course? Frankly, I can't tell you for certain. What I am certain of is that we can never arrive at a proper answer to that question until we free ourselves of our religious straitjacket, its distortion of our universe and what it is to be a human being within it. Until then, we cannot be sure what is the best and most desirable fate for ourselves, or how we may interpret our role and our destiny. Atheists and humanists do not have a required doctrine or philosophy on such matters. We are free to exercise our own judgment, and those judgments vary. But let's try setting up some kind of groundwork, a starting point for thinking about things, without feeling that some necessary end-result must be decided upon, or even that this is possible.
     If the universe we inhabit is all about change and evolution, life and death, with no teleological certainty in view, and we are a part of that universe with no other dimension rationally on the table, then we must see ourselves as sharing in its nature. These things are as much a part of being human as anything else. We struggle, we progress, we improve (hopefully) within that context. There is no 'morality' in such a reality. It is neither good nor evil, it simply is. Admittedly, we are faced with the anomaly that our instinct, our self-awareness, seems to find the prospect undesirable, even frightening. Could this be a matter of perception? Could it be that one of the mechanisms of survival and evolution has been this sense of individuality which entails a fear of ceasing to be? Perhaps life would not have been able to lift itself to greater levels of intelligence and accomplishment without the drive of self-conviction, the need to better one's individual experience of a difficult world. If awareness can only develop and look out upon the world through isolated vantage points, simply because that's how impersonal evolution has operated, we are prey to certain disadvantages of that sense of isolation. We are forced to see ourselves simply as individuals on a limited pathway between birth and death. In the face of this, we invented souls or spirits, parts of ourselves, even if undetectable, which could survive death and carry on consciousness, which were fated for some other existence. We opened the door to all sorts of consequent paraphernalia, the supernatural, gods, demons (which always accompany gods as partners, since if gods are good we must explain the origin and continued existence of perceived evils), a whole complex system by which we achieve the afterlife
—one which must, to be just and acceptable, be happy for the good people and sad for the evil people.
     What happens if we chuck all of that, none of which is supported by any verifiable evidence? Might we try to abandon the fundamental idea that death is an evil, something to be avoided at all costs? Are there ways to reorient our thinking to arrive at such an outlook? Are there ways to reinterpret ourselves and the universe so that the traditional bleak picture of life and death can be circumvented, seen in a different light? I'm sure there are, and freethinkers have always sought to provide them. One of them might be based on something like this:
     If our human selves/bodies have no ingredients which are anything other than those of the material universe (atoms, energy, whatever), then we are nothing other than parts of the physical universe. If that physical part possesses self-awareness, then this awareness is a property of that part. It is a function of a certain highly-developed configuration of the material ingredients of the universe, namely the human body with its sophisticated brain. In other words, each body is a particular coming-together of the universe's ingredients to produce self-awareness. It simply becomes a matter of reoriented thinking to say that this means we are the universe being aware of itself at multiple points, each an assemblage of the universe's own ingredients. Through our discovery and knowledge of evolution, we can say that evolution has been the universe's own process of developing this means of self-awareness. Thus, the awareness each of us carries is in one respect the awareness possessed by the universe. You and I are the universe being aware of itself.
     There is nothing mystical in this, nothing unscientific. It is simply an interpretation of what we can observe about the physical universe and ourselves within it when freed of supernatural impositions. We can dispense with the soul, which has never been demonstrated to exist. We can do without an external agency, or God, who has allegedly placed something within us which enjoys an independent reality and destiny. We need embrace no spiritual dimension, something which has never been detected in any reliable way. Nor are we turning the universe itself into some kind of deity. The process of evolution has been impersonal, undirected by any intelligent or aware super-entity; it is simply inherent in matter itself. Why that is, we don't know, or imperfectly understand. The craving for simple answers to satisfy our minds at any given stage of our development has always led us down the garden path. But when science and rationality set aside religion and its trappings, its subjective and unverifiable intuition or mysticism or revelation or any number of claimed justifications for believing the non-objective and the non-perceivable, we have always moved closer to a secure understanding of nature.
     Going beyond this reinterpretation of ourselves as intelligent, aware parts of the universe leads us in more speculative directions, and I leave such intellectual adventures to the reader. For myself, I am led to think that death is partly a misconception. All temporary conglomerations of the universe's ingredients die, in the sense that they change into different combinations; even geological formations 'die' and evolve. Some of those 'deaths' involve a degredation on the immediate level, a cessation of certain activity
in the case of humans and animals, activities that are properties of the functioning brain. When the human brain dies, it loses the memories, sense of identity and individuality which were features of its awareness within that particular body. John Smith, when his body dies, ceases to exist in terms of his life's identity. No features of that identity survive the body/brain, and nothing is transferred to some other 'host' as in the idea of reincarnation, an equally unsupportable philosophy in terms of empirical evidence.
     Thus one might say that the death of a given body is simply the cessation of certain activities by that particular assembly of atoms, including the properties of the brain that produce identity, memory and awareness. Yet the larger process still goes on. The universe is still functioning as a system of awareness points, something it has done since evolution reached the level of intelligent life, and which will continue as long as that life survives and continues to evolve, on this or some other planet. Is it not possible, then, to look at the situation this way: If we are the universe being aware of itself, with our individual identities and sense of self being temporary expressions of that larger process, nothing has died or ceased to exist, only a kind of opening and closing of component windows. Oblivion does not result within such a system. And this is the furthest point to which I will speculate today: if the awareness we individuals carry is not that of a distinct entity bounded solely by one path of birth to death, but only a part of a larger whole, then in some measure that awareness will continue. Not as the particular identity we developed in the course of one individual life (I wouldn't want to spend eternity
—or even part of oneretaining the memory of everything in my own life, thanks anyway), but as the ongoing manifestation of the universe's own development through its evolving self-awareness creations—a much more exciting prospect, it seems to me. Stuck at the moment within this temporary assemblage of atoms, however, I'm still trying to get my limited mind around such a concept. I invite others to try doing the same. If nothing else, you'll find the freedom from hidebound, primitive ways of thinking (or not thinking) quite exhilarating.
     But on to more mundane matters....

Brian writes:

   I have bookmarked your website and I find it fascinating! I am a religious person but I find nothing negative to say about your material, only compliments. I try to keep an open mind.
   I am clear that you consider Jesus Christ to be a mythical person. The evidence you present is substantial and your logic is well grounded. However, there are some references to Jesus Christ outside the Bible, mostly from contemporary Gnostic writings. In the case of St. Paul, I am not aware of any contemporary writer making any mention of him at all outside of the New Testament. Do you, therefore, consider it possible that St. Paul himself was actually a fictitious person? Even many of his epistles are considered to have been authored by other people. I strongly suspect that this is the case.

Response to Brian:

Is Paul a Fictitious Person?

There are quite a number of radical scholars today who consider it possible that the Paul of the epistles never existed, at least as those epistles (and the later Acts) portray him, that the letters are second century products pseudonymously attributed to a shadowy earlier figure, or simply to a construct representing the issues of the time and retrojected back into the first century. I find it difficult to go this far, though I would not say it is impossible. I have not found any of the cases presented thus far, going back to the Dutch Radical School of the 19th century, entirely convincing. Without going into detail here (since this is a subject that would require a book in itself), I feel that some of the problems raised about the Pauline letters can be better explained by recourse to the no-historical-Jesus position. I find that the arguments for later authorship are often shaky, similar to those I have dealt with in relation to the radical mid or late second century redating of 1 Clement and Ignatius (see my Supplementary Article No. 12 on the Apostolic Fathers). However, my mind is open and I'm hoping that one of today's more radical scholars will offer a thorough study of the question that covers all the bases, as it is certainly an intriguing one. If strong doubts could be cast on the existence of Paul, we would have to completely recast our picture of earliest Christianity, perhaps even more so than in the context of a non-historical Jesus. There are those who suggest that the Christian movement itself did not begin until the second century, and essentially not until the latter part of that century. These ultra-radical positions, I feel, founder on too many problems and inconsistencies, but, as I said, I try to keep an open mind.

There is little doubt that many of the letters attributed to Paul are later forgeries, such as the three Pastorals, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and probably Colossians. Even the "genuine" letters are probably edited, with later emendations, additions and a splicing of multiple originals. Essentially, however, a fairly reliable picture of earliest Christianity as a movement based on a mythological figure can be derived from them.

I am not sure which "contemporary Gnostic writings" (meaning of the first century, I presume) Brian is referring to, especially having reference to Jesus Christ. Virtually all of the gnostic catalogue, as recovered at Nag Hammadi, can be dated no earlier than the second century, though elements of some may go back earlier. Perhaps this is simply a reference to the Gospel of Thomas, in which one stratum of material may well be derived from the mid-first century, sharing elements with parts of the reconstructed Q document. That derivation, however, would be in the content of the sayings themselves, and not necessarily in their attribution to Jesus, since the little "Jesus said" introductions and other apostolic set-ups to the sayings could easily be later additions. Indeed, the nature of those set-ups often suggest second-century modes of expression found within gnostic communities of that time.

It is not surprising to find that Paul is not mentioned outside Christian sources. As influential as he might have been to the Christian movement (and even this is exaggerated for the first century or so), there is little or nothing that would have brought him to the attention of secular writers that were chronicling the times. But there are Christian sources outside the New Testament that mention or indicate a familiarity with him, including 1 Clement and Ignatius.  The problem with mythologizing Paul or pushing all his writings into the second century is that such sources need to be redated later as well, often with insecure justification, as I suggested above.

Matthew writes:

    Some researchers point toward the gnostic texts as evidence of a historical Jesus and apostles. They differ from the canon in significant ways, in that Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a learned woman, much favored by Jesus and perhaps even intimately close to him. In Mary Magdalene - Christianity's Hidden Goddess, author Lyn Picknett explores the possibility that Mary was a pagan priestess who knew more about spiritual matters than the other apostles and maybe indulged in sexual rituals with Jesus himself.
    In her book, Lyn Picknett argues the following: "On the surface it does seem as if the pagan links militate against a historical Jesus....However, there are several arguments against this theory: first, why invent yet another dying-and-rising god when the new Serapis cult had successfully filled that need? Why create a god whose disciples were known to exist, some of whom professed to have met him? Not all of them were liars and cynical myth-makers. Why invent the only dying-and-rising god without a female consort? And finally, those who wished to fabricate a god would hardly make him so contradictory..."
    I expect that you see such writings [the gnostic texts referred to above] as being no more historically factual than the gospels themselves, and I see no compelling reason to argue otherwise. I find the mythicist position to be perfectly convincing and even if a Jesus figure does lie somewhere behind the fable, the dying-and-rising-godman concept can hardly be taken at face value without an understanding of mythology as a whole.

Response to Matthew:

Mary Magdalene and Gnostic Characters

Matthew's own final comments essentially answer the initial question as I would myself. Nothing about any of this type of 'alternate' scenario, often involving women figures in earliest Christianity, has the slightest support in the early record. Characters like Mary Magdalene, in fact, are entirely absent. One would not know from the extra-Gospel record that she even existed, and I very much suspect she was Mark's invention. Perhaps he modelled her on some female initiates in his own circle or tradition. But this doesn't make his creation a genuine historical person any more than borrowing elements from would-be Messiahs (even executed ones) of his day to help fashion his Jesus of Nazareth makes the latter an historical person.

Lyn Picknett's hypothetical picture of Mary, if true, would hardly have escaped attention and some form of preservation by early Christian tradition, showing up somewhere in the record, even if only by allusion. Too much of this sort of missing material is explained away by saying that embarrassing elements were suppressed, or not spoken of. Ironically, this clashes with the opposite type of claim that a "criterion of embarrassment" can be used to identify reliable traditions, necessitating that embarrassing traditions were often preserved and can be found in the record. I don't have much sympathy for any scenario of this sort (and there is no shortage of them, it seems) which finds no concrete support anywhere.

This enlargement on the role given to characters from the Gospels, often to very detailed and fantastical proportions, is a characteristic of much gnostic and even orthodox writing of the second century and beyond, and marks the great build-up of legends and no doubt sheer invention on the part of imaginative Christian writers.

As for the specific arguments Lyn Picknett puts forward, as quoted by Matthew, I find them less than effective, once again betraying a poor understanding of the mythicist position. The Serapis cult had been invented early in the Hellenistic age by Ptolemy of Egypt (now two centuries old, it was hardly "new"). Dying-and-rising gods even by that time were plentiful, and more were to come afterwards, including Attis and Mithras (the Greek version), so one such savior god clearly did not "fill the need" in the religious atmosphere of the time. Why create a god whose disciples were known to exist, asks Picknett? This seems to have things backwards. Before the mythological Christ Paul preached was developed, no disciples would have existed for any version of him. If Picknett is speaking of a myth-making developing out of an historical Jesus who had followers, this is a logical contradiction to her statement that the argument can serve to disprove the lack of one (if Matthew has quoted her in the proper context). As for Christ Jesus lacking a consort, he was essentially a Jewish version of a pagan expression, and the Jewish God himself was unique in the same respect, being about the only major deity in the ancient world who had no divine consort. Like Father, like Son, I suppose. And I don't know what she finds contradictory about the fabricated god preached by Paul. Such problems only arose when that god was historicized and placed in first century Judea.

Gerald writes:

     I agree with the midrash theory of the Gospels and the mythological development of the New Testament. However, I do feel there needs to be a human starting point in order for midrash to grow. It would seem very strange to take the "spiritual Christ" aspect of God and make it human in order to compare it to Moses, Joshua, Elijah, etc. This would be backwards (and blasphemous). Does God need to be compared to Moses and Joshua and Elijah to show his importance?
     It seems more probable that the authors of the Gospels were trying to spiritualize a human (which would later be misunderstood and taken literally) rather than humanizing God. Basically, why would Mark make Jesus human?
     Also, if we acknowledge two strands of Christian development, is it possible that Paul's strand was completely ignorant of a human Jesus even if there was one? Could we entertain the thought that maybe Paul was wrong in many aspects but his strand still won the day?

Response to Gerald:

Why would Mark make a Mythical Christ human?

The number of queries of this kind I receive is surprising, and indicates that I may not have laid out sufficiently clearly a fundamental element of the mythicist picture, at least my own. The human character of Jesus of Nazareth is based primarily not on the Pauline-type mythical Christ, but upon the presumed (I regard as invented) founder/preaching figure of the Galilean-Syrian Kingdom of God community, as found in the later stages of the Q document. Mark himself, I have argued, was a part of that broad community (even if he did not possess the document that Matthew and Luke used in reworking his Gospel), was familiar to varying degree with many of its traditions and may have subscribed to the existence of the Jesus figure in Q (if it called him by that name at that stage). When Mark fashioned the first Gospel, he created the ministry story as we know it out of various elements representative of his community's preaching tradition. At the same time, in a totally innovative fashion, he added the passion story, giving his symbolic Jesus of Nazareth a new dimension as a dying and rising savior. To what extent this latter innovation was inspired by a familiarity with the Pauline Christ, and Mark's desire to syncretize the two, may be difficult to say, since even the element of death and resurrection could conceivably symbolize what Mark considered to be the destiny of the Kingdom of God community. Very little is actually taken over from the Pauline Christ and assigned to the Markan Jesus, who some have pointed out is scarcely divine at all; there is no mention of his pre-existence, or his role as creator and sustainer of the universe, and even his 'saving' powerto the extent Mark mentions it at all (only in 10:45)goes little if any beyond that of the Maccabean concept of the martyred hero.  The Galilean strand of Christianity really took on Pauline features only in the second century when it became assimilated by the Christ-myth strand.

Thus, even if there was a certain amount of Christ-myth influence on the mind of Mark, the evangelist is essentially following what Gerald says is the more feasible direction, to turn a human into God rather than vice-versa. His starting point is a presumed human figure, within a human setting. The Gospel ministry of Jesus is the mirror of the Kingdom of God preaching movement which seems to have begun in Galilee a few decades into the first century CE, spreading to parts of Syria (as witnessed by the Didache, the earliest stratum of the Gospel of Thomas, and even the Gospel communities themselves
including Johnwhich were likely all located in Syria). Nor was it Mark's purpose to compare God to Moses, Joshua, Elijah, etc., but rather to give the human community itself these dimensions, and thus the legitimacy they are claiming in their preaching of the Kingdom.

Thus, Mark is not making Jesus, a god, human. Jesus becomes a god because Mark's starting point was a human one. It is the same principle involved in the perennial objection: Why would the Christian Messiah have been made a Galilean? The question sees the thing the wrong way round. The Markan starting point (as in Q) was Galilee, with a human figure symbolizing that community's activities. That starting point was what governed the Galilean heritage of the Messiah, when Mark attached that feature to him. (Note that Q itself never assigns the role of Messiah to its Jesus, only the Son of Man
which, while Messiah-like, was a distinct figure of its own.) Thus, Gerald's objection is misplaced.

One might say, well, does this not constitute what the secular non-mythicists would claim, that a man
as obscure or human as he might have beenwas turned into God? On two counts, no. The first is that a careful study of Q would indicate that its Jesus figure was a construct of the later stages of that document's (and its community's) development; a different expression of the Q-type community, namely in the Didache, shows no sign of such a figure. (This picture is thoroughly presented in my book, The Jesus Puzzle, and to a lesser extent on the website in Part Three of the Main Articles and my review of Crossan's The Birth of Christianity.)

The second count is that the essence of what became Christianity is to be found in Paul and the other early epistles. It was this broad strand which was the earliest, founded upon an entirely mythical Christ and extending well into the second century, even to many of the major Apologists who followed an essentially Logos-type religion. Whatever side one gives the greater impulse to, it is this mythical Christ movement which eventually adopted the Q and Gospel-based Jesus of Nazareth, melding it with its own savior concept, and thus one could say, against Gerald's objection, that they did indeed turn a god into a man. (And to agree with Gerald, Paul would indeed have been unfamiliar with any human Jesus, at least as a basis for his own Christ belief.)

All of this may sound rather convoluted, but despite the theoretical Occam's razor, history tends to be complex and cluttered, without the clinical simplicity of philosophical deliberation. Besides, this is what the Christian documentary record itself shows, a messy conglomeration from all over the map of often radically different expressions, theologies, cultural settings, many incompatible with each other, startling and perplexing silences, and so on, leading to postulated sources and dimensions that require unsupported and specious speculation. Scholars have struggled for over a century to try to make sense of it all, but usually with little success when they insist on working from traditional paradigms and centuries of confessional interest. The slate needs to be wiped clean and a different starting point given the chance to lead us in a more fruitful direction.

Bruce writes:

    Your description of reading Crossan was priceless. Having read his two huge works, including the book you reviewed (The Birth of Christianity), I must say I found it brilliant but brutal.
   [Bruce's long letter was somewhat wordy, but I will cull a few extracts and comment on some interesting points.]
   Paul's Gospel - You've very carefully argued that Paul's gospel comes to him from revelation, and perhaps the scriptures. But this can't totally be. He persecuted Christians before his conversion (so) he certainly had to have known something about what gospel they were preaching....Paul could certainly not have been told that Jesus was just some wise sage à la Q1 or else his persecution would make no sense....Given his conversion, he must have believed at least some of the gospel they told him....Paul is simply lying to say he got his gospel from God....This, of course, does not make the case that there was much in the way of an historic figure to what he was told, but it does show convincingly that his gospel did not all come from heaven....[more below]

Response to Bruce:

The Source of Paul's Gospel / Where are the Aramaic Texts? / James in Jerusalem

This is a valid observation, but I would say Bruce is being too finicky here. I don't think anyone was holding Paul to the exact letter of his every word. Paul could join the ranks of the widespread Christ movement (one whose apostles did not all owe their derivation or allegiance to the Jerusalem group, as 2 Corinthians 10-11 shows) and still come up with his own interpretation of the figure they worshipped which was sufficiently his own product that he could make such a claim. While he allows in 1 Corinthians 15:11 that they all "preach the same thing," this seems restricted to the Jerusalem group itself, and it has to be balanced by other declarations he makes about various rivals which allow nothing of the sort (as in 2 Corinthians 11:4 and its surrounding context, which clearly indicates that those competing messages about "different" Jesus's are a product of perceived revelation). That revelation, by the way, would have been largely based on their readings of scripture, as Paul himself tells us in Romans 1:1-2 and 16:25-6 (the latter may be pseudo-Pauline), and in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.

Bruce labels Paul "an egomanic who just won't settle for being an ordinary convert like everyone else," and that is undoubtedly true, else he would not have accomplished what he did. I also agree that Paul "claiming his gospel comes from God makes his gospel unassailable and puts him, in his mind, on an equal footing with the pillars." This does not have to entail, however, that the pillars enjoyed their status because they had known an historical Jesus. That sort of advantage could not have been ignored by Paul and he would have had to deal with it openly in his self-defensive arguments. While the Christ movement was widespread and not all centered on Judea, Paul had inserted himself initially into that circle (growing out of his persecution of the Judean church), and he always felt at a disadvantage toward them in terms of legitimacy. This is why he is anxious to claim the only apparent grounds for legitimacy, the fact that he had "seen the Lord" (1 Corinthians 9:1), a 'seeing' which in his case was entirely visionary, implying that the other ones were as well. Further, the very fact that he declares his gospel a product of revelation from God or Christ, and not "from man"not from anyone who had known Jesus personallywould further argue that no such relationship existed among some of his fellow apostles. For if Jesus had existed and imparted a gospel to his followers whom Paul now knew, it would work against Paul to simply dismiss them and anything they had to offer. Those to whom Paul preached would expect that his gospel should contain elements of what those alleged followers had received from Jesus himself, for Paul had not known Jesus and would be presumed to have missed out on important things; his gospel coming "from man" would be an asset and a buttress to his own interpretations. Paul's whole quest for legitimacy, if some of his fellow apostles had known Jesus, would have taken an entirely different tack, and the existence of an historical Jesus could not have failed to come through unmistakeably in his letters.

Paul also makes it clear that his gospel (as stated in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and touched on elsewhere) revolves around the basic features of Jesus' death and resurrection and their theological and soteriological significance. He would hardly have been preaching elements of Jesus' life and ministry (which he never shows sign of doing) and claim that knowledge of these, too, had come to him through a process of revelation. Bruce makes a common type of mistake in implying that part of Paul's revelation would have to include the list of visions enumerated in verses 5 to 7. Of course they didn't. Information about these traditions came to him from other people. We do not have to take such statements as following on in equal fashion from his gospel statement (of verses 3 and 4), and I go into detail in arguing this in my Supplementary Article No. 6, The Source of Paul's Gospel.

... Hebrew versus Greek - If there were so many Jews involved in the Christian movement, why aren't there equal amounts of texts in Hebrew? (Or as you asked, where are the Aramaic texts referencing Jesus' sayings?)....Where are the Hebrew or Aramaic Christian religious texts that Peter's group would have used in their preaching to the Jews, the Hebrew or Aramaic Christian letters, or am I just unaware of them? What language did Peter preach in when he was allegedly in Rome, Aramaic? I wouldn't think so. Why do they all seem to have been written in Greek? It certainly makes no sense to assume that, in this allegedly mixed group, all the Jewish Christians were willing to have their gospels written in Greek to accommodate the Hellenists, people the James crowd were reluctant to even eat with....[more below]

This is an intriguing observation, with many implications. If Christianity began as the Gospels and Acts portray, directed by a group of disciples recruited from fishing villages in Galilee, spreading from Palestine outward, we could hardly envision the complete eclipse of a preaching and documentary phase that would have been expressed in Aramaic. Yet there is no evidence of such a thing. The once common claim that one could detect Aramaic precursors behind some of the Gospels is simply one of wishful thinking and has been largely discredited. One of the commonest pro-Aramaic arguments put forward, namely, claimed "Aramaicisms" in various writings, can easily be explained by Aramaic influences on the Greek idiom as spoken in the Levant area and do not necessarily point to an original version in Aramaic itself. Too much else militates against the latter. Papias may witness to at least one document in Aramaic that was a collection of sayings imputed in his time (c.130) to Jesus, but without any extant version of it, or even an extant version of what Papias actually said (we rely on the 4th century Eusebius' account, which implies that Papias had not even seen this document but heard of it only second-hand), little weight can be given to this. Nor in any case can such a reference be equated with any of the Gospels or even with Q, all of which have been amply demonstrated to have been written in nothing other than Greek.

What language, indeed, would Peter have preached in if he went to Rome (for which there is zero reliable evidence)? Did he learn Greek or Latin with sufficient proficiency since his days as a fisherman? Or is it more likely that the Jerusalem circle witnessed to by Paul was on a more sophisticated level than the Gospel picture? So thoroughly immersed in a pagan-style Christ mythology as they and Paul seem to have been, were they more Hellenist in nature than we realize, already Greek speakers and thinkers? We might even try tiptoeing further and join forces with the "radical" scholars mentioned earlier and consider whether nothing in Paul is reliable and may all be a retrojected second-century creation from circles that were entirely part of Hellenistic Judaism. Who knows?

This situation (as does Bruce's final excerpt below, which I won't comment on further) certainly calls into question the standard paradigm of Christianity's beginnings, especially as one with a thoroughly Jewish root and Palestinian provenance. I think the evidence better fits a widely diffused genesis out of that border territory between pagan and Jewish religious traditions and philosophies, found all across the eastern empire, a border which both Jews and pagans frequently crossed in one direction or another. One of the several new syncretistic 'nations' they established was gnosticism, a phenomenon now seen to have been largely independent of Christianity's development, though the former was later to assimilate in part with the latter, under the influence of the Gospel Jesus figure.

...James in Jerusalem - The death of James is also part of what puzzled me. James is hanging out with Peter preaching the gospel in Jerusalem for 20 years or so (recall Paul's two widely spaced visits), with no apparent bother to the Jews. Yet a few years before this Paul is going to Syria (!) to hunt Christians down, while (according to Acts) James and Peter are hanging out in Jerusalem the whole time? And after Paul's two visits to the pillars, 20-30 years after their "ministry" began, the Jews finally get around to stoning James? Either James and Peter were so quiet they barely register a pulse, or there is something seriously wrong with this picture.

Lowell writes:

     Thank you for your book, "The Jesus Puzzle". It has profoundly affected my life. At bare minimum you gave me a wonderful hobby that has facinated me for several years.
     I write you about the Wisdom of Solomon, chapter two, verses 11-21. I believe that Mark used  verses 11-21 as a template for the life of Jesus. The most telling verses are as follows:

[11] Let our strength be the law of justice: for that which is feeble is found to be nothing worth.
[12] Therefore let us lie in wait for the righteous; because he is not for our turn, and he is clean contrary to our doings: he upbraideth us with our offending the law, and objecteth to our infamy the transgressings of our education.
[13] He professeth to have the knowledge of God: and he calleth himself the child of the Lord.
[14] He was made to reprove our thoughts.
[15] He is grievous unto us even to behold: for his life is not like other men's, his ways are of another fashion.
[16] We are esteemed of him as counterfeits: he abstaineth from our ways as from filthiness: he pronounceth the end of the just to be blessed, and maketh his boast that God is his father.
[17] Let us see if his words be true: and let us prove what shall happen in the end of him.
[18] For if the just man be the son of God, he will help him, and deliver him from the hand of his enemies.

     All Mark needed to do was to build an outline of Jesus' life from the above, fill in the narrative details by borrowing from Homer and using midrash, then put a few wisdom sayings in Jesus' mouth. Doesn't verse 12 pretty much summarize the passion narrative?  Mark lets the demons show that Jesus fulfills verse 13 above. The last sentence of the verse might even refer to the scribes while verse 11 refers to the pharisees.
     A key question is "when was this written?"  Some think that it was written in the first century BCE, and others in the first century CE.  If it is CE, then this might be an early form of the gospel of some real Jesus figure. If BCE, it seems more likely that this is the early form of a truly mythic character.

Response to Lowell:

The Wisdom of Solomon as Template for Mark's Jesus of Nazareth

The most common dating I've seen for the Wisdom of Solomon is in the first few decades of the first century CE. I don't think it's possible to be more precise. Even if a little earlier, it is clear that this document is one of a long line of Jewish writings embodying a traditional type of story on which the Gospel tale itself is based, a genre dubbed by modern scholars as "The Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One." This almost self-evident derivation of Mark's Gospel story first came into focus around 1980 (see George Nickelsburg, "The Genre and Function of the Markan Passion Narrative" in Harvard Theological Review No. 73, p. 153-184). All the "generic components" of the genre can be found in the first Gospel's passion story. The specific elements Mark used to translate such components were derived by midrash from scripture.

Ray writes:

   As a former minister in the Disciples of Christ, I have read with great interest and shakey footing the results of modern biblical and faith-oriented research. I have three questions: One: If Jesus the Christ was only a mythological figure, powered by the teeming, competitive early Jewish sects, why the name "Jesus" at all, instead of just "the Christ"? Two, did the name Christians just stick because of the belief in the Gnostic mythical "Christ" the Messenger? Three: Web sites (usually Christian and "touristy") point to an "undoubtable" historical Nazareth. I have read somewhere that Nazareth without doubt did not exist in the First Century CE. Is this true, and where's the documentation?

Response to Ray:

Why the name "Jesus"? / The name "Christ" / Existence of Nazareth

The term "Christ" is essentially a title, which would still mean that the new savior god of the circles Paul converted to would lack a name. Who knows who, how, or when the name "Jesus" was given to that god, but it would be a natural one, since it means "Yahweh Saves". It may well be modelled on the deliverer of Hebrew legend, Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land. The use of "Christ" is probably directly dependent on the term as used in Jewish expectation for the coming "Anointed One" or Messiah, since an essential feature of the mythical Christ cult as represented by Paul is the expectation of this Savior's imminent arrival from heaven. (Second-century apologists like Theophilus of Antioch were to say instead, when such expectations had died down, that the self-designation of his faith movement was derived from the process of 'anointing' the believer with the oil of God.) Although we find the term "Christ" present in some gnostic philosophies to refer to a part of the divine "pleroma" (emanations of God) in heaven, it's impossible to say if this had any influence in the earliest 'Christians' applying this term to their new savior god. As for Nazareth, the case is "undoubtable" on neither side, but probably the best case yet made for its non-existence at the reputed time of Jesus is by Frank Zindler, who has written several articles in the past for American Atheist magazine, and refers to the subject in the Introduction to his The Jesus the Jews Never Knew. At the very least, Zindler has shown that claims for its existence in the first century are completely unreliable. I have dealt with this question in the past, in Reader Feedback No. 7, response to Bob.

Major writes:

     I'm a former scientist now studying for a M.Div. I've found your site very interesting; it's challenged my thinking in a number of ways. I'm not quite persuaded yet by your theory, but I'm certainly re-evaluating the New Testament in light of it.
     I see one major problem which keeps me from accepting your theory. It relates to the gospel of Matthew. The writer of Matthew presents Jesus on several occasions as predicting an imminent end of the world (i.e. in the lifetime of his hearers). For example, 10:23, 16:28, 24:34. The book also places Jesus chronologically in the first part of the 1st century. It doesn't matter whether he really existed, the point is, that is when the book of Matthew claims that he existed. Now, this seems to me to imply that the book of Matthew was written within a lifetime after that time. Why? Because otherwise, the writer would be aware that Jesus' prophecies of an imminent end of the world did not come true. If someone was writing a history of Jesus in the early 2nd century, would they be likely to put in his mouth the claim that the world was going to end during the first century, when by
that time it had become patently obvious that such an event never occurred? Do you have an explanation for this?

Response to Major:

Gospel Predictions by Jesus that the End is Near

This is a perennially recurring question, and while I've dealt with it before (Reader Feedback No. 10), it's worth revisiting. Major suggests that the point really has little to do with whether Jesus existed or not, but that the author of Matthew thinks he existed. That may be, but the central point whenever this question is raised seems to be its effect on the date the Gospels were written. If the evangelists were writing history and regarded their work as such, one would tend to agree with Major that they would hardly place an imminent prophecy in the mouth of their central character which could only be regarded as false since it hadn't taken place in the meantime. But that's a big "if."

First, let's reproduce what I wrote in the earlier Feedback:

"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 120s or 130s, 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!"

If the evangelists were writing a piece of midrashic symbolismand there are many indicators that they did not intend details of their story as literal historythen their readers would not have been expected to take everything as such.  I think the primary purpose was to produce a teaching guide, to convey lessons to the community and to embody that community's activities, spirit, and expectations. Nor can we overlook the fact that the evangelists have made many other 'mistakes' which are unresolvable if taken literally. What of Matthew's prophecy by Jesus that the Son of Man will lie in the tomb for "three days and three nights" (12:40)? This is an even more blatant contradiction, in that it cannot be reconciled with another passage in the same document itself, namely the actual account of Jesus' death and resurrection. Why would the author create such an obvious literal error? More than likely because he wasn't being literal. The "three days and three nights" is a symbolic expression, derived from scripture (the story of Jonah, as is clear from the first part of the verse). What of the clear incompatibilities between the various evangelists in their reworking of earlier sources, such as Matthew or Luke of Mark? They could hardly think that no reader was ever going to have a copy of the two different Gospels in front of them and find by comparison that so much simply didn't agree. (They would likely be taken aback by today's frantic apologists who are convinced it is absolutely necessary that they should not disagree!) If the intended object was not to produce literal history in all its details, then an argument that an author would never deliberately embody a seeming contradiction in his writing has no force. Thus, we can derive no conclusion about the necessary date of a given Gospel by such an argument.

Mike writes:

     On page 311 of your book you say that "Jesus shed his blood—presumably on a hill called Calvary outside Jerusalem." But I was watching Fox News' "Who was Jesus" and they said Jesus was crucified at Golgotha on a rock. A church is now bujilt over the rock and pilgrims do visit there every year. So where was Jesus killed: on a hill called Calvary or at this historicl rock of Golgotha on which a church is built and where pilgrims DO visit every year?
     By the way, your book is great, however it is starting to fall apart. Do you think a hardcover book will come out soon?

Response to Mike:

Calvary or Golgotha—and where is it? / A Jesus Puzzle in Hardcover

Golgotha (gahl'guh-thuh).  See Calvary  (Harper's Bible Dictionary, p. 353).

The term "Golgotha" is the original Semitic name for Calvary. It means "skull" or "place of the skull". The name "Calvary" is based on the Latin translation of "skull". As Harper's says (p. 150), "It is likely that the site was so named because of its habitual use for executions. Less likely is an explanation rooted in the physical appearance of the place."

However, Harper's admits that "very little is confidently known about Calvary," even its location. This is curious, for if anything would be preserved in Christian memory, to survive to later times, one would think it would be the place of Jesus' crucifixion, the very site of the world's salvation. So there is a bit of the dubious about the fact that, as Harper's puts it, "since the fourth century the site now marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been revered as the location of Calvary." One wonders why it was left to three centuries later to try to ascertain where the event had taken place, and to decide on a location which is still in dispute among scholars and archeologists.

In fact, neither name, Golgotha or Calvary, appears in Christian writings (outside the Gospels) before well into the second century. Ignatius, while he declares the event historical and locates it in time, never specifies a site. Prior to that, there is no sign of an awareness of the place of crucifixion as a physical location, no sign of pilgrimages to the spot. Since the 4th century, pilgrims have indeed visited a site, especially on the yearly anniversary date. There seems no conceivable reason why they should not have done so earlier, including during the first hundred years of the movement. Except one, of course: that no such event took place in history, that it was invented by the first evangelist to be copied by succeeding ones, and that it took until the middle of the second century for the Christian movement as a whole to regard that story as literally historical. Even then, for another two centuries no site was identified, simply because there was no tradition that indicated where it was. It goes without saying (though I've said it many times) that the same applies to the site of the resurrection.

Will there be a hardcover edition of The Jesus Puzzle? Not in the immediate future at least. I will do my best to keep the book in print, but there are ongoing difficulties in any small publishing venture, not to mention one which sets itself against so much of what society holds dear. Despite efforts by several who recognize the worth of the book and do their best to promote it, when many bookstores or online sellers refuse to stock it, when many libraries refuse donations, when book review magazines refuse to give it exposure, when religious elements do their best to condemn and stifle it, the demand remains limited. Limited, too, are our resources, and an expanded "second edition," whether hard or soft cover, urged by such as Richard Carrier, (which would also involve increased mailing costs), may not be within my means. All of this goes with the territory, of course, and few attempts to buck traditional beliefs have ever enjoyed a different fate.

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