Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
Reader Feedback and Author’s Response
Set 26: March 2006

Robert writes:

   You better be sure you are correct in all of this. I would hate to be you on Judgment Day! You will have eternity to torment yourself with the fact that you were offered Heaven and instead you chose Hell. What do you think you are going to get out of this, praise from deluded men? Enjoy your 15 minutes well, because your time is short. I really hope God gives you His grace and you turn back to Him. It is God Himself you are running from. I hope you may someday see the truth. I would hate for anyone to know for eternity that he had the chance for salvation and willingly rejected it. It's never too late to repent! I will pray for you tonight.

   Reading your e-mails I was surprised that you didn't have the guts to publish anyone but your "zombie" followers. There is the claim that Christians are zombies, but that's all I see on your site. Where's the decent? Oh yeah, you need balls to face that! Isn't that just like liberals, all talk and no bite!!

Response to Robert:

Gonads and Zombies

Normally, I don't start my Reader Feedback sets with a message like this, but those who have followed the feedback postings on this site will know that I often include e-mails from disgruntled believers who express the sort of sentiments we see here, and very often I will even include replies to them. (Reader Feedback No. 23 is a good example.) Apparently, Robert has not probed too far into any of the Feedback files and has missed the voice I regularly give to those who react the way he does. Accusations about anatomical deficiencies are thus entirely unmerited.

In any case, I decided to begin with Robert this time in order to correct any imbalance I may have been guilty of. Actually, the positive responses I receive always outnumber the negative by at least 5 to 1. The opinions they express are varied, intelligent, insightful, occasionally even poetic; many are thankful for a new-found access to freedom. And they are often accompanied by perceptive questions about this or that aspect of the mythicist case. I would argue that they are anything but the product of "zombies."

The negative messages, on the other hand, tend to make the same narrow, cookie-cutter points over and over, and there is rarely anything poetic about them. Threats of eternal punishment. Calls to repent. Appeals to God, the bible, prayer. Never a sign that the writer has opened his or her mind even a chink to allow in the light of a fresh thought, any questioning of the indoctrination and fear which govern their own lives, and which they can only wish on everyone else. They want us to join them in their dreary, haunted, guilt-laden, demon-infested world, in their uncritical worship of a punitive and unrelenting God who requires absolute obedience and unquestioning submission, who provides a "faith" contrary to reason, and a salvation through the denial and denigration of his own creation. Their greatest fear
—and thus, to them, the greatest sin, requiring the greatest punishment—is of incorrect belief; and the exercise of the mind which can lead to doubt and an undermining of dogma. All of which illustrates the essence that lies at the heart of religion: an enslavement of the mind, the shutting off of its ability to think for itself, that wishes only to be told how to think, how to act, a mind whose greatest concern is to have other minds function exactly the same way, and to condemn and perhaps eliminate those who do not. From this core proceeds all the evil that religion visits upon the world, from bigotry to division, Inquisition to terrorism. One would be hard pressed to come up with a more suitable description of "zombie."

Paul gave us a direct look into that core in 1 Corinthians:

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe...For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men....God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

What an indictment against everything that the rational mind holds dear! What games God is presented as playing with those he created! God, in his "wisdom" has set up this whole cockeyed scheme, where what appears to be, is not, and what we are led to conclude and achieve through our own devices is actually a trap to ensnare us. This "wisdom of the world" cannot be God's product, since he has set things up to discredit it. Human pride, enlightenment, progress
—it's all a dangerous aberration, contrary to the Deity's omnipotent design. In fact, God has set up an acknowledged "folly" in their place. The world itself has no value, since God places none upon it (except perhaps as a testing ground) and demands that we fear and divorce ourselves from it in order to attain salvation to some other place—while trying to avoid an horrific damnation to an unspeakable fate he has provided for those who have fallen into his trap. According to minds like Paul's, and Robert's, God has no interest in making the present world a better one to live in. What did his all-knowing Son do when he visited and 'dwelt among us'? Did he give us the formula for penicillin? Explain optics to correct the flaws in his Father's design of the eye? Perhaps some information on the workings of nature, so that we might better cope with the often difficult environment he provided for us? Did he give us an insight into human psychology, and how better to understand ourselves? No, he conversed with demons as the instigators of illness; he talked endlessly of heaven and hell; he gave us garbled messages about love while declaring that to follow him one must hate one's father and mother, and warned that only through belief in himself could anyone be saved, while the rest of humanity would be relegated to unending pain and darkness. And he demonstrated that the route to unlocking God's love and forgiveness was through the torture and murder of himself by those same people who needed God's love and forgiveness.

Is it any wonder that in order to continue to accept such a body of irrational dogma, the mind must be shut down, the world denied, the unbeliever condemned? The more we learn about the world we live in, its workings and its history, the more we learn about ourselves and our own workings, the greater the stress on traditional faith, and the greater the suppression of critical thought required to preserve it. Unfortunately, it also produces greater hostility against those who find this faith repugnant, deeper divisions in society, and a more extreme fanaticism. It produces ignorance, superstition, and a destruction of the human spirit. It will continue to ensure a great deal of misery until we abandon the whole wretched business.

I guess this is why I don't lead off with responses like Robert's. They don't tend to produce an upbeat opening.

Adrian writes:

Thanks for all the effort you put into your website. I have referred it to quite a few people. I am an "official Catholic theologian" with an Imprimatur who gave it all up after becoming convinced that Christianity is not true. The powerful Jesus-myth arguments were too much for me at the time, and I have become more and more convinced that, if one took a video camera back to Palestine from 0-30 AD, one would not have been able to locate anybody resembling Jesus.

Staci writes:

   The Jesus Puzzle and Challenging the Verdict are both exceptional books and I commend you for your tremendous influence in bringing visibility to the question of the existence of Jesus.
   I find it amazing that so many scholars readily acknowledge that no existing texts about Jesus were written by anyone who actually knew him, yet they still go on to claim that he still existed. I see it as irresponsible at best for historians, the media, biblical scholars, etc. to continue to ignore or dismiss the lack of evidence for a historical Jesus. When I hear serious scholars debate questions such as "how was Jesus able to eat fish if he wasn't bodily resurrected?" it seems they might as well ponder whether Cinderella's fairy godmother really turned a pumpkin into a coach or if Cinderella just took a cab to the ball. Almost as bad are those who are appalled that anyone would dare ask the question, but as most in this group are fundamentalists who take ancient myths of talking serpents and worldwide floods as history, they are more easily dismissed.
   I don't have a great personal stake in the issue and would certainly remain an atheist either way, but I think "experts" should be held accountable for ensuring their claims are supported by evidence. At the same time, if the case against an historical Jesus were to become more widely accepted, perhaps there is a chance that the truly ludicrous beliefs such as creationism, Satan, an eternal hell, etc. would also be questioned.

Declan writes (from Australia):

   While I have little to add to the debate on the existence of Christ, I simply wish to applaud you for bringing dialectics to the fore (and not to mention the beautifully sharp wit). The Age of Reason I find more practically useful (and equally amusing). Unfortunately, I suppose you're largely preaching to the converted already. I can't imagine a religious fanatic thoughtfully reading your works, which is to their detriment (and I suppose our own). Can I suggest you put together a "Dummies Guide to combating fundamentalism in all forms" for free distribution on the Internet?
   Cheers, mate.

Frank writes:

   Hope you have a new book out soon. They are amazing and easy to read, too. Your arguments are all smoking guns to me.

David writes:

   While I commend your refutation of Strobel's The Case for Christ in Challenging the Verdict, I was transfixed by The Jesus Puzzle. I had heard arguments that challenged the historical Jesus before, but I thought the issue had been, for the most part, laid to rest by an abundance of voluminous material from independent contemporaneous historians. Was I in for a surprise!
   I am an attorney living in Dallas, Texas. As you might imagine, the fundamentalist onslaught is almost too much to bear. I have ordered copies of your books for the few right-minded friends I have, as gifts, and they are as intrigued and as impressed as I. As you might imagine, I have not been too popular on the cocktail circuit lately, challenging the historicity of Jesus. Much to my surprise, however, there have been a few staunchly conservative religious folk whose initial ire was replaced with genuine curiosity after hearing my entire summation of your argument.
Recently, I read anew all of Paul's contributions to the New Testament (or what most scholars ascribe to him), looking for some reference to an earthly Jesus.  Paul's insecurity is striking.  This is a man who begs and whines.  He constantly compares himself to the "super apostles," and desperately needs to convert others for his ego, if not out of guilt for hunting christians.  In short, he needs to be accepted and believed.
   The idea of Paul writing a veritable cornucopia of persuasive letters designed to cajole, intimidate, guilt, scare, and otherwise use any means necessary to convert gentiles without referencing an earthly Jesus and hosts of other fleshly beings to substantiate the latter's miracles and bear witness to his ministry is absurd.  This resonates stronger considering Paul's writings are thought to have been within 20 to 40 years after the alleged crucifixion, and thus would be more likely subject to eyewitness verification.  Paul worked tirelessly at marketing.  Why not use your most powerful sales pitch?  He never encouraged anyone to travel to the historical settings where the earthly, historical Jesus walked, ate, slept, taught, performed miracles, was crucified, or was resurrected.  Paul's personality craved this proof.  Clearly, he would have used these arguments if they were available.  Unfortunately for Paul, the gospel writers and other revisionists did not come along for several decades.
I was a philosophy major in undergrad and am familiar with the Platonic tradition.  Paul is clearly referring to Jesus existing in that Greek intermediate realm between Heaven and earth.  The allegory of the cave has clearly left its imprint on the mindset of the time. And a natural reading of Hebrews 8:4 [E.D.: see below] must be troubling to those who argue otherwise.

   Your book inspired me to read the New Testament from a new perspective, unshackled from previous assumptions about Jesus's historicity. The result was nothing short of an epiphany for me!  Yes! Yes! Yes! This is it. Finally, a refutation of the historical Jesus which combines a critical study of the outside historical record, a natural reading of the biblical text itself, the philosophical milieu, and common sense.  By the way, thanks for destroying the credibility of the writings of Josephus, or at least pointing out that his original work was almost certainly altered.  Fundamentalists always throw Josephus at me, and now I am equipped with the rebuttal.

   The only tragedy about your efforts is that Strobel is probably rolling in dough for giving the people their dose of seemingly confirming medicinal gobbledygook and your provocative, sobering books are blacklisted by christian-owned (or at least influenced) bookstores. The Rev. T.D. Jakes just sold his home, less than 2 miles from me, for approx. 5.5 million dollars. For his sake, I hope the needles in heaven have gaping eyes or the camels are awfully diminutive. I've always said, ironically, "The only thing that prevents me from selling God is morality."
At any rate, thank you for the books.  I'm doing what I can to spread the good word.

Maria writes:

   The Jesus Puzzle is still one of the most fascinating books I've ever read, and I've been "fighting the good fight," as it were, by asking people to be intellectually honest about history. It's tough, as you know, because so many people think that the Gospels are valid historical documents. Even the non-Christians I know are threatened by the idea of the Jesus Myth. It's amazing what it does to people. It's like their very foundations have been threatened. Back when I was a fundamentalist, I probably would have had a similar reaction, but then, I was asking many of the questions you answer about Paul, only to have my questions waved away with vague mumbling from church leaders. I abandoned rational thought for temporary assurances of all kinds.

Brendan writes:

   In college I studied under Paula Fredriksen at Boston University, and for years I was convinced that she did the best job (compared to her contemporaries, like Crossan, Mack, and others) of portraying a historical Jesus who actually made sense in the context of being a Galilean Jew in late Second Temple Judaism.
   There were some lingering questions in my mind that her depiction of Jesus never fully answered (like how he became elevated to godhead so suddenly upon his death, or why the epistle writers show so little interest in Jesus's life and teachings), but until I came across a better explanation, I just had to accept that those questions would remain.
   Then a couple of years ago I found your writings on the Secular Web, became intrigued, and over the course of reading through your entire website, was quite convinced that you have presented a depiction of the origins of Christianity that has the most explanatory power.
   So a heartfelt congratulations on your insight, and my sincere thanks for sharing your scholarship via the internet.
   I do hope that mainstream New Testament scholars will be forthcoming in their serious critical reviews of your work. I was quite disappointed to see my former mentor, Prof. Fredriksen dismissing any notion of a mythological Jesus argument out of hand.
   Finally, I'd like to bring up a point that I don't think I've seen raised in your previous 25 reader feedbacks. It seems that most New Testament scholars, both secular and apologetic, accept that Jesus had brothers and/or sisters (be it James and Jude of the epistles; James, Joseph, Simon and Judas mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew; or the unnamed brothers in the Gospel of John). But what is striking, then, is that throughout the formative years of Christianity, there are not significant attempts made by Christians to trace their lineage back to a blood relative of Jesus.
   It seems to me to parallel the glaring absence among the earliest Christian writers of tracing their chain-of-teachings back through an original apostle to Jesus himself. While having (or claiming to have) a bloodline back to a brother or sister of Jesus might not have guaranteed a position of power in the early church, surely it would have gone a ways toward gaining some respect, authority, reverence, etc.

Response to Brendan:

The Brothers of the Lord

Although the silence on other characters in the Gospels is frequently brought up (such as by Brad in the previous Reader Feedback), there has been little focus on the reputed brothers of Jesus as mentioned by various evangelists, particularly in regard to tracing a line of descent or authority back to any of them. The one exception, of course, is James the Just (as in the Gospel of Thomas, saying #12), although even this does not appear until well into the second century. I have pointed out several times that even the New Testament letters pseudonymously attributed to James and Jude (virtually no critical scholar regards them as authentic) do not identify such apostles as brothers of Jesus, even though they are likely the product of the late first or early second century. The silence in the Christian record during that initial period is universal in regard to anyone having been associated with an historical Jesus. Since the appeal to an authoritative or prestigious link back to people of that stature would be undeniable and irresistible, we must conclude that such links did not exist and were unknown even in theory.

It occurs to me that this throws some light on a perennially argued verse, namely Galatians 1:19, with its reference to James as "the brother of the Lord." Those who claim that this must mean sibling of Jesus, often appeal to a related phrase in 1 Corinthians 9:5:

Have I no right to be accompanied by a wife [literally, a sister wife], as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

Here Paul is claiming his legitimacy as an apostle of Christ (note that this is because he, like them, has "seen Jesus our Lord" which, since he is included, can only mean through visionary experience), and by referring to these "brothers of the Lord" he demonstrates that they, too, are active apostles, going about with their wives and presumably their children. If this is a reference to siblings of Jesus, we have direct evidence that they were active in the missionary movement, that they had families, and thus Brendan's observation stands out with perplexing clarity. Why, indeed, would there not have been those in later decades who possessed traditions about these sibling apostles, tracing from them some descent, some apostolic tradition, some line of authority, appealing to the prestige of being associated with the very brothers of the Lord himself? Such traditions and appeals only begin to appear over a century later, and those developments we can certainly put down to artificial constructions based on characters found in the Gospels, writings that were now beginning to circulate throughout the Christian world.

This void is a good argument for interpreting the phrase in a different fashion, not as a reference to siblings of a human Jesus, but as "brethren" in the sectarian sense, dedicated to a figure called "the Lord"
—which could mean a spiritual Son of God, or even God himself. In that same sentence, the word "sister" appears, "a sister as wife"—which is hardly a reference to an incestuous relationship, but to a female member of the sect who is also wife to a "brother of the Lord". Since the phrase "the brothers of the Lord" appears as one element in a series enumerated by Paul (apostles, Lord's brothers, Cephas), this could indicate that there was a core group—perhaps the originating members of the sect—which was known by this name, part of a larger active group by the time Paul was writing. This would strengthen the interpretation that Paul's reference in Galatians to James as "the brother of the Lord" (if it is not simply a marginal gloss by a later scribe that got inserted into the text) was in the nature of a title, referring to him not only as part of that core group but almost certainly as its leader and possibly originator.

Mac writes:

   I have reread your web pages rather thoroughly.  I still come up with the same question.  I'm no religious nut.  But I still get the impression every time the subject comes up that you avoid the subject of the cross.  In discussing if Christ was a man, you point out that the mythical Christ in the hymn in Philippians 2: 6-11 humbles himself and becomes obedient unto death. And that this must be interpreted mythically.  I agree 100 per cent.  But the next phrase says "even the death of the cross."  Here it becomes hard to believe in a mythical cross.  In 1 Cor. 2 the point is not just that "rulers of this age" put the Christ to death, but that they crucified him.  Why a cross and why crucified?  It seems to me that it would be easier for the Jews if the Christ had been stoned to death.  Does having a "Jesus" who is "crucified" give the story an historical setting?

Response to Mac:

Why Christ Crucified?

This is a variant on a type of question I get on a regular basis. The more graphic the description of the death of Christ in the mythical arena, the more difficult it seems to be for the modern mind to grasp and accept. "Death" in the spiritual realm seems OK, but on a "cross"? A death by "crucifixion"? Recently on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board I was in debate with an apologist who claimed that Christ "hung on a tree" (as in The Ascension of Isaiah, chapter 9) could not be placed in the spiritual dimension of the sublunar realm "because there are no trees in the air." He could not understand how the ancients could have envisioned something as graphic as a hanging, or crucifixion, taking place in the mythical spirit realm.

There are a number of ways to approach this difficulty. First is to realize that the myths of the Hellenistic savior gods contained all sorts of very graphic imagery. The dismemberment of Osiris and the burial of his body parts in boxes; the self-castration of Attis with a knife; Mithras' slaying of the bull with his dagger, to mention only a few. The IIDB apologist had two objections. One was that the myths were originally set on earth, and this is true at least of Osiris and probably Attis. Such myths were formed in a period when these activities by gods and goddesses were envisioned as happening in a primordial past, a "sacred time" before actual, real-time history. Only later did Platonic views of the universe lead to a switch of venue, an envisioning of such spiritual processes taking place in higher spheres of a multi-layered universe, although it is difficult to determine how thoroughly that picture was adopted by the man-in-the-street devotee of the cults and how much of a primordial-past outlook still prevailed.

But if there was one aspect of Platonic thinking which did come to dominate views of reality, it was the concept that there was a counterpart relationship between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and material. The higher world contained the genuine reality, of which the material world was only a copy. Moreover, The Ascension of Isaiah contains a clear reference to the idea that what happens on earth also happens in the heavens:

And as above, so also on earth, for the likeness of what is in the firmament is here on earth. [7:10]

The same document also refers to robes, thrones and crowns awaiting the righteous in heaven, and we know that the city of Jerusalem was thought to be paralleled by a "heavenly Jerusalem." Now, it is not always possible to know how graphically these things were 'reasoned' out (if that's the right word to use). Were those robes, thrones and crowns graphically imagined? Did the heavenly Jerusalem contain stone walls, cobbled streets, household amenities? The point is, given the intellectual climate of Platonism with its counterpart-realm concept, we can hardly rule out
—indeed, we must accept—that the ancients somehow envisioned that the sort of things they were familiar with on earth also took place in the heavens. (I daresay, modern believers can only envision earth-like settings and activities going on in the Heaven they expect or hope to reach after their own deaths.) That included 'evil' things as well, since the demon spirits were spiritual beings, engaged in spiritual activities, though they were restricted to the lower celestial sphere. Suffering and death could also take place in the spiritual dimension, on the part of spiritual beings, although such 'corruptible' things could only take place in the realm of corruptibility, the lower reaches of the spiritual dimension, namely below the moon, which also included the material realm of the earth itself.

Now, no New Testament writer is this specific. Paul nowhere speaks of the sublunary realm, though he seems to impute Christ's death to the demon spirits ("the rulers of this age" in 1 Corinthians 2:8
—which a "majority" of scholars, says Paul Ellingworth, admit is a reference to spirit forces); and The Ascension of Isaiah has an elaborate descent scenario for the Son and his hanging on a tree by Satan in the spiritual part of the firmament (below the moon). Hebrews' picture of Christ's sacrifice is thoroughly Platonic, but the actual death on the cross is not identifiably located. Did early Christianity follow strictly Platonic rules in analyzing Christ's death? We don't know, but the indicators are there that it followed general Platonic principles. The Odes of Solomon and The Shepherd of Hermas (though neither contains a sacrificial Son) are saturated with mythological thinking and no trace of history, as are Revelation and 1 Clement, whose supposedly 'historical' elements are open to different interpretation.

Another point to be made here is the role of scripture in regard to the mythical Savior-Son of early Christianity, a factor not operating in the pagan mysteries. The early documentary record reveals a faith based on the Jewish sacred writings. Paul's gospel comes from scripture (a legitimate interpretation of kata tas graphas in 1 Cor. 15:3 and 4, and openly stated at the opening of Romans), by revelation through the Holy Spirit. Rival apostles teach "another Jesus" through the same Spirit (2 Cor. 11:4). Hebrews' entire picture of Jesus the High Priest is based on a Platonic reading of the scriptures. Even the epistle of Barnabas
—though possessing a rudimentary idea of a Christ on earth—still seems to derive information about him from scripture. I have said that scripture is the embodiment of the Christ idea, that for the early Christians scripture was a window onto the spiritual world where Christ was active and from which he communicated to believers.

This picture of the early Christian thought-world, together with the total void on any sense of a man in recent history who began the movement, appointed apostles, prophesied the end of the world, worked miracles and taught great ethical teachings, is undeniable. It is no stretch to accept that, like the rest of the ancients, early Christians could envision Christ dying in the spirit dimension, even crucified
—especially when scriptural passages such as Isaiah 53, Zechariah 12:10 and Psalm 22 spoke of that very imagery of 'piercing' and 'nailing,' perhaps influenced by the existence in their own world of the ignominious death by the cross. Such factors would hve led to the choice of crucifixion as the manner of the spiritual Christ's death, rather than stoning. (Incidentally, most commentators suspect that the phrase "even death on a cross" was Paul's own amendment to a pre-existing hymn, a refinement based on his own reading of scripture, or on the part of the circles he joined; perhaps earlier phases of the Christ faith had not yet fixed on crucifixion as the manner of death. The same lack of specificity is found in the hymn of 1 Timothy 3:16, and the several references in the record to 'hanging on a tree'as in 1 Peter 2:24 and the Ascension of Isaiahmay also reflect the survival of a phase in which the image of the cross had not yet fully emerged.)

My apologist friend on the IIDB also tried to maintain that such myths as the castration of Attis were regarded simply as allegorical, and thus not having really happened in any literal sense, material or spiritual. But this is hardly demonstrable. The fact that a few sophisticated philosophers viewed things this way does not mean that the average initiate did so. One wonders how the Galli, the eunuch priests of the Great Mother and her consort Attis, would be led to wield the knife on themselves in a frenzy of self-mutilation for the sake of mimicking an allegory, any more than the average Christian would be led to practice self-denial and even physical penance for the sake of an allegorical passion of Christ. Besides, Plutarch, in addressing "Clea" in Isis and Osiris, cautions her against regarding the myths as actually having happened in the ways described, indicating that this was in fact the popular viewpoint which Plutarch wished to correct.

It is admittedly impossible to nail down with any precision the exact viewpoint early Christians held in regard to the death of their mythical Christ, except that it took place in a dimension not our own, in "some other place," as one IIDBer put it. Apologists like to jump on this and claim that this discredits the entire theory. But they don't just win by default. What they fail to acknowledge is that the early record is full of indicators in such a direction, that it makes a good fit with the philosophy and cosmology of the time, and is supported by close parallels with mystery cult mythology; whereas the fit is far weaker on the other side. There are virtually no indicators in the non-Gospel record of the first century of the movement that the death of Christ took place on earth in recent history, that he had conducted a ministry in human form
—and many indicators excluding such ideas.

Rob writes:

I would be interested to know more about what evidence there is on the original apostles. Paul, Peter, Andrew are all mentioned in the New Testament, but what other documents exist that would back their existence? I have read that it is inconclusive that Peter's remains are those now resting in Rome.
    Congratulations on your work.

Response to Rob:

Is there any witness to Peter, Paul and other early apostles?

There is no external, non-Christian evidence for the existence of any of the apostles of the early Christian movement, and that includes Paul. If one accepts that anything of the Pauline corpus is the product of a first-century figure, he himself bears witness to certain men of the Jerusalem group he had contact with in the mid first century, James, Peter (or Cephas, if they are the same person), and a John. That they were followers of an historical Jesus is virtually excluded, since Paul gives no hint of any such relationship, and even states (Galatians 2:8) that they were appointed by God, not Jesus, to carry the gospel to the Jews, while Paul was to go to the gentiles. Around the end of the century, the writer of the epistle 1 Clement speaks of the figures of Peter and Paul in a past now a few decades old, which would seem to support their basic existence. But even this writer does not link them to an historical figure. In fact, I have argued extensively (see Article No. 12: Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers) that the author of this letter knows of no historical Jesus, and passages like the lengthy quote of Isaiah 53 in chapter 16 show that his source of information on the object of Christian worship is still scripture.

1 Clement as support for an historical Peter and Paul depends, of course, on its authenticity in regard to general date (within a decade or two of 96 CE, let's say, although the author being the bishop of Rome at the time is in no way reliable). My above article argues for that degree of authenticity (I am unable to accept radical views that it is a later 'forgery' from around the year 160), which leads us to another conclusion. While Peter and Paul are referred to in chapter 5 as early apostles who suffered martyrdom (though even this is not precisely stated), such martyrdom is not placed in Rome, nor is it even said that either figure actually came to that city. If this is a missive from the Christian community of Rome at the end of the century, and Peter and Paul had actually been there to suffer their martyrdoms, it is simply not feasible that the writer would have neglected to say this when discussing their fates. Like so many other later traditions about the early Christian movement, the deaths of Peter and Paul and the long tradition that the bones of Peter now rest beneath the Vatican, can be seen to be baseless and the product of later wishful thinking, designed to increase the prestige and authority of the Roman church, which was itself a product of the mid-second century and beyond.

Dan writes:    

      First, let me say that as a long time atheist, I had always assumed that Jesus was an actual person who later became mythologized.  After purchasing and viewing "The God Who Wasn't There" (Brian Flemming), which led me to this website which I have reviewed extensively, I am now convinced (almost, convinced is a strong word) that Jesus was a totally mythological figure. However, I am still disturbed by the quote from the DVD in regard to Hebrews 8:4 which I see again on this website.  The DVD states that Hewbrews 8:4 states in effect that "If Jesus had been on earth..."  In the King James and Revised Standard Edition, the quote is "If Jesus were on earth," admittedly a minor distinction but one that can lead to a different interpretation.  Please be assured that I am not a religionist arguing for Jesus, but I do think that this is an important point, which could lead to religonists dismissing the argument, i.e., "they" misquote the Bible. Is this a translational mistake? or what is the explanation?  The answer will not change my new held belief that Jesus was wholly mythical but I want to be accurate in my arguments.

Response to Dan:

Hebrews 8:4: "Now, if he were / had been on earth..."

Both translations have legitimacy (see below), and both are used by translators, the latter by the NEB. I have spent many words in many places on this verse in Hebrews, and it's probably best simply to quote myself.

First, from The Sound of Silence feature:

This passage might be called a "smoking gun," for it virtually spells out that Jesus had never been on earth. Though the point may seem trivial (and it is), the writer is comparing the heavenly High Priest, Christ, with his earthly counterparts, and here he makes the passing comment that Christ on earth would have nothing to do, since there are and have been priests who perform this role which the Law requires.

The tense here is ambiguous. The Greek for the key phrase is "ei men oun ēn epi ges" or literally: "now, therefore, if he were on earth," with the verb "were" in the imperfect. This is, strictly speaking, a past tense, and the NEB translation above reflects this, with its clear implication that Jesus had never been to earth. Scholars, naturally, shy away from this meaning. Paul Ellingworth [NIGT, Hebrews, p.405] admits that the NEB is grammatically possible, "since the imperfect in unreal conditions is temporally ambiguous." But he counters: "However, it goes against the context, in at least apparently excluding Christ's present ministry, and it could also be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus had never 'been on earth.' He thus opts for a translation like most others, "If he were [now] on earth, he would not be a priest at all."

Even with the latter translation, however, there is an awkward silence. The writer offers no qualification for an idea which could be misconstrued as covering past times. He shows no cognizance of the fact that Jesus had been on earth, and that an important part of his sacrifice had taken place there, the shedding of his blood on Calvary. The implication that he would have had nothing to do on earth, since there were already high priests there, goes against the obvious fact that he had had very much to do on earth. Ellingworth goes on to say that, "The argument presupposes, rather than states, that God cannot establish two priestly institutions in competition." This is indeed the case, yet with Christ the High Priest on earth, performing an important part his sacrifice on Calvary, such a competition would in fact be present, and the writer should have felt obligated to deal with it.

The epistle's fundamental point is the setting up of two counterpart sacrificial systems, the old and the new, the Sinai cult on earth and the heavenly sacrifice of Jesus which supplants it. The presence of Jesus on earth, crucified in the earthly sphere in the present or the past, would have foiled such a Platonic duality.

Later, in my Comment on Richard Carrier's review of The Jesus Puzzle, I had this to say:

I am not sure (nor are some scholars—see below) about the certainty with which Carrier makes his statement about the “ei…an” clause in Hebrews 8:4. Most cases would bear out the general principle that with an imperfect in both parts of the statement, the sense is of a present (contrafactual) condition; and that in conveying a past condition, the aorist would be used. But what of a continuing condition that extends from the past into the present? None of the aorist examples I can find convey that sense, only the sense of a specific condition limited to the past. What formula would be used to convey an ongoing condition, one existing for some time and still existing? I suggest it would be the one using the imperfect, which is a tense in itself that entails an ongoing quality. Thus an “ei…an” statement using the imperfect tense could in certain cases be ambiguous.

I suggest that this is what led Paul Ellingworth (Epistle to the Hebrews, p.405) to say the following (this is a fuller quote than I supplied when referring to Ellingworth in my book):
    “The second difficulty concerns the meaning of the two occurrences of ēn. The imperfect in unreal conditions is temporally ambiguous, so that NEB [New English Bible] ‘Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest’ (so Attridge) is grammatically possible. However, it goes against the context, in at least apparently excluding Christ’s present ministry, and it could also be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus had never ‘been on earth’.”

This ambiguity, entailing a condition extending back into the past, also makes sense in the context. I have asked why the writer would trouble to make a statement confined only to the present when in fact one part of the statement was supposedly contradicted by a recent past situation, and the reason now used to justify the statement itself also existed in that past situation. In other words, the “if he were on earth” clause is contrafactual, not true; yet it was supposedly very true in the recent past. No cognizance of this conflict is hinted at; the writer does not say something like “if he were now on earth.” Then, the reason for the conditional statement itself, that “if he were on earth he would not be a priest,” is implied as being because there are already priests here to do the job. But there were earthly priests in the past to do the job, including at the time when Jesus was supposedly on earth conducting his role as High Priest, which is Hebrews’ central characterization of him. If he wouldn’t be a priest “now” because there are human priests present on the scene, making him redundant or creating a conflict, why is it that he wasn’t rendered redundant or in conflict in the recent past, when those same priests should have rendered him so? Why would the writer of Hebrews choose to make such a trivial statement applying to the present, when its very opposite was true in the much more important situation of the recent past?

Ellingworth goes on to state: “The argument presupposes, rather than states, that God cannot establish two priestly institutions in competition [that is, the earthly priests and Jesus as High Priest].” In fact, the passage as a whole stipulates that those earthly priests perform earthly duties and sacrifices, while Jesus the High Priest has his own duties and sacrifices, which chapters 8 and 9 place in a heavenly setting and category. Yet Ellingworth fails to perceive the contradiction involved, that the same conflict (between heavenly and earthly priests) would have existed in the recent past, something the writer of Hebrews should have been aware of and at the very least should have felt constrained to clarify.

Thus a solely present contrafactual meaning to this particular phrase, even if it does use the imperfect tense, not only falters on this logical conflict, one can only make sense of it by extending its meaning back into the past as well. Grammars and lexicons are very good at formulating principles, but in practice usages and meanings can often be looser and have special applications. (Arguments over the para vs. apo debate in regard to 1 Corinthians 11:23, or the meaning of oikoumenē in the context of Hebrews 1:6, are good examples.) I submit that this passage can only convey one thing: that in this writer’s mind, Jesus had never been on earth.

I also discuss this verse at some length in my rebuttal articles to both Bernard Muller and Mike Licona.

Reg writes:

   In reading your website, I was interested in your feedback on a website writer, Hayyim ben Yehoshua. Though Mr. Yehoshua states his case as one for a mythical Jesus, he actually refers to several historical Rabbis whose description in the Talmud fit certain descriptions of the Jesus of the Gospels, such as Yeishu ben Pandeira, also known as Yeishu ha-Notzri. How do you see these Talmudic references fitting in with your thesis?

Response to Reg:

Jesus in the Talmud

The basic answer to this question is that all written references to a Jesus figure by Jewish rabbis come from the 3rd century and later, and have no reliable basis in actual historical knowledge going back to the first century, but may simply be reactions to Christian developments during those later times. This area is a complex one, and I will refer the reader to two sources on this website. The first is a general survey of the written Jewish commentaries as I laid out in an earlier Reader Feedback in my response to Jarek. The second is my book review of Frank Zindler's The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, which is the best and most thorough review of this literature from the point of view of the mythicist case.

Malachi writes:

     I am devoting extensively a website for the real historical Jesus (although you would believe there isn't one).  In reviewing the research, I must say that I don't support your position and really feel as if the evidence is going against you in a very persuasive way.  But I would like to apologize on behalf of Christians for one certain point.  Throughout most of their writings, they criticize your 'credentials' rather than your arguments.  This is known to be an 'ad hominem' attack, and I know it must be tough on you that they disable your claims simply because you might not be a 'professional historian.'  Like I said, I do disagree with a lot of your findings; however, they should not automatically disable your arguments simply because you only have a degree in classic literature (and another one I believe).  The research should be looked at fairly, instead of trying to figure out what backgrounds everyone have.  When people do this, it reminds me of how much they want to the truth to fit their side, while they don't want to be on the side of truth.  I do believe they are right in the conclusions that they have came to (partial authenticity).  But once again, I do not believe it is right to attack simply because you are not considered a professional historian.  I just wanted to let you know that.  We should always attack the argument, not the character behind the argument.  But I do want to advise you to look at your argument from an aerial view of the evidence rather than being so 'into' it.  Once you put 'all of it together,' I believe it will change your mind.  And lastly, although many Christians attack your credentials, please do not put this on every Christian (like me).  We should examine the truth as it stands, and nothing more.

Response to Malachi:

Truth and Evidence

I thank Malachi for his degree of support and commend his dedication to the truth and the evidence. But without some indication as to how he has arrived at his "aerial view" and how he puts "all of it together," it is impossible to comment on his conclusions. But I have to confess to being a bit troubled by his e-mail address, and what light it may cast on his approach to the subject: <CalledbyJesus247>. (Are there really 246 others who use the same e-mail name, and I wonder if they are all as dedicated to the proper use of evidence?) Since Malachi suggests that I am "too into" the evidence, I can only assume that he means I have not brought other considerations to my methodology, such as faith or mystical experience of Jesus—and he would be right.

Carla writes:

     [E.D.: Carla asked me several very involved questions, each of which could require an article to answer properly, one or two of which also went beyond my area of research. I would encourage readers to ask questions that are more specific and relate directly to elements of the Jesus Myth theory, although questions and comments relating to the general area of rationality vs. religion are also welcome, since, as you know, I am concerned with such matters on my Age of Reason website. Negative responses, such as from Robert which led off this Feedback, are also acceptable, since it always remains a hope that a believer will have something more substantive to say on the subject than threats of hellfire or appeals to their own subjective experiences of Jesussomething of an evidentiary nature, for example, that might call into question the validity of the mythicist case, and hopefully that have not been raised and answered a hundred times before. For now, I will quote and reply to one of Carla's questions...]
   There seems to be an extreme movement to completely discredit the idea that Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Dionysus died and raised from the dead. But the evidence seems to be incontrovertible, as is the evidence that at least in part they were symbolized by the cycle of vegetation. (Even the Oxford Dictionary of Egyptian Mythology admits Osiris as symbolizing the corn, and his raising from the dead. Similarly, the Orphic myths clearly speak of Dionysus reconstituted after being torn apart by the Titans, and would anyone deny Dionysus' connection to vegetation/vine?) What is your take on all this?

Response to Carla:

Discrediting the Dying and Rising Gods

There is no question that the idea that Christianity began as basically another ancient-world mystery religion with a dying and rising god of the Osiris and Dionysus typealbeit in a Jewish contextis the most threatening one there is to Christian claims of uniqueness and legitimacy. This explains why there has been and continues to be a determined apologetic dedication to discrediting it. The heyday of the History of Religions School which flourished early in the 20th century under such figures as Cumont, Bousset, and Reitzenstein, and which traced many Christian ideas back through the wider Hellenistic religious expressions in the salvation religions, eventually ran up against scholarly resistance in the middle decades of the century precisely because it was recognized to be so threatening; at the same time there was a switching of the focus of attention in mainstream scholarship to Christianity's Jewish roots and to correcting some of its more blatant expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment. This took place after the Second World War, and I suspect some of the motivation for legitimizing Christianity as a Jewish sect and downplaying any pagan roots was a reaction to the horrific fate of the European Jews in that war.

From the fifties on, there was a concerted effort to discredit the parallels between the Jesus story and the myths of the Hellenistic savior gods, by appealing to every possible difference and discrepancy between them, however minor or understandable on the basis of differences in culture between Jewish and pagan. Two of the best examples of this were Gunter Wagner's Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries (1967), and Jonathan Z. Smith's extended article "Dying and Rising Gods" in the Encyclopedia of Religion (vol. 4, 1987).  The best debunking of such would-be debunkers is to be found in Robert M. Price's Deconstructing Jesus (p.86-93), where he points out that because no single pagan savior god embodies all the motifs found in the field, and none embodies all those attached to Jesus, 'apologists' like Smith assume that this discredits any comparison at all. "Without everything in common, Smith sees nothing in common." I have several times pointed out that basic differences in attitude and expectation about the afterlife between Greek and Jew led to a different casting of the conquest of death in regard to the Osiris type of savior god on the one hand, and Jesus on the other. Just because the Gospels gave Jesus a resurrection in flesh (unlike Paul, who did not), while the Greeks found the idea of the body returning from death repugnant, should not prevent us from acknowledging that the differences between the two "resurrection" types are a product of cultural differences and proceed from the same impulse. They still represent the same motif, growing as different branches on a common tree.

Similarly, the nonsense that the pagan mysteries borrowed their basic ideas from Christianity in the second and third centuries has also been debunked. Christian apologists like Justin and Tertullian admitted that the mystery cults' expressions came first, though counterfeited by demons. And Christianity was in no position in the second or even the third century, in the eyes and estimation of pagans, to be able to entice the mysteries to mimic its concepts wholesale. While the bulk of our evidence on the mysteries comes from the early Christian era, enough is known about its more ancient expression to show that the savior-god phenomenon had long roots, and if we allow ourselves to understand early Christianity as an offshoot of that phenomenon in a Jewish-oriented setting, with certain distinct and even unique features as part of that setting, our understanding of the evolution of western religion will come a long way. Of course, then Christianity will have to be removed from its privileged status and positioned as part of an ongoing natural and human process of evolving ideas.

Brian writes:

   I have been a fundamentalist Christian most of my life. Over the past several months, I have been rethinking my background. It was recommended to me to read "The Jesus Puzzle" which I just read this week. It left me very informed, but also very disillusioned. 
   You argued that Paul thought of Jesus, not as a historical person, but as a mythical heavenly Christ. To a large extent I buy into that argument. Since Paul was a Christian and thought of Jesus in this mythical manner, do you know of any Christians today who also share this mythical approach to Jesus? In other words, is it possible to be a Christian and at the same time understand him as a myth? 
   I don't want to give up Christianity, especially if the original Christians thought of Jesus in a non-literal way. Rather than giving up Christianity, perhaps my understanding of it just needs to evolve.  Is there a denomination that you could recommend where I can talk to someone face to face about this as I deal with this very psychologically painful experience?
   Also, if this is the way the early Christians viewed Christ, could you be a Christian in this way too? And if you are not a Christian (like Paul), why not?    
Response to Brian:
Being a Christian without an Historical Jesus

I am going to assume that Brian did not abandon his fundamentalist Christianity solely from having read The Jesus Puzzle (though I would have no objection to that). It sounds as though he was in a questioning mode already. I have myself suggested that Christianity, if it wishes to survive in anything but a petrified, reactionary form such as we find in modern evangelical fundamentalism, let alone revitalize itself, needs to accept that no historical founder existed and convert to a less literal interpretation of its Gospels and salvation process. Not that I wish to see this happen, or even regard it as feasible. It would be difficult to go back to Paul's conceptions, simply because they were based on views of reality which have been abandoned for some time, as well as discredited by science. Evolution doesn't tend to go backwards. Besides, Christianity has long since painted itself into the literalist corner, and one would be hard pressed to envision how it could work its way out of it with no historical Jesus. My feeling is that it has outrun its founding concepts and outlived its usefulness. The blood sacrifice of a god, whether literal, spiritual or allegorical, should have no place in the 21st century, and so much of Christianity's paraphernalia offends rationality. Good ethical teachings (not that all of Christianity's teachings are such) can find a place in almost any philosophy, preferably an enlightened and scientifically based one.

I know of no Christian sect which has abandoned an historical Jesus, though certain scholarly circles have much reduced him in size while still retaining him as a guiding light. I am not a Unitarian, but I have many friends who are, and while I am still somewhat unclear on their concept as many of them also seem to be, some congregations make a place for him which is not primarily literal. And I will say that most of them seem quite unradical, open-minded, and good listeners. More than that, I can't recommend.

Brian asks why I am not, or couldn't be, a Christian like Paul. Though I could wax at great length on that question (and have done so in other places), I will sum it up in three points. First, I cannot accept the wisdom of basing my life on otherworldly imaginings and subservience to non-existent supernatural beings. Second, I cannot commit the intellectual suicide, denigration of self, and suppression or distortion of much of the human spirit which most religions require. Third, I cannot countenance the divisiveness and strife which religion inevitably creates, between individuals, cultures and nations; there are enough natural factors to fracture human society without introducing claims of superiority and truth for one set of superstitions and delusions over another.

I would encourage Brian to seek his replacement for fundamentalism in more humanistic and rationally based philosophies of life.

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