Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty



Colin writes:

    Excellent web site!  At last the epistles and the 
writings of the apologists and the jigsaw puzzle of 
early Christianity make sense to me.

Thomas writes:

    Great job on the new “Quick Assembly” of the 
Jesus Puzzle.  Only through clear, easy to understand 
explanations can the (Jesus) myth be put in its place.  
Your “Quick Assembly” feature is a big step in the 
right direction.

Glenn writes:

    You have an excellent site.  Your presentation is 
clear and your arguments are compelling.  I refer to 
this site often.
    I came across this quote in another Web page and I 
would appreciate your comments:
    “Perhaps the earliest piece of Scripture surviving is a 
fragment of a papyrus codex containing John 18:31-33 and 
37.  It is called the Rylands Papyrus (P52) and dates from 
130 AD, having been found in Egypt.  The Rylands Papyrus 
has forced the critics to place the Fourth Gospel back into 
the first century, abandoning their earlier assertion that it 
could not have been written then by the Apostle John.”
    I would also like to know: exactly what are the earliest 
manuscripts we have for the Gospels?  I have seen some 
claims on the Internet of fragments from as early as 60 AD!  
What are the facts?

Response to Glenn:

Dating Gospel Fragments

I wish it were possible to offer “facts” in the field of New Testament research, or in any area of historical investigation, for that matter. As scholars have found for two centuries, certainty about questions concerning Christian origins is elusive and mercurial. What one generation believes it has established about Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity may be completely overturned and discredited the next. And in few other fields have investigators been so vulnerable to arriving at conclusions under the influence of wishful thinking—and, of course, confessional interests.

Dating the Rylands Papyrus to 125 (a common preference) or 130 CE is a case in point. No such narrow nicety is possible. As Robert Funk points out (Honest to Jesus, p.94), this fragment has been “variously dated from 125 to 160 CE.” Dating it closer to 150 would not require anything like a first-century composition for the Gospel of John, and in fact Justin, who writes in the 150s and refers to his “memoirs of the Apostles” quite frequently (mostly the Gospels subsequently ascribed to Matthew and Luke), seems not to know it. A. N. Wilson sums up the situation (Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, p.251): “In spite of claims by journalists and non-papyrologists in recent times, it is difficult if not impossible to date papyrus within a 50-year margin.”

We possess other fragments of the canonical Gospels from the end of the second century, and complete Gospels only from the middle of the third. The idea of a canon of four to be regarded as an historical record of Jesus comes not earlier than Irenaeus around 180 CE, and it was during this period that much collecting, weeding, and final redaction of texts was performed in order to arrive at a body of supposedly inspired and “foundational” literature to support the emerging orthodoxy of a church centered on Rome. (By that time, many many competing Gospels and other writings were in existence, reflecting a great variety of beliefs and presentations of a Jesus figure, both spiritual and historical. Nor, generally speaking, do the canonical ones enjoy an earlier attestation. Those not accepted into the canon became regarded as spurious or even heretical.)

As for recent claims that fragments of Matthew can be dated to the mid first century, or that Mark has been found at Qumran, these have been thoroughly discredited by reliable critical scholars. I don’t know what Internet location you are referring to, but the claims are those of Carston Thiede, who published a book a few years ago called Eyewitness to Jesus. In it, Thiede announced that he had examined fragments of Matthew which had lain in an Oxford College library since 1901, the so-called Magdalen Papyrus, and decided that instead of the late second century dating scholars had previously given them, they were likely from a decade or two after Jesus’ death. This also indicated to Thiede that they were written by an eyewitness. The book, together with Thiede’s press interviews, were seized on by the popular media, but fairly quickly shot down by more responsible scholarly voices.

Thiede’s earlier cause celebre was his championing of a theory put forward by the papyrologist Jose O’Callaghan that a fragment found at Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls was in fact a tiny piece of the Gospel of Mark. This would place the composition of Mark’s Gospel earlier than is generally proposed, and linked the evangelist’s circle much more closely with the Essenes.

An article in the December 1995 issue of Bible Review dealt with both these contentions, written by Graham Stanton, who also addressed the ‘Mark at Qumran’ issue in his book Gospel Truth? around the same time. And in the January-April 1996 issue of The Fourth R, a Jesus Seminar publication, Daryl D. Schmidt similarly addressed both the Magdalen Papyrus and Qumran Mark controversies. In these articles, Stanton and Schmidt both demonstrated that most of Thiede’s statements about the fragments are “utterly unfounded”, and that Thiede himself, with ties to conservative Christian circles, had already advanced some fanciful notions about the evidence for Christian origins.

Dating based on scribal characteristics can only establish a range of possible dates, which must be given a fair leeway, since even the possession of dated ones with the same sort of characteristics cannot and does not rule out the survival of those characteristics in other, unattested circles for even decades longer, since “styles of writing do not change suddenly or uniformly” (Schmidt). Thiede, in fact, in more scholarly articles for an audience of his peers (as opposed to the popular press and his bestselling book), never claimed a firm date for the Magdalen Papyrus earlier than the end of the first century, which completely removes it from any contention for likely eyewitness, or even for an earlier date than that accorded by standard scholarship.

As for the ‘Markan’ fragment, Schmidt has this to say: “The fragment is so small that its only unambiguous Greek word is kai, the conjunction “and”. . . Surrounding the kai are half a dozen other recognizable letters and another near dozen partial ones. If one of the letters is modified, and if it is assumed that at least one word was misspelled and one whole phrase left out, it can be seen to match a piece of Mark 6:52-53.” Stanton, in his book and Bible Review article, brings similar observations to bear. Both reject Thiede’s contentions.

It is clear that one must always take dramatic ‘discoveries’ and declarations in the field of New Testament research with a healthy dose of skepticism, and only after careful inquiry into the investigator’s own agenda. I am willing to allow that my own work should not be exempt from the same requirement, and I simply invite the readers of this site to consider my observations about the documentary evidence, check them as best they can, and see if they agree with the reasoning I have applied and the conclusions I have drawn.

Stephen writes:

    As one who once lived as you still do, allow me to ask 
you this: how is it you can totally reject the overwhelming 
physical evidence that proves the Bible is true?  The law 
of Thermal Dynamics and the law of Homogenesis prove 
that creation is a reality and that the Creator is none other 
than Jesus Christ, as He Himself claims.  This will be the 
greatest mistake you will ever make, for you will find out 
in the not too distant future that you were wrong.

Brother Kanya writes:

    I compliment you on your unflagging dedication to 
spreading THE LIGHT.  Your detailed response to every 
writer is indeed commendable.  As one who has pursued 
this light for more than 50 years, I know the cost of such 

Avram writes:

    Thank you for putting up this site.  I was really 
impressed — and pleasantly surprised, given the 
content-weakness of many sites, especially when it 
comes to Jesus — with the level of discourse.
    Do you know of any traditions of a pre-Jesus 
crucified-and-resurrected redeemer?  Is there some 
crucified-redeemer “ur-myth” Paul has latched on to?

Response to Avram:

Crucified Redeemers

I am not too sure where all this apocrypha about crucified redeemers supposedly prior to the Jesus myth came from. It was current up to a few decades ago and I suspect it was the product of an over-enthusiastic History of Religions School in the last and early part of this century, or some fringe of it. But I have not been able to confirm a single reliable myth, let alone an “ur-myth”, about a crucified redeemer prior to the early Christian construction. A century ago, a large literature was available outlining close parallels to the Jesus myth in religions around the world, much of it centering on the dying and rising god concept (a concept now largely watered down, if not as thoroughly discredited as some would like to think). The name of Kersey Graves and his Sixteen Crucified Saviors (first published 1875) is still regularly appealed to in this connection. But one is often hard put to discover, when reading those old researchers, just exactly on what hard evidence they base some of their parallels and claims. The abandonment of this type of research by modern scholars shows that it has, to some extent, come to be regarded as questionable. If anyone could enlighten me in this area (preferably with some of that hard, primary evidence), I would be pleased to hear.

I suspect that the Jesus-Crucified myth was largely the result, in certain Jewish sectarian circles within the larger context of messianic expectation, of fevered interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures: passages involving “piercing” and “nailing”, especially in the Greek Septuagint. These were probably influenced, of course, by parallels in the Greek mystery cults about variously ‘sacrificed’ savior gods (see my response to Miles). Even the crucifixion of holy men and would-be Messiahs by the Romans and the earlier Maccabean Alexander Jannaeus probably had some influence on the imagination.

I also suspect that the “crucified” concept may have grown up by increments. The hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, which most scholars regard as pre-Pauline, contains the idea of the descending ‘Son’ undergoing death, while the words “even death on a cross” in verse 8 are thought to be Paul’s personal emendation, perhaps showing the evolution of ideas as to how this Savior had died—in the spiritual realm. (This is not to say that Paul himself was necessarily the inventor of the concept.) Some sources (e.g., the Ascension of Isaiah 9:13) have the Christ “hung on a tree” by Satan in the firmament (the lowest celestial sphere between earth and moon), which may not quite be crucifixion yet, at least not in the Roman sense. The “hanging on a tree” idea (which is also suggested in 1 Peter 2:24) may originally have been inspired by Deuteronomy 21:23, which was not about crucifixion at all.

Mary writes:

    Your research and writing regarding the Jesus Puzzle 
is excellent.  For a non-academic like myself, I found 
your thoughts clearly presented and easy to grasp.
    I think that the Jesus myth is not without an historical 
basis.  The myth is colored, given personality, by human 
personalities. (It) is a composite myth, with characteristics 
of possibly at least three people.  Who they are is irrelevant; 
they are purely of historical interest and have no salvation 
value whatever.
    I think the Gospels and Acts contain condensed history.  
After all, we are dealing with salvation theories, and 
salvation theory tries to find meaning or purpose or a 
better future from an interpretation of history.

Response to Mary:

Models for the Gospel Jesus

I can well acknowledge that elements of several representative, historical figures fed into the myth of the Gospel Jesus, since even mythical characters can only be portrayed in terms of human personalities, especially ones from their own time that are familiar and pertinent to the writers of the myths. However, just because certain models were drawn on, this does not constitute the existence of an historical Jesus. Even if Mark, shall we say, focused on a certain messianic pretender figure—even one named “Jesus” who some suggest could have been mentioned by Josephus as acting around the 30 CE mark (something I still doubt very strongly)—this figure would have served only as an historical hook for a writer of midrashic fiction. We would no more claim that the modelling of Captain Ahab on one or more known whalers of the time would justify saying that Melville’s hunter of Moby Dick was an historical person. And the bottom line of such a proposition would be that the pre-Gospel cultic figure of the Son, from Paul and the other New Testament epistles to the Odes of Solomon or the early layers of the Ascension of Isaiah, as well as many reflections of the Gnostic Christ, would have had nothing to do with any historical man or model.

I can’t quite agree that “salvation theory tries to find meaning or purpose . . . from an interpretation of history.” In this era, salvation came from above, from the spiritual reality which lay in the higher, unseen portion of the universe. I rather think that the effort to understand this, to convey it to others, led to the placing of the myth in an historical setting. This would initially have been only symbolic with no intent to mislead, and it simply took on a life of its own through eventual misconception.

Barry writes:

    I have enjoyed your works very much.  I have struggled 
for years to make sense out of a hodge-podge of writings 
and beliefs that seemed to make no sense to me.  I always 
felt that something was amiss.
    My investigation always led, not to a Jesus as lowly 
teacher, but to a Jesus who was a revolutionary, closely 
aligned with the Zealots.  Until reading your works, this 
seemed to explain much.  Would you like to comment on 
the obvious revolutionary acts accorded to Jesus in the 
Gospels, such as the ride into Jerusalem as the Messiah, 
or the arrest of Jesus by a “cohort” of soldiers, which 
points to a large army confronting a large band of followers, 
or Jesus confronting the money-lenders which would have 
required a rather large contingent of followers.  Why were 
such things included in the Gospels?

Response to Barry:

The Gospel Jesus as Revolutionary

One of the purposes of midrash is to convey certain truths, lessons and rules for new times and situations. While the widespread belief in a spiritual, redeeming Son was a mark of much first century sectarian belief, this was usually set in an apocalyptic context, part of a general trend of expectation that the world was about to be violently transformed. This was a key element, too, in the whole revolutionary atmosphere of Palestine, with its messianic fever, throughout the first 3/4 of the century. It would seem to me, then, that any ‘modern’ setting for a Jesus myth on earth would tend to be placed in such a context of revolution and apocalyptic promise. This, after all, was part and parcel of the new ‘truth’.

The midrashic Jesus of the evangelists was also cast as a teacher (even if one might feel the two to be somewhat incompatible) because this too, this focus on a new ethic for the imminent Kingdom, was a prominent element in the dynamic of the time. All sorts of radical teachings, parables of the Kingdom, controversy stories reflecting the experiences of preachers and sects in conflict with the establishment, were being created in this period (some in entirely pagan circles, such as the Cynics) and were available to the evangelists for incorporation into their midrashic story. Mark’s Jesus of Nazareth attracted and epitomized all these sectarian and political expressions of the time.

Neil writes:

    I am having some difficulty understanding the nature 
of any process whereby philosophical concepts of Jesus/Logos 
could transform themselves into a belief in a literal historical 
man.  By what process can someone change his philosophical 
idea into a literal historical person?  This is the missing link 
in the theory you present.

Response to Neil:

From Mythical Figure to Historical Man

It’s not quite as black and white as that. There are gradients from “Philosophical Idea” to “Historical Man”. One particular believer does not go to bed one night worshipping the former and wake up the next morning deciding to adopt the latter. This Philosophical Idea is a fairly concrete entity who operates in the spiritual realm, with features which are the higher world equivalent of lower (material) world human characteristics. It’s really a case of transferring him from the one to the other, which in the ancient mind would not have been too great a distance.

Nor would this transfer have been uniform across the full spectrum of Christian sects, or even within specific groups. The disputes that are in evidence in 1 John 4:1f, and in Ignatius (such as Trallians 9), together with some of the—in my view, misunderstood—docetic developments around the end of the first century, show that some people very much resisted adopting the idea that “Jesus Christ (i.e., the divine figure in the spiritual world) has come in the flesh (i.e., that he was on earth, in a material body).” Justin describes his conversion at the beginning of his Dialogue with Trypho, an account in which (presumably faithful to his memory of the occasion) he makes no mention of a human, Gospel Jesus; yet a couple of decades later, when writing his Apology and Trypho, he has made the leap from the earlier Logos-type spiritual Son to the human man of the Gospels. It would be interesting to identify the stages in his mind between the two—which, unfortunately, he has not left us any record of. Other apologists of the second century have made no leap at all, and never speak of an incarnation of their Logos-Son (see my “Second Century Apologists” article).

We must remember that the Gospel Jesus would originally have been created as part of a symbolic story. In his first few decades of existence lying on a limited number of shelves, Jesus would not have been regarded as an historical man. Yet the earthly character of this midrashic tale would gradually have percolated through ever widening ripples of Christian thinking and observance, gradually supplanting the older cultic mindsets, until it reached some kind of critical mass and began to be accepted as history.

In addition to the Gospel influence, I believe that certain sectarian impulses would have helped generate a belief in a Jesus come to earth—as reflected in Ignatius and 1 John—with no necessary input from copies of a written Gospel. The need to focus Christian teachings and developments on an historical founder figure would have been another factor in the rise of such an evolution (see my response to Jan). The intervention of the great upheavals of the Jewish War, and the radical reconstitution of the Christian movement which followed it, from a largely Jewish mindset to an increasingly gentile one, would facilitate such a descent of the Christ from spirit world to earthly life, as well as guarantee that there would be little or no controls which could be exercised over such a development.

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