Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty



Julian writes:

    Thanks a load for trashing my last two decades of 
researching, theorizing, philosophizing, hypothesizing, 
etc. with your “Jesus Puzzle.”
    Actually, your writing has in fact been a great help.  
I also found the letters from the “Jesus loves you” & 
“you’re gonna burn in hell” brigade quite entertaining.

Dave writes:

    I agree that proving the existence of an historical 
Jesus is nearly impossible.  But I wonder if you feel 
that John the Baptist was a real person (described by 
Josephus), and that Pontius Pilate was also certainly 
a real procurator.  You surely know that an inscription 
on a stone with his name was unearthed in Germany 
some time ago.

Response to Dave:

Pontius Pilate and John the Baptist Historical?

I have no doubt that Pontius Pilate was a real person. But proving the existence of the historical characters and settings to which the evangelists have linked their artificial Jesus of Nazareth says nothing about the latter’s existence. Every good ‘historical novelist’ provides an accurate and realistic setting for his or her story. Accuracy and realism prove nothing other than the novelist’s competence. Just because the evangelists have incorporated features which can be shown to be correct does not make their story line in all its aspects true. It is surprising how many people (I won’t include Dave here) fall victim to this fallacy.

As for John the Baptist, it may not be possible to feel as secure about his existence, though that’s where I would lay my money. The reference in Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18, 5) seems dependable, but it is the only non-Christian witness to John before the Mandaean texts of the 3rd century or later. Josephus’ reference, by the way, fails to link John with any Jesus character or sect of Christians. Q’s picture of the Baptist (before the Gospels) seems to have progressed from a prophetic figure—whom the Q community regarded as its predecessor (Q/Lk. 16:16) and who was credited with prophecying the coming of an apocalyptic judge (not any recent man or teacher)—to one who evolved into the forerunner of an invented founder in the later stages of the Q community: see Part Three.

Scholars recognize that the Gospel information about John the Baptist is highly unreliable (and contradicted by Josephus in respect to the nature of his baptism); they often speak of the “quest for the historical Baptist” (see, for example, John Reumann's article of that name in Understanding the Sacred Text, p.183). For more on John, see my response to Lynn.

Marie writes:

    What, may I ask, do you seek to prove?  If Christianity 
is a hoax, then it would be the biggest hoax of the last 
2000 years, but what damage has it done?  Kept families 
together?  Strengthened the work ethic and moral code in 
our society?  I believe it has offered hope.  Hope never 
hurts.  And if Jesus doesn’t exist, then what do you think 
happens when we die?

Response to Marie:

On Hoaxes and Hopes

This sounds a bit like the principle of “the end justifies the means.” And your assumption that such ends as family cohesiveness, a moral code and the availability of “hope” are only possible in a Christian context, is hardly tenable. Such things have existed in all societies, with their many different religions and even in the absence of religion; they are common human capacities and usually find a way to express themselves in whatever the resident philosophy.

I have never said that Christianity is a “hoax”. No one, I believe, set out deliberately to deceive. A piece of creative writing based on a traditional Jewish method of scriptural interpretation known as “midrash” was misunderstood by later generations of Christians whose own character had changed (from predominantly Jewish to predominantly Gentile). As it turned out, the Jesus story proved not only seductive, but politically useful as well. Its adoption as history was probably inevitable.

I personally believe in the paramount principle that we should always aim at discovering the truth, no matter what it is, and that basing our beliefs and actions on anything less cannot help but keep us from achieving our full potential. Finding out whether Jesus existed or not will bring us that much closer to understanding what is likely to happen “when we die”, not to mention a host of other philosophic considerations.

Neil writes:

    If the Gospels’ Jesus originated as a heavenly spirit 
and not as an historical human, then would one not expect 
to see in the Gospel record an evolution of his human-ness?  
Yet the standard view of the sequence of the Gospels is that 
those depicting the pre-resurrection Jesus as the more divine 
came later.  Does not Mark portray the pre-resurrection Jesus 
as the most human of all?
    If the Synoptic Gospels were written long after the fall 
of Jerusalem, how do you respond to the reply that since the 
Synoptics link the promise of the Parousia to the fall of 
Jerusalem, a more plausible date for their authorship would 
be around the time of that event?

Response to Neil:

Evolution of the Gospel Jesus / Mark and the Fall of Jerusalem

Your first question is a subtle one. But I think it is predicated on the assumption that Mark set out to tell the story of a recent man, and that those who came after and reworked him felt compelled to increase that man’s deification. But suppose Mark’s intention was not to tell the tale of an historical figure, but simply to present, through midrash, a picture of the process of salvation and the imminence of God’s Kingdom in the form of a comprehensible, and exemplary, story set on earth with human characters. Mark’s Gospel, being the first, would naturally prove the most primitive, open to embellishment; and that embellishment could only proceed in the direction of a more complex christology being applied to his Jesus of Nazareth. Each redactor would refine previous thinking and plumb greater depths of meaning (according to the needs of his own group) in how Mark’s Jesus was portrayed.

Matthew and Luke also had more to work with, namely a written Q. And John, a dark horse if there ever was one, seems to have been part of a distinct community with a highly developed Revealer-Christ (at first entirely spiritual), and this evangelist was determined to preserve the character of that Christ in his own version of the Gospel story. (See my Supplementary Article No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John.) So John chucked things like Jesus’ baptism, suffering, silence before Pilate, and the whole ignominious crucifixion atmosphere, all as unworthy of the perfect divine figure he implanted into the borrowed Synoptic setting.

If one considers the early Christian record as a whole, then we see precisely your sequence. It is the epistles, many of which were written before the Gospels (and all of them before the Gospels were widely disseminated), which contain a Jesus who is exclusively divine, one who then progresses to the human figure of the Gospels and later ‘apocryphal’ writings. It is here that we see the clear progress of the early Christian Son of God from heavenly spirit to historical human.

As for your second question, there can be little doubt that the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, with the Temple itself razed to the ground, was an unparalleled traumatic event which stayed in the forefront of Jewish and Christian minds for a very long time. But I would say that the primary link between the Gospel Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem was related to Jesus’ death, not his Parousia. That is, Mark considered the destruction of the city and looked backwards from it. He embodied the guilt of the Jews for rejecting and persecuting the new cult of the spiritual Christ within a tale in which such rejection and persecution was allegorized as the killing of an earthly version of that Christ; and from this act resulted the destruction of city and Temple, symbolizing God’s wrath and the abandonment of his former people. Mark’s ‘lesson’ was that the fall of Jerusalem was a punishment for the Jews’ failure to believe in the (spiritual) Christ and for persecuting the new sect. This sort of thing is what one type of midrash is all about.

You will note that Mark’s ‘link’ is missing in Q, whose latter stages should perhaps be dated following the Jewish War (the “Woe” sayings and Q 13:35 seem to be prophecies after the fact). Instead, it is the “killing of the prophets” which is linked to that event (Q/Lk. 11:47-51), with Jesus himself conspicuous by his absence. The idea of linking a death of Jesus to the destruction of Jerusalem was apparently an invention of Mark.

Does Mark also link the Parousia of Jesus (his coming at the End-time) to the fall of Jerusalem, as you suggest? First of all, one of the aftermaths of the Jewish War was an increase in apocalyptic expectation generally, among Jews and in some Christian circles. Mark 13 reflects this, and yet the heightened trauma and expectation persisted for decades. (Revelation, usually dated in the mid-90s, testifies to this, as do other documents.) Even if Mark were written as late as the end of the century, he would still have been expressing an ongoing expectation of the advent of the Messiah. And in fact, he seems to slip in telltale remarks to explain to his readers why some time has passed since the War and yet the End has not arrived. In 13:7, he says (NEB) that “such things (as noise of battle) are bound to happen, but the end is still to come.” These manifestations are only the “beginnings of the birth pangs of the new age” (13:8). He even makes Jesus say that “before the end the gospel must be proclaimed to all nations” (13:10). This does not sound like something written in the heat of the War or its immediate aftermath, when a prophet-evangelist would certainly have been convinced that the Parousia was imminent, allowing no time for any widespread proclamation of the gospel.

No, Mark is giving voice to the apocalyptic atmosphere and messianic fever still being generated by the destruction of Jerusalem, but he knows that the End was not imminent when that event happened because a fair amount of time (two decades or more?) has in fact passed. And so he hedges the prophecies he puts into Jesus’ mouth. Jesus also foretells a time of “false messiahs”, which suggests an extended period of disputes and sectarian rivalry, and disappointments over false claims and frustrated expectations. All these considerations should at least lead scholarship to hedge its own bets on a near-70 date for the first Gospel.

There have been commentators who suggest that the instructions in 13:14f—centering on the “abomination of desolation”—hardly make sense in the context of the Jewish War and a Roman invasion, and how was anything sacrilegious (which is the original significance of the phrase) to be “set up” in a destroyed Temple? A commonly suggested alternative is that the reference is to the anticipated events surrounding the Antichrist, which many of the elements of chapter 13 would fit. It is also possible, in the view of some, that Mark is working from an earlier piece of apocalyptic writing of entirely Jewish provenance, perhaps resulting from a threat against the Temple by the emperor Caligula around the year 40. The hodge-podge effect of chapter 13 may well reflect Mark’s reworking of such an apocalypse (one having nothing to do with a Jesus), to fit a post-70 situation and his own interests.

Roger writes:

    The Jesus Seminar scholars believe that at least some 
of the parables and aphorisms of the Q and Thomas material 
can be traced to an historical person named Jesus.  Where do 
you believe the red and pink sayings [referring to the colored 
beads with which the Jesus Seminar voted on authenticity] 
came from?  If there never was a Jesus who created these 
sayings, then some other genius of a philosopher/storyteller 
dreamed them up.  Who?
    “Love your enemies” (rated red by the scholars) is a 
basic teaching of Buddhism.  Do you believe that Buddhist 
teachings had any influence on the early Christians and 
were later attributed to Jesus?
    Why do you believe that the Gospel writers included 
“embarrassing” incidents or sayings in their Gospels, if 
not because they originated from an historical Jesus? . . .

Response to Roger:

Who Created the Red and Pink Sayings? / Criteria of Authenticity

In a way, you’ve already answered your first question. I’ll take your statement about Buddhism at face value, but it serves to illustrate that innovative ideas usually have a more widespread genesis than a single individual. (And history has shown that the same idea may arise independently in different locales.) In fact, since the sayings of Q1 bear such a strong resemblance to the teachings of the Cynic (Greek) movement of the time, there seems little reason to impute “Love your enemies”, or any of the other red/pink sayings, to a specific Jesus of Nazareth. This is especially true when all the early Christian epistles attribute no such sayings—or indeed any earthly teachings at all—to the Christ Jesus they speak of. These writings earlier than the Gospels are full of references to ethical maxims involving love, yet none of them are ever assigned to anyone, except occasionally God!

The pattern seems clear: the teachings of a complex of reform and anti-establishment groups into which several streams of innovative and traditional thought have fed, perhaps perceived as coming from some divine source, gradually became focused on an artificial figure who grew out of non-human antecedents. Whether these teachings were the product of “genius” is also a highly subjective judgment. Mixed in with admonitions like “Love your enemies” (itself perhaps of questionable wisdom and practicality—certainly Christians rarely if ever followed it), are other sentiments which to our minds are often strange, inward-looking, and even reprehensible—not to mention outdated.

Therein lies another trap which is often fallen into. You suggest that since the Gospel writers have included “embarrassing incidents or sayings in their Gospels,” these must have originated from an historical Jesus, since they “go against the grain,” the grain being your assumption (and that of many others) that the Gospels are designed to make Jesus “look good.” You offer by way of illustration sayings like “Anyone who does not hate their mother and father cannot be my disciple” (Q/Lk. 14:26). To which I would add things like the Woe sayings which consign whole towns and classes of people to hell, or promising the coming of the Son of Man who will wreak havoc upon the world. (Unlike your example, none of the latter are judged “red or pink” by the Seminar).

Yet as soon as we realize the context in which the Gospels were written, namely within sectarian groups for sectarian needs, such sayings can be seen as perfectly at home and acceptable—indeed, inevitable. Members of a sect are often forced (or expected) to cut themselves off from family and friends; and the sectarian mentality always responds to rejection by heaping condemnation on the outsider, on the establishment which fails to be swayed by the sect’s message. The above sentiments in the mouth of Jesus do not serve the primary purpose of making him “look good.” They serve the purpose of justifying the sect’s own beliefs, its own pronouncements, its stance toward the hostile world around it. So much in Mark's Gospel, from the sayings to the miracles, even the death of Jesus, can be seen as symbolic of what the members of his sectarian community said, did and underwent themselves. The story of Jesus’ baptism (which seems to betray no “embarrassment”), was included by Mark, I suggest, because the members of the sect themselves received baptism, and the sect’s founder (real or imagined) is always portrayed as having undergone the initial rite—perhaps even establishing it, as in the case of the Eucharist. He sets the pattern. This is a universal sectarian phenomenon. And to the extent that the founder is conceived as having provided the example, or instruction, for what the sect itself now does, one might say that he is thereby made to “look good.”

This does not preclude refinements to the portrayal of that primal act, as ideas evolve and other considerations intrude. Thus Matthew feels constrained to point out (through the Baptist’s words in 3:14) that Jesus really doesn’t need to be baptized, but Jesus bows to the formality of God’s requirements. Luke reduces Jesus’ baptism to a reference in passing (3:21), while John will have none of it, eliminating it entirely. Here the idea of Jesus’ sinless divinity gradually overrides the factor of sectarian need.

For more on this question of why the Gospels include so-called embarrassing features, I refer the reader to the latter part of my response to Johnson. I would suggest that scholars, in setting their criteria for authenticity, have too quickly applied judgments which are based on their own modern attitudes, not to mention preconceptions which themselves need closer examination.

Bill writes:

    I am the author of the book “What Happened to the 
Church?”  I urge you to read it.  It will help in your 
personal study of the Bible and be a valuable tool to 
explain what is happening on this planet.  Ask Jesus for 
guidance and please be expedient and obedient, for we 
are at the end of the Church Age and running out of time.
    Thanks, and if I don’t see you on this side of the 
rapture, see you on the other side.

Lyn writes:

    I was surfing through the net when i came to your 
fabulous page.  Being a Christian myself, i do not really 
know this much and am really glad i came here as i finally 
know some things which i have often pondered to myself.
    Take care and God bless you as you continue in your 

Jerry writes:

    It is almost midnight here so I will ask this plainly: 
do you believe in Jesus yes or no?

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