Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty



Jay writes:

    I found your website quite informative and was impressed
with the clearness, logic and coherence with which you 
presented your hypotheses.

Willie writes:

    Just wanted to say that your web page on the historical 
Jesus blew me away!!

Geoff writes:

    Thanks for the web page.  It’s very well done, 
courageous and fascinating.

Rusty writes:

    You present nothing new here that your master has not 
previously used to deceive the simple.
    Genesis 3:1: “Now the serpent was more subtle than any 
beast of the field which the Lord God had made.  And he 
said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat 
of every tree of the Garden . . .”

Vincent writes:

    I was lazily surfing the net one day and, quite 
randomly, came across your site.  Wow!  Interesting 
articles; well written; many good points/questions.
    Here is a point which would seem to support your 
theory but which you did not mention.  From the letter 
attributed to James (the “Brother of the Lord”!) . . .
    5:10: “As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, 
take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
    Should not the prime example of such suffering have 
been Jesus himself?  Did “James” forget to mention his 
own brother?  I am strictly new to this area.  Did I miss 
some context that would have made this omission a natural 
thing for “James”?  Note that this is a case where reference 
to Jesus was entirely appropriate even given that James 
knew that his readers were already familiar with Jesus’s life.  
Presumably they were also familiar with the fact that the 
prophets suffered - and yet James did not hesitate to remind 
them.  Even in James 1:1, James identifies himself as “James, 
a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” but does not 
credit himself with being the brother of Jesus!  He gives no 
indication of having any special love for Jesus as his human 
    Paul’s lack of reference to the historical Jesus might be 
understandable since Paul never met Jesus.  James’ silence 
is more perplexing.
    Frustrating - these writers just could not bring themselves 
to give us unambiguous references to the historical Jesus.
    By the way, you handled Mr. Holding with grace and 
dignity.  Regardless of who scored the most technical points, 
I much prefer your more civil style of discourse.
    Thanks for your articles.  I used to sit rather bored 
through the readings at Sunday mass.  I am no longer bored.

Response to Vincent:

The Silence in the Epistle of James

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I decided to quote your letter at length. James 5:10 is indeed one of those silences in the epistles which cannot be dismissed (as J. P. Holding tries to do) as explainable by the fact that these writers did not need to refer to Jesus. Whether the reader is familiar with the point in question or not, here is a case where the context cries out for a reference to the historical Jesus, for he is surely the best and most compelling illustration of the point the writer is making. No Christian worthy of the name, and certainly not someone writing in the name of Jesus’ own sibling, would choose to draw on the prophets as an example of suffering and patience, and ignore Jesus’ own Passion experience. I can see no context you could have “missed” which would explain this omission.

Incidentally, a project I will undertake in the not-too-distant future is a listing on the site of all the silences which can be identified in the New Testament epistles, specific places where a reference to some Gospel detail could reasonably have been expected—at least some of the time. My own personal catalogue runs to over 200 of these.

You note the silence in the opening of the epistle of James to any reference to the fact that James is Jesus’ brother. I deal at length with this point in my Response to Sean.

Jan writes:

    I read your Josephus article with pleasure and I must 
say I am quite impressed.  You have convinced me that 
the “reconstructed Testimonium hypothesis” is untenable.

Cliff writes:

    (Your Josephus article) is great, in a word.  Well and 
sensitively written.  You are thorough in your arguments 
and patient with your opponents. . . . You have covered 
all possible arguments in such a kind and gentle way that 
it would be an honor to be your opponent.

David writes:

    I am a great fan of your work and in fact I will be 
quoting your findings concerning Josephus.  I would make 
one quibble.  In “The Odes of Solomon” you say you “would 
maintain that no poet to equal the Odist was ever again 
produced.”  I was wondering if you plan to edit this in the 
future, because I would count William Blake.  His imagery 
is easily the most evocative in the English language, and 
it’s theological to boot.

Response to David:

Mystic Poetry

While I don’t deny the quality of William Blake’s poetry, I had in mind the Christian writers of the early (pre-medieval) period who were giving voice to new and evolving beliefs, often serving as apologists. Paradoxically, I suppose one might say that in later times, including that of Blake, Christian poetry again soared when it revisited the mystical heights which the Odist inhabited and dealt with Jesus as a spiritual manifestation.

This, however, is not to equate an aesthetic response to the lyricism of mystic poetry—or the poetry itself—with making any contact with genuine reality.

Bruce writes:

    Have you considered another possible reason why no early 
references to Jesus appear: that they were in conflict with 
developing church doctrine, and were therefore suppressed?

Response to Bruce:

Conspiracy Theories

What kind of mechanism or central authority could have existed in the period when the New Testament epistles were being written which could have effected such a suppression? The epistles give no evidence of any tightly-knit state of cooperation and communication among Christian communities, and in fact the picture of earliest Christianity is one of fragmented diversity, showing a wide range of differences in ritual and doctrine between the various groups. Individual apostles like Paul were also operating largely on their own, and would hardly have had reason or inclination to obey some kind of ‘directive’ to suppress any mention of the man they were supposedly preaching, nor were they likely to all come to the independent conclusion that such a suppression was necessary or acceptable. A deliberate and cooperative burial of the historical Jesus on the part of every surviving letter writer of the first century is simply not feasible.

One might also question the conceivability of a “developing church doctrine” which was in conflict with the reality of “an historical Jesus.” Why would a movement which arose, presumably, in response to an historical man develop in a doctrinal direction which was so in conflict with that historical man as to require his suppression? This, in principle, is an inherently bizarre proposition. And yet it is precisely this proposition which represents the stance that generations of New Testament scholars have been forced to adopt in one way or another. It serves to point out the incompatibility of the picture of Christ Jesus, the cosmic redeemer found in Paul and other early writers, with the picture of the preaching wonder-worker Jesus of Nazareth, distilled from the Gospels or extracted from Q. The two don’t fit together, and the scenarios concocted by modern scholarship to try to force them into their uneasy partnership ultimately fail.

Matthew writes:

    I must start by saying how impressed I am with your 
concerted effort to find the answers to the many questions 
surrounding the life of Christ.  Your articles, what I read 
of them, were interesting.  I am a Christian (about 10 years) 
who is extremely interested in Christian apologetics.
    One overarching thought: which historical figures (let’s 
say A.D. 100 and earlier) do you believe actually existed?  
Can you prove their existence beyond a shadow of a doubt?  
Another question: you use the fact that we have not found 
any Christian writings that date within one to twenty years 
after Christ’s death as a proof against his existence.  Who 
is to say that all of the closest followers of Christ could 
write?  And what about the material on which people of that 
day wrote?  It wasn’t fireproof nor waterproof.  Of course, 
we also can’t simply believe that someone wrote about Christ 
during this period.  Likewise, we can’t prove someone didn’t 
exist because of a lack of writings about him after his death.

Response to Matthew:

Documentation and the Argument from Silence

Firstly, I don’t say that the lack of surviving documents for the first twenty years after Jesus’ presumed death is “proof” or even evidence against his existence. What I have said is that the nature of the early documentation we do have, extending almost a century after that presumed death, provides strong evidence against an historical Jesus. Those early Christian writings not only contain a pervasive silence about such a man, to an extent which defies logical and acceptable explanation, they also contain descriptions of the nature of early Christian belief which tend to rule out a recent historical man as the object of its worship and the genesis of the movement.

I accept the historicity of most reputed historical figures of the ancient world simply because there is no compelling reason not to, which is not the case with Jesus. It is sometimes suggested that we have no proof, for example, that Socrates is not an invention of Plato, who may have created him as a device to give voice to his own philosophy. But the works of Plato have a much greater unity and integrity than do the haphazard pieces of writing brought together in the New Testament, and they do not show the inconsistencies, contradictions, and contrary indications contained in the early Christian documents. Plato’s authorship of the writings in his name is known and virtually uncontested, and these were works published in his own lifetime which would have been studied by many. A Socrates who was an invention would hardly have been possible. Nor did factors like religious rivalry, political advantage, a time of upheaval and much else, all present in the early Christian situation which would explain and motivate the gradual invention of an historical Christ, play any part in the production of Plato’s works.

You acknowledge that we can’t simply assume the existence of something which has not survived (referring to possible early works mentioning an historical Jesus) just because it is possible to come up with speculative explanations for their lack. And yet the questions you posit intimate as much. It would be theoretically possible to come up with explanations for why no one has ever seen a unicorn and yet believe that they exist (people do it all the time with various religious claims), but this does not mean that such “explanations” have any compelling force. This is especially true when the evidence we do have tends toward supporting the entirely mythical nature of unicorns.

It is true that we can’t “prove” someone didn’t exist because of a lack of writings about him. But the argument from silence does have valid weight in that direction when (a) we are justified in expecting non-silence, and (b) the extent or nature of the silence cannot be satisfactorily explained by any suggested reasons. It is too convenient to say—and highly unlikely—that all the early documents which have survived are those which argue against the existence of Jesus, whereas all those which did not are those which could have supplied the missing evidence.

B.A.W. writes:

    I have been hearing a lot about the theory that Jesus 
was in a coma when he was removed from the cross and healed 
in secrecy.  Do you find any validity to this hypothesis?

Response to B.A.W.:

Jesus in a Coma and Other Speculations

How can a theory have validity when there is no evidence available to evaluate it? Such theories offer speculative suggestions as to how the Gospel presentation of the death and resurrection could be explained in a non-spiritual way. But if other evidence exists to regard the Gospel account as entirely a fabrication (including the fact that it is supported in virtually none of its ‘historical’ details by Paul and all other early epistle writers), then such theories can have little force.

A parallel might be made with modern scientific attempts to explain the Star of Bethlehem. Since no one in the entire ancient world outside of a single Christian evangelist, Matthew, mentions such a phenomenon (Luke, in his Nativity story, has no star and no wise men following it), and since all heroic figures in the ancient world, legendary and otherwise, tended to have heavenly prodigies attached to their births or deaths—none of which, of course, anyone accepts as having really occurred—all the theorizing in the world about what natural astronomical phenomenon could have produced the Star of Bethlehem is surely a pointless exercise.

Bob writes:

    I, too, am not convinced of the historical fact of Jesus.  
There are two questions I would like your comments on:
    Firstly, I have been told that “Jesus of Nazareth” is 
quite an impossibility due to the fact that the town of 
Nazareth did not exist at the “time of Jesus” and in fact 
not for some centuries thereafter.  Is this a fact that can 
be established?
    Secondly, Rev. 11:8 reads: “And their bodies shall lie 
in the streets of the great city, which spiritually is called 
Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.”  
I have long been fascinated with the similarities between 
Jesus and Horus and I have never been able to get any 
theologian to explain the last part of this verse.

Response to Bob:

Did Nazareth Exist? / Revelation 11:8

It is impossible to “establish” that Nazareth did not exist in the early first century, since no one tells us this fact. And unlike the question of Jesus’ own existence, no one makes statements or offers other evidence which would lead us to draw such a conclusion. What we do have is the failure of the Hebrew bible, Josephus or the talmudic literature to mention such a place. The New Bible Dictionary (p.819) says that “the earliest Jewish reference to it is in a Hebrew inscription excavated at Caesarea in 1962, which mentions it as one of the places in Galilee to which members of the twenty-four priestly courses emigrated after the foundation of Aelia Capitolina [the Roman colony Hadrian set up over a ruined Jerusalem] in AD 135.” However, this does not prevent most commentators from simply assuming that such a town as Nazareth did exist in the time of Jesus, because of the New Testament ‘witness’ to it. E. P. Sanders (The Historical Figure of Jesus, p.104) opines that “it must have been a minor village,” because of its lack of mention.

As to Revelation, I have now completed Supplementary Article No. 11: Revelation: The Gospel According to the Prophet John, which addresses the absence of an historical Jesus in that document, and I will quote from it. [The following has been revised and expanded from the draft passage initially quoted here.]

Glenn writes:

    Please!  It is always easier to destroy than to create.

Response to Glenn:

The History of Ideas and the Nature of Progress

The history of ideas, and humanity’s progress in general, have always proceeded through a process of change, of the old giving way to the new. In a sense, both destruction and creation are continually involved. Yet would we say that Copernicus simply “destroyed” when he disproved the old Ptolemaic system which placed the earth at the center of the universe? Do enlightened forces in society “destroy” when they abandon things like human sacrifice, beliefs that demons cause sickness, convictions that women are inferior to men or one race to another?

The existence of Jesus is an historical question and merits examination no less than any other, especially when so much has been based upon it which defines our Western society. This includes the values and actions we have followed, some of which (though not all) have been of questionable validity or worthiness. If Jesus in fact never existed, and this were to be demonstrated and widely accepted, it is probably the case that Christianity would never be the same. The world would then be free not only of a “monumental misconception”, as I have called it, but of much of the moral and political force which the Christian power structure has wielded for two millennia—often with devastating results.

Burton Mack, though he has not openly subscribed to the theory that an historical Jesus never lived, has said (quoted by Charlotte Allen in Atlantic Monthly, December 1996) that: “Christianity has had a 2000 year run, and it’s over.” 2000 years is a long time for any philosophical/religious concept to maintain a stranglehold on an entire society’s—indeed half the world’s—thought and behavior, and modern science and social enlightenment is only reinforcing that outdatedness. But if, in fact, the stranglehold has all along been based on a misunderstanding, on a myth that spiralled into fantasy and fabrication on a scale unprecedented in its scope and consequences, then it is indeed time to let the whole thing go, and get on with the business of new creation.

Mohamed writes:

    I tremendously appreciate your quest for the truth and 
I’ll be indebted to you if you can provide me with some 
resources on christology, physis and the like.  I would like 
to have a critical account depicting your personal view on 
the questions of monophysitism, the dual nature of the 
Christ, the Council of Chalcedon, transubstantiation and 
the question of the true substance of the Christ as well as 
the Theological Christ vs. the Historical Christ.

Response to Mohamed:

Later Church Theology

Is there a time limit on this?

Actually, I’m flattered, and I thank Mohamed for his interest. He identifies himself as an “M.D., Professor of Cardiovascular Diseases in Cairo, Egypt, a Philosophy Scholar and author of a Philosophy Encyclopedia currently in the phase of preparation.” But if I had the time and sufficient knowledge to supply all this information in comprehensive and “critical” form, I would write an encyclopedia myself. Besides, these subjects lie almost entirely outside the formative period of Christianity and belong to post-Constantine Church development. Maybe in another lifetime.

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