Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty



Max writes:

    Interesting . . . and the first believable explanation 
I’ve read yet of the New Testament.

Darrell writes:

    I have read much of your web site this evening and have 
enjoyed it very much.  I had never heard a good explanation 
for the shorter Josephus quote until now.  I had thought 
that the idea that Jesus never existed was too radical and 
not defensible, but you have demonstrated otherwise.  Thank 
you for such thorough and scholarly work.

Andres writes:

    I cannot begin to describe the great help your site has 
been to me.  I come from a (Central American) country 
where stating that Jesus is not a historic figure would 
create a lynch mob, complete with hanging rope, guns and 
a big bonfire. . . .
    I have to agree totally with your point on Paul.  I have 
always believed that he is the author of Christianity as we 
know it, with all of its Hellenic references.  I remember 
reading Plato and some of the Pythagorean beliefs in College, 
and I could not get over how Christian they sounded.  To me 
the connection between the two was obvious, and a proof that 
Christianity had to have earlier sources.  The Mithraic 
mysteries and some of the other pre-Christianity movements 
just confirmed that belief.  Your site has helped me in 
making sense of all of the scattered information I had.

John writes:

    I admire your scholarship and zeal and I do think that 
you have made a strong case for your contention that the 
Jesus of history can hardly be found in the 1st century 
writings available to us from within and from outside the 
Church.  This conclusion, of course, always premises that 
we eliminate the Gospels from the historical evidentiary base.
    Those are the two parts to the Jesus Myth hypothesis: 
outside the Gospels, silence; inside the Gospels, fiction.  
But are they more credible than other theories, or do they 
themselves create new problems that they don’t answer? . . .

Response to John:

New Scenarios for the Gospels

John wrote a long letter, some of whose arguments following on the above opening I will quote in the process of responding to them. In commenting that the Jesus Myth theory requires the Gospels to be regarded as entirely fiction (which I would maintain), John notes that some of the puzzling statements of Jesus in the Gospels could fit into scenarios which a novelist might find it possible to envision. “Sometimes it is simply a lack of being able to envisage how something may have happened that shuts us up to one hypothesis or another.” John does not offer examples of such scenarios, but I would use his statement to support my own contention, that to accept the Gospels as having nothing to do with historical accounts, even in their basics, is possible when one abandons old preconceptions and considers new scenarios which are not dependent on those preconceptions.

My basic scenario is to see the original Gospel story, presumably invented by the author or authors of Mark (since there is no conclusive evidence for a pre-Markan story), as not originally intended to represent history. This is not too difficult a concept. Even some of the Old Testament stories are now regarded as originally written to offer ‘morality tales’, such as the Book of Esther (whose characters have no counterpart in history), or some of the tales attached to David. So many of the incidents in Mark’s Gospel, such as the denial by Peter or the Gethsemane episode, can be seen as fictional lessons meant for the guidance of the community, not as actual historical events. Elements like the Nativity stories, and even the Passion account, are now being seen (such as by Robert Funk) as literary fabrication from start to finish. The first Gospel would have been a piece of metaphorical midrash, representative of the sectarian community’s own beliefs and experiences (and perhaps to some extent, an allegory on the redemptive role of the cultic spiritual Christ). In the main, Mark’s Jesus of Nazareth stands for the sectarian community itself, its teachings, its controversies with the hostile establishment around it, its role as an elect group awaiting the arrival of the Kingdom, etc.

Thus the oft-raised “problem” of how such an entirely fictional tale could have been introduced and accepted as history almost overnight does not arise. It would have resided, as a piece of midrashic symbolism, in a community for a generation or more before gradually coming to be regarded as representing historical events which happened to an historical figure. It is possible that there was a division of opinion within that community or circle of communities as to the significance of such a document, and certain ‘political’ motives eventually led one group to regard it as historical. (We see division in 1 John 4:1f as to whether “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” though this seems not to be based on interpreting a document, since the writer talks of competing revelatory “spirits”). This delay of historicization is supported by the fact that knowledge of the Gospels cannot be found in the wider Christian record until several decades into the 2nd century.

Another factor is that Christianity, if we set aside the orthodox preconception of things, was a widely diffused and uncoordinated philosophical movement, with no central authority and often little communication (let alone common doctrine) between the various groups. When one group came into contact with another, or with a document they had previously not known, they may have interpreted such a document (or reworked it) quite differently than its previous possessors. Over time, these differences got ironed out as everything interacted and started to assume a common level of interpretation. This was the process which took place throughout the course of the 2nd century.

I have often pointed out that there is a natural tendency in sectarian behavior to invent and glorify the sect’s past and the figures involved in that past. The political advantages as the 2nd century progressed (and particularly in the context of the struggle with Gnosticism) to having a real human founder at the beginning of the movement to which one could trace (read: invent) a chain of authority, would be more than enough to impel the acceptance of an originally allegorical Gospel story as actual history.

John goes on to discuss the silence in Paul on the historical Jesus. “If Luke is the author of a two-part document known as Luke-Acts, then that author, at least, had no problem with developing a picture of the kind of Paul that we know from the epistles as a follow-through on the Jesus movement that he [Luke] presented in his Gospel. He saw no contradiction.”

It’s quite possible that the final redactor of Luke was indeed the man who wrote Acts, but critical scholarship is increasingly pushing Acts well into the 2nd century, perhaps as late as the 140s, and to say that this writer “saw no contradiction” is to impute an undeniable blindness to him. The contradictions between the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the epistles are glaring and insurmountable, and lead us to consider either that the writer of Acts had no access to Paul’s letters (which he never shows any sign of being familiar with, not even in principle), or that he simply ignored them in the face of his overriding need to create a new ‘politically correct’ picture of Paul and his relationship to the Jerusalem apostles, now regarded as followers of an historical Jesus. Neither alternative inspires confidence in the reliability of Acts’ account of the beginnings of the Christian apostolic movement.

John says: “When I say that Paul may have assumed that his readers knew the Gospel story, I am not arguing that they knew the full-blown Gospel story as the evangelists would one day put it together. I assume a Jesus figure that would have struck his contemporaries as a very human figure on the level of Honi or Hanina ben Dosa. Even the great Scottish theologian Denney could not find in the Synoptics a presentation of Jesus as Son of God in the style of Paul’s mythological figure. We would therefore be dealing with a young Jewish prophet who fit the pattern of the peripatetic exorcist, healer, and teacher. At least that is a plausible theory.”

Plausible? I don’t think so. If that kind of quantum gap existed between Paul’s view of Jesus as a “mythological figure” of cosmic proportions, fully God, and that of his readers as a wandering “exorcist, healer and teacher,” on what basis did they communicate? On what basis did they share a common attachment to, or worship of, this man? If Paul ignores, is ignorant of, has no interest in a human Jesus, while his audience rejects his mythologization of a human being, where is their common ground? And, most important, how can this quantum gap be ignored in Paul’s letters, where there is not a hint of any such differences?

John also questions whether it is possible for someone (in this case, the author of Mark), knowing no story whatever of an historical Jesus, could have “picked through” scattered passages of the Jewish prophetic writings and created the compelling account which the Gospels clearly constitute. Would this not spell a literary genius, especially within a movement “made up of traders, housewives and petit bourgeois”?

I think John does not appreciate the extent of scriptural exegesis which went on during that time, and the constant scouring of those sacred writings by rabbis and scholars in an attempt to understand the world, the future, God’s plans and wishes, spiritual truths, etc. Besides, as I have pointed out, a writer like Mark had a template, a type of story quite common in Jewish tradition, now styled as The Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One. He also had another template, as I suggested above: the life of his own community and others like it, sectarian experiences at the hands of a hostile outside world. I find no difficulty in envisioning a writer well versed in the scriptures and impelled by his community’s sectarian beliefs and needs, coming up with a story such as we find in Mark. And while the early Christian movement no doubt included in its ranks “traders, housewives and petit bourgeois,” it also included teachers and preachers such as Act’s portrayal of Apollos, “a learned man, powerful in his use of the scriptures,” as indeed was Paul himself.

John scoffs at the idea that some genius or committee of geniuses (represented by Mark) put together this marvellous figure, the historical Jesus, finding this more incredible than that the Gospels represent an account of an actual man, Jesus of Nazareth, who was himself a genius. He compares it to denying the existence of Shakespeare, or Homer, and then being forced to postulate a different Shakespeare or Homer who actually did compose the works under their fictional names. “If Jesus didn’t create Jesus, someone created those marvellous sayings and parables and stories.”

There are a number of observations to be made here which should temper some of John’s enthusiasm and the strain on his credulity. First of all, I only wish that the Gospels approached anything near the literary genius of Shakespeare, or even Homer. Much of the Gospel account is pretty crude, in thought, sophistication, and literary expression. Much of it reflects the primitive superstition of the day, abysmally unscientific and uncritical. At its worst, it is prejudiced, racist, misogynist. In Jesus’ mouth are to be found more than a few embarrassing and reprehensible sentiments, not the least in regard to the Jews. Did a “genius” say (Jn. 8:44, one of several New Testament passages responsible for the misery the Jews underwent at Christian hands for 2000 years): “Your father is the devil and you choose to carry out your father’s desires”? Was it a genius (let alone the Son of an all-knowing God) who failed to rise above the ignorance of his day and imputed many forms of sickness to possession by evil spirits? In reality, of course, elements like these were not the product of any one individual (much less the Son of God), but reflect the prejudices and ignorance of the Gospel fabricators and their time.

In the same way, the other, more commendable side of the coin was also a product, not of some individual genius, but of the more progressive expressions of the period. John should know that laudable concepts like the Golden Rule and the “brotherhood of man”, loving one’s neighbor, giving up riches, even turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies, are to be found in several places on the 1st and 2nd century map, and even earlier. Teaching in parables was a prominent feature of the day, and not all of the Gospel Jesus’ parables are of the same quality. The bedrock of the Q compilation bears strong resemblance to Cynic teachings of the time, leading scholars like Burton Mack to identify the “authentic Jesus” as a Cynic-style sage. Does it not make better sense to see the earliest layer of Q as in fact an originally Cynic product, adopted by the early Q community and adapted over time to an artificial Jesus figure, in the same way that so much (as can be seen by a dispassionate study of the record) was collected from sources all and sundry and placed in the Gospel Jesus’ mouth? In other words, the best and worst of the day, especially that found in the sectarian type communities we see throughout the early Christian record, became subsumed into the artificial figure which came to life in the Gospels, Gospels which originally represented the communities themselves, their good and their bad, their struggles as sects, their mythology past and future. I see no strain on the credulity in a scenario like this.

Barry writes:

    I re-read your site a lot and it continues to fascinate me.  
I almost feel like it’s been an evolution for me.  Raised 
Southern Baptist . . . I evolved from blind faith, to believing 
like Crossan and others that Jesus was not divine, that the 
Gospel stories are just that - stories.  Now I find myself 
confronted with your arguments about Jesus’ existence at all 
as an historical person.  And I must tell you, you make a 
compelling argument.  Just one quick question: What do you 
find as the most credible argument against your position?  In 
other words, where do you see any holes in your own theories?

Response to Barry:

Credible Arguments: ‘Human’ References and a Gospel from Scripture

A loaded question. From my own point of view, I don’t see any “holes” in my overall argument, in the sense that I have provided, to my own satisfaction, explanations for each feature of the early Christian picture. However, this is not to say that my “answers” are to everyone’s satisfaction, no matter how strongly I try to impress these upon them. So let me highlight a couple of areas in which I sometimes find difficulty in getting others to acknowledge the force of my arguments.

I am often pointed to a handful of passages in the epistles which seem on the surface to be speaking of a human being. Most notable are the references to Jesus being “of David’s stock according to the flesh” in Romans 1:3, and “born of woman” in Galatians 4:4. I relate such passages, along with a few references to Jesus’ “blood” and “flesh”, to the Platonic philosophy of the day, in which the upper, spiritual world was seen to contain higher, ideal counterparts to elements of the material world, and that certain human-like features were taken on by gods who descended into the lower levels of the spirit realm. Such features given to the spiritual Christ were also necessitated by scriptural passages which men like Paul had to relate in some way to their heavenly figure, in the above cases those relating to the Messiah’s descent from David and the child born of a young woman in Isaiah 7:14. These ideas are thoroughly examined in my Supplementary Article No. 8: Christ As “Man”: Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person?

Another area of difficulty is the proposition that apostles like Paul could invent, and successfully preach, a crucified Messiah (entirely spiritual) who was derived solely out of their interpretation of the scriptures, especially as this was hardly a universal interpretation by Jews. The latter is admittedly so, but Christianity was a minor sectarian phenomenon for most if not all of the 1st century, a fringe expression heavily influenced by Hellenistic ideas. That it was not part of the mainstream of Jewish ideas and interpretation of scripture does not preclude an existence on its own basis.

But a spiritual, crucified Messiah and Son of God based on readings out of scripture? Some find it hard to believe that this concept could have excited anyone without some relation to an historical event, that it could have spread across the empire carried by Bible interpreters like Paul unless linked to a flesh and blood person associated with historical words and deeds.

Well, how did proselytizers spread the cult of Attis? They had no appeal to an historical event lying in the background of the mythic story. When people in Tarsus around the end of the 2nd century BCE formulated a new Mithras cult based on Hipparchus’ recent discovery about the precession of the equinoxes (see David Ulansey’s persuasive The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, 1989), was this not a process entirely lacking in an historical event?

Such objectors fail to take into account the pervasive nature of scripture usage in Jewish practice of the time. It may be only a bit of an exaggeration to say that educated Jews tended to find meaning and motivation for practically every breath they drew in life from something in the scriptures. The idea of personal “salvation” was rampant in Hellenistic times, along with those basic elements found in the mystery cults: their sacramentalism, their mystic communion with and sharing in the nature of a paradigmatic saving deity, the idea of divine suffering and sacrifice, perhaps even myths about descending gods—not to mention, in Jewish circles, philosophical speculation about an expected Messiah figure. In an atmosphere like this, it should not be difficult to envision certain circles of scriptural exegetes going to the sacred writings to try to formulate a “truth” along their own Jewish cultural lines, while borrowing heavily from Hellenistic ideas.

Is Philo that distinct from Paul, in his formulation of a view of the universe and its working, salvific parts, based largely on scripture when read through Platonic glasses? He may not have come up with a sacrificial Son, but he certainly had, in his “first-born of God” Logos (which he also called a “High Priest”, as does the epistle to the Hebrews), a general counterpart, if along more abstract lines, to Paul’s dying-for-sin Christ. Philo wasn’t motivated to produce his “myth” by the influence of any recent historical figure or event.

Those who can’t conceive of a faith movement not linked to an historical man and his words and deeds are nevertheless confronted with an early record which completely ignores that historical man and his deeds, and fails to attribute any teaching to him, whereas one can hardly turn a page of the epistolary corpus without encountering an appeal to scripture as the basis on which the writer is making his statements. Hebrews is saturated with scripture (including in its so-called “historical” references), presenting its heavenly High Priestly sacrifice as entirely based on Exodus’s Sinai cult. Every sentiment of the Odes of Solomon is a product of the Odist’s immersion in scripture, with no sign of any recent historical event in Judea. Paul is constantly appealing to the sacred writings as the source of his gospel and information concerning the Son (see Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel), and they lie in the background of just about everything the epistle writers have to say about him.

As to that scriptural source: Paul regularly says or implies that he got his gospel “from no man”, but from revelation, from the Spirit, most notably in Galatians 1:11-12. Where did the content of that “revelation” come from, if not from scripture? There are several passages in the Old Testament which speak of piercing and nailing, etc. Psalm 119:120 (LXX 118): “Nail my flesh.” Psalm 22:16 (LXX 21:17): “They have pierced my hands and my feet.” Zechariah 12:10: “They shall look upon him whom they have pierced,” a passage drawn on by the author of Revelation in a way which shows that it is indeed scripture which is the source of his idea and not the story of Jesus of Nazareth (see my Supplementary Article No. 11: Revelation). Isaiah 53:5: “He was pierced for our transgressions, tortured for our iniquities . . . by his scourging we are healed (NEB).” Do we really need anything else to understand Paul’s “gospel” of “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures,” or perhaps the vivid description of “Christ crucified” he gave to the Galatians (3:1)—not to mention, of course, an important inspiration for the evangelist's Passion story?

This is what Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. Not that Christ’s dying and rising are “in fulfilment of the scriptures,” which has always been the accepted interpretation. Rather, the kata tas graphas can be taken in the sense of “corresponding to” or “following the scriptures,” entailing the meaning of “as we learn from the scriptures,” scripture being the window onto the higher spiritual world. Everything Paul and the other epistle writers say in regard to the scriptures and the role of the Spirit bears out this meaning. Paul nowhere discusses the concept of an historical Jesus “fulfilling” the scriptures in the events of his earthly life and death, and the epistles regularly talk of the message of the apostles being the product of the Spirit. In any kind of Jewish milieu, on what did that Spirit act to produce the “revealed” gospel they carry about the Son/Messiah if not scripture and its interpretation? Passages like Romans 1:2-3 and Romans 16:25-7 spell it out (see that Article No. 8).

Adam writes:

    Is Jesus the only famous person whose existence is now 
being doubted, or are there others?  Until I read the arguments 
on your website, I considered the belief that Jesus never 
existed to be just as ridiculous as the belief that he was 
born of a virgin.  It would help if you gave examples of 
other famous persons besides Jesus whose existence is also 
being doubted by modern scholars. 

Response to Adam:

“Historical Persons” Who May Never Have Existed

The existence of the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, one of the reputed fountainheads of Taoism but about whom nothing is known, has been seriously questioned, as has that of Lycurgus, the Spartan statesman to whom the Spartan social and political system was traditionally attributed. A famous example is William Tell, reputed founder of the Swiss Federation, who is now known not to have existed. The historicity of Moses is far from certain, and even moreso that of older patriarchs like Abraham. The ancient world was full of local and national traditions about gods or semi-divine figures being involved in the beginnings of communities and nations, none of whom would seriously be regarded as historical today. Whether a famous legendary figure like the Greek Heracles could be said to have existed in any form resembling the later mythology about him is highly unlikely, and even if based on a type of hero or warrior in prehistoric times, this hardly qualifies him as an “historical figure”.

Wolf writes:

    Religions tend to split and to proliferate into subgroups 
(sects) rather than coalesce.  Is there any historical example 
in which convergence, rather than division, took place in 

Response to Wolf:

Syncreticism vs. Division

I would say that both patterns tend to be found, convergence usually preceding proliferation. The latter occurs after singularity has been achieved, and the religion has reached a state where its own weight tends to promote the splitting process. Christianity first had to coalesce into a unified Church out of independently forming circles and sects. (This is even the view of scholars who believe in an historical Jesus, one who caused various “responses” to himself to arise at different times and places, largely independently.)

History is full of examples of religious syncreticism, often the result of the god or gods of a conquered nation merging with those of its conqueror. A good example would be early Israel. Two major gods, El and Yahweh, the former the chief god of the Canaanite region that was to become Israel (and no doubt of “Abraham”), the latter the god of whatever tribes came in from Sinai (under “Moses”?), were eventually merged into one. Both expressions and traditions about them survive in the composite book of Genesis.

Billy writes:

    I have been reading your “Top 20” list. . . . Paul never 
knew the man Jesus, so why bother using his writings for 
your search for the historical Jesus?  Paul’s epistles are 
much more mature than the Gospels, theologically.  And 
Paul had his own style.  There is no reason to make repeated 
notes on Paul’s ignorance of the story of Jesus.
    In your Sounds of Silence, you used a personal interpretation 
of many of them to say that the writer was not talking about 
Jesus.  Understand that the writings clearly teach that Jesus 
was Messiah, and as such must needs be God.  This means that 
all references to God can be valid references to Jesus as a 
member of the Trinity.

Response to Billy:

Rationalizing the Epistolary Silence

For all that commentators, and even laypersons, love to disparage the argument from silence, they consistently feel the need to come up with explantions for the great void on the Gospel Jesus to be found in the New Testament epistles. My Sound of Silence feature (still ongoing, though unfortunately at a slower pace than I had hoped) is designed to bring home the pervasiveness and perplexity of all that silence, and to show that the “explanations” offered to dismiss it are almost universally inadequate, far-fetched and even fallacious.

If Paul was silent on the man Jesus because he never knew him, how did anyone keep the memory of Jesus alive outside the circles of his earthly followers, or when the latter had passed on? How did the evangelists, who it is now acknowledged by critical scholar were unknown latter-1st century writers who never knew Jesus either, write his ‘biography’? How were thousands across the empire converted to Christianity by apostles (such as Apollos) who likewise never knew him? If oral transmission was supposed to be the engine of such knowledge, why would Paul not have shared in it and made use of it, since the very mechanism of preaching the figure of Jesus would inevitably require such knowledge?

Billy, like so many others, argues for specific reasons of style, interest, lack of knowledge, to explain why Paul made no reference to the historical Jesus, but here he fails to take into account that all the epistle writers show the same void. Did they all share Paul’s style, motivation, lack of knowledge? How feasible is this? It is the very universality of such silences which discredits this kind of explanation. And why should mature theological writings which have converted a human man into a cosmic redeemer and Son of God require that the human side of the equation be completely buried or ignored?

Billy’s last ‘explanation’ above is reminiscent of J. P. Holding, who argues that since Jesus is a part of God, one can call his teachings those of God—as Paul does, for example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:9, “You are taught by God to love one another.” It is absurd to think that 1st century Christian letter writers would collectively reason in this strained, esoteric fashion and universally refuse to impute any ethical or prophetic sayings to the charismatic teacher and Messiah who had recently walked the earth and given rise to their own faith and apostolic movement. These would have included presumably, his own brother and the followers who had accompanied their Master and been appointed apostles by him.

David writes:

   You apparently would date the Gospels “late” relative to the 
time of Jesus.  However, it seems to me that the Gospel accounts 
do not reflect the world at that time, and the problems within 
the churches would seem to mitigate a great deal against that 
position.  It is thus more likely that they were written fairly 
early: Matthew (first) by about the mid 30s when the persecution 
of the Christians in Jerusalem began; Luke about the late 40s 
(Paul may have a passing reference to his Gospel); and Mark by 
about the mid 60s, though I have seen a number of scholars push 
it 20 years earlier than that!
    You should be aware of the studies by Marxsen, Dodd, Reicke, 
Beasley-Murray, Hengel, Pederson, and others that show that a 
position of vaticina ex eventu for the fall of Jerusalem in the 
Synoptics is not possible.

Response to David:

Uncritical Theories

One of the reasons scholars have long tended to date the Gospels post 70 CE is that their picture does in fact reflect various elements of the later 1st century period, and not that of the c.30 CE period. That said, one of the lines I have drawn for myself in responding to readers’ comments is that I will not take the trouble to offer arguments against claims that are radically—or even outlandishly—uncritical or apologetic, and which enjoy not the slightest support from even moderately liberal scholarship. Dating Matthew in the 30s as the first Gospel, suggesting that Paul knew Luke's Gospel, and claiming that the apocalypses of the Synoptics are “prophecies (of the fall of Jerusalem) before the event”—and well before the event—fall into that category. And I rather doubt (without checking) that all the scholars David mentions do in fact go so far as to declare that ‘prophecy after the fact’ for the fall of Jerusalem “is not possible”.

Jules writes:

    Please go ahead with your novel.  Your work has been more 
instructive and important than anything I have read.  Thank you.

Response to Jules:

The Jesus Puzzle Novel

The complete Jesus Puzzle novel is now posted on the site. See the “What’s New” file and the final section of the Home Page.

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