Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty



Mark writes:

    I just want to say thank you for posting your ideas on the 
Internet.  I am glad I found them.  The theory that there was 
no historical Jesus has a greater explanatory power than all 
other views I have heard regarding who Jesus was.

Peter writes:

    I'd like to send you a note of thanks for making your work 
public on the web.  It's been nothing short of a "revelation" 
to me to see what a serious and questioning mind can do with 
the Jesus Puzzle. . . . Your work goes so much further than 
[other Internet pages] in providing a complete analysis of what 
so many people have felt for much of their lives.  It's great 
to read an intellectual justification for this.

David writes:

    Bravo. . . . Your imaginary conversation between Paul and 
a group of recent converts [Book and Article Reviews: Gregory 
C. Jenks' What Did Paul Know About Jesus?] was wonderful.  It 
beautifully makes your point about the absurdity of the idea 
that in his writings Paul could simply ignore all aspects of 
the earthly life of the man he is preaching simply because he 
had "lost interest" in such details.  The reactions of Paul's 
listeners to such a situation as you paint the scene were very 
believable.  You have found a powerful tool to make your points.

Fernando writes:

    Your web site provides a great wealth of information.  I am 
quite familiar with the contents of the bible, and I would 
argue that it takes no genius to come up with a story to bring 
a metaphysical being into the mortal realm.  The level of detail 
and character development included in the story in no way 
represents evidence of an historical being.
    Let the American born "Book of Mormon" serve as an example.  
In a relatively very short time (from 1830 to the present), an 
extensive story filled with hundreds of characters, anecdotes 
and religious teachings was created, presented as "history" as 
well as "another testament of Jesus Christ" and accepted by over 
ten million individuals around the globe as true.  All it needed 
was a climate of religious diversity, compilations of scripture 
from previous sources and enough imagination to create the story 
of several groups of people migrating from ancient Palestine to 
the American continent, guided by prophets.
     The parallel is clear: some people in America were in need of 
a spiritual "genesis" to call their own so they created a complex 
mythology borrowing from existing material and creating some new.  
Early Christian sects needed a real figure to attribute their 
teachings to, and were quick to adopt the gospels as historical 
documents.  I commend your benevolent disposition to believe 
that accepting midrash as fact was some sort of innocent mistake.  
I, for one tend to believe otherwise: that the gospel tales served 
the political purposes of early Christian bishops who, according 
to Paul, were already arguing about doctrinal authority, supremacy, 

Earl writes:

    I am giving you a report on my experience with your novel.  
Let me say that I am enjoying it and think that you have done 
a very good job creating interest, suspense and human interest.  
I will be giving it to others.  I find it fascinating and being an 
ex-Presbyterian clergyman people are a bit shocked to say the 

Allan writes:

    [On the Jesus Puzzle novel] Not bad; not bad at all. . . . 
A damn fine read.

Mike writes:

    Your new section on "The Sound of Silence" is an excellent 
addition to an already impressive body of work and I'm looking 
forward to further installments.
    You say that modern scholars have come to believe that Paul 
mostly worked in Christian communities that already existed, as 
opposed to founding such communities.  What is the basis for 
such a belief?  The existence of a far-flung Christian community 
prior to Paul's missionary work would be hard to reconcile with 
the idea that Christianity did not exist at all until the mid-30s.
    How confident can we be about the dating of the "absolutely, 
positively genuine" letters of Paul?  Isn't it true that other 
Christian writers do not attest to their existence until well 
into the second century?  A few scholars have suggested that 
all of Paul's letters, even Romans, Corinthians, etc. are late 
forgeries; do you think this idea is even worth taking seriously?

Response to Mike:

Did Paul Found Any Christian Communities? / Is Any of Paul Genuine?

In my earlier response to Victor [rfset3], I pointed out that Paul's own letters show that he did not bring the earliest expression of the faith to Damascus, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome. (This view has been expressed by a range of scholars, from Ernst Haenchen to Burton Mack.) If Christianity could be in Rome no later than the mid-40s (in Romans 15:23, Paul speaks of a congregation there "for many years" and Suetonius speaks of a sizeable number of Jews following "Chrestus" who were expelled by Claudius) this speaks of a movement which covered half the empire within little more than a decade after Jesus' presumed death, something that could not possibly have been accomplished by a few "dusty disciples" from Judea. The pre-Pauline hymns imbedded in Paul's letters (eg, Phil. 2:6-11) are sophisticated expressions of a very subtle belief system surrounding the figure of a divine Jesus; they are clearly the product of well-established communities. Such a state of affairs could hardly have been reached within a mere handful of years.

As for the question of the authenticity of the "genuine" Pauline letters, that is perhaps the biggest can of worms in New Testament research today, and most shy away from addressing it. In that, I would almost have to include myself. For without a core of relatively genuine Paul, we would have virtually nothing in which to anchor any firm deductions about the nature of earliest Christianity. The ground is insecure enough as it is. My main objection to theories which advocate that all the Pauline letters are 2nd century products, with perhaps a few traces of authentic material imbedded in them, is that such 2nd century products—at least some of them—would surely show a few features of the developing historical Jesus. Yet there are virtually none. The picture throughout Paul and pseudo-Paul is of a movement which worships a divine, heavenly Son and is driven entirely by revelation and the Spirit, with no sign of an historical Jesus of Nazareth. I find it difficult to envision a 2nd century scenario in which such a picture would be consistently created by several 'forgers' in several places over a period of decades. (The possibility that the entire corpus is the product of one source would contradict the very features of variety and incompatibility which lead to the theory of 'inauthenticity' in the first place). Those rejecting a genuine Paul—and their tradition of criticism is a long and honorable one going back into the 19th century—have presented some very telling arguments against the standard picture of Pauline authenticity, but overall their position seems to create as many problems as it solves. On this subject, however, I am keeping an open mind, and I am quite willing to accept a certain amount of interpolation and reworking by later editors.

There are indications within 1 Clement and Ignatius of Antioch that these writers are familiar with the most prominent letters of Paul, namely 1 Corinthians and Romans. Consequently, the theory against Pauline authenticity requires that these writings, too, are to be dated later than they usually are (1 Clement around 96, Ignatius around 110). That, too, is a thorny affair, and I have difficulty in pushing some of the content of both those writers into the mid-2nd century, as is sometimes proposed.

[I’ll give you an idea of the abyss that yawns beneath our feet if we lose an authentic Paul. Galatians is probably our most valuable document for providing a picture of the initial phase of Christianity in the early part of the first century. Chapters 1 and 2 reveal a group of apostles and “brothers” in Jerusalem around the figures of James and Peter. We see the issues of table fellowship and circumcision, within the whole question of the applicability of the Jewish Law to gentile converts, as crucial to the new movement, and we get a glimpse of the so-called Jerusalem conference which tried to settle these matters. We also get a sense of the relationship between the independent-minded Paul and the Jerusalem group, and how they have divided up—under God’s direction—the preaching market of Jew and gentile.

Galatians portrays a Jerusalem community with an influential James at its head. Later (and thus less than reliable) tradition made James a key figure in the post-Easter birth of the faith, even if in Acts his role is somewhat reduced in order to bring Peter and Paul into the spotlight. Acts as an historical document is highly unreliable, and is increasingly being dated in the 2nd century, a tendentious document written to serve the interests of the growing church at Rome; its unsolvable contradictions with the so-called genuine Pauline letters are notorious. Still, Acts seems to corroborate, in general principle, the picture in Galatians of the prominent position and influence of James the Just, giving us a Christian movement—whether it had an historical Jesus or not—which began some time around the third or fourth decade of the first century, with James as its leader.

But what of James in the Gospels? He is a bare name in Mark 6:3, in the list of Jesus’ brothers. There isn’t a hint anywhere in the Gospels that James was to have a role in the post-Easter faith. If we lose Galatians, along with 1 Corinthians 15 (and the rest of the Pauline corpus), as authentic to the mid-first century, we lose any primary evidence not only for James in a Christian role but even the existence of a seminal Christian community in Jerusalem in the early part of the century. The Gospels cannot safely witness even to the latter point, since their picture of a movement centered on Jesus’ life and death is a midrashic creation that is reflective of their own time and needs, with scarcely a scrap of historically reliable content. Since the Gospels do not show up in the wider record until the time of Justin Martyr in the 150s (pointing to later dates of composition than are usually given them), any firm “witness” to a Christianity as early as the 30s of the first century is highly problematic.

But the real crunch comes with Josephus. The famous Antiquities 20 passage about James’ death has been put under a microscope in regard to its reference to “the brother of Jesus, him called (the) Christ.” I have shown good reason (see Article No. 10: Josephus Unbound) to suspect that phrase as a later Christian addition, but about James himself, consider what Josephus does and does not say. He makes no identification of James with a Christian movement, much less as its head. If James had been operating in Jerusalem in that capacity for three decades, how could Josephus not know and remark on this (rather than identify him by his brother)? How could James, as Christian leader, be so well regarded by highly placed Jews that they were incensed at his murder and agitated—successfully—for the very removal of the High Priest? Why, if the report by Hegesippus in Eusebius is accurate (though Crossan calls it “overenthusiastic”), would James be allowed into the very sanctuary of the Temple? These things hardly support any view of James as the most prominent Christian of his time. With Galatians and the rest of Paul relegated to the second century, the picture in Josephus would come close to spelling the death knell (as far as firm evidence goes) of James as head of the church, along with perhaps the entire existence of early first century Christianity!

However, we must always be courageous enough to go wherever the evidence leads us.]

John writes:

    How does the fact that Josephus and other early Jewish and 
Roman historians ignore or seem to be oblivious of Paul and his 
ministry fit into the puzzle?  Since they fail to mention Jesus 
(to any reliable depth that would confirm his existence) it 
would follow that their failure to mention Paul would be 
categorically of the same value.  No confirmation of the 
historical Paul.  In this sense, Paul becomes more mysterious 
than Jesus.

Response to John:

Silence on Paul = No Paul?

There are a number of key differences here. We have no writings from Jesus whereas we do from Paul. (That is, ostensibly, in view of the previous response!) Second, Paul was only one of many apostles tramping the empire preaching one form of savior or another, even one form of Jesus or another. Though he looms large to later Christianity, he might at the time have cut no sharper a figure to an outsider's eye than did Apollos of Alexandria, and we wouldn't think to remark on Josephus' silence on him. Even the movement Paul was a part of, since it fitted generally into the Logos-style philosophy which constituted part of the background noise of the period, may not have struck someone like Josephus as worth mentioning. To him Christianity (if he were even aware of it) would have been a bit of a lunatic fringe and hardly to be ranked with the "sects of the Jews." Finally, even though Paul is now thought not to have had the widespread influence that used to be accorded him, he is witnessed to in the early Christian record (assuming we have one) almost immediately after he worked and at regular intervals from then on.

It's probably true to say that the impulse to invent an historical Paul would not be as strong as the one which produced an historical Jesus. However, even at the best of times, the record is mercurial. I would probably want to hedge my bet on an historical Paul, or at least on the one who is portrayed in the "genuine" epistles. It will be interesting to see what the Jesus Seminar comes up with in their new focus on Paul and his letters.

John A. writes:

    Once again I want to compliment you on your website.  
Every time I look, I find more interesting material there.  The 
"no historical Jesus" theory explains a lot of things that are 
otherwise mysterious.  It seems that many New Testament scholars 
have come to the same conclusion, but are still too afraid to 
come right out and say so.  I admire your courage.
    I have a question about the Gospel of John.  Because of what 
traditional scholars call its "fully-developed Christology," the 
fourth gospel is usually thought of as a later writing, the 
product of decades of solemn reflection on the salvific meaning 
of Christ.  Yet as you and others have shown, the spiritual, 
"cosmic" conception of Christ actually preceded the more human 
representations we see in the Synoptic Gospels.  Could it be 
that John was composed before the other three?  You seem to 
accept the traditional view that the final version of John was 
written after (and perhaps in response to) Mark.  But what if 
John's gospel represents an intermediate stage in the 
historicization process?  Although Jesus is a flesh and blood 
human in John, as you say he does little more than make cryptic 
pronouncements about himself.  Even the miracles have a dreamy, 
symbolic quality about them.  In the transition from the purely 
spiritual Jesus of Paul to the more human Jesus of Mark, wouldn't 
we expect to see a stage where Jesus is human but lacks a human 
personality?  To make a bad pun, could John's gospel represent 
a stage where the complete details had yet to be fleshed out?

Response to John A.:

Positioning the Gospel of John

Helmut Koester [Ancient Christian Gospels, p.267, and his remark in History and Development of Mark's Gospel, p.63], seconded by others, has suggested that John as we have it is the product of three to five layers of redaction, spread over a considerable period of time. Agreement as to the sequence of those layers is nowhere near being achieved. As I say in my Book Review of John Dominic Crossan's The Birth of Christianity, something approaching consensus is only now being reached in regard to John's Passion story as ultimately dependent on Mark or some Synoptic source. So it would be a little difficult to speak in terms of "John" as located at a single given position in the overall development of the Gospels.

I would still tend to regard all of the 'historical Jesus' aspects of John's Gospel as post-Synoptic, and thus one could not speak of John being composed before the others. I see much of the material in the Discourses and those "cryptic pronouncements" Jesus makes about himself, as representing a pre-historical Jesus stage of thinking, ideas which were probably in the form of a written document of some sort. (How this relates to, or is derived from, an earlier phase of the Johannine circle, as represented by the first and second epistles of John, is not clearly definable: see the final section of my Supplementary Article No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John.) This material represents how the community viewed the spiritual "Revealer" Son it believed in. Only when it encountered the historical Jesus embodied in the Synoptic Gospels did it adopt such a figure and adapt the earlier material to him within John's heavily revised Synoptic story. (Somewhere in there, an existing set of miracle stories was adapted and linked to Jesus' 'teaching' about himself, miracles rather different, for the most part, from those found in the Synoptics.)

This adaptation put declarations about a spiritual Son who was an object of faith, into the mouth of his preaching incarnation on earth, which is why they sound so bizarre in that latter context. I would say that it is this very artificial melding of incompatible elements which creates the "lack of a human personality" for Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, together with the evangelist's determination not to give Jesus any human weaknesses, especially in regard to his version of the Passion. Jesus is in control throughout, scarcely suffers, and is certainly not allowed to express any doubts about his mission—which is why Gethsemane and Mark's cry from the cross ended up on the cutting room floor.

Robert Fortna (The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessor, p.216) does not agree with the view that John is loosely derived from a Synoptic source, since this fails to explain John's distinctive theology, and so he postulates separate sources. But my view of the distinctive material in John as the earliest layer—a pre-human Jesus one—would get around this, and in any case, Fortna represents an older tendency to regard distinctive material as always having to come from outside "sources" rather than seeing it as the original product of the author or community which introduces it.

Just when the Prologue was fitted into the mix is difficult to say. This "Logos hymn," as some have called it, may even have had a previous existence in a non-Jesus context, and got adapted and tacked on at a late stage. It's pretty clear that the references to John the Baptist (1:6-9 and 15) have been crudely inserted into an already existing Logos piece, and perhaps the final part of verse 14, which speaks of an incarnation in flesh. (See Howard M. Teeple's analysis of the Prologue in The Literary Origins of John's Gospel, in which he surveys other scholars' views on the subject.)

Helen writes:

    I agree in part with what you are saying, but tend to think 
that Jesus did exist as a person, but not in the form we are 
taught through the Gospels.  It is a fact that Caiaphas lived, 
there are his writings in existence, and his tomb was also found 
not so long ago.  Also there are Pilate's letters.  This proves 
that at least two people mentioned in the Gospels did actually 
exist, so why then not Jesus?

Response to Helen:

Letters by Caiaphas and Pilate / Historical Fallacies

It is surprising how many make an appeal to this kind of fallacious argument. (By the way, I am not sure what writings of Caiaphas still exist, and the only letters of Pilate I've ever seen are the blatant forgeries mentioned by Tertullian at the end of the 2nd century: see my earlier Response to Jeff.)

To illustrate my point about fallacious argument, I will quote from a debate I engaged in last year on the "Crosstalk" listserver with a member of the Jesus Seminar, whom I will refer to as "M":

Gerard writes:

    I find you to be an extraordinarily gifted writer with 
great talent for polemics.  Like Erik Fromm, in the domain 
of psychoanalysis, you will win the day with skillful argument; 
and I do believe that you exercise an honest mind.  It is tragic 
that so many great scholars lose their way when entering the 
misty, gray arena of intellectualism.  And religious philosophy 
is surely the most seductive of all disciplines, charming pride 
with ineffable ease.  When humility is lost, so goes the truth.  
Thomas Payne and Voltaire, while on their deathbed, are examples 
of the victim this folly makes.  I pray you will find time to 
look at your marvelous writing, as a child would, and see beneath 
your awesome learning the fatal error of not recognizing the 
paradox: Josephus' human frailty with its imperfection so 
clearly supports an historical Jesus.

Response to Gerard:

Josephus and Punch Lines

Hmmm. . .this is a remarkably crafted transition from praise to condemnation, its progression almost imperceptible. The punch line strikes me, however, as failing to do justice to the quality of the build-up. In any case, I would deny that Josephus, frail or otherwise, clearly supports an historical Jesus, and I would refer Gerard to my Supplementary Article No. 10: Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question.

Paul writes:

    I can't thank you enough for the clarity, incisiveness, and 
originality of your writings.  You have wonderfully articulated 
the doubts many of us have developed over the years.

[Note: Paul had some interesting observations to make about 
the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus, but as I could not get 
needed clarification from him on an important point, I am 
unable to comment on them.]

Rebecca writes:

    Great site.  I have always questioned the concept of the 
mythological Jesus. . . . It is very refreshing to realize I am 
not alone, and my doubts are not evil.
    P.S. I remember a reference to a character named "oblio", 
a round head surrounded by pointed heads.  I didn't think this 
was related to your name [in the URL] but had to ask.

Response to Rebecca:

Round and Pointed Heads

Yes, "oblio" (which I inherited from a like-minded colleague) does indeed refer to the character in a very long and amusing 'song' by Harry Nilsson, called "The Point." It was recorded some time in the 1970s, if I recall correctly. Oblio, with his round head, was expelled from a community of pointed ones. An allegory, no doubt.

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