Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty


A Reply to G. A. Wells’ “Earliest Christianity,”
an article for the New Humanist, September 1999,
in which he discusses my interpretation of the early Christian Christ.


The debt we owe to Prof. George A. Wells cannot easily be measured. Almost single-handedly over an entire generation, he has kept alive, in six books, a narrow but persistent thread of New Testament scholarship which for nearly two centuries has concluded that no historical Jesus existed.

But as in any field of historical research, an investigation of this sort is ongoing, and no one, including myself, can claim to have arrived at the final, definitive understanding of all aspects of the question. The deeper one digs, the more one realizes that our knowledge of Christian origins has been affected not just by centuries of Christian tradition based on confessional interest, but by modern concepts which have masked how the first century mind may really have thought, and how it viewed the world and its own beliefs.

While we have a similar bottom line and share many steps in common on the path to reaching it, Prof. Wells and I disagree on an important—if non-essential—aspect of the no-historical-Jesus position, and it is in regard to this disagreement that he has taken issue with certain elements of my theories in the final part of his article, “Earliest Christianity,” which appeared in the September 1999 issue of the New Humanist (p.13-17).

The Nature of Paul’s Christ

In a nutshell, our disagreement concerns the nature of the early cultic Christ: how Paul and other devotees of the Savior figure “Christ Jesus”—whom both Wells and I agree was not identified with a recent teacher and miracle-worker crucified under Pontius Pilate—actually viewed that entity. Wells has concluded that Paul envisioned him as having lived an obscure life on earth at some unknown time in the past, perhaps a century or two earlier than his own time. I, on the other hand, have concluded that Paul and other early Christians regarded their Jesus as an entirely spiritual figure who operated only in the supernatural/mythical part of the universe, like all the other savior gods of the day, and that they had no conception of this Son of God as having set foot in the material world itself.

Before addressing the specific things Wells has to say in the New Humanist article concerning my position, let me make a few general observations. One is that my view of Paul’s concept of Christ as a supernatural divinity conforms to the dominant religious expression of the day. The saving deities of the Greco-Roman mystery religions were regarded as entirely mythical. Mithras’ slaying of the bull was not an historical act that had taken place on earth. No one searched the soil of Asia Minor in hopes of finding the genitals severed from the Great Mother’s consort Attis. Such deities could be spoken of as born in caves, sleeping, eating, dying and being dismembered, without such deeds being thought of as taking place in normal history, let alone a recent one. In the period of Christianity’s inception, the higher, spiritual part of the universe was regarded as the “genuine” reality, with the earthly, material sphere only an imperfect ‘copy’ of the higher realm, and it was in that upper world that spiritual, salvific processes were regarded as taking place. Thus Wells’ interpretation of the Pauline concept of Christ would be an anomaly within a context in which the early Christian Christ shares so much with the elements of the mystery cults. And because it would be an anomaly, we would expect that early Christian discussion about Christ would occasionally be concerned with addressing such a difference. Yet this is something we do not find in the record.

On what, then, does Prof. Wells base his anomalous distinction? It is upon two or three references in Paul that are regularly appealed to in attempts to establish the humanity of Jesus, such as Romans 1:3’s “of David’s stock” and Galatians 4:4’s “born of woman, (under) the law.” Before looking at the contexts of these bare and somewhat cryptic remarks, let me make another general observation. Wells and others fail to take into account that the very paucity of such passages is itself an almost insurmountable obstacle to interpreting them as historical references. In the orthodox picture of the existence of a Gospel Jesus, the fact that nothing besides this meager handful of apparently human-sounding references is to be found in the entire corpus of early Christian correspondence, can hardly be encouraging or easily explained away. Even Wells’ alternative explanation, that the early epistle writers regarded Jesus as one who had lived an obscure life more than a century earlier, founders on this pervasive silence.

If their Jesus was so regarded, can one really envision that in the preaching of early Christian apostles and letter writers like Paul, either (a) some clearer statement about such a life on earth, even if obscure, would never be made; and (b) at least some legendary elements about that life would not of necessity have developed? Why do no first century documents speak of some aspect of the activities of this Jesus while he was on earth, even if such details were entirely fictional? Is it even possible that a conviction about a Jesus who had lived in the past could develop, but without any specific setting for such a life, or any details of this presumed sojourn on earth? Everything in human history where legendary figures are concerned, divine or otherwise, would lead us to the opposite expectation, yet we find for at least the first half century of the Christian record that no such developments took place. Not even the multitude of references to Jesus’ dying and rising are ever given an earthly setting. (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 about “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus” is almost universally judged by liberal scholars to be a later interpolation, while 1 Timothy, with its passing reference to Pilate in 6:13, is a second century product—though this reference, too, based on evidence I have outlined on my site, may well be an interpolation. In any case, both these ‘traditions,’ in the context of Wells’ view, are a reflection of the Gospel scenario, not of a Pauline one which supposedly placed Jesus at an earlier time.)

If some might think to offer the Gospels as an expression of this expected tendency toward legendary development, why do they spring full-grown all at once, with virtually no antecedents for that half century or more? Even more important, if Jesus was previously regarded by Christians as living around 100 BCE or earlier, why would the evangelists place him in the time of Pilate? This is a significant anomaly which Wells does not address. As to the Talmudic “tradition” Wells points to which located Jesus around 100 BCE, such a tradition is expressed in only a single reference. Other Talmudic ‘traditions’ locate him at other times and places, including in the time of Rabbi Akiba, a century after Pilate. (See Wells’ own The Jesus of the Early Christians, p.200-1.)

If Paul and the first two generations of Christian preachers presented their Christ Jesus as a man who had lived on earth, they would inevitably have encountered questions about the life of that man, forcing them to come up with some information, real or otherwise. If they so believed, their theology and soteriology about him would surely have been cast in relation to some concept of what he had presumably done while on earth, even if no traditions of such things actually existed. In fact, in view of the prophetic, teaching, and miracle-working activity of the early apostolic movement, sectarian impulses should have led to imputing such activities to Jesus himself during his earthly career. But such features about a life on earth do not appear in the early writings.

If it be claimed that such things are to be found in the occasional quotation of Isaiah 53 and the odd other scriptural passage as a way of describing Jesus’ passion experience (as in 1 Peter 2:22 or 1 Clement 16), I would maintain that such scriptural indications are not—before the time of the epistle of Barnabas in the second century—related to envisioned events on earth, nor are they presented as such even in general terms. Rather, I would suggest that these writers regarded Jesus as operating within the spiritual world, with scripture itself providing a window onto those supernatural events. In any case, this relates only to the passion itself. Elements relating to a teaching, prophetic and miracle-working career on earth are completely missing.

Of Flesh and Woman

Prof. Wells, as I said, appeals to passages like Romans 1:3, “(the Son) who arose from the seed of David according to the flesh (kata sarka),” and Galatians 4:4, “born of woman, (subject to) the [Jewish] law.” But the contexts of both these passages tend to belie the convenient interpretation everyone would like to give them.

The statement in Romans 1 is clearly offered as part of God’s “gospel of the Son found in the prophets,” not as a piece of historical information or tradition. The fact that the Messiah (Christ) would be ‘of David’s stock’ was stated several times in scripture, and this would appear to be the source of Paul’s statement and his attribution of this feature to Jesus. The phrase kata sarka can be (and is by a few scholars) translated as “in the sphere of the flesh.” In the Platonically-viewed universe of ascending spirit levels extending above the level of matter, this would include the lowest celestial sphere above the earth where the demon spirits were believed to reside and operate. They were the “rulers of this age” whom Paul—as Wells acknowledges (p.17)—identifies as the crucifiers of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2:8. Thus the reference in Romans 1:3 does not have to be seen as implying a material substance for Christ or a career on earth. (More on this passage below.)

Galatians 4:4-6 is a passage full of anomalies to the “born of woman” phrase. God has sent only the “spirit” of his Son (verse 6); he himself does the redeeming, not Jesus (verse 5); and the effects on the believer are said to be the result of an act of God, not of Jesus (verse 7). As well, those key phrases are not grammatically connected in any necessary temporal relation to the act of “sending.” The god Dionysos was also spoken of as “born of woman,” but this was in a mythical context, not an historical one. The Galatians statement, too, could well have been based on a reading of scripture, namely the famous Isaiah 7:14, “a young woman shall bear a son . . .”

Curiously, the word used in both passages for “born” or “arising from” is not the verb gennao, to give birth or to be born, but the more general ginomai, to arise, to be of the nature of, etc. That verb is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:45, where he speaks of Adam as being created or coming into being as a physical body of earthly material, while Christ was in the nature of a spiritual being, with a heavenly body. In this latter context, the concept of “being born” would hardly apply, and certainly not on earth. In conjunction with the word “woman” there is, of course, an implication of birth, but Paul’s use of the non-specific verb suggests that his concept is not as straightforward as many would like to assume. These passages are discussed at length on my site and in my new book, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ?

So, too, is the christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, which Wells also appeals to. There is a curiosity here as well, in that the writer three times makes some kind of statement that this descending heavenly figure took on a ‘likeness’ to humans, without ever troubling to say that he actually became one, much less make a clear statement about a life on earth in flesh. This principle of ‘likeness’ (which is part of another description—in the Ascension of Isaiah 9—about the Son descending through the layers of heaven to be crucified by Satan and his evil angels of the celestial ‘firmament’) is part of the Platonic picture of the universe and its workings which I appeal to in the formulation of my own picture of the early cultic faith. As a god descended toward matter, he took on ever increasing resemblance to material forms, as well as a capacity to suffer and ‘die’. But these attributes were still spiritual counterparts of material world characteristerics.

Here I think that Wells has misunderstood or misapplied the principle involved. He says, “Doherty interprets these passages from the Platonic premiss that things on Earth have their ‘counterparts’ in the heavens. Thus ‘within the spirit realm’ Christ could be of David’s stock, etc. But, if the ‘spiritual’ reality was believed to correspond in some way to a material equivalent on Earth, then the existence of the latter is conceded.”

Now, it is true that something like the Jerusalem Temple was regarded as having its spiritual archetype in a heavenly Temple, that things on earth were the ‘copy’ of things in heaven. (This is clearest in regard to the heavenly/earthly sanctuary parallel in Hebrews.) But this is not quite the same in the matter of counterpart ‘likeness.’ The whole mystery cult ethos was founded on the principle that earthly devotees, through rites that were very much of the same sacramental nature as Pauline baptism, could take on or share in the nature of the heavenly deity and be guaranteed a fate such as he underwent, usually in terms of the conquest of death and enjoying a happy afterlife. And certain Jewish apocalyptic sects—as in the Similitudes of Enoch—regarded the members of the sect as having a champion in heaven whose characteristics they shared (righteous, chosen, etc.). The counterpart relationship in this case was not of spiritual and material expressions of the same entity, it was a sharing of characteristics between two quite different entities in the higher and lower worlds. Thus the god in the spirit world did not have a corresponding ‘god’ in the material world, he had devotees who shared in his nature and experiences, and he in theirs. Consider Romans 6:5: “For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.”

Paul’s point in Galatians 4 (since he would hardly have had to inform his readers that a human Jesus was born of a woman) is to identify the spiritual Christ as having the required counterpart characteristics in the spiritual world. Since all expressions in the material sphere were considered to be a reflection of things inherent in the spiritual one, the condition of being “of David’s stock” or “born of woman” on earth would have been seen as having some sort of counterpart in the supernatural realm. Besides, scripture would be regarded as saying so, in its predictions of the Davidic descent of the Messiah/Christ and in Isaiah 7:14, as noted above. Even if Jewish thinkers like Paul had come up with an entirely spiritual Messiah, such passages still had to be applied to him. Indeed, all that the early Christians say in their appeals to scripture (such as in Hebrews) suggests that Christ and his features and activities were regarded as embodied in the sacred writings, which is to say they existed in the supernatural world to which scripture provided a window.

As a final observation here, if Wells argues that, “this does not mean, as Doherty supposes, that the life and death were not believed to have occurred on earth,” one has to ask why such a belief is never concretely expressed, and why its opposite (ie, my ‘supposition’) fits so well into the philosophical thinking of the time, about salvation processes between higher and lower worlds, and the relationship of humanity to divinity.

The Gospels as Symbolism and Midrash

Prof. Wells declares himself “quite unconvinced” by my suggestion that the evangelists, and especially the first one, Mark, composed and presented their Gospel story as symbolic only, having constructed at least the passion portion of that story out of passages from scripture. Since he does not explain the reasons for my failure to convince him, it is difficult for me to counter his objection.

All I will say here is that since the pre-passion ministry of the Gospel story is such a carbon copy of the activities of the sectarian movement of which Mark was a part (one reflected in the Q document, even if the evangelist did not possess a copy of that document), its nature as a piece of symbolism representing the community itself becomes a feasible postulation, especially in the presence of other evidence that no historical Jesus—including a ‘Q Jesus’—existed. When this is coupled with the realization that the passion account is out and out fiction, cobbled together in midrashic fashion from scriptural pieces, and uncorroborated anywhere outside the Gospel of Mark and its imitators, one is led almost inevitably toward regarding the entire Gospel story as something lying at the opposite end of the spectrum to historical fact. (To look back at a point made earlier, if Pauline Christians regarded Jesus as having lived around 100 BCE, and yet the evangelists place him at 30 CE, it would in fact be advantageous for Wells to regard the Gospel story as merely “symbolic.”)

Wells suggests that I have not allowed for the possibility that examples of historical martyrdoms in the Jewish tradition, such as “the book of the Maccabees,” could have prompted early Christians to regard Christ’s death as having been an historical event. But in fact, he has highlighted the problem in making such an argument. Early Christian writers like Paul not only never place that death in an historical setting, they never relate it to elements which are paramount in tales like the one in 4 Maccabees, namely, dying to defend the Jewish heritage, especially the Mosaic Law. Wells acknowledges this and offers as a substitute commonality the idea that Jesus died in compliance with God’s will. But I would suggest that, unlike Eleazar and the seven brothers, who died at the hands of a Greek overlord in defense of Jewish tradition, dying for sin in accordance with the will of God has no innate historical connotation, especially when that death is attributed to the demon spirits and so closely resembles the ethos of the mythically oriented mystery cults.

The very fact that those ‘historical’ precedents did not lead early Christians to give Jesus’ death a more historical cast—in fact, none at all—suggests that it was immune to such a casting because it was not seen as having taken place on earth, a view borne out by other passages in the early documentary record, such as Colossians 2:15 and the Ascension of Isaiah 9. Wells admits, in his final observation on my views, that 1 Corinthians 2:8, with its “rulers of this age” as the crucifiers of Christ, is a reference to Satan and his evil angels in the firmament (the sphere between the earth and the moon). Most liberal scholars these days concur.

As I said at the beginning, we owe a lot to Prof. Wells, and our differences, even if intriguingly interesting, are “non-essential” to the question of whether an historical Jesus existed or not. I would suggest, however, that my own interpretation, in accord with the philosophy of the time, goes further toward understanding the thinking that lies behind Paul’s often cryptic manner of expression. Wells once styled much of the content of the epistles as “unintelligible” to the modern mind. He is quite right. But I would like to think that my own reading of the Pauline view of Christ has helped bring those early Christian writings out of their frustrating murk, even if it is to cast light on ideas that we today would find alien and unappealing.