Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case

Bernard Muller
(with contributions from Richard Carrier and others)

Addendum to PART THREE
Realizing The Mythicist Case: Doherty vs. Muller
An Essay by J. Barlow

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Earl Doherty’s study of what constitutes “the Jesus puzzle” has uncovered solutions to some baffling enigmas; Bernard Muller left his profession for two years and studied the New Testament to get to the bottom of things, and write a critique of Doherty’s reasoning for the mythicist case.  Their relevant websites are:

“The Jesus Puzzle: Was there no historical Jesus?” by Earl Doherty

“The Jesus Puzzle: a Critique” in “Jesus: a historical case” by Bernard D. Muller (

What mysteries!  Both examine the data from the standpoint of the glorification of reason, the Frenchman Muller detective-like (“the explanation is knowable, inducible”), and Doherty with Reason as the Ideal, perceiving in Hellenistic man a wholly Platonic/primordial inner landscape which assessed (and de-valued) factualness in a way nearly incomprehensible to us.  Jesus must first be fit into a series of loosely organized yet thoroughly ingrained cosmological presumptions and dispositions that were current at the time.

The need for such a Cosmic Adam, a redeemer sent by an utterly transcendent Deity was “in the air,” so to speak.  Everything follows from this, as it did for Philo.  A Logos in the form of man, the Platonically intelligible ideal “man,” imbued with cosmic “flesh,” passing down through heavens past archons and demons who crucify him before he arrives on earthnot that that was his intention!  This “death” in the upper regions transforms humanity by our participation in his new form and likeness, thus redeeming humanity into divinity.  Thus, an “historical Jesus” is unnecessary from the get-go, because a full-fledged “Incarnation” isn’t necessary to meet the spiritual needs of these peoplenot to mention their need for certain intellectual solutions, the latter but an offspring of the former.  How can all of this be known to have happened?  How can we be assured of this new dimensionality, this new salvific possibility being added on to man?  Two methods: authority and experience.  (To wit: Scriptures and the Holy Spirit).

Doherty’s theories rest largely on the insight that for Hellenistic man a fact became a fact no other way than by becoming a foregone conclusion, as religious conviction. (Spiritual modes of grasping the cosmos at large did not begin as hypotheses in those days.)  Here inevitability (=Fate) and indubitability (=Fate) are synonymous, psychologically indistinguishable certainties.  "When an idea struck people then as profound or startling or glorious they had no other word to baptize such an 'insight' but to call it 'true'," as Nietzsche noted.  Graeco-Roman people found themselves in the presence of a vast cosmic spectacle made, it would seem, just for them.

For us, twenty-first century monsters of sheer facticity: how can we comprehend a world where everything by which the world seems ‘known’ to us, was then unknown?  Imagine a world where nothing is known, where no laws of life have been ‘discovered’where even the means of investigating them has not yet been attained. How plants grow, why the seasons change, the propagation of biological life, our place in the heavens, whole welters of chemical, biological, physical principles virtual unknowns! A world where the principal means of ascertaining, indeed creating meaning was by means of augury and legend, symbolism and written authority over primordial speculations, where 98 out of 100 men could not even read: a world where “journeying east” meant “into the rising sun,” into “truth,” “light,” originsin more than a symbolic, poetic sense.

For us, however, perplexed by chicken vs. egg prioritizing in the name of a version of time that for these others scarcely existed, to sweat over such issues as whether the idea of Jesus preceded the tangible man or not seems our lot. Let’s see:  Jesus means Yeshua means Savior.  “Christos” means “anointed.”  The latter is a title, could not the former be as well?  “Anointed Savior” therefore merely a title, linguistically speaking.  But, linguistically speaking, words must denote something really there, and whoever heard of a title given someone who did not exist?  Therefore the man we call Jesus Christ existed.  But wait:  If someone gives God, for example, a title e.g. “Immortal One,” does it follow that “God exists”?  No.  So we are back where we began: for whether you believe Muller or Doherty, no one denies that the Anointed Savior was considered a divine being, whether he actually existed on earth at some time or not.

The subliminal point Doherty seems to be making throughout is that our western, steel-clamp modern minds, always on the hunt for syllogistic validities based on factual premises, begin and end with one, solitary criterion of assessment that renders any and all hypotheses ‘good’ or not. “Is it conceivable, or inconceivable?”  And Doherty is simply saying, “It may seem inconceivable for us that billions have believed in the historical existence of someone who did not in fact exist, but it was conceivable for certain first century Graeco-Roman and Semitic people to believe in a god-man who did not historically exist.”  This is his point of departure that makes the conclusion, because it makes said conclusion conceivable.  All that he needs to show is that it is conceivable for them, not that it is not inconceivable or us, for the hypothesis to stand as an hypothesis.

Did Hellenistic man think all that differently about things compared to the way that we do?  Was it really “a different world” to that extent, so that it becomes unimaginable how they could have staked everything on a savior of humanity who was not himself human?  Let us reflect on the extent to which we ourselves “have faith” in intangibles the historical existence or non-existence of which seem irrelevant.  Then think of the extent to which our heroes and the like are knownor rather, unknown to us.  Indeed, for a hero to remain a hero, that is to say an ‘ideal,’ he must remain unknown.  I am thinking now of the pro football player who gave up millions in salary to volunteer for the army, only later to be killed in Afghanistan.  He wasn’t by all accounts a particularly ‘great’ player, with a huge following of admirers and fans.  Nor did he have a great reputation as an oratorical spokesman on behalf of patriotism.  It wasn’t until his death that people admired him for “going against the grain” of what our culture normally suspects, understands, even condones: that the prime motivation of our existence here is to behave in such a way that it is clear one is always acting on behalf of what is one’s own best self-interest.

Because he was admired as one who “had made it,” his sacrifice of himself appears huge.  Because he died, he became noble.  And the last thing we want to hear about him would be if he complained a great deal, or if his dying words contained regret for the sacrifice he had made, if he’d said something like “I shouldn’t have left Arizona” at the very end: for that would mean his sacrifice was not a sacrifice for us.

Something similar happened with regard to President Kennedy and John Lennon.  The answer to the question, “Why did he have to die?” is always rendered commensurate with the intrinsic nobility of the character of the one so sacrificed, in order for it to obtain as a sacrifice made on our behalf.  Lincoln, too, had largely been re-interpreted as a man of peace.  But who or what these men really were, beneath their public persona, only those who really know them can say; and typically, they are not talking, or if they are, it is only to enhance the legendary larger-than-life quality of their lives, albeit often enough in rather human, down-to-earth terms.

In the case of Jesus, something similar if not identical appears to have taken place.  He was merely the occasion of a cluster of spiritual forces ready to be unleashed, which could only be unleashed in terms of something uncanny and unpremeditated.  True, Jesus was unprecedented; but so was Philo. Really, Muller and Doherty agree in the sense that, even if a human being named Jesus did exist, there was no historical Jesus.  He did not instigate the occasion of the legend about him that began with him.

But I do not think that Muller fully appreciates the hypothesis Doherty seeks to develop; namely, the extent to which individual psychologies were wholly enveloped in the world-view then prevalent: a cosmic understanding permeating and coloring the thought-forms by means of which all metaphysical ideas were expressed because there was no other set of assumptions by which they could be expressed.  And there were few, if any (Lucian of Samasota comes to mind) champions of sheer facticity available to question, or even raise questions e.g. whether or not there really was a Jesus of Nazareth who really was verifiably a descendant of David, and so on.  Things worked quite the other way: a man bitten by a poisonous snake who survives must be a god!

A cosmic redeemer sent into the sublunar realm to heal humanity of its penchant for falling beneath the sway of demons and idols must be a son of David, if the Scriptures so intimate.  Philo in his ecstasies realized a divine intermediary, the Stoic logos, by means of which all of creation became organized along the lines of Platonic sensibles and intelligibles; even stories and persons of the Old Testament were so allegorized.  In this light, the personification of the Logos is almost a psychological necessity, if indeed it is true that material things are but copies of things in the divine mind.  The identification of the scriptural Messiah with the Greek logos meant an enormous archetypal shift in the unconscious which could only result in the visionary experience of the tree of life in Paradise (Odes of Solomon) becoming the sacrificial agent of the Creator himself, or his surrogate, the “only-begotten.” Creation becomes redeemed by means of the uncreated and eternal; the corrupted and fallen material world is revivified by the ideas and ideals from which it came to be.  Human dignity was at stake, and Platonic and Judaic monotheism combined to effect its rescue.  The paradigmatic shift is not unlike that of the latter half of the 20th century, where awareness of the vast strangeness of the cosmos and the popular sense of the relativity of all things to one another at the core of everything resulted in prodigious visions of man traveling through vast galaxies and experiencing alternate dimensions  commensurate with an expanding consciousness.

Muller comes close to comprehending Doherty in an unexpected place: the story of the empty tomb in Mark’s gospel.  He concludes that the way the gospel ends, at 16:8, is precisely what the author intended: the women depart literally “not telling the story to anyone, for they were afraid.”  But he fails to grasp the extent to which the author’s intention was apologetic and meant as an explanatory device for something, something nearly incomprehensible to us.  Was Cephas perhaps among those preaching “a different Jesus,” as Paul somewhere says, an earthly, quasi-messianic “son of man” figure who championed the poor yet who was this very ‘cosmic Adam’ come to earth, unbeknownst even to him and the eleven?  Why is it, in Mark that the disciples fail over and over to understand this Jesus or comprehend his miracles?  Did Peter fail to see that this shadowy figure he’d chosen to follow really was an earthly being?  Did the historical Peter in fact believe in and preach a Jesus who did not resurrect, so that the later cosmic Christ of Paul could be given an earthly locale as just that “other Jesus” Peter and the others spoke of?  Try to imagine Doherty’s thesis as true: what follows? First, the Christ of Paul’s visions, the “Son” of the “Odes of Solomon,” who redeems by and assures the redeemed by holy spirit.  Then into this mileau of Judaic hellenism comes the Galilean fisherman and the zealous James of Jerusalem fame who say, “Oh yes, we knew him.  He was here among us, yet we failed to recognize him for who he was at first.”  This has at some time to be explained, and the ending of Mark’s gospel would serve at best as a partial explanation.  The question remains if that indeed was the purpose behind Mark’s attempt. Let us imagine this possibility:  Mark as companion of Paul, and interpreter of Peter, seeking to justify the “other Jesus” of Galilee in Pauline terms, seeking to turn the Pauline cosmic Christ into an historical entity.

(We can dispense with the notion that the story of the denial of Jesus by Peter has to be true because no one would include it in a document meant to persuade anyone of anything unless it had to be. Anyone who has been heedlesslyyet with profound moral proposeslandered knows how such stories “become true” in the ears of their hearers.  It should be read cum grano salis.)

How does Mark achieve the absorption of an historical “other Yeshua” into the cosmic redeemer ideology, if not by (1) asserting that the earliest of disciples could not grasp who he was without said ideology (=”baptism in holy spirit”) and (2) by identifying the two Christs by means of unawareness of how the exalted redeemer became exalted?  (I.e., by not knowing of his resurrection).  Regarding the latter, what did Paul use as explanatory material on behalf of his pharisaic doctrine re. resurrection generally?  Sheer logic (of a kind):  “If there is no resurrection in general, then Christ in particular has not been raised.”  Remember too how Paul’s sermon in Athens has been described in Acts: the philosophers who heard him “preach Christ” thought they were hearing about some new deity called ‘Resurrection.’  And this is inconceivable if Paul is describing an earthly rabbi in Judea and his empty tomb.

Muller’s critique of Doherty’s elucidation of “born [come] from a woman” ought to be telling, insofar as little can often be made of the exegesis of a single word, and its usage.

But that Doherty insists the use of the verb in question need not necessary strictly imply a biological function is borne out from two considerations, neither of which have to do with etymology: (1) its place in Paul’s line of argumentation; (2) Doherty’s interpretation of the apostle’s meaning as a genuine possibility in terms of the thought-world of contemporary thinking.

(1)                     “born of a woman, born under the law”: Paul’s purpose in humanizing Christ in an ideal sense is to make him subservient to the law, in order to render him capable of overcoming and surmounting the law.  For Paul, the law’s purposes, since Adam, is to (a) justify the spiritual death made explicit since the Fall, and (b) prove to humanity its ongoing, ineradicable propensity to sin.  Christ has done away with all of this through the sacrifice he made on behalf of humanity in the realm of the real, “according to the flesh” and “by the will of the eternal Father.” Given that this ideational realm was composed of the constituent elements of all reality of which the material were merely shades, such a sacrificial death would have been unreal or of little salvific effect if it had taken place in the material realm of shadows. In effect, the whole spiritual logic of what Paul proclaimed Christ had accomplished, and with it the force and appeal of his gospel, would have been rendered moot by any literal “Incarnation.”  Why or how this had changed by the middle of the second century should thus become one of the most important questions in the History of Ideas: and here, one may rightly suspect an entire cultural shift in soteriological interest and emphasis toward the realizability of the redemption of matter.

(2)                     It is presumably given as inconceivable, by Muller and the bulk of historical scholarship, that “born of a woman” could mean anything other than what it literally imports, because there is no other conceivable way a man could be “come,” or derived from a woman.  Thus counterskeptics ask:  Where in the New Testament thought and/or in its presuppositions is anything that mythological presumed at its explanatory ground?  And I think the answer is clear, that such a ground exists: in Revelation 12.  This intriguing allegory, whose female figure has been variously interpreted as “Hagia Sophia,” as Virgin Mary, or merely as the figurine for a cosmic parable, acts as a counterweight to trinitarian dogma if taken literally.  The divine son is “born” not in a manger on earth, ‘in the flesh,’ but in the heavens; conversely, he is a man, and more than mere abstract pre-existent logos, and even more than an “only-begotten” of God.  As the vision progresses, it becomes apparent that all of this is taking place “in the world, but not of the world” (as Paul enjoins his Christians to so consider themselves), in an ideal realm where the words are in earthly terms but refer to their ultimate, primary meaning.

Mark’s gospel developed a real audience with the waning of the parousia. The ‘great secret’ revealed by Mark was that the Cosmic Adam and emanated savior had put in an appearance on earth, that “Jesus” referred to someone who had ‘taken on flesh.’  (Anyone reading Mark’s gospel without presuming this flesh as divine flesh has misunderstood the purpose of midrash here.  In this connection see Stevan Davies’ excellent work delineating in earliest Christianity a continuum of extraordinary ‘religious’ experience requiring explanation: the docetic element being that his flesh seemed paltry, material, like that of animals in the temple sacrifice.  Likewise, he seemed to be dead on the cross.  His resurrection, as Muller explains, was not known as such for the longest time.  Now the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit at the baptism of Christ, reveals all of this.  Mark was the first Gnostic tract, a novella in which it did not matter whether Galilean preachers were idealizations of heavenly entities walking the earth or not.) 

What really took place happened as it did according to Revelation 12; Mark’s events are their pale, earthly representation with no substance whatsoever.  That he was conscious of this as he wrote does not mean, however, that he was aware of his fiction as fiction at the same time.  For the Holy Spirit, the “spirit of Jesus,” not only reveals what he directs, but directs whatsoever he revealeth.

What gives Doherty's hypothesis its tremendous weight is precisely what his opponent Muller thinks ought to undermine it, but he is wrong.  It is psychologically conceivable that the historical Jesus, whoever he was, was largely an ahistorical concoction begun by a myth-making propensity intrinsic to humanity at all times, on the one hand; on the other, a careful perusal of the New Testament and associated documents of the era give credence to Doherty's claim.  It is more consistent with what we know of the Roman Empire for Doherty's hypothesis to be judged coherent, than it is conceivable the Jesus of the Gospels could have said and done all that he is reputed to have said and done with so little being reported about it by secular historians of the time.

James Barlow

Back to Muller Part Three

Return to Home Page