Critiquing the Mythicist Case (including a response to Dr. Paula Fredriksen's comments on my first website article).
It should come as no surprise that the "no historical Jesus" theory is unpopular in many circles. Mythicists like myself have long been subjected to criticism, ridicule and ad hominem attacks; or we are simply ignored, with an audible disdain in the silence. We are not genuine or legitimate scholars. We have agendas, usually nefarious ones. Our stance is determined ahead of time and we twist the evidence to suit our ends. We reject the supernatural and the miraculous a priori and rely instead on those shaky foundations known as science and rationality. To some, we are sons of Satan, headed for eternal fire.
But rather than judge the demerits of a case by the
amount of ordure that is thrown at it, or by the appeal to authority
regularly indulged in by critics, the mythicist position ought to
be evaluated, in part, in the light of the counter-suits presented by
critics. In other words, how effective are the cases brought against it?
On the older Jesus Seminar web page attached to
Rutgers, under "Reactions/Critiques," a link to the Jesus Puzzle
website stood at the head of the
list for a number of years. (The link is still there but is now dead,
as the last webmaster, Seminar member Mahlon Smith, ignored the
notice that the URL had changed.) These were stated as
substantive issues that merit an intelligent response." None of the
members of the Seminar, or any other scholarly visitor to the Rutgers
took up the suggestion. Critics of my second book, Challenging the Verdict: A
Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel's 'The Case for Christ',
monotonously accuse me of unfair tactics, even dishonesty, in
dialoguing with quotations from Strobel's interviewed scholars as
though in a
courtroom, presenting my counter-arguments by means of this literary
device. Dishonesty, because I didn't give them a chance to respond to
'cross-examination'—right in the book, I guess. In response to that, I
posted a notice on my site offering to
give a forum to any of Strobel's scholars who wished to interject a
rebuttal at any point in the book's text, and I would post it,
unedited, on the
site. I called the feature "Court in Session." Judge and jury waited,
but none of the defendants showed up.
Several of those who have expressed dissatisfaction
with my views have declared that any professional New Testament scholar
could shred the mythicist case in general, and mine in particular. (I
would be "roasted," one said.) As
yet we don't know that, because none have undertaken to do so. Later in
this article, I will look at some comments made by a well-known
New Testament scholar to my first website article, "A Conspiracy of
Silence." While brief and informal, those comments are quite telling.
Many reactions to my books and website come to me
personally, and many are posted in the Reader
positive ones are encouraging, and show that my arguments and
presentation are strong enough to change many people's viewpoints and
even their lives. The majority of both my books are sold through
It is there that the general public has a forum to praise or condemn The Jesus Puzzle and Challenging the Verdict. I value
these reviews, both positive and negative, because my primary target
audience is the layperson with an interest in historical questions and
a willingness to examine the tenets of Christianity. I make no secret
of being biased toward a rational view of life and the world, and a
rejection of the supernatural. The positive reviews show that this
outlook is spreading, and that the case for the non-existence of Jesus
is gaining legitimacy.
But I'm also encouraged by the negative reviews. I
have a website feature which quotes most of the Amazon reviews on Challenging the Verdict, especially
the negative ones, some with remarks added by me. Most are little more
than rants, full of accusations that the book is "bizarre, amateurish,
insipid and poorly executed"; it contains "fanciful conspiracy
theories, historical misstatements and corruptions of logic"; its
methodology is "outrageous". Similar accusations are made in negative
reviews of The Jesus Puzzle.
What is curious about this type of review—and they run into the
that hardly a single one of them contains a concrete counter-argument
attempted refutation of any of the terrible flaws, misstatements,
or invalid methodology I am accused of. Bob and Gretchen Passantino of
Action" submitted a review stating that Challenging
the Verdict "is littered with logical fallacies, misstatements
of fact, faulty interpretations, pseudo-scholarship, and wholesale
ignorance of history, literature, and philosophy." Quite a litany.
Regrettably, they failed to provide a single example of any of these
sins, even though Amazon allows a generous limit of 1,000 words for a
review, which the Passantinos came nowhere near reaching.
A few months ago, someone named Kerry B. Colling
wrote the following review on Amazon:
Mr. (Ms.?) Colling doesn't say who this "apologetics
organization" is that asked for his assistance, but he has clearly
to give them anything of substance to allay their fears. Even in the
face of an
obvious plea from those who are disturbed at the content of my book,
a single counter-argument has been put forward. All he can serve up is
a litany of insult and dismissal, appeals to authority, and a
condemnation of my writing style which goes against much opposite
opinion. It's a poorly disguised admission that he was able to come up
with nothing to challenge Challenging
the Verdict. The review is
simply a cop-out.
More recently, a "william1125 from Europe" began his
review with these remarks: "Full of
assumptions. Way too many Illogical and False Analogies. I found an
average of 1 good argument in every 50 bad ones." Would it not have
been natural to include at least one example of any of these things?
Then he goes on: "Man, I thought I would be able to use Doherty's
points in real life - No way! They'd laugh me off the street if I tried
using his arguments in ad hoc conversation much less try to use his
stuff in debates." Is there something wrong with this picture? Was
"william" really looking for material to use in defense of the things I've
advocated, as he seems to be implying? I hardly think so, in
view of sentiments like these: "Come on Doherty - what is this a joke?
Very very sad and a deeply incorrect use of socalled
'cross-examination.' No wonder Doherty had to self-publish this thing -
no publisher worth their weight in flies would have touched it. I mean
what kind of strategy is this puppet manipulation of the statements???
Where's the Beef?! Where's your attack platform? I need stuff that's
usable, not a comedic script suitable for sitcoms."
That "william" is really from "Europe" I very much
doubt, as I do that he has in any way correctly identified himself. In
fact, the entire tone of the piece (and there's more along the lines of
what I quoted) is quite familiar, very reminiscent of over-the-top
material we all
know too well on the apologetic circuit here in North America. A
companion reviewer called the book "another futile attack on the
Christian faith...satan vs. God." He recommended "buying a Mounds bar
instead. You know—the one without the nuts."
Many reviews betray a strong indication that the
reviewers have not actually read the book in question. They are
reacting to its theme, or to someone else's condemnation of it. Some
misrepresent its content. For example, more than one reviewer of The Jesus Puzzle has claimed that
I date the Gospels in the middle of the 2nd century. Well, at more than
one point, including right in the Introduction, I make it clear that I
Mark, the first Gospel, around 85-90, and regard the other three
canonicals as being in existence by 130, even if further edited later
to reach their canonical state. Is this a deliberate misrepresentation
indication that they have not read the book?
The situation is somewhat better on some discussion
boards, such as The Jesus Mysteries or the Internet Infidels. The
anti-mythicist constituency on such venues may be vocal, and has done
its share of ranting, but serious attempts are often made to offer
reasoned and scholarly challenges to aspects of the mythicist case. If
there's a problem with this approach, it is that it's piecemeal. It
not address the case as a whole, and leaves entire areas untouched.
There is little to be accomplished by arguing such points as that
"brother of the Lord" must mean sibling of Jesus, or that "born of
only mean a human birth on earth, or that 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16
cannot be securely labeled an interpolation, or that references in
Josephus have a reliable core, all the time ignoring the elephant—or
room. As it is, none of those piecemeal arguments can be proved;
some are completely ineffectual, easily countered by others on the
board. What is needed is a comprehensive,
all-inclusive paradigm which will deal with those elephants in a better
way than the mythicist case does: explanations for the pervasive
the Gospel Jesus in the epistles, for the
exclusive focus on scripture and revelation in all the early writers,
for the great dichotomy between the Galilean and Jerusalem traditions,
for the immediate elevation of Jesus to cosmic levels in a Jewish-style
milieu, for the Platonic
saturation of early christology, the blatant parallels in thought and
ritual to the mystery cults, the picture in the 2nd century apologists,
and on and on. No systematic refutation such as this to the mythicist
case in general, or mine in particular, has been forthcoming from
I will take the liberty of appealing to Richard
of The Jesus Puzzle
on the Secular Web. In its section on "The Argument to the Best
Explanation" Carrier has given my book the 'win' in regard to the
success in meeting the various criteria of the ABE. "In several ways
like these, Doherty shows how his theory is a better explanation of all the
evidence than the SHT [Standard Historicist Theory]." "Doherty's theory
very easily accounts for the
peculiar features of the passages he singles out, while historicists
must struggle harder to explain them, introducing ad hoc assumptions..." Carrier
admits he has been drawn further than before toward the mythicist
conclusion, but he does not commit to it. Where I think he hesitates
too much is in arguing that the mythicist case cannot
be considered triumphant because, in theory, an historicist scholar
could one day produce a rebuttal that would overcome it. I have said
that I find this verging on a fallacy, since we can only deal with
what we have in both evidence and cases made, and cannot postulate what
might come about or be uncovered, much less introduce it into the
argument. But it
does highlight the point I am making here. The mythicist
provide the better explanation for the beginnings of Christianity as
reflected in the record, and it is incumbent upon the 'orthodox' side
to discredit it or come up with something better—something they have
not yet done, or perhaps even
attempted. Appeals to authority won't do. We all know the reasons why
"99%" (or whatever the declared figure) of biblical scholars accept the
of Jesus. Nor can critics have it both ways. If my case is so abysmal
and so riddled with flaws and fallacies, it should have no credence
whatsoever and could be demolished with little effort. If nothing else,
it should be easy to ignore. Yet they do everything but ignore it; they do everything but provide that demolition.
Why is it that no individual scholar or group of
scholars has undertaken a concerted effort in recent times to discredit
the mythicist position? (The brief addresses that have been made to it
in various publications are outlined in my Main Article "Postscript".)
In the heyday of the great mythicists of the
late 19th and early 20th centuries, a few valiant efforts were offered.
However, both mainstream scholarship and the mythicist branch itself
have made dramatic leaps since then. Biblical research has moved into
bold new territory in the last several decades: unearthing a wealth
documents, arriving at a new understanding of elements like Q, the
sectarian nature of early Christianity, the Cynic roots of the great
Gospel teachings, and so on; an almost unprecedented "critical"
dimension to New Testament scholarship has emerged.
And yet the mythicist position continues to
be vilified, disdained, dismissed. We would condemn any physicist, any
anthropologist, any linguist, any mathematician, any scholar of any
sort who professes to work in a field that makes even a partial bow to
principles of logic and scientific research who yet ignored, reviled,
condemned largely without examination a legitimate, persistent theory
in his or her discipline. There are tremendous problems in New
Testament research, problems that have been grappled with for
generations and show no sign of getting closer to solution.
Agreement is lacking on countless topics, and yesterday's theories are
being continually overturned. There is almost a civil war going on
within the ranks of Jesus study. Why not give the mythicist option some
serious consideration? Why not honestly evaluate it to see if it could
provide some of the missing
answers? Or, if it turns out that the case is fatally flawed, then put
it to rest once and for all.
Doing that would require one essential thing: taking
it seriously, approaching the subject having an open mind that the
theory might have some merit.
Sadly, that is the most difficult step and the one which most critics
have had the greatest difficulty taking. It is all in the mindset,
whether of the Christian believer whose confessional interests are
professional scholar who could
never consider that their life's work might be fatally compromised.
Comments by Paula Fredriksen
Dr. Fredriksen interjected her comments within the
full text of my
"Conspiracy of Silence" but I
will quote only those portions of the article (in italics) directly
related to those comments, and insert my own response after each of
them. I will include virtually all of her comments, except for
a couple which were very minor and not consequential.
Around the year
107, the Christian bishop of Antioch made a last, doleful journey.
Under military escort Ignatius travelled by land from Antioch to Rome,
where in its brutal arena he was to die a martyr's death. Along the way
he wrote to several Christian communities.
P.F. (Paula Fredriksen): These letters are now dated
98-100....Interestingly, he actually visited these communities—which
meant that a) while he was travelling w/ this escort, he was not
actually confined; and b) simply being a Xn wasn't illegal, or enough
of a reason to get arrested, or else these other folks whom Ignatius
visited would have been busted too.
E.D. (Earl Doherty): I would be a bit leery of
conclusions. The traditional interpretation has been that
Ignatius was confined, but
that visitors from the churches were allowed to see him when he passed
through their cities. If he was on his way to Rome under sentence of
death, it is not too likely that he was going along on some kind of
honor system and allowed to leave his military escort to visit friends.
although tradition doesn't state the exact reason for
Ignatius' condemnation, there is no reason to think that it did not
have something to do with being a Christian. Other documents around the
same time, such as Pliny's letter to Trajan, indicate that simply being
a Christian could lead to
persecution and arrest. On the other hand, some aspects of the
situation surrounding Ignatius—such as the allowed visitation and the
apparent immunity to arrest enjoyed by those visitors—ought to lead us
to question the reliability of tradition and the authenticity of the
letters, rather than draw the problematic conclusions expressed
above. This is a good example of how scholars tend to work entirely
established paradigms, drawing up both assumptions and conclusions
within their confines. Stepping outside them may lead to solving the
inherent difficulties and opening up new vistas on the larger picture.
And yet when we step outside those Gospels into the much more rarefied atmosphere of the first century epistles, we encounter a huge puzzle...
P.F.: I assume that this means "apart from the
gospels." Ignatius is generally held to have been writing after some of
them had been written.
...Before Ignatius, not a single reference to Pontius Pilate, Jesus' executioner, is to be found.
P.F.: Is to be found where? I'm not certain of what
he's trying to say here.
E.D.: I had said in the opening part of the first sentence above, "when we step outside those Gospels into...the first century epistles" and she correctly, if reduntantly, inferred, “I assume this means apart from the gospels." It is difficult to see how the application of "to be found" in the second sentence is uncertain.
silence on the Gospel Jesus which pervades almost a century of
Christian correspondence cries out for explanation. It cannot be
dismissed as some inconsequential quirk, or by the blithe observation
made by New Testament scholarship that early Christian writers "show no
interest" in the earthly life of Jesus. Something is going on here. In
Part One, we are going to take a close look at this "Conspiracy of
Silence" to which Paul and every other Christian writer of the first
century seems to be a party.
P.F.: What if these writers are not familiar
w/ the gospel traditions that we have? Also, some of them (like
Barnabas, or Hermas) aren't addressing issues of Jesus'
hagiography/biography. Finally, "conspiracy" sounds like a loaded word.
E.D.: This is a good example of the standard kinds
of rejoinder that are often given to elements of the mythicist case; in
many cases, they are not thought out. How could any Christian of the
first century, whether possessing written Gospels or not, be ignorant
of all traditions about the human Jesus? How could all Christians of the first century
be so ignorant, or uninterested? What would have led to their
conversion in the first
place? How could they have been preached to and converted without
acquiring some such traditions? Why is Ignatius early in the 2nd
century the first to mention even the most basic of these? (Of course,
outside the Gospels.)
Dr. Fredriksen's remark about biography misses the point. First of all, it is true that epistles of the first century are not written to address issues of Jesus' biography—and not just some of them, all of them. The very fact that none of them do is suspicious in itself and may invite the explanation that no such biography was current to be written about. But the point here is that virtually all of them contain elements and occasions which do relate to things that would be relevant to Jesus' biography. The fact that we never get any reference, any appeal, to such biographical elements is highly significant and cannot be dismissed in this manner.
As for her specific mention of the Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas: Barnabas is most often dated early in the second century, and it does show a concern for a basic biography of Jesus (claims that he had taught the people of Israel and had worked wonders—although these are things of which he never gives examples). I regard it, as I discuss in my Supplementary Article No. 12, Part Two, one of the earliest documents which has crossed the threshold in the development of the concept of an historical Jesus. And yet, the writer of Barnabas is clearly ignorant on a whole swath of basic data about Jesus which should have been known to him in some form, such as any details about the historical crucifixion. He appeals instead to Isaiah 53, and several times intimates quite clearly that he still relies on scripture for information about Jesus' presumed life on earth. Hermas, it is true, is not concerned with anything biographic. Its Jesus is entirely a mythological, heavenly Son, and in fact the document never uses the names "Jesus" or "Christ". And yet a key passage in the Fifth Parable indicates that this writer has no concept of a life on earth. This is an allegorical parable which has the Son "cleansing the sins of the people" before his "show[ing] them the ways of life and [giving] them the law which he received from his Father." Since "giving them the law" is elsewhere assigned to the angel Michael, who is also equated with the "Son," no human biography of Jesus can possibly be present in this writer's mind. Moreover, there is a complete silence on a death and resurrection anywhere in this lengthy work. Dr. Fredriksen, like many others, needs to delve more deeply into the documents and arguments commonly appealed to against the mythicist case.
And I must say I find it surprising that so many people fail to see the tongue-in-cheek irony in my use of the term "conspiracy" in "A Conspiracy of Silence." It can hardly be intended non-ironically, as this would mean I was implying an actual, universal plot by all these writers not to talk about an historical Jesus they all knew. Perhaps her comment is another example of literalism being carried too far.
allegedly born within Judaism, whose basic theological tenet was: God
is One. The ultimate blasphemy for a Jew would have been to associate
any man with God.
P.F.: This is not so. Monotheism in antiquity is not
so austere, and lots of second temple writings that are not canonical
make elevated claims for figures like Enoch, or Moses, or Solomon.
E.D.: A subset of the category "half-truth" ought to
be the "half-comparison." Is Dr. Fredriksen saying that figures such as
Enoch, Moses and Solomon were in any way turned into God, that they in
way compromised the Jewish God's monotheistic nature? The difference
between any "elevation" of Enoch or Moses and the presentation of the
cosmic Christ in the first century epistles constitutes a quantum leap.
Enoch may have been taken up to heaven without having to pass through
death, but he was not made God's Son in a literal way. (Not even in the
literature.) Moses in Philo's thought possessed the Logos, but he was
not the Logos. No Old
Testament personage was regarded as sharing in God's nature and
preexistent with him from all eternity. None of them were given the
title "Lord" with power over all in heaven and earth, none (except for
the mythological "Wisdom") were made
agents of creation and the sustaining power of the universe. In no
second temple writing do we
find passages like Colossians 1:15-20 or Hebrews 1:1-3 applied to
Enoch, Moses or Solomon.
I have seen arguments like this offered before. They turn a blind eye to the unprecedented nature of the early Christian Christ as portrayed in the epistles and the questions that attend to him: how could Jews create or accept this 'blasphemy' about a recent human man, how could such an elevation proceed out of a wisdom sage no matter how charismatic, so soon and so widespread that Paul can travel about to huge numbers of communities all over the eastern empire that already believe in "the Christ"? How could the epistles not be full of a record of challenges to apostles such as Paul for preaching a faith that elevated a man, a crucified criminal, to part of the Godhead?
This shocking incongruity is so anomalous that scholars have been known to deny it, to state that Paul and his fellows did not believe in Jesus as divine and a part of God, even in the face of passages like 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:15-20 or Hebrews 1:1-3. How often do we hear that Jesus of Nazareth was only gradually divinized, following the evolution from Mark to John? Long before Mark and John wrote, Jesus had reached the zenith in the earliest surviving Christian epistles, and it seems to have taken place from the very beginning of the movement. This is the great elephant in the Christian documentary room, and ignoring, misrepresenting or dismissing it will not make it go away.
And yet there is a
resounding silence in Paul and the other first century writers. We
might call it "The Missing Equation." Nowhere does anyone state that
this Son of God and Savior, this cosmic Christ they are all talking
about, was the man Jesus of Nazareth, recently put to death in Judea.
P.F.: He's exaggerating the disconnect between Paul
and the historical Jesus. If you go to Amazon, you can access my Jesus
book electronically: ch. 3, from pp. 74-153, reviews coincident
E.D.: One of the
primary positions of the mythicist argument is that tradition and
scholarship have read all sorts of things from the Gospels into the
epistles. If they are not explicitly there, we have no right to assume
they lie in the background. "Coincident material" won't do.
Coincidences such as finding teachings in
that are attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, yet are never so
attributed in the epistles, do not constitute proof. One is begging the
question by simply declaring that references to moral teachings
paralleling those in the Gospels constitute an unstated reference to
the Gospel Jesus as their source,
something that is regularly done.
The fact that no one ever identifies such a source (Paul's two "words
of the Lord" in 1 Corinthians are from the spiritual Christ, not a
preacher, as I argue in several places including the article under
review—and see below) is in fact the paramount consideration, and
alert us to
something dreadfully wrong in our traditional assumptions.
Nowhere is there
any defense of this outlandish, blasphemous proposition, the first
necessary element (presumably) in the Christian message: that a recent
man was God.
P.F.: The emperor Constantine, in his capitol city,
was worshiped as hos theos,
"a god", by Xns in the 5th c. This author seems to be taking modern
views of monotheism and retrojecting them. In antiquity, divinity was
on a gradient: only one High God, but lots of other divine
personalities below him, too—whether you were pagan, Jewish or
E.D.: Again, respectfully, Dr. Fredriksen is
counter-argument which does not directly address the point. It ought to
clear from the context and even from the
statement itself, that "God" refers to the Jewish God. Not simply "a
god" or some divine personality, especially in a sense that might be at
home in both pagan and Jewish outlook. In a second temple writing such
as 1 Enoch (in the Similitudes), the Messiah/Son of Man/Elect One is
a heavenly figure, perhaps possessing some kind of divine nature
(depending on how one defines "divine"), but he is never referred to as
God or a part of God. As for worshiping Constantine as a god, this was
simply in the context of Roman practice of 'deifying' the emperor,
and is nowhere near equivalent to what the earliest Christians
allegedly did to Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul and other
early writers, however, seem to speak solely of a divine Christ.
P.F.: According to Paul, Jesus was "born of a woman,
born under the Law," (Gal. 4:4); and he was "son of David according to
the flesh" (Rom 1:3).
E.D.: Dr. Fredriksen offers the usual passages with
the usual interpretation, but it is unfortunate that she did not read
further on my site to discover how such passages can be interpreted
within the mythical setting. I recommend Main Article No. 2,
"Who Was Christ Jesus?" (a brief look) and
Supplementary Article No. 8,
"Christ As Man" (an extensive one). The most
recent Reader Feedback (No. 22)
also contains an extensive discussion of Galatians
4:4 and related
He is the starting
point, a kind of given, and is never identified with a recent human
P.F.: Cf. verses I just cited.
E.D.: And yet, this is precisely not the case. None
of the handful of passages such as those Dr. Fredriksen appeals to
contain any identification with a recent historical man. This is a
striking aspect of those passages, one often ignored or overlooked:
they make no
connection whatever to an historical time or place, nor to the
individual familiar from the Gospels. The "kata sarka" often found within them
is a perplexingly vague phrase open to different interpretation.
On this point, I will quote from Richard Carrier's review of The Jesus Puzzle: "The actual phrase used, kata sarka, is indeed odd if it is supposed to emphasize an earthly sojourn....It only takes on the sense 'in accordance with' in reference to fitness or conformity...and thus can also mean 'by flesh,' 'for flesh,' 'concerning flesh,' or 'in conformity with flesh.'...so it is unconventional to translate it as most Bibles do (a point against the usual reading and in favor of Doherty's). Even the 'usual reading' is barely intelligible in the orthodox sense, especially since on that theory we should expect en sarki instead....In short, all of the common meanings of kata with the accusative support Doherty's reading: Jesus descended to and took on the likeness of flesh. It does not entail that he walked the earth."
are stated about this divine Christ and Son of God. Paul believes in
a Son of God, not that anyone was
the Son of God.
P.F.: I don't understand this sentence.
E.D.: Perhaps her copy did not show the emphasis on
the two words, which helps the meaning. The sentence sums up
the fundamental difference between the old paradigm and the mythicist
one. Paul is going about preaching Christ Jesus. But rather than
this being the risen or exalted version of a recent man who had walked
the earth in his own lifetime, one known by memory and tradition
(things he never gives any indication of), Paul's Christ is a divine
being known through revelation and scripture. Paul believes "in" Jesus
the same way many people believe in God:
they postulate his existence, not from having seen him bodily, or from
talking to those who knew him on earth, but through religious faith.
fact, never raises the point that a certain man "was" the Son of God.
Despite all that he says about faith, he never urges that one must have
faith that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and Messiah; the idea
is never expressed anywhere in the epistles.
great silence: on the teachings of Jesus. The first century epistles
regularly give moral maxims, sayings, admonitions, which in the Gospels
are spoken by Jesus, without ever attributing them to him. The
well-known "Love Your Neighbor," originally from Leviticus, is quoted
in James, the Didache, and three times in Paul, yet none of them points
out that Jesus had made this a centerpiece of his own teaching.
P.F.: ??? Perhaps he did not, and that was an
evangelical tradition. Paul writes one to two generations before the
evangelists—though he quotes Lev 18 also.
E.D.: Dr. Fredriksen's suggestion would be
surprising on two counts. One, since the command "to love one another"
(not always meant in a universal sense) so pervades the early Christian
movement, it would be hard to fathom why or how Jesus would not have taught it. Two, since we
find a silence on Jesus' teaching of the love principle (indeed, on
teaching anything) in all
non-Gospel (and Acts) documents, including well into the 2nd century,
we have to
wonder how it was that so many communities could have gone so long without attributing the
principle to him. I have argued that one of the commonest features of a
sect which follows the teachings of a founder is
that all sorts of material of interest and importance to the
sect very soon gets attributed to him. We see this in the Gospels and
even in Q, as the Jesus Seminar analyzes it. Why would the Pauline and
other epistles, some of them written many decades after Jesus' presumed
passing, not show any sign of such a tendency?
Both Paul (1
Thessalonians 4:9) and the writer of 1 John even attribute such love
commands to God, not Jesus!
P.F.: ? But the Jesus of the Gospels also attributes
it to God, since he's quoting Torah when he "says" it.
E.D.: But would we expect Jesus to attribute it to
himself? For him, the source would
have been God, through scripture. It is not the same for communities
that supposedly derived their existence through a response to Jesus'
life, teaching and death on earth. Both 1 Thessalonians 4:9 and
several places in the Johannine epistles say outright that the reader
was taught "by God," that the love command comes "from God." Why would
the thinking of whole communities skew in this direction, bypassing the
Son on earth who had supposedly taught these things and adopting the
bizarre convention of calling God the immediate source? (J. P. Holding
has offered the same strained rationalization—though in a less polite
When Hebrews talks
of the "voice" of Christ today (1:2f, 2:11, 3:7, 10:5), why is it all
from the Old Testament?
P.F.: Perhaps because for the first several
centuries of Xnity, Xn "scripture" = Jewish scripture, and the gospels,
letters, and other specifically Xn writings were not considered
scripture by Xns themselves.
E.D.: Christian writers should not have been
quoting from scripture, to illustrating their arguments by examples
that could be drawn only from the Hebrew bible, which is what we see
the early epistolary record. If a writer is discussing something that
direct link or parallel to a Gospel saying or event, and
the natural impulse would be to appeal to it and point out this link or
parallel, would the fact that the source writing containing it was not
officially "scripture" bar him from mentioning it? Would he be unlikely
appeal to something in oral tradition because it wasn't in written
How can the author of Hebrews introduce the basic principle of "the
voice of Christ today" and totally ignore the voice that was sounded on
earth, to pass up pertinent sayings of Jesus in the oral tradition in
of ancient scriptural quotations that have to be assigned to him in
mystical sense? How could he fail to mention the Eucharistic covenant
Jesus' reputed words at such an event when he is discussing the first
covenant under Moses? And so on.
When Paul, in
Romans 8:26, says that "we do not know how we are to pray," does this
mean he is unaware that Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer to his disciples?
P.F.: Possibly. Or that prayer (phrased differently
in Lk and Mt; it's not in Mk or in Jn) was not universally known.
E.D.: Possibly. But if any pronouncement of Jesus
should have come to the attention of Christian communities generally,
and have been learned by them, it would surely have been the Lord's
In passing, it
must be noted that those "words of the Lord" which Paul puts forward as
guides to certain practices in his Christian communities (1 Corinthians
7:10 and 9:14) are not from any record of earthly pronouncements by
P.F.: The no-divorce stuff in 1 Cor 7 resonates
immediately w/ instructions in Mt's Sermon on Mount.
E.D.: If the teachings
attributed to Jesus in the Gospels have as their source some of the
moral and prophetic maxims of the day, then such a
resonation is going to be present. By itself, it does not mean that any
appeal to that teaching comes from the Gospel Jesus, especially when
it is unattributed to him. The
divorce is sufficiently general, even mundane, that finding it in both
and the mouth of the Gospel Jesus does not mean that the latter is the
source of the former. Commentators
constantly point to the
"echoes" of Jesus' teaching in Paul and other epistles. We can
certainly hear the echoes. What we're missing is the original sound
which produced them, so that we can identify the genuine source, since
the echoes themselves never supply this.
In regard to the two "words of the Lord" in 1 Corinthians (7:10 and 9:14), the context does not commend itself as implying something Paul knows through traditions about Jesus' teaching on earth. Consider the wording. In both instances, Paul says that the command is the Lord's, but no context in a teaching career is mentioned, no suggestion that the community in general possesses this teaching because it exists in memory and tradition. In fact, in 7:25 Paul says in regard to celibacy that "I do not have a command of the Lord." The implication is not that such commands are taken from a general tradition, but rather are part of Paul's own revealed directives from the Lord himself. This is in keeping with a common scholarly perception (referred to as "sayings of the risen Lord") that the early prophetic movement had a practice of making pronouncements which the prophet claimed he had received through direct personal revelation from Christ in heaven.
Those two little directives in 1 Corinthians, the only instance we can identify in which any New Testament epistle writer appeals to a 'word' by his Jesus which bears any resemblance to Gospel teachings, are paltry compared to the great ethical teachings recorded in the Gospels, on which all attribution is missing in the epistles. When one considers how often Paul appeals to the scriptures for instruction and guidance, or how often he is engaged in crucial disputes but fails to draw on far more important teachings of Jesus to settle the matter, one can say that Paul has little or no sense of Jesus as a source of moral guidance. That such teachings would have been part of Jesus' career and yet Paul have no knowledge or interest in such a thing, while often suggested, is not plausible.
In the epistles,
Christ's anticipated Coming at the End-time is never spoken of as a
"return" or second Coming.
P.F.: But that's what the word "parousia" means.
E.D.: This is an outright case of begging the
question. Surely Dr. Fredriksen knows that the Greek
word "parousia" does not
imply return or second coming. It is the act of putting in an
appearance, a coming, arrival, advent, often of a high-ranking person.
(It is used in the Greek cults for the coming of the god, the
revelation of his presence.) It is the Gospels that have
conscripted the word to apply to the idea of Jesus' return. That's what
the word parousia means in the
Gospels. The whole point of this particular argument is that the
word's use in the epistles does not
imply this meaning, that there is no evidence from the context that it
implies such a meaning—in fact, quite the opposite. Passages like 1
Corinthians 15:23 or 1 Thessalonians 4:15 are devoid of any suggestion
that this is a return, while other passages about Christ's coming that
do not use the word parousia,
like Philippians 3:20 and 1 Peter 1:7, definitely convey the sense that
this will be Christ's first
coming to earth.
In both Paul and
in the synoptic tradition the impression conveyed is that this will be
his first appearance in person on earth. [I don't know how
the phrase "in both Paul and in the synoptic tradition" got in here.
It's not in the site article. The reference to the synoptic
tradition would be inaccurate.]
P.F.: I disagree. Paul's got all this blood imagery
in Romans connected with the crucifixion—that certainly requires a
first, earthly, embodied appearance, doesn't it?
E.D.: Dr. Fredriksen is
saying that when Paul speaks of a "death" for Jesus, of the "blood" of
Christ, this can only apply to blood and death on earth. Was the blood
of the bull shed by Mithras regarded as historical as well? Did the
blood symbolically drunk by the devotees of the Dionysus cult during
this period belong to a god who could only have lived on
earth and not in some mythical setting? Did Attis undergo castration
and die in history? Dr.
ignores the Platonic principle of elements in the material realm having
reflections in the higher spiritual world, and how this Platonic
through much of the early literature, such as in the epistle to the
has Christ presenting his blood in a heavenly sanctuary for sacrifice. Her response here is perhaps a prime example of the dearth
of understanding of the mythicist case among mainstream scholars, and
by extension, of the mythological thought world of the mysteries to
which so much of Christianity's mindset belongs.
No first century
epistle mentions that Jesus performed miracles.
P.F.: Lots of people work miracles, of all
denominations—see my discussion in INRI.
E.D.: I cannot see how this explains why the
Christians never mentioned the reputed feats of their own miracle
Because they were 'ashamed' of them or regarded them as 'trivial'
because everyone claimed to do them? If so, how were they preserved, to
be collected and put into print by the evangelists? The reconstruction
of Q shows that such traditions were circulating before the first
Gospel was written, so some people must have been mentioning them.
Perhaps the genuine Jesus never worked miracles and such traditions had
not developed in the time of Paul. Yet we cannot find any tradition in
epistles, canonical or otherwise, that Jesus worked miracles before the
epistle of Barnabas, and even there, no examples are given. The more
reasonable explanation is that a miracle-working Jesus first developed
in Q and the Gospels, and only spread
gradually from there. (Q's miracle-working Jesus grew out of the
miracle working of the Q preachers themselves, whom their invented
founder Jesus came to symbolize.)
But something is being overlooked here which would lead one to the opposite conclusion from that implied by Dr. Fredriksen. If everyone else was claiming the performance of miracles, this would surely lead the Christians to claim the same for their Jesus, since they would not want him to suffer by comparison. Paul would not need to be familiar with specific miracles to know that Jesus had worked them. Besides, miracle working was a necessity if Jesus had been the Messiah heralding the Kingdom, since that was an essential part of the expectation.
Miracle exorcisms such as are found in the Gospels would have been of particular interest to the writers of Colossians and Ephesians who focus on the struggle with evil spirits. Regardless of authenticity, such miracles could not fail to be attributed to Jesus in such communities, since they would show that he had full power over the demons. The complete silence on miracle working outside the Gospels and Q is best explained by concluding that the epistle writers had no human Jesus to which they could attribute such things.
In 1 Corinthians
15, Paul is anxious to convince his readers that humans can be
resurrected from the dead. Why then does he not point to any traditions
that Jesus himself had raised several people from the dead? Where is
P.F.: Paul writes before John writes. The
resuscitations of dead people are NOT what Paul is talking about with
cosmic transformation in 1 Cor 15.
E.D.: My reference to Lazarus was meant to represent
the body of traditions about Jesus raising dead people
Gospels. I fully agree with Dr. Fredriksen's clear
implication that the story of the raising of Lazarus is sheer fiction,
and by extension all of the others. But I have to disagree that Paul is
not talking about the raising of dead people in 1 Corinthians 15. This
whole purpose in the rather elaborate series of arguments presented
from 15:12 to the end of the chapter: convincing his Corinthian readers
that there is a resurrection from the dead, that they can look forward
to a life after death when they enter the Kingdom of God. Yes, Paul
does not see it as a physical resurrection but one to a transformed
state—cosmic, if you like—of which Christ's own state, a spiritual one,
is the prototype. And to
that extent, Lazarus or any other resuscitation in the Gospels does
not constitute an example of such a resurrection. But my argument was
it might have been natural for Paul to point to Gospel-like traditions
raising the dead—Q indicates that such traditions were circulating—to
show that, in principle, death was not final, that life
could be restored. (He asks in 15:12, "How can some of you say there is
no resurrection of the dead?") If one wants to argue that he would not
so, since the parallel was imperfect, I would argue in the other
direction. The fact that Paul was offering a theory
of resurrection which was not
in keeping with the type of resuscitation performed by Jesus in the
have led to some confusion on the part of his readers, and he would
have had to clarify. They might
have asked, "Are we not to be resurrected like Lazarus was?" (Paul's
concept of resurrection here also indicates that he knew of no raising
of Jesus in flesh—as does his failure to deal with such a thing in his
picture of 15:44-49. Nor did his readers, or they would have queried
difference.) As well, if Paul was
so focused on the guarantee of resurrection, how could he have been
unfamiliar with, or failed to appeal to, traditions about Jesus' own
promises of resurrection, as in
Luke 14:14 and John 11:25?
Nor is there any
concept of apostolic tradition in the first century writers, no idea of
teachings or authority passed on in a chain going back to the original
Apostles and Jesus himself.
P.F.: It's a later tradition, retrojected back.
simply restating my point. One can see how such a tradition would have
arisen at the later time, in the 2nd century, if that was the time when
the idea of an historical Jesus was first spreading. The fact that such
a tradition does not show itself earlier would indicate that at the
there was no
thought of an historical Jesus to which such an idea could attach
itself. Dr. Fredriksen's remark overlooks the
question in my
statement. What reason could there have been for first century
Christian communities not to
trace beliefs and practices back to Jesus, and to appeal to them in the
disputes that were often raging over subjects like the cleanness of
foods, the ongoing applicability of the Jewish law, the legitimacy of
conflicting 'spirits' from God? If communities were in
contention over differing viewpoints, as we see all through the
first century, would not the natural result have been the development
of claims that Jesus had taught this or that position? We see this very
process taking place in the Gospels.
As for Jesus'
great appointment of Peter as the "rock" upon which his church is to be
built, no one in the first century (including the writers of 1 and 2
Peter) ever quotes it or uses it in the frequent debates over
authority....The agency of all recent activity seems to be God, not
Jesus. Paul speaks of "the gospel of God," "God's message". It is God
appealing and calling to the Christian believer. 2 Corinthians 5:18
tells us that "from first to last this has been the work of God" (New
English Bible translation). In Romans 1:19 the void is startling. Paul
declares: "All that may be known of God by men...God himself has
disclosed to them." Did Jesus not disclose God, were God's attributes
not visible in Jesus? How could any Christian—as so many do—express
himself in this fashion?"
P.F.: He seems to be presupposing a coordinated
movement in which everyone knew all of this literature, and therefore
their not alluding to it is some sort of significant "conspiracy of
silence." I assume the movement was various, multiform, poorly
coordinated, and producing a lot of different literature, a lot of
which we've lost.
E.D.: First of all, whether Paul and his readers
knew of specific traditions
or not, the focus on God as the source of the gospel, as calling the
believer, as doing all the work, is puzzling to say the least, because
it betrays the absence of any outlook that it was Jesus who had done
all these things. Such an absence makes no sense if the movement began
out of a response to Jesus himself, a belief in and commitment to him
in reaction to what he had done and what was reported about him. These
things would not simply evaporate in the Christian mind. If Jesus had
taught about God—and how could he not, or not have been regarded as
doing so?—Paul could never have said that everything known about God
came from God himself (namely, by scripture and revelation), regardless
of whether Paul had been exposed to specific sayings of Jesus on the
subject or not. He would assume the idea of Jesus teaching about God
simply in principle.
Dr. Fredriksen's response seems to imply that Christians could know specific traditions about Jesus only through written literature. This clearly has no foundation, because it ignores the reputed role of oral tradition, especially in the early period. It ignores the logic of oral tradition being preserved and spread precisely in those situations where it was advantageous. My point about the "Peter as rock" saying has nothing to do with whether people like the writers of 1 and 2 Peter knew of Matthew's Gospel. If they—or the epistles' later editors (assuming the possibility that the ascriptions were added later)—belonged to the Petrine circle, as the pseudonymous appeal to Peter as author would indicate, then if the Matthean tradition about Peter's appointment existed in oral circulation, they would have known about it and appealed to it. Even in the absence of written literature circulating across the Christian world, traditions about Jesus would have to be present, attitudes toward him as the fount of the movement's teaching and practices, and these things would be mentioned. Nothing else makes any sense.
In all the
Christian writers of the first century, in all the devotion they
display about Christ and the new faith, not one of them expresses the
slightest desire to see the birthplace of Jesus, to visit Nazareth his
home town, the sites of his preaching, the upper room where he held his
Last Supper, the tomb: where he was buried and rose from the dead.
These places are never mentioned. Most of all, there is not a hint of
pilgrimage to Calvary itself, where humanity's salvation was
consummated. How could such a place not have been turned into a shrine?
P.F.: Pilgrimage is a late third-fourth century
phenomenon. This just is not odd.
Is it conceivable
that Paul would not have wanted to run to the hill of Calvary, to
prostrate himself on the sacred ground that bore the blood of his slain
P.F.: Yes: he was not a fourth-century,
E.D.: The reader will perhaps sympathize with me for
being taken aback by these responses. The absence of the phenomenon in
the first and second century is not odd because it's a phenomenon of
the third and fourth century. The absence of relic-conscious Christians
the first century is not odd because the relic-conscious Christians
come from the fourth century. Do the latter preclude the former? Does
their presence in the fourth century explain, much less dictate, their
absence in the first? At
best, her statements would have to imply that significant conditions
different in the later centuries from those in the earlier. But this is
not demonstrated, and there would be difficulty doing so. If
Christians of Constantine's time felt a desire to know of the sites of
Jesus' career, to visit the places of salvation, to collect relics of
Jesus life, why would Christians of Paul's time not have felt the same
desire? Those places and relics would be far better known and
in the earlier time than the later. The immediacy of their happening
would be far stronger. If it were argued that there may have been some
danger in visiting the holy sites, there would be no danger in showing
an interest in them, a knowledge of them, in working them as motifs
into their christology and soteriology. Christ's sacrifice on Calvary.
His preaching of God and a new ethic in Galilee. The power of Jesus and
the intervention of God shown by the empty tomb just outside Jerusalem.
There would surely have been apostles and Christians who would have
felt drawn to such places so rich in importance and sacred power.
would surely have disregarded any danger in visiting them, or found
ways to circumvent it.
Paul himself hardly avoided dangerous activity. Instead, we have a
disembodied salvation myth in writers like Paul, an 'event'
unattached to historical time and place. We encounter a void on all the
great figures of the Gospel story: Pilate, the Jewish authorities,
Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, Joseph of Arimathea, the two crucified
women at the tomb, not to mention details about the passion such as
Gethsemane, the scourging or the crown of thorns.
We have a focus on the realm
of the evil spirits and Christ's actions within that realm rather than
The only difference in conditions that could exist between the first and fourth centuries and make any sense is that the historical Jesus and a career on earth did not exist in people's minds in the first century, but had established itself in Christian consciousness by the third and fourth centuries.
Is there indeed,
in this wide land so recently filled with the presence of the Son of
God, any holy place at all, any spot of ground where that presence
still lingers, hallowed by the step, touch or word of Jesus of
Nazareth? Neither Paul nor any other first century letter writer
breathes a whisper of any such thing.
P.F.: I'll bite: so what?
Nor do they
breathe a word about relics associated with Jesus. Where are his
clothes, the things he used in everyday life, the things he touched?
Can we believe that items associated with him in his life on earth
would not have been preserved, valued, clamored for among believers,
just as things like this were produced and prized all through the
Middle Ages? Why is it only in the fourth century that pieces of the
"true cross" begin to surface?
P.F.: It has a lot to do with the Constantinian church. This isn't a huge mystery: it's been treated in many studies.
E.D.: Further to my previous remarks, demonstrating
why a phenomenon exists in one
time and place does not explain why it does not exist in some other
time and place. One has to examine the factors in the second case
before pronouncing upon it. A study of why secularism and even
has become a major expression in Europe over the last half century does
nothing to explain why the United States has moved more toward
religious fundamentalism during the same time. Conditions in the latter
case have to be studied before such an answer can be arrived at, and it
will be determined by those conditions. The scholar who would declare
that the absence of atheism in North America can be explained, much
less dismissed, by its occurrence in Europe would have everyone
scratching their heads and be readily discredited.
possibly explain this puzzling, maddening, universal silence?
P.F.: It's only a "universal" silence if you bracket
out the gospels—and there were many more than the four that made it
into the canon.
E.D.: The stated parameters of my article are the
content of the first century writings outside
the Gospels. That's what the "universal" refers to. It is
legitimate to examine a particular segment (especially a broad one) of
the overall Christian record, in
order to evaluate the nature and authenticity of the story found in the
Gospels, especially when there is such dramatic difference, even
contradiction, between the content of the two categories of documents.
We are seeking to determine whether one minority portion of the
documentary record is being read into all the rest, and whether any
reliance on the Gospel story can be justified by the larger record.
(And it is even moreso a "minority portion" in view of the argument
that all the Gospels derive their basic story from one source, the
first Gospel, Mark.) There are many people,
scholars and laypersons, who simply don't seem able to grasp this
P.F.: I have no summary comment on this. He seems to
be working very hard to create a straw man that he can then begin to
E.D.: The pertinent definition of a "straw man"
reads as follows in the latest Random House Webster's College
Dictionary: "A conveniently weak or innocuous person, object or issue
used as a seeming adversary or argument." In this case, what is the
straw man that I have allegedly set up? In this first article, "A
Conspiracy of Silence," I am examining the silences in the non-Gospel
record and asking why and how they could be present if Jesus existed
for these writers. There is no artificial object that I have created to
attack through presenting and questioning such silences. If I am
attacking anything, it is the figure of an historical Jesus, and the
belief in such. The historical Jesus is hardly a straw man. Is the
concept of "no historical Jesus" the straw man? No, because I am not
attacking it; it is the conclusion of the argument (though much more
argument is brought to bear on the question in other articles). If Dr.
Fredriksen means that the straw man is my stated position that we ought
to expect to see those things in the epistles that they are in fact
silent on, this too is invalid, because that position is part of the
argument. In each discussion of a silence, an integral part is the
reasoning as to why we should expect to find the missing reference, at
least some of the time. (This
reasoning is an extensive part of my website feature "The Sound of
Silence" which examines in detail 200 examples of missing
references to the Gospel Jesus in the early Christian epistles.)
Therefore, there is no straw man being set up conveniently ahead of
In this remark, Dr. Fredriksen is implying that I am somehow being dishonest in my methodology. But it has no application here that I can see.
As I said at the outset of this exchange, Dr.
Fredriksen read only one small portion of my website, and a lightweight
one at that. It contains no explanatory material on what early
Christianity really constituted, how the silence in the epistles is
complemented by the other side of the coin: the positive picture of the
faith and practice of the Christ cult as presented by these writers.
Too much tends
to be made by critics of the use of the Argument from Silence in the
mythicist case—at least in mine. It is to a great extent merely a
prelude, an attempt to wipe the epistles clean of their overlay of
preconception, so that we can better detect what they really say. As
Carrier says in his review: "Doherty...uses arguments from silence only
to support his thesis. He does not base it on such arguments, but
rather on positive evidence, especially a slew of very strange facts
that his theory accounts for very well but that traditional historicism
ignores, or explains poorly. By far most of the criticism or even
dismissal of Doherty's work is based on the criticism or dismissal of
the Argument from Silence, or his (often supposed) deployment of it.
This completely misses the strongest elements of his case: evidence
that Christianity did in fact begin as a mystical-revelatory religion."
(I do, however, regard the argument from silence as being a not
insignificant component of the overall case, as my remarks in this
article have indicated.)
The readiness of Dr. Fredriksen's dismissal and her
apparent inability to give the mythicist case
serious and reasonable thought is largely typical of the field. And
yet, there is
scholarly element out there that could approach the subject in a
thorough, competent and professional manner, according to critical
without saying that J. P. Holding's apologetic and vitriolic rebuttal
doesn't fill the bill; a couple of others in the same genre posted on
the web are not much better.) I have long invited such an undertaking
and continue to do so.