Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case



Review of GakuseiDon's critique by Jacob Aliet on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board

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A Response to Gakusei Don
By Jacob Aliet


This article is divided into two sections. The first section comprises comments on GakuseiDon’s critique of Earl Doherty’s treatment of the Second Century Apologists, and a refutation of GDon’s explanations for the silence of those apologists on historical details about Jesus. The second section presents criteria that can be employed in evaluating early Christian writings with the aim of determining whether the Christianity presented in them entails a Historical Jesus.

I have heavily relied on Peter Kirby’s excellent website for the writings of second century Christian apologists and in all cases where I quote the texts directly, I use Roberts-Donaldson English Translation and where not available, I rely on James Charlesworth’s translation on the ECW site. I also reference Doherty’s response to GakuseiDon and GakuseiDon's Critique. Tixeront’s Handbook of Patrology on the ECW site proved quite useful. The main text of reference is Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle. I extend heartfelt gratitude to Earl Doherty for the meaningful pointers he offered that helped me improve this work.

Section I:
GakuseiDon on Earl Doherty and the Second Century Christian Writings

Preliminary Remarks

GDon’s critique marks a turning point in the type of criticisms that the Jesus Myth hypothesis has received since Earl Doherty reformulated it with the publication of The Jesus Puzzle. Most critics denied that there was any silence on earthly details about a historical Jesus in the writings of the second century Christian apologists. The typical argument advanced by such critics asserted that since everyone knew there was a historical Jesus, there was no need to keep mentioning historical details about Jesus’ life when speaking about him. Others maintained that the entire hypothesis is invalid because it relies on an allegedly illegitimate ‘argument from silence’. Still other critics argued that the silence was deliberate due to political considerations, and thus needs no further examination.

In a marked departure from such denials, GDon admits that the sound of silence in the second century Christian texts is loud and requires an explanation, which he proceeds to provide. The last part of this section is a critical evaluation of GDon’s attempt to explain the Conspiracy of Silence (to borrow one of Doherty’s favorite phrases—used ironically).

GDon’s critique is a relatively well-written piece with fairly clear ideas and expressions. At least on the face of it. Compared to recent critiques of the Jesus Myth Hypothesis, it is focused, rational and scholarly. The ideas in it are organized logically and the presentation is good, though he tends to repeat himself a few times. GDon’s approach is however, fundamentally conservative even as he agrees with Doherty on several points. Like one trying to figure out the intricacies of Byzantine history, GDon carefully looks at the difficulties he perceives in the Jesus Myth hypothesis through a microscope. But we encounter similar problems to those we find in critics who try to look at the theory using a telescope: GDon loses perspective, argues out of context and ends up presenting a befuddled, obverse, upside-down interpretation of the most obvious of issues.

Stylistically, the article is bare and the reader has to struggle not to go to sleep even though it is only 31 pages long. The language is neither engaging nor entertaining. No metaphors, no artistic expressions, no catchy phrases. Chinua Achebe would complain that the work is ponderous and wooden and heavy. But we are more interested in the substantive points GDon makes, and so we now shift focus to the substance of it.

There are two criticisms, out of the several dozens that GDon advances against Doherty’s thesis, that are valid. And Doherty admits as much in his response to GDon’s write-up. Doherty admits that his usage of the phrase “admonish the pagans for using signs of the cross” is misleading and that it would have been clearer to state that Octavius admonished the pagans for accusing Christians of worshipping crosses. Because, per Octavius, crosses are common and “natural” and not despicable as the pagan accusation makes them to appear to be. Doherty also admits to having overstated the idea that a passage by Justin supports the existence of a non-HJ. The passage in question is Justin’s statement, through Trypho, about Christians having accepted a groundless report and using it to invent a Christ for themselves.

Evaluating the Logos as an Asset to Christianity

Other than these, Doherty finds GDon’s approach fundamentally apologetic. For example, he writes regarding GDon’s treatment of Tatian’s “accept us because we too tell stories”:

“This is typical of apologetic argumentation. Ignore the glaring discrepancies, in this case the complete lack of any mention or appeal to the gospels or the figure of Jesus as support for Tatian’s case throughout the work, and focus on some minor and at best ambiguous detail that can be twisted into supporting the apologist’s stance.”

In this way, GDon gets bogged down by attacking a few splinters while ignoring the giant logs. There are many cases where GDon is clearly at pains to avoid what the text is stating, and instead engages in tortured interpretations of the text in an attempt to tangle a thin web of his own preference around the bursting texts, as we see when he tangles Octavius’ “wander far from the truth”; in such cases Doherty’s criticism is on target. This also applies to GDon’s obverse “black is white” obfuscation and his employment of what Doherty calls “apologetic padding” to mummify salient points while unpacking and magnifying tangential points. A number of the arguments GDon makes are fragmented and anything but well thought out.

GDon argues that there was no “logos-based Christianity separate from the historical stream” and “the logos would have been a useful concept for Christians trying to re-image Christianity as a philosophical tool.” The conclusion he is trying to draw is that the second century apologists speak in terms of a logos because they have chosen to apply to the historical Jesus a concept they consider to be useful in gaining pagan sympathy; and that they were the first to create such a logos type Christianity.

First of all, the two premises in his argument are not related as GDon seems to think. He would have to demonstrate both of them individually, and he has not done so for either one. Even if the latter were true, that the logos would have been a useful concept  in winning over pagans to the Christian "son", this does not show that there was no logos Christianity separate from the historical stream prior to the second century apologists. In fact, GDon has engaged in a somewhat garbled circular argument here, in that his first statement is used as both a premise and a conclusion. 

Second, we have no clear method for determining what was or was not useful for the “historical stream of Christianity.”
Third, the argument takes for granted a disputed issue, which is that the second century Christian apologists previously held a Christianity that was different from what they presented in their writings. Fourth, we have no reason to believe that the early Christians: (a) wanted to re-image Christianity, or (b) co-opted every concept they perceived as useful in the achievement of that goal. GDon’s argument is actually a conclusion framed as an argument. And lastly, its very construction is problematic: how does GDon know that an ‘historical stream of Christianity’ could have absorbed a ‘logos-based Christianity’ if he doesn’t believe there was a ‘logos-based Christianity’ in the first place?

In any case, how does he rule out the possibility that the ‘logos-based Christianity’ could have been the one that absorbed the ‘historical stream of Christianity’?

The conjecture “the logos would have been a useful concept” is challenged by ecclesiastical writers like Tertullian who attempted to distance Christianity from pagan religions by saying that it is the devil that set up the similarities between Christianity and pagan religions. Tertullian’s ‘diabolical mimicry’ argument is an example that serves to make GDon’s claim unlikely. Another example is Theophilus’ To Autolycus, where the apologist exposes the insufficiency and infantile quality of the pagan teachings. This means that apologists did not absorb pagan concepts unidirectionally as GDon would have us believe: they also derided and ridiculed them.

This is not to deny that paganism was popular in the first three centuries. The issue here is that GDon must demonstrate his point, and not just conclude it.

Were the Apologists Spinning Christianity?

Beyond GDon’s assumption that the logos would have helped in re-imaging Christianity appears a lack of appreciation of the idea that the logos and Jesus of Nazareth are, at least operationally, mutually exclusive – the existence of one means the absence of the other. The logos was transformed by some Christians into Jesus of Nazareth. In cases where we find both the logos and a historical Jesus in the same presentation, the logos (the word) is an antecedent of the historical Jesus. In Athenagoras’ A Plea for the Christians, we find the logos and “a son” but they are both treated as abstract forces coalesced together in God.

“Would have been a useful concept” appears to mean that the logos would have been used to sex up the image of Jesus of Nazareth. GDon is like one arguing that monotheism would have been a useful concept for re-imaging a polytheistic religion. Consider this: Justin writes in Apology, 5 that the logostook shape, became man, and was called Jesus Christ”. The gospel of John also says that the “the word became flesh.” This means that, per John, the word was in the past and the rest of the “work” was done by Jesus, not the logos. The same applies to Justin. GDon fails to explain how adding a logos to the figure of Jesus would have styled up Jesus. Tatian writes in Address to the Greeks that the pagans were devoted to their gods who had human forms yet these gods did not have logos antecedents. How exactly was having a logos a good thing? GDon does not explain.

It is important to note that we encounter in works like Epistle to Diognetus and Athenagoras’ A Plea for the Christians Christianities devoid of any allusions to a historical personage as a central savior figure. Even in the face of these examples, GDon would still like us to believe that the earliest Christians had a historical Jesus at the core of their religion, then they saw that the pagans loved the logos concept and so these early apologists falsely presented Christianity to the pagans as logos-centered without a historical Jesus, then, after the pagans had accepted Christianity, the Christians brought back a historical Jesus to the fore and relegated the logos to an ineffectual role. And that these contortions and distortions were done purposefully for around one hundred years before the mold was allowed to dry to the Christianity as we have it in the late third century onwards – a Christianity that is firmly entrenched in the gospel tradition. This theory, if accepted, would make Christianity the most functionally fluid religion: a religion that could be molded at will to win specific converts and then calcify back to an earlier structure once the purpose is achieved.

And in support for this comical rigmarole and teleological mutation theory, GDon has not even a shred of evidence that the conspiracy of silence regarding the historical details of Jesus was a purposeful misrepresentation by the Christian apologists. We find no evidence that these apologists had made a conscious choice to slant their presentations to exclude a historical Jesus. All GDon has are unfounded suppositions.

On the Illustrious man in Octavius

GDon writes the following while assessing Minucius Felix: “M.Felix continues by stating that, while some men could be chosen to be worshipped as a god, only a good man can inspire love.” He then cites Minucius Felix as stating that “…honor is more truly rendered to an illustrious man, and love is more pleasantly given to a very good man....” Then GDon claims:

“Given the late date that this was written, his comments can only apply to Christ.”

This statement is an argument from a preconceived position and, as Doherty correctly points out, “GDon’s claim has to be demonstrated, not assumed.” Minucius is telling the pagans about the kind of a person who deserves love and honor. And GDon begins (above) by stating this. But the last statement is abrupt and completely out of the blue. It is not logically connected to the preceding line of thought and it is not demonstrated by GDon. This is a hijack of the text’s meaning.

Our awareness of the nature of second century Christianity denies us the luxury of making bald assumptions like “Given the late date that this was written, his comments can only apply to Christ”. GDon’s statement assumes that Christ was the only deity an individual like Minucius would have honored. The Christ GDon has plugged onto the text stands out like a sore thumb. Per GDon, the only being that deserved honor in the mind of Minucius, was Jesus of Nazareth.

Doherty points out in his response that this is incorrect because Athenagoras and others believed in a logos, not a Jesus. Others believed in God alone. The Shepherd of Hermas community for example, believed in a God, who had “a Son”. Doherty notes regarding Shepherd:

“For all its length, the names of Jesus and Christ are never used. (The sole appearance of ‘Christ’ in one manuscript of the second Vision, in 2:8, is thought to be a later emendation of ‘Lord’—meaning God—which appears in other manuscripts of the passage.) Instead, the writer refers to the ‘Son of God.’ He is by no means the central figure, however; once again, this is a thoroughly theocentric piece of writing. ‘Lord’ is always God. The author speaks of glorifying the name of God (Vision 3, 4:3); those who suffer persecution do so for the name of God (Vision 3, 5:2). It is the ordinances of God which must be kept (Vision 1, 1:6).” [1]

Neither the intermediary son that we see in Shepherd nor the logos in other documents are Jesus; yet, whether mythical or otherwise, these figures were at the cores of some of the Christianities that these early Christians embraced and promulgated. This is a distinction GDon appears unaware of throughout his critique. As Doherty points out, Gnostic sects, for example, had a foot in both the mythical Jesus camp (Pauline) and the Historical Jesus sect, producing a docetic Jesus. GDon’s interpretation of the passage by Minucius Felix is therefore unjustified and without basis.

Explaining the Silence

Gdon advances four explanations for the silence by second century Christian apologists on the historical details about Jesus. Before we look at them, let us review the setting under which these apologies were composed, for what and for who.

J. Tixeront, in A Handbook of Patrology, 1920 (available online at ECW), explains that apologists aimed at defending Christians against accusations brought against them, which included atheism, indolence and other calumnies. Their work was therefore both defensive and explanatory. Some of the apologies were presented as letters addressed to the emperor(s), while some were aimed directly at the public. The public constituted both the pagans and the Jews, and the apologies addressed each of these groups. Some apologies, like Epistle to Diognetus and Theophilus’ books were directed at individuals. Tixeront writes:

“Among the apologies against the Jews may be cited St. Justin's Dialogue with Trypho. In these apologies the expository and demonstrative character predominates. The Jews harbored many prejudices which had to be removed, and a spirit of hatred which had to be overcome; indeed, they were not the last to spread popular calumnies against the Christians and denounce them to the authorities. But in the writings addressed to them the Apologists are less intent on refuting their accusations than on convincing them of the divine mission of Jesus Christ and the truth of his religion. Consequently, their purpose was to demonstrate the messiahship of Our Lord and for this demonstration they use mostly the argument from the prophecies, their thorough knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures proving very useful for this purpose.”

With this introduction, let us now examine GDon’s explanations for the silence on the historical details about Jesus in the writings of Christian apologists

GDon argues:

1. The apologists were more concerned with stopping the persecutions against the Christians of the day than converting their audience: Many of the authors wrote to the Emperor of the day or the pagan public, as a plea for justice against the persecutions taking place, rather than as a vehicle for conversion. We can see this in the writings of HJers like Justin and Tertullian, as well as in Doherty's MJ writers like Minucius Felix.

GDon’s argument can be stated as follows: The historical details about Jesus’ life were only used by apologists for converting the audience. But the apologists were more concerned with stopping the persecutions against the Christians of the day than converting their audience; therefore the apologists did not mention historical details about Jesus’ life.

GDon has not demonstrated that the historical details about Jesus were only mentioned to audiences when the purpose was to convert them. As such, his argument is not valid. An example that disproves GDon's assumption is Theophilus’ To Autolycus, where the apologist denounces Paganism and extols Christianity in a work that is clearly designed to win converts. Yet, Theophilus fails to provide any historical details about Jesus in that work. He even defines the word “Christian” without mentioning Jesus! This example illustrates to us that the apologists did not use historical details about Jesus only to win converts. GDon’s explanation is therefore incorrect.

GDon’s second explanation for the silence is as follows:

2. The names 'Christian' and 'Christ' were hated: Tacitus, at the start of the 2nd C, refers to Christianity as 'a pernicious superstition', charged with the hatred of all mankind. Pliny the Younger punished those who continued to call themselves 'Christians'. Not a few of the apologists addressed letters to the Emperors of the day, decrying this injustice of persecution for ‘the sake of a name’. Tertullian in "Ad nationes" notes that Christians were being punished 'in the name of the founder' … and wondered what harm there was in a name, all the while refusing to give the name of the founder.

GDon is claiming here that because the name ‘Christ’ and ‘Christians’ were hated, apologists avoided them and they thereby ended up omitting the historical details about Jesus in that process.

First of all, ‘Christ’ is not a name but a title meaning ‘the anointed one’. Secondly, we have seen from writings like Didache and Athenagoras’ A Plea for The Christians that Christ is a title that is not preserved for Jesus of Nazareth alone. Thirdly, the claim that Christian apologists avoided the word ‘Christ’ and ‘Christians’ is proven false when we examine the following works which have the word ‘Christians’ appearing severally: Athenagoras’ A Plea for the Christians, The Octavius of Minucius Felix, Theophilus’ To Autolycus and Epistle to Diognetus.

Common sense also dictates that one would have no effective way of defending Christians without referring to them (the Christians) in the course of that defense. GDon’s second explanation is therefore also false.

GDon’s third explanation is:

3. Christianity was viewed as a barbarous new religion: Another charge by pagans against Christianity was that it was a new barbarous religion. New sects were regarded suspiciously by the Romans, and nearly all the apologists stressed Christianity's 'antiquity' via its Jewish roots, over its more recent origin. As Karen Armstrong points out in her book "The History of God", the Roman ethos was strictly conservative, and Christians were regarded with contempt as a sect of fanatics who had committed the cardinal sin of breaking with the parent faith. The apologists often referred to the ancient Hebrew prophets to try to show a continuation from ancient times.

First of all, this explanation assumes that the apologists directed their arguments at the Romans alone. This is incorrect because as Tixeront has explained above, some of the apologies were presented as letters addressed to the emperor(s) while some were aimed directly at the public, who comprised Jews and pagans. Secondly, Christianity is constructed upon the belief that the putative coming of Jesus Christ was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Based on this, we can still grant GDon’s proposition that “all the apologists stressed Christianity's 'antiquity' via its Jewish roots” without that proposition necessarily entailing omission of historical details about Jesus. Thus the apologists could still have stressed Christianity’s vaunted antiquity and link a historical Jesus to Jewish prophecies. Indeed, the claim of prophecy fulfillment would have portrayed Christianity as even more potent compared to pagan religions. As Tixeront writes above: “[The apologists’] purpose was to demonstrate the messiahship of [Jesus]”. To demonstrate this messiahship [to the Jewish audience], the apologists would therefore have quoted the Old Testament prophecies regarding the messiah. But the apologists fail to link Jesus of Nazareth to Jewish roots. This explanation therefore also fails to account for the silence.

GDon’s last explanation is as follows:

4. The writer adopted different approaches to different audiences. From the writers with multiple letters still extant we can see that they varied their approach to different audiences. It is noted that only Justin Martyr, for example, insists strongly on the theology of the Logos in his "Apology" to the pagans, but much less so in his "Dialogue with the Jew Tryphon". Tertullian’s “Apology” and “Ad nationes” were probably written in the same year, yet the “Apology” contains many direct references to a HJ, while “Ad nationes” has none.

This argument foils itself because by the same argument one would expect some of the apologists to mention historical details about a HJ. But before the year 180, Justin is the only major apologist who mentions historical details about a HJ. The silence that pervades the other apologetic works is so ‘loud’ that GDon himself has undertaken to explain the silence. And yet, in a befuddled sense, he is arguing that the audience was so varied that the silence was widespread. The alleged variability of the audience does not correspond with the silence, which contrawise, is not varied but pervasive. Thus GDon’s last attempt at an explanation also fails. Tertullian of course wrote beyond 180CE and is therefore outside the scope of our analysis.


We can see from the above that GDon, despite his earnest efforts, commits some significant errors in his attempts at explaining the silence on the historical details about Jesus while refuting Doherty’s evaluation of second century apologists. Some other errors GDon commits include treating Ignatius, Basilides, Heracleon and Polycarp as apologists. Plus, the section GDon addresses in Doherty’s book is titled Jesus in the Christian Apologists. GDon has no excuse to include Ignatius in his list, except perhaps to falsely amplify the extent of his “rebuttal” and purportedly “false” exclusions by Doherty. Going beyond the scope of Doherty’s argument by including Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria in his list is equally wrong and renders a huge chunk of GDon’s argument irrelevant. As GDon declares that Doherty has not examined all the literature of the period and announces that Doherty has “badly misrepresented” the literature, the situation is rich with irony. And Doherty correctly points out that “GDon has misread the overall picture”.

In the next section, I provide some criteria for identifying a non Historical Jesus in the early Christian texts.

Section II:
Criteria for Identifying Christianities Devoid of a Historical Jesus

Introductory Remarks

Most of the ideas in this section are derived from the works of Earl Doherty. My main effort is in breaking them down and organizing them in the form of criteria.

I use the expression “historical Jesus” to refer to the central figure portrayed in the New Testament gospels as having been the “son” of Joseph and Mary, who had twelve disciples and died via crucifixion during the term of Pontius Pilate, and whose death is believed by Christians to have redeemed believers and whose salvific death inspired the birth of Christianity.

The Hebrew word ‘Yehoshua’ or Jesus simply means savior (or ‘Yahweh saves’). And ‘Christ’ is Greek for Hebrew ‘Mashiach’ which means ‘the anointed one’. So, simply put, ‘Jesus Christ’ means the ‘anointed savior’. As such, it is not really a name as much as it is a title. A name would be more like Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, finding an entity being referred to as Jesus or Jesus Christ in the early Christian documents should not necessarily be regarded as a reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Most of the early proto-Christian sects were offshoots of Judaism and they had concepts that we find in the Jewish writings combined with Greek philosophical concepts.

The character Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels is commonly known as Jesus Christ but he is not the only Jesus Christ, or the only Christ that was known. In Didache for example we find a Jesus Christ but he is not Jesus of Nazareth. He doesn’t incarnate, doesn’t get crucified, doesn’t resurrect. There is no Mary, no Joseph, no Pilate, and no earthly references with respect to that Jesus. We find in it a Christianity that is devoid of any redeemer figure.

Seething Mass of Salvation Cults

Hellenistic Jews such as Philo and Greek thinkers alike believed God to be transcendent and too spiritual and pure to come in contact with the material and impure world. Stoics, for example, believed that humans possessed the reasoning principle that governed the universe as per the mind of God. [2] They called this the logos. Among Platonists, the logos varied between being God’s creative forces and being a divine entity. Philonic thought [3] entailed a “heavenly man” who had the qualities of the logos.

The book of Proverbs 8:1-36 presents personified Jewish wisdom (Sophia), and we find similar ideas in the Wisdom of Solomon and Baruch. In communities such as that of the Shepherd of Hermas, we find a “Son” of God who was made manifest. In texts such as the Gospel of John and Tatian’s Apology to the Greeks, the word (logos) becomes flesh—although the latter mentions this only in connection with Christian “stories” (the implication being they are myths like those of the Greeks) while failing to stipulate that it happened in history.

In the Didache, there is a Jesus Christ through whom God’s power came to be known. But this Jesus did not incarnate or undergo a salvific death. Salvation (the way of life) is instead obtained by following the teachings provided in the document. God is the central focus and is the source of knowledge. Jesus is not an intermediary savior figure: he is just a passive channel for God’s glory to shine through. As we examine the Christian texts in the first three centuries, this savior figure, with the passage of time, is euhemerized, incarnated and finally presented as the historical figure which we find in the gospels. But before the gospel figure of Jesus became established across the Roman Empire, there were various forms of Christianity that flourished in the first two centuries. Christianities that were not acquainted with the Gospel Jesus. We find these Christianities in the works of apologists and other early Christian writers.

John Dillon describes the world from which Christianity evolved as composed of a “seething mass of sects and salvation cults” [4] where religious ideas swirled, syncretized, and diverged among various philosophical schools of thought. Competing factions within Christianity like Ebionites and Gnostics engaged each other in a fierce and creative duel resulting in a “riotous diversity” from which Christianity emerged.

Our purpose here is to identify the kinds of Christianities that were present before the figure of Jesus as a redeemer and savior figure occupied a central place in the belief system of early Christianity.

One could very well argue that documents that do not speak of a Jesus who died and resurrected are, ipso facto, non-Christian documents, something Richard carrier has argued. The present author, however, deems it untoward to arrogate to himself the role of deciding for the early Christians what constituted “Christian” and what did not. Texts that are treated by scholars as Christian texts and texts whose authors present themselves as Christians, or whose authors are clearly referring to Christianity, will be treated in this analysis as sources that inform us about what Christianity was.

Some Working Assumptions

Below, I suggest some criteria for identifying Christianities [5] without a historical Jesus at their cores, as found in Christian writings before the end of the third century. Note that these criteria are meant to cumulatively point us to the absence of a historical Jesus in the version of Christianity under examination. They do not operate in isolation but mesh together, link by link, to form a framework that can be regarded as a complete presentation of a religion, or a picture that, even though incomplete, can indicate the balance of probability regarding whether or not there was a historical Jesus in those flavors of Christianity. The criteria also do not have equal weight. For example, texts satisfying The Omission of Earthly Details Criterion are 50% likely to be presenting Christianity without a historical Jesus.

It is important to understand that this weight is assigned solely on the basis that Christianity is foundationally constructed to have Jesus of Nazareth as the central savior figure, without whose death salvation cannot be attained [6]. Jesus declares in John 14:6:  “Nobody comes to the father except through me”. Because of the primary importance of the death of Jesus of Nazareth for Christianity—he being the “man” whose life inspired the religion—and because of the significance of his resurrection and the centrality of himself as a redeemer, mention of that earthly life is regarded as a sine qua non of a presentation on Christianity. This assumption is maintained irrespective of whether the presentation is made to believers or to non-believers. In the broadest strokes, we can expect mention of:
1. The earthly death, suffering and or resurrection of Jesus.

2. His ministry on earth, his disciples, parents and Pontius Pilate.

3. Mention of Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem or other locations on the Gospels.

Faced with the exclusion of all these earthly elements in an entire presentation of Christianity, combined with the knowledge that Christianity emerged from a heterogeneous background fecundated with the confluence of Hellenistic Greco-Roman thought and Jewish philosophy, we can straightaway assign a 50% chance that the Christianity being presented could be without a historical Jesus.

This doesn’t mean it is 50% likely to have a mythical Jesus: it can simply mean they may be logos-centric, theocentric and so on depending on the rest of content of the Christianity under examination. Omission of the mention of an earthly life of Jesus places us at the borderline between the historical Jesus camp and non-historical Jesus camp. It places us on ground zero: the junction from which we could either go the historical Jesus route or the non-historical Jesus route.

This is regarded as a reasonable assumption if the reader accepts the proposition that there were several competing Christian cults before orthodox Christianity was made a state religion at Constantine’s behest and all “heresies” were stamped out. History has it that among some Gnostic Christian sects, there was belief in a docetic Jesus whose presence on earth was merely an illusion. Christians like Minucius Felix derided the idea that a man could, through his death, confer eternal salvation on fellow men. Other Christianities like the one embraced by Athenagoras held that it was wrong to imagine God could become physical and mix with what was corruptible (see note 17 and note 22). This background, which allows the possibility of Christian beliefs devoid of a historical Jesus, combined with the assumption that Jesus’ salvific death and ministry on earth were of primary importance to early Christians, should make the weight assigned to the omission reasonable.

Summary and Weighting of the Criteria


Name of Criterion



Exclusion of Earthly Details Criterion



Nature of Savior Criterion



Emergence of Savior Criterion



Knowledge Source Criterion



Rejection of Godmen Criterion



Central Deity criterion



Event Timing Criterion



Saving Agency Criterion





Descriptions of the Criteria

Criterion 1.    Exclusion of Earthly Details Criterion. Documents that satisfy this criterion are those that lack mention of such things as Nazareth, Pilate, Mary, Joseph or of any salvific death of the savior on earth. That is, no indication of an earthly career or presence of Jesus or “the son”. Documents that mention these earthly details with the exception of Marcion (see below) ipso facto contain a historical Jesus and require no further evaluation.

Applies to: Minucius Felix, 1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Odes of Solomon, Epistle to Diognetus [7], Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Corinthians, Hebrews, Epistle of Barnabas, Theophilus (To Autolycus), Athenagoras, Tatian (Address to The Greeks), The New Testament Gospels and the Didache.

(Polycarp, Papias, Irenaeus, Justin, Ignatius, Clement of Alexandria, Tatian’s Diatessaron are knocked off at this point)

Criterion 2.    Nature of Savior Criterion [8]. Documents that satisfy this criterion may have Jesus as a pre-existent being who came/comes down (as we see in Philippians 2:6-11) and undergoes suffering/crucifixion at the hands of demons, not Pilate. The crucifixion/ransom is cast in a supernatural setting. (Because of this, the resurrection or incarnation can only be perceived by those that are spiritually enlightened from scripture or through revelation). Texts meeting this criterion may also have the savior’s presence as illusory (e.g., a phantom) as per those who believed in a Docetic Jesus, or as structured like air and fire (Tatian) even if such presentations do not entail the treatment of Jesus as a saviour.

In some of the texts that fall under this criterion, as in Marcion, Christ is portrayed as a revealer figure, not as a savior figure [9].

Applies to: Marcion (see notes 13 and 16), Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, The Ascension of Isaiah 9:13-17, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, Colossians 2:15, Tatian (Apology to the Greeks) [10], Athenagoras [11].

Criterion 3.    Emergence of Savior Criterion. Texts that meet this criterion talk about a son or the word being revealed or shown (as opposed to having come to earth) – this means a spiritual revelation. The verbs used vary between deiknumi (to show, present, to make known or to announce) and phaneroō which means to bring to light, become visible or to make known. Or the “birth” / appearance is placed in a mythical realm. Galatians 4:4, for example, the Greek verb ginomai, which means to come into existence, is used, instead of gennaō, which means to be born.

The logos is born in the hearts or minds of believers, not on earth. That is, there is no mention of an incarnational birth on earth.

Applies to: Galatians 4:4 , Epistle to Diognetus, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Marcion

Criterion 4.    Knowledge Source Criterion [12]. Texts that meet this criterion have it that knowledge from the son and about the son, like his salvific suffering, is obtained from Old Testament scripture, through God’s son or through revelation by God; not from what the savior taught during his ministry on earth, not from eyewitnesses and not from historical sources. This knowledge may lead to salvation.

Applies to: Romans 16:25-26, Colossians 1:26, 2:2, Ephesians 3:5, 2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5, Gal 1:16, Hebrews 9:26, 1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Tatian (Apology to the Greeks), Didache, Marcion [13], Epistle to Diognetus.

Criterion 5.    Rejection of Godmen Criterion. Documents that meet this criterion are documents which have in them Christians condemning or denigrating the worship of man in general, whether as a savior or otherwise, on account of his mortality and his being made of impure matter. This may also entail rejection of the concept of the divine actually being part of the physical world as per Docetism. It can also entail denigrating the image of a crucified man whilst implying that such a man is not worthy of worship. Ebionites for example, rejected a divine Jesus but emphasized the humanity of Jesus as the son of Mary and Joseph [14].

Applies to: Minucius Felix (through Octavius), Theophilus [15], Marcion [16], Theophilus, Athenagoras [17].

Criterion 6.    Central Deity criterion. Documents that meet this criterion refer to the logos (the word) or the son or, in some cases, of (Jesus) Christ as the intermediary savior agent or redeemer who confers revelatory powers and wisdom. Not of Jesus of Nazareth. They believe in a son, not in someone who was the son. Or the son is spoken of as emanating from God as an agent of creation of the universe.

Or they focus on God as the primary agent of salvation. All thoughts, emotions, praise and devotion are directed toward God and none, or an insignificant proportion of the same, toward the son.

Applies to: Odes of Solomon, 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Hebrews 1:2-3, Theophilus, Athenagoras, 1 Clement 29:1, 38:4, 35:5, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle to Diognetus, Didache, Tatian (Address to The Greeks)

Criterion 7.    Event Timing Criterion. Texts meet this criterion if the salvific act (which could be the revelation of knowledge about God or crucifixion / ransom) that takes place is alluded to as taking place in the present or in the present continuous tense, and not as having taken place in the past.

Applies to: Hebrews 10:37, 9:26, 2 Cor 5:5[18] Epistle to Diognetus, Theophilus, Tatian [19]

Criterion 8.    Saving Agency Criterion [20]. Saving agency excludes a redeemer figure and instead is either wisdom, grace and so on. Not (through) the redemption or atonement via the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Applies to: Odes of Solomon [21], Tatian (Apology to the Greeks), Athenagoras [22]

Guidelines on Using the Criteria

While applying these criteria, one should visualize a scale with one end having a historical Jesus and the other end having a non-historical Jesus. Criterion 1 makes these two extreme ends balance by assigning them equal weight. Then the rest of the criteria will determine which side is more probable.

The criteria provided must be balanced with other parts of a text at hand to arrive at a conclusion regarding whether or not the version of Christianity being presented lacks a historical Jesus.

To illustrate how these weights are assigned, consider criterion 5: Rejection of Godmen criterion. This criterion is mutually exclusive with the idea that Jesus died on earth to confer salvation to believers. It reduces the chances of the Christianity being presented as having a historical Jesus at its core by 5%. Strictly speaking, this criterion, by itself, is a negative criterion because it doesn’t positively tell us what the writer believes. It reduces the possibility that the Christianity presented entails a historical Jesus as a savior figure, but leaves open the possibility that the Jesus presented, if any, was accepted as historical but was not a savior – perhaps just the founder, or the Jesus may be regarded as having been chosen by God as the political messiah on account of his good deeds on Earth (see Ebionites in the notes).

It is however assigned a 5% weight of likelihood that the Christianity presented lacks a historical Jesus because there are very few versions of pre-third century Christianity that are aware of a historical Jesus and at the same time do not regard him as a savior. In other words, the rejection of a resurrected Jesus by a Christian before the third century is treated as likely to be accompanying a rejection of a historical Jesus.

Criterion 2 has a weight of 10% because it is the central fabric that the rest of the beliefs are centered about; that is, teacher, founder, redeemer, savior and so on and is, per orthodox Christianity, the link to God (John 14:6).

Criteria 3 and 4 are also assigned the same weight on the basis of their significance. The rest of the criteria are assigned weights of 5% because they can be accomodated alongside other beliefs that entail a historical Jesus and yet fail to create any significant incongruence in the minds of the believers. For example, Marcion’s rejected the idea of God incarnating yet he held that Christ’s presence on earth was illusory. Equally consider the Ebionites, who accepted a historical Jesus but only as an ordinary man, not as a savior, thus Ebionites would meet the rejection of Godmen criterion without much fuss. There is more on the Ebionites in the notes.

Comprehensiveness of the Texts

As an example of how to apply these criteria, the Didache, upon casual inspection, meets criterion one but it is simply a list of teachings. It doesn’t reveal in meaningful detail what the writer(s) believed regarding Jesus, or the means of salvation. Jesus is simply a means through which God makes his message known. Jesus is treated purely as a vessel, not a deity or a being. All praise and thanks are to God and not to Jesus. So Didache meets criteria 1, 4, 7 and 6. It therefore has 80% probability of lacking a historical Jesus at its core. Or in other words, the picture of the religious beliefs behind the writer(s) is also 80% complete, yet it has no historical Jesus. But because it is silent on other issues, it gives us an incomplete picture and therefore doesn’t prove unequivocally (100%) that the believers lacked a historical Jesus.

In any event, we are secure in the knowledge that, from what is available, the Jesus mentioned in Didache was not a historical Jesus because he is treated simply as a revelatory channel. The Way of Life is through obeying the teachings given in the text. There is no ransom God gave and there is no resurrection or salvific death that the believers can benefit from. The teachings are of God (the Lord), not of Jesus. We therefore know that the Jesus in the Didache was not a historical Jesus. But we do not know how the writer believed the Father made the cup known to them through the child Jesus. Because of this incomplete presentation, we can’t advance far beyond 80% probability. We have eliminated a historical Jesus (whose primary purpose was to die in order to confer salvation to believers) but cannot account for what the writer believed regarding the manner in which Jesus operated and how he became a child of the father.

Any score beyond 85% is certainly Christianity without a Historical Jesus.
Historical Method and these Criteria

The application of the criteria must be done correctly. That is, if one incorrectly qualifies a text as meeting a specific criterion, they are likely to end up with absurd results. The context of each passage must be factored in and one’s approach must conform to the historical method.

Along with the criteria are some examples of writings that satisfy these criteria. These are meant to be used as a guideline. My examples go beyond the second century apologists and are only for illustrative purposes. It is important to remember that the divine entities (e.g., the Greek logos) that we find being mentioned in Hellenistic literature, such as Philo’s heavenly man, could be described in expressions that appear human-like, as we see in Shepherd of Hermas which mentions the “body of Christ”. These human-like expressions alone are not enough to make the deities in question historical or human. A text like Epistle of Barnabas never mentions Jesus of Nazareth, but possesses unmistakable earthly references about “the son” that are also found in the gospels, such as 7:3: “…when crucified he had vinegar and gall given him to drink...” However, the event alluded to is not regarded as historical because the entire the passage reads: “…but moreover when crucified He had vinegar and gall given Him to drink. Hear how on this matter the priests of the temple have revealed.”

One would then have to ask: How is it that Barnabas treats this information as a spiritual item that is revealed by the priests from the scriptures? Is history revealed from the scriptures, or witnessed by all that are present when an actual event occurs at a specific point in time? If history is not revealed but witnessed, can the event alluded to be treated as a historical factoid if it is not derived from a historical source?

This factoid, though possessing earthly elements cannot be regarded as speaking of a historical event because the source is not historical. It is therefore ahistorical on epistemological grounds. Doherty notes regarding Epistle of Barnabas 5:12: “It is God, not historical memory, which has identified the Jews as those who killed his son.”[23] And even though it may happen to have what can be regarded as earthly elements, it is treated by Barnabas as an item of faith in the same fashion that Paul treats the idea that Christ was resurrected.

The criteria provided here are neither rigorous nor comprehensive, but they provide a good starting point for the development of criteria that will help reduce bias and ad-hocness in the examination of early Christian writings for the presence or absence of a historical Jesus nucleus.
Limitations of These Criteria

  1. Marcion presents an unwieldy candidate for these criteria, chiefly because he envisions earthly activities for Jesus while at the same time maintaining that Jesus’ presence on earth was an illusion. He provides a historical setting for a non-historical figure. His failure to place Jesus’ activities on a different plane results in a hybrid setting that is unique. A flesh and blood Jesus would be inconsistent with the beliefs of Marcion, Simon Magus and Cerinthus, all of whom believed that the divine can never be part of the corrupt physical world. Therefore, on the grounds of naturalistic plausibility, which rules out phantoms, a docetic Jesus is regarded in this work as ahistorical.
  2. At this point, the criteria have not been tested against all available sources. Third century sources such as Eusebius, Origen, Tertullian and Cyprian have been purposefully excluded because by that time, almost all Christian sources are firmly entrenched in the gospel tradition. In addition, fragmented sources or texts that are inadequate for evaluation have been excluded, such as Quadratus, from whose Apology to Hadrian Eusebius cites a sentence, Aristo of Pella’s Disputation between Jason and Papiscus concerning Christ, Miltiades’ Against the Greeks and Against the Jews, and the nine books mentioned by Eusebius attributed to Claudius Apollinaris, bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia.  Melito of Sardis’ On Truth, and Aristides’ work are also excluded because they have little to lend themselves to any meaningful evaluation, or because they are unavailable. Failure to examine all the texts also allows us to test the criteria against such texts and check whether the criteria yield absurd results or otherwise.
  3. The score obtained from these criteria fail to bring out the idea that a Christian group like the Ebionites accepted a HJ. But this weakness is considered mitigated by the fact that Ebionites can be regarded as Christians only in a very weak sense because of their rejection of Jesus as a messiah. Scholars have identified them as re-Judaizers and on this account; we can consider them as a sect that was an offshoot of Judaism. The site claims that Ebionites are not Christians. This weakness is therefore not significant.


It is important to remember that one significant function performed by methodological criteria is the provision of a means to reduce ad-hocness in the assessment of the evidence. In a subject as polarized as this, a good starting point is a provision of basic assumptions which must be deemed fair by all interested parties. The acceptance of such assumptions, accompanied by a rigorous methodology, can provide all with a means to assess the texts without being accused of bias or subjectivity.

As a foundation, one needs to understand the socio-cultural milieu under which the texts in question were produced in order not to be misled by semantic nuances or get sucked into the cracks left by vague allusions and fragmented or incomplete presentations. One must also be able to look at the texts with a fresh perspective without being unduly influenced by the gospel stories regarding Jesus, in order to employ the criteria meaningfully. The historical method must also be observed and integrity of the texts, their adequacy and historical setting factored in.


  1. Doherty E., Crossing the Threshold of History, Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers at the Turn of the Second Century
  2. Doherty E., The Jesus Puzzle, p.88
  3. There has been confusion over what possessive word should be used to signify the philosophy of Philo of Alexandria, who was a Hellenistic Jew. I use the word Philonic to refer to Philo’s work and ideas. Others have used “Philoic” rather incorrectly.
  4. John Dillon, The Middle Platonists, p.396, as cited by Doherty, op.cit., p34.
  5. I use the expression “Christianities” after The Lost Christianities, the title of Bart Ehrman’s book (2003). Among the lost Christianities are Ebionites who were against Paul and his teachings, Marcionites, who rejected the Old Testament God as Satan and rejected Hebrew scriptures, and Gnostics, who believed knowledge provided the means to salvation.
  6. There may be brands of Christianity today that do not regard the death of Jesus as the fundamental ingredient for the salvation of Christians. In this text, they are regarded as constituting a negligible percentage.
  7. Doherty, op cit, p.280 writes regarding Epistle to Diognetus: “We find an allusion to the Atonement: 'He (God) took our sins upon himself and gave his own Son as a ransom for us,' but his description of this act is based upon scripture. No Gospel details are mentioned, no manner of the Son’s death (if that is what it was), no resurrection. All this is in response to Diognetus’ 'close and careful enquiries' about the Christian religion.”
  8. This is also called the Ontologic criterion. Ontology being the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being. Since this criterion addresses the nature of the savior figure, “Ontologic criterion” is perhaps more apt. The primary characteristic for a text to meet this criterion is the portrayal of Jesus as a non-fleshly being. Whether or not that Jesus is actually held as a saviour in thar particular text is secondary.
  9. To Marcion, Christ was not an incarnation of God but a manifestation of God. Per Marcion, God could never mix with the corruptible world and could therefore not incarnate. Marcion held that the Messiah spoken of in the Old Testament had nothing to do with Christ and that Christ was the first revelation of the invisible, indescribable, good God to mankind.
  10. As noted earlier, whether or not the Jesus found in a presentation is presented as a saviour figure is secondary to the question of what his make-up is. Tatian for example has God incarnate and does not regard that incarnation as a saviour and that incarnation does not undergo cricifixion. There have been some arguments that assert that Tatian believed in a Historical Jesus because his teacher Justin did and that because of this, Tatian must have believed in a Historical Jesus. But this argument is not consistent with what Tatian wrote. Indeed, Tatian had no Christology in Address to the Greeks. The argument above also rests on a flimsy assumption: it entails assuming that everyone who studied under Plato, for example, was ipso facto a Platonist. For the argument to have a basis, it must rest on positive demonstration that Tatian did believe in a HJ. We have no evidence that Tatian, at the time he wrote Address to the Greeks, believed in a HJ. What we do have indicates clearly to us that Tatian’s beliefs did not entail a historical Jesus. From Address to the Greeks, Tatian believes: (a) that the Greek gods were demons [Address 8]; (b) that “The demons were driven forth to another abode …[they] were driven from earth, yet not out of this earth, but from a more excellent order of things than exists here now” [Address 20], and none of the demons possess flesh: their structure is spiritual, like that of fire or air. And only by those whom the spirit of God dwells in and fortifies are the bodies of the demons easily seen... in Address 20 and Address 15; (c) that God's incarnation [as portrayed in the "Christian narratives"] was similar to that of the incarnation of the Greek gods in Address 21. These three points alone are ironclad evidence that Tatian did not believe in a HJ because they are beliefs that are incompatible with a HJ.
  11. Athenagoras lacks a saviour figure. But it has a son of God that he regards as the logos. It is the nature of this son that we evaluate under this criterion because this criterion is primarily about the nature of the agent that works with God (who could be an incarnation of God, the son of God and so on) and the question of whether or not that agent was actually regarded as a saviour, a revealer and so on, is secondary. Athenagoras writes regarding the son in A Plea For the Christians, 10: “[The son is] the idea and energizing power of all material things, which lay like a nature without attributes, and an inactive earth, the grosser particles being mixed up with the lighter”. Ibid “the Son of God is the logos of the Father, in idea and in operation; for after the pattern of Him and by Him were all things made, the Father and the Son being one.” Tixeront writes regarding Athenagoras: “Strange to say, this convinced Christian, in writing against the pagans on the resurrection of bodies, draws no proof for this dogma from revelation and the Scriptures.”
  12. This can also be referred to as the “epistemic criterion” because it deals with the nature of the knowledge in question.
  13. We know about Marcion from heresiologists like Tertullian in Adversus Marcionem that Marcion believed in a Docetic Christ: a manifestation of God and not an incarnation of God. Per Docetism, the presence of Christ on earth was an illusion and therefore, according to Marcion, the Jesus that was seen was not a flesh and blood man and was therefore not a historical man (Marcion rejected infancy narratives). This inclusion of Marcion under rejection of godmen criterion piggybacks on the Marcionite (and Gnostic) rejection of matter as impure and the physical world as the work of the evil God. In addition, Marcion rejected the resurrection of the body and held that "flesh and blood shall not inherit the Kingdom of God".
  14. We learn about Ebionites from Epiphanius' Treatise on Heresies. Ehrman's Lost Christianities informs us that the Ebionites were stigmatized by the proto-orthodox church fathers as heretics. Some modern scholars regard them as “re-judaizers”. This criterion is effective in determining that the Christianity presented is not orthodox Christianity though it may not be equally effective in determining whether the Jesus presented is historical.
  15. Theophilus denigrates the pagan worship of what he considers dead men in To Autolycus 1:9 and is himself unaware that a savior underwent a salvific death. In To Autolycus 13, he states that pagans challenge him "Show me even one who has been raised from the dead, that seeing I may believe," and his best response to them is: “consider, if you please, the dying of seasons, and days, and nights, how these also die and rise again. And what? Is there not a resurrection going on of seeds and fruits, and this, too, for the use of men? A seed of wheat, for example, or of the other grains, when it is cast into the earth, first dies and rots away, then is raised, and becomes a stalk of corn. And the nature of trees and fruit-trees,—is it not that according to the appointment of God they produce their fruits in their seasons out of what has been unseen and invisible?” He is clearly unaware of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  16. Docetic thinking, which Marcion espoused, held that the flesh was corrupt and that the physical universe and everything in it was the work of the Demiurge. Because of this, a divine being like Christ would never be in the flesh. Marcion’s beliefs regarding Jesus are can be gathered from EpiphaniusPanarion and Tertullian’s Against Marcion.
  17. Athenagoras writes in A Plea for the Christians 15: “So that, if we were to regard the various forms of matter as gods, we should seem to be without any sense of the true God, because we should be putting the things which are dissoluble and perishable on a level with that which is eternal.”
  18. 2 Cor. 5:5 says God has sent the spirit not had sent the son so that humans can have a chance at getting eternal life.
  19. An agent is one that provides a service for another. In this instance we are looking at the agent that is the redeemer, the logos, the intermediary figure, the son, God’s incarnation and so on, as the case may be. In any event, the agent typically works in concert with God or for God in one way or another.
  20. Ode 34 of Odes of Solomon depicts the writer's picture of redemption when he writes: "Grace has been revealed for your salvation. Believe and live and be saved." see E. Doherty, Odes of Solomon, Supplementary Article Number 4, Online.
  21. In A Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras writes in chapter 12 that salvation is obtained by being benevolent and meek and by devotion to God. There is no allusion to redemption or atonement. In fact, God does not need any sacrifice of anything, let alone of his son. He writes in chapter 13 “the Framer and Father of this universe does not need blood, nor the odor of burnt-offerings, nor the fragrance of flowers and incense”
  22. He also writes in Chapter 9 that “…the Deity must differ from the things of earth and those that are derived from matter.”
  23. Doherty E., op. cit., p.264

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