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  Was There No Historical Jesus?    

Some Thoughts on the Demise of The Jesus Project

The recent demise of The Jesus Project, when it had barely gotten off the ground, has not been critical scholarship’s finest hour. I myself was not involved with the Project in any way (I was not invited to be), and I am not party to all of the factors that contributed to its collapse, but it seems to me that one of the principal difficulties it faced was in regard to the question of the historical existence of Jesus.

When the Jesus Project was still in the pre-natal stage, sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism of Amherst (Buffalo) New York, it was clearly presented as a new investigation into Christian origins which would fearlessly encompass the very question of Jesus’ existence. Tom Flynn, in an Op-Ed piece “The Jesus Project” in a 2007 (I think it was) issue of Free Inquiry, of which he is the editor, said: “The mission will be to apply the most current scholarship and methodologies to the questions (which) the Jesus Seminar never confronted: Did the historical Jesus even exist? If so, what can we know of him?” He made it sound as though an important phase of the Project would be an addressing of the first question.

As it turned out, even before the opening meeting (delayed almost a year beyond the initially scheduled time) the possibility that Jesus’ existence would be questioned by the Project apparently created difficulties, leading to the refusal of some scholars to take part and to a degree of backtracking by those in charge, until it became reduced to little more than another “Quest for the Historical Jesus.” The only difference was that it was stated as part of its mandate that it would not assume the existence of an historical Jesus a priori, but adopt an “agnostic” stance on the question.

That opening meeting was devoted to a discussion of the methodologies that would be employed, but here again the same stumbling block arose. Since no scholars who were openly and actively mythicists were invited to take part, no methodologies applicable to the existence of Jesus question were presented for consideration. At the meeting itself, as I understand it from various reports, no objection was voiced to the missing dimension, but the question was raised on blogs and in subsequent discussion (not all of it entirely harmonious) by various people involved or on the sidelines, and it was clear that this was going to be a stickler in the future—an elephant in the room.

After all, media reports surrounding the announcement of the Project had, quite naturally, seized on the existence question as an important and high-profile element of the agenda, but the Project itself did not seem to be ready to follow through. It was apparently too controversial even among a group of scholars who were considered to be the most liberal and avant-garde in the field. Even its co-chair, R. Joseph Hoffmann, who had long been associated with CSH, was now remarking that there was ‘plenty of evidence’ for Jesus’ existence, and that Jesus mythicists were to be regarded as occupying one end of a spectrum of those who would find little or no happiness on the Project (the other end being staunchly conservative biblical exegetes).

One of the problems the Project faced was that preliminary focus on methodology. Drafting such a thing may in principle be an advisable initial step, but if one has little sympathy for or understanding of mythicism, it is difficult to fashion a workable methodology to deal with it. One may sometimes need to plunge into a new subject before one can see how to clinically evaluate it. 

It may also be the case that the Project fell into the traditional closed-ranks attitude that scholars and outsiders who were not part of established academia and did not possess the proper credentials, were simply, when push came to shove, not to be included in the process. (Although at its very initial stage, soon to be regarded as overly enthusiastic and before the ‘push’ came from the other direction, myself and one or two others “outside the academy” had been tentatively placed on the masthead.) The problem is, with the exception of Robert M. Price, also long associated with CSH and Prometheus Books, no one inside mainstream academia has been seriously questioning Jesus’ existence, and thus there was no one to fill the role of attending to the existence question at Project meetings.

So it seems that the Jesus Project almost immediately closed the door to progressing beyond the now-traditional groups and positions which have been willing to apply critical scholarship and open minds to virtually everything except the question of Jesus’ very existence. We apparently still have to await that last critical step in mainstream scholarship for…what—another generation? It shows that the ‘outsider’ community, centered on the Internet and privately produced books, is still miles ahead of established, university-based academia in its innovation and courage.

The immediate cause of the disbanding of the Project was said to be CSH’s developing reluctance to fund and promote it, but the reasons for the latter are unclear. Perhaps they, too, developed cold feet. But one reaction from within the Project itself has surfaced, and it is one that is highly questionable. After R. Joseph Hoffmann withdrew as chair of the Project, in conjunction with its collapse, he posted an article on his personal blog about “Rethinking the Thinking behind the Jesus Project.” In it, he quoted an opinion I myself have heard more than once in recent years coming out of established academia. In Hoffmann’s words:

“Who cares? Arthur Droge of the University of Toronto made the point directly at the last meeting of the Project in December 2008…that one should not assume that the question of the historicity of Jesus is inherently interesting.”

Droge’s opinionborders on the absurd, and has a certain ‘sour grapes’ ring to it. The last two centuries of New Testament scholarship have been devoted to trying to get at the historical Jesus, to discover what he actually said and did. Since that enterprise has essentially failed (if we are to judge by the utter lack of consensus so far arrived at), one can hardly believe that the very existence of the figure to whom scholars have been trying for so long to attach authentic words and deeds can of itself be “uninteresting.” Since that failure is increasingly coming home to critical scholarship in general, it has turned its sights more and more to side issues, such as the cultural milieu of the Jesus story and the New Testament, social theories and other background considerations, more or less setting Jesus himself aside as inaccessible but still assuming some sort of existence for him.

One poster on the Freethought-Rationalist Discussion Board opined that the foregoing issues and considerations were “far more interesting than, in the words of Burton Mack, ‘listening to poets talk about a poet’.” Jesus, now that he is found to be inaccessible in terms of discoverable historical words and deeds, has been converted into a “poet” about whom other “poets”—the evangelists—wrote without telling us anything factual or historically meaningful about him. This is simply another device in a long tradition of scholarly practice serving to deal with the great perplexities in New Testament research and its lack of results, and to avoid addressing the still unacceptable alternative of Jesus’ non-existence.

The same poster also said: “IF there was no historical Jesus, then the image of early Christianity would greatly change. However, the fact that a historical Jesus seems to be assumed at so many levels of the tradition leads me to leave the question around there. IF one should show that there was no historical Jesus, then the results would be interesting.” His emphasis on “IF” implies that he considers that the non-existence of Jesus is undemonstrable, even to the extent of arriving at a balance of probability. He is willing to leave the question in limbo, and on the basis of a perception that the Christian tradition assumes Jesus’ existence “at so many levels.” In fact, he is assuming an assumption, hardly a secure basis on which to abandon the most important consideration that could possibly be brought to the entire academic study of Christianity and that could possibly apply to the last two thousand years of Western history and culture.

For the fact is that he is wrong about the claim that the early Christian tradition (its writings over the first century and a half) assumes Jesus’ existence at so many levels. (The later writings of course do, because the Gospels eventually swamped everything in their path.) I have been at pains, and especially in my latest book, to demonstrate that such an assumption of existence is entirely missing in almost everything but the Gospels and Acts until the dissemination of those documents toward the middle of the second century (Acts not being written until that time). These documents represent a very narrow portion of the Christian record of what the early movement believed in. The point is, if scholarship has chosen to withdraw to side issues that are basically irrelevant to uncovering the historical Jesus, they are doing so on a 50% basis. For while they have largely abandoned hope at uncovering that figure, they have failed to seriously examine the case for dismissing him entirely. Individual scholars and groups like The Jesus Project have demonstrated that failure and instead adopted the a priori position that mythicism has not provided or cannot provide a compelling case. While the agenda of the Project was initially intended to include an investigation of the second issue, the willingness proved not to be there.

In his blog article, R. Joseph Hoffmann has adopted the same a priori position. He does not agree with Droge that the question of Jesus’ existence is inherently uninteresting, but he regards the debate as inherently unresolvable:

“With due regard to the complexity of evidence surrounding Christian origins—a subject that has been complicated, in a good way, rather than solved by the discoveries of modern scholarship—I no longer believe it is possible to answer the ‘historicity question.’ No quantum of material discovered since the 1940’s, in the absence of canonical material would support the existence of an historical founder. No material regarded as canonical and no church doctrine built upon it in the history of the church would cause us to deny it. Whether the New Testament runs from Christ to Jesus or Jesus to Christ is not a question we can answer.”

Those who know my work, and that of other mythicists, would surely not be willing to voice agreement. The most compelling evidence persuading us to a rejection of an historical Jesus lies in the canonical material itself, supplemented by almost all of the early non-canonical record. This,taken with Hoffmann’s admission (if that’s what it is) that much other material discovered in the last several decades would not support his existence, should surely carry us beyond the simplistic judgment that the historical Jesus as an evolution of earlier ideas is simply unknowable or not susceptible of some degree of even tentative decision making. I don’t know the extent of Hoffmann’s investigation of the mythicist case, or his understanding of it, but certainly the last decade has produced substantial arguments in its favor by several writers and commentators (including the Project’s own Robert Price) which at the very least should have compelled him, and the group he chaired, to feel that it was indeed essential and desirable that it be investigated by the “academy” and not simply dismissed as unworthy or incapable of examination.

Hoffmann also quotes April DeConnick, a participant of the Project, as referring to “mythers,” a derogatory reference to “people out to prove through consensus with each other a conclusion they cannot establish through evidence.” Considering that the existence of Jesus is hardly on a higher plane of provability, this should not have precluded an honest examination of the question. In fact, such remarks merely indicate the prejudice toward the topic held by so many mainstream scholars, and the real reason why it has so far been unable to find a place in their deliberations, much less that genuine mythicists be invited to contribute something to the investigation.

On this point, I will end on a more personal note. Many reading this may be aware that Hoffmann has made some disparaging remarks about my own work in an Introduction to a recent reissue of Maurice Goguel’s Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History, a book (1926) which was Goguel’s rebuttal to the mythicist position of the early 20th century. In the relevant part of Note (31) to his Introduction, Hoffmann wrote:

“In addition to the following books by the most visible contemporary champion of the myth theory, the British scholar G. A. Wells, a number of older studies can be recommended. Of Wells’ many titles The Jesus of the Early Christians (via: (London: Pemberton 1971) is the most tightly argued; Did Jesus Exist? (via: (London: Pemberton 1986) is also worth reading, as is The Historical Evidence for Jesus (via: (Amhest, NY: Prometheus Books 1988). A “disciple” of Wells, Earl Doherty, has rehashed many of the former’s views in The Jesus Puzzle (Age of Reason Publications, 2005)which is qualitatively and academically far inferior to anything so far written on the subject…”

The latter part of these remarks, quite predictably, ended up being inserted into the Wikipedia entry on myself. The detailed citing of G.A. Wells’ books (Hoffmann ignores several other writers on the subject during the last 10 years, as though Wells has been the only one that matters) seems to indicate a degree of adulation for him, and one wonders if the fact that I diametrically disagree with one of Wells’ key interpretations regarding the Jesus of Paul has relegated me to inferiority status. (My non-academic tone, my lack of jargon and strict academic conventions, with my writings essentially aimed at the layperson, may have been another contributing factor.) That disagreement renders it something of a contradiction to be accused of being a “disciple” who has simply“ rehashed” Wells’ views. Anyone who has read The Jesus Puzzle is not likely to interpret me as owing much if anything to Wells, my approach being entirely different, and this in itself would be sufficient to suspect that Hoffmann has in fact not even read my book, and is perhaps relying on certain others’ negative opinions about it. Certainly, he has ignored the positive opinions of scholars like Robert Price (who called the book “masterful” and Richard Carrier (who partly credits the book for his own conversion to mythicism), not to mention the many readers who have pronounced The Jesus Puzzle (not any book of Wells) to have been the work which convinced them that Jesus never existed. Wells (whom I have always had my own admiration for as an invaluable figure in the recent history of Jesus mythicism) himself called The Jesus Puzzle an “important book,” though by then he had taken a step away from mythicism and accepted an historical Jesus at the root of Q.

Ironically, none other than Jeffrey Gibson came to the defense of Hoffmann on the IIDB a couple of years ago, claiming that he “is not the sort of fellow to make claims about what authors say or what they believe or how good their scholarship is unless he has actually read those authors he’s making claims about.” But perhaps Jeffrey Gibson (whose claim to know Hoffmann or move in his circles I find rather surprising) is not the one to pronounce on such things, considering that he himself has roundly, and much more viciously than Hoffmann, condemned me and my work while not having read a single one of my books and probably none of my website pieces; he has more than once resisted all blandishments that he read specific articles and dispute me in knowledgeable detail in order to back up his negative evaluations and personal attacks. (For a further look at the relationship between Gibson and myself, see Jeffrey Gibson and me.)

While the Jesus Project was still alive, I undertook to promise a complimentary copy of my new Jesus: Neither God Nor Man to every participating member once it was printed, if only to make up for any deficiency in their understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, the Project expired before the book was born. 

Earl Doherty