Jesus Puzzle

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The following article appeared in the Journal of Higher Criticism, Fall 1997, published by the Institute for Higher Critical Studies based at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey (see Recommended Link at end of Home Page). It was written at the request of the editors, Darrell J. Doughty and Robert M. Price.


THE JESUS PUZZLE     Pieces in a Puzzle of Christian Origins

by Earl Doherty


That Jesus was a man who lived and preached in Palestine during the early first century, who gave rise to a faith movement centered upon himself which would go on to become one of the world’s great religions, might seem to be a fairly straightforward proposition. The idea lies at the base of nearly 2000 years of Christian belief and remains the starting point for almost all scholarly study of Christian origins. And yet, accommodating such a simple assumption to the documentary evidence is an exceedingly difficult task, a puzzle whose solution has proven stubbornly, perplexingly, maddeningly elusive.

If we could reduce the complexity of the evidence to a number of identifiable elements, including the wider setting of the times in which Christianity arose, we might come up with a list of ten puzzle pieces:

Piece No. 1: A Conspiracy of Silence

In the first half century of Christian correspondence, including letters attributed to Paul and other epistles under names like Peter, James and John, the Gospel story cannot be found. When these writers speak of their divine Christ, echoes of Jesus of Nazareth are virtually inaudible, including details of a life and ministry, the circumstances of his death, the attribution of any teachings to him. God himself is often identified as the source of Christian ethics. No one speaks of miracles performed by Jesus, his apocalyptic predictions, his views on any of the great issues of the time. The very fact that he preached in person is never mentioned, his appointment of apostles or his directive to carry the message to the nations of the world is never appealed to. No one looks back to Jesus’ life and ministry as the genesis of the Christian movement, or as the pivot point of salvation history. The great characters of the Jesus story, Mary his mother, Joseph his father, John his herald, Judas his betrayer, Pilate his executioner: none of them receive a mention in all the Christian correspondence of the first century. As for holy places, there are none to be found, for not a single epistle writer breathes a word about any of the sites of Jesus’ career, not even Calvary where he died for the world’s sins, or the empty tomb where he rose from the dead to guarantee a universal resurrection.

The one clear placement of Christ in recent times, the accusation in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 that Jews in Judea had killed the Lord Jesus, has been rejected as an interpolation by most of today’s liberal scholars,1 while the one Gospel episode Paul seems to allude to, Jesus’ words over the bread and wine at what he calls "the Lord’s Supper" in 1 Corinthians 11:23f, can be interpreted as a mythical scene Paul has himself developed through perceived revelation (see Piece No. 5). Otherwise, no non-Gospel writer of the first century makes any statement which would link the divine spiritual Son and Christ they all worship and look to for salvation, with a man who had recently walked the sands of Palestine, taught and prophecied and performed miracles, a man executed by Pontius Pilate on Good Friday outside Jerusalem, to rise from a nearby tomb on Easter Sunday morning. This "conspiracy of silence" is as pervasive as it is astonishing. [See Part One: A Conspiracy of Silence in the Main Articles.]

The Gospel Jesus and his story is equally missing from the non-Christian record of the time. Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish historian Justus of Tiberias, Pliny the Elder as collector of reputed natural phenomena, early Roman satirists and philosophers: all are silent. Pliny the Younger, in his letter to Trajan from Bithynia c.112, does not speak of Christ in historical terms. Josephus’ famous passage in Antiquities 18 is acknowledged to be, as it stands, a Christian interpolation, and arguments that an original reference to Jesus either stood there or can be distilled from the present one, founder on the universal silence about such a reference on the part of Christian commentators until the 4th century.2 As for the reference in Antiquities 20 to James as "brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ", this passage also bears the marks of Christian interference.3 The phrase originally used by Josephus may have been the same designation which Paul gives to James (Galatians 1:19), namely "brother of the Lord," which would have referred not to a sibling relationship with Jesus, but to James’ position in the Jerusalem brotherhood, something which was probably widely known. A Christian copyist could later have altered the phrase (under the influence of Matthew 1:16) to render it more "historical" after Jesus of Nazareth was developed. [For a complete examination (and partial rethinking) of the Josephus question, see Supplementary Article No 10: Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question.]

The Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15:44), is the first pagan writer to speak of Jesus as a man crucified by Pilate. Rather than representing information he dug out of an archive (the Romans would hardly have kept a record of the countless crucifixions around the empire going back a century), this was probably derived from Christian hearsay about a human founder of the movement, newly circulating in the Rome of Tacitus’ day (c.115). On the other hand, there are those who question the authenticity of this passage as well. Around the same time, Suetonius’ report (Claudius, 25) about Jews in Rome agitating under "Chrestus" in the reign of Claudius is so brief and uncertain, it may not be about Christ and Christians at all. In any case, it would not witness to an historical Jesus.

As for the references to Jesus in the Jewish Talmud: even though some remarks are attributed to rabbis who flourished around the end of the first century (none earlier), they were not written down before the third century, and thus are unreliable. In any case, they are so cryptic and off the mark, they can scarcely be identified with the Gospel figure.

[For the non-Christian witness to Jesus, see Postscript in the Main Articles.]

Piece No. 2: A Transcendent Christ and a Missing Equation

When early writers like Paul speak of their "Christ Jesus", they do so in exclusively mythological terms. He is the divine Son in heaven, speaking through scripture, connected to the believer in mystical ways. Christ Jesus is the very substance of Godhead, pre-existent and the image of the Father. Through him God effected creation, and his sustaining power holds the universe together. Christ is also the cosmic redeemer who descended from heaven to undergo a sacrificial death (an earthly time and place is never stated) and was subsequently exalted and enthroned by God’s side. Through this saving drama, Christ has subjugated the demon spirits of the air who harass humanity, he has brought the souls of the dead righteous out of Shoel, he has been given kingship over all supernatural and earthly powers, and he has reconciled an estranged universe to God. He has also been given divine titles formerly reserved for God.

Heady stuff. And all within two decades or less of the presumed man’s life, a life which has apparently disappeared from the minds of those early believers in the cosmic Son, since they provide no mention of it, nor make any connection between the two. For all that Paul and others have to say about faith, no one ever raises the need to have faith that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and Messiah. The very equation: "The divine, spiritual Son = Jesus of Nazareth, recently on earth," is universally missing.

Even the death of Christ is presented in mythical terms. Passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ("We believe Jesus died and rose again"), and the apparent designation of scripture as the source of Paul’s doctrine that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3), suggest that Christ’s death was an article of faith, not a remembered historical event. The same is true, of course, for the resurrection. Paul never places Jesus’ death in an historical setting (he never even tells us that Christ was tried), and in 1 Corinthians 2:8 he assigns responsibility for the crucifixion to the "rulers of this age" who unwittingly crucified "the Lord of glory" and thereby ensured their own destined destruction.

While the meaning of the phrase "rulers of this age" has been much debated, weight of opinion4 has come down on the side of the demon powers who were thought to inhabit the lower celestial spheres and were responsible for the evils of the world and its separation from God. This interpretation is supported by references to the demonic powers in relation to Christ’s work in Colossians 2:15 and Ephesians 3:10; and by chapter 9 of the Ascension of Isaiah, which describes the descent of the Son through the heavenly spheres and declares that he shall be hung upon a tree "by the god of that world," meaning Satan and his angels of the firmament. They, too, do not know who he is (9:13,15). [See Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?]

2 Timothy 1:9 is another passage which alludes to an upper-world, beyond-time setting for the redeeming act: "God’s grace was given to us in Christ Jesus pro chronon aionion—before the beginning of time..." Knowledge of it has only now been brought to light by the revelation of the savior Jesus Christ (verse 10). The meaning of that Greek phrase is another much-debated item,5 but it would seem to be an attempt to convey that Christ’s redeeming act took place outside the normal boundaries of time and space, in an upper Platonic realm of God.

[For a fuller discussion of this "piece", see Part Two: Who Was Christ Jesus? and Supplementary Articles No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus? and No. 8: Christ as "Man".]

Piece No. 3: A Time of Revelation

How do Paul and other apostles like himself know of their Son and Redeemer? Is it through the words and deeds of Jesus on earth? Through traditions about him going back to those who had witnessed his ministry? No, Paul has learned of the Son through revelation and scripture. "God chose to reveal his Son through me," he says in Galatians 1:16. The writer of Ephesians, in 3:4-5, gives us the main elements of the new revelatory drama: "The mystery about Christ, which in former generations was not revealed to men, is now disclosed to dedicated apostles and prophets through the Spirit." Paul points to scripture (Romans 1:2, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4) as the source of his gospel, his knowledge about Christ and his saving work. It is God, through the Spirit, who has supplied this gospel, God who has appointed apostles like Paul to carry the message. All of it is couched in revelatory language, with words like phaneroo, apokalupto, epiphaneia.

The existence and role of the divine Son has hitherto been unknown. He has been a secret, a "mystery" hidden for long ages with God in heaven, now revealed together with the benefits of his saving act. This is what Paul and the other epistle writers are constantly telling us: in Romans 3:21f, 16:25-27, Colossians 1:26 and 2:2, 1 Peter 1:20. They trace nothing back to a human Jesus and indeed, as in Titus 1:2-3, often leave no room for such a figure in their picture of the beginnings of the Christian movement.

Instead, they speak of Christ as now present on earth (e.g., 1 John 5:20), sent by God as he has also sent the Spirit. (The Spirit and the Son are sometimes linked, as in Romans 8:9, Galatians 4:6, Phil. 1:19.) As the Pauline letters convey through the use of their ubiquitous phrase "in—or through—Christ" (e.g., Romans 6:11, Ephesians 1:4, Titus 3:6), Christ is a spiritual medium through which God is revealing himself and doing his work in the world. He is a mystical force, part of and interacting with his believers, and he is God’s agent of salvation. All this lies plainly on the pages of the New Testament epistles, while beside it stands a void on the Gospel Jesus.

[See Part Two: Who Was Christ Jesus? and Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paul's Gospel.]

Piece No. 4: The Mythological Picture of the Times

When we examine the mythological features supposedly conferred upon an historical Jesus so soon after his passing, we find that they all have their roots in contemporary religious philosophy. The developing concept that an increasingly transcendent God required an intermediary in order to have contact with the base world of matter had led to the invention of secondary divine forces in both Greek and Jewish thinking. For the Greeks, as well as philosophers of Hellenistic Judaism like Philo, the Logos (largely an abstract concept) became the Platonic intermediary who was the image of God, the force which had produced creation, and a continual channel of spiritual communion between Deity and humanity.6 All these properties are present in the early Christian view of the spiritual Christ.

In Jewish thinking, the figure of personified Wisdom was envisioned as an emanation of God, his communicating aspect and one who brought knowledge of him and his will to humanity. She developed her own myths about coming to the world and inviting men and women to learn from her (as in Proverbs, Baruch, the Wisdom of Solomon). She eventually became very Logos-like, described as God’s agent of creation and the divine power that pervades and sustains all things (Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-30). She was God’s throne-partner and his very image.

These features, too, are part of the language about Christ used by Paul and his contemporaries. Christ sits at the right hand of God, it was through him that "all things came to be and we through him," (1 Corinthians 8:6); he too sustains the universe by his word of power (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15f). Like the Logos and Sophia (Wisdom), only the Son "knows" the Father, and humanity can only know God through the Son.

[See Part Two: Who Was Christ Jesus? and Supplementary Article No. 5: Tracing the Christian Lineage in Alexandria.]

Piece No. 5: Savior Deities in a Layered Universe

The most popular expression of religious faith during the era which saw the rise of Christianity was not the official state religion of "Olympian" gods, but the salvation cults known as the "mystery religions". Each of these had its savior god or goddess, such as Mithras, Dionysos, Attis, Isis, Osiris. Most of these cults possessed myths in which the savior deity had overcome death in some way (not necessarily raised from it), or performed some act whose effects guaranteed for the initiates good fortune in this world and a happy existence in the next. Their rituals included communal sacred meals, often involving such things as bread and wine and bearing strong resemblance to Christian sacramentalism (Paul’s Lord’s Supper myth may well have been influenced by Mithraic counterparts), and the mystical relationships between initiate and deity are very similar to those expounded by Paul in his branch of Christian belief. While Christianity and the pagan cults interacted on one another as time went on, both can be regarded as more or less independent branches of the same broad, ancient-world tree. [For the mysteries, see Part Two: Who Was Christ Jesus? and Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paul's Gospel: Learning of a Sacred Meal, and Response to Miles.]

In the period around the turn of the era, Platonism divided the universe into a timeless, perfect higher realm (containing the "genuine" reality, accessible to the intellect), and an imperfect, transient world of matter as its copy. The mythical activity of the cultic gods was thought to take place in this upper dimension of reality, having effects on humanity below. (Such Platonic-style thinking tended to supplant older views of myth which regarded this activity of gods as having occurred in a primordial, sacred past.) This was combined with other, more popular views which saw the universe as multi-layered, from the world of base matter where humans lived, to the highest level of pure spirit where the ultimate God dwelled. The layers between (usually seven, plus the air or "firmament" between earth and moon) were populated by various sorts of angels, spirits and demons. The latter, responsible for the evils that afflicted mankind and in the Jewish mind associated with Satan, filled the lowest spirit layer and were regarded as part of the realm of "flesh",7 cutting off earth from heaven.

To perform their salvific work, the savior gods descended into the lower reaches of the spiritual world, taking on increasing resemblance to lower and material forms: Attis, for example (so Julian the "Apostate" relates in Orations V), to the level just above the moon; Christ, so Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 2:8, along with the writer of the Ascension of Isaiah 9, to the sphere of Satan and his powers in the firmament. Here Christ, having assumed the "likeness" of flesh and a man (Ascension 9:13 and Philippians 2:7-8), was crucified. As passages like Ephesians 6:12 indicate, a cosmic battle was going on for control of the world, between the forces of darkness headed by Satan, and the forces of good directed by God. Christ was God’s agent, his Messiah, in this struggle. The crucifixion was regarded as a decisive move in the cosmic battle with the demons, wherein Christ subjected these spirits to himself and restored the unity of the universe (Ephesians 1:10). [See Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?]

More sophisticated philosophers like Plutarch and Sallustius regarded the stories of the Greek salvation cults as allegorical interpretations only, "eternal meanings clothed in myth." Sallustius, writing in the 4th century, speaks of the story of Attis as "an eternal cosmic process, not an isolated event of the past" (On Gods and the World, 9). Paul, while he shows no sign of regarding the myth and suffering of Jesus in anything but literal terms, would have been quite capable of placing such redeeming activity in this upper, spiritual realm, and indeed his language shows every sign of such an interpretation.

[See Part Two: Who Was Christ Jesus? and Supplementary Article No. 8: Christ as "Man": section I.]

Piece No. 6: A Single Story of Jesus

The story of Jesus of Nazareth is, for the first hundred years of Christianity, to be found only in the Gospels. Moreover, each of the Gospels is dependent for that story on the first one written, "Mark". That Matthew and Luke are reworkings of Mark with extra, mostly teaching, material added, is now almost universally accepted. Opinion is split as to whether the narrative elements of John are derived from some Synoptic source as well. But since the Fourth Gospel, despite some considerable revamping to fit John’s own theology, gives us no fundamentally different material in its narrative of Jesus’ life from that of the Synoptics, it is likely that it too goes back ultimately to the first Gospel for its picture of the "historical Jesus." (The so-called Discourses and distinctive Johannine Christology may well be the earliest layer of tradition, originally applied to a spiritual Revealer Son, upon which the "historical" Synoptic-derived biography has been overlaid.) We thus have a Christian movement spanning half the empire and a full century of existence which nevertheless has managed to produce only one version of the events that are supposed to lie at its inception.

Modern scholars often refer to the common teaching and anecdotal material extracted from Matthew and Luke, now known by the designation "Q", as a "Gospel", though it is not a narrative work, nor organized according to any other fashion than the traditional sayings collection. But their confident claim that the material of this lost document, or at least the earliest stratum of it, can be traced back to an historical Jesus and thus constitutes an independent witness to him is not warranted, as I will try to demonstrate in Part Three [of this article].

Acts, too, as an historical witness to Jesus or the beginnings of the Christian movement, cannot be relied upon. The more recent tendency is to see Acts as a second century product, probably of Roman provenance, highly tendentious and written for the purpose of creating a picture of Christian origins traceable to a unified body of apostles in Jerusalem who were followers of an historical Jesus. Much of it is sheer fabrication, and highly incompatible with information found in the letters of Paul. There is no attestion for Acts prior to the 170s.

[See Part Three: The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth.]

Piece No. 7: The Gospels in Limbo

The dating of the Gospels is partly to be determined by their attestion in the wider Christian writings. Here we run into an astonishing state of affairs, for there is no clear sign of them before the middle of the second century. No surviving writer before Justin makes use of narrative documents containing words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, and more often than not Justin’s quotations do not fit our canonical texts, indicating that such works were still in the process of development, not to be finalized until some time later.

Earlier allusions to teachings or anecdotes resembling those of the Gospels seem not to be from written works, but probably reflect developing traditions which themselves found their way into the written Gospels.8 And Papias’ reference (around 120-130?, as reported by Eusebius) to documents attributed to "Matthew" and "Mark" cannot be reconciled with the narrative Gospels which now go by those names, names which were still unknown to Justin as belonging to his "memoirs of the Apostles". Moreover, these were documents which Papias himself had not seen,9 but had learned about from another, making the whole report a distant third hand.

Thus, when scholars regularly date the Gospels between 65 and 100, they present us with a scenario in which the story of Jesus’ life as told by the evangelists remains in a limbo and fails to register on the wider Christian consciousness for almost a hundred years after it was first committed to paper. A generally later dating would seem to be required, perhaps with Mark in its initial version coming no earlier than the year 90. (The standard dating based on Mark 13 is not necessarily valid, since apocalyptic expectations continued until at least the end of the century, and Jesus’ suggestion in 13:7 is that some time must pass after the Jewish War before the End-time arrives.)

[See Part Three: The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth.]

Piece No. 8: The Gospels Not History

When the content of the Gospels is examined, two fundamental characteristics emerge to cast serious doubt on the historicity of their story of Jesus.

One is their incompatible nature. The irreconcilability of such things as the baptism and nativity stories, the finding of the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, is, of course, universally recognized, but the myriad other contradictions and disagreements in the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds are more than simple divergences in eyewitness testimony or imperfections in transmission. Since at least the middle of this century, scholars have recognized that the non-agreement between the evangelists, or between an evangelist and his sources, is editorial, deliberate. That is, these writers were consciously redacting their received material according to their own beliefs and purposes, while many Gospel elements are recognized to be the evangelists’ own creation. It follows that, if even the purported words of the Lord could be arbitrarily changed or invented for tendentious reasons, there could be no thought of preserving "history". These writers obviously looked upon their stories as artificial products, designed for the needs of their own communities. Such insights have led the last two generations of scholars (and more) to label the Gospels "faith documents", not historical accounts.

The second characteristic is the dependence of so many elements of the Jesus story on passages and motifs from the Jewish scriptures. The Passion story is a veritable pastiche of verses from the Psalms, Isaiah and various other prophets. Overall, it represents the new telling of a tale found repeatedly throughout the Hebrew bible and related writings. Scholars call it The Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One. The story of Jesus’ fate follows in virtual lockstep this age-old pattern, its details culled from scriptural passages. No history in view here.

This process of mining the scriptures was a reflection of a traditional Jewish practice known as "midrash", in which the writer interpreted and enlarged upon individual or combinations of passages from the bible to draw out new meanings and relevance, to offer a new truth for contemporary times. One midrashic method was to refashion an existing biblical narrative in a new setting. Thus Jesus was portrayed as a new Moses, with features which paralleled the stories of Moses.

John Shelby Spong (in his Liberating the Gospels) regards the Synoptic Gospels as midrashic fiction in virtually every detail, though he believes it was based on an historical man. Spong, building on earlier research by Michael D. Goulder,10 has argued that the Gospel story was designed to provide suitable lectionary material for year-round Christian observances, based on the traditional cycle of Jewish Sabbath and festival themes. This would entirely remove from the Gospels any semblance of history.[See the book review of Spong's Liberating the Gospels.]

[See Part Three: The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth.]

Piece No. 9: A Diverse Patchwork

If Christianity is to be regarded as a single movement, then it is a wildly schizophrenic one. The variety and scale of response to one man defies explanation. The "cultic" expression, epitomized by Paul, apparently abandoned all interest in the earthly life and identity of Jesus and turned him into a cosmic Christ who created the world and redeemed it by his death and resurrection. Individual communities like those responsible for the Q document and the Gospel of Thomas, ignored that death and resurrection and present a teaching Jesus, a preacher of the coming Kingdom of God. In what is probably the earliest stratum of material in the Gospel of John, Jesus is a type of "descending-ascending" redeemer from heaven who saves by being God’s revealer (though he reveals nothing about him except that Jesus is his Son and representative); later, John equates Jesus with the Greek Logos. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is the heavenly High Priest who offers his sacrifice in a heavenly sanctuary, an expression of Alexandrian-style Platonism. In the Didache, Jesus is reduced to a non-suffering intermediary servant/child of God. He is presumed to lie behind the Wisdom-Word-Son mysticism of the Odes of Solomon. In the diverse strands of Gnosticism, Jesus (or Christ) is a mythical part of the heavenly pleroma of Godhead, sometimes a revealer akin to John’s, sometimes surfacing under other names like Derdekeas or the Third Illuminator.11 How many other forms of "Jesus" did not survive in extant documents is impossible to tell, though Paul in his letters hints at divergent groups and apostles all over the place, who "preach another Jesus" so different from his own that he can lay curses upon them and accuse them of being agents of Satan.

Scholars like Burton Mack12 think to find behind the Gospels and other documents all sorts of little groups preserving and formulating this or that type of tradition about Jesus and viewing him in different ways. The Jesus extracted from Q and assigned to a Q community is only the most prominent of these. All this fragmentation of an historical man, the breakup of Jesus into a multitude of component parts, is an unprecedented phenomenon, and not only does no document exist which embodies such a process or even gives a clue as to why it took place, each of these component parts seems blissfully unaware of the others. Paul’s letters give no hint that there were communities centered around the very elements of Jesus’ life and preaching which he had abandoned as of no interest. On the other hand, communities like that of Q seem impervious to the cosmic dimensions which the cultic circles have bestowed upon their preacher of the Kingdom. Only the evangelists (which is to say, the first of them, Mark) thought to bring these disparate elements together. The question is, where did all the various elements come from, and were they associated with a human Jesus in their pre-Gospel stages?

[See Part Three: The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth, and the book review of Burton Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament?]

Piece No. 10: The Second Century

If the historical Jesus seems unknown to all in the first century but the early evangelists (and, in a different sense, the later redactors of Q), the first stirrings of a "knowledge" of an historical Jesus emerge soon after the second century gets under way. Ignatius in his letters (by tradition written around 107 while on his way to martyrdom in Rome) offers the earliest non-Gospel reference to Jesus as a man born of Mary at the time of Herod and crucified by Pontius Pilate. Shortly after, Tacitus’ reference appears, the first in non-Christian literature identifying Jesus as an historical man who was executed at the time of Pilate. Polycarp (writing about 130?), reflects the same outlook as Ignatius, and the Epistle of Barnabas (c. 120?) seems to regard Jesus as an historical man, but the writer is still dependent on scripture for much of what he assigns to this figure. If Eusebius is to be relied upon, Papias too reflects a belief in an historical Jesus (in Asia Minor), and he witnesses (at second hand) to some circulating collections of sayings and possibly anecdotes that have become associated with this figure.

And yet, there are major Christian writings of the second century which fail to present an historical Jesus. Both the Didache (which may have roots in the late first century) and the monumental Shepherd of Hermas are devoid of any such figure; the latter never utters the name Jesus. Even the New Testament epistles generally dated in the early second century, 2 Peter and the three Pastorals, seem to lack an historical man. (The sole reference to Pilate in the New Testament epistles, 1 Timothy 6:13, has been examined with some suspicion by certain commentators13, since it doesn’t seem to fit the context well. I regard it, along with 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, as an interpolation.)

Most astonishingly, all the major apologists before the year 180, with the sole exception of Justin (and a minor apologist from Syria, Aristides), fail to include an historical Jesus in their defences of Christianity to the pagans. This includes Tatian in his pre-Diatessaron days. Instead, the apologists bear witness to a Christian movement which is grounded in Platonic philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism, preaching the worship of the monotheistic Jewish God and a Logos-type Son; the latter is a force active in the world who serves as revealer and intermediary between God and humanity. Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras of Athens, Tatian in his Apology, Minucius Felix in Rome (or North Africa) offer no beliefs in an historical figure crucified as an atoning act, nor in a resurrection. (Nor do they have anything in common with Paul.) In not one of them does the name Jesus appear, and none speak of an incarnation of their Logos. Theophilus explains the meaning of the name "Christian" as signifying that "we are anointed with the oil of God."

Minucius Felix heaps scorn on any doctrine of a crucified man as divine and redeemer (indicating that he is aware of some who hold to such a thing), while Tatian alludes to "stories" told by both Greeks and Christians, implying that both are of the same nature, mythical tales not to be taken literally. Only Justin has embraced the story and the figure as presented in some early form of written Gospel, but even he, in recounting his conversion experience of a couple of decades earlier (Dialogue with Trypho, 3-8), shows a telltale void about belief in an historical man in the faith movement he joined. Into Trypho’s mouth (8:6) he places the accusation that "you invent a Christ for yourselves."

[See The Second Century Apologists]


Part Two

If these are the salient pieces of the documentary record of the time, how have scholars traditionally tried to put them together? Almost universally, they have taken the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, which is attested to only in Gospels beginning in the late first century, and placed him prior to the earliest records—the letters of Paul and other epistles of the New Testament—which themselves contain no sign of him. To compensate for this absence in the early record, they have extracted elements from the Gospels and attempted to trace roots of these back to the supposed time of Jesus, thinking to uncover words and deeds which can be attributed to him. These attempted excavations will be evaluated later.

But the other anomaly which scholars have had to address is perhaps even more challenging. If Jesus died around 30 CE, and was no more than a charismatic preacher of the Kingdom (not too charismatic, since he sank without a trace in all the non-Christian record of the first century), how are we to explain the manner in which he is presented in the earliest surviving Christian writings which begin no more than two decades after his death, and which would seem to contain older elements reaching back to a time when he had scarcely been laid in his grave?

Scholars have long realized that early Christian writers present us with a thoroughly divine Christ. They acknowledge that Paul, together with the cultic circles he represents, has made a leap so far beyond the human Jesus portrayed in the Gospels that the latter figure has been completely lost sight of. Herman Ridderbos is only one of a multitude of voices expressing the same resounding perplexity:

"No one who examines the Gospels...and then reads the epistles of Paul can escape the impression that he is moving in two entirely different spheres....When Paul writes of Jesus as the Christ, historical and human traits appear to be obscure, and Christ appears to have significance only as a transcendent divine being." (Paul and Jesus, p.3). He goes on to ask: "Jesus was not dead the length of a human lifetime before his stature was not only infinitely increased, but also entirely changed. How did this come about?"

Others, such as Rudolf Bultmann,14 have put the situation in different terms: that the early church almost immediately lost all interest in the human life lived by its Master and placed its entire focus on his nature and role as the Crucified and Risen Lord. Not even the pinnacle of salvation history, the event of the cross, is located upon the hill of Calvary, nor his resurrection placed in the context of an empty tomb outside Jerusalem. Norman Perrin15 has presented a picture of the early church which made no real distinction, he says, between the historical Jesus and the exalted Christ, seeing both figures as continuous. This made no clarification necessary between what Jesus on earth had said and what he continued to say in his new spiritual state (an attempt to explain why nothing of the former actually appears, stated as such, in the record).

In all these scenarios, there are difficulties which commentators have been reluctant to face, difficulties which make many of their assumptions virtually impossible.

Against the Jewish Grain

The first difficulty is that the vast majority of the earliest Christians were, of course, Jews. "God is One," says the most fundamental of Jewish theological tenets. Moreover, the Jewish mind had an obsession against associating anything human with God. He could not be represented by even the suggestion of a human image, and Jews in their thousands had bared their necks before Pilate’s swords simply to protest against the mounting of military standards bearing Caesar’s image within sight of the Temple. The idea that a man was a literal part of God would have been met by any Jew with horror and apoplexy.

And yet we are to believe that Jews were immediately led to elevate Jesus of Nazareth to divine levels unprecedented in the entire history of human religion. We are to believe not only that they identified a crucified criminal with the ancient God of Abraham, but that they went about the empire and practically overnight converted huge numbers of other Jews to the same outrageous—and thoroughly blasphemous—proposition. Within a handful of years of Jesus’ supposed death, we know of Christian communities in many major cities of the empire, all presumably having accepted that a man they had never met, crucified as a political rebel on a hill outside Jerusalem, had risen from the dead and was in fact the pre-existent Son of God, creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the world.

Since many of the Christian communities Paul worked in existed before he got there, and since Paul’s letters do not support the picture Acts paints of intense missionary activity on the part of the Jerusalem group around Peter and James, history does not record who performed this astounding feat.16

Moreover, it was apparently done without any need for justification. There is not a murmur in any Pauline letter, nor in any other epistle, that Christians had to defend such an outlandish doctrine. No one seems to challenge Christian preaching on these grounds, for the point is never addressed. Even in 1 Corinthians 1:18-24, where Paul defends the "wisdom of God" (meaning the message he preaches) against the "wisdom of the world", he fails to provide any defense for, or even a mention of, the elevation of Jesus of Nazareth to divinity. He can admit that to the Greeks and Jews the doctrine of the cross—that is, the idea of a crucified Messiah—is "folly" and "a stumbling block." But this has nothing to do with turning a man into God, a piece of folly he never discusses or defends. That his opponents, and the Jewish establishment in general, would not have challenged him on this basic Christian position, forcing him to provide some justification, is inconceivable.

A Reticent Preaching Movement

Could any apostle have maintained such a silence in his missionary activities? If Paul were preaching a man who was God, would not his listeners and converts have demanded to know about the life of this man, his sayings and deeds? Whether Paul liked it or not, the human Jesus would have become a focus of discussion between himself and his congregations, details of which would certainly surface in his letters. None do.

Paul could hardly have set out on a career to bring the message about Jesus to the gentile all across the known world without possessing a certain amount of information about the man he intended to preach. Yet what effort did he make to acquire such information? During the first 17 years following his conversion, and after waiting three of those years, he spent exactly two weeks in Jerusalem with the men who had presumably known Jesus in his ministry and were the custodians of that information. All he did at the time, so he tells us (Galatians 1:18-19), was "get to know Peter" and see James. Did they give him a crash course in their memories of Jesus’ life and ministry? Paul gives no hint of such a thing, and no details are ever relayed to his readers.

Christianity was in competition with the Graeco-Roman mystery cults, with many salvation messages spread by wandering philosophers and devotees of the cultic gods. An important benefit offered by these deities was protection against the evil spirits. Yet the pseudo-Pauline Colossians and Ephesians, which have a special interest in these matters, fail to point out that, unlike the other savior deities, Christ had been incarnated in flesh and blood in recent history. He had experienced and countered such demonic forces first hand, on earth. He had demonstrated his power over them through his miracles, exorcising them from sick people. In his ministry, Jesus had shown compassion, tolerance, generosity, all those things men and women thirsted for in confronting a hostile, uncaring world. It is simply unthinkable that Paul or anyone else would ignore or lose interest in all these advantages of the human Jesus when presenting to their listeners, gentile or Jew, the Christian agent of salvation.

Starring Jesus in a Mythological Drama

Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, in his Honest to Jesus,17 is at pains to point out that Christianity developed as a clash between "the cult of Christ" and "the gospel of Jesus." Paul is supposed to have been the main culprit in creating the former and blocking access to the latter. Funk admits that the cultic branch is entirely mythic in character, that it was strongly influenced by scripture and hellenistic savior cult ideas of a dying/rising god. Yet how could hellenistic mythological ideas have made such strong and sudden inroads into the thinking of those who followed the human Jesus? What, in anyone’s mind, would a counter-culture preacher of the Kingdom, executed by the Roman authorities for some kind of perceived subversion, possibly have had to do with mythic savior gods and world redemption which could have led anyone to cast him so thoroughly in this mold—to the exclusion of all trace of the preaching original?

Scholars have long tried to offer scenarios to explain this process. One runs like this: In their fervor and distress following the crucifixion, the followers of Jesus scrambled to understand what had just happened, to interpret the meaning of their Master’s life, to put a name to his role in God’s plan. They ran to their bibles and began to apply all manner of scriptural passages to him, especially those looked upon as messianic by the Jewish thinking of the time. But they turned as well to contemporary hellenistic mythology about the Logos, supplementing it with the Jewish equivalent in the figure of personified Wisdom, throwing in for good measure dim (to us) myths about descending-ascending heavenly redeemers. Those early Christian thinkers absorbed all this vast cultural pleroma and decided that their Jesus of Nazareth had in fact been the true embodiment of all these myths and proceeded to pile them, willy-nilly, upon him. This "morning after" ransack of current philosophy and the Jewish scriptures led, so they say, to the highly elevated, mythological picture created of Jesus so soon after his death, and to a conviction that he had been "resurrected".

The first thing we have to ask ourselves is: who did all this? It was hardly a circle of simple fishermen around Jesus, like Peter or the sons of Zebedee, who as the Gospels portray them could probably barely read, let alone turn themselves practically overnight into Philonic-type exegetes of the Septuagint and contemporary Greek philosophy. If it was Paul alone, how could he ever have worked with the Jerusalem circle of apostles? In fact, his letters show no dispute on such a score; he enjoyed close contact and cooperation with the group around Peter, even if it could sometimes be an uneasy relationship. If it was a larger circle of more sophisticated minds of which Paul’s is the only name to come down to us, one perhaps based in Antioch as some suggest: whatever gave such a group the impetus to do this? To apply to a crucified preacher whom they had never personally experienced, the loftiest philosophical and religious concepts of their day? And where is the evidence for the split which would surely have taken place in the early Christian movement between such head-in-the-clouds philosophers and a simpler core of disciples who had followed the human Jesus and heard him preach, a preaching in which he would scarcely have presented himself in these terms? There is not the slightest evidence of any disagreement in the ranks over such mythologizing tendencies.

This raises another question. How is one to explain how all this mythologizing of a recent man gained such wide acceptance? It might be one thing to say that certain followers of Jesus (whoever they may have been) were so immersed in religious arcana as to see nothing unusual in casting their Master in these mythological terms. It is quite another to understand how the average man or woman who was approached with a Christian message like this could so readily embrace it. Such claims for a recent man (who hardly claimed such things for himself), especially one executed as a subversive, would have been met with laughter or blank stares—as, no doubt, would the claim that he had risen from his tomb. What could possibly explain why so many apparently made such a bizarre leap of faith?

Even if such mythological motifs were current in the cultural consciousness of the day, how difficult would it be to persuade the hearer that all these myths, hitherto familiar in a spiritual context only, should now be applied to a human being—a crucified criminal? Early Christian preaching would have had to center around the justification for all this, yet this is precisely what is missing from the earliest correspondence.

One-Sided Interpretations

Scholars have had a traditional way of describing the application of philosophical and scriptural content to Jesus in the early literature, from Hebrews’ High Priest making the sacrifice of his own blood in the heavenly sanctuary to Paul’s pre-existent Son. This, they say, was an "interpretation" of the man and the role he was now seen to have played. But how are we to understand an "enterpretation" when the thing being interpreted is never mentioned?

Suzanne Lehne, for example, in her study of Hebrews (The New Covenant in Hebrews, p.27), explains that scripture helped the author "articulate his beliefs" about "the Christ event." But nowhere in Hebrews does the author intimate that he is articulating any historical Christ event, and in fact, a reference in scripture is usually treated as though it is part of that event, not an explanation of something else, let alone recent history. It is from scripture that the "event" of Christ has been constructed; these are not "proof-texts" but "source-texts".

John Knox, in Myth and Truth (p.59), explains Ephesians 1:3-10 as a kind of hymn created to explain Jesus in entirely supernatural terms. He speaks of "the remembered man Jesus," and "the wonder of his deeds and words." But where are these things in Ephesians 1:3-10 or anywhere else? We cannot accept Knox’s claim that the myth in Ephesians is built upon "historical data" when that data is never pointed to. A better explanation would be that the historical data has been added to the myth at a later time. Knox, like New Testament scholarship in general, is guilty of reading into the early Christian mythological presentation of the divine Christ the historical context derived from the later Gospels. The Christ myth as an interpretation of an historical event is a fantasy.

New Forays into Christian Origins

Newer scenarios about how the Christian movement began and how Jesus became the Christ have attempted to be more subtle and comprehensive. Burton Mack suggests18 that, in addition to Galilean groups who regarded Jesus as no more than a human teacher, gentile circles in places like Antioch were responsible, over a period of time, for applying current mythological interpretations to Jesus of Nazareth, and that Paul was converted to one of these "cults". But this scenario has problems. Jews still made up a sizeable component of the community in Antioch. Did they simply allow gentiles to persuade them to betray the most cherished principles of their Jewish heritage? The idea of gradual evolution (Mack suggests it took place over a period of 25 years) is belied by pre-Pauline elements like the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, which are likely, as Mack admits, very early developments. As for Paul himself (according to information in Galatians19), his conversion was also too early to allow the time needed for such processes to take place, especially in distant centers. And are we to believe that he too—a Jew born and bred, so he tells us—swallowed the blasphemous proposition that a man was God, as a result of some gentile sucker-punch? Even among those gentiles, such an elevation of a human man would have been unprecedented and far from easy.

For we must still answer the question "why". What would have led Paul, or gentiles off in northern Syria, to take a simple preacher, whom they knew only by report, and turn him into a cosmic deity, no matter what their diet of hellenistic mystery ideas? The appeal could not have been in his message and charisma as a teacher, since they immediately stripped off this skin and discarded it. If Paul had no interest in the teacher and his teachings, of what use was this Jesus to him as a candidate for divine redeemer? Both Mack and Robert Funk20 speak of the Pauline cult’s point of departure as the fact of Jesus’ "noble death", but noble deaths are common enough in history, including Jewish history, and rarely if ever do they lead to divinization on so exalted a scale. The simple fact of a reputed noble death would hardly have led an educated, observant Jew like Paul to contravene the most sacred precepts of his heritage and associate this particular man, one he had never met, with God.

In any event, the cultic presentation of Jesus’ crucifixion does not fit the "noble death" scenario. The latter is classically of the warrior or teacher who dies for his country, his followers, his teachings. These things focus on a life, a cause: in Judaism, it is invariably for the sake of the Law. This is precisely what is missing in the Christ cult, which has nothing to do with Jesus’ life, teachings or followers. Dying for sin is not in the same category, especially when placed in the spirit realm; this is a mystical, spiritual concept.

Listening For a Footstep . . .

It would seem that the "straightforward proposition" with which this article began is not compatible with Piece No. 2, "A Transcendent Christ", for no feasible path can be traced from the presumed historical Jesus to the earliest expression (as a cosmic redeeming deity) found about him in the early Christian record. No acceptable explanation can be found for why such a leap would have been made in the first place, who made it, how Jewish sensibilities could have been overcome, and why in the process the human man who presumably started it all would have completely disappeared into a black hole.

When we add Piece No. 3, "A Time of Revelation", we find that Paul and others are, in fact, making it impossible to assume that they identify the beginning of the faith movement with an historical man. Through passages like Romans 16:25, Colossians 1:26, Ephesians 3:5, etc., they tell us that this is a time of revelation about the Son through the medium of the Spirit and the holy scriptures. These secrets "hidden for long generations" are only now being unveiled to the world through apostles like Paul, not through any historical Jesus.

In 2 Corinthians 5:18, Paul tells his readers: "From first to last this has been the work of God,21 who has reconciled us to himself through Christ, having given us the ministry of reconciliation." It is apostles like Paul who have been "entrusted by God with the message of reconciliation" (v.19). That Paul is not sharing the limelight with any recent Jesus of Nazareth and his ministry is also borne out in an earlier passage, with not even a "through Christ" to temper the personal eulogy. It begins (3:5-6): "Such qualification as we have comes from God; it is he who has qualified us to dispense his new covenant."

Paul’s total disregard for the role of Jesus himself in dispensing the new covenant is astounding. But he goes on to say that the old covenant had been inaugurated with divine splendor, as reflected in the face of Moses. He asks, "Must not even greater splendor rest upon (be reflected in) the divine dispensation of the Spirit?" Paul has passed over any splendor which might have been contained in the face of Jesus and his career, and settles on that of the missionary movement, impelled by the Spirit sent from God. "How much more," he asks, "shall the ministry of righteousness" —meaning his own ministry— "abound in glory?" (Here my translation.) "The splendor that once was (i.e., in the old covenant) is now...outshone by a splendor greater still." To this mansion of glory in which Paul has taken up residence, Jesus is not even let in by the servants’ entrance!

Such passages ignore any role Jesus might have played in recent salvation history, but what of those which leave absolutely no room for it? Titus 1:3, speaking in Paul’s name, is a good example: "Yes, it is eternal life that God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, and now in his own good time he has openly declared himself in the proclamation which was entrusted to me by ordinance of God our Savior." There is not a crack in this facade where Jesus could gain a foothold. In the past lie God’s promises of eternal life, and his first action on those promises is the present revelation to apostles like Paul who have gone out to proclaim the message. Jesus’ own proclamation of eternal life, his own person as the embodiment of that life (as the Gospel of John so memorably puts it), has evaporated into the wind.

1 Peter (1:12) declares that the things the prophets told of have now been announced, not by Jesus in his own ministry, but "by those preaching the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven." Titus 2:4 and 3:4 speak of what has "dawned upon the world" in the present. Rather than Jesus himself, it is "the grace of God" and "the kindness and generosity of God our Savior." Scholars, when they have allowed themselves to worry about such things, declare these to be metaphorical references to Jesus of Nazareth. This is an interpretation born of desperation.

. . . And a Voice

If the movement began with a man who preached on earth, we are at a loss to explain how even the simple knowledge or presentation of this feature cannot be found in any early strand of the documentary evidence. Compounding this puzzlement is the presence in many epistles of moral teachings and maxims familiar from the Gospel record (including some of Q’s "authentic" sayings), yet without the slightest attribution to its Jesus figure.22 From the Beatitudes to pronouncements on love, to judging and oaths and approaching God and loving enemies and turning the other cheek, not to mention dozens of apocalyptic sentiments which are found in Jesus’ mouth in the Gospels, none are presented as the voice of Jesus. Some are said to come directly from God, as in 1 Thessalonians 4:9, while others (such as Paul’s "words of the Lord") are regarded as the product of inspiration from the spiritual Christ in heaven. Scholarly commentaries are full of expressions of surprise and perplexity on all this silence about the product of the teaching Jesus.23

A quick look at Romans 10 and 11 should convince any unprejudiced observer that Paul knows of no historical preaching Jesus. (I’ll leave it to the reader to consult this passage.) He seeks to emphasize the Jews’ guilt in not responding to the message delivered by apostles like himself, even though they have had every opportunity to do so. And yet he fails to include the opportunity offered by Jesus’ very own person and preaching. Several points in 10:11-21 cry out for some reference, some hint, of the historical ministry, yet none is forthcoming.24 Paul then goes on in chapter 11 to refer to the longstanding myth of the Jews killing their prophets sent from God, yet not a murmur is heard of the killing of the Son of God himself. Nothing can explain away these silences.

The Epistle to the Hebrews opens with the statement that "in this final age (God) has spoken to us through the Son," and then proceeds to give us not a word spoken by this Son—at least not in any historical, earthly setting. Rather, the Son’s voice comes out of the sacred writings; scripture is his platform. In 10:5 the Son speaks in a kind of "mythical present" through a passage from Psalm 40 (actually, 39 LXX).

In this one passage we can see the type of source which gave rise to the idea that the spiritual Son had taken on or entered "flesh" (at first this was envisioned within the lower spiritual realm: see Piece No. 5), and the idea that this Son had undergone sacrifice. For the writer of Hebrews, Christ’s was the ultimate sacrifice which would supplant once for all the sacrifices of the Temple cult which God no longer wanted. The idea of "his coming into the world" is not presented in any historical sense, much less in the context of a Gospel story, but scholars have often struggled to try to relate these verses to an earthly incarnation. Paul Ellingworth however, realizes that the "he says" is "a timeless present referring to the permanent record of scripture."25 This removes it from any historical context.

We are skirting Platonic ideas here, with their concept of a higher world of timeless reality. It is in this spiritual world that Christ operates, as Hebrews’ portrayal of the sacrifice offered in the heavenly sanctuary clearly indicates. The "coming into the world" is still a mythical one, as is the idea of operating "in flesh".26

In the same vein, Ephesians 2:17 is especially interesting. "And coming, he (Christ) proclaimed the good news..." But what was the content of that news? Instead of taking the opportunity to refer to some teachings of Jesus’ presumed ministry, the writer quotes Isaiah. (Even the introductory phrase quoted above is based on Isaiah 52:7.) Like Hebrews, the Son is envisioned as speaking through the sacred writings. The Son inhabits the spiritual world of the scriptures, God’s newly-opened window onto the unseen true reality.27 It is the "coming" of that voice, perceived through revelation and a fresh reading of scripture, which has launched the new age and the Christian movement.


Part Three

We are led to conclude that the beginning of the Christian movement was not a response to any human individual at one time and location. Christianity was born in a thousand places, out of the fertile religious and philosophical soil of the time, expressing faith in an intermediary Son who was a channel to God, providing knowledge, love and salvation. It sprang up in many innovative minds like Paul’s, among independent communities and sects all over the empire, producing a variety of forms and doctrines. Some of it tapped into traditional Jewish Messiah expectation and apocalyptic sentiment, other expressions were tied to more Platonic ways of thinking. Greek mystery concepts also fed into the volatile mix. Many groups (though not all) adopted the term "Christ" for their divine figure, as well as the name "Jesus", which in Hebrew has the meaning of "Savior". Paul and the Jerusalem brotherhood around Peter and James were simply one strand of this broad salvation movement, although an important and ultimately very influential one. Later, in a mythmaking process of its own, the Jerusalem circle with Paul as its satellite was adopted as the originating cell of the whole Christian movement.

But there was another factor involved. New reform impulses and moral concerns were in the air as well, both as part of the many manifestations of the Christ movement and on their own among other, non-cultic circles who preached a coming End-time and transformation of the world. All these groups tended to produce ethical teachings, parables of the Kingdom, stories of conflict experiences. In the end, this increasing store of sectarian expression impelled the creation of a new, artificial figure: the one who had originated such things. Within the cultic movement, this process eventually led to the Proclaimed being brought to earth and turned into the Proclaimer.

That such teaching and Kingdom material had originally nothing to do with any one individual, much less a Jesus of Nazareth, is a possibility yet to be addressed by New Testament scholarship, and thus the search for the "genuine" historical Jesus as preacher and prophet goes on.28 The Jesus Seminar and others have declared him unearthed from the roots of Q, a first century document produced by Jewish circles in Galilee preaching the Kingdom of God.

Excavating the Q Foundations

The modern analysis of Q29 as an evolutionary accumulation of three differentiated layers of material, is undoubtedly reliable. Yet it offers us a Jesus who is an anomaly: a Jewish preacher who yet shows no interest in things Jewish, for in the so-called Q1 layer, we hear a cosmopolitan, very un-Jewish voice, one that bears a strong resemblance to Cynic preaching and practice; this was a Greek counterculture movement of the time spread by wandering Cynic sages.30 Moreover, these sayings sound like the product of a school or lifestyle, developed over time and hardly the sudden invention of a single mind. When certain Q1 material turns up in other venues (with the exception of the Gospel of Thomas: see below), it is never attributed to a Jesus but seems (as Laws observes) to be part of a general stock of ethical material, probably adopted by many reform-minded groups during this period. If a real man were the source of this teaching and the impulse to the formation of a preaching movement, why does he come down to us in such a meager, tortuous fashion?

We need to be suspicious also at the about-face evidenced by the Q2 material. From teachings which seem so cosmopolitan, open-minded and full of visions of the ideal society, not to mention so lacking in Jewish orientation and concerns, how does the community proceed, within supposedly only a few years, to the harsh, punitive, narrow-minded apocalyptic fulmination of the Q2 sayings, whose atmosphere and interests are quite definitely of a Jewish and sectarian nature? Does this not point to the strong possibility that the Q1 material comes from an external source, adopted (and perhaps adapted) by a Q community which turns out not to be quite so admirable and visionary as starry-eyed commentators would like to portray them? The common explanation that tensions resulting from rejection caused this about-face do not seem to be adequate, especially to account for the stark shift to Jewish apocalypticism.

There are other telltale signs in the second layer of Q that all this condemnation was originally directed at a failure to respond to the community’s preaching of the Kingdom, not to the teaching or person of Jesus. The apocalyptic Son of Man sayings are not identified with Jesus, which is why, when they were later placed in his mouth, Jesus sounds as though he is talking about someone else. John the Baptist in the Q2 layer (3:7-19) prophecies an eschatological judge, not a teacher-founder Jesus. The saying found in Luke 16:16 is especially revealing: "Until John there was the Law and the prophets; since then, there is the good news of the kingdom of God." This, like so much of Q, is acknowledged to be a product of the community’s own experience and time (i.e., not going back to Jesus), and yet no reference to Jesus himself has been worked into this picture of the change from the old to the new. Luke 11:49 also leaves out the Son of God when speaking of those whom Wisdom promised to send.

In fact, that verse and others point to the source of the Q1 sayings as perceived by the later community. They were the product of, or inspired by, personified Wisdom. The Q1 stage is recognized as "sapiential," that is, an instructional collection in the same genre as traditional "wisdom" books like Proverbs. John is identified as a "child of Wisdom", and so was Jesus (Lk. 7:35) when he was introduced into the picture: see below.

Commentators like Mack have attempted to explain why Q contains no hint of Jesus’ death, let alone a resurrection. All fall back on the idea that news of such an event did not reach them in Galilee, or that it held no interest for them. Neither explanation is acceptable. The group which "remained" in Jerusalem is said to have had roots in Galilee which would certainly have remained active. And if there is one prominent motif to be found in Q’s second layer, it is the theme of the killing of the prophets. Had the founder’s fate been execution, there is no way this would not eventually have been seized on and incorporated into the community’s consciousness. The alternative (something Mack tentatively suggests) is that there was no death—at least not a memorable one, no execution by the authorities at all. Of course, this places the burden on the cultic side of things: if Jesus died a natural death, what historical fuel drove Paul and his fellows to build their mythic crucifixion? An impossible situation either way.

Filling In the Gaps

One of the great anomalies in Q is the lack of any contexts for the majority of its sayings. The few that have them can be located in the Q3 layer. For every single Q1 and Q2 saying, Matthew and Luke have been forced to provide their own contexts and set-up lines within their picture of Jesus’ ministry. Not even something like the Lord’s Prayer is given a common setting between the two Synoptic evangelists. If the community had associated these sayings with a Jesus right from the beginning, and taking into account the amount of redaction the document underwent through its various stages, it is virtually impossible that over the course of time some of these would not have had little context references added to them (whether accurately preserved or simply invented), so that Matthew and Luke would betray some presence of such things. Only a handful of anecdotes, like the dialogue between Jesus and John, or the Capernaum miracle, show any such development, and these bear signs of being late, of tendentious redaction. They are composite creations, put together out of earlier discrete units.

This can be illustrated by a comparison with the Gospel of Thomas. This too presents itself as a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus and has been enlisted in support of the 'discovery' of Jesus at the roots of Q. Thomas shows far less development than Q. Most of its sayings are prefaced only by a simple "Jesus said," while a few have scraps of set-up lines. Like Q, it contains no death and resurrection motifs.

But there is some form of relationship between the two documents, and since the Gospel of Thomas contains the more primitive form of those sayings they hold in common, most of which are located at the Q1 level, we can deduce that the roots of Thomas split off from Q at an early stage of Q development (or possibly vice-versa). The identification with Jesus could have been added at any later time in reaction to the widespread development of an historical figure, probably some time in the first half of the 2nd century. (The unearthed copy of Thomas is based on a Greek version which goes back to the mid second century.)

Thomas confirms that the evolution of Q involved stages of considerable recasting, including joining individual sayings into dialogues and anecdotes (a common practice of the period). A simple saying in Thomas, #78, where it would seem to refer to Jesus, appears in Q in an extended construction, the dialogue between Jesus and John (Lk. 7:18-35), where it is made to apply to John. This is a dead giveaway that the Q pericope is an invention. The set of three chreic responses in Q1 (Lk. 9:57-62) are similarly shown to be later redacted units.

Thus, all the signs point to no Jesus in the earlier layers of Q.

Q’s Founder Emerges

When and why did the idea of a founder figure emerge in the Q community’s thinking? It appeared at the Q3 level, when certain dialogue, pronouncement and miracle anecdotes were constructed or revamped from earlier material to embody him, and minor changes were made to some individual sayings to reflect his voice.

Reform impulses and apocalyptic expectations are things which solidify groups of like-minded people into sects, set against the wider world around them which largely rejects such extreme messages and thus receives the sect’s condemnation. Q2 preserves the community’s hostile reaction to rejection, and even Paul itemizes the suffering he has endured at the hands of those unreceptive to his gospel. When groups become more sectarianized, certain social phenomena take place. Attitudes of "inside" and "outside" solidify. A bulwark is created to defend against attack. Community practices need to be justified, and the beliefs of those who now consider themselves an elect must be supported.

Thus the sect’s view of its theology and history tends to evolve to serve the primary purpose of filling its needs as a distinct and isolated social group. The past is reconstructed to render it sacred. Current faith and teaching, ritual and practice, are bolstered by showing that such things had been there from the beginning, that they had been formulated under divine auspices, in inspiring circumstances, and preferably by a heroic founder figure with a pipeline to the deity—perhaps even sent by, or a part of, the deity itself.

This process can be seen in the evolution of Q. Q1 is a body of Cynic-style material, probably ultimately from a Greek source. Perhaps Mack is right in postulating a cosmopolitan Galilee, a strongly hellenistic environment in which certain Jewish circles began preaching the Kingdom. Here Jews could absorb foreign ideas without difficulty, and may have adopted Greek Cynic material as providing a suitable ethic for their Kingdom movement.

However, opposition from an unreceptive environment soon led to the formulation of prophetic and condemnatory sayings, together with little anecdotes (also of a Cynic nature) embodying the conflict between sect and establishment. Q2 added the darker side of sectarianism and apocalyptic expectation to the original body of enlightened, cosmopolitan material. No Jesus had yet spoken such things. This was still a record of the community’s own teachings and articulated stance toward others. And the sect may originally have regarded itself as spokespersons for the Wisdom of God. Her presence within the community’s thinking is revealed by Luke in 11:49: "That is why the Wisdom of God said..." Instead of "Jesus said" at the earlier stages of Q, it may have been "Wisdom said".

That chink left open by Luke may well reveal the entire early landscape of Q, a landscape empty of any Jesus figure at all, peopled by a preaching movement inspired from heaven and working under Wisdom’s direction. As she had done throughout Israel’s past, Wisdom had sent this culminating wave of messengers to proclaim God’s salvation, and as in the past, they had received hostility, rejection, even death.

But Wisdom was not the ideal founder figure, for she was only a spiritual entity. What the Q community needed was a human, heroic progenitor, one who had actually spoken the sayings, done the deeds, set the precedents. The very existence of the sayings collection would have invited attribution to an originating and authoritative figure. And so, Wisdom was transformed into her ideal representative, a "child of Wisdom". Matthew in his use of Q reflects a further evolving attitude to Jesus as the very incarnation of Wisdom herself, and many of Jesus’ sayings in Q are recognized as borrowed Wisdom sayings.

But this founder figure was not yet cast as divine, and the term "Christ" is never used of him. He is not envisioned as the Messiah, though he takes on the identity of "the coming one" when he becomes associated with the Son of Man, and there seem to be intimations of divinity which come in at the final phase of Q in the form of the Temptation Story. Nor is he a redeemer, for there is no soteriology attached to Jesus in any stage of Q. He is simply a glorified embodiment of the Q preachers themselves, doing what the Q people had done from the beginning, only better. He opened the door for men and women’s entry into the new Kingdom.

Of course, John the Baptist had to be realigned, and so he was recast as the forerunner, the herald to whom the founder Jesus had been superior. This would also put the rival followers of John the Baptist (by now perhaps a separate sect) in their place. This rivalry, together with the fact that John had not been known as a Wisdom teacher, may have precluded any tendency to make John himself the founder of the Q sect.

Q and the Gospels

How do we relate the latest phase of Q to the developing Gospels? On one level and in the same manner as Q, the Gospels are creations motivated by the sectarian needs discussed above. They are foundation documents which embody the principles of the sect’s faith and practice and its stance toward the outside world. That "foundation" is fictionalized in a mythic tale about a founder figure, a tale which does two things: it translates the redeeming spirit-realm activities of its deity into an earthly setting, and it adds the epitomization of the work and beliefs of the Markan community itself, focusing these on its Jesus of Nazareth.

The Markan Jesus, as intermediary Son and Redeemer, has been drawn from the cultic Christ of the Pauline type (although there seems to be no direct use of the specific ideas of Paul, unless the Lord’s Supper myth has come from Paul through indirect channels). This makes it likely that the Markan community was a cultic group to begin with.31 But Mark also betrays Q-like traditions, and a debate still rages as to whether he also had access to some form of Q, or perhaps had come in oral contact with members of the Q community.32

The key question then becomes: did Mark, in casting his Christ in a human character and local setting, draw on recently developed conceptions about a founder figure in the Q community? Did the Q Jesus serve as a model or inspiration for Mark’s Jesus of Nazareth? Without a copy of the Q document itself, Mark may have had little of substance about this figure to draw on, and thus we find the curious paucity of teachings in Mark’s Gospel,33 and the absence of almost any of the Q anecdotes incorporated by Matthew and Luke.

In any event, the Q traditions lacked biographical and contextual elements, so Mark had only scripture to draw on for detail to flesh out his Jesus "biography". This, as modern scholarship has come to realize, was founded on the principles of midrash and modelled on the story of the Suffering Righteous One. It is very possible that Mark, and perhaps Matthew and Luke (and even John), regarded their midrashic tale as symbolic only, and its Jesus figure as not historical. In such a state, these early versions of the Gospels would have remained in that limbo for a generation or more, undisseminated beyond their own communities, until wider forces and new interpretations led the evangelists’ Jesus of Nazareth out onto the historical stage.

Finally, it has been suggested that various first century preacher/Zealots and would-be Messiah figures who agitated for revolutionary or apocalyptic change, and were usually dispatched by the military authorities (perhaps one was even executed by Pilate!), provided a partial model for the creation of Mark’s Jesus figure, or perhaps even that of Q at some stage. But this is a far cry from saying that the Gospel Jesus represents an historical figure in any meaningful fashion, or that thereby we can say that "there was an historical Jesus."

An Unresolved Question

As a final consideration, I might suggest that the situation between Mark and Q could be even more complex. Most scholars find some echo in Mark of Q ideas and experiences. But could the influence have extended in the other direction, too? Q surfaces for the first time in Matthew and Luke, likely after the turn of the second century. What recent revisions and additions might have been made to it? (It is thought the two evangelists used different "editions" of Q.) There is no necessity to assume they are resurrecting some document that had been dead or fixed for several decades. This line of approach may also help solve the one intriguing question where my view of Q is concerned.

Why should the invented Q founder, with no connection to the cults of Paul or the usual savior concepts, have been named Jesus—which has the meaning of "savior" and the echo of divinity?

Was the term so widespread among Jewish sectarian circles that it exercised a compelling attraction on the Kingdom-preaching community in Galilee? This would imply that the Q people, perhaps in the decade or so following the Jewish War, were by that time aware of the spiritual Christ cults flourishing in the wider world, and thus of the higher significance of the name. If so, did this impel that move toward divinity discernible in the final phase of Q3?

Or could, perhaps, the latest stage of Q postdate the earliest phase of Mark, and had there been crossover influences? As part of this question, we would then ask: had Q3 used the name "Jesus" at all?

Even if it nowhere appeared in the text, even if another designation had been used by the Q3 redactors in passages like the dialogue between Jesus and John, Matthew and Luke, under the influence of Mark and because they were not conscious of reproducing history, would have changed it to Jesus.

But there is another possibility. It is not improbable that some intervening hand, before the later Synoptics came to be written, had already altered Q3’s original designation for its founder to fit a deepening trend: the near-universality of the name Jesus among a host of apocalyptic and salvation sects. Perhaps this had been done under the influence of a newly-minted Mark. Perhaps the altering hand was someone who saw the Q document as a surviving record, or a related account—historical or otherwise—of the humanized divine Christ of the Gospel of Mark.

A written Q, in fact, may finally have found its way to the Markan community and after minor alterations, rested for a time on the same shelf as the recently constructed Gospel. It was left to a later evangelist in a neighboring community to amalgamate the two after copies reached him by the same post, so to speak. Some years after that, another evangelist, this one a little further away perhaps, whose community had different, more gentile interests, got wind of the two documents, arranged for copies and did his own reworking.

The construction of an historical Jesus was well under way.



1 Since it contains an unmistakable allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem, and because it is not in keeping with what Paul elsewhere says about his fellow countrymen. See, for example, Birger Pearson: 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation, HTR 64 (1971), 79-94. [See Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?: The Jews "Who Killed the Lord Jesus".]

2 For example, Origen, in his Contra Celsum discusses a few times (e.g., I, 46 and 67) the veracity of Jesus’ miracles; if Josephus had referred to Jesus as a "doer of wonderful deeds" (as scholars like J. D. Crossan claim), he would hardly have passed up the opportunity to appeal to the Jewish historian’s witness. Some claim that Origen’s statement in Contra Celsum I, 47 that Josephus "did not believe in Jesus as the Christ" constitutes an oblique reference to such a passage, but this is better explained as Origen’s reaction to the fact that Josephus declares, in Jewish Wars VI, 312-13, that the Jews’ predictions about a Messiah really applied to the emperor Vespasian. [See Supplementary Article No. 10: Josephus Unbound.]

3 Origen uses a copy which has Josephus regarding the destruction of Jerusalem as a divine punishment for the murder of James, whereas no surviving copy of Josephus makes any such suggestion. [See the sections on the "lost reference" in Josephus Unbound.]

4 E.g., Origen, Barrett, Héring, Delling (TDNT I, 489), Schoeps, Salmond. See Paul Ellingworth, A Translator’s Handbook for 1 Corinthians, p.46: "A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here." [See Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?: The Rulers of this Age.]

5 J. D. Quinn in the Anchor Bible Commentaries (Titus, p.65) says that "the phrase pro chronon aionion refers to the timeless order in which God himself lives, in contrast to the chronoi aionioi (as in Romans 16:25) through which the world has passed in history. Cf. James Barr, Biblical Words For Time, p.138f.

6 The little document called Discourse to the Greeks and erroneously ascribed to Justin Martyr shows that the Logos could be looked upon as an agency of salvation. Here it takes on decidedly personal characteristics in that it "has ceaseless care over us," and "makes mortals become immortal, human beings gods" (5). See E. R. Goodenough, By Light, Light, p.300.

7 See under Sarx in TDNT VII, 128.

8 Helmut Koester’s groundbreaking search for Synoptic references in the writings of the early Fathers, Synoptische Überlieferung bei den apostolischen Vätern, concludes that almost all such references come from a pre-Gospel layer of tradition.

9 If Papias’ (now lost) Oracles of the Lord Interpreted had contained quotations from such Gospels, later commentators, like Eusebius and Philip of Side, would certainly have referred to them. Nor is it likely that if he had full narrative Gospels of Jesus’ life Papias would have disparaged written works and preferred oral traditions, as he is reported to have said. Papias tells, in the fragments quoted by Eusebius, that his information about "Mark" came from "the Presbyter", but whether this was also the case concerning "Matthew" Eusebius is not clear, though it is likely. All Papias witnesses to (assuming we can trust Eusebius) is that a couple of decades or so into the second century, there were certain circulating collections of sayings and possibly anecdotes, probably of a prophetic nature, one of them in Hebrew or Aramaic, which had begun to be attributed to an historical Jesus and associated with the names of early reputed followers of him.

10 Midrash and Lection in Matthew, The Evangelist’s Calendar, Luke: A New Paradigm [See the book review of John Shelby Spong's Liberating the Gospels.]

11 See The Paraphrase of Shem and The Apocalypse of Adam (NHC VII,1 and V,5)

12 Who Wrote the New Testament? (1995) and A Myth of Innocence (1988) [See the book review of Burton Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament?]

13 For example, C. K. Barrett, The Pastoral Epistles in the New English Bible, p.86f; J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, p.146f; J. L. Houlden, The Pastoral Epistles, p.100f.

14 Jesus and the Word, p.8

15 What is Redaction Criticism? p.23f

16 The 4th century "Ambrosiaster" gives us a clue in his commentary on Romans, that the Christians of Rome accepted faith in Christ "without seeing any of the apostles". In other words, it was a case of local development of belief in the widespread idea of a spiritual Son, and nothing to do with a missionary movement out of Judea.

17 Chapter Two, p. 31-45 [See the book review of Robert Funk's Honest to Jesus.]

18 Who Wrote the New Testament? p.75f; cf. his A Myth of Innocence, p.101f.

19 Galatians 1:16-2:1.

20 Mack: Who Wrote the New Testament?, p. 80f; Funk: Honest to Jesus, p.43.

21 NEB translation; literally, all this is from God.

22 We have to keep in mind that it matters not whether such sayings were actually authentic. If Jesus was known to be a teacher, the competitive and disputatious nature of the movement itself would have led to attaching anything and everything to him for authority.

23 Perhaps no attempt to explain this is as mind-boggling as that of Sophie Laws in her study The Epistle of James (p.34): "Whereas the Gospels have one form of adoption of Jesus’ teaching, in that they identify it as his, James provides evidence of another way of retaining and preserving it: absorbed without differentiation into the general stock of ethical material." What are we to call this: "preservation by burial"?! James has covered over the traces so well one wonders how later generations were able to unearth it. Laws’ bland statement that "It is not important to James to indicate where his precepts derive from Jesus," explains nothing and only highlights the sheer absurdity of the idea. Laws is in good company with such as Peter H. Davids (James, p.16), who boldly states: "The non-citation of Jesus even when dependent on his thought, is fully characteristic of the New Testament epistles." Davids draws on other silences to prove that the silence in James is not a silence at all!

24 Verse 17’s "of Christ" is an objective genitive, supported by the entire context. See C. K. Barrett’s attempt (The Epistle to the Romans, p.189) to introduce a preaching Jesus alongside the apostolic preachers into a little relative pronoun in verse 14. Hou ouk ekousan, he says, should be translated as meaning "Christ must be heard either in his own person, or in the person of his preachers." Barrett’s claim, which no one to my knowledge agrees with, destroys Paul’s finely-created chain of argument. Barrett is letting what he cannot believe is missing override what is clearly there—or not there—in Paul’s words.

25 New International Greek Testament Commentary: Hebrews, p.500

26 Hebrews 10:37 makes it clear that "the coming one" has not come previously, for scripture’s promise has not yet been fulfilled. And 8:4 virtually spells out that Christ had never been on earth. (Ellingworth, op.cit., p.405, shies away from this conclusion by rejecting the normal interpretation of the imperfect verbs, since "it could be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus had never been to earth"!) As for 9:28, which scholars are willing to say is the only spot in the New Testament epistles where the Parousia is spoken of as a second coming, the "ek deuterou" can instead be taken as meaning "next" in a sequential sense, and not necessarily "a second time"; in fact, the context of v.27-28 supports the former. [See Supplementary Article No. 9: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews.]

27 Since the higher realm of spirit constituted the "true" reality, that upper world contained the spiritual counterparts of things material in the world below. Thus within the spirit realm Christ could take on the equivalent of "flesh", make a "blood" sacrifice, even be "of David’s stock" as in Romans 1:3. Note that this feature of Christ "kata sarka" is determined by scripture, as Paul tells us in verse 2. It is on the prophets, not known historical fact, that Paul has founded his "gospel of the Son", and his activities in both "flesh" and "spirit". [See Supplementary Article No. 8: Christ as "Man".]

28 It has been remarked (e.g., by E. P. Sanders in his Jesus and Judaism) that Jesus’ teaching, especially that considered most probably authentic by modern scholarship, was hardly of a nature to prompt the authorities to execute him. Sanders, too, points out that such teaching did not have a Jewish focus, much less an apocalyptic one; neither did it call for the repentance or restoration of Israel. This fundamental incompatibility between the "teaching" side of the Gospel story and the "Passion" side is strong evidence that the one originally had nothing to do with the other, but were brought together artificially.

29 As in John Kloppenborg’s The Formation of Q.

30 Burton Mack and John Dominic Crossan are prominently associated with this view of a "Cynic" Jesus.

31 There are those who claim that the Synoptic Gospels do not specifically state that Jesus is divine, though the picture painted of his "suffering, death and resurrection" certainly leans in a cultic direction.

32 Mack locates the Markan community in Sidon or Tyre; others in southern Syria. Willi Marxsen liked Galilee itself. Virtually every commentator regards the Q community as native to Galilee.

33 See Eugene Boring, "The Paucity of Sayings in Mark," SBLSP 1977