Was There No Historical Jesus?
Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?
The five main articles following the Preamble present the basic case for the non-existence of an historical Jesus.
Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," surveys the silence on the Gospel Jesus and Gospel events in the early epistolary record. Part Two, "Who Was Christ Jesus?" examines that early record for a more realistic picture of the original faith and the context of its period. Part Three, "The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth," presents the development of the Gospels (including Q) and their new Jesus figure as the founder of Christianity. The "Postscript" surveys the non-Christian record of the time and considers some general problems in current New Testament research. Finally, "The Second Century Apologists" examines the post-Gospel situation and the wider, non-canonical record of the second century. Discussions and arguments put forward in the Main Articles are developed in greater depth, with additional references and sources, in the Supplementary Articles (see Home Page), as well as in many Reader Feedback responses (see Reader Feedback Index).
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The theory that Christianity could have begun without an historical Jesus of Nazareth has been adamantly resisted by New Testament scholarship since it was first put forward some 200 years ago. It has generally been held by a small minority of investigators, usually "outsiders." An important factor in this imbalance has been the fact that, traditionally, the great majority working in the field of New Testament research have been religious apologists, theologians, scholars who are products of divinity schools and university religion departments, not historians per se. To suggest that a certain amount of negative bias may be operating among that majority where the debate over an historical Jesus has been concerned, is simply to state the obvious. Nor is such a statement to be considered out of order, especially in the face of the common 'argument' so often put forward against the mythicist position: that the vast majority of New Testament scholars have always rejected the proposition of a non-existent Jesus, and continue to do so. In fact, the latter is simply an "appeal to authority" and cannot by itself be given significant weight.
It is true that such a bias as may exist in traditional ranks does not automatically mean that they are wrong, or that the mythicist viewpoint is correct. What we need to do is examine the negative position taken by the opposing side and consider its substance. The problem is, traditional scholarship has offered very little of substance in opposing the theory that Jesus never existed, and that is especially true in recent times. Even more progressive scholarship, such as the Jesus Seminar, has never seriously addressed the question (other than an informal opinion poll among the Seminar's members when it first began its work). Not a single first-rank critical scholar that I am aware of has devoted even an article to it, let alone a book.
Something like The Evidence for Jesus (1986) by R. T. France, Vice-Principal of the London Bible College, hardly fills that role, and is devoted to illuminating the figure of an historical Jesus—a largely orthodox one—not just to defending his existence. As a defense it is quite ineffectual, taking no account (since it largely predates them) of recent insights into Q, the pervasive midrashic content of Mark, the modeling of Mark's passion story on the traditional tale of the Suffering Righteous One, and much else that has given ongoing support to the no-Jesus theory. Graham Stanton, in his The Gospels and Jesus (1989), devotes a chapter to addressing the views of mythicist G. A. Wells. Stanton's 'case' against Wells' position is little more than a citation of Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny (discussed below)—and an appeal to the authority that comes with the majority's acceptance "that Jesus existed." Ian Wilson, in Jesus: The Evidence (1984), does much the same, first acknowledging the uncertainty and contradiction in the early evidence, and then having recourse to the same trio of ancient 'witnesses.' All of them raise points that show little or no understanding for the depth and sophistication of the mythicist position. J. D. G. Dunn, in his one-page "Note on Professor Wells' View" in The Evidence for Jesus (1985), falls back on the old timeworn explanations for Paul's silence on a human figure. He, too, asks questions that show he is trapped within the old paradigm and unable to grasp how standard objections to the mythicist position dissolve, as do many of the longstanding problems in New Testament research, when the new paradigm of an evolving historical Jesus is applied to the evidence.
In the past fifteen years we have seen the orthodox Christian story systematically dismantled by critical scholarship like that of the Jesus Seminar, many of whose members have become increasingly secular and scientific in their outlook, something to be applauded. Insights into the dubious authenticity of Christian traditions, into the derivation of the Gospels and their antecedents, into the Christian movement as it developed within the context of its time, have been coming with gathering speed, not to mention radical positions on the historical Jesus that would have been unheard of little more than a decade ago. Within such circles of modern scholarship one might expect a serious and comprehensive defense against the most threatening position ever taken against the foundations of Christianity, one that is gaining an ever greater number of supporters and higher profile, including in several recent books published in both North America and Europe. Yet none has been forthcoming. In the absence of such a defense, an appeal to the majority viewpoint on the question of Jesus' existence is misplaced.
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The non-Christian witness to Jesus is anything but supportive of his existence. Until almost the end of the first century, there is not a murmur of him in the Jewish or pagan record. The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived until about 50 CE and wrote of unusual sects like the Therapeutae and the Essenes, has nothing to say about Jesus or Christians. Justus of Tiberias, a Jewish historian who wrote in Galilee in the 80s (his works are now lost), is reported later to have made no mention whatever of Jesus. Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE) collected data on all manner of natural and astronomical phenomena, even those which were legendary and which he himself did not necessarily regard as factual, but he records no prodigies associated with the beliefs of Christians, such as an earthquake or darkening of the skies at a crucifixion, or any star of Bethlehem. The first Roman satirist to scorn a sect which believed in a crucified Judean founder who had been a god was not Martial at the end of the first century, nor Juvenal in the first half of the second century, but Lucian in the 160s. Reports of Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher of the early second century who preached universal brotherhood to the poor and humble masses, record no knowledge on his part of a Jewish precursor. Nor does Seneca, the empire's leading ethicist during the reign of Nero, make reference to such a figure. Other historians of the time, like Plutarch and Quintilian, are equally silent.
The famous passage about Jesus in chapter 18 of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (published around 93 CE), the so-called "Testimonium Flavianum," is widely acknowledged to be, as it stands, a later Christian interpolation. It speaks naively and devotionally of Jesus and declares him to have been the Messiah. Origen in the third century tells us that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, a remark likely prompted by the fact that Josephus declared Vespasian the object of the messianic prophecies (in Jewish War 6.5.4). This remark by Origen shows that the declaration in Antiquities 18 did not exist in his copy. But neither does Origen or anyone else before the 4th century mention any other reference to Jesus here. Such a silence argues against the fallback claim that even though Christians later amended it, an original reference to Jesus can be extracted from the present one. This "authentic residue" of the Testimonium would not only have been positive enough to invite comment by such as Origen, it still contains opinions about Jesus that Josephus is unlikely to have held. As for the passing identification in Antiquities 20 that "James" was the brother of Jesus known as the Christ, there are problems in accepting this too as original to Josephus, such as his alleged use of the term "Christ" (Messiah), a subject which Josephus shows sign of being reluctant to discuss in any of his works. Thus, the Josephan references have too many problems to constitute reliable support for Jesus' existence. For a thorough examination of both Josephus' passages, see Supplementary Article No. 10: Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question.
The Roman historian Tacitus, in his Annals written around 115, makes the first pagan reference to Jesus as a man executed in the reign of Tiberius. This is not likely to have been the result of a search of some archive, for the Romans hardly kept records of the countless crucifixions around the empire going back almost a century. We have no evidence of such extensive record-keeping. Besides, Tacitus is not known as a thorough researcher, which is illustrated by the fact that he gets Pilate's title wrong, something that might have been corrected had he consulted an official record. Scholars such as Norman Perrin (The New Testament: An Introduction, p.407) acknowledge that Tacitus' "information" probably came from local Christian hearsay and police interrogation; this would have been at a time when the idea of an historical founder had recently taken hold in Rome. There is even some reason to doubt the authenticity of this passage, despite its vilifying description of Christians. The association of a persecution of Christians with the great fire in Nero's Rome (the context of Tacitus' reference) is nowhere mentioned by Christian commentators for the next several centuries.
Pliny the Younger's well-known letter to Trajan, written from Asia Minor around 112 and asking the emperor for advice on the prosecution of Christians, says nothing about a recent historical man, let alone biographical elements. "Christ," perhaps a reference to the Jewish Messiah idea, is simply identified as a god in Christian worship. And the historian Suetonius' reference (around 120) to "Chrestus" as someone, or some idea, that has produced agitation among Jews in Rome, is so flimsy and uncertain, no secure meaning can be drawn from it, much less a connection to Christianity and an historical Jesus. It could be referring to Jewish messianic expectation or to an early belief in a divine Christ.
There are those who appeal to obscure references in the historians Thallus and Phlegon about eclipses of the sun allegedly associated with the crucifixion, but such pagan writers, their works now lost, come to us only through Christian commentators. The latter could well have put their own spin on reports which originally had nothing to do with a Jesus, but simply referred to an eclipse of the sun which astronomers date in the year 29. Certainly, there are no other reports at the time among either Mediterranean writers or others around the world about a universal darkness at midday.
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 later. Such records cannot be relied upon to preserve authentic traditions of a few centuries earlier, ones that may have been influenced by, or created in response to, Christian claims of the second century and later. In any case, such references are often so cryptic and off the mark they can scarcely be identified with the Gospel figure. Some have him dying by stoning or hanging, rather than by crucifixion. One places Jesus in the time of the Maccabean king Alexander Jannaeus around 100 BCE; another identifies the husband of Jesus' mother as someone who is said to have been a contemporary of rabbi Akiba in the second century CE. All of them allot responsibility for the death of this figure solely to the Jews, a strange situation in Jewish rabbinic tradition if the Gospel story were history and widely known. As a witness to an historical Jesus, the Talmudic references are worthless.
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There are a number of fundamental problems in mainstream New Testament research that can be dealt with under the heading of "Five Fallacies" which that research has traditionally been guilty of. (I will assume the reader's familiarity with Parts One to Three.) The First Fallacy is the idea that Jews, both in Palestine and across the empire, could have come to believe—or been converted to the idea by others— that a human man was the Son of God. Within a handful of years of Jesus' supposed death we know of Christian communities all over the eastern Mediterranean, many of them involving at least some Jewish adherents. Such Christians may have been numerous and troublesome enough in Rome to be expelled by Claudius as early as the 40s. At the very least, Paul in Romans speaks of a congregation of the Christ that has been established in the capital of the empire "for many years" (15:23). Traditional Christian views have maintained that such communities were the product of dusty disciples from Judea who went off to centers big and small and almost overnight managed to convince great numbers of Jews (as well as gentiles) that a humble preacher they had never seen or heard of, executed in Jerusalem as a subversive, had risen from the dead, redeemed the world, and was in fact God's pre-existent Son who had helped him create the universe. This is an incredible proposition.
I said in Part One that Judaism's fundamental theological tenet was: God is one. It is true that the first Jewish Christians, such as Paul, were flirting with a compromise to monotheism in postulating a divine Son in heaven, even though he was entirely spiritual in nature and was conceived of as a part of God; this Son was derived from scripture and was an expression of the prominent philosophical idea of the age that the ultimate Deity gave off emanations of himself which served as intermediaries with the world. But this is a far cry from turning a recent man who had walked the sands of Palestine into part of the Godhead. (It was essentially gentiles who were later to create such an idea, and it produced the "parting of the ways" between the Christian movement and its Jewish roots.) Almost any Jew would have reacted with apoplexy to the unprecedented message that a man was God. In a society in which the utter separation of the divine from the human was an obsession, the Jewish God could not be represented by even the suggestion of a human form, and thousands bared their necks before the swords of Pilate simply to protest against the human images on Roman standards being brought into the city to overlook the Temple. To believe that ordinary Jews were willing to bestow on any human man, no matter how impressive, all the titles of divinity and full identification with the ancient God of Abraham is simply inconceivable.
Paul is not only assumed to have done this, but he did so without ever telling us that anyone challenged him on it, that he had to defend such a blasphemous proposition. His comment in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the cross of Christ is a "scandal" refers to his idea that the divine Messiah had been crucified (a spiritual figure in a mythical setting), not that a recent man was God.
The Second Fallacy is an extension of the first, and I touched on it in Part Three. Scholars are faced with a bewildering variety of expression in earliest Christianity. Many circles of belief lacked fundamental Christian doctrines, and different aspects of Jesus are said to have been preserved by separate groups. Modern critical scholarship has put forward a curious scenario to explain all this. Various groups who came in contact with Jesus or the missionary movement about him are supposed to have focused on different aspects of him, some exclusively on the teachings, others on the miracles, still others on the message about his death and perceived resurrection as a redeeming act. Some came up with unique interpretations of him. Some of these groups saw him in entirely human terms, while others, like Paul, turned him into God and abandoned all interest in his pre-resurrection earthly life and identity. Burton Mack (in A Myth of Innocence, p.98f) suggests that this cultic deification of Jesus took place under the influence of gentiles in Hellenistic circles like Antioch. But this hardly explains Paul, allegedly a Jew born and bred, who was converted within two to five years of Jesus' supposed death. Did a whole Hellenistic mythology develop around Jesus almost overnight, in the heart of Jerusalem—and Paul accepted it? Or did he not believe in Jesus as the Son of God right from the start? Perhaps we are to view the theology of Paul's letters, our earliest record written two decades later, as a result of the insidious influence of gentiles at Antioch.
Such scenarios fail to provide any convincing explanation for why such an immediate fragmentation would have taken place, why the Christian movement began as "fluid and amorphous" (James Robinson in Trajectories Through Early Christianity, p.114f). Mack admits that "much of the evidence is secondhand, and all of it is later." Out of a record of multiplicity, Christian scholars have deduced a single founder and point of origin which is based on a later stage: the Gospel story, formed by the postulated reconvergence of the original diverging strands. But no document records this initial phenomenon of differing "responses" to the historical man, this break-up of Jesus into his component parts. Given a record whose earliest manifestation is nothing but diversity, common sense requires us to assume the likelihood that this was in fact the incipient state, and that the new faith arose in many different places with many different expressions. Some elements, such as the teachings, would have had no connection to a Jesus in their early stages. Most of this diversity was later to be drawn together and recast under a composite new figure, courtesy of the evangelists.
The above type of scenario involves a Third Fallacy. Scholars have long asked questions like that of Elizabeth Schlüsser-Fiorenza ("Wisdom Mythology and the Christological Hymns of the New Testament" in Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity, p.34): "Why do the hymns use the language of myth to speak of Jesus of Nazareth who was not a mythic figure but a concrete historical person?" I pointed out in Part One that the very earliest expression about Jesus we find in the Christian record presents him solely as a cosmic figure, the pre-existent creator and sustainer of the universe (Paul and his school), a heavenly High Priest and Platonic Logos-type entity (Epistle to the Hebrews), a descending redeemer in the spiritual realm (the pre-Pauline hymns), and so on. All such presentations of Jesus are said to be ways various circles adopted of "interpreting" the man Jesus of Nazareth—according to sacred scripture and current philosophical and mythical concepts. But it would help if any of these early writers gave us even a hint that such an intention was anywhere in their minds. How are we to understand an "interpretation" when the thing supposedly being interpreted is never mentioned? John Knox (Myth and Truth, p.59) points to Ephesians 1:3–10 as a kind of mythological drama created to explain Jesus, entirely in supernatural terms. Knox 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? He says that the myth has been created based on memories of the Lord, but where are those memories? We cannot accept Knox's claim that the myth in Ephesians is built upon "historical data" when that data is never pointed at or even alluded to. A better explanation would be that the historical data has been added to the myth at a later time. The whole concept that early Christian writers are "interpreting" Jesus of Nazareth even when they never mention him is a blatant "reading into" the text on the part of those who must see the presumed historical figure behind all this scriptural and mythological presentation.
Scholars, in seeking an explanation for Paul's blanket silence on the historical Jesus, have given us a Fourth Fallacy. They rationalize that Paul "had no interest" in Jesus' earthly incarnation, that his theology did not require it. This is difficult to fathom. Paul's faith is centered on the crucifixion. What bizarre mental processes could have led him to disembody it, to completely detach it from its historical time and place, from the life which culminated on Calvary? Why would he transplant the great redeeming act to some mythological realm of demonic powers who were responsible for "crucifying the Lord of glory" (1 Corinthians 2:8)? Why would he give Christ "significance only as a transcendent divine being" (Herman Ridderbos, Paul and Jesus, p.3)?
And what of the details of Jesus' life? Could Pilate not have served Paul as an example of the "wisdom of the world" which could not understand the "wisdom of God"? For Paul, baptism is the prime sacrament of Christian ritual; through it believers receive the Spirit and are adopted as sons of God. Yet we are to assume that Paul, in presenting his baptismal rite (such as in Romans 6), cared nothing about Jesus' own baptism by John, about such traditions that he had received the Spirit in the form of a dove, that he had been adopted as Son by the Father in the voice from heaven. We are to assume that in all the bitter debates he engaged in through his letters, such as on the validity of the Jewish dietary laws, Paul never felt a need to introduce the Lord's own actions and teachings concerning the subjects under dispute. Are we to accept, too, that Jesus' earthly signs and wonders would not have been an incalculable selling point to gentiles, immersed as they were in popular pagan traditions of the wonder-working "divine man," a concept which fitted the earthly career of Jesus to a "T"? And are we to believe that, even if Paul had expunged Christ's human life from his own mind, his audiences and converts likewise felt no interest and did not press him for details of Jesus' earthly sayings and deeds—something of which he shows no sign in his letters? In any event, explanations for Paul's silence and lack of interest would have to apply to all the other early epistle writers, who are equally silent—a situation so extraordinary as to defy rationalization. Amid such considerations, the argument from silence becomes legitimate and compelling.
Finally, many today find increasingly acceptable the direction which most recent liberal scholarship seems to be following: that Jesus was only a man, a Jewish preacher who was somehow divinized after his death, a death which did not result in resurrection. But here it seems that they face an insurmountable dilemma, a Fifth Fallacy. First of all, such a divinization on the scale that Jesus underwent would have been unprecedented, and there is no more unlikely milieu for this to have happened in than a Jewish one. Nor is this divinization gradual, a graph line which ascends as his reputation grows, as the things he did in his life took on magnified stature and interpretation. Rather, at the earliest we can see any evidence for it, Jesus is already at the highest point, cast in an entirely mythological picture: fully divine, pre-existent before the creation of the world, moving in the celestial spheres and grappling with the demonic forces. Those deeds of his life which should have contributed to such an elevation are nowhere in evidence.
Let's put the dilemma this way: If this man Jesus had had the explosive effect on his followers that is said of him, and on the thousands of believers who responded so readily to the message about him, such a man would have had to blaze in the firmament of his time. That impact would have been based on the force of his personality, on the unique things he said and did. There is no other way.
And yet the picture we see immediately after Jesus' death, and for the next two generations in every extant document, flatly contradicts this. The blazing star immediately drops out of sight. No contemporary historian, philosopher or popular writer records him. There is no sign of any tradition or phenomenon associated with him. For over half a century Christian writers themselves totally ignore his life and ministry. Not a saying is quoted and attributed to him. Not a miracle is marveled at. No aspect of his human personality, anchored within any biographical setting, is ever referred to. The details of his life, the places of his career: they raise no interest in any of his believers. This is an eclipse that does not even grant us a trace of a corona!
If, on the other hand, Jesus was simply an ordinary human man, a humble (if somewhat charismatic) Jewish preacher, who really said little of what has been imputed to him, who performed no real miracles, and who of course did not rise from the dead—all of which might explain why he attracted no great attention and could have his life ignored as unimportant by his later followers—what, then, is the explanation for how such a life and personality could have given rise to the vast range of response the scholars postulate, to the cosmic theology about him, to the conviction that he had risen from the dead, to the unstoppable movement which early Christianity seems to have been? This is an unsolvable dilemma.
If all we have in the earliest Christian record is this cosmic divine figure who moves in mythological spheres—just like all the other savior deities of the day—are we not compelled by scientific principles to accept that this and no more was the object of early Christian worship? If, to support this, we can present within the evidence a logical process by which such a figure can be seen to take on a biography and a place in history, do we have any justification for continuing to maintain that the divine, cosmic Christ grew out of the human Jesus of Nazareth?
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"As a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations....In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only probabilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings." Robert W. Funk, Jesus Seminar Founder and Co-Chair. (From The Fourth R, January-February 1995.)
The Second Century Apologists