Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty


A Review of The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ?
By John Hoad, Ph.D.,
with response by Earl Doherty, and added comments by both.


John Hoad's extended critique of my book is, with the exception of the set of articles by J. P. Holding (a pseudonym) on his Tekton Ministries website, the most detailed challenge to my views I have yet received. Unlike Mr. Holding, who can at best be styled an arch-conservative and somewhat lacking in the more gracious attributes of the polite debater, John's gentlemanly, intelligent and professional approach is refreshing and most welcome. His disagreement with my thesis is clearly based on a knowledgeable, long-term commitment to many of the traditional foundations of New Testament scholarship (he has had a long history of study and ministry in the Christian faith in both England and North America), and as such it provides a good test of the ability of the Jesus-as-myth theory to hold its own in adverse waters.

When the received wisdom of centuries, even having passed through the dramatic scholarly upheavals of the last hundred years, faces a challenge on this radical a level, it is not only difficult for traditionalists to free themselves sufficiently to examine the record with an open and unencumbered mind, it may be difficult for them to recognize the deficiencies in the defenses that are commonly appealed to. Very often the reasoning inherent in such defenses no longer works in the face of new paradigms which present Christian origins without an historical Jesus. Such, I would say, is the case with many of the arguments in the present critique.

I will quote John's review in its entirety, without editing, and interject my discussion/response to it (following his introduction) in many cases after each paragraph. Though the combined critique/response is equal to the length of one of my longer Supplementary Articles, I commend it to the interested reader. John's text will be reproduced in italics.

The triptych has become unglued

The uninitiated reader of the New Testament opens this book [i.e., the New Testament] and finds three divisions: The Gospels, The Acts, and The Epistles. (The Book of Revelation is an extended letter to seven churches, so we will include it in the third panel of the triptych.) This triptych sequence suggests a chronological development. Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught and died and rose again from death. The Movement associated with his life then spread through the Mediterranean world through the "acts" of his apostles, and the Epistles were written by messengers of the new faith to fledgling congregations.

Over the last two hundred years, Biblical scholarship has greatly altered this picture by reviewing these documents as literary compositions variously grounded in the history of the first century. It is now assumed that the Epistles, mainly those of Paul, came first; that the Gospels are compilations that came later; and that the Lucan Gospel-Acts is a summary from many sources to present a movement that is no threat to Roman imperial authority. How do scholars know what they know about documents written two thousand years ago? Amazing things have been done in reaching back into the past. Paleobiologists can study the seed found by a skeleton dated to 10,000 years ago and say what the ancient person ate, and by cut marks on his bones how he died. Students of ancient scripts and writing material can tell what age a particular writing belongs to. And word studies can reveal what writings, say, in the Pauline corpus, are consistent with one author for all the letters or whether some later ones were written by others [and] were attributed to the earlier author.

Studies of the Gospels as literary documents -- subject to human composition and summarizing and conflating and editing -- led in 1924 to the publication of Burnett H. Streeter's The Four Gospels: A Study in Origins. Drawing on preceding work and sometimes revising his own previous judgements, Streeter outlined a Four Document Hypothesis and attempted a reconstruction of one the four sources, known as Q. And so it emerged that scholarship considered the Gospels to come from a Sayings source (Q), material peculiar to Matthew, material peculiar to Luke, and material first committed to writing by Mark (the earliest Gospel).

As the 19th century rolled on, scholarship developed several different approaches to this literature. Form Criticism, for example, identified the literary form taken by pericopes (or selections) of the Gospels and related them to the teaching needs of the churches. Some of the latest work in this ever growing and changing field of studies is represented by the Jesus Seminar, which has attempted to value-weight the degree of authenticity that can be assigned to the sayings of Jesus, given certain criteria for judging this. And there are deconstructionist critics at work who focus not so much on the texts as on the presuppositions of the scholars interpreting the texts!

There is material enough for several books to recount this fascinating story. We shall in a few years be celebrating Albert Schweitzer's monumental The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906, trans. into English in 1910), which reviewed the 19th century's attempts to portray Jesus. By that date in this new century, another monumental work will be needed to recount the fate of the story in the 20th century.

It becomes apparent as one reads these scholarly probes that a great deal depends on one's consciousness and presuppositions. We may walk around a sacred text (much as many Muslims still do with the Koran) and take it at face value, looking for greater depths in its message but not challenging the way it was composed. It has often been taboo to see the human and fallible elements in a text presumed to be inspired by God. As breakthroughs occur in awareness, new scholarship enters through the breach. Questions are asked that would not have been dared before. Critics from outside and critics from inside the movement based on the text open up new considerations. Even conservative evangelical scholars now distinguish between the verba (actual words) and the vox (accurate representation of the thoughts) of Jesus.

As one reads Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle, this history of scholarship is worth bearing in mind. He is advancing a hypothesis and eliciting evidence to support it. As we move along the lines of his argument, we have to ask how probable the evidence is and whether there are not alternative hypotheses that would just as well account for that evidence. Including more traditional ones. And we shall have to try to measure the degree of guesswork involved in the scholarship.

In referring to alternative hypotheses, John puts his finger on the situation we face in most fields of historical research. Mathematical proofs are rarely achievable. And when we are dealing in the area of religion, with questions of confessional interest and highly subjective preferences, we must be extra careful to be aware of the bases—or biases—by which we choose to judge relative merit for different hypotheses. As for "guesswork" (a more neutral or technical term might be "deductive speculation"), keep in mind that the study of Christian origins, including in the traditional vein, would long ago have collapsed without it.

The first century philosophical background

One of the foremost contributions of Doherty's interpretation is the placement of parts of Paul's thought and parts of the Synoptic tradition against certain philosophical, cultural, and religious traditions current in the near eastern world of the first century. By breaking the connection between these texts and the traditional Christian ethos, Doherty forces us to consider alternative interpretations of the words. In particular, he advances the thesis that the dying and rising deity of mythology and the notion of an intermediary Son sent by God are the real context of Paul's thought. And this is coupled with Doherty's main contention, formulated before him by G.A.Wells, that it is impossible to find a clear reference to Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure in Paul's thought - or in other first century and early second century writing.

After reading Doherty, one cannot but come away with the impression that we need to revise our evaluation of Paul in relation to the development of the Christian faith. It has often been said that Paul was the real founder of Christianity, standing in contrast to the preacher Jesus of Nazareth (presuming he existed at all), who taught a way of life, while Paul taught that Jesus was really a divine being descended to earth and risen again. At the very least, if Jesus did exist historically, Paul has little to say about his earthly life, other than treating it symbolically in phrases like "born of a woman," "born under the law." And if there are echoes of the presumed Jesus' sayings in Paul's letters, and echoes of his activities, they are so minimal and so vaguely reported that a vote-No-on-Jesus scholar like Doherty can readily interpret them as not supporting such a linkage. So whether we go all the way with Doherty or not, he forces us to reconsider Paul's relation to the Jesus of the Synoptic tradition.

My first reading of The Jesus Puzzle does not persuade me to go all the way with Doherty. Two arguments will be made at this point. First, Doherty elicits his mythic world from texts and studies of those texts by other scholars without giving us the same rigorous analysis of those texts as he does for the New Testament texts. Doherty himself leads us to set a cautious evaluation on where they came from and what they say - a caution that he himself then throws to the wind. "The roots of the pagan mysteries are obscure," he says (p.112). "We know frustratingly little about the cults," he affirms (p. 115). But he has no hesitation in building a whole interpretation of Paul's thought on the basis of this cultic world. Widespread as it might have been, we do not know how far it penetrated the middle eastern Jewish thought-world or how widely accepted it was even for the Greeks and the Romans. Epitaphs on grave stones from that period often present a sad farewell to a beloved one, with little hope for the future, suggesting that those honoring their dead at these grave sites were not comforted by any dying-rising mythic Figure, in the way that the early Christians were, who turned "burial ground" into "cemetery" - literally, "a place of sleep."

Here John fails to make a couple of distinctions. The roots of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, which stretch back into the first half of the first millennium BCE, are indeed largely lost to us, but this is true of many important developments of the ancient world that emerge more clearly in the periods one is studying. And while it is true we know frustratingly little about the features of the cults as practiced in the period of Christianity's inception—details of the rites, their meanings and significance, for example—we know enough about the general principles involved to be able to reasonably position Christianity in relation to them.

We know, for example, that devotees of a savior god regarded themselves as in some way 'united' with him or her, sharing in some mystical connection, and that the process was through forms of sacraments, the participation in rituals, and understanding the meaning of those rituals. This is precisely the way Paul and those who came after him describe the Christian's relationship to Jesus through the sacrament of baptism (e.g., as in Romans 6:1-11). The mystical unification of Christians to their deity is central to Pauline thought, using imagery like that of 1 Corinthians 6:15 in which they are called the "limbs and organs of Christ," and references to Christ as the "head" of the body of which believers are a part (e.g., Eph. 4:16). Would that we had a surviving 'Paul' in the area of the mysteries!

The guarantees which the Greek cultic system conferred on the devotee, based on the experiences of the god as recounted in the cultic myth (consider Fermicus Maternus' quote of the Attis cult's formula: "Be consoled, O initiates, for the god is delivered; therefore we too shall have deliverance from our troubles"), find their exact parallel in Paul's reassurance in Romans 6:5: "For if we have become incorporate with him in a death like his [referring to the rite and effect of baptism], we shall also be one with him in a resurrection like his." Ideas like this are thoroughly Hellenistic and foreign to mainstream Jewish thought. So too are the features of the cultic meal as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Engaging in a rite which represented the eating and drinking of the god's flesh and blood was not only abhorrent to Jewish thinking, it verged on the blasphemous. Such cultic meals were the hallmark of the Greek cultic system, to which the Jewish thanksgiving meal is not to be compared except in the most general way. It was syncretistic thinkers like Paul who clothed that thanksgiving observance (if he is building on a Jewish precedent at all) in new Hellenistic garments.

As to the penetration of ancient society by the mystery cult ethos, it has been estimated that over its thousand year history perhaps as many as a million people passed through various stages of the cultic rites. The mysteries are spoken of in laudatory fashion in writings from the Athenian playwrights to philosophers like Cicero to Roman commentators of the late empire. The degree of attention which Christian apologists and heresiologists devoted to countering their great competitor speaks for itself. On the other hand, the degree or range of penetration among Jews is more problematic, but we do not need to postulate much influence on mainstream Jewish thought. Paul himself shows that, regardless of the orthodox picture of Christianity arising as a Jewish sect out of the very center of Judaism, the new movement in fact grew up and flourished on the fringes of Judaism, rather than at its core where it enjoyed very little success. Christianity, in fact, could be styled more of a Hellenistic phenomenon arising in that border territory where gentiles and Jews—the former attracted toward the Jewish heritage, the latter imbued with Hellenistic influences, especially in the Diaspora—came together.

This is indeed what syncretism is all about. Despite what Acts later fictitiously portrayed, the first Christian believers were hardly in the main average Jews or Pharisees. They were cosmopolitan Greeks and Jews, in places like Damascus, Antioch, Alexandria and yes, even Jerusalem which was anything but a narrow-minded provincial capital, Temple or no. Such great cities of the empire were the places where Paul's career bore fruit, and even most Jews in those cities seem to have given him little hearing, though he never abandoned hope. Paul, we assume, was a Diaspora Jew, probably from that cultic hotbed Tarsus, center of the Mithraic mysteries, and he may well have had as his initial mission the conversion of all Jews to his new, heavily Hellenized view of God's Son and Savior, derived from his study of scripture. The failure of that mission (hinted at in the letters, and possibly to be gleaned from the picture presented in Acts) led him to switch his focus to the more receptive gentiles, with their grounding in the Hellenistic mysteries.

As for the pessimistic pagan gravestones John alludes to, one of the reasons for Christianity's eventual triumph was that participation in the new religion of Christ was open and accessible to all, whereas a certain elitism existed in the Greek cultic system. Charges for many forms of initiation would have denied them to poorer citizens, and whether slaves were excluded from the mysteries is uncertain (a notable exception being Mithraism, though it was restricted to men). Besides, a system that is secretive, with hidden rites and meanings, can only exist within a situation of insiders-outsiders. If the masses are equal participants, who is there to keep things secret from? The lower classes, as the centuries went on, increasingly knocked on the door, but they tended to be mollified with various forms of magic, astrology and divination. The cult of Isis-Serapis was the one that was most successfully penetrated by the general populace.

Second, even if Paul did set his gospel in the thought-world of Greek mystery religions, some of his phrases suggest that he had a modified version of the mythos, and that phrases like "born of a woman," "after the flesh," "put to death by crucifixion," present a link with history in a way that is not true of the cultic myths. I find Doherty's arguments about "counterpart characteristics" between a higher and a lower world quite tortuous. The credibility lies with a more traditional interpretation, even if, with Doherty, we have to agree that "a new set of assumptions by which to judge the epistles" (p. 125) is needed.

John points to Pauline expressions like "born of [a] woman" and "death by crucifixion" as presenting a unique link with history, but Dionysos in his myth was also "born of woman" and the castration of Attis or the stabbing of the bull by Mithras are equally vivid depictions which we would nevertheless not place in history. They belong to myth. Besides, these presumed 'history-linked' features of Christ are never given an earthly, historical setting by Paul or any of the other epistle writers—beyond the clear interpolation, as postulated by most liberal scholars, of the reference to the Jews as killers of Christ in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, and the possibly authentic, possibly not, reference to Pilate in the 2nd century letter 1 Timothy.

Thus Paul's concept of being born of woman and being crucified (which he seems to attribute to the demon spirits in 1 Corinthians 2:8) must be explained otherwise, and according to principles which may indeed seem "tortuous" to modern minds which have lost touch with the bizarre (to us) soteriological thinking and views of the universe characteristic of the first century. But one has only to read the writings of surviving Middle Platonists (including the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria), or even the later Neoplatonists, to turn "tortuous" to "enlightening" (in the sense of 'understanding'), though such views bore no relationship to reality and strike us as thoroughly unappealing.

I would caution John against equating "credibility" (of an argument) with 'ease of understanding,' especially in a context where the new argument is alien and unfamiliar, while the traditional explanation enjoys a much higher degree of comfort and conformity with longstanding views. Sixteenth century astronomers might very well have found Copernicus' recasting of the universe's basic structure incredible and tortuous, but once the exercise in rethinking was undertaken, it proved not only easy, but accurate.

One assumption [by which to judge the epistles] - an old one at that - is that Paul, coming late on the scene, and knowing the Jesus figure only as a spiritual force, following a presumed resurrection, ran with that experience and never had the interest that scholar and common man today possess in the Quest of the Historical Jesus. Doherty finds that interpretation not credible, but he needs to heed his own advice that we may not be fully cognizant of the thought world of the first century. Paul thought of himself as a follower of Jesus Christ, but we can't force him to share our assumptions as to what that meant. He may even have thought that too much interest in the Man of Nazareth walking through the lilies in Galilee was a diversion from the real force of what had taken place in Jesus. The divine intermediary Figure had now done what had never happened before in the myths: He had actually visited the earth in the flesh and the demonic world had trapped him there and crucified him, only to find that he slipped out of their grasp. That would have brought the Divine One nearer to us, closer to touch, and given the early Christian faith the edge that led it to outdistance its rivals in the mystery religions. Something must have been different about the Pauline mythos that we still have it with us today, while Mithras is just history.

John suggests that Paul knew Jesus only as a spiritual force (which, of course, I agree with), and thus never had an interest in the historical figure. This, as John admits, is a restatement of perhaps the commonest 'explanation' for Paul's silence on Jesus the man. But we are fully justified in questioning it on a number of common sense grounds. Setting aside the 'religious' explanation—which we must do as scientifically-committed historians—we have to ask: if Paul had no interest in who Jesus the spiritual force had been, what he had taught or what he had done beyond the fact of his death, what drew him to that man in the first place? What made that death, for Paul, such a cosmic event? To put it another way, what led him to create that spiritual force in his own mind out of such a humble source, especially if that starting point was someone in whom he felt no interest and whom he seems never to have discussed as part of his preaching, especially if that translation of a human man into divinity would have gone against every traditional Jewish sensibility there was? Could such a thing have really happened?

In any case, if Paul chooses to focus simply on the death and rising, surely those elements of the earthly experiences of Jesus would have been of interest to him, if nothing else was. Yet Paul gives us absolutely no details of either event and seems to speak of them as matters of faith. The resurrection is not only the product of faith, it is in Paul's mind, as the Jesus Seminar has rightly perceived, envisioned simply as a 'spiritual awakening,' not a bodily emergence from the grave, something that came to later Christian consciousness only with the Gospels. If Paul has made his life's work the declaration of universal salvation dependent on faith in the power of Christ's death and resurrection, common sense—if nothing else, and it is desperately needed in many of the traditional arguments used by Christian apologetics—has to make us highly suspicious of Paul's complete silence on these events as earthly events.

After all, Paul did not live in a monastery. He would not have been free to follow some bizarre, mystical path which ignored the historical man and to focus for his own edification on some personal translation of Jesus into a spiritual force. He was out there on the hustings, working in a highly competitive and even hostile environment. As the deliberately humorous Appendix 2 of my book [which also appears in my Article Review of Gregory Jenks' "What Did Paul Know About Jesus?"] shows, his audiences and converts would never have gone along with his restriction of Jesus to the esoteric features of a spiritual deity and the suppression of his human incarnation. Paul simply could not have functioned in such a manner in a missionary context. One can be sure that this competitive environment would have included the mystery cults with their savior gods, and to think that Paul or any other apostle would have foregone playing the trump card they are supposed to have possessed over their competitors—that their god had recently been on earth, preaching, healing, working miracles over nature, forecasting the end of the world they all awaited—goes against that much needed common sense.

John himself inadvertently alludes to this very problem. How does one make the point that "the Divine One has been brought nearer to us, closer to touch," if that nearness in an earthly career is ignored, if the touch of his healing hand and teaching voice is never appealed to? What thirst for the contact of a god in the flesh and all that he had done in that state would willingly go unsatisfied? John suggests that something was different about the Pauline mythos that it still survives, while Mithras lies in the cemetery of dead gods. That difference is not in Paul, it is in the Gospels, which brought Paul's very Mithras-like savior deity to earth and gave him a career Paul knew nothing about. As I say in my book, "without Mark's creation, Paul and the Christ cult he spent his life preaching would have vanished into the sunken pits of fossilized history."

In any case, the entire argument collapses in the face of one obvious consideration. That argument, as John demonstrates, is always cast in terms of Paul himself, his interests, his idiosyncrasies, his supposedly unique role in the development of Christian thought about Jesus. But Paul, as the record shows, was not unique. All the epistle writers show the same ignorance, the same lack of interest in the earthly life of Jesus. They all portray him as a transcendent, spiritual figure. The Epistle to the Hebrews places his sacrifice in heaven, with no mention of Calvary; 1 Peter (2:22) goes to Isaiah 53 to describe Christ's suffering and humility; and so on. That an entire movement spread across half the empire, with no central coordination, driven by a multitude of inspired apostles who often had little sympathy with each others' interpretations, could have arisen in response to the Gospel character and events and yet consistently speak in terms which show no memory of or allowance for a recent historical figure at the root of their faith, is too bizarre to countenance.

Anachronisms, misunderstandings, and other derailments

In his eagerness to pile up every conceivable argument against the existence of an historical Jesus, Doherty's considerable scholarship sometimes slips away from him.

(1) On page 20, Doherty says: "We are led to believe not only that Jews were led to identify 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." This comment is so out of line that it makes one wonder how much Doherty knows about the Christianity of which he is writing. Note: (A) that if Christians said Jesus was God and there was good reason to believe that - particularly a resurrection experience - then, blasphemous or not, it could convince people. It was once blasphemous to say that the earth went around the sun, but nearly everyone now believes that blasphemy. This is the answer that any fundamentalist would give Doherty. But (B) more to the point, where does Doherty get the idea that any Christians in the New Testament period believed what he just said? The Scottish theologian James Denny could not find evidence of the Trinity in the Synoptic Gospels. Even Paul, were he drawing on the tradition of a historical Jesus, does not say Jesus is God. He says Jesus Christ is God's Son, and, according to Doherty himself, the notion of a Word or Wisdom of God as an intermediary between God and humanity was in place before the time of Jesus. All that Paul and the early Christians would be adding to that already accepted notion was that the Intermediary, instead of just floating around in some higher world, actually touched down in human form. ("Avatars" are common in many religions.) The Trinitarian type formulas, such as the one at the end of Matthew's Gospel, and the familiar "the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit" may be moving towards the kind of elaboration that took place at Nicaea and Constantinople in the 4th century, but they are nowhere near to that in the first century. Many Christian groups - the Arians and Monarchianists, the Socinians, who became the Unitarians, and the modern day Jehovah's Witnesses, who remain within the Christian fold but do not accept Jesus as God - would refute the argument that the New Testament requires belief in Jesus as God. While John's Gospel has Thomas make that confession, saying to the risen Jesus, "My Lord and my God!", even that statement must be understood within the context of the Prologue to the Gospel, where it is stated that it is the Word that became flesh. There is a deliberate shying away from actually saying out and out that God became Jesus of Nazareth. There is always that nuance that it is an expression of God that appears in his Son on earth. As stated above, this is the very notion that Doherty develops as the background to Paul's gospel, with, however, the one exception, which is the central claim of the New Testament, that the Intermediary took a step beyond where the salvation myths had placed him. He "earthed."

In relation to John's point (A), the orthodox picture does indeed require us to postulate that dusty disciples from Judea penetrated to all parts of the eastern empire and convinced great numbers of people (in Damascus, Antioch, Ephesus, Rome itself, and countless other places big and small) that a man they had never heard of, executed as a political rebel back in Jerusalem, was in fact the Son of God (let's say 'related to God' in some way, to put the minimum cast upon it), redeemer of the world, and had risen bodily from his grave. This they apparently did without playing up any of the things he had done in his life or the teachings he had given. (If the proselytizers of a new religion came to your door one evening with such a message, how likely would it be that you would embrace it? How easily could you be convinced, and what arguments would it take to swing you? That claim of resurrection?)

As for the blasphemy element, even to associate a man with God on a divine or spiritual level was anathema to Jewish thought, and yet the New Testament epistles, Paul especially, are saturated with such an association. I am well aware that the exact nature of the linkage between Jesus and God as envisioned by early Christianity is a debatable question, mostly because the Gospel picture with its variety of expression is always thrown into the mix, when we should be focusing on the earliest record in the epistles. Also, whether the Pauline-type of view is "Trinitarian" is beside the point. Strictly speaking, at least by Nicaean standards, it is not. But this does not mean that Paul's thinking did not involve a prominent identification of his Christ Jesus with God on a divine level, something that could not fail to strike the average Jew as blasphemous. My "notion of a Word or Wisdom of God as an intermediary between God and humanity," in place in that period, applies to spiritual forces like the Greek Logos, not to human beings—a huge distinction. If Paul is to add to "that already accepted notion" the idea that this spiritual force had been incarnated in a human man—or more shockingly put, that a given human man, a crucified criminal, was to be identified as a divine being who was part of the workings of the Godhead—this is a staggering quantum leap which could hardly have been made without the most painstaking discussion and defense. Something that would have involved some mention of that human man.

That Jesus, in the minds of Paul and his colleagues, was a cosmic, spiritual aspect of God, sharing in his very nature and power, can hardly be doubted from passages like the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 ("For the divine nature was his from the first, yet he did not prize his equality with God...", to use the NEB's more comprehensible alternate translation of the latter phrase). In 1 Corinthians 8:6, in parallel with God as "the Father from whom all being comes," Paul places Jesus as the "one Lord [a divine title associated with God], Jesus Christ, through whom all things came to be and we through him." If Christians like Paul did not yet possess a Trinity doctrine, they certainly had a Duality, or a graded manifestation of the Deity, as in Philonic and Platonic philosophy. And one has only to read the cosmic hymn to God's "dear Son" in Colossians 1:15-20, presenting Jesus as "the image of the invisible God" with "primacy over all created things," through whom "everything in heaven and on earth was created," and through whom "all things are held together," to realize that these writers are offering their version of that intermediate spiritual force which revealed and provided a channel to God, which had created and sustained the universe—a force which was a part of God himself. This is solidly in line with the best of Platonic philosophy. To this they have added, not an identification with a humble Jewish preacher, but a salvation doctrine in line with the actions of the mythical savior gods of the cults, in which Christ was seen as having undergone crucifixion in the supernatural world where such processes took place. To a mainstream Jew, such ideas would have been hellenistically heretical, deserving of persecution.

Once the Gospels came to be written, there may indeed have been a hedging, a "shying away from actually saying out and out that God became Jesus of Nazareth." Those Jewish sensibilities would now have come into play where they hadn't before, and in any case the Gospel picture with its representative central character, as I point out in my book, is in its pre-Passion section a symbolic presentation of the Kingdom of God preaching movement, conducted by human beings. It would have presented a ludicrous picture for Mark and his successors to portray their character Jesus of Nazareth in the cosmic language of Colossians (although John came dangerously close when he put those exalted, highly mystical "I am" sayings into his Jesus' mouth).

(2) On page 73ff., Doherty finds the lack of pilgrimages to historic places of Jesus' activities a telling argument for the absence of such places. What he does not do is indicate how far the concept of pilgrimages to holy places had gotten among the Jews at that time. Is Doherty guilty of an anachronism at this point, reading back into the first century an interest in relics and holy places that was to come later? Even today a tourist may shy away from visiting a Palestinian site if afraid that the visit may be cut short by violence - how much more would one not go seeking Galilean hillsides and Jerusalem upper rooms when expecting the imminent end of the world - which Paul preached? That's our kind of interest; it doesn't seem to have been theirs.

John downplays this question much more than can be justified. The key factor here is that Christianity was a new movement, presumably generated out of dramatic events which had taken place in recent history, in places that were easily accessible. Where the ground was still warm, we might figuratively express it. It is difficult to envision that in such a context Christians would not have been drawn irresistibly to such places. Was there a danger? Were the authorities so bent on wiping out this fledgling movement that they posted guards at every conceivable site from Galilee to Jerusalem and arrested all who showed an unusual interest in them? That is highly unlikely. And, of course, there would have been no danger in mentioning such places in inter-Christian correspondence.

As for the question of pilgrimage among the Jews, they had no parallel. Nothing of recent vintage would have created such a draw, although we might point to the Temple as the place where God and man communicated, and the Jews certainly had no lack of interest in that location. As for expecting the imminent end of the world, this did not prevent Paul from tramping half the empire to spread his message, nor should it have kept Christians away from Calvary or the empty tomb where those significant events had taken place on which all their hopes were centered. Moreover, if the apocalypse was indeed looming, where in such portentous times is it the practice of the faithful to head? Where else but to churches and holy places where the presence of God is the strongest.

While this area of my argument is to some extent a subjective one, I would maintain that the suspicion aroused by the total silence on holy places, not to mention physical relics, to do with Jesus' career is highly intuitive.

John then goes on to touch on a very sensitive and controversial area, and I would have to say that only here in his entire critique do I find occasion to regard his arguments as objectionable. The matter of Christian responsibility for two millennia of Jewish persecution, culminating in the horrors of the early 20th century, is incidental to the scientific question of Christian origins and the existence of an historical Jesus, yet it is surprising how often the subject continues to be raised in a defensive manner by Christian apologists. This is John's next paragraph:

(3) On p. 68, Doherty enters the lists in the controversy as to how far the Gospels can be blamed for Christian persecution of the Jews. There can be no doubt that this is a sorry story of tragic proportions, but rooting it in the Gospels is another matter. We need to note that the early Christians were Jews. Christianity is portrayed as a sect of the Jews, and Jewish sects did have conflict between themselves. The early Christian preachers were often found in the synagogues. Paul argued that the return of Israel to the true faith would mark the completion of God's plan. Even when John in Revelation speaks (2.9) of those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan, he goes on to base his vision of heaven (in chap. 7) on the sealing of the saved out of every tribe of the sons of Israel. The controversy in which the antagonists of the Jewish sect of Christians came to be called simply "Jews" among some Christian groups was a misfortune of immense proportions, but it is a misunderstanding of the New Testament to indicate that it urged the persecution of the Jewish people. Nor did this controversy involve northern European Anglo-Saxons, who were later to be the chief attackers of the Jews - as they were of American Indians and Africans and others. It was a controversy rooted in the Mediterranean world. Most religions, including the Jewish, have hateful things in their scriptures about outsiders. The Christian religion, like the others, also has loving things in its scriptures that - heeded - would have neutralized the hateful. A further point, missed by scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Doherty, is the interpretation of Matthew 27.25, where the people at the trial of Jesus cry out: "His blood be on us and our children." Doherty calls this "the most heinous line in all of world fiction" (p.339). Truly, it has been misinterpreted that way, but consider that for a Christian the "blood of Jesus" is redemptive. Could it be that this was a statement of vastly ironic proportions? Compare it with the irony that John's Gospel (11.50-52) found in Caiaphas' words about it being better that one person die for the people than that the whole nation perish. For John that was really a prophecy of Jesus' redemptively dying for the nation and all the children of God. This irony may well have been in Matthew's mind: The Jews will one day realize that they asked that they and their children be washed in the redemptive blood of Jesus!

Where is the 2000-year persecution of the Jewish race to be rooted if not in the Gospels? It is a fact of history that the Jews were vilified and slaughtered throughout the centuries by pogroms, Inquisition and countless 'private' murders by crusaders, marauding peasants or disgruntled citizens of Christian countries, all under the battle cry that they were "killers of Christ." Since that story and that accusation is to be found only in the Gospels, it seems specious to question the primary source of the historical misery of the Jews in the western world.

From ministry to execution, the Gospel story surrounds Jesus with Jewish figures who are portrayed as hostile, false-hearted, insidious; the Romans and Pontius Pilate are all but whitewashed of responsibility for the crucifixion. The Jewish crowd chooses a brigand over a healing, enlightened rabbi; it demands of Pilate his execution and abuses him on the cross. Matthew went so far as to add the line which served to institutionalize and justify out of the Jews' own mouth the cruel treatment they suffered over much of the next two millennia. To suggest that any evangelist, much less the strongly anti-Jewish Matthew (a common scholarly evaluation, regardless of whether in fact he may have been a Jew himself), could simply have had in mind the 'ironic' and oversubtle meaning which John suggests—or would have expected his readers to take such a meaning—is faintly absurd.

John's remarks on the dynamics of the early Christian movement are beside the point. It is a dubious proposition to suggest that simple intra-Jewish conflict was at work here (with somehow the implication that the whole sorry matter has been the Jews' own fault), and irrelevant that not all early Christians may have been bent on persecution of "the Jews." (Just as the fact that many Christians throughout history may not have participated in the pogroms, or that many residents of the Reich may not have supported the Holocaust, does not change the collective picture.) By the middle of the second century—perhaps the true beginning of Christianity as we know it—the new religion was largely a gentile movement, and the Gospels were beginning to provide ample fodder for its increasing enmity toward the ancient holders of the heritage it was now in the process of seizing for itself. When some time earlier Mark had invented his villain Judas, and Matthew penned that heinous line, they may not have foreseen or intended the future, but they were expressing a prejudice and an animosity which would grow to staggering proportions due in no small measure to their own literary creations.

Why are so many Christians still in a state of denial on this issue? Admitting the most unfortunate aspect of the history of their religion would probably be a great cathartic release, and lead to further healing on both sides. Since the end of the Second World War and the formation of the state of Israel, Christian attitudes toward the Jews have significantly improved. In society as a whole, the traditional prejudice is to a great extent behind us, even if still surviving in some xenophobic circles. While in my book I point out that Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death, on which centuries of persecution was based, is an idea that in the early Christian record [note the judgment on 1 Thess. 2:15-16 mentioned above] cannot be found outside the Gospels, I make no reference to the Holocaust, realizing that a complex of factors went into that culminating atrocity. But to deny that the groundwork for it was laid by the near two thousand year mythology of an entire society, rooted in the Gospel story and in passages like Matthew 27:25, is to bury one's head in the sand. The fact that so much of that story is now being acknowledged by modern critical scholarship to be pure fiction, is the true and horrible 'irony' at work here.

The creation of Jesus of Nazareth as fiction

Unless one were to write a book length review, one cannot make commentary on all the threads of an argument in a book length presentation. I am attempting only some highlight comments on Doherty's carefully argued proposition. And I turn now to the second crux of his hypothesis, the first being the silence of Paul on the historical life of Jesus. The second key point Doherty makes is the fictional creation of Jesus by an unknown author (called Mark) - one of the most fabulous literary miracles of all time, as Doherty himself admits.

It is (to me) a strange phenomenon that Doherty can look everywhere in first century literature and claim not to find a historical Jesus, when one is staring him in the face in Mark's Gospel - elaborated on in Matthew, Luke, and John. Why is Mark not on the same playing field of evidence as Q and all the other sources? Why is Mark fiction and not Paul? And if Paul is even dated by reference to what supposedly happened in Jerusalem as a historical event, what happens to the dating of Paul when that reference point is removed?

The basic reason why the Gospels are not on the same playing field is that they came later than the bulk of the New Testament epistles, and it is highly suspicious to find that virtually not a single element of the Gospel story can be found in that earlier record, one presumably closer in time to the events the later documents describe. When only inadequate explanations can be offered to account for that silence, the suspicion deepens, and it is augmented further by the very fact of the "elaboration." Why is Mark the sole basic source for the Gospel events and the figure of Jesus of Nazareth? Why do Matthew and Luke, and even John in his Passion, seem to be entirely dependent on Mark's account, from overall layout down to small details? This is something we should not expect. Rather, we ought to find a multitude of different renditions of those traditions, arising all over the Christian world, about the life, death and resurrection which supposedly began the movement.

John's final thought above is a very telling one. We are indeed dependent on the Gospel story and particularly Acts for the standard dating of Paul, and if even the "genuine" epistles of Paul are not authentic, he fades into a very murky perspective, one that is chronologically uncertain. But Paul in his letters pointedly does not date himself in relation to Christ's death. He never places that death in an historical context. He repeatedly identifies the beginning of the movement in the actions of God, working through the Holy Spirit manifesting itself in revelation to apostles like himself. Knowledge of the Son comes through scripture. Paul consistently looks ahead to the anticipated arrival of the Son from heaven, not backwards to his first advent on earth. The one historical 'event' he introduces is the appearance of the spiritual Christ to various people in Jerusalem, including himself (1 Cor. 15:5-8).

But as I carefully lay out in my Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paul's Gospel, this can be completely "unglued" (to borrow John's term) from the Gospel version, for both the death and the resurrection of Christ are elements of his gospel he has derived from "the writings," through revelation and the Spirit, not from historical happening and eyewitness account. As to how that rooting in the Jerusalem visions is to be aligned on a chronological chart is imprecise at best, once we relegate Acts' picture of Paul and his career to a second century piece of tendentious legend-spinning and outright fabrication. The best we cay say, if 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 is genuine, is that Paul was operating in Damascus during the reign of King Aretas IV of Nabatea around 34-35, shortly after his conversion. (Is the basket incident in Acts dependent on a legend about Paul as witnessed in 2 Corinthians, or is the latter some second century product parroting a legend of unknown reliability?)

Doherty has done a powerful job in asking us to reevaluate Paul in reference to a historical Jesus. But why is the problem stated as if it is Mark that has to be questioned? What if Mark is right, what if Mark is history remembered? Then we have a problem of Paul using, or not using, that history. That would lead us to reassess Paul's relation to the historical Jesus, but not to the dismissal of the historicity of Jesus. With the ungluing of the traditional triptych of Gospels-Acts-Epistles, we may have to recognize the eruption of several genres of writing to interpret some base-level (ground zero) historical event. The plot would thicken. But Doherty's solution would be only one of several alternative hypotheses to account for the developing picture.

The problem here is that the epistles show no sign of "interpreting some base-level historical event." If Mark is "history remembered" we would need some convincing explanation as to why that history is not dealt with, or even glanced at, in any other genre of early Christian writing. It is not just a need to explain why Paul does not use it. It is the entire multi-faceted and multi-source early Christian record which lacks that history, and that is simply too much to swallow. Besides, as I detail in both my book and my website review of Crossan's The Birth of Christianity, every aspect of the Passion story can be demonstrated to be based on scripture, from the smallest detail to the overall frame of the story. There is, as even Crossan admits, nothing left to be "history remembered."

But is clear that for Doherty Mark is the bete noire of first century Christian writing. He dates the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas after Mark but still uses them as evidence against the historicity of Jesus. Why could they not have simply found that historical Jesus in Mark, which was earlier than both of them? Or does their silence simply say that they did not belong to the genre of writing that made much of that historicity?

The silence in many documents that post-date the writing of the Gospels (to the extent that we can closely date the latter accounts) is a supporting factor in my picture of the Gospels as fictional midrash. The fact that the Gospels receive little or no attestation in the wider Christian world until the middle of the second century indicates that they enjoyed little dissemination for a couple of generations after they were written. The best explanation for this is that they were not originally intended to represent history or an historical man, and that it took some time for the evolution of the opposite viewpoint to take hold and spread. And John would have to place virtually all the non-Gospel writings of the first 100 years of the movement within the genre that made little or nothing of the supposed historicity of the Gospels. If Mark & Co. really did represent history, it is impossible to think that, Xerox machines or no, such documents would not have rapidly spread throughout a Christian world hungry for accounts of the man and events which had begun the movement they belonged to and were even dying for. Once again, common sense cannot be shunted aside.

Doherty thinks that weighing all the evidence and recognizing that interpreting it is a matter of the best probability that one can muster, the historical Jesus has been sunk. He dates this sea-change to about 1960. As one who has been reading scholarly comment on the life of Jesus since the late 1940's, I would question that. I think he is guilty of a North American provincialism. Dismissing the historical Jesus goes back to the 19th century. But that is a minor point.

I'll address this simply because others have misinterpreted my "1960s" reference which appears in the book's Postscript (p.294). I did not highlight that date as marking the first dismissal of the historical Jesus, or even as the first turning point in liberated, critical scholarship. Both elements did indeed take place as long ago as the 19th century, and they have repeated themselves in various forms at intervals ever since. My 1960 'sea change' (and there may well be a touch of North American provincialism in this context) was one that took place in society as a whole, in its ability and willingness to shake off much of what I have referred to as medieval thinking and subservience, to create a collective outlook and character which could truly be called "secular." Again, these are subjective analyses to some extent. But my point was, that only following such a change could an organization like the Jesus Seminar form at the very center of New Testament scholarship, to operate in the public eye and propagate the radical conclusions and dismissals it makes concerning so much of the Gospel picture—as great as the controversy and hostility it has generated may be. The Dutch Radical School of the 19th century, if I judge it correctly, was a limited academic exercise which gained little currency and exposure outside the narrow halls of academia.

I think he lets the Jesus Seminar become a benchmark that I don't think it is, though I read their productions with fascination and with appreciation. Let me share some comments in refutation of where he thinks they and he have brought us.

Q - A Sayings Source

Note how the argument builds:

A - A common source to material in Matthew and Luke exists. HIGHLY PROBABLE

B - This source is written rather than vocal. DISPUTED, BUT PROBABLE

C - This written document is layered - a view based on the fact that the source contains sayings of different kinds which certain scholars think cannot be integrated in the thought of one person, unless he be conceived as "schizophrenic" (a pejorative term used in defiance of its therapeutic meaning of "detached from reality." Here it is used to refer to a split and unintegrated mind). I find no difficulty in conceiving that the same person could say, "Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you," and "Alas, alas, for teachers who use their authority to lead their listeners astray." Or, "Alas, for towns whose opportunity was so great and who flubbed it." There is such a thing as tough love. So for this step of the argument, I vote: POSSIBLE, BUT NOT PROVEN

D - The document Q infers a community of Q-ers, that is, a group that builds its ethical life on this one document. But the Dead Sea sect had several documents in its library. Why not the Q-community? Contrariwise, if one author Mark could invent Jesus, presumably one author could have invented Q. On this step in the argument, I vote: WE DON'T KNOW.

E - The Q-community morphs or evolves (like a Pokemon character) adding sayings as they undergo new experiences, even though the new patches don't fit with the old cloth. AN UNSUBSTANTIATED GUESS.

What we have here is a chain of supposition, building link by link, and we are not given a Jesus Seminar-type vote on the probability of each link. But if any of the early links in this chain break, the hypothesis comes apart. It is argued, for example, that the Q document didn't include stories of Jesus. If a Sayings document existed in a community that also had a Markan Tales of Jesus document, this is what one would expect.

As for lacking a Jesus Seminar-type vote on the various links in the Q chain, I would say that this is, in general terms, what we do have, in that Q scholarship as summarized above is largely supported by liberal scholars in general and the Jesus Seminar in particular. As John infers, the picture outlined above is not my own product, but views of Q and its development which I endorse (and to some extent reinterpret along my own lines). As for the strength of the Q chain, the Q hypothesis is indeed a complex one, with one part largely dependent on another, one part more speculative than another. This is inevitable, given the nature of the evidence for Q. However, I consider it safe to say that the features of the Gospel record which require explanation are better served by the Q hypothesis than by any other, and that the understanding of Q and its evolution outlined above (to which I would add my own special reworking of that hypothesis) is a more feasible analysis of the Q entity than any other. On the latter score, there are hardly any 'also-rans.'

I will not at this point further defend any of the elements of Q as outlined above, although some will be touched on later in John's critique. (I should remark in passing that John's translation of a typical "Woe" saying directed at unresponsive Galilean towns is a trifle mild!) But I would take exception to his final comment in this section, that it is feasible to explain the silence on the Gospel essentials in Q itself by postulating that the presence of the Gospel of Mark in the same community's library precluded any necessity for their inclusion. This is one of those arguments that may seem feasible on first glance but quickly disintegrates on closer examination.

If Q evolved over time under the hand of a series of editors, which current wisdom says it did, the likelihood that such a blanket exclusion of Gospel details would either accidentally or deliberately be followed is low indeed. Why would such an exclusion be operative? On what rational principle would it be adopted or maintained? If the sayings in the Gospel setting are quite naturally presented with contexts associated with the name of Jesus and his career, why would those contexts not naturally gravitate toward being recorded in the sayings document, even at later stages of redaction? What force or policy would prevent such a spillover? Moreover, when Q deals with issues which cry out for an inclusion of Jesus and the Gospel ethos, such as in its focus on the killing of the prophets, the deliberate exclusion of Jesus as the foremost expression of such a thing is impossible to accept. For Q, as I point out, bears a silence on Jesus in many places where we would have every right to expect that he could not be overlooked or ignored in the text, no matter what might be said about him in some other document the community may have possessed.

The authenticity of Jesus' Sayings

Doherty concludes that the Jesus Seminar has "rejected as inauthentic some three quarters of the sayings attributed" to Jesus in the Gospels. This really needs challenging. What the Jesus Seminar has done is to bring together a group of scholars and ask them to vote on sayings attributed to Jesus, one by one, weighting their authenticity by certain criteria. For example, if a saying has multiple attestation its authenticity is considered better based. But that does not preclude the fact that a saying with single attestation may be authentic. As science philosopher, Arthur Eddington, once argued, what fish-net we drag through an ocean of data, will determine what fish we catch. The Jesus Seminar scholars have their reasons for their criteria and in their judgement, Jesus couldn't have said anything "apocalyptic". That immediately rules out a lot of sayings. Other scholars, like Schweitzer, have felt that the apocalyptic was essential to the teaching of Jesus. And the evangelical scholars of Jesus Under Fire, edited by Michael Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, severely question the Seminar's criteria. Some distinguished New Testament scholars, universally recognized for their scholarship, have been conservative, like F.F.Bruce. Scholars presumably become recognized as scholars because they master the literature and can marshal arguments in favor of their positions within the debate, over against other scholars' arguments. The scholars gathered in the Jesus Seminar were presumably gathered by criteria that would of themselves have to be examined for the bias they would give to the outcome. And - as we were taught in textual criticism - it is not the volume of citations but the quality of citations that determines the value of a judgement. A single scholar voting for the authenticity of a saying of Jesus could be outvoted by the majority - and still be right! I say all this not to question the value of what the Seminar has attempted, but to point out that the conclusions are to be taken cum grano salis. They have value as representations of what a certain important kind of scholarship has to say about Jesus' sayings, in particular what it says we can consider as bedrock authentic sayings given its best criteria for judging that. But neither Jesus nor any other famous figure has to live up to his or her own best level of pronouncement. Jesus obviously said hundreds of things more than are recorded in the Gospels. The process of noting the best went on long ago. Jesus may well have said to Peter: "How is your mother feeling today?" That wouldn't have made the top hundred list!

I have little quarrel with most of the principles contained in the views above, except to observe that the experience of history tends not to side with conservative elements in any field of research. The Jesus Seminar, representing a cutting edge liberalism long overdue in this particular field, may not be right in all their criteria or decisions, or even in some of their fundamental assumptions, but as a progressive voice they are pointing in a desirable direction.

The Parables of Jesus and their social context

The German scholar, Joachim Jeremias, considered the parables of Jesus to be the bedrock of the teaching tradition of Jesus. The British scholar, C.H. Dodd, considered the parables of Jesus to be an unequaled witness to the petit-bourgeois life of a distant Roman province. Dodd, of course, believed in the historicity of Jesus and his activity as a teacher in Galilee. Even if, with Doherty, we were to cut that link, it would still be important to pursue that line of thought as we seek to discover who was behind the genius-quality of this teaching.

The parables are really grounded in the kind of community we thought Galilee to be - a semi-rural society replete with an amazing range of characters. A traveler comes by late at night, a lamp is set on a stand, a farmer sows seed, a woman bakes bread, a rich farmer employs workers, children play in the streets, there are weddings, there are absentee landlords, there are dishonest stewards, shepherds mind their flocks, there are dinner parties, soldiers impress service for the permitted one mile, a father welcomes home a son who had sought his fortune abroad, fishers cast their nets, a pearl merchant visits town, a woman sweeps her house looking for a lost coin, ostentatious religious people put on airs, seeds spring up in the fields till harvest time, kings throw banquets and invite the elite, robbers roam the country roads, thieves steal through the night, judges often delay judgement, moths get into clothes, rust appears on tools.

It is not just that the cast of characters is impressive, but that the style is noteworthy: compressed, sinewy, focused on a critical moment requiring a response from the listener. The teaching doesn't strike one as a community product but the work of an author. And if one gives time in one's life responding to the thrust of their challenge, it becomes apparent that we are here in the presence of a unique and powerful mind.

Though I appreciate John's respect for the general quality of the Gospel parables (which is not to say that all the Gospel teachings or even all the parables are of equally high quality or commendableness), I must disagree with the conclusion he draws here. If the parables are "grounded in the kind of community we thought Galilee to be," if they are, as John shows in his list, to do with the mundane realities of life, why can they not be seen as the community's product, rather than that of "a unique and powerful mind"? If one mind is capable of coming up with this rich range of expression, why not several minds, many minds interacting with each other, spread over time? What happened to the maxim that "two heads (or a hundred) are better than one"? In fact, how many great developments and inventions in world history are truly the product of a single individual? How many political movements, or social systems? Even when famous individuals are involved (in the popular mind), how many have not built upon the work of predecessors? Very few. Sometimes it is a case of which one reaches the finish line first in a field of competing runners, all of whom have contributed to the goal being essayed and achieved. If FDR had not been President, would the crisis of the Thirties not have produced an increased sense of social responsibility? If Alexander Graham Bell had not lived, would we be without the telephone today?

Besides, the greater the "unique and powerful mind" which John and others postulate, the greater becomes the mystery of how such a mind and its product could have sunk without a trace in the thought and expression of the first two or three generations of Christian letter writers and apostles, or from the wider notice of commentators and historians of the time.

We also need to study this teaching in the light of what can be known of the territories in which it was supposedly delivered. Albrecht Alt, in Where Jesus Worked: Towns and villages of Galilee studied with the help of local history, sought to do just that, and identified the places where Jesus was said to have been as still more Jewish than Greek in culture.

Geza Vermes in Jesus the Jew placed the ministry of Jesus within the background of other peripatetic teachers and exorcists of the time. The sayings seem to fit that background better than any other.

In the context of such a theory, where, then, is the specific Jewish tenor of the teaching found in Q? Why does that document contain a complete void (beyond a passing reference to Solomon) on all things specifically Jewish? Why can the sentiments of Q1 be closely aligned with the Cynic philosophy, a Greek movement not a Jewish one?

Before leaving the parables there is a point that I would like to contribute, which I have not seen elsewhere (though, of course, someone else may have advanced it already). I believe that many of the parables of Jesus are borrowed, not created. By that I mean that they sound like they were stories going around which Jesus adopted and adapted to his purposes. Take the Dishonest Steward as an example. It has long puzzled exegetes how Jesus could make such a character an example for his followers. But this becomes very understandable if the story was a current one in the community, and Jesus used it to say: I wish you all were - in terms of the light - as sharp and savvy as he was in terms of the darkness. Or take the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As this has come down to us, it has Jesus sending people off to an eternal fire as punishment. What really happened, I believe, is that Jesus said something like: Hi, you teachers believe that at the judgement God will divide people as if he were separating sheep and goats, and you believe he will send you to blessedness and others to hell. But using your own scenario, I think there will be surprises. People are not going to be aware what God's judgement is based on. Something you did, or didn't do, to the needy around you will decide that fate. So - given your picture of heaven and hell - you'd be surprised as to who is going where. This borrowing happens in a parable like that of the king who invited guests that turned him down and who, like some dictator committing crimes against humanity, then sends his soldiers to torture them. I don't think Jesus meant that to be a picture of God! I think he's here once again borrowing a story from the community: Remember when that potentate got mad at the elite who didn't show up at his banquet! How different God is, who in similar circumstances would throw his gates open to anybody on the street.

Here John seems to backtrack and admit that some of the voice of Jesus was indeed that of the community or background preaching movement. He also does what generations of Christian apologists have done before him: reinterpret Jesus to fit the level of enlightenment of their own time. What cannot be literally accepted in the words of the Gospel tends to be allegorized or, as here, have new meanings or even the thoughts of Jesus read into them. Matthew's account of the coming of the Son of Man (25:31-46), which John refers to as a parable, is indeed a harsh and disturbing story of the separation of mankind into the saved and the damned. John's reading of it (or behind it) is more enlightened and far more comforting, but it is justified by nothing that can be found in Matthew's Gospel. His need to regard another parable, the one about the cruel king, as a foil used by Jesus to contrast the true behavior of God shows again that our own needs and agendas will always be imposed on the sacred texts. No genre of writing in the history of humanity is more subject to revisionism than the religious one, and I have suggested that the most dramatic of those revisions took place within a couple of generations of the writing of the Gospels: turning them from allegory into history and bringing a literary character to historical life. John only illustrates the universal and eternal tendency toward such evolution.

What John also illustrates is our tendency to relegate the less enlightened elements of human nature, and of course the downright reprehensible and evil, to a background rooted in humanity's presumed basic character, while the good and enlightened is extrapolated onto a higher force, in this case one that is imagined to have walked the earth. I have always felt that this is to short-change us, for it implies that only from some higher being and dimension can the good we have within us as a natural part of our evolution be seen as coming, and only thus can it be explained.

However that approach to the parables may play out, the impression left from reading them and other teaching of Jesus is that here we are in the presence of a remarkable teacher, whose words we haven't caught up with behaviorally even to this day. I get the impression of a real human character.

Prophecy historicized, not history remembered?

Crossan, Helms in Gospel Fictions, and now Doherty believe that the Jesus passion story in Mark is an elaboration of passages from the Jewish Scriptures expanded into stories of a man who carried them out and so fulfilled them.

I just don't see it. I have read those books in the Old Testament over and over, and nothing remotely like the story of Jesus ever emerged, even when I read them knowing the prophecy-historicized hypothesis. And before me, and before the purported time of Jesus, hundreds of priests, rabbis, scribal scholars, and layfolk read them, and no such story ever emerged. Why did it happen with this one author? And if it could happen to Mark, why could it not happen to some figure before Mark who set it in motion? So it seems just as plausible to me to believe that an outstanding mind, sensing himself involved in destiny, and deeply versed in the Scriptures of his people, urged his followers to find passages to justify what he and they were involved in, and that after his death this searching the Scriptures became an important exercise in his community. The likeness between what happened to him and passages that seem to predict it could be due to the fact that he shaped a lot of what happened to him in terms of the Scriptures he was exploring.

However much the passion story feels like a well constructed and written down drama, it equally feels like actual episodes woven together. Give Mark due credit for pulling it into its present shape, but there is no reason to believe that he pulled it out of thin air as a little novelette. The parallels put forward by Doherty don't seem to me to have the immediacy, detail, and historical feeling of this story. Further, if one author Mark created this, how did other authors then manage to write in the same vein and create other stories of like characteristics? Were Matthew and Luke and John also fabulous fiction writers?

If I visit a brickyard or a stone quarry, do I see the buildings that are fashioned out of them? The specific story of Jesus does not exist in the Old Testament, only its building blocks and models. The tale of Jesus' Passion was fashioned by Mark out of those building blocks in scripture, and in its shape and symbolic content it is modeled on a story that does exist in scripture, namely the genre identified by scholars (many more than just those mentioned by John) as The Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One, which appears in several versions throughout Jewish sacred and apocryphal writings. For the pre-Passion ministry of Jesus, Mark used the building blocks found in the Kingdom preaching movement of which his community was a part, and which is reflected in the teachings, apocalyptic prophecy, miracle-working and controversy stories of Q, even if Mark did not possess a copy of the written document. Thus the composite Gospel story is contained in Mark's own experience, and in the imagination he brought to his translation, using pieces of scripture, of the mythical event of salvation by Christ in the spiritual world into an earthly tale that served to symbolize, instruct and edify. Naturally, the pieces themselves do not possess the "immediacy, detail and historical feeling of the Gospel story," those "living, breathing, walking" elements John will enumerate in his closing remarks. That is the product of Mark and his successors who, like all great writers, inject personality, color, and vivid contemporary context to create enduring works of literature.

Why did it happen to this one author? Well, someone had to be the first. That author stood at a critical juncture in the intersection of ideas and impulses which had been building for a long time. Such moments do happen in history. Considering that the composition of the first Gospel took place (in the view of critical scholarship) no earlier than the year 70, perhaps even later, several decades after the events they are supposed to have described, we are entitled to question why it took so long and to ask if, instead, the first 'occurrence' of those events as described by Mark did in fact take place only on his own writing table. As for the other evangelists, surely John realizes that Matthew, Luke and John were not separate "fabulous fiction writers," but copiers of Mark. Realizing the potential in Mark's innovative idea, they all expanded on Mark's product and mined the scriptural source for ever more detailed material.

John would like to suggest that it was Jesus who first explored the scriptures, to explain himself and the movement he was generating, and then encouraged his followers to do the same. But here again, we run up against the Great Silence. If early Christians are responding to Jesus' example and urging, why did it take decades for this scripture-based creation to emerge? Why for so long is there no sign in Christian correspondence of what Jesus had done and said on earth? Paul had an intense interest in the scriptures. Why does he give no clue that Jesus had led the way? How, if the early Christian community was cognizant of scripture as a forecast of Jesus life, could Paul have had no interest in that life or in detailing how scripture had been fulfilled in it? Paul's bare-bones gospel, as he tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, is derived from the scriptures. Romans 1:1-4, as Paul presents the picture, tells us that God's gospel of the Son in the prophets was an "announcement beforehand," not of Jesus' life and ministry, but of Paul's own missionary proclamation. Paul had no sense of a recent career of Jesus intervening between the scriptural 'prophecy' and his own role as the inspired revealer of God's divine Son and plan for the world's salvation.


It is clear that I don't buy Doherty's hypothesis. He has done a good job, but a Procrustean job, of making a lot of evidence fit his thesis. But when one examines the cracks and the weak links in the argument and plausible alternatives, it is no longer as compelling as he would like it to be. Curiously, Doherty, who helps to further unglue the triptych of Gospels-Acts-Epistles, seems himself to be still caught in the ghost of the triptych. Not finding the Jesus of the Gospels in the Epistles, he jumps to the conclusion that the Epistles must be right and there is no Gospel Jesus, instead of saying we now have two documents that may have separate provenances.

But he has raised very good questions as to how to interpret Paul vis-à-vis the Synoptic tradition and vis-à-vis the world of Greek thought into which the Christian sect moved. And not only Paul - but Hebrews and Thomas and John and Revelation and all those other portrayals of Jesus.

Here John appeals to the other traditional pillar of rationalization in seeking to explain the peculiarities of the early Christian record: that all this variety—and incompatible variety at that—represents differing creations out of Jesus of Nazareth, differing responses to the man himself, from humble preacher to cosmic divinity. I submit that the difficulty in understanding how one person could have given rise to all these reactions and yet surface only decades later in a story which can be identified as the product of a single writer, is far greater than to survey the philosophy and religious expression of the time and find all these facets of the composite Christ in the world in which the early Christians lived, studied and created.

Creation, and especially theological creation, is determined by need, personal and communal. That, in the face of our fear at being on our own in this vast impersonal universe with only our wits, evolved talents and painstakingly acquired wisdom to guide us, has produced and sustained religious belief. And yet, we still have the need to focus it on one of our own, a hero figure, even if, in the case of Christianity, he is one who shared our nature only for a little time. We need an Almighty, but we have to approach him through something we can relate to, a someone who in turn can relate to us in our personal deficiencies. John, in the following "Coda" to his critique, illustrates how compelling that urge is, and he is not the first to create an entire world of starry-eyed speculation, with Jesus as its Sun. Our great needs and even greater imaginations have brought Jesus in all his manifestations down through the centuries, and obscured the simpler outlines of the birth of a movement which, once preconception is set aside and we listen to the first century voice instead of our own, is really quite understandable.

One of the great philosophical legacies of the ancient world was the creation of intermediary channels to the ultimate God, parts of the Deity itself, and we can see how these became synthesized in the Christian invention of the ultimate Son, Jesus of Nazareth. What Paul envisioned as taking place in the heavens among spiritual forces in a timeless dimension could not satisfy the total soul of a society, and once Christ the Son fell to earth, Christianity was carried to the head of the pack and the mysteries went into oblivion. The New Testament is the record of that epoch-making evolution.

Here, then, the final portion of John's critique of The Jesus Puzzle, and I will let him have the last, often poetic, word. It is unfortunate that the poetic, powerful, and innovative voice of the Jesus of the Gospels shows no sign of making the impact on his own time and immediate followers that we would have every right to expect. Apologists must still seek to supply that voice from their own mouths to fill the puzzling silence.

Coda - What of Jesus and the movement that claimed his name?

I believe we should start where Doherty starts - with the busy world of figures that roamed the near eastern world in the first century. Political rebels (like Theudas and Judas the Galilean, Acts 5.36-37, and perhaps Barabbas), brigands and terrorists, Cynic philosophers, and mystery religion teachers, and Jewish holy men. With Vermes I would place Jesus against the background of Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle Drawer. He was a Jewish peripatetic healer and exorcist and teacher. His first recorded act was to align himself with one of these figures that crowded the first century scene: John the Baptist. This at least advertised the genre of revolutionary that he intended to be - a preacher of a new day based on values rather than military or political victory. It was still a dangerous mission, for potentates who didn't like preachers' messages would not hesitate to eliminate such.

Next I would ask what clues do we have to the kind of person he was? When one interprets the Transfiguration and the so-called miracles as a word puzzle of literary invention, one suppresses evidence pointing to the nature of this Jesus of Nazareth. Some of the evidence points to the magician genre that Morton Smith has evoked. He may have had great hypnotic powers, used not as by some stage con man, but used by a person who dwelt closer to psychedelic experience than we are accustomed, and who could translate that into visions for his followers. (We have no adequate constructs to describe such a person, because "magician" and "hypnosis" and "psychedelic" carry connotations that are often pejorative in our culture.) The Temptation story illustrates the vivid imagination at work. Leslie Weatherhead studied his miracles and healings from a modern scientific point of view, and it is not as difficult as Doherty seems to assume to make them more understandable, even if some, like the Feeding of the Multitude, seem like giant parables in action. A history-minded ophthalmologist once told me that ancient healers were known to have thrust their thumb into a patient's eye and broken up a cataract in that way, restoring sight. I don't know the evidence for that, but clearly such knowledge would throw light on so-called miracles.

We can also study his sayings, using, for example, George Kelly's Psychology of Personal Constructs, which examines people's statements in terms of dichotomous constructs. The parables vividly illustrate Kelly's thesis as to how constructs are formed by comparison between three units. There is a father, there is a prodigal son, and there is a pious son. (And - for one who has eyes to see - there is the teller of this tale, himself a traveler to a far country, pious in his prodigality, and a true son of the father and a true brother to his brothers.) There is a landowner who had three servants: two similar in behavior, one different. And so on. The Kellyan analysis would not be attempting a biography of Jesus but the pattern that emerges from the words. A mind of a certain sort emerges through the literature. As he teaches, people listen and disciples learn. Perhaps as B. Gerhardsson in Memory and Manuscript thought, the disciples were trained to remember accurately. Sayings would later be gathered into collections, and circulate among those who wanted to pass on what they had learned from this amazing teacher.

At first, one would simply think of him as a teacher and prophet, not a god. But some teachers have an amazing charisma that sets them apart. This man was strikingly unusual. He was like one of the old-time prophets. And several of his followers continued to see him that way. Like James, they would be stimulated by his example to do teaching in is style, but not feel that they had to quote him for every issue.

Though he borrowed many concepts that were part of the intellectual furniture of his time, he gave them unique twists. The apocalyptic Son of Man - a dated kind of concept out of his Jewish origins and one that never translated easily into Greek (or English, for that matter) - became a present as well as an apocalyptic keyword. He spoke of a Kingdom, as he lived in a world where there were many kingdoms, and he transformed what being a subject of such a kingdom would mean. One popular view was that he was a prophet redivivus. He refused to be pushed into wearing a political king's crown. Something else was formulating in his mind that perhaps only the evocation of it in Gandhi and Martin Luther King could fully explain. He would make a raid on Jerusalem in the name of Satyagrapha (Gandhi's truth-seeking), and he planned the trip carefully. Planning to borrow a symbolic donkey and to reserve an upper room for a banquet are strangely down to earth notions, so unlike the story of the descending and ascending Heavenly Intervener of Doherty's Pauline scenarios. The Markan passion story is very unlike a dying and rising myth. If it's fiction, it's fiction at maximum verisimilitude to history. This is verism. As I cannot see it created out of ancient scripture, so much as illustrating ancient scripture, so I cannot see it as Pauline myth historicized.

If Doherty had a contrary twin who set out to refute his brother's thesis of no-historical-Jesus, but who used the same style of scholarship, he would have little difficulty in demonstrating that Paul's descending and rising Intermediary has little connection with Mark's living, breathing, walking, eating, healing, planning, parading, and dying Jesus. There isn't even a resurrection scene in Mark, as far as its earliest ending would tell. Still far from resolution is the understanding of what "resurrection" might mean. If we start with the conviction that the Jesus puzzle is simply a literary puzzle, the search will be foreclosed. Preston Harold in The Shining Stranger contended that Jesus intended an experience of himself after death that would be visionary but real to those who experienced it. The contention of that book as a whole is that Jesus set out to revise the concept of the Christ and the Kingdom into a reality that all who followed would participate in. A new self would arise in those who joined the faith circle, a self generated and transformed by the vision that Jesus had implanted in their minds. I once had a client who was undergoing a lot of mental anguish over the breakup of a love relationship with a woman. As he sat in melancholy watching television at Easter time, the story of Jesus was being shown, and as Jesus hung on the cross, the man suddenly saw the arms of Jesus extended from the cross and from the TV screen and reaching out and grasping his shoulders comfortingly. The man was not particularly religious. I don't think he even went to church. But he asked me in genuine puzzlement if that could really have happened! He was there, and he didn't know if it had really happened. In other words, the vision felt real. If the resurrection that Jesus set in motion was of that order, then each person receiving it would have felt empowered to go and do the call that God had given to them. This would account for the wild diversity that followed. Christ in Paul would produce a different tale from Christ in the author of Hebrews and different again from Christ in the John of the Gospel by that name. Having to quote Jesus or refer to his words would be secondary to the authority imparted to speak one's own best words. He who "spoke with authority and not as the scribes" would have inspired a like exercise in those who claimed his name. The intent of Jesus would have been, not that we become Christians, but that we become Christs.



John sent me some further comments on the above exchange which I will reproduce here, with only three interjected clarifications of my own where John seems to have misread my position. Beyond that, I will not offer any further argumentation, and I thank John for the opportunity to present an instructive and entertaining dialogue. (Again, John's comments will be in italics.)

Some further comments:

[1] I am very complimented that you put my review on your website, and I appreciate your remarks about scholarly debate exercised with courtesy and respect. It's a pleasure doing business with you.

[2] You characterize me in some places as a Christian apologist. I need to point out that I am a professional Leader in a humanist organization founded by a Jew. But I once was a Christian. Your own philosophical bias shows pretty strongly in places.

[3] If it could be proved that there is no historical Jesus, it would not damage my philosophy of life. I would continue to find inspiration from the story the way I do from a Shakespeare play or any other great fiction.

[4] You missed my point in what I said about Matthew and the persecution of the Jews. I did not question that Christians did indeed use the gospels to further their nefarious persecutions. I questioned whether they were justified in doing so. I argued not. Texts that tell us to love even our enemies could hardly have justified a pogrom. Yes, Matthew's "His blood be upon us" was read as a curse by later Christians. I suggested that Matthew may have intended something else by it, something more redemptive.

[5] The Gospels do surround Jesus with opponents who were hostile and false-hearted Jews, as you say. But they also surround Jesus with Jewish followers. And they presented him as a Jew with an impressive Jewish genealogy, pursuing a Jewish way of life.

[6] Every religious literature, unfortunately, contains a mixture of heinous and all-embracing remarks. To add to your list of heinous lines in world literature, try Psalm 137.9, and for all-embracing lines, try Amos 9.7 and Matthew 5.44ff.

[7] As you indicate, the origins of the Holocaust are complex. Last year I heard the Jewish scholar, Professor Marc Saperstein, lecture on that subject, and he made clear that it could not readily be laid at the door of Christianity.

[8] You have expanded richly on the Greek cultic mysteries. But something's still missing. I've been re-reading Paul and I don't find the fusion with Greek myth in Galatians and Corinthians that you do. Maybe we need to "layer" Paul's letters too. What seems clear to me is that Paul did not think his "gospel" originated with him, that a community of that gospel pre-dated him in Jerusalem, that "born of a woman," "born under the law," and "nailed to the cross" are meant as written and are not window-dressing for some myth, and that the crucifixion death and the resurrection of Jesus were the all-consuming core to his gospel. His letters address congregational issues, but they seem to assume a separate "gospel" already communicated to them. Why he does not have our interest in the Quest of the historical Jesus, I don't know, but he assumes a historical figure with a Jewish name and a Jewish title at every turn.

[9] Major shifts of interest in different aspects of events occur. Medieval painting portrayed Christ as a rather stiff, stereotypical royal figure. Then suddenly, with Grunewald (15th to 16th C.), in his paintings of Jesus (at Colmar, France), a very human Jesus is portrayed. I suspect something similar in the 1st century. Paul focused on that crucified criminal - a stumbling block to Jews and an offense to Greeks - now raised to the throne of God. Others were beholden to Jesus the Teacher. We still don't know how these streams interacted and played out.

[10] Christians do not drink the blood of Jesus. They drink wine as a symbol of that blood, itself a symbol (according to the Scriptures) of "life" poured out. They don't eat Jesus' flesh either, they eat bread broken as a symbol of the body sacrificed.

[11] As you acknowledge, there is much subjectivity in interpretation. I translated the Greek ouai as a lament rather than a curse or threat, in face of a coming judgement. E.V. Rieu, J.B. Phillips, and the N.E.B. translate it as "alas." You dismissed that as a "trifle mild." Luke 21.23 requires it to be translated as a lament for expectant and nursing mothers in the time of crisis. It's a small matter, but little things add up to characterize a subject as threatening or sorrowful.

[12] When my family began frequent intra-familial e-mailings on the Internet, we soon discovered that since e-mails are a literary mode of communication, we needed to work harder to get across the tone of voice intended, when, say, somebody made a joke about somebody else. I think it's like that in reading an ancient text. You read the Sheep and the Goats pericope in Matthew as "harsh and disturbing." I can imagine a storyteller making it clear in that story that the heaven and the hell are stage furniture of the day, that the disturbing feature is the reversal of expectations - in favor of those who weren't seeking God for salvation but were just responding to the need of their fellow-humans. It's a very humanist manifesto.

[13] If there is no historical Jesus and Mark invented him, then you have uncovered one of the greatest novelists of all time, who created a story that has captured the minds of artists and simple people for two thousand years, and still commands a scholarly industry (even Earl Doherty has spent hundreds of hours on it!). Somehow the author remained anonymous and was able to palm his story off as fact, so that even though hundreds were alive in the stated period and were in a position to know, not one spilled the secret. Even opponents were taken in and said he was illegitimate but not non-existent.

This is probably the point most often misinterpreted (or misrepresented) about my views on this website, though I have dealt with the question more thoroughly in my book. I do not regard the Gospel of Mark as intended by its author to represent history, and thus there was no "palming off" of the story as fact, or anyone who was "taken in" in the face of many who might have been currently alive to dispute it. The first 'gospel of Jesus Christ' was a symbolic representation of the gospel which two different expressions of the time were promulgating: the gospel about the coming Kingdom of God, and the gospel about the redeeming savior-god Christ Jesus preached by apostles like Paul. Mark combined the two for the first time in a very creative way, but no one for perhaps a couple of decades would have regarded it as history. By the time its ideas began to spread (helped by a couple of revision/expansions of Mark by evangelists in other communities) and came to be seen as representing historical events, the author, along with anyone else who might have put the lie to the misunderstanding, were probably gone from the scene. In any event, once such an appealing—and politically advantageous—idea was seized upon, dissenting voices would have been ignored, or condemned, as we see in 1 John 4 or in Ignatius' fulminations. I also believe that other, natural factors were at work in helping bring the spiritual Christ to earth, not just the tale contained in the Gospels.

[14] You suggest this was a community effort, that two heads are better than one. Tell me, Earl, how many really great novels can you name that were put together by a committee or a community?

I spoke of a 'collective' source for political and social movements, science and technology, not works of art. The latter, indeed, is where individualism truly shines (though not, in most cases, without influences from other artists and 'schools'). That is why I regard Mark's unique product as making him perhaps the most influential individual in the history of the world, because as a literary creation (not the ideas contained in it) the first Gospel may well have proceeded from a single mind.

[15] On the use of Scripture to create the fiction, you use the metaphor of being in a brickyard or stone quarry and not being able to see the finished building. That's my point too. But an architect could! And Mark claimed he was portraying that architect. Karl Ludwig Schmidt said Mark supplied the connecting links to episodes of narrative. If he was the original author, why could he not have written one seamless whole himself?

I am a little uncertain here of John's meaning, or why this should invalidate my point on this matter. But as I said in my previous remark, Mark did not invent from scratch. One creates symbolism by translating ideas and circumstances existing in, and familiar to, the community. Otherwise, the symbolism is lost. Schmidt's "episodes of narrative" imply preserved units of tradition about Jesus, which is the standard way of viewing the process leading to the formation of the Gospels. But I would characterize those "episodes" as the experiences of the community itself of which Mark was a part. Not 'preserved' from a past attachment to an historical founder, but part of the fabric of the Kingdom of God movement Mark lived within. As for the "episodes" of the Passion narrative, I think it's pretty clear that those units came from scripture, since virtually every piece of the story can be located in the sacred writings, in some cases with a near identical wording, in others undergoing a creative reworking and expansion, with the overall story structure being yet another telling of the traditional tale of the Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One. Mark's creativity as a writer was not to invent the plotline, or even the details, it was to transform these sources into a contemporary, instructive, inspiring new story. And thereby lead almost 2000 years of Christian believers, inadvertently, down the garden path.