THE JESUS PUZZLE
Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
Reader Feedback and Author’s Response
Set 21: December 2002

Noel writes:

   Read the book, loved it, write more, keep up the good work!


Bob writes:

   Thank you for sharing your amazing and clear insight about Christianity. As one who has traveled from the camp of Roman Catholic devotion that ended in my ordination to their priesthood, to the clearer, cleaner air of humanism and rationality, I have found your writing to be inspiring. Having long doubted that Jesus was anything like believers made him out to be, it had never occurred to me that he may be fictional! The case you make for that is compelling and I admit that I am convinced you are right.


John writes:

   I love your site and the work you do. I would be honored to help your struggle to bring about an age of reason. I get so frustrated, and often times depressed by the state of things. Being surrounded by a society that prides itself on its blanket of ignorance makes me want to shut myself indoors forever. I feel so alone. But your site (including comments from readers) gives me a boost. It lets me know there are others out there who agree with me. I recommend it to everyone I know who has an open mind.


Adam writes:

   Allow me to add my voice to the well-deserved accolades for your site. Your work is a breath of fresh air in a dusty, stagnant field dominated by dogma.
   When I read your book, The Jesus Puzzle, it was an amazingly eye-opening experience for meI almost thought I could hear the “click, click, click” sound of facts slotting into place one after the other, and it’s extremely rare that I get a feeling like that about anything. I knew at that moment I’d found the position I would take from then on, and all the worn and threadbare pro-historicity arguments I’ve seen advanced since have done nothing to budge me.
   The Case for Christ was one such. Strobel threw me for a loop at first, but when I came back and read Challenging the Verdict I watched Strobel’s case burn off like fog in the morning. As always, your writing was refreshingly clear, incisively reasoned and undeniably persuasive, systematically exposing the flaws in his scholars so easily I wondered why I hadn’t noticed any of them myself. This second book only confirmed my opinion of you as one of the most outstanding freethought writers I know of.


David writes:

   You need to do a little more soul searching. What happened to you that you would try to discredit Jesus Christ? Just remember you will have to stand before GOD and answer for this. I feel sorry for your lack of knowledge of Jesus. I suggest you read the Bible and see for yourself. Please, brother, do not go down this path. It leads to destruction, doom and eternal damnation.


Justin writes:

   How dare YOU!! How dare you fill the paths of Satin [sic]! Saying there is no Jesus, is saying that we were just a mistake! I feel him when I pray!! And I hope God forgives you!! If I were you, I would reconsider.


Paul writes:

   REPENT


Jim writes:

   I have enjoyed your site in many respects. Anyone with a brain can see that religious thought evolves, and that the New Testament is no exception. Your responses to the negative and condescending letters are always tasteful. Does every Christian have to rely on this “human wisdom” vs. “God’s wisdom” argument? It really does get old after a while, and perpetuates a type of arrogance that really makes me cringe. How does one respond to being accused of ‘thinking like a human’? You really do put the religious bigots to shame.


Victor writes:

   I can’t even find the words to express my thanks for your excellent scholarly books. I just finished reading both The Jesus Puzzle and Challenging the Verdict. Both books have impacted me greatly and personally have been revealing. After 42 years of theistic and Christian upbringing, I feel liberated and happy to finally break free of the chains of slavery that religion imposes on us all.
   It just takes an open mind and careful reading of your books and I am sure that any religious persons, and specially Christians, will come to the same conclusion. That we live in a natural world and there is no god! And that religious beliefs do more bad than good. Just remember Sept 11 and look at the situation in the middle east. The world would be a better place if we can get rid of all religious beliefs that cloud our minds.


Greg writes:

   You have done a great job of putting wooden stakes in the heart of a nonexistent Jesus. Why don’t I see you on Larry King live? Why do I not see Dan Barker or Dennis McKinsey on such programs? Few people are aware of the mythological school. Most people literally believe a man by the name of Jesus Christ actually existed. We need to get the message out. But how?


Marc writes:

   I just finished reading your remarkable The Jesus Puzzle. I am very grateful to you for such a wonderful perspective on the foundation myth of our western civilization. I am a newcomer in this field and I deeply enjoyed every single bit of your careful and lively demonstrations. Thanks for having brought so much remarkable evidence to bear on such a wonderful hypothesis.


Rob writes:

   I just finished Challenging the Verdict. Very compelling book. Loved the format. Thank you so much for your efforts. You’re a very gifted writer.


Mark writes:

   Thank you for the work you have done in putting together The Jesus Puzzle and Challenging the Verdict. Both works have opened my eyes to things I had never noticed before. The Campus Crusade for Christ distributes “freshmen survival kits” (or something alone those lines) which include copies of Strobel’s book. If only there were a way to distribute your refutation right along with it! Don’t let your detractors get you down.


Mohsen writes:

   Currently I am reading The Jesus Puzzle. I have been an atheist since the age of 26, and I have read many books on Islam, Atheism and Christianity; and I can tell you that The Jesus Puzzle is one of the best books I have ever read in my life. Please keep up the fight against ignorance. The world needs a lot more people like you.


Mark writes:

   I ordered The Jesus Puzzle a couple of years ago. I’ve read it from cover to cover at least three times attempting to soak up as much info as I can. Now at 42 I’m taking an introduction to philosophy class, and it’s amazing the way the pieces are coming together as far as the start of Christianity is concerned. Great stuff! I look forward to reading your new book.


Jim writes:

   I’ve been reading pretty much your entire website for the past few months, and I’m very impressed. I’m also a non-believer (former fundamentalist) and like some others, I’m entertained by how the staunch believers continue to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to even consider what you have to say.


Robert writes:

   Just a short note to say thanks for both entertaining me and opening my eyes to the hypothesis you espouse regarding the elusive snipe of history, the man from Nazareth. I am an ex-christian but still possess a great interest in answering the query posed by Christ, “who do men say that I am?” By the way, your opening sequence in your website novel (the Jesus Seminar ‘riot’) was a hoot. Almost sounded like Paul in Acts before the Sanhedrin. Assuming, of course, that story has an iota of historical reality.


Robert writes:

   I have a signed copy of your book The Jesus Puzzle and am absolutely delighted with it. Having read it I feel a lot more comfortable in being able to debate with theists, and to question their theological as well as their ‘faith’ held beliefs. It is a great relief sometimes to know that in this ‘God belief’ world there are academics like yourself who can not only stand up to the apologists of theism, but who can teach and provide people like myself with the arguments and structured evidence required to discredit the myth of Jesus and ‘God’.
    Thanks once again in liberating my freethought.
[E.D.: Robert lives in Wales and ordered The Jesus Puzzle from Amazon UK, where it is now at long last available (www.amazon.co.uk).]


Pete writes:

   I read The Case for Christ at the suggestion of a friend who wasn’t really trying to convert me, but thought I might be interested. Of course, that book is a load of crap. As a lawyer and a person with just a little information on the history of Christianity, I think I can say that. I was bothered by his book and am glad to see a rebuttal in print. I am very happy to see your new book on my desk. I haven’t read it yet, but will start very soon.
   In the New Oxford Bible (I think it is called), which Bruce Metzger edited, the first or second sentence in each chapter on the gospels says something to the effect that “the author is unknown.” I was bothered by Strobel’s book because I presume he knew this, but never asked Metzger the key question, hence he never printed the truth of Metzger’s view that the authors of the gospels are unknown. That view is, of course, inconsistent with what Strobel wants to convince his readers is the truth, and with what others interviewed for his book said, namely, that we do know who wrote the gospels.
   It was that kind of intellectual sloppiness (or, perhaps, outright dishonesty), that renders Strobel’s book, well, a load of crap. OK, so I’m not very articulate. In no way am I putting Metzger down. I think his good reputation was used by Strobel to add credibility to his book.


Tim writes:

   Just read the first 140 pages of The Jesus Puzzle and I have had a wonderful eureka/epiphany experience. I just finished Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament? and was really just on the fence concerning an historical Jesus (although I decided to choose the non-historical due to lack of any real evidence in 1st century writings) but after reading some of your book, I am now convinced that a Jesus never lived. Your arguments are very compelling and although a few [passages] seem to sound like a reference to a real man who lived on earth, the totality of your argument has to be taken as a whole and as such, I see no real way to insert a historical Jesus into these sets of writings and make all of the pieces fit.
   I was skeptical that your book would reveal much new or persuasive, but I was wrong.


Jody writes:

   What in the world are you doing? You strive so hard to convince people that Jesus is not real and that the new testament is not foretelling of Christ, WHY? I fail to see the point of your website. What is the purpose of your life and your study? The Bible says two things: one, if you do not believe then you will be deceived; two, prophecy is not given for personal interpretation, it is given for the confirmation and glorification of the only name given under heaven. Why do you wish to take away what gives hope and purpose in people’s lives?


Luke writes:

   I have been struggling for years in my christian faith and for the last two years have been having doubts and have been suffering and feeling “abandonment” by a silent God. Finally, in my search for answers and whether I have been duped, I find your website. I hope I get answers! I am sending a check for one copy of The Jesus Puzzle.
   Do you know of any humanist groups here in Virginia? Can you point me in a direction? Christianity has so screwed up my brain, that I may need counseling. And prayer does not seem to work, and well, I am not going to dump my problems on you. But this book could be very important to me. Where can I find other similar books?

Response to Luke:

Breaking the Ties That Bind

You are not alone, if I can judge by a certain type of response I frequently get to my web site, in feeling that Christianity has done a number on you. There is nothing wrong, either, in seeking professional help, if you can find a counselor who is at least neutral toward the Christian faith. That may not be so easy in the southern states. Perhaps someone who is Jewish (but not prejudiced against Christianity) would be one avenue.

I am not intimately familiar with humanist networks in the U.S. But you could try the Council for Secular Humanism which is based in Buffalo, New York, and I know they have chapters all over the country. Try their website at: http://secularhumanism.org.

My own books are an examination of the reliability of the Christian record and views of Christian origins, which can be very helpful for someone trying to break ties of dogma and fear (which religious organizations are very good at imposing), but they do contain some material on general issues of rationality and humanism. You could try The Jesus Puzzle first, and you might also get other things out of my second book, Challenging the Verdict, which tackles Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and contains some discussion on the wider aspects of religious belief and rationality.

Another good book for someone in your position would be Dan Barker’s (he is an ex-Christian minister) Losing Faith in Faith. It’s available from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, as well as on Amazon.com.

You would also benefit from a reading of the complete book I’ve posted on my sister site, http://www.ageofreason.org, by Betty Brogaard: Dare To Think For Yourself. It’s an account of one woman’s progress from unquestioning religious faith of the fundamentalist variety, to atheism and a naturalistic view of the world. A lot of her personal anecdote and insight would be helpful to people in a position like yours.

One “middle” avenue might be investigating the Unitarian-Universalist groups. They are very humanist oriented, and their belief in a God (such as it is: it varies from group to group) is not at all traditionally oriented, and many simply reject any personal Deity. Very often, Unitarian groups are affiliated with local humanist groups. They go by different terms; some refer to themselves as a “Fellowship”, others as a “Congregation”, others a “Church”. My impression is that the “Fellowships” tend to be the least religious in the standard sense. In Virginia (looking at a list I have), there are Fellowships in Blacksburg, Fredericksburg; Congregations in Fairfax, Oakton; Churches in Reston, Richmond and Williamsburg.

Stick with it. From a rationalist’s point of view, the benefits of freeing oneself from dogmatic ties are enormous, once you’ve worked your way through it. This doesn’t mean that you have to become completely atheistic (though you may), but the freedom from excessive guilt and sense of sin, from the forced rejection of science and reason, from the fear of questioning or the need to see people of one’s own religious persuasion as possessing the sole path to salvation while everyone else lies outside the pale, will make the whole process worthwhile.

And while I did not enter this research primarily to ‘free’ people like Luke, perhaps this can serve as good a “purpose” as any and answer Jody’s (the previous writer’s) question.


Adam writes:

   I am thoroughly enjoying your book, Challenging the Verdict. I’d like to ask a question. On page 17, you write that John’s gospel does not portray Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice for sin, and so he leaves out the Eucharist which declares Jesus to be exactly that. I agree that I can’t recall any explicit soteriological statements in John, but what about his symbolic equation of Jesus with the “Lamb of God”? You discuss this on p.157 in chapter 11. Doesn’t this mean that John does indeed see Jesus as a sacrifice just like the Paschal lamb was?

Response to Adam:

John, Jesus and the Paschal Lamb

This suggestion would depend on what sort of sacrifice the paschal lamb was regarded as. While some of the animal sacrifices performed in the Temple were “atonement” in nature, this was not the import of the Passover ritual (though I don’t claim to be an expert on all the niceties of ancient Jewish thinking in that regard). The original paschal lamb (its blood smeared on the doorposts of Hebrew households in Egypt in the legend of the Exodus) was a source of ‘deliverance’ in that the avenging angel passed over them, but the sacrifice was not atoning in nature. So while John makes a link between Jesus’ crucifixion and the lambs’ slaughter, it does not follow that this must imply anything soteriological. Those links are rather subtle in the Gospel, with John not spelling anything out. (That John equates Jesus with the paschal lamb is a widespread interpretation among New Testament scholars. See the discussion in Robert Kysar, The Fourth Gospel, p.137f, and Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, p.61-3.)

I prefer to rely (as do others) on the things that John does more or less spell out, namely that Jesus, in a soteriological sense, is the “bread of life,” which is based on the principle of revelation of knowledge, not blood sacrifice. The Johannine Jesus was a Revealer savior, along the lines of that found in other documents such as The Odes of Solomon. I believe this was the original christology of the community before it encountered the Synoptic Gospels and their figure of a crucified human Jesus. This figure the Gospel writer amalgamated with his own (non-historical) savior, but he chose not to fully integrate all the synoptic features, including the atonement doctrine.

Even the interpolated (as it is generally regarded by critical scholars: e.g., D. Moody Smith, Johannine Christianity, p.19; H. Teeple, The Literary Origin of the Gospel of John, p.85) portion of the “bread” passage of John 6 (the part running from verse 51c to 58), while based on those sacrificial synoptic elements, is reinterpreted in keeping with the revelatory bread symbolism. All this is supported by John’s portrayal of the crucifixion, which is never in atoning terms, but a “raising up” and a glorification of Jesus into the world’s view, which is again an expression of the knowledge-conferring role of Jesus, not a sacrificial one. (I discuss this and other aspects of the Fourth Gospel in greater detail in my Supplementary Article No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John.)

It is not surprising that the Gospel of John (not considered by critical scholars as a unity: see The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, p.62 and 273/283) may contain overlapping ideas, not always in full agreement or compatibility with each other.


Eric writes:

   Currently on a Christian debate site I brought up the fact that there was not any eyewitnesses of Jesus who authored the Gospels. John was brought up as an eyewitness. What proof is there that John did NOT write the Gospel of John?

Response to Eric:

The Author of the Fourth Gospel

By “John” I presume is meant the Gospel apostle, John the son of Zebedee, to whom later church tradition assigned authorship of the Fourth Gospel. First of all, this tradition does not appear in the record until the late second century. Before that, no one speaks of such authorship, nor even connects the Gospel with Ephesus, which became the traditional place of its writing. It is significant that the quoted (by Eusebius) bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, Papias, whose lost work may have been written around 125, speaks of an “elder” and/or (there is confusion in Papias’ language) an “apostle” named John, yet he fails to mention that either of these persons was the author of an eyewitness Gospel to Jesus. In fact, Papias is reported to have said that this “elder” told him of documents—ones that seem to have been only collections of sayings and anecdotes, not narrative works—that were allegedly written by followers of Jesus, yet he is silent on any Gospel by this elder, or any other John.

It is difficult to believe that John the son of Zebedee could have been the author of the Fourth Gospel (quite apart from attributing such a sophisticated work to a rude fisherman) when he plays virtually no role in it, not even being referred to until the very end (21:2), and then not by name. There are a few incidents which loom large in the Synoptics at which the apostle John is mentioned as present, such as the Transfiguration and the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and yet these do not even appear in the Gospel of John. Ignatius writes to the church at Ephesus around the year 107 (if his letters are to be regarded as genuine), and yet makes no mention of that apostle as associated with that city, let alone a Gospel by him. Some claim that John the author is to be identified with the “Beloved Disciple” who is never named. That claim is made in 21:24, but critical scholarship (see Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament?, p.218) generally regards the final chapter of John as a later addition, and this claim is seen as part of the community’s attempt to link the Gospel and Johannine traditions to Jesus. This was a common phenomenon in the second century among many Christian groups who sought to base themselves on newly-formed apostolic traditions going back to a perceived historical Jesus. It is likely that “the beloved disciple” is simply an invention of the Johannine Gospel writers.

Finally, one must apply a certain modicum of common sense, even to religious tradition. If John was an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, how is it that his Gospel is so divergent from the other Gospel ‘testimonies’ that are also regarded as reliable and based on eyewitness recollection? There is virtually nothing in common between the teaching of Jesus in the Synoptics and that of the Fourth Gospel. Vital synoptic scenes are missing, such as the Transfiguration, the establishment of the Eucharist, the Garden of Gethsemane. There are dramatic scenes in John, such as the raising of Lazarus, that go unmentioned by the synoptic evangelists. So much in John reflects his own theology and preference, his desire to portray the figure of Jesus in certain ways, with a christology unique to himself. He carefully excises an explicit reference to Jesus’ baptism by John. He rejects the sacrificial atoning role of the Synoptics. He (or his later editors) wed Logos concepts with the Jesus figure, tacking on the Prologue which probably began life as an independent hymn to the Logos. And so on. None of this bespeaks eyewitness or an interest in correct historical reporting. Rather, it clearly suggests an author, or set of authors, who fashion their own literary creation based on other literary sources and the Johannine community’s own thinking.

There was a recurring tradition (expressed by Philip of Side in the 5th century and a Syrian martyrology around 400) that John son of Zebedee had been martyred at a young age, which would preclude any late-century authorship of the Fourth Gospel. Against this, apologists like to set traditions around the time of Irenaeus (180-190) which have John living to old age in the city of Ephesus, where he was an influential figure. One may choose between such conflicting traditions, of course, but as noted above in the case of Ignatius, there is no reference to John to be found in the extant Christian literature of Asia Minor from the first half of the second century that would attest to this long life and influence. Papias, as noted earlier, is ambiguous about such a figure and his comments only come to us through Eusebius. More likely, the late second century traditions about the career of John were a product of the need to assign this newly-appearing Gospel, so different from the Synoptics, to an apostle who had also known Jesus. (The “beloved disciple” of the Gospel author may not originally have been identified in that writer’s mind with any specific apostolic figure.)

In the context of “mythical Jesus” thinking, of course, the figure of John, whether in later tradition or in Paul, was not based on an actual apostle of an historical Jesus. Paul mentions him only by name and is silent on any such human relationship, and legendary figures from the early apostolic movement that preached a spiritual Christ (of which Paul was a part) were only pulled into the historical Jesus orbit when he was launched into the Christian atmosphere through the Gospels.


Louis writes:

   I am reading Challenging the Verdict slowly so as to savor it in the same way as I would a big piece of Devil’s food cake. It’s easy for any freethinker so see through Strobel. He is anything but objective and honest, as you are proving.
   There is a passage in the Gospel of John which I find fascinating. It is, in my opinion, the coup de grace for that bit of New Testament fiction as far as any historical reliability is concerned. Among the witnesses of the crucifixion we find none other than the virgin Mary, a.k.a. the mother of God (John 19:25). Jesus even talks to her. Now isn’t it strange that none of the other gospel writers found her presence worthy of mention?

Response to Louis:

Mary at the Cross

This is one of those episodes in John I referred to above which cannot be found in the other Gospels. Louis is right in regarding this as a significant omission. Its presence in John provides an example of how the various versions of the Gospel story were constructed out of each author’s desire to convey his own lessons and viewpoints.

While we cannot know the exact motivations behind John’s inclusion of this scene, there is an evident ‘moral’ here for the reader. One of John’s motifs is sectarian solidarity, the admonition to “love one another” and to take care of fellow believers, even to the point of sacrificing one’s life. (That the “love commandment” in John is not one of universal ethics, but simply a directive to the Johannine community itself to cohere—as an elect group—through mutual love among themselves, I have argued in my Supplementary Article No. 2.) The presence of Mary at the cross is not historical (she would not, in any case, be an historical person), but a ‘lesson’ embodied in a pronouncement by John’s Jesus that directs one generation to take care of another. The fate of widows and other women who had lost the support of a male caretaker was a concern in early Christian communities. Also, by linking Jesus’ mother with the beloved disciple, the author (or later editor) strengthens the ties of the alleged author to Jesus himself.

Of course, the argument is sometimes made that John, being present at the crucifixion and an eyewitness, would be in a position to know what had happened there, unlike the other evangelists who were not. Such a claim founders on more than one ground. First of all, the other Gospels (initiated by Mark, as in 14:50) clearly imply that Jesus’ disciples deserted him and were not present at the crucifixion. If one of their number had indeed been there, it is difficult to believe that the other evangelists would not know of and want to mention that saving presence. Mark even lists several women who were present (15:40-41), but notably leaves out any of the disciples and even Jesus’ mother Mary. Second, if John is claimed to be the one eyewitness at the crucifixion, then we would have to reject the historical accuracy of all the other evangelists where they differ from John, such as in the words Jesus spoke. Details reported by the synoptic Gospels should be called into question if John doesn’t mention them. Did an eyewitness on the scene happen not to notice the darkness over the land for three hours, or the earthquake that accompanied Jesus death? Was he too far out in the crowd to notice Simon of Cyrene taking Jesus’ cross on his own shoulders, even making the definite statement that Jesus carried his own cross? Did he miss the words of Jesus the other evangelists heard about, or the faith admission of the centurion who would have been standing only a few feet away? On the other hand, we might ask why, if John was present, his observations weren’t relayed to the other apostles and thus enter a more widespread Christian tradition. The dramatic spear in Jesus’ side in lieu of the breaking of the legs performed on the two thieves crucified with him seems to be unknown to the other evangelists, since John is the only one to offer this incident.

Too many apologists (as in Strobel’s book) are guilty of the misleading statement that such-and-such an incident (and there are many) is found in “the Gospels” or “the New Testament” when in fact it is confined to a single account, often in contradiction to other accounts. The Nativity story so familiar to us at Christmas time is a good example, with its features that are really a combination of two different nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke, accounts which are so widely divergent they cannot be harmonized. Matthew has no census, manger or overbooked inns, no attending shepherds and angels; Luke has no Herod, no magi, no slaughter of the innocents, no flight into Egypt. Modern creches have the magi visiting Jesus in the manger; this is an artificial combination of the two accounts, since Matthew's magi visit Jesus in a "house." Clearly, these tales are in no way historical, or probably even traditional, but the products of their individual writers. (A more primitive and probably earlier nativity scene can be found in chapter 11 of The Ascension of Isaiah.)

Such discrepancies and contradictions lead to the compelling conclusion that we are not dealing with eyewitness traditions in any of the Gospels, but simply storytelling and literary construction, an evolving tale fashioned at each step of the way by successive writers and editors. When the unique features and evolving incidents (such as the identifiable changes made to elements like the two thieves or the figure of Joseph of Arimathea from earlier to later Gospels) can be shown to be consistent with the style and agenda of each author and to reflect their own theological outlooks, we know we are witnessing not history but the creation of the Christian myth. The fact that we can see it taking shape over a relatively short time and through documents still extant does not make it any different from other myth formation in humanity’s long and colorful religious history.


Mark writes:

   Something about the Jesus story which rings false to me, and which I haven’t seen addressed by anyone, concerns the Friday crucifixion. I thought the purpose of crucifying someone was to leave the body hanging in the open until well after death and when decomposition becomes noticeable. The Romans didn’t crucify someone for a few hours, then bring him down while he’s freshly “dead.” Supposedly they couldn’t leave a body exposed on the Jewish sabbath, but why would the Romans care about Jewish superstitions? They were running the place, after all. And if they had to go along with them anyway for political reasons, why didn’t they just keep Jesus in the dungeon over the sabbath, then nail him up bright and early Sunday morning?
   Historically, executed criminals’ bodies were left out to rot as a warning to the rest of the population of what happens when you defied the local authorities, so the story about Jesus’ efficient execution and burial really makes no historical sense. Also, the Romans usually denied the crucified criminal the right to a burial, and frequently threw the body onto the town’s refuse dump.
   Has anyone else to your knowledge addressed these questions?

Response to Mark:

The Timing of Jesus' Crucifixion

This is an excellent question. While many objections about the time and circumstances of the Gospel story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion have been raised by critical scholars and skeptics (such as the feasibility of a trial by the entire Sanhedrin on Passover night), I have not seen Mark’s specific query raised. There seems no conceivable reason why the Romans would be willing to forego the ‘lesson’ to be given the population, especially in those unsettled times, by leaving Jesus’ body to rot on the cross, out in the open for several days for all to see.


James writes:

   Fantastic website. Your Jesus Puzzle has stunned me with its scholarship and clear thinking. I agree wholeheartedly with your thesis, but I have one nagging question regarding your ideas.
   C. S. Lewis argued for the authenticity of the gospels on the grounds that the writing is too advanced to be fiction. He gives an example of the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus gives his famous line, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then he stoops down and scribbles in the dust with a finger.
   Lewis argues that details like that are the least likely to be passed along in oral tradition, since not even Christian theologians have a clue what Jesus was doing by drawing in the dirt. That sort of “meaningless detail” did not enter fiction until the nineteenth century, Lewis claims.
   I am curious what your opinion is on the idea that the gospel authors were incapable of inventing their stories whole-cloth.

Response to James:

The Evangelists as Fiction Writers

Well, the evangelists were not starting entirely from scratch. They had the experiences and activities of their own communities, the teaching, the miracle-working, the apocalyptic prophecy. With those pieces of cloth readily available, stitching togther the story of a fictional or imagined founder figure would have been a fairly simple step. And the later evangelists had the advantage of building upon Mark.

Even Mark’s creation of the trial and crucifixion of his Jesus of Nazareth was modeled on biblical precedents, notably the longstanding genre of Jewish writing known as the Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One, whose features the passion story follows closely. Naturally, the evangelists had to exercise some skill and inventiveness in putting all these elements together, but I fail to see much validity in C. S. Lewis’ contentions. In what way are the Gospels “advanced”? While they have their moments, and a certain amount of commendable ethical philosophy, they are not overly sophisticated pieces of writing, even by ancient standards, and certainly not because Jesus scribbles in the dust.

Lewis’ point is somewhat confusing. It’s probably quite true that such a detail is not likely to be passed along in oral tradition. But the only alternative is to see it as the product of the Gospel author, which puts it into the realm of “fiction”—though perhaps it is based on some practice within the community whose significance is now lost to us. This hardly supports Lewis’ position. Nor do I see that he has good grounds for claiming that it is a “meaningless detail,” or that if it is, this would put the entire work into a non-fiction category. If anything, authors don’t tend to put in things that have no meaning whatsoever, or don’t serve a literary purpose, such as atmosphere or setting. Perhaps it had a mystical significance in association with miracle-workers or prophets; such significance might even turn out to be embarrassing to modern theologians if they did understand it.

Lewis also fails to take into account that this anecdote in John (7:53-8:11) is viewed as a later insertion after the Gospel was written, since it does not appear in some manuscripts. (The New American Bible says that “there are many non-Johannine features in the language, and there are also many doubtful readings.”) Who knows with what or whom the pre-Gospel anecdote was associated, and the sentiment of the saying, a laudable one, may have originated with some other group or figure. All in all, I don’t see much support here for Lewis’ claims of “authenticity.”


John writes:

   While I would agree with you that the historical Jesus, whoever and whatever he may have been, has contributed extremely little to the origin, I find it hard to credit that there was literally no such person at all. I agree completely that the origins are in the marriage of Apocalyptic Messianism and Greek Logos thought, with no emphasis at all on any historical element. However it leaves the question unanswered, Why “Jesus”? From the beginning Paul talks continually of the “Messiah JESUS”, not just of the “Messiah”, and in passages like 1 Corinthians 11, even talks more directly of “the Lord Jesus”. While agreeing that this is “Mystery” language, akin to “the Lord Serapis” or “the Lord Osiris”, it still does not explain why he has picked on the name “Jesus”.
   Perhaps a case could be made for the “new Joshua”, who takes over and completes the work of Moses, but there seems to be no build-up to this in the OT or Apocalyptic literature. I can see no other “symbolic” reason for the name. That it means “Yahveh saves” is hardly sufficient reason. Almost every other Jewish name has a similar meaning, and could have been seen to fit just as well, let alone more directly “prophesied” names like “Immanuel”.
   I must admit that I tend to agree rather with Loisy that it seems more likely that there was such a person, however shadowy a figureperhaps one of the many messianic insurgents of the time, that set the ball rolling, and perhaps put the first seed of the idea of a “crucified Messiah” into Paul’s mind—a fine spiritual and “mystery” pattern.
   It is, of course, more arresting, more “tidy” even, to be able to claim that there was never any such person of that name. If you prefer this, then I think your readers deserve some rationale for how from the very beginning, and the very first letters of Paul, it is always a matter of “the Messiah JESUS”.

Response to John:

Where did the name Jesus come from?

John asks “why ‘Jesus’?” At the risk of sounding flippant, I might ask, “Why not?” If a god is to be invented, or even derived from other precedents, he has to be given some name. Just because we have no record of that initial process at the genesis of the ‘Christian’ faith does not mean that it didn’t take place, and that someone or some group did not come up with this name for reasons we can no longer know. John allows that perhaps a case could be made for the name having been derived from “Joshua” of Conquest fame who was viewed as a “deliverer” figure in Jewish thought. That, together with the meaning of the name, “Yahveh saves,” might well have made it the most inviting one for a new savior figure. Nor do I think it is valid to object that there is no perceivable “build-up” to the conscription of the name Joshua/Jesus in the preceding literature. In traditional Judaism, God alone was “Savior” in the heavenly, spiritual sense. Only when those circumstances arose in which some peripheral branch of Jewish thought, heavily influenced by Hellenistic ideas, developed a new and Jewish-flavored “Mystery” religion with a spiritual intermediary Savior-Son would the occasion have arisen to cast about for a suitable name.

John almost implies that Christianity began with Paul, and that he might have been responsible for the concept of the crucified Messiah, or even the name Jesus, but this cannot be supported. Paul persecuted the Christ sect in Judea before his conversion to it, and the Pauline letters contain more than one piece of liturgy which many scholars assign to pre-Pauline composition. How long before Paul this faith movement was in existence cannot be said (it lies back over the horizon of our extant documentation), but the christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 is a pretty sophisticated affair, with a well-developed mythological picture of a descending, sacrificial and exalted redeemer who is—only after death—given the name “Jesus” before which all in heaven and earth bend the knee.

This very early and highly elevated view of the heaven-sent Savior (who is never given an earthly identity or career—nor, apparently, a name before his exaltation) makes it difficult to sympathize with John’s, and Loisy’s, conviction that “it is more likely” that it all began with some shadowy figure among the many messianic insurgents of the time. How a base, obscure and cookie-cutter figure who was simply one among many suffering a bloody end for some rebellious activity or other could have served as the inspiration and impetus for the movement and philosophy embodied in Paul is impossible to understand, especially in so short a time after this figure’s presumed death. (Such insurgents, to judge by Josephus, were rather new on the scene when Paul was in the process of switching religions).

I don’t know why such a scenario would commend itself over the idea which the mythical Jesus theory puts forward: of the natural development of another spiritual savior figure out of the dominant religious and philosophical expressions of the time, this one within a semi-Jewish milieu and employing concepts from Jewish scripture and tradition. John himself acknowledges Christianity’s “origin” in Greek Logos thought and mythical savior gods like Osiris and Serapis. Throw in Jewish messianism, and you’ve got a potent mix that could ignite a new “Son/Christ Jesus” religion. It doesn’t need an ignominiously executed political agitator to get the ball rolling, one who is—astoundingly—elevated immediately to the status of divine Lord, part of the very Godhead, a force for the creation and sustaining of the universe, pre-existent with God in heaven, and yet who has scarcely a single earthly word or deed mentioned by any epistle writer of the entire first century.

If John is merely suggesting that the prevailing image of a crucified would-be “messiah” or reformer, common on the first century scene, or even earlier in the executions of religious agitators that dotted the bloody reigns of Herod the Great and Alexander Jannaeus—that this image fed into the atmosphere which triggered some of the ideas of the Christ movement, this is really saying very little. It hardly constitutes the existence of “an historical Jesus.” One might as easily say that wooden crosses did the same thing.

Lest I sound a little too hard on John here, I have simply taken his remarks as an occasion to prick the balloon, shall we say, that it is somehow meaningful in a discussion of Christian origins to suggest that since the character of some contemporary figure or figures—whether teacher, miracle-worker, prophet or executed agitator—may have fed into the literary creation of the Christian Jesus, this undercuts the force of the mythicist position and salvages, in even limited fashion, the concept of an historical Jesus. Naturally, contemporary events and stereotypes are going to influence the thinking and creativity of any age, consciously and unconsciously. John, like so many others, is guilty of overstating the case. As he said in another message, “I am not sure I would go quite so far as you in positively denying the existence of Jesus. I find it hard to see how Paul (or whoever first set that ball rolling) picked on crucifixion as the death of the Messiah without some such starting point.” But the possibility that the first Christians may have “picked” on the fact of crucifixion in the world around them as inspiration for features of their spiritual Savior (though John allows that “meditation” on Old Testament verses about “piercing” and “hanging” could have done the same thing) is not equivalent to “not going so far as to deny the existence of Jesus.” A prototype, especially of ideas, does not constitute a person.

John had some interesting things to say in that same message about Philo and Greek Logos philosophy which I won’t go into here, but even more interesting was his history as an Anglican priest following ten years as a Buddhist monk, with inspiration from Fathers like the Logos-centered Origen! We live in an age where many people range far and wide in the search for some kind of truth or reality, and that can only be for the best. The essential need is that we loosen the hold of dogma and petrified tradition, no matter where it leads. Eventually, the open-minded search, I am convinced, will lead to freedom from the transcendent and a focus on the observable, scientifically-known world we live in.


Erik writes:

   I have been reading your work with great interest. As an atheist, I am often the only person defending a minority view, and your efforts are of considerable value, not only in debates with Christians, but also in satisfying myself that I have reached the conclusions I have after consideration of all sides. I am somewhat surprised that certain readers accuse you of bias because you are an atheist, that is, to say you somehow cannot reach a correct conclusion because you are only using an empirical approach. They undoubtedly do not understand just how revealing such a statement is.
   The one question I have is: is there any argument to be constructed around the lack of solid dates in the New Testament? Obviously, the crucifixion and resurrection stories are presented as occurring around Passover. But if these events were so historic, so memorable, so important to the history of mankind, wouldn’t the witnesses have remembered the actual dates? The Christians I ask this of usually say that people at that time did not concern themselves with calendars as much as we do. But is that a tenable argument? Didn’t the Jews and the Romans of the time both have very well-developed calendars? I would have expected some witness statement to the effect of: “Well, I’ll never forget it. 27 Aprilis, Livius Ocella Sulpicius Galba and Cornelius Sulla Felix, consules ordinarii, a.u.c. 786.”  Or whatever its Jewish equivalent was. Am I missing something here?

Response to Erik:

Why wasn't the date of Jesus' death better recorded?

Another very good point I have never heard voiced before. The more I think of it, the more compelling it becomes. The ancients had relatively well-developed calendars, and methods of dating. As Erik points out, the Romans had a practice of dating by consular offices, or in the provinces by governors’ terms (as well as, of course, chronologically from the founding of the city). The Greeks commonly dated by Olympiads. The Jews used dating systems based on a fixed point in the past. The practice of dating since “Creation” became widespread in medieval times, but before that, the accession of the Seleucids (312 BCE) was a common starting point.

Christians spanned all these worlds, and there is no reason to think that they would not have had an interest in or a practice of using some form of measure like this to locate events in time and history. Luke shows such an orientation at the beginning of his Gospel by seeking to date Jesus birth to the reign of Herod the Great and the governorship of Quirinius (creating an anomaly—since the two do not overlap—which has exercised apologists to this day). Is it really conceivable that throughout the entire Christian world no one would have remembered or calculated a date for Jesus’ death which would pinpoint it to a specific Olympiad, the year of an emperor’s reign or a governor’s term, or some Jewish standard of calendar keeping? This omission is yet another indication of the literary nature of the Gospel story, one not rooted in actual history or chronological memory.


Klif writes:

   I have an interesting point. Did you know that 11 of the 12 died painful and murderous deaths? Did 11 men allow themselves to be painfully killed for a myth?

Response to Klif:

How did the apostles die?

This might be “interesting” if it could be supported by the evidence. What evidence do we have (other than later church tradition) that eleven out of the so-called twelve did indeed die martyr’s deaths, painful or otherwise?

Paul, presumably writing around the 50s of the 1st century, has nothing to say about such deaths in his letters. Let me expand on this by quoting a passage from Challenging the Verdict [Chapter 14, p.218]:

     Hardship? Beating, ridicule, imprisonment? Yes, Paul outlines all those things. In 1 Corinthians 4:11, he says: “To this day we go hungry and thirsty in rags, we are roughly treated, we are homeless…When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.” But where are the deaths of the apostles? Paul is writing at least two and a half decades into the faith movement, and he nowhere refers to the execution of a single apostle. In 2 Corinthians 11:23, he says, “Are they servants of Christ? So am I…More overworked than they, scourged more severely, often imprisoned, many a time face to face with death.” But there is no mention of actual death, particularly at the hands of the authorities, as a common or even an occasional occurrence in the missionary movement.
     Where can one find mention in the epistles of the execution of James, son of Zebedee, as outlined in Acts 12? Nowhere. Where, for that matter, is there any mention by Paul in his letters about the imprisonment of Peter, described in that same chapter of Acts? And what of the most dramatic death of all attributed to the early period, the trial and stoning of Stephen, as described in chapter 7 of Acts? No reference to it can be found in the entire early record of Christianity, not even in Paul at whose feet Acts says this stoning took place. When Paul speaks of the fate suffered by apostles of the Christ, could he possibly leave out such a vivid and personally-experienced example? Stephen himself is not to be found anywhere in the early record, and it is very possible that he is simply a fictional character.
     As for the martyrdoms which later tradition attributed to key figures like Peter and Paul, I have already pointed out that there is very little evidence to indicate that even those deaths took place as tradition says. The writer of 1 Clement, at the end of the first century, speaks vaguely of Peter and Paul’s life and death in the service of the faith, but he fails to bring either of them to Rome, or to mention an execution for them in that city.
It’s telling to note that Josephus has nothing to say about this vast martyrdom of followers of Jesus. He can tell us (Antiquities 5,2) such minutiae as the sons of Judas the Galilean, James and Simon by name, being crucified during the governorship of Tiberius Alexander in the 40s, but he has not a word to say about the sanguinary fate of so many apostles of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, the dramatic and supposedly widespread activities of the early Christian apostles and faith movement as recounted in Acts go completely unmentioned by Josephus. It is much more likely that the 2nd century author of Acts modeled much of his ‘historical’ features on prototypes found in the Josephan histories.

In any case, if some apostles were killed in the process of preaching their faith (a common occurrence in many religions), this tells us nothing about what the nature of that faith was.


David writes:

   I have followed your work on the Jesus Puzzle for some time now and greatly admire your contribution to the debunking of the God/religion myths that have captivated so much of humanity over the millennia. It is sad that in this day and age we still see so much ignorance and superstition passed off as the “Truth” by the forces of those that push the opiate of God and religion on the masses. Marx may not have gotten the economic solution to our problems right, but he nailed God/religion right on the button. I find your work on exposing the fraud of the Jesus myth compelling, and of course without Jesus, Christianity has no basis for being.
   In my piece on the Secular Web, “The Story of Bob” [see link below], I take the next step and hold up a mirror for all the Abrahamic religions to see themselves in. I am not the scholar that you are, but my forte is creative fiction, which was used by Voltaire among others to expose the folly of religion. In this I hope to contribute what I can to bringing about the eventual removal of the yolk of God and religion from around the collective necks of humanity.

Response to David:

"The Story of Bob"

David Payne has posted his piece of satire, “The Story of Bob,” on the Secular Web, and I recommend that everyone take a look at it for an entertaining and insightful read. It’s at:

http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=236

I posted my own comment on David’s piece on the Secular Web, and I quote from it here:

    Parody and satire can be a most effective way of pricking the balloon of irrational doctrine. Reaching the mind of the believer is a daunting task at the best of times, but exposing absurdity is often achieved by presenting it in the context of a different kind of absurdity—one designed to force re-examination of those beliefs. Religious dogma is usually an insult to the thinking person’s intelligence, whether it be creationism, original sin through eating an apple, or the claim that the appearance of one man at a single time and place is the sole source of universal salvation. Parody and satire are themselves a form of reciprocal insult to jolt the believer into seeing his ideas in a different light and bring home the irrationality of it all. Clever pieces of parody like “The Story of Bob” (and they have to be clever, and well-written) can sometimes do more to effect that jolt than even a good academic book on the subject. The truth is, we need both.
    I enjoyed David’s wit and ingenious repetition of motifs, and I applaud his treatment of the “Isms”—those modern bedevilments of atheism which the believer likes to throw in our faces. Nicely neutralized and deflated in a couple of paragraphs. And yes, the “call to Bob.” Too bad it weren’t that easy, we could all go home and do something else. It would all be so funny, if it didn’t reveal the truly tragic situation the human race has managed to mire itself in as part of a process of evolution that really has no intelligent mind behind it. Rather, evolution, in its own mindless wisdom, has thrown up its own intelligence to create the needed direction. In David’s Story of Bob, that force is “the freethinkers.”

To: Next File

     Return to Index Page
     Return to Home Page