I just wanted to say that I appreciate your clear and concise writing on the subject of religious mythology. I have struggled for many years with teachings forced on me in Christian education establishments, namely Christian Brother Colleges where I was victimised and ostracised for not being Catholic. My clarity and peace of mind has finally been established through reading the publications of yourself, Richard Dawkins, Robert Price, Irshad Manji, and last but not least Mr. Darwin's Origin of Species.
regular visits to the Jesus Puzzle site. Just to make sure it's still
there, still being updated, still an information source I can point
I remember reading several years back that you were 72 years of age. My parents are both 76 now, and doing well health-wise. But I am increasingly aware of their mortality. It is with that disclaimer that I offer my best wishes on your health, happiness, and intellectual veracity. As I have found your thesis/work to be a continued source of rational thought, reason, hope and inspiration, I am also aware that none of us live forever. To that extent, it is important to me to align myself with those ideas and philosophies that reflect and expand on my own ever-evolving ideas. May you and your efforts continue to thrive in this world.
E.D.: Please don't rush
me, I've got another decade to go before I hit 72! But thanks for
your good wishes for my health, although you are right: none of us will
live forever. Nothing in the observable universe suggests things are
set up that way. In fact, evolution proceeds because
we all die and make room for further development—hopefully of a
progressive nature. Religion is a way of avoiding and denying
that seemingly unforgiving reality of life. (I will have more to say on
this topic in further responses below.)
just wanted to say that the numerous responses on your website,
indicating that your readers have actually come to understand much
better what the New Testament is all about, is one of the very few
examples out there of someone actually changing people's minds about
the subject of Christianity. Your language is simple enough for much of
the ordinary readership to understand, and
keeping your comments at the level of common sense is
what makes it particularly effective. That is why I ordered 5
books from you, because I have some hope that, in passing these around,
the simple clarity of your work will persuade where more jargon-laced
material would discourage the reader after a few pages.
Most of my friends are Christian and have absolutely no clue, for example, that the gospels are not eyewitness testimonies, that Matthew copies Mark, and on and on. None of my friends have ever heard even a peep about the utter lack of history in the epistles and the devastating implication that has regarding the historicity of the (later written) gospels. I think you have rightly recognized that the epistles are truly the key to understanding the ahistorical nature of the gospels. If the smoking gun in the New Testament is the suspicion that the gospel "history" is nothing but Old Testament borrowings, then the epistles are the bullet that shoots the "oral history" origin of the gospels dead in its tracks.
you for your clear and convincing research into the development of
Christianity and for a convincing demonstration that Jesus of Nazareth
never existed. For years I have had doubts and questions that no one
could answer satisfactorily. I very much enjoy your writing style and
your clear presentations.
Unfortunately, most otherwise intelligent Christian people will likely never accept the mythicist explanation. They simply have too much emotional investment to change, or even listen to the data. I do hope someone will present a credible counter-argument; it would be most interesting to read/study.
E.D.: It certainly
though we are still waiting. Most mainstream scholars have a pretty
abysmal understanding of the mythicist argument and to the extent that
they respond to it at all usually appeal to old and timeworn objections
that have long been answered. It's a little like the Creationists'
constant appeal to the Second Law of Thermodynamics in 'disproving' the
possibility of evolution on earth, despite the fact that a fourth-grade
can offer an easy explanation for it. What's more difficult is getting
them to listen.
The first reading of The Jesus Puzzle provided
a compelling case for me. It was more of an organized approach to my
eclectic dabblings and resolution to a myth-leaning view I have dubbed
the "composite" approach. As I considered discussions of your
work on message boards such as www.infidels.org
I discovered the best way to handle the opposition was to return to
your work. A more thorough reading with these critiques in mind
has made your work stronger than my first read.
One of the disappointing features of "mainstream" scholarship is imputing altruistic motives into the Christian literature. Frankly, this is special pleading and goes against centuries of deception, fraud, and forgery in biblical tracts and religious practice. I suppose you've done well in not inciting dismissive opposition by avoiding such frank terms. But on the other hand, this heritage is evidencial. The Bible is among other things a set of political documents, with associated objectives of power and control. The invention of the historical Jesus was a political necessity in consolidating disparate "Christ" movements. This was amplified by the eventual one state/one religion approach of the Romans. Viewing biblical literature from the special-pleading stance of "they wrote what they believed" is worse than naive. I suppose you are to be congratulated for striking a diplomatic balance between calling it like it is and not insulting the deluded.
still love reading your essays, Mr. Doherty.
So many words are shed for such malady! Mainly I enjoy the texture and rhythm of your ideas as they merge and fade in and out of logic and myth. It is like reading a great music score with all its themes and counterpoints and cadences and modulations!
It is an art form akin to a dream! No, I am not saying what you do is not important! It is very important; but oh how we struggle to unwrap the cloak of myth from around our sad brows—all cast in hapless madness we are! Dreaming of gods; saints; miracles and heaven's relief from non-existing sins, hells, devils and evils!
What an absurdity we humans are as we cannot just see the face of the world as it is: Just trees, lands, skies full of stars and planets; animals and birds! Alas, we must image metaphysics to be real when all there is the rock hard realm of nature-reality (blame Plato for that cursed idea I suppose).
Keep up the good work—the gods deserved to be buried in their mythic graves once and for all time (such mischief they do weave amongst men)!
And atheism is accused of lacking poetry!
I have pursued my own study of the origins of Christianity for the last
several years, it was not until just recently that I happened upon your
web site and two of your books. All I can say is: Bravo! From my own
readings and experience (I am not nearly a so-called "expert") I can
appreciate the enormity of your task. Virtually the entire academic
world and the overwhelming majority of the "religious" populace have
presumed—not proven, nor scientifically tested,
nor even considered,
for that matter—that your central hypothesis is
wrong! To even hint
that there may not have been a unique historical personality named
"Jesus" behind the creation of Christianity is automatically regarded
as intellectual blasphemy. Of course, I am sure that I do not need to
inform you of your opposition's presuppositions and biases.
Admittedly, my own first reaction to the idea that the historical Jesus was a pure fiction was one of unwavering dismissal. After about a year of open-minded research and study I still accepted the "party-line" that the historical Jesus must be buried under the words, beliefs and customs of later believers. "Jesus" had become the "Christ" in the minds of these later disciples, but surely the original Jesus lay buried beneath these later attributions and accretions. After a careful, objective consideration I realized that the prospect of creating a unique historical biography or even broad outline of "Jesus" was a virtual impossibility. The sheer breadth and diversity of interpretations of the central Christian writings by so-called historical Jesus scholars—from around the world—began to shake my confidence that even a scientific methodology for uncovering a historical Jesus could be formulated. Of course, I lost my confidence because I was inadvertently making an assumption, an assumption that all of the scholars I was studying made—that there MUST have been a real man named Jesus underlying the earliest Christian writings. After more than a year of study I abandoned this assumption and started to read the evidence under a new hypothesis: that the "Christ" of Hellenistic-Judaic mythology had become the "Jesus" of history.
Under this new hypothesis the entire development and growth of Christianity in the first several centuries of the Common Era began to make much more sense to me. I can only hope that with more time, and because of the work that individuals such as you perform, more people will begin to question the assumptions they have made.
make a compelling case for the myth theory. I have a special love for
myth and legend, and enjoy watching how they develop over time. The
picture you paint dovetails nicely with how we know other legends
King Arthur and
Tell, for instance. If you're right,
the last two millennia in the West have been lived under one of the
most incredible and fascinating myths ever to come into being.
E.D.: Yes, and if
somehow that realization were to pervade our society overnight, it
would produce a trauma of staggering proportions. The social organism
would probably not be capable of handling it and thus resists even
considering the idea. It will be a slow and painstaking process.
website brings hope that a better world can be foreseen for our kids,
this tremendously slow pace taken by humans to acquire a new sense of
Being myself addicted to seeking the truth, your work stands as the
reference in achieving that goal, along with other skeptic web sites.
thanks for that. Throughout ongoing readings in the last ten years, I
practically rediscovered nature through your eyes and those of Gould,
Randi and others. One thing that strikes me each time is the
unbridgeable gap in opinion and perception between religious people and
skeptics of all ascent [?].
Considering all that has been said from both
point stands out as, I think, a big misunderstanding of human nature.
misunderstanding led and still leads to larger than natural
what we really are and what we would like to be.
As a geologist, I was soon introduced to large, mind-boggling numbers, either in space and time. So much for creationists! Having learned that the human race came quite late in the history of life on earth, it was an easy step to believe that mankind for sure cannot show all signs of perfection. As the wonderful story of Vardis Fisher unfolds, one can understand that the passage between animal instinct and moral-driven behavior was a slow and empirical process. My point is that we tend to forget that this stage is still at play nowadays. Despite the perception that we realised major achievements in the last 50,000 years, this lapse of time represents only the glimpse of an eye on an evolutionary perspective (even with the meme vs gene effect). But religions made mankind atop of nature. With that in mind, there is no way to connect what we are from where we belong. Instinct and animal behavior are still very present in our day to day life. Recognizing that would already be something we can cope with. Instead, each action bearing such behavior puts ourselves in the land of evil. Of course, those instincts sometimes bring bad news but as history showed, dismissing them totally proved to be a lot worse. I like to think that real accomplishment has to rely on the knowledge of our very nature.
E.D.: One of the greatest 'sins' of religion is the disconnect it produces between human beings and their environment. Without an understanding of what we are and how we came about we can never realize our full potential or create a healthy species. Currently in North America, society is approaching a state of scientific illiteracy through the widespread suppression of the teaching of evolution in our schools. Racism, tribalism, religious fanaticism will never be eradicated while we remain largely ignorant—or in denial—of our true nature and that of the universe we live in.
Claude refers to the "Vardis Fisher story" known as The Testament of Man. While this series of eleven historical novels has been out of print for decades, it still stands as western literature's most powerful creation in representing evolution's long process of human self-understanding. See the Age of Reason website for a reprint of my series of reviews of Fisher's amazing work: http://human.st/jesuspuzzle/AORVardisFisher.htm
Paul writes:Thanks for your tireless research into the Jesus myth. I know, it's not truly tireless, and your work has obviously required many sacrifices on your part. Still, it looks more like the efforts of a team of dedicated scholars, rather than one person. Well done, very well done. Of course, the question remains...will Christians be convinced? And the answer, for the most part, is "No."
goodness, some of these kind folks are practically foaming at the
standards are fraud, and for a very obvious reason—you
are trying to
destroy someone else's realities (Christians), and the easiest way to
that is smearing while calling it reason. Since you have no stake in
the outcome, mockery is as good as honesty. Specifically, you try to
prove points which would not be relevant if true. Rabbinical literature
shows exactly what it should be expected to show. The Jews had no
interest in Christ until Christianity became significantly developed.
By analyzing the details you claim it shows something, while it shows
Another example (from your twelve points) is the claim that Christ is only referred to in spiritual terms rather than as an actual person. It's a total contrivance with no relationship to reality. The standard is to smear the subject, and you pretend to be creating some higher standard of reason. It's nothing but degeneracy. All you are proving is that atheists operate at the level of degenerates.
identifies himself as a "moral philosopher".
Well, your website is an interesting one.
I'm currently writing a paper for a class on the impact of Jesus upon
American culture. Your books and website are great material for me,
because they prove just how important Jesus is to this culture.
Let's face it, for one reason or another you feel compelled to attempt to rip people away from their faith. Why does it matter if people believe in Jesus Christ to you? I mean does it do you any specific harms? It must do something, because you are not content to merely just sit with your unbelief, but you have to work hard at convincing others to believe the same thing you do. You embrace faith, then, just a different kind. The intriguing thing is that without Jesus you wouldn't have a job. What would a man like yourself do? I'm also curious to know why you seem to lack a hatred of Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Confucious, etc. They, too, attempted to get the world to believe in something. Is there something about Jesus Christ that personally bothers you? I'm just curious here. I don't want to call you bad names and insult you, but I am interested in why you hate the notion of Jesus Christ. If one were to follow his teachings, would they be worse off? I mean you call yourself a humanist, and to me the teachings of Christ are indeed very humane. What makes life better without Christ as opposed to those who actually do indeed believe in Him? I'll grant you that there is a lot of mystery and strangeness surrounding the character of Jesus Christ. I do not know everything, and I will claim that. However, to claim he does not exist and to try and prove that everything about Christianity is a great big lie seems a bit extreme on your part. Can't you just rest comfortably in your own un-belief? I guess not. Well I do believe that absolute Truth exists, and when I read stuff by you and others who hate the notion of Christ, it does not anger me so much as make me hurt for you. There is a loving God, Mr. Doherty, who went through hell for you. You have made the choice to reject him and even go so far as to spend your life trying to dis-prove him. He loves you anyway. This will not mean a thing to you, but I will be praying for you. My God says that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, and I am righteous because of Christ's sacrifice. My prayers will be heard. Ultimately it is your choice still....
E.D.: What Landon and many other Christians cannot understand is that it is possible for a non-believer to hold as passionately to the principle that we ought to conduct our lives and construct our philosophies according to our best efforts to understand reality, and to use evidence and reason to arrive at such an understanding. Rather than "faith" this is a commitment to knowledge, to a rejection of superstition, of fantasies which have no reliable basis, and the idea that a privileged group can be party to divine revelation, dividing them from all those who do not share the same illusions. Landon asks rather naively what can be the "harm" in these things (see next message). I will also assure him that one can work for the alleviation of such harm without being motivated by "hatred." In a debate a few years ago between a theist and Eddie Tabash, the well-known American atheist debater, Tabash answered a question about his motivations with something like this: "Eddie 3:16 - The atheist so loved the world that he devoted his life to trying to save it from irrationality." I may not have remembered it exactly, so let's just say I offer this as my own paraphrase.
not surprised as to why you have gone to this length to try and prove
some point. Men love themselves and believe that they can get to heaven
on their own, if they even believe in a heaven....It is the hardest
thing in the world to have to admit that you are a sinner and you are
guilty before God....[We think] we just have to do good and be gracious
to others and we will be accepted....[This] has become the biggest
deceit that the Devil has used to lure men into his lies. He has
convinced society that God won't throw anyone in hell or judge a
righteous man. The Devil has taken that
guilty feeling totally out of our minds. God won't find me guilty, I am
just....This is the Devil's lie....Guilt is the feeling of being guilty
of an offense....That feeling is the same feeling that Daniel had in
his prayers in Daniel Chapter 9. Isaiah had the same conviction in
Isaiah 6. Men are dirty and we need God's help. No man is justified
without an atonement or shedding of blood. In Leviticus you see that no
man can come to God in his temple without the shedding of blood. No man
could come to God except through a priest....Jesus, my friend,
God's objectives and by his shedding of blood we are found righteous in
God's eyes....Jesus is so real that the proof is insurmountable....God
wants us to know his love. Satan has deceived mankind and made us think
that we can't have a relationship with the Almighty....Islam and no
other religion has the power that Christ has. Christ is real, and I
know it more than a shadow of a doubt....[about a quarter of Matt's
There have been few
letters to me that can better answer Landon's question in the previous
message about the "harm" of irrational belief. For the religious mind,
being "righteous" and doing good is clearly not enough, if it is not
accompanied by a pervading sense of guilt based on the principle that
human beings are inherently "dirty" and of no intrinsic worth. What
demons haunt Matt's mind and the minds of so many like him! They live
their lives under the specter of an horrific eternal punishment,
created by their "Righteous God." They cower before a powerful king of
evil whom God allows free rein, who has cast his spell over the world
and its people, deceiving them into believing that simply being good is
insufficient, that one can live without a crushing sense of guilt and
degeneracy, that a loving deity would never consign them to the fate of
Hell. They are enslaved, chapter and verse, to a set of ancient
writings whose ideas are often primitive and destructive to the human
spirit. They owe allegiance to the concept of a God who demands the
blood of torture and murder,
even of his own Son at the hands of men, to forgive those same human
beings their sins and allow them into heaven. They hold the conviction
that other groups of humans on this planet who follow different sets of
dogmas (or none at all) are inferior or even evil, and doomed to
destruction. Many subscribe to the fantasy that believers will be taken
up in "rapture" while everyone else "left behind" will endure the
horrors of an apocalyptic End-time. Can such beliefs held by a
significant portion of the population produce a healthy society? Can
they create healthy minds? Can a nation be governed wisely by
executives and legislators who subscribe to such tenets, who believe
in the literal existence of Satan, that Armageddon is around the corner
and the anti-Christ is coming to wreak havoc on the world, that the
Jews need to return to Israel in order to be destroyed in a great
conflagration in fulfillment of some fantastic imagined prophecy—indeed,
their Deity has communicated these and many other important things
critical to salvation through cryptic passages buried in millennia-old
'prophetic' writings? A visiting alien
observer might be forgiven for thinking that such a mad and
debilitating set of beliefs could never be found outside a lunatic
asylum. When one adds to this litany the fact that the faith community
is regularly engaged in trying to impose their dogmas on the law of the
land, threatening social order, education and human rights, one may
come to understand why many in the non-believing community devote so
much time and energy in the effort to save themselves and society from
You approach God's providence as though you are in the same dimension
as God. You will never understand God from this perspective.
E.D.: These two
seemingly simple sentences contain a wealth of fallacy, and illustrate
the morass of woolly thinking that often encompasses religious claims.
The most common "out" for the religious debater is that we cannot
understand the mind of God. This 'explanation' is only introduced, of
course, when the believer encounters a situation in which difficult
problems have been presented by
the non-believer. In such cases, God is claimed to operate according to
principles which our merely human brains cannot comprehend, that our
logic, science, fairness and compassion are inadequate and don't apply
to the divine mind. But on what basis does the believer claim such a
thing? If no one can comprehend God or his principles of behavior, how
do we know that he indeed does have a set of his own, that they are
'beyond' ours or operate according to some superior law? To know this
would require that we have some knowledge and understanding of the
divine dimension, which is the very thing Bob claims we do not enjoy
from the vantage point of our human perspective.
And yet the believer has no hesitation in claiming that we can know that such a dimension does exist and that the Deity does operate under principles not in conformity to our own. In other situations, he has no hesitation in claiming that God thinks and acts in such-and-such a fashion. On what basis does he know this if he has already acknowledged that the human mind is incapable of such an understanding? We are caught in a circular bind here. I do not accept that our avenue of such 'knowledge' is through revelation or scripture, as there is no objective evidence that such sources are anything more than the statements of earlier men who claimed that they were a party to divine understanding or had received divine direction. This is simply the blind leading the blind, the deluded the continuingly deluded.
I am reminded of a debate I attended involving Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the existence of God. A questioner afterwards asked: "What if God is a Being who is 'above' all these things?" This was in reference to the principle of causality, in that if all things require a cause, how can God be uncaused. Barker rightly asked: "But what does that MEAN?" What meaning can it have to say that God is "above" such principles? How can we know that it is possible for anything to be "above" them? Logically, we cannot know, because everything that we "know" comes from our presence within and understanding of the universe we inhabit. How do we even comprehend the very principle of "being above" this universe and its laws? If we have no knowable referent for such a state, then it is a meaningless phrase to us. What it constitutes, in point of fact, is simply an attempt to escape the dilemma of the uncaused God. It is an attempt to define the thing you want to defend in such a way as to circumvent the valid and otherwise insurmountable objections to it. But as Barker pointed out, the questioner has no idea what his question means, he doesn't understand it logically or have any independent example to point to as an illustration of being "above" the laws of the universe. Consequently, such an 'explanation' has no force whatsoever.
Bob, here, is in the same fix. He has no way of "understanding" his God because he does not inhabit the divine dimension, and he has already admitted that from our perspective we do not have such an understanding. Yet he confidently declares not only that such a dimension exists, but that believers like himself can pronounce upon it and upon God's workings, even though they have no accessible reference point for those pronouncements. But Bob is right. From my perspective, I will never understand God. And if God has given me so little capacity to understand him (short of surrendering my reason and experience to embrace wishful thinking under threat of eternal punishment), I maintain that such a deity is more than deserving of being ignored and rejected, and that the thinking, rational person can do no less.
E.D.: Rather than face the
reprehensible nature of the
concept of hell, with all its implications for claims of a loving God,
reject that concept as untenable, this reader has recourse to a
rather dubious piece of logic. By nature, all punishments are
supposedly "free will choices" so I am not sure how he views
this one as different or why he feels that it solves the problem. (Note
also subscribes to the opinion that non-believers are fated for eternal
punishment.) In general, on what do we base our usual "free will"
decisions as to how to act or not act, including how to believe or not
We do so on the basis of their consequences, for ourselves and others,
'morality' and acceptability within society, on the exercise of our
judgments. Our education, our ability to think critically, our
the well-being of others, and so on, are ideally the basis on which we
as human beings to a position of being able to make good choices.
society does its best to train its members to give them that capacity.
does not threaten a hellish eternal punishment to those who in its view
the wrong choices, it does set consequences which will hopefully be a
What has God done in that regard, especially in the matter of correct belief? Has he personally revealed himself to all so that there can be no doubt of his existence? Has he ensured that we have clear means for understanding his wishes and that his commandments are reasonable? Has he seen to it that there are not many conflicting pictures of him, many incompatible claims about the best means of approaching him, receiving his approval, enjoying "salvation"? Has he established objective and rational standards for arriving at all the right conclusions, so that we have a reliable basis on which to make those "free will choices"?
Apparently not, for objectivity and rationality are anything but the basis on which religions make their claims. No government on earth would set up a system of requirements and punishments which have as little grounding in verifiable reality as God apparently has. No parent would impose regulations on their child while never giving them direct personal contact (in an objective sense, not an allegedly intuitive or mystical one), communicating with them through obscure and unreliable channels, and failing to make their relationship compatible with the standards of reason and morality which our own human nature has struggled to achieve.
No, definitely he has not, and God himself has admitted it. Paul in 1 Corinthians (allegedly the divine word) puts it quite blatantly: "This doctrine of the cross is sheer folly to those on their way to ruin, but to us who are on the way to salvation it is the power of God....Scripture says, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the cleverness of the clever.'....God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish....He chose to save those who have faith by the folly of the Gospel....Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than man's strength....To shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness....There is no place for human pride in the presence of God."
Clearly, the thinking man and woman have the dice loaded against them. All the principles of rationality and fairness are meaningless in the face of the divine system God has revealed to believers like Paul, and our free will choices had better not be based on such principles, or we are eternally doomed. Paul has defined the Christian gospel as "folly," he has condemned the world's efforts to achieve the "wisdom of the wise" as leading only to ruin. Any attempt to gain such wisdom, to acquire a pride in ourselves, will be beaten down. God has created us into a world that is anathema to us, whose principles of order and logic, beauty and pleasure, equality and freedom, are nothing less than our undoing, the path to our damnation. And in the face of that cosmic contradiction, we are expected, required, to make the "right" choice, else we suffer the most dire of punishments. How the mind of so much of humanity came to arrive at such a morbid and self-destructive philosophy is one of the mysteries of our world. Curing it will not be an easy task.
bookmarked your website and I find it fascinating! I am a religious
person but I find nothing negative to say about your material, only
compliments. I try to keep an open mind.
I am clear that you consider Jesus Christ to be a mythical person. The evidence you present is substantial and your logic is well grounded. However, there are some references to Jesus Christ outside the Bible, mostly from contemporary Gnostic writings. In the case of St. Paul, I am not aware of any contemporary writer making any mention of him at all outside of the New Testament. Do you, therefore, consider it possible that St. Paul himself was actually a fictitious person? Even many of his epistles are considered to have been authored by other people. I strongly suspect that this is the case.
Response to Brian:
Is Paul a Fictitious Person?
There are quite a number of radical scholars today
it possible that the Paul of the epistles never existed, at least as
those epistles (and the later Acts) portray him, that the letters are
second century products pseudonymously attributed to a shadowy earlier
figure, or simply to a construct representing the issues of the time
and retrojected back into the first century. I find it difficult to go
this far, though I would not say it is impossible. I have
not found any of the cases presented thus far, going back to the Dutch
Radical School of the 19th century, entirely convincing.
Without going into detail here (since this is a subject that would
require a book in itself), I feel that some of the problems raised
about the Pauline letters can be better explained by recourse to the
no-historical-Jesus position. I find that the arguments for later
authorship are often shaky, similar to those I have dealt with
in relation to the radical mid or late second century redating of 1
Clement and Ignatius (see my Supplementary Article No. 12 on the
Apostolic Fathers). However, my mind is
open and I'm hoping that one of
today's more radical scholars will offer a thorough study of the
question that covers all the bases, as it is certainly an intriguing
one. If strong doubts could be cast on the existence of Paul, we would
have to completely recast our picture of earliest Christianity, perhaps
even more so than in the context of a non-historical Jesus. There are
those who suggest that the Christian movement itself did not begin
until the second century, and essentially not until the latter part of
that century. These ultra-radical positions, I feel, founder on too
many problems and inconsistencies, but, as I said, I try to keep an
There is little doubt that many of the
letters attributed to Paul are later forgeries, such as the three
Pastorals, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and probably Colossians. Even
the "genuine" letters are probably edited, with later emendations,
additions and a splicing of multiple originals. Essentially, however, a
fairly reliable picture of earliest Christianity as a movement based on
a mythological figure can be derived from them.
I am not sure which "contemporary Gnostic writings"
(meaning of the first century, I presume) Brian is referring to,
especially having reference to Jesus Christ. Virtually all of the
gnostic catalogue, as recovered at Nag Hammadi, can be dated no earlier
than the second century, though elements of some may go back earlier.
Perhaps this is simply a reference to the Gospel of Thomas, in which
one stratum of material may well be derived from the mid-first century,
sharing elements with parts of the reconstructed Q document. That
derivation, however, would be in the content of the sayings themselves,
and not necessarily in their attribution to Jesus, since the little
introductions and other apostolic set-ups to the sayings could easily
be later additions. Indeed, the nature of those set-ups often suggest
second-century modes of expression found within gnostic communities of
It is not surprising to find that Paul is not mentioned outside Christian sources. As influential as he might have been to the Christian movement (and even this is exaggerated for the first century or so), there is little or nothing that would have brought him to the attention of secular writers that were chronicling the times. But there are Christian sources outside the New Testament that mention or indicate a familiarity with him, including 1 Clement and Ignatius. The problem with mythologizing Paul or pushing all his writings into the second century is that such sources need to be redated later as well, often with insecure justification, as I suggested above.
Mary Magdalene and Gnostic Characters
Matthew's own final comments
essentially answer the initial question
as I would myself. Nothing about any of this type of 'alternate'
scenario, often involving women figures in earliest Christianity, has
slightest support in the early record. Characters like Mary Magdalene,
fact, are entirely absent. One would not know from the extra-Gospel
record that she even existed, and I very much suspect she was Mark's
invention. Perhaps he modelled her on some female initiates in his
own circle or tradition. But this doesn't make his creation a genuine
historical person any more than borrowing elements from would-be
Messiahs (even executed ones) of his day to help fashion his Jesus of
Nazareth makes the latter an historical person.
Lyn Picknett's hypothetical picture
of Mary, if true, would hardly have
escaped attention and some form of preservation by early Christian
showing up somewhere in the record, even if only by allusion. Too much
of this sort of missing material is explained away by saying that
embarrassing elements were suppressed, or not spoken of. Ironically,
this clashes with the opposite type of claim that a "criterion of
embarrassment" can be used to identify reliable traditions,
necessitating that embarrassing traditions were often preserved and can be
found in the record. I don't
have much sympathy for any
scenario of this sort (and there is no shortage of them, it seems)
which finds no concrete support anywhere.
Your description of reading Crossan was priceless. Having read his two
huge works, including the book you reviewed (The Birth of
Christianity), I must say I found it brilliant but brutal.
[Bruce's long letter was somewhat wordy, but I will cull a few extracts and comment on some interesting points.]
Paul's Gospel - You've very carefully argued that Paul's gospel comes to him from revelation, and perhaps the scriptures. But this can't totally be. He persecuted Christians before his conversion (so) he certainly had to have known something about what gospel they were preaching....Paul could certainly not have been told that Jesus was just some wise sage à la Q1 or else his persecution would make no sense....Given his conversion, he must have believed at least some of the gospel they told him....Paul is simply lying to say he got his gospel from God....This, of course, does not make the case that there was much in the way of an historic figure to what he was told, but it does show convincingly that his gospel did not all come from heaven....[more below]
Response to Bruce:
The Source of Paul's Gospel / Where are the
Aramaic Texts? / James in Jerusalem
This is a valid observation, but I would say Bruce
being too finicky here. I don't think anyone was holding Paul to the
exact letter of his every word. Paul could join the ranks of the
widespread Christ movement (one whose apostles did not all owe their
derivation or allegiance to the Jerusalem group, as 2 Corinthians 10-11
shows) and still come up with his own interpretation of the figure they
worshipped which was sufficiently his own product that he could make
such a claim. While he allows in 1 Corinthians 15:11 that they all
"preach the same thing," this seems restricted to the Jerusalem
group itself, and it has to be balanced by other declarations
he makes about various rivals which allow nothing of the sort (as in 2
Corinthians 11:4 and its surrounding context, which clearly indicates
that those competing messages about "different" Jesus's are a product
of perceived revelation). That revelation, by the way, would have been
largely based on their
readings of scripture, as Paul himself tells us in Romans 1:1-2 and
(the latter may be pseudo-Pauline), and in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
Bruce labels Paul "an egomanic who just won't settle
for being an ordinary convert like everyone else," and that is
undoubtedly true, else he would not have accomplished what he did. I
also agree that Paul "claiming his gospel comes from God makes his
unassailable and puts him, in his mind, on an equal footing with the
pillars." This does not have to entail, however, that the pillars
enjoyed their status because they had known an historical Jesus. That
sort of advantage could not have been ignored by Paul and he would have
had to deal with it openly in his self-defensive arguments. While the
Christ movement was widespread and not all centered on Judea, Paul had
inserted himself initially into that circle (growing out of his
persecution of the Judean church), and he always felt at a disadvantage
toward them in terms of legitimacy. This is why he is anxious to claim
the only apparent grounds for legitimacy, the fact that he had "seen
the Lord" (1 Corinthians 9:1), a 'seeing' which in his case was
implying that the other ones were as well. Further, the very fact that
he declares his gospel a product of revelation from God or Christ, and
not "from man"—not from
anyone who had known Jesus personally—would further argue that no such
relationship existed among some of his fellow apostles. For if
Jesus had existed and
imparted a gospel to his followers whom Paul now knew, it would work against
Paul to simply dismiss them and anything they had to offer. Those to
whom Paul preached would expect
that his gospel should contain elements of what those alleged followers
had received from Jesus himself, for Paul had not known
Jesus and would be presumed to have missed out on important things; his
"from man" would be an asset and a buttress to his own interpretations.
Paul's whole quest for legitimacy, if some of his fellow apostles had
known Jesus, would have taken an entirely different tack, and the
existence of an historical Jesus could not have failed to come through
unmistakeably in his letters.
Paul also makes it clear that his gospel (as stated
in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and touched on elsewhere) revolves around the
basic features of Jesus' death and resurrection and their theological
and soteriological significance. He would hardly have been preaching
elements of Jesus' life and ministry (which he never shows sign of
doing) and claim that knowledge of these, too, had come to him through
a process of revelation. Bruce makes a common type of mistake in
implying that part of Paul's revelation would have to include the list
enumerated in verses 5 to 7. Of course they didn't. Information about
these traditions came to him from other people. We do not have to take
such statements as following on in equal fashion from his gospel
statement (of verses 3 and 4), and I go into detail in arguing this in
my Supplementary Article No. 6, The Source of
... Hebrew versus Greek - If there were
so many Jews involved in the Christian movement, why aren't there equal
amounts of texts in Hebrew? (Or as you asked, where are the Aramaic
texts referencing Jesus' sayings?)....Where are the Hebrew or Aramaic
Christian religious texts that Peter's group would have used in their
preaching to the Jews, the Hebrew or Aramaic Christian letters, or am I
just unaware of them? What language did Peter preach in when he was
allegedly in Rome, Aramaic? I wouldn't think so. Why do they all seem
to have been written in Greek? It certainly makes no sense to assume
that, in this allegedly mixed group, all the Jewish Christians were
willing to have their gospels written in Greek to accommodate the
Hellenists, people the James crowd were reluctant to even eat with....[more below]
This is an intriguing observation, with many
Christianity began as the Gospels and Acts portray, directed by a group
of disciples recruited from fishing villages in Galilee, spreading from
Palestine outward, we could hardly envision the complete eclipse of a
preaching and documentary phase that would have been expressed in
Aramaic. Yet there is no evidence of such a thing. The once common
claim that one could detect Aramaic precursors behind some of the
Gospels is simply one of wishful thinking and has been largely
discredited. One of the commonest pro-Aramaic arguments put forward,
namely, claimed "Aramaicisms" in various writings, can easily be
explained by Aramaic influences on the Greek idiom as spoken in the
Levant area and do not necessarily point to an original version in
Aramaic itself. Too much else militates against the latter. Papias may
witness to at least one document in Aramaic that was a collection of
sayings imputed in his time (c.130) to Jesus, but without any extant
it, or even an extant version of what Papias actually said (we rely on
the 4th century Eusebius' account, which implies that Papias had not
even seen this document but heard of it only second-hand), little
can be given to this.
Nor in any case can such a reference be equated with any of the Gospels
or even with Q, all of which have been amply demonstrated to have been
written in nothing other than Greek.
What language, indeed, would Peter have preached in
if he went to Rome (for which there is zero reliable evidence)? Did he
learn Greek or Latin with sufficient proficiency since his days as a
fisherman? Or is it more likely that the Jerusalem circle witnessed to
by Paul was on a more sophisticated level than the Gospel picture?
So thoroughly immersed in a pagan-style Christ mythology as they and
Paul seem to have been, were they more Hellenist in nature than we
realize, already Greek speakers and thinkers? We might even try
further and join forces with the "radical" scholars mentioned earlier
and consider whether nothing in Paul is reliable and may all be a
retrojected second-century creation from circles that were entirely
part of Hellenistic Judaism. Who knows?
This situation (as does Bruce's final excerpt below,
which I won't comment on further) certainly calls into question the
standard paradigm of Christianity's beginnings, especially as one with
a thoroughly Jewish root and Palestinian provenance. I think the
evidence better fits a widely diffused genesis out of that border
territory between pagan and Jewish religious traditions and
philosophies, found all across the eastern empire, a border which both
Jews and pagans frequently crossed in one direction or another. One of
the several new syncretistic 'nations' they established was gnosticism,
a phenomenon now seen to have been largely independent of
Christianity's development, though the former was later to assimilate
in part with the latter, under the influence of the Gospel Jesus
...James in Jerusalem - The death of
James is also part of what puzzled me. James is hanging out with Peter
preaching the gospel in Jerusalem for 20 years or so (recall Paul's two
widely spaced visits), with no apparent bother to the Jews. Yet a few
years before this Paul is going to Syria (!) to hunt Christians down,
while (according to Acts) James and Peter are hanging out in Jerusalem
the whole time? And after Paul's two visits to the pillars, 20-30 years
after their "ministry" began, the Jews finally get around to stoning
James? Either James and Peter were so quiet they barely register a
pulse, or there is something seriously wrong with this picture.
Thank you for your book, "The Jesus
Puzzle". It has profoundly affected my life. At bare minimum you gave
me a wonderful hobby that has facinated me for several years.
I write you about the Wisdom of Solomon, chapter two, verses 11-21. I believe that Mark used verses 11-21 as a template for the life of Jesus. The most telling verses are as follows:
 Let our strength be the law of justice: for that which is feeble is found to be nothing worth.
 Therefore let us lie in wait for the righteous; because he is not for our turn, and he is clean contrary to our doings: he upbraideth us with our offending the law, and objecteth to our infamy the transgressings of our education.
 He professeth to have the knowledge of God: and he calleth himself the child of the Lord.
 He was made to reprove our thoughts.
 He is grievous unto us even to behold: for his life is not like other men's, his ways are of another fashion.
 We are esteemed of him as counterfeits: he abstaineth from our ways as from filthiness: he pronounceth the end of the just to be blessed, and maketh his boast that God is his father.
 Let us see if his words be true: and let us prove what shall happen in the end of him.
 For if the just man be the son of God, he will help him, and deliver him from the hand of his enemies.
All Mark needed to do was to build an outline of Jesus' life from the above, fill in the narrative details by borrowing from Homer and using midrash, then put a few wisdom sayings in Jesus' mouth. Doesn't verse 12 pretty much summarize the passion narrative? Mark lets the demons show that Jesus fulfills verse 13 above. The last sentence of the verse might even refer to the scribes while verse 11 refers to the pharisees.
A key question is "when was this written?" Some think that it was written in the first century BCE, and others in the first century CE. If it is CE, then this might be an early form of the gospel of some real Jesus figure. If BCE, it seems more likely that this is the early form of a truly mythic character.
Response to Lowell:
The Wisdom of Solomon as Template for Mark's
Jesus of Nazareth
As a former minister in the Disciples of Christ, I have read with great interest and shakey footing the results of modern biblical and faith-oriented research. I have three questions: One: If Jesus the Christ was only a mythological figure, powered by the teeming, competitive early Jewish sects, why the name "Jesus" at all, instead of just "the Christ"? Two, did the name Christians just stick because of the belief in the Gnostic mythical "Christ" the Messenger? Three: Web sites (usually Christian and "touristy") point to an "undoubtable" historical Nazareth. I have read somewhere that Nazareth without doubt did not exist in the First Century CE. Is this true, and where's the documentation?
Response to Ray:
Why the name "Jesus"? / The name "Christ" /
Existence of Nazareth
The term "Christ" is essentially a title, which
would still mean that the new savior god of the circles Paul converted
to would lack a name. Who knows who, how, or when the name "Jesus" was
given to that god, but it would be a natural one, since it means
"Yahweh Saves". It may well be modelled on the deliverer of Hebrew
legend, Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land. The use
of "Christ" is probably directly dependent on the term as used in
Jewish expectation for the coming "Anointed One" or Messiah, since an
essential feature of the mythical Christ cult as represented by Paul is
the expectation of this Savior's imminent arrival from heaven.
(Second-century apologists like Theophilus of Antioch were to say
instead, when such expectations had died down, that the
self-designation of his faith movement was derived from the process of
'anointing' the believer with the oil of God.) Although we find the
term "Christ" present in some gnostic philosophies to refer to a part
of the divine "pleroma" (emanations of God) in heaven, it's impossible
to say if this had any influence in the earliest 'Christians' applying
this term to their new savior god. As for Nazareth, the
case is "undoubtable" on neither side, but probably the best case yet
made for its non-existence at the reputed time of Jesus is by Frank
Zindler, who has written several articles in the past for American Atheist magazine, and
refers to the subject in the Introduction to his The Jesus the Jews Never Knew. At
the very least, Zindler has shown that claims for its existence in the
first century are completely unreliable. I have dealt with this
question in the past, in Reader Feedback No. 7, response to Bob.
I'm a former scientist now studying for a
M.Div. I've found your site very interesting; it's challenged my
thinking in a number of ways. I'm not quite persuaded yet by your
theory, but I'm certainly re-evaluating the New Testament in light of
I see one major problem which keeps me from accepting your theory. It relates to the gospel of Matthew. The writer of Matthew presents Jesus on several occasions as predicting an imminent end of the world (i.e. in the lifetime of his hearers). For example, 10:23, 16:28, 24:34. The book also places Jesus chronologically in the first part of the 1st century. It doesn't matter whether he really existed, the point is, that is when the book of Matthew claims that he existed. Now, this seems to me to imply that the book of Matthew was written within a lifetime after that time. Why? Because otherwise, the writer would be aware that Jesus' prophecies of an imminent end of the world did not come true. If someone was writing a history of Jesus in the early 2nd century, would they be likely to put in his mouth the claim that the world was going to end during the first century, when by
that time it had become patently obvious that such an event never occurred? Do you have an explanation for this?
Response to Major:
Gospel Predictions by Jesus that the End is Near
This is a perennially recurring question, and while
I've dealt with it before (Reader Feedback No. 10), it's worth
revisiting. Major suggests that the point really has
little to do with whether Jesus existed or not, but that the author of
Matthew thinks he existed.
That may be, but the central point whenever this question is raised
seems to be its effect on the date the Gospels were written. If the
evangelists were writing history and regarded their work as such, one would tend to agree with
Major that they would hardly place an imminent prophecy in the mouth of
their central character which could only be regarded as false since it
hadn't taken place in the meantime. But that's a big "if."
First, let's reproduce what I wrote in the earlier
"My view of the Gospel of Mark is that it was written as a piece of symbolism and midrash. The pre-passion ministry of Jesus represented the beliefs and activities of the preaching community of which Mark was a part, while the passion story, constructed in midrashic fashion out of passages from scripture, gave a new significance to the traditional tale of the Suffering Righteous One. Mark and his initial audience would have known that the Gospel was symbolic and that its central character Jesus of Nazareth served partly as an allegory of the life of the community itself. Consequently, Jesus’ ‘prediction’ represented the predictions that were being made at the time the Gospel was written, and thus the problem of fulfilment would only have arisen a generation or two after the writing of Mark.
One might ask how those
who started to view the Gospel
story as historical (sometime in the first half of the second century)
felt about the inordinate lapse of time following Jesus’ supposed
No doubt they found ways to rationalize it, just as believers over the
centuries since then have been forced to do so. Papias, by the way, a
of Hierapolis some time in the 120s or 130s, is reported to have
that those raised from the dead by Jesus survived into the reign of the
emperor Hadrian (117-138), so perhaps the Gospel of Mark could safely
been written even well into the second century!"
If the evangelists were writing a piece of midrashic
symbolism—and there are
many indicators that they did not intend
details of their story as literal history—then their readers would not
have been expected to take everything as such. I think the
primary purpose was to produce a teaching guide, to convey lessons to
the community and to embody that community's activities, spirit, and
expectations. Nor can we overlook the fact that the evangelists have
made many other 'mistakes' which are unresolvable if taken literally.
What of Matthew's prophecy by Jesus that the Son of Man will lie in the
tomb for "three days and three nights" (12:40)? This is an even more
contradiction, in that it cannot be reconciled with another passage in
the same document itself, namely the actual account of Jesus' death and
resurrection. Why would the author create such an obvious literal
than likely because he wasn't being literal. The "three days and three
nights" is a symbolic expression, derived from scripture (the story of
Jonah, as is clear from the first part of the verse). What of the
clear incompatibilities between the various evangelists in their
reworking of earlier sources, such as Matthew or Luke of Mark? They
could hardly think that no reader was ever going to have a copy of the
two different Gospels in front of them and find by comparison that so
much simply didn't agree. (They would likely be taken aback by today's
frantic apologists who are convinced it is absolutely necessary that
they should not disagree!)
If the intended object was not to produce literal history in all its
details, then an argument that an author would never deliberately
embody a seeming contradiction in his writing has no force. Thus, we
can derive no conclusion about the necessary date of a given Gospel by
such an argument.
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