Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty


200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles

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Do the New Testament epistles tells us anything about the Jesus of the Gospels? Are the epistle writers aware of such a man, and do they have any knowledge of the Gospel story?

New Testament commentators have long remarked, frequently with some perplexity, on the dearth of references in the early Christian correspondence to details of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. "The early church lost all interest in the earthly career of the man they turned into God." This has been the standard method of explaining the extensive silence on the human Jesus to be found in the canonical epistles. I have questioned the feasibility of such an eventuality taking place, the likelihood that the elevation of a man to Godhead would—or could—entail the complete dismissal of his earthly incarnation as unimportant or of no interest to the first two generations of Christian believers. Other rationalizations put forward to explain the silence have included the claim that, since every epistle writer knew that the details of Jesus’ life and ministry were familiar to their readers (which would be a very questionable assumption in itself), no one bothered to make even a passing reference to any of those details, even in places where they would naturally come to mind. J. P. Holding, in his rebuttal to my views—see Reader Feedback—has put it that "there was no need" to mention all these elements of the Gospel account.

I have already attacked the rationality of such arguments in several places on the site. (For example, the response to William in Reader Feedback set 19.) What I am concerned with here is to provide a comprehensive picture of this pervasive silence on the Gospel Jesus contained in the New Testament epistles. While many aspects and examples of it have been touched on throughout my articles, the full extent of it, the nitty-gritty of it, may come as a surprise to many readers. In the present feature, "The Sound of Silence," I will point out and comment on virtually all the identifiable places in the Pauline corpus (Paul and pseudo-Paul), in Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1 & 2 John and Jude, where a reference to some Gospel element, some mention of the historical Jesus, would seem natural, or even called for. One would, of course, not expect to find such a reference in every single instance. But to find it missing in so many instances, covering all aspects of the life and death portrayed in the Gospels, is an astonishing phenomenon which cannot be blithely dismissed or explained away. This is a silence which cuts across every early document, through several authors and a multiplicity of situations, and it creates a very powerful and compelling "argument from silence."

My personal catalogue of silences in the epistles numbers around 250, but I will trim that, along with some combining of closely related ones, to a figure of the most clearly identifiable 200. I’ll start by extracting from these a "Top 20", the ones I find most arresting and most representative. This will be followed by the remainder, going through each document in canonical order. Along the way, I will briefly glance at related silences found in other, non-canonical epistles and early Christian documents, such as 1 Clement and the Didache. I will wrap up this catalogue with some general observations in a Postscript.

To provide a balance, I will list in an Appendix the 20 passages in the epistles which I consider could be said to constitute an arguable reference to the Gospel Jesus and his story, giving brief explanations for them and pointing out where on my site I deal with them in greater depth. Many of these references I regard as derived from scripture, which was the source for so many of the details which ended up in the Gospels themselves. Only two of these passages, possibly a third, would I put down to later interpolation, the first with much support by liberal scholars: 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, with its reference to "the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus," and 1 Timothy 6:13, with its reference to Pilate. (I will direct the reader to full discussions of these two items.) The third, a possible marginal gloss, is Galatians 1:19's "the brother of the Lord" in reference to James, which I discuss in the Appendix. And those who have read my site (especially Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel) will know that the passage about Jesus’ words at "the Lord’s Supper" (1 Cor. 11:23f) is readily explainable—and Paul himself tells us so—as personal revelation about a mythological ‘event.’ Personal revelation from Christ in heaven—a view held by quite a few scholars, too—is also the source of Paul’s three or four "words of the Lord" (which includes the Lord’s Supper scene), and I will deal with this particular item at length in the Appendix.

The Argument from Silence

Before getting under way, let’s take a brief look at the "argument from silence." This is a method of reasoning which is often condemned by scholars in the field of New Testament research (though more widely accepted in other areas). But it is an important and legitimate element in the Jesus-as-myth theory. It states in one of its applications that if a document fails to mention something in a context where we would strongly expect to find it, this would tend to show (depending on the state of all the evidence) that the subject is not known to the author and therefore may not exist.

We might illustrate the principle involved with this analogy. If a deceased man’s descendant claims that the man once won a lottery, yet there is no contemporary record of such a win, no entry of a large sum in his bank statements, no mention of it in his diaries and letters, no memory of a spending spree, if on his deathbed he told someone he never got a break in his life, if he died of starvation, etc., we would have some good reason to use the argument from silence to say that the claim is probably false, that in fact he had never won a lottery. (See also my "parable" which opens the book review of Robert Funk’s Honest to Jesus.)

Morton Smith, in condemning one of G. A. Wells’ articles (M. Smith, "The Historical Jesus", in Jesus in History and Myth, Prometheus Books, p.47), calls the argument "absurd," since "silence can be explained by reasons other than ignorance." The latter may sometimes be so, but it points to the fact that the conditions under which the argument is used must determine its validity. Ernst Haenchen, in his commentary on Acts (The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, p.476), admits it is justified when everything urges the writer to mention something, yet he fails to do so; Haenchen uses it himself to support a contention about Paul. We must therefore ask, in looking at each silence, whether we have good and strong reason to expect that a Christian writer would have said something here about Jesus, and whether there seems any good reason to explain why he did not. If, for example, the writer is making an argument, and he fails to bring in a supposedly well-known point about Jesus that would serve him well, or if a description or discussion invites obvious comparison to an element of the Gospel story and we do not get it, we are justified in finding the omission at least curious.

A silence can be especially compelling if it is expressed in a way which seems to exclude the idea or involvement of an historical Gospel Jesus, and there are many cases like this. Finally, the frequency of the silences has to be given weight. Taken individually, one failure to mention Jesus may be an oversight, a quirk of the author, an odd characteristic of one document or writer; but when it occurs in document after document, in writer after writer, when it extends to every single aspect of Jesus’ earthly life, such pervasive silence must mean something and cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Nor is it valid to rationalize that Paul and the other early writers did not need to mention a given point about Jesus because their readers were already familiar with it. Perhaps so, but do none of us, in our letters and conversations, ever insert things our listeners are familiar with? We might have little to say to each other if we didn’t. Besides, it is insupportable in itself to presume that all these audiences to whom the epistle writers are addressing themselves could have been assumed to be so familiar with all the details of Jesus' life and teachings that everyone would consider it pointless to mention them. Furthermore, such reasoning hardly applies in the context of argument. An argument is delivered more forcefully precisely by appealing to a point that does mean something to the reader or listener, something the audience is familiar with. Adding, for example, the simple phrase "as Jesus himself said" could not help but support many of the views these letter writers are urging, and there hardly seems any good reason, especially a blanket one, for why they would all consistently fail to do so.

"Explanations" are often offered to explain Paul's silence, such as that he had never met Jesus, had different agendas than the other apostles, had particular sensitivities to the authenticity of his own credentials. Such objections falter on one general consideration. Every other epistle writer expresses himself in exactly the same way as Paul in regard to the silence about an historical Jesus. This includes those who wrote later in Paul's name (Colossians, Ephesians, etc.), writers who would have had no reason, nor the necessary insight, to faithfully reproduce Paul's own idiosyncrasies. Many of the individual reasons offered for Paul's reticence on the historical Jesus also fail upon closer examination: they don't "work" when you bring other considerations into play. I have dealt with such points in many places on the site and many will arise in the present feature in the course of examining the passages themselves.

An Opening Summation

Finally, to give the reader an idea of the depth of silence the epistles demonstrate, the blackness of the void they contain in regard to the Gospel Jesus and his story, let me preface my itemization of this silence with a summation. Taking into account my two or three interpolations, and Paul’s few "words of the Lord" as a product of revelation (with the Lord’s Supper scene a mythical creation), let’s put it this way:

If we were to rely entirely on the early Christian correspondence, we would know virtually nothing about the Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the Gospels. We would not know where he was born or when. We would not even know the era he lived in. We would be ignorant of the names of his parents, where he grew up, where he preached. Or even that he preached. We would not be able to identify a single one of his ethical teachings, for although the epistles often make moral pronouncements very close to the ones Jesus speaks in the Gospels, no writer ever attributes them to him.

Nor would we be aware that he performed miracles. Not that he healed, that he cast out demons, that he raised the dead to life. We would not know that he had been baptized, nor would we meet the figure of John the Baptist who performed that rite on him. We would not know that Jesus had walked the hills of Galilee (or the waters of its sea), that he tramped the dusty wildernesses of Judea or entered the ancient walls of Jerusalem. Did he alienate the Jewish leaders, who plotted against him and ultimately bore the stigma of having killed him? We would know nothing about that. Did he celebrate a Last Supper with his disciples? We would not know that for certain. His betrayer, Judas: he and his evil deed would be lost to us forever, as would another betrayal, the denial of him by Peter, his chief apostle.

And what of Pontius Pilate, his executioner? He surfaces only with the letters of Ignatius and in 1 Timothy, both written early in the second century—and there is some doubt about the authenticity of the latter reference. As for the details surrounding the climax of Jesus’ life: his trials before the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, his brutal crucifixion, details of which should have been indelibly burned into the consciousness of every Christian writer and believer from the day they transpired, nothing of them would have come down to us. Not the words he spoke—or refused to speak—before his accusers, not the scourging and the crown of thorns, not the raising up of the cross between two thieves or the words he spoke as he hung upon it. Nor would we know where that cross was raised, for the names of Calvary and Golgotha are never mentioned. We would not have heard about the earthquake, the rending of the Temple veil, nor the darkness that covered the earth for three hours at midday during the long agony. As to where he was buried, we would not know that either, and the dramatic story of the finding of the empty tomb three days later would have passed into oblivion along with all the other details of this mysterious life and career. With only the first century Christian epistles to go on, the darkness over the man who is said to have founded the greatest religion in world history would be complete.

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On the Translations: I have drawn on several translations of the New Testament passages, sometimes splicing, sometimes making personal alterations, all with an eye to providing English versions which get to the literal meaning of the original and avoid drawing on Gospel preconceptions, as so many translations do. A notation in square brackets is given after each quoted passage to indicate the principal translation(s) used; an "ED" indicates a strong element of my own in the mix.

Optional Reading: For some passages I have included additional comments which are designated as optional reading. These are in separate paragraphs with smaller print (like this one) and enclosed in square brackets.

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