Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

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



1 John

ź 182. - 1 John 1:1-4

1What was from the beginning; what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Lifeó 2and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to usó 3what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. 4And these things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. [NASB]
This is a curious epistle. Its contradictions have threatened to drive commentators "to despair" (to quote J. H. Houlden's phrase). Its meanings are often murky. It is devoid of any Gospel atmosphere, any echoes of Gospel events, any Gospel teachings of Jesus. It is largely theocentric, with Christ an oblique figure, one spoken of (as so many epistles do) as being "manifested," presented in mystical ways. There is no direct reference to the cross or to Calvary, and none at all to the resurrection. The oft-quoted 3:16 simply states that Christ "laid down his life for us," with "life" rendered by the word "psychê" which can have a meaning of 'soul' as much as bodily life, and could thus be applicable to a spiritual being (as of God, in Matthew 12:18/Isaiah 42:1). The reference to that 'sacrifice' as a "propitiation" for sin (2:2, 4:10) seems incompatible with other statements which portray Christ as an advocate in heaven, "pleading our cause with the Father" (2:1) but not as a propitiatory sacrifice, or which show no sign of a salvific Son at all, as in 1:9: "if we confess our sins, (God) is just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every kind of wrong."

The two sets of dissidents in chapters 2 and 4 also seem incompatible. The issues and features surrounding these respective disputes are different and cannot be reconciled. There is no apostolic tradition, nothing traced back to Jesus or early apostles; everything is by spirits sent from God, with no sign of even the basic traditions of the Gospel of John, such as Jesus' promise to send the Paraclete after he is gone. Nor is there any sign of the so-called (and unnamed) "beloved disciple" of Jesus found in the Fourth Gospel.

The only solution to all the problems of this epistle is to regard it as a layered document, added to over time, with new ideas and situations set alongside old ones, a process which created inconsistencies and contradictions. Because of its total lack of connection to any elements of the Gospel of John, the epistle must be regarded as earlier, at least in all but perhaps its latest stratum, or as proceeding from a related but separate community to that which produced the Gospel, one that was unaffected for most of its development by the ideas of the Gospel-producing community. These issues are thoroughly discussed in my Supplementary Article No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John.

But let's take a look at the so-called "Prologue" of this epistle, as quoted above, verses 1:1-4. Despite commentators' best efforts to regard this as some kind of description of Jesus and his ministry, based on the eyewitness of apostles like "John," it is better understood as a poetic account of the beginnings of the sectarian group itself, its revelatory experience of God and the eternal life he now offered. The language is that of revelation, the pronouns are neuter. In verse 2, this eternal life was "with/in the Father" and was revealed. Only the most forced 'reading into' could render this a reference to Jesus of Nazareth and his life on earth; rather, "life" is a spiritual benefit that God has created for believers and which he has now disclosed. In fact, the pointed absence in this key sentence of any reference to the Son or his identification with the process of salvation, makes the one appearance of the Son in this Prologueóat the end of verse 3ólook all the more like a tacked-on idea, introduced when the concept of the Son had developed at a later stage of the community's thinking and began to be introduced at different spots into the basic, earlier stratum of the document. Indeed, the entire first section of the epistle (to 2:17) has only a handful of references to the Son, many of which seem incidental or inconsistent with the context, and is otherwise entirely theocentric. The series of metrical lines in 2:12-14, concerned with sin and mastery over Satan, is solely focused on God. The "light" as opposed to the darkness found beyond the sect, is solely identified with God, and so on.

ź 183. - 1 John 2:7-8 / (2:6)

7Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. 8On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. [NASB]
In all this talk about "commandments" both here and throughout 1 & 2 John, there is no suggestion that any of this ethical teaching came from Jesus, on earth or in heaven. The command to love one another is said to have been given to the community at its "beginning," meaning the revelatory experience described in the Prologue. It was part of the message from God "heard" by the community at that time, not one passed on from Jesus through oral tradition. Most like to take the "in Him" of verse 8 as a reference to Christ, but "Him" in previous verses has always referred to God, and the succeeding reference to "light" casts its gleam back onto that pronoun, and the author has stated clearly that "God is light" (1:5). Besides, the commandment's source has been, and will continue to be, identified as God, not Christ.

[ The passage quoted above is preceded by one of the two references in the epistleóthe other being 3:16ówhich might be regarded as implying Christ's presence on earth: "Whoever claims to be dwelling in him (God) ought to conduct himself as Christ (ekeinos) did [literally, ought to walk as Christ ("that one") himself walked]" (2:6). First of all, was this thought part of the original context? The preceding verses speak of knowing God by keeping his commands; the following verses 7-8 (above) again speak of the commands of God, old and new, known from the "beginning." If 2:6 were original, referring to the ethical behavior and teachings of Jesus while on earth, it is curious that neither before nor after would the writer bring in those teachings as the standard for knowing God and keeping his commands.

The other curious feature is that 2:6 does not refer to Christ or Jesus by name. Here, as in several other places in the epistle (3:3, 5, 7, 16, 4:17), the Son is referred to by the demonstrative pronoun "ekeinos," meaning "that one." No one has provided a convincing explanation for this peculiar mode of expression. My own feeling is that it began as a way of referring to a specific part of God, that emanation of him which served as an intermediary, the spiritual Son. It has an impersonal character out of keeping with the idea of a recent historical person or distinct human personality. Raymond E. Brown (The Epistles of John, p.249) acknowledges, along with other scholars, that in this epistle there is often "no sharp distinction between God and Christ." This produces an occasional confusion as to which figure is being referred to. This would support my contention that both God and Christ are closely linked spiritual entities, lacking the distinction that would emerge if Christ had been a recent historical man. 1 John 3:16 is not "Christ laid down his life for us," as most translations render it, but "that one laid down his life for us," with the name Jesus or Christ nowhere in the vicinity.

We might also note that in 4:17, the writer compares the believer's behavior with ekeinos by saying that "we are as that one is," not "was." Compare the similar present tense in 3:3, where the exemplary Christ ("that one") "is pure," and the passage under discussion (2:8 above), if the "in Him" were a reference to Christ, as some claim. Christ would seem to be a model who exists in a timeless state, both past and present, implying a spiritual entity, not a recent historical one. If 2:6 is a late insertion, it may reflect a general sense that Christ had at some time come to earth (compare the dispute in 4:1f, below) but little was known of such a coming. Or it might still be an expression of mythical thinking in regard to Christ's activities. The reference is in the context of Christ providing an example or precedent, a universal feature of the relationship between mythical gods and present societal practice. ]

ź 184. - 1 John 2:27

But as for you, the initiation (lit., anointing) which you received from him stays with you; you need no other teacher, but learn all you need to know from his initiation, which is real and no illusion. As he/it taught you, then, dwell in him/it. [NEB]
A most revealing silence. The "initiation" (anointing, chrisma) seems to be a rite for entry into the sect. In 2:20 it is referred to as "the gift of the Holy One," which is a reference to God, a gift by which "you have all knowledge." Here in 2:27, all that the believer needs to know is said to be gained by this initiation ceremony, which pointedly excludes all teachings and example that might have come from Jesus' ministry. No Christian writer who possessed any information whatever derived from Jesus through oral or apostolic traditionóor even the barest idea of suchócould possibly have made this declaration.

ź 185. - 1 John 2:28

Even now, my children, dwell in him, so that when he appears [lit., is manifested] we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming (Parousia).
Is this a reference to Christ's Parousia, his arrival or 'second' coming? Or is it to the Parousia of God, the traditional Jewish expectation of the Day of the Lord? Scholarship has striven to make it the former, but this involves considerable manhandling of the text.

The exhortation at the beginning of the verse, to "dwell in him," should logically be a reference to God, since the 'dwelling in him' of the preceding verse (see previous item) follows on the reference to God's initiation, or anointing. The "he" of verse 28 goes on in verse 29 to be applied to the one of whom every believer is a "child," and this reference is made clear by the following "God's children" in 3:1. The sequence of thought, therefore, is an unbroken and unmistakable reference to God, and the "coming" is that of God.

Verse 3:2 goes on to reiterate this meaning: "Here and now, dear friends, we are God's children; what we shall be has not yet been disclosed, but we know that when it is disclosed (or, when he appears) we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (NEB). There can be no doubt that the expected Parousia is that of God.

The measure of what is at stake here is seen in Raymond E. Brown's desperate attempt (op.cit. p.379) to read verse 29's "his child" as meaning a child of Christ, even in the face of the "God's children" in the next verse and elsewhere (eg, 3:9). Brown's justification for doing so (as was Brooke's in the 1912 International Critical Commentary) is his assumption, determined of course by the Gospels, that the "his coming" in verse 28 must be a reference to Christ's Parousia, which would then govern the meaning of the "his" child in verse 29.

Why is this need so critical? Because if this is in fact a reference to the coming of God and not Jesus, this puts 1 John into a 'Christian' milieu which is not what one would expect in the orthodox stream of things. If these are believers in Jesus of Nazareth as the crucified and resurrected Messiah, why do they not have the expectation of his Second Coming? Why is there no reference to Jesus as judge or ruler upon his return? 3:2 shows that the focus of this entire section of the letter is on God. We are God's children and our destiny is to be like him (God) when he appears or when everything is revealed. In the mind of the writer (of these early strata of the epistle), Christ the Son occupies a subsidiary, accessory position; he is a channel only, a spiritual force. He is given no role commensurate with the Gospel picture of him. Intimations of such a role creep in only at other points, in strata which have all the marks of later insertions, and even here, there is no clear placement of him on earth.

1 John, in those strata that have been laid over a bedrock layer with no Son at all (see Supplementary Article No. 2), is an example of fledgling and evolving "Christ belief." For this sect, Christ began as a manifestation of God, God's point of contact with humanity, the channel through which God is known (see 5:20), one who comes with the Spirit through the sect's ritual sacraments (see 5:6). Soon he was taking on concepts of being a heavenly advocate (2:1), then a propitiation for sin (2:2), serving as an example of good behavior (2:6) and laying down his life/spirit for the believer (3:16). All this knowledge about the Christ was a product of revelation, as we can see in the next item.

ź 186. - 1 John 3:5...8

You know that he (Christ, ekeinos) was revealed in order to take away sins, and there is no sin in him. . . The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. [Translator's New Testament]
Lapsing into that most universal manner of expression found in the epistles, the writer declares that the Son "was revealed" by God for purposes of salvation. The verb here is the passive of phaneroô, which hardly conveys the coming of the Son to earth and acting in his own person in a life of teaching and self-sacrifice. In fact, there is a notable lack of any implication of death or resurrection in these verses, implying that the Son was at this stage not conceived of as dying, let alone rising. That conception comes, partially, only in 3:16.

ź 187. - 1 John 3:11

For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. [NASB]
As we have seen above (#182 and 183), the idea of 'hearing from the beginning' refers to the revelation the group received at its formation, not to anything concerning teachings of a Jesus passed on through apostolic tradition. That revelation came from God and was about eternal life, and it seems also, to judge by this verse, to have included the injunction to love one another. In many other passages, the love command is said to have come from God.

Yet how could the Johannine community not have inherited the tradition, or developed its own artificial one, that Jesus himself while on earth had taught about loving one another? Right in the Gospel of John we encounter such teachings, aimed at the community of Jesus' followers: "I give you a new commandment: love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another" (13:34-5), or "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father's commands and dwell in his love" (15:9-10). How could the community and the writer of 1 John not be saturated in these ideas, constantly pointing to Jesus as the source of such teachings and the prime example for their practice? The answer is that the construction of the Fourth Gospel's Jesus came only later. The teachings previously ascribed to God and revelation were placed in the mouth of an allegorical Jesus of Nazareth, borrowed from the groundbreaking creation of the writer of Mark and imposed upon the theological outlook of the Johannine circle of belief about a spiritual Son.

ź 188. - 1 John 3:16

It is by this that we know what love is: that Christ (ekeinos, that one) laid down his life for us. And we in our turn are bound to lay down our lives for our brothers. [NEB]
This declaration is painfully out of place here, for the text goes on in verse 17 to descend with a dull thud from this lofty idea to the remark that if a man has enough to live on he should give to a brother in need. The latter verse, in its tone and motifs, follows on logically from verses 14 and 15. Some scholars (eg, Houlden, Grayston) have recognized the unhappy sequence of ideas here, but they need to be more courageous in their implication that 3:16 may have been lacking in earlier versions of the text.

As an injunction, 3:16 is surely to be regarded as the most significant in all the epistle's thinking. And yet, not even here can the writer be drawn into quoting a teaching of Jesus on the subject, not even from the traditions which presumably went into the Gospel which his own community eventually produced. In John 15:13-14, we read, as spoken by Jesus: "There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you." Is it conceivable that the epistle writer would declare the necessity to "lay down our lives for our brothers" without appealing to Jesus' own powerful injunction to do that very thing? Rather, we need to see the saying in the Gospel as an invention, words that were accorded to Jesus based upon the earlier statement of principle, unattributed to anyone, found in the epistle. The same observation could be made about Jesus' saying in 10:11, about the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. These silences in the epistle also allow us to conclusively state that the Gospel of John could not possibly have preceded the epistle and been known to the writer, as many scholars continue to claim.

We might note that in this allusion to a sacrificial death for Jesus in 1 John, there is no hint of what that death might have consisted of, or its soteriological nature. The image of the "cross" is entirely absent from this epistle, as is any atonement doctrine. The idea of sacrificing one's life for one's fellows is not confined to Christianity, and was in fact widespread in ancient philosophy.

ź 189. - 1 John 3:21-24

21Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God, 22and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. 23And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 Those who obey his commands live in him and he in them. [NIV]
Scholars recognize that the "as he commanded us" in verse 23 could, in grammatical terms, refer to either God or Christ. But other statements in this epistle about the source of the love command, as well as in 2 John, do not allow for such an ambiguity. In the above passage, verse 22 refers to keeping God's commands, and verse 24, which refers back to that ambiguous pronoun, contains the idea of 'dwelling in him,' which analysis of 3:27-28 has identified as an idea relating to God. Loving one another has also been identified as part of the revelation from God at the sect's "beginning" (as in 3:11). And reference to the love command in 4:21 and 2 John 4-6 (see below) make it clear that it is God who is in mind as the source.

Another silence here is the failure to refer to Jesus' teaching about praying to God, that if one asks, one shall receive. Not only is this advice well-known from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 7:7), it is particularly pervasive in the Gospel of John, with the focus shifted to asking Jesus: "If you ask anything in my name I will do it" (14:15); "Ask what you will, and you shall have it" (15:7); " that the Father may give you all that you ask in my name" (15:16). It would be difficult to understand why the writer would consistently fail to appeal to such injunctions from Jesus himself if they were a part of the Johannine traditions.

But perhaps the most telling feature of this passage is the command in verse 23: "to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ." A divine name contained mystical, magical properties. Revelation of that name gave access to the deity's attention and powers. It was part of the knowledge about him that the believer and miracle-worker sought. Through access to the name, they became intimate with him, protected and blessed by him. To "believe in" a deity's name was to believe in his existence, to acknowledge his role in the scheme of faith and salvation, to make a personal commitment to him. The point is, such language best fits the community's belief in Jesus as a spiritual force, a deity beside God in heaven, who has acted entirely in that supernatural world, as God himself does and every other mythical deity believed in at that time. It hardly seems a natural or appropriate style of expression about a recent historical man who had done his work on earth. One might rather expect that the 'command' of God would have been to believe that Jesus of Nazareth had been God's Son and Christ and that his death on Calvary and rising from the tomb had bestowed salvation. But this atmosphere is entirely missing from the Johannine epistles.

ź ó 1 John 4:1-3 - See "Top 20" #15

ź 190. - 1 John 4:4 . . . 6

4 But you, my children, are of God's family, and you have the mastery over these false prophets, because he who inspires you is greater than he who inspires the godless world. . . . 6 But we belong to God, and a man who knows God listens to us, while he who does not belong to God refuses us a hearing. That is how we distinguish the spirit of truth from the spirit of error. [NEB]
Following on the 4:1-3 passage ("Top 20" #15), the writer reiterates the principle of who has a pipeline to the truth, how the community is to distinguish truth from error. In verse 2 he has said that those who acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the fleshówhich would seem to be a statement that the divine Son had come to earth, a belief apparently not held by those he is condemningóare in possession of the true spirit from God, while those who do not so acknowledge have received 'spirits' not from God and are "Antichrist." In the succeeding verses above, he again speaks of "spirits" of truth and of error.

For this community, all information and faith have come through revelation from God. No one appeals to anything Jesus might have said or done, to oral traditions about his life, not even to the concept of Jesus having promised and sent the definitive Spirit in the form of the Paraclete, an essential element of the Gospel of John. It would be difficult to envision a Christian movement originating in the person and followers of Jesus, spreading outward from a single center, which would arrive at the end of the century in a community like that of this epistle and yet not evidence the slightest concept of apostolic tradition.

ź 191. - 1 John 4:12

Though God has never been seen by any man, God himself dwells in us if we love one another. [NEB]
An odd thought, that God has never been seen by any man. Jesus of Nazareth may have been viewed as more than a man, but he had presumably been a human who walked the earth and who was seen as coming from heaven, and to that extent, God had indeed been seen by at least one man.

ź 192. - 1 John 4:14-15 / (5:1)

14And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. 15Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. [NASB]
The epistles are full of the expression that God "sent" the Son, often (as here) in the perfect tense, which can have more of a present implication than a past one. It is the same verb as employed in the "sending" of the Holy Spirit. The consequence of both those sendings is expressed in terms of the present time rather than of some set of past, historical events.

In verse 15, the confession is in the present tense. Jesus is the Son of God, not that a certain historical man was the Son of God. Like the description of the first set of dissenters in 2:22fó"Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?"óthis is a faith declaration about an existing entity, not about the identity of a past historical man. 2:22 is usually interpreted in the latter sense, a denial that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, but when Gospel preconceptions are set aside, such an interpretation can be seen not to work. These "deniers" are still part of the Christian community. "You no less than they are among the initiated" (2:20, NEB). If the opponents denied Jesus' Messiahship, they would no longer be Christians. Rather, the expression in both passages (to which compare Romans 10:8-9) is a confession of faith in this deity, a deity who is the Son of God and Savior.

Here in 1 John 4:15, God requires the believer to have faith in the existence and power of his Son (as in the "name" in 3:23 and 5:13), and God will abide in them. This thought, consistently in the present tense, is repeated in 5:1, "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God," and in 5:5, "he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God." Brooke (International Critical Commentary, The Epistles of John, p.128) equates the meaning of "Jesus is Christ" with "Jesus as Christ," demonstrating that this is a faith declaration relating to a present entity in heaven, and not a past one on earth.

ź 193. - 1 John 5:6-11

6This is the one who came by [through] water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. 7And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is the truth. 8For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. [NASB] . . . (continued below)
There is perhaps no other passage in all the New Testament epistles which gives us a clearer picture of the nature of the early Christian movement, the belief through revelation in a Son and Christ who is God's agent and channel of salvation. Consequently, there are few passages in the epistles that are subjected to more tortured interpretation than this one in order to bring it into line with Gospel preconceptions. A good example is The Translator's New Testament, which takes the phrase "came through water and blood" and offers this elucidation: "That is, through his whole ministry from the baptism to the cross, with all their implications."

But of such Gospel events, or implications, there is no suggestion here. The Gospel of John, in fact, does not even contain a baptism scene. Water as representing the baptism of Jesus can hardly figure in this passage's centrality of argument when it is not even present in the community's ongoing record. Nor is the idea of Christ laying down his life, alluded to in 3:16, associated in this epistle with a death on the cross.

It is sometimes suggested that the "blood" element is a reference to the Eucharist, the sacrificial meal established by Jesus at a Last Supper, but here again, no such Eucharist appears in the Gospel of John, let alone the epistle, and the one eucharistic element (so claimed) in that Gospel relates to 'eating the bread of life' (6:48-51), which is not linked to a Last Supper or sacramental ceremony. The enlargement on that idea in the following verses 51b-56, which adds the dimension of drinking Jesus' blood (though still unlinked to a Last Supper), is judged by some to be a later interpolation, probably by the Roman church, to add the missing eucharistic element (e.g., D. Moody Smith, Johannine Christianity, p.19; and Howard M. Teeple, The Literary Origin of the Gospel of John, p.85).

The "water" is undoubtedly a reference to the water of baptism, a rite that would have been present within the community and a sacrament which, like all sacraments, served as a channel for the bestowal of divine grace and spiritual benefits on the believers. Paul's discussion in Romans 6:1-4 of his version of Christian baptism (how similar it was to that of the Johannine community cannot be said) shows that such rites enabled the believer to enter into a mystical union with the deity; they brought the deity into contact with the community, and thus he could be said to have "come" through the water of baptism. The significance of the "blood" is a little more mysterious. J. H. Houlden (The Johannine Epistles, p.125) calls both terms "enigmatic." But the blood almost certainly reflects the thought behind those few phrases inserted into the epistle in a later stratum, such as 1:7b, 2:2 and 4:10, the idea that sin has been atoned for "by the blood of Jesus his Son."

One implication in the wording of 5:6, in the writer's insistence that Christ has "come" through the blood as well as the water, is that this point was in dispute within the sect. This supports the idea that the "blood/propitiation" concept is indeed a later stratum of thought, superimposed on an earlier layer which lacked it, and over some opposition. This in itself would nullify the interpretation that the "blood" element is a biographical reference to Jesus' death on the cross, for who would deny that Jesus had been crucified, or that his crucifixion was not a significant element of the picture about him which has come to the community? Nor would anyone tend to deny the historical or sacramental significance of Jesus' establishment of the Eucharist if any such tradition existed.

Rather, those who are 'denying' the blood must be denying its symbolism as a rite or as a theological element; they are denying its connection to the divine Jesus, perhaps denying that the spiritual Son had anything to do with a blood sacrifice. This reveals an evolution of christology and soteriology taking place over time within the community, a debate which seems to be entirely dependent on revelation and which never appeals to historical traditions about Jesus' life or about what earlier apostolic tradition had taught. The Johannine community (or circle of them) lives within its own world, and while drawing on current trends of thought, is essentially independent and self-sufficient.

Verse 7, "And it is the Spirit that bears witness, and the Spirit is the truth," makes it clear that the engine of faith is not apostolic tradition or the record of Jesus' life, but the force of the Spirit, God's revelation directly to the community. The Spirit has provided the sect's confirmation that the rites of water and blood, or the christology inherent in those concepts, is indeed the truth. In verse 8, somewhat inconsistently, the Spirit joins forces with the two elements of water and blood, and all three bear witness to the divine Son. Since the Spirit is here regarded as on a par with those other two elements, and since the Spirit is a revelatory agency, it is hardly likely that "water" and "blood" would be references to historical events, but would also serve to "reveal" the Son and provide a channel to him. This commonality of meaning between all three is further supported when we go on to verses 9 to 11, in which the focus shifts directly onto God.

9Do we not accept human testimony? The testimony of God is much greater: it is the testimony God has given on his own Son's behalf. 10Whoever believes in the Son of God possesses that testimony within his heart. Whoever does not believe God has made God a liar by refusing to believe in the testimony he has given on his own Son's behalf. 11The testimony is this: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. [NAB]
God has himself borne witness to his Son through those three avenues, the Spirit, the water and the blood, with the implication that they are all revelatory channels. But what of traditions and memories about Jesus on earth? What of the record of the things he had said and done, transmitted over the intervening generations by apostolic tradition? Why would these not serve as sources of the truth about the Son, as "testimony" to him? The opening sentence of verse 9 does not do this. It is simply a comparative thought to 9b, a general rule: 'We are in the habit of accepting testimony from men (in certain circumstances), are we not? How much more should we not accept God's testimony?' The former does not specify witness about the Son, and there is no suggestion that it refers in this one instance to the otherwise missing element in the epistle about apostolic tradition concerning Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, verse 8 has already enumerated the three sources of knowledge about the Son, and whatever they may mean, an apostolic source is not included.

This sectarian community, like all the other communities of Christ belief springing up in the first century across the eastern half of the Roman empire, has come to the conviction, through perceived revelation by God and the Holy Spirit, that God has a Son, that he is the channel of knowledge about God and the agency and dispenser of God's salvation. Verse 10 above could not state it more clearly, in that belief in a Son is the new idea abroad in the world, a Son as yet unidentified with any recent human figure who was regarded as the Son's incarnation. The Son is known only by revelation from God, there has as yet been no witness to the Son by the Son himself, a dimension that comes only with the Gospels. In the world of the epistles, God has provided revelatory evidence that such a spiritual Son exists, and belief in that evidence, says this writer, is the avenue to eternal life.

Once the idea of the Son was let loose, it underwent a fairly rapid evolution. He began as an adjunct to God's own activities, a spiritual channel who, in this community, was soon seen as an "advocate" in heaven, pleading for the forgiveness of sins, then as a propitiation for those sins, through sacrificeó though the nature of that sacrifice seems not to be clearly established in the thought of the epistle. In this latest stratum, however, the epistle has apparently outstripped the Johannine Gospel, which contains little concept of atonement or propitiation, especially in its portrayal of the crucifixion. All this means is that the so-called community of John was not monolithic, and in fact the epistle known as 3 John shows that it comprised a number of congregations at some distance from each other, congregations which seem not always to have been in agreement as to "true" doctrine.

Verse 11 sums up the entire spirit of the age: "(God's) testimony (through revelation) is this: God gave us eternal life and this life is in his Son." The religion of the Hellenistic age was the concern for personal salvation and immortality, usually granted through subordinate deities such as those of the mystery cults. In Christianity, that subordinate deity was the Son of the Jewish God, transformed into an expanded and divinized version of the expected Messiah (Christ), and usually given the name "Jesus," meaning Yahweh saves. In line with the dominant philosophical concept of the period, this "Christ Jesus" is God's agent and intermediary, revealed by him through the Holy Spirit. When, through a set of unusual circumstances, that intermediary was brought to earth to do his work "among us" (John 1:14), this Hellenistic-Jewish brand of salvation blew away the competitors and established itself on a 2,000 year run.

ź 194. - 1 John 5:14-15

14We can approach God with confidence for this reason: if we make requests which accord with his will he listens to us; 15and if we know that our requests are heard, we know also that the things we ask for are ours. [NEB]
While this silence has been noted before, even in this epistle (#189), we might highlight it once again in the light of the thought which leads into it. The writer has just said (5:13) that his letter is addressed to those who "believe in the name of the Son of God." As noted earlier (#189), believing in the "name" of a deity is to draw on his power. What deity who had taught on earth, providing knowledge and insight into God's will and benefits, would not be regarded as having manifested that power through his sayings and deeds? Yet even this all-important question of appealing to God for favors is not supported by pointing to Jesus' own teaching and assurances on the matter, that one need merely ask something of Godóor of himselfóand it will be granted.

2 John

ź 195. - 2 John 4-6

4It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. 5And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. 6And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. [NIV]
This passage makes it unmistakably clear that the command to love has come not from Jesus, but from the Father. Moreover, that command is stated as having originated at the "beginning." Since it comes from the Father, that "beginning" cannot have been in the ministry of Jesusósince in that case it would be stated as coming from him, or at least through himóbut is an event of revelation, probably lying at the inception of the sect itself.

A point I have made many times before is that if a key doctrine is held by a community, and the founder of that community was a prominent and respected teacher, it is inevitable that the teaching of such a doctrine would soon be attributed to him, regardless of whether he had in fact been its source. Yet none of the issues that are central to the interests of this epistle writer are related in any way to a teaching Jesus, and thus we are entitled to place the highest doubt on, indeed to reject, any knowledge of such a figure on the part of the author's community at this stage. Such a figure would step onto the scene only with the writing of the Fourth Gospel, with its Jesus of Nazareth character a reworking of the Synoptic precedent of Mark's invention, re-suited in the christological garments of the Johannine circle of belief.


ź 196. - Jude 1

From Jude, servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, to those whom God has called, who live in the love of God the Father and in the safe keeping of Jesus Christ. [NEB]
Few scholars today regard this epistle as the product of Jude, apostle and supposedly a sibling of Jesus, first introduced as such in Mark 6:3. But if it had been so authored, or if it were a pseudonymous product written in the name of Jude, with the object of claiming the authority of that figure (perhaps an early apostle of the Christ), or even if such an ascription were added later to an existing letter, there is little conceivable reason why such a writer or editor would not have identified this Jude as the brother of Jesus, if he had been so, and not simply as his servant. It seems clear that, as in the case of the letter of James (#145), no such sibling relationship was known at that time, probably because the idea of an historical Jesus was itself unknown.

ź 197. - Jude 17

But you, my friends, should remember the predictions made by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the warning they gave you: 'In the final age there will be men who pour scorn on religion, and follow their own godless lusts.'
Throughout the epistles, "apostles" are those like Paul who are proclaiming the Lord Jesus Christ, with nothing to suggest that they were followers of a Jesus on earth. They are men who have been inspired by the Spirit to preach this heavenly figure. Although there are no close Gospel parallels to these words or sentiments, the Gospels place many predictions about the final age in Jesus' mouth, some of them of a similar nature, such as Matthew 24:10-12: "Many will lose their faith; they will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many; and as lawlessness spreads, men's love for one another will grow cold." In any case, the point made above in 2 John 4-6 (#195) again applies. Such a prediction, important to the writer and his community, would have gravitated toward Jesus himself and inevitably have been placed in his mouth.


While not, of course, an epistle, the Book of Revelation falls into that category of early Christian writings which show no knowledge of an historical, Gospel Jesus. The figure of Christ communicates entirely through spiritual or visionary channels, there are no teachings of Jesus offered, no references to miracles or other deeds on earth. The prophet envisions his Christ as having been "dead and came to life again" (2:8), but no circumstances of this dying and rising are ever given. No idea of a bodily resurrection appears. Titles and mythical features given to Christ, such as his identification with the "Lamb" and the "one like a son of man" from Daniel 7, are apocalyptic and messianic motifs longstanding in Jewish thought, and entirely heavenly. (For a full discussion of Revelation's lack of an historical Jesus, see my Supplementary Article No. 11: Revelation: The Gospel According to the Prophet John.)

ź 198. - Revelation 1:9

I was on the island of Patmos because I had preached God's word and borne my testimony to Jesus [lit., the testimony of Jesus]. [NEB]
The final phrase in this verse is grammatically ambiguous, in that it could mean John's own witness to Jesus, or the witness that Jesus himself bore. Translations render it as the former, or else reflect the ambiguity. In 1:2, on the other hand, John seems to be referring to the latter, saying that he is bearing witness to God's word and to the testimony of Jesus Christ. But the latter, in that case, is clearly a reference to the entire document, Jesus' revelation to the prophet about the coming apocalypse, and this is a "testimony" that has come to him through an angel (1:1), not from any Jesus on earth.

In the above quoted passage (1:9), however, John is referring to his regular preaching message, the one for which he was arrested and exiled. That message is the word of God, not Jesus, and it is a word about Jesus, John's testimony to him. Since John is concerned with the apocalyptic end or transformation of the world, one would expect that Jesus' own preaching on this subject, as part of his ministry, would have been of intense interest and would have formed part of his picture of the End-time. But Revelation never speaks a word about Jesus' prophetic message on earth, nothing from the Little Apocalypse found in Mark 13, none of the predictions about the coming Son of Man placed in Jesus' mouth in the Gospels. The motif of the "thief who comes at an unexpected moment" appears in 3:3 and 16:15, but in the former it is part of the visionary Christ's letter dictated to the church at Sardis, and the latter seems to be placed in the mouth of God. There is no suggestion that Jesus had spoken something like it during an earthly ministry. The metaphor was probably common in the prophetic vocabulary of the day.

ź 199. - Revelation 1:13 and 14:14

I saw . . . among the lamps one like a son of man. / Then as I looked there appeared a white cloud, and on the cloud sat one like a son of man. [NEB]
The use of the phrase "one like a son of man" shows that the author of Revelation knows of no tradition that Jesus on earth had referred to himself this way, for he uses it in the form in which it appears in Daniel 7, not as a title, "the Son of Man," which the Gospels apply to Jesus. That an apocalyptically minded prophet like John would not have known of such a term used of Jesus on earth, were the Gospel element historical, is highly unlikely.

ź 200. - Revelation 12:1-6

1Next appeared a great portent in heaven, a woman robed with the sun, beneath her feet the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant, and in the anguish of her labor she cried out to be delivered. 3Then a second portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns; on his heads were seven diadems, 4and with his tail he swept down a third of the stars in the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that when her child was born he might devour it. 5She gave birth to a male child, who is destined to rule all nations with an iron rod. But her child was snatched up to God and his throne; 6and the woman herself fled into the wilds, where she had a place prepared for her by God, there to be sustained for twelve hundred and sixty days. [NEB]
Is this passage a highly mythologized rendering of Jesus' birth of Mary and its messianic significance? Perhaps a more telling question would be: if Jesus had indeed been born of the woman Mary, would readers of this document have associated the above passage with her and with Jesus' nativity, however much sensationalized? The answer would undeniably be yes.

And yet, if so, how can the prophet portray a mythologized scene which not only contains no hint of any Nativity element known to us from the Gospels (or of any unknown one), but in fact makes no room for a life on earth at all? Here the child is snatched up to heaven immediately after birth, there presumably to await the appointed time when he would "rule all nations with an iron rod." The latter motif shows that this child is to be identified with End-time messianic expectation, but there is no suggestion that he had or would be destined for an incarnated life on earth prior to that time. Indeed, since this is part of a document prophesying what is to come, that birth from the woman robed with the sun is yet to take place; it is not something that has happened in the past.

Like many of the prophet's motifs, this one is fluid and allows for multiple applications. Some identify the woman as an ideal glorified Israel, as in the Zion that gives birth in Isaiah 66:7-8; others see in her the figure of Eve, as in Genesis 3:16. Hellenistic mythology is no doubt present, too, as in the myth of Isis with her newborn Horus fleeing the dragon Typhon, or the similar myth of Apollo and Leto. John the prophet was able to draw on a rich multi-cultural heritage for his highly charged imagery. But the telling point here is that the one heritage he fails to draw on is the Christian one itself, presuming that Christianity possessed by the end of the first century (Revelation is most often dated around 90 CE) some kind of tradition about a Jesus born of Mary, living a life and conducting a ministry some three-quarters of a century earlier. If it did, the writer would hardly fashion a scene which all of his readers would surely associate with that birth and life and yet leave out any suggestion of this child's sojourn on earth or the things he had performed there which directly related to his apocalyptic picture. This passage alone is sufficient to indicate that John the prophet knew of no historical Jesus.

And so John, like so many of the epistle writers, ends his work (22:20) with an appeal which rings throughout the earliest Christian record, echoed by Paul and others, an appeal to the Christ whom he knows solely through visions and revelations, to "Come, Lord Jesus!" This he cries in response to the Christ who has promised "Yes, I am coming soon!" Neither one of them conveys any sense that this coming one had been here already, recently and in the flesh.

That idea, unknown to the prophet John, lay on the immediate horizon.

To File No. 10: Appendix: 20 Arguable References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles
                      and Revelation

To File No. 11: Postscript

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