Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

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



(Including a response to J. P. Holding's rebuttal essay to The Sound of Silence)

The kind of pervasive silence on the Gospel character and events found in the early Christian record would, in any other discipline or field of research, inevitably produce a self-evident conclusion. That a dozen different writers in over two dozen documents, representing Christian communities spread over half an empire and more than half a century, concerned with describing and defending their faith, ethics and practice, their christology and soteriology, engaged in disputes on a variety of issues that were critical to the success and survival of the movement, would nevertheless fail to mention—even by chance—a single element which would enable us to clearly identify the beginnings of their religion and the object of their worship with the man and events recounted in the Gospels, is a situation that allows for only one deduction: that early Christianity knows of no such man or events.

I have demonstrated that certain human-sounding features, of which there are a handful in the epistles, do not provide this identification. Mythical savior gods active in higher-world or primordial settings regularly possessed such features, and the principles of Platonic parallelism between the material and the spiritual realms readily explain such thinking. "Born of woman" and being "of David's stock" are, as well, ideas that are determined by scripture and do not, in any case, tie Paul's Christ to the Gospel Jesus of Nazareth, recently on earth. Paul's "Lord's Supper" words might have come close, but his declaration that he got this information "from the Lord" shows that it is derived from personal revelation, ruling out historical tradition; close parallels with the sacred meals of the mystery cults put this scene into the realm of myth. 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 betrays clear evidence of later interpolation in its allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the mention of Pilate in 1 Timothy 6:13 is also suspicious, though being in a letter written in the first half of the second century, it may reflect a dawning of historical awareness which the earlier record so lamentably lacks. By any standard, this paucity of historical data, especially in view of the many opportunities within the early record to make clear reference to the man and events which are supposed to lie at the genesis of the faith, belie and destroy the myth of Christian beginnings.

But I have made all these points before. My task is now to bring such conclusions home in a new Postscript to the Sound of Silence which summarizes a feature two years in the making (mostly due to an intervening book) and which, to my knowledge, may be the fullest and most effective analysis ever published of the silence on the Gospel Jesus in the early Christian record. How to do it? Fortunately, a solution is to hand, thanks to Mr. J. P. Holding (a pseudonym) who, understandably impatient with the slow pace of my aural investigation, recently addressed the unfinished feature with a short essay on his Tekton Ministries web site, entitled "The Argument from (Epistolary) Silence Delineated." In this, he attempted to slay the Silence Monster by reviewing and to some extent enlarging on an argument he had used in earlier rebuttal essays to my views. (See "Special Items" at the head of the Reader Feedback section, with link included.) But his latest effort succeeds no better than his earlier ones, and in fact provides a ready opportunity for me to summarize and bring home the principles embodied in the Sound of Silence and to demonstrate that no explanation is sufficient to account for the void on the Gospel story found in the earliest record of the Christian religion.

I will address, point by point, Holding's rebuttal of my 200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles. Leaving aside his introductory paragraph and a few incidental remarks along the way, his text will appear in italics, interrupted by my own comments in response.

It is well to begin by reminding the reader of two things. First, no amount of "silence" is enough to disprove the existence of Jesus, or the non-historicity of ANY person. Second, the mere number of examples offered is meaningless. If all 200 are off the mark, then 200 times zero is still zero; and this is all the more likely because we are not really dealing with 200 arguments, but far less, since many of the cites use the same basic arguments - so that, rather than 200 objections, one might actually say that there are less than a dozen (to be generous). . . .

To address Mr. Holding's opening point, I have not sought to "disprove" the existence of Jesus, in the sense of offering a mathematical or scientifically unassailable conclusion. That would be unrealistic. Historical research is neither mathematics nor laboratory science. I am seeking to persuade, to commend to the reasonable, unprejudiced person not locked into rigid confessional interests, that the evidence of the early Christian record strongly indicates that there was no historical Jesus. To produce that 'conviction of probability' is all one can hope to achieve—indeed, it is all one needs to achieve. My web site and my book The Jesus Puzzle ask the questions: "Was There No Historical Jesus?" and "Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?" If the average, reasonably open-minded reader answers to both questions: "It certainly looks that way," I will have accomplished the task, and those like Mr. Holding, who would never allow any amount or quality of evidence to compromise their personal beliefs, will continue to sputter from the sidelines, with nothing to be done about it.

As for Holding's own brand of mathematics, it suffers from some logical deficiencies. First of all, he has hardly demonstrated that "all 200 are off the mark," since he has not troubled to address any of them individually, let alone all 200. His further proviso, that there are only a certain number of basic arguments (he allows a dozen) is also undemonstrated. Even if I were to agree in principle with this claim, he would need to itemize these basic arguments and refute each one of them. Even this, however, would overlook an additional factor that comes into play, and is an essential part of my overall position. One example of a silence might be dismissed by postulating that in this particular instance, on this particular occasion, it may be reasonable to suppose that the writer felt no compelling need to include a Gospel reference, even if such a reference might have been natural. But as these individual examples mount up, reaching a number like 200, this line of argument becomes untenable. It's a little like flipping a coin. One toss of a head is perfectly reasonable. If 200 tosses produce 200 heads, something is wrong and an explanation must be sought. Also, I would have no objection if all 200 Missing References could be reduced to twelve basic types, though this is probably a low-end exaggeration. Still, even twelve is a substantial number to work with, and the fact that these twelve would be furthermore distributed throughout 200 separate examples brings that additional factor into play to an extent which Holding has not even begun to acknowledge or address.

The other dimension which he has entirely failed to acknowledge, let alone address, collectively or individually, are the silences I have labeled 'positive'—namely, those descriptions of the faith movement and the object of its worship, in which the epistle writers cast things in terms which allow no role for an historical Jesus or even clearly exclude such a figure. Romans 16:25-6, Colossians 2:2 and 1:26, Ephesians 3:5, 2 Corinthians 5:5, Titus 1:3 are only some of the more blatant examples of such startling and exclusionary silences, yet Holding (or any other apologist I have debated, for that matter) offers no plausible interpretation of them.

The No Need Principle

One of my key arguments regarding the "silence" of the epistle writers was that they do not mention certain details of Jesus' life (such as his birthplace and hometown) because there was no need to do so. As I put it:

Where is the NEED for any reference to such trivial details? What compelling interest would there have been? Ignatius had the specter of docetism hanging over him, and thus a need to refer to historical detail; in what context does Doherty suppose these things ought to have been mentioned by our other writers? Why should Ignatius or anyone else have mentioned Joseph in light of his "non-role" in the conception of Jesus? (He barely makes a cameo appearance in the Gospels and is not mentioned at all in Acts!) All that we have is Doherty's own inferred opinion that these details ought to have been included - yet there is not a shred of hard evidence to support such assertions.

I find it hard to believe that someone as intelligent and widely read as Mr. Holding obviously is can really consider this 'counter-argument' to be effective—indeed, to be anything other than an embarrassment. Most of his present essay is devoted to this "No Need" position, and I will follow his lead.

Let's consider a basic list (in no particular order) of those things which Holding considers to be "trivial." (I assume, though he refers above specifically to Bethlehem and Nazareth, that the 'triviality' applies to all the other things on which the first century epistle writers are equally silent.)

Trivial items relating to Jesus: the fact that he underwent a trial. That he was crucified on Calvary. That there was a tomb outside Jerusalem where he was buried and from which he emerged alive. That he had lived recently. That he worked miracles. That he raised people like Lazarus from the dead. That he taught an innovative moral code. That he had chosen disciples and appointed apostles. That he made apocalyptic predictions.

Holding asks what contexts would have existed for the epistle writers to refer to such things, either by accident or by design. Well, the 200 Silences feature has been at pains to supply 200 contexts in which such references might be expected to appear—at least some of the time. If 200 coins are flipped, we expect at least the occasional tails. This has nothing to do with "hard evidence." It is a matter of common sense and the laws of nature, including human ones. The Christian movement supposedly arose in response to a man who had undergone and been responsible for all the trivial elements and more listed above. The epistle writers are talking about the object of their worship, the beginnings and ongoing state of their faith movement, its internal struggles and external threats, and much more. Can anyone envision how so many writers talking about so many things in so many different documents and situations could so consistently and universally avoid mentioning something about the Gospel story and its central character?

Doherty makes some attempt to answer this charge [of the "no hard evidence"], but what emerges is little more than a restatement of his original argument, thusly:

"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."

This argument is utterly misplaced. True, some of us do insert things in our letters that our listeners are "familiar" with, but there are usually reasons for doing so. Since Doherty is apparently very unclear on this concept, let's return to the most fundamental basics of writing and communication and ask WHY a certain thing is usually mentioned when we are writing . . .

Before looking at the particular analogy Mr. Holding goes on to offer in support of his "no need" stance, let me again state the obvious. Holding points to it himself, but turns a blind eye to its solid applicability within my own position, which he is claiming to refute. One of the main points of the exercise in my Sound of Silence feature is to demonstrate the "reasons for doing so." To offer just a few examples: If an epistle writer is arguing for the feasibility and reliability of the dead being raised, there is clearly reason—and compelling reason—to refer to the traditions about Jesus having raised the dead to life, or even to his Gospel promises that the dead will be raised, as proof that such a thing is possible and can be anticipated. Neither Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 nor the writer of 1 Clement (24, 26) calls upon such proofs. If the authority and reliability of rival apostles is in contention, there is surely good reason for one side or the other to make an appeal to personal appointment by Jesus himself or to apostles appointed by him (the concept of apostolic tradition)—or to call attention to the lack of such a thing—and for the other side to have to take this into account. If a writer is arguing in the face of contrary opinion that there is no such thing as an unclean food, there is very good reason—again, a compelling one—to refer to Jesus' own teaching on this matter, regardless of whether the reader might be expected to be familiar with it. In such debates as these, the writer would have the strongest natural inclination to make such an appeal to Jesus' own precedent and authority, regardless of whether his audience was familiar with it—again, at least some of the time. This is all only common sense, based on knowledge of human nature and practice.

Whether he realizes it or not, Holding's analogy works against him:

My wife was born in Granite City, Illinois -- a hardworking steel town across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. I have just told you this basic fact for the first time. Now that you know this, why would I need to ever tell you about it again? Here are some possible reasons:

1. You have forgotten, and it shows. Perhaps you didn't consider it important enough to remember. That's quite all right, but I won't know that you've forgotten unless you come up with some absurd comment like, "Hey, I was in your wife's hometown the other day. We went to see Disneyland." Now at that point I can guess that you seem to have forgotten that my wife's hometown was Granite City and not LA -- either that, or you have mistaken the St. Louis Arch for something that it isn't. Either way, your error gives me a reason to correct you and say, "No, it was Granite City she was born in. I told you that! What kind of drugs are you taking?" (We'll also include in this area the possibility that I have forgotten that I told you.)

2. You want to argue about it. For whatever reason, you think I'm lying. Or wrong. Or you just don't believe it. Or someone told you my wife was born in Kokomo, Indiana. Whatever the case, if there is some doubt about it, then I have reason to bring up the subject again.

3. A change in circumstances, an update, or a correction. OK -- let's suppose the unlikely event that my wife lied to me these past 15 years I've known her, as did her mother, and her family, and they even forged a birth certificate that I've seen that says "Granite City" on it. I find out she was actually born in Tacoma. So I may say to you, "I told you once my wife was born in Granite City. Well, she was actually born in Tacoma." Such an admission of course might follow upon an incident like #2 above, but it might also occur independently. (Similarly, if we once lived in Cheyenne, but moved to St. Paul, we might say, "We moved from Cheyenne to St. Paul." But more likely I'd just say, "We moved to St. Paul" and assume you knew it was from Cheyenne.)

Mr. Holding asks, "Why would I ever need to tell you about it again?" and goes on to offer some theoretical reasons, without realizing (apparently) that these reasons are exactly like some of those I appeal to in my own position. If Jesus had taught that all foods are clean and yet this was still an issue in the early Christian community, do we not have to assume that Paul's detractors have "forgotten" that fact? If Jesus himself had pronounced on the question and everyone remembered it, why was there any dispute? Why would Paul's rivals "want to argue about it," which they clearly did? If they thought he was "lying" or "wrong," which they must have, then Paul need merely have pointed to Jesus' own teachings and that would have settled the issue. Case closed. Here would have been a compelling reason to refer to something which presumably all Christians should have known, even if from the look of it they apparently did not.

Let's review this point in more formal logical terms: Those debates in the Christian community did exist. Therefore, (a) Jesus did not pronounce on such things, in which case the Gospels are wrong; or (b) he did, but not everyone knew this, in which case we can conclude that there was a natural and compelling necessity to remind people of what he said. In that case, if the epistle writers consistently fail to do that reminding, we are led to conclude the strong likelihood that they know of no such teaching by Jesus.

Another factor I have referred to in the main feature needs to be repeated in this context. If Jesus had been a prominent teacher, pronouncing on all manner of behavioral concerns, and everyone knew this, there would have been a strong tendency where disputed issues were involved to place pronouncements on such issues in his mouth. (We see this in the Gospels at every turn.) The fact that the epistle writers never do this leads us to conclude the strong possibility that they know of no teaching Jesus.

"A change in circumstances." To judge by the extant record, the Christian movement was a sprawling, uncoordinated one covering half the empire in small communities. Why should anyone presume that everything to do with the Gospel story and the life and death details of Jesus of Nazareth would be known by every Christian soul in all these places, only a couple of decades after his passing? Why would we assume that the myriad oral traditions about Jesus' career had reached all these people in equal amounts? And in ways and through agents that every Christian apostle would regard as thorough and reliable? That would be a highly unrealistic expectation. If Paul is writing to groups recently converted to the Christ—whether by himself or by an apostle like Apollos—is it feasible to expect they would already know every detail about Jesus? Every teaching, every miracle, every prediction? Of course not. Why would writers and apostles like Paul not treat their correspondence as another natural and convenient way of relaying oral traditions about Jesus to their audiences and converts, to ensure that they would become familiar with them, especially in situations where it would be advantageous to refer to such things? Holding's analogy fails on just about every count.

He goes on to focus his analogy on the question of the "need" to mention Bethlehem, and perhaps he has indeed chosen an example of something for which there was never really a clear occasion in any piece of Christian writing outside the Gospels to mention Jesus' birth place. However, I include that element as part of a larger silence on any of the places of Jesus' life: birth, youth, ministry, death and resurrection. The place of Jesus' birth simply joins a long line of sites on which the early writers are totally silent: Bethlehem, Galilee and its towns and villages, Jerusalem itself in connection with Jesus, Calvary as the very hill of salvation, and the empty tomb nearby—none of which seem of the slightest interest to early Christians as holy places or sites of pilgrimage. There may have been "no need" to visit such locations, but does it make sense that no one would, that no one would betray any sign in their correspondence that such places existed?

Of course, Holding's argument, to have any validity, must apply equally to all the pieces of data about Jesus' life, not just his birthplace, and indeed he goes on to declare:

Similar arguments, adjusted for data type, could be made about every single instance of lacking information that Doherty proposes. He can repeat his arguments in different words and multiply examples until the end of time, but that will not alter one bit the fact that there was simply no NEED for any of these details to be mentioned...and unless he can explain why there was a need when we get to specific examples, his arguments remain a chimera.

I don't think I need to belabor the point that this is a vast overstatement, lacking logical foundation, and completely discredited by the 200 "specific examples" I have provided.

This applies not, however, to another type of data, quotations of or allusions to the words of Jesus -- which Doherty seems to mix together with the above data-type. In the very next sentence he writes:

"Moreover, 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."

I have already addressed this matter and Doherty provides absolutely no reply to it. If adding the superfluous words "as Jesus himself said" adds "support" to the views of the epistle writers, then why did they absolutely never offer an attribution for allusions from the OT, and only sometimes from direct quotes from the OT? Surely to have added words like, "as David said" (Israel's greatest king!) or "as Solomon said" (reputedly the wisest man ever to have lived!) would have added "support" to whatever point the epistle writers were making, or done "honor" to the person who said or wrote it! In fact Doherty has anachronistically assumed a 20th-century citation and authority structure upon a time and place where such did not exist. That authors like Josephus freely used material from other writers without regular citation, for example, strongly suggests that the authority was held not in the person that said the thing, but in the thing itself. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that most quotes were made from memory, so that citation was not an ingrained habit as it is in today's scholarly papers. But whatever the social reason, it is irrelevant: The data shows that allusions required no introductory formula, and that direct quotes required no name attached to make them authoritative. Unless Doherty can explain why there is a difference in the methods of citation, his argument here also remains a chimera.

Again, Mr. Holding appeals to rationalizations which do not stand up to closer scrutiny. The early writers, including those of the Gospels, are constantly making attribution for their allusions to scripture. They either call attention to the fact that they are from scripture, or use the formulaic phrase, "as it is written." Often they say such things as "according to the scriptures" or "as spoken by the prophets," etc. While they may not always name specific books or Old Testament figures (though they certainly do a few times), this still constitutes an attribution. It is precisely the appeal to venerable authority as embodied in the sacred writings which is missing in the quotation of teachings and predictions supposedly spoken by Jesus but lacking any identification as such.

Moreover, there is a significant difference in the case of Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth was supposedly the founder of the movement, he was supposedly the man for whom many believers surrendered their Jewish heritage, their sensibilities about monotheism, their prohibitions against associating humans and human images with God. This status for Jesus far outranks any need or desire to attribute an appeal in scripture to the specific figure of Isaiah or Solomon or David. On the other hand, Holding skims over the fact that Paul does appeal to the words of David, which he directly identifies as such: in Romans 4:6 and 11:9; as does Hebrews in 4:7. Hebrews, like 1 Clement, also appeals to 'words' of Christ, showing that such writers are interested in Jesus' voice, but where do they derive that voice? Not from the teachings of Jesus on earth, but from scripture, from passages found in the sacred writings which are interpreted as the heavenly Son himself speaking.

As for Josephus—an historian who might have had a personal interest in not making it look like he is dependent for his information on all and sundry—he would hardly have regarded his sources with the same veneration as Christians should be expected to have held for Jesus. Holding's attempted comparison with 20th century scholarly publication practices is also strained and hardly pertinent. Jesus' sayings are presumably circulated through oral tradition precisely because they are his product, not because they have some independent worth which makes their source superfluous. At the very least, Jesus' own name attached to critical doctrines and practices would have added a whole other dimension of authority, making a consistent non-attribution to him incomprehensible. The early Christians are not engaged in some scholarly pursuit; they are preaching—and suffering for—the teachings and actions of a man whom they believe to be divine and the agent of salvation. Citation and the appeal to Jesus' own authority would have been natural and highly motivated. We would expect to encounter such appeals at least some of the time. And whether quotes were made from memory or not, no one would have lost sight of the figure they had come from.

Finally, Holding attempts a parallel between what the early Christian correspondence tells us about Jesus and what it tells us about Paul:

His next point also misses the mark:

"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."

This is very interesting. Now let's offer this parallel:

If we were to rely entirely on the early Christian correspondence, we would know virtually nothing about the Paul of Tarsus portrayed in Acts. We would not know where he was born or who his teacher was. We would not even know the city he lived in. We would be ignorant of the names of his parents, where he grew up, where he preached other than the churches he writes to.

Now of course this is not entirely true about Paul: We do know many things about him from his letters. But there are many things that only Acts tells us. And if Paul had not had to defend himself from charges leveled against him (as he did in Galatians and the Corinthian correspondence), how much would we know about him? It is only Luke who tells us about Tarsus and Gamaliel, and about Paul's work as a tentmaker and identity as a Roman citizen. We don't even get the names of Paul's parents, although in Judaism the father/son relationship was extremely important! We see that Paul's details about his own life are brought out under the rubric of two of our three conditions above -- and where does this relate to Jesus? It has no application.

Well, the distinction should be obvious. Jesus was the object—presumably—of universal Christian worship. He was God come to earth. The deeds he did in his life, the teachings and apocalyptic predictions he gave, the miracles he performed in support of those teachings, the events of his redemptive crucifixion on Calvary and resurrection from a nearby tomb, were the basis of the entire faith movement—supposedly. To find no mention of all these things within virtually the whole body of early Christian writings outside the Gospels is vastly more significant than finding few biographical details about an apostle of that figure, Paul of Tarsus. In the latter case, truly, there was little or no need for Paul himself or anyone else to give us those things. They bore no relevance to what Paul was doing, or to the Christian movement as a whole. No one was preaching the human Paul as a divinity, no one looked to him as the source of some innovative ethics, no one was worshiping or starting a religious movement around him. Indeed, most other Christian writers of the period show no knowledge of Paul whatsoever, indicating that his work and influence was far more limited and piecemeal than Acts portrays. One reference we do find to Paul, in 1 Clement 5, illustrates that when a writer has an occasion to speak of the human apostle's life and actions as an example of a point he is making, we do get such a reference. This is in sharp contrast to the void on all mention of the earthly Jesus in situations where those early writers would have had natural and often compelling occasion to do the same.

The early writers had absolutely no reason to mention where Jesus was born or when, what era he lived in, the names of his parents, where he grew up, where he preached, that he performed miracles or had it out with the Jewish leadership, and so on. It is all superfluous data, out of context for all that the early writers write, unless one of the three constraints above comes into play -- and there is not a scrap of evidence that any of them did!

Absolutely no reason . . . superfluous data . . . out of context. Mr. Holding is clearly in a state of denial, one which has led him and many others to make the most untenable claims and rationalizations about the great void on the Gospel Jesus in the early Christian record. Listening to the Sound of Silence has more than amply demonstrated that both reason and context abound in the epistles and non-canonical documents of the first century, and that the only thing superfluous is the Gospel story itself, when attempts are made to impose it on the very different and self-sufficient world of earliest Christianity.

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