Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

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



1 Thessalonians

1 Thessalonians 2:2 - See "Top 20" #3

95. - 1 Thessalonians 2:4

But God has approved us as fit to be entrusted with the Gospel . . .
In the face of those who could claim that Jesus himself had appointed them to spread the gospel (as in Mt. 28:19), one would think that Paul would be anxious to appeal to his own appointment by Jesus, even if in a vision. Acts has the risen Jesus appear to Paul not only on the road to Damascus, but in the Temple (22:17-21), where he specifically instructs Paul: "Go, for I am sending you far away to the Gentiles." Yet Paul consistently (see #40: 1 Corinthians 1:1) speaks of his call to preach as one from God, and never gives any hint of the Damascus road legend found in Acts.

Quite apart from the contradiction with Acts, if Jesus were a force who had recently been on earth, choosing and sending out apostles to spread the gospel, one would expect a strong sense in the Pauline epistles that Jesus himself is the director of the movement and the one who does the calling, whether in the past in flesh or now in spirit. Paul conveys no sense of this whatever, either in relation to his own mission or that of others.

96. - 1 Thessalonians 2:12-13

12. . . to live lives worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory. 13This is why we thank God continually, because when we handed on God's message, you received it, not as the word of men, but as what it truly is, the very word of God at work in you who hold the faith. [NEB]
Following on the previous item, we can see once again just how pervasive is Paul's focus on God as the figure to whom he and the early Christian movement relate. Jesus is scarcely on the radar screen. As a mental experiment, try substituting the word "Jesus" everywhere the word "God" appears in the above quote, and ask yourself if that version does not convey the thinking and mode of expression we would expect to find in the early Christian record.

[ The verses immediately following these (14-16) abruptly switch to that focus on Jesus, for this is the passage which has been judged by most liberal scholars today to be a later insertion. It speaks of the Jews "who killed the Lord Jesus" and contains a reference to what is obviously the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened many years after Paul would have penned this letter. (See my Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus? for a full examination of this passage.) Exactly where the insertion starts is uncertain. Some include verse 14 in the interpolation, others begin it only at verse 15. This passage is also addressed in the Appendix.]

97. - 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8

7For God called us to holiness, not to impurity. 8Anyone therefore who flouts these rules is flouting not man, but God who bestows upon you his Holy Spirit. [NEB]
Paul again speaks of God calling the believer to a life of holiness, where we might expect Jesus' own ministry to have been regarded as doing just that. Verse 8 reminds us (and ought to have reminded Paul) of Jesus' own saying in Luke 10:16: "Whoever rejects me, rejects the one who sent me." In fact, the parallel demonstrates how moral admonitions that were earlier set in the context of God's will and teaching, are in the Gospels transferred to the figure of Jesus. That principle is even more evident in the following verse (next item, in "Top 20"), in which Paul declares that "you yourselves are taught by God to love one another."

1 Thessalonians 4:9 - See "Top 20" #4

98. - 1 Thessalonians 4:14

We believe that Jesus died and rose again. [NEB, NIV]
A plain statement by Paul that both the death and the rising of Jesus are matters of faith, not historical events that were witnessed and remembered. As such, it fits Paul's declaration of his basic gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, that Jesus had died, was buried and raised, all of it derived from the scriptures (kata tas graphas) through revelation (the verb paralambano in verse 3), not from historical tradition. These "events" took place in myth, as revealed by scripture, not on earth in recent history. As such, they were like the salvation myths of the other savior gods of the time. See my Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paul's Gospel.

99. - 1 Thessalonians 5:2

For you know perfectly well that the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night.
One of Jesus' most memorable sayings about the anticipated End-time, as found in Matthew 24:43 and Luke 21:34 (from Q), uses the 'coming of the thief in the night' image in relation to the Son of Man. Despite Paul's profound focus on the imminent End throughout his letters, he shows no knowledge of any saying of Jesus on the subject, or even that Jesus had been an apocalyptic prophet (as in Mark 13). Nor does he ever use the term Son of Man, in relation to Jesus or any other context. Other epistle writers show the same ignorance.

[ It is anomalies like this which help discredit the claim that some or all of the Gospels were written before the Jewish War, even in the 40s or 50s. If such writings were indeed contemporaneous with Paul, recording language and traditions that were circulating at the time about Jesus' teachings and activities, it becomes difficult to comprehend how Paul could have been ignorant of them or chosen to ignore them. Rather, the Son of Man, to judge by all the documents in which he appears, seems to have been a phenomenon restricted to the second half of the 1st century, perhaps even post-Jewish War, a peculiar reading and application of the phrase in Daniel 7 which had a brief moment of popularity in certain Christian and Jewish circles and died out by the end of the century. ]

100. - 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15

14You must live at peace among yourselves. And we would urge you, brothers, to admonish the careless, encourage the faint-hearted, support the weak, and to be very patient with them all. 15See to it that no one pays back wrong for wrong, but always aim at doing the best you can for each other and for all men. [NEB]
Passages like this are often claimed by scholars to contain "echoes" of Jesus' teachings. And so they do. What they do not contain is any suggestion that such things are attributed to him by the early Christians. Mark 9:50 has Jesus say: "Be at peace with one another." Verse 15 above echoes Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:39): "Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you." So many epistle passages such as this one inevitably conjure up Gospel scenes, images of the wandering sage, so that we cannot help but surround them in our own reading with the atmosphere of the preaching Jesus. And yet not one of these early writers is similarly affected, not even to the extent of giving us a simple "as Jesus himself taught."

2 Thessalonians

101. - 2 Thessalonians 1:7

. . . when our Lord Jesus Christ is revealed [at the revelation of, apokalupsei] from heaven with his mighty angels in blazing fire.
     Another example of the impression created by all references to the anticipated arrival of the divine Christ from heaven. Not only is there no suggestion that he has recently been here already, the language used is consistently that of revelation, an uncovering of that (namely, Jesus Christ himself) which has previously been hidden, unknown and unseen. (See "Top 20" #17: 1 Corinthians 1:7-8.)

1 Timothy

102. - 1 Timothy 1:10-11 (cf. 6:3, 2 Timothy 1:13, 4:3, Titus 1:9, 2:1)

10. . . and whatever else is contrary to the wholesome teaching which conforms with the gospel entrusted to me, 11the gospel which tells of the glory of God in his eternal felicity.
In six places in the Pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), the writer uses the phrase "wholesome (or sound) teachings," referring to the moral behavior he is enjoining upon the readers. In five of these, there is no indication as to where such teaching comes from. In fact, here on its first appearance the writer, speaking as Paul, says that such teaching is part of the gospel entrusted to him, something which Paul has regularly told us came from God through revelation. Here, too, he intimates that the gospel is God's message about his own plans and the benefits he is bestowing on the world at the present time (cf. Titus 2:11).

The missing thought is obvious: that it was Jesus himself, when on earth, who was the source of this teaching. Thus, in the one passage where such an idea actually appears, it jumps out at us. Moreover, it does so in a way that seems suspicious. 1 Timothy 6:3 reads:

If anyone is teaching otherwise, and will not give his mind to wholesome preceptsthose of our Lord Jesus Christand to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. [NEB/NIV]
The phrase between the dashes looks very much like a later scribal notation made in the margin and subsequently inserted into the body. The word "those" (tois) is redundant and would not likely have been written if part of the original text. The phrase also carelessly fails to cover the succeeding thought, "and to godly teaching," which we would expect to be included in the things the original writer would have wanted to attribute to Jesus.

In any case, if the phrase in question was a part of the original text, it need imply no more than that the "teaching" is considered to be revealed directly from the spiritual Christ in heaven, in much the same sense as Paul's "words of the Lord" are now regarded.

103. - 1 Timothy 2:8

It is my desire, therefore, that everywhere prayers be said by the men of the congregation who shall lift up their hands with a pure intention, excluding angry or quarrelsome thoughts. [NEB]
To say prayers without anger toward one's neighbor: clearly, the writer is unaware of Jesus' own admonitions about such a situation, as in Mark 11:25: "And when you stand praying, if you have a grievance against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you the wrongs you have done." Compare also Matthew 5:23-4.

104. - 1 Timothy 3:16

This is one of the christological hymns imbedded in the Pauline letters, poetic pieces of liturgy that were probably the product of the earliest groups of Christian believers in the divine Son. The writer introduces it with these words: "And great beyond all question is the mystery of our religion:"

Here, the starting point for the hymnist is the divine Son in heaven, one who descended and was exalted back to heaven in glory. Another reflection of the Descending-Ascending redeemer motif found also in Philippians 2:6-11. Not only is there no specific reference to a life on earth, there is no glimmer of the character of Jesus of Nazareth. The opening phrase may refer to a revelation of the Son to or in "the sphere of the flesh" (see my discussion of Romans 1:3 in Article No. 8, Christ As "Man", based on C.K. Barrett's suggested translation of kata sarka). The deity in this hymn was seen by angels, but apparently not by humans. He was proclaimed among the nations, but apparently did no proclaiming himself. Nor is there any sign of the physical resurrection from the tomb, a dramatic moment that should surely not have been passed over, and which should have been seen as a greater "mystery" than any other. The term "mystery" itself conveys, and is usually applied to, something which is the object of revelation, an interpretation of sacred texts, or a mystical understanding.

105. 1 Timothy 4:1

The Spirit says expressly that in after times some will desert from the faith and give their minds to subversive doctrines inspired by devils . . .  [NEB]
By the time we reach the period of the Pastoral epistles (early 2nd century), Christians were beginning to hedge on predictions that the End was near, and allow for the possibility that the "appearance" of Christ Jesus was not just around the corner.  But predictions about the nature and signs of the End-time are a recurring theme in almost all the New Testament epistles, as in this verse of 1 Timothy.

The Gospels indicate that an important element of Jesus preaching was apocalyptic: describing and predicting the coming end (or transformation) of the world.  Even had he not said much, or even anything, on the subject, the preoccupation of Christian communities with this dramatic looming event would inevitably have led to imputing to Jesus many sayings and predictions on the matter.  (The second layer of Q is generally interpreted on this principle.)

And yet the writer of 1 Timothy attributes the prediction that false prophets will seduce many to abandon the true doctrine, not to Jesus but to the Spirit sent from God, again showing that even in the early 2nd century, Christian communities still functioned by revelation and had no concept of apostolic tradition, the idea of teachings passed on through a chain of transmission ultimately going back to Jesus himself.  There is no mention here that Jesus himself had predicted this very thing.  Mark 13:22-3, in the midst of a great apocalyptic description of what will come to pass, has Jesus say: "Imposters will come claiming to be Messiahs or prophets, and they will produce signs and wonders to mislead Gods chosen.  But you be on your guard; I have forewarned you of it all."  To a man, the epistle writers have forgotten such words and predictions, for never do they attribute a single apocalyptic saying to an historcal preaching Jesus.  (Cf. Jude 17, 2 Peter 2:1, 3:2.)

106. - 1 Timothy 4:4

For everything that God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected when it is taken with thanksgiving . . .
The writer is here referring in part to food, having condemned (in the previous verse) those who forbid the eating of certain foods. This, according to the Gospels, was one of Jesus' most important reforms, the suspension of the oppressive dietary laws of Judaism. Paul himself and the writer of the epistle of Barnabas (chapter 10) are others who are very concerned with abandoning or discrediting those dietary laws, yet not one of these letter writers appeals to Jesus' own teaching on the matter, as 'recorded' in a passage like Mark 7:18: " 'Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean? . . .' Thus, he declared all foods clean."

107. - 1 Timothy 4:10

For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. [NASB]
A particularly glaring example of the pervasive theocentric focus of early Christian expression. God is the center of their hopes, their devotion, their thanks. The Savior title is applied as much to him as to Christ. In a movement supposedly begun in response to a human Jesus and incarnated Son, this degree of theocentricity seems off-kilter. But when we view early Christianity as a faith system in which it is God who has revealed the existence and role of a hitherto unknown Son whose salvific acts have taken place in the mythical world, the focus on God and the balance between the two as Savior figures falls into place.

108. - 1 Timothy 5:18

For Scripture says: 'A threshing ox shall not be muzzled'; and 'the worker deserves his wages.'
On the surface, we have here a saying from scripture (Deuteronomy 25:4), and a saying of the Gospel Jesus (Luke 10:7). And yet, the wording implies that the second quotation is also from scripture, a term which is not likely to have been applied to the Gospel of Luke this early in the second century, when the Pastorals were written. If, as most claim, the writer is not identifying the second quote as scriptural but as a saying of Jesus, why does he not specify that? Why does he identify the source of the first quotation and leave out the proper attribution of the second? More than likely, the second is taken from some writing now lost, and like so much else, ended up in Jesus' mouth under the pen of the evangelists.

J. C. O'Neill (The Theology of Acts, p.9, n.1) comments: "The quotation of the saying, 'The labourer deserves his wages' in 1 Tim. 5:18 may be taken from Luke 10:7, but it is strange that the one saying of Jesus to be quoted in the Pastorals, and to be quoted as Scripture, should look so much like a common saying put into the Lord's mouth in Luke."

109. - 1 Timothy 6:14-15

I charge you to obey your orders irreproachably and without fault until our Lord Jesus Christ appears. That appearance God will bring to pass in his own good time, God who in eternal felicity alone holds sway. [NEB]
This is another passage looking forward to an appearance by Christ which lacks any sense that he had appeared before. But there is also a certain lack of conviction that Jesus is his own agent, that he has a separate character and ability to act independent of God.

I have remarked before on the curious and pervasive theocentricity of the epistles, something we should not expect if the movement began as an explosive reaction to a charismatic human man. Yet it is undeniable that early Christian writers seem never to present their Jesus as a strong, independent figure, clearly distinct from God. Often God and Jesus are spoken of in the same breath, like two sides of a single coin (e.g., Jude 4). Both are viewed as divine, heavenly beings. Things are done by God through Jesus, rather than spoken of as done directly by Jesus himself. As noted above, it is frequently God who is Savior, a title we would tend to think of as reserved for Jesus.

Scholars call this a "fluid application." In discussing certain passages in the epistles, they regularly disagree over who is meant by a given reference, such as the title "Lord." Is it Jesus or God? Is Jesus actually called "God" in a number of places (e.g., Romans 9:5 and Titus 2:13)? Are commandments said to come from God or from Christ? (This is a source of confusion in 1 John.) The functions of Father and Son do not seem to be clearly separated yet. There even seem to be passages where God is said to have suffered, an idea which proved a source of horror to later 2nd century Christians and declared heretical.

This ambiguity, the blurring of roles and personalities between Jesus and God which scholars often remark on, is understandable once one accepts that Jesus is not a distinct historical person whom people had experienced and remembered, but a theoretical entity, something one has derived from scripture under the influence of ideas current in religious philosophy. He is an emanation of God, an intermediary force, part of the workings of Divinity, all of it located in the supernatural realm. This manifestation of God is in the process of being defined, being clarified in the minds of writers like Paul. Once we get to the era of the Gospels, which have turned this vague intermediary divine Christ-force into an historical man, Christian writers have a flesh and blood Jesus before their eyes, and they no longer have a problem in referring to him in a distinct manner, allotting to him all the powers and personality of a concrete figure.

110. - 1 Timothy 6:16

He [God] alone possesses immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light. No man has ever seen or ever can see him. [NEB]
Again, if Jesus had been a man on earth, with his own character and personality and life history, and had been given the lofty status of divinity such as we find in passages like Colossians 1:15-20, then he too would have been regarded as a distinct entity from God and as possessing his own immortality. And if Jesus had been a man recently on earth, one who had in fact seen and come from God, it does not seem likely that the writer would have made the second statement above, at least not without some qualification.

2 Timothy

111. - 2 Timothy 1:9-10

. . . in the strength that comes from God. 9It is he who brought us salvation and called us to a dedicated life, not for any merit of ours but of his own purpose and his own grace, which was granted to us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, 10but has now at length been brought fully into view by the appearance (on earth) of our Savior Jesus Christ. For he has broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. [NEB]
Once again, the writer focuses on God as the agent of salvation, not Jesus. This passage is extremely important from a number of points of view, and I deal with it extensively in my book. Let me quote a couple of paragraphs from that discussion:

"First of all, the NEB's gratuitous 'on earth' does not appear in the Greek. Then note the phrase (verse 10) '...brought fully into view by the appearance of . . .' This is actually two revelation words, the verb phaneroo and the noun epiphaneia. The latter can signify the intervention or manifestation of a god, with no human incarnation involved. What the sentence is really saying, then, is that God's purpose and grace have been revealed by the revelation of the Savior Jesus Christ. No life on earth there.

"Then consider what follows. The 'he' of the last sentence refers to the Savior. But what has this Savior done? He has broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light (yet another revelation word)how?through the gospel. The writer does not say that Christ at his 'appearance' has overcome death and brought immortal life through his own deeds, performed during his sojourn on earth. Instead, these things were accomplished 'through the gospel.' " That gospel is the one Paul preaches, as verse 11 goes on to make clear, a gospel he derived from the scriptures.

The discussion in the book then goes on to analyze the key phrase "granted to us in Christ Jesus from all eternity," demonstrating that the meaning of "from all eternity" (pro chronon aionion) places Christ's redeeming act in a higher, timeless Platonic dimension. (See also Part Two of the Main Articles: Who Was Christ Jesus?)

112. - 2 Timothy 3:14-15

14You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom (tinon, plural) you have learned them; 15and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. [NASB]
The writer has been speaking of living "a godly life as Christians," and here he goes on to allude to the source of that morality. He refers to unnamed teachers or community leaders from whom his readers have learned these things; he refers to the scriptures which contain words of wisdom about what must be believed and followed to gain salvation. But he cannot bring himself to mention Jesus himself as the ultimate source of any of these teachings. This is clearly not a question of whether there is a "need" to tell the readers what they already know; in fact he tells them what they already know in the things he does say. Rather, this profound silence on any mention of Jesus the teacher, the source of Christian ethics and enlightenment, can only lead to one conclusion.


Titus 1:2-3 - See "Top 20" #7

113. - Titus 2:11-13

11For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12It teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13while we wait for the blessed hopethe glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. [NASB/NIV]
How does the writer, speaking as Paul, characterize the present time when salvation has arrived? What Christian would not say that this great turning point in history was marked by the advent of Christ on earth, teaching and performing his acts of salvation? Instead, he can only speak of it in terms of "the grace of God dawning upon the world" (to use the NEB's poetic translation).

Is this a metaphorical reference to Jesus himself? Some commentators would like to suggest so, though this seems an interpretation born of desperation. And all translations of the succeeding phrase render the idea in the neuter: "It teaches us . . ." Moreover, the rest of the passage above creates a jarring anomaly. The grace of God has taught us how to live, while we wait for the appearance of the Savior. If we were to substitute for the grace of God the idea of Jesus working on earth, teaching how to live (and how could such an image not be in the writer's mind?), his return to the similar idea of coming to earth after the interim waiting period would inevitably require an expression of the concept of "return," of coming back. We never get such an expression. Rather, the whole atmosphere of these verses is that the anticipated appearance of the Savior on earth will be his first time here.

God calls and reveals, apostles preach, people believe and wait, the Savior comes. Such was the pattern of the early Christian faith movementuntil the Gospels came along.

114. - Titus 3:4-6

4But when the kindness and love of God our Savior dawned upon the world, then, not for any good deeds of our own, but because he was merciful, 5he saved us through the water of rebirth and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, 6whom [i.e., the Holy Spirit] he [God] poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. [NEB/NIV]
Once again, as in Titus 2:11, the present time is characterized as the "dawning upon the world of the kindness and love of God, not the incarnation of Jesus bestowing such things in his own right and person. How has God "saved" in the present time? Through the baptismal rite and the power of the Spirit, two things 'Paul' focuses on as features of the early Christian apostolic movement: sacrament and revelation. The final verse might be claimed to refer to Jesus' own career as the channel of that Spirit. But not only would this be a rather restrictive characterization of what Jesus had done on earth, the thought accords much better with the interpretation of Paul's Jesus Christ as a spiritual force now active in the world, serving as a channel through which God makes himself known and bestows his benefits. (For a fuller discussion of that ubiquitous Pauline phrase "in, or through, Christ" see Part Two of the Main Articles: Who Was Christ Jesus?)

To File No. 7: The Epistle to the Hebrews

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