DID JESUS EVEN EXIST - PART 2

26-Sept-2015


Earlier (July 8) I posted about Richard Carrier and the evidence he has offered, in books and lectures, to support the claim that the Jesus of the Bible never existed. I want to continue in that vein by citing the principal points made by Earl Doherty in his book, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man -- The Case For A Mythical Jesus.

Doherty packs a lot of scholarship and research behind his arguments. He is fluent in ancient Greek, so he can read the New Testament in its original words and analyze (and sometimes correct) the English interpretations of the text. He has read, it seems, everything prominent Bible scholars have ever written on the subject of the history of Christianity. He has read the many texts from two thousand or more years ago that relate to Bible themes but never made it into the canonical Bible. He knows all of the prevailing religious beliefs, sects, and cults in the centuries around the founding of Christianity. And he puts all of that knowledge together in making a compelling case for Jesus as a purely invented figure -- not an exaggeration of a man who lived two thousand years ago, but a symbol embodying the beliefs of a religious movement who never existed at all, any more than Uncle Sam, the symbol of America, ever actually lived.

I can't possibly do justice to Doherty's work in summary. In the amount of space I want to take here I can only give the barest outline.

The New Testament basically consists of two parts (not counting the bizarre book of Revelation, placed at the very end): (1) The four Gospels (with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John given as authors, though, as many Bible scholars have stated, if those were the actual names of the authors it would only be coincidence), which give the biography of Jesus, recounting his teachings, his "miracles," and his execution on the cross by Pontius Pilate at the insistence of local Jewish authorities -- and, of course, his resurrection and the meaning of it; and (2) the Epistles, the letters written by the Apostles (or which claim to be written by them, some of which are held by consensus of Bible scholars to be forgeries) during the years in which they traveled around the Middle East spreading the "gospel" -- not the written Gospels mentioned above, but simply the "word." (Between the Gospels and the Epistles is the Book of Acts of the Apostles, which is a little history of the beginnings of the spread of the Christian movement and is attributed in authorship to the same man who wrote the Gospel of Luke.) Gospel simply means "good news," in this case in reference to the news that Jesus, the son of God, would save us all from this terrible world and give us eternal life in a higher realm.

Many Christians are unaware of the consensus among Bible scholars that the Epistles (mostly) were written first, before the Gospels. Most of the Epistles are attributed to the indefatigable Paul of Tarsus, who wrote an endless stream of letters to the early Christian communities, encouraging and occasionally criticizing them. Paul died sometime around 67 CE ("Common Era," or "Christian Era," formerly called A.D.), and the best guesses as to when Paul's epistles were written dates them around the 50s or 60s CE. Among the Gospels, it is generally believed Mark was written first, and it is difficult to argue that the writing was done before around 70; Matthew and Luke, copied from Mark and another (lost) source called Q, and the Gospel of John, from a community referred to as the Johannines, were most likely written a decade or so on either side of 100.

Doherty begins his analysis with the Epistles, and points out that they are almost entirely lacking in any biographical details of Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus supposedly had lived no more than two or three decades earlier and his life and death supposedly put the spreading of the Word into motion. Doherty handles the very few exceptions to the above statement. Christians cite one bit of biographical information of Jesus in a letter by Paul: a passage in 1 Thessalonians (2:15-16), which speaks of Jews "who killed the Lord Jesus and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God's will and enemies of their fellow men, hindering us from preaching to the gentiles to lead them to salvation. All this time they have been making up the full measure of their guilt, and now retribution has overtaken them for good and all." The problem is that the violently anti-Jewish sentiment in those verses attributing the death of Jesus to Jews is totally unlike anything Paul ever said anywhere else about the Jews (of whom he was one), but it was extremely representative of Christian attitudes towards Jews in the mid-2nd century, a hundred years after Paul's death; and more to the point, no Bible scholar has been able to offer a believable case for what the "retribution... overtak[ing] them" could possibly have been referring to, the best guess being that it was the destruction of Jerusalem -- which happened years after Paul died. For these reasons, many scholars have concluded that these verses are an "interpolation," added to the text many years later by an anti-Jewish priest or scribe, at a time when the supposed biography of Jesus was known and accepted by all Christians. There is no other reference anywhere in any of the Epistles to Jesus being killed by Jews. As for the other exception to the absence of biographical information for Jesus, it occurs in a letter believed to have been written early in the 2nd century (and not by Paul), thus failing to demonstrate that any biographical details of Jesus' life existed in the middle of the 1st.

Critics of Doherty's research have said that the absence of specific details is meaningless; that just because a writer didn't say something does not imply he didn't know it. Doherty responds that in many instances, the absence of the information is impossible to explain. When Paul, for example, writes to the members of one of the Christian communities he has visited to exhort them to stand fast against persecution, and gives them several role models to follow, prophets who had been killed for stating their beliefs and saying things the authorities did not want said, yet who had admirably remained true to their missions, it is impossible to explain why Paul didn't include Jesus himself on that list, other than to conclude that Paul did not see Jesus as having been killed by earthly authorities -- leaving a huge chasm between Paul's perception of Jesus and that of modern day Christians. And that is just one of several places in Paul's writings where the absence of a mention of the life of Jesus, in connection with whatever point Paul is trying to make, is inexplicable.

Paul, though, and the other Epistle writers, do say quite a lot about Jesus, mostly about his death and resurrection, and it is natural to wonder where that came from.

Doherty establishes that there is evidence, in the writings of various religious cults in operation at the time, that it was very common to think of our world, in which we go through our lives, as being one of many different planes of existence. Ours was seen the most "corrupt" of the planes, the one farthest from God. Between us and God come other planes, often believed to have specific locations in the heavens -- for example, the next plane above us is just below the Moon -- and on those planes, spiritual beings with greater purity than ourselves, such as the angels, live. (Beliefs in these spiritual domains often specified that there were a specific number of them, often seven, so that God dwelt in the "seventh heaven.") And it was also common among these cults to envision a "savior" figure, who lived in one of these mythical realms, who had died and arisen in a symbolic way, executed (sometimes by crucifixion) in one of the lower realms but not our own, thereafter rising back to the higher plane from which he had come, so that we humans could, like him, also rise to a higher plane after death, a plane less corrupt, less oppressive, and less miserable.

Everything Paul wrote in his letters to the churches and communities he was concerned with fits with the idea that Paul believed that Jesus, like these other salvation figures, had descended from a higher heaven to a lower one, above the plane of human existence, and that it was there that he was crucified and then conquered death by rising again. Again, Doherty is not just relying on an absence of evidence that Paul didn't believe that -- there are plenty of signs in his writings pointing to him having such beliefs. In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes a vision in which he "was caught up as far as the third heaven," verifying he did indeed conceive of the cosmos in that way; several times he says or suggests that Jesus' crucifixion took place before humanity even existed (as opposed to "twenty years or so ago" as one would have expected), and that it has only been revealed in Paul's time, as opposed to happening then; and the most interesting indication implying Paul's view of Jesus lacking any history of his walking the Earth as a man comes in his letter to the Galatians (1:11-12): "I want you to know, brethren, that the gospel [again, the "good news," not a written document] that I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Paul didn't think of Jesus as a man who had lived, who had given the message which eventually made its way through human channels to Paul: he denies any such source for the information he has been passing along. Rather, it came to him in a "revelation" without any human agency at all. Paul actually says that many times: that his knowledge of the arrangements God has made for the salvation of humanity come to him as a revelation through the Holy Spirit, which has given him visions and has shown him how to interpret scripture -- not from any record, oral or written, of what Jesus may have said on the subject.

So if Jesus, in the mid-first century, was seen as a being who had carried out God's will in a mythical realm, how did he get to have such a detailed biography -- born in Bethlehem in a stable, lived in Nazareth, traveled through Galilee preaching, executed by crucifixion outside Jerusalem, with a posse of followers with names and histories of their own, with specific things he said and did as he traveled, and so on? (None of those details is mentioned in the Epistles.)

Enter Mark.

Any belief that Mark, in writing his gospel, was working from information preserved by people who had known Jesus personally, runs up against several problems. The biggest is that there are no preserved Christian writings, either predating Mark or contemporary with him (and remember the Epistles are included in the writings predating Mark), that give any biographical information on Jesus whatsoever. There is no way to account for that. If Jesus was such a popular, transformative figure as Mark describes him (Jesus came to have huge crowds following him around), it is impossible that no one would have written anything about his life until Mark did, several decades after Jesus' death. Further: the specific details Mark gives of things Jesus did are almost entirely lifted from the Old Testament, in which those things were done by other people. Doherty believes that Mark did not, himself, intend for his invention of Jesus as a living man to be taken literally, as an actual biography: it appears that he meant it as an allegory, using Jesus (or that is, Yeshua, a Hebrew name that means "savior" or "to rescue," which eventually became Jesus in English) to represent the salvation beliefs of his community. To me, the most convincing evidence that Mark's gospel was meant as an allegory is that, as Doherty points out, Mark often invented names for his characters that described the roles they played, exactly as John Bunyan did in his classic 17th century allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. In the latter book, Bunyan's main character is named Christian, he meets men (appropriately) named Obstinate and Pliable, and so on. In Mark's gospel, characters include Judas, whose name simply means Jew; Jairus, whose daughter is awakened by Jesus, has a name meaning "he will awaken"; the name Bar-Timaeus, given to the blind beggar Jesus heals, means "son of poverty." (Luke also seems to have engaged in the same practice, giving a name to an almsgiver that means "to give alms.") But common, semi-literate people have a hard time with the metaphors of allegories, so if Mark meant for his book to be an allegory, it's not at all surprising simpler folk took his characters (including his main character Jesus) to be real.

That Luke and Matthew copied directly from Mark and "Q" is generally held by Bible scholars to be true, and is hard to argue against. (The Gospel of John is a separate consideration, about which Doherty goes into detail, but I will not.) Almost 90% of Mark turns up in Matthew; more than half of Mark is in Luke. Matthew and Luke, meanwhile, each contain a considerable amount of material not in Mark. There are two main reasons Matthew and Luke are widely believed to have copied their extra, non-Mark material from a common source: (1) This extra material in these two gospels has a considerable amount of overlap, and (2) it is not likely that either Luke nor Matthew copied the other's gospel, because the overlap is always found in completely different narrative contexts. The content of Q (short for "Quelle," the German word for "source") has been reconstructed from the overlap, which consists almost entirely of sayings, which Matthew and Luke put in Jesus' mouth, and in each gospel, the author (Matthew or Luke) invented a context for each such saying -- and the context is never the same in the two gospels: the people to whom Jesus is speaking, the situation, the lead-in to the saying, these are always different between Matthew and Luke. If either had copied the sayings from the other, the context would have to be the same at least sometimes. The descriptions of the birth of Jesus, and of his post-resurrection appearances, are also absent from Mark. (In some versions of Mark the disciples do see Jesus after his resurrection, but this part of the story doesn't appear in the oldest copies, and it is widely believed not to be authentic to the original, but instead added later by another writer, who seems to have copied at least part of it from Luke.) Again, Matthew and Luke, who seem to have created the narratives of these parts of Jesus' life, don't agree on them, even on a detail as basic as where Jesus met up with his disciples after his resurrection (in Matthew: Galilee; in Luke: Jerusalem).

Everything above fits well with the idea of Jesus being purely an invention, and any other conclusion is very difficult to reconcile with the written record.

Doherty can't be said to have proved Jesus never existed, and that isn't really his intention. He is simply trying to call the existence of Jesus as a historical figure into question -- not just the accuracy of the depiction of Jesus as a man, but whether the Jesus spoken of in the New Testament ever existed at all. To this end, he has at least completely convinced me. It's up to any person reading his book to make that judgment for themselves.

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This post attracted the one single comment I received from any reader. On 7-Dec-2015, Greg G commented:

The most-likely-to-be-authentic Pauline epistles mention "Jesus", "Christ", or either combination in tandem about once for every fifth verse. Throw in pronouns and the ambiguous "Lord" and it's about once every third verse. Paul loved to write about Jesus but most of it is adulation while the few that are biographical or about Jesus' activities in heaven and the future come from Old Testament scripture, not first century knowledge. But that holds for the pseudo-Pauline epistles and the general epistles, too, except for 1 Timothy and 2 Peter which rely on the gospels.

Galatians 1:19 is about James who Paul calls "the Lord's brother". Paul mentions James again in Galatians 2:9 as one of the pillars, three verses after showing his disdain for the pillars. In Galatians 2:12, James is shown to be a leader of the circumcision faction. In Galatians 5:14, Paul says he wished they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves. Clearly Paul didn't think much of James if he was throwing that much sarcasm at him. Now look at Galatians 1:1 and you see Paul pointing out that he was sent by Jesus and God, as he does in other epistles, but also pointing out that he was not sent by human authorities. According to Galatians 2:12, James was a human authority who sent people on missions, treating people the way the Lord treated Paul, so James was like "the Lord's brother". It's just more sarcasm.

In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul mentions "the brothers of the Lord" where he is justifying receiving money for his work, as if somebody has suggested cutting off his financial support. In 1 Corinthians 9:8, Paul asks rhetorically, "Do I say this on human authority?" Paul seems to be using the same sarcasm here that he used in Galatians.

It is like they thought Jesus was an ancient figure to them and the only information they could get was from scripture. They seem to have relied on Psalms and Isaiah mostly, particularly Isaiah 53, as if if was a "revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings" (Romans 16:25b-26a). They may have thought the allegory of the Suffering Servant was just a hiding place for a historical account. The OT had that the Messiah was descended from David but Isaiah wrote about him in the past tense, so maybe they thought the earthly phase of the coming Messiah was after David but before Isaiah's death.

Notice that 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 has Jesus listed before the prophets when it says they were killed.

The epistles do not support that Jesus was a teacher or a preacher.

New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash by Robert M. Price has a collection of scholars that have independently identified sources for different parts of the Gospel of Mark, some of whom assume the rest comes from oral traditions. But combined, these studies account for almost every passage in Mark. A few of the stories are from Christians sources, like some of Paul's writing but often it is putting Paul's arguments into Jesus' mouth.

Since Mark wrote a fictional story, and the other gospels include these stories, even a quarter of the Gospel of John uses stories Mark created, they cannot be considered reliable.

The New Testament not only does not have evidence that Jesus was a first century person, it is evidence that Jesus was made up in stages. The early first century followers invented an ancient Jesus out of the scriptures, later Christians wrote an allegorical tale as if Jesus lived when his first followers did, and later Christians who took the allegory as "gospel".

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I responded to Greg G's comment:

Thank you, that's all useful to me. I've become fully convinced, reading the research of the Jesus mythicists, that no such man as the Gospels describe ever existed. I agree with Doherty that Mark very likely never intended, nor imagined, that his allegory of Jesus as a living man of the recent (at that time) past would be taken literally the way it eventually was. Anyway, you've added more substance to my own take on the issue. And of course, thank you for the Price reference. -- Daniel



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