Was There No Historical Jesus?
Our knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, the presumed historical figure at the beginning of the Christian movement, comes from one unique set of documents, the Gospels. Beyond these, in the surviving writings of the first hundred years of Christianity, we are told virtually nothing about him, or about the story those Gospels have built around him.
When we examine the Gospels through the eyes of modern liberal scholarship, we find that they are anything but reliable historical records. They present the story of a deity come to earth, in communication with God and other supernatural entities, performing miracles, rising from the dead. Many of the details of that story are an adaptation or reworking of scriptural passages, from Jesus' baptismal scene based on Psalm quotations, to his miracles which retell the Old Testament feats of Elijah and Elisha, to virtually every element of the Passion account, from the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the smallest detail of the crucifixion scene. The account as a whole is another retelling of the classic type of story, found throughout centuries of Jewish literature, known as the Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One.
This modern analysis of the Gospels has placed them in the category of "midrash", a traditional Jewish scribal and teaching device in which elements drawn from the scriptures are combined and reworked to create new prescriptions for moral behavior and new interpretations of divine truths. Traditional midrash often did this through entirely fictional creations, whose story elements served symbolic purposes, like morality tales.
Redaction criticism has shown that each evangelist has crafted his Gospel to conform to his own--meaning his community's--particular theology and needs. Many Gospel incidents, such as the denial by Peter, are storytelling devices designed as lessons for the community. Such elements fit the sectarian milieu which Christianity is now recognized to have inhabited. It is a universal phenomenon that a religious group in opposition to the establishment, beset by rejection and persecution and needing to generate faith and fortitude within its own ranks, creates artificial traditions and literary embodiments which glorify the beginnings of their movement and provide sanctified origins and precedents for the sect's beliefs and practices.
Once the Gospels are recognized as midrash and the product of sectarian needs, once they are seen as symbolizing the community itself, its experiences, its challenges, its myths past and future, we remove any necessity to see such "foundation documents" as having anything to do with genuine history.
Robert Funk, head of the Jesus Seminar, in his Honest to Jesus, follows an increasing trend in reducing the Gospel story to a mere handful of "reliable" bare facts. Where the Passion story is concerned, he observes that its literary structure and intricacy preclude any possibility that it was developed or transmitted in oral form. From its inception, the story of Jesus' trial and execution was a written narrative. This strongly suggests literary fabrication from start to finish. Moreover, all Gospel versions of that narrative are directly or indirectly dependent on the first one composed, Mark. Given the widespread and varied nature of the Christian movement during its first century, we should expect to find many divergent accounts of Jesus' fate (based on fact or otherwise), produced by many communities. Instead, incredibly, only one version of the events which are supposed to have begun the faith was formulated and set down, with all other versions slavishly copying this single product. And before that story is disseminated in the 2nd century, many Christian writers show no knowledge at all of the events portrayed in the Gospels, whether from literary or oral sources.
All signs, therefore, point to the Gospels as literary creations by a handful of authors, their content fabricated out of the Jewish scriptures, partly under the influence of Hellenistic and Jewish philosophical concepts, and designed to serve theological and instructional purposes. What, then, prevents us from regarding the entire story of Jesus of Nazareth, including the human character itself, as fictional?
What should prevent us from doing so is finding corroboration for that character, and at least the basics of the Gospel story, in some other part of the early Christian record. In fact, such corroboration cannot be found. (Nor can it be found in non-Christian records of the first century; Josephus has long since been discredited as reliable, conclusive evidence.)
From Paul and the other first century writers we would not know even the fundamentals: where or when Jesus lived, the names of his parents, the places and events of his birth, boyhood and ministry. Nor would we know the time and place of his death, or the agents of that death, not even the fact that he underwent a trial. The name of Pontius Pilate does not appear in Christian correspondence until the early 2nd century, nor do the other characters of the Passion account. For all that early epistle writers speak of Jesus' suffering and death, they never give us a single aspect of that execution, not even the name of Calvary itself. (The one reference to human responsibility for Jesus' death, 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, is dismissed by most liberal scholars as a later interpolation, since these verses contain a clear allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened after Paul's death.)
As for Jesus' resurrection, there is nothing in any epistle which tells of the story of the empty tomb, the role of the women, the details of any post-resurrection appearances. (The list of "seeings" in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 cannot be squared with any Gospel account and are now acknowledged to refer to visionary experiences of the heavenly Christ in the same manner as Paul's own.)
Did Jesus undergo his own baptism, appoint apostles, make apocalyptic predictions about the end of the world--all issues of extreme relevance to the early Christian mission? In the epistles we hear not a word of such things. Did Jesus even preach? Modern scholarship, relying heavily on an excavated Q, has revised the picture of the historical Jesus to create a teaching rabbi whose personal impact led to a range of responses to him, spreading across the empire. Some impact. Early Christian correspondence is full of ethical maxims and prophetic utterances which closely parallel the pronouncements of Jesus in the Gospels, yet never are such things attributed to him. In 1 Corinthians, Paul calls two minor directives "words" he has "from the Lord," but the context, and some scholarly opinion, suggests that these are communications Paul believes he has received directly from Christ in heaven, a common feature of the early prophetic movement. Elsewhere, the silence on Jesus as any kind of teacher, let alone the presumed source of Christian ethics, is complete.
As for any traditions about Jesus' miracles, no one breathes a word of them, not even the raising of such as Lazarus from the dead when Paul is seeking to convince his Corinthian readers that humans can be resurrected!
The usual rationalizations for this depth of silence are thoroughly inadequate. The early Church is said to have "lost all interest" in the earthly life lived before the overwhelming event of the resurrection, but no explanation is offered as to why the rising of a man from his tomb would lead to the total eclipse of the man himself and everything he had done. The explanations offered for Paul's own silence are invalid in principle, since every other epistle writer expresses himself in the same way. And they fail when examined in detail, since Paul could hardly have tramped the empire to bring the message about a crucified man to the gentiles without having learned something of that man's life. His listeners and converts, not to mention his rivals, would never have accepted a "lack of interest". Besides, Paul is preaching in competition with the Graeco-Roman mystery cults, whose own saviors acted entirely in the mythical realm. Would Paul have passed up offering his audiences a savior in the flesh, one who had recently been on earth to succor, heal, forgive, redeem in memorable events that had taken place in time and space?
And what would have led Paul to be converted in the first place? To react so dramatically to a humble teaching rabbi he had never met, to blasphemously turn a crucified criminal into the Son of God and Savior of the world--and then promptly cast aside all his historical features? If he had no use for Jesus the teacher, what led him to deify this man to an extent unprecedented in human religion? Why seize on this particular death which he did not even witness, one of identical thousands of that day, as the event of the world's redemption?
Little more sense can be made of the silence on the places of that salvation. No one for the first hundred years of the movement breathes a whisper about pilgrimages to Calvary, about celebrations at a burial or resurrection site. These places are never mentioned. Why are there no relics of Jesus' life, no surviving momentos which Christians would have been eager to possess, such as we find in the Middle Ages? Did no item of Jesus' clothing survive, no utensil he had used for eating, no cup from the Last Supper, no thorn from the bloody crown, no nails or pieces of wood from the cross before the 4th century? Did no one seek to walk on the same ground that the Son of God himself had so recently trod?
The range and depth of this kind of silence cannot be explained away, and certainly not by claiming that these "occasional" writings had no reason to refer to any of these aspects of Jesus' life and death. In fact, the epistles are full of passages which offer compelling opportunity for passing references to the Gospel story, for an appeal to the words and deeds of Jesus, to illustrate, support, exemplify the observations and arguments the letter writers are making. An individual silence in one document, in one writer, or in relation to a certain element of Jesus' activities in the Gospels, might feasibly be explained, but when the silence extends to every document, every writer, every aspect of the career of the Son of God on earth, all logic in such reasoning breaks down.
Who--or what--then, is Paul talking about? Who is the "Christ Jesus" that inhabits his letters, the divine Son who had undergone suffering and death in a time and place never spelled out? Where did Paul learn of him?
These questions are answered, clearly and unequivocally, in the early Christian epistles. When Paul and the others speak of the beginnings of their faith movement, they never refer to an historical Jesus as setting everything in motion. Rather, it is the action of God and the sending of his Holy Spirit which has marked the "arrival of faith" and the call to preach. The gospel they carry is God's gospel, not Jesus', and it comes through inspiration, not apostolic tradition. That apostolic activity, often a competitive one, can be seen in 2 Corinthians 11:4, which speaks of different versions of Jesus being preached by apostles claiming different spirits from God.
For that is what has been revealed by God's Spirit: Jesus himself, the secret of the Son whose existence had previously been unknown, the Son through whose sacrifice God was now making salvation available on the eve of his arrival from heaven. This new Son is a "mystery" revealed by God after long generations of having been hidden (Rom. 16:15, Col. 1:26, 2:2, Eph. 3:5). The epistle writers speak exclusively in terms of his "revelation", as in 1 Peter 1:20: "He was predestined before the foundation of the world, and in this last period of time he has been revealed for your sake." The onset of the movement is often phrased in a way which excludes an historical Jesus from the recent past (e.g., Titus 1:3).
Where specifically is information to be found about this Son? Paul vehemently declares that he got his gospel "from no man," but by revelation (Gal. 1:11-12). In Romans 16:25, Jesus is revealed by God after long ages "through the prophetic scriptures." Paul's gospel of the dying and rising Christ comes kata tas graphas, "according to the scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Paul also knows of what he calls "the Lord's Supper" through revelation (1 Cor. 11:23f). This Gospel-like incident, the only one to be found in Paul, is a mythical scene, probably created by Paul himself, similar to the sacred meals of the other savior-god cults of the time. It may have given rise to the Gospel Last Supper.
Christ's role at this time is a dual one. He is a present force, serving as a spiritual channel between God and the world, to whom the believer is united in mystical ways. His other role is as Savior. He had undergone sacrifice in the lower celestial realm at the hands of the demon spirits, so Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:8. It was "the rulers of this age who crucified the Lord of glory," and many liberal scholars acknowledge that the phrase refers to the demon spirits, not human authorities.
Bizarre? To our 20th century minds, perhaps. But the ancients, especially under the influence of Platonism, saw the universe as layered, with multiple spiritual levels rising above the earth to the highest heaven where God dwelled. In these spheres resided various spirits, angels, demons; salvific processes went on there. That higher realm was the "genuine reality" of which the material world was only an imperfect copy. Everything on earth had its equivalent, its ideal counterpart, in that upper realm, and thus a god could be spoken of as "man" (the ideal man, the direct copy of God), even as taking on "flesh" and "blood"--or the semblance of them, a concept found throughout early Christian literature--when he descended to the near-earth layers of heaven. Paul speaking of Christ as "of David's seed" and "born of woman" would fall under this concept, impelled by scriptural prophecies whose fulfillment was transferred to the mythical world.
The heavens also had paradigmatic figures who championed groups on earth, who underwent similar experiences to them, thereby guaranteeing benefits and salvation to those who were united with them through faith and initiation, like the Pauline baptism. This was the basis of the Graeco-Roman mystery cults, with their savior gods and goddesses. The latter's activities in the mythical world, sometimes involving suffering and death (like Attis and Dionysus), were not regarded as having taken place on earth or in history. Early Christianity was a Jewish sectarian branch of this common religious expression of the day, having its own Jewish features but with a high Hellenistic content as well. Paul's Christ Jesus was a savior god like all the rest.
This progression from a Christ who lives and operates entirely in the spirit realm, to one who comes to earth to live a life, is the course which Christianity followed over the space of its first hundred years, a process eventually to win over the entire movement, though not in all areas until the latter 2nd century, as witnessed by the many apologists outside Justin who fail to introduce any historical Jesus into their descriptions and defenses of the faith.
Scholars create an artificial picture, based largely on the Gospels, of a gradual process of deification for a human Jesus. But the earliest picture presented by the epistles shows that Christ is at his highest elevation right from the beginning. He is a cosmic saving deity who is the equal of God and bearer of all the divine titles, his throne-partner and agent of creation, the sustaining power of the universe, Lord of the world and the demon spirits, redeemer through a "blood" sacrifice. Such a cosmic deity is never equated with a Jesus of Nazareth, recently on earth. Instead, he is the reflection of the philosophical thinking of the day as expressed in concepts like the Greek Logos and Jewish personified Wisdom, which envisioned a secondary god or divine force acting as an intermediary between God and the world of humans and matter.
That a humble Jewish preacher, especially the one reputed to be found in the primitive layer of Q (which seems originally to have been a Greek Cynic product, much reworked before it reached Matthew and Luke, and pulled into the new historical Jesus orbit), could achieve such cosmic exaltation immediately after his death, and at the hands of Jews no less, is an impossible eventuality. When the Gospels were first penned, they embodied the cultic community's own experiences and doctrines, and were, I maintain, a symbolic translation of the mythical Christ Jesus into an earthly setting, not intended to represent history. Eventually, the spiritual Son and Savior was regarded as having come to earth and the Gospel story was adopted as history, leading to a recasting (as in Acts) of the early, now legendary, period of the Christian faith. A movement that had been a philosophical expression of its time, born in a thousand places with widely divergent beliefs and rituals, was pulled into one great myth of unified origins.
Doherty is a prominent voice today arguing for the
non-existence of an historical Jesus at the beginning of the
Christian movement. He has written for the Journal of
Higher Criticism, edited by two members of the Jesus
Seminar at Drew University in New Jersey. He has completed
two manuscripts on his theories, as well as a contemporary
novel about the investigation of the Jesus question, set
against a background plot of todayís struggle between
secularism and fundamentalism. You can find out more about
his views on ancient Christianity at The Jesus Puzzle
website located at