THE JESUS PUZZLE
Was There No Historical Jesus?
Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?
The five Main Articles following this Preamble present the basic case for the non-existence of an historical Jesus. Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," surveys the silence on the Gospel Jesus and Gospel events in the early epistolary record. Part Two, "Who Was Christ Jesus?" examines that early record for a more realistic picture of the original faith and the context of its period. Part Three, "The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth," presents the development of the Gospels (including Q) and their new Jesus figure as the founder of Christianity. The "Postscript" surveys the non-Christian record of the time and considers some general problems in current New Testament research. Finally, "The Second Century Apologists" examines the post-Gospel situation and the wider, non-canonical record of the second century. Discussions and arguments put forward in the Main Articles are developed in greater depth, with additional references and sources, in the Supplementary Articles (see Home Page), as well as in many Reader Feedback responses (see Reader Feedback Index).
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As we enter the 21st century, interest in the historical Jesus has been rising dramatically. In the media, in bestselling books, on the Internet, Jesus as an historical figure rather than an object of faith is being subjected to an unprecedented investigation and reinterpretation. The inquiry into Christian origins has entered the public eye like never before, and its radical new findings, together with the liberal trend to bring Jesus down to earth, has fascinated and disturbed believer and non-believer alike.
Perhaps for the first time in its history, the field of New Testament research is in disarray. The most progressive circle of scholarship within it, the group known as the Jesus Seminar, has recently come to the conclusion that Jesus' corpse, far from being resurrected from the dead, probably rotted in some unknown grave, and that the Christian movement did not begin out of a conviction that Jesus had risen bodily from his tomb. More conservative ranks are fiercely resisting such trends, and even popular publications like Bible Review have occasionally become battlegrounds for a civil war in which Christian scholars on both sides are attacking each other's competence and integrity and taking no prisoners.
But in the new search for the historical Jesus, the most important issue of all is being largely ignored. Has Western society been the victim of the greatest misconception in history? Could the reason why every generation is able to reinvent Jesus in its own image, why a multitude of scholars can come up with many radically different pictures of the founder of Christianity, be that there is no actual man to be uncovered, no historical figure to exercise control over the unending search? If the record is so mercurial, so open to interpretation, should not this possibility be at the very top of the agenda? The Jesus Seminar, at the beginning of its deliberations in the mid-1980s, claims to have addressed the question, but this amounted to little more than a show of hands. Had these scholars surveyed the Christian record from this point of view with as much enthusiasm and intensity as they devoted in several years of study to the authenticity of the sayings and deeds of Jesus, they might have come to acknowledge that the underpinnings of their work are astonishingly tenuous and to understand why the question of whether Jesus really existed refuses to go away.
The idea that Christianity may have begun without an historical Jesus was first floated near the end of the 18th century by certain philosophers of the French Revolution. In Germany a few decades later, D. F. Strauss and Bruno Bauer laid a groundwork for the theory by labeling much of the story of Jesus "mythology" and the Gospels "literary inventions." Bauer came to doubt the historicity of Jesus. But it was at the turn of the 20th century that detailed examination of the issue began in earnest. Since then a handful of reputable scholars in each generation have denied outright any historical existence for the Gospel Jesus: among them J. M. Robertson in Britain, Arthur Drews in Germany, Paul-Louis Couchoud and Prosper Alfaric in France, followed by several others. Most recently, G. A. Wells, Professor of German at the University of London (now retired), has published six books on the subject, a telling dissection of Christian literature, especially the Gospels, which reveals just how wispy and elusive is the historical basis that lies behind the story of Jesus of Nazareth.
My own research in this field goes back almost 20 years, when I first encountered a serious presentation of the theory in Professor Wells. Although my university training was not in New Testament studies, I have a degree in Ancient History and Classical Languages, giving me a working knowledge of Greek and Latin, which I have supplemented with the basics of Hebrew and Syriac. In addition to the New Testament, along with many parts of the Old, I have thoroughly investigated all the non-canonical Christian documents, the 2nd and 3rd century Apologists, all the relevant Jewish Pseudepigrapha of the era together with the Dead Sea scrolls, plus much of Christian and non-Christian Gnosticism. To this I have added a study of Philo of Alexandria, Middle Platonism and other philosophies, relevant ancient historians, Hellenistic mystery cults and the general religious thought of the era.
My investigations have led me to a fundamental disagreement with Professor Wells. (He is the only prominent writer on the "Jesus-as-myth" theory in the past generation; earlier proponents are difficult for the average reader to come by, so I will not address them.) Wells postulates that Paul and other Christians of his day believed that "Jesus" had lived in obscurity at some unknown point in the past, perhaps two or three centuries before their time. The problem is, there seems to be no more evidence in the epistles that Paul has such a figure in mind than there is for his knowledge of a Jesus of Nazareth who had lived and died during the reign of Herod Antipas. Rather, everything in Paul points to a belief in an entirely divine Son who "lived" and acted in the spiritual realm, in the same mythical setting in which all the other savior deities of the day were seen to operate. No Greek or Roman believed that the god Mithras had lived in an identifiable period of earthly history, or that the bull he slaughtered was "historical," and the mystery myths at the time of Christian beginnings tended to be moved to a supernatural sphere under the influence of current philosophy. With this view, Christianity can be seen to fit nicely into its surrounding milieu, a child of its time. It also enables us to read and understand Paul in all his spiritual richnessfrom an historical interest point of viewand to gain a thorough picture of what his faith constituted. Once early Christian belief is seen in its proper light, a whole new window is gained onto the religious spirit of the era, since Christianity was the great synthesizer and preserver of that spirit. But if we insist instead on seeing early Christian faith as some strange hybrid anomaly against the background beliefs of its day, that picture will remain forever deficient.
Today we face two principal impediments to understanding Paul's belief in Christ as an entirely spiritual figure. One is the fact that it is based on views of the universe which are alien to our modern outlook. The second is our failure to grasp how the Jewish scriptures, as they were interpreted by certain circles in Paul's day, could confer features on the heavenly Christ which we perceive as "historical." I am referring to passages like Romans 1:3, that Christ was "of David's seed," or Galatians 4:4, that he was "born of woman," plus a smattering of references to things like Jesus' "flesh" or "blood." These matters I have been careful to address, and to provide an intelligible explanation for.
Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," takes a detailed look at the pervasive silence on the Gospel Jesus of Nazareth which we find in almost a hundred years of earliest Christian correspondence. Not once does Paul or any other first century epistle writer identify their divine Christ Jesus with the recent historical man known from the Gospels. Nor do they attribute the ethical teachings they put forward to such a man. Virtually every other detail in the picture of the Gospel Jesus is similarly missing. If Jesus was a "social reformer" whose teachings began the Christian movement, as today's liberal scholars now style him, how can such a Jesus be utterly lacking in all the New Testament epistles, while only a cosmic Christ is to be found?
This missing dimension in the early Christian record cannot be shrugged off, as New Testament scholarship has had a habit of doing. Timeworn "explanations" such as that the early church "had no interest" in the earthly life of Jesus, or that Paul's theology did not require it, are simply inadequate, if not in many respects fallacious. Scholars love to malign the so-called "argument from silence," but when the void is this pervasive and profound, the rationale for it had better be of sterling quality, and such a thing not even the most recent scholarship has provided. In this first article, I point out elements to that silence in the epistles which have been little if at all remarked on before.
Part Two, "Who Was Christ Jesus?", is the core of the series, for it attempts to set out the concept of the spiritual Christ who was the object of faith for Paul and much of the early Christian movement. This faith grew out of the prominent religious and philosophical ideas of the age, both Jewish and Greek, about an intermediary force between God and the world, a spiritual "Son"; it operated within views of the universe which have long since been abandoned. I also compare Paul's Christ with the savior deities of the current Graeco-Roman mystery cults, and although it is no longer fashionable to maintain that much of what is distinctively Christian was directly derived from the mysteries, both these religious expressions share elements of the same thought-world and are in part branches of the same tree. Seeing Christianity in this light goes a long way toward understanding some of Paul's thought. At the same time, Paul's words about Christ are examined to show that apostles like himself are offering a faith based on revelation from God, mostly through the interpretation of scripture, in an age of divine inspiration which had nothing to do with the recent career of an historical man. The second article finishes with a brief look at another conclusion: that Christianity, as shown by its great diversity in the early period, did not arise at a single time and place or out of a single missionary movement, but expressed itself in different forms in many sects and locations. I offer a definition of the terms "Jesus" and "Christ" as they were used during this initial period.
Part Three, "The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth," begins with a search for the Gospels. These documents, which scholars now admit are expressions of faith, not history, were written in stages and probably not as early as traditionally supposed. Ultimately they are all dependent for their picture of Jesus' life on a single source, the earliest version of Mark. Nor does any sign of them emerge in the wider Christian world until well into the second century. Next, I take a close look at the document known as "Q" in which the core of the historical Jesus as teacher, miracle-worker and apocalyptic prophet something quite separate from the cultic Christ of Paulwas first created. I show how signs within that document and its evolution indicate that no historical figure lay at its roots. Those who now claim that the Christian movement began out of the teachings of a Jesus as represented in the Synoptic Gospels, are forced to base such a figure almost exclusively on that lost Q document, and what can be gleaned about its original nature and developmental stages. Claims of corroboration in the rediscovered Gospel of Thomas rest also on uncertain foundations. The article concludes with a survey of how Mark put the first Gospel together out of separate elements, its scriptural ingredients and sectarian features.
The original series (first published in shorter form in the magazine Humanist in Canada in 1995 and 1996) concluded with a "Postscript" to cover the non-Christian witness to Jesus, or lack thereof. (It is amazing how much energy on the question of Jesus' existence gets focused on this sideshow of Josephus, Tacitus and companyat best an inconclusive onewhen the most telling material lies in the Christian documents themselves.) I then address what I call "Five Fallacies" contained in the traditional scholarly analysis of Christian origins and the early Christian record.
A little later, a fifth article in the series followed, this one looking at "The Second Century Apologists." In this lesser known area of Christian writing, we find a startling silence on the Gospel Jesus of Nazareth which extends to several authors, and even some telling material in Justin Martyr, who is the only major apologist before the year 180 to include an historical Gospel Jesus in his defence of Christianity to the pagans. I take a close look at the most fascinating of all the apologies, Minucius Felix, which in its treatment of the idea of a crucified man and his cross constitutes a true "smoking gun."
Another section of the web site is "Book Reviews." New publications on Jesus and Christian origins are appearing regularly, as scholars of different persuasions attempt to come to terms with the advances made in New Testament research and offer their own interpretations of how Christianity began. Are their scenarios credible, and have they properly taken all the evidence into account? I offer my views on books like Burton Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament?, Robert Funk's Honest to Jesus, and John Shelby Spong's Liberating the Gospels. A separate review section surveys recent books which question the existence of an historical Jesus. Reviews of other books will follow at intervals.
After the Main Articles, I have added separate studies on a range of New Testament subjects, from problem documents to questions of interpretation and features of the early Christian movement. These "Supplementary Articles" supply a greater depth of argument and understanding to the mythicist position. Other site features include a "Quick Assembly" which summarizes in twelve easy points the essentials of the Jesus Puzzle theory, while putting together an actual puzzle picture; and a comprehensive look at all the "silences" to be found in the non-Gospel record, called "The Sound of Silence: 200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles." I have also reprinted an original Jesus Puzzle article written for the Journal of Higher Criticism (Fall 1997 issue), edited by Darrell Doughty and Robert Price, both members of the Jesus Seminar. (Check the "What's New" link from the head of the Home Page for regular new features and additions.)
A "Reader Feedback" section posts comments, queries and my responses to them. Many of the latter constitute mini-articles in themselves on a variety of important topics within the mythicist theory. An Index to these responses, with direct links, appears at the beginning of the Feedback section.
I have also written a full-length contemporary novel which focuses on an investigation of the historical Jesus question, set against a background plot of today's struggle between secularism and fundamentalism. This novel is posted in its entirety on the site: see the final section of the Home Page.
I think what any "mythicist" would welcome from mainstream scholars is an energetic examination of the Jesus-as-myth theory and an honest attempt to deal with its arguments. The theory that there was no historical Jesus shows no sign of losing credence, and in a kind of "underground" fashion is even gaining support. It is time for a serious examination of why this is so.