The Jesus Process: A Consultation on the Historical Jesus

Controversy, Mythicism, and the Historical Jesus

© 2012 R. Joseph Hoffmann


While the New Testament offers the most extensive evidence for the existence of the historical Jesus, the writings are subject to a number of conditions that have dictated both the form and content of the traditions they have preserved.  These conditions did not disappear with the writing of the first gospel, nor even with the eventual formation of the New Testament canon.  They were expressly addressed by Christian writers in the second and third century who saw an incipient mythicism as a threat to the integrity of the message about Jesus.  The history of this controversy is long, complex, and decisive with respect to the “question” of Jesus.

The process through which the memory of Jesus was preserved was a reflexive attempt to relay what was known and what was believed about him, while at the same time separating the received traditions from the corrosive effects of a pervasive salvation myth.  The process cannot be established by analogy to the way in which historical traditions were preserved in contemporary histories such as Livy’s (or later, Tacitus’s) books, and it cannot be discounted by reference to antecedent and unrelated mythologies which have influenced the form of transmission.

This essay is in part an attempt to clarify procedural issues relevant to what is sometimes called the “Christ-myth” or “Non-historicity” thesis—an argumentative approach to the New Testament based on the theory that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. I have come to regard this thesis as fatally flawed and subject to a variety of objections that are not often highlighted in the academic writings of New Testament scholars.  The failure of scholars to take the “question of Jesus” seriously has resulted in a slight increase in the popularity of the non-historicity thesis, a popularity that—in my view—now threatens to distract biblical studies from the serious business of illuminating the causes,  context and development of early Christianity.

It is my view, simply stated, that while facts concerning the Jesus of history were jeopardized from the start by a variety of salvation myths, by the credulity of early believers, by the historiographical tendencies of the era, and by the editorial tendencies of early writers, the gospels retain a stubbornly historical view of Jesus, preserve reliable information about his life and teachings, and are not engulfed by any of the conditions under which they were composed.  Jesus “the Nazarene” did not originate as a myth or a story without historical coordinates, but as a teacher in first century Roman Palestine.  Like dozens of other Hellenistic teachers, but lacking sophisticated “biographers” to preserve his accomplishments, Jesus is distinct only because the cult that formed around him perpetuated his memory in ritual, worship, and text, while the memory of other attested personalities of antiquity, even those who enjoyed brief cultic popularity like Antigonus I, Ptolemy I and Demetrius of Macedon are known to us mainly through literary artifacts.

The attempt of “mythicists” to show that Jesus did not exist, on the other hand, has been largely incoherent, insufficiently scrupulous of historical detail, and based on improbable, bead-strung analogies.[1]   The failure of the myth theory is not the consequence merely of methodological sloppiness with respect to the sources and their religious contexts; that has been demonstrated again and again from as early as Shirley Jackson Case’s (now dated) study, The Historicity of  Jesus (1912). It is a problem incipient in the task itself, which Morton Smith aptly summarized in 1986:  The myth theory, he wrote, is almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the “silence” of Paul. “In order to explain just what it was that Paul and other early Christians believed, the mythicists are forced to manufacture unknown proto-Christians who build up an unattested myth . . . about an unspecified supernatural entity that at an indefinite time was sent by God into the world as a man to save mankind and was crucified… [presenting us with] a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels.”[2]

The following remarks are designed as a kind of summary of what we know for certain about the conditions and the process through which historical tradition emerged. It is a preface of sorts to a more ambitious project on the myth theory itself and what we can reliably know–if anything—about the historical Jesus.[3]


The Literary Matrix:

We can acknowledge, first, that the gospels came from somewhere.  Scholars disagree widely about the when and where, but the textual tradition, based on when datable writers first use them and quote from them has settled many issues as well as establishing a controversial but adequate relative chronology of Paul’s (and the Pauline) letters.[4]  As Helmut Koester has shown[5], fragments based in oral tradition appear in the Apostolic Fathers (early second century), writers who do not seem to have possessed all four, do not use them authoritatively, and who do not quote from them extensively.[6] The heretic Marcion of Sinope (b. ca. 70 CE, d. 154)[7] was probably the first to attach a gospel to a collection of Paul’s letters.

At the same time, we cannot be sure that Marcion was not acting from a precedent that has been lost to history except through its effects.  The “gospel +” pattern is evidenced in the combination of Luke and Acts, and the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine letters.  It is not unreasonable to wonder if Marcion was using a pattern developed much earlier in the Pauline circle, in which the “gospel”—which traditionally in New Testament scholarship has been seen as a self-referring term used by Paul to mean his preaching or message—actually referred to a written source to which his letters were seen to be an indispensable addition.  That, at least, is how Marcion saw it.  The “contest of gospels” referred to by Paul in Galatians 1.11-13 appeals against private preaching, with Paul “boasting” that his gospel was given through divine revelation: Γνωρίζω γὰρ ὑμῖν, ἀδελφοί, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τὸ εὐαγγελισθὲν ὑπ’ ἐμοῦ ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν κατὰ ἄνθρωπον·

In refusing to assign title to his own gospel, Marcion does not seem to have challenged but rather preserved  Paul’s claim to its uniqueness; but the question of whether Paul’s “preaching” is coterminous with the content of that gospel (normally thought to be an assured conclusion of New Testament scholarship) must remain a live question. It seems clear that Marcion did not share the view of modern biblical scholarship that Paul possessed no physical record called “gospel,” a fact habitually overlooked in New Testament studies, as also is the heretic’s claim that his gospel was older than the ones being circulated in the churches of his day.[8]  I regard the reference to (RSV)  “perverting” (metastreyai means to alter or to change) the “gospel of Christ” a reference to an established, probably written tradition, as polluting a fluid oral tradition does not seem a sensible way to interpret the fractures in the Galatian community.

The African church writer Tertullian,[9] determined to see Marcion as an apostate, believed he had maliciously “mutilated” the gospel in such a way as to diminish the physical reality of Jesus.  We now are relatively certain that Marcion was working not from a canonical gospel but from a lost prototype akin to a synoptic source which lacked, among other things, a birth narrative and significant portions of the resurrection story. Careful and cautious analysis of Tertullian’s description suggests that this source:  (a) was an archetype or very early version of a written gospel, and (b) that it is antecedent to the synoptic tradition, judging by Tertullian’s unfamiliarity with the text and his preference for a later more expansive version—a “Lucan redaction.”  This lost gospel is significant in Jesus- studies because, unlike the “sayings source” [Q] which is necessarily hypothetical,[10] Marcion’s gospel is multiply attested, was composed very early, and despite Tertullian’s exertions to make it so, is not a Gnostic composition.[11]  It also brings Paul’s contribution to the development of early Christian literature into closer alignment with historical traditions, a fact which is often ignored in favor of the standard model of literary development.

Marcion was also an editor and perhaps the earliest collector of Paul’s letters, lacking a number of the “deuteropauline” compositions (some written in direct response to his activity) but possessing one to the Laodiceans[12] which seems to have been a model for a letter like Ephesians and sections of Colossians, now usually reckoned to be secondary to Paul as well.  As David Trobisch has suggested,[13] Marcion was challenged by his contemporary and arch-enemy Polycarp of Smyrna by a fuller edition of the gospels and letters (which Trobisch sees as the first “edition” of the New Testament) to prevent his short canon from becoming dominant. Based on linguistic analysis of his work, Polycarp is also the likeliest candidate to be the author of three anti-Marcionite epistles called the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus).[14] The historicity of Jesus is not, as such, at stake in this literary warfare, but historical traditions are.

The primary point of reference in the study of the Jesus question is the controversial context in which a particular interest in the humanity of Jesus first becomes apparent—this against  the background of a number of salvation cults, with discrete saviours and myths, where no such historical interest can be documented.[15] As Walter Bauer demonstrated in relation to the development of early orthodoxy,[16] Roman historical interest as exhibited by Mark’s gospel rather than Anatolian eclecticism, as reflected in Paul, would be largely responsible for the shape of this controversy and decisive in preserving its historical components.

It is a major weakness in the argument of the mythicists to point to the Hellenistic mysteries, with their utter lack of historical orientation, as an explanation for the religious environment in which the gospels were formed.  Often, their litany of dying- and rising- god cults gives the impression of attempting to create a chain of direct influence through the simple duplication of unconnected traditions. In fact, we have no examples from classical antiquity[17] of a religion that insisted from the beginning on the historical existence of its founder in both explicit and implicit ways and no way of explaining why Christianity would differ so markedly from the cults in this respect.[18]


The Later Second Century

By the time we enter the late second century, Christian bishops like Irenaeus [19] (fl 176), and later Tertullian himself (fl 205), are working with a fixed set of four gospels and a collection of letters closely resembling what we possess today and which had become standard sources for refuting heretical opinion.[20] Knowing what we know of the controversies of the period, that in itself, combined with the evidence of the gospels having circulated from Gaul (Lyon) to Carthage as an ανθολογία, is an impressive early achievement. Irenaeus quotes from all four (and from 21 of the eventual 27 books), and also is the first to quote indubitably from the Book of Acts,[21] usually thought to originate from the same writer or school that produced Luke’s gospel, which in turn is the one Marcion is accused of mutilating.[22]

Irenaeus’ goal is not to argue that Jesus “really lived,” but to show that a “living voice of tradition,”[23] separate from heretical interference, survived down to his own day—the basis for the more elaborate doctrine called “apostolic succession.”[24] While almost no one ignores the apologetic intent of Irenaeus’ claims about apostolicity, it would be irresponsible to think that he systematically misrepresents the traditions of an earlier period.  In fact, the possession of large numbers of Gnostic writings has now vindicated much of what he had to say about the teaching and practices of the Gnostics, lending greater weight to what Irenaeus says about the traditions he claims to represent.[25]  While he quotes from written Gnostic sources, he regards the control against heresy not simply oral precedent but “delivered,” graphic tradition, largely because the Gnostics “normatively” appealed to secret oral traditions. [26]

It is true that the existence of the gospel traditions about Jesus and patristic appeals to them do not prove his existence. What they prove instead is a coordinated effort to prevent a deposit of historical tradition from being eviscerated by the religious mythicizers of the period.[27] The actuality of his existence was not the topic of discussion in the ancient period.[28]  It is taken for granted by all ancient commentators, including Paul, whose entire career pivots on the message of the crucified/historical Jesus and the glorified Christ (1 Cor. 1.23; 1 Cor. 15.3-14). [29]

But viewed against the background of first and second century Latin history-writing especially, the story of Jesus is not as unusual as has been thought, and its “uniqueness” has been more a function of the sacred status accorded to the books by the Church than any essential ingredients in their composition.  That is to say, the question of Jesus has been infected with the doctrine of the divine nature of the gospel’s protagonist as well as with the later belief in the inspired authority of the text–both essentially outcomes of patristic discussion–making the issue of “historicity” as the term is normally used, more compelling than it deserves to be.

Book I of Livy’s History[30] does not prove the story of Romulus, or the ruse used against the Sabines, even though he believes it to be factually solid; yet no one doubts the existence of Rome or Augustus, apart from anything credulous Livy might have thought, and got wrong, about Rome’s beginnings.  Moreover, we know the gospel writers weren’t writing that kind of history, even though Luke seems to have been challenged to produce something akin to it “from the sources available among us” (1.1-4)—but ends up telling essentially the same story as Mark, with ornamentation and flourishes, and a special tranche of tradition that seems to have been unique to his region.[31] Indeed, Hellenistic critics of early Christianity, beginning with Celsus (ca. 177) carp at the unoriginality of  the legendary elements of the gospel without calling into question Jesus’ existence, and this is so, presumably, because the historical literature of the time was fraught with such legends.  Take this for example from Livy’s account of the birth of Romulus and Remus:

But the Fates had, I believe, already decreed the origin of this great city and the foundation of the mightiest empire under heaven. The Vestal [virgin, Rea Sylvia] was forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars as their father, either because she really believed it, or because the fault might appear less heinous if a deity were the cause of it. But neither gods nor men sheltered her or her babes from the king’s cruelty.[32]

Or this from Suetonius’ account of the return of Augustus to Rome subsequent to the events of the ides of March, 44 BCE—an episode which becomes the later basis for the Christian Aracoeli legends:

When [Augustus] returned to Rome from Apollonia at news of Julius Caesar’s assassination, the sky was clear of clouds, but a rainbow-like halo formed around the sun; and suddenly lightning struck the tomb of Caesar’s daughter, Julia …. [33]

Celsus presses his main objections against Christian teaching in propria persona as a “Jew” for the purpose of denigrating the novelty of the Christian faith, an objection grounded in the accusation that its founder had appeared “only recently.”[34]  He does not challenge the importance of prophecy and augurs, merely the idea that Jesus (as opposed to a hundred others) had fulfilled them.  In fact, his choice of persona is almost certainly dictated by the fact that neither Jews nor pagan critics doubted that Christianity had had an historical founder, this despite the muddled nature of so-called “external” sources like Josephus and Tacitus, and the “anti-gospel” Toledot Yeshu, dating from the sixth century CE, but incorporating Talmudic traditions from an earlier period.[35]

While it is fairly common for myth-theorists (as well as others) to point to the unreliability of the external notices, the absence of any suggestion among Jewish and pagan polemists that Jesus was the contrivance of a small clutch of believers—while explicable on other grounds—is as noteworthy as the absence of any tendency among the church fathers to defend against such a “slander.”  To explain this away, we would be obliged to say that the Jews and pagans “bought” the Christian story wholesale after it was fully formulated; but passages such as Matthew 28.11-15, elements of the Magdalene tradition, as well as of the controversy-stories render such an explanation implausible and point as well to an early date for competing accounts of the resurrection.[36] The controversies enshrined in the New Testament, as John Fenton recognized two generations ago, bring us very close to the live debates in which the history of Jesus was being compiled, but not created in the churches.[37]

We also know that the gospels, whatever they are, were not designed to convince people that Jesus existed. They were written (eventually) to recall key moments in a brief public life—narrative snapshots based on reminiscences, sayings, and hearsay “traditioned” by various communities, but fairly early in point of time compared, say, to the distance between Livy ( BCE 59-CE 17) and the Roman Republic of the sixth century BCE.  As old and inconvenient as this defense of the historicity of important elements of the gospels may be, it is still a detail to be reckoned with.

The tension between the purposes of the gospels—to “bring” the news of Jesus to the Jewish diaspora and the Roman provinces–and the worldview of the gospels is even more important because the (perhaps inflated) apocalyptic fervor of the earliest communities, which cannot have been the same voltage in all sectors of the Christian diaspora,[38] would not necessarily have been friendly to the more mundane aspects of tradition: thus, the delay of the end-time and its corollary—the fact that Jesus did not come again–seems to have set into motion an effort to recover historical elements of the life of Jesus that the passage of time was threatening to occlude[39]—not only the core story of his death and resurrection but information about his teaching and predictions.  One of those stories—that of his trial and death—is entirely probable if not a chronicle of events, like the story of the death of Hannibal[40]—and one of them—the resurrection, like the story of Alexander’s conception[41] or the apotheosis of Romulus[42]–is not historical, but does clearly refer to historical outcomes: the belief of Jesus’ followers. It is difficult if not impossible to point to equivalent outcomes in relation to the beliefs of ordinary Greeks and Romans being triggered by events close to their own time.[43] The legendary and the “factual” are comingled in all ancient history, from Thucydides onward. But as an axiom, the incredible in ancient literature does not nullify the credible, or if it did we would know almost nothing about anything before the dawn of modernity.[44]  For this reason among others, it is perilous to regard disaggregated analogies to the legendary matter in the gospels as proof against the totality of their assertions and “reports.”[45]  As Paul Veyne has shown, in the ancient world the miraculous, the legendary and the historical walked upon a single stage, and our judgments about “what really happened” are imperiled even as we try to view it.[46]


Is Paul’s ‘Silence’ Active or Passive?

Third in sketching the process, there is the “problem of Paul,” or rather Paul’s imputed silence concerning Jesus of Nazareth and his preaching of what Schweitzer called a “Christ-the-Lord mysticism.”[47] Myth theorists have often worked from the general postulate that as Paul’s writing is earlier than the written gospel (a simplistic assumption at best), it is remarkable that Paul seems to know nothing of the historical tradition concerning Jesus of Nazareth.[48]  I believe this assumption is grantable to the mythicists only if it is the case that there is no supervening reason in Paul’s career that makes ignorance a more compelling reason for his silence (or virtual silence) than some other explanation.  In my view, there is a clear reason for Paul’s unhelpfulness which has nothing to do with him not knowing the Jesus tradition but much to do with his not knowing Jesus of Nazareth.

We have Paul’s letters less because of their literary value and theological significance than because one unusually persistent  heretic roamed the provinces from Pontus Bithynia to Rome trying to convince people of the second century that Christianity could be boiled down to believing in  a heavenly redeemer who slipped past the archons and became a sacrifice for sin.[49]  It may seem surprising that anyone would be persuaded by Paul’s conglomerate of Jewish tradition and Hellenistic theosophy, but Paul was not wedded to a univocal view of Jesus.  A propagandist driven by success and a man of many messages,[50] Paul changes course and charts new argumentative paths when he needs to, and he needed to because a great many of his “churches” didn’t like him or what he said.[51]  Moreover, a great deal of the Pauline tradition and the need for additional letters in his name is simply graphic confirmation of his obscurity and incomprehensibility.

The battle for Paul’s name and “authority” has been over-stressed, however, and edges on the anachronistic.[52]  His reputation is para-canonical rather than original to the tradition. His prestige was not at all guaranteed in the first and second century: it was largely an accidental quarrel over interpretation, forced on church writers by a specific heresiological crisis. Historically, the mythicist view assigns him relevance on the basis of a significance that is contextually untenable—as though Paul and the Jesus-tradition are synonymous “equi-valent” terms: as Paul is an early witness to the tradition (the argument normally runs), where is the tradition in Paul? [53] In fact, it is a lamentable feature of the mythicists that no single study has emanated from their circle that deals in a mature way with the historical, constructive features of Paul’s thought, as their main interest has been to use his silence about Jesus forensically to “prove a lacuna” in tradition that more careful analysis shows does not exist.

Ernst Käsemann aptly observed more than fifty years ago that most writers of the second century found Paul’s theology unintelligible.[54] In general, Paul does not deliberately contribute anything to a discussion of the historical Jesus and the dating of his letters is work fraught with danger and despair.  This disjunction in early Christianity has been recognized since earliest times—first of all by the writer of the Book of Acts, which seems to have arisen, at least in part,  in the anti-Marcionite fervor of the mid- second century..[55]  The battle for “ownership” of Paul artificially magnified his importance; but in fact, there would have been no nettle for this quarrel if Marcion had not tried to make the Apostle authoritative to the detriment of the gospels.  His theology may very well have sunk without trace and stayed sunken.

It seems to me that this distinction between what early writers called the apostolikon (meaning, almost exclusively, Paul) and the euangelion needs to be reiterated in the appropriate historical context:  The survival of Paul’s letters and theology is largely accidental, stems from controversy, theological and political dispute, and is as much polemically charged as it is theologically spontaneous.  The existence of the gospels is purposeful, even when specific controversies arising later can be identified within the text.  To use the former as a criterion or standard for the historical memory preserved in the latter is to establish a relationship between the two that runs contrary to their separate development. The silence of Paul as a passive matter—based on his ignorance of any historical tradition or a very rudimentary one–is untenable.  The reasons for his active silence are considered in the following section.


Competing Christologies and Complicit Silence

And so we are thrown back to the gospels, chiefly but not exclusively on the synoptics.  Are they pristine, objective, verbatim accounts of the life of Jesus?  Hardly.  Are they infused with assumptions about who Jesus is and approximations of what he said?[56]  Yes.  Can we find “heresiological”, or more properly controversial material in them—material intended to defend a sketchy proto-orthodox teaching about Jesus against less acceptable beliefs? Of course—as John Fenton showed,[57] especially in relation to Matthew’s gospel.  These considerations, however, are the surest proof that Jesus really lived and that the preservers of the Jesus-tradition knew what they were defending: they were squeamish about the divine man Christology[58] that dominated in much of the church, and is at least “available” in the gospel of John.  The tenuousness of their task is already implied in the phrase “Jesus Christ”[59] though given different prior outcomes, they might have regarded the phrase “Christ the Lord” too extreme–a quiet reason for their general disuse—or rejection–of Paul’s theories in shaping their Christologies.[60]  It is remarkable that the gospels use the much earlier descriptions “son of man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου, with its clear rootage in Hebrew and Aramaic passages: cf. כבר אנש) and “(a)son of God” (with meanings ranging from goodness to royalty; cf. Ps. 2.7), in reference to Jesus.  Yet unless we can conclude that Paul was actively rejecting or was ignorant of terms he may have regarded as anachronistic, useless to his broader purposes, or pejorative, we are obliged to see these traditions as being in competition by the ’50’s of the the first century CE.  Christology is not metaphysics in the first century; it is part of the broader contest of ideas in which historicity is at stake.

When I say that Jesus “really lived,” I mean lived in history, like anyone else.  It has to be said this way because the idea of historicity is a construct of the Enlightenment and later, when scholars like Leopold von Ranke,[61] Theodor Mommsen[62] and others turned their gaze on the difference between legend and actual events, defining history, no more and no less, as “what really happened” (“wie es eigentlich gewesen“)[63].  In the mid- twentieth century, scholars thought they could answer this question by settling once and for all what “kind” of writings the gospels really were: short stories, encomium, chronicle, tall tale, Kleinliteratur,[64] Hellenistic novel,  narrative drama, a script for a mystery religion–Christos Soter?[65]  None of the analogies quite stuck, though everyone had a favourite one. In the end however, the safest solution was to say that a gospel grew organically out of the experiences of people who had heard Jesus, or had heard about him, and had come to believe that he was some sort of savior or redeemer, or prophet—or (unhelpfully) all three.

The theological matter of Christology is nothing more than recognition that the gospels are a stew of opinions consisting of what people believed, surmised, and reported–expressed with appropriate irony in the Markan “confession” scenario (8:27-33) where Jesus is given to inquire, Who do men say that I am? [66] Peter’s response, is not especially telling and Mark does not mean for it to be.[67] That is to say, the gospels are not coherent sources for the life of Jesus, and even when we are brought to the edge of knowing who Jesus really is (cf. Mark 15.2), the gospel writers offer impressions, often attributed to opponents, crowds, onlookers, or followers, rather than “data.”[68] Only in the jesuine discourses of the Fourth gospel is the natural reticence of the synoptics cast aside in favor of bold assertions and self-reference.  As they stand, they invite preaching and interpretation (Mark 16.15; Matthew 28.18f.; John 20.31) and that is just how Paul and his associates used them. That these sources also grew in scope as a result of their function is also probable; but the alleged linear development from “kerygma” to “written gospel” (the Dodd-Bultmann uniqueness-hypothesis) is a theologically loaded way to conceptualize the process and stems from over-attention to the intratextual domain of the canonical writings themselves.

Once purged of the mythical and the obviously legendary, the guessing about original tradition begins.  Indeed, it begins prior to that because plausible theories exist for belief in the resurrection that do not rely on a supernatural interpretation of an event following the death of Jesus.[69] Just as we have to account for the existence of the Jesus-tradition in the gospels, we have to account for belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  That has been the central task of academic New Testament criticism for more than a century while only a literalist fringe have been occupied with defending  (and attacking) its “historicity.”[70] Denying that the resurrection was a historical event,  using nothing more than textual variants that have been charted for two centuries, does not provide that explanation.[71]

Thus we are required to confront the intentions of the gospel compilers—what they are trying to do:  how does this intention reflect the context from which the gospels emerge?  Were they inventing a story, repeating one they thought to be true, or adapting such historical traditions as they possessed to a larger frame of reference that included both legendary embellishments and a myth or paragon of salvation?

Using premises that predate the contemporary understanding of myth, myth-theorists have normally held that the gospel writers (or as for Drews and Bauer, an individual, original writer) wrote fraudulent or consciously deceptive tales. [72] It is important to emphasize that myths do not arise from fraudulent intent; they arise as explanatory stories.  For the most part, the gospels (unlike the Book of Genesis) fail as myth because they fail to explain anything.  It is true that over time Christian theology educes consequences of enormous importance from the story—doctrines like atonement and salvation—but the stories do not arise as narrative subterfuges to explain how salvation happened. As William Henry Furness, following Renan,[73] observed in the nineteenth century, their authenticity and integrity lay in their artlessness and not artifice.

“Myths” as that term has been used in modern scholarship, especially in anthropology and phenomenology of religion, are typically etiologies of why something is as it is, or how it came about.  Genesis is an etiology of the world, the creation of humankind, languages, sacrificial customs, and finally (beginning with Abraham) of the formation of the Hebrew nation. Even when populated by ordinary people, places and names, this etiological function is not far from the surface.[74]  Are the gospels etiologies in this sense, and if so, what are they attempting to explain?

In my view, even the most esoteric of them, the Fourth Gospel, remains an unsuccessful hybridized attempt to relate a stubbornly historical tradition to a pre-existing mythological structure.  If there are etiological components, like the Prologue in heaven (1.1-16, a creation story), they are not consistently developed and demonstrably false to the historical traditions preserved by the authors in other sections of the work.  And the jesuine discourses, even at their most obscure and theologically charged, are “spiritualizations,” as Maurice Wiles has called them, rather than falsifications of these historical traditions.[75] That John was driven by a different agenda was widely acknowledged even among the church fathers—a spiritual gospel according to Clement of Alexandria[76]— and almost all critical church historians and biblical exegetes since the Reformation, not one to be read merely as a history of Jesus.[77]

People of the first and second century did not need to be persuaded that there were gods, omens, miraculous births, and returns from the jaws of death.  The stories of gods and heroes routinely used the motif because, after all, it was core to the idea that a god was immortal.  If you read the stories of Osiris, Persephone, Heracles, the deaths of gods, the sojourns to the underworld, and their triumphal return, you can be forgiven for saying that Jesus was a hero like that.  The fact that one gospel begins by declaring that God became man (ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν) shows the attractiveness of a mythical overlay of events that John (erratically) sees being played out on earth and in heaven at the same moment.  Likewise, Paul’s vision of a descent to a lower world followed by a triumphal ascent through the archontic hosts to a higher one (Philippians 2.5-11) encourages the thinking that we have on our hands a garden variety savior myth with historical trimmings.  That,  of course, is the hub of the mythicist argument.

But what is only partly true of the Fourth Gospel [78] is flatly wrong with respect to the synoptic traditions, something even a casual reader of the texts can discern by intuition without having to go deeply into questions of date, provenance, and composition.  These historical elements, as Harnack realized a century ago, were vulnerable from the beginning to an encompassing myth that threatened to (and in the case of the Gnostics did) overwhelm it.[79]

Rather than being constructed myths, the gospels were, among other things, attempts to bring an existing and unruly mythology under control.   I do not subscribe to the view that this process can be expressed in the formula “from Jesus to Christ,”[80]  as liberal theology tried to chart its development in the nineteenth and through most of the twentieth century.  The gospels reflect partisan struggles within individual communities corresponding to those Paul describes in 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians.  In some of those, from as early as the fifties, if not earlier, the historical particulars of the life of Jesus had been rendered insignificant by the totalizing attraction of a salvation myth. Paul attempts to take control of this myth with his strange concoction of Jewish and “Hellenistic” additives, but he does not attempt to confront it head on or to challenge it with historical information.  Judging from the outlook and practice of the Corinthian church at least,[81] to do so would have been to sacrifice the congregation there entirely.  The argument in 1 Cor. 15.45f. rejects a temporal history in favor of a typology (the first and second “Man”) that functions mainly as allegory, but comes as close as Paul ever comes to developing a fully fledged mythology of salvation, one briefly reiterated in Roman 5.12-17.

In its purest form, this encompassing myth is Gnostic and perhaps our closest approximation to it, outside Paul, is the so-called Hymn of the Pearl.[82] It is that mythology, in some form, that Paul knows from his vantage point in ancient Turkey where Anatolian myth blended with Greek mystery ideas to the detriment of all historical interest.[83]

Paul is able to exploit that mythology as a “non-follower” of Jesus (a non-apostle who insists on his right to be called one) because the story for him is not about “flesh and blood” which after all can “never inherit the kingdom of God.”[84]

On a few occasions, to nullify the “judaizing” fraternal claims of the superior apostles (hyperlian apostoloi) who are related to Jesus by blood (as brothers or cousins) or adoption, especially James the Lord’s brother,[85] Paul sometimes generalizes the concept of the brothers (adelphoi) to refer to Christian believers, converts or neophytes symbolized in the mystical body of Christ (the “man from heaven”) though Jesus himself does not become (and is never accounted  to be) one of these brothers; he is rather the spiritual sine qua non—The Lord–through which the community comes into being.[86]  No one can “boast” because all are one in Christ Jesus.  Without understanding Paul’s apologetic motive for this usage, the author of Acts maintains it as a synecdoche for the community (e.g., Acts 1.16; 11.1; 13.26; 20.26 [KJV only]), often associated with believers, listeners, aspirants or “children of Abraham” but also maintains the historical precedent that the apostles are distinguished from the brothers and the unique status of James.[87]

The elimination of James as a “prop” for the historical Jesus has been a priority of the myth theorizers from the beginning of the twentieth century, but has also simply exploited the confusion over the identity of James, or multiple James’s,  as an alternative structure of facts.  The most familiar example of this is Arthur Drews’s[88] insupportable contention in The Christ Myth (German, 1909) that the easiest way to dispense of the brother-tradition is to recognize that the term “brother” is used equivocally in the sources:

Certainly that James whose acquaintance Paul made in Jerusalem is designated by him Brother of the Lord and from this it seems to follows that Jesus must have been an historical person.  The expression Brother is possibly in this in this case as so often in the Gospels a general expression to designate a follower of Jesus, as the members of a religious society in antiquity often called themselves Brother and sister among themselves.  1 Cor. 9.5 runs “Have we not also the right to take about with us a wife that is a sister even as the other apostles and brothers of the Lord and Cephas.”  It is evident that the expression by no means necessarily refers to bodily relationship but that Brother serves only to designate the followers of the religion of Jesus.”[89]

Famous for his academic inexactness and sensationalism even in his own time, Drews begins his observation with the glaring mistake that the “followers” of Jesus may here “as is so often the case in the gospels” be referred to as brothers in an honorary or cultic sense.  In fact, followers and disciples of Jesus are never once addressed as brother(s) in the gospels in any of the instances where a clear biological relationship is asserted.[90] Then, into the tortured syntax of 1 Corinthians 9.5, he inserts a relative construction missing in the Greek, to justify his belief that “sister” is being used as a circumlocution for “believer.” μὴ οὐκ ἔχομεν ἐξουσίαν ἀδελφὴν γυναῖκα περιάγειν ὡς καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ ἀπόστολοι καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ τοῦ κυρίου καὶ Κηφᾶς;  The more obvious meaning of course is “a sister,” [or] “a wife” (i.e., a woman), which has, in fact, become the majority translation. As to the phrase “brothers of the Lord,” it either excludes the higher ranks of  “apostles and Peter” or must envisage them as biological brothers (cf. Mk 3.31, Matt. 12.46; K; Lk 8.19; Jn 2.12, 7.3, 5, 10), such as James, who is not mentioned here.  Without Drews’s conclusion that the language of the mysteries, absent in the gospels, can be invoked to explain a verse in the epistles, the most obvious translation would be that brothers of Jesus, along with apostles, were seen by Paul as having a right to female companionship or service.  The context of the passage, indeed, makes this the only coherent translation: Paul is here talking about the right of an apostle to be served, be paid, and have a share of the earnings (“the fruit’) of his labour, not about  “the Christian mystery.” The phrase “brothers in the Lord” in Philippians 1.14 suggests that the author could make a clear distinction between a relational genitive such as Galatians 1.19 (ἀδελφὸs τοῦ Κυρίου) and an instrumental dative (ἀδελφῶi ἐν Κυρίῳ) such as we find in Philippians 1.14.[91]

Yet to assume that Paul’s deliberate and defensive disuse of the tradition nullifies the tradition is abjectly nonsensical. The Christian story as we know it and celebrate it in the Church is basically Paul’s mythos, especially in its Eucharistic form.  It is missing in John, who uses Eucharistic images in a different, arguably a more physical and anti-gnostic way (“I am the bread that has come down from heaven”), and works from a slightly different variation on the core salvation story.  But it seems clear in both cases (Paul implicitly, the Fourth Gospel directly) that the writers are exploiting a prior tradition and that this tradition was centered on an historical figure named Jesus.[92]

But the Jesus tradition did not begin there.  It began simply enough in Roman Palestine with the teaching of a figure named Jesus and his teacher, John the Baptist.  The historical moorings are crystal clear and plausible; the prologue in heaven (John 1.1-15) is later.  It is manufactured: it is exegesis. Paul’s salvation story is not earlier than the historical elements of the gospel.  It is a highly speculative interpretation of the tradition, though not a rejection of it.  While Marcion seems to have singled out a pattern of corrupting the gospel, dating back to the apostles themselves,[93] Paul does not polemicize against tradition—just against those like Peter and James, who use it for self-aggrandizement.[94]  Both Marcion and Paul, however saw corruption of tradition as a program carried out by “historical” followers of the Lord, not by devils.[95]  In asserting this, Paul becomes the first interpreter to place his interpretation of the gospel ahead of its historical embodiment.

In broad outline, the message of Jesus concerning the coming kingdom of God—that is, his eschatological message– is completely plausible.  It is both historically credible and fits into most of what we know from other sources about Roman Palestine at the time of Roman occupation.  In that story, Jesus does not fall out of the sky or propel himself back into it[96] –he simply lives and teaches and dies, a victim of the raucous age.  The question of what he taught and the completely useless attempt of various Jesus seminars and quests to isolate authentic sayings will surely go down as one of the most regressive episodes in biblical-studies history.  It seems certain he said some of it and the fact that others said similar things (Nihil sub sole novum) is proof, not disproof, that he said some of it. I have never budged from the view that Jesus was an eschatologist, that he preached judgment and repentance, probably in fairly stark terms.  The gospels make no bones about it.  What they do in addition to repeating the kerygma in conventional language drawn from a variety of Jewish apocalypses is to make Jesus not only the agent of change but the focus of deliverance.[97]

What the gospels also do is to make Jesus the agent of judgment, the unexpected, unheralded, and finally unrecognized messiah.[98] This is an apologetic stance forced on believers and recorders by the discomfiting events of the later first century.  Yet even their rationalization of events is within the domain of the predictable: the belief that Jesus said something specific about dates and times trails off into uncertainty about dates and times (Mark 13.32) like a father’s rash promise to buy a daughter a diamond for her eighteenth birthday and his demurrers on the last day of her seventeenth year. Nothing is more ordinary, more explicable.

But even here, the synoptic gospels are notably sketchy, even circumspect, about the extraordinary or as critics in the post-Enlightenment era would call it, the “supernatural.” And in Mark even the extraordinary is related in matter-of-fact terms using both temporal and geographical markers, a trait of Hellenistic history but not of myth and legend.[99]  Mythicists have often pointed to the fact that the gospel writers sometimes get the geography and temporal markers wrong—a feature readily noted by most New Testament scholars[100]–without complaining about the same persistent tendency in secular historiography from roughly the same period.[101] It is difficult to know what historical standard they are invoking, or whether their naivete is simply a result of having a deficient knowledge of the ancient world.

Moreover, the “incredible” elements of the gospels do not form a coherent narrative scheme: the miracles, a dozen healings, a few unlikely wins in debates against “teachers of the law.” Collectively, these do not constitute a myth; they are the legendary bits, though the Jesus-deniers often conflate myth and legend–which in fact serve different literary purposes and have different origins.[102] But the historical Jesus undergirds—and is presupposed by–the legends, in a way distinct from purely legendary figures like  King Arthur and Robin Hood whose entire existence is predicated on adventure, feats and tests of stength, and romance.  In general, apart from the obviously miraculous and legendary elements of the gospels, such as the birth stories, the story of Jesus is mundane and possesses none of the primary characteristics of pure legend: it is the story of a teacher gone wrong who is killed for his teaching and probably also for some of his displays of magic and healing.  Only later, and under the watchful eye of canonists, do stories about Jesus like those contained in the apocryphal gospels achieve fully legendary proportions.[103]  Put a bit flatfootedly (though this is not a new argument), the gospels do not show sufficient consistency to be pure legend and are not abstract enough nor sufficiently symbolic to qualify as “myth.”


Saving Jesus from the Gnostics

Fifth and finally: it becomes the job of the early Church to protect the core reality of a flesh and blood Jesus against the second and third century mythicizers, the Gnostic covens. The early writers, known and unknown, do this partly by bringing Paul under control—Paul who virtually disappears from view in the early patristic period.[104] They do this by lambasting Marcion’s attempt to subordinate the gospel to the letters by giving the gospels precedence; they do it also by continuing to write tendentious letters in Paul’s name—especially the so called Pastoral epistles with their transparently anti-Marcion bias.  They do it by writing minor texts assigned to other apostles—James, Peter, Jude, and John—to diminish Paul’s standing at a period when his teaching had lost relevance.  That these are forgeries, or more politely pseudonymous works, is now widely accepted.  That the deuteropauline correspondence is radically different from the same technique in the hands of the heretics is equally obvious.[105] Just as the gospels reflect the real life context of first century Palestine, the canonical letters, authentic and inauthentic, reflect real life situations that have arisen in the later life of the Christian community.  In the long run, it is their contribution to the historical life of communities—a certain practical relevance lacking in Gnostic writings–rather than proof of authorship that guaranteed their survival.

This protective reflex is very early, and at least goes back to the time of Polycarp, Ignatius and the author of the pastorals who warns specifically of those who follow the elaborate myths.[106] This “protection” is called for by the worry of a teaching that Jesus Christ “did not come in the flesh.”[107]  In its most radical form, that is to say in Gnosticism, human nature is devalued and a doctrine of spiritual elitism more extravagant than anything we find in Paul is put forward. According to Irenaeus who spends years of his life gathering evidence about them and attempting to sort them out (“though they spring up like weeds”[108]) they were not a unified front but a congeries of sects, each with a slightly different salvation story.  In their more flagrant but milder form, they stretch back to Paul’s day and to the time of fourth gospel (which may in part have originated in their circles.)  Being a “docetist” or a Gnostic was a matter of emphasis, but all would have argued that Jesus was a kind of apparition, not a flesh and blood human being.  He was not historical though historical is not a term they would have comprehended.  As a revealer, he was preternal, might have come before, might appear again, but never in a time-bound, material sense.

The battle between orthodox writers and the Gnostics (and their forerunners) was foremost a battle over a theory of atonement or redemption: if Jesus did not possess flesh, it was thought, he could not have redeemed flesh.[109] For the Gnostics, flesh cannot be redeemed; thus a true savior could not possess it (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.50). [110] But the basis for this theory was the bedrock historical material of the gospel: the life and the crucifixion and death of Jesus as real events, not cosmic tokens of salvation available to the τελειότερες– the “perfect ones.”  It is an interesting but common feature of most mythicist narrative about the New Testament that they have a very poor grasp of the Gnostic literature, and rely extensively on earlier myth-theorists whose works were written two generations and more before the Nag Hammadi documents were available to illustrate the shape of a fully fledged Christian myth.  Perhaps the most odious example of polemic masquerading as scholarship is the work of a certain Richard Carrier, whose vanity published (Lulu, 2009) Not the Impossible Faith manages in over 400 error-strewn pages to ignore entirely the fundamental theological challenge of the New Testament era.

As all New Testament scholars know, or should know, the difference between a Gnostic gospel and a canonical gospel is not only a difference in “style” but in purpose.  Joseph Fitzmyer once famously called the Gnostics “the crazies of the second century.”[111] That may or may not be so, but their success is evidence of the general popularity of their cause and seems to have justified the concern of orthodox bishops.

The euphoria that greeted the Nag Hammadi discovery of 1945 and the first publication and translations between 1972 and 1984  encouraged extreme notions that the Gnostics were a liberal heterodox alternative to “male dominated” conservative orthodoxy.[112]  But we are in a better place today to judge the threat of Gnosticism as it was seen in its own terms— not by autocratic bishops ruling from their thrones by fiat–that is a Hollywood parody of the second century church–but by leaders of a young religious movement struggling against a tide of religious mythicism. The living tradition that Irenaeus defends is historical tradition; it extends from Jesus to John to Papias and the elders, and even includes references to teachers who had “gone astray” from tradition like Cerinthus and Marcion.[113]  Indeed, the standards of historicity were strict enough for Eusebius in the fourth century to call Papias’s judgment into question on account of his chiliasm.  It includes before the fourth century a critical element that rivals anything in secular historiography, both in Papias’s comments on the evangelists and Eusebius’ negative feelings (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.13) about Papias’s gifts as a reporter.[114] As to Papias’s dates, we have Irenaeus to thank for identifying him as “a man of old time” (Adversus Haereses V 33.4) and thus a contemporary of Marcion and Polycarp, and perhaps just as significantly an Anatolian from provincial Hierapolis

To challenge every speck of this tradition is certainly possible, but what possible motive would there be for doing so?  The simple insistence of the early writers is that the historical tradition about Jesus came first, the “myths,” according to the Pastor, later.  Indeed, cumulatively, that is just what the texts as we possess them suggest is the case. The church fathers would have been in a position to distinguish paradosis (what was delivered, and considered authentic) from the “myths and fables and old wives tales,”[115] and what was new from what was received.  To impugn their motives moves us away from a methodological suspicion of sources into the realm of master-theories, cynicism and baseless assumptions for which there is no textual support.

The core of Gnostic belief was not that there was no Jesus but a salvation myth that did not require him as a distinct personality.  By contrast, for all their legendary embellishments, the canonical gospels want to insist on the historical reality of Jesus, located in a specific corner of the Roman world at a particular moment in time.  That corner is Roman Palestine, and the basic details are true to life and credible.  In saying this it would be jejune to suggest that I am defending the miraculous; but I would want to defend the historicity of the healing stories.  It would be simplistic to say that critical New Testament scholars are still arguing for a physical resurrection; but many, including myself, regard the basic proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus as a historic and defining event  in the history of the church, though its form varies from source to source (cf. 1 Corinthians 15,6).

Modern scholarship has unearthed many figures from the period whose careers run roughly parallel to that of Jesus:  Judas the Galilean, Jesus Barabbas, Theudas, Shimeon bar Kochba  and John the Baptist himself have similar proportions and messages, and inhabited a social world of religious insurgencies, banditry, and political opposition to Rome in a countercultural Judaism that ends with a bang in 70CE.  The unveiling of that social world has further solidified our confidence in the portrait of Jesus in the gospels.[116]  It is a social context about which the mythicists are largely silent and, given their presuppositions and methods, embarrassingly deficient. The age was an age of radicals, revolutionaries, messianic claimants, and self-styled prophets of the end time. We have investigated targums, pseudepigrapha, ostraca, ossuaries, tombs, and remnants of village life that put us tantalizingly close to a village like Nazareth.[117]  The net result of these investigations has not been to push the gospels in the direction of fantasy and fabrication but to establish a probable landscape within which the events described in them plausibly occurred.  It does not take a great deal of historical or literary sophistication, for example, to see that the rudimentary nature of their contents places them squarely in the first and early second century, proximate to the events they describe, rather than at a perceptible distance from these events, as the apocryphal and Gnostic writings are.

If the Nazareth tradition embedded in the synoptics and John is more elaborately attested in the gospels than in other literature contemporary to it, the most efficient explanation is that the gospel writers knew about the place because Jesus, in the tradition they possessed,  was associated (even if mistakenly) with it, not that they invented it.  Matthew’s laborious attempt to find a prophecy to fit it (and various attempts to invent an alternative etymology for “Nazareth” and “Nazarene” based on Hebrew and Aramaic roots)[118] suggest that the village was an embarrassment to the followers, as it was already traditioned in Mark’s famous story of Jesus’ failed attempt to preach there and Luke’s finessing of the older tradition (Mark 9.1; 6.1-7; cf.  Luke 4 .16-30).  Recent excavations (2008, seq.) led by Yardena Alexandre[119] show that Nazareth (as Bagatti had conjectured) was small (±500), but (as Princeton archaeologist Jack Finnegan argued) a strongly Jewish settlement.[120]  The basic picture that has emerged is entirely compatible with what the gospels say about the area being inconspicuous, poor, and suspect (John 1.46; cf. 7.41). Nevertheless, even if the identification of Nazareth could be proved to be mistaken and the name educed from the phrase “Jesus the Nazarene,” there would hardly be a strong case for rejecting the Galilean provenance of Jesus or his actual existence; it would show only that the gospel writers were attempting to sort out a tradition that had come to them unsorted.[121]

Contextually, the gospels are about right, though they get things wrong.  Like your grandmother’s stories, they changed over time.  Details were lost and some geographical details were modified and forgotten—and others like Bethlehem, invented as a way of doing what every leader since Epirus and Augustus himself tried to do: improve a pedigree or establish a res gestae of their deeds .[122]  But the description of Pilate, of Herod Antipas (another casualty of pedigree), the muddled version of the trial, and the mechanism of punishment and death are completely plausible.  They were no more written by eyewitnesses than Livy’s descriptions of Republican Rome; nor is that the standard we normally require in ancient history. Once the peculiar nature of the history contained in the gospels is acknowledged, it is useless to try to hold them to a historiographical standard higher than that expected of their secular counterparts—unless the point of the inquiry is not to discover the facts within the sources but to discredit the sources.

Stripped of its theological and liturgical embellishments—which are as masterful in their way as Plato’s fictional mise en scène for the death of Socrates[123]— the crucifixion drama becomes the simple story of the death of a Galilean troublemaker and teacher.  Taken as it stands, it is the story of the death of the messiah, or of a son of god, replete with liturgical embellishment from the Psalms and the Wisdom of Solomon, among other sources.  Almost all New Testament scholars accept that pious accretions form a heavy emulsion over the bare bones.  But likewise, most realize that the simple factual recitation of these events unaccompanied by such interpretation would be false to the story as they rationalized it and understood its significance.  If modern literary criticism has taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as uninterpreted narrative. The gospels do not exist “propositionally”: they exist “hermeneutically.”  It has not been the task of New Testament scholarship since the time of Strauss and Feuerbach to answer the question “whether” Jesus rose from the dead, but rather how the early Christians understood this belief, and how it arose within the religiously and politically charged environment of the time.    Even if all questions of interpretation could be decided in favor of factual assertions, the gospels would still not exist propositionally.


The Mythicist Position – The Paul Cipher

The cumulative effect of these considerations drowns the mythicist position, which had its beginnings in the excitement of radical New Testament scholarship in Holland, Britain and America at the end of the nineteenth century, and in Germany before that.  As a connoisseur of these and later mythicist theories, I can safely say, almost no stone was left unturned in attempting to debunk the gospels.  Those stones have now been turned over and over, without much effect and nothing hiding under them.

Despite the energy of the myth school from Drews, Robinson, Couchoud and van Eysinga down to Wells, its last learned, reputable proponent,[124] its conclusions have been rendered wrong by the historical scholarship of the later twentieth century.[125]  It remains a quaint, curious, interesting but finally unimpressive assessment of the evidence—to quote James Robinson’s verdict, an agenda-driven “waste of time.”  Methodologically it disposes of anything contrary to its core premise—Jesus did not exist—in a quicksand of denial and half-cooked conspiracy theories that take skepticism and suspicion to a new low.   Like all failed hypotheses, it arrives at its premise by intuition, cherry picks its evidence in a way that wants to suggest that the ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity of texts and traditions are meaningless inconveniences invented by the discipline of New Testament studies, and defends its “conclusions” by force majeure.    The myth theory, in short, is a dogma in search of footnotes. Most of the ones it continues to exploit in the form of references, problems, and allusions are a century old.  While it is untrue to say that the theory is not taken seriously by responsible scholars, it happens to be true that its most ardent supporters, then and now, have been amateurs or dabblers in New Testament studies and those least equipped by training or inclination to assess an enormously complicated body of evidence.

History as a discipline has been in the business of exposing fraud at least since the time of Lorenzo Valla.[126] But the exposure of fraud is not the discovery of factuality or truth—of  “what really happened.” History requires a certain patience with ambiguity, sometimes surgical care with delicate sources that have an ounce of reliable data buried beneath the layers of additions and corrections. Harnack believed that the procedure was like peeling husks away from a nob of corn,[127] but it was an unfortunate image, as his critic, Alfred Loisy reminded him.[128] New Testament scholarship has learned more recently to distinguish between event and allegory which are unevenly blended in the story of Jesus.  However that may be, the outlines of an historical figure are clear.  As the hyperactive Tertullian argues in his treatise on the Flesh of Christ (De carne Christi, ca. 212), against the mythicizers of his day,

Why do you allege that that flesh is celestial which

you have no data for thinking celestial, why deny that that is

terrestrial which you have data for recognizing as terrestrial? It

hungers when with the devil, is athirst with the Samaritan

woman, weeps over Lazarus, trembles at the prospect of death–

The flesh, he says, is weak–and at last sheds its blood. You take

these, I suppose, for celestial signs. But, say I, how could he, as he

said would happen, be despised and suffer, if in that flesh there

had shone any radiance from his celestial nobility? By this means,

then, we prove our case that in that flesh there was nothing

brought down from the skies, and that that was so for the express

purpose that it should be capable of being despised and of


The language is odd to us, because Tertullian is arguing against a renegade disciple of Marcion named Apelles.  But the message is plain: Jesus was real.

When I began my work on Marcion at Oxford, I entertained the idea of the non-historicity of Jesus.  I was obligated to because Marcion also toyed with the idea–and rejected it.  His sole surviving gospel was his lonely concession to that reality, while his project—to give Paul’s theology pride of place over it—was dominant in his thought.  His followers like Apelles seem to have assumed the so-what attitude that can be traced back to Paul’s contempt for the hyperlian-apostoloi, the super-apostles, with their boast about knowing Jesus “after the flesh.”  “So what if we knew him that way,” Paul sneers, “since we know him that way no longer”(2 Cor. 5.16).

But Paul, writing in the fifties of the first century, says more in that irritated and offhanded comment than he does anywhere else in his letters about the historical Jesus: he tells us why, as a personal matter, he does not “preach” Jesus’ life story, but instead begins with the skandalon of his cross, a usage that means Paul knew at least one piece of information about Jesus, and also that preaching it came at a price among Jews and “Greeks.”

Unfortunately, a standard response to the “opponents” controversy between Paul and the Jerusalem church among the mythicists has been to ignore the controversy, or to deny the existence of the Jerusalem church, or (even) to deny the existence of Paul himself.[130] When Mark Twain felt the plot and character in a novel called Those Extraordinary Twins had become too cumbrous to drive the story forward he decided to drown the surplus in a “poison well.”   Loads of surplus information lay at the bottom of the mythicist well.[131]  Much of that material concerns our lengthening understanding of the world and context of Paul.

There is no reason at all to doubt the best attested schism in the earliest history of the church (if we discount the ones for which the evidence is less clear).  This schism was at least partly about the claim of “certain men from James” (Gal. 2.12) to be physically, perhaps familialy close to Jesus—while Paul “every bit as much an apostle as they are!”—grounds his message in a revelation of the risen Lord.  In the bitterest sections of 2 Corinthians, the New Testament’s most complex letter, one which seems to have had special relevance to Marcion judging from Tertullian’s long-winded handling of it in the Adversus Marcionem—we have some insight into the first corporate management crisis in the Christian religion.  Unsurprisingly it is a war between executives appointed by the founder and an upstart “idea man” who came on board after the founder’s death.  Even “Luke’s” conciliatory prose in the Acts of Apostles, written more than fifty years later, doesn’t succeed in erasing the damage created by the schism.  Yet the crisis itself points indubitably past the legend of the twelve to the historicity of Jesus, his disciples, and James.[132]

What mattered in the early church, however, was the significance of Jesus’ unexpected death—its projected meaning as the mysterious conquest of evil, and its consequences, by the powers of God’s grace—not the basic humanity of the sermon on the mount or the (unoriginal) piety of the Lord’s Prayer, or the choosing of preachers to carry on the cause. It was that significance variously construed that created the apostolic community, drove Paul’s missionary work, and the hostility towards it, inspired Marcion’s gospel of love, and Irenaeus’ defense of living tradition.  Or rather–what mattered more was the significance of his death, since there is no evidence that interest in the mundane and the super-mundane aspects of the life of Jesus did not arise at around the same time and in some sense as competitive motifs.

For all his speculativeness and infatuation with Paul’s theology as he knew it, Marcion was also something of a literalist, and very probably an Anatolian Jew, where Christianity developed early inroads and was fully fledged by the time of Pliny’s  governorship in 110-13—a period when Marcion would have been active as a teacher.  A core part of his teaching is that there is a greater and a lesser God, Jesus being the embodiment of the love and goodness of the higher, previously unknown power.  But the evolving church could not even accept this much.  It risked a kind of theological incoherence (which it seems to me remains long after Chalcedon) in insisting on the total humanity and divinity of Jesus rolled into one.

Further, Marcion detected no literary artifice in the gospel he possessed: he held that the followers of Jesus were poor pupils and finally false witnesses to his teaching.  He does not base this finding on a literary “motif” in the gospels (where at least in Luke the apostles are already caught up in a process of rehabilitation)[133] but on a skepticism towards the trustworthiness of the apostles that comes from Paul himself.  Was Paul its source, or simply a recipient of the “false apostle” theme? What were Paul’s criteria for his sneering dismissal of the pretense of superior apostles? Is a formerly historical, celestial Jesus, once known physically, who can continue to impart revelation and appoint apostles after his death more relevant for Paul’s odd message not more useful than an historical Jesus who appointed them all during his lifetime?  Or can we be myth theorists about it and say the entire conflict is manufactured by story tellers?


A Conclusion among Others

What I have just recited is a lesson plan for why I believe no serious and responsible scholar who makes a thorough study of the discussions of the early church would argue that Jesus never existed.

The gospels alone, even when the unusual circumstances of their composition and their interdependence and differences are taken into account, do not prove him.  But the complex of material that survives and tells us the story of Christian beginnings points to conclusion that Jesus existed, when and where the gospels say he did.  The core elements, many of the details, and especially the conflicts and controversies that form the stage for the life of Jesus, are still irreducibly clear.  They are not the work of a mastermind, or a master-forger, or a duplicitous tale-spinner.  They are the work of serious if culturally limited writers who are trying to do their best with collected traditions existing in a variety of what later scholarship would call “forms.” Whether Jesus gave the sermon on the mount in a field or on a hilltop, all at once or in bundles, does not negate the tradition that he gave it at all.  Too much has been claimed for the heuristic value of suspicion in probing a naïve literary tradition, not enough attention to the persistence of a consistent frame and the historical coherence of its central character.  In their own way, and at a time when Jesus might simply have been gobbled up by a dozen analogous myths and rituals, the gospel writers and their interpreters, the church fathers, insist on this frame.

As I remarked in the Sources of the Jesus Tradition, God- denying and Jesus-denying are different tasks.  I do not think the evidence of history is dispositive in deciding the existence of God in the most general sense of that term and apart from its cultural expressions. I think the Bible, both testaments, and all other sacred literature, is collectively unhelpful in settling the question.

But I think the basic factuality of Jesus is undeniable unless we (a) do not understand the complexity of the literature and its context, or impose false assumptions and poor methods on it; (b) are heavily influenced by conspiracy theories that–to use a Humean principle—are even more incredible than the story they are trying to debunk; or (c) are trying merely to be outrageous.  To  repeat Morton Smith’s verdict on Wells, the idea that Jesus never existed requires the concoction of a myth more incredible than anything to be found in the Bible.[134]

The use of any single “theorem” to deal with the values discussed here beggars the credible.  Yet there are self-appointed experts in this camp who lead equally gullible and unwary amateurs down a path of pseudo-mathematical probability based on the absurd notion that the gospels can be approached using  true or false modalities, without reference to the recipients who neither accepted nor understood the preaching about Jesus in modal terms. It invites the opposite of careful research because it relies on an anachronistic and “legal” approach to the gospels as a collection of truth claims that can be answered yes or no.  But that is not what the textual tradition gives us to decide.   The “Jesus Tradition” is so-called because it is less than a history of events as we’d want to know them.  Between Jesus and us, the community intervenes, not once but pervasively.  It is their voice we hear, not the voice of Jesus. That fact does not entail the conclusion that therefore Jesus had no voice, anymore than repeating a story your grandmother told you entails that you made it up and had no grandmother.

When the Ann Arbor conference Jesus in History and Myth convened twenty seven years ago, the then best-known advocate of the Jesus-Myth theory, George A. Wells, was aboard for the deliberations. I was then a fledgling assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

In my own presentation, “Other Gospels, Heretical Christs,” I commented on the possibility that we need to change our view of the gospels from corroborative to corrective, a fairly unexciting conclusion, I thought, considering what we know today about their interconnections. That is, we cannot use the synoptic writings as mutually corroborative testimony to a single event, as they were regarded once upon a time, in Tatian’s day. But we can regard them as serving independent corrective functions in relation to the traditions they incorporate and each other, a fairly common device among classical historians as well.  “What are they correcting?” Wells shot at me when I finished, “since there is no indisputable historical detail to serve as a standard.” At this, the late Morton Smith, who ‘required’ a historical Jesus to serve as the hero of his magician theory, said “Well, they might have flown off in all directions. They didn’t.  Their resemblance is pretty strong evidence that they were trying to preserve something and I believe it is historical memory.”

“And while we’re at it,” Smith went on, “what is an indisputable historical detail?”

And this brings me back to the starting point.  They preserve something, and I believe it is historical memory as well.  They might have gone off in all directions. The apocryphal Jesus story does just this, with tales of ascents into heaven, a divine brat who slays his playmates, and a revealer who descends to hell and puts demons in irons.[135] That is pure legend.  It “flies off in all directions.”  The Gnostic gospels do it too.  But the canonical gospels do not.  If a contrived mythology is the sufficient explanation of these literary artifacts, it is the job of the myth theorists to explain why they are such poor examples of the mythic tradition—not why they tell the tale of a man who ascends triumphantly into heaven, in some late accounts, like Romulus in the famous apotheosis of Livy–but why they begin with someone who bothered to touch the ground at all.

In short, the gospels stand as the best refutation of the myth theory of their origins.  So indirectly do the theological defenses of the reality and humanity of Jesus.  So finally does Paul’s self-confessed rejection of the historical Jesus in the context of his fight with “those who were apostles beforehand.” They are in essence and substance a refutation of a particularly seductive soteriology, the tale of a divine being sent from above to an elect few to whisper the gnosis of salvation.

We cannot say how successfully they domesticate this myth to the historical reality of one man’s life, death and limited teaching.  Gnosticism is our surest evidence of how it might have been if the historical contours had been sacrificed to a theory of salvation, and the gospel of John evidences an intermediate stage—a halfway compromise so to speak—between reality and myth. We know what a gospel is, in other words, because we know quite clearly today what failed gospels look like in the form of a prevenient mythology of redemption populated by abstract time-travelling revealers.  Yet the preoccupation of the gospels is not cosmic, it is worldly and the teaching of Jesus ranging from advice on divorce to his adumbrations of his impending death—which I take to be commonsensical and plausible rather than prophetic—are the normal concerns of a man whose time is running out.


[1] Perhaps one of the best examples of bead stringing and analogue-accumulation in lieu of argument is the work of Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God? (Three Rivers Press, 2001), which takes its view of gnosticism (not a Hellenistic mystery as such) almost entirely from Elaine Pagels’s book on the topic, and is deficient in understanding the form, context, and workings of the Hellenistic mysteries in general.

[2] Morton Smith, “The Historical Jesus,” in R. Joseph Hoffmann, and Gerald Larue, eds., Jesus in History and Myth (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1986), pp. 47-8.

[3] The important studies, without prejudice to their quality and date are: S. J. Case, The Historicity of Jesus (Chicago, 1912), reflecting the state of the question at a relatively early date; F. C. Conybeare, The Historical Christ (London, 1914), a rational defense of the historical Jesus by a leading Oxford Orientalist; Maurice Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene, Myth or History (London 1928; rpt. Amherst, 2008), a clear refutation of the position by one of the leading French exegetes of his era; R. T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (London, 1986), a respectful but uneven indictment of the mythicism of G.A. Wells; and Morton Smith, “The Historical Jesus,” in Jesus in History and Myth, ed. R.J. Hoffman and G.A Larue (Amherst, 1986), who concluded that the myth theory is “almost entirely an argument from silence,” pp. 47-48)

[4] Issues variously summarized in Charles Horton, ed., Earliest Gospels: The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels (Library Of New Testament Studies), (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004).  A useful general survey is G.B. Caird, “The Chronology of the New Testament,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1. pp.  599-60; Dennis Eric Nineham, Historicity and Chronology in the New Testament. Theological Collections, No. 6. (London: S.P.C.K, 1965); A.J.M. Wedderburn, “Paul’s Collection: Chronology and History,” New Testament Studies 48.1 (2002): 95-110; and Colin J. Hemer, “Observations on Pauline Chronology,” Donald A Hagner & Murray J Harris, eds., Pauline Studies: Essays Presented to F.F. Bruce (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1980),  pp.3-18.

[5]Helmut Koester, The Synoptic Tradition in the Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (Synoptschen Überlieferung bei den apostolischen Vätern (diss. Marburg, 1953); rpt. Texte und Untersuchungen, 65 (Berlin, 1957). Koester’s view is that there was a free oral tradition paralleling the synoptics until around 150CE.  Only 2 Clement and Didache 1.3-2.1 form an exception.  Koester’s argument pivots on the idea that orthodoxy and heresy “are not distinct categories before the time of Irenaeus,”  though much pivots on the definition of “category” in his assessment. See  also T.C. Mournet, Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency: Variability and Stability in the Oral Tradition and in Q, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2 (2005).

[6] While there are questions concerning the date of the Ignatian correspondence, these have often been pursued most vigorously in the history of scholarship by evangelical and “non-episcopal” theologians who have taken exception to this relatively early endorsement of the authority of bishops. Andreas Lindemann noted, for instance, that Lechner takes for granted the notion that the Ignatian Epistles were a late second century forgery by someone using the antithetical confessions of Noetus of Smyrna. The matter is admirably sorted out in “Paul’s Influence on Clement and Ignatius,” in Trajectories through the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers, ed. Andrew Gregory and Chris Tuckett (Oxford, 2007). An excellent summary of the connections between the controversies that link the earliest Antiochene church and that of Ignatius is Raymond Brown and John P. Meier, Antioch and Rome (Paulist, 1983). Following Lindemann’s statement of the difficulty of dating the correspondence, John-Paul Lotz has provided an interesting study of the controversy surrounding the how the concept of homonoia (concord) was understood in the churches of the second century; see his Ignatius and Concord (Vienna and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007).

[7] On Marcion, see generally A. von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. by John Steely (Wipf and Stock rpt. edition, 2007); and R. J. Hoffmann, Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity. An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century (American Academy of Religion/Scholars, 1984), p. 31 (on the biographical frame for Marcion’s activity),   and Joseph Tyson, Marcion and Luke Acts: A Defining Struggle (Columbia, SC: USC Press, 2006).

[8] Tert., Adv. Marc. 4.4.2: ‘Alioquin quam absurdum, ut, si nostrum antiquius probaverimus, Marcionis vero posterius, et nostrum ante videatur falsum quam habuerit de veritate materiam, et Marcionis ante credatur aemulationem a nostro expertum quam et editum.’ (‘Otherwise how preposterous it would be that when we have proved ours the older, and that Marcion’s has emerged later, ours should be taken to have been false before it had from the truth material <for falsehood to work on>, and Marcion’s be believed to have suffered hostility from ours before it was even published:’ [Evans trans.]) That is to say, Marcion directly made the claim that his gospel was the basis for later versions of the gospel. Cf. 4.4.1.

[9]Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem,  Latin with English trans. By Ernest Evans (Oxford: OECT,  1972), 1.1.

[10] The literature on “Q” is prolific; a popular general survey is Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (New York: Harper, 1994).  Mack’s thesis is speculative and on the fringe of New Testament scholarship. Also see:  David R. Catchpole, The Quest for Q. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993; Adelbert Denaux, “Criteria for identifying Q-passages : a critical review of recent work by T. Bergemann” Novum Testamentum 37 (1995), 105-29; and the still sober discussion of Werner Kelber, The Oral and the Written gospel : The hermeneutics of speaking and writing in the synoptic tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q. (Indiana, 1997); John S.Kloppenborg, Excavating Q : the history and setting of the sayings gospel (Fortress, 2000).  Standard skeptical discussions are Austin Farrer, “On dispensing with Q,” Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955), pp. 55-88 (never superseded); Michael Goulder, “Is Q a Juggernaut?” Journal of Biblical Literature 115 (1996), pp. 667-81; and Mark Goodacre, The Case against Q (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2002).

[11] Cf. Hoffmann, Marcion (1984), xi.

[12] For a discussion of my argument concerning Laodiceans-Ephesians/Colossians within the broader context of the Pauline canon, see Stanley Porter, The Pauline Canon (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 132-134. Further, Hoffmann, Marcion, pp. 252-279.

[13] David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford, 2000); see also his Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the origins (Quiet Waters, 2001).  A credulous reconstruction of canonical  origins that greatly underestimates the influence of Marcion is Harry Gamble’s The New Testament Canon, Its Making and Meaning (Wipf and Stock, 2002).

[14] On the “heresy” behind the Pastoral letters see Hoffmann, Marcion (1984), pp. 281-305; and Joseph B. Tyson, Marcion and Luke Acts: A Defining Struggle, pp. 26-45. Among older works, Martin Dibelius, The Pastoral Epistles: Hermeneia (Augsburg, 1989) and more recently, Paul Hartog, Polycarp and the New Testament:  The Occasion, Rhetoric, Theme, and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians and Its Allusions to New Testament Literature (Mohr, 2001). The study by Kenneth Berding,  Polycarp and Paul (Brill, 2002) suggesting that allusions in Polycarp to the Pastorals can be used to prove their early date is not persuasive.  The general conclusions of von Campenhausen (1963) and Harrison (1921) especially on linguistic evidence and hapax legomena in the epistles have not been persuasively challenged.

[15] See the still most reliable survey, Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), and Hugh Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World (Princeton, 2010).

[16] See Bauer’s concise epitome of Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei in G. Strecker, ed., Aufsätze und Kleine Schriften (Tübingen, 1967), pp 229-33.

[17]The cult of the healer-god Asklepios is often referred to as analogous. Most descriptions date from the second century of the common era and beyond and are associated with precinct healings by animated statues.  See Callistratus, Descriptions 10 (trans. Fairbanks) as well as Plato, Phaedo 118a; Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 21. ; 2. 26. 1; Aelian, On Animals 7.13;  Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 3,4; etc.  Aside from its distinction from the cults,  there is the obvious fact that Christianity’s historical interest is as much a reflection of its Jewish and biblical beginnings as of its Hellenistic missionary environment. See Martin Hengel,  Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (Wipf and Stock, 2003): “It is not possible to say that Judaism maintained a straight course through the Hellenistic period…Still less can it be claimed that it was completely permeated by the Hellenistic spirit” (p. 310).

[18] Perhaps the most ambitious if also the most unsuccessful attempt to argue influence by accumulation is the work of Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle (self published by Age of Reason Publications, 2005). An older example of the genre is German controversialist Arthur Drews almost manically disorientated  The Christ Myth (Die Christusmyth, 1909; ET 1910), which argued a kind of proto-Nazi paganism based on the theory that the totality of the story of Jesus was drawn from Jewish and Hellenistic cults of the period (see especially pp., 310-315).  Drews is significant largely because he created the flashpoints to which many mythicists return again and again, and his conviction that the Christ myth was not an innocent process but a conspiracy perpetrated in the interest of finding support for their beliefs: “As early as the first few centuries of the present era pious Christians searched the Jewish and pagan writers for references to Jesus, convinced that such references ought to be found in them ; they regarded with great concern the undeniable defects of tradition, and, in the interest of their faith, endeavoured to supply the want by more or less astute ‘pious frauds,’ such as the Acts of Pilate, the letter of Jesus to King Abgar Ukkama of Edessa, 1 the letter of Pilate to Tiberius, and similar forgeries.” (Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus  [1912], p. 1, McCabe translation).  Without any attempt to discuss the criteria for establishing the spuriousness of these sources, he goes on to indict the gospels for perpetrating a fraud.

[19] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 3.4; ET by Alexander Roberts (reprint edition, CreateSpace, 2012)

[20]This basic function is often overlooked; for example, the Pastor’s advice that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for reproof, correction and training in righteousness” (πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸς ἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ (2 Tim. 3.16) suggests a provenance for the letter within a specific heresiological context that did not exist in Paul’s day. On the Pastorals and Marcion, see Hoffmann, Marcion, pp. 231-305.

[21] C.N. Mount, Pauline Christianity: Luke-Acts and the Legacy of Paul (Supplements to Novum Testamentum: Brill, 20001) , esp.  p, 23: “The obscurity from which Irenaeus rescued the text of Acts reflects the relative unimportance of Acts in the life of early Christian communities, and prevents ant firm conclusions about precursors to Irenaeus’s use of Acts for scholarly debate about the canon.”

[22] According to Williams, Marcion is accused on numerous occasions of omitting material from Luke’s gospel which does not appear in Luke at all; the most notable example is the accusation that he omits Matthew 5.17, which he charges three times over. Additionally, Marcion’s gospel underwent revision after the death of Marcion himself, though proposed ways of deciding the degree of change have not been persuasive.  See Tyson, Defining Struggle, pp. 42-44.

[23] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer, 3.2.1: “But when we refute these people [the heretics] out of the Scriptures, they turn and accuse the very Scriptures, on the ground that they are mistaken or not authoritative or not consistent in their narrative, and they say that the truth cannot be learned from them by persons who do not know the tradition, and that that was not transmitted in writing but by word of mouth.”

[24] See Hoffmann, “The Canonical Historical Jesus,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011), pp, 257-265.

[25] A good general study of Irenaeus is Denis Minss, Irenaeus (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994).  There is no outstanding scholarly treatment of Irenaeus’ life and thought. See also Eric Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyon (Cambridge, 2005), p. 180:  As Osborne mildly understates the case, “If Marcion first propounded a canon of scripture, then Irenaeus’ canon could be seen as a catholic response.”

[26] Ecclesiastical   Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries by Freiherr von Hans Campenhausen [Hans von Campenhausen] (1969), p. 170, regarding Adv.Haer, 3.2.1); D B Reynders, Paradosis, l’idée de tradition jusqu’a saint Irenée, RTA, 5 (1933), 155-191

[27] Especially Irenaeus’ arguments in Adv. Haer. 3.4.

[28] R. J. Hoffmann, “The Canonical Historical Jesus,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition (2011), pp. 157-165.

[29] Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene (1926), p. 109.  Ultimately the discussion is deadlocked between camps representing one of two views: one that claims Paul’s silence is ignorance and should therefore be construed as not knowing historical “information,” a view that Dunn describes, on the basis of what we know about the sociology if new religious movements, as highly implausible; and another view that sees Paul as essentially an interpreter and not a preserver and reciter of data.  As the first clear instance of the controversial context through which the Jesus tradition came into existence and was moderated, it is clear that Paul’s position cannot be interpreted as mere ignorance, and unlikely that it stems from the feeling that the history of Jesus is irrelevant.

[30] T. Livi, Ab Urbe Condita, Liber I. 1-11; Latin ed., M. Alford (Macmillan, 1941).

[31]See David L. Dungan, Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2007) and John Clabeaux’s review of Hoffmann, Marcion, Journal of Biblical Literature ( Vol. 105, No. 2, Jun., 1986), 343-346.  In fact I do not believe that Marcion’s gospel was UrLukas as that designation is conventionally understood, but a prototype existing within Marcion’s community, compiled by Marcion himself.  The association with Luke, arguably based on his fictional devotion to Paul (Col 4.1.4; 2 Tim. 4.1-11) gives us some hint of the process through which the third gospel was domesticated. Millar Burrows’s serviceable discussion of “Special Luke” (9.51-18.14) is still useful for the general description of the material: Jesus in the First Three Gospels (Nashville, 1977).  The provenance of this tradition is still a matter for speculation.  As a thematic concern, it has often been noted that the special section contains a number of stories emphasizing Jesus’ concern for women and the poor.  It is interesting circumstantially that Marcion’s gospel is attacked for emphasizing the benevolence of the “alien” God and the high status of women within the Marcionite churches. On the question of Marcion abbreviating Luke, see the discussion by Andrew Gregory, The Reception of Luke-Acts in the Period before Irenaeus (Tuebingen, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2, 2003), which suffers unfortunately from reliance on the hypothesis of Han Drijvers and Gerhard May.

[32]Livy, 1.4.

[33] (Aug. 95); see the discussion in Paul Burke, “Augustus and Christianity in Myth and Legend, “ New England Classical Journal, 32.3 (2005), 213-220.

[34] Celsus, On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, trans. R. Joseph Hoffmann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 116, quoted in E. Komoszewski, James Sawyer, and Dan Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI.: Kregel Publications, 2006), 313.

[35] On the last of these, see  Hugh J. Schonfield, According to the Hebrews (London: Duckworth, 1937); the Toledoth text (primarily from the Stassburg  MS) is on pages 35-61 and the still valuable discussion of Joseph Klausner Jesus of Nazareth: His life, times, and teaching (orig. 1922, Engl. transl. 1925, London, George Allen & Unwin) page 51; 1705 Hebrew version at;  a superb recent discussion is David Biale, “Counter-History and Jewish Polemics Against Christianity: The Sefer toldot yeshu and the Sefer zerubavel,” Jewish Social Studies 6.1 (1999) 130-145 (evaluated from the standpoint of Amos Funkenstein’s concept of the purposes of counter-history.) Some of the Jewish sources are summarized in R. J. Hoffmann, Jesus Outside the Gospels (Amherst, 1987; 1991), pp. 36-53.

[36] This was essentially Goguel’s argument against the myth theorists of his day.  On the absence of pagan and Jewish skepticism towards the historicity: “The importance of this fact is considerable, for it was on the morrow of His birth that Christianity was confronted with Jewish opposition. How is it possible to suppose that the first antagonists of the Church could have been ignorant of the fact that the entire story of Jesus, His teaching, and His death corresponded to no reality at all? That it might have been ignored in the Diaspora may be admitted, but it appears impossible at Jerusalem; and if such a thing had been known, how did the opponents of Christianity come to neglect the use of so terrible an argument, or how, supposing they made use of it, does it happen that the Christians succeeded in so completely refuting them that not a trace of the controversy has been preserved by the disputants of the second century?” (Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History, London, 1926, p 72).

[37] See the discussion of these tendencies in the essays edited by James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress; Wipf and Stock, 2006), and my own discussion of the question in “Other Gospels, Heretical Christs,” in Jesus in History and Myth, ed. Hoffmann and Gerald Larue (1986), pp. 143-155.

[38] The conversation since Ernst Käsemann first suggested eschatology as a problematical and defining issue has been largely centered on outcomes and inferences drawn from ideal situations, using Paul’s authentic letters and the synoptics as benchmarks in apocalyptic fervor.  See New Testament Questions of Today (London: SCM, 1974) and Perspectives on Paul ( London, SCM, 1969).   Several useful appraisals of the outflow of apocalyptic thought, which is especially relevant to the development of the canon, are found in Robert Daly’s edited volume, Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History; Baker, 2009); and Bengt Holmberg, Paul and Power: The Structure of Authority in the Primitive Church as Reflected in the Pauline Epistles (1978).

[39] The question of how social memory was structured is a matter of heated debate and is interestingly summarized in R. Rodriguez’s revised Sheffield doctoral dissertation: Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance and Text (Library of New Testament Studies; London: T&T Clark, 2010).  The study contends that oral performances installed the Jesus tradition in early Christian collective memory and “became vital parts of the traditional milieus in which Jesus’ earliest followers lived, and that Jesus in early Christian memory provides the thread of continuity that binds oral performances to each other and to the written Gospels.”

[40] Cornelius Nepos, Hannibal 12.5; Juvenal, Satires X.164

[41]Plutarch, Alexander, 3.2.

[42] Livy, 1.16; more elaborately, Plutarch, Numa, 2; Ovid, Fasti 2. 475-532.

[43] Paul Veyne, Les grecs ont-ils cru a leur mythes? (1983) trans. By Paul Wissing as Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).  Veyne’s conclusion is that the ancients regarded the myths as belonging to a different time scale and did not expect “historicity” from them—a concept he finds alien to the conceptual world they inhabited.  As the demarcation between “pagans” and “Christians” and to a certain extent “Jews” is highly artificial with respect to their historical predilections in the first and second century it is notable that early Christian literature appeals to the immediacy of the Christian experience and not to a historically uncertain long ago or “in the beginning”—with the deservedly famous exception of John 1-1-2.

[44] And even after:  Howard Zinn has pointed to the use of Columbus’ 1493 description of “Hispanolia” (the Bahamas) as a tissue of lies confected to convince the Spanish court to equip a second voyage. See A People’s History of the United States (Harper, 1980), p. 2, compared to the severe account (ca. 1515) of the treatment of the Indians by Columbus in Las Casas’s History of the Indies.

[45] The most energetic accumulator of “parallels” was the freethinker John M. Robertson (1856-1933) whose Christianity and Mythology (1900) was a model of indiscriminate piecework.  It was roundly rejected by F. C. Conybeare, who was a professor of theology, a member of the Oriental Institute at Oxford, and also a member of the Rationalist Press Association (The Historical Christ: or, An investigation of the views of Mr. J. M. Robertson, Dr. A. Drews, and Prof. W. B. Smith, 1914), accusing the mythologists of being “untrained explorers [who] discover on almost every page connections in their subject matter where there are and can be none, and as regularly miss connections where they do exist.” Conybeare’s final position was radically historical and akin to Schweitzer’s: “Thus the entire circle of ideas entertained by Christ and Paul are alien and strange to us to-day, and have lost all actuality and living interest. . . . Jesus Himself is seen to have lived and died for an illusion, which Paul and the apostles shared.” (Myth, Magic and Morals [1909], p. 357)

[46] Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? (Chicago, 1988), pp. 5-27.

[47] Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins, 1998), esp. pp, 3-36.  Schweitzer’s sober approach to both Jewish and pagan sources for Paul’s mysticism and the contemporary assessment of Bousset, Reitzenstein and Deissmann still sets the standard for a historical typology of Paul’s thought. Less convincing is Schweitzer’s discussion of the Gnostic turn in Paul’s thought, pp. 71-73.

[48] A useful summary of the myth argument concerning Paul is given in P. R. Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus (Baker, 2007), especially chapter 5; the book however suffers from a certain degree of methodological naivete and is best viewed as an apologetic response to the myth theory as an “attack” on traditional Christianity.

[49]Ephesians 2.1-12

[50]Three studies can be mentioned of the thousands that have been published: Alan Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (Yale, 1990)’; *John Ziesler, Pauline Christianity (1983; 1990\2 [1991]); and Jerome Murphy O’Connor Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford, 19966).  The opponent controversy was first extensively treated by Dieter Georgi, in 1964 and in The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians (Nashville, 1986).  The classic short study in English is C.K. Barrett, “Paul’s Opponents in 2 Corinthians,” NTS 17 (1971), 233-54; and cf. Stanley Porter, Paul and His Opponents (Leiden, 2009). Schweitzerm Nysticism, pp. 75-99.

[51]Discussed masterfully in James D.G. Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids/New York, 2006), pp. 60-67.  The defining study of Paul’s opponents remains The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians: A Study of Religious Propaganda in Late Antiquity (Studies in the New Testament & its World) (London: T&T Clark, 2000; original German, 1964.

[52] Dennis MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (Westminster 1983).

[53] “The Epistles of Paul afford then precise testimony in support of the existence of the Gospel tradition before him. They presume a Jesus who lived, acted, taught, whose life was a model for believers, and who died on the cross. True it is that in Paul are only found fragmentary and sporadic indications concerning the life and teachings of Jesus, but this is explained on one hand by the fact that we possess no coherent and complete exposition of the apostle’s preaching, and on the other hand by the character of his interests. He had no special object in proving what no one in his time called in question—namely, that Jesus had existed. His unique aim was to prove (what the Jews refused to admit) that Jesus was the Christ.” (Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene, p, 109).  See the recent mythicist arguments of Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle (Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999) or for a typical version of the argument from silence.

[54] Ernest Kasemann, “Die AnfängechristlicherTheologie,” ZThK 57 (1960), pp. 162-85. Published in English in Journal for Theology and Church 6, Robert W. Funk, ed. (New York, 1969), pp. 17-46.

[55]I have argued this extensively in “The Reclamation of Paul: The Orthodox Critique of Marcion’s Paulinism,” in Marcion (1984), pp,  233-280 and “How Then Know This Troublous Teacher?” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.3 (Oxford: 1987-1988), 173-191. On the dating of Luke Acts:  I follow F. C. Baur’s placement of Acts and canonical Luke in the second century.  A solid and objective assessment is given in Tyson, “The Date of Acts” (2006, pp. 1-11).   The following stages of development seem clear:  The prototype of the text, already established, originating in Marcion’s circle as an anonymous composition ca. 100; (b) the intercalation of sayings- traditions (Q), independently of Matthew’s use of the same tradition; (c) a second century “Lukan” redaction, including the dedication, an infancy story, editorial additions (e.g., temple-finding) an expanded resurrection account, and ascension story carried over into a still later composition, the Acts.

[56] Thucydides’ disclaimer concerning the accuracy of the speech he attributed to others, such as Pericles, is apt: “In all cases it is difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions” (History of the Peloponnesian Wars, 1.22.1)

[57] John Fenton and E. A. Livingstone, Controversy in the New Testament.

Studia Biblica, 3 (1980) 97 – 110.

[58]On the divine man concept, see especially Aage Pilgaard, “The Hellenistic Theios aner: A Model for Early Christian Christology” in The New Testament and Hellenistic Judaism, ed. P. Borden (Aarhus, 1995), 101-112.

[59] The phrase “Jesus Christ” occurs only in the jesuine discourse at John 17.3 and at the conclusion of the prologue, John 1.17.

[60] Calvin J. Roetzel “Paul in the Second Century.” The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, ed. James D. G. Dunn (Cambridge University Press, 2003).Cambridge; less satisfactory, M. Bird and J. R. Dodson, eds., Paul and the Second Century (London: T& Clark, 2011).

[61] Van Ranke, Geschichte der romanischen und germanischenVölker von 1494 bis 1514 (History of the Roman and Germanic Peoples from 1494 to 1514, 1824) and Peter Gay  and Victor G. Wexler, eds. Historians at Work (1975) vol. 3, pp 27-29.

[62] Theodor Mommsen, A History of Rome (London: Routledge, 1996)

[63] Ranke, “Preface: Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494-1514“, in Stern, The Varieties of History (New York: Vintage, 1973), p.57

[64] John S Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections (Trinity Press, 2000), pp. 3-5.  This is not Koppenborg’s best performance but his assay of the reticence of New Testament scholars to take on the task of genre criticism is brief and precise.

[65] Charles Talbert, What is a Gospel?  (Atlanta, 1984), provides a general survey of speculation concerning the genre of the gospels; see especially “Compositional Procedure and Attitude in Ancient Biographies,” pp, 124-8.

[66]The Christological discussions within Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor (1969; rept, Wipf and Stock, 2003) are still instructive.  See also Gerald Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus (Oxford, 2009)

[67] The Messianic secret as describe by Wrede and his successors explains only a fraction of the ambiguity generated by Mark’s technique; the idea that it was a theologico-literary device was based largely on an examination of references within the gospel.  See also A. Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2001 [rpt. Of 1900 ET])  The Marcionite tradition on the other hand, perhaps driven by Marcion’s adulation of Paul and his conflict with the “twelve,” regarded the apostles as fundamentally ignorant, and explained the injunctions to silence as corrections of a “false witness.”Discussion in Hoffmann, Marcion (1984), pp. 75-83.

[68] The plummeting fortunes of the “messianic secret” since Wrede (1901) as an explanation for the secrecy  motif in Mark and the synoptics is reviewed by James L. Blevins, The Messianic Secret in Markan Research, 1901–1976. Washington, D. C.: University Press of America, 1981.  There is however nothing to be said for the idea that the theme is cognate to the secrets in the mystery cults since the central mimetic action of the gospels, the Lord’s last supper, is regarded as corporate, public and repeatable and no correlation exists or is asserted between the teaching of Jesus and this ritual act.  Moreover, the parables are formally pedagogical not esoteric: their meaning is only “hidden” from the blind (unrepentant, unbelievers) who are equated with the wise of the world.

[69] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, John Bowden, trans. (London: SCM, 1994). An interesting conservative position is outlined by N. T. Wright, using Bultmann’s view that crucifixion and resurrection were not understood separately in the early community; see “The Resurrection of Jesus as an Historical Problem,” Sewanee Theological Review 41.2, 1998.

[70] A favorite debating topic in free-thought circles, a typical view is set down in a lecture transcript by Richard Carrier at, “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection,” retrieved 5 May 2012.

[71] An interesting attempt, though finally unsuccessful, to examine the resurrection against the presuppositions of modern critical historiography is Richard R. Niebuhr’s The Resurrection and Historical Reason (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957).  The penchant of some mythicizers to re-litigate the resurrection narratives is one of the most trying parts of their agenda. Both biblical scholarship and academic theology has long come to terms with the legendary components of the resurrection tradition; see especially Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, ii,: History and Literature of Early Christianity (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000) p. 64-65 and James D.G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). Besides these careful studies there are a number of attempts to discredit the accounts in the form of counter apologetics: see especially Robert Price, The Empty Tomb (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005).

[72] The suggestion dates from the dispute between D. F. Strauss’s idea that the gospels were composed by the “half conscious mythic tendencies” of naïve religious writers to Bruno Bauer’s more radical view in Christus und die Cäsaren (1877) that “communities do not write literature”; hence Bauer eventually came to believe that the first gospel writer, Mark, invented Jesus as a complete fiction.  See on the evolution of his ideas, D. Moggach, The Philosophy and Politics of Bruno Bauer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[73] R. Joseph Hoffmann, “William Henry Furness and the Transcendentalist Defense of the Gospels,”  New England Quarterly, 56 (1983), 238-6

[74]Mircea Eliade, on the phenomenological side explores this level of meaning in Myth and Reality (Waveland, 1998); in anthropology, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth by Walter Burkert and Peter Bing (1986); and in cultural studies, René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford, 1987).

[75]Maurice Wiles, The Spiritual Gospel: The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel in the Early Church (Cambridge, 2006).

[76] Clement of Alexandria (ca. 215-6): “the tradition of the old presbyters”, that the Apostle John, the last of the Evangelists, “filled with the Holy Ghost, had written a spiritual Gospel” (Eusebius, HE 6.14.7)

[77]Kyle Keefer, Branches of the Gospel of John: The Reception of the Fourth Gospel in the Early Church (Library Of New Testament Studies: Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2009), drawing largely from Hans Robert Jauss’s theory of Rezeptionsaesthetik.

[78] As Henry Wansbrough says: “Gone are the days when it was scholarly orthodoxy to maintain that John was the least reliable of the gospels historically.” The Four Gospels in Synopsis, The Oxford Bible Commentary, pp. 1012-1013, Oxford University Press 2001; and see Douglas Estes, The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel: A Theory of Hermeneutical Relativity in the Gospel of John, BIS 92 (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

[79]Harnack regarded this mutation, which he saw as the genesis of dogma, as the “acute Hellenization of Christianity,” (History of Dogma, vol. 1, trans. Neil Buchanan [Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1902], 48ff.) an opinion that while imperfect as stated expressed the vulnerability of history to increasingly esoteric formulations of the significance and identity of Jesus.  Karen King’s discussion of the morphology of Gnosticism is also relevant: “Adolph von Harnack and the Acute Hellenization of Christianity,” in What is Gnosticism? (Harvard, 2005), esp. 55-109.

[80] An example of the usage is Paula Frederiksen’s From Jesus to Christ (Yale, 2000); the model has been taken over almost uncritically from New Testament theology (Martin Kähler, 1900) and the attempt to separate the “Christ of faith” from the “Jesus of history,” is a separation not dictated by the sources but by a theological program arising from critical scholarship.  The fundamental flaw is the notion of a linear progression from data to corruption of data.  In fact, the traditions from the start were preserved within specific controversial and interpretative contexts reflecting struggles with communities, regional perspectives, ethical and practical conflicts (e.g., marriage and divorce) and social identity.  If Gnosticism was the greatest conceptual threat to historical tradition, it does not follow that historical tradition was unmarked by other challenges.

[81]Edward Adams and D.G. Horell,  Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church (Westminster, 2004) brings together some of the scholarship of the last fifty years; C. K. Barrett’s 1964 study, Christianity at Corinth, is still useful; and on social demarcations, Gerd Theissen’s pioneering studies gathered in The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth (Wipf and Stock, 2004), edited by John Schütz,  is indispensable.

[82] “Hymn of the Pearl,” from the Acts of Thomas in Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., translation by R. McL. Wilson, New Testament Apocrypha : Writings Relating to the Apostles, Apocalypses and Related Subjects (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), pp. 322-411. Trans. by R. J Hoffmann, The Secret Gospels: A Harmony of the Apocryphal Jesus Traditions (Amherst, 1996), pp, 191-194.

[83] The Anatolian matrix has not received the attention it deserves; it is surveyed in Marcion, pp, 1-28. Not only Paul comes from the region, but Marcion, Polycarp and Irenaeus (from Polycarp’s hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, (now İzmir, Turkey) where a variety of non-gnostic dualistic cults thrived.

[84]1 Cor. 15.50: Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ.

[85]A credible recent survey is the study by John Painter, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (SPNT; Columbia, SC: Univ. of South Carolina, 2004), especially as it concerns his critique of Robert Eisenman’s ingenious but unconvincing identification of James with the Qumran teacher of Righteousness. Puzzlingly, Hegesippus (d. 180?) Comm. 5.1, “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem.” I consider the “James” and “Mary” traditions instances of doublets that were unsatisfactorily resolved by the compilers, both between the gospels and between the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts. (On the multiple-Mary problem, especially see Jesus outside the Gospels, pp. 41-50).  It seems clear that apologetic tendencies govern this confusion.  The external evidence is unhelpful and unreliable, causing the difficulty of determining which James is in view, as well as the possibility of pseudonymity and redactional stages, rendering any discussion of the name untidy: James the (obscure) father of Judas (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13); James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; 15:40 [here called James the Younger]; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13); James the son of Zebedee and brother of John (Matt. 4:21; 10:2; 17:1; Mark 1:19, 29; 3:17; 10:35; 13:3; Luke 9:28; Acts 1:13; 12:2); James the Lord’s brother (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:19; called [?] simply James in Acts: 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; and in 1 Cor. 15:7), mentioned only twice by name in the Gospels (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3).  Hegessipus’ conclusions however must be read back into the tradition to secure the identity of James as head of the Jerusalem church as Luke asserts. See also my online comments on the topic, “Faccidents: Bad Assumptions and the Jesus Tomb Debacle,” Butterflies and Wheels 7 March 2007, at retrieved 7 May 2012.  Since 2007 I have come to see Galatians 1, 18-20 as more problematical.  While clearly reflecting a key element in the opponents tradition, it seems that 1.16 is in apposition to 1.18-19 as a list of the hyperlian apostoloi, though Paul does not use the language of 2 Corinthians 11.15//12.11; using instead phrases that imply historical priority (πρὸς τοὺς πρὸ ἐμοῦ ἀποστόλους); for that reason, it is entirely possible that the phrase  ton adelphos tou kyriou applied to James in Galatians 1.19 is meant to suggest biological relationship and as a term to distinguish James from the dishonesty (Gal 211-13) of Cephas. Rhetorically, in this section, Paul uses himself and Barnabas as a paradigm of faithful preaching of a gospel to the detriment of Peter, James and John (Gal 2.9), who merely “seem to be pillars”: Ἰάκωβος καὶ Κηφᾶς καὶ Ἰωάννης, οἱ δοκοῦντες στῦλοι εἶναι δεξιὰς ἔδωκαν (i.e., of significance).  Accordingly, the possibility that Paul is asserting biological relationship between James and “the Lord”  in this passage between James and Jesus cannot be ruled out, since he is ridiculing the pretensions of the “reputed pillars,” not affecting to be inclusive.

[86] 1 Cor. 12.27;  cf. 1.2; Rom. 12.5.

 [87]Acts 1.13-14; Acts 12:17; Acts 15:13–21; Acts 21:17–18; cf Gal 1.18-20; 2.9-10, 12; 15-3-7; 1 Corinthians 9,5): Usually disjunctive as in 12.17, Ἀπαγγείλατε Ἰακώβῳ καὶ τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς ταῦτα. (“Tell these things to James, and to the brothers…”) and at 21.17, adelphoi is inapposite to presbyteroi as being believers of different rank.

[88] Arthur Drews, The Christ Myth, trans. C.D. Burns (London, 1910), pp. 172-174.

[89] Drews gives the source of his assessment the work of Dutch radical theologians, followed by Schlaeger in his “Das Wort kurios (Herr) in Seiner Bezeichnung auf Gott oder Jesus Christus,” Theol. Tijdschrift 33 (1899) 1.  According to Schlaeger, cited by Drews, however, all passages including this one “which speak of Jesus as Lord” are interpolated!

[90] Mk 3.31, Matt. 12.46;  Lk 8.19; Jn 2.12, 7.3, 5, 10

[91] One mythicist confidently says after missing this simple grammatical point that “Brothers in the Lord” (ton adelphon en kurio) appears in Philippians 1:14 (the NEB translates it ‘our fellow-Christians’). Surely this is the clue to the meaning of the phrase applied to James.”  Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle website (retrieved 10 May 2012)

[92] I do not believe that Paul’s “cosmic” view of salvation presupposes any specific knowledge of the birth or life of Jesus; however, it is unwarranted to deprive Paul of those passages where a historic tradition may be implied based on the prior assumption that he did not now any! Gal 4.4; 1 Cor. 11.23-26; 1 Thess. 4.15 etc. The agreed conclusion that Paul did not write everything attributed to him does not translate into the principle that everything attributed to Paul was written by someone else.

[93]Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 5.4; see Tyson, Marcion and Luke-Acts, p. 38.

[94] Cf. 2 Cor. 11-12; Considerable work has been done on the question by S. J. Porter,detailed in Identifying Paul’s Opponents, The Question of Method in 2 Corinthians (JSNT Supp, 40; Sheffield, 1990), 15-67 and Paul and His Opponents (Leiden: Brill, 2005).  See my “The Pauline Background of Marcion’s Reform,”  in Marcion (1984), esp. pp. 75-97.

[95] But see John 8:37-39; 44-47

[96] The legend of the ascension appears in the two Lukan compositions and as an addition to Mark (16.19).  It is formally a legendary accretion, an apotheosis.  It does not reflect a prevenient myth in the way, for example, that John’s prologue does.  See on the topic generally Arthur E. R. Boak, “The Theoretical Basis of the Deification of Rulers in Antiquity”, in Classical Journal, 11 ( 1916), pp. 293–297.    It is interesting that since earliest times the ascension has been formally less compelling even as a matter of devotion than the core legend, that of the resurrection, suggesting that belief in the former was neither as widespread nor as devotionally central to the communities, and may have been entirely lacking in many regions.  The church tradition of The “Golden Legend” linked the ascension, even in terms of chronology (forty days according to Luke) to resurrection as a “certification.”

[97] The relevance of the Jewish apocalypses for the study of the gospels, especially Mark 13 and Matthew 24, has been settled for over a century; the classic study remains F C Burkitt’s 1913 Schweich Lectures, Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (London: British Academy, 1913).

[98] On the historical background of the arraignment and trial, see Gary Greenburg, The Judas Brief: Who Really Killed Jesus (Continuum, 2007), pp. 168-179.

[99]Generally speaking, as anthropologists and students of religion came to take a more impartial view of the world, it was recognized that certain Christian stories shared many of the features of myth, and could be called myths as long as the idea that a myth was necessarily false was shed.  This is the point d’appui for Bultmann’s program of demythologizing. While a myth gives a religious explanation for “how things began” or “why they are as they are,” a legend is a story which may or may not be an elaborated version of an historical event, but is told as if it were a historical event, usually without allegorical or symbolic intent. See Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903; rpt. University of Toronto Press, 2011).

[100] Raymond Brown, for example: “Mark 5:1, 13 betrays confusion about the distance of Gerasa from the sea of Galilee Mark. 7:31 describes a journey from Tyre through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the Decapolis. In fact one goes SE from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee; Sidon is north of Tyre, and the description of the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the Decapolis is awkward. That a boat headed for Bethsaida (NE side of the Sea of Galilee) arrives at Gennesaret (NW side: 6:45,53) may also signal confusion. No one has been able to locate the Dalmanutha of 8:10, and it may be a corruption of Magdala,” Christ in the Gospels (Liturgical Press, 2008), p. 369)

[101] See Michael Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation, (Psychology Press, 1995), commenting that the ancient historians not only made mistakes but “rather too many of them. … Individual elements of the tradition were conflated, modified and sometimes invented.” (p. 83).

Jonas Grethlein, Time and Narrative in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge [scheduled],2012), on the use of the plupast as an historical technique; A.H. Merrils,  History and Geography in Late Antiquity (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series, 2005) on the use of classical description and authority;  E T Merrill, “On certain ancient errors in geographical orientations,” Classical Journal (1966), 88-101.

[102] The view that myth serves a religious purpose has been challenged by a number of scholars; the most pertinent orientation for exploration of the use of myth comes from writers such as Alan Dundes; see “Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect,” Western Folklore 56 (Winter, 1997), 39–50; for the concept as employed by phenomenologists and religionists, M. Eliade, Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader, ed. Wendell C. Beane and William G. Doty, vol. 2. (New York: Harper & Row, 1976) and Myth and Reality, trans. Willard R. Trask (NY: Harper & Row, 1968); also see G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley: Cambridge UP, 1973, which makes the contemporary case that the category of myth extends beyond religion and sacred story.

[103] See my introduction to The Secret Gospels (1996), pp. 4-28.  Harnack wrote in 1900, “Sixty years ago David Friederich Strauss thought that he had destroyed the historical credibility not only of the fourth gospel but of the first three as well.  The historical criticism of two generations has succeeded in restoring that credibility in its main outlines… What especially marks them off from all subsequent literature is the way in which they state their facts.  This species of literary art, which took shape partly by analogy with the didactic narratives of the Jews and partly from catechetical necessities—this simple and impressive form of exposition was even a few decades later no longer capable of exact reproduction….When all is said and done, the Greek language lies upon these writings like a diaphanous veil and it requires hardly any effort to retranslate their contents into Hebrew or Aramaic.  That the tradition here presented to us is in the main first hand is obvious.”  (What is Christianity? (Gloucester, MA:  Peter Smith, rpt. ed, of the original English translation by T.N. Saunders, 1957), pp 20-21.

[104]Michael Bird and Joseph Dodson, eds., Paul and the Second century (London: T&T Clark, 2011); on the usefulness of apocryphal compositions such as the Acts of Paul, see especially Andrew Gregory’s essay, pp. 169-188.  On the other hand, a disappointing contribution from Todd Still, “Shadow and Light, Marcion’s (Mis)construal of the Apostle Paul,” shows none of the historiographical sophistication needed to cope with the patristic evidence.

[105]In general the comments of James D.G. Dunn distinguishing pseudonymity as a literary tradition with closer resemblance to classical imitation than to forgery are useful: See The Living Word (Philadelphia, 2009), pp. 53-56.

[106] References to “Jewish myths” (Titus 1:14), “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim 1:4, see 4:7), “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20), the necessity of ascetic practices (1 Tim 4:3) and the denial of the resurrection (2 Tim 2:18) are interpreted in light of second-century Gnostic beliefs and as evidence of it.

[107] Polycarp, Phil. 7.1; cf. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3.4

[108] On the origin of heresy, see Irenaeus Adv. Haer. 2.14.1 and Tertullian, Praescrptio, 7; 29-31.

[109] “The mighty Word and true Man reasonably redeeming us by His blood, gave Himself a ransom for those who had been brought into bondage. And since the Apostasy unjustly ruled over us, and, whereas we belonged by nature to God Almighty, alienated us against nature and made us his own disciples, the Word of God, being mighty in all things, and failing not in His justice, dealt justly even with the Apostasy itself, buying back from it the things which were His own” (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.1.1)

[110] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston” Beacon, 2001), pp. 189-199.

[111]“The Gnostic Gospels According to Pagels,” America, 16 Feb. 1980, 123.)

[112]Part of the confusion was propagated because of the belief that Marcion’s liberal church policies, castigated by Tertullian, were “Gnostic in character and that these policies therefore were typical of the heretical communities in general; see my critique, “De Statu Feminarum: The Correlation Between Gnostic Theory and Social Practice,” Église et Théologie 14 (1983), 293-304; and ‘The “Eucharist” of Markus Magus: A Test-Case in Gnostic Social Theory,” Patristic and Byzantine Review 3 (1984) 82-88; Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (Vintage, 1989), pp, 2-18.  This popular introduction performed the useful service of alerting ordinary readers to the existence of the Gnostic sources from Nag Hammadi.  In retrospect, however, the claims made on behalf of the gospels were extreme, especially as regards the “probative” value of  Gnostic Thomas (GnTh) for “Q” See Maurice Casey, An Aramaic Approach to Q  (Cambridge, 2005), p. 33.  In her discussions, moreover, Pagels seemed to regard the nascent orthodoxy of Irenaeus as an episcopal prerogative exercised against beleaguered and misunderstood heretics, which is at best a liberal description of the conflict between aggressive mythicizers and defenders of historical tradition. See “One God One Bishop,” pp, 28-47. Also, H. Koester, and Thomas Lambdin (translators),  (1996). “The Gospel of Thomas” in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Revised ed.) (Leiden, New York, Cologne: E. J. Brill 1996), p. 125; Hoffmann, Jesus Outside the Gospels (New York: Prometheus, 1987), p, 86-88.

[113] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.11.1; 3.3.4

[114]It is notable that Eusebius, in spite of his desire to discredit Papias, still places him as early as the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98-117).  See W. Schoedel, Anchor-Yale Bible, vol, 5 (Doubleday-Anchor, 1992), 140-143.

[115]1 Tim. 1.4

[116] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library, 1991-2001,  volume 3 (2001). The studies of the social matrix of radical opposition to Roman rule and such topics as banditry and religious radicalism are numerous; see among others J. Massyngbaerde Ford, My Enemy Is My Guest: Jesus and Violence in Luke (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1984); Walter Grundmann, “Kakos, akakos, kakia, … .” TDNT 3:469–487; E J Hobsbawm, Bandits (New York: Dell, 1969) and Primitive Rebels (New York: Norton, 1965); William Horbury, “Ancient Jewish Banditry and the Revolt Against Rome, AD 66–70,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981), 409–432 and “Bandits, Messiahs and Longshoremen: Popular Unrest in Galilee Around the Time of Jesus.” Social World of Formative Christianity and Judaism. Edited by J. Neusner. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1988, 50–68; “Christ as Brigand in Anti–Christian Polemic.” Jesus and the Politics of His Day, ed. by Ernst Bammel and C.F.D. Moule (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 183–196;“The Zealots: Their Origin, Relationships and Importance in the Jewish Revolt.” Novum Testamentum 28, no. 2 (1986): 159–192; William Horbury, and John S. Hanson,  Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (New York: Winston Press, 1985); Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[117] The difficulty of establishing an archaeological record for “Nazareth” has been noted since the time of Guignebert (Jesus, 1933/ET 1956, p. 76f.).

[118] Shawn Carruth,  James M. Robinson,“Q 4:1-13,16: The Temptations of Jesus : Nazara,”  ed. Chris Heil (Peeters Publishers, 1966),  p. 415.

[119] Y. Alexandre,  “Archaeological Excavations at Mary’s Well, Nazareth,” Israel Antiquities Authority bulletin, May 1, 2006

[120] The Archaeology of the New Testament, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1992: pages 44-46. Attempts of controversialists like Rene Salm to suggest that Nazareth was not an occupied location in the time of Jesus have now been persuasively discredited by recent excavations of Israeli archaeologists led by Yardena Alexandre.  The dwellings and older discoveries of nearby tombs in burial caves suggest that Nazareth was an out-of-the-way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acres. See further, Ken Dark, “Review of The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus“, STRATA: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, vol. 26 (2008), pp. 140–146; cf. Stephen J. Pfann & Yehudah Rapuano, “On the Nazareth Village Farm Report: A Reply to Salm”, STRATA: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, vol. 26 (2008), pp. 105–112.

[121] Ναζαρηνε (“Nazarene”) and its variants are at Mk. 1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6; Lk 4:34 and 24:19. Ναζωραιοc (“Nazoraean”) and its permutations are at Mt 2:23; 26:71; Lk 18:37; Jn 18:5, 7; 19:19; and six times in the Acts of the Apostles. “Q certainly contained reference to Nazara,” cited in J. M. Robinson et al, The Critical Edition of Q. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000), pp. 42-43; F. C. Burkitt, “The Syriac forms of New Testament names,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, (Oxford, 1911), p. 392.

[122] See Thedor Mommsen’s edition, Res gestae Divi Augusti ex monumentis Ancyrano et Apolloniensi. Berlin: Weidmann, 1865)

[123] W.K.C. Guthrie’s survey History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 74-77.  The scene is properly a foundation myth for Plato’s academic cult and functions in approximately the same way as  the crucifixion scenario in the gospels; see J.  Barret “Plato’s Apology: Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the World of Myth,” The Classical World, 95:1 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 3-30

[124] See my discussion in the reprint of K. Jaspers and R. Bultmann, Myth and Christianity: An Inquiry into the Possibility of Religion without Myth (Amherst, 2005), 9-22, which also provides a summary of major trajectories in the myth theory.

[125] A still fascinating look at the early twentieth century reaction to mythicism is Maurice Goguel’s essay, “Recent French Discussion of the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ,” Harvard Theological Review, 19.2 (1926), 115-142.

[126] Carlo Ginzberg, History, Rhetoric, and Proof (The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures; Brandeis, 1999), pp. 54-71.

[127]The image is Harnack’s favourite:  What is Christianity?  (rpt of 1901 edition; Martino, 2011), pp. 12, 15, 55, 179, 217.

[128]See the discussion by W. Wildmann,  Boston University Collaborative Encyclopedia, “Alfred Losiy and Adolph von Harnack” retrieved 15 April 2012.

[129] Tertullian de carne Christi (Trans. Evans, Oxford, 1956), 9.39.

[130] Hermann Detering, The Falsified Paul, Early Christianity in the Twilight (Journal of Higher Criticism, 2003); and see J. Murphy O’Connor, Paul, A Critical Life (Clarendon, 1996).

[131] “Book Editing: Killing Characters With Mark Twain’s Deadly Well”(12 January 2102); retrieved 5 May 2012.

[132] I do not deal in this essay with the conundrum of multiple Jameses and the redactional gymnastics that have brought them into existence.  Dealing only with Paul’s letter to Galatia, it is my view that the James referred to in Galatians 1.18 and the brother referred to in Mark 6.3 represent the earliest strand in the literary tradition. The allusion in 1 Corinthians 15.7 (cf. 5) is a doublet, perhaps representing two different versions of the letter, or two different resurrection traditions, one associated with Peter and the twelve, the other attached to James and the apostles.

[133] See my extensive discussion in Marcion, 101-133,

[134] See note 2, above.

[135] See J. K Elliott, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (Oxford 2005) and introduction to The Secret Gospels, ed. R. J. Hoffmann (Amherst, 1996).



73 thoughts on “The Jesus Process: A Consultation on the Historical Jesus

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  3. Excellent essay, Joseph! Yes, the mythicists still have a lot of explaining to do as to why the traditions in the canonical gospels didn´t fly around wildly. And Goguels´s argument against the mythicists of his day is just as valid against modern charlatans like Carrier.

  4. I must say that this essay is a pleasant contrast to the other two essays; by all means let us reason together about the issue, rather than casting aspersion on those who disagree-and that goes for everyone involved.

    It does seem difficult to create the Jesus of theology from the record described here. To say that an “ordinary” prophet passed through Galilee and died in Jerusalem hardly seems like the story that the church put forward about the very son of the very god. If this is the Jesus who existed, is he enough to fill the role of the Jesus expected by the Christian churches?

  5. Dr. Hoffmann, thank you for this well reasoned piece. I did disagree with this part: “For the most part, the gospels (unlike the Book of Genesis) fail as myth because they fail to explain anything.” It seems to me that the gospel myth was conceived as a method of trying to explain or justify why Gentiles were using Hebrew Scriptures sans Jewish authority. It unfolded against a backdrop of generations of Greek-speaking Gentiles embracing monotheism and using the Septuagint, in churches that probably included ex-converts and ex-God-fearers leading the ekklesia. The gospels are preoccupied with dehumanizing Jews, whose leaders’ main function in the story is plotting to kill “The Son of God” from a very young age. Mark is certainly a Gentile writer with an axe to grind, as I suspect are all of the other gospel writers as well, including the supposedly Jewish Matthew. So while Jesus may have been a historical figure, I have no faith that the evangelists had any interest in preserving authentic traditions that might have existed about him. Rather, they seem to have exploited them for purposes completely antithetical to what a Galilean apocalypticist said or stood for, namely, a Jewish religion without any ethnic Jews.

    • Ethical Society? Responsible public debate. I think that’s quite ironic don’t you? And hypocritical too, when you have accused the author repeatedly of being a “fucking liar” on Carrier’s posts. Do you ever look in the moirror? I’m sure you do Benzie….

  6. Hoffmann says:
    “Book I of Livy’s History[30] does not prove the story of Romulus, or
    the ruse used against the Sabines, even though he believes it to be
    factually solid; yet no one doubts the existence of Rome or Augustus,”

    If the very existence of ancient Rome or Augustus is known to us
    through “Book I of Livy’s History” and very little else, then the
    comparison with the historical Jesus scenario might have been apt. But
    that isn’t the case, is it?

    Perhaps a better comparison would have been to say “Book I of Livy’s
    History[30] does not prove the story of Romulus even though he
    believes it to be factually solid; yet no one doubts the existence of
    Romulus.” Oh wait, that doesn’t sound right!

    • Ehrman’s book is for popular consumption. I’ll eventually review it in N.O.; but it should be clear from my not even alluding to it that the Jesus Process is not about Bart Ehrman. But to tantalize you: we would not see eye to eye either about how one can derive the evidence for HJ nor about what, of substance, we can know about him.

  7. Isn’t there a kind of logical circularity in arguing (in spite of occasional objections and caveats) that the “Jesus” of the Bible, more or less, is true – while allowing/ primarily presenting only Bible quotes, as the only acceptable evidence for or against this? (While at times ignoring “external” scientific evidence against miracles, and so forth?).

    Isn’t a “Biblical” approach to historical Jesus, really begging the question? Which is … does the Bible itself (and its view of God) have any validity?

    If there is no Jesus, then the Bible that presents Him, has no validity in an argument for or against him. Or if the Bible itself is largely unreliable, then citing it as evidence for much anything at all, seems like a flawed methodology.

    So that? The real argument should be: is the Bible absolutely true, or not? And if not? Then why continue to use it as your primary source for evidence for or against Jesus?

    This is no doubt one of the reasons that Historians like Carrier, would like to develop a still more critical approach to the Bible itself; including a probabilistic approach to it, and to religious assertions in general. While finally stressing other authorities entirely, than the Bible.

    Of course, I’m aware of several possible standard Historicist responses to this objection. That say, PARTS of the Bible might seem to correlate to History; so that at last a part of Jesus can be said to be “historical.” But considering the masses of evidence of inconsistency, textual invention and alteration and simple fraud in so much of the Bible, isn’t the Biblical approach to Jesus, inevitably fated? Doesn’t it rest far too much, on quoting a highly unreliable source?

    So that? If Mythicists are lacking some scholarly knowledge of the Bible itself? That in itself, would not be such a serious flaw, as more traditional bibliocentric or religious scholars might think. Perhaps they have other, more relevant knowledge; of mythic systems in general, for instance. Or a fuller knowledge say, of statistics, and so forth.

    To ignore other relevant fields of study, and to insist that the battle must be fought entirely on the traditional turf of Biblical criticism and belief – by way of primarily, Biblical quotes – is finally, circular. And is logically a form of begging the question.

    • @Garcia: “That say, PARTS of the Bible might seem to correlate to History…” This is the central fallible issue with your argument: Do you mean that some things in the Bible happened and some things in the Bible didn’t and others didn’t happen as described–and the things that didn’t nullify the whole? Is this not the same thing as reifying history as the domain of objective fact, and then expecting the Bible to “correlate to it”–as one domain to another. The reason it cannot work that way is that the “domain” we call history (if you use a standard definition of that domain to mean What really happened in the past?) is constructed from all kinds of pieces; in the case of ancient Near Eastern history, for example, is partly constructed from the Bible and partly from what is learned outside it from other sources, e.g, the story of the Exodus gives us one view of the Hebrew experience in Egypt, the 3rd century BCE writer Manetho gives us a very different view. Neither source is perfectly “reliable” in the way sources of later periods might b—e..g, if the “plagues” or the Exodus hd been recorded by Pathe films. To use a slightly later example: Some people who called themselves or were called son of God in antiquity were historical figures, and some weren’t: What form of the “title” is being applied to Jesus? What permits us to say so? Neither the mythicist nor the fundamentalist Xn position adequately accounts for the complexity of the task of interpreting a positive welter of complex information–and slapping probability on the unsorted mess, working from premises that range–as far as I can judge– from feeble to absurd, is not the way to do business. Let me change your last sentence: So that? If young earth theorists are lacking some scholarly knowledge of geology… That in itself, would not be such a serious flaw, …Perhaps they have other, more relevant knowledge in general, for instance. Or a fuller knowledge say, of statistics, and so forth…” I know it is difficult for you to accept that not anyone with half a brain can do the kind of technical history I am talking about, but day by day and comment by comment the mythicists lining up on the Jesus-denial side of this discussion are proving their incompetence–even to accept minor correction. I said in my own article that mythicism is not a scholarly position worth taking seriously any longer but a dogma in search of footnotes. One final comment: Do you really think that Biblical scholars don’t know the “myths” you claim other have more knowledge of? For the most part, it was early 19th century bibclal scholars and archaeologists who discovered them!

      • It is true that there are many different perspectives on “reality,” including especially historical reality: 1) the Bible, the 2) Greek and Roman writings, the 3) findings of Science, 4) the perspectives of secular History, all offer useful information here, But if so, then why favor the Bible itself, so heavily? Suppose we try to keep ALL the major perspectives on ancient reality open; to see if the different perspectives correspond at any points, and in effect triangulate certain items.

        Keeping this interdisciplinary method in mind, suppose we recall especially the great accomplishments/fruitfulness of, say, science. And say favor the fingings of science, against say, the Biblical assertion of miracles. Or suppose we consider secular History as another perspective. In that case, using these two perspectives, it seems to many that a major portion of the Bible – its promises of miracles – collapses.

        If major portions of the Bible begin to collapse, does that mean we should entirely abandon the Bible as a useful perspective on the past, and on the nature of say, Jesus? It does suggest at the very, very least, that we should not regard the “authority” of the Bible as being sufficiently great, to generally, outweigh other perspectives on History.

        Does the Bible still have SOME value in determining the nature of the past? Yes it has some. But? Other perspectives have proved to be so good – like Science – that increasingly, many feel that internally-situated studies of Christianity, the Bible, should no longer be the very centre of historical studies, even regarding the early days of Christianity itself.

        To be sure? To the extent that the BIblical documents retain any value at all … we should thank specialists who know a great deal about it. At the same time however? If nonbelievers treat this document more and more casually – or even bypass it entirely? Possibly we should not be so impatient with that. Since many other disciplinary perspectives are equally – and even more – valuable.

        Am I consistent in this? Would I forgive a young-earth advocate, for refusing to look at Geology? No I would not … because he has neglected a very major criterion; the criterion of the full spectrum of what the sciences say.

        Am I privileging Science? I am favoring it … because it has been so so successful. Or “fruitful” in Biblical terms. (So that, oddly enough, the scientific approach is, in its way, Biblical; by their “fruits,” it judges the prophets).

        To be sure? Study situated within the Bible itself, and immediate environs, retains some value. Of particular interest to me for example, is the matter of the various names of God/Christ, the “lord.” Likely, the term did not necessarily connote godhood, though other times it did. And? Admittedly, mythicists should be more receptive here, to correction by specialists in this area. But also … vice versa.

        My own view is that the Historical Jesus might have existed, as according to one of the more minimal models, as a rather nonsupernatural man. But in any case, certainly the “Jesus” of most churches, and perhaps even the Historical Jesus, was formed by, “written” by, programmed by, the prevailing cultural beliefs. Which included many Greco-Roman cultural opinions … or myths. So that ironically? I suggest that even a “real” Humanistic Jesus, would have had his mind, teachings, formed by … local myths.

        So that even if he “really” historically existed? Jesus would still be essentially, a walking, talking … myth. That is, he would be phsyically real … but his ideas would be composed of cultural beliefs, or myths. So that therefore? Just as useful as traditional Bible-centered studies, would be …. Comparative Mythology.

        To be sure, traditional studies centered on the Bible itself retain some value. And it is regretable, when Mythicists attempt to use some of that material … but don’t get it right. Though? Mythicists are perhaps suspicious of too much use of Biblical material; worried that perhaps those who rely so much on it, are after all not entirely objective. But are retaining some emotional attachment to the old beliefs. While remaining resistant to … really objective research. Culling their countless “facts,” in such a way as to serve their opinions, rather than vice-versa.

        Both sides in the Mythicist/Historicist argument are probably guilty of some oversights to be sure. And so? Possibly rather than just publically reviling one side or the other? We should humbly and sympathetically offer whatever additional information and clarification we can. To help resolve our fuzzy images of this remote historical era. And even the image of Jesus.

        Some scholars like Dr. Woodbridge Goodman argue in fact, that the new “appearance” (“parousia,” etc.) of Christ, that is cumulatively offered by assembling all the work of serious scholars of every relevant discipline, is arguably the foretold “second appearance” of Christ. Goodman argues that this is perahps the fuller and more accurate view, the “full”er “appearance” of “Christ,” that finally leads us to a better kingdom after all. Though the Jesus we finally see, by triangulating the different disciplines, may be more human, less supernatural, than many thought.

        Feel free to offer corrections…. Since all scholars of all disciplines – including Historicist studies and Mythology too – offer another piece of the larger elephant; and help realize the “full”er outline of Christ, after all. Humble, human, as it might be.

        Hope I am not talking past too many of your own useful statements? I’ve tried to address a least a half dozen or so….

      • The content of The Three Musketeers correlates quite well with the French history, its historical figures (like Richelieu) and its geography. It does not prove at all that d’Artagnan was a historical figure.

        I think Bretton Garcia brings a solid reasoning demonstrating your excessive reliance on a religious book does not make good history.

  8. Simply put, in the language of Logic: if there is no Jesus, then the Bible is false. Therefore? Logically, quotes from the Bible should not be allowed to have any force, in any inquiry into the question of whether Jesus exists.

    In more complicated language? The New Testament and the assertion of the existence of Jesus, are inextricably linked. The New Testament is the chief (and almost only) early document that says that Jesus exists; and the assertion of the existence of Jesus is its main point. We only think Jesus exists, because the Bible says so. So? If we are questioning whether Jesus exists, we are also questioning, in effect, the verity of the New Testament itself. And vice-versa: if we question the validity of the Bible, then we question the existence of Jesus, at the same time.

    The existence of Jesus, and the question of the validity of the Bible, are inextricably interrelated, interdependent hypotheses. If one is overall, mostly false, then the other is mostly false as well.

    Therefore? Quotes, evidence from the Bible, should have little bearing in any discussion on the question of the historical existence of Jesus. Such quotes are highly prejudicial. Taking them as authoritative commits the basic Logic error, of “begging the question”: taking the Bible as authoritative assumes the very question, that needs to be proved.

    • @Garcia: A total solipsism. In logic, propositions are true or false, not Bibles. I have liked some of what you have said here but this is web of confusion and false assumptions, beginning with sentence one and moving on to “The New Testament and the assertion of the existence of Jesus, are inextricably linked.” The NT does not assert Jesus exists. It asserts that Jesus is the son of God. “Sons of god” as we all know don’t need to exist historically, though we’re pretty sure Augustus did and he was proclaimed one even on his coins. (I can send you a picture if you like or you can see one here: ) You can frame the entirety of what follows in your solipsism by saying if sons of God do not exist, then Jesus did not exist either and as the Bible has something to say about that (actually only a very small part does) it is false. You them proceed to chase your tail by asking why we would use a source demonstrated to be false to prove the existence of Jesus. Is that about it? That is as far as a solipsism can take you in this and that is the simplest formulation of what you say here.

      Your last sentence is the most tendentious and reveals perhaps too much of your skewed thinking on the topic: (a) “Therefore? Quotes, evidence from the Bible, should have little bearing in any discussion on the question of the historical existence of Jesus.” and (b) “Taking them as authoritative commits the basic Logic error, of ‘begging the question’: taking the Bible as authoritative assumes the very question, that needs to be proved.” But what do you mean by “authoritative,” –inspired”? Useless as evidence? Why, since we know many things both true and false including a sizeable chunk of ancient Near Eastern history from it. If Abraham is “false” on your calculation is no part of the Hebrew Bible “true” because the books are not “authoritative.” No scholar I have lunch with takes them that way. It is a mark of naivete bordering on the absurd that so many mythtic fans and Jesus-deniers seem honestly to believe that they need to educate biblical historians on the integrity of historical inquiry; colloquially put “We’re good.” But your QED (b)doesn’t even flow logically from (a) since without the evidence you disclaim as having a bearing on the case is the only evidence that can settle it. If I were a praying man, I would pray for you to catch your tail so that at least you would ave something to cling to.

  9. Thank you for your positive remarks on some of my prior comments. But I’d like to stick to my defense of Mythicism, over and above say, specifically, HJ, or Historical Jesus studies. To be sure, I’m familiar with the methodology of this subfield of study, and see good reasons for some of its methods; sticking mainly to the Bible itself as the major object of study, seems necessary, given the lack of any other external early evidence for the existence of either a godlike, or manlike/Humanitistic or historical, Jesus. But to be sure, Historical Jesus studies are not quite an entire, permanently secure field, but are rather a tiny and somewhat new subfield of study (within say History? Or Religious Studies?). And as a relatively new and small subfield, many of us feel that it often becomes a bit provincial. And locked into its own varieties of solipcism, or circularity.

    I am aware that many scholars in this field are not necessarily “believers.” But at the same time, many entered the field of religious study originally became of an emotional attachment to it/belief. And many retain some of the old habits of believers. Including a kind of formal, logical circularily found in believers for example. That for example, they believe that the Bible is true – because it said it is true. But that common belief, is circular: if the Bible was not true, then we should not believe its assertion of accuracy. It is rather like asking a liar, if he is lying, and then simply believing the answer. Never mind that of course, a liar will usually lie about … lying. These things can be spotted by Formal Logic.

    So there is a kind of solipcistic circularity, I believe, not in my own thought, as much as in the field of religion: in believing in the authority of the Bible, just because it tells us it is an authority. And though, to be sure, many more critical readers, scholars, have perhaps gone beyond that? At times I feel that the mere fact that they continue to focus mainly on the Bible itself, as their main source? Even on a now more critical view of it? They still, ironically, share some of the old circularity. They are still focused, rather too narrowly (and sometimes almost exlusively) on an overwhelmingly unreliable document. And still believing they can get at least some good historical information out of it. Enough to confirm at least, say, a Jesus who was merely or at least a man, probably Jewish, and not necessarily godlike: an “Historical Jesus.” But perhaps even this vestigal confidence in the old document, is too much; mythicists therefore suggest seeing Jesus more in the larger cultural context of general history/classicism/ Platonistic idealism, and especially the history of mythic beliefs.

    On random related questions: does the Bible “assert” the physical existence and reality of Jesus? At times it seems to, in its assertion of the “flesh” of Jesus. While it seems to elsewhere, if not assert it, assume it. Scenes which picture Jesus as a physical person, walking and talking, seem to clearly assume that. But is even that very modest assumption reliable?

    Is the Bible an absolute “authority” for serious scholars? Probably not. But the Mythicist point would be that it is still, even among many critical scholars, taken far too seriously and exclusively.

    Is the Bible ENTIRELY useless as a source of historical information? Of course it is not entirely, absolutely useless. But? Most critical scholars like yourself well know that huge masses of material in it, are probably useless. So that finally, many of us outside the subfield, feel that the field might benefit, from giving up a bit of its obsession with the Bible itself as its primary source.

    Can persons from outside a given field of specialization, offer anything helpful to those inside of it? In fact, this often happens: findings in the field of biology, greatly helped other fields, like Anthropology, and Psychology, for example. As we know in Interdisciplinary Studies.

    And in fact, as you yourself well know, more often than not.

    Probably mythicists are just asking here for a shift of emphasis; from the Biblical text “itself,” to far more, say, the Anthropology of myth systems. And if their own methodology has its own limitations? Still, what it does know and see, should offer some valuable input into the larger, bigger picture.

  10. BGarcia’s caricature of scholarship is a muddled and spiralling projection of wilfully irrelevant assumptions. Biblical scholarship does not ignore relevant fields of study. Methodology and application are discussed and debated carefully and interdisciplinary approaches (anthropological, sociological, archaeological, historical) incorporated in order to make progress in research and historical enquiry.

      • My ‘what on earth’ comment was directed at BG. Reflecting on Joe’s wisdom I reckon BG has been to a ‘Summer Bible Camp’.

      • Steph:

        I agree that there are many good interdisciplinary efforts out there, in religious study, that are now helping us to more accurately assess even say, 1st century Christianity. The application by Dr. Carrier, of Bayes’ theory of probability, might be one of them. But? The very resistence to Bayes, here, is one example that shows that such interdisciplinary efforts are still resisted in many conservative circles, within religious studies.

        In the field of religious studies, there is still in fact an obstinate core of conservatism and neo-fundamentalism. One that wants to say, to “prove,” that Jesus was really, literally, physically real, at least to one degree or another. But to get to this sought-for conclusion, our new literalists, our new fundamentalists, the Historical Jesus crowd, committs many methodological sins. First of all, it allows ignoring or writing off huge portions of the Bible (like the writings of Paul, say) – while continuing to defend an increasingly tiny percentage of the text, that seems to partially support traditional religion.

        Part of mjy point here, would be: what entitles defenders of Historical Jesus, to write off huge tracts of the Bible. (Like perhaps, the entire OT; then the half of the NT written by Paul, for example; then the parts of the NT picturing miracles, say). And then claim total validity, for their observations of an extremely cherry-picked remainder?

        Specifically here: are we really entitled to simply focus just on the very vivid, even lurid, miraculous narratives of the gospels, as “true” … while ignoring all the warnings in Paul, especially, about other “apostles,” and their, “another Jesus” than the one he preaches; his own rather spiritual (and in effect proto-gnostic) Christ?

      • This has completely missed all the main points in recent critical scholarship and ignores the central issue of the essay above. The defence of the existence of the historical Jesus in such historical work has nothing to do with ‘obstinate conservatism and neo-fundamentalism’, as is obvious to everyone who is properly familiar with it all. It does not mean ignoring what Paul says at all, either. Your comments are enough to make one wonder whether you have read any recent critical scholarship at all and its hard to believe you have comprehended the essay above. Your caricature of scholarship, full of generalisations and assumptions, belongs to another world.

      • See my misplaced reply, above? Or repeated, here:Steph:

        1) I am well aware that Historical Jesus scholarship, believes itself to have attempted to find a plausible Jesus, beyond the jesus of miracles, for example. But? How valid is that methodology? No doubt it considers Paul; but what if we consider what I am here calling his warning about … historicity itself? Should we just write that off?

        2) I am aware of recent trends that suggest the “real” Jesus was primarily a loyal Jew; while any relaxation of circumcision, food restrictions, and a spiritualzation of the “kingdom,” are thought to be later additions by Paul and other Hellenized successors. But? I find Hellenism deep in jesus “himself.” And if Jesus himself is full of Greco-Roman culture – or myths? Then even a Real Historical jesus would be largely … mythic. His head or spirit, would be full of Hellenistic myths.

        3) HJ scholars pride themselves on being unsentimental and realistic; locating a mere simple, quite human, unsupernatural, loyal Jew, as the historical Jesus. But? After all, I submit, even the most “hardheaded” HJ position, is a compromise with Fundamentalism: in that it after all, can say that it “believes in” a “real, historical Jesus.” (Never mind, in very much reduced circumstances).

        4) Could all the gospels, in all their apparent agreement (ignoring their differences, and the non-synoptic gospels, and apocrypha, and pseudepigrapha?), have come to such agreement, without having a single real historical individual as their origin? Of course they could. If a) as Bruno Bauer suggested long ago, they had a single fictional work as their origin. And/or if b) the gospels were interdependent (having one or two common or related, grouped sources, like Q1, Q2, Q3, and/or Mark). And especially if c) the new Churches had time to edit these books for continuity, before say, 120 AD.

        5) Considering too, huge methodological problems with HJ criteria?

        6) Finally, Mythicism is more probable, than the “Real Historical Jesus.” Which begins to look all too simple, all too Apologetic, all too simply Fundamentalist, in essence.

        7) Feel free to note more recent developments? That would address these specific problems.

      • I think you’ve just demonstrated my point above with yet another caricature of scholarship. You have also demonstrated your confidence in the certainty of your own assumptions. In fact you have made a series of erroneous and flawed assumptions which have led you to your unarguable conclusion, that is, mythicism ‘is more probable’.

      • Of what. You are a specific example of someone making up silly caricatures of “biblical scholarship” to give an impression of a discipline that does not exist in reality.

      • Tell me what you mean by Historical Jesus scholarship. I am not being facetious when I say that I know of no such discipline. Is this some “movement” mythtics have devised to make it seem that there are two sides engaged in a debate or battle royal. There are biblical scholars in the field of Christian origins who do, in fact, look at the so called “quests” of the historical Jesus. But the historical Jesus remains a fundamental postulate–not a “theory”–that requires defending. I need therefore to confront you with the sad news that mythicism has made absolutely no dent against this postulate and until it does it makes no sense to put what is clearly a weak thesis up against the consensus of scholarship as if the evidence is compromised by it. Your consistent attempts to equate anyone who believes Jesus existed with some sort of fundamentalism is simply berserk and continually show lapses in knowledge: Your number 4 is swimming in unlikely splices (Bruno Bauer was about as far removed from Q as you could possibly get) and canonically there is only ONE non-synoptic gospel(s) [sic]. Who/what are these churches that would be doing the editing? Where did they exist? From what literary circle would communities full of illiterate believers–as we know from the derision heaped upon Christian in the second century by pagan critics like Celsus–have hired their editors? Your confusion could be remedied by a few courses in the field; but it will not be helped by piling wrong assumption upon wrong assumption and then plunking down random conclusions. As I said before, your reasoning process becomes a model for the uselessness of Bayes. “Huge methodological problems with HJ criteria.” What are these precisely–that scholars get different answers? Hmmm. It seems to me that you should take a look as cancer research or whether caffeine is good for you or bad for you, or red wine, or…. You have deep respect for science. So do I. But you wouldn’t want to say, because research progresses and answers to questions change, that the whole process is fucked, now would you?

    • @Steph: It would be useful to know who has actually taken a course in the history, philosophy or anthropology of religion. This looks suspiciously like people who can’t make rather crucial distinctions between what happens at Summer Bible Camp and what happens in a Harvard classroom but speak as though the (magically?) know.. Sorry to be blunt.

  11. Religious studies are nominally interdisciplinary. However, it is my contention that specific elements of mainstream religious studies – or specifically HJ (Historical Jesus) studies – have neglected or underestimated the larger ANE and especially Greco-Roman context of early Christianity, and the influence of their myths, on its formation. In part because of their attacks on “Mythicism,” and in the attempt to establish the historical/physical reality of Jesus, they find it all-too-convenient to simply follow the Bible, and the apparently very physical narrative of the NT, as adequate proof of a physical, walking/talking, historical Jesus. And to ignore or denigrate the full extent of links between Jesus and various ANE myths; especially Greco-Roman Platonistic dualism/Idealism. (With its obvious ties to say, Gnosticism).

    In contrast to the new fundamentalism of HJ studies, and its attempt to find a “real” material/historical Jesus? A more careful look at ANE cultural context, and especially myths … finds so many correlations between “Jesus” and ANE myths, that i suggest that we should find “Jesus” to be more mythic, than historical.

    (As I noted earlier in an apparently lost post?).

    Indeed, I would submit that there are SO many links between ANE myth and the character “Jesus,” that Jesus can be described as simply the intersection of a few dozen ANE myths. Even if there was ever a real character named Jesus, his mind and theology were so dominated by the culture of his time and place, that Jesus is best described as a composite of ANE myths.

    • You may submit this! It has already been litigated by perfectly intelligent, non fundamentalist scholars. If you cannot name them, that is not a problem for modern scholarship. MOST of what the mythtics claim is actually derived from NT scholarship; you don’t imagine they produce their own, do you: “HJ (Historical Jesus) studies – have neglected or underestimated the larger ANE and especially Greco-Roman context of early Christianity, and the influence of their myths, on its formation.” Please tell me what you mean, and do not cite the crazy Evangelical sources that biblical scholarship does not use. WHERE do you think these conclusions came from? A renegade band of independent mythtics above the hills of Rome? They came from perfectly sane, responsible, fastidious scholars who did not jump to conclusions or probability games. I think that the only reason for your tenacity against what I am saying is that you don’t know any of the literature I am discussing. That leaves open the possibility that you and a number of other commenters–Tanya rings a bell–are little better than members of a cult, and unwilling to entertain evidence at all. If arguments from silence and analogy are the best you’ve got, by all means use them. But don’t expect to answer the hard questions that way.

    • You hold an extraordinarily out of date dinosaur conviction that Hellenisation and Graeco myth are of central importance to biblical studies. This idea is sperm to the rampant parallelomania virus to which mythtics are so easily seduced. There is a perception among mythtics that anything said once cannot be said again independently, despite the old true proverb ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Mythtics also have a driving urge to draw parallels where there are none by manipulation, misinterpretation and disturbance of ancient sources. In any case the old mistake has been successfully refuted by Mark A Chancey:
      Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 134, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 118, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

      As to your equally extraordinary conviction that Religious studies are ‘nominally interdisciplinary’, what on earth are you basing that pronouncement on? The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary? Asbury Theological Seminary? Princeton Theological Seminary? All of the above? Most European (which includes the UK) and Antipodean biblical scholars have first degrees in classics or broad first degrees in multiple disciplines from classics to anthropology, history and other things including religion. As graduates they specialise. Independent university religion departments offer papers on anthropology of religion, philosophy, sociology and a wealth of diverse topics approaching religion. Ironically one commenter over at the Drivel I mean Vridar, derided me for studying too broadly as if New Testament specialists being broadly trained wasn’t to their advantage. As to interdisciplinary method applied to texts, you could start with one of the essay authors and his latest book written for a wider audience which should therefore be within your grasp: Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, (T&T Clark, 2010). Read our colleague and member of the Jesus Process, James Crossley, Why Christianity Happened: a Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (WJK, 2006) and James G. Crossley and Christian Karner, Writing History, Constructing Religion (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005). Then check their bibliographies and read further. Check out courses offered at independent universities in religion and have a look at the way some universities are amalgamating religion departments with other disciplines. And hopefully you might become more self critical and swallow those unqualified pronouncements.

  12. The idea that Greco-Roman and ANE myth are central to Christianity, has been held in the field of biblical studies, since at least the days of the apostate Tertullian (who to be sure spoke against it; arguing that there is nothing in common between “Jerusalem and Athens.”) But looking at the New Testament itself, a compromise between liberal elements of Judaism and various ANE conquerors of Jerusalem, was continuous in the history of Chrfistianity. INcluding say Paul’s embrace of “Greeks,” and his use of the complete vocabulary of Plato’s Theory of Forms. (Things here on earth, being mere inferior “copies” of the ideal forms or “models” in “heaven”). Through to our own time. And though it has been rejected by a neo-fundamentalist Evangelical “scholarship” recently? It is in fact an idea in desperate need of revival, and re-definition.

    The massive importance of Greco-Roman influence was temporarily rejected in the 1980’s especially, by the new right, “evangelical scholarship” movement. ( Though Evangelical Scholarship is, I would suggest, a contradiction in terms.) The theory developed, from a longstanding strain of thought, of the Wholly Jewish Jesus” that Jesus was (paraphrasing) “Not Christian. JEsus was not conscious of himself as being anything other than a wholly loyal Jew.” Thus rejecting non-Jewish – Hellenistic – elements of Christianity.

    This “wholly Jewish Jesus” thesis is neo-fundamentalist, in that it attempts to apologetically defend Jesus, by asserting that he dutifully followed the Old Testament god and Torah, and did not depart from them by adding in any new (probably Hellenistic) ideas; like changing the law forbidding the gathering of food on the Sabbath for example. Yet clearly, Jesus DID change more than an “iota” of OT law, with what came to be called a “new covenant.” And he changed in in a direction, that would modify traditional conservative jewish thought, in the direction of “Greeks,” “Samaritans,” “Roman”s like Paul and so forth; changing especially the Jewish food prohibitions that forbid preparing food on a Sabbath, (or even eating pork?).

    Examples of the neo-fundamentalist/evangelical literature would include “Steph”s approving citation, above, of the “refutation” of the “dinosaur” theory of Hellenization, by Chancey, Casey, et alia..

    But in fact, as Hoffmann rightly notes, classic and longstanding religious scholarship has always been aware of Hellenistic influences on even the very earliest Christianity. And I would add? Mythicism is right to bring them up again, and even (over?) emphasize them; in order to counter the exaggerated suppression of this information, by … Steph and her friend: the now-fashionable, hypothesized, Wholly Jewish Jesus.

    • @Garcia: “This “wholly Jewish Jesus” thesis is neo-fundamentalist, in that it attempts to apologetically defend Jesus, by asserting that he dutifully followed the Old Testament god and Torah, etc.” Even a little reading on the subject might have spared you these errors. I suggest you start with Martin Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism to find out what the interface between the two cultures was in first century Palestine. As to the rest, perhaps the author can sort you out.

    • You hold an extraordinarily out of date dinosaur conviction that Hellenisation and Graeco myth are of central importance to biblical studies. This is not the same thing as saying there is no influence on Christian origins. “Mythicism is right to bring them up again”. They were never out. Most European and Antipodean biblical scholars have first degrees in classics and are equipped to reflect on influence reasonably. What mythicists do is make them of central importance and I discussed the reasons and consequence of that above. Hengel RIP should sort you out to begin with. Please stop making things up.

  13. Hoffmann:

    Suppose we address one of your own points: Paul (rather Gnostically) sneering at other (earlier?) apostles, and the “flesh.”

    Doesn’t Paul’s rather gnostic disregard for, even disdain for, the real, physical existence things, suggest that Paul thought little about say, any earlier possibly real, physical apostles? Or even a physical Jesus? Paul was interestested more in the spirit, than in physical, historical realities. He in fact seems quite gnostic,in his aggressive lack of concern for the physical, material side of life; and what interested him about Jesus for example, was that Jesus gave up his physical life. For a spiritual one, in effect. The physical, historical existence of Jesus therefore, did not concern Paul so much it seems.

    So possible real, physical prececessors, their physicality especially, were of little concern to Paul. And the suggestion we might get from Paul is? That therefore, we ourselves should not bother too much establishing the existence of a real physical – or “historical” – Jesus. What is important, Paul suggests is the “spirit.” Which manifests itself all around us at all times; while the apostles and even the physical Jesus, should be of less concern.

    In that sense? The core message of Paul is quite anti- Historical Jesus. Indeed, as Doherty might seem to suggest, Paul is so unconcerned with a phsyical Jesus, that … it is for all the world as if such an historical creature never existed.

    • Dr Garcia: Every point raised in this comment is addressed in the article. –Which says, in fact, that Paul says nothing of any substance that contributes to our knowledge of an historical Jesus. The article then goes on to explain the reasons for this, in some detail. Paul however is not “gnostic” because he depends for his theology on Jewish atonement and sacrifical thought, which requires a physical victim. He is certainly not anti-Historical Jesus unless you impute that to him by silecne, which si the standard recourse of mythicists. Good luck finding the answers to your queries in the article; they really are not hidden like words in the Wordsearch Game on a Denny’s napkin.

      • But perhaps you would enjoy fleshing out your position? For example? Paul’s argument is more than an “argument from silence.” It is not JUST that he is neglecting to note, to voice, the physical details of Jesus’ historical life; he is actually, actively, opposed to attaching much importance to the “flesh,” and physical, material, worldly life. Which might seem to imply? Lack of concern for the physical, material existence of Jesus.

        To be sure, it might be said that Jewish atonement calls for a physical sacrifice. But? The whole theology of “atonement” is much debated. What seems more central for Paul, is the simple (if temporary) denial of the importance of material, fleshly things. Including perhaps, even a physical Jesus. Indeed, the whole core of atonement – sacrificing something phsyical – easily becomes a metaphor, for the process of becoming more spiritual: the sacrifice of our physical life, is part of learning to emphasize the other side of life: the spirit.

        Corroborating the de-emphasis on material reality, the increasingly (proto?) Gnostic interest in “spirit” instead? Is Paul’s increasing emphasis not on the physical Jesus. But on … his two major concerns, both spiritual: 1) the spiritual quality of “faith,” believing even without seeing physical evidence. And 2) the very, very spiritual emphasis, in Paul, on The Holy “Spirit.”

        So that? Paul is rather consistent, in rejecting almost any and all physical, material – and I would add, to that degree, Historical – realities. All physical things must be rejected; in order to foreground the spirit.

        So Paul is not just ignoring, with his “silence,” any possible physical, historical realities to Jesus (and any possible biological, phsyical “brothers” of Jesus, say); he is actively (if implicitly) opposing them. As part of his (proto-Gnostic?) emphasis not on material, historical realities; but on “spirit.”

      • Garcia Says: “So Paul is not just ignoring, with his “silence,” any possible physical, historical realities to Jesus (and any possible biological, phsyical “brothers” of Jesus, say); he is actively (if implicitly) opposing them.” Yes that is in outline what I mean. But you then want to suggest that Paul is thus “gnostic”–and you need to be careful using that at a descriptor for all kinds of reasons. Gnosticism is a grab bag of different ideas, different from place to place and region to region. It thus makes no sense to say that Paul is purposelessly silent about historical realities if he knew historical realities in the form of Jesus and the brothers of Jesus, e.g., to exist, which I am convinced he did. What he does say, not by implication but directly, is that their physical existence is not what mattered to him. Unless you want to do what mythtics often do and say 2 Cor is full of spurious verses or that Paul didn’t write it or that Paul didn’t exist–you have to deal with what is actually THERE. You don’t seem to quote relevant texts in support of these every broad views: But here is one you need to deal with. 2 Corinthians is usually considered the core of the Opponent’s Controversy. It is in 2 Corinthians 5.16 that Paul becomes dismissive of the physical Jesus. Why do you think this is the case? —–because he is a gnostic, or because he is jealous of the men who knew Jesus personally? What would be the most obvious and rational explanation — that is, if you were not already married to the idea that there was no Jesus to get to know>

  14. I think we are agreeing on many key points, if not all. We seem to agree for instance that Paul is deliberately “dissing” physical reality; and perhaps the idea of a Physical Jesus. In this I am for the moment also willing to call him say, merely “proto” Gnostic; in recognition of the the manifold and problematic nature of Gnosticism proper.

    But perhaps I could persuade you that Paul, in seeming to reject a physical Jesus, is not necessarily – by the very act of rejecting apparently, something – accepting, implicitly, that there ever WAS such a physical existence. For example? 1) Logically, to say in 2 Corin. 5.16, that the new Christians no longer see Jesus from the human point of view, does not imply (in accepted translations like the RSV) that Jesus was ever physical, historical. It just says that, whatever Jesus was – physical, or spiritual, or whatever – we ourselves now see him as … or in terms of, spiritual things.

    Here, Paul is not necessarily indirectly acknowledging the real physical existence of Jesus, even in the act of denying its importance. he might be denying the COMMON PERCEPTION of Jesus as physical, say. In the same way that I might say that “the recent panic caused by fear of Alpha Centuri aliens, can be ignored,” does not imply the actual existence of Alpha Centuri aliens. Likewise, the denial of the importance of the physical jesus, does not imply that Pau thought that Jesus had actually, physically existed.

    2) And so, in my reading of Paul, in 2 Corin. 5.16? That is properly sometimes understood not as really addressing the physical existence of Jesus at all, directly. But is merely celebrating the spiritual persons’ triumph over crass materialism, the traditional “human” view of things, of jesus. Of specifically THE PERCEPTION OF Jesus, seen from the all too common, phsyical, “human point of view.”

    Paul in 2 Corin. 5.16 was seeing and celebrating not the rejection of a real physical existence of Jesus; but the disappearance of a false perception. Celebrating a transformation in those of us who have become spiritual. A transformation of this nature: we now see or value any crass materialism, the physical side of things or of JEsus; but instead see and value, only the real spiritual essence.

    Paul’s motives for rejecting the physical Jesus? Motives are hard to read. In this case, it Might be 1) as you suggest, jealousy for those who did know Jesus more directly; 2) or might be Paul’s conviction that the “real physical” Jesus did not quite succeed in delivering the promised physical kingdom; or 3) that indeed, as a proto-gnostic, Paul simply did not value the physical side of life, or of jesus, often. whether or not he actually existed.

    Or indeed? Paul 4) might even have been warning, in his own way, the Jesus was a fictional invention; and had never been a physical person at all. He might have been an arbitrary invention, invented for an illustrative moral fable or parable, or midrash.

    In any case, 5) Paul’s insistence – Paul, the apostle and saint, who wrote more than half the books of the New Testament; who wrote the first major corpus on Jesus – on the unimportance of the physicality of Jesus, certainly must be paid attention to. By all those who insist, against Paul and half the New Testament (and more), that Jesus should be regarded not just as spiritual metaphor, but as a real, historical, physical being. Paul apparently… disagreeing with them.

  15. Steph:

    1) I am well aware that Historical Jesus scholarship, believes itself to have attempted to find a plausible Jesus, beyond the jesus of miracles, for example. But? How valid is that methodology? No doubt it considers Paul; but what if we consider what I am here calling his warning about … historicity itself? Should we just write that off?

    2) I am aware of recent trends that suggest the “real” Jesus was primarily a loyal Jew; while any relaxation of circumcision, food restrictions, and a spiritualzation of the “kingdom,” are thought to be later additions by Paul and other Hellenized successors. But? I find Hellenism deep in jesus “himself.” And if Jesus himself is full of Greco-Roman culture – or myths? Then even a Real Historical jesus would be largely … mythic. His head or spirit, would be full of Hellenistic myths.

    3) HJ scholars pride themselves on being unsentimental and realistic; locating a mere simple, quite human, unsupernatural, loyal Jew, as the historical Jesus. But? After all, I submit, even the most “hardheaded” HJ position, is a compromise with Fundamentalism: in that it after all, can say that it “believes in” a “real, historical Jesus.” (Never mind, in very much reduced circumstances).

    4) Could all the gospels, in all their apparent agreement (ignoring their differences, and the non-synoptic gospels, and apocrypha, and pseudepigrapha?), have come to such agreement, without having a single real historical individual as their origin? Of course they could. If a) as Bruno Bauer suggested long ago, they had a single fictional work as their origin. And/or if b) the gospels were interdependent (having one or two common sources, like Q and/or Mark). And especially if c) the new Churches had time to edit these books for continuity, before say, 120 AD.

    5) Considering too, huge methodological problems with HJ criteria?

    6) Finally, Mythicism is more probable, than the “Real Historical Jesus.” Which begins to look all too simple, all too Apologetic, all too simply Fundamentalist, in essence.

    7) Feel free to note more recent developments?

  16. Steph and Joe:

    You two seem strangely unaware of key developments in (your own?) discipline, and even on these very pages. Perhaps the problems is that there has always been a very, openly critical element in religious studies that has been too embarassing or controversial for scholars to acknowledge … at least publically. Which is of course the problem; not implicit understandings, but what is said to the Public.

    No doubt it would be awkward to acknowledge Mythicism as a viable theory within the field. But? Of course, Historical Jesus studies exists as a very real subfield of concentration;, and so does its opposition to Mythicism, exists as a very real field of concentration.

    1) First, historically? Remember all the controversy about Bruno Bauer, the theology professor who was fired in the mid 19th century, for supporting Mythicism, in effect.

    2) Then? Further, similar researches, carried out by Bultmann.

    3) These ideas did not die out in the 20th century, but after being forwarded by Bultmann, were carried out by many scholars. One simple, introductory source acknowledging the HJ thesis, vs. mythicism, that might be useful to non-scholars, would be say, at random, Dr. John F. O’Grady’s “Models of Jesus,” Doubleday, NY, 1981; Chapter 3: “The Mythological Christ,” pp. 58-73.

    4) Was this issue “controversial”? At the time the above, simple general intro was published, the author was Assoc. Prof. of New Testament, at St. Bernard’s Seminary. And he ends his Chapter 3 on Mythicism, by explicitly noting a “controversy” on this subject.

    5) And? That controversy, between Historical Jesus and Mythicism, has continued to this very day. As witnessed by … this very blog. And the response from the Internet. A quick survey of the Internet referneces to “HJ” will show that this is a discrete and flourishing subfield.

    6) And so indeed, and contrary to both Steph and Hoffmann? There has long been an active study of “Historical jesus,” and it has often explicitly confronted a long tradition of Mythicists; it is not true that scholars have universally or even largely, “simply assumed” that Jesus simply existed.

    How could anyone work in the field of religion for so long, and not know this? Perhaps the problem is that the field of religious studies has long been split between Believers, and Critics. And (until recently) it is been all too easy for some, to even go all the way through to the PHD and beyond, without seriously considering , knowing much about, the critical side of the discipline.

    I am surprised that the two of you however, seem unaware of that side; or have chosen to emphasize a part of the discipline that, whatever is said privately, in public has the effect, the appearance, of being an Apologetic: of appearing to assure the PUBLIC at least, of “proving” that their Jesus was a real, physical, historical being.

    No doubt, that impression would be dissolved by closer reading of the scholarship on the subject? But most people in the field remain very, very nonconfrontational, regarding the public.

    Is that the reason that even a nonspecialist in your own field, has to point out major developments in it, that you seem unaware of?

    • @Garcia: Yup. We are abysmally ignorant; my apologies. My point which stands is that there is no field called as an aggregate “Historical Jesus Studies,” there is a field called New Testament, Christian origins, and Early Church studies that deals with the historical Jesus. Some scholars more than others like to focus on this and produce books on the topic. If you had bothered to pay attention to the beginning of this discussion, you would know that it was prompted by Bart Ehrman’s suggestion that until his book, Did Jesus Exist? appeared, NT scholars have not tended to take up the mythtic position. That is partly true, but not entirely so. FEW have bothered, because the theory has been so poorly framed, argued, and defended that almost no one takes it seriously. In fact, I have taken it seriously and have rejected it.

      But what you are trying to do is to juxtapose “Historical Jesus Studies” and “Mythicism” as if they were two equally viable theories–probably in order to legitimize the mythtic position. And honestly, if you had bothered to read my article, you could not possibly say anything as boneheaded as “And so indeed, and contrary to both Steph and Hoffmann? There has long been an active study of “Historical jesus,” and it has often explicitly confronted a long tradition of Mythicists; it is not true that scholars have universally or even largely, “simply assumed” that Jesus simply existed.How could anyone work in the field of religion for so long, and not know this? Perhaps the problem is that the field of religious studies has long been split between Believers, and Critics. And (until recently) it is been all too easy for some, to even go all the way through to the PHD and beyond, without seriously considering , knowing much about, the critical side of the discipline.” Honestly what crack in the earth did you pull that from? I wrote my first book on the subject in 1986; do your homework and find it; and two years later Jesus in History and Myth explored the state of the question in 1988. I promise, I haven’t been sleeping or in a coma since then. You persist in wanting to “fundamentalise” all scholarship that relies on the postulate of a historical Jesus, and since that is by far the bulk of NT scholarship you have your work cut out for you. Right now, the mythicist position being argued by Doherty and the non-existence idea being pushed by Carrier with his BT is about as ridiculous as the Birther controversy. You are asking for Jesus’ birth certificate, and we won’t cough it up. And you are totally incapable of seeing the weight the gospels and letters of the New Testament present as an historical problem, because in your head you think scholars who take them seriously “believe” in them. And that, my friend, is nonsense. –PS: Please feel free to reply, but unless you can add anything further to the discussion please don’t be surprised if it doesn’t escape the seventh circle of moderation until the Judgement.

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  22. You quoted from Tertullian’s De Carne Christi and observed:

    The language is odd to us, because Tertullian is arguing against a renegade disciple of Marcion named Apelles. But the message is plain: Jesus was real.

    But, for the benefit of any readers unfamiliar with Apelles, I would like to add that Jesus was real for Apelles too. Even though Apelles had his own peculiar twist for explaining the origin of the body of Jesus, he was definitely anti-docetic and this was one of the several ways he distanced himself from his erstwhile teacher Marcion.

    Here is how Epiphanius describes Apelle’s teaching on the flesh of Jesus:

    He (Christ) has not appeared in semblance at his coming, but has really taken flesh; not from Mary the virgin, but he has real flesh and a body, though not from a man’s seed or a virgin woman… He did get real flesh, but in the following way. On his way from heaven he came to earth, says Apelles, and assembled his own body from the four elements. (Panarion, 44,2,2 and 3)

    And this is clear likewise from an earlier passage in De Carne Christi:

    This man (Apelles) having first fallen in the flesh from the principles of Marcion into the company of women, and afterwards shipwrecked himself in the spirit on the virgin Philumena, proceeded from that time to preach that the body of Christ was of solid flesh, but without having been born… He borrowed … his flesh from the stars, and from the substances of the higher world. (On the Flesh of Christ, 6)

    To Tertullian, of course, the idea that Jesus had real human flesh but made from the four elements was still unacceptable. Tertullian was willing to concede that method of obtaining flesh for the angels who, according to various episodes in the Old Testament, visited this world. But he would not concede it for Jesus.

    I would also like to comment on another verse from the passage you cited. Tertullian addresses these words to Apelles: “You take these, I suppose, for celestial signs” (referring to the hunger, thirst, weeping, trembling, and bleeding of Jesus). I am of the opinion that the Gospel of Apelles is the gospel that underlies the canonical Gospel of John. It would be what many scholars refer to as “the Signs Source.” Tertullian, who wrote a treatise (no longer extant) against the Apelleans, was familiar with the teaching of Apelles. And I think it is that familiarity that is the background for his bringing up “celestial signs” here. Apelles called his Gospel the “Manifestations” (Phaneroseis). And, as you know, the connection between signs and manifestations in the Fourth Gospel is established early on, as in: “This the first of his signs Jesus did at Cana in Galilee and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (Jn. 2:11, my emphases).

    I think that before accepting Apelles’ Gospel the proto-orthodox subjected it to considerable reworking. Its Apellean origin, however, still protrudes in many ways. For instance, in the mildly gnostic dualism that is still present. And in the absence of any nativity for Jesus. And in the strongly negative stance toward Judaism (to include making sure that Jesus did not eat a Passover meal with his disciples). And in the suppression of its Ascension scene (Jn. 6.62; Epiphanius, in his Panarion, castigates the doctrine of Apelles regarding the Ascension).

    On the plus side, the proto-orthodox did appreciate and keep Apelles’ strong anti-docetism. Apelles, says Hippolytus, taught that Jesus “showed them (his disciples) the prints of the nails and the wound in his side, desirous of persuading them that he was in truth no phantom, but was present in the flesh” (The Refutation of All Heresies, 7,26). A variation of this was allowed to remain in chapter 20 of the gospel.

    Apelles is the most famous deserter of Marcion we know, and the only one whose name is present in the early record. My suspicion is that he was one of the deserters spoken of by Irenaeus: “He (Polycarp) it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus, caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics (Valentinus and Marcion) to the church of God…” (Against Heresies, 3.3.4). Although Irenaeus was not one to avoid naming names, he prudently omitted any mention of Apelles and his errors from his opus against heresies.

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    • You would think a man of this accomplishment could spell a relatively simple German surname like Hoffmann. I wonder, were his teachers so sloppy in checking his bibliography and references in school? I have often found it amusing that people who purport to be interested in science and precision seem to think that details don’t matter. In biblical studies we learn early that but for a single stroke a word could be molasses and not Moses.

  24. Dear Professor Hoffmann,

    I read your well reasoned essay, ‘The Jesus Process’ with interest, but can you enlighten me on the source for ‘Jesus Barabbas’ being a historical figure? As far as I am aware, there is no other evidence beyond the NT for this person.

    James Lynn Page

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  26. “In fact, we have no examples from classical antiquity[17] of a religion that insisted from the beginning on the historical existence of its founder in both explicit and implicit ways ”


    • Moses? Classical antiquity? No. You missed the context, if not the point. And you will also know that as Hellenism envelops Moses, whatever his historicity, his figure is systematically spiritualized. Philo. But thanks for the example.

  27. Intriguing synopsis. I’ve been seeing quite a bit of movement from the Mythicists in Greece as well and their posts are starting to get on my nerves. Did you know that the Synoptics are called that because they weren’t written by their alleged authors? And there’s 4 of them to boot! So says…a publisher… No fact checking whatsoever, even on amateur-level material. Ugh…

    Translated in Greek <a href="; here. (I will be posting a chapter every third day; to be completed February 10th). I wonder if it’ll hit a nerve with them…

  28. Sigh, the “Christ-myth” or “Non-historicity” thesis is NOT the theory that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did not exist as demonstrated by the following examples:

    1) Jesus began as a myth with historical trappings possibly including “reports of an obscure Jewish Holy man bearing this name” being added later. (Walsh, George (1998) ”The Role of Religion in History” Transaction Publishers pg 58) (Dodd, C.H. (1938) ”History and the Gospel” under the heading Christ Myth Theory Manchester University Press pg 17)

    2) “The myth theory is not concerned to deny such a possibility (that a flesh and blood Jesus may be behind part of the myth). What the myth theory denies is that Christianity can be traced to a personal founder who taught as reported in the Gospels and was put to death in the circumstances there recorded” (Robertson, Archibald. (1946) Jesus: Myth or History? regarding John Robertson’s 1900 Christ Myth theory)

    3) “This view (Christ Myth theory) states that the story of Jesus is a piece of mythology, possessing no more substantial claims to historical fact than the old Greek or Norse stories of gods and heroes…” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: E-J 1982, 1995 by Geoffrey W. Bromiley)

    There are modern examples of stories of known historical people “possessing no more substantial claims to historical fact than the old Greek or Norse stories of gods and heroes”–George Washington and the Cherry Tree; Davy Crockett and the Frozen Dawn; Jesse James and the Widow to mention a few. King Arthur and Robin Hood are two more examples of suspected historical people whose stories are most likely fictional in nature.

    4) The ”Gospel Jesus” didn’t exist and GA Wells’ ”Jesus Myth” (1999) is an example of this. Doherty, Earl “Book And Article Reviews: The Case For The Jesus Myth: “Jesus — One Hundred Years Before Christ by Alvar Ellegard” review] Note that from ”Jesus Legend” (1996) on Wells has accepted there was a historical Jesus behind the hypothetical Q Gospel and that both ”Jesus Legend” and ”Jesus Myth” have been presented as examples of the Christ Myth theory by Robert Price, Richard Carrier, and Eddy-Boyd. (Eddy and Boyd (2007), The Jesus Legend pp. 24)

    5) The Gospel Jesus is in essence a composite character (that is, an amalgamation of several actual individuals whose stories have been melded into one character, such as is the case with Robin Hood), and therefore non-historical by definition. (Price, Robert M. (2000) ”Deconstructing Jesus” Prometheus Books, pg 85)

    6) Jesus Agnosticism: The Gospel story is so filled with myth and legend that nothing about it including the very existence of the Jesus described can be shown to be historical. (Eddy, Paul R. and Boyd, Gregory A. ”The Jesus Legend” Baker Academic, 2007. pg 24-25)

    When it can be demonstrated by several works over 100 years on both sides of the issue that the very definition Hoffmann gives us is WRONG then the paper isn’t worth beans because his very starting point is in error. When a historian presents demonstrably incorrect information that is the very foundation of their arguments then their view is worthless!

    • Sigh bakatcha Morgan, you fail to quote your comprehend the statement “the “Christ-myth” or “Non-historicity” thesis—an argumentative approach to the New Testament based on the theory that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did not exist.” This does not equate with the “Christ-myth” or “Non-historicity” thesis is the theory that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. Think about it. Quite base, really.

    • The foundations of all mythicism is that there is no readily identifiable character called Jesus in the historical record, that matches the gospel story. Thats it. You don’t need any other explanations or excuses. However, if you fast-forward a generation, the biblical Jesus CAN be found in the historical record. And i say this as an Atheist, not a believer.

      What we are looking for is a rebel who was the leader of the Nazarene sect of Judaism called Jesus Emmanuel, who was feted as the king of the Jews, and got into trouble with the Romans and was crucified.

      Does such a character exist in the records? Yes. All you need to know is that Adiabene was actually Edessa. then we find:

      A rebel prince who was the leader of the Nazarene sect of Judaism who was called Izas Manu(el), who was feted as the King of the Jews, and who got into trouble with the Romans when he started the Jewish Revolt in AD 68, and was crucified in the Kidron Valley in AD 70 when Jerusalem fell. And according to Josephus these three rebels were taken down from the cross early, and one survived.

      So the mythicists are wrong. Jesus can be identified in the historical record as being King Izas-Manu VI of Edessa, whose reign not surprisingly ended in AD 701 after the fall of Jerusalem. But the Christian apologists are also wrong, because Jesus was actually a wealthy warrior monarch, rather than a pauper prince of peace.

      Ralph Ellis

  29. Pingback: On the Challenges of Engaging and Not Engaging the Christ Myth Theory | Daniel N. Gullotta

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