Was There No Historical Jesus?
Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?
The five main articles following the Preamble present the basic case for the non-existence of an historical Jesus. Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," surveys the silence on the Gospel Jesus and Gospel events in the early epistolary record.
Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," surveys the silence on the Gospel Jesus and Gospel events in the early epistolary record. Part Two, "Who Was Christ Jesus?" examines that early record for a more realistic picture of the original faith and the context of its period. Part Three, "The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth," presents the development of the Gospels (including Q) and their new Jesus figure as the founder of Christianity. The "Postscript" surveys the non-Christian record of the time and considers some general problems in current New Testament research. Finally, "The Second Century Apologists" examines the post-Gospel situation and the wider, non-canonical record of the second century. Discussions and arguments put forward in the Main Articles are developed in greater depth, with additional references and sources, in the Supplementary Articles (see Home Page), as well as in many Reader Feedback responses (see Reader Feedback Index).
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Part One: A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE
To the Trallians he said: "Close your ears then if anyone preaches to you without speaking of Jesus Christ. Christ was of David's line. He was the son of Mary; he was really born, ate and drank, was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was really crucified....He was also truly raised from the dead."
But there is something very curious about the occurrence of such ideas in Ignatius' letters. Let's leave the Gospels aside for now, except to say that there is no good reason to date any of them before the late first century, and look at the remaining corpus of surviving Christian writings to Ignatius' time.
The above chart includes the genuine letters of Paul, written in the 50s; letters written later in the first century under his name: Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians; and the three Pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy & Titus) dated to the second century; other New Testament epistles: James, Hebrews, Jude, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John; and Revelation. Also included are non-canonical writings: 1 Clement, the Didache (later called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), the letters of Ignatius, and the Epistle of Barnabas. The dates of many of these documents, all originally written in Greek, are difficult to fix and are here only approximate.
Several times in his letters Ignatius stresses his belief in Jesus as the son of Mary, as a man who had lived at the time of Herod, who had suffered and died under Pontius Pilate. Every Christian would agree that these are essential elements of the Gospel story, along with the portrayal of Jesus as an ethical teacher, as a worker of miracles, an apocalyptic preacher of the coming Kingdom of God. And yet when we step outside those Gospels into the much more rarefied atmosphere of the first century epistles, we encounter a huge puzzle.
Before Ignatius, not a single reference to Pontius Pilate, Jesus' executioner, is to be found. Ignatius is also the first to mention Mary; Joseph, Jesus' father, nowhere appears. The earliest reference to Jesus as any kind of a teacher comes in 1 Clement, just before Ignatius, who himself seems curiously unaware of any of Jesus' teachings. To find the first indication of Jesus as a miracle worker, we must move beyond Ignatius to the Epistle of Barnabas. Other notable elements of the Gospel story are equally hard to find.
This strange silence on the Gospel Jesus which pervades almost a century of Christian correspondence cries out for explanation. It cannot be dismissed as some inconsequential quirk, or by the blithe observation made by New Testament scholarship that early Christian writers "show no interest" in the earthly life of Jesus. Something is going on here. In Part One, we are going to take a close look at this "Conspiracy of Silence" to which Paul and every other Christian writer of the first century seems to be a party.
Christianity was allegedly born within Judaism, whose basic theological tenet was: God is One. The ultimate blasphemy for a Jew would have been to associate any man with God. Yet what did those first Christians do? They seemingly took someone regarded as a crucified criminal and turned him into the Son of God and Savior of the world. They gave him titles and roles formerly reserved for God alone. They made him pre-existent: sharing divinity with God in heaven before the world was made. Nor was this something that evolved over time. All this highly spiritual and mythological thinking is the very earliest expression we find about Jesus.
And yet there is a resounding silence in Paul and the other first century writers. We might call it "The Missing Equation." Nowhere does anyone state that this Son of God and Savior, this cosmic Christ they are all talking about, was the man Jesus of Nazareth, recently put to death in Judea. Nowhere is there any defence of this outlandish, blasphemous proposition, the first necessary element (presumably) in the Christian message: that a recent man was God.
Such a defence would have been required even for gentile listeners. The Greeks and Romans had their own religious philosophies (to be looked at in greater detail in Part Two), which included the idea of a divine Son, of an intermediary between God and the world, but such spiritual concepts had never been equated with a human being.
By contrast, look at the Acts of the Apostles, which a number of critical scholars (John Knox, J. T. Townsend, Burton Mack, J. C. O'Neill) judge was written well into the second century. (See Reader Feedback Set 17.) In chapter 2, Peter is represented as speaking to the Jews like this: "Men of Israel, hear my words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God..." And he goes on to preach about this Jesus, whom "God has made both Lord and Christ."
Here is the equation missing in the first century epistles. It starts with the human Jesus and declares him to have been divine or made divine. Paul and other early writers, however, seem to speak solely of a divine Christ. He is the starting point, a kind of given, and is never identified with a recent human being. Spiritual beliefs are stated about this divine Christ and Son of God. Paul believes in a Son of God, not that anyone was the Son of God.
1 Corinthians 8:6, for example, says: "For us there is one God, the Father, from whom all being comes; and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came to be and we through him." In the same letter, Paul recites the gospel he preached (15:3-4): "That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures." Why would the equation of this divine Savior with the recent Jesus of Nazareth not be a necessary and natural part of at least some of the faith declarations or even simple arguments and discussions we find in all the first century epistles? It is notably missing in 1 Corinthians 1:18f, where Paul is defending God's wisdom and the apparent folly of Christian doctrine, yet he feels no necessity to include a defence of the folly that a human being has been elevated to divinity. I will leave the reader to peruse other passages, such as Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and so on, and to ask where is the recent Jesus of Nazareth in all this, the man who had supposedly walked the very earth which these writers too had trod, in many cases within their own lifetimes.
Consider another great silence: on the teachings of Jesus. The first century epistles regularly give moral maxims, sayings, admonitions, which in the Gospels are spoken by Jesus, without ever attributing them to him. The well-known "Love Your Neighbor," originally from Leviticus, is quoted in James, the Didache, and three times in Paul, yet none of them points out that Jesus had made this a centerpiece of his own teaching. Both Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:9) and the writer of 1 John even attribute such love commands to God, not Jesus!
When Hebrews talks of the "voice" of Christ today (1:2f, 2:11, 3:7, 10:5), why is it all from the Old Testament? When Paul, in Romans 8:26, says that "we do not know how we are to pray," does this mean he is unaware that Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer to his disciples? When the writer of 1 Peter urges, "do not repay wrong with wrong, but retaliate with blessing," has he forgotten Jesus' "turn the other cheek"? Romans 12 and 13 is a litany of Christian ethics, as is the Epistle of James and parts of the "Two Ways" instruction in the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas; but though many of these precepts correspond to Jesus' Gospel teachings, not a single glance is made in his direction. Such examples could be multiplied by the dozen.
In passing, it must be noted that those "words of the Lord" which Paul puts forward as guides to certain practices in his Christian communities (1 Corinthians 7:10 and 9:14) are not from any record of earthly pronouncements by Jesus. It is a recognized feature of the early Christian movement that charismatic preachers like Paul believed themselves to be in direct communication with the spiritual Christ in heaven, receiving from him instruction and inspiration. (See R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, p.127; Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence, p.87, n.7; Werner Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel, p.206.)
Christianity and certain Jewish sects believed that the end of the world and the establishment of God's Kingdom was at hand. Paul tells his readers: "the time we live in will not last long," and "you know the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night." But can Paul be truly unaware that Jesus himself had made almost identical apocalyptic predictions, as recorded in passages like Mark 13:30 and Matthew 24:42? He shows no sign of it. He and others seem similarly ignorant of Jesus' stance in regard to the cleanness of foods, on the question of keeping the whole of the Jewish Law, on the issue of preaching to the gentiles, even in situations where they are engaged in bitter debate over such issues.
Nor is there any reference in the epistles to Jesus as the Son of Man, despite the fact that the Gospels are full of this favorite self-designation of Jesus. This apocalyptic figure, taken from the Book of Daniel (7:13), appears in a cluster of Christian and Jewish sectarian documents in the latter first century, including the Gospels, where Jesus declares himself to be the one who will arrive at the End-time on the clouds of heaven to judge the world and establish the Kingdom. It seems inconceivable that Paul, with all his preoccupation about the imminent End (see 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18, for example) would either be unaware of Jesus' declared role as the Son of Man, or choose to ignore it.
But the silence extends beyond individual pronouncements to Jesus' ministry as a whole, and it is nowhere more startling than in Romans 10. Paul is anxious to show that the Jews have no excuse for failing to believe in Christ and gaining salvation, for they have heard the good news about him from appointed messengers like Paul himself. And he contrasts the unresponsive Jews with the gentiles who welcomed it. But surely Paul has left out the glaringly obvious. For the Jews—or at least some of them—had supposedly rejected that message from the very lips of Jesus himself, whereas the gentiles had believed second-hand. In verse 18 Paul asks dramatically: "But can it be they never heard it (i.e., the message)?" How could he fail to highlight his countrymen's spurning of Jesus' very own person? Yet all he refers to are apostles like himself who have "preached to the ends of the earth."
Then in Romans 11, Paul goes on to compound this silence by describing the extent of Israel's rejection, wherein he quotes Elijah's words from 1 Kings about the Jews' alleged habit (a largely unfounded myth) of killing their own prophets. Yet Paul fails to add to this record the culminating atrocity of the killing of the Son of God himself. (For 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, see Part Two.)
This is a recurring feature of Paul's letters: he totally ignores Jesus' recent career and places the focus of revelation and salvation entirely upon the missionary movement of which he is the prominent member (as he sees it). The pseudo-Pauline letters do this, too.
Read passages like Romans 16:25-27, Colossians 1:25-27, Ephesians 3:5-10 and ask yourself where is Jesus' role in disclosing God's long-hidden secret and plan for salvation? Why, in 2 Corinthians 5:18, is it Paul who has been given the ministry of reconciliation between man and God, and not Jesus in his ministry? (The cryptic and ubiquitous little phrase "in / through Christ" which Paul often inserts in passages like this hardly encompasses such a meaning, and I will be talking about what it does mean in Part Two.)
Paul's view of the present period leading up to the end of the world seems to take no account of the recent activity of Jesus on earth. He gives us no "interregnum," no period between Christ's death and resurrection, and his future Coming. Passages in Romans 8 (18-25) and 13 (11-12), and especially 2 Corinthians 6:2 ("Now [referring to his own work] has the day of deliverance dawned"), envision no impingement of Jesus' recent career on the progression from the old age to the new; rather, it is Paul's own present activity which is an integral part of this process. Nor does he ever address the question which would have reflected popular expectation: Why did the actual coming of the Messiah not in itself produce the arrival of the Kingdom? In the epistles, Christ's anticipated Coming at the End-time is never spoken of as a "return" or second Coming; the impression conveyed is that this will be his first appearance in person on earth. (For Hebrews 9:28, see Epilogue of Supplementary Article No. 9: A Sacrifice in Heaven.)
No first century epistle mentions that Jesus performed miracles. In some cases the silence is striking. Both Colossians and Ephesians view Jesus as the Savior whose death has rescued mankind from the demonic powers who were believed to pervade the world, causing sin, disease and misfortune. But not even in these letters is there any mention of the healing miracles that the Gospels are full of, those exorcisms which would have shown that Jesus had conquered such demons even while he was on earth.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is anxious to convince his readers that humans can be resurrected from the dead. Why then does he not point to any traditions that Jesus himself had raised several people from the dead? Where is Lazarus?
In several letters Paul deals with accusations by certain unnamed rivals that he is not a legitimate apostle. Even Peter and James dispute his authority to do certain things. Can we believe that in such situations no one would ever have used the argument that Paul had not been an actual follower of Jesus, whereas others had? Paul never discusses the point. In fact, he claims (1 Cor. 9:1 and 15:8) that he has "seen" the Lord, just as Peter and everyone else have. This is an obvious reference to visions, one of the standard modes of religious revelation in this period. And as Paul's "seeing" of the Lord is acknowledged to have been a visionary one, his comparison of himself with the other apostles suggests that their contact with Jesus was of the same nature: through visions.
And how could Paul, in Galatians 2:6, dismiss with such disdain those who had been the very followers of Jesus himself on earth? But in granting them no special status he is not alone. The word "disciple(s)" does not appear in the epistles, and concept of "apostle" in early Christian writings is a broad one, meaning simply a preacher of the message (i.e., the "gospel") about the Christ. It never applies to a select group of Twelve who supposedly possessed special authority arising from their apostleship to Jesus while he was on earth. (It is far from clear what "the Twelve" in 1 Corinthians 15:5 refers to, since Paul lists Peter and "the apostles" separately. The term appears nowhere else in the epistles.)
Nor is there any concept of apostolic tradition in the first century writers, no idea of teachings or authority passed on in a chain going back to the original Apostles and Jesus himself. Instead, everything is from the Spirit, meaning direct revelation from God, with each group claiming that the Spirit they have received is the genuine one and reflects the true gospel. This is the basis of Paul's claim against his rivals in 2 Corinthians 11:4. The writer of 1 John, in his declaration (4:1f) that the Son of God has come in the flesh, draws on no apostolic tradition, on no historical record, but must claim validity for his own Spirit, as opposed to the Satan-inspired false spirit of the dissidents. In chapter 5, he declares that it is God's testimony through the Spirit which produces faith in the Son, not several decades of Christian preaching going back to Jesus himself. How could this writer in the community of John, which later produced the Fourth Gospel, say (5:11) that it is God who has revealed eternal life, and ignore all those memorable sayings of Jesus like "I am the resurrection and the life" which that Gospel so richly records?
As for Jesus' great appointment of Peter as the "rock" upon which his church is to be built, no one in the first century (including the writers of 1 and 2 Peter) ever quotes it or uses it in the frequent debates over authority.
The agency of all recent activity seems to be God, not Jesus. Paul speaks of "the gospel of God," "God's message". It is God appealing and calling to the Christian believer. 2 Corinthians 5:18 tells us that "from first to last this has been the work of God" (New English Bible translation). In Romans 1:19 the void is startling. Paul declares: "All that may be known of God by men...God himself has disclosed to them." Did Jesus not disclose God, were God's attributes not visible in Jesus? How could any Christian—as so many do—express himself in this fashion?
A few secondary omissions also deserve mention. No first century epistle, even when discussing Christian baptism, ever mentions either Jesus' own baptism or the figure of John the Baptist. Paul has much to say about the meaning of baptism (as in Romans 1:1-6), but he never compares its elements with Jesus' own experience by the Jordan. 1 Clement 17:1 speaks of those who heralded the Messiah's coming, but includes only Elijah, Elisha and Ezekiel. The arch-betrayer Judas never appears, not even in a passage like Hebrews 12:15 where the author, in cautioning against the poisonous member in the community's midst, offers the figure of Esau as an example, who "sold his inheritance for a single meal." Surely selling the Son of God for thirty pieces of silver would have been a far more dramatic comparison!
Hebrews also contains (9:20f) a stunning silence on Jesus' establishment of the Christian Eucharist. The writer is comparing the old covenant with the new, but not even the quoted words of Moses at the former's inauguration: "this is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined upon you," can entice him to mention that Jesus had established the new covenant at a Last Supper, using almost identical words, as Mark 14:24 and parallels record. He goes further in chapter 13 when he adamantly declares that Christians do not eat a sacrificial meal. The Didache 9 presents a eucharist which is solely a thanksgiving meal to God, with no sacramental significance and no establishment by Jesus.
This leaves us with 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul's declaration about Jesus' words at what he calls the Lord's Supper. I will address this in Part Two, as well as a few spots in various epistles which seem to come ambiguously close to referring to a life for Christ.
I have done little more than scratch the surface of this "Conspiracy of Silence" found in the first century epistles. But I'd like to conclude by looking at one glaring omission which no one, to my knowledge, has yet remarked on.
Where are the holy places?
In all the Christian writers of the first century, in all the devotion they display about Christ and the new faith, not one of them expresses the slightest desire to see the birthplace of Jesus, to visit Nazareth his home town, the sites of his preaching, the upper room where he held his Last Supper, the tomb: where he was buried and rose from the dead. These places are never mentioned. Most of all, there is not a hint of pilgrimage to Calvary itself, where humanity's salvation was consummated. How could such a place not have been turned into a shrine?
Even Paul, this man so emotional, so full of insecurities, who declares (Philippians 3:10) that "all I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings," even he seems immune to the lure of such places. Three years were to pass following his conversion before he made even a short visit to Jerusalem. And this—so he tells us in Galatians—was merely to "get to know" Peter; he was not to return there for another 14 years.
Is it conceivable that Paul would not have wanted to run to the hill of Calvary, to prostrate himself on the sacred ground that bore the blood of his slain Lord? Surely he would have shared such an intense emotional experience with his readers. Would he not have been drawn to the Gethsemane garden, where Jesus was reported to have passed through the horror and the self-doubts that Paul himself had known? Would he not have gloried in standing before the empty tomb, the guarantee of his own resurrection? Is there indeed, in this wide land so recently filled with the presence of the Son of God, any holy place at all, any spot of ground where that presence still lingers, hallowed by the step, touch or word of Jesus of Nazareth? Neither Paul nor any other first century letter writer breathes a whisper of any such thing.
Nor do they breathe a word about relics associated with Jesus. Where are his clothes, the things he used in everyday life, the things he touched? Can we believe that items associated with him in his life on earth would not have been preserved, valued, clamored for among believers, just as things like this were produced and prized all through the Middle Ages? Why is it only in the fourth century that pieces of the "true cross" begin to surface?
New Testament scholars are quick to maintain that the "argument from silence" is an invalid one, but it surely becomes powerful when the silence is so pervasive, so perplexing. Why would writer after writer fail consistently to mention the very man who was the founder of their faith, the teacher of their ethics, the incarnation of the divine Christ they worshiped and looked to for salvation? Why would every Christian writer, in the highly polemical atmosphere during those early decades of the spread of the faith, fail to avail himself of the support for his position offered by the very words and deeds of the Son of God himself while he was on earth? What could possibly explain this puzzling, maddening, universal silence?
That question I will try to answer in Part Two: "Who Was Christ Jesus?"