As a secular scholar, I, of course, reject hypotheses involving the Christ of Faith. Critical scholars can only reasonably debate the existence of the so-called Historical Jesus, that figure of the Gospels stripped of all divinity. Most secular scholars of the New Testament believe that this figure certainly existed. I noticed that this is an assumption, however, later finding it to be an unjustified assumption.
See Also: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus (Brill 2019).
By Raphael Lataster
University of Sydney
It was inevitable. With few offerings written by properly qualified scholars challenging the historicity of Jesus over the years, we now have a comprehensive book on Jesus’ ahistoricity published by a major academic press. Those denying Jesus’ existence in the past have typically been amateurs or scholars of other fields, publishing books – if at all – with popular and vanity presses. Now, however, Brill has published my (I am a Religious Studies scholar specialising in Early Christianity and the Philosophy of Religion) Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, which argues that agnosticism over Jesus’ historical existence is more than reasonable, and that outright denying Jesus’ historicity is quite fair. Perhaps even more impressive is that the author of the book’s foreword is none other than James Crossley, editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. However, I have been working on this topic for nearly a decade now, overlapping with that other ‘rare but properly qualified’ ahistoricist scholar, Richard Carrier. So what is all the fuss about?
As a secular scholar, I, of course, reject hypotheses involving the Christ of Faith. Critical scholars can only reasonably debate the existence of the so-called Historical Jesus, that figure of the Gospels stripped of all divinity. Most secular scholars of the New Testament believe that this figure certainly existed. I noticed that this is an assumption, however, later finding it to be an unjustified assumption. The vast majority of biblical scholars have ignored the issue of Jesus’ existence for the past hundred years. Now, within five years of each other, there are two comprehensive academic monographs arguing the other way. Those wanting to know why we ought to accept the Historical Jesus’ historicity generally have to make do, if they do not directly engage with the sources themselves, with the specialist scholars merely asserting their opinions, and some popular books, like those recent ones from Ehrman and Casey.
Let us start with the case of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman who published Did Jesus Exist? in 2012. The book starts quite competently, with Ehrman rightly acknowledging how problematic the sources are. Especially important is that Ehrman recognises that we would prefer numerous, contemporary, detailed, and somewhat disinterested sources, which corroborate others’ accounts without collaboration having taking place – all those things we lack with regards to Jesus. He even downplays the importance of the earliest non-Christian references to Jesus, since they likely just reiterate what Christians at the time believed about Jesus. For example, Ehrman says, “It should be clear in any event that Tacitus is basing his comment about Jesus on hearsay rather than, say, detailed historical research”, and “whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared-down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter for the question I am pursuing here. Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this” (pp. 52-66).
We can find this out for ourselves, but it is good to hear it from someone trying to defend Jesus’ historicity: the case for Jesus’ existence rests upon Christian authors. Given what we know about early – and later – Christian authors and scribes, this is a bit of a problem. So what does Ehrman think of the Christian sources? What most competent scholars would think. They are terrible sources. They are not contemporaneous, they are not from eyewitnesses, they are biased, full of contradictions, fabrications, and implausible claims. How then can a respected expert in his field like Bart Ehrman use these horrid sources to argue that what are effectively minimalists of the New Testament are completely wrong? Simple: hypothetical sources. Apparently, we can trust these untrustworthy sources because of the sources behind them. Okay, let us verify these sources’ contents. Where are the manuscripts? Nowhere to be found. They are hypothetical sources, after all, we don’t have them, and we can’t even be totally sure they existed. Case closed, then, Jesus definitely existed!
Of course, such reasoning would not fly with competent scholars of related fields, and especially not with a highly logical philosopher, who makes a living off of tearing to shreds her equally logical colleagues’ arguments. To such a highly critical logician, this appeal to hypothetical sources is laughable, pathetic. We can have no idea of the content of these sources had they existed, the true authors, their intent, and so forth. Worse still, we can wonder why it is that Ehrman, a historicist, is allowed to posit hypothetical sources, and so many of them, to bolster his preferred theory. Why can Christians not do this? Indeed, they try! Apologists like William Lane Craig appeal to hypothetical sources to reveal that there is indeed much proof for Jesus’ resurrection. This may sound odd, but if we make exceptions for ourselves, that would be special pleading. So then, why can the mythicist, the one who asserts that Jesus did not exist, not likewise appeal to hypothetical sources? Perhaps there is some long lost Epistle of Paul or some earlier figure where he or she admits that the religion started not with a historical figure, but with a dream of an angelic being. More on this later. Sadly, Ehrman does not feel the need to justify his non-existing sources ‘approach’. Perhaps even attempting to do so would hasten readers catching on.
Apart from his use of hypothetical sources, Ehrman highlights two key points that apparently make Jesus’ existence a sure bet. The first is Paul’s relationships with Peter and James, who surely knew a historical Jesus. The big problem is that we know of this from later documents. Ehrman and other scholars read the later documents into the earlier Epistles. Reading the Epistles without Gospel-tainted glasses will lead to some intriguing possibilities, as we shall soon see. There are other problems, too, such as the general unreliability of the Epistles (just as with the Gospels), and the fact that such passages were tampered with (as Ehrman himself published on; see his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 238-239).
The second is that Jews would apparently never invent a suffering Messiah. This is utter nonsense. Ehrman is wrong in principle and in fact. Judaism is and always was very diverse, and we know about the religious beliefs of only a small fraction of the Jewish population, as is made obvious by Josephus and Ehrman himself. But there is also evidence, thanks to recent discoveries, that several Jews believed in all sorts of different Messiahs, including suffering ones, dying and rising ones, celestial ones, and so forth. And that is what Ehrman brings to the table. Apart from, in the years since, publishing much that undermines his own work in Did Jesus Exist?
An even worse case for Jesus was made just a few years later by the respected, and now late, Maurice Casey, in his 2014 Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths? Apart from its many rudimentary errors and unscholarly comments (such as an unnecessary remark about one discussant’s sexuality), Casey’s book has nothing substantial to add to the debate. He also relies on hypothetical sources; though, true to form, his hypothetical sources are in Aramaic. They could be in Swahili for all we know. We know nothing. That’s the problem.
Curiously, while Ehrman at least gave the impression that he is a critical scholar, working like other historians, in trying to find the most probable explanations for the available evidence, Casey outright admits, like so many theologians and cryptotheologians, that “the criteria reasonably used by historians writing about important political figures such as Julius Caesar need modification in dealing with the historicity of Jesus” (p. 66). No Casey, you do not get to alter the rules of what is historically probable because you know that your evidence simply isn’t good enough. The other great innovation that Casey brought to the debate is the radically early dating of the Gospels, almost laughably unjustified, as well as the identification of the earliest Gospel writer. Apparently Mark was written by a Mark, because this was “one of the commonest names in the Roman Empire” (p. 82). The less said about Casey’s book, the better.
Agnosticism and an alternative hypothesis
Give the state of the sources, then, as well as the underwhelming – and few – cases presented by respected secular scholars of the New Testament, it is very reasonable to be agnostic about Jesus’ historicity. But if that isn’t fringe enough, consider an alternative to the mainstream Historical Jesus hypothesis. Consider that Christianity began with the belief in a purely Celestial Jesus. Now in principle, this idea cannot be dismissed out of hand. Just as with the Judaisms of the time early Christianities (there was of course much overlap) were very diverse, and there is much about the early years we do not know and will likely never know. But this Celestial Jesus theory, floating around in hyper-sceptical circles for over 100 years, is not just possible. It is, based on the currently available evidence, which is admittedly not much, quite probable.
With the Gospels obviously being products of later forms of Christianity, this hypothesis focuses on the earliest Christian texts, the Pauline and other Epistles. Scholars have long known that Paul’s account of things differs quite a bit from the Gospels’ accounts. Indeed, Paul seems to know little to nothing about the Jesus of the Gospels, and arguably even contradicts the later documents. There are several aspects of the Epistles that help lead one towards the controversial alternative hypothesis. For one, Paul is very open about his source/s: God. He knows what he knows because of direct and indirect revelation from God; the indirect revelation being Jewish – and curiously not other Christian – scriptures. Paul also speaks of Jesus’ sacrifice and triumph occurring “now”, decades after they were meant to. He also describes Jesus as a heavenly figure, who was named after he completed his mission, with Paul knowing little to nothing about Jesus’ recent Earthly sojourn (indeed, what little can be connected to the Earthly Historical Jesus is either fraudulent and/or ambiguous).
Perhaps best of all, Paul, who we all know believed in the existence of sky-demons, spoke of Jesus in a very odd way. 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 has Paul asserting that Jesus was killed by the sky-demons who were not aware of his identity and mission, and apparently wouldn’t have killed Jesus had they known. Those wondering if the archons can refer to earthly powers can do away with such thinking when it is realised that humans would have had ample reason to kill Jesus (for salvation) unlike the demons (who would guarantee their defeat) and remembering that Paul asserted that the human authorities were effectively God’s agents.
Thinking of early Christianity in this way address a lot of the problems with the state of the evidence. It’s hard to have conclusive evidence for a person that didn’t exist. So why would the very different Gospels eventuate? Apart from the fact that this is a ‘problem’ for any hypothesis, the Gospels are simply allegorisations of the earlier teachings, something that scholars are increasingly accepting. Did earlier Jews believe in such Celestial Messiahs? Yes! One need only turn to the fairly recently discovered intertestamental texts, to see that there were Jews who expected a Celestial Messiah who would bring abut somewhat of a spiritual victory; which makes sense as the poor Jews would have no hope of defeating the mighty Roman Empire, and most could not access the Temple. Philo even, directly or indirectly, connects this figure, his Logos, with the name ‘Jesus’. For more on all this, please read Questioning the Historicity of Jesus.
Interestingly, these ideas are gaining ground. Scholars in fields related to New Testament are increasingly adopting agnostic views about Jesus. Even within the field, there are scholars willing to be agnostic or sympathetic to agnosticism. I fully expect that a torrent of abuse will come my way. Though I expect that, like the Old Testament minimalists, I, and the few like me, will eventually be vindicated, fairly quickly. Even in the early years of my career, the likes of Brill, Springer, Cambridge, and Oxford are seeing the value in my research. And I see many younger New Testament scholars asking more questions about the reliability of the extant sources and oral transmission and memory. The time is ripe for change.
Why would human rulers of the age (i.e. pagan rulers like Rome and also the Jewish leadership in Palestine) want Christian salvation? They didn't at all, they actively were against Christianity. So if they had known what would happen, why would they want to go through with it and aid their rivals whom they persecuted? Even if we took the archons as demonic powers, that also does not negate earthly presence by any means at all, since Paul clearly thinks they interact with the world (such as in 1 Cor. 10:20-21 where they are behind false worship). You have simply cherry picked your preferred interpretation, without much substantiation. I'd add that, Romans 13:3-6 seems to indicate these archons are earthly principalities, given that this is Paul speaking of earthly powers with the ability to inflict harm and fear on the followers of Jesus in a physical setting. The sixth verse makes this clear noting that because these powers are instituted by God, you must pay your taxes and all that good jazz. Lataster's reading is convoluted and not thought through.
Your reading seems unnecessarily forced and simply untenable.
Like all sympathetic to mythicism, your readings are made by pulling absurdities out of thin air as a convoluted explanation.
Finally, I find it ironic that in order for one to reject a historical Jesus, they must first invent full scratch, by largely misinterpreting biblical passages, a mythical Jesus, which has no attestation.
Thank you for your comments. This is all addressed in the book. Very quickly, this is not *my* reading, it is the reading of many scholars, including even Christian scholars. And, of course, the case for agnosticism and mythicism does not hinge on this one passage. It is just one in a long line of passages that should cause one to think about removing their Gospel-tainted glasses when reading the Epistles.
I think that the principle of logic, that existence is not a predicate, ought always to be remembered. ‘Did x exist?’ is an informal way of asking ‘Did anything (anyone) exist having predicates a,b,c etc.?’.
What predicates need to apply if someone is to be recognised as ‘a Jesus’? Maybe, for the sake of argument, we say ‘a) taught in a pacifist spirit b) was believed to have worked miracles c) suffered under Pontius Pilate’. At that rate, did any such person exist? The answer to this form of question can in some senses be a matter of degree - perhaps several people who suffered under PP were alleged miracle workers but none were pacifists. Even if our answer at this stage is close to Yes it is a further question whether only one such person existed - possibly there were many who qualified as ‘a real Jesus’ and ‘the real Jesus of history’ is a conflation of some of them.
We talk of one Jesus or no Jesus but the third logical possibility, more than one Jesus, ought not to be ruled out without a minute’s consideration. At that rate the real story would be less about an individual teacher than about a school of thought, perhaps one that suffered violent repression.
The question ‘Did Jesus exist?’ is a richer question than is always recognised. The next analytic step is to identify the predicates that are relevant - what would someone have to have done in order to have been Jesus? - and that in itself is not the easiest question.
Hi Raphael, I was directed here by someone asking me to address your post and those of some of the commentors. I'm the author of "Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed".
As the title to my book suggests, I've moved past the point of agnosticism on the issue and believe that the case against Jesus' existence is at least as strong at the case of the theory of biological evolution. I'd say that it's actually easier to prove that Jesus never existed than just about anyone else in history due to the quality of the documentation that we have.
My understanding of the Gospels and the rise of Christianity is a bit different than what you lay out here. The case I put forward in my book is essentially that early Jesus worship developed out of prophetic scriptural interpretation. The "Jesus" (Joshua) that Paul talks about is a figure revealed by Jewish scriptural diviners along the lines of what we see taking place in the DSS (Dead Sea Scrolls). Paul is talking about ecstatic revelatory experiences that put him in touch with a Jesus only known to others via scriptural divination.
The Gospel of Mark, however, was written by a well practiced Jewish scriptural diviner and master of Jewish story-telling. The writer of Mark was in possession of a collection of Paul's works , was himself perhaps a Paulinist, and was inspired to write his allegorical tale after the fall of the temple in 70 CE. "Mark's" story is an allegory, written using many of the advanced techniques of allegorical Jewish storytelling. The story of "Mark" was a commentary on the War. The Jesus character is based directly on Paul himself. The message of the story is that the Jews brought the destruction of the war upon themselves by not following PAUL'S teachings of reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. The writer of Mark was not writing for a community of people who believed in a human Jesus. "Mark's" story was intended to be taken as allegory. The entire story of Mark is an invention from the mind of the writer. There was no prior narrative about Jesus at all.
The writer of Matthew came into contact with Mark's story and was impressed by it. This is because Mark's story is a masterpiece of complex hidden symbolism and literary puzzles. These literary puzzles were seen by many in the Roman word at this time as signs of divinity and truth. We know this because we have similar reactions to other such works from Romans at this time. I believe that the author of Matthew was engaging in knowing fraud when he wrote his piece. This was actually very common at this time. "Mark" wasn't engaging in fraud, he was writing "fiction" with no intention of it being taken literally. The writer of Matthew, however, was making stuff up with the intent that it be taken literally. He was intentionally trying to persuade people of the truth of the events. But why? I think purely for profit. There was no real church at this time. The tiny cults of Jesus worship that existed before the War had been largely destroyed and there really was no meaningful Jesus worshiping community to speak of at the time Matthew was writing. Matthew's story was written to sell it for short-term gain. There was a significant trade is such prophetic stories in Rome at this time, and Matthews story appears to have been written for this market.
The same goes for the Gospel of John. Like Matthew, "John" was simply trying to make a buck and his story is written with the intent of fooling people into believing that it was something it was not. As for Luke, I believe that "Luke" was a Roman scholar who was fooled into thinking that these accounts were real and who wrote his own version at the request of a paying patron to try and clarify the "real facts". Luke, in essence, is the first well-documented dupe.
Now, as for the question, "Why would human rulers of the age (i.e. pagan rulers like Rome and also the Jewish leadership in Palestine) want Christian salvation?"
Actually, what happened was this: 2nd-3rd century Roman scholars came into contact with the Gospel stories primarily Matthew, and believed them to be supreme evidence of real prophetic power. The reason that the Roman elites adopted Christianity was purely because of their misunderstanding of the Gospels and what they saw as irrefutable evidence of ancient prophetic truth. At this time, the Romans were absolutely obsessed with prophecy and using prophecy as the premier way to establish truth.
When they saw the relationships between the Jewish scriptures and the Gospel accounts they were convinced those relationships were evidence of fulfillment of divinely hidden ancient Jewish prophecies. All of this stems from how the author of Mark used literary references in crafting his narrative and how the Gospel writers all copied from Mark, thus copying, and in some cases intentionally expanding upon, those literary references. This was a at a time when the Sibylline Oracles were protected by the Roman Senate as the most important documents in the world. The Gospel were compared to the Sibylline Oracles and deemed to evidence of superior prophetic power. And that's why the Romans adopted Christianity.
So the whole thing really arose out of a series of confusion and misunderstanding about how the Gospels were produced really. Most of this is laid out in detail in my book, showing step by step how all this took place. I'm working on a new book now that goes farther back in time to to get better context for how the Greeks, Romans and Jews viewed prophecy and how prophetic writing were produced in these cultures and the ways that literary prophecy shaped Hellenistic culture, etc.
Thank you Hughes. These are all possibilities as well. Carrier and I like to focus on the Celestial Jesus theory because it fits the evidence (particularly the pre-Gospel evidence) really well. And thank you Price. It seems that you agree quite a bit with us. We also think that pre-Christian Jewish exegesis and revelations of a purely celestial being (the archangel called Jesus, or perhaps he was called Michael before...) were involved, and that Mark is an allegorisation of Paul's writings (as many non-mythicist scholars are now accepting). All we need to explain the whole 'Jesus story' is one pre-Pauline Jew/Christian imagining that the Celestial Messiah that several Jews at the time already believed in spoke to her/him, explaining that his name is Jesus and that he has fulfilled his mission (dying for our sins, and rising). And, of course, many religions started with such 'revelations', so there is nothing implausible about this scenario. As time has gone on, much of the extra evidence we have found has only made this theory more probable. As for the Historical Jesus theory, as time has gone on it has become less probable as we learn how unreliable the Gospel sources really are.
Well, the case I'm putting together is that Jesus is Joshua. There are several known "Joshua" cults from the early first century. These are, in fact the same as the Jesus cults. Joshua was being reinterpreted a-la Enoch, Melchizedek, and others. What was taking place at Qumran was exegetic divination whereby they were "discovering" the secret hidden messages in the ancient scriptures. Figures like Enoch, and Melchizedek were completely re-invented as eternal heavenly beings, loosely based on their descriptions from the Torah. There were widespread millenarian expectations of a return of Joshua as the one who would deliver the Jews from Gentile rule. I content, and will show in my next book, that this is the origin of "Jesus" worship.
To clarify, the thesis I lay out in my book is that there was no narrative about Jesus or belief that Jesus was a real person until the Gospel of Mark was written. The story of Mark is what created the belief that Jesus was a real person. The writer of Mark was not working from existing accounts of Jesus, the writer of Mark invented the entire narrative himself as an allegory, which was later misinterpreted as a literally true story, mostly because of the revised version called Matthew.
I can only agree; if you even consider Mark to be a 'somewhat detailed biography' (hardly, as it skips most of his life), we have nothing comparable before it.
I largely agree with the OP, but things can be quite a bit more concrete than that.
I think what's clear that so-called "mainstream" scholars have really dug themselves into a hole. The approach taken by myself, and others such as Tom Dykstra and David Oliver Smith, is to show the real complexity of how the Gospels were written. And much of this complexity has been denied by mainstream scholars for years and many such mainstreamers have gone to great lengths to try to conjure up Gospel authors as sort of simple laymen engaged in their first ever writing attempts, or humble field journalists jotting down oral accounts, etc. But any real study of the texts shows this is impossible.
The case I make in Deciphering the Gospels is that it is provable that the narrative of Mark was entirely invented by a single individual AFTER the First Jewish-Roman War. I go through all of the evidence that supports such as case. Well, not all, as in fact now I see that my case could have been made 10 times stronger, though I believe I put forward the strongest case to date when I published in 2018. But actually much more could have been said about the writing techniques used in Mark.
But clearly, the author of Mark was a sophisticated writer using a lot of complex symbolism and techniques that we also see in the DSS material. The writer of Mark wasn't some simpleton jotting down things he was being told, he was a master story teller writing a very complex narrative using chiastic structures, multiple layers of symbolism, parables like those found only at Qumran, hundreds of deep sculptural references, numerology and other advanced methods of Hellenistic prophetic writing. The whole plot is actually maddeningly complex with multiple layers of hidden foreshadowing and secretly coded hints about the future and the nature of Jesus. This is, very clearly, a literary masterpiece crafted by a literary genius, not some field report of urban legends.
But again what I come back to in all of my analysis is that none of it makes any sense from a pre-war perspective. Every aspect of the story, every scene, is clearly rooted in POST-WAR symbolism. The story cannot have any basis is any pre-war account of a real person.
But that's just the Gospel of Mark though, what about everything else? Well clearly once you realize that every scene in Mark is a post-war invention then obviously you have to acknowledge that every single account of the life of Jesus derives from this single story. As I show in DtG, every account, including every non-canonical account, of Jesus can be tied back to the Gospel of Mark. There is no account of Jesus the man that is independent of Mark. It all started with that one story and just evolved from there. And there was never any knowledge of Jesus apart from the Gospels and 2nd century scholars make very clear.
The case I make then is that it would only be the case that every account of Jesus the person would be derived from an entirely fictional post-war account if there was no real Jesus person to begin with. This is especially true when we get to Luke because clearly "Luke" was trying to find other sources, but the best Luke could do was make use of Mark, Matthew and Paul. Those are Luke's sources. Everything in Luke can be accounted for from those three sources, as David Oliver Smith and Mark Goodacre's work shows. So we have a researcher in Luke who was trying to find everything he could and all he could come up with is Mark, Matthew and Paul.
But what about Paul and other epistles? As I show, and other like Dyksra have shown, the Gospel of Mark is based on the letters of Paul. The continuity between Paul's letters and the Gospels is because the Gospels are derived from Paul's letters. Again, its all literary borrowing. But didn't Paul clarify that Jesus was a person? Well this is ironic because 20th century biblical scholarship was all about dismissing Paul as someone who clearly didn't know about Jesus and stating that the Gospels were all based on "pre-Pauline" sources. We had the development of the "oral traditions" explanation and Q. Paul was pushed out of the way, and it became all about how scholars could divine the "original sources" underlying the Gospels. Clearly that whole effort was a massive farce.
The real original sources underlying the Gospels are the letters of Paul and the LXX + the imagination of the writers. This is provable and demonstrable, whereas Q and oral traditions are not. Paul obviously knew nothing about any real Jesus and was talking about a heavenly Jesus who was revealed via scriptural divination a-la what we see taking place at Qumran. Indeed the DSS shows us exactly how "Jesus" (Joshua) was "discovered". The scriptural interpretations we see in the DSS are exactly how Paul describes the "revelation" of Jesus via "prophets".
So we have a Paul telling us that Jesus was made known by scriptural diviners (prophets) and that Jesus was revealed to him ecstatically or via dreams, and Paul's letters are then used as the basis for creating an allegory about Jesus after the destruction of the temple, to show that the Jews were destroyed by the Romans because they didn't listen to Paul's message about reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles.
And regardless, it is proven beyond any doubt that NOTHING described in the Gospels ever happened or is based in any way on the life of a real Jesus person. Even if you try to argue that Paul was talking "some Jesus person", Paul tells us nothing ABOUT that Jesus person other than that he was crucified. The Jesus worshiped by Christians is the Jesus of the Gospels, not the Jesus of Paul. The Jesus of the Gospels is a fictional literary invention full stop.
And if you want to argue that "Paul's Jesus" was real, then you have to explain why Paul tells us nothing meaningful about him, relays none of his teachings, and why Paul and others think that a real person died and rose from the grave - when clearly that wouldn't have actually happened.
The book looks interesting. But I am tempted to give it a one-star review on Amazon for its price. About 200 USD/EUR is simply ridiculous.
Please keep in mind that authors tend to have no control over the price, that is up to the publishers.