The Case For A Mythical Jesus
by Earl Doherty
The Case For A Mythical Jesus
by Earl Doherty
Only gradually did the Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the Gospels come to be accepted as historical and his ‘life story’ real - Earl Doherty
In his work entitled "Theophania," Eusebius acknowledges that the Gospel story, as representing the faith message preached by the original apostles, is not credible; indeed, it is ridiculous - ibid
Jesus Not Unique
The pagan “mystery cults” of the period worshiped savior deities who had performed salvific acts. Under the influence of Platonism, these acts came to be interpreted by the cults as taking place in the supernatural/ mythical world, not on earth or in history. The Pauline Christ was similarly regarded as undergoing death and resurrection in the heavenly realm. This new Christ belief also shared other mythological concepts current in the ancient world.
Paul and other early Christian writers are speaking of Christ in exactly the same language as we find in the broader philosophical world both Greek and Jewish.
About two centuries ago, these “Gospels” began to be subjected to some searching examination. Not only were they found to contradict one another on important matters, it was eventually realized that they had been conceived and put together in ways, and with motivations, which suggested that they were not reliable historical accounts. Their fantastic and uncritical dimensions, such as the miracles and the involvement of God and the supernatural, placed them outside the genre of history writing as we know it.
Modern scholars have begun to recognize the great divide between the world of the Gospels and the world of the epistles.
If we had to rely on the letters of the earliest Christians, such as Paul and those who wrote most of the other New Testament epistles, we would be hard pressed to find anything resembling the details of the Gospel story. If we did not read Gospel associations into what Paul and the others say about their Christ Jesus, we could not even tell that this figure, the object of their worship, was a man who had recently lived in Palestine and had been executed by the Roman authorities with the help of a hostile Jewish establishment.
Could this be because they are not in fact speaking of any such figure? Could it be that if we remove those Gospel-colored glasses when reading the early Christian writers, we would find that all of them, Paul especially, have been telling us in plain and unmistakable terms exactly what the earliest Christians did believe in, and what the Christ they all worshiped really was?
All the Gospels derive their basic story of Jesus of Nazareth from one source: the Gospel of Mark, the first one composed. Subsequent evangelists reworked Mark in their own interests and added new material. None of the evangelists show any concern for creating genuine history.
The Gospels were not written as historical accounts, but present a symbolic representation of a Galilean kingdom-preaching sect, combined with a fictional passion story set on earth, probably meant to allegorize the heavenly Christ’s death and resurrection in the supernatural realm.
In that portion of the New Testament following the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, there are 22 documents. Most were not written by the authors whose names they bear. Among the thirteen epistles assigned to Paul, scholarly study and computer analysis have judged only seven as genuine to him.
Those 22 documents in the latter part of the New Testament contain almost 100,000 words. They are the product of about a dozen different writers, Paul being the most prominent.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is anonymous. Of those under the names of Peter, James, John and Jude, none today are judged to be authentic. That is, they were not written by those legendary followers of Jesus.
As astonishing as such a silence may seem, an equation such as “Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and Messiah” is missing from all the early Christian correspondence. The Jesus of the epistles is not spoken of as a man who had recently lived.
Thus, we are left with an entire corpus of early Christian correspondence which gives us no indication that the divine Christ these writers look to for salvation is to be identified with the man Jesus of Nazareth whom the Gospels place in the early first century— or, indeed, with any man in their recent past.
The epistles cast Jesus in an exclusively spiritual and mythological role, while ignoring the fact or identity of his supposed incarnation, the man whose career on earth presumably started it all.
The New Testament epistles are often described as “occasional writings.” That is, each one was written on a particular occasion to deal with a specific situation faced by the writer. Some of these writers, such as Paul, would not have penned their epistles themselves; they dictated them to a scribal companion or professional.
...important fundamentals of doctrine and background, which almost two millennia of Christian tradition would lead us to expect, are entirely missing...the epistle writers seem to be saying things about doctrine and background which present quite a different picture than the one tradition has given us.
...the writer fails to mention anywhere in his letter that this colossal power had been on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Would not such a bizarre elevation of a crucified criminal to so cosmic a level of divinity be an important point in one’s faith declaration?
If we had no other documentary record than the New Testament epistles, we would probably regard the Son of God preached by apostles like Paul as a divine being like all the other gods of the day, or indeed of any day: confined to the supernatural dimension and communicating with believers and spokespersons through inspiration, visions and other spiritual manifestations.
Jesus or Christ?
...what do we find in the letters of Paul and other early writers? They start with the divine Christ, the figure of the Son in heaven, and make their faith statements about him. And there is no equation with an historical man, a human teacher and prophet who had recently lived. Paul believes in a Son of God, not that anyone was the Son of God.
It is especially inconceivable among Jews, who had an obsession against associating anything human with God.
The reasons put forward to explain Paul’s silence about the human Jesus are several: he felt no interest in the man and his career, he had no use for any aspect of Jesus’ earthly life in his cosmic theology about the risen Christ, he was in competition with the Jerusalem apostles and so chose to downplay the advantages they enjoyed as followers of Jesus on earth, and so on.
The Big Question
...if, on the basis of the later Gospel record, it is claimed that Paul and his colleagues are speaking of a human man who was recently on earth and set the new faith in motion, how is one to account for their silence on such a man and his life? We might, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, suggest that this silence is so profound that it could only be explained as a deliberate, universal conspiracy.
If all we find in Paul’s presentation of Christ is this transcendent divine being whose activities are never linked to history or an earthly location, is there any justification for assuming that Paul’s Christ arose out of Jesus of Nazareth, out of the human figure who appears for the first time only in Gospels that were written some time after Paul?
Paul is claiming that he is the medium of God’s revelation; through him the world is learning about the Son, the newly-disclosed means of salvation for Jew and gentile alike.
There is not a crack in this facade where Jesus could gain a foothold. In the past lie God’s promises of eternal life, and the first action on those promises is the present revelation by God to apostles like Paul who have gone out to deliver the message. Jesus’ own proclamation of eternal life, or whatever he may have proclaimed, has evaporated into the wind. Here is a prime example of the very exclusion of a human, historical Jesus.
If an earthly Jesus had chosen personal followers - referred to in the Gospels and Acts as “disciples” - one would not know it from Paul or other early writers. The word “disciple( s)” never appears in the New Testament documents outside the Gospels and Acts.
On such things the epistles are silent.
Paul applies the term “apostle” to a wide range of Christian missionaries, from himself and Barnabas and assorted other colleagues, to rivals he viciously condemns...it is only with the Gospels, written a half century and more after Jesus’ supposed death, that we find the term narrowed to a select group of men personally chosen by Jesus.
Does Paul give any evidence of the “twelve” apostles as the Gospels present them? The term appears once, when he lists those who had visions of the Christ.
Jewish monotheism and ethics were embraced by great numbers of gentiles who joined Jewish synagogues and sectarian groups in varying degrees of conversion.
Judaism had a long history - though not as long as it believed - of understanding its God as the sole deity, enduring throughout the ages, more or less unchanging. But several centuries before Christianity, Greek thinkers had arrived at their own concept of monotheism.
This Platonic conception of God was that he was an Absolute Being, a Unity, that he constituted pure mind and inhabited a world of pure spirit. He was not and never could be a part of the imperfect world of matter and the senses, nor could he make any personal contact with it. To humans who inhabited the material, changing world he was inaccessible and incapable of being understood. God was a “transcendent” being, totally separate from the material universe.
Hellenistic Jews like Philo and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews adopted Logos ideas to create a melding of Hebrew and Greek.
Paul’s idea of the spiritual Son has absorbed both the Logos and personified Wisdom.
The Jerusalem Sect (Tradition)
although this Jerusalem sect around Peter and James was an important force in the Son of God faith and had considerable influence which extended into Syria and sometimes beyond, it was by no means a central authority for all apostles working in the field, or for all the many Christian communities which dotted the eastern empire in the time of Paul. Nor, as indicated earlier, is Jerusalem to be considered as the sole point of origin for the movement.
What Did Jesus Teach?
What did Jesus teach? The Jesus Seminar14 rejected as inauthentic some three quarters of the sayings attributed to him in the Christian record. Even the famous “love your neighbor” commandment which Christians have always regarded as a centerpiece of Jesus’ teachings - even if he is consciously quoting the biblical book of Leviticus - was judged as not very likely. What do the New Testament epistles have to say? Throughout this book, in the course of examining the silence in the epistles on the life and teachings of Jesus, we will look at all of the Gospel elements, without discrimination. This will include those which critical scholarship has cast doubt on, or even totally rejected - such as the apocalyptic sayings or the existence of Judas. Those who consider elements like these to be unhistorical may not regard the silence about them in the epistle writers to be compelling evidence that no Jesus existed. But if none of the sayings and deeds of Jesus found in the Gospels are attributed to him in the epistles and other early documents, this will indicate that (a) the Gospels cannot be guaranteed to provide reliable historical data, and thus (b) the fundamental basis for the historicity of Jesus - namely the Gospels, since he appears nowhere else in the surviving early record - has been seriously undermined.
If, in addition, no earthly teachings and no biographical details of any kind are to be found, we are entitled to take this as strong evidence that the epistle writers know of no such things, and that the faith movement they represent is not based on the career of a recent human man.
Where's the evidence for a living Jesus?
...we have concluded that Paul (along with other early epistle writers) has no sense of Jesus as a recent ethical teacher - Earl Doherty
Highers & Lowers
It is largely to Plato (who absorbed earlier ideas from the mystery religion known as Orphism) and to the stream of later “Platonic” thinking which he set in motion, that we owe this sense of alienation from the world and the urge to move beyond it.
In Platonism, there was a clear separation between the higher world (above the earth) of spiritual ultimate realities, where things were perfect and unchanging, and the earthly world of matter and the senses of which humans were a part.
As an imperfect reflection of the upper one, comprised of things that were changing and perishable, this lower world was decidedly inferior.
...in the phrase of John Dillon, the Hellenistic world was “a seething mass of sects and salvation cults,” operating amid a broader milieu of ethical and philosophical schools only a little less emotionally conducted.