The Jesus Mosaic: Was There an Historical Jesus?

Prepared by Patrick Narkinsky <patrick@extremehope. org> - March 13, 2001.

[I would like to acknowledge a special debt to Paul Smith who convinced me to publish this paper as well as very graciously agreeing to edit it, doing an excellent job. Or, as I prefer to say: "Paul, YOU Da Man. "]

Introduction

For almost two thousand years, what Einstein once termed “the luminous figure of the Nazarene” has loomed large over Western culture.   Many have sought to understand Jesus in their context and for their purposes. He has been interpreted as an authority figure, a Marxist, a Feminist, a liberator, a teacher, a scholar, the “Cosmic Jesus, holding the world in his hands, an animal rights activist[i] , and even as something like a Victorian British nanny[ii].   For two thousand years, his has been a name to conjure with, and every dictator, every social movement and even every religion have sought to have Jesus on their side [iii].   This desire has expressed itself most recently in the “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” a phenomenon whereby some scholars have sought to reinterpret the accounts of Jesus in ways that they find more satisfactory. Through all this, it has been assumed that there was an Historical Jesus—that there was a real man, living in Judea around the first half of the first century, who really did and said certain things and whose life, to one degree or another, served as the basis for the gospels. To claim Jesus as your ally, you had to somehow determine that this person was – or would have been – on your side.

Despite all this, a small group of skeptics is now questioning whether a man named Jesus even existed. In particular, one writer named Earl Doherty is arguing on that there was in fact no historical Jesus, at least not in the first century, and that the Gospels are purely fictitious accounts. This is an extraordinary conclusion far removed from the normal flow of New Testament scholarship.   As such, it would normally be ignored, especially as Doherty has no academic affiliation and no discernable academic credentials. However, Doherty’s work has been published in The Journal of Higher Criticism, a peer-reviewed journal published by Drew University.   Further, through the use of the Internet, his work has managed to gain a wide audience. These factors make critical examination of his hypothesis imperative.   In this essay, I propose to show that Doherty makes numerous serious mistakes in his analyses of first century documents, that these errors seriously undermine his thesis, and that the bulk of the evidence suggests that there was an Historical Jesus.

The Evidence for Jesus

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that there was an Historical Jesus around 30CE. In fact, in order to conclude that Jesus never existed at this time, you must discount the simplest and most natural interpretation of a host of ancient documents, canonical and otherwise, each of which records the actions of Jesus, in the flesh.   While neither space nor time allow a complete examination of each source, we will examine the degree of evidence found in the most important sources.

 The first account of Jesus’ life and teachings we will consider is that found in the book of Mark. Mark is exceptionally important because it is widely accepted to be the earliest complete biography of Jesus, dated by almost all scholars to no later than 70CE (Van Voorst, 254). If this date is accepted, then we must suppose that there was a tradition of Jesus, executed by Pilate, less than 40 years after the crucifixion and during the lifetime of eye-witnesses.   One particularly convincing line of evidence for this date is based on the following passage:

“And Jesus said to him, `Do you see these great buildings?   Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down. ’”(Mark 13:2)
Here, Jesus is referring to Jerusalem, and specifically to the temple of Jerusalem.   He is saying, essentially, that the temple of Jerusalem will be torn down. In 70CE, exactly this happened: the Jews revolted against Rome one time too many, and the Romans responded by sacking Jerusalem, dispersing all the Jews, and tearing the temple to the ground. If Mark had written after 70CE, it is supposed that he would have written something to indicate that this prophecy had, in fact, been fulfilled, thus validating his message and Jesus’ prophetic status.   Mark did not, therefore most Biblical scholars, liberal and conservative alike, agree that he must have written before 70[iv].  

In Mark’s account, Jesus is firmly placed in history in several ways. First, he is described as interacting with individuals that even the most radical of critics acknowledge as real, historical people, such as Herod the Tetrarch, Herodias, and John the Baptist. Further, we know conclusively that these people existed in the first half of the first century (Josephus 18. 5. 12). Further still, Jesus is described as having visited villages around the city of Caesarea Philippi, which did not exist until the first half of the first century (“Caesarea Philippi”). Likewise, Jesus is described as being crucified, in Jerusalem, at the hand Pontius Pilate, who reigned from 26-36CE (“Pontius Pilate”). It is clear that the author of Mark believed Jesus to have existed at the traditional time.

Another important biography of Jesus is that offered under the name of John. Like Mark, John is a canonical Gospel. For the purposes of our discussion, the most important fact about John is that John seems to have been written entirely independently of the other three Gospels. This is most apparent when reading the canonical gospels in order.   In Matthew, Mark and Luke, there are the same stories, the same events in approximately the same order (more on this later).   Many stories and parables are quotes.   However, in John the details are often different.   There are miracles stories that do not appear in any other gospel. It is generally accepted that John is independent of the synoptic tradition represented by Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Blomberg, 153).

Having established that John is independent of Mark, how can we tell that it is authentic?   John is widely regarded as the latest gospel; how do we know that it is not simply the product of the writer’s imagination?   A detailed treatment of John’s historicity is beyond the scope of this paper, so one verse will have to suffice.   The writer of John quotes the Pharisees (ecclesiastical opponents of Jesus) saying the following: “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it in three days? ”Since we can precisely determine the date that construction of the temple began, we can date this statement quite easily.   Simply adding forty-six years to the date the temple was begun dates this statement to 29CE – precisely what we should expect if Jesus were a real, historical character as described in the gospels (Lightfoot 157).

Could this statement be manufactured?   Hardly: the painstaking research necessary to exactly date the construction of the temple could be done by an excellent scholar with an excellent library. John was not an excellent scholar – in fact, his Greek style reveals him to be a Hebrew only marginally fluent in the Koine Greek of the time (Lightfoot 145-148). In a day and age when a single book could cost a years wages, it is unreasonable to suppose that a barely literate Jew would have access to the many books required to support this dating – especially not in a day (like so many other days since) when the Jews were a persecuted minority [v].   Even if the author of John had the ability to do so, it is unreasonable to suppose that he would have done so for a statement so peripheral to the purpose of his biography.

Thirdly, there is the so-called “Lost Gospel of Q. ”You will not find this gospel in your Bible but there is excellent evidence that it existed.   Without going into excessive detail, it is almost universally accepted that the gospels of Matthew and Luke are derived from Mark and that the authors of Matthew and Luke were not aware of each other. However, Matthew and Luke contain common material that cannot be traced to Mark.   Much of this shared material is also contained in the controversial gospel of Thomas. From this, scholars conclude that there was a gospel – which they term “Q” – from which this shared material is derived. This gospel may well have been a simple oral tradition rather than a written document.   Even in the hands of scholars generally skeptical of Christian orthodoxy, Q shows a tradition of a person named Jesus at the very earliest strata of Christian writings.   This strata, called Q1, is estimated to be even earlier than the Pauline epistles (Mack).

Finally, for reasons not readily apparent to this student, many critics treat Biblical evidence in a categorically different way from all other evidence; Biblical evidence is suspect until proven otherwise, whereas the opposite approach is taken with most other writings from antiquity [vi].   Be that as it may,  the evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is hardly confined to Biblical sources. Consider that we are studying the life of a man who, by all accounts, was an obscure stone worker from an obscure town (Nazareth) in an obscure region (Galilee) in an obscure province (Judea) in a far corner of the Roman Empire [vii].   To begin with, we have the writings of Flavius Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, which contain references to Jesus. One refers to Jesus directly, another refers to the execution of Jesus’ brother James, explicitly identifying him as the brother of Jesus. [viii]  Similarly, the second century Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote in 109CE (“Tacitus”) of a Christ who “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus” (quoted in Strobel, 82).   From this evidence it is clear that, in 65CE, Christians believed Jesus to have been executed by Pontius Pilate; recall that Pilate reigned in Judea from 26-36CE.   Further, a prominent historical detail in this extrabiblical source – the name of Pontius Pilate – is in full agreement with the gospel accounts.

From this evidence alone – there is more available – it seems quite improbable to argue that there was no historical Jesus.

The Conspiracy of Silence

Against this evidence, Doherty produces an extraordinary conclusion: that “the beginning of the Christian movement was not a response to any human individual at one time and location. ”   Instead, Doherty proposes that Christianity began as an outgrowth of interaction between Jewish mysticism and the Hellenistic mystery religions which were in vogue at the time.   Jesus, as an historical personage, either did not exist or existed at least a century before the gospel accounts.   The gospel accounts themselves are the result of second century “myth-making” whereby that which had hitherto been known only as a mystical concept was literally fleshed out to be presented as a real individual.

In advancing this argument, Doherty does not seek to reconcile his position to the documents mentioned above as sources for the historical Jesus – instead, he seeks to discredit these documents, thereby leaving no evidence for an historical Jesus.    Generally, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, a historian starts with the assumption that any author – ancient or modern – is both honest and competent. Thus, I will not attempt to show that the documents are honest and competent; instead, I will examine the reasons offered by Doherty for distrusting the documents. Is there sufficient reason to regard them as wholesale fictions?   If not, then the reasonable thing to do is to acknowledge that the balance of the evidence suggests that Jesus did, in fact, exist.

The core of Doherty’s argument is what he calls a “conspiracy of silence. ”Doherty claims that, in the “first half century of Christian correspondence, including letters attributed to Paul and other epistles under names like Peter, James and John, the Gospel story cannot be found. ”  Doherty complains that all details of Jesus’ life are left unstated in the earliest Christian writings; he claims that there is no mention of Jesus having appointed apostles, doing miracles, preaching or teaching in any of the earliest Christian writings (“Piece 1”).   This alleged silence is then regarded as proof that the apostles (especially Paul) had no awareness of Jesus as an historical personage; instead, it is argued that they must have known him only through visions or “according to the scriptures”, meaning that the tales of Jesus were manufactured from scriptural inquiry.   This argument stems from the relative dating of the gospels and the Pauline epistles: many of the epistles are generally regarded as having been written in the 50’s CE, while the earliest gospels are generally regarded as no earlier than 65 [ix].   Further, Doherty claims that writers from the second century show no awareness of the gospel story, thus we should be highly suspicious of the early dates given to the the gospels by the vast majority of scholars.   Despite the loneliness of his position, Doherty would prefer to date the gospels to the second century.

The Sound of Silence

Doherty’s conspiracy of silence does not exist. Where Doherty claims a silence, there is in fact a great deal of material that refers to details of Jesus’ life and corroborates the gospel accounts.   Doherty’s first claim – that there is no attestation of the historical Jesus in Paul’s writings, as well as other epistles – is simply not true.   Doherty claims that there are no miracle stories reported, yet the greatest miracle of all – the  resurrection – is repeatedly affirmed[x] in all Christian writings where one might expect it to be mentioned.   Doherty complains that the appointment of apostles is never mentioned, yet the apostles themselves are repeatedly mentioned by name, as well as a being referred to as a body of apostles called “the twelve. ”  (1Corinthians 15)It seems that Doherty is simply complaining about those elements not found, rather than seriously engaging the elements found.   At a minimum, Doherty could give us sound historiographical reasons - or a clearly analogous historical precedent - for making the inferences he does upon this "absence. " Lacking these, one wonders what the absence is supposed to prove.

While the preceding evidence tells us that the gospels are compatible with Paul’s writings, it admittedly does not speak directly of an historical Jesus. It would be better if we could confirm Jesus as a close contemporary of Paul and the apostolic community of Jerusalem (James, Paul, John and so forth) from Paul’s writings alone. It seems that we can. First, James is explicitly mentioned as being the “brother of the Lord” by Paul (Galatians 1:19).   This title is nowhere used of anyone else, even though Paul clearly thought Peter more important than James, and it echoes the description of James as the brother of Jesus in Josephus ( 20. 9. 1) and Mark (6:3). The most natural interpretation is simply that James was Jesus’ physical, earthly brother as attested in Mark, Josephus, and Paul.   Since Paul claims that he visited James, and we are quite confident that Paul started his writing ministry in the fifties, Jesus cannot be dated much earlier than the turn of the millennium.  

Secondly, Paul gives us his own report of the events surrounding the resurrection in 1Corinthians 15:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.   (1Corinthians 15:3-5)
There is a timeline implied in this passage. Jesus was crucified, and resurrected “on the third day” (i. e. two days later).   He then appeared to Cephas (…Aramaic for Peter, and generally how Paul refers to Peter).   Later in this same passage, Paul mentions Jesus’ appearances to James and to Paul himself. The most natural conclusion is that Peter saw Jesus three days after his death.   Thus, Peter was a contemporary of Jesus, and knew Jesus in the flesh [xi].   Since it is thoroughly attested by Paul himself that Paul was a contemporary of Peter, we must accept that Paul was a close contemporary of Jesus, and had acquaintance with Jesus from someone who apparently knew him.

Doherty’s claim that second century documents are devoid of Jesus is similarly absurd.   For example, the Didache, which even Doherty acknowledges as being of first or early second century origin (“Piece 10”), quotes Jesus as the authority for doctrine, mentions the Lord’s supper - a ritual which symbolizes the of Jesus - and even explicitly quotes the gospel according to Matthew ( 8:2). Likewise, Doherty claims that “Minucius Felix heaps scorn on any doctrine of a crucified man as divine and redeemer” (“Piece 10”) yet examination of Minucius Felix’ only extant writing reveals that Felix defends that doctrine [xii].  

The second piece of Doherty’s “conspiracy of silence” is a claimed lack of extra-biblical attestation.   Doherty claims that there is no extra-Biblical attestation to Jesus, and that all the passages that seem to be are in fact insertions by later scribes.   It must be admitted that the Josephus reference has been highly controversial. The problem is this:Josephus is, in general, extremely critical of Messianic pretenders, but our current manuscript reads “there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man…” (18. 3. 3). Scholars have found this passage suspicious because it does not seem consistent with Josephus’ Jewish perspective. It is generally agreed that at least the phrase “if it be lawful to call him a man” as well as some other peripheral verbiage is a later scribal insertion [xiii].   Despite this, scholarly opinion is decidedly in favor of the bare reference to Jesus having been in the original.   More importantly, almost all scholars accept the second Josephus reference. This reference tells of James’ execution at the hands of the high priest in 62CE (20. 9. 1). This passage mentions James as being the brother of Jesus, and does not laud Jesus; in fact, it refers to him as the “so-called Christ”. Most of all, the second passage is primarily focused on Ananus, the high priest, not on Jesus or James. If a later writer were inserting such a passage, surely he would have filled it with the same kind of pious praise for Jesus found in the first passage.   In the absence of that kind of self-conscious piety (which is almost a fingerprint of scribal interpolation) a straightforward interpretation of the facts leads one to conclude that Josephus wrote the words in question. To call passages interpolations without some kind of textual attestation is a serious error in methodology, and it is one that Doherty makes here as well as in many other places xiv.

Likewise, Doherty attempts to dismiss Tacitus on the grounds that Tacitus was only reporting what he had heard.   However, this leaves Doherty’s “conspiracy of silence” badly damaged. First, Tacitus died in 115CE and wrote in 109CE by all accounts.   So, it can hardly be argued that there is no second century attestation of the historical Jesus.   More importantly, Tacitus is reporting the beliefs of Christians, as he believed them to exist in 54CE.   Tacitus is universally regarded as a careful and accurate historian. Why should we doubt that he took care in this case? In any case, though a secondhand report might not provide the full support we desire, it is hardly a “conspiracy of silence. ”

So on the most straightforward examination of the available historical evidence, Doherty's “conspiracy of silence” simply does not exist.   It is broken by the Pauline epistles, by extra-Biblical attestation, and by the gospels themselves.   In closing, I would like to note that only one document need be left standing for Doherty’s conspiracy of silence to fall. Doherty’s basic strategy is to impugn a document by any means available, then dismiss it wholesale because it is not “reliable. ” This is a sloppy hermeneutic, and is evidence of Doherty’s biased approach.

Conclusion

It is something of a truism to say that you can present a bad argument for a true conclusion, and you can present a good argument for a false conclusion. Presenting a good argument for a false conclusion is just a lot harder.   It must be acknowledged that this – making a good argument for a false conclusion – is a skill that Doherty has mastered.

So how does he do it? What is the foundation of his arguments?  Doherty makes bold assertions of questionable facts.   Since most people are disposed to believe what people tell them, they accept Doherty’s facts at face value.   For example, consider Doherty’s characterization of Minucius Felix’ position on the resurrection.   Doherty claimed that Minucius Felix “heaped scorn on any doctrine of a crucified man as divine and redeemer. ”  This reference was presented without attribution, and only by careful research could the reference be recovered. It was then necessary to carefully read Felix’ work to realize that it was a dialogue, and to discover that the complaint Doherty referred to was actually refuted.  

Ancient scholarship is an extremely complex field.   It requires long and tedious research.   Doherty is a master of simplifying it but his simplifications are invariably unbalanced (if not false).   His avowed purpose is to refute Christianity – this is hardly surprising. For this reason, it is important that to balance your reading of Doherty with the reading of other scholars. For something as accessible as Doherty’s work, but from the opposite perspective, I would recommend by Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. For a more scholarly work, I would recommend Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Craig Blomberg.   It must be acknowledged that both write from an unabashedly biased perspective. But that may be just the ticket in the face of Doherty’s extreme positions.   For a truly balanced perspective, I would recommend The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by N. T. Wright and Marcus Borg.

In any case, don’t suppose you will find the answers in Doherty’s writings.


Works Cited

Blomberg, Craig.   Intervarsity Press, 1987.   “Caesarea Philippi”. 1999.   Catholic Enyclopedia.   3 Dec 2000.  

Doherty, Earl. 1997.   “Solving the Jesus Puzzle”.   27 Nov. 2000. .

Holding, J. P. “Josephus: A Double Dose of the Messiah”. 3 Dec 2000.  

Josephus, Flavius. .   Rome, 93CE.   Wesley Center for Applied Theology. 3 Dec. 2000.   < http://wesley. nnu. edu/josephus/ant-18. htm>.

Lightfoot, John. 1893.   “Internal Evidence for the authenticity and genuineness of Saint John’s Gospel”. 21 Nov. 2000.   .

Mack, Burton. 1998.   “Q: The Lost Gospel. ”3 Dec. 2000. < http://www. cygnus-study. com/pageq. shtml>

“Pontius Pilate”. 1999.   Catholic Encyclopedia.   3 Dec 2000. .

Strobel, Lee.   The Case for Christ. . Intervarsity Press, 1996.

“Tacitus”.   1999.   Brittanica Online. 3 Dec 2000.  

"The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke", G. J. Goldberg, The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha

Van Voorst. .   Stamford, CT: Wadsworth, 2000.  


Endnotes

[i] PETA. See http://www. jesusveg. org

[ii] Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew

[iii] Consider the Muslim acceptance of Jesus as a prophet (however attenuated), or the way in which many Buddhists have reinterpreted him as a Bodhisatva

[iv] The few who, like Doherty, do not accept this dating refute it on the grounds that if Mark wrote prior to 70, then this appears to be an accurate prophecy.   However, even if naturalism is assumed -- something I would argue against -- this is silly and biased. The "coincidence" argument is a simpler explanation than a late date given the other evidence pointing to an early date for Mark. Moreover, to allow philosophical assumptions to get in the way is to throw out evidence that might refute naturalism, unexamined. This is a particularly pernicious example of the way in which naturalists often beg the question.

[v] As previously discussed, in 70CE Judea, the Jewish homeland, was conquered by Rome, scattering Jews across the Mediterranean.   In 49CE, all Jews were kicked out of Rome, for “causing constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus”  (Suetonius). Talking about a wealthy Palestinian Jew after 70CE is kind of like talking about a wealthy Polish Jew in 1945 – the possibility must be conceded, but it is just not very probable.

[vi] This seems to have much more to do with a hardened suspicion against religion and religious people in general than any demonstrated historical issues.    One hundred years ago, it was thought that the gospels contained many out and out historical inaccuracies.   However, further research and archaeology have shown the gospels to be remarkably accurate.   There are only a very few (two or three) alleged historical inaccuracies left, out of dozens routinely cited in the 19th century.

[vii] It is interesting to observe that the historicity of ancient personages such as Pontius Pilate is routinely accepted, yet that of Jesus is denied.   Yet Pontius Pilate is not mentioned in any ancient document that does notalso mention Jesus, and the only archaeological evidence for Pilate is one inscription. In fact, if it were not for Christian sources, Pilate would only be known by one document.   The complaint of inadequate attestation for Jesus usually comes from people who do not understand the difficulties of ancient history.

[viii] 18. 3. 3 and 20. 9. 1 respectively.

[ix] I have some serious issues with this dating of the gospels, since I am convicted by the evidence that this date is too late.   Doherty would argue that the gospels were produced far later. For the purposes of this paper, I have confined myself and Doherty to the dates accepted by the mainstream New Testament scholarship community.

[x] See, for example, Romans 1:4, 1Corinthians 15, Philippians 3:10, 1Peter 1:3.

[xi] If Peter had never met Jesus in the flesh, this appearance would be unremarkable -- it would have been an apparition, not a resurrection. Furthermore, Paul goes on in this passage to use Jesus’ resurrection as evidence for the eventual resurrection of those who believe in Jesus (see especially verse 19).   If Jesus never existed in the flesh, then his resurrection could provide no support for the eventual resurrection of believers. Against this evidence, in his more recent writings Doherty has begun to claim that 1Corinthians 15 has been altered. This alleged alteration is entirely unsupported in the textual record.

[xii] This claim seems to stem from chapter 9 of Minucius Felix’ .   Yet, in chapter 9, Felix is quoting Caecilius, a skeptic, who claims that Christianity is absurd because it worships a crucified criminal. In Chapter 29, Felix refutes him, not by denying the crucifixion, but by affirming Jesus’ innocence of wrong doing. The is a dialogue – not everything said therein represents a position Felix holds. Similarly, Doherty complains of words used by an opponent in the writings of Justin, as if the words of someone who is ultimately refuted in a dialogue reflect the opinions of the author. We might as well credit Plato for thinking that Socrates corrupted the public morals as credit Justin or Felix with not believing in an historical Jesus.

[xiii] It should be noted that it was the custom at the time for scribes to insert notes regarding the text into the text itself (to save paper).   Thus, this need not have been a forgery, but was simply the way things were done. In times before cheap paper made from dead forests, such measures were common (much as we might wish to the contrary. )

[xiv] A truly fascinating argument for the authenticity of the Josephus testimony of Jesus was published by G. J. Goldberg, and is listed in the Works Cited.   In short, Goldberg argues on fairly strong critical grounds that Josephus and the Emmaus narrative of Luke are derived from a common source. This argument is too involved to examine here and is too recent to have born the “test of time” that is scholarly review. However, it is certainly very interesting.