WHO IS EARL DAUGHERTY AND WHY DID HE WRITE THIS BOOK?
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 this 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 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).
The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.
As we enter the 21st century, interest in the historical Jesus has been rising dramatically. In the media, in bestselling books, on the Internet, Jesus as an historical figure rather than an object of faith is being subjected to an unprecedented investigation and reinterpretation. The inquiry into Christian origins has entered the public eye like never before, and its radical new findings, together with the liberal trend to bring Jesus down to earth, has fascinated and disturbed believer and non-believer alike.
Perhaps for the first time in its history, the field of New Testament research is in disarray. The most progressive circle of scholarship within it, the group known as the Jesus Seminar, has recently come to the conclusion that Jesus' corpse, far from being resurrected from the dead, probably rotted in some unknown grave, and that the Christian movement did not begin out of a conviction that Jesus had risen bodily from his tomb. More conservative ranks are fiercely resisting such trends, and even popular publications like Bible Review have occasionally become battlegrounds for a civil war in which Christian scholars on both sides are attacking each other's competence and integrity and taking no prisoners.
But in the new search for the historical Jesus, the most important issue of all is being largely ignored. Has Western society been the victim of the greatest misconception in history? Could the reason why every generation is able to reinvent Jesus in its own image, why a multitude of scholars can come up with many radically different pictures of the founder of Christianity, be that there is no actual man to be uncovered, no historical figure to exercise control over the unending search? If the record is so mercurial, so open to interpretation, should not this possibility be at the very top of the agenda? The Jesus Seminar, at the beginning of its deliberations in the mid-1980s, claims to have addressed the question, but this amounted to little more than a show of hands. Had these scholars surveyed the Christian record from this point of view with as much enthusiasm and intensity as they devoted in several years of study to the authenticity of the sayings and deeds of Jesus, they might have come to acknowledge that the underpinnings of their work are astonishingly tenuous and to understand why the question of whether Jesus really existed refuses to go away.
The idea that Christianity may have begun without an historical Jesus was first floated near the end of the 18th century by certain philosophers of the French Revolution. In Germany a few decades later, D. F. Strauss and Bruno Bauer laid a groundwork for the theory by labeling much of the story of Jesus "mythology" and the Gospels "literary inventions." Bauer came to doubt the historicity of Jesus. But it was at the turn of the 20th century that detailed examination of the issue began in earnest. Since then a handful of reputable scholars in each generation have denied outright any historical existence for the Gospel Jesus: among them J. M. Robertson in Britain, Arthur Drews in Germany, Paul-Louis Couchoud and Prosper Alfaric in France, followed by several others. Most recently, G. A. Wells, Professor of German at the University of London (now retired), has published six books on the subject, a telling dissection of Christian literature, especially the Gospels, which reveals just how wispy and elusive is the historical basis that lies behind the story of Jesus of Nazareth.
My own research in this field goes back almost 20 years, when I first encountered a serious presentation of the theory in Professor Wells. Although my university training was not in New Testament studies, I have a degree in Ancient History and Classical Languages, giving me a working knowledge of Greek and Latin, which I have supplemented with the basics of Hebrew and Syriac. In addition to the New Testament, along with many parts of the Old, I have thoroughly investigated all the non-canonical Christian documents, the 2nd and 3rd century Apologists, all the relevant Jewish Pseudepigrapha of the era together with the Dead Sea scrolls, plus much of Christian and non-Christian Gnosticism. To this I have added a study of Philo of Alexandria, Middle Platonism and other philosophies, relevant ancient historians, Hellenistic mystery cults and the general religious thought of the era.
My investigations have led me to a fundamental disagreement with Professor Wells. (He is the only prominent writer on the "Jesus-as-myth" theory in the past generation; earlier proponents are difficult for the average reader to come by, so I will not address them.) Wells postulates that Paul and other Christians of his day believed that "Jesus" had lived in obscurity at some unknown point in the past, perhaps two or three centuries before their time. The problem is, there seems to be no more evidence in the epistles that Paul has such a figure in mind than there is for his knowledge of a Jesus of Nazareth who had lived and died during the reign of Herod Antipas. Rather, everything in Paul points to a belief in an entirely divine Son who "lived" and acted in the spiritual realm, in the same mythical setting in which all the other savior deities of the day were seen to operate. No Greek or Roman believed that the god Mithras had lived in an identifiable period of earthly history, or that the bull he slaughtered was "historical," and the mystery myths at the time of Christian beginnings tended to be moved to a supernatural sphere under the influence of current philosophy. With this view, Christianity can be seen to fit nicely into its surrounding milieu, a child of its time. It also enables us to read and understand Paul in all his spiritual richness—from an historical interest point of view—and to gain a thorough picture of what his faith constituted. Once early Christian belief is seen in its proper light, a whole new window is gained onto the religious spirit of the era, since Christianity was the great synthesizer and preserver of that spirit. But if we insist instead on seeing early Christian faith as some strange hybrid anomaly against the background beliefs of its day, that picture will remain forever deficient.
Today we face two principal impediments to understanding Paul's belief in Christ as an entirely spiritual figure. One is the fact that it is based on views of the universe which are alien to our modern outlook. The second is our failure to grasp how the Jewish scriptures, as they were interpreted by certain circles in Paul's day, could confer features on the heavenly Christ which we perceive as "historical." I am referring to passages like Romans 1:3, that Christ was "of David's seed," or Galatians 4:4, that he was "born of woman," plus a smattering of references to things like Jesus' "flesh" or "blood." These matters I have been careful to address, and to provide an intelligible explanation for.
Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," takes a detailed look at the pervasive silence on the Gospel Jesus of Nazareth which we find in almost a hundred years of earliest Christian correspondence. Not once does Paul or any other first century epistle writer identify their divine Christ Jesus with the recent historical man known from the Gospels. Nor do they attribute the ethical teachings they put forward to such a man. Virtually every other detail in the picture of the Gospel Jesus is similarly missing. If Jesus was a "social reformer" whose teachings began the Christian movement, as today's liberal scholars now style him, how can such a Jesus be utterly lacking in all the New Testament epistles, while only a cosmic Christ is to be found?
This missing dimension in the early Christian record cannot be shrugged off, as New Testament scholarship has had a habit of doing. Timeworn "explanations" such as that the early church "had no interest" in the earthly life of Jesus, or that Paul's theology did not require it, are simply inadequate, if not in many respects fallacious. Scholars love to malign the so-called "argument from silence," but when the void is this pervasive and profound, the rationale for it had better be of sterling quality, and such a thing not even the most recent scholarship has provided. In this first article, I point out elements to that silence in the epistles which have been little if at all remarked on before.
Part Two, "Who Was Christ Jesus?", is the core of the series, for it attempts to set out the concept of the spiritual Christ who was the object of faith for Paul and much of the early Christian movement. This faith grew out of the prominent religious and philosophical ideas of the age, both Jewish and Greek, about an intermediary force between God and the world, a spiritual "Son"; it operated within views of the universe which have long since been abandoned. I also compare Paul's Christ with the savior deities of the current Graeco-Roman mystery cults, and although it is no longer fashionable to maintain that much of what is distinctively Christian was directly derived from the mysteries, both these religious expressions share elements of the same thought-world and are in part branches of the same tree. Seeing Christianity in this light goes a long way toward understanding some of Paul's thought. At the same time, Paul's words about Christ are examined to show that apostles like himself are offering a faith based on revelation from God, mostly through the interpretation of scripture, in an age of divine inspiration which had nothing to do with the recent career of an historical man. The second article finishes with a brief look at another conclusion: that Christianity, as shown by its great diversity in the early period, did not arise at a single time and place or out of a single missionary movement, but expressed itself in different forms in many sects and locations. I offer a definition of the terms "Jesus" and "Christ" as they were used during this initial period.
Part Three, "The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth," begins with a search for the Gospels. These documents, which scholars now admit are expressions of faith, not history, were written in stages and probably not as early as traditionally supposed. Ultimately they are all dependent for their picture of Jesus' life on a single source, the earliest version of Mark. Nor does any sign of them emerge in the wider Christian world until well into the second century. Next, I take a close look at the document known as "Q" in which the core of the historical Jesus as teacher, miracle-worker and apocalyptic prophet— something quite separate from the cultic Christ of Paul—was first created. I show how signs within that document and its evolution indicate that no historical figure lay at its roots. Those who now claim that the Christian movement began out of the teachings of a Jesus as represented in the Synoptic Gospels, are forced to base such a figure almost exclusively on that lost Q document, and what can be gleaned about its original nature and developmental stages. Claims of corroboration in the rediscovered Gospel of Thomas rest also on uncertain foundations. The article concludes with a survey of how Mark put the first Gospel together out of separate elements, its scriptural ingredients and sectarian features.
The original series (first published in shorter form in the magazine Humanist in Canada in 1995 and 1996) concluded with a "Postscript" to cover the non-Christian witness to Jesus, or lack thereof. (It is amazing how much energy on the question of Jesus' existence gets focused on this sideshow of Josephus, Tacitus and company—at best an inconclusive one—when the most telling material lies in the Christian documents themselves.) I then address what I call "Five Fallacies" contained in the traditional scholarly analysis of Christian origins and the early Christian record.
A little later, a fifth article in the series followed, this one looking at "The Second Century Apologists." In this lesser known area of Christian writing, we find a startling silence on the Gospel Jesus of Nazareth which extends to several authors, and even some telling material in Justin Martyr, who is the only major apologist before the year 180 to include an historical Gospel Jesus in his defence of Christianity to the pagans. I take a close look at the most fascinating of all the apologies, Minucius Felix, which in its treatment of the idea of a crucified man and his cross constitutes a true "smoking gun."
Another section of the web site is "Book Reviews." New publications on Jesus and Christian origins are appearing regularly, as scholars of different persuasions attempt to come to terms with the advances made in New Testament research and offer their own interpretations of how Christianity began. Are their scenarios credible, and have they properly taken all the evidence into account? I offer my views on books like Burton Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament?, Robert Funk's Honest to Jesus, and John Shelby Spong's Liberating the Gospels. A separate review section surveys recent books which question the existence of an historical Jesus. Reviews of other books will follow at intervals.
After the Main Articles, I have added separate studies on a range of New Testament subjects, from problem documents to questions of interpretation and features of the early Christian movement. These "Supplementary Articles" supply a greater depth of argument and understanding to the mythicist position. Other site features include a "Quick Assembly" which summarizes in twelve easy points the essentials of the Jesus Puzzle theory, while putting together an actual puzzle picture; and a comprehensive look at all the "silences" to be found in the non-Gospel record, called "The Sound of Silence: 200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles." I have also reprinted an original Jesus Puzzle article written for the Journal of Higher Criticism (Fall 1997 issue), edited by Darrell Doughty and Robert Price, both members of the Jesus Seminar. (Check the "What's New" link from the head of the Home Page for regular new features and additions.)
A "Reader Feedback" section posts comments, queries and my responses to them. Many of the latter constitute mini-articles in themselves on a variety of important topics within the mythicist theory. An Index to these responses, with direct links, appears at the beginning of the Feedback section.
I have also written a full-length contemporary novel which focuses on an investigation of the historical Jesus question, set against a background plot of today's struggle between secularism and fundamentalism. This novel is posted in its entirety on the site: see the final section of the Home Page.
I think what any "mythicist" would welcome from mainstream scholars is an energetic examination of the Jesus-as-myth theory and an honest attempt to deal with its arguments. The theory that there was no historical Jesus shows no sign of losing credence, and in a kind of "underground" fashion is even gaining support. It is time for a serious examination of why this is so.
A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE
Around the year 107, the Christian bishop of Antioch made a last, doleful journey. Under military escort Ignatius travelled by land from Antioch to Rome, where in its brutal arena he was to die a martyr's death. Along the way he wrote to several Christian communities.
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?
WHO WAS CHRIST JESUS?
In Part One, I probed the mysterious silence about Jesus of Nazareth which lies at the heart of earliest Christianity. Neither his miracles nor his apocalyptic preaching, not the places or details of his birth, ministry or death, not his parents, his prosecutor, his herald, his betrayer, are ever mentioned by the first century Christian letter writers, and the ethical teachings which resemble his as recorded in the Gospels are never attributed to him. I called it, ironically, "A Conspiracy of Silence."
But if these silences mean anything (and it is impossible to accept the common scholarly rationalization that they reflect a universal "lack of interest" in the earthly life of Jesus by the first three generations of the Christian movement), then they ought to present their own integral picture. Can we derive from them a coherent, uniform concept of what earliest Christianity really was and what it believed in? Who was Paul's "Christ Jesus" if he was not the Jesus of Nazareth of the later Gospels?
First, we must understand the era to understand its ideas. After Alexander the Great conquered half the known earth in the late 4th century BCE, Greek language and culture (called Hellenism) inundated the whole eastern Mediterranean world; even the Jews, who always resisted assimilation, were not immune to its influence. Alexander's empire soon fragmented into warring mini-empires and eventually Rome rolled east and imposed its own absolute rule.
It was a troubled, often pessimistic time. Stoics, Epicureans, Platonists and others offered new moral and intellectual ways of coping with life and the unpredictable world. Understanding the ultimate Deity and establishing personal ethics were central concerns of all these movements. Wandering philosophers became a kind of popular clergy, frequenting the marketplace and people's homes. Healing gods, Oriental mysticism, a whole paraphernalia of magic and astrology were added to the pot to cope with another dimension to the world's distress: the vast panoply of unseen spirits and demons and forces of fate which were now believed to pervade the very atmosphere men and women moved in, harassing and crippling their lives. The buzzword was personal "salvation." And for the growing number who believed it could not be achieved in the world, it became salvation from the world. Redeeming the individual grew into a Hellenistic industry.
Many looked upon the Jews as providing a high moral and monotheistic standard, and gentiles flocked to Judaism in varying degrees of conversion. But even here there were strong currents of pessimism. For centuries the Jews as a nation had looked for salvation from a long succession of conquerors, until many had become convinced that only violent divine intervention would bring about the establishment of God's Kingdom and their own destined elevation to dominion over the nations of the earth. Such views were held by a mosaic of sectarian groups, each regarding itself as an elect, which flourished on the fringes of "mainstream" Judaism (Temple and Pharisees). Christianity in its early manifestations belonged to this melange of sects, comprised of a mix of gentiles and Jews, driven by an intense apocalyptic expectation of the coming end or transformation of the world.
Among both Jew and pagan there was a slide away from rationalism and a turning to personal revelation as the only source for knowledge about God and the ways to salvation. Mysticism, visionary inspiration, marvellous spiritual practices, became the seedbed of new faiths and sects. And no one possessed a richer hothouse for all this than the Jews, in their unparalleled collection of sacred writings, from whose pages could be lifted newly-perceived truths about God and ultimate realities.
Onto such a stage in the middle decades of the first century, into what one scholar has called "a seething mass of sects and salvation cults" (John Dillon, The Middle Platonists, p.396) stepped the apostles of a new movement. In Galatians 1:16 Paul says: "God chose to reveal his Son in me, and through me to preach him to the gentiles." Paul claims he is the instrument of God's revelation. He preaches the Son, the newly-disclosed means of salvation offered to Jew and gentile alike. But is this Son a recent historical man? Has he been revealed to the world through his own life and ministry? No, for as we saw in Part One, neither Paul nor any other early Christian letter writer presents us with such an idea.
Rather, the Son is a spiritual concept, just as God himself is, and every other deity of the day. None of them are founded on historical figures. The existence of this divine Son has hitherto been unknown; he has been a secret, a "mystery" hidden with God in heaven (e.g., Romans 16:25-27, Colossians 2:2). Information about this Son has been imbedded in scripture. Only in this final age has God himself (through his Spirit) inspired apostles like Paul to learn—from scripture and visionary experiences—about his Son and what he had done for humanity's salvation. And this Son was soon to arrive from heaven, at the imminent end of the present world.
If we remove Gospel associations from our minds, we find that this is exactly what Paul and the others are telling us. God is revealing Christ (as in the Galatians quote above), apostles inspired by God's Spirit are preaching him, believers are responding through faith. Ephesians 3:4-5 shows us the main elements of the new drama. "The mystery about Christ, which in former generations was not revealed to men [not even by Jesus himself, apparently], is now disclosed to dedicated apostles and prophets through the Spirit [by divine revelation]." God's Spirit, the divine power which inspires men like Paul, is the engine of the new revelation. All knowledge comes through this Spirit, with no suggestion that anything has been received from an historical Jesus and his ministry. (Part One dealt with Paul's few "words of the Lord", perceived communications from the spiritual Christ in heaven.)
The words of the first century writers never speak of Jesus' arrival or life on earth. Rather, they speak of his revelation, of his manifestation by God. 1 Peter 1:20 says: "Predestined from the foundation of the world, (Christ) was manifested for your sake in these last times." Here the writer uses the Greek word "phaneroo", meaning to manifest or reveal. Romans 3:25 says: "God set him forth (Christ Jesus) as a means of atonement by his blood, effective through faith." Here Paul uses a verb which, in this context, means "to declare publicly," reveal to public light. God is revealing Christ and the atonement he has made available to those who believe. Other passages, like Romans 16:25-27, Colossians 1:26 and 2:2, Titus 1:2-3, contain similar statements about the current unveiling of long-hidden divine secrets, and the careful eye that reads them can see that no room has been made for any recent life and work of Jesus.
It is God and scripture which Paul regards as the source of his inspiration and knowledge. Look at Romans 1:1-4. Paul has been called into the service of preaching the gospel. And note how this gospel is described. First it was announced beforehand in scripture by God's prophets. It is the gospel, Paul's message about the Christ, that has been announced in scripture, not Christ's life itself. Second, that gospel is not any that Jesus preached; rather, it is God's gospel, and it is about his Son. Again, all this is the language of revelation. Data like that in verses 3 and 4 of Romans 1 (to be addressed later) are part of what is being revealed, and this information has been found in scripture, which God's Spirit has inspired men like Paul to read in a new, "correct" way. Compare 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, which points squarely to scripture as the source of Paul's doctrines about the Christ. (The phrase "according to the scriptures," while traditionally interpreted as meaning 'in fulfillment of the scriptures,' can instead entail the meaning of 'as the scriptures tell us' or 'as we learn from the scriptures.')
Paul and other Christian preachers are offering salvation, but it is through a Christ who is a spiritual channel to God and one who has performed a redemptive act (the "atonement by his blood") in a mythical setting. We will look at both the medium and the act in a moment, but that act is not part of what has happened in the present time. Rather, the present is when the benefits available from this act are being revealed and applied: the forgiveness of sin and the guarantee of resurrection, "effective through faith" in the gospel. All this is the universal manner of expression in first century Christian epistles, and even beyond; one that ignores any recent career of Jesus and focuses all attention on those appointed to carry God's newly-disclosed message.
* * * *
At the core of that message lies the Son. Christianity was in the process of creating for the Western world the ultimate, lasting reflection of the central religious concept of the Hellenistic age. This we must now consider.
Monotheism was the possession not only of the Jews, but of much of Greek philosophy. Ancient thinking had arrived at an ultimate high God who had created and governed the universe. But a problem had to be faced. As such a God was made ever more lofty, more perfect, he also became more transcendent. Any form of contact with the inferior world of matter was deemed inappropriate and indeed impossible, and so the idea arose that any relationship between God and the world had to take place through some form of intermediary.
The Greek solution was the Logos, a kind of subsidiary god or divine force, an emanation of the Deity. In the most influential school of thinking, Platonism, the Logos was the image of God in perceivable form and a model for creation. He revealed the otherwise inaccessible, ultimate God, and through him—or it, since the Logos was more an abstract than a personal being—God acted upon the world. We know of Hellenistic religious sects based on the Logos. (See the little Address to the Greeks, originally attributed to Justin Martyr.)
The Jewish God never became quite so inaccessible, but knowledge of him and of his Law was thought to have been brought to the world by a part of himself called "Wisdom." This figure (it was a 'she') evolved almost into a divine being herself, an agent of creation and salvation with her own myths about coming to earth—though not in any physical incarnation. (See Proverbs 1 and 8-9, Baruch 3-4, Ecclesiasticus 24 and The Wisdom of Solomon.) In fact, many parts of the ancient world seem to have developed the concept of an intermediary divine figure coming to earth to bring knowledge and salvation, but details of such myths, especially for pre-Christian periods, are sketchy and much debated.
Out of this rich soil of ideas arose Christianity, a product of both Jewish and Greek philosophy. Its concept of Jesus the "Son" grew out of ideas like personified Wisdom (with a sex change), leavened with the Greek Logos, and amalgamated with the more personal and human figure of traditional Messiah expectation. Christianity made its Christ (the Greek word for Messiah) into a heavenly figure who could be related to, though he is intimately tied to God himself. Unlike Wisdom or the Logos, however, the Christian Savior was envisioned to have undergone self-sacrifice.
We can now gain a clearer understanding of Paul's Christ Jesus and the sphere of his activity. The pseudo-Pauline 2 Timothy tells us (1:9) that God (!) has saved us through his grace, "which was given to us in Christ Jesus in eternal times."
There are two key phrases here. First, the term "in Christ" (or sometimes "through Christ") which Paul and others use over a hundred times throughout the epistles: it can hardly bear on its slender back the sweeping meaning some scholars try to give it, namely as a kind of compact reference to Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection. Check its use in other passages, like Ephesians 1:4, 2 Corinthians 3:14, and especially Titus 3:6: "(God) sent down the Spirit upon us plentifully through Jesus Christ our Savior."
Such references do not speak of the recent physical presence of Jesus of Nazareth on earth. Instead, Christ—the divine, heavenly Son—is now present on earth, in a mystical sense, embodied in the new faith movement and interacting with his believers. Like Wisdom and the Logos, he is the spiritual medium ("in" or "through Christ") through which God is revealing himself and doing his work in the world. "In Christ" can also refer to the mystical union which Paul envisions between the believer and Christ, as in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
But where and when had this intermediary Son performed the redeeming act itself?
Christ's self-sacrificing death was located "in times eternal," or "before the beginning of time" (pro chronon aionion). This is the second key phrase in 2 Timothy 1:9 and elsewhere. What is presently being revealed is something that had already taken place outside the normal realm of time and space. This could be envisioned as either in the primordial time of myth, or, as current Platonic philosophy would have put it, in the higher eternal world of ideas, of which this earthly world, with its ever-changing matter and evolving time, is only a transient, imperfect copy (more on this later). The benefits of Christ's redemptive act lay in the present, through God's revelation of it in the new missionary movement, but the act itself had taken place in a higher world of divine realities, in a timeless order, not on earth or in history. It had all happened in the sphere of God, it was all part of his "mystery." The blood sacrifice, even seeming biographical details like Romans 1:3-4, belong in this dimension.
* * * *
Such ideas are, to us, strange and even alien, but they were an integral part of the mythological thinking of the ancient world. To obtain a better insight into them, we will draw a comparison between Christianity and another prominent religious expression of the Graeco-Roman world of its time. It will also help us to understand the evolution of the idea of Christ's sacrificial redemption (though this will not be fully answered until Part Three.)
By the first century CE the Empire had several popular salvation cults known as the "mysteries," each with its own savior god or goddess, such as Osiris, Attis and Mithras. There has been a seesaw debate over when these cults became fully formed and how much they may have influenced Christian ideas, but the root versions of the Greek mysteries go back to those of Eleusis (near Athens) and of the Greek god Dionysos, in the first half of the first millennium BCE. At the very least we can say that Christianity in many of its aspects was a Jewish-oriented expression of this widespread religious phenomenon.
Each of these savior gods had in some way overcome death, or performed some act whose effects guaranteed for the initiate a happy afterlife. Christianity's savior god, Christ Jesus, had undergone death and been resurrected as a redeeming act (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), giving promising of resurrection and eternal life to the believer. This guarantee involved another feature of ancient world thinking, closely related to Platonism: the idea that things and events on earth had their parallels in heaven; this included divine figures who served as paradigms for earthly human counterparts. What the former underwent in the spiritual realm reflected the experiences and determined the destinies of those who were linked to them on earth. For example, the original "one like a son of man" in Daniel's vision (7:13-14) received power and dominion over the earth from God, and this guaranteed that his human counterpart, the saints or elect of Israel, were destined to receive these things when God's Kingdom was established on earth. Christianity's Son, too, was a paradigm: Christ's experiences of suffering and death mirrored those of humans, but his exaltation would similarly be paralleled by their own exaltation. As Romans 6:5 declares: "We shall be united with Christ in a resurrection like his."
Savior gods also conferred certain benefits in the present world. They provided protection from the demon spirits and fates; Christ's devotees, too, claimed this for him (see Colossians and Ephesians). Rites of initiation in the mysteries, which included types of baptism, conferred rebirth and brought the initiate into a special relationship with the god or goddess. In Paul's baptism, the convert died to his present life and rose to a new one; of this new state, Paul says: "We are in Christ and Christ is in us."
Some of the savior gods had instituted sacraments: Mithras, after slaying the bull as a salvific blood sacrifice, had dined with the sun god, and this supper became the Mithraic cultic meal, similar to elements of the Christian Eucharist. Here, then, is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Paul is not referring to any historical Last Supper, but rather to the origin myth attached to the Christian sacred meal (at least in Paul's circle). The words are probably Paul's personal version of things, since he clearly identifies it as revealed knowledge, "from the Lord," not passed-on tradition through apostolic channels. The spiritual Christ himself, in a mythical time and place (including "at night"), had established this Supper and spoken the words about his body and blood that gave the meal its present meaning. The frequent translation "arrested" or "betrayed" in verse 23 is governed by the later Gospel story. The literal meaning of the Greek word is "to hand over" or "deliver up," a term commonly used in the context of martyrdom; it has no trouble fitting the context of myth. It can hardly mean "betrayed" in Romans 8:32 where God is the agent, or in Ephesians 5:2 where Jesus surrenders himself.
All this is not to say that there could be no differences between the ideas and rituals of the mysteries and those of Christianity, if only because they arose from different cultural milieus. The Greeks, for example, had no desire to be resurrected in the flesh; they generally found the idea repugnant, and salvation after death was a question of the pure soul freeing itself from the impurity of matter and rejoining the divine in the eternal world. There was no need for their gods to be resurrected in the same way Jesus was. However, it should be noted that earliest Christianity conceived of Jesus only as raised in the spirit, exalted to heaven immediately after death (eg, Philippians 2:9, 1 Peter 3:18, Hebrews 10:12, etc.). A bodily sojourn on earth with the Apostles came only with the Gospels. Indeed, the whole Easter event as the Gospels portray it is missing from the first century epistles.
But how could all this redeeming activity by savior gods, in both the mysteries and Christianity, be thought of as taking place "in the world," or even "in flesh," yet not at a specific historical time and location? This, of course, is the nature of myth, but it depends on certain views of the world held by the ancients.
One of these saw no rigid distinction between the natural and the supernatural. The two blended into one another. The earth was but one layer of a tiered system that progressed from base matter where humans lived to the purely spirit level where God dwelled. The spheres between the two contained other parts of the "world," populated by classes of angels, spirits and demons. This view was especially prevalent in Jewish apocalyptic thought, which saw various figures and activities involved in the coming end of the world as located in these layers above the earth.
Nor did time function the same way at all levels. In the 4th century the Roman philosopher Sallustius put his view this way: "All of this did not happen at any one time, but always is so...the story of Attis represents an eternal cosmic process, not an isolated event of the past."
Here we have crossed over into a somewhat different line of thinking from the continuous layered universe just described. The way Sallustius put things is essentially Platonic: what is perceived by contemplation and revelation on earth is only an imperfect reflection of eternal truths and spiritual processes in the upper world of ultimate reality. Various early Christian writers show different blendings of the Platonic and layered universes, and all of it was constructed over the ancient foundation of a more primitive myth-making view, one found around the world. This view placed divine figures and processes in a dim, primordial past: here the gods had planned and established things which gave meaning to present-day beliefs and practices, and from this "sacred past" humans drew benefits and even redemption. All these ideas contributed to the myths of the era in which Christianity was born.
For the average pagan and Jew, the bulk of the workings of the universe went on in the vast unseen spiritual realm (the "genuine" part of the universe) which began at the lowest level of the "air" and extended ever upward through the various layers of heaven. Here a savior god like Mithras could slay a bull, Attis could be castrated, and Christ could be hung on a tree by "the god of that world," meaning Satan (see the Ascension of Isaiah 9:14). The plainest interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews 9:11-14 is that Christ's sacrifice took place in a non-earthly setting and a spiritual time; 8:4 virtually tells us that he had never been on earth. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44-49 and elsewhere can speak of Christ as "man" (anthropos), but he is the ideal, heavenly man (a widespread type of idea in the ancient world, including Philo: see Supplementary Article No. 8: Christ as "Man"), whose spiritual "body" provides the prototype for the heavenly body Christians will receive at their resurrection. For minds like Paul's, such higher world counterparts had as real an existence as the flesh and blood human beings around them on earth.
It is in much the same sense that Paul, in Romans 1 and Galatians 4, declares Christ to have been "of David's stock," born under the Law. The source of such statements is scripture, not historical tradition. The sacred writings were seen as providing a picture of the spiritual world, the realities in heaven. Since the spiritual Christ was now identified with the Messiah, all scriptural passages presumed to be about the Messiah had to be applied to him, even if understood in a mythical or Platonic sense. Several references predicted that the Messiah would be descended from David: thus Romans 1:3 (and elsewhere). Note that 1:2 points unequivocally to scripture as the source of this doctrine. (As does 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 for the source of Jesus' death and resurrection.) Isaiah 7:14, to give another example, supposedly spoke of the Messiah as born of a young woman, and so Paul in Galatians 4:4 tells us that Christ was "born of woman". (Note that he never gives the name of Mary, or anything about this "woman." Nor does he identify the time or place of this "birth".) The mysteries may not have had the same range of sacred writings to supply their own details, but the savior god myths contained equally human-like elements which were understood entirely in a mythical setting. Dionysos too had been born in a cave of a woman.
"Born of woman" is a lot like another phrase used almost universally of the activities of Christ: "in flesh" (en sarki, kata sarka). It may actually mean little more than "in the sphere of the flesh" or "in relation to the flesh." In his divine form and habitat a god could not suffer, and so he had to take on some semblance to humanity (eg, Philippians 2:8, Romans 8:3); his saving act had to be a "blood" sacrifice (e.g., Hebrews 9:22) because the ancient world saw this as the basic means of communion between man and Deity; and it all had to be done within humanity's territory. But the latter could still be within those lower spiritual dimensions above the earth which acted upon the material world. And in fact this is precisely what Paul reveals. In 1 Corinthians 2:8 he tells us who crucified Jesus. Is it Pilate, the Romans, the Jews? No, it is "the rulers of this age (who) crucified the Lord of glory." Many scholars agree that he is referring not to temporal rulers but to the spirit and demonic forces—"powers and authorities" was the standard term— which inhabited the lower celestial spheres, part of the territory of "flesh." (See Paul Ellingworth, A Translator's Handbook for 1 Corinthians, p.46: "A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here." These include S. G. F. Brandon, C. K. Barrett, Jean Hering, Paula Fredriksen, S. D. F. Salmond, and it also included Ignatius and Marcion.) Colossians 2:15 can hardly refer to any historical event on Calvary.
It was in such spiritual, mythological dimensions that Paul's Christ Jesus had been 'taken on a body' (cf. Hebrews 10:5) and performed his act of redemption. Such was the timeless secret which God had hidden for long ages and only recently revealed to visionaries like Paul. And it was all to be discovered in scripture, or at least in the new way of reading it. It is very difficult for us to get our minds around this kind of "mythical thinking," because in our scientific and literal age we simply have no equivalent. This is perhaps the major stumbling block to an understanding and acceptance of the Jesus-as-myth theory. (For a comprehensive discussion of this area, including a detailed examination of passages like Romans 1:1-4 and Galatians 4:4-6, see Supplementary Article No. 8, Christ as "Man".)
* * * *
There are a few passages in the epistles which seem to speak of a recent coming of Christ, as in Galatians 3 and 4. But in 3:23 and 25 Paul stresses it is "faith" that has arrived in the present, while verse 24, despite a common misleading translation (as in the NEB), is literally "leading us to Christ," which can mean to faith in him. In 3:19, it is the gentiles who belong to Christ (verse 29) that are in mind. In any event, references to the sending or coming of Christ should be taken in the sense of the present-day revelation of Christ by God. (In the case of Galatians 4:4-6, verse 6 specifies that it is the "spirit" of the Son that has been sent into the hearts of believers.) Early Christians saw the spiritual Christ as having arrived in a real way, active in the world and speaking through themselves. This is certainly the sense of passages like 1 John 5:20, "We know that the Son of God is come," and Hebrews 9:11 and 26.
And probably Ephesians 2:17, which is especially interesting: "And coming, he (Christ) announced the good news..." But what was the content of that news? Instead of taking the opportunity to refer to some of Jesus' Gospel teachings, the writer quotes Isaiah. All the first century documents, as well as some later ones like the Epistle of Barnabas, show that the only source of information about Jesus was scripture. 1 Peter 2:22-23, with its description of Christ's exemplary sufferings, simply summarizes parts of Isaiah 53. (Cf. 1 Clement 16.) Scripture is not the prophecy of the Christ event, but its embodiment. The Son inhabits the spiritual world of the scriptures, God's window on the unseen true reality.
The reference to Pontius Pilate in 1 Timothy 6:13 comes in a set of "Pastoral" epistles which are almost universally judged by critical scholars to be a product of the second century, and not by Paul. Mention of Pilate could therefore be a reflection of the developing idea of an historical Jesus. It may be contemporary with or a little later than Ignatius, who is the first writer outside the Gospels to maintain that Jesus died under Pilate. However, this passing reference is also a possible candidate for interpolation (later insertion). More than one scholar has pointed out that there are problems in its fit with the context, and there are many indications within the Pastorals that they are still dealing with a non-historical Christ. (See the Appendix to Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus? for an examination of the dating of the Pastorals and the question of 1 Timothy 6:13.)
Another, more obvious interpolation is 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, the only reference to the Jews' guilt in killing Jesus to be found in Paul or anywhere else in the New Testament epistles. The great majority of critical scholars agree that it comes from a later time because it contains an unmistakable allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem (a later event), and because it is foreign to the way Paul elsewhere expresses himself toward his countrymen. (On this question, see Who Crucified Jesus? and Reader Feedback Set 19.)
Finally, from Galatians 1:19 comes the tradition that James was the sibling of Jesus, whereas the phrase "brother of the Lord" could instead refer to James' pre-eminent position as head of the Jerusalem brotherhood. Apostles everywhere (e.g., Sosthenes in 1 Corinthians 1:1) were called "brother," and the 500 who received a vision of the spiritual Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:6 were hardly all related to Jesus. The phrase in Philippians 1:14, "brothers in the Lord," is a strong indication of what sort of meaning the Galatians phrase entails. On the other hand, it is not impossible that the phrase began as a marginal gloss, subsequently inserted into the text. Some later copyist, perhaps when a second century Pauline corpus was being formed and after James' sibling relationship to the new historical Jesus had been established, may have wished to ensure that the reader would realize that Paul was referring to James the Just and not James the Gospel apostle. (For a fuller discussion of this verse, see Reader Feedback Set 3.)
Before proceeding to the Gospels in Part Three, one question must be answered. Where and how did Christianity begin? The traditional view, of course, is that it began in Jerusalem among the Twelve Apostles in response to Jesus' death and resurrection. But this is untenable, and not just because of a lack of any historical Jesus.
Within a handful of years of Jesus' supposed death, we find Christian communities all over the eastern Mediterranean, their founders unknown. Rome had Jewish Christians no later than the 40s, and a later churchman ("Ambrosiaster" in the 4th century) remarked that the Romans had believed in Christ even without benefit of preaching by the Apostles. Paul could not possibly account for all the Christian centers across the Empire; many were in existence before he got there. Nor does he convey much sense of a vigorous and widespread missionary activity on the part of the Jerusalem circle around Peter and James. (That comes only with Acts.)
A form of Christian faith later declared heretical, Gnosticism, preceded the establishment of orthodox beliefs and churches in whole areas like northern Syria and Egypt. Indeed, the sheer variety of Christian expression and competitiveness in the first century, as revealed in documents both inside and outside the New Testament, is inexplicable if it all proceeded from a single missionary movement beginning from a single source. We find a profusion of radically different rituals, doctrines and interpretations of Jesus and his redeeming role; some even have a Jesus who does not undergo death and resurrection.
Paul meets rivals at every turn who are interfering with his work, whose views he is trying to combat. The "false apostles" he rails against in 2 Corinthians 10 and 11 are "proclaiming another Jesus" and they are certainly not from Peter's group (See Supplementary Article No. 1: Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate). Where do they all come from and where do they get their ideas?
The answer seems inevitable: Christianity was born in a thousand places, in the broad fertile soil of Hellenistic Judaism. It sprang up in many independent communities and sects, expressing itself in a great variety of doctrines. We see this variety in everything from Paul to the writings of the so-called community of John, from the unique Epistle to the Hebrews to non-canonical documents like the Odes of Solomon and a profusion of gnostic texts. It was all an expression of the new religious philosophy of the Son, and it generated an apostolic movement fueled by visionary inspiration and a study of scripture, impelled by the conviction that God's Kingdom was at hand.
"Jesus" (Yeshua) is a Hebrew name meaning Savior, strictly speaking "Yahweh Saves." At the beginning of Christianity it refers not to the name of a human individual but (like the term Logos) to a concept: a divine, spiritual figure who is the mediator of God's salvation. "Christ," the Greek translation of the Hebrew "Messiah," is also a concept, meaning the Anointed One of God (though enriched by much additional connotation). In certain sectarian circles across the Empire, which included both Jews and gentiles, these names would have enjoyed a broad range of usage. Belief in some form of spiritual Anointed Savior—Christ Jesus—was in the air. Paul and the Jerusalem brotherhood were simply one strand of this widespread phenomenon, although an important and eventually very influential one. Later, in a myth-making process of its own, this group of missionaries would come to be regarded as the whole movement's point of origin. Part Three will show how many diverse strands were drawn together by the Jesus of Nazareth who first came to life in the Gospels.
THE EVOLUTION OF JESUS OF NAZARETH
To move from the New Testament epistles to the Gospels is to enter a completely different world. In Parts One and Two, I pointed out that virtually every element of the Gospel biography of Jesus of Nazareth is missing from the epistles, and that Paul and other early writers present us only with a divine, spiritual Christ in heaven, one revealed by God through inspiration and scripture. Their Jesus is never identified with a recent historical man. Like the savior gods of the Greek mystery cults, Paul's Christ had performed his redeeming act in a mythical arena. Thus, when we open the Gospels we are unprepared for the flesh and blood figure who lives and speaks on their pages, one who walked the sands of Palestine and died on Calvary in the days of Herod and Pontius Pilate.
Scholars are inching ever closer to understanding how and when the Gospels were written. The names Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are accepted as later ascriptions; the real authors are unknown. That "Mark" wrote first and was reworked by "Matthew" and "Luke," with other material added, is now an accepted principle by a majority of scholars. Some of the problems which called Markan priority into question, such as those passages in which Matthew and Luke agree in wording but differ from that of similar passages in Mark, have been solved by another telling realization: that each of the canonical Gospels is the end result of an early history of writing and re-writing, including additions and excisions. The Gospel of "John" is thought to have passed through several stages of construction. Thus, Matthew and Luke, writing independently and probably unknown to each other, used an earlier edition (or editions) of Mark which would have conformed to their agreements. The concept of a unified Gospel, let alone one produced by inspiration, is no longer tenable.
This picture of Gospel relationships is really quite astonishing. Even John, in its narrative structure and passion story, is now considered by many scholars (see Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus, p.239) to be based on Mark or some other Synoptic stage. Gone is the old pious view that the four Gospels are independent and corroborating accounts. Instead, their strong similarities are the result of copying. This means that for the basic story of Jesus' life and death we are dependent on a single source: whoever produced the first version of Mark. By rights, our sources should be numerous. Christian missionaries, supposedly led by the Twelve Apostles, fanned out across the empire; oral transmission, we are told, kept alive and constantly revitalized the story of Jesus' words and deeds. Written versions of that story should have sprung up in many centres, truly independent and notably divergent. Yet when Matthew comes to write his own version of Jesus' trial and crucifixion, all he can do is slavishly copy some document he has inherited, adding a few minor details of his own, such as the guard at the tomb. Luke does little more.
We face the same question with Acts. Why did only one writer, and that probably well into the second century (see Part One), decide to compose a history of the origin and growth of the early church? No other writer so much as mentions Pentecost, that collective visitation of the Spirit to the apostles which, according to Acts, started the whole missionary movement. But if instead this movement was a widespread diverse one, something uncoordinated and competitive (as Paul's letters suggest), expressing a variety of doctrine within the broad religious inspiration of the time, it is easier to understand how one group, seeking to impose the missing unity and give itself authority, could create its own unique picture of Christianity's beginnings.
When were the Gospels—or their earliest versions—written? Mark is usually dated by its "Little Apocalypse" in Chapter 13, which tells of great upheavals and the destruction of the Temple, spoken as a prophecy by Jesus. This must, it is claimed, refer to the first Jewish War (66-70); thus Mark wrote in its midst or shortly after. But even Mark is presumed to have drawn on source elements, and some think this Little Apocalypse could originally have been a Jewish composition (with no reference to Jesus), one that Mark later borrowed and adapted. Or, if Chapter 13 is by Mark, it could well have grown out of a later period, for other documents, like Revelation and some Jewish apocalypses, show that vivid apocalyptic expectations persisted until at least the end of the century. In fact, 13:7 has Jesus warning his listeners not to regard the End as imminent even when the winds of war arrive. Nothing in Mark should force us to date him before the 90s.
The dates assigned to Matthew and Luke (and even John) are influenced by the picture they present of "the parting of the ways" between Christianity and the wider Jewish establishment. This is recognized as a later development following the Jewish War, one which the Gospels read back anachronistically into the supposed time of Jesus. Luke has also abandoned the expectation of an imminent end of the world, placing him even later. None of these factors are inconsistent with dates around the turn of the second century or somewhat later.
But equally important is attestation. When do the Gospels start to show up in the wider record of Christian writings? If Mark is as early as 70, and all four had been written by 100, why do none of the early Fathers—the author of 1 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas— writing between 90 and 130, quote or refer to any of them? How could Ignatius (around 107), so eager to convince his readers that Jesus had indeed been born of Mary and died under Pilate, that he had truly been a human man who suffered, how could he have failed to appeal to some Gospel account as verification of all this if he had known one?
Eusebius reports that in a now-lost work written around 125, bishop Papias mentioned two pieces of writing by "Matthew" and "Mark." But even these cannot be equated with the canonical Gospels, for Papias called the former "sayings of the Lord in Hebrew," and the description of the latter also sounds as if it was not a narrative work. Moreover, it would seem that Papias had not possessed these documents himself, for he simply relays information about them that was given to him by "the elder." He makes no comment of his own on such documents (in fact, he continues to disparage written sources about the Lord), while Eusebius and other later commentators who quote from his writings are silent about him discussing anything from the "Mark" and "Matthew" he mentions. All that Papias can tell us (relayed through Eusebius) is that certain collections of sayings and anecdotes (probably miracle stories) were circulating in his time, a not uncommon thing; the ones he speaks of were being attributed to a Jesus figure and reputed to be compiled by legendary followers of him. What is most telling, on the other hand, is that even a quarter of the way into the second century, a bishop of Asia Minor writing a book called The Sayings of the Lord Interpreted did not possess a copy of a single written Gospel, nor included sayings of Jesus which are identified with those Gospels.
Only in Justin Martyr, writing in the 150s, do we find the first identifiable quotations from some of the Gospels, though he calls them simply "memoirs of the Apostles," with no names. And those quotations usually do not agree with the texts of the canonical versions we now have, showing that such documents were still undergoing evolution and revision. Scholars such as Helmut Koester have concluded that earlier "allusions" to Gospel-like material are likely floating traditions which themselves found their way into the written Gospels. (See Koester's Ancient Christian Gospels and his earlier Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den apostolischen Vatern.) Is it conceivable that the earliest account of Jesus' life and death could have been committed to writing as early as 70 (or even earlier, as some would like to have it), and yet the broader Christian world took almost a century to receive copies of it?
If, on the other hand, the "biography" of Jesus of Nazareth was something unusual which went against the grain of current knowledge and belief, one can understand how early versions of the Gospels, written around the turn of the century, would have enjoyed only limited use and isolated reworking for at least a generation. And especially if such compositions were originally intended as largely allegorical and instructive, symbolic of the faith communities that produced them. It is also beginning to look as though Mark, Matthew and Luke originally came from one group of linked communities in the area of Syria and northern Palestine.
As for Acts, written by the same author who wrote the final version of Luke, there is no reference to it before the year 170—more than a century after the date often assigned to it. Some, such as John Knox (Marcion and the New Testament, 77-106, 124), view Acts as a response by the church of Rome in the mid-second century to the gnostic Marcion's view of things. The author of Acts drew on kernels of tradition about the primitive Palestinian church, but these have been recast to fit the new plot line. There are huge discrepancies between Acts and what Paul tells us in his letters. Scholarship has been forced to admit that much of Acts is sheer fabrication, from the speeches to the great sea voyage, the latter modeled on similar features in Hellenistic romances. With its discrediting as history, the true beginnings of Christianity fall into a murky shadow.
* * * *
The core of the historical Jesus precedes the Gospels and was born in the community or circles which produced the document now called "Q" (for the German "Quelle," meaning "source"). No copy of Q has survived, but while a minority disagree, the majority of New Testament scholars today are convinced that Q did exist, and that it can be reconstructed from the common material found in Matthew and Luke which they did not get from Mark.
Q was not a narrative Gospel, but an organized collection of sayings which included moral teachings, prophetic admonitions and controversy stories, plus a few miracles and other anecdotes. It was the product of a Jewish (or Jewish imitating) sectarian movement located in Galilee which preached a coming Kingdom of God. Scholars have concluded that Q was put together over time and in distinct stages. They have identified the earliest stratum (calling it Q1) as a set of sayings on ethics and discipleship; these contained notably unconventional ideas. Many are found in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes, turn the other cheek, love your enemies. A close similarity has been noted (see F. Gerald Downing, "Cynics and Christians," NTS 1984, p.584-93; Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence, p.67-9, 73-4) between these maxims and those of the Greek philosophical school known as Cynicism, a counterculture movement of the time spread by wandering Cynic preachers. (Mack has declared that Jesus was a Cynic-style sage, whose connection with things Jewish was rather tenuous.) Perhaps the Q sect at its beginnings adopted a Greek source, with some recasting, one they saw as a suitable ethic for the kingdom they were preaching. In any case, there is no need to impute such sayings to a Jesus; they seem more the product of a school or lifestyle, formulated over time and hardly the sudden invention of a single mind.
This formative stage of Q scholars call "sapiential," for it is essentially an instructional collection of the same genre as traditional "wisdom" books like Proverbs, though in this case with a radical, counterculture content. Later indications (as in Luke 11:49) suggest that the words may have been regarded as spoken by the personified Wisdom of God (see Part Two), and that the Q preachers saw themselves as her spokespersons.
The next stratum of Q (labeled Q2) has been styled "prophetic," apocalyptic. In these sayings the community is lashing out against the hostility and rejection it has received from the wider establishment. In contrast to the mild, tolerant tone of Q1, Q2 contains vitriolic railings against the Pharisees, a calling of heaven's judgment down on whole towns. The figure of the Son of Man enters, one who will arrive at the End-time to judge the world in fire; he is probably the result of reflection on the figure in Daniel 7. Here we first find John the Baptist, a kind of mentor or forerunner to the Q preachers. Dating the strata of Q is difficult, but I would suggest that this second stage falls a little before the Jewish War.
There is good reason to conclude that even at this stage there was no Jesus in the Q community's thinking. That is, the wisdom and prophetic sayings in their original form would have contained no mention of a Jesus as speaker or source. They were pronouncements of the community itself and its traditional teachings, seen as inspired by the Wisdom of God. For while Matthew and Luke often show a common wording or idea in a given saying core, when they surround this with set-up lines and contexts involving Jesus, each evangelist offers something very different. (Compare Luke 17:5-6 with Matthew 17:19-20). This indicates that Q had preserved nothing which associated the sayings with a ministry of Jesus, a lack of interest in the source of the teaching which would be unusual and perplexing.
Nor are the apocalyptic Son of Man sayings (about his future coming) identified with Jesus, which is why, when they were later placed in his mouth, Jesus sounds as though he is talking about someone else. When one examine's John the Baptist's prophecy at the opening of Q (Luke 3:16-17), about one who will come "who is mightier than I," who will baptize with fire and separate the wheat from the chaff, we find no reference to a Jesus or an enlightened teacher or prophet who is contemporary to John. Rather, this sounds like a prophecy of the coming Son of Man, the apocalyptic judge, a prophecy put into John's mouth by the Q community.
Especially revealing is the saying now found in Luke 16:16: "Until John (the Baptist) there was the law and the prophets (i.e., scripture); since then, there is the good news of the Kingdom of God." This, like so much of Q, is acknowledged to be a product of the community's own experience and time (i.e., not going back to Jesus), and yet no reference to Jesus himself has been worked into this picture of the change from the old to the new. Luke 11:49 also leaves out the Son of God when speaking of those whom Wisdom promised to send.
Leading specialists on Q, such as John Kloppenborg (The Formation of Q), recognize that Q in its various stages has undergone considerable redaction (editing, adding and rearranging material to create a unified whole with identifiable themes and theology). But their analysis of Q3, the stratum they call the "final recension," does not go far enough. For only at this stage, I would argue, was an historical founder introduced, a figure who was now perceived to have established the community. Certain past material would have been reworked and everything attributed to this founder, including healing "miracles" which had been part of the activity of the Q preachers themselves. For the teachings, possibly no more than a simple "Jesus said" was provided, which is why Matthew and Luke had to invent their own settings. (This kind of skeletal addition is what we find in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas which is thought to have begun, in its own early stratum of sayings, as an offshoot of an early stage of Q. For more on the Gospel of Thomas, see my book review of J. D. Crossan's The Birth of Christianity.) This new Jesus is positioned as superior to John, who now serves as his herald. At a slightly later stage he is identified with the expected Son of Man. In the very latest layer of Q we find the stirrings of biography and a tendency to divinize this Jesus. The Temptation story (Luke 4:1-13) belongs here.
How did such a founder formulate itself in the Q mind if he had no historical antecedent? All sectarian societies tend to read the present back into the past; they personify their own activities in great founding events and heroic progenitors. The very existence of the sayings collection, the product of the evolving community, would have invited attribution to a specific originating and authoritative figure. Such a record set in a glorified past is known as a "foundation document," a universal phenomenon of sectarian expression. (Figures such as Confucius, Lao-Tsu, Lycurgus of Sparta, the medieval Swiss William Tell, as well as other obscure sectarian figures of the ancient world, are examples of founder figures who have come to be regarded as likely non-existent.)
I also suspect that the existence of a rival sect claiming John the Baptist as its founder may have induced the Q community to develop one of its own, one touted as superior to John. It is certainly curious, in view of the picture presented by the Gospels, that there could ever have been a question in anyone's mind as to who was the greater, Jesus or John, but Q3 has to address this very point, in the so-called Dialogue between Jesus and John (Luke 7:18-35). This whole scene seems to have been constructed at a later stage of Q's development out of earlier discrete units. One of its component sayings, about going out into the wilderness to see something, is found alone in the Gospel of Thomas (No. 78), with no association to the setting or characters of Q's Dialogue. Other bare sayings in Thomas are found in more complex, reworked form in Q. All of it speaks to the artificial development of Q's founding Jesus figure.
An additional explanation for the development of this founder is suggested by Q itself. The figure of heavenly Wisdom (Sophia), once seen as working through the community, seems to have evolved into the figure of her envoy, one who had begun the movement and spoken her sayings. Myths about Wisdom coming to the world were longstanding in Jewish thought and would have played a role here. Luke 7:35 (the concluding line of the Dialogue) calls Jesus a child of Wisdom, and Matthew in his use of Q reflects an evolving attitude toward Jesus as the very incarnation of Wisdom herself. Several of Jesus' sayings in Q are recognized as recast Wisdom sayings.
Whether the Q community gave to this perceived founder the name "Jesus" cannot be certain. At a late stage of Q, there may even have been some crossover influences from earliest Gospel circles (of "Mark"). Uncovering such things is a conjectural business, as actual historical developments tend to be more subtle and complex than any academic presentation of them on paper, especially 20 centuries after the fact. It is significant that Q never uses the term Christ, for such a founder would not at this stage have been regarded as the Messiah. That role was introduced by Mark.
The wise and subtle teaching of Q1, the apocalyptic thunderings of doom of Q2, the End-time Son of Man, the "Son" who surfaces far on in Q's development, all constitute a bizarre mix, not the least because they come in sequential layers. (If supposedly authentic, in what limbo were the Q2 sayings stored until the community was ready for them? They surface nowhere else.) Only a later subsuming of all these disparate elements under one artificial figure, at a stage when the community's past was sufficiently blurred (partly by the intervening upheavals of the Jewish War), can explain the process.
But the most telling feature of the Q Jesus has proven to be the most perplexing, for he seems to bear no relationship to Paul's. Scholars continue to puzzle over the fact that Q contains no concept of a suffering Jesus, a divinity who has undergone death and resurrection as a redeeming act. Q can make the killing of the prophets a central theme (e.g., Luke 11:49-51) and yet never refer to Jesus' own crucifixion! Its parables contain no hint of the murder of the Son of God. About the resurrection, Q breathes not a whisper. Jesus makes no prophecies of his own death and rising, as he does in other parts of the Gospels. Note that in a Q passage in Luke 17, the evangelist has to insert into Jesus' mouth a prophecy of his own death (verse 25); it is not in Matthew's use of the same passage (24:23f). Most startling of all, the Jesus of Q has no obvious significance for salvation. Apart from the benefits accruing from the teachings themselves, scholars admit that there is no soteriology in Q, certainly nothing about an atoning death for sin. The "Son who knows the Father" (Luke 10:22, a late saying recast from an earlier Wisdom saying) functions as a mediator of God's revelation—simply personifying what the Q community itself does. The Gospel of Thomas is similarly devoid of any reference to Jesus' death and resurrection.
If the founder of the sect had been murdered by the Jewish leaders, if the whole Christian movement had begun out of his death and perceived rising from the grave, it is inconceivable that Q would not have said so. In Luke 13:34-5, for example, Jesus is prophesying. Having just written that Jerusalem is the city that murders the prophets sent to her, how could the Q compiler have resisted putting in a reference to the greatest murder of all? As for the saying in Luke 14:27 about disciples "taking up their cross" and following Jesus, this is recognized as a Cynic-Stoic expression, possibly of the Jewish Zealots as well, not a reference to Jesus' own cross. (See R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, p.161; Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel, p.138-9; Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus, p.235.) David Seeley ("Jesus' Death in Q," NTS 38, p.223f) summarizes the situation: "[N]ot one of the passages in which prophets are mentioned refers to Jesus' death. Such a reference must be assumed." Seeley goes on to construct an argument based on this assumption, which is a classic illustration of how too much of New Testament research has traditionally proceeded.
How is this radical divergence between Paul and Q explained? It shows, say the scholars, the differing responses by different circles to the man Jesus of Nazareth. But they founder when they try to rationalize how such a strange phenomenon could have been possible. Besides, the documents reveal many more "responses" than just two. We are to believe that early Christianity was wildly schizophrenic. First Paul and other epistle writers abandoned all interest in the earthly life and identity of Jesus, turning him into a cosmic Christ who created the world and redeemed it by his death and resurrection. The Q community, along with that of the Gospel of Thomas, on the other hand, decided to ignore that death and resurrection and preserve the earthly teaching Jesus, a preacher of the coming end of the world. Between these two poles lie other incongruent conceptions. In the earliest layer of the Gospel of John, Jesus is the mythical Descending-Ascending Redeemer from heaven who saves by being God's Revealer; later he is equated with the Greek Logos. Jesus is the heavenly High Priest of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the non-suffering intermediary servant of the Didache, the mystical Wisdom-Messiah of the Odes of Solomon. Paul hints at divergent groups in places like Corinth who "preach another Jesus." In the diverse strands of Gnosticism Jesus (or Christ) is a mythical part of the heavenly pleroma of Godhead, sometimes a revealer akin to John's, sometimes surfacing under other names like Derdekeas or the Third Illuminator. (The gnostic Jesus eventually interacted with more orthodox ideas and absorbed the new historical figure into itself.) But all this out of a crucified criminal? Out of any human man?
A more sensible solution would be that all these expressions of the idea of "Jesus" and "Christ" were separate distillations out of the concepts that were flowing in the religious currents of the day (as outlined in Part Two). Scholars now admit that "the beginnings of Christianity were exceptionally diverse, varied dramatically from region to region, and were dominated by individuals and groups whose practice and theology would be denounced as 'heretical'. " (Ron Cameron summarizing Walter Bauer, The Future of Early Christianity, p.381.) It is no longer possible to maintain that such diversity—so much of it uncoordinated and competitive—exploded overnight out of one humble Jewish preacher and a single missionary movement.
* * * *
It was inevitable that these varying expressions would gravitate toward each other. Some time in the late first century, within a predominantly gentile milieu probably in Syria, some Christian scholar or circle combined the community and founder of Q with the mythical suffering Jesus of the Pauline type of Christ cult. Perhaps his community had a foot in both camps, an expression of classic syncretism. The result was the Gospel of Mark. Its author seems to have worked from oral or incomplete Q traditions, for his Gospel fails to include the great teachings of Jesus and prophetic pronouncements which Matthew and Luke have inherited.
What did Mark do? He crafted a ministry which moved from Galilee to Jerusalem, now the site of Jesus' death. He virtually re-invented the Apostles out of early, now-legendary figures in the Christ movement; they served mostly instructional purposes. He brought into the Jesus orbit all the figures and concepts floating about in the Christian air, like Son of God, Messiah, Son of David, the apocalyptic Son of Man.
Most important of all, he had to craft the story of Jesus' passion. Some suggest that Mark used an earlier, more primitive fashioning of Jesus' trial and execution, one John later used as well. Others think that all the famous elements of our passion story are purely Markan inventions: the scene in Gethsemane, Judas the betrayer, the denial by Peter, the actual details of Jesus' trial and crucifixion, the story of the empty tomb. Considering that no concrete evidence surfaces in the record of any pre-Markan passion story, the second option is the most likely. We owe the most enduring tale Western culture has produced to the literary genius of Mark.
Perhaps some "historicizing" of the spiritual Christ had already taken place in Christian study and preaching activities, before Mark and unrelated to Q. A similar sectarian tendency to create an idealized founding past as seen in Q may have operated in the circles of the cultic Christ. The Proclaimed was evolving into the Proclaimer. Jesus the one being preached became Jesus doing the preaching, and the Gospels ultimately functioned as the "foundation document" of Christianity as a whole. Some initial ideas in this direction, such as the name of Paul's "woman" and the period of Jesus' life, found their way to Ignatius, even without a written Gospel, although this information may have come to him as 'echoes' of the recently written Gospel of Mark. Ignatius and 1 John (probably written in the 90s) show that many were objecting to the new, radical idea that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (1 John 4:1f). And what was the engine of this impulse, the source of the information about the new 'historical' Jesus? We can see it in the Gospels themselves: the Jewish scriptures.
First, some general observations. Scholars have long recognized that the Gospels are made up of smaller units of the type found in Q: individual sayings or clusters of sayings, miracle anecdotes, controversy stories. They have been strung together like "beads on a string" with filler material added, narrative bits to convey some kind of sequential impression: Jesus went here, then he went there. Someone comes into the picture and asks a question so that Jesus can give the answer. It used to be thought that the separate units were reliable pieces of tradition which had passed through oral transmission, many going back to Jesus himself, others formulated within the early church in response to him. But gradually it was perceived that the evangelists had altered or fleshed out these units in ways which served their own editorial and theological purposes; many they had simply written themselves. There can be no guarantee that anything goes back to a Jesus.
As we saw in Q, many of the sayings were Hellenistic and Jewish moral maxims and popular parables; some came from Jewish wisdom teaching. The controversy stories and discipleship instructions reflected the situation of the later Christian communities. Paul's "words of the Lord" (see Part One) represent a type of preaching common to early Christian prophets: inspired communications from the spiritual Christ in heaven. These would have been preserved and eventually entered the Gospels as spoken by a historical Jesus. Collections of miracle stories were common in the ancient world, attributed to famous philosophers and wonder workers, even to deities like the healing god Asclepius and Isis. Christian prophets were often healers and wonder workers themselves, whose exploits would later be turned into those of Jesus.
It is now recognized that the Gospels are thoroughly sectarian writings. They were a response to the "life situation" of the groups which produced them, serving their needs. They created a sacred past for the faith, one going back to divine establishment. They offered a bulwark against outside attack. They legitimated the community's beliefs and sanctioned its practices. The burning issue, for example, of association and table fellowship, whether Jew could mix with gentile, whether the ritually pure could eat meals with the impure, was solved by having Jesus portrayed as condemning the Pharisees for their obsession over purity, as one who had consorted with outcasts and gentiles. The issue of whether the Jewish Law still applied was addressed by having Jesus make rulings on it. And so on. It is easy to see how such sectarian interests, when several different communities and times were involved, would lead to the many contradictions we find in Jesus' actions and pronouncements between one Gospel and another.
Did the evangelists see themselves as writing history? Their wholesale practice of altering earlier accounts, rearranging the details of Jesus' ministry, changing the very words of the Lord himself, would suggest otherwise. It is now a maxim that the Gospels are faith documents; the evangelists had no concern for historical research as we know it.
Rather, they were engaged in a type of "midrash." Midrash was an ancient Jewish practice of interpreting and enlarging on individual or combinations of passages from the Bible to draw out new meanings and relevance, to get beyond the surface words. One way to do this was to embody them in new stories with present-day contexts. In the minds of the evangelists, the Gospels expounded new spiritual truths through a retelling of scripture. So many New Testament elements are simply a reworking of stories recorded in the Old Testament. Jesus was cast in tales like those of Moses, for example, presenting him as a new Moses for contemporary times. At the same time, in view of Q, it is quite possible that writers like Mark regarded their work as something pointing to actual history, to a figure announced in scriptural precedent. In any event, before long, such Gospels came to be looked upon as purely factual records, by gentiles who did not understand their Jewish roots, and scripture came to be seen as the prophecy of such real "events" rather than their source.
Just as scripture had earlier provided a picture of the mythical Christ of Paul, the same writings (using passages taken out of context and with no regard to their original meaning) now supplied the setting and details of a recent earthly life of Jesus. Mark brought to a head an already fledgling process and added those "biographical" elements he found in the Q traditions. Out of such components, with the Bible open before him, he fashioned his story of Jesus' ministry and passion.
Jesus had to have performed miracles because this was expected to happen in the days leading to the kingdom. Isaiah 35:5-6 said: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy."
Thus, Jesus made the lame walk and the blind see. The Messiah was even expected to raise the dead. The details of many of Jesus' miracle stories are modeled on the miracles performed by Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings.
Both Matthew and Luke place Jesus' birth at Bethlehem because the prophet Micah (5:2) had declared that this would be the birthplace of the future ruler of Israel. After that, the two evangelists' Nativity stories agree on virtually nothing. Scriptural midrash can be a very haphazard thing.
The Gospel account of Jesus' trial and death shows the heaviest dependence on scripture. Virtually every element of Mark's passion story, beginning with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, is based on a biblical passage. Here are a few examples:
• The prophet Hosea (9:15): "For their evil deeds I will drive them from my house." Plus Zechariah (14:21): "No trader will be seen in the house of the Lord." Jesus drives the money changers from the Temple.
• Psalm 42:5: "How deep I am sunk in misery, groaning in my distress." Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
• Psalm 41:9:"Even the friend whom I trusted, who ate at my table, exults in my misfortune." The betrayal by Judas. Conflict with the Jewish establishment would have provided strong motivation for coming up with the figure of Judas to represent all hostile and unbelieving Jewry.
• Isaiah 53:12: "And he was numbered with the transgressors." Jesus is crucified between two thieves.
• Psalm 22:18: "They divided my garments among them, and for my raiments they cast lots." The soldiers gamble for Jesus' clothes at the foot of the cross.
The desertion of the Apostles, the false accusations at Jesus' trial, the crown of thorns, the drink of vinegar and gall, the darkness at noon: these and other details have their counterparts in the sacred writings. The very idea that Jesus was crucified (including in the mythical phase of belief) would have come from passages like Isaiah 53:5: "He was pierced for our transgressions," and Psalm 22:16: "They have pierced my hands and my feet." The placing of Jesus' death at the time of Herod and Pilate was partly a response to the opening verses of Psalm 2. (See J. D. Crossan, The Cross That Spoke.)
But the story of Jesus resides in scripture more than in an assortment of isolated passages. The overall concept of the Passion, Death and Resurrection has emerged out of a theme embodied repeatedly in tales throughout the Hebrew Bible and related writings. This is the story modern scholars have characterized as The Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One. We find it in the story of Joseph in Genesis; in Isaiah 53 with its Suffering Servant; in Tobit, Esther, Daniel, 2 and 3 Maccabees, Susanna, the story of Ahiqar, the Wisdom of Solomon. All tell a tale of a righteous man or woman falsely accused, who suffers, is convicted and condemned to death, rescued at the last moment and raised to a high position; or, in the later literature, exalted after death. It is the tale of how the Jews saw themselves: the pious persecuted by the powerful, the people of God subjugated by the godless. It was an image readily absorbed by the Christian sect.
The story of Jesus follows this very pattern: bearing the true message of God, he suffered in faithful silence, was convicted though innocent, ultimately to be vindicated and exalted to glory and God's presence. Jesus' redemptive role was a paradigm for Jewish motifs of suffering and atonement and destined exaltation, brought into a potent mix with Hellenistic Son (Logos) and savior god philosophies. Christianity emerged as a genuine synthesis of the leading religious ideas of the ancient world, and it set the course of Western faith for the next two millennia.
The theory that Christianity could have begun without an historical Jesus of Nazareth has been adamantly resisted by New Testament scholarship since it was first put forward some 200 years ago. It has generally been held by a small minority of investigators, usually "outsiders." An important factor in this imbalance has been the fact that, traditionally, the great majority working in the field of New Testament research have been religious apologists, theologians, scholars who are products of divinity schools and university religion departments, not historians per se. To suggest that a certain amount of negative bias may be operating among that majority where the debate over an historical Jesus has been concerned, is simply to state the obvious. Nor is such a statement to be considered out of order, especially in the face of the common 'argument' so often put forward against the mythicist position: that the vast majority of New Testament scholars have always rejected the proposition of a non-existent Jesus, and continue to do so. In fact, the latter is simply an "appeal to authority" and cannot by itself be given significant weight.
It is true that such a bias as may exist in traditional ranks does not automatically mean that they are wrong, or that the mythicist viewpoint is correct. What we need to do is examine the negative position taken by the opposing side and consider its substance. The problem is, traditional scholarship has offered very little of substance in opposing the theory that Jesus never existed, and that is especially true in recent times. Even more progressive scholarship, such as the Jesus Seminar, has never seriously addressed the question (other than an informal opinion poll among the Seminar's members when it first began its work). Not a single first-rank critical scholar that I am aware of has devoted even an article to it, let alone a book.
Something like The Evidence for Jesus (1986) by R. T. France, Vice-Principal of the London Bible College, hardly fills that role, and is devoted to illuminating the figure of an historical Jesus—a largely orthodox one—not just to defending his existence. As a defense it is quite ineffectual, taking no account (since it largely predates them) of recent insights into Q, the pervasive midrashic content of Mark, the modeling of Mark's passion story on the traditional tale of the Suffering Righteous One, and much else that has given ongoing support to the no-Jesus theory. Graham Stanton, in his The Gospels and Jesus (1989), devotes a chapter to addressing the views of mythicist G. A. Wells. Stanton's 'case' against Wells' position is little more than a citation of Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny (discussed below)—and an appeal to the authority that comes with the majority's acceptance "that Jesus existed." Ian Wilson, in Jesus: The Evidence (1984), does much the same, first acknowledging the uncertainty and contradiction in the early evidence, and then having recourse to the same trio of ancient 'witnesses.' All of them raise points that show little or no understanding for the depth and sophistication of the mythicist position. J. D. G. Dunn, in his one-page "Note on Professor Wells' View" in The Evidence for Jesus (1985), falls back on the old timeworn explanations for Paul's silence on a human figure. He, too, asks questions that show he is trapped within the old paradigm and unable to grasp how standard objections to the mythicist position dissolve, as do many of the longstanding problems in New Testament research, when the new paradigm of an evolving historical Jesus is applied to the evidence.
In the past fifteen years we have seen the orthodox Christian story systematically dismantled by critical scholarship like that of the Jesus Seminar, many of whose members have become increasingly secular and scientific in their outlook, something to be applauded. Insights into the dubious authenticity of Christian traditions, into the derivation of the Gospels and their antecedents, into the Christian movement as it developed within the context of its time, have been coming with gathering speed, not to mention radical positions on the historical Jesus that would have been unheard of little more than a decade ago. Within such circles of modern scholarship one might expect a serious and comprehensive defense against the most threatening position ever taken against the foundations of Christianity, one that is gaining an ever greater number of supporters and higher profile, including in several recent books published in both North America and Europe. Yet none has been forthcoming. In the absence of such a defense, an appeal to the majority viewpoint on the question of Jesus' existence is misplaced.
* * * *
The non-Christian witness to Jesus is anything but supportive of his existence. Until almost the end of the first century, there is not a murmur of him in the Jewish or pagan record. The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived until about 50 CE and wrote of unusual sects like the Therapeutae and the Essenes, has nothing to say about Jesus or Christians. Justus of Tiberias, a Jewish historian who wrote in Galilee in the 80s (his works are now lost), is reported later to have made no mention whatever of Jesus. Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE) collected data on all manner of natural and astronomical phenomena, even those which were legendary and which he himself did not necessarily regard as factual, but he records no prodigies associated with the beliefs of Christians, such as an earthquake or darkening of the skies at a crucifixion, or any star of Bethlehem. The first Roman satirist to scorn a sect which believed in a crucified Judean founder who had been a god was not Martial at the end of the first century, nor Juvenal in the first half of the second century, but Lucian in the 160s. Reports of Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher of the early second century who preached universal brotherhood to the poor and humble masses, record no knowledge on his part of a Jewish precursor. Nor does Seneca, the empire's leading ethicist during the reign of Nero, make reference to such a figure. Other historians of the time, like Plutarch and Quintilian, are equally silent.
The famous passage about Jesus in chapter 18 of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (published around 93 CE), the so-called "Testimonium Flavianum," is widely acknowledged to be, as it stands, a later Christian interpolation. It speaks naively and devotionally of Jesus and declares him to have been the Messiah. Origen in the third century tells us that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, a remark likely prompted by the fact that Josephus declared Vespasian the object of the messianic prophecies (in Jewish War 6.5.4). This remark by Origen shows that the declaration in Antiquities 18 did not exist in his copy. But neither does Origen or anyone else before the 4th century mention any other reference to Jesus here. Such a silence argues against the fallback claim that even though Christians later amended it, an original reference to Jesus can be extracted from the present one. This "authentic residue" of the Testimonium would not only have been positive enough to invite comment by such as Origen, it still contains opinions about Jesus that Josephus is unlikely to have held. As for the passing identification in Antiquities 20 that "James" was the brother of Jesus known as the Christ, there are problems in accepting this too as original to Josephus, such as his alleged use of the term "Christ" (Messiah), a subject which Josephus shows sign of being reluctant to discuss in any of his works. Thus, the Josephan references have too many problems to constitute reliable support for Jesus' existence. For a thorough examination of both Josephus' passages, see Supplementary Article No. 10: Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question.
The Roman historian Tacitus, in his Annals written around 115, makes the first pagan reference to Jesus as a man executed in the reign of Tiberius. This is not likely to have been the result of a search of some archive, for the Romans hardly kept records of the countless crucifixions around the empire going back almost a century. We have no evidence of such extensive record-keeping. Besides, Tacitus is not known as a thorough researcher, which is illustrated by the fact that he gets Pilate's title wrong, something that might have been corrected had he consulted an official record. Scholars such as Norman Perrin (The New Testament: An Introduction, p.407) acknowledge that Tacitus' "information" probably came from local Christian hearsay and police interrogation; this would have been at a time when the idea of an historical founder had recently taken hold in Rome. There is even some reason to doubt the authenticity of this passage, despite its vilifying description of Christians. The association of a persecution of Christians with the great fire in Nero's Rome (the context of Tacitus' reference) is nowhere mentioned by Christian commentators for the next several centuries.
Pliny the Younger's well-known letter to Trajan, written from Asia Minor around 112 and asking the emperor for advice on the prosecution of Christians, says nothing about a recent historical man, let alone biographical elements. "Christ," perhaps a reference to the Jewish Messiah idea, is simply identified as a god in Christian worship. And the historian Suetonius' reference (around 120) to "Chrestus" as someone, or some idea, that has produced agitation among Jews in Rome, is so flimsy and uncertain, no secure meaning can be drawn from it, much less a connection to Christianity and an historical Jesus. It could be referring to Jewish messianic expectation or to an early belief in a divine Christ.
There are those who appeal to obscure references in the historians Thallus and Phlegon about eclipses of the sun allegedly associated with the crucifixion, but such pagan writers, their works now lost, come to us only through Christian commentators. The latter could well have put their own spin on reports which originally had nothing to do with a Jesus, but simply referred to an eclipse of the sun which astronomers date in the year 29. Certainly, there are no other reports at the time among either Mediterranean writers or others around the world about a universal darkness at midday.
As for the references to Jesus in the Jewish Talmud: even though some remarks are attributed to rabbis who flourished around the end of the first century (none earlier), they were not written down before the third century and later. Such records cannot be relied upon to preserve authentic traditions of a few centuries earlier, ones that may have been influenced by, or created in response to, Christian claims of the second century and later. In any case, such references are often so cryptic and off the mark they can scarcely be identified with the Gospel figure. Some have him dying by stoning or hanging, rather than by crucifixion. One places Jesus in the time of the Maccabean king Alexander Jannaeus around 100 BCE; another identifies the husband of Jesus' mother as someone who is said to have been a contemporary of rabbi Akiba in the second century CE. All of them allot responsibility for the death of this figure solely to the Jews, a strange situation in Jewish rabbinic tradition if the Gospel story were history and widely known. As a witness to an historical Jesus, the Talmudic references are worthless.
* * * *
There are a number of fundamental problems in mainstream New Testament research that can be dealt with under the heading of "Five Fallacies" which that research has traditionally been guilty of. (I will assume the reader's familiarity with Parts One to Three.) The First Fallacy is the idea that Jews, both in Palestine and across the empire, could have come to believe—or been converted to the idea by others— that a human man was the Son of God. Within a handful of years of Jesus' supposed death we know of Christian communities all over the eastern Mediterranean, many of them involving at least some Jewish adherents. Such Christians may have been numerous and troublesome enough in Rome to be expelled by Claudius as early as the 40s. At the very least, Paul in Romans speaks of a congregation of the Christ that has been established in the capital of the empire "for many years" (15:23). Traditional Christian views have maintained that such communities were the product of dusty disciples from Judea who went off to centers big and small and almost overnight managed to convince great numbers of Jews (as well as gentiles) that a humble preacher they had never seen or heard of, executed in Jerusalem as a subversive, had risen from the dead, redeemed the world, and was in fact God's pre-existent Son who had helped him create the universe. This is an incredible proposition.
I said in Part One that Judaism's fundamental theological tenet was: God is one. It is true that the first Jewish Christians, such as Paul, were flirting with a compromise to monotheism in postulating a divine Son in heaven, even though he was entirely spiritual in nature and was conceived of as a part of God; this Son was derived from scripture and was an expression of the prominent philosophical idea of the age that the ultimate Deity gave off emanations of himself which served as intermediaries with the world. But this is a far cry from turning a recent man who had walked the sands of Palestine into part of the Godhead. (It was essentially gentiles who were later to create such an idea, and it produced the "parting of the ways" between the Christian movement and its Jewish roots.) Almost any Jew would have reacted with apoplexy to the unprecedented message that a man was God. In a society in which the utter separation of the divine from the human was an obsession, the Jewish God could not be represented by even the suggestion of a human form, and thousands bared their necks before the swords of Pilate simply to protest against the human images on Roman standards being brought into the city to overlook the Temple. To believe that ordinary Jews were willing to bestow on any human man, no matter how impressive, all the titles of divinity and full identification with the ancient God of Abraham is simply inconceivable.
Paul is not only assumed to have done this, but he did so without ever telling us that anyone challenged him on it, that he had to defend such a blasphemous proposition. His comment in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the cross of Christ is a "scandal" refers to his idea that the divine Messiah had been crucified (a spiritual figure in a mythical setting), not that a recent man was God.
The Second Fallacy is an extension of the first, and I touched on it in Part Three. Scholars are faced with a bewildering variety of expression in earliest Christianity. Many circles of belief lacked fundamental Christian doctrines, and different aspects of Jesus are said to have been preserved by separate groups. Modern critical scholarship has put forward a curious scenario to explain all this. Various groups who came in contact with Jesus or the missionary movement about him are supposed to have focused on different aspects of him, some exclusively on the teachings, others on the miracles, still others on the message about his death and perceived resurrection as a redeeming act. Some came up with unique interpretations of him. Some of these groups saw him in entirely human terms, while others, like Paul, turned him into God and abandoned all interest in his pre-resurrection earthly life and identity. Burton Mack (in A Myth of Innocence, p.98f) suggests that this cultic deification of Jesus took place under the influence of gentiles in Hellenistic circles like Antioch. But this hardly explains Paul, allegedly a Jew born and bred, who was converted within two to five years of Jesus' supposed death. Did a whole Hellenistic mythology develop around Jesus almost overnight, in the heart of Jerusalem—and Paul accepted it? Or did he not believe in Jesus as the Son of God right from the start? Perhaps we are to view the theology of Paul's letters, our earliest record written two decades later, as a result of the insidious influence of gentiles at Antioch.
Such scenarios fail to provide any convincing explanation for why such an immediate fragmentation would have taken place, why the Christian movement began as "fluid and amorphous" (James Robinson in Trajectories Through Early Christianity, p.114f). Mack admits that "much of the evidence is secondhand, and all of it is later." Out of a record of multiplicity, Christian scholars have deduced a single founder and point of origin which is based on a later stage: the Gospel story, formed by the postulated reconvergence of the original diverging strands. But no document records this initial phenomenon of differing "responses" to the historical man, this break-up of Jesus into his component parts. Given a record whose earliest manifestation is nothing but diversity, common sense requires us to assume the likelihood that this was in fact the incipient state, and that the new faith arose in many different places with many different expressions. Some elements, such as the teachings, would have had no connection to a Jesus in their early stages. Most of this diversity was later to be drawn together and recast under a composite new figure, courtesy of the evangelists.
The above type of scenario involves a Third Fallacy. Scholars have long asked questions like that of Elizabeth Schlüsser-Fiorenza ("Wisdom Mythology and the Christological Hymns of the New Testament" in Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity, p.34): "Why do the hymns use the language of myth to speak of Jesus of Nazareth who was not a mythic figure but a concrete historical person?" I pointed out in Part One that the very earliest expression about Jesus we find in the Christian record presents him solely as a cosmic figure, the pre-existent creator and sustainer of the universe (Paul and his school), a heavenly High Priest and Platonic Logos-type entity (Epistle to the Hebrews), a descending redeemer in the spiritual realm (the pre-Pauline hymns), and so on. All such presentations of Jesus are said to be ways various circles adopted of "interpreting" the man Jesus of Nazareth—according to sacred scripture and current philosophical and mythical concepts. But it would help if any of these early writers gave us even a hint that such an intention was anywhere in their minds. How are we to understand an "interpretation" when the thing supposedly being interpreted is never mentioned? John Knox (Myth and Truth, p.59) points to Ephesians 1:3–10 as a kind of mythological drama created to explain Jesus, entirely in supernatural terms. Knox speaks of "the remembered man Jesus" and "the wonder of his deeds and words." But where are these things in Ephesians 1:3–10, or anywhere else? He says that the myth has been created based on memories of the Lord, but where are those memories? We cannot accept Knox's claim that the myth in Ephesians is built upon "historical data" when that data is never pointed at or even alluded to. A better explanation would be that the historical data has been added to the myth at a later time. The whole concept that early Christian writers are "interpreting" Jesus of Nazareth even when they never mention him is a blatant "reading into" the text on the part of those who must see the presumed historical figure behind all this scriptural and mythological presentation.
Scholars, in seeking an explanation for Paul's blanket silence on the historical Jesus, have given us a Fourth Fallacy. They rationalize that Paul "had no interest" in Jesus' earthly incarnation, that his theology did not require it. This is difficult to fathom. Paul's faith is centered on the crucifixion. What bizarre mental processes could have led him to disembody it, to completely detach it from its historical time and place, from the life which culminated on Calvary? Why would he transplant the great redeeming act to some mythological realm of demonic powers who were responsible for "crucifying the Lord of glory" (1 Corinthians 2:8)? Why would he give Christ "significance only as a transcendent divine being" (Herman Ridderbos, Paul and Jesus, p.3)?
And what of the details of Jesus' life? Could Pilate not have served Paul as an example of the "wisdom of the world" which could not understand the "wisdom of God"? For Paul, baptism is the prime sacrament of Christian ritual; through it believers receive the Spirit and are adopted as sons of God. Yet we are to assume that Paul, in presenting his baptismal rite (such as in Romans 6), cared nothing about Jesus' own baptism by John, about such traditions that he had received the Spirit in the form of a dove, that he had been adopted as Son by the Father in the voice from heaven. We are to assume that in all the bitter debates he engaged in through his letters, such as on the validity of the Jewish dietary laws, Paul never felt a need to introduce the Lord's own actions and teachings concerning the subjects under dispute. Are we to accept, too, that Jesus' earthly signs and wonders would not have been an incalculable selling point to gentiles, immersed as they were in popular pagan traditions of the wonder-working "divine man," a concept which fitted the earthly career of Jesus to a "T"? And are we to believe that, even if Paul had expunged Christ's human life from his own mind, his audiences and converts likewise felt no interest and did not press him for details of Jesus' earthly sayings and deeds—something of which he shows no sign in his letters? In any event, explanations for Paul's silence and lack of interest would have to apply to all the other early epistle writers, who are equally silent—a situation so extraordinary as to defy rationalization. Amid such considerations, the argument from silence becomes legitimate and compelling.
Finally, many today find increasingly acceptable the direction which most recent liberal scholarship seems to be following: that Jesus was only a man, a Jewish preacher who was somehow divinized after his death, a death which did not result in resurrection. But here it seems that they face an insurmountable dilemma, a Fifth Fallacy. First of all, such a divinization on the scale that Jesus underwent would have been unprecedented, and there is no more unlikely milieu for this to have happened in than a Jewish one. Nor is this divinization gradual, a graph line which ascends as his reputation grows, as the things he did in his life took on magnified stature and interpretation. Rather, at the earliest we can see any evidence for it, Jesus is already at the highest point, cast in an entirely mythological picture: fully divine, pre-existent before the creation of the world, moving in the celestial spheres and grappling with the demonic forces. Those deeds of his life which should have contributed to such an elevation are nowhere in evidence.
Let's put the dilemma this way: If this man Jesus had had the explosive effect on his followers that is said of him, and on the thousands of believers who responded so readily to the message about him, such a man would have had to blaze in the firmament of his time. That impact would have been based on the force of his personality, on the unique things he said and did. There is no other way.
And yet the picture we see immediately after Jesus' death, and for the next two generations in every extant document, flatly contradicts this. The blazing star immediately drops out of sight. No contemporary historian, philosopher or popular writer records him. There is no sign of any tradition or phenomenon associated with him. For over half a century Christian writers themselves totally ignore his life and ministry. Not a saying is quoted and attributed to him. Not a miracle is marveled at. No aspect of his human personality, anchored within any biographical setting, is ever referred to. The details of his life, the places of his career: they raise no interest in any of his believers. This is an eclipse that does not even grant us a trace of a corona!
If, on the other hand, Jesus was simply an ordinary human man, a humble (if somewhat charismatic) Jewish preacher, who really said little of what has been imputed to him, who performed no real miracles, and who of course did not rise from the dead—all of which might explain why he attracted no great attention and could have his life ignored as unimportant by his later followers—what, then, is the explanation for how such a life and personality could have given rise to the vast range of response the scholars postulate, to the cosmic theology about him, to the conviction that he had risen from the dead, to the unstoppable movement which early Christianity seems to have been? This is an unsolvable dilemma.
If all we have in the earliest Christian record is this cosmic divine figure who moves in mythological spheres—just like all the other savior deities of the day—are we not compelled by scientific principles to accept that this and no more was the object of early Christian worship? If, to support this, we can present within the evidence a logical process by which such a figure can be seen to take on a biography and a place in history, do we have any justification for continuing to maintain that the divine, cosmic Christ grew out of the human Jesus of Nazareth?
* * * *
"As a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations....In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only probabilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings." Robert W. Funk, Jesus Seminar Founder and Co-Chair. (From The Fourth R, January-February 1995.)
THE SECOND CENTURY APOLOGISTS
The Christian Apologists of the second century present us with a dramatic picture of continuing diversity in the Christian movement and, among most of them, a surprising and revealing silence on Jesus of Nazareth.
The first 100 years of Christianity have received the greatest attention from Christian scholarship. Within the period up to about 130, so conventional wisdom has it, lie Jesus himself and the origins of the church, as well as all the documents which ended up in the canon of the New Testament. Also included are the surviving writings by that varied group known as the Apostolic Fathers, which reveal some of the internal conditions and conflicts within the growing movement. The period following, and running for another 100 years or so, was the age of the Apologists. These were men like Justin Martyr who presented and justified Christianity to an outside world which was largely hostile to the new faith.
In Parts One to Three of the Main Articles, I provided a picture of the origins and growth of Christianity which rejects the existence of an historical Jesus of Nazareth. One of the key features of that picture is the unusual diversity of expression to be found in the early Christian record: about the figure of Jesus, about Christian theology, ritual practice and views of salvation. This diversity points not to a human founder and single missionary movement proceeding out of him, but to a widespread and uncoordinated religious movement founded on various beliefs in a divine, intermediary Son of God, a wholly spiritual entity. A related feature is the virtually universal silence in that early record on anything to do with the human man and events known to us from the Gospels.
What do we find as Christianity enters its second 100 years? In fact, we find more of the same. Those who have studied the apologists have tended to make some surprising observations. They note how little continuity these writers show with earlier traditions. Their ideas often have nothing in common with those of the New Testament epistles and even the Gospels. There is no dependence on Paul. Moreover, such writers seem not to move in ecclesiastical circles. Even Justin, though he worked in Rome, has nothing to say about bishops and church organizations. And almost all of them before the year 180 (Justin being the major exception) are silent on the Gospels and the figure of Jesus contained in them. In fact, one could say that they pointedly ignore any historical figure at all.
This astonishing state of affairs, taken with the fact that the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles show no sign of surfacing in any other Christian writers until the middle of the second century, supports the conclusion that the figure of Jesus of Nazareth was a development in Christian thought which came to life only in the Gospels and gradually, throughout the course of the second century, imposed itself on the movement as a whole.
Let's take a closer look at the evidence supplied by the Christian apologists.
Scholars specializing in the second century have characterized the Christianity of the apologists as essentially a philosophical movement. Whereas the premier expression of Christian development in the first century, the one centered around Paul and his circles, was an apocalyptically oriented phenomenon with a strong Jewish flavor and preaching a dying savior, that of the apologists, who were all located in cosmopolitan centers across much of the empire, was grounded in Platonic philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism.
Justin, the apologist about whom we know the most, came to Christianity after having investigated all the other popular philosophies of his day: the Stoics, Peripatetics (based on Aristotle), the Pythagoreans. Finally, he was schooled in Middle Platonism, the predominant philosophical outlook of the era which colored everything else, especially in its strongly religious concerns about the nature of the Deity and its relation to humanity. When Justin encountered Christianity, he judged it the best version of contemporary philosophy. In Rome, he seems to have had no connection with any ecclesiastical body, but set up his own school, teaching Christian philosophy in the manner of pagan philosophers of the time.
And what was this 'Christian philosophy' as presented by the apologists as a group? There is no question that it had roots in Jewish ideas. It preached the monotheistic worship of the Jewish God, a God touted as superior to those of the pagans. For information about this God it looked to the Hebrew scriptures. It placed great value on a mode of life founded on Jewish ethics; again, something touted as superior to the ethical philosophy of the pagans. At the same time, it derived from Platonism the concept of a Son of God, a 'second God' or Logos (Word), a force active in the world and serving as an intermediary between God and humanity. This idea of the Logos was floating in the air of most Greek philosophies and even Hellenistic Judaism.
Thus the religion of the apologists has been styled "Platonic-biblical" or "religious Platonism with a Judaistic cast." It would seem to have grown out of Jewish Diaspora circles which had immersed themselves in Greek philosophy. (Justin and others, including the movement known as Gnosticism, provide evidence of heretical Jewish sects, with many gentiles attached, which had evolved a great distance from traditional Jewish thinking.) There is little to suggest that this religion proceeded out of the first century branch of Christian development surrounding Paul. There is none of Paul's or the Gospels' focus on the Messiah/Christ or the end of the world, and the apologists' views of salvation are rooted in Greek mysticism, not Jewish martyrology for sin. Instead, the two expressions seem like separate branches of a very broad tree.
Justin, and whoever recast the Gospel of John to include the Prologue, with its hymn equating the Logos with Jesus, came to believe that the intermediary Word, the spiritual Son of God, had been incarnated in a human figure as recounted in the Gospels. But is this true of the apologists as a whole? The amazing fact is, that of the five or six major apologists up to the year 180 (after that, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and Origen are all firmly anchored in Gospel tradition), none, with the exception of Justin, introduces an historical Jesus into their defences of Christianity to the pagans.
Consider Theophilus of Antioch. According to Eusebius, he became bishop of the Christian community in that city in 168, but one has to wonder. In his treatise To Autolycus, apparently written toward the year 180, he tells us that he was born a pagan and became a Christian after reading the Jewish scriptures, a situation common to virtually all the apologists.
But what, for Theophilus, is the meaning of the name "Christian"? The Autolycus of the title has asked him this question. He answers (I.12): "Because we are anointed with the oil of God." (The name "Christ" itself means Anointed One, from the anointed kings of Israel.) In fact, Theophilus never mentions Christ, or Jesus, at all! He makes no reference to a founder-teacher; instead, Christians have their doctrines and knowledge of God through the Holy Spirit. Along with the pronouncements of the Old Testament prophets, he includes "the gospels" (III.12), but these too are the inspired word of God, not a record of Jesus' words and deeds. When he quotes ethical maxims corresponding to Jesus' Gospel teachings, he presents them (II.14) as the teaching of these gospels, not of Jesus himself.
And what is Theophilus' Son of God? He is the Word through whom God created the world, who was begat by him along with Wisdom (II.10). He is the governing principle and Lord of all creation, inspiring the prophets and the world in general to a knowledge of God. Yet Theophilus has not a thing to say about this Word's incarnation into flesh, or any deed performed by him on earth. In fact, he hastens to say (II.22) that this is not a Son in the sense of begetting, but as innate in the heart of God. Here he seems to quote part of the opening lines of the Gospel of John, the Word as God and instrumental in creation, but nothing else. Is this from the full-blown Gospel, or perhaps from the Logos hymn John drew upon? (The name "John", the only evangelist mentioned, could be a later marginal gloss inserted into the text; but see below.) Such writers, Theophilus says, are inspired men, not witnesses to an historical Jesus.
As for redemption, all will gain eternal life who are obedient to the commandments of God (II.27). There is no concept in Theophilus of an atoning sacrificial death of Jesus, a death he never mentions. And when challenged on his doctrine that the dead will be raised (Autolycus has demanded: "Show me even one who has been raised from the dead!"), this Christian has not a word to say about Jesus' own resurrection. He even accuses the pagans of worshiping "dead men" (I.9) and ridicules them for believing that Hercules and Aesclepius were raised from the dead (I.13). All this, in answer to an Autolycus who has asked: "Show me thy God."
Athenagoras of Athens, who worked in Alexandria, wrote around the same time, though one ancient witness places him a few decades earlier. He was a philosopher who had embraced Christianity, but he shows no involvement in any church, or interest in rituals and sacraments. In A Plea For the Christians addressed to the emperor, he says this of his new beliefs (10): "We acknowledge one God . . . by whom the Universe has been created through his Logos, and set in order and kept in being . . . for we acknowledge also a Son of God . . . If it occurs to you to enquire what is meant by the Son, I will state that he is the first product of the Father (who) had the Logos in himself. He came forth to be the idea and energizing power of all material things."
Unfortunately, in the course of 37 chapters, Athenagoras neglects to tell the emperor that Christians believe this Logos to have been incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He dissects contemporary Platonic and Stoic philosophy, angels and demons, as well as details of various Greek myths, but he offers not a scrap about the life of the Savior. He presents (11) Christian doctrine as things "not from a human source, but uttered and taught by God," and proceeds to quote ethical maxims very close to parts of the Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you . . . ." Other quotations he labels as coming from scripture, or from "our teaching." Are these ethical collections that are unattributed to Jesus? Athenagoras never uses the term "gospel"; he speaks of "the witness to God and the things of God" and enumerates the prophets and other men, yet he ignores what should have been the greatest witness of them all, Jesus of Nazareth.
With no incarnation, there is in Athenagoras' presentation of the Christian faith no death and resurrection of Jesus, no sacrifice and Atonement. Eternal life is gained "by this one thing alone: that (we) know God and his Logos" (12). In fact, the names Jesus and Christ never appear in Athenagoras. Yet he can say (11), "If I go minutely into the particulars of our doctrines, let it not surprise you." One might be forgiven for regarding this as blatant dishonesty.
The anonymous Epistle to Diognetus is often included with the Apostolic Fathers. But it is really an apology, a defence of Christianity addressed probably to an emperor, either Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius. Most scholars lean to the earlier date (c.130). The writer goes so far as to say that the ultimate God sent the Logos, his Son, down to earth, but no time, place, or identity for this incarnation are provided. The name Jesus never appears. The Son revealed God, but is not portrayed as a human teacher.
We find an allusion (9) to the Atonement: "He (God) took our sins upon himself and gave his own Son as a ransom for us," but his description of this act is based on scripture. No Gospel details are mentioned, no manner of the Son's death (if that's what it was), no resurrection. All this is in response to Diognetus' "close and careful inquiries" about the Christian religion. (The final two chapters of the sole surviving manuscript, which contain a reference to apostles and disciples of the Word, have been identified as belonging to a separate document, probably a homily from the mid to late second century.)
We turn now to Tatian, a pupil of Justin. He was converted to Christianity, he says, by reading the Jewish scriptures. At a later stage of his career, after apostatizing to the heretical sect of the Encratites and going off to Syria, Tatian composed the Diatessaron, the first known harmony of the four canonical Gospels. But while still in Rome, sometime around 160, he wrote an Apology to the Greeks, urging pagan readers to turn to the truth. In this description of Christian truth, Tatian uses neither "Jesus" nor "Christ" nor even the name "Christian." Much space is devoted to outlining the Logos, the creative power of the universe, first-begotten of the Father, through whom the world was made—but none to the incarnation of this Logos. His musings on God and the Logos, rather than being allusions to the Gospel of John, as some claim, contradict the Johannine Prologue in some respects and may reflect Logos commonplaces of the time. Resurrection of the dead is not supported by Jesus' resurrection. Eternal life is gained through knowledge of God (13:1), not by any atoning sacrifice of Jesus.
In Tatian's Apology we find a few allusions to Gospel sayings, but no specific reference to written Gospels and no attribution of such things to Jesus. Instead, all knowledge comes from God himself. Tatian says he was "God-taught" (29:2). He does, however, make a revealing comment about mythical stories, which I will return to in a moment. Finally, around the year 155, the first Latin apologist, Minucius Felix, wrote a dialogue between a Christian and a heathen, entitled Octavius. It too presents a Christianity without an historical Jesus, and in fact contains some startling features in this regard. I will examine it in some detail in the latter part of this article.
* * * *
Something extremely odd is going on here. If one leaves aside Justin, there is a silence in the second century apologists on the subject of the historical Jesus which is almost the equal to that in the first century letter writers. Commentators on these works, like those studying the earlier epistles, have scrambled to come up with explanations.
One is that the apologists were concerned first and foremost with preaching the monotheistic Father, the God of the Jews, while debunking the Greek myths with their all-too-human and morally uninspiring divinities. This is true. But it should not preclude them from devoting some space to the most essential feature of the faith, and besides, the apologists have no reluctance about bringing in the Son of God in the form of the Logos. In fact, the apologists as a group profess a faith which is nothing so much as a Logos religion. It is in essence Platonism carried to its fullest religious implications and wedded with Jewish theology and ethics. The figure of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation of the Logos is a graft, an adoption which was embraced only by Justin.
Of course, the glaring anomaly which must be explained is this: how can an apologist be giving his pagan readers a meaningful picture of the Christian faith when he leaves out the most central of its elements, the figure of Jesus and what he had done for salvation? How was the reader to understand the history and origins of the movement without him?
Inevitably, commentators have been led to conclude that the omission—indeed, the suppression—of Jesus was deliberate. Pagan philosophers like Galen had challenged Christian thinkers that their faith was based on revelation rather than reasoned philosophical argument. They had ridiculed the idea of a crucified god. The heathen attitude had made it impolitic to speak of Jesus of Nazareth, and so he needed to be kept in the closet.
Too many common sense arguments tell against this 'explanation.' First, a writer like Athenagoras is quite adept at reasoned, sophisticated argument. Why not apply such talents to a justification of Christianity's principal tenet? If the world at large is maligning Jesus, surely the overriding need is to rehabilitate him, not hide him away. Second, this suppression of Jesus, the misrepresentation of everything from the name "Christian" to the source of Christian ethics, amounts to nothing less than a denial of Christ. The apologist is constructing a picture which excludes the central elements of the faith, falsifying his presentation, leaving no room for Jesus. He has gone beyond silence in stating, "I have said all there is to say." In an age when Christian pride and fortitude required that any penalty be faced—even the ultimate one—rather than renounce the faith, this gutting of Christian doctrine would have smacked of betrayal. It would have horrified believers and quickly discredited the apologists in Christian eyes. Could any of them really have chosen to defend the Name by expunging it?
And who would they be fooling? Any pagan who knew the first thing about Christianity would surely be familiar with the figure of Jesus of Nazareth as the movement's founder. An 'apology' for the faith which left him out would readily be seen for the sham that it was, thus foiling the whole object of the exercise. Besides, Justin, the most prominent of the apologists, felt no such qualms about placing Jesus at the center of his exposition. Tatian was someone who cared not a fig for the objections or sensibilities of any pagan. And beyond the year 180 no Christian writer felt any need or pressure to suppress Jesus.
Another important consideration is that the apologists are touting the superiority of Christian ethics and its monotheistic view of God. If Jesus had been the source of these teachings, their stature would have been raised by being presented as the product of a great teacher; while at the same time, the attribution to Jesus of this estimable body of ethics and theology would have gone a long way toward redeeming him in pagan eyes for whatever else Christians might have been claiming about him. The fact that no one but Justin has incorporated the teaching, human Jesus into his appeals to the pagan is too bizarre a situation. No, some other explanation for the silence of the bulk of the apologetic movement must be sought.
A clue to the solution of this puzzle lies in Tatian's Apology. In chapter 21 he says, "We are not fools, men of Greece, when we declare that God has been born in the form of man (his only allusion to the incarnation) . . . Compare your own stories with our narratives." He goes on to describe some of the Greek myths about gods come to earth, undergoing suffering and even death for the benefaction of mankind. "Take a look at your own records and accept us merely on the grounds that we too tell stories."
This may well be a reference to the Christian Gospels. But if he can allude to the incarnation in this way, why does he not deal with it openly and at length? His comment is hardly a ringing endorsement, or a declaration that such stories are to be accepted as history. The way Tatian compares them to the Greek myths implies that he regards them as being on the same level. Certainly, he does not rush to point out that the Christian stories are superior or, unlike the Greek ones, factually true. Nor can we get around the fact that Tatian pointedly ignores those Gospel stories in the rest of his Apology. (He was to change his mind by the time he composed the Diatessaron.) Furthermore, he ignores them even though his language clearly implies that the pagans were familiar with them.
There seems to be only one way to interpret all this. We can assume that the philosopher-apologists were familiar with the Gospel story and its figure of Jesus of Nazareth. But, with the exception of Justin, they have chosen not to integrate these elements into their own faith, not to identify this reputed historical founder-teacher with their divine Logos and Son of God, not to regard him as the source of Christian teachings.
This is possible only if the Logos religion the apologists subscribed to, especially at the time of their conversion, was lacking the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Only if they could view the Gospel story and its central character as a recent graft, a fictional tale like those of the Greeks, was it possible for them to reject it, to feel that they could be presenting the Christian faith legitimately. Only if they felt it were possible for pagans to accept the story of Jesus as a myth like their own religious myths, was it acceptable for the apologists to present to them a Christianity which ignored or rejected the figure of Jesus.
As a mix of Platonism and Hellenistic Judaism, the apologists' branch of Christianity had become prominent throughout the empire in the second century. (Paulinism had gone into eclipse until the ascendancy of the church of Rome and its rehabilitation of Paul as the latter half of the century progressed.) As we have seen, this Platonic Christianity defined itself in ways which had nothing to do with an historical Jesus. Nor is it likely to have grown out of Paulinism, as they have virtually nothing in common.
If development had been as the scholars like to present it, a shift in emphasis from the 'Palestinian' style of Christianity to one based on Greek philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism, the figure of Jesus would hardly have been dropped; he would have been integrated into the Platonic picture. This is not a Christian 'utilization' of Greek philosophy. The apologists' faith is the religious Platonism of the time brought into a Jewish theological and ethical setting (which rendered the Logos and the faith "anointed" or Christian). It is significant that none of them (possibly excepting Theophilus) have connections with a church.
Such a picture supports the view that Christianity, for its first 150 years, was a mosaic of uncoordinated expressions. It was a variegated organism which took root and flowered across the landscape of the empire, a widely divergent mix of Jewish and Greek features. As time went on, the distillation of Jesus of Nazareth out of certain pores in this organism spread inexorably across its entire surface, until by the year 200 he was firmly entrenched in every aspect of the faith.
Even Justin gives evidence of this picture. After reaching Rome in the 140s, he encountered some of the Gospels and embraced the historical man-god they told of. In his apologetic writings, penned in the 150s, Jesus and the Gospels occupy center stage. For Justin, the Word/Logos "took shape, became man, and was called Jesus Christ" (Apology, 5). But he has left us an inadvertent record of the nature of the faith he joined before his encounter with the story of a human Jesus.
The Dialogue with the Jew Trypho was written after the Apology, and the latter can be dated to the early 150s. But the action of Trypho is set at the time of the Second Jewish Revolt, in the 130s, and scholars are confident that this represents the time of Justin's conversion, which he describes in the opening chapters.
By the sea near Ephesus Justin encounters an old man, a Christian philosopher. After a discussion of the joys and benefits of philosophy, the old man tells of ancient Jewish prophets who spoke by the Divine Spirit. These prophets, he says, had proclaimed the glory of God the Father and his Son, the Christ. (This was the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Platonic terms.) Wisdom could come only to those who have it imparted to them by God and his Christ.
At this, says Justin (8:1), "a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets and of those who are friends of Christ possessed me." Justin does not even say (despite the best attempts of some commentators) that he felt a love for Christ himself, for in the Christianity to which he was converted, Christ was a philosophical concept. He was a part of the Godhead in heaven, a Logos-type entity. This Christ is a Savior by virtue of the wisdom he imparts (8:2). This is Justin's concept of salvation here, for he goes on to conclude the story of his conversion by saying to Trypho: "If you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may become acquainted with the Christ of God and, after being initiated, live a happy life." (Later, under the influence of the Gospels, Justin laid increasing emphasis on the redeeming value of Christ's death and resurrection, but in the basic Logos religion the Son saves by revealing God.)
Where is Jesus of Nazareth in all this? The old philosopher had not a word to say about him, nor about any incarnation of the Son. We are fortunate that Justin did not recast the memory of his conversion experience in the light of his later beliefs based on the Gospels. In those opening chapters of the Dialogue with the Jew Trypho we can see that all the apologists came to the same Christian faith: a Platonic religious philosophy grounded in Hellenistic Judaism which fails to include any historical Jesus.
Trypho himself may be a literary invention, but Justin puts into his mouth (8:6) a telling accusation, one which must have represented a common opinion of the time: "But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown . . . And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . . " Trypho also expresses the opinion that the incarnation is incredible and even Justin admits (Apology, 13) that "sober-minded men" are of the opinion that "Christians are mad to give a crucified man second place to God." As we shall see, even some Christians were in agreement.
In passing, I will mention that perhaps the earliest surviving apology, that of Aristides to the emperor Antoninus Pius, a short and minor work written in Syriac around 140, is clearly dependent on some Gospel account. It speaks of God born of a virgin, having twelve disciples, pierced died and buried, then rising after three days. This apology comes from a different milieu, one located in the Palestine-Syria area (where the Synoptic Gospels were written), for it has nothing to say about the Logos or Greek philosophical concepts.
* * * *
I have left until last the most fascinating of all the apologies, a document which could well be called a 'smoking gun.' The little treatise Octavius was written in Rome, or possibly North Africa, in Latin. It takes the form of a debate between Caecilius, a pagan, and Octavius, a Christian, chaired and narrated by the author, Minucius Felix, by whose name the work is now usually referred to.
There has been a long and seesaw debate as to when Minucius Felix was written. A clear literary relationship exists with Tertullian's much longer Apology, written around the year 200. But who borrowed from whom? A good general rule says that the later writer tends to expand on what the earlier writer wrote, not chop drastically, especially since in this case it would mean that Minucius Felix had cut out many important Christian dogmas and every single reference to the Gospel Jesus—and this, well into the third century, when no one else had any qualms about speaking of such things. This and other arguments considered, the earlier dating between 150 and 160 is much preferable. (See H. J. Baylis, Minucius Felix , p.273.)
In this debate, the names of Christ and Jesus are never used, though the word "Christian" appears throughout. Nor is there any allusion to the Son or Logos. Octavius' Christianity revolves around the Unity and Providence of God and the rejection of all pagan deities, the resurrection of the body and its future reward or punishment. In regard to the latter, no appeal is made to Jesus' own resurrection as proof of God's ability and intention to resurrect the dead. Not even in answer to the challenge (11): "What single individual has returned from the dead, that we might believe it for an example?" Much of Octavius' argument is devoted to countering the calumnies against Christians which Caecilius, representing general pagan opinion, enumerates: everything from debauchery to the devouring of infants, to Christian secrecy and hopes for the world's fiery destruction.
But here is where it gets interesting. For no other apologist but Justin has voiced and dealt with one particular accusation which the writer puts into the mouth of Caecilius. The list of calumnies in chapter 9 runs like this (partly paraphrased):
"This abominable congregation should be rooted out . . . a religion of lust and fornication. They reverence the head of an ass . . . even the genitals of their priests . . . . And some say that the objects of their worship include a man who suffered death as a criminal, as well as the wretched wood of his cross; these are fitting altars for such depraved people, and they worship what they deserve . . . . Also, during initiations they slay and dismember an infant and drink its blood . . . at their ritual feasts they indulge in shameless copulation."
Remember that a Christian is composing this passage. (The sentence in italics is translated in full.) He has included the central element and figure of the Christian faith, the person and crucifixion of Jesus, within a litany of ridiculous and unspeakable calumnies leveled against his religion—with no indication, by his language or tone, that this reference to a crucified man is to be regarded as in any way different from the rest of the items: disreputable accusations which need to be refuted. Could a Christian author who believed in a crucified Jesus and his divinity really have been capable of this manner of presentation?
In Octavius' half of the debate, he proceeds eventually to the refutation of these slanders. Here are some of the other things he says along the way.
In ridiculing the Greek myths about the deaths of their gods, such as Isis lamenting over the dismembered Osiris, he says (22): "Is it not absurd to bewail what you worship, or worship what you bewail?" In other words, he is castigating the Greeks for lamenting and worshiping a god who is slain. Later he says (23): "Men who have died cannot become gods, because a god cannot die; nor can men who are born (become gods) . . . Why, I pray, are gods not born today, if such have ever been born?" He then goes on to ridicule the whole idea of gods procreating themselves, which would include the idea of a god begetting a son. Elsewhere (20) he scorns those who are credulous enough to believe in miracles performed by gods.
How, without any saving qualification, could a Christian put such arguments forward, since they would confute and confound essential Christian beliefs in his own mind, and leave himself open to the charge of hypocrisy? It is one thing for the puzzled commentator to claim that silences in the apologists are due to a desire not to discourage or irritate the pagans with long and confusing theological treatises on subjects they are prejudiced against, or because they are not aiming to provide a comprehensive picture of the faith. But when an apologist makes statements which flatly contradict and even calumnize ideas which should be at the very heart of his own beliefs and personal devotion, such explanations are clearly discredited.
And how does Minucius Felix deal with the accusation that Christians worship a crucified man and his cross? As he did in Caecilius' diatribe, the author inserts his response into the midst of his refutation of other calumnies about incestuous banquets and adoration of a priest's genitals. Here is the manner and context in which he deals with the charge of worshiping a crucified criminal (29):
"1These and similar indecencies we do not wish to hear; it is disgraceful having to defend ourselves from such charges. People who live a chaste and virtuous life are falsely charged by you with acts which we would not consider possible, except that we see you doing them yourselves. 2Moreover (nam), when you attribute to our religion the worship of a criminal and his cross, you wander far from the truth in thinking that a criminal deserved, or that a mortal man could be able, to be believed in as God. 3Miserable indeed is that man whose whole hope is dependent on a mortal, for such hope ceases with his (the latter's) death . . . ."
Before going on, we should first note that verse 2, following as it does on the sentiments of verse 1 (which the Latin word nam emphasizes), makes it clear that the writer regards this accusation as being in the same vein as the other "indecencies" he is at pains to refute. And what is the refutation he provides? It is to heap scorn on those who would believe that a crucified criminal, a mortal, should be thought of as a god. Where is the necessary qualification that no Christian could surely have remained silent on? Where is the saving defence that in fact this crucified man was not a mortal, but was indeed God? Some claim that this is what Minucius is implying, but such an implication is so opaque, it can only be derived from reading it into the text. Octavius' words certainly do not contain it, although they do imply that the writer knows of some Christians who believe such things, but he has no sympathy with them.
The translator of this work in the 19th century collection of Ante-Nicene Fathers (vol. IV, p.191) includes the following sentence in his summary preface at the head of chapter 29: "For they believe not only that he was innocent, but with reason that he was God." Such an idea is nowhere to be found in the text, and the context of the charge and its response cannot reasonably be said to imply it. Nor do the other things Minucius says which scorn different aspects of the Christian faith (such as gods being born in the present time or performing miracles) allow us to draw such an implication. To verse 2 the translator offers this wishful footnote: "A reverent allusion to the Crucified, believed in and worshiped as God." What one cannot believe is missing, one will read into the text, no matter what.
A more recent commentator, G. W. Clarke (Ancient Christian Writers #39, 1949) makes this observation in an end note: "A remarkable avoidance of any mention of the Incarnation. Indeed, so anxious is Minucius Felix to avoid admitting such a difficult doctrine that he gives the appearance of denying it." Indeed he does. And while Clarke compares this to Arnobius' "coyness" on the same topic, this later (c.300) Christian apologist was in no way reluctant or dishonest in admitting it, even though he lived at a time of greater persecution. "We worship one who was born a man. What then? Do you worship no one who was born a man? . . . But he died nailed to the cross. So what? Neither does the kind and disgrace of the death change his words or deeds." (Against the Heathen, I.37 & 40).
Minucius goes on in this passage to cite the folly of heathen peoples who do "choose a man for their worship," but he makes no such admissions for Christians. As to the accusation of worshiping crosses, he says dismissively: "We do not adore them, nor do we wish for them." And he goes on to admonish the pagan for being guilty of using signs of crosses in their own worship and everyday life. There is not a hint that for Minucius the cross bears any sacred significance or requires defending in a Christian context.
From this refutation of the calumny of Jesus and his cross, he proceeds ("Next . . .") to challenge those who accuse Christians of the slaughter of children. There is nothing in the way Minucius has dealt with the supposed heart of the Christian faith to differentiate it from all these surrounding horrors. The disparaging tone is unredeemed.
One commentator, H. J. Baylis (Minucius Felix, p.148), in addition to expressing his regret that the writer has been so silent in defending the person of Christ, also laments the fact that he missed a golden opportunity to refute the charge about licentious feasts and cannabilistic initiation rites by describing the Eucharist. He could have defended, says Baylis, the sacramental significance and pure conduct of this Christian agape (love feast) over Jesus' body and blood. Baylis finds it equally "odd" that in speaking of the sources of the "truth about the Godhead" (38), Minucius is silent on the teachings of Jesus himself, or Jesus' own status as Son within that Godhead.
The survival of this document, with its out-and-out dismissal of the central tenets of Christianity, is perhaps surprising, but it was no doubt possible only because a certain veiled ambiguity could be read into a verse like 29:2 above, and by letting this perception override the derogatory tone and jarring silence of the passage and document as a whole. Baylis has labelled 29:2 "oblique," but Minucius' stark language rules out any such escape route. This scholar, too, reads into Minucius' defense something which is not evidently there: "Yes, we adore one who was crucified, but he is neither a criminal nor a mere man."
Those who are capable of letting historical documents say what they obviously seem to be saying will recognize that Minucius Felix is a true 'smoking gun' pointing to a Christian denial of the historical Jesus. Even though this document indicates that there were others within the movement who believed in such a figure, and that there were historical Jesus traditions circulating, this does not automatically validate the historicity of such a figure, especially as the author is writing no earlier than the mid-second century. But the key consideration is this: such a denial as Minucius Felix voices would hardly have been possible within the context of a movement which had actually begun with an historical Jesus, and so we can say that this document does indeed provide strong evidence of the non-existence of this figure.
To the dispassionate eye, Minucius Felix is one Christian who will have no truck with those, in other circles of his religion, who profess the worship of a Jesus who was crucified in Judea under the governorship of Pontius Pilate, rumors of which have reached pagan ears and elicited much scorn and condemnation. To claim that a whole generation of apologists would falsely convey such an exterior to those they are seeking to win over, that they would deliberately indulge in this kind of Machiavellian deception, is but one of the desperate measures which modern Christian scholars have been forced to adopt in their efforts to deal with a Christian record that stubbornly refuses to paint the picture they all want to see.
* * * *
The apologists were not fools. Their literary and polemical talents were considerable. They were versed in a wide range of ancient knowledge, in the intricate subtleties of contemporary philosophy. That they could design careful and elaborate pieces of apologetic writing that yet contained such devastating omissions and weaknesses as we have seen in Minucius Felix, in Theophilus, in Athenagoras, in Tatian, is not feasible.
If an author like Minucius Felix is being silent for political reasons, why would he choose to place in the mouth of his pagan spokesperson accusations concerning the very thing he is deliberately silent on? Why would he allow the opponent such critical and derogatory declarations about the central object of Christian worship when he has already decided he must deny himself the luxury of answering them? Why would he place in the Christian's own mouth, as he does in chapters 21 and 23, sweeping and scornful statements which go against elements of the Christian faith with no possibility of offering saving qualifications? There is not even an attempt, through veiled language and implication, to assuage the 'knowing' Christian reader, to show that such saving exceptions are present in his own mind. In fact, his treatment of these faith subjects is tantamount to a denial of them.
At the end of Minucius Felix the writer has his pagan character converted to Christianity. But what is the use of converting someone like Caecilius to a religion which has had all its essential elements concealed? When Caecilius arrives "on the morrow" for his first lesson as a catechumen, will Octavius say to him, "Oh, by the way, there were a few details I left out yesterday." If a Christian is going to appeal to a pagan according to philosophical and logical principles, how will he then turn around and subsequently present the Christian mysteries and dogmas which he must be aware go counter to such principles? His own argumentation will then be in danger of being turned against him. And his dishonesty will place himself and his faith in a dishonorable light.
It must be stressed that nowhere in the literature of the time is there support for the standard scholarly rationalization about the apologists' silence on the figure of Jesus. Nowhere is it discussed or even intimated that these writers have in fact deliberately left out the essential elements of Christian faith in their defences of it, for reasons of political correctness or anything else. The occasionally quoted account of Origen in the third century, that he sometimes expounded his ethical views without labeling them as Christian, since he feared his listeners' hostility to the very name of Christianity and Christ, is not applicable here, for in such cases Origen was not identifying himself as a Christian at all, he was not offering a defence of Christianity, even in a limited way. If he had been, he would certainly not have left himself open to challenges he was not allowed to answer. His own writings are proof of this. Origen does not conceal Jesus or his resurrection. He counters every scoff and calumny of Celsus with all the resources at his disposal.
This is true also of Tertullian, writing his apology around the year 200 and borrowing, or at least using as inspiration, parts of the work of Minucius Felix. Tertullian indulges in no such cryptic concealment. In his own day, the hostility to Christianity was no easier than it had been a generation earlier when Felix wrote, or a mere two decades since Athenagoras and Theophilus had penned their defences. Tertullian's work is full of vivid references to Christ's incarnation, to his death and resurrection. Near the end of his account of "that Christ, the Son of God who appeared among us," he declares: "let no one think it is otherwise than we have represented, for none may give a false account of his religion . . . . We say, and before all men we say, and torn and bleeding under your tortures we cry out, 'We worhip God through Christ!' " Apparently, if we believe the commentators, the bulk of the second century apologists possessed no such conviction, no such courage. Certainly, Tertullian would have had no sympathy with their policy of concealment. The above quote may even be a veiled condemnation of them, if he were familiar with the likes of Athenagoras or Tatian or Theophilus. Or it may have been directed at Minucius Felix himself, whose work he would have felt constrained to expand on and fill in the painfully missing blanks.
As a final note, we might ask: where are the writers (for we might expect there to be some) who openly and in unmistakable words reject the figure of Jesus, with no possibility of ambiguity? Until we realize that no such document would ever have reached us through two millennia of Christian censorship. For probably the same reason, we possess no pagan writing which discusses the case for rejection of the historical Jesus. Even Celsus (who does not do this) survives only piecemeal in Origen's great refutation of him. On the other hand, it is likely that even leading pagan thinkers like Celsus would have had no way to verify or disprove the circulating Christian story and narrative accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, nor would they have possessed the exegetical tools and abilities to disprove Christian claims through a study of the documents themselves. In any case, all of these documents, given the poor state of communication and availability of materials in the ancient world, would hardly have been accessible to someone who might think of undertaking such a task.