But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

-Matthew 11:16-17


Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

-Luke 6:21

I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'

- Walt Whitman


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Notes on Jesus' Historicity

I remember a sprightly octogenarian years ago lecturing on the psychology of management. He asked us suddenly in what seemed like lunging off topic: “can anyone tell me the difference between managing and obssessing ?”. After five seconds of stoned silence and puzzled looks he offered: “It’s actually quite simple: if you are managing, you consider options”.

When it comes to deciding about Jesus’ existence, very few people seem to be managing historical information. The opinions seem to more about role-playing and peer expectations, personal commitment and calculations of effect, rhetorical thumps, marketing strategies, juvenile struggles with authority, mistaking authority for argument, and plain old-fashioned talking through the hat. It is interesting to observe that it is not only the two opposing certitudes that are at loggerheads with the hazy factuality around Jesus of Nazareth but even some among the agnostics. It has become sort of a sport in some quarters to claim that nothing can be said about anything in the NT texts that even indirectly relates to questions of Jesus’ historicity. I had one gentleman learned in the languages of antiquity disputing that one may fairly infer from 2 Corinthians 5:16 that Paul knew about Jesus (in whatever form) through humans prior to his belief he received revelation from God about the purpose of his career and death. This sort of deconstructionist tactic was well handled by G. A. Wells. He was challenged by an interviewer who offered gratuitously that on what we know, “whether Jesus existed is a trivial matter, not worth writing about”. The most eloquent proponent of the non-existence theory to-date retorted: “ the manner and origin of one of the world’s largest religions is no triviality” (“Did Jesus Exist ?” 1986, p 216).

So it would appear that in the query whether Jesus had an earthly career, the need to proffer assurances by and large displaces disinterested observation. Jesus, it appears, either must have existed, or could not have existed, or it is ridiculous to hold any beliefs either way. One cannot, by the looks of it, have a reserved opinion based on an independent assessment of the texts vis-a-vis external historical data surrounding them. To extract and manage information by schemas other than the ones approved of by one of the established schools of Jesus group-think, one is immediately scorned and dismissed. Indeed, I have been accused of eisegesis by all three.

Where Jesus as myth was the received wisdom

The earliest of my troubles is worth while recounting: I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia where Jesus was Myth and that was the state-enforced wisdom. As a student at the Economic Institute, I tried to probe the Communist Party dogma in a philosophy seminar, not because I was religious, but because I was curious. Mind you, I was not curious but not yet to the point of reading the Bible. As a matter of fact, I was as good a commie atheist student as a senior in a Jesuit college would be a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic. My mom was a Catholic herself but she gave up on proselytizing me. My father and I hated it when she became devotional, because it was a sure-as-hell sign that she wanted to be sick and suffering; a martyr to an obscure cause. For my dad that meant no sex, for me no TLC. So, if I had believed in God and Freud, my Oedipus would have been partly to the father in heaven and his outlaw son to whom my mom clinged when she had the blues.

But as I said, I became curious. What ignited my curiosity was a remarkable film by an Italian communist by the name of Pier Paolo Pasolini. When I saw his Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Gospel according to Matthew) I was instantly converted - not to Christianity, mind you, but to Pasolini's ethos of seeing Christianity not as an ideological rival but a part of what our civilization is made of. When I say Christianity I mean the religion stripped off of the psychobabble and intimidation. Pasolini showed it could be done. It was a remarkable vision transcending silly cliches and worn out dogmas - the Church's and the Party's.

So, when a while later I was spoon fed the final word on JC by dialectical materialism in my philosophy class, I had a dissenting point of view essentially arguing it was quite possible that Jesus in fact did exist and the religious humbug was hung on him later. This of course was contrary to the teachings of Bruno Bauer and Frederick Engels, who my skripta said proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was a literary invention. My argument, which was somewhat naively spun around the miraculous powers of the Slovak highlander hero Juro Janosik, who was a historical figure and whose trial and execution in 1713 was properly documented, was dismissed as uninformed. Further, my obstinacy earned me a pohovor (an interview) in the dean’s office - essentially an attempt to bring back a stray bolshevik sheep by barking at it. Luckily for me, the assigned sheep dog was himself inclined to communist reformism (this was 1967, the year that brought in Dubcek as a party leader and Zdenek Mlynar as his chief ideologue, the latter a roommate at the Moscow Party Cadres School to a Stavropol party boss by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev). As an added stroke of luck, he ran out of cigarettes, and was in debt as he smoked mine. The interview went well. As I freely admitted I had no research interest in the matter, and read no Greek, my deviationism was classed as harmless: I never saw his report, but I imagine it said something to the effect that comrade S. would not be fooled by superstitious nonsense; he simply keeps his mind open as every smart svazák (young communist) should.

What the NT academics believe

In a 1985 paper presented at Ann Arbor Michigan gathering , G.A. Wells, shrugged that his theory had been the object of 'amused contempt' by the NT academics. At the conference itself – a gathering of biblical iconoclasts - Wells was attacked by Morton Smith, as an 'extreme Bultmaniac'. (Bultmann himself, however, described the view that Jesus did not exist as silly). But most of the time he was simply ignored by NT scholars, or dismissed as a non-specialist in the field (He is a professor of German). Those who read his thesis claiming that most of the epistles and Paul especially knew nothing of the gospel Jesus, and the latter failed to attribute his own teachings to him, did not have much of a response. What they offered was a standard cliché that Paul did not have to acknowledge Jesus’ doings and teachings because the church was familiar with them. Whether or not Paul’s silence on the earthly Jesus, is a proof of him never existing, Paul’s refusal to know Christ according to flesh, and a desire to entertain nothing about him except his crucifixion, are surely huge issues in no way sustained by the traditional church doctrines and their academic offshoots.

So what evidence does academia believe warrants Jesus’ existence ? I would venture that most of the external ‘evidence’ for Jesus has been largely discounted. Exhibits of such as Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, simply come too late and testify not to Jesus himself but to communal beliefs about him. Most academics would concede that. Only the incessant debates about Testimonium Flavianum seem to go on, one hundred years after Schweitzer made the final point on the Josephus ‘witness’ by condemning as useless and unseemly speculations on evidence that everyone knows was tampered with.

But if the majority of scholars today do not advertise much the independent witness (-this has now become the hobby of the evangelicals, mostly) they do seem near unanimous that the internal evidence supports beyond shadow of a doubt that Jesus of Nazareth walked on the planet. They may have the widest disagreements among themselves as to what is and what is not historical and factual in the gospels, but on the lecterns and on the podcasts they sound very much alike in their affected shock and disdain of people who don’t think it is as clear-cut as that.

The “assurance” factor in Jesus’ historical reality sometimes takes on bizarre shapes. David Boulton in his fine summary of the newest Jesus questing (Who On Earth Was Jesus ?, 2008) , takes to task E.P. Sanders, one of the leading mainstream N.T. scholars of the day, for his successive but conflicting certitudes as to what in the gospels he considers “almost indisputable facts”. In Jesus and Judaism (1985) he presented the following set:

· Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
· Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve
· Jesus confined his activity to Israel
· Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed
· Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple
· After his death Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable community
· At least some Jews persecuted at least part of the new movement

By 1991, (The Historical Figure of Jesus) Sanders revised his stance, generously adding to the list and modifying the things of which he was certain everyone could be certain.

· Jesus was born c. 4 BC, near the time of the death of Herod the Great
· He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village
· Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
· He called disciples (omitting “and spoke of there being twelve”)
· He taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee
· He preached “the kingdom of God” [but “healed” is omitted]
· He created disturbance in the temple area
· He had a final meal with his disciples
· He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest
· He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate
· His disciples at first fled
· They saw him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death
· As a consequence, they believed they believed he would return to found the kingdom
· After his death, his believers formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah
· [The statement that parts of the new movement were persecuted by at least soe Jews is omitted].

I observe, and observe somewhat cynically, that since there were no earth-shattering discoveries in the years that intervened between the two lists, and given professor Sanders’ erudition, the revision was simply in posturing. The second list extends the “assurance” to items which are not even disguised articles of faith. A sober reader of the texts would observe, e.g. the uncanny textual agreements between Paul’s 1 Cr 11:23-25 and Lk 22:19-20, and then the quaint entree of the Last Supper motif in 1 Cr 10:16 (The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?) and would have to ponder how quickly in Paul’s writing the Eucharist was prov'd from what was only imagined in a mere chapter before.

Similarly, we have no reliable evidence for the assertion that Jesus believers 'formed a community to await his return'. The Acts have been notoriously unreliable as chronicles of historical events. Gospel of Thomas portrays James the Righteous (why would Jesus use a surname to describe his brother ?) as someone who would shelter Jesus followers after he is gone ! The foundational event at Pentecost was so embarrassing to the later church intellectuals that it was expunged from Eusebius’ History. Matthew’s derivation of Jesus epithet of ‘Nazoraios’ from ‘Nazareth’ (2:23) has no way to account for the fact that John the Baptist, was a ‘Nazoraios’ too. ( A Mandanean sect in Iraq-al-Arabi calls itself ‘Nasoraij d’Yahya’ to this day.). It is more than probable then that the Nazorean house catered to both Jesus’ and John’s following, something forced Luke to deal with by making Elizabeth and Mary relatives. And what about Hebrews 6:20 calling Jesus a 'forerunner' and a high priest (in heaven) after the order of Melchizedek 'for ever' ? Isn’t the idea that Jesus entered the Holy Place, once and for all (Heb 9:12), to act as an intercessor and mediator for a new covenant somewhat at odds with the thesis that all believers thought of him as Messiah and awaited his return ? These are just some issues which professor Sanders was either unaware of or hastily discounted when arriving at historical certitudes.

Why I am not a Jesus Myther

First off, let me tell you that I do not consider the theory that Jesus never existed inherently implausible. As a matter of fact I believe it is a close call. I can imagine a scenario in which Jesus was originally a ‘code name’ for the oracular properties of the spirit visiting on Jamesian ecstatics, telling the wiser ones (the Thomasians) how to manage the spiritual fevers and others (the Petrines) that the psychoses were previews of the world to come (in the euphoric phase) and the end of the existing world (in the annihilation mess that followed) . I can imagine Paul encountering the crazed preachers and seers of the latter group, and militating against them until he himself became one, in acquiring the experience of the intoxication by the Spirit. It is certainly not beyond pale that he developed the mantra of the cross from some as yet unknown mystical source, or distilled it from vague Platonic ideas penetrating into his social setting.

(Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, Book II, 361e5: ‘The just man…will be scourged, racked, chained, have his eyes burned out; at last after every kind of misery he will be impaled’ (tr. by W.H.D. Rouse – some translators prefer ‘crucified’)). It is worth noting in this regard that in 1 Thessalonians, the earliest Paul’s letter by the reckoning of most, the cross did not yet figure as instrument of salvation.

I imagine also better Jesus Myth theories can be built, if their authors are a little bit more circumspect. G.A. Wells has my respect and admiration for steering the debate from vague, generalized, and often misleading assertions of mythical imports and ripoffs which were alleged to account wholly for the appearance of the Christ figure. He has constructed a fine model extracting plausible conclusions from the early Christian texts themselves read in their historical context. He has carried himself with remarkable poise and dignity. However, in attempting to stay within the existing scholarly paradigm of NT studies, he in my reckoning, misjudged the import of some of its analytical tools, most importantly the assumptions around the putative Q document. Q is a purely theoretical construct which at the break of the 20th century replaced a futile search for the Matthean oracles of the Lord. Over the decades, Q has become something of an industry, the document taking on refined stratification, with dozens of new titles and scholarly articles appearing annually further elaborating it. It may seem unbelievable, but it is true, that the massive, sustained, world-wide effort that goes into the science of Q has no other utility than to justify the opinion that Luke did not know Matthew.

To my mind, it makes no sense for a mythicist to participate in the Q propagation as the activity has only one real goal: to connect the gospels – which arrived late and show a great deal of creative literary composition – to some authoritative source from which they are copied, a document (text – not oral traditions) that would lead right to the deepest stratum of Q, the hallowed Urquelle called der golden Mund Jesu. Wells was finally persuaded that he could not hold onto the reality of the Q thesis and maintain at the same time the assumed textual sources – reverently transferred – did not ultimately lead to Jesus as the origin of at least some of the sayings.

Earl Doherty, who attached a bold new theory of sublunar career of Paul’s Christ to Wells’es earlier arguments, has likewise defended Q’s necessity to the detriment of his cause. Unlike Wells, however, Doherty seems oblivious to the paradox in his stance even though it has been harped on by more than one conservative website. Why would anyone who wishes to dispute the historical existence of Jesus want to rely on an imaginary document that was not known to anyone in the ancient world: not the orthodox church, not the heretics, not to the pagan critics ? Isn’t the shoe on the other foot ? Should not Q be the prime example of vested interest in illusory objects adorning the ivory tower of contemporary NT studies ?

The other thing I have noticed about both, Wells and Doherty, is their reluctance to set aside NT passages which are very dubious to the point of being silly and can painlessly be demonstrated to contradict what the source says elsewhere. E.g. if Paul presents consistently the image of himself as one divinely appointed to testify of God's Son, then a passage in which he assigns to himself the role of reprieved scumbag on criteria otherwise unknown in the corpus, needs to be set aside - even in the absence of a textual variant. One has to have that level of confidence, if one wants a new theory !

For myself, I feel reasonably comfortable there was a historical person of Jesus. On balance it still makes more sense then to read the epistles and gospels with a single historical referent pointing to an obscure and thwarted prophetic figure who became posthumously revered in a Jerusalem messianic assembly as a martyr and intercessor for a coming rule of God in Israel. It strikes me as better to explain Paul’s ‘silence’ on Jesus deeds and words as his rejection of Jesus’ messianic teachings assumed to have been propagated by his followers out of Jerusalem after his death (likely in several flavours). Paul created the Jesus Christ heavenly persona for a theology that rejected parochial Jewish expectations for God’s kingdom on earth. He and the Jesus missionaries out of Jerusalem were proselytic rivals. Paul’s attempts to find acceptance for his ideas in James’ inner circle appear to have been unsuccessful.

What specifically do I consider in Paul historical reference to Jesus ? Those of you who have read my preceding essays know by now that I do not credit as genuine certain passages in Paul which are usually cited by the traditional theologians as proof of Paul’s acceptance of Jesus as an earthly dominus. Rom 1:3, 1 Cr 11:23-26, 1 Cr 15:3-11, Gal 1:19, Gal 4:4, all appear to be later insertions into Paul’s letters to harmonize his views either the emerging orthodox doctrines or make them more explicit in support of the same. I take seriously Paul's proscriptions on discussing Jesus in flesh, (1 Cr 2:2, 2 Cr 5:16).

There are however several genuine Pauline passages regarding the crucifixion and temporal placement of Paul’s Jesus which will be hard to crack for any mythical theory.

Gal 3:1 - O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? It is difficult to imagine that the aggressive tone Paul takes could reference a mythical scenario. Only if the execution was real and historical, can the appeal to Paul’s previous teachings sustain the insult (!) he lobs at the defecting acolytes.

Gal 6:12 - It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Again, if there was no historical “cross of Christ” Paul’s impeachment of the judaizers would not make sense. If Jesus was a myth everyone would have known he was a myth, and whether there was a cross in the myth would have made no difference to anyone capable of rational thought. That the judaizers would be trying to avoid persecution for an event which did not take place on earth or within living memory, just does not play out, at least not in any way that I can see. On the other hand, if Jesus was executed for breaking the law (implied by Rom 8:4, Gal 3:13), then idolizing him publicly carried risks with it – and Paul’s pointing to the hypocrisy of his proselytic rivals with respect to the law which killed their idol – and which they don’t keep anyway - could be counted on to make an impact.

1 Cr 15:20 - But now (νυνί) Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. It is possible, as G.A. Wells believes that Paul thought Jesus lived a long time ago, left no trace, and it was only in Paul’s lifetime that he had risen. It is just not very convincing that (at least) two opposing sects during one generation suddenly invoked his name and began to vie for converts.

1 Cr 2:2 I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. The qualifier καὶ τοῦτον ἐσταυρωμένον, implies that Paul did not want to hear anything about Jesus before his crucifixion when coming to preach to Corinth. Again, if “Jesus said this and Jesus did that before he was killed” was a myth and Paul knew it then I am at a loss to grasp what difference it would have made to Paul’s pitiful condition to let people talk about the hero’s mythical exploits and mythical causes of his mythical downfall leading to his mythical death. But, if the obverse is true – if Paul in the throes of a persecutory stage of mania (See Origin of My Own Interest in Early Christian Psychology in the 2010 blog) suggests that the phantom visitor of the Corinthian mystics can be placated by acknowledging him as an ordinary recently living human empowered by God post-mortem, then it is reasonable to assume Paul found relief in the schema himself, that his Jesus Christ mantras actually had a way of reducing his own agitated psychosis. And it is equally probable that Paul’s fame as a ancient precursor of logotherapy* was established because his technique seems to have worked and with some people similarly afflicted as Paul. It worked as it provided (at least some) relief to what seemed to them as a meaningless, bottomless cycle of suffering. For the therapeutic hypno-suggestion to have worked, Jesus had to have proximity to the sufferers – similar to that of Paul – proximity in their social status, education, reputation in the community at large (1 Cr 1:18-31). It is my view – and I do not hold this to be more than an opinion of one person - that Jesus’ proximity would have been temporal as well, given the underlying belief that the end was near.

/* - Logotherapy was a psychotherpeutic technique pioneered by Victor Frankl. He used paradoxical formulas and self-hypnosis – evidenced in Paul and Mark - as a way to relieve suffering in his patients. Dr Frankl developed his ideas and methods while a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, as a way of coping personally with his predicament. Frankl wrote (in Man's Search for Meaning) that he was enriched by his Nazi death camp experience because it taught him things about himself and other people that he would have had no way of knowing had he not been subjected to the protracted struggle for the bare object of his existence.

Frankl's approach, I believe, has tantalizing relevance for Early Christian psychology. It provides a vital key to the effects of paradoxical structures of cognition present in Paul's theology and Mark's narrative - the importance of finding the 'euangelion' (glad tidings) in the suffering and humiliation they received at the hands of fate and other people.


  1. What prevents Galatians 3:1 from being a recollection of an initiation ceremony to a level within an extant mystery religion?

    And again, in general, what prevents all these references you cite from being statements regarding secrets (now lost) from an original mystery cult?

  2. Hi Evan,

    I don't know think Gal 3:1 relates to a "ceremony". Paul is fuming at the stray sheep who was "told in no uncertain terms" that Christ was crucified. That's how I read it.

    The problem with the question 'in general' is that if the secrets are now lost, how do you and I know there were there in the first place - if they were secrets.


  3. I have been asked about the wild dance music and what appears like dance steps of the guards who are about to hang Juro in the clip from "The True Story of Janosik". Yes, it is deliberate and assumes that the viewer knows the legends surrounding the Slovak "Robin Hood". In one famous one - paralleling a gnostic Jesus - Janosik reputedly asked to be allowed to dance "hajduchy" before impaling himself on the hanging hook. Evidently Janosik was not dancing !

  4. You either believe or you don't....the gospels in their current form are the only historical evidence per se of a jesus and even they are untrustworthy and unreliable....its amazing to me how quick people are to attack the Jesus Mythers..evidence of a Jewish god man in Antiquity is nill.