THE JESUS PUZZLE
Was There No Historical Jesus?
Reader Feedback and Author’s Response
Set 28: March 2008
Note: Only those reader comments which are given a response are listed in this Index:
- To Ben: When Were the Gospels Written?
- To Doug: Romans 1:3 & "kata sarka" Again / Outside the Gate (Hebrews 13:11-13)
- To Tim: Revelation 13:8 - When was Jesus Slain?
- To Keith: Jesus' Audience in 1 Corinthians 11:23 / Paul an "Abortion" (1 Cor. 15:8)
- To Jim: Galilee and Paul: Joining Historical and Mythical Figures?
- To Michael: Matthew's Guards at the Tomb and the Toledoth Yeshu
- To Warwick: Michael Grant and the "annihilation" of Mythicism
Your website is excellent. Thank you for making your work freely available. I found it when looking for some informed criticism of Lee Strobel's book [The Case for Christ] which a "committed christian" friend of mine lent to me after I asked for a good case for his faith. I did not have a solid response to the book and I look forward to benefiting from your work [Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel's 'The Case for Christ': see excerpts at StrobelIntro.htm and ctvadvert.htm].
While I have been an atheist for almost 40 years, I have never really had a coherent picture of how christianity arose. Your work on the mythicist position provides answers beyond anything I could have hoped for. Oddly, I felt after cursory research that the mythical Jesus view seemed plausible despite the ready dismissal about which you so rightly complain, and the non-christian "evidence" for his historicity seemed weak, but I was unaware that such a coherent thesis as you lay out could be constructed. Now that I have read it, it seems that no other account comes close to making as much sense. It has the kind of power that I remember plate tectonics had when it emerged as the successful organizing principle for a wealth of disparate geological observations. Suddenly elements which made no sense fitted together - like a puzzle - and previous silly speculations of orogeny through geosynclines or the spread of organisms across mysterious land bridges could be discarded.
Keep up the good work. If I have one complaint, it is that you have written so much that I am spending most of my free time on your website!
As a victim of a Jesuit education, it has taken me a long time to shed the Christian religion. Your writings have helped enormously. I am still endeavoring to understand why I, and other people that I regard as reasonably intelligent, can believe such (now obvious to me) constructed rubbish.
For the last several days I have been reading the web sites concerning your work, The Jesus Puzzle. The work is masterful and quite readable.
I wish I had this information when I was 12. It would have spared me a lot of anguish; a comforting shining light in a dark world. I was raised in an unnecessarily strict Irish-Catholic world that made no sense to me. I questioned the myths from about age 8 onward, much to the consternation of a long line of nuns which, in turn, got me in a lot of trouble at home. I spend several decades after that studying and arguing most of the same issues you present so well.
I count you as one of the early influences in my own research into the origins of that religion which plagues us. Though my focus has been more on the origins of Judaism, which I have come to believe was greatly influenced by the Persians and Zoroastrianism, I am beginning to see those same roots as having so much in common with Christianity that I cannot understand how it could be ignored. Not only did Zoroastrianism provide aspects of Christian belief ranging from angels, Heaven, Hell, Satan, etc., but the first monotheistic religion to preach an eschatology that would be resolved by a divine savior (they called him the Sayoshant) who would redeem mankind and establish a
was Zoroastrianism. I think a pretty clear case could be made that Judaism was consistently influenced by Zoroastrian beliefs and that ultimately, after Alexander's destruction of the kingdomof God Persian Empire, these influences were covered up by the Hasmoneans.
The point is I wondered if you had ever considered that a lot of the mystery religion beliefs were examples of Persian influence on the religions of their captive nations. It simplifies the creation of the Jesus myth. Revelation reads like the Avesta (much of the Zoroastrian holy book was destroyed by Alexander and then later by the Muslims so there are large parts of it that could not be reconstructed), as it fits closely the eschatology therein expressed. In fact there have been a few books published about the parallels between the Avesta, Daniel and Revelation (both Lawrence H. Mills and Mary Boyce have written extensively on this subject).
Thanks for the site and your views. I think anyone who does not seriously consider your arguments and professes to be a biblical scholar is simply fooling themselves.
Thanks for your great web site and your jesus puzzle work. The two new articles on Hebrews and Galatians were very welcome. I have spent the last half year examining these and the other "Pauline" letters. After reading your work and that of G. A. Wells, I decided to read the letters through and see how well the mythicist argument held up. It holds up very well.
I've been simply taken over by your web site, sir. I recently came across it and am so happy to have access to the wealth of material there. Thank you for your efforts. I love your way of reasoning, your writing voice has to be near-perfect, and the writing itself is quite clear and correct, a quality I appreciate as a copy editor. So far, for purely logical presentation, you are the man.
I'm a regular visitor to your website, and have enjoyed your articles and reviews. I accept your mythicist arguments (as much as I can understand without Greek skills), including your newest analysis of Hebrews.
I am a big fan of your work and consider your website to be a valuable source of information and enlightenment. I would especially like to thank you for turning me on to the “Testament of Man” series by Vardis Fisher (I had never heard of it until I visited your website). I located and purchased the books one by one through the ABE.com website and finished reading the series this past summer. Wow. Someone really needs to bring that series back into print.
Just a quick note to say 'Many thanks' for your website and all the valuable information contained in it. After being a fundamentalist in my teen years and then rejecting this and all religious belief, I have retained my interest in the subject. I was wholly 'converted' to G. A. Wells in the 1980s and therefore always welcome discussion from the Mythicist stance. I have heard numerous various Christian counter-arguments and as these invariably fail to produce anything useful and, sadly, are primarily devoted to unpleasant personal insult, these, to me, merely confirm the weakness of the Christian position on the historicity question.
Thanks so much for your excellent book, "Challenging The Verdict" and please, please, please tell me you plan on writing a book (or at least a review) on Lee's new book, "The Case for the Real Christ". Best wishes in our quest to find happiness and to avoid suffering.
[E.D.: I have no plans for a review. Once you've read one of Lee Strobel's books you've read them all, since he uses the same kind of devices and special pleading methods no matter what his specific subject matter, and once you've read one review exposing those devices, you can safely dismiss anything he has written. However, there is a very good amateur review on the web of his The Case for the Real Christ. Check out Paul Doland's http://www.caseagainstfaith
As a former Lutheran Pastor, who began to question as a result of NT studies in seminary, I have one thing to say to you: thank you.
My name is Nick, and i am writing to you from Athens, Greece. I have read your book 'The Jesus Puzzle' and i want to congratulate you for writing such a book. I am a devout Christian and i believe not only that Jesus existed, but also that he is God incarnate, although i have to admit that your argument for the non-existence of Jesus is worthy of serious consideration. Your book provides new insights and is thought provocative.
"In love with God" writes:
You have to be the dumbest person out there to blasphemy God. You won't be talking like this when your in hell burning. Its not too late to change your wicked ways. You make me sick to my stomache, all the hypocrites and blasphamers do. No respect for God, He is the reason you are alive.
As a former child member of a Christian cult (Armstrongism), I have made slow progression towards the realisation that religion is a purely human construct. Such things as the various inconsistencies in the gospels etc are never mentioned in churches. Yet even as a child I read and questioned them, yet no good answer was given to me as to why the "holy accounts" did not coincide. The evolution from brainwashed Christian to atheist has been slow and painful. It is still an issue of contention between members of my family.
I have read with interest your thesis The Jesus Puzzle. I have also recently finished "Forgery in Christianity" by Joseph Wheless. If your thesis is correct and Jesus never existed except as an abstract, then I must assume you agree with Wheless that the scriptures are "pious forgeries"; ie not written by who is claimed to have written them. Nor written early in the 1st century but are rather the product of doctrinal advancement in the 2nd century. For all intents and purposes, "forged" to reinforce the particular doctrines and authority favoured by the forger.
My question is this: Why do I see the dates of the Gospels creeping forward from the 130-180 CE indicated by Wheless (from the writings of Irenaeus) to 100 or even 90 CE by certain other writers, even critical writers? I realize that Wheless' work is old but his theories seem sound. I cannot believe that if "God's Holy Words" were floating around for nearly 90 years that none of the early church fathers would have mentioned them. Has new evidence of extant early manuscripts of Gospels been uncovered proving an earlier date?
I understand that the argument from silence is not considered conclusive. However, for myself the idea is simply too incredible that early religious fanatics would not have spouted from "Holy Gospels" and quoted them at length had they known of them at all.
Response to Ben:
When were the Gospels written?
Ben has opened up a large can of worms here. “When were the Gospels written?” may be the question which critical commentators would place at the very head of the list of most important and debatable issues in all of New Testament research. Those familiar with my writings will know that I do not subscribe to the very radical late dating of the Gospels (post-130 and beyond) held by the likes of Joseph Wheless or the Dutch Radical School of the 19th century, or moderns like Hermann Detering and Acharya S, and even Robert M. Price, but would place Mark in the late first century (the 90s, let's say, as does G. A. Wells, discussed below), with the other three canonicals following within the next few decades. The question is a complex one, involving other non-Gospel documents, and issues historical and theological within the Christian movement covering almost a century. To try to bring them all together into a detailed examination would be beyond the scope of this response. But perhaps we can look at a few key elements.
Traditional attempts at dating have been primarily dependent on the analysis of the Little Apocalypse of Mark chapter 13, which most mainstream scholars have regarded as referring to the upheaval of the Jewish War of 66-73 CE, centered on the destruction of the
and much of the city of Temple in 70. Its key element is the reference to the “abomination of desolation” (). A possible Jewish literary source used by Mark has been postulated as having originally referred to the threat by the emperor Caligula in 37 CE to set up a statue of himself for worship in the Jerusalem . Be that as it may (there is no direct evidence for such a document), Mark in creating his own text was drawing midrashically on Daniel 11:31 and 1 Maccabees 1:54, both of which use the phrase “abomination of desolation” to refer to the setting up of a pagan altar within the Temple sanctuary in the time of the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes (167 BCE), which led to the Maccabean revolt. (Antiochus also imposed the placement of pagan altars throughout Jerusalem Temple Judea.) It has been generally assumed that Mark in used the term to refer to the sacrilegious activities of the Romans in the when they conquered the city in 70 (though this appears not to have involved the setting up of a formal pagan altar). Temple
But there are difficulties here. The whole tone of Mark’s scene suggests that it is not a simple allusion to history placed in Jesus’ mouth in the form of a prophecy. If the event of the “abomination of desolation” lies in the writer’s—and the readers’—past, what is the purpose of the reference and especially its accompanying warnings? Why would Mark include it? Rather, it has the same content and atmosphere as other passages in the Synoptics (and in Q) in which prophecies are made about the future coming of the Son of Man, what can be expected when he arrives and how best to prepare for it ahead of time, even if one does not know the hour.
In other words, such prophecies are meant to enlighten and caution the reader, not to recount history. Indeed, Mark goes on to have Jesus prophecy about the coming of the Son of Man. And the insertion of an ‘aside’ at the very reference to the abomination of desolation—“let the reader understand”—is Mark’s alert to his readers that this is something cryptic, something the reader is going to have to interpret. There would be no necessity for this if Mark were simply having Jesus refer to a future (for him) historical event every reader was familiar with.
In such a context, in fact, the passage about the abomination of desolation and the urged response to it would make little sense. By the time the Romans have conquered
and desecrated the Jerusalem , the campaign would essentially be over, the country overrun. There would be no thought of a man being “on his roof” or out “in his field” attending to normal chores, with still time to flee to the mountains. Nor is it easy to understand why Mark would place such warnings and directives in Jesus’ mouth unless they were relevant to his own readers—unless they were directed at those readers, which could hardly be the case if the whole thing referred to an event in their past. Temple
To get around this problem, it is sometimes suggested that Mark was written in the years just prior to 70, when the war was building and the Gospel writer anticipated the event of the “abomination” and the necessity to flee. But this raises more problems than it solves. Even during the build-up, would the writer have truly anticipated the utter destruction of the
, “not one stone left upon another”? Would he have recommended waiting until such a climactic moment before fleeing to the hills? Would he, from such a vantage point, not have been likely to view the accelerating events he was witnessing as a sign that the End was indeed near, and thus would not have introduced earlier in the chapter broad hints that a certain amount of time after the throwing down of the Temple would be yet to pass before the final days, that following “battles near at hand and far away” (13:7) “the end is still to come”? That “the Gospel must be proclaimed to all nations” ()? It is hard to believe Mark would consider such a requirement to have been fulfilled by the year 66. For such reasons it is difficult also to place the Gospel shortly after 70, as traditional scholarship tends to. Thus, we need to look for another ‘event’ some time after 70 to which the “abomination of desolation” and its accompanying advice can refer and serve as a relevant warning to Mark’s readers to drop everything and flee. Temple
When stepping back and looking at the entirety of Jesus’ prophecy in Mark 13, we find that it is a curious mix, until we perceive that it conforms to traditional apocalyptic writing and devices. As in the classic example of the book of Daniel, written between 167 and 164 BCE while purporting to be the product of someone earlier (in this case the prophet Daniel some four centuries previously), the writer of Mark has included, as part of a prophecy by his Jesus some four decades before the fact, the destruction of the Temple in the Jewish War. The writer of the book of Daniel had his Daniel ‘predict’ historical events up to 167—predictions which of course had come true—in the hope that the readers would have faith in the additional prophecies being made for their own future after that date. Similarly, Mark ‘hooked’ the reader into thinking that the Jesus figure—or the movement he is meant to symbolize (we are not sure if Mark’s allegory-Gospel envisions a founder figure he believes existed)—had accurately predicted a future historical event; by this Mark hopes to convince the reader that his own prophecies about the arrival of the End time, beginning with the abomination of desolation, followed by dramatic celestial events and the arrival of the Son of Man as laid out in 13:24-27, can also be trusted to happen.
The lesser apocalyptic events outlined in 13:8-13, wars and earthquakes, false messiahs (repeated in v.21-3), floggings in synagogues, arrests, trials and betrayals, are likely also things that have already been happening, prophecies fulfilled, including between the Jewish War and “the end still to come.” But the abomination of desolation which Mark is predicting is yet to occur. The scene is clearly meant to have meaning for his readers, to serve as a warning for their own future. Its portrayed character seems quite specific, and we should presume that Mark has a real development in mind which he perceives as potentially imminent in his own environment.
And what was that environment? Here we face another difficulty, in that the writer directs Jesus’ warnings to “those in
Judea.” But is Mark writing to “Judeans”? After the War, actual Judeans were to a great extent dispersed, dead or enslaved. What “abomination” were they yet facing that they could flee from and save themselves? What Christians now inhabited Judea? Moreover, what members of a Jewish community would need the explanations for Jewish traditions which Mark supplies throughout his text? And why is it that the writer shows a misunderstanding of certain geographical features of Galileeif he were part of a Judean-based Jewish-Christian community? Such questions lead many to surmise that Mark was written outside , and for a readership of non-Jewish Christians. (However, there seems no need to push him as far away as Palestine , especially if we assume that Mark’s Q-like environment spells a locale not too far from Rome Galilee—probably , where we can see that the Kingdom-preaching movement embodied in Q had extended.) Syria
Thus we ought to conclude that the phrase “those in
Judea” does not refer to literal Judeans, but to Mark’s readership, as a kind of code phrase. It would be pointless to construct a prophetic scene out of scripture and have Jesus warning a group of people who had nothing to do with that readership. Perhaps the “people of Judea” was used by Mark’s community to highlight its self-understanding as the new people of God’s promise.
That the scene was inspired by scripture is clear from the passage in 1 Maccabees which contains key elements drawn on by Mark. King Antiochus had set up the “abomination of desolation” in the very Holy of Holies of the Temple, but he had also built pagan altars throughout the country and ordered the Jews on pain of death to worship the gods at them (1 Macc. 1:54). Mattathias and his five sons defy the King’s orders and start destroying the altars throughout
, killing apostates and the king’s officers. Then: Israel
“Follow me,” he shouted through the town, “every one of you who is zealous for the law and strives to maintain the covenant.” He and his sons took to the hills, leaving all their belongings behind in the town.” [2:27-8,
Mark borrows the latter thought in :
But when you see ‘the abomination of desolation’ usurping a place which is not his (let the reader understand), then those who are in
Judeamust take to the hills,
not stopping to take anything from the house, not even a coat. It has been suggested that a closely similar situation existed in the reign of Domitian (81-96), specifically around the year 90, when this emperor planned to force Jews—which would have included Christians, since the requirement applied to all Rome’s subjects—to participate in the rites of emperor worship. While we don’t know if there was any intention to set up special altars for the purpose, the parallel with the situation under Antiochus as recounted in 1 Maccabees is striking. Is this the “abomination of desolation” Mark is referring to, the threatened practice of pagan rites to be established in all the empire’s centers, which Christians could never agree to participate in? Mark, through Jesus’ symbolic prophecy, was warning his community about this imminent eventuality, this new abomination. Taking his cue from 1 Maccabees, he advised them to “flee into the hills” as Mattathias and his sons had done. It’s a compelling proposition. And it would place the writing of Mark no more than two decades following the horrors of the Jewish War, so resonant of the crisis surrounding Antiochus, a time when the idea that the End and the arrival of the Son of Man was around the corner could still have been alive and vivid. As well, in a location like
this resonance makes much better sense than a directive to Christians in Syria to flee into hills. Rome
G. A. Wells [The Historical Evidence for Jesus, p.108-112] presents this analysis in detail, drawing on E. A. Haenchen’s Der Weg Jesu. He says in part:
Haenchen argues, then, that what Mark envisaged was an attempt by a Roman emperor to force pagan worship on Christians, as Antiochus had done on his subjects. The Book of Revelation [E.D.: generally dated to the 90s as well] reckons with such a possibility. The point was not baldly stated, since open criticism of imperial power would have been dangerous not only for the author but also for the community in which his book was used. For this reason, Revelation’s author sometimes writes “
” when he means “ Babylon ,” and disparages an emperor without mentioning his name. But to make sure that he will nevertheless be understood, he several times insists that his readers should seek out the secret sense of his words (“If any man hath an ear, let him hear”; “Here is wisdom” for him “that hath understanding,” etc.). Rome
Haenchen argues that Mark had to be equally cautious of
, and for that reason adopted the same method of warning his readers that his message was in coded form (“let him that readeth understand”). And he decodes Mark’s message to read: As soon as preparations (that is, the setting up of an image or altar) are seen being made for a compulsory sacrifice to a pagan god or to the emperor himself—as soon, then, as the sacrilege is seen standing “where he ought not to be”—then those in Judea (that is, Christians) are to flee to the mountains. Rome Judeais named because Mark regards the coming Roman persecutions as fulfilling the prophecy of Daniel; he reproduces Daniel’s phrasing so as to be unintelligible except to his Christian readers, who will understand that, although only those in Judeaare mentioned, Christians anywhere in the Empire are meant…
Other features noted by Wells support the logic of a date around 90 for Mark’s composition of this chapter. But another interpretation has been raised by more radical scholarship, in keeping with the trend noted by Ben to date all the Gospels post-130 or even later. Could the abomination and the warning to flee refer to events of the second Jewish War/Revolt of 132-135 CE? By this reading, Hadrian’s establishment of pagan altars on the
mount after 130 became the “abomination of desolation” which Mark is referring to, and with the revolt under Bar Kochba taking shape in response, Mark is warning his readers to flee to the hills. In this case, “those in Temple Judea,” where the revolt started, would be meant literally.
This interpretation, however, encounters much the same difficulties as before. It is highly unlikely that Mark is writing in
Judeafor Judeans. If his readership is as far away as , or even only in Rome , there would be no need to urge people in those areas to take to the hills. The second war, as a rebellion and in terms of the Roman response, was more limited in scope and territory than the first one. Syria
Proponents of the later dating also point to the possibility floated at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt that the Temple, destroyed 60 years earlier, could be rebuilt, and that this is what Jesus is alluding to when in Mark 14:58 he is accused at his trial of having said: “I will throw down this temple, made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” Is this meant to be a prophecy of the Bar Kochba situation, when Jews were holding out the expectation that the
would be rebuilt? (This would require that Mark wrote before the failure of the revolt by 135.) Temple
Yet this requires a serious contravention of the words of the statement itself. First of all, the rebuilding of the
after 60 years is hardly “three days later,” and Jesus is saying that it is himself who will do the building, and not “with hands.” The prophecy clearly bears a spiritual significance, with the three days no doubt referring to his resurrection. It should also be asked why any Christian would have an interest in seeing the Jewish Temple rebuilt, to resume the old sacrifices which Jesus’ own sacrificial death had supposedly supplanted. Mark would be very unlikely to purposely associate Jesus’ prophetic intentions with the rebuilding of the Temple , especially at a time when Christianity had made a complete break with Judaism and there was mostly bad blood between the two groups. Temple
Associating Mark 13 with the second Jewish War of the 130s is problematic enough to be denied credence. Besides which, there are difficulties of a more general nature associated with such a late date. By 130, apocalyptic expectations among Christian’s had receded. The Gospel of Luke, for example, downplays any immediacy for the future Parousia of Christ, whereas for Mark the event was almost around the corner. And yet, if Mark was written no earlier than 132, this means that the other two Synoptics, and even John, would have had to follow as redactions of Mark almost immediately, within a handful of years. By the 140s, Marcion was operating in
and putting together his canon of authoritative documents in support of his own theology. It featured a shorter version of the Gospel of Luke (probably the postulated Ur-Luke later doctored and expanded by the Roman Church around or just after the middle of the 2nd century). Justin, hardly a few years later, was speaking of, and quoting from, multiple accounts he called “memoirs of the Apostles.” The fragment P52 of the Gospel of John, usually dated about 125—though around 150 would be a more cautious and reasonable ‘mean’ date—would indicate that at least an early version would have been in existence no later than the second quarter of the century. Rome
This would mean that all of the four Gospels would have to be crammed into a window of composition not much longer than a decade. Since it is assumed that they were not all composed in the same center, this would necessitate an immediate and rapid distribution of copies of Mark to most major Christian communities and its equally immediate transformation into other divergent versions. This is something which is hardly suggested by the dearth of witness to the Gospel story in many centers even well past the mid-point of the century. To get around that, some radical scholars have suggested that in fact Marcion’s version of Luke was the original Gospel, a suggestion too problematic to seriously countenance. One of the things it requires is that Mark was actually later, and not the first Gospel; but Mark as a drastically reduced version of Luke or Matthew cannot hold water.
As well, the mid to late 2nd century dating of all the Gospels has required that other early Christian documents be judged as forgeries and placed beyond the mid-century mark as well. This includes 1 Clement and the epistles of Ignatius, since these are regarded as showing at least a basic knowledge of some Gospel elements. (Here, I believe the latter view is weakly supported, at least in terms of elements that would have been derived from circulating written documents. The Ignatian epistles in their simpler, “Shorter” recension may be forgeries, but written not too long after his death.) The epistle of Polycarp, perhaps from the 130s, also shows signs of Gospel knowledge, as does, rather crudely, the epistle of Barnabas from roughly the same time. But when most of these documents are pushed past the mid-century in the interests of supporting the radical late dating of the Gospels, we get the sense that the whole structure has become unwieldy, an unstable contrivance. When it is occasionally suggested that even the works of Justin are a later forgery (I've even encountered the same for Irenaeus), the whole thing verges on the outrageous.
Firm attestation of written Gospels is admittedly late, in Justin (150s) and by inference in Marcion a few years earlier, but this in itself cannot determine the date of composition; especially since modern scholarly dismantling of the Gospels to reveal their midrashic non-historical nature points to a situation in which they could well have been written decades earlier as allegorical works, known within a limited range of communities but not to emerge into the wider light of Christian knowledge until they began to gain traction as historical documents, relevant to a newly-imagined genesis of the faith. (I regard Ignatius’ basic Gospel biography of Jesus, from sometime between 107 and 120, let's say, as “rumors” of an historical Jesus based on a Mark or Matthew beginning to make waves from somewhere beyond his own community of Antioch, since Ignatius makes no appeal to a written document in support of his Jesus crucified under Pilate and fails to make mention of any teachings or miracles attributed to him.) A date of Mark around 90, with Matthew following perhaps a decade later, Luke a decade or so after that, and John not too much beyond the Synoptic group, would fit all the details of the picture which early Christianity presents, including knowledge of the Gospel ‘events.’ Only by the year 180, as witnessed in the writings of Irenaeus, did all four crystallize as canonical, having passed through a certain amount of editing by the Roman Church and acquiring the names of their newly-imagined authors.
Ben is puzzled by the fact that Christians did not quote from these “Holy Gospels” soon after they were written, if the proposal for their earlier composition is correct. But one cannot quote from something which has not reached one yet, or is not regarded as something representing the words and deeds of an historical person.
I've been a long-time reader of your website and have e-mailed you in the past and you've even posted a couple of my posts along with your responses on your Feedback page. I puzzle over your interpretation of "according to the flesh" in Romans 1:3. You say it refers to "the realm of flesh" in the upper heavenly spheres of Platonic cosmology. But the same phrase is used in Romans 9:3 where Paul clearly means that he is biologically related to his Jewish brethren. In Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22 the authors use the phrase to refer to the masters of slaves. In 2 Corinthians and 10:2 the phrase refers to the carnal, unspiritual nature of man. Isn't the most logical reading of the phrase in Romans 1:3 that Jesus was a real man who (Paul claims) was literally descended from King David?
Also, your reading of the passage in Hebrews 13:11-13 seems counter-intuitive in the same way. If Jesus being executed "outside the camp [I think Doug meant to say 'gate' here]" was a mythological derivation from the sacrifices offered by priests in the days of
's wandering in the wilderness then why didn't the author just say Jesus was also executed "outside the camp"? Instead, he writes "outside the gate." You speculate that he suggests in verse 13 that Christians are outsiders in the same sense that Jesus was. I gather you mean that in the first century outcast Christians were "outside the gate" because in those days the Jews lived in walled cities rather than camps. But if that is the case then why, in verse 13, does the author go right back to saying "outside the camp"? It seems obvious to me that he speaks of Jesus killed "outside the gate" because he was in fact a real man who was crucified right outside the walls of Israel . Jerusalem
Response to Doug:
Romans 1:3 and "kata sarka"Again / Outside the Gate (Hebrews 13:11-13)
Romans 1:3, seconded by Galatians 4:4’s “born of woman,” is the passage most often appealed to when challenging or questioning the mythicist case and my own especially. On the latter passage, I have increasingly over the years leaned toward regarding it as an interpolation, and my most recent Supplementary Article, “Born of Woman?,” explains why and discusses the matter in detail. However, I do not regard Romans 1:3 as an interpolation, but it is the passage whose explanation in the context of my case is most consistently misunderstood. I will make another effort to try to clarify.
First let me repeat two points I have regularly made. If biography, this would be the only such reference Paul ever makes about an historical Jesus (allowing that 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 is an interpolation—on which many critical scholars agree—and 1 Timothy 6:13 is part of a 2nd century document, not by Paul; in any case, the latter too may be an interpolation—see the Appendix to Article No. 3, Who Crucified Jesus?). Since there is no identifiable reason why Paul should refer to Jesus’ historical descent from David in the context of Romans 1, this would be an odd singularity. However, it is not so odd if we draw on that context to explain the reference and its source.
Romans 1:2 makes it clear that Paul is speaking of the source of his gospel about Jesus: namely, the “gospel of God...about his Son” as found in the prophets. The descent of the Messiah from David is a prominent element of traditional Jewish prophecy, and Paul is stating that he has derived such information about Christ from those prophecies. Since it is in scripture, he is led to apply it to his spiritual Christ, even if it originally applied to a human man. How he conceives of that relationship between Christ and David is not clear to us, but such a connection is not impossible, given what we know about ancient mythical thinking and the relationship between heaven and earth and between spiritual and material counterparts in Platonic-style cosmology. We don’t know even if he had any clear understanding of it in his own mind, or was simply relying on scripture as pointing to some cryptic truth. The fact that he pairs this relationship to David with an obviously scriptural and spiritual ‘event’ in verse 4 also persuades us that the former is a scriptural and spiritual conception as well, having no necessary connection to an historical tradition about an historical person.
What, then, of the “kata sarka”? Here in particular there is usually a misunderstanding of my treatment of this phrase. I have never said, contrary to Doug, that it represents “the upper heavenly spheres of Platonic cosmology.” As we know, it is usually translated as “according to the flesh,” but what does that mean? The phrase is used in a variety of contexts, as Doug suggests, and the natural reading is that it refers to flesh of the fleshly realm, that is, the realm that humans are a part of. Sometimes the word “sarx” can be a reference to actual humanity, as in Romans 9:3, or more loosely to aspects of being human, as in 2 Corinthians 5:16, where the phrase does not refer to Christ’s ‘flesh’ but to the “human standards” by which people like Paul have previously judged Christ.
This is not to say that the term sarx does not at times refer to Christ’s own—spiritual—flesh (more on this shortly). In regard to the phrase “kata sarka” itself, in The Jesus Puzzle (p.122) I allowed that it could in certain places, like other phrases using sarx, signify Christ taking on “the spiritual counterpart of flesh.” (Scholars do acknowledge such a concept and use of the word: see The Jesus Puzzle, p.103 and the latest edition of Bauer’s Lexicon.) But I have since moved away from that option for “kata sarka” itself (and I trust I am allowed to change or refine my position on some things over eight years) to focus on the other interpretation I offered. “According to the flesh,” while woolly, primarily suggests the meaning that would be conveyed by the translation “in relation to the flesh,” “in regard to the flesh,” “as affecting the flesh,” etc. One can see that here the word itself is not a reference to Christ’s own (spiritual) flesh, but rather to humanity, to the fleshly material realm. It is Christ’s relationship with that realm which is at issue.
Thus we need to analyze Romans 1:3 from the point of view of a meaning not of ‘Christ in his own flesh was of David’s seed,’ but rather ‘Christ in relation to David and the realm of flesh was of his seed.’ The difference is significant because the concept no longer hangs on literal or standard meanings of the word “flesh.” The word itself can be allowed to assume its usual meaning, as a reference to humanity and the fleshly sphere. In relation to humanity and its sphere (“kata sarka”) Christ possesses or has assumed a certain character having to do with David. The knowledge of that character has been derived from scripture. Believers like Paul in a spiritual Son of God discovered in scripture have applied, of necessity, characteristics to him which scripture has revealed, such as a relationship to David, and (possibly, if it is not an interpolation) the “birth” from a woman in Galatians 4:4, derived from Isaiah 7:14.
As I said, these concepts would not be impossible in the context of Platonic mythology, though again, we cannot know just how Paul and the early Christians understood them. The epistles are full of references to “mysteries” of God that have been revealed, including the mystery/secret of Christ, and we can point to a subsequent “mystery” which Christianity has accepted without understanding it, namely the Trinity. Given the evolution of the concept of Jesus, the Trinity doctrine became necessary in order to make room for Jesus in a monotheistic Godhead. It is no more outlandish to think that early Christians accepted the spiritual Christ’s relationship to the human David simply because it, too, was necessary: scripture said so, and that scriptural designation had to be applied to their heavenly Son and Messiah.
In the matter of Romans 1:3, I have further suggested (taking a cue from C. K. Barrett, something which is regularly misunderstood as well) that “kata sarka,” in its meaning of ‘in relation to the flesh,’ could also envision that “flesh” in a locational sense, as “in the sphere of the flesh,” to use Barrett’s phrase and give it a more pronounced locational meaning than he probably intended. Since the ancients had greater associations of location than we do in distinguishing between flesh and spirit and the inhabitants of both, the activities performed by spiritual beings which affected humanity—and particularly if they involved suffering and death—belonged to a specific lower area of the universe, usually located below the moon. Paul is not clear about the exact location of Christ’s crucifixion, but there are certain indicators (such as 1 Corinthians 2:8) that he, and others, regarded the agency of that crucifixion as the demon spirits. They were denizens of that “sphere of flesh” below the moon, inhabiting the firmament or “air” up to the region of the moon and possessing their own kind of material corporeality, though not of human flesh. (Again, see The Jesus Puzzle, p.103.)
Thus, the thought behind Romans 1:3 could include the idea of Jesus’ redeeming activity when he had descended to the realm of fleshly corruptibility, which did not have to be all the way to earth itself. It was in this context that he was seen as possessing his scripture-revealed relationship to David. In traditional Jewish thought the Messiah, as descendant of David, would be the savior of Israel, and so, as Savior, Christ in that role which he assumed upon his descent into the realm of flesh may have been conceived as being “of David’s seed,” as scripture indicated. There is also a wide spectrum of meaning, from literal to symbolic, in which that relationship to David could have been interpreted, and from the brief and cryptic reference in 1:3 we cannot tell where along such a spectrum early Christian thought lay. “Kata sarka” can be used in metaphorical ways in other contexts, such as the common reference in the epistles to “walking kata sarka,” i.e., living and behaving according to the ways of the flesh (e.g., 2 Cor. 10:2-3), or judging by worldly standards, or acting according to one’s baser nature. It can describe the human condition or a state of mind. It is hardly a stretch to assume the possibility of an equally symbolic intention in Romans 1:3. The savior of Israel would be a “son of David,” and just as “son of God” was applied to many people in a non-literal sense, Jesus as the seed of David may also have been meant in a non-literal way, especially when scripture had to be accommodated. In the excerpt below, I point out that gentiles are spoken of as “of Abraham’s seed” in a sense that is not meant to designate literal physical lineage.
In regard to the locational sense behind this verse, we can postulate the same in the first line of the christological hymn of 1 Timothy 6:13, which uses a variant of kata sarka:
“who was revealed in flesh [en sarki]…”
This need not be a reference to Jesus’ own flesh, but to the realm of flesh, of humanity: he was revealed to humans within their own sphere. The hymn goes on to say nothing about an earthly career and specifies that he was seen only “by angels” and “was proclaimed throughout the world,” with no mention of him proclaiming himself or anything else in his own voice. (Compare also 1 Peter 3:18.)
In the upcoming second edition of The Jesus Puzzle I will be providing a new and lengthy study of the use of the term “sarx” in the epistles and how this can lead us to non-literal and non-human interpretations of certain characteristics given to Christ. For now, I will quote an excerpt from that planned Appendix here, where it focuses on Romans 1:3…
I outlined earlier that several usages of “sarx” do not describe flesh per se, but relationships: between humans, and between humanity and divinity. Thus Paul says (Romans 9:3) that the Jews are his “kinsmen according to the flesh (kata sarka)”; Abraham is “our forefather according to the flesh (kata sarka).” Since the phrase should be entirely superfluous and unnecessary, we can only assume that Paul uses it because in his thinking the human world contains other relationships that are not according to the flesh—such as the one between Abraham and the gentiles who are his “seed”: a mystical linkage based on faith and being “in Christ,” not on any necessary physical lineage. (See Romans 9:8, “the children of the promise [i.e., Paul’s gentiles] are regarded as [Abraham’s] seed,” the latter word being the same as the one used in 1:3.)
We can also note that in Galatians 3:16, Paul declares Christ to be Abraham’s “seed” through a rather tortured exegesis of scripture dependent on the word “seed” being in the singular. Since he can bring the gentiles into this “seed” equation through their mystical link to Christ, it would seem that Paul is designating Christ as “seed” of Abraham in a similar mystical fashion, dependent on scripture. If he had meant it literally, he need merely have proclaimed it through human genealogical channels, as Matthew and Luke were to do. His strained use of scripture would have been unnecessary.
If humans can have a relationship to humans mystically, as in the case of the gentiles being of Abraham’s seed, then there should be even less impediment to seeing Christ, a spiritual entity, also having a relationship to a human figure in the same way: mystically. We have just seen it in regard to Christ’s relationship to Abraham. Christ being of David’s seed should be no less feasible, no less non-literal. The concept is arrived at through mystical thinking, and is derived from scripture. Why does Paul in Romans 1:3 use “kata sarka”? Because here Christ has a relationship with the inferior world of humanity. It is ‘in relation to a human being.’ Note that in the next verse, we have its opposite counterpart: a relationship on the level of spirit. Christ relates to God as his Son “kata pneuma.” The “according to the spirit” is cryptic here, because it adds the phrase “of holiness,” and it has been an unresolved question as to whether this is a reference to the Holy Spirit or to the spiritual venue of the event, the spiritual realm of heaven.
These two verses may also be a pre-Pauline liturgical unit, which by its nature (and the demands of poetic structure) imposed a “kata sarka / kata pneuma” dichotomy upon the text, so that we cannot know the exact intention or understanding behind the first phrase, or even if there was much of either. Also, as discussed in Chapter 8, the lead-in of verse 2 makes it clear that Paul is assigning the source of both these items to scripture, to the gospel of God about his Son as pre-announced in the prophets. We do not need to assume that Paul invented or repeated these words with any concrete comprehension of what it meant for a spiritual being to be “of David’s seed.”
That Christ could be regarded as “of David’s seed” in a way that was not a literal earthly lineage should be evident once an historical Jesus arrived on the scene. There is a secondary reading of Acts 2:30 which speaks of Christ as a “descendant” of David kata sarka who would gain the throne of
. Since the author of Acts belonged to the line of thought that Jesus was born of a virgin, he was thus not being presented as a literal descendant of David. Ignatius does the same thing in his epistle to the Smyrneans: he declares (1:1) that Christ was “of the line of David according to the flesh (kata sarka),” yet in the same sentence declares him born of a virgin (something derived from Isaiah , with its “young woman” mistranslated in the Septuagint as “virgin”). This should have ruled out any understanding of Jesus as a literal human descendant of David. Ancient and modern apologists have subsequently come up with the idea that Jesus was a descendant of David through Mary. But ancient royal lineage was not through the female. And when Matthew and Luke came to invent lineages for Jesus, they presented the line of descent not as through Mary but through Joseph, even if he was only Jesus’ nominal father. But ‘adoption’ would have been an even weaker linkage, and just as unacceptable. And yet Irenaeus and Tertullian both state that Jesus’ descent from David was through Mary, even in the absence of any such genealogy and in contradiction to Matthew and Luke’s genealogy. Thus Christians for two millennia have been faced with an unresolvable conundrum. If those ancient Christians were able to accept and live with such an irrational contradiction, they would surely have been able to accept the equal conundrum of a spiritual Christ being of the “seed” of David. In both cases, they were kowtowing to scripture. Israel
Throughout this book, I have been stressing the concept of scripture itself being the embodiment of the ‘event’ of Christ. He and his activities have been “revealed” through a new reading of scripture, and apparently solely from scripture. From there one discovers information about him—even including what he “says.” Hebrews 10:5 assigns him a “body” for sacrifice because it said so in Psalm 40:6-8 (LXX), which the author quotes, understanding it as the voice of Christ speaking from scripture. (That’s the ‘speaker’ he refers to in 1:2 as the voice of God in these “last days.”) Even in 5:7, the writer has Christ performing things “in the days of his flesh” which are drawn from scripture. 1 Peter 4:1 has him “suffering” (which had to be in “flesh,” not in spirit) because Isaiah 53 told him so, and that is the source he appeals to in -23. There is no oral tradition or historical memory in evidence. Through such revelation Christ has “come” in the present time, which is why so many of the references in the early non-Gospel record talk of Christ in the present tense. As Bishop Lightfoot observed in regard to 1 Clement over a century ago, they know him as a present phenomenon rather than as an historical man of the past, memories of whom guide and enrich the community. Thus, Christ is “of the seed of David” because it said so—even using those very words—in many messianic passages of scripture now identified with the spiritual Christ. And maybe that was simply that.
If Christ can be seen as having a mystical relationship with David and Abraham, he can be seen as having a mystical relationship with
as a whole. If he can be seen as in some way of the seed of David kata sarka, he can have some connection to Israel kata sarka as well. Again, there was no need for the early Christian cult to understand exactly what this meant. The general concept of spiritual-material parallels between heaven and earth would aid in accepting it in principle if not through comprehension. And since the thought of people like Paul already contained so much of a mystical nature that could hardly be rationally explained, such as the inclusion of humans in the spiritual “body” of Christ, why should anyone have balked at Romans 1:3? Israel
As for Doug’s query about “outside the camp/gate” in Hebrews 13:11-13, he has apparently not yet read Part 3 of my recent study of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which I discuss these verses at some length. I will reproduce a key passage of it here:
The “camp” is the camp of the Israelites at Sinai. First of all, a change from this word would again be needed no matter what, because the writer could hardly specify that Jesus had suffered outside this “camp.” Jesus did not suffer and die at Sinai, or at any other “camp.” A parallel governed by scripture would still have to specify some other location; it is the “outside” that is the essential part of the parallel. And what “gate” might the author have had in mind? Since the “outside” at Sinai is related to the “inside” where the animal was sacrificed, we may suppose that the “outside” in Jesus’ case was similarly related to the “inside” where he offered his own sacrifice, the latter being the heavenly sanctuary, or simply heaven itself where the sanctuary was located. If his thought was governed by the scriptural precedent, then in order to reflect a proper parallel with the sacrificed animal, the “outside” in Jesus’ case must refer to heaven. Outside
would have had nothing to do with it, since Jesus’ offering of his blood did not take place inside Jerusalem . And Jesus did indeed have to suffer and die “outside” heaven, since he could not undergo such experiences within heaven itself. Thus, we may presume the strong possibility that in the writer’s mind the “gate” refers to the gate of heaven. Jerusalem
Why, then, did the author revert to “camp” in verse 13? Well, he could not maintain the reference to heaven, since he could hardly suggest that the readers join Christ outside heaven. Nor, on the other hand, could they join him outside the Sinai camp. But the writer has made certain parallels between the situation of the Israelites and that of his own community, and he implies one in verse 14, in that both they and the Israelites are, for now, homeless, seeking a
. The present community is outside the pale, not belonging to this world. And so was Jesus outside his own home when he underwent death. The thought of “joining Jesus outside” would reflect a paradigmatic relationship between Christ and his devotees, in which both share similar experiences of separation and suffering. new city
Furthermore, if “gate” had been the gate of
, there should have been no reason not to continue that motif. Both writer and readers could readily have envisioned joining Jesus on Jerusalem Calvary“outside the gate of ,” even if only in spirit. There they could be seen to suffer together. Verse 14 even speaks of a “city,” or rather of two cities, the worldly one they have left behind, the other the one to come, the heavenly Jerusalem . The former city would have fitted perfectly with the earthly Jerusalem , outside of which the community could have joined Jesus. Yet the author does not continue the “gate” idea. This virtually rules out the thought that in the previous verse he has the gate of Jerusalem in mind, and supports the idea that it is the gate of heaven. And so he was forced to revert to “camp,” even though—as in so many of his attempts—the parallel was imperfect. But at least the Sinai camp, being in the wilderness, far from home between the old Jerusalem and the new Promised Land, would bear a similarity to the situation the believers felt themselves in. And so the motif was pressed into service, an analogy that was, perhaps, “not meant to be pressed,” although envisioning themselves within their own ‘camp’ in which they temporarily set up abode (like the Israelites) while awaiting entry to the Promised Land, would not be a stretch. In getting inside the writer’s mind, of course, we can only speculate, but even speculation can be rooted in the text and in logical deduction. Egypt
Why would you avoid looking at Revelation 13:8 which says Jesus was crucified before the world was made? Wouldn't that help your argument? To me, it goes nicely with the idea of Paul, 1st Clement and Colossians all saying that Jesus was the firstborn of the dead (how could he be if he is the Jesus in the Gospels?), but being killed before the world began he WOULD be the first to come back from the dead.
Response to Tim:
Revelation 13:8 - When was Jesus slain?
Revelation 13:8 (literally):
And there will worship him all those dwelling on the earth
whose name has not been written
in the scroll of life of the Lamb who was slain
from the foundation of the world.
Grammatically, the Greek is ambiguous. It could be the ‘names’ written from the foundation of the world, or the ‘slaying of the Lamb.’ Many translations make a note of the ambiguity, but most opt for the former meaning. Perhaps it is the more natural reading in the context of Revelation as a whole, which speaks of the predestined salvation of the elect, as recorded in the sealed scroll (ch. 5-7). Such ideas usually include the principle that such predestination has been decided by God since the beginning of time.
In English, an uninflected language, we can sometimes have difficulty formulating sentences to make clear the relationship between different elements in them. Greek, being inflected, has less difficulty in maintaining the sense of those relationships within a long and complex sentence, although in Revelation 13:8, there is no inflection in the final phrase that can be grammatically linked to one or the other of the possible antecedents. But the ambiguity lies as much in the English translation as in the Greek original. The structure of Greek phrasing places “slain” after the noun it modifies, “tou arniou tou esphagmenou” (lit., “the lamb the having been slain”). But if we translated the third line above as: “in the scroll of life of the slain Lamb” there would be less incentive for our minds to link “from the foundation of the world” with the antecedent “slain.”
Interestingly, there is a classic ambiguity present in a passage which is very pertinent to Tim’s query. He is suggesting the point that if Jesus, according to one reading of Revelation 13:8, was killed at the foundation of the world (in a mythical spiritual context), this would cast light on what various writers have in mind by saying that Jesus was “firstborn of the dead,” since he would be the first to die, and be resurrected. He calls attention to Colossians 1:18. In the hymn about the Son (1:15-20), 1:18 says:
...he is the beginning, the firstborn [prōtotokos] from the dead...
1 Corinthians 15:20 has a similar thought:
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, firstfruit [aparchē] of those who have fallen asleep.
Tim is right in suggesting that the concept of Jesus dying and rising at the time of the foundation of the world would, in one way, fit well with the mythicist case. If that mythical redeeming act took place outside the boundaries of material space and time, it could have happened at any ‘temporal’ point. Traditional myths of the gods were generally placed in a primordial time at the ‘beginning’ of things, or sometimes simply in a remote and undefined past. But with the arrival of Platonism and the concept of divine activities being acted out in a higher spiritual realm, temporality became in a sense timeless. However, early Christian thought does seem to place Jesus’ salvific acts at a point ‘subsequent’ to certain historical events in Jewish history, even if they do not or cannot locate them at a specific subsequent point in time, or at some equivalent point to lower-world temporality. But we have to keep in mind that ancient mythological concepts did not—and certainly do not for us—lend themselves well to rational, scientific analysis, and whatever intuitive grasp the ancients may have thought they had on the subject is something we can no longer share. It is also possible that they regarded Christ’s acts as ‘subsequent’ simply in terms of the revelation and application of those acts. Christ would be the “second Adam” because the applied consequences of his acts postdate the consequences of the acts of Adam. 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” This in itself would not preclude the act of Christ from which that consequence proceeds as having occurred even before Adam’s existence. It is not the “when” of Christ’s redeeming act which matters, it is the “now” of it, as revealed and applied through apostles like Paul. This is something we can see throughout the epistles. The event of Christ’s death and rising is relegated to some undetermined past, never historically specified, while the focus is placed on the present-time revelation of that act by God and the benefits now available from it. My recent Article on “Born of Woman”? examines that very feature of the Galatians 4 passage.
The passage pertinent to Tim’s query, and to my own examination of the question of when Jesus was conceived to have performed his act of redemption, is 2 Timothy 1:9-10, for it seems to present the concept that Jesus performed that act “before time began,” (pro chronōn aiōniōn, lit., “before times eternal”). The meaning of that Greek phrase is unclear; biblical commentators cannot agree on just what the writer has in mind here. (See The Jesus Puzzle, p.118-119.) But it seems to be speaking of a dimension that lies outside or before the span of world history, the spiritual sphere of God. The question is, what is it that took place there? Here is the layout of the passage, and I’ll note the grammatical ambiguity I referred to earlier which is entailed in it, an ambiguity which in fact has an effect on our interpretation of the issue being discussed.
8 ...the gospel according to the power of God [theou, in the genitive case]
9 the one having saved [tou sōsantos, in the genitive case, referring back to “God”]
us and called us to holiness,
not from any merit of ours but according to his own purpose and grace,
which was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time
[lit., before times eternal, pro chronōn aiōniōn],
10 but now manifested [i.e., God’s grace] by the revelation [epiphaneias]
of our Savior, Christ Jesus [Xristou Iēsou, in the genitive],
having abrogated [katargēsantos, in the genitive] death
and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel...
The ambiguity resides in the “having abrogated,” “katargēsantos” in the genitive case. Does it refer back to the immediately preceding “Christ Jesus” or does it look all the way back to the end of verse 8 (it’s all one big happy sentence in the Greek), to “God”? As such it would be in parallel to the whole of verse 9 and part of 10, which is introduced by “the one having saved us” which refers back to God. The distance and intervening material is not technically a problem for Greek because inflections help keep track of things, and the ambiguity may arise simply by the accident that the intervening thoughts end with a noun which also happens to be in the genitive.
This reading would fit well within the context as a whole, for the writer is speaking about the actions of God. Verse 9 speaks of God doing the “saving,” in parallel with the similar thought in the latter part of verse 10, the “abrogating” of death, etc. Moreover, that the writer is intending God as the performer of this second action is virtually required by the means cited for it: “through the gospel,” which for Paul and the pseudo-Pauls is always a product of God, a gospel received from him through revelation (the “brought to light” also points to knowledge revealed). It would indeed be odd for the writer to be saying that Christ abrogated death and brought life and immortality to light “through the gospel,” which in the immediately following verse 11 is the gospel assigned to Paul, not to Jesus.
Thus we can see that once again, consistent with so many other expressions in the epistles, the redeeming acts of Jesus are relegated to some indeterminate time and place, and he and those acts are spoken of as having been “revealed” (epiphaneia can be taken in its sense of the revelation or manifestation of a god, rather than as a physical, historical “appearance” implying incarnation). Instead, the focus is on the benefits of those acts now being applied, through a new revelation granted by God to people like Paul. This is in complete sync with the analysis of Galatians 4 I mentioned above.
But now to pro chronōn aiōniōn. What is it that is located there, before times eternal? Grammatically speaking, it is God’s “purpose and grace.” Does this mean that God merely formulated his purpose at or before the beginning of time, or did the redeeming act of Jesus take place at that point, with its benefits stored up to be revealed and used at a future time? On the other hand, it could be maintained that only the “grace” is being said to have been given pro chronōn aiōniōn, since “given” is in the singular, and because it is awkward to speak of “purpose” as being “given.” But what does it mean to say that God’s grace could be given before times eternal? Would this imply that the grace was created (if not yet bestowed) through the performance of Christ’s act? If that act transpired in the heavens at the hands of the demon spirits, it needed only the creation of those heavens and spirits in order to take place, with God and a pre-existent Son acting with foreknowledge even before the occurrence of the Fall for which it would serve as a redemption. On the other hand, would such a gleaned meaning be compatible with the temporal implications of other references to Jesus’ redeeming act elsewhere in the epistles?
One could argue on both sides of the uncertain meaning behind this part of verse 9. But if the possibility inherent in its ambiguity were workable, this passage could further lend support to Tim’s suggestion that Christ’s mythical acts could conceivably be located prior to the creation of the world, in a mythical and timeless dimension. Certainly, the evident exclusion from specific and recent history, which this passage and others in the epistles present to us, is a strong indication that such acts were, at the very least, envisioned to lie outside the time and location of material human history. In a world of myth.
In the second edition of The Jesus Puzzle, I will be examining in depth the 2 Timothy passage and others, in order to try to answer the question of where and when Jesus died.
I have enjoyed your website enormously over the last few years and have learned more about the bible and christianity from you than I ever did from all those Sunday sermons I heard while I was growing up.
I have a couple of questions about the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul is relating the words of Jesus at the last supper, I understand that Paul seems to be referring to something that he received through revelation and not through human channels. But on the night that Jesus supposedly spoke those words, to whom was he supposedly speaking to? Who was there to hear the command to "Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." How is this interpreted in the cosmic christ belief?
Also, when Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:8 that Jesus appeared to him even though he was "untimely born", what does Paul mean by this? This seems like an odd thing to say since Paul was supposedly a contemporary of Jesus.
Response to Keith:
Jesus' Audience in 1 Corinthians 11:23 / Paul an "Abortion" (1 Cor. 15:8)
The words introducing this passage “For I received from the Lord” identify what Paul is about to say as the product of personal revelation. Apologists, but also regular scholars, try to find ways to get around this, but it’s pretty clear that Paul would not be claiming this as his own personal knowledge derived from a revelation to himself if such knowledge was circulating throughout the Christian community in oral tradition. He would look pompous and foolish. Besides, we can find no mention of the Gospel Last Supper, or Jesus’ reputed words on such an occasion, anywhere else in early Christian documents before the Gospels. It is notably missing in Hebrews, 1 Clement and the Didache. The latter document even contains the description of a Christian thanksgiving meal, but there is no sacramental significance attached to the bread and wine, let alone words of Jesus linking them with his body and blood. This void would suggest that no such tradition was floating about, and that Paul’s implication of direct knowledge from his heavenly Christ is the right interpretation.
Most attempted explanations of the phrase claim that the use of the preposition “apo” (from the Lord) signifies that Jesus was the ultimate source of these words, that Paul did not receive them directly from him but through oral transmission—as opposed to a use of the preposition “para” which would have signified direct reception. But this distinction was not universally adhered to, even in the New Testament. (See my Article No. 6, The Source of Paul’s Gospel, for a full discussion of this matter.) In any case, the claim founders upon Paul’s very clear declaration that “I received from the Lord,” which looks to allow for no intermediaries. Bauer’s Lexicon makes this admission: “Probably 1 Cor. is to be understood in the same way [i.e., as the previous definition: ‘hear from someone’s mouth, i.e., from him personally’]; Paul is convinced that he is taught by the Lord himself.”
Paul’s discussion of the communal meal shared by the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10 and 11) indicates that they already regarded the bread and wine as a “participation” in the body and blood of Christ (), and Paul in is reminding them of something he has already told them. It is quite possible that the whole sacramental significance of the meal is his product, part of his preaching message. He is likely building on a thanksgiving meal of Jewish origin, but such a practice was also common among pagan cults. Most of the mysteries had them, and it was also common to regard such a meal as having been established by the god, in some mythical setting. Such things are foundation myths, meant to explain and justify a group’s practices and rituals. Some mind at some point came up with them, or carried them further, and there is no good reason to reject the idea that we may well have identified the mind that was responsible in this case.
The cult of Mithras had a meal modeled on the mythical meal shared by Mithras and Helios the sun god following Mithras’ slaying of the bull, in which the two deities made a covenant between themselves. That meal is depicted on many Mithraic monuments and meeting places. Was it regarded as having taken place in some dimension of reality? That would be difficult to say, but it certainly served to symbolize something. Unfortunately, we have no Mithraic writings to enlighten us. Is Paul in 1 Corinthians recounting a scene he believes actually happened somewhere? What exactly has the Lord revealed to him? We need to realize that Paul is seeking to counter the Corinthians’ objectionable behavior at their meal by stressing its sacramental significance. He has been under pressure to come up with something. Has the ready example of sacred meals in the cultic atmosphere of the time (he refers to the “table of demons” in ), along with traditions of the divine establishment of such meals, led him to dream up a foundation scene of his own?
What do his words of the Lord constitute? Quite possibly they are the words that Paul himself would have spoken about such matters to people like the Corinthians. He could well have said to them, “This bread is the Lord’s body, on your behalf; when you break it you do so in remembrance of him. This cup represents the new covenant in his blood; when you drink it, you do so in remembrance of him.” He could then have converted such words into words of Jesus, changing the pronouns accordingly.
Keith asks, who is the Lord speaking to? Well, Paul does not say that he was speaking to his disciples. Nor does he really need to have envisioned specific mythical figures to whom Jesus has addressed these words; they are in effect addressed to Paul’s earthly audience. And while most translations have Paul identify the occasion as “on the night he was betrayed,” this is a Gospel-induced rendering of the verb paradidōmi, which simply means to hand over or to deliver up. Elsewhere, Paul says that God himself delivered up Jesus (Romans ), while in Ephesians 5:2 and 25 it is Christ who “delivered himself up on your behalf.” In Paul’s hands, the concept need be no more than one of ‘surrendering’ to the salvation role determined by God and accepted by Jesus. Nor do we need to imagine that Paul had worked out some heavenly (or even earthly) scene in his mind. Paul needed only to convince himself that in some setting, Jesus, like many other savior gods, had spoken these words which founded the ritual and rendered the Christian meal of sacramental significance.
Nor is there an impediment to placing a mythical event at night, perhaps inspired by Paul's linking of Christ with the Lamb of Passover (1 Cor. 5:7), whose celebratory meal, and probably Christian meals in general, took place after sunset. We might note that Paul curiously uses the imperfect tense for “was delivered up,” actually saying “on the night he was being delivered up,” making the meal and the delivering up going on simultaneously. While we should not read anything conclusive into this curiosity (almost all commentators pass it by without remark), it may suggest that Paul’s conception was not quite as literal as the Gospels later rendered it.
We also need to keep in mind that here, too, there was a spectrum of interpretation of such salvation myths. Plutarch, in Isis and Osiris, is the best example in his declaration that “these stories did not actually happen as described.” He says this to caution his addressee, the priestess Clea, not to regard them as literal; rather they are allegory. (The 4th century Sallustius says the same thing.) The very fact that Plutarch does so testifies to a certain portion of the population actually believing they are literal. Paul Veyne’s oft-cited Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? is not too helpful here, because he focuses on the classical Greek mythological figures of gods and heroes, and not the myths of the savior gods. But even he notes the range of belief and skepticism about details of those mythical stories between the “ingenuousness of the people,” “the educated classes” and “the learned” [p.42-43].
Where do Paul and the early Christians fall on this spectrum? His remarks about Jesus’ “suffering” would indicate that he regarded it as in some way literal, that his spiritual Son actually suffered and died at the hands of the demon spirits in the heavens (“the rulers of this age” in 1 Cor. 2:8), but how literal would he have regarded all the details of such an event that our modern minds could come up with? When he was crucified, did the demons use ‘heavenly nails’? Did the tree on which he was hung in the firmament (Ascension of Isaiah ) have leaves and roots, perhaps requiring watering? Some apologists I have debated are fixated on the question of such literality, considering that, because such things trouble their own modern, scientific and literally-oriented minds, they must have bothered the ancients and precluded them from adopting such mythological claptrap.
But we know that concepts like the heavenly city of
existed: did it have cobblestoned streets and brick houses? Some apocalyptic documents have the evil angels warring against each another in the heavens: did they use swords and spears? There is no indication that the writers would not have conceived of such things as literal in some spiritual form, and Platonist cosmology carried to its ultimate level should certainly have allowed for them. Ancient views of how the world operated were not like ours, and we cannot bring our own modern outlooks and logical mindsets to bear on them. Their concepts of the nature of life and the universe, of divinity and humanity, are no longer tenable. We cannot tell exactly how Paul saw his Lord’s Supper scene, or whom he conceived Jesus was speaking to, but we are not entitled to impose on him the subsequent literality of the later interpretation of the Gospels which began in the second century and started the process of turning Christianity’s initial mythical thinking into earthly history, a mythical sacred meal into a supper on the eve of an historical Passover. If Mithraism had triumphed and done the same, we would today be wondering about where the fossil of the historical bull Mithras slew might be found (some Mithraic Mt. Ararat perhaps), and upon what sort of table its meat and blood was laid for consumption by Mithras and Helios, the latter, no doubt, turned into some symbolic historical figures. Jerusalem
As for Paul’s description of himself as an “abortion” in 1 Corinthians 15:8, Keith is not the only one puzzled as to its meaning. Paul Ellingworth [A Translator’s Handbook for 1 Corinthians, p.293] says: “This phrase and the rest of the verse present serious problems for the translator.” He suggests as possibilities that Paul is referring to “an insult made against (him) by the people of Corinth,” or “the monstrous fact of a persecutor becoming an apostle,” or even “some previous or widely known use of the expression, as one might refer, for example, to ‘the fiery furnace,’ with Daniel 3 in mind.” The Translator’s New Testament admits “The sense in which Paul uses the word [ektrōma] is not very clear.” It, too, suggests that “It may have been used by his enemies as a term of abuse, accusing him of being as undeveloped and repulsive as a dead foetus…If Paul was turning his opponents’ abuse to advantage, no modern English translation has succeeded in making this clear.” The
makes an attempt: “In the end he appeared even to me; though this birth of mine was monstrous, for I had persecuted the church and am therefore inferior to all other apostles…” NEB
First of all, can I say what an eye-opener your website and other materials have been for me! I have often argued the case against a historical Jesus with Jehovah's Witnesses and others at the door, but your arguments, and some of those on other websites which look at similar issues, have certainly helped.
However, I notice that you often refer to the myths and legends attached to for example Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander the Great and so on (even down to Rabbi Schmeerson!) The obvious point that arises from these examples, to my mind, is that we are dealing here with real people, who other real people responded to in such a way as to create the mythos. However, your argument is, it seems, the opposite of this: that a mythic character, already invested with Godhead, was "brought down to earth" as it were by followers at a later stage. The former examples are ascending, if you like, while the latter example, Jesus, is descending. Do you have a view on this, and couldn't this suggest that, at some point, and in some way, the mythic Christ of Paul and others became associated with a small group of followers of a Hasid type individual from Galilee?
Not that I believe this, but it does seem to point up a potential problem in your position as a whole. I don't think I've seen this particular issue dealt with anywhere, but I could have missed it.
Thanks again for your very erudite and, I find, unbiased approach to the question, working from the evidence rather than imposing the desired answer from the start.
Response to Jim:
Galilee and Paul: Joining Historical and Mythical Figures?
We should first of all note that where figures like Pythagoras, Alexander the Great and Rabbi Schmeerson are concerned, we have independent and strong evidence about their existence, beyond whatever we might label ‘myth’ that has been attached to them. Whereas, for Jesus the sum total that the earliest record gives us is simply the myth.
And what a myth! Pre-existent Son, agent of creation, sustaining power of the universe, God’s throne partner and intermediary between divinity and humanity. As an expression of the Logos (see 1 Cor. 8:6), Christ is the model, the ‘first idea’ from which the world and humanity follows. Finally, he is the redeemer of the world’s sins, uniter of a sundered universe and victor over the demon powers of the heavens. Needless to say, the aforementioned historical figures pale by comparison. Moreover, Alexander the Great may have attracted legendary elements, but he was never lost sight of as an historical figure at a specific time, performing his actions in an identifiable earthly location. Whereas until the Gospels came along, at least half a century after his death—and more, if one measures by their dissemination—no one locates Jesus within either historical time or place.
A qualification could be made in regard to Q (although we know Q only through the prism of the Gospels), and this may be what Jim has in mind. In fact, Q as revealing the genuine original Jesus is what recent critical scholarship such as the Jesus Seminar proposes—with one crucial difference. None of those critical scholars (to my knowledge) postulates that the “mythic Christ of Paul” was not in some way based on the Q Jesus. They still envision an “ascending” process, not an originally independent mythical Christ, or a Paul who had nothing to do with the Gospel Jesus of Nazareth. That remains too radical a step to be taken by mainstream scholarship.
What Jim is proposing is that we do what the scholars are loath to do: make Paul’s Christ entirely mythical and postulate a junction between the two: the “genuine Jesus” of Q becoming associated with the spiritual heavenly Son of the Pauline cult, or vice-versa. Essentially, of course, he is proposing my own position—but again, with a crucial difference. The Jesus of Q looks to be only an invented founder, developed in the community’s mind as it, and its recorded material, evolved over several decades. Q itself provides the main evidence for such a scenario. I have made an extensive case for that scenario in The Jesus Puzzle, chapters 14 to 19, and won’t repeat it here. But I will explore one aspect of it further.
It is my contention that Mark is the pivot point at which those two diverse phenomena initially came together, the Kingdom preaching movement centered in
Galileewhich invented its founding sage, and the mythical Christ cult of Paul & Co. which never had any link to an historical figure. But this view has to be carefully nuanced. The first Gospel did not constitute a Big Bang, a six-bridesmaid wedding of the two, mounted in a straightforward fashion at a single point in time. Let’s note that it doesn’t matter here whether a Q founder did exist or not. By the time Mark is translating the movement he was a part of into his Gospel, the belief in the existence of such a founder seems to be established, at least in some circles of it. (It is missing in the Didache, whose chapter 11 also entails a similar Kingdom of God preaching movement. See Appendix 8 of The Jesus Puzzle, or the section on the Didache in my review of Crossan’s The Birth of Christianity.)
First of all, Mark barely renders his Jesus of Nazareth divine. (Some would say not at all, though this is an exaggeration.) Jesus’ death as an Atonement is scarcely developed; Mk. 10:45 could owe as much to the 4 Maccabees concept of martyr-atonement as to anything else. None of the lofty christology of Paul (as noted above) and of other documents like Hebrews figures in Mark’s picture of Jesus. Whatever his roots (or combination thereof), Mark is not coming from a full-fledged Christ cult of the Pauline variety to which he wants to give voice in his Gospel. (This is one reason why I am skeptical of proposals that Mark directly knows Paul or is building upon him.) A complete melding of
Galileeand would not be accomplished until the later 2nd century and even beyond. Jerusalem
Second, Mark is not attempting to write actual history. Even individual elements of his ministry of Jesus—miracles, prophecies, other anecdotes—are midrashically constructed out of scripture, even though it is all placed in a setting which reflects the teachings and activities of the community on which Q was based, a broad movement of which Mark was a part. On one level, the ministry symbolizes that movement. Even if he believes the Q founder existed, Mark has little or no specific historical material to draw on to incorporate in his Gospel. This, by the way, is another good reason to reject any of the Q material as actual historical traditions going back to a genuine Jesus. Even if, as I suggest, Mark was located in a circle which did not possess the Q document itself (since he includes none of the Q material used by Matthew and Luke), there is no reason to think, if the latter represents preserved traditions about Jesus, that Mark would not have been familiar with some of them through those oral channels.
Thus, the proposal that a “Hasid type individual from Galilee” (or any kind of teaching figure) has served as one side of Mark’s composite equation is considerably weakened by the difficulty of actually uncovering in any reliable fashion such a figure, or elements that need to be attributed to him. We cannot be sure to what extent Mark himself envisioned his Jesus of Nazareth as representing an historical figure. And with his scarcely-divine Christ missing much of the cultic trappings of the Pauline scene, we cannot identify the exact nature of the other side of his equation either. Nor can we tell the nature of the ‘resurrection’ envisioned by Mark, as he has no appearances on earth or in flesh. Thus, the idea of Mark as a dramatic wedding of an historical Galilean teaching figure with the cultic Savior-Christ of Paul is lacking in clear definition, although the general principle seems sound.
Pertinent to this is that the reconstructed Q demonstrates that the
movement had nothing to say about a death and resurrection for its supposed founder. He is not even made an agent of salvation; he is given no soteriological role in regard to his own person. One might then ask what would have led anyone to link such a limited figure, or the idea of him, to the transcendent mythology of the Christ cult. The answer would be that no one person or group did. Such a large-scale development took place only in increments, which is why the process in the record is so drawn out and uncoordinated, covering decades. Mark’s dying and resurrecting Jesus might be seen as much an allegorical reading of the believers’ own role and fate as a translation of Paul’s dying and rising Christ in the spiritual world. His passion story could have been generated by a variety of influences. Galilean Kingdom
Such a general ‘wooliness’ as to derivation between one writing and another (or others) should warn us against seeking to create too defined a picture of sources, especially written sources. A surviving document is only the tip of an iceberg, representing one version of a broader background ‘noise’ of ideas held within wider circles whose extent we are unsure of, perhaps expressed within other documents that have perished. They are isolated windows, partially opaque. If we find similarities in a given writer with another writer or set of writers, we cannot rush to a conclusion of direct dependence, especially if there are notable divergences or missing parts. The similarity may be due to derivation from that background noise, from which the surviving postulated source document is also a derivation and innovation of its own.
Mark would then represent an initial and limited conjunction between the two, a point of contact which only subsequently crystallized in a way Mark would not have envisioned. Ignatius, perhaps two decades after Mark, has heard of and absorbed the idea of Jesus of Nazareth in a basic way, linking him with the much more mystical and cultic Christ of the Pauline type—the latter being part of the world he inhabits to a far greater degree than Mark did. A different type of cultic Jesus in the Johannine community, a Revealer Son rather than a sacrificial one, encounters the Jesus of Mark and/or his redactors Matthew and Luke, and someone decides to mesh the two, hedging on the sacrificial aspect but incorporating the crucifixion in a non-atonement way in keeping with existing Johannine christology (the Son as the bread of saving knowledge, etc.). The creation of the Fourth Gospel resulted in something substantially different from its predecessors, a difference all of later Christianity has worked to deny or downplay.
As for Paul, his own cultic Jesus, with whom believers could enter into mystical linkage (a concept much like that of the mysteries and something which Mark shows no inkling of), languishes in its own circles of faith for some time until it is pulled into orbit along with other satellites that are coalescing around the now historically-viewed Gospels to further enrich Mark’s relatively tame initial conjunction of disparities. And so on, through that wonderful “riotous diversity” of the early Christian and proto-Christian record that has so taxed orthodox scholars for centuries. Such centripetal forces increased until everything crunched together more or less by the end of the 2nd century, a reverse Big Bang that created the core Jesus of Nazareth which close to two millennia of world thinking has mistakenly envisioned as the starting point and explosive force of what is actually a far more fascinating evolution of ancient world religious obsession.
Complex? Yes, but Occam’s Razor has no bearing here. We know from a study of history of all sorts and times that complexity is the rule of the day, and nothing is merely “simple.” Besides, Occam’s principle states that we should look for the simplest explanation that accounts for all the evidence. That evidence is diverse and complex, while the simplistic “Gospel Jesus” explanation fails to come close to being adequate.
I found your site in early January, and at the very least, am impressed by your respectful demeanor and writing style. The points you make are certainly fascinating, and I believe that your site is definitely one that I would recommend to people interested in a discussion of the Jesus Mythicist position.
However, there is a question that I wish to pose. In around 165 (AD), the early Christian Apologist Justin Martyr wrote his work Dialogue with Trypho. At the beginning of Chapter 108, Justin recorded a letter, supposedly going around the Jewish community at the time-
"A godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven."
I have read articles where you have discussed Mr. Martyr, but you never actually talked about the "letter". Although it may appear irrelevant, it simply seems to be an early mention by the Jewish community of the empty tomb. This is even more interesting due to the fact that you (and I) feel that the majority of the Gospels weren't written until the 2nd century, and I can't help but feel that nobody would bother to respond to a claim that came from people that at the time, were merely members of a small savior cult.
Response to Michael:
Matthew's Guards at the Tomb, and the Toledoth Yeshu
I am not sure where Michael derives the idea that Justin is speaking of a “letter.” The passage he quotes speaks of Jewish spokesmen going out to proclaim those contentions, but there is no mention of anything in written form (nor is there in his previous reference to this apologetic activity by Jews, in chapter 17, where the word “publish” in translations merely means ‘spread about’). In any case, this is indeed the earliest reference outside the Gospel of Matthew to a claim by the Jews that the disciples stole the body of Jesus, supposedly an explanation meant to discredit Christian claims of his resurrection. We find another reference, apparently, in Tertullian a few decades later in De Spectaculis 30, a passage we will also look at. Let’s note, however, that both of these references are Christian ones, not Jewish, and in fact we find no such claim in any writings by Jews themselves, from earliest times right through the Talmuds. The Jews, to judge by their own writings, show no knowledge of such a claim on their own part, that the disciples stole the body. (And that includes the Toledoth Yeshu which we’ll examine later.)
We might also note that, in general, we have no contemporary evidence—outside the claim in Matthew—that Jews prior to Justin were saying anything in dispute, condemnation or ridicule of Gospel or Christian traditions about an historical Jesus. If we exclude someone like Tacitus (if authentic) as simply ‘historical’ reference, the same applies to Greek and Roman writers. It is only in the years immediately following Justin that we encounter the pagan satirist Lucian poking fun at Christian doctrines surrounding Jesus, and the 3rd century Origen preserves, and answers, criticism by the pagan writer Celsus who wrote his Alēthēs Logos around 170. In that work Celsus, according to Origen, framed his accusation that Jesus was actually the son of Mary in adultery with a soldier as coming from a Jew. (He also made other criticisms in his own voice.) If that is accurate and not a device on Celsus’ part, we can presume that slander about an historical Jesus and criticism/ridicule of the Christian story had arisen among Jews about the same time as similar pagan comment, although we have no extant record of such from Jewish writings. The later Talmuds contain alleged records of such things from the earlier period, but the reliability of those later developments as accurately reflective of earlier Jewish comment can be questioned. (See my review of Frank Zindler’s The Jesus the Jews Never Knew.)
It all begins, getting back to our main topic, in the Gospel of Matthew (which I would date not long after 100 CE), in his scenes of the guards at the tomb (27:62-66, continued at 28:4 and 11-15). There the Jewish priests persuade Pilate to set Roman guards before the tomb where Jesus is buried, so as to preclude the possibility that his disciples will steal the body and claim he has fulfilled his prophecy that he would rise after three days. At the resurrection, the guards faint in shock. Afterwards these (Roman!) guards go to report to the priests what happened and are offered a bribe, which they accept, to say that they had fallen asleep (on duty!) and during that time the disciples had come and stolen the body. Matthew concludes the scene with this remark:
“This story became widely known, and is current in Jewish circles to this day.”
Few critical scholars, if any, are willing to give the scene as a whole credence. Matthew is the only Christian writer to record it, and the story of guards being placed at the tomb and being subsequently bribed to explain its empty state is generally regarded as Matthew’s invention to counter a current Jewish claim that the disciples had stolen the body. In other words, they say, the only factual thing about it is that final line, that there was a circulating ‘spin’ by the Jews to explain the alleged resurrection: the disciples stole the body; but there were no guards, in shock, asleep or otherwise.
My contention, however, is that even the concluding remark is fictional. If this bears the marks, as some claim, of a separate authorial comment, it would make Matthew out as a liar, either way you look at it. Either the statement that this is a current story among the Jews is false, or the statement is true but Matthew, to judge by his words (which we’ll examine closely), is declaring that the made-up scene of the guards is true, which is a lie, since scholars have every reason to judge this scene to be Matthew’s invention, not the least because it is attested to nowhere else. It is almost impossible to think that in over a century of Christian writing, including the other three evangelists, no one before Justin would show any knowledge of either the presence of guards at the tomb or the tradition among Jews that the disciples had stolen the body. If it were known that guards had been posted, it would be difficult for the other Gospel writers to construct their scenes of the resurrection and its aftermath and not take them into account. Like Matthew, they would surely have been led to record the guards’ witness and reaction to this event. And if the Jews were really widely declaring that the disciples stole the body, as Matthew claims, the other evangelists would surely have felt the need to deal with it in some fashion; if Matthew’s guards explanation was fiction, they would have had to come up with some apologetic counter of their own to the accusation.
If early Christianity was founded on the claim that Jesus of Nazareth had exited his earthly tomb in risen flesh, any claim on the part of Jews that the disciples had stolen the body could not fail to be seen by Christians as a dangerous rejoinder that would require rebuttal, and we should expect to find some response to it in the wider record. Nor would the Jews themselves have underplayed its potential usefulness, and so it would have been widely spread among them. But there is something of a hitch here. Such an invented spin by the Jews would involve a double admission on their part: that the body was gone and the tomb was empty. We might ask if they would be willing to make such an admission, or would they be more likely to find ways to argue that the body had not gone missing and the tomb was not empty? (Jeff Lowder argues this in the book he co-edited with Robert Price, The Empty Tomb.) This would make Matthew’s contention very dubious, and in fact we have no early record of an argument between Jews and Christians over either point. We don’t even have Christians themselves referring to an empty tomb before the Gospels came along.
Matthew, we might note, seems to imply in his final line that the Jewish ‘spin’ arose early. He uses the aorist tense for “was spread about,” which suggests that such a claim by the Jews was begun early on, certainly before his own time. The “to this day” is meant as a subsequent development, as illustrated by the NASB translation: “This story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.” The implied early circulation makes it even less likely that the other evangelists and early Christian writers would have missed hearing of it and addressing it. If disputes were going on over empty tombs and stolen bodies in the mid first century, we could wonder why, in 1 Corinthians 15 where he is proclaiming the necessity of believing in a gospel of Christ’s rising, Paul does not address such disputes and counter them in some way, as Matthew does. In the face of such claims as Christianity is supposed to have been making, a man being God and fulfilling the Jewish scriptures in his life on earth, it is astonishing that neither the Jewish record of the time nor the early Christian record from the likes of Paul gives us an indication that such a give-and-take over these supposed claims was happening. (Paul defends a crucified Messiah, which could encompass a spiritual one, but he never defends his faith against the blasphemy of turning a man into God.)
Scholars, as I said, are persuaded that everything before 28:15b is Matthew’s invention. But in seeking to retain the final line as accurate, they are overlooking one feature of it which throws a monkeywrench into the works. “And this story was spread about…” What story? What is the “stolen body” story according to Matthew’s own words? It is the ‘fact’ that the elders bribed the guards to say, if knowledge of the missing body came to light: “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” The whole sense of Matthew’s scene, especially with those last four words, implies that he has in mind the entire account of the posted guards when he uses the phrase “this story was widely spread,” and not just the bare fact that “the disciples stole the body.” But the guards story itself has been rejected as almost certainly fiction. And the story is further rendered ludicrous and unbelievable by any idea that the Roman guards could be bribed to say that “we were asleep.” What good is a bribe when to admit such a thing to Pilate would have resulted in their execution? The priests’ assurances that they will smooth things over with Pilate and “see that you do not suffer” is a piece of Matthean naivete, though it may show that he recognized one problem with his story.
Thus, Matthew in his final line has to be referring to the entirety of his preceding concoction. Verse 15b cannot be intended as a separate ‘authorial insertion’ by which he declares the actuality of a simple accusation that the disciples stole the body. His language tells us that the story he says is preserved “by the Jews to this day” includes the whole guards scene. In any event, if (whatever the claim encompassed) it was “widely known to this day,” one might ask why Matthew felt any necessity to step outside his narrative and inform his readers of something they would already be familiar with.
So what was Matthew doing? Was he telling a bare-faced lie in his entire guards-at-the-tomb sequence? Such a judgment would require that we evaluate all the Gospels as lies from start to finish, since so much of their content constitutes scenes contrived out of scripture, or blatant alterations of their sources in Mark with no apparent concern for historical accuracy. But if the Gospels are essentially allegories, symbols of their writers’ faith and real-world activities and expectations, then they are not intending to record actual history, and we need not call them “liars.” Perhaps Matthew just got carried away in that final line in declaring his story of the guards ‘true.’
But why did he introduce the stolen body idea at all, if it was founded on no claim by the Jews about such a theft? It could be said that it was entirely unnecessary; it could even be said that, if no such spin existed, why make it up and place it in his readers’ minds as a possible argument against their faith in the resurrection? Why, as well, risk giving the Jews the idea? (Although they must have missed it, since no Jewish extant source has picked up on it—only Christians!) The answer is quite simple. If we regard the Gospels as essentially allegories, Matthew is working within that internal literary world. He has decided he needs the guards scene within his own storyline. In enlarging on Mark’s ‘novel,’ he considers that the idea, the possibility, that the disciples stole the body would be something that would occur to the reader, just as it occurred to him, and thus he includes a reproof against it by having guards bribed to present such an excuse. For that, he needed to have guards posted there in the first place, something no one else thought of doing. (The apocryphal Gospel of Peter has a similar guards scene, but this work is almost certainly based on Matthew. For J. D. Crossan’s different take on the GoP, see The Jesus Puzzle, n.78.)
Thus Matthew was not taking a risk of putting the thought in his readers’ minds; he assumed it would be there unbidden. Some listeners to readings of the Gospel of Mark in his community may even have raised such questions. And if he was not claiming history, there was no fear that he would be giving ‘enemy’ Jews ammunition, since the latter would not (as yet) be taking the story seriously as history, if they even encountered it. Apparently the Jews did neither, for some time afterwards.
It is also possible that Matthew, in including the guards, was doing nothing more than providing a ‘nice touch’ for his story. Hellenistic romances were all the rage in the early Christian period, and many of them involved concluding episodes centered on tombs where the hero or heroine had been laid (often not really dead), and a lot of shenanigans took place in those tomb settings in the final scenes. Adding the charge and guard sequence may have been motivated by little more than Matthew wanting to put in his own shenanigans at the tomb in his final scenes. As for that concluding line, it does enhance the impact. Instead of “stepping outside” the narrative, he was putting himself into it. In an entire story of fictional stuff, it doesn’t seem out of place that the author could feel comfortable with inserting something which is also making a point that is not true.
A brief digression: For those who reject a Q and have Luke copying Matthew, why did Luke not carry the guards scene over into his Gospel? This is particularly telling if Matthew’s final line were true and the Jews were indeed spreading the idea that the disciples stole the body. Surely Luke would have known of such a spin, and thus should have found Matthew’s entire guard sequence as a useful counter to it. Even if the spin was Matthew’s fiction, would Luke have had sufficient reason to doubt its truthfulness and ignore it on that basis? Luke is the most ‘gentile’ of the Gospel writers and may not have lived in a heavily Jewish environment, so not hearing about this Jewish apologetic should not have convinced him that it did not exist and that Matthew was making it up. (On the other hand, if the author of the original Luke was still writing in the “allegory” mode, he might automatically presume that the guards scene was the product of Matthew since he, Luke, might not have regarded the death and resurrection of Jesus as historically factual, and nothing about Matthew’s guards scenario appealed to him on a literary basis.)
But now we need to consider those two later passages in Justin and Tertullian. Might they represent knowledge of a Jewish spin about a theft of the body from the tomb? Or are they entirely derived from their reading of Matthew, both writers simply assuming that Matthew was telling the truth about an actual Jewish spin known to him? There is nothing in either author which would rule the latter out. Justin says to Trypho:
“You [the Jews] have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven.” [ANF translation, vol.1, p.253]
Other than the reasonable possibility that Jews by the time of Justin were going about condemning the Christian sect as a heresy, there are no details provided here which would suggest any independent source or tradition besides one or more of the Gospels. Tertullian is the same. In his tirade against the perfidious Jews suffering in the flames of hell, Tertullian might be interpreted as saying that he shall throw their own words in their faces:
“This,” I shall say, “this is that carpenter’s or hireling’s son, that Sabbath-breaker, that Samaritan and devil-possessed! This is He whom you purchased from Judas! This is He whom you struck with reed and fist, whom you contemptuously spat upon, to whom you gave gall and vinegar to drink! This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted [i.e., removed], that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!” [ANF, vol.3, p.91]
But all these details are derivable from Matthew and the other Gospels. Indeed, it is inherently unlikely that Tertullian is quoting, or even paraphrasing, actual spoken or written words by Jews in some anti-Christian polemic. It would have required an intimate knowledge of Gospel details on their part, supplemented by nothing else that did not conform to canonical Gospel content. It would require that Tertullian is reflecting actual Jewish polemical practices, something which is attested to nowhere else, since nowhere else (not even in the Toledoth) do Jewish writings betray such a degree of intimate knowledge and use of details from Christian Gospels. In fact, as witnessed in the later Talmudic references to Jesus, the Jews seem almost ignorant of the basic Gospel scenario, having Jesus stoned or hung, taking on full responsibility for his death with nary a hint of Pilate and the Romans’ role, variously locating Jesus almost a century to either side of the Gospel period. (The Toledoth has Jesus literally hanged on a tree, by Jewish sages during the reign of Helena widow of Alexander Jannaeus, around 70 BCE.) Everything about Tertullian’s remarks suggests that he has conjured up details from Matthew and elsewhere, and allotted them to Jews so that he can throw them in the faces of his hell-bound deniers of Christ. Note that he does not actually say that the Jews have spoken such words. This could simply be a literary and very emotional device he has adopted within a passage of “fervid rhetoric” (to use the ANF’s footnote phrase).
We might also take a look at Tertullian’s final words. The “gardener” would seem to be derived from John, but in the latter there is no hint that the gardener figure has been introduced with any intention of squelching some “The gardener did it!” claim by the Jews. The reference is far too weak and indirect (unlike Matthew’s sequence) for that. It is undoubtedly no more than ‘color’ for the scene, Mary Magdalene mistaking Jesus for the gardener and failing to recognize him in order to create more emotional impact when she does. John adding the gardener (a character never actually seen) so as to demonstrate that such an innocuous figure had, or could have had, no role in removing the body, is far too subtle, too easily missed for that to have been his motive.
However, Tertullian seems to witness to something subsequently made out of John’s ‘gardener in the background’ in just that direction. He alludes to his polemical Jews declaring that the body was stolen, if not by the disciples, then by “the gardener” who wished to remove the body of Jesus so his followers and other visitors would not be coming to visit the deceased and trample his lettuces growing in the vicinity. Now, the Jewish Toledoth (to be looked at presently) does introduce such a character as the gardener, but there he is portrayed as having removed the body and buried it elsewhere in order to preclude any possible theft by Jesus’ disciples, not to protect his lettuces. And the Toledoth, as we shall see, was hardly early enough to have influenced Tertullian, though a Jewish spin along Tertullian’s line could conceivably have existed and been later transformed in a different direction in the Toledoth.
Yet the possibility of a Jewish source for Tertullian is hardly compelling. It’s a very minor detail, and who knows where Tertullian might have taken it from? We can tell from the Christian record that all sorts of different versions and embellishments on basic Gospel themes were rife from the later 2nd century on, a flood of enlargements and sheer invention, not all of which have survived. An apocryphal Gospel that built on John may have added something like it, or some preacher whom Tertullian heard may have stuck in the lettuce when giving a sermon, and Tertullian put his own twist on it, who knows? The idea that he picked it up from Jews is only one option among many feasible ones. One might even ask why Jews would be particularly prone to introduce lettuce as a reason for moving the body.
Going back to Justin, what is his source, if any? Is he, like Tertullian, taking his cue from Matthew and imagining Jewish activities out of Matthew’s remark, activities in which Jews were claiming the disciples had stolen the body? To that, as noted above, he may have added what we might surmise was general Jewish condemnation of Christianity by the mid 2nd century as a “godless and lawless heresy,” one which had begun to make ridiculous claims about a man risen from the dead. (If we can judge by Minucius Felix, even some Christians were calling them ridiculous.)
The one curiosity in Justin is the phrase “whom we crucified,” as the voice of the Jews. That, of course, is not, strictly speaking, the way any Gospel portrayed it. Is Justin simply putting a Christian spin on the Jewish role in accusing Jesus before Pilate and thus opening the way to his crucifixion? Moreover, can we really believe that Jews familiar with the Gospel story were going about claiming that they had crucified Jesus, in contradiction to that account? It is difficult to conceive that Jews would have taken on themselves, willingly and without qualification, the entire responsibility for Jesus’ death. That would be extreme masochism, considering the attacks that were being mounted against them by the Christians right across the board for failing to respond to Jesus. Besides, if the Gospel story were in any way history, everyone would know it was the Romans who performed the act. In the face of this, we can hardly think that the Jews would still be proclaiming, “Yeah, we did it. We killed the bugger!” Talk about a death wish—one that was granted them for much of the next two millennia.
In the later Talmud, it is true that the rabbis seem to assume sole Jewish responsibility for Jesus death, but this only makes sense if the Gospel story is not history, and their statements lacked any basis in remembered traditions of their own. Instead, they have garbled what they gradually took out of Christian historicist developments which they only started to absorb in the later 2nd century. While their incompetence in so doing is certainly bizarre, the explanation may lie in how Frank Zindler presents the development of alleged Jesus references in the rabbinic writings, beginning in the 3rd century with references which were not actually to Jesus at all, but were only in subsequent centuries interpreted as such by later rabbis. (Again, see my review of the Zindler book.)
Having noted that, judging by the Talmuds and the Toledoth, the Jews were notorious at getting the Gospel elements wrong or distorted, one might expect that people like Tertullian would have felt compelled to deal with such errors and distortions in their own day, and yet they do not. In fact, if we were to take his De Spectaculis 30 as repeating the Jews’ ridicule of the Gospels, they would have been amazingly accurate, down to quite small details!
One final point about Justin and Tertullian. If they were relying on Matthew to refer to Jewish claims that the body had been stolen, why did they not at the same time offer his explanation of the guards at the tomb to discredit those claims? But Justin’s remark about the stolen body is made as part of his enumeration of broader activities by Jewish anti-Christian missionaries. To digress to offer Matthew’s elaborate scene to explain how this particular accusation could be countered might well have been felt unnecessary. In Tertullian, such a digression would be even more out of place. Tertullian is exulting on how his faith gives him the anticipation of seeing the wretched Jews confined to Hell at the Judgment, the Jews who had visited such suffering and deceit upon Christ, who had made such irresponsible accusations against the Christians, one of which was that the disciples had secretly stolen away his body. Such an apologetic as Matthew’s guards scene would have been an unwieldy digression as well as irrelevant to this passage.
Finally, we need to take a look at the Toledoth Yeshu. Does this provide relatively early evidence, as some suggest, to a Jewish spin about the disciples stealing the body? It is indeed the only extant Jewish source which comes anywhere near to making such a reference. This work, as Robert Price describes it (The Pre-Nicene New Testament, p.239), “is the title of various related anti-gospel texts which present Jesus as a false prophet and magician. They often contain nasty parodies of the Christian gospels, probably as a safe way to let off some of the steam of hostility Jews felt over their hideous treatment by Christians.” In fact, it is far from clear exactly what the earliest version, or versions, of the Toledoth contained, how far back it goes, and who were the authors. In fact, it cannot even be spoken of as “a” book, since it is more a tradition of Jewish satirical response to Christianity with extremely obscure roots. As an organized work, all manuscripts come from the medieval period and were actually first published by Christians (leading to the contention that Christians had written it to foment hatred of the Jews). While the latter is quite unlikely, only certain elements and themes that later became the complete Toledoth can be traced earlier, with much variation and uncertainty. Some of those themes can be found alluded to in Christian writers of the second and later centuries, but nothing that could identify an actual “book” in circulation, or even a source in an ur-collection common to the Toledoth. In the surviving manuscripts incorporating those traditions (and they run into the scores) there are great numbers of variants, including basic things like the circumstances of Jesus’ death and what happened to his body afterwards. There is no way to trace any of these elements back beyond the later Talmudic period, let alone say with any confidence that “the disciples stole Jesus’ body” was something in circulation in some form of Toledoth during the 2nd or 3rd centuries.
In any case, the Toledoth as we generally have it does not conform to Matthew’s scenario and cannot therefore be taken as confirmation of Matthew’s statement in 28:15b. In chapter 7, the body is found to be missing from the grave where it was buried (not in an above-ground tomb). After a fruitless search for it, a gardener informs the authorities that he had taken it upon himself to remove the body from its grave lest the disciples steal it, and to bury it in a pit in his garden, diverting a stream to do so and then restoring the flow over the new grave. The Jews then recover the corpse and drag it behind a horse through the streets of
. (Frank Zindler’s The Jesus the Jews Never Knew devotes about a third of its length to a study of the Toledoth.) Jerusalem
The Toledoth scenario hardly supports Matthew’s apologetic explanation, since the disciples do not steal the body and the body has only temporarily disappeared. Matthew could make no use of such a Jewish spin, nor would his scene counter such a thing. He is dependent on the body disappearing permanently, as the only thing that could support resurrection. Turning it around, the temporary disappearance of the body in the Toledoth would bear no relationship to the Matthean scenario and could not be used to explain a permanent disappearance of the body (although it could be a denial of the latter). Thus, the Toledoth cannot serve as evidence that an actual Jewish claim of the Matthean sort lies behind his scene of the guards at the tomb, let alone its concluding line.
At best, the Toledoth scene represents a new spin, turning the Gospel picture of the empty tomb on its head and claiming that in fact there was no permanent disappearance of the body. It necessarily postdates the Gospels, even John, since the gardener, as a motif, may have been inspired by the figure mentioned in the Fourth Gospel. This passage in the Toledoth as we have it may well date only to the later Talmudic period, and not necessarily be based on a close study of the Gospels but on more general exposure to Christian traditions which Jews during that period show signs of garbling quite extensively.
The bottom line for mythicism in all this, of course, is that Matthew’s guards at the tomb scene and its concluding statement cannot be used as an argument in favor of an historical Jesus, or that from early on, the Jews were addressing themselves to an historical situation involving claims of the disappearance of a man’s body from an earthly tomb.
"Michael Grant stated that the view of the Jesus myth is derived from a lack of application of historical methods:
...if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the eixstence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned....To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory. It has "again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars." In recent years, "no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus"—or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary. Overall, the unhistoricity theory is regarded as effectively refuted by almost all biblical scholars and historians."
Response to Warwick:
Michael Grant and the “annihilation” of Mythicism
I don’t know the source of Warwick’s overall quote, but the quote within it is from Grant’s 1977 book Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels, p.199-200. I have discussed these views of Grant at the beginning of my website article Alleged Scholarly Refutations of Jesus Mythicism which addresses a century of so-called refutations of the Christ Myth theory. One will note in Grant’s quote above that the remarks about “annihilation” and “no serious scholar” are quotations by Grant from other writers who, as I point out, have not themselves undertaken to demonstrate this annihilation, just as Grant has not. As to the specific question of “historical methods,” Grant seems not to take into account that methods applying to non-religious figures in history are not the same as those we need to apply to religious figures who are witnessed to only by religious writings like the Gospels and not by general historical writings. (What all these ‘annihilations’ constitute generally turns out to be arguments at the level of “Josephus and Tacitus.” If one perseveres throughout the entire three parts of my above article, I think it will be seen that the claim at the heart of Grant’s remark, “the unhistoricity theory is regarded as effectively refuted by almost all biblical scholars and historians,” is simply poppycock.)
Grant was writing before the era (since around 1980) when it has been increasingly recognized by critical New Testament scholarship that there is little if anything that is reliably identifiable as historical in the Gospels, that virtually everything can be seen as midrash on Old Testament themes and passages. If he were writing today, he would no doubt realize that the “criteria” used for “other ancient writings containing historical material” (my emphasis) simply doesn’t apply to the Gospels.
Grant himself, in his book, shows that he has the means to recognize the true nature of the Gospels and the so-called history contained in them, but is unable to follow these insights to their logical conclusion. The following is a telling passage—for mythicist purposes—from page 38. Grant, drawing on ideas from various scholars, from J. Jeremias to D. B. Macdonald, is examining the reputed miracles of Jesus and asking if those ‘impossible’ acts really took place:
It would have been difficult to elicit an answer to this type of question from an ancient Jew. To him, the natural and supernatural spheres, the visible and invisible, were one and inseparable and equally real, both manifesting in their different ways the divine will. But the supernatural and invisible realm was hard to describe. Abstract argument was no use; this extra-logical, extra-historical dimension could be expressed only figuratively, by means of metaphor and imagery. For what had to be conveyed was not mere statistics but a higher, more elusive sort of truth: dry literalness was of no avail when people’s imaginations had to be kindled. And these considerations were particularly relevant to Palestine, ‘where words have never been regarded as necessarily a reflection of fact’, but possess a life and vigour of their own. It was a world in which stories were used as freely as we use metaphors—a world in which possibility or impossibility, prosaic truth or untruth often seem to be beside the point. C. J. Ball writes,
...The rabbi embodies his lesson in a story, whether parable or allegory or seeming historical narrative; and the last thing he and his disciples would think of is to ask whether the selected persons, events and circumstances which so vividly suggest the doctrine are in themselves real or fictitious.
The doctrine is everything; the mode of presentation has no independent value. To make the story the first consideration, and the doctrine it was intended to convey an afterthought as we, with our dry Western literalness, are predisposed to do, is to reverse the Jewish order of thinking, and to do unconscious injustice to the authors of many edifying narratives of antiquity.
Here, ironically, Grant has summed up a central pillar of the mythicist case. The Gospels are “edifying narratives” that may “seem” to be historical, but are really “metaphor and imagery” in the service of conveying “a higher, more elusive sort of truth.” Such “stories were used as freely as we use metaphors.” Grant is willing to apply such principles to the question of Jesus’ miracles, but not to the story as a whole, not to the character himself. He can speak critically of the dry literalness of the Western mind in the interpretation of traditions attached to Jesus, but he cannot bring himself to question that same dry literalness in regard to the Gospels as a whole. He also recognizes the ancient mindset regarding the natural and supernatural spheres and the connections and continuity between them, the “reality” of the invisible realm, but he fails to see that this is indeed the reality envisioned by Paul, and the reality which the Gospels serve to reflect in “metaphor and imagery.”
So near, yet so far.
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