Starting to catch up here with a few comments or queries that have bypassed the blog because they don’t quite fit to a post of mine. Here’s one:
But I want to ask a question from the opposite angle, but one that also concerns a conspicuous absence. We have to at least admit that Christianity was growing rapidly in the first three centuries CE, and after the first few generations of conspirators (that constructed a would-be Christ myth), we know that the growing movement in the 2nd and 3rd centuries believed in the historicity and resurrection account of Jesus.
So if at least that much is true…
WHY didn’t numerous 2nd and 3rd century Jews debunk the gospel/resurrection story in writing? I can find no evidence of such writings from the Jews…rather the writings that we do see argue against Jesus being the Messiah on theological grounds, not historical or forensic ones. If in fact the lack of historicity was so clear (and I dare say it would have been clearer then than now, since the mythology hadn’t had time to snowball down the hill of history and gain momentum), why not point it out with volumes of refutation?
The dates we assign to the canonical gospels and epistles attributed to Paul lay outside the purview of this question. The only critical element we need to raise the question is the known growth of the Christian movement, not the dates of individual texts within that movement.
If there’s a complete lack of historicity, why didn’t the non-adherents snuff out the Jesus fire before it got too large to be challenged by straightforward historical evidence?
I’ve seen a cogent answer to this question by Earl Doherty somewhere but I cannot locate it at the moment.
C. J. O’Brien recently gave his take on the question. Here is mine. . . .I used to wonder the same thing and for a time considered the possibility that an answer lay somewhere in the struggle between “proto-orthodoxy” and early docetism. It took me a little while to realize that my question partly arose out of placing modern concepts of the historical past into ancient minds. Historical studies are really only as old as the Enlightenment. But to backtrack a little first . . .
My own understanding begins with a clear distinction between the beliefs of Christianity as we know it and the unknowns and partly knowns of what existed before this Christianity became the orthodoxy. When Justin Martyr describes the spread of Christianity in the early to mid second century he indicates it is “unorthodox” beliefs that were more prevalent than his own views.
We find the same indications in the writings of other “Church Fathers”. Even the pastoral epistles and epistles of John tell us that “all of Asia” and “the whole world” has gone after “false teachers”. The letter of Paul were first testified as being the authorities of the “heretics”. Accusations of ‘enemies’ adding to the writings or taking away from the writings flew back and forth. The gospels also indicate that they are written for Christians who live amongst “false brethren” and that “true believers” are a victimized minority.
The original question, I think, assumes that Christianity mushroomed with its orthodox views from the beginning. I don’t think so. Hebrews and Revelation portray beliefs in a Jesus who is not of this world at all. There are similar indications in the Odes of Solomon and the earliest layer of the Ascension of Isaiah. And in Colossians, 1 Corinthians, et al.
Some of the earliest Christian art forms we see (I’m thinking of the earliest sarcophagi) suggest something less literal and orthodox than we are accustomed to. Jesus is depicted being baptized as a young boy, for example.
Even the letter of Pliny speaking of Christians (if it is genuine) is curious in what it both does and does not say about the beliefs of Christians in the time of Trajan. Even under torture witnesses apparently gave no hint that they worshiped a Jewish man crucified by a Roman governor.
And don’t forget the Valentinians. See, for instance, my own attempt to graphically portray the extent of the various Christianities around the second century.
So though we have evidence that Christianity was spreading rapidly throughout the second century, it is by no means clear that the bulk of these Christians held the beliefs that we associate with what subsequently emerged as Christian.
What that earliest Christian world (or world of various Chrisianities) was like, and its various debates, have been mostly lost from view.
By the time orthodoxy was gaining traction there was no means of suggesting that its central character had never historically existed. One side was declaring the need to have faith in the Jesus of the gospels; the other sides were saying that that was a heresy or a nonsense. Claims were made, and those who felt compelled to oppose those claims had no choice but to do so within the parameters set out by their opponents.
This is where we need to avoid asking why the opponents did not think like post-enlightenment history-savvy folks. There was no reason (or intellectual tools) for anyone to question the historicity of the underlay. The debate was between the theological claim and counter-claim.
The question of setting a newly created myth in recent times
Another facet of this question is the question of how or why many would have accepted a mythical person and event that was set in relatively recent times instead of the dim distant past. (A most fundamental answer is that it certainly was the Christ myth, not the historical Jesus, who seized the imaginations of believers from the start.)
This question also rests on the assumption that Christianity was born in orthodoxy rather than over time coalesced into orthodoxy.
One answer is that we don’t know when some of the early strands of Christianity placed Jesus’ crucifixion (perhaps not all even believed in a crucified Christ, either). Paul, for example, does not speak of Christ crucified in his own time, but of the revelation of the mystery of Christ crucified. That leaves open when the event of that revealed mystery was supposed to have happened. Although it might be worth noting that Paul and other NT authors say it was kept a mystery from the beginning or from the prophets. Revelation speaks of it happening at the foundation of the world. Christian interpreters and others have taken that to mean it was only ordained from then. Maybe they’re right. But how do we know?
But as for the orthodox Christian belief as we interpret it in the canonical gospels, I fail to see a problem with placing the event in the generation before the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70.
The “myth” was not a myth of how the world began, but of how the last days had begun. One of the myth’s functions was to explain the fall of Jerusalem. Proto-orthodox Christians found legitimacy by appropriating (I once used the word “hijacking” and got crucified for it) the Jewish scriptures as their own. To do that, they had to allegorize them all (the way Greek and Roman philosophers allegorized Homer and the way Philo had done) to rob them of any relevance to the Jews (except to condemn them for not embracing their allegorical interpretation) and to make them a uniquely Christian set of books. Their age made them venerable, and their ‘prophecies’ of the last days beginning with the Christ sent to the Jews just before their destruction at the hand of the Romans made them relevant.
There is nothing strange about assigning a mythical event (probably in sincere belief it was a literal event, too, according to the revelation of the scriptures) to introduce “the last days” in “the last days” themselves.
Who was there, after the fall of Jerusalem and the related chaos of slaughters and deportations into slavery and refugees seeking new homes, to declare that there had been no such Jesus walking around Galilee over 40 years earlier? The audiences of these gospels were not (well, probably not) inhabitants of Capernaum who could ask their grandparents “if they were true”. It is not insignificant, methodologically, that we have no external attestation of these gospels until well into the second century anyway. But even if the gospels were written in the latter decades of the first century, consider their audiences and where they were, and how long before they were able to attract notice and raise questions.
No, the gospels indicate what other Christian sources (e.g. epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr) likewise indicate, that their stories were believed because they were revealed histories from the scriptures.
Homer’s “history” of the Trojan war was revealed by the Muses. Revelation comprised a key component in Jewish and Christian histories even where there were genuinely historical foundations for the narratives. To validate a narrative the faithful would do as the Bereans did and turn to the scriptures to see whether those things were so. Luke does not tell us they sent a delegation to Jerusalem and Galilee to cross examine eye-witnesses.
A Justin postscript
Justin Martyr tells us that the Jews did sent out delegations following the twelve apostles around the world to undermine their message (Trypho, chapter 17). I think this is a piece of fiction as much as the twelve themselves, and Justin creates it to further his theological cum racist agenda. But it opens up the question: what did the earliest critics of Christianity argue against the earliest Christians? We scarcely have much idea what constituted beliefs among the earliest (and “proto”) Christianities; we certainly have nothing surviving from their critics.