The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? / Early Doherty. (Canadian Humanists, 1999). Review

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by Neil Godfrey

I originally posted this elsewhere in 2000:

A New paradigm:

On page 125 of his book Doherty writes: “When any set of assumptions is firmly in place, the evidence is usually interpreted in accord with those assumptions. Yet it is clear that the New Testament epistles present the Christian reader and scholar with difficulties and anomalies at every turn. These have traditionally been ignored, glossed over, or subjected to unnatural interpretations and questionable reasoning in order to force them into the mold determined by the Gospels.

“What is needed is a new paradigm, a new set of assumptions by which to judge the epistles (as well as the other non-canonical documents…), one capable of resolving all those contradictions and uncertainties. That paradigm should be determined by what we can see in the epistles themselves and how we can relate their content to what we know of the spirit and conditions of the time.” This is how Doherty approaches not only the epistles but the gospels and noncanonical writings as well.

Why do the earliest New Testament documents (the epistles) show no knowledge of the life and teachings of the historical Jesus (apart from a few passages that are said to be revealed via scripture or vision) yet speak of this Jesus, without any justifying reference to his human life, as God and sustainer of the universe? Doherty shows that the traditional scholarly explanations for this puzzle are with less than adequate documentary and logical support. But by looking at the philosophical and theological milieu of the authors of the epistles (who wrote before the gospels were known to them) we see that their ideas of Jesus Christ are a part of the broader literature about an increasingly personified divine Messiah, Logos, Wisdom figure. Paul also appears to demonstrate closer affinities with some aspects of the mystery cults than with any knowledge of an historical Jesus. Doherty shows that many of the ideas expressed in the theologically divergent epistles of Paul, James, John and that to the Hebrews are more satisfactorily explained as a part of broader Son of God literature emerging in some circles of Hellenistic Judaism, and to whom this figure was exclusively a spiritual revelation of scripture or personal vision—not an historical person.

Part 2 of Doherty’s book essentially explains why modern Christian scholarship finds so elusive the nature of the historical Jesus assumed to lie hidden beneath the earliest Q sayings and the gospel of Thomas. Doherty asks the questions that both conservative and liberal Christian scholars fail to address seriously: Do these earliest sayings point to a single Jewish historical figure at all? Or is the evidence more satisfactorily explained as the product of a more general counter-culture, Cynic-like movement arising from economic oppression in Galilee and to which a Jesus figure was later added and gradually fleshed out? Much of this section is a response to modern Christian scholars (especially John Dominic Crossan (“The Birth of Christianity” et al.) whose theological assumptions seem not to allow them to ask such a fundamental question. Doherty would say that such a question should be obvious when the earliest evidence shows no knowledge of any of Jesus’ works or life-experiences (but only a collection of sayings that have little to commend themselves as unique) and especially when the evidence rather points to a gradual elaboration of biographical details of a Jesus character over time?

Doherty then looks at the tendentious nature of Christian scholarship’s interpretation of Jewish and pagan sources such as Josephus and Tacitus and finds it logically flawed.

He points to the Gospel of Mark as the first attempt to unite the Galilean tradition (the evolved Q sayings) of Jesus with the completely separate Jerusalem tradition (of a dying and rising Messiah who becomes God). Historians such as Crossan see links between these two traditions in the Didache or even the Cross Gospel in the Gospel of Peter, but Doherty deconstructs such arguments with a rigorous but lay-reader-friendly analysis of the textual evidence. He takes us through a survey of Mark showing how these two traditions have been united through midrashic re-writings of many old testament passages and tales designed to meet the needs of the Markan community. The result was the first gospel of Jesus. This literary work was possibly the real beginnings of Christianity as we know it.

Finally Doherty examines the earliest post-gospel writings of Christians beginning with Ignatius and through to Papias. The relationship between Marcion, the writings of Paul and the Book of Acts is discussed. The second century apologists’ writings are shown to draw more heavily from Middle Platonism than any gospel Jesus, and at least in one case appear to deny the very idea of such a figure being associated with their Christian faith.

The footnoting and appendices in the book are set out in such a way as to make this book one of the easiest introductions to the documents of early Christianity and also as one of the most accessible and easy return-reference tools I have read.

The book’s strength is that it accepts modern scholarship’s foundational evidence for the origins of Christianity (canonical and non-canonical writings along with their generally accepted dates) and shows that traditional interpretations raise unsolvable problems of logic and consistency. It shows how these problems are largely removed if we interpret the same evidence as pointing to Jesus being a creation of the broader philosophical, theological and religious world of the time. This Jesus then only gradually evolved into an historical founder after the original midrashic nature of the gospels was later confused with biographical reality.

Book details: The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? / Early Doherty. (Canadian Humanists, 1999)

See also Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle website

Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? / Early Doherty. (Canadian Humanists, 1999). Review”

  1. Sir:

    In your blog posting of 09 03 06 you wrote the following:

    ca.370’s CE
    Latin Pseudo-Hegesippus and the Hebrew Josippon dependent on Ps-Hegesippus, cite free paraphrases of the Josephan reference to Jesus first cited in Eusebius.

    I have a complete typescript copy from the translator of the English language translation of PsHegisippus.

    However, as I recall my copy of the Josippon (vilna edition) does NOT contain a version of the TF, in fact it is silent on the Jesus topic. However the Vilna edition is not one of the best exemplars of the Jossipon.

    Could you provide me with an English or French translation of the TF from your copy of Josippon and enough surrounding text to provide proper context and let me know which manuscript or print edition of the Josippon you are citing.

    Thank you very much in advance,


    Edited by Neil Godfrey to add: The post to which you refer, JW, is this one here: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/03/06/josephus/. Will respond shortly.

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