How quickly a “historical” person can emerge from a myth: a case study

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by Neil Godfrey

Miguel Cabrera, Juan Diego
Image via Wikipedia

A week ago Evan posted a comment that piqued my curiosity. He raised a case study of a seventeenth-century “historical figure” whom historians have come to deem was completely fabricated. Those with a strong interest in arguing for his historicity pointed to oral traditions, the earliest written testimony, even a personal physical artefact, in support of their case. Scholars casting doubt on this person’s historical reality have in turn pointed to silences where one would expect outspoken witness, and to a few coincidences with motifs from tales that preceded the supposed historical events.

It is very hard to avoid comparing the kinds of evidence cited for the historical existence of Jesus, and to reflect upon the arguments  scholars will advance for questioning the existence of Juan Diego and how similar they are to those arguments advanced by some today to argue that Jesus, also, was not a true historical person.

A special thanks to Evan for taking the time to prepare the following when I explained to him that I had not investigated the case of Juan Diego myself but would be very interested if he could write something to bring me up to speed. I’m sure there are others who would be just as interested.

Juan Diego and Jesus

St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin is an interesting figure. Numerous reports of his life exist and there is a strong prima facie case for his existence. We have a known date of birth, a definite date of his death, and several other facts that almost all sources agree on. We have known historical figures with whom he is purported to have interacted, and a proven location and even artifacts that date to the time of his supposed existence.

Yet even the former head priest of the Basilica of Guadalupe, Guillermo Schulenburg, doubted publicly in 1994 that he existed. The primary arguments about his historicity have been entirely within Catholicism until very recently. Those arguing against his existence view the entire cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe as baptized paganism worthy of no official church recognition. According to Schulenburg it would recognize a cult to canonize him.

The story of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in brief

Juan Diego (July, 1474 – May 30, 1548) was born prior to the conquest of New Spain by Hernan Cortes. He is reported to have been born in the calpulli of Tlayacac in Cuautitlan. He converted to Catholicism shortly after the completion of the conquest of New Spain and is reported to have taken a vow of chastity with his wife, Maria Lucia.

She passed away and Juan Diego remained loyal to the church. One day in December of 1531, on his way to the church in Mexico City, he had an encounter with one claiming to be the Virgin Mary. She spoke to him in Nahuatl and told him to tell the bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, to build a temple for her at the spot they were speaking, Tepeyac.  Juan Diego spoke with the bishop but failed to convince him. Over the next two days, the “Virgin Mary” appeared to him three more times, each time increasing her pressure on him to convince the bishop.

Finally she had Juan Diego pick some roses and take them to the bishop in his overcoat or tilma. When Juan Diego unrolled his tilma to show the roses to the bishop, an image of the Virgin Mary was imprinted on his overgarment and the bishop was brought to his knees and ordered the chapel to be built. Prior to the Virgin doing this, she had told Juan that his ill uncle would be cured. Juan went to his uncle’s house and he was miraculously healed. In her final appearance she told Juan Diego that she wanted the title Guadalupe.

Juan Diego requested the privilege of working at the temple for the rest of his life and Zumarraga approved this. They both died within the same month.

Time line of the appearance of the story

The first mention of the story of Juan Diego in print was in 1648, one-hundred and seventeen years after the events that are narrated. The author, one Miguel Sanchez, openly equated Juan Diego with Moses at Mt. Horeb in his work titled Imagen de la Virgen Maria, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe, Milagrosamente aparecida en la Ciudad de México (= “Image of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God of Guadalupe, who miraculously appeared in the City of Mexico”) . He compared the goddess of the apparition with the great woman of the Book of Revelation. Sanchez stated openly that his sources were oral tradition among the indigenous Nahuatlophone residents of Mexico City.

The second mention is a Nahuatl text that was published in 1649 by Luis Lasso de la Vega entitled Huei Tlamahuicoltica (= “The Great Event”). De la Vega was the vicar of the temple at Tepeyac and he neither before nor after the publication of this text was known to be fluent in Nahuatl. Yet the Nahuatl of the text is widely agreed upon to be very elegant and full of learned expressions. The central telling of the Juan Diego pericope takes place in a segment that is often referred to by itself as the Nican Mopohua (= “Here it is Told”).

The third mention takes place in Origen milagroso del Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (= “Miraculous Origin of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe”) , written by Luis Becerra Tanco and published in 1666. He agreed with Sanchez that there was no written record of the story prior to the mid 17th century, but agreed with Sanchez that there was a flourishing oral tradition.

The fourth source is a document referred to as the Informaciones Juridicas 1666 (= “1666 Juridical Information”) which delivers the testimony of multiple Nahuatlophone witnesses who reported there was a longstanding native tradition regarding Juan Diego. The document is the proceedings of a Catholic investigation sent to Rome in support of recognition for the Guadalupe event from the Vatican. Again, there is no documentary evidence that predates 1648, but strong testimony for a pre-extant oral tradition.

The final source for the Juan Diego tradition is Estrella de el Norte de Mexico (= “Star of the North of Mexico”), written by Francisco de Florencia. This text was written in 1688 and published in Mexico. The author, a Jesuit, felt that the tilma of Juan Diego was all the proof anyone should ever need to trust the tale. However he also claimed to have two sources that dated to 1531, which nobody ever saw. He also relied on an oral tradition as indisputable testimony.

Reasons for skepticism

The primary reason for skepticism towards the existence of Juan Diego is our old friend the argument from silence. Here is a list of characters who should have mentioned Juan Diego yet never did:

  1. Francisco Placido – A Nahuatlophone governor of the Tepeyac region in 1531, the time the image was first documented to be in Mexico, who authored a song “Teponazcuicatl” written in Nahuatl that makes no mention of any Juan Diego. Some scholars have suggested that this song has older Mexica roots and actually is an older Nahuatl song that referred to the fall of Tula the capital of the Toltecs but was then baptized.
  2. Fray Juan de Zumarraga – Bishop in 1531 and a key presence in the narrative, never put pen to paper to describe his experience.
  3. Bernardo de Sahagun – Author of a voluminous work on the natives of Mexico, written in 1571, documenting extensively their traditions and ways. He mentions the location of Tepeyac as a location where there were festivals to the Lady of Guadalupe, but makes no mention of Juan Diego or any story of any native who petitioned for a temple in that location.
  4. Frays Alonso Montufar and Francisco Bustamante – There was a controversy in Mexico City in 1556 over the cult that had developed in Tepeyac with Fray Bustamante petitioning the King of Spain to have Alonso Montufar, the current archbishop, defrocked and put under charges for promoting the worship of idols. He referred to the cult of Guadalupe as something that was “invented yesterday” and claimed the tilma had been painted by an Indian named Marco. Of interest is that Montufar never defended himself by describing the story of Juan Diego, even though Fray Zumarraga was his direct predecessor.
  5. Juan Batista – A native Nahuatl speaker, wrote a diary in Nahuatl, including two entries that mentioned the Virgin of Guadalupe. The first dates the appearance of the Virgin in Tepeyac to the year 1555. The second gives the date of the festival of the Virgin in Tepeyac as September 15, 1566. Since the 17th century, the festival has been celebrated on the 12th of December.

The list above, is of necessity and space an incomplete list, but highlights the major sources. It is of great interest that not a single document mentions Juan Diego until Sanchez. The argument from silence may have a bad reputation in some circles, but in this case there are multiple descriptions where we would expect some mention of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in the guise of a native to Juan Diego and we don’t see them until the story is brought forth fully formed in 1648.  After that, the story has very few changes and there is very little legendary development.

The primary argument about the historicity of Juan Diego has taken place almost entirely within the Catholic Church. The critics of Juan Diego have been assumed to have an animus towards the indigenous people from the beginning of the investigation into his historicity. Additionally, the existence in Extremadura, Spain of a Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the three “Black Madonnas” and the most important Marian shrine in Castile in the 15th century, whose appearance is quite similar to that painted on the tilma, is strong evidence of the translocation of a pre-existing mythology to a new land.

In addition, Tepeyac was known as a site where the indigenous goddess, Tonatzin, an avatar of Coatlicue was known to have been worshipped prior the conquest.

Skepticism regarding the existence of Juan Diego has continued from the time of the first telling of the story to this date. Father Schulenberg retired from the priesthood after his investigations at the Basilica led him to doubt the existence of its canonized saint.

Parallels and distinctions between Juan Diego and Jesus

The most important parallel between Juan Diego and Jesus of Nazareth is the silence of all sources regarding them during their supposed lifetimes. Nobody who was alive at the time that Jesus of Nazareth was alive put pen to paper to say they met him, as is also the case with Juan Diego.

In addition, there are no artifacts associated with the person of Jesus of Nazareth that can be reliably shown to date to his time, in contradistinction to the tilma (cloak) that is purported to have come from Juan Diego and has been reliably dated to the 16th century.

Both stories have roots in the mythologies of two cultures that came into conflict prior their development. In the case of Jesus, you had Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures that fought one another over a prolonged period, with the final defeat of the Jews in 70 CE and the development of Christianity as a separate religion after this event. In the case of Juan Diego, the Aztec or Mexica had been defeated by the conquistadores of Spain in 1521, there was a rapid conversion subsequently to Catholicism. Yet concerns about the authenticity of the Christianity of the natives continued for several centuries, at least by the Spaniards.

Just as Jesus’s story had roots in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek myths circulating in the Hellenistic age, Juan Diego’s story had roots in the Hebrew Scriptures (Moses is mentioned directly in the first reference, and there is intertextuality with other stories as well, such as those with Samuel and Eli), the New Testament and Aztec mythology. The fact that significant elements of both stories can be found in texts that pre-date the stories themselves is an additional strong argument for ahistoricity.


The existence of a person can never be categorically ruled out. In the case of Mexico City in 1531, it is almost certain that there was a native Aztec whose Christian name was Juan Diego. The name has been likened to John Doe in English, and so if the minimum necessary to assert historicity is that there was a person with the name, then Juan Diego would qualify as a historical person. However, this is not the case. For Juan Diego to be historical, some significant portion of the story we know him by would need to be true in the proper sense – to have taken place largely as the story describes. In this sense, I think we can definitively assert that the Juan Diego of the 17th century narratives is a fictional character whose primary existence is only in texts.

If one agrees with this judgment, the judgment one makes in the case of Jesus of Nazareth would, by the commutative principle, be the same.


http://www.proyectoguadalupe.com/acervo.html — all in Spanish and Nahautl.

http://www.sup.org/ancillary.cgi?isbn=0804752524;gvp=1 Stafford Poole’s book on The Guadalupan Controversies in Mexico

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Neil Godfrey

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39 thoughts on “How quickly a “historical” person can emerge from a myth: a case study”

  1. “…with the final defeat of the Jews in 70 CE…”

    Just a minor quibble — Jerusalem was leveled in 70 CE, followed by years of turmoil, and finally the application of the million-pound shit-hammer in 135 CE.

    Hmmm… I wonder if NT scholars could use criteriology to “prove” Juan Diego. I suspect not, since those arguments are hermetically sealed and useful only to prove the existence of Jesus.

    1. Actually, Jerusalem wasn’t levelled in 70. It is a myth, created in Josephus’s War. Judea and Jerusalem was invaded in 66 by Nero. The temple was destroyed four years later by Vespasian, who, for example, built the Colosseum from the proceeds of his pillaging.

  2. Tim, I was tempted to use 135, but I didn’t want to get into the discussion, and usually when I use 135 people tell me it was 70. So perhaps it should say 70-135 🙂

  3. Evan, thanks for doing research on this, I always thought your arguments on other mythic people were a strong suit since it demonstrates possibilities for such a thing occurring. In this case though, while I agree that the tale of Juan Diego is a myth, I have to disagree with your conclusions.

    The damning part of the Diego story is of course, that no one had heard of him before 1648. Given the nature of the records, there is an expectation that we should have. And the earlier exchange about the tilma seems to credit it to someone else, so the historical record contains a contradiction on the origin of the tilma. It may not have been either Diego or Marco, but clearly, there is confusion than needs to be addressed, and the nature of the exchange does lead us to think is the Diego story was known it would be mentioned. Also the original account of Diego seems to indicate that his story was not generally known. As you mention, a number of people who we would expect to mention Diego don’t.

    Concerning Jesus, are you aware of an authentic book by Pilate, Peter, or Caiaphas, that we should expect such a mention? The argument that we don’t have contemporary documentation for Jesus and this is an issue for his existence has a very limited appeal to educated people. It isn’t a good argument if you are aiming at historians.

    1. ‘Concerning Jesus, are you aware of an authentic book by Pilate, Peter, or Caiaphas, that we should expect such a mention?’

      None of the people who knew Jesus wrote about him? Including people allegedly commissioned to spread the word?

      Could we get a series entitled ‘Why people should not expect there to be evidence that Jesus existed.’

      1. The HJ hypothesis in its current form depends on a very strange assertion; namely, our earliest sources that we rely on are unreliable.

        The gospels say that huge crowds went to see the great healer, exorcist, and teacher. His fame spread far and wide. The throngs that surrounded him were so large that it was hard for him to find a moment’s peace. He and his army of followers halted the buying and selling of sacrificial animals in temple during Passover. He was such a threat, he had to be publicly executed. During the crucifixion, the entire planet was bathed in darkness for three hours. Earthquakes rocked world. Zombies walked the streets.

        The Acts of the Apostles tells us that afterward, Peter & Co. converted almost the entire population of Jerusalem to Christianity. You’d think somebody would have noticed.

        So why did nobody write about these events until several decades later? The clever NT scholars say, “Well, that stuff didn’t really happen. But not so fast, Mr. Smartypants. We know there’s historically trustworthy information buried in the untrustworthy sources.”

        And how do we distinguish fact from fiction in the NT? If it’s implausible, it’s false. If it plausible, it’s true.

        It works the same way in real life. If you have to deal with a known, compulsive liar, you know that you trust every word he says, unless it’s implausible. You wouldn’t want to people to think you’re a hyper-skeptic or a Creationist, would you?

      2. I don’t know and you don’t know if they wrote about him, as no one has any of their works, if any existed, keep in mind most of the Christians who have ever lived have not written books to spread the word, even among missionaries. I can’t read about what the emperors of Persia thought of the Roman empire because no such work has survived. Feel free to continue using the argument, but it is a sure fire loser.

        1. Some remedial Biblical scholarship is in order for Mr. Carr. He just doesn’t understand how to use the argument from silence. An illustrative example or two will help.

          Example 1:

          The author of Hebrews never mentions the destruction of the temple. If he were writing after 70 CE, he would surely have mentioned it. Thus, NT scholars “know” that the Letter to the Hebrews was written before 70 CE. They have correctly applied he argument from silence in this case, because it proves something they want to be true. Any evidence that indicates early authorship for canonical works is to be cherished.

          Example 2:

          Paul appears to be uninterested in the historical Jesus. He almost never quotes him, even though as the Great Teacher, he’d be an impeccable source. Imagine that Paul found out that the Corinthians were wearing white shoes before Easter. Now, he could do a midrash on Abraham for 20 verses, or he could just say, “Jesus said not to.” Why is Paul silent?

          In this case, I have incorrectly employed the argument from silence. It is true that Paul shows almost no interest in what Jesus said and practically nothing that he did, except suffering, dying, and rising. But arguing from silence in this case is just plain silly, because it doesn’t prove what they want it to prove.

          The argument from silence is always a sure-fire loser when incorrectly applied.

    2. Concerning Jesus, are you aware of an authentic book by Pilate, Peter, or Caiaphas, that we should expect such a mention? The argument that we don’t have contemporary documentation for Jesus and this is an issue for his existence has a very limited appeal to educated people. It isn’t a good argument if you are aiming at historians.

      Here are the authors who should have known about Jesus but didn’t:

      Philo Judaeus, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Plutarch of Chaeronea, Justus of Tiberias, Damis, Gaius Plinius Secundus, Decimus Junius Juvenalis, Marcus Valerius Martialus, Petronius Arbiter, Pausanias, Epictetus, Aelius Aristides, Marcus Cornelus Fronto, Aulus Persius Flacco.

      There are 14 authors there all from a time when supposedly Christianity is spreading throughout the empire, Paul is traveling everywhere, Christianity is expanding in Alexandria and Rome, yet none of them mention Jesus Christ at all, or even Christianity.

      Why is their silence not equivalent to that of the Spanish and Mexican sources?

    1. Mike, is it your contention that Philo of Alexancria should not have known about Jesus of Nazareth? If not, why not?

      Philo was part of an embassy of Alexandrian Jews who went to Caligula in 40 CE. This is AFTER the reign of Claudius, as I am sure you are aware. According to Suetonius Chrestus was causing trouble in Rome DURING the reign of Claudius and therefore he evicted the Jews, yet Philo, going to Rome subsequently, has no cause to mention anything about Jesus.

      So, using the same principles we use in the case of Juan Diego we can assume one of the following: a) The Chrestus mentioned in Suetonius is not Jesus of Nazareth, or Philo would have mentioned him, dropping our number of Pagan sources down by a significant margin or b) the episode is a scribal interpolation into Suetonius, since Philo is silent about it or c) Philo was legitimately not aware of any Chrestus, Jesus or Christians at the time he went to Caligula because at that time they did not exist and Suetonius got his dates mixed up. You may have a different explanation. But it is a challenging fact to the historical Jesus tale and one that, given your acceptance of Juan Diego’s mythical status, needs to be explained.

  4. Evan, is this a trick question? Claudius was emperor after Caligula. See

    It may change the nature of your argument. To answer the question, it seems Philo did not mention it because the event happened in the future.

    On the issue of the silence of authors on Jesus.
    1. Are we looking at contemporary as in while he is still alive, or within his “time”, a radius around him where we could imagine people having interacted with him? For instance JFK the movie is not contemporary with JFK while he was alive, but Oliver Stone remembers JFK from memory. In the first instance, no there is no text describing Jesus while he was alive, and in the second instance we have some Christian sources, but there is debate on those so I won’t waste time with a discussion of those. Outside those text we have the rather late Plinly the Younger, and the Josephus, which a again is a debatable issue here and even beyond to some degree. So less all that, no contemporary accounts.

    2. Why then, you ask, no contemporary accounts? First how many references are there to Christianity during the same period? None. None to Peter, None to Paul, none to James. I would expect it would be more likely that they would be mentioned over Jesus. Did Jesus have followers in Greece, Asia, and Rome? Did Jesus headquarter in Jerusalem for three decades? Don’t the legends say that the apostles were big miracle workers? Now if you feel that there was no Paul at this time or no Christianity? Well that is another question, I would recommend send for Doherty to answer that, he is a bit more of a sympathetic ear than mine, and he owes Vridar a favor for all the kind words he has had for his work.

    But I would argue if no one is talking about Christianity, and no one is talking about Peter, James or Paul, they are not likely to mention Jesus, who apparently only worked for a brief time in a remote part of the world. The contemporary accounts of Palestine at all are small. The Egyptian Prophet from Josephus is only mentioned by Josephus, and he had bigger, more dangerous, crowds following him.

    1. Mike, thank you for correcting me. I went with the Julio-Claudian list in my head rather than looking it up and I was completely wrong. My apologies for that error of fact.

      However, Philo’s silence, and that of the other writers of his age remains a problem and I appreciate your attempt to address this. I am glad you admit there are no contemporary accounts. I am just curious how you think it possible that a religion that was growing through the first century warranted no mention of its founder in any contemporaneous events, especially that of Philo, who detailed Jewish sects with some deal of detail and was interested in some very fine distinctions between them.

      1. As I understand it, Philo was no fan of Pilate, and would gladly (one presumes) have added the execution of Jesus to the list of the governor’s excesses.

        As far as the Julio-Claudian list, having the BBC production of I, Claudius etched into one’s brain has some benefits.

      2. I had prepared a long reply, but I try not to go over a page on these sorts of things, but if you need clarification, I can do that.

        In brief, I don’t think Philo writes about nearly enough religious groups for us to feel that got most of them, much less all. In fact I think the odds of any group making the cut to being recorded by him are small. I mean if Christianity were one of two or three groups, yeah, or if it were larger a movement than the Pharisees, the Essen, or Zealots. I’m not sure why it would have had to be of that size at that point given a start of around 26-36.

        So the lack of mention in Philo does not mean it was likely that there was no Christianity contemporary with Philo, and thus or understanding Paul to be flawed. With Diego we have much better records involving a city and shrine associated with what would be Diego most famous act, providing the Tilma. I can’t be confident that Philo has documented all or even most of the odd people who had followers or were executed in Jerusalem, and no reason to believe that Christianity would have been especially note worthy, Jesus isn’t Herod’s son or any thing. I dont think we should expect Christianity to be so well known at the 25-15 year mark. I don’t think the early accounts present Christianity as a religion we should expect to be that large at that time. It isn’t impossible that he could have, he either didn’t or we don’t have record of it. He may have even been aware of the movement and not thought to mention it. My first draft had a list of swami I’ve studied, but it was not exhaustive.

        To some up, I can’t prove, or even show as likely, Philo should have documented Christianity or Jesus, or any other figure with that movement. It isn’t a problem to not be where you shouldn’t be.

        1. Another possibility you forgot to mention (maybe it was in your longer reply that you opted to withhold) is that since Philo equates all the titles for Christ (Son of Man, Logos, heavenly High Priest, etc) it is also possible, though I can’t prove it, that he was also a Christian and everyone knew this so there was no need for him to make an explicit statement to that effect. It is also possible that many more records that did mention Christianity at this time were all destroyed by Jews who hated it so much, or by Christians who were trying to protect certain names from persecution or who felt that the gospels and Paul’s letters already were quite enough and there was no need to preserve any more evidence.

          So I think when you add together all of these instances where there is no reference to Christianity, but where we can nonetheless imagine all sorts of “plausible” reasons why those records no longer survive, or why the surviving ones no longer mention Christianity (especially if the author was sympathetic to Christianity), then we have very good reasons for continuing to believe Christianity was thriving and known widely at this time.

          But if we have records that we would expect to mention Juan Diego, and that contain many details from Diego’s story yet without mentioning Diego himself, then it logically follows that Juan Diego never existed and the whole story is a myth.

          Thanks for your clarification, Mike. I hope we can all begin to see sense at last.

          1. I didn’t mention the possibility that Philo was a Christian because the evidence points to him not being one. The points of contact between Philo and Christianity that exited later writers to the possibility he was a Christian could have been lifted from Philo by Christians or had been in a common fund of ideas. Mentions of Messiah, Son of Man, Logos, heavenly High Priest, Son of David, or Elijah, don’t necessarily mean Christianity specifically.

            It is possible that some event or another disrupted the evidence that we would expect had Christianity been a “thriving and known widely” movement in Philo’s time, but i don’t have any evidence to support that now, so I’m not sure of I should put much weight on the assumption. are earliest and most reliable evidence on the appearance of Christianity come from Suetonius and Tacitus,

            Suetonius also makes mention of Nero’s persecution in 16.2: “Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”


            But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called ‘Chrestians’ by the populace.
            Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.

            Both accounts refer to Christianity as a new phenomenon . We can discount Tacitus’ mention of Jesus as direct evidence, since it is second hand , it only shows that that is what he heard at the time. His description of the trajectory, as breaking out in Judea at around the time of Pilate as the first source, but also having a branch in Rome, seem to preclude something that already well established before Nero.

            While the text above don’t rule out Christianity as a cult that began during Nero’s reign, it does rule out that it is something we should expect to see in writings pertaining to the period between 20 and 40 C.E. , even from an Egyptian Jew, unless we are confident that all he discusses most of the m. And if people aren’t discussing Christianity, we cant expect them to discuss people attached to Christianity. We can’t expect that the movement while Jesus was still alive was more populous or famous than after his death, and none of his possible activities are very noteworthy. We don’t even have non-Christian text from when Nero was alive discussing Christianity, even though we can be sure it existed then. The early external witness to early Christianity can’t be used to demonstrate Jesus was developed as a mythic cult or as a cult of personality, but only that the Christian position that their cult was relatively new at the time of Nero is most likely correct.

            Diego’s case is different as you say. One could pine for Diego, but that puts a lot of weight on Miguel Sanchez account. Even if he is accurate that their was an oral legend, the fact that the people mentioned in Steve’s report either; never heard of it, or don’t bother to mention it does say a lot about how much stock we can put into this particular legend, which is sad for Marco the Indian, who’s own role in the creation of Mexico’s most revered icon has been forgotten. It is possible that a case for a mythical Jesus could be made using what we know about this example, but lack of documents regarding the central figure is not the best route.

  5. I’ve said in a previous comment that I’m on the fence about a historical Jesus. And I don’t care one way or the other if such a person existed or not. If there’s “someone” behind the myth, I imagine that they were an observant Jew of some sort. And I agree that the references in Josephus (including the Slavonic) are questionable and I won’t insist on them. And I’m fine with the idea that Paul’s Jesus is entirely mythical. And I agree that the NT gospels and Acts are for the most part unreliable sources of information about such a “Jesus.” I’m like most of you guys here.

    But how do we explain the evidence that the Ebionites believed that Jesus existed and was a normal man? I appreciate the fact that the references to them are from the second century, but still, where did they get the idea?

    1. Is it reasonable to suspect their understanding emerged around the same period as other “orthodox” interpretations of the gospel message (and Markan narrative) — early second century? If this was the time Marcionites were editing Paul’s letters to make them conform to an “original” truth, was it also the time others were editing Matthew’s Gospel for a similar purpose? Mark’s gospel looks to me quite a symbolic narrative, and it is Luke who may be the first to portray a “truly” historical Jesus. If all of these “return to original truth” or “rewrite Jesus as a truly human” movements were part of the early and mid second century, and the first evidence we have of the Ebionites is also from this time, might we be entitled to suspect the Ebionites were one more movement seeking to restore “original” and/or “historic” interpretations of the Gospel?

      1. I think it would be reasonable to suspect that their ideas emerged in the second century, like most other varieties of Christianity, if it were not for the evidence of the existence of James’ group in the first century in Paul’s letters (and James’ letter, which could at least be considered “Jamesian”). The impression I have is that they were a law-keeping “Jews for Salvation” type of group, who were hostile to Paul and recognized for being partial to the “poor.” That’s fair, isn’t it?

        And this is exactly how the Ebionites are described by second century (and later) church sources -law-keeping, hostile to Paul and, one would surmise from how they were called, partial to the poor. And they also revered James. It sounds like the same group to me.

        Trying to “prove” that it is is like trying to “prove” that rabbincal Judaism came from the Pharisees -it’s not conclusive, but it smells like it. There was a lot of disruption for both groups, and the “transition” phase is consequently murky.

        But when you add the Dead Sea Scrolls, as I do, it’s even more plausible.

        Seeing Ebionites as a second century phenomenon does not explain why it looks so similar to James’ group in Paul’s letters. Were they merely inspired by these references?

        But I will admit that, even assuming that they were the same group, it wouldn’t mean that they couldn’t have developed the idea that Jesus was a real man in the second century, in the “rewrite Jesus” scenerio you are suggesting. But if they didn’t, then we needn’t dispense with or explain any plausible “brother(s) of the lord” or “of Jesus” references in Paul and Josephus.

        As a side question, was the Gospel of the Hebrews really a mutilated Matthew, in the second century spirit of Marcion, or was it “Q,” as some scholars suggest? I don’t know, but I’m leaning towards the latter.

        1. Another second century reference to James is in certain Nag Hammadi tracts, and also in the Gospel of Thomas. These indicate to me that James was a name associated with visionary experiences of Jesus, with mystical as opposed to physical notions of Jesus. (I am not convinced there was a historical James, Peter and John. Their appearance in Mark does not inspire confidence. Similarly, I have questions about the appearance of the names in Galatians, and of the nature of Galatians itsself.) So we may appear to have two groups tracing spiritual descent to James. Does this not complicate the question even more?

          1. Not necessarily. Consider Cerinthus (c. 100?), whom our earliest reference calls, “a man educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians”:


            He shared similar views as the Ebionites, and is usually spoken of in the same breath as them. Some even say he is addressed in the Nag Hammadi text the Apocryphon of James, though this is questionable.

            In any event, his connection to Egypt and early Ebionite-like views can explain the existence of the James cult in Egypt. I wondered myself how this could have happened until I stumbled upon Cerinthus. It doesn’t seem complicated in that light.

            I get the impression from the Gospel of Thomas that Jesus is real person, not a vision. For example, in saying 12 the disciples ask Jesus who will lead them “when you leave us” (and he says to go to James).

            1. Gospel of Thomas, Logion 12:

              “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘We know that You will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?’ Jesus said to them, Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”

              Does depart mean “die”? Or does it mean “taken up” into heaven, like Enoch? Or does it mean he will stop making appearances on Earth (either post-resurrection appearances or spiritual visions)?

              This saying could have its antecedents in a proclamation by James and the inner circle that the age of visions is over. When you’ve got 500 guys roaming the countryside, claiming to have Jesus on direct-dial, control becomes almost impossible.

              At some point, we can picture James saying, “Hey, everybody, we have some good news and some bad news. First the good news. Jesus has ascended to the father and now sits on the throne at his right hand. Now the bad news. Jesus is not going to appear to every Tom, Dick, and Hyam anymore.”

              After the “Ascension Event,” the early church fathers could claim special insight into the existing tradition. So if you really want to know what to do, “Go to James” — i.e., ask your bishop.

              1. Maybe so. I still get the impression that he is a real person in the gospel, though I don’t have to believe this. For another example, though I don’t know Coptic or Greek, all the translations I’ve seen on earlychristianwritings.com begin by saying:

                “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.”

                There are other examples I could cite that give me this impression. Is there something else that you see in it that makes you feel it could be otherwise?

              2. Your impression is correct John. It would be hard to walk away with another perspective.

                For instance, G. Thomas 99 has a scene of Jesus’ brothers and mother standing outside as in Mark. 28 has Jesus appearing in the midst of the world as flesh. 61 has Salome say “who are you, man, that, you…have come up on my couch and eaten from my table? Jesus said to her… So Salome calls Jesus a man on her couch. 72, a random guy ask Jesus to divide his fathers property. 79. a woman shouts at him, blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast that nourished you.

                Of course we could make up an allegorical interpretation that remove the need for a man to be the object of these passages, but why would you believe the interpretation? Because some information external to Thomas demands that we Thomas to be referring to a vision? What Information?

              3. Oh, sure, I think whoever compiled the sayings probably thought of Jesus as appearing in the flesh on Earth. All the redactional elements point that way.

                “Jesus said, ‘I took my place in the midst of the world, and I appeared to them in the flesh. I found all of them intoxicated; I found none of them thirsty…'”

                The problem of course, is that these are secret sayings, and we have to wonder how much of the language is symbolic and metaphorical. We’re missing the secret decoder ring.

                And what do we make of sayings like this? —

                “Jesus said, ‘It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the All. From Me did the All come forth, and unto Me did the All extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there.'”

              4. Also, John, it might be worth noting the formula in Greek (i.e., in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri) of “Jesus says.” Could that mean that the Thomasine Christians envisioned Jesus “always” saying these things? In other words, did Jesus appear on Earth in the flesh and say things just once, or has he transcended space and time altogether — existing both everywhere and at all times?

              5. Let’s not forget the studies that indicated the Gospel of Thomas is a composite work with multiple layers cumulating over time. Further, the “Thomasine school” of the Syrian churches also produced the Infancy Gospel of Jesus, a narrative of the earthly Jesus that (almost) no-one thinks is historical.

                As for “being a man”, again I keep in mind Gregory Riley’s work on John and Thomas in which he shows that even the deceased spirits were said to have “bodies” and could eat, drink and have sex with mortals.

                The style of gospel might also be significant. The motif of a near-monologue of revelation from Jesus to his elect few is common among “gnostic” type gospels, yet seems to be one that is critiqued by the synoptic gospels. Compare Jesus on the mountain with his chosen few and failing to address his disciples in that divine apparition, yet the Father instructing them to listen to what he said “in the flesh”. John’s gospel looks like a missing link between the two types of gospels, with lengthy mystical monologues within a narrative structure. And Luke appears to find some reconciliation with a reference to Jesus delivering much instruction after his resurrection. (Justin Martyr, it appears to me, has Jesus deliver his teaching after his resurrection, too.)

  6. I think the converse also has to be asked, how quickly can a minor historical personage become legendary, and at what point does the legend overtake or displace the actual person who was the legend’s basis.

    I have always been bothered by the mythicist position as it too closely resembles Bultmann’s stance for comfort. Bultmann posited a historical Jesus of little importance and a mythical one whose non existent existence defined and legitimized the christian superstitio. I cann’t read him or his disciples since their word play trying to make something out of nothing makes my head hurt. In any case the mythicists are like Bultmann admitting the existance of a non existentcelestial sky envisioned sky person, while minimalizing the historical figure to an imaginary figment.

    Then you have fallen into the trap set by the theists and expend a lot of ink or bits debating the existence of the sky person. And that is a debate whihc can never be won. The sky persons propagandists are more telegenic and personable than you all are, and have been to years and years of bible school learning the techniques of rhetoric and how to be persuasive. Perhaps I am being cynical but I think a lot of them know better, but also know a good deal when they have it tightly grasped in their clammy fists. If they spout the theological party line and are good at it, a lot of people will give them money for nothing, and in the case of the Roman Catholic priests, choir boys for free (Sorry, could not resist that).
    I think the effective tack that needs to be taken to oppose the christian theists, is to say that their theology is fairy tale nonsense, boogy man stories for scaring people into submission and for extracting money from them. Governments like a devout citizenry because religious people are usually easier to manipulate and control. Religious indoctrination can be used to create a soldier class that is willing to unquestioningly follow orders and die since they have been told they are going to get all sorts of post mortem goodies after they have been expended by their leaders.

    In any case, the imaginary stuff is not debatable, it is fantasy and delusion that only deserves to be summarily dismissed. Then one needs to look at the historical personage of Jesus, which has been overlaid with 2000 years of fantasy creation and obscured by an equal amount of time of censorship and misdirection.
    Taken in context Jesus was just another Judean rabble rouser who was opposed to the Roman occupation and exploitation of his homeland, and was opposed to the aristocratic, often foreign high priests they Romans or their Herodian appointees were using as figure heads to give the appearance the Judean theocracy was still functioning as it once had. Though it is possible the man made some claims of being god’s elect or to divinity and was predicting a day of judgment, he was neither divine nor divinely chosen by a non existent god, and his apocalyptic predictions had not more validity than those of later messianic fraudster, like Judas of Galilee or the Egyptian, Shabattai Zvi, William Miller, the Mahdi, Jim Jones, David Koresh, or Marshal Applewhite. He was recruiting disafected followers and telling them stories that would make them a cadre who had no fear of death (since they had been led to believe that they would receive some kind of post mortem reward) and would do his bidding. When he failed to accomplish what ever it was he hoped to accomplish after confronting the Roman’s proxy religious authorities in their temple, and was executed by the Romans, his followers and family, rather than let go of a good thing, accreted some sky story legends around him, and perpetuated the Jesus movement. It does not take much of an imagination to read Acts and early curch histories as an account of a power struggle between Saul/Paul, one or more of the Simons, and James.
    All the wonderful miraculous fairy tales propounded at Sunday school are just fantasies used to mask the secular nastiness or early christian history.
    This is what should be teased out of the few remaining accounts that survived 1900 years of initially scanty data, that underwent even further data loss and the accumulation of much noise. Pagan Imperial Roman censorship and persecution of a sect of violent Judean dissenters, the imposed silence of the accomodationist post-Judean revolt rabbis, and the later censorship and tale spinning of the institutionalized christain church were not all inclusive and were not uniformly or consistently applied.
    A lot more documentation than just the theologically correct Greek and Roman (possibly forged or altered) accounts have survived, even if it is fragmentary form.
    It is this material that should be sought out, studied and used to debunk the lies the professional christian propagandists. The propagndists keep the credulous in a state of thralldom, and supporting the parasitic theocratic class in unearned luxury.
    It is not the Jesus myth that needs to be debated, but that there was a Jesus the Sicariot whose deeds were suppressed, in order to maintain the supremacy of the Roman Empire.

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