My interest is finding the most satisfactory explanation for the origin or origins of Christianity, and it is that search that leads me to lay aside the likelihood that there was a historical Jesus behind it all.
- It is easier to understand how such “riotous diversity” of Christianities appears in the earliest layers of evidence if Christianity grew out of a world of ideas and beliefs of many thinkers in dialogue (creative or conflicting) with each other. A historical Jesus being the focus of a group of followers could more reasonably be expected to leave evidence in the earliest layers of monolithic (or nothing more complex than a two-branch) movement that over time branched out into various sects. The evidence suggests the reverse of this: early is associated with diversity; later we see fewer sects until one emerges the victor.
- Christian conversion, ecstasy, mysticism, do not need a historical Jesus at the start. Engberg-Pedersen has shown what I think is a strong case for understanding Paul’s theology and the experience of conversion and Christ-devotion and community-cohesion etc is very similar to the experiences of those who were attracted to Reason (=Logos) and Stoicism. I have posted on this once or twice to illustrate his model. Similarly there is evidence for mystical and visionary experiences, not unlike those apparently associated with mysteries, among the apostles and members. None of these needs a historical founder in the sense we think of Jesus as being. These sorts of things are more usually explained in terms of cultural happenings.
- There is no knowledge of the Jesus narratives or sayings until well into the second century as far as I can recall. I mean that we have no external witness to any of these things till then — that is, no-one knows anything about the gospels until at least the time of Justin Martyr. And the first indications of awareness of gospel narratives are very confused. Was Jesus crucified by Herod or Pilate? Did Rome sweep in to invade Jerusalem immediately after the death and resurrection of Jesus or was there a gap of 40 years? Did Jesus have no genealogy or did he have two? etc. It takes a while for them to agree on the final story.
- The gospel narratives are readily explicable as adaptions of “mythemes” of OT myths, and as literary borrowings of both Jewish and nonJewish literature and ideals.
- Jewish sectarianism seems to be ready soil for sprouting Christian theologies: Second Temple Jewish Gnosticism, the Enochian literature and mysticism, and the development of theologies around the “Binding of Isaac” and the Son of Man in relation to the Maccabean martyrs. And of course there is also more “enlightened” Judaism such as we find in Philo. Don’t we have here the perfect preparation for the evolution of Christianities?
- The fall of Jerusalem and the effects of that war strike me as setting up the ideal conditions for the emergence of a new cult to replace the old Mosaic one that could clearly never be anymore. People need to compensate and work through to maintain identities, and what better solution than finding a spiritual Temple, a Joshua/Jesus to replace Moses in the Promised Land/Kingdom of Heaven — wanderers tabernacling here now but only for a short time? The Gospel of Mark strikes me as pointing to so much here by way of an answer: the story of failed (or maybe failed – the ambiguity is probably deliberate) Israel (represented by the failed twelve?) and the need for the new Israel, the readers.
I’m sure there are other reasons, but these are the ones that sit in the front of my thinking at the moment. It is not so much about whether there was or was not a historical Jesus. It’s more about what makes the best sense of the evidence we have for Christian origins.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
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