Some reasons to think there was no historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.

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25 thoughts on “Some reasons to think there was no historical Jesus”

  1. You wrote:”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.”

    That there was no historical Jesus is not an explanation for the origin of Christianity, so why bother persuing the latter?

    1. You seem to have misunderstood. It is the pursuit to understand the evidence with a view to understanding Christian origins that leads one to set aside the idea that it all started with a historical Jesus.

      1. Neil, deciding for the ahistoricist/mythicist position on the gospel JC; deciding on this position after evaluating the gospel story and considering the non-gospel sources, has nothing, in and of itself, to contribute to an understanding of early Christian history. It is only once this position is taken, the ahistoricist/mythicist position, that one can then begin to undertake a search for early Christian origins. In other words; the ahistoricist/mythicist position is not the end but the beginning of a search into early Christian origins. The search for early Christian origins is a historical search – a historical search that takes one straight into the writing of the prophetic historian, Josephus. It is that writing that holds the key to early Christian history – not the gospel storyline. The literary evaluation of the gospel storyline, which you do so admirably, is important – it allows one to see the storyline as a literary construct as opposed to it being a ‘historical’ account. But real, actual, history has still to be dealt with; Jewish history of the end of the Hasmonean period and the subsequent Herodian period. Yes, Josephus is a minefield and one can get waylaid or stuck in some cul-de-sac of his devising – but one has to walk across that minefield if one wants to gain an understanding of early Christian history.

          1. The first step would be to consider Josephus in his true character i.e. as a prophetic historian. I’ve previously quoted from two books dealing with this characteristic of Josephus:

            Dreams and Dream Reports in the Writing of Josephus, A Traditio-Historical Analysis by Robert Karl Gnuse.

            “Josephus’ prophetic role as historian merits special attention…..In War 1.18-19 he declares that he will begin writing his history where the prophets ended theirs, so he is continuing this part of their prophetic function. According to Ap.1.29 the priests were custodians of the nation’s historical records, and in Ap.1.37 inspired prophets wrote that history. As a priest Josephus is a custodian of his people’s traditions, and by continuing that history in the Jewish War and subsequently by rewriting it in his Antiquities, he is a prophet. For Josephus prophets and historians preserve the past and predict the future, and he has picked up the mantle of creating prophetic writings. Perhaps, in his own mind he is the first since the canonical prophets to generate inspired historiography….”

            Prophetic Figures in Late Second Temple Jewish Palestine: The Evidence from Josephus: Rebecca Gray.

            “One question remains: how much of this self-portrait is true? That is, how much of Josephus’ portrayal of himself as a prophet reflects what he actually said and did and thought at the time of the events he is depicting, and how much of it is a result of later reflection and literary elaboration?

            “This is, of course, an extraordinarily difficult question to answer. There is no denying that the picture we now process of Josephus as a prophet has been refined and developed in various ways. For example, the ideas that he claims first came to him in a moment of prophetic revelation at Jotapata – that God was punishing the Jews for their sins and that fortune had gone over to the Romans – have become major interpretive themes in the War as a whole. Josephus also sometimes reinforces the prophetic claims that he makes for himself by subtle changes in his presentation of the ancient prophets. And it is probable that, with the passage of time, Josephus’ image of himself as a prophet became clearer in his own mind.”

            That is what we are dealing with – Josephus is not *just* a historian. Josephus is a prophetic historian. What that means is that he is writing not just history but also prophetic history. History with a touch of meaning, salvation or symbolism. Not plain vanilla but an assortment of flavours and textures. And not forgetting that this prophetic historian is operating under the very nose of Rome.

            Consider the Josephan account of James – the account that the JC historicists like to think is the big deal for JC historicity. The dating is around 62/64 ce. (Lucceius Albinus). James the brother of Jesus, called Christ, is stoned to death on order of the high priest, Ananus ben Ananus.

            From the ahistoricist/mythicist position, we are not here dealing with any real flesh and blood brother of a literary gospel character. One can go the route of interpolation by later Christians into Antiquities. But to do so is to miss out what Josephus is doing here. For a prophetic historian, symbolism and time frames are important. History repeats itself, nothing new under the sun. If destruction happens then restoration will follow. Optimism! Around 100 years prior to 62/64 ce – 36 b.c,, the brother of Mariamne, the brother in law of Herod the Great, was high priest. Herod wanted him killed (some talk re conspiracy) and had Aristobulus III drowned. The high priest prior to and after the death of Aristobulus, was named Ananelus. The previous year, 37 b.c. the last Hasmonean anointed King and High Priest, Antigonus, was crucified and beheaded by Mark Antony, at the instigation of Herod. That’s the earlier history. Josephus has re-run the tape 100 years later with his new interpretation, with new characters, in the storyline re James, the brother of Jesus, called Christ. Antigonus, the anointed king and high priest, crucified and beheaded. Aristobulus, high priest, drowned. Two Hasmonean ‘brothers’, that Josephus has used as ‘models’ for his James and his brother, Jesus, called Christ.

            Keep in mind that, under Rome, remembering the Hasmoneons Antigonus and Aristobulus would have had to be done with circumspection and not a fanfare. (Christians would have no need to consider Hasmonean history – but Josephus, being of Hasmoneon blood, would).

            If it’s early Christian origins we seek, then reading Josephus this way, as a prophetic historian, is much more interesting than a literal reading or going the interpolation route re Josephus and Antiquities. What we are dealing with is Hasmonean history being re-told by the prophetic historian, Josephus, within a symbolic and prophetic framework.

  2. I think that I will remain agnostic. Of your six reasons, only the first and perhaps the third seem to be affirmative reasons to prefer the mythicist explanation. The other four seem merely to assert that a mythological Jesus fits the evidence just as well as a historical Jesus. I have no problem setting aside the idea that it all started with a historical Jesus (or even very much of it), but I don’t know if that is enough to make it more probable that there was no historical Jesus.

    1. Vinny, was there a historical Clark Kent, in your opinion? Do you think we should suspend judgment when there is no positive evidence for the existence of something or someone, or does the lack of positive evidence lead one to conclude that the thing or person posited probably does not exist or there would be such evidence?

      1. Evan,

        I think that there are several good reasons to affirm a thing’s non-existence: (1) positive evidence that is inconsistent with its existence which corresponds to Neil’s first reason; (2) an absence of positive evidence that we should reasonably expect to find which corresponds to the third reason; or (3) positive evidence that the thing was invented or fictional which I think we have in ample measure with Clark Kent.

        If we merely lack positive evidence for a thing, we should be agnostic about it. If we have some evidence for existence as well as some inconsistent evidence and an absence of some expected evidence, then we should remain agnostic unless we conclude that the balance decisively favors one of the conclusions. Evidence that is consistent with either existence or non-existence shouldn’t tip the scales on way or the other.

        I am persuaded that much of the evidence that historicists cite is equally consistent with mythicism, but that is not enough to push me into the mythicist camp.

        1. Vinny: “…positive evidence that the thing was invented or fictional…”

          We’ve become so accustomed to dealing with the evidence I think we tend to forget that the all the earliest evidence for Jesus describes him as a supernatural being with supernatural powers doing supernatural things on a cosmic stage. It’s only after the NT passes through the HJ sieve that we get the “radical Jewish peasant” or the “apocalyptic prophet”.

          I’m also in the agnostic camp, but I have to admit the background evidence and prior probability point to a mythical Jesus. I’m just not swayed by any of the current mythicist models. However, I’ve started reading “Neither God Nor Man,” so that may change.

        2. Vinny, I simply would say that we have ample evidence from multiple lines of evidence that the Jesus we know of is fictional and invented. We have nearly as much evidence for this as we do that Clark Kent was fictional and invented.

          The only solution to the problem would be to assume that Jesus was nothing at all like the stories we have, which then presupposes the stories we have are fictional or invented, so … I see your “agnosticism” as a difficult-to-defend position. If you are uncertain as to whether there was a single human founder of what later became Christianity, I think that’s defensible, regardless of what his name or location may have been, but the record is adequate to show that Jesus of Nazareth as described in the books of the NT (present at the creation, present at the Exodus, through whom the cosmos was made, the son of God, raised and raising people from the dead, walking on water, driving demons into pigs, magic spit-having, arguing with Satan, ministered to by angels, etc) is fictional and invented.

          1. Evan,of course the Jesus of Nazareth of the New Testament is fictional and invented! Is that what you have been pushing for? Man, you should have just said that at the begining and saved us all the riddles.

  3. I’m not sure how anyone can keep reading the literature and studying the texts, but still conclude there must have been a historical Jesus. I’ve been struck lately by the number of people who stridently claim that mythicism is just like creationism. It seems to me that mythicism or at least hopeless agnosticism is simply the result of applying the historical-critical method and not stopping at some arbitrary point.

    Recently I’ve been listening to a course on the New Testament that I downloaded from iTunes. It’s from an evangelical seminary, so as you can imagine the professor’s explanation of higher criticism and solution to the synoptic problem are driven by apologetics. According to this line of thought, none of the results from the mainstream scholars have any validity, because they don’t believe in miracles — hell, they aren’t even “real” Christians. In fact, it seems the only reason this group of evangelicals bothers to learn about mainstream NT scholarship is to memorize the canned apologetic refutations.

    These guys are the creationists. They pursue scholarship only to the extent that it reinforces what they already know by faith. They ascribe a devious agenda to any other scholar who comes to a different conclusion.

    The mainstream HJ scholars, in this analogy, would be akin to the proponents of theistic evolution. “Little bit o’ God; little bit o’ Darwin.” They’re pleased with themselves that they’ve found a way to create a historically plausible Jesus, with (somehow) Christianity blossoming after his death with riotous diversity.

    The non-historicists, then, are like the evolutionary scientists who say that the process works just fine without divine intervention. In our case, we reject the need for a divine plan or a human founder. If anything, the introduction of a charismatic human founder who is immediately ignored by his successors introduces more problems than it solves.

    Finally, if mythicists were like creationists, you wouldn’t have great minds like Robert M. Price and Earl Doherty toiling in virtual anonymity and penury. They’d be working at something like the Institute for Creation Research, with money funneling in from true believers.

    1. Well they would have the money if you weren’t sucha tight wad. Do you atheist think your gonna take it with you? Just kidding, spend that dough on living life while you can.

  4. I think the idea that James’ group, like the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls sect, may have kept their doctrines secret form outsiders left the door of speculation open for other teachers, such as Paul, and is why the epistles of James and Jude are so concerned with countering them. Also bear in mind Peter’s letter to James in the Homilies of Clement, which rey reminded me of, which also supports this idea.


    It seems like Judaism was “cool” to some people in the empire, and that there was a battle of interpreting the OT and applying it to people and events of the time. Regardless of this, I can see a consistency in the Dead Sea Scrolls/James’ group and Ebionites, even if they were utimately condemned.

    And while I can’t say that it refers to Jesus, when it comes to the diversity of early Christianities I’ve always found this Dead Sea Scroll (4Q451) fascinating.

    “…his Wisdom [will be great]. He will make atonement for all the children of his generation. He will be sent to sons of his [generation]. His word shall be as the word of Heaven and his teaching shall be according to the will of God. His eternal sun shall burn brilliantly. The fire shall be kindled in all corners of the earth. … They will speak many words against him. There will be many lies. They will invent stories about him. They will say shameful things about him … When he arises there will be Lying and violence, and the people will wander astray [in] his days and be confounded … [He will judge] revealed sins … Investigate and seek and know how Jonah wept. Thus you shall not destroy the weak by wasting away or by [crucif]ixion … Let not the nail touch him. Then you shall raise up for your father a name of rejoicing and for all your brothers a [firm] Foundation” (excerpted from Eisenman and Wise’s Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered p. 145).

    1. John, I think Justin Martyr’s is the first description we have of a conversion to Christianity from his Dialogue with Trypho. Here is the clincher for him, the paragraph that convinced him to become a Christian:

      “‘There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error. But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom.”

      It seems almost as if the Christ were a stand-in for the Tanakh here. One would certainly not get the idea that this was a human being from this paragraph, yet Justin is certainly comfortable at other places describing Jesus as a real enough seeming person. Justin also quotes Isaiah as the words of Christ.

      There may be something to your statements — it may be that some early Christians believed that “Simon” was stand-in for false Israel and was indeed “crucified” in 70 CE, but that the Tanakh was Jesus … which lived on in through the Christian faith and was a resurrection of the “true belief” of the OT fathers. I don’t have time to fully flesh this out right now, but your quotation from Eisenman is certainly intriguing.

      1. I’m having some eye problems (literally. I’m wearing a patch right now). The above Scroll is actually 4Q541, not 4Q451. To make it even more resonant with “Christianity,” it concludes with what Eisenman calls “a splendid evocation of eternal life”: “You shall see and you shall rejoice in the Eternal Light and you will not be one who is hated (of God).”

        I think a good example of the OT interpretation “battle” that seems to have been going on in the first century (and after) is how it was being applied not just to the Gospel Jesus, but also to
        “real” people, like James in Hegesippus: “[H]e was called the Righteous and Oblias … fulfilling the declarations of the prophets regarding him,” and “‘Ho, ho!’ they called out, ‘even the Righteous one has gone astray! -fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘Let us remove the Righteous one, for he is unprofitable to us.”

        This is also what the Dead Sea Scrolls sect does for the Righteous Teacher and the events surrounding his sect in the pesharim (whom Eisenman has convinced me is James).

        I think its sad that so many in the first century (and after) believed in the OT and that it applied to them. It caused a lot of problems for those who were ultimately destroyed by Rome, and a lot of problems for others by those who survived and claimed to have the “right” interpretaions.

  5. I fall into the agnostic camp simply because of the lack of tangible evidence. That lack means that everyone is doing more or less informed speculation. When a 20th or 21st modern asserts how a 1st or 2nd century person thought that is a bit optimistic at the least.

  6. Another reason to think there was no historical Jesus:

    7) The insignificance of “Jesus” to the earliest Christians outside of a purely soteriological context. The Christ Jesus of Paul (and the Epistle writers generally) performs the soteriological functions of a dying-rising God-man (establishing a sacred meal, dying, resurrecting, and atoning for the sins of worshipers); he does not live a life. The Gospels provide more “biographical” information, but the vast bulk of this is also functional (recapitulations of Scriptural stories, “fulfilled prophecies,” midrash, etc. that establish his God-man street cred). The Gospel “biographies” focus almost totally on the last week of Jesus’ “life,” offering only enough “teachings” and miraculous wonders to provide a sufficient buildup to the climax of his death and resurrection (or, in some non-canonical texts, establish his position as the Divine Revealer). This limitation of a divine personage to a spiritual function is common in mythology. It is enough to know that Anubis is the guide and guardian of the dead; we don’t need to know what he’s like on his days off.

    According to the historicist position, the earliest Christians were devoted followers of a man. So devoted, that they exalted him above all the prophets, heroes, and kings of their own tradition and joined him to the very Godhead itself. Such people would be expected to cherish their memories of the great man, to quote him and bring his deeds and personality to remembrance at every opportunity. Admirers of Gandhi, Buckminster Fuller, or heck, Justin Bieber, love to quote, talk about, and point to the object of their adoration.

    Yet the epistle writers never do this, citing stories from the Hebrew Scriptures instead. Even now, the total preserved “Jesus material” (teachings, deeds, etc.) in the New Testament amounts to, what, one good-sized Pauline Epistle if you don’t count repeated material? In terms of material Christians thought worthy of preserving and canonizing, Paul completely overshadows “Jesus” and his “12 Apostles” put together. How could “Jesus the man” be so insignificant to the people who loved him enough to make him God (in some sense or other) that they’d rather talk about Moses or Abraham than him?

    Paul tells us that apart from Jesus’ soteriological function there is no point to following Jesus at all. “If Christ be not raised, then your faith is in vain.” Really? Even if Gandhi hadn’t succeeded in ousting the British from India or if they’d left for other reasons, he still provided a powerful example of nonviolence and a body of teachings worthy of admiration. Aristotelians preserved the teachings of Aristotle. Muslims preserved the words and deeds of Mohammad. Where, in the earliest Christian writings, is Jesus the man? Where is the writers’ admiration for him? Where are the words and deeds that inspired the first Christians to elevate him to godhood in the first place? Why, instead of preserving these, did the Gospel writers put other sayings in his mouth and craft fictive “biographies” out of Scriptural pastiche? Why did the Epistle writers omit them altogether? The mythicist position–that there was no beloved man, no inspiring words and deeds, only a soteriological function in the first place–makes perfect sense of this prevailing aspect of the earliest Christian writings.

    A mythic deity can be distilled to a function and still be worshiped as the embodiment of that function. Take away “Guardian and guide of the dead” and “Anubis” disappears. Take away “God of War” and whither Ares? Take away “Divine intermediary who descended, died for our sins and rose again,” and “Jesus” also disappears. “Jesus” has no life, no personhood apart from his mythic function, even to (supposedly) the people who lived with him, walked with him, and were so enamored with him that they added the mythic function to him in the first place.

    Nutshell: “Jesus” is not a beloved man to whom a mythic function was attributed. He is a mythic function to which a few pithy sayings and a historical setting were attributed.

  7. We also have the author of Hebrews carefully explaining who had heard and rebelled.

    ‘As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”

    Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt?’

    Doesn’t the author realise people had heard Jesus himself and rebelled?

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