Only by his death does Jesus become historical

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by Neil Godfrey

The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for Roman insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion. (p.8 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen)

The same was said by one of the most renowned critical scholars of yesteryear.

Alfred Loisy is quoted as holding similar thoughts. His critical analysis of the Gospels leaves him thinking that there is only one certain historical fact to be found in them:

There is no actual consistency in the Gospel story, save the crucifixion of Jesus, condemned by Pontius Pilate as a Messianic agitator.

This is cited from La Passion de Marduk, “Rev. d’Hist et de Litt. Relig.,” 1922, pp. 297-8 in The Enigma of Jesus by Paul Louis Couchoud (translated by Winifred Whale), 1924, p. 70.

Couchoud elaborates on Loisy’s view:

To his affirmation on this point Loisy has always adhered. In his autobiography, which is a master-piece of the literature of the mind, the grave and dramatic story of a conscience, he says, under the date 1894: —

Not a single incident in the whole symbolic narrative did I accept literally save that Jesus had been crucified under Pontius Pilate. [Choses Passées, 165]

In 1907 he wrote:–

If Jesus was not condemned to death as King of the Jews, that is as Messiah, by his own confession, one might just as well maintain that he never existed. [Les Evangiles Synoptiques, I, p. 212]

In 1910 he repeated:–

If this fact could be called in question, there would be no reason to maintain the existence of Jesus. [Jésus et la Tradition Evangélique]

Thus, only by his death sentence does Jesus become historical. The thread is very thin. Does this imply that Loisy accepts the story of the Passion as history? Far from it. Almost all the incidents of the cycle of the Passion —

far from constituting a series of recollections, . . . have been deduced from biblical texts. . . . One might almost say that the Passion was built up on Psalm xxii. . . . Facts are related because of their mystical value, not according to their historical development. . . . The only consistent part of the whole trial is the offence of the Messianic aspiration. [La Légende de Jésus, “Rev. d’Hist. et de Litt. Relig.,” 1922, p. 434, 453, 435, 448]

Loisy regards the greater part of the Passion story as mythological:–

The Gospels do not relate the death of Jesus. They relate the myth of salvation realized by his death, perpetuated in a way by the Christian Eucharist, sympathetically commemorated and renewed in the Easter Festival. The Christian myth is withoutdoubt related to the other salvation myths. It is by no mere chance that the resurrection of Christ on the third day after his death coincides with the ritual of the Feast of Adonis. The Barabbas incident, the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of the empty grave, are apologetic fictions. The incident of the two thieves crucified with Jesus may well be of the same order. And there is no reason why their invention should not have been facilitated or suggested in one way or another by mythologies of surrounding countries. [La Passion de Marduk, “Rev. d’Hist et de Litt. Relig.,” 1922, pp. 297]

But the bare fact of the crucifixion of Jesus sentenced by Pontius Pilate, that remains invulnerable. Despite Psalm xxii, which is put into the very mouth of Jesus on the Cross, and which is quite enough to set the mystical imagination working on the crucifixion; despite Paul’s express declaration that Jesus was crucified by Celestial Powers (and Pilate was certainly not one of them), Loisy maintains the crucifixion of Jesus sentenced by Pilate to be incontestable. Well assured of this historical fact, he fearlessly wields the trenchant blade of his criticism to cut away nearly all the rest.

I imagine a wood-cutter astride on a big branch and hacking the tree trunk. As each splinter flies away, those below cry out: “Take care! It will break and you will fall! He answers with a knowing smile: “Don’t be afraid! However little I have, I shall be able to hold on to it.”

Astride on Pilate’s judgment given by reason of Messianic agitation, all that Loisy saves of the Gospels is such passages as may fit in with the action and the doctrine of a Messianic agitator. According to this criterion, he decides whether a passage has the air of antiquity and reality. The rest is rejected. Thus he arrives at a Jesus who is very thin and very meagre, but who is consistent, comprehensible, coherent, and historically possible.

If one reduces the Jesus of the critics to terms of actual history, one obtains something like the following:–

Couchoud here reminds us of what we learn of the period 6 to 66 ce from the historian Josephus. . . .

In the year 6 of our era, Judas the Galilean attempted to oppose the census instituted by the legate P. Sulpicius Quirinius, and founded the groups of Zelotes, who recognized no other master than God.

Somewhere between 44 and 46, the Prophet Theudas, at the head of a band of followers, marched towards the Jordan and Jerusalem, proclaiming that the waters of the Jordan would divide at the sound of his voice. The Procurator, Cuspius Fadus, had the band dispersed by his cavalry. The Prophet’s head was brought to Jerusalem.

Somewhere between 52 and 58, an Egyptian Jew led a mob as far as the Mount of Olives, promising that the walls of Jerusalem would fall at his command. The Procurator Felix sallied forth at the head of the garrison. Four hundred fanatics were killed, two hundred taken prisoner: the Egyptian disappeared.

To these three must be added a fourth, omitted by Josephus, reconstituted by Loisy. Somewhere between 26 and 36, a Galilean peasant, a village artisan named Jesus,

“began to proclaim the coming of God. After preaching for a while in Galilee, where he enlisted only a few followers, he came to Jerusalem for Easter, and there all he succeeded in accomplishing was to get condemned to death on the cross, like any common agitator, by the Procurator, Pontius Pilate.” [A. Loisy, Les Premières Années du Christianisme, “Rev. d’Hist et de Litt. Relig.,” 1920, p. 162]

That is all that is known about him. Everything else was imagined by the marvellous faith of his disciples. (The Enigma of Jesus, pp. 71-74)

John Crossan has “infamously/famously” made the same point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=EUxTVGiHLco

Indeed, the adherence of scholars to the crucifixion of Jesus as the one single absolutely certain bed-rock fact is instructive. Historical Jesus scholars claim to possess the alchemical-like powers to produce facts out of criteria where only fictional or theological tales existed before. One of these criteria holds that if a narrative detail serves a theological interest or appears to be there to fulfil a Scripture, then it is reasonable to hold its historical authenticity suspect.

But was not the very concept of the crucifixion of Jesus entirely a theological construct from the very first time it appears in the record in Paul’s writings?

And if the single most solid “fact” about Jesus is entirely a theological event where is that remaining stick that would save the wood-cutter from falling? The image can be more ironic if one imagines the tree resembling a cross.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Only by his death does Jesus become historical”

  1. Thanks for yet another awesome blog post.

    If the crucifixion of Jesus should be viewed as a theological construct, a question that might arise is: Why was Jesus crucified rather than stoned to death? Is Zech. 12:10 (“… they will look on me whom they have pierced…”) a relevant passage in this respect?

    A number of the Synoptic “Son of Man” sayings are midrashic allusions in which Dan. 7:13 is combined either with Ps. 110:1 or with Zech. 12:10a. The first group of allusions relates to the enthronement of the crucified (“pierced”) and risen Christ, whereas the second group relates to the future coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of Heaven. According to Norman Perrin, all the sayings about the coming of the Son of Man derive from these two groups; and so there can be no doubt that Zech. 12:10 gripped the imaginations of early Christians.

    Daniel Boyarin, too, has written extensively on The “Son of Man” figure; see, e.g., “How Enoch Can Teach Us about Jesus.”


    Boyarin’s forthcoming book, “The Jewish Gospels” (April 2012), will undoubtedly be of interest not only to Christian theologians but also to mythicists.

  2. There is no fact associated with Jesus’ death. The Roman records would have shown it if it were. The Sanhedrin brought a case against Jesus. They had the power to find him guilty and stone him. Instead we are presented with a story with an impossible timeline. Crucifixion was not used for the alleged offence that Jesus was accused of and two Roman courts that found him not guilty. The whole story contains no logical or verifiable facts at all and has no record in contemporary writing. It thus has no evidence and is unlikely to have ever occurred.

  3. This is a response some time ago by Earl Doherty to Bob from the Jesus Puzzle website.

    Jesus Son of Ananus in Jewish War / Mythicism and Mainstream Scholarship

    Jesus son of Ananus wouldn’t have been exactly a “nobody” given the notoriety of his activity in Jerusalem before the War, but Bob’s point is well taken. If a Jesus of Nazareth had had anything like the impact which Christian tradition gives him, or even what would be required simply if the Christian movement had arisen in response to such a person, the difference in the amount of detail between what Josephus allegedly had to say about him and what he said about the other Jesus is striking.

    1. Urbnnmd,

      According to your source (Earl Dougherty?), “it is probably not likely that Mark’s inspiration came from Josephus’ own writings.”


      It is interesting that, in 2005, Theodore J. Weeden argued otherwise, insisting that Mark and John had both been reading Josephus:

      “While in my presentation before the Jesus Seminar I did not think that Mark was dependent directly on Josephus. I now think that he was… Additional support for the likelihood that Mark got the story from Josephus, and not the reverse, is John’s dependency on the story of Jesus-Ananias which he appropriated from Josephus for his own unique depiction of Jesus’ Roman trial. If, as I argue, both Mark and John drew upon the Josephus story directly, then it is hardly likely that Josephus was dependent upon Mark and John for elements of the Jesus-Ananias’ story peculiar to their own depiction of Jesus’ trials. I cannot imagine Josephus sorting through Mark and John looking for good material to create his own story of this character…” (crosstalk2 at Yahoo).

      Be it as it may, Jesus ben-Ananias is most probably a literary creation. His message of woe against Jerusalem, as well as the fact that he was beaten and tortured, are reminiscent of Jeremiah.

      1. To suggest that Mark and John were inspired by Josephus shows how narrow the research and analysis was. Josephus’ reference is obviously the forgery of Eusebius, otherwise earlier writers would have mentioned it. Josephus is hardly likely to write a vast amount about a betrayed and seduced woman and follow it by the scant few lines of the Testimonium. A broader look at the contemporary religion and its practices show that the proto-Gnostic students of the Mysteries documented the life of the dying/resurrecting Godman to show they had an understanding of their religion.

        These early church leaders of the second century CE were not scholars themselves and had no religious texts of their own, so they were forced to use the gospels of the original Jewish followers of the Jesus Mysteries. These were the only writings that were available. None of the gospels were historical accounts by eye–witnesses, they were just variants of the Mystery story, meant to show that the initiates who wrote them, had an insight into the teachings.

        I prefaced Chapter 16 The Gospel Truth of my book with “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible,
        whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Arthur Conan Doyle as Sherlock Holmes: stop trying to find a proof to justify a historical Jesus, search for the objective answers and you find the truth.

        WH Uffington

          1. Josephus’ own opinion of the Messiah was that his ex–countrymen were misunderstanding the prediction in the scriptures, which alluded to one who would come to free them from oppression. Josephus believed that it actually predicted that it would be Vespasian, who was proclaimed Roman emperor whilst leading the army in Judea. From this is seems clear that Josephus would not then proclaim Jesus as the true Messiah and yet remarkably, in just one tiny section his work, Antiquities 18.3.3, speaks of Jesus being the expected Messiah and recounts the events of his death and resurrection.

            Prior to Eusebius ‘finding’ it, earlier Christians never mentioned that Josephus wrote anything about Christ. Eusebius made a disgraceful and dishonest insertion into an existing historical work, but it was not the only forgery that was undertaken to make the great lie appear true, for the practice was widespread and common.

            Philo was a philosopher and historian, who lived during the period when Jesus was supposed to have been causing a great stir in Judea. Philo wrote extensively on both religious and historical matters in Judea, including much about Pontius Pilate, however, there is not one single reference to Jesus. If Jesus had done any of the things attributed to him, it is inconceivable that Philo had not known and written about it. That there is no account of Jesus would be beyond belief, had Jesus existed.

            Justus of Tiberias wrote a history of the Jews covering the period from Moses to his own time. He too did not mention Jesus. Justus lived at Capernaum, a place where Jesus was said to have spent much time. Is it possible that Justus could not have heard of this teacher who had a large following of disciples, the preacher who attracted crowds of thousands to hear him speak, the miracle worker who cured the sick, a man reputed to have been born of a virgin, a descendent of King David, the expected Messiah. Could a historian have really lived in the same little backwater town and been totally unaware about the great phenomena on his very doorstep? Most certainly not, it would have been impossible.

            To search endlessly for evidence that is not there and reject a plausible explanation is not justified by the need to safe face and avoid embarrassment. It also immoral as it prevents millions from truly knowing Christ.

            WH Uffington

            Gauvin, M J. Did Jesus Christ Really Live?
            Wheless, J. Forgery in Christianity
            Kingsland, W. The Gnosis

          2. Not Jesus ben-Ananias, his story is not in dispute, it is the source of the Gospels stories. Jesus ben-Ananias was flogged for his misdemeanour, so were many others. There was no need for the Gospel writers to copy Josephus, they would be aware of the offences and punishments and it seems from Mark’s Gospel that he had never been to Jerusalem.

            And why is the name Jesus? Let’s not forget, the Greeks wrote Joshua Ἰησοῦς. In our letters it looks like Iēsoûs and in Latin they wrote Iesus. From that we got Jesus in English. Surely it would be more correct to translate the Hebrew as Joshua. All these Jesuses are a bunch of red herrings. Joshuas were ten-a-penny in Judea.

  4. I’m beginning to suspect that Jesus might have been an invention, perhaps a stand-in for James, who does have a history. What do others here think of that? Several details, like “Do not hold this sin in their charge” (Acts 7 of “Stephen” fiction) is James, then refurbished into the mouth of “Jesus” on the cross.

    As Robert Eisenman points out, “sitting at the right hand of God, coming on the clouds of heaven” is associated with James, originally. Nazirites like John and James are absorbed into the persona of “Jesus”.

  5. I was having a similar thought the other day. Why would so many people who want to reconstruct a Historical Jesus start with one of the most blatantly ideological/religious motifs, his crucifixion? I think one reason why is their willful ignorance of the religious context in which these works were written, making them want to see the crucifixion as an event that gets mythologized rather than a mythology which becomes historicized.

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