2019-03-07

Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 4 / Conclusion – Historical Jesus?

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by Roger Parvus

The previous post concluded thus:

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my revised hypothesis basically adds only two things to Loisy’s scenario: (1) I would identify the above “Christian groups which believed themselves heirs of the Pauline tradition” as Saturnilians. (2) I would identify the above “mystery of salvation by mystic union with a Saviour who had come down from heaven and returned to it in glory” as the Vision of Isaiah. I also said, earlier in this post, that my recognition of the role the Vision plays in the Pauline letters had changed my perspective on a number of early Christian issues. Before closing I would like to say a few things about perhaps the most significant of them: the historicity of Jesus.

Continuing and concluding the series ….

Historical Jesus?

I am now much more open to the possibility that the version of the Vision used by Paul’s interpolators included the so-called “pocket gospel.” The Jesus of that gospel is docetic. He only appears to be a man. Such a Jesus could explain curious Pauline passages such as this one:

Thus it is written: There was made the first man, Adam, living soul; the last Adam lifegiving spirit. But the spiritual is not first, the first is the living, then the spiritual. The first man, being of earth, is earthy, the second man is of heaven. As is the earthy, so too are the earthy. As is the heavenly, so too are the heavenly. And as we have borne the likeness of the earthy, we shall bear the likeness of the heavenly… (1 Cor. 15, 45-49)

Commentators say that we have to understand here a resurrected Christ as the second man; that Christ too was first earthy, and became lifegiving spirit by his resurrection. But notice that the resurrection is not mentioned in the passage. And it doesn’t mention a transformation for Christ from earthy to spiritual. We are the ones who are said to be in need of transformation.

Moving on: In the pocket gospel there is not a real birth. As Enrico Norelli explains it:

If the story is read literally, it is not about a birth. It’s about two parallel processes: the womb of Mary, that had enlarged, instantly returned to its prior state, and at the same time a baby appears before her— but, as far as can be determined, without any cause and effect relationship between the two events. (Ascension du prophète Isaïe, pp. 52-53, my translation)

This could explain why, in Gal. 4:4, Jesus is “come of a woman, come under the Law.” The use of the word γενόμενον [genômenon] (to be made/to become) instead of the far more typical γεννάω [gennâô] (to be born) could signal a docetic birth. The Jesus of the Vision comes by way of woman—and since she was Jewish, he thereby came under the Law—but he was not really born of her.

The pocket gospel may actually give us an earlier and more accurate look . . . at what a historical Jesus could have been like.

And, in general, with the pocket gospel as background the interpretation of the crucifixion by “the rulers of this world” in 1 Cor. 2:8 ceases to be an issue. Likewise the improbable silences in the Pauline letters. We can account for why, apart from the crucifixion and resurrection, there is practically nothing in the Paulines about what Jesus did or taught. For the Jesus of the pocket gospel is not presented as a teacher. Not a single teaching is put in his mouth. He is not even any kind of a leader. He is not said to have gathered disciples during his lifetime. All we get is this:

And when he had grown up, he performed great signs and miracles in the land of Israel and Jerusalem. (Asc. Is. 11:18)

These “signs and miracles” need be no more than the kind of bizarre things that, according to the pocket gospel, accompanied his so-called birth. They would be like the curious coincidences that happen to people all the time. But in his case they took on added significance once someone had a vision of him resurrected from the dead. “Hey, I remember once he put his hand on Peter’s mother-in-law when she was sick, and it was weird the way she seemed to get better right away.”

In other words, I think the pocket gospel may actually give us an earlier and more accurate look than the canonical gospels at what a historical Jesus could have been like. He was not a teacher or even a leader of any kind. If he went up to Jerusalem with some fellow believers in an imminent Kingdom of God—perhaps a group of John the Baptist’s followers—he was not the leader of the group. Once in Jerusalem he may have done or said something that got him pulled out from the others and crucified. That would have been the end of the story. Except that another member of the group had a vision of him resurrected, and interpreted it as meaning that the Kingdom of God was closer than ever. Jesus thereby began to take on an importance all out of proportion with his real status as a nobody. The accretions began. And the excuses for why no one had taken much notice of him before.

Why Jesus? Why not a vision of a more significant member of the group? Why not a vision of a resurrected John the Baptist? I don’t know. Maybe John was still alive at the time. Maybe Jesus just happened to be the first member of the group to meet a violent end. Hard to know.

And I’m not sure whether, according to Bayesian analysis, such a further reduction of Jesus increases or decreases the probability of his historical existence. But it does seem to me that such an extremely minimal Jesus can reasonably fit the kind of indications present in the Pauline letters. So sadly, I find I must change my affiliation from Mythicist to Agnostic (but leaning Historical).

 

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Roger Parvus

Roger Parvus is the author of this post. Roger is the author of A New Look at the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch and Other Apellean Writings and two series of Vridar posts: Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius and A Simonian Origin for Christianity. In a previous life Roger was a Catholic priest.

14 Comments

  • Der Gottesverachter
    2019-03-07 11:38:20 GMT+0000 - 11:38 | Permalink

    “And I’m not sure whether, according to Bayesian analysis, such a further reduction of Jesus increases or decreases the probability of his historical existence.”

    I don’t think it makes a difference, the real question is if the literature is inspired by an actual person, not if a person having such and such features could have lived.
    Obviously, as we reduce the figure so the features are more and more mundane and less detailed, we’ll inevitably arrive at near certainty – yes, such a person could have lived, probably thousands of them.

    • Bob Moore
      2019-03-07 18:25:14 GMT+0000 - 18:25 | Permalink

      I’m reminded of that bumper sticker, “All things are possible with Jesus.” But I would like to see the probability analysis.

  • Giuseppe
    2019-03-07 14:39:03 GMT+0000 - 14:39 | Permalink

    Hi Roger,

    I remember that you have written somewhere that what would be more close to the Pillars’s Gospel is the belief shown in the Book of Revelation. In addition, the epistles sent by the Seer to the seven Churches against the Gnostics seem to be an answer against similar epistles sent from the saturnilian ”Paul”.

    How does it affect the question of historicity, given the fact that Revelation seems to be so silent about a historical Jesus ?

    In addition, I am more perplexed by the fact that the passage:

    And when he had grown up, he performed great signs and miracles in the land of Israel and Jerusalem. (Asc. Is. 11:18)

    …would be evidence of a historical Jesus. It remembers the only way by a Gnostic figure to derive the attention of the demons against himself. For example, a similar passage is the following:

    The whole creation that came from the dead earth will be under the authority of death. But those who reflect on the knowledge of the eternal god in their hearts will not perish. They have not received spirit from this kingdom but from something eternal, angelic. . . . The illuminator will come . . . Seth. And he will perform signs and wonders to scorn the powers and their ruler.

    Then the god of the powers is disturbed and says, “What is the power of this person who is higher than we are?” Then he brings a great wrath against that person. And glory withdraws and lives in holy houses it has chosen for itself. The powers do not see it with their eyes, nor do they see the illuminator. They punish the flesh of the one over whom the holy spirit has come.
    http://gnosis.org/naghamm/adam-barnstone.html

    Would be the hero of the passage above – the Illuminator (not even named Jesus) – a historical figure, only in virtue of ”signs and wonders”?

    I mean: isn’t it part of what Saturnilus add on the Jesus of the Pillars (and of the your minimal Paul) ?

    • RParvus
      2019-03-09 09:24:28 GMT+0000 - 09:24 | Permalink

      Hi Giuseppe,

      You ask: “How does it affect the question of historicity, given the fact that Revelation seems to be so silent about a historical Jesus ?”

      If by “historical Jesus ” you mean the Jesus of the canonical gospels, then, yes, I agree that Revelation is silent about him. But I’m not so sure it it is silent about the extremely minimal kind of Jesus I proposed, i.e., a Jesus who was just a member of the Kingdom of God movement. He was not a teacher in the movement and did not hold any leadership position in it. He was just, as we say in my neighborhood, an “ordinary Joe.” (But if you prefer a biblical equivalent: he was just a son of man. As in, “Lord, what is man that thou dost regard him, or the son of man that thou dost think of him? – Psalm 144:3). He did have the “good” fortune to be the first member of the movement to meet a violent end and—at least for believers—to be resurrected.

      That kind of Jesus may be what Revelation 12 is about. There, as you know, we have the vision of the woman and the dragon. The woman may be a symbol for the Kingdom of God movement. The woman gives birth to a male child, destined to rule the nations with an iron rod (Rev. 12:5). What I find interesting here is that the women has other offspring (Rev. 12:17). So it appears that the male child was just the first of her offspring that the dragon attempted to devour. His attempt failed because her child was caught up to God and his throne. Does this mean the dragon didn’t kill the child. Not necessarily; for a death that is immedately undone by resurrection could still be considered a failure. The dragon then goes on to pursue the woman and make war against the rest of her offspring, i.e., against the rest of the members of the movement.

      Notice that the male child of Rev. 12 is not said to have pre-existed. Nor is he said to have been a teacher on earth. Nor is he said to have gathered disciples or sent out apostles. None of that. He is just one of the women’s offspring, albeit apparently the first to be opposed by the dragon, and the first to be caught up to God and his throne. And that apparently was enough to obtain the destiny of ruling the nations with an iron rod.

      The second point you asked about was the “signs and wonders” in the Vision of Isaiah, and how that could be any kind of a factor on the issue of Jesus’ historicity. To answer that I need to get a bit hypothetical, just for the sake of illustration.

      It seems to me that if someone were creating a Jesus from scratch or by transforming material about an originally divine Jesus, he or she would have quite a bit of leeway regarding how to construct his life on earth. There would be a lot of room for imagination and embellishment. There would be little incentive to just limit oneself to:

      “And when he had grown up, he performed great signs and miracles in the land of Israel and Jerusalem.” (Asc. Is. 11:18)

      On the other hand, if someone believed something extraordinary about a historical individual who had been apparently very ordinary, there would be certain limitations on what could be said about that individual, at least as long as other people were alive who also knew him. So, for example, if the individual wasn’t a teacher, his proselytizer couldn’t very well say that he was. The other people who knew the individual could contradict: “No. We knew him. He wasn’t a teacher. He was a plumber.” If the individual had never gathered together a group of followers, his proselytizer couldn’t very well say that he did. For people who knew him could easily contradict: “No. He wasn’t that type. In fact, he was very low profile. He preferred to blend in.”

      But one thing the proselytizer could claim that would likely find interested listeners is that there were “signs and wonders’ in the individual’s life. Why? Because so many people love and believe in signs and wonders. They see them all the time in their own lives. Pay attention to how many people in your life, or on tv, or on the radio or internet are convinced that God is constantly intervening in their lives. Did someone survive a car accident or some natural disaster? They frequently claim it was a miracle. Did someone have a stroke of good luck in meeting or avoiding someone or something? Again, God was looking out for them. Don’t suggest that it might just be coincidence. That is considered bad manners. And they know better anyway. There are no coincidences. God is constantly guiding them in the smallest details of their lives. Our lives of full of miracles. And such thinking was even more rampant before modern science came on the scene.

      So it seems to me that if someone believed something extraordinary (e.g., resurrection to the right hand of God) about someone who had been apparently quite ordinary (i.e., just a son of man), the first accretion to the individual’s bio is likely to be “signs and wonders” i.e., curious things that happened to the individual and that show that God was present in some way.

      That is why I suspect that the Vision of Isaiah’s meager reference to signs and wonders may reflect an early stage of belief about a historical Jesus. Then, once the first generation was out of the way, the earlier limitations would no longer be an issue. Jesus could be presented as having been no longer just a member of the group, but its leader. Teachings of other members of the group could be freely transferred to that leader, as well as any teachings that the resurrected Jesus had, in the meantime, delivered from heaven. The earlier signs and wonders could marvelously grow in magnitude. We would be well on our way to the Jesus of the canonical gospels.

  • 2019-03-07 19:20:27 GMT+0000 - 19:20 | Permalink

    “perhaps a group of John the Baptist’s followers—he was not the leader of the group. Once in Jerusalem he may have done or said something that got him pulled out from the others and crucified. That would have been the end of the story. Except that another member of the group had a vision of him resurrected, and interpreted it as meaning that the Kingdom of God was closer than ever. Jesus thereby began to take on an importance all out of proportion with his real status as a nobody. The accretions began. And the excuses for why no one had taken much notice of him before.”

    While I don’t think this is what happened, I will say that this is the most plausible description of a potential “historical Jesus”. I’ve said before that if Jesus did exist, he was merely someone who got killed and was worshiped as a sacrifice; he certainly wasn’t any teacher or leader.

    So, if I were to put on my Richard Carrier hat I’d break it down like this:

    Chance that worship of Jesus originated as the worship of a heavenly deity who had been “discovered” by scriptural prophets: 98%

    Chance that Jesus worship originated with the worship of a person named Jesus who was part of an apocalyptic cult and had been perceived as unjustly killed by members of the group: 1.9%

    Chance that Jesus was the leader of an apocalyptic cult who professed his own teachings and attracted followers in his lifetime, who was then killed because of his activities: 0.1%

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-03-07 23:43:09 GMT+0000 - 23:43 | Permalink

      Mmm … that’s not how Bayes’ works and certainly not how it was applied by Carrier! 🙂

      I was actually thinking of doing a serious Bayesian response to Roger’s conclusion. His conclusion is what I have the most difficulty with but for other methodological reasons, though — I’m thinking of putting them all together for a post.

      • 2019-03-08 00:31:24 GMT+0000 - 00:31 | Permalink

        Well yes, I was being casual about it, not engaging in a real Bayesian assessment 🙂

  • MrHorse
    2019-03-07 21:04:40 GMT+0000 - 21:04 | Permalink

    Roger Parvus wrote

    “in Gal. 4:4, Jesus is “come of a woman, come under the Law.” The use of the word γενόμενον [genômenon] (to be made/to become) instead of the far more typical γεννάω [gennâô] (to be born) could signal a docetic birth. The Jesus of the Vision comes by way of woman—and since she was Jewish, he thereby came under the Law—but he was not really born of her.”

    I think Jesus had to be portrayed as having “come of a woman” in order to be said to have “come under the law”.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2019-03-08 19:26:34 GMT+0000 - 19:26 | Permalink

    … This could explain why, in Gal. 4:4, Jesus is “come of a woman, come under the Law.” The use of the word γενόμενον [genômenon] (to be made/to become) instead of the far more typical γεννάω [gennâô] (to be born) could signal a docetic birth.

    This ground has already been well-worked by Doherty, who offers an explanation that does not require some putative ‘pocket gospel’ that Paul slyly alludes to.

    _

    We can account for why, apart from the crucifixion and resurrection, there is practically nothing in the Paulines about what Jesus did or taught.

    It can also be accounted for by there having never been a Jesus to do or teach anything.

    • prolixir
      2019-03-09 14:07:42 GMT+0000 - 14:07 | Permalink

      Mr. Parvus you do make some great points.

      “Then, once the first generation was out of the way, the earlier limitations would no longer be an issue. Jesus could be presented as having been no longer just a member of the group, but its leader.”

      At first I scoffed at this idea been then realized 10 years would be enough to do the trick considering what we know about education and learning in ancient times.

      But could it be more likely that as Carrier points out, euhemerization could have occurred to get our historical Jesus.

  • Amer
    2019-03-09 03:46:22 GMT+0000 - 03:46 | Permalink

    I think Mr Parvus here has some interesting points – however I fail to see how a belief in a docetic Jesus is equivalent to a historical Jesus or brings us any closer to the historical Jesus. I also think it is a stretch to say Jesus they believe Jesus was not physically “born”.

    At most it may bring us to a more original belief, which happened to be more docetic than orthodox – a building block upon which the NT was built, but nothing more than that.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2019-03-10 00:34:03 GMT+0000 - 00:34 | Permalink

    Anything is possible, but I would think that if miracle stories grew in the way described — through the creativity of (“social”) memory over time — would we expect to find that the bulk of the miracle stories are coincidentally explicable entirely as derived from miracles of Moses, Elijah etc. If most of them are explicable as adaptations of OT miracles then is not a literary explanation for the Jesus figure a simpler explanation than one that postulates a social memory tradition behind an otherwise unknown person?

  • db
    2019-03-10 19:28:50 GMT+0000 - 19:28 | Permalink

    • I suspect that Gathercole′s “allowable” knowledge per interpretation of Paul, might also be applied to Roger Parvus′ work.

    See Carrier (28 February 2019). “The New Gathercole Article on Jesus Certainly Existing“. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    [Simon Gathercole] makes an inexplicable argument that we should not interpret Paul’s statements in light of common knowledge in antiquity, nor allow any possibility of other teachings outside what Paul says in his letters. This is an extremely bizarre thing to say. And it’s exactly 100% the opposite of valid historical reasoning.

    Gathercole is worried about “appeals to very particular passages” in the body of texts Christians regarded then as scriptures “which neither Paul nor his readers can be presumed to have known,” but on what basis can he know they “didn’t know” particular passages? Obviously there was an extensive amount of scriptural exegesis, study, and teaching Paul and other Apostles disseminated to all his congregations that isn’t mentioned in Paul’s letters. He repeatedly reveals this when he cites obscure passages in scripture making his points, all in ways that clearly indicate his audience well knew what he was talking about. I should hardly have to cite examples. They exist in nearly every chapter of every letter.

  • Kenneth
    2019-03-18 17:34:46 GMT+0000 - 17:34 | Permalink

    “And when he had grown up, he performed great signs and miracles in the land of Israel and Jerusalem”. By the proposed theory, Saturnilus seems to be rewriting the Simon Magus story (in part), and this statement fits right in with that story. The jealousy of the warring angels (in the next verse) is part of Simon’s story too, as they fought over his beloved Helen. I don’t think the statement provides any evidence of historicity.

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