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The Christ myth theory (also known as Jesus myth theory or Jesus mythicism) is an umbrella term that applies to a range of arguments that in one way or another question the existence of Jesus of Nazareth or the entirety of his life story as described in the Christian gospels. The most extreme versions of the myth theories contend that there was no real historical figure Jesus and that he was invented by early Christians. Other variants hold that there was a person called Jesus, but almost all teachings and miracles attributed to him were either invented or symbolic references, or that the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament is a composite character constructed from multiple people over a period of time.
According to Richard Carrier based on the following passage from Justin Martyr's "Dialogue with Trypho" this view may have existed as early as the 2nd century: "But Christ--if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere--is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing."
- This volume on "The Christ" was written by one who recognizes in the Jesus of Strauss and Renan a transitional step, but not the ultimate step, between orthodox Christianity and radical Freethought. By the Christ is understood the Jesus of the New Testament. The Jesus of the New Testament is the Christ of Christianity. The Jesus of the New Testament is a supernatural being. He is, like the Christ, a myth. He is the Christ myth. [...] It is not against the man Jesus that I write, but against the Christ Jesus of theology [...] Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus of humanity, the pathetic story of whose humble life and tragic death has awakened the sympathies of millions, is a possible character and may have existed; but the Jesus of Bethlehem, the Christ of Christianity, is an impossible character and does not exist. [...] While all Freethinkers are agreed that the Christ of the New Testament is a myth they are not, as we have seen, and perhaps never will be, fully agreed as to the nature of this myth. Some believe that he is a historical myth; others that he is a pure myth. Some believe that Jesus, a real person, was the germ of this Christ whom subsequent generations gradually evolved; others contend that the man Jesus, as well as the Christ, is wholly a creation of the human imagination. After carefully weighing the evidence and arguments in support of each hypothesis the writer, while refraining from expressing a dogmatic affirmation regarding either, is compelled to accept the former as the more probable.
- Remsburg, John E. (1909). The Christ. New York: Truth Seeker Co. ISBN 0879759240.
- [Per a review of The Christ Myth (1910)] The main result at which the author [Arthur Drews] arrives is that the Jesus of the canonical Gospels is a largely humanised form of a pre-Christian cult-god of that name ...[and it is also] possible that there was a great teacher and healer bearing the same name [Jesus], who was confounded with that supposed deity.
- T. K. Cheyne of Oxford (1911). "REVIEWS - The Christ Myth". in Williams and Norgate. The Hibbert Journal. 9:3-4. p. 658. "Volume 9, Issues 3-4"
- [Per a review of The Historicity of Jesus (1912)] “The New Testament data are perfectly clear in their testimony to the reality of Jesus’s earthly career” ...ignores the whole symbolic interpretation set forth in Ecce Deus. If this interpretation be in large measure correct, then the New Testament data would seem to be perfectly clear in their testimony against the historicity in question. Unless the error of that interpretation be shown, this leading argument in Professor [S. J.] Case’s summary falls to the ground.
- Smith, William Benjamin (1912). "The Historicity of Jesus". in Paul Carus. The Open Court, a Monthly Magazine. 26:10. The Open court publishing co.. pp. 613f. "Case, S. J. (1912). The Historicity of Jesus. University of Chicago Press. p. 269f."
- My theory assumes the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth.
- Frazer, Sir James George (1913) The golden bough: a study in magic and religion: Volume 9 Page 412;
- Per Frazer et al., Albert Schweitzer added two new chapters to the 1913 revised edition of his work, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, 2. Auflage. "I especially wanted to explain late Jewish eschatology more thoroughly and to discuss the works of John M. Robertson, William Benjamin Smith, James George Frazer, Arthur Drews, and others, who contested the historical existence of Jesus." (Schweitzer (1931), Out of my life and thought: an autobiography, p. 125.)
- "While Frazer did not doubt that Jesus had lived, or claim that Christians had invented the Jesus myth, his work became a source book of idea and data for many who did. In fact, Schweitzer included Frazer in a list of scholars who 'contested the historical existence of Jesus." Bennett, Clinton (2001) In search of Jesus: insider and outsider images pg 205)
- The views that Dr. Conybeare here investigates are ...those of the extreme left wing who flatly deny the historical existence even of the Jesus of the Gospels. These champions of the Christ-myth theory contend that the Jesus-figure is that of a syncretic god subsequently humanised by the invention of a pseudo-history.
- "REVIEWS AND NOTICES: Christ, The Historical. F. C. CONYBEARE". The Quest. 5.2. John M. Watkins.. 1914. p. 778f. "Volume 5, Part 2 - REVIEWS AND NOTICES - The Historical Christ; or, An investigation of the views of Mr. J. M. Robertson, Dr. A. Drews, and Prof. W. B. Smith"
- [Per the Writings of Paul-Louis Couchoud] The controversy as to the historical existence of Jesus ..appeared [in France] under a new form, entirely distinct from the theories of Drews, J. M. Robertson, and W. B. Smith. It is of some interest to describe this new aspect of the thesis that the history of Jesus is a myth, and to try to explain the genesis of the contention.
- Goguel, Maurice (April 1926). "Recent French Discussion of the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ". Harvard Theological Review19 (02): 115. DOI:10.1017/S001781600000763X.
- Negative as these [hyper-minimalist] conclusions appear, they must be strictly distinguished from the theories of the mythologists. According to the critics whom we may term [hyper-] minimalists, Jesus did live, but his biography is almost totally unknown to us. The mythologists, on the other hand, declare that he never existed, and that his history, or more exactly the legend about him, is due to the working of various tendencies and events, such as the prophetic interpretation of Old Testament texts, visions, ecstasy, or the projection of the conditions under which the first group of Christians lived —into the story of their reputed founder.
- Goguel, Maurice (April 1926). "Recent French Discussion of the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ". Harvard Theological Review19 (02): 115–142. DOI:10.1017/S001781600000763X.
- Among the more eminent scholars and critics who have contended that Jesus was not an actual historical figure we mention Bruno Bauer, Kalthoff, Drews, Ste(u)del, Felde(n), Deÿe, Jensen, Lublinski, Bolland, Van de(n) Berg(h), Virolleaud, Couchoud, Massey, Bossi, Niemojewski, Brandes, Robertson, Mead, Whittaker, Carpenter and W. B. Smith.
- Barnes, Harry Elmer (1929). "Was Jesus an Historic Figure?". The Twilight of Christianity. New York: Vanguard Press. p. 390f.
- [Per scholars and critics who have contended that Jesus was not an actual historical figure] [H. E.] Barnes does not agree with these ultra radical critics but feels with [J. M.] McCabe that a man named Jesus actually lived. He was, however, so foreign to our life and ways of thinking he cannot help us at all.
- Erdman Harris (1929). "The Debunkers Turn on Jesus". Association Men. Official magazine of the Y.M.C.A.. 55. Young Men's Christian Association. p. 439f.
- The sociological fashion reflected in the rise of Formgeschichte lends colour to Christ-myth theories and indeed to all theories which regard Jesus as an historical but insignificant figure.
- Wood, Herbert George (1934). Christianity and the nature of history. Cambridge, England: The University Press. p. 40.
- Dr. [H. G.] Wood ...selects for special study the Christ-myth theory, of which there are many variants, all of which go back in substance to the writings of the late J. M. Robertson. According to this theory the gospels are symbolic and arose out of a Palestinian mystery cult.
- Daniell, E. H. (October 1938). "Reviews - Did Christ Really Live? by H. G. Wood". Baptist Quarterly9 (4). DOI:10.1080/0005576X.1938.11750475.
- [Noting that some mythicist positions accept the historical existence of a human being who called himself Jesus] ...a religion may be based upon, the teachings of a sage or holy man, without any especial reference to the events of his life [...] in the period to which the origins of Christianity are to be assigned, ...were groups which had relations with the Jewish religion, and some of these last came to identify their Saviour-god with the Jewish Messiah, and created for him a mythical embodiment in a figure bearing the cult-name 'Jesus', derived from a Hebrew word meaning 'salvation'. Or alternatively, they seized upon the report of an obscure Jewish holy-man bearing this name, and arbitrarily attached the 'cult-myth' to him.
- Dodd, Charles Harold (1938). History and the Gospel. Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 16–17.
- [Jesus as Presented by Paul] A divine Being, in humility without parallel, assumes the human condition. He is crucified by supernatural agents, the Princes of this Age, who are, in Paul's language, Satan and his acolytes. ...The crucifixion, as presented by Paul, is that of a super natural being executed by beings who are also supernatural.
- First published: "The Historicity of Jesus" in The Hibbert Journal37, (1938). p.193-214
- Couchoud, Paul Louis (1939). "The Historicity of Jesus". The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity ; Tr. by C. Bradlaugh Bonner. 2. Watts. p. 438.
- Discussion of the problem of the historicity of Jesus falls under two heads—(1) a statement of the reasons for believing that Jesus cannot have been an historical person ; (2) the construction of a theory which will explain the origin of Christianity.
- Rylands, L. Gordon (1942). "Book Notice: Jesus Not a Myth. By A. D. Howell Smith (Watts) 210 pp.". The Literary Guide and Rationalist Review. 57:8. p. 107.
- The writing of biographies of Jesus is of doubtful critical value. Legend has coloured the historic data too much, and outside corroborative testimony is too slender...
- Smith, A. D. Howell (1943). In Search of the Real Bible. Thinker's Library, No. 98. London: Watts. p. 87.
- [J. M.] Robertson is prepared to concede the possibility of an historical Jesus perhaps more than one having contributed something to the Gospel story. "A teacher or teachers named Jesus, or several differently named teachers called Messiahs " (of whom many are on record) may have uttered some of the sayings in the Gospels.
- The Jesus of the Talmud, who was stoned and hanged over a century before the traditional date of the crucifixion, may really have existed and have contributed something to the tradition.
- An historical Jesus may have "preached a political doctrine subversive of the Roman rule, and . . . thereby met his death " ; and Christian writers concerned to conciliate the Romans may have suppressed the facts.
- Or a Galilean faith-healer with a local reputation may have been slain as a human sacrifice at some time of social tumult ; and his story may have got mixed up with the myth.
- The myth theory is not concerned to deny such a possibility [that Jesus existed as a human being]. What the myth theory denies is that Christianity can be traced to a personal founder who taught as reported in the Gospels and was put to death in the circumstances there recorded
- Robertson, Archibald (1946) Jesus: Myth or History?
- [Per Paul-Louis Couchoud] The salient fact about Jesus ...is that he is a God. Paul, the earliest extant Christian author (eight of whose reputed epistles Couchoud regards as basically genuine, though much edited and interpolated), treats Jesus as God.
- Robertson, Archibald (1946). Jesus: Myth or History?. Thinker's Library, No.110. London: Watts & Co. p. 58.
- We know next to nothing about this Jesus. He is not the founder of anything that we can recognize as Christianity. He is a mere postulate of historical criticism—a dead leader of a lost cause, to whom sayings could be credited and round whom a legend could be written.
- Robertson, Archibald (1946). Jesus: Myth or History?. Thinker's Library, No.110. London: Watts & Co. p. 107.
- Robertson, Smith, and Dujardin contend that the story of Jesus is the humanization of a pre-Christian God Jesus (Jeshua or Joshua), who had been worshipped in Palestine before the arrival of the Hebrews, and whose cult lingered after the victory of Jahveh in obscure groups, mainly in Galilee [...] Drews believes that the Messiah-figure in Isaiah is the source of the myth, and puts an astral interpretation on many details. Couchoud finds the origin in Paul's alleged vision, and Rylands (The Beginnings of Gnostic Christianity, 1941) looks to pre-Christian Gnostic speculations.
- McCabe, Joseph (1948). "Jesus". A Rationalist Encyclopædia: A Book of Reference on Religion, Philosophy, Ethics and Science. Watts.
- Many (including the present writer) are content to infer broadly, from the scanty reliable evidence and the religious developments of the first century, that probably some Jew named Jesus adopted the Persian belief [see Avesta] in the end of the world and, thinking that it was near, left his Essenian monastery [see Essenes] to warn his fellows, and was put to death. They feel that the question of historicity has little importance [...] the very scanty biographical details even as given in the Gospels [see Mark] do not justify the claim of a "unique personality,"...
- McCabe, Joseph (1948). "Jesus". A Rationalist Encyclopædia: A Book of Reference on Religion, Philosophy, Ethics and Science. Watts.
- "His published work on the Synoptic Problem had already contributed towards exploding the theory of the “Christ-myth”—that Jesus as a historical person never existed—by providing the two oldest records of His life to be genuine historical documents."
- George Seaver, Albert Schweitzer: The Man and His Mind, New York: Harper, 1955, p. 45
- "Belief in Christ is no more or less rational than belief in John Frum."
- Worsley, Peter (1957) The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo" Cults in Melanesia London: Macgibbon & Kee pp. 153–9.
- ...on the one hand, literal acceptance of everything in the New Testament as the veridical record of what happened, and, on the other, some form of Christ-myth theory which denies that there ever was a Jesus.
- John Macquarrie, The Scope of Demythologizing: Bultmann and His Critics, London: SCM, 1960, p. 93
- There have even been learned and intelligent men who have denied that Jesus ever existed: the so-called "Christ-myth" theory.
- Donald MacKenzie MacKinnon, Objections to Christian Belief, London: Constable, 1963, p. 67
- For as "extreme" a critic as Rudolf Bultmann, the existence of the historical Jesus is a necessity; and if historical criticism could successfully establish the "Christ-myth" theory, viz., that Jesus never really lived, Bultmann’s enture theological structure would be shaken.
- George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, p. 15
- The Christ-Myth theory (that Jesus never lived) had a certain vogue at the beginning of this century but is not supported by contemporary scholarship.
- Alan Richardson, The Political Christ, London: SCM, 1973, p. 113
- The radical solution was to deny the possibility of reliable knowledge of Jesus, and out of this developed the Christ myth theory, according to which Jesus never existed as a historical figure and the Christ of the Gospels was a social creation of a messianic community.
- William R. Farmer, "A Fresh Approach to Q", in Jacob Neusner, Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults, 4, Leiden: Brill, 1975, p. 43
- This skeptical way of thinking reached its culmination in the argument that Jesus as a human being never existed at all and is a myth. In ancient times, this extreme view was named the heresy of docetism (seeming) because it maintained that Jesus never came into the world "in the flesh", but only seemed to; (I John 4:2) and it was given some encouragement by Paul's lack of interest in his fleshly existence. Subsequently, from the eighteenth century onwards, there have been attempts to insist that Jesus did not even "seem" to exist, and that all tales of his appearance upon the earth were pure fiction. In particular, his story was compared to the pagan mythologies inventing fictitious dying and rising gods. (paragraph break) Some of the lines of thinking employed to disprove the Christ-myth theory have been somewhat injudicious.
- Grant, Michael. Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels. Scribner, 1995; first published 1977, p. 199
- Not all mythicists agree with each other about what they view as the correct explanation of the origin of Christianity and of the Jesus myth. [...] [Some mythicists] claim that whether a mere man named Jesus ever existed at the time when the Christian era began is an impossible thing to either prove of disprove today.
- Stein, Gordon (1980). "The Historicity of Jesus". in Stein. An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism. Prometheus Books. p. 182. ISBN 978-0-87975-136-4.
- Some skeptics have sought to explain the NT [New Testament] witness to Jesus and the rise of Christianity in terms of the Christ-myth theory. This view states that the story of Jesus is a piece of mythology, possessing no more substantial claims to historical fact than the old Greek or Norse stories of gods and heroes [...] His death and resurrection suggest to some minds a variant of the myth of the dying-and-rising god, so popular in the world of ancient pagan religion and represented in the cults of Attis, Adonis, Osiris, and Mithras.
- Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (1995 [First published 1982]). "Jesus Christ". in Bromiley et al.. The international standard Bible encyclopedia : fully revised, illustrated, in four volumes. Vol. 2, E-J. 2. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 1034. ISBN 978-0-8028-3782-0.
- In Germany, England, Holland, America, and France, a group of scholars developed the hypothesis that Christ had never lived at all, the Christ-myth theory.
- Margaret Hope Bacon, Let This Life Speak: The Legacy of Henry Joel Cadbury, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987, p. 22
- If this account of the matter is correct, one can also see why it is that the 'Christ-myth' theory, to the effect that there was no historical Jesus at all, has seemed so plausible to many...
- Hugo A. Meynell, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Bernard Lonergan (2nd ed.), Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991, p. 166
- [In Did Jesus Exist] I agued that Paul sincerely believed that the evidence (not restricted to the Wisdom Literature) pointed to a historical Jesus who had lived well before his own day; and I leave open the question as to whether such a person had in fact existed and lived the obscure live that Paul supposed of him. (There is no means of deciding this issue.)
- G A Wells The Jesus Legend Open Court Publishing Company 1996 p. 19
- [W]e have to explain the origin of Christianity, and in so doing we have to choose between two alternatives. One alternative is to say that it originated in a myth which was later dressed up as history. The other is to say that it originated with one historical individual who was later mythologized into a supernatural being. The theory that Jesus was originally a myth is called the Christ-myth theory, and the theory that he was an historical individual is called the historical Jesus theory.
- George Walsh, The Role of Religion in History, New Brunswick: Transaction, 1998, p. 58
- According to the Christ-Myth theorists, Jesus had first been regarded in the manner of an ancient Olympian god; he had supposedly once visited the earth and died and been raised from the dead, like Hercules and Asclepios [...] It was only subsequently, says the Christ-Myth theory, that the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus was rendered historical, datable, a piece of recent worldly history. Christianity, then, would have begun with a “high" Christology, but with no historical grounding (hence one might call it “docetic”), whereas the “adoptionistic” theory of mainstream scholars holds that Christians first held a “low” Christology, placing Jesus on our level, not God’s, only later yielding to a process of mythification of the historical man Jesus of Nazareth. The choice is between a historical Jesus mythicized and a mythic Jesus historicized.
- Price, Robert M. (2000). "The Historicized Jesus?". Deconstructing Jesus. Prometheus. p. 228. ISBN 978-1-61592-120-1.
- The Jesus-was-a-myth school... argue[s] that there never was a Jesus of Nazareth, that he never existed.
- Clinton Bennett, In Search of Jesus: Insider and Outsider Images, New York: Continuum, 2001, p. 202
- Defense of Biblical criticism was not helped by the revival at this time of the 'Christ-Myth' theory, suggesting that Jesus had never existed, a suggestion rebutted in England by the radical but independent F. C. Conybeare.
- William Horbury, "The New Testament", in Ernest Nicholson, A Century of Theological and Religious Studies in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 55
- Price uncritically embraces the dubious methods and results of the Jesus Seminar, adopts much of the (discredited) Christ-Myth theory from the nineteenth century (in which it was argued that Jesus never lived), and so on.
- Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006) p. 25
- Zindler depends on secondary works and writes with the aim of proving the Christ-Myth theory, namely, the theory that the Jesus of history never existed.
- John T. Townsend, "Christianity in Rabbinic Literature", in Isaac Kalimi & Peter J. Haas, Biblical Interpretation in Judaism and Christianity (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2006) p. 150
- Unlike the cult of Jesus, the origins of which are not reliably attested, we can see the whole course of events laid out before our eyes (and even here, as we shall see, some details are now lost). It is fascinating to guess that the cult of Christianity almost certainly began in very much the same way, and spread initially at the same high speed. [...] John Frum, if he existed at all, did so within living memory. Yet, even for so recent a possibility, it is not certain whether he lived at all.
- Dawkins, C. Richard (2006). The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. pp. 202-206. ISBN 978-0-618-68000-9.
- Scholars such as Bruno Bauer, Arthur Drews, and G. A. Wells have argued that the Jesus tradition is virtually—perhaps entirely—fictional in nature (i.e., “legendary” as we are using the term)....Some scholars we could include in this category, such as Robert Price, would back off this thesis slightly and argue that we simply lack sufficient information to decide whether a historical Jesus existed. Here, a sort of “Jesus agnosticism” emerges.
- Paul R Eddy & Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: a Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) p. 24-25
- As we have noted, some legendary-Jesus theorists argue that, while it is at least possible, if not likely, an actual historical person named Jesus existed, he is so shrouded in legendary material that we can know very little about him. Others (i.e, Christ myth theorists) argue that we have no good reason to believe there ever was an actual historical person behind the legend.
- Paul R Eddy & Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: a Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) p. 165
- Though [Charles Guignebert] could not accept either the Christ myth theory, which held that no historical Jesus existed, or the Dutch Radical denial that Paul authored any of the epistles, Guignebert took both quite seriously.
- Robert M. Price, in Tom Flynn, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007) p. 372
- "[The Christ myth] is the theory that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single identifiable person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition." In simpler terms, the historical Jesus did not exist. Or if he did, he had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity."
- Ehrman, Bart (2012) Did Jesus Exist Harper Collins, p. 12)
- "Despite countless variations (including a still-rampant obsession with indemonstrable astrological theories of Gospel interpretations that you won't find much sympathy for here), the basic thesis of every competent mythologist, then and now, has always been that Jesus was originally a god just like any other god (properly speaking, a demigod in pagan terms; an archangel in Jewish terms; in either sense, a deity), who was later historicized, just as many other gods where..."
- Carrier, Richard (2014) On the Historicity of Jesus Sheffield Phoenix Press ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2 pg 52
- Carrier's Minimal Historical Jesus:
- 1) An actual man at some point named Jesus acquired followers in life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death
- 2) This is the same Jesus who was claimed by some of his follower to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities
- 3) This is the same Jesus some of whose follower soon began worshiping as a living god (or demigod)
- "If any one of these premises is false, it can fairly be said there was no historical Jesus in any pertinent sense, And at least one of them must be false for any Jesus Myth theory to be true."
- Carrier, Richard (2014) On the Historicity of Jesus Sheffield Phoenix Press ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2 pg 34
- "But notice that now we don't even require that is considered essential in many church creeds. For instance, it is not necessary that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Maybe he was, But even if we proved he wasn't that still does not vindicate mysticism. Because the 'real' Jesus may have been executed by Herod Antipas (as the Gospel of Peter in fact claims) or by Roman authorities in an earlier or later decade then Pilate (as some early Christians really did think) Some scholars even argue for an earlier century (and have some real evidence to cite) … My point at present is that even if we proved proved the founder of Christianity was executed by Herod the Great (not even by Romans, much less Pilate, and a whole forty years before the Gospels claim), as long as his name or nickname (whether assigned before or after his death) really was Jesus and his execution is the very thing spoken of as leading him to the status of the divine Christ venerated in the Epistles, I think it would be fair to say the mythicists are then simply wrong. I would say this even if Jesus was never really executed but only believed to have been Because even then it's still the same historical man being spoken of and worshiped."
- Carrier, Richard (2014) On the Historicity of Jesus Sheffield Phoenix Press ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2 pg 33
- Carrier's Minimal Mythical Jesus:
- "1) At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.
- 2) Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus 'communicated' with his subjects only through dreams, visions and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophecy, past and present).
- 3) Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.
- 4) As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.
- 5) Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only 'additionally' allegorical).
- That all five propositions are true shall be my minimal Jesus myth theory"
- Carrier, Richard (2014) On the Historicity of Jesus Sheffield Phoenix Press ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2 pg 53
- Those who argue against Jesus’ existence make some of these points:
- -The uncanny parallels between pagan stories in the ancient world and the stories of Jesus.
- -No credible sources outside the Bible say Jesus existed.
- -The Apostle Paul never referred to a historical Jesus.
- [R. M.] Price, author of “Deconstructing Jesus,” says the first-century Western world was full of stories of a martyred hero who is called a son of God. “There are ancient novels from that period where the hero is condemned to the cross and even crucified, but he escapes and survives it,” Price says. “That looks like Jesus.”
- “Everything we read about Jesus in the gospels conforms to the mythic hero,” Price says. “There’s nothing left over that indicates that he was a real historical figure.”
- Blake, John (February 16, 2017). Decoding Jesus: Separating man from myth. CNN (Turner Broadcasting System). (This article was originally published in 2012 as The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth)
Quotes of proponents of such theories
- Genesis is no longer regarded as scientific or historical for the most part. The exodus is mostly a myth. There’s no indisputable trace of David or Solomon from their time, and no trace of Jesus--after centuries of searching in his supposed environment. So, if you look from 1900 to 2014, you’ll see that most biblical scholars don’t believe in the historicity of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Solomon, maybe David. . . You can see what a big difference there is.
- So, is it Jesus’ turn now? Well, maybe. See, doubt about Jesus is real, doubt about his bodily existence as recorded in the New Testament. More scholars are [now] willing to challenge this historicity openly.
- There are three possible positions when it comes to Jesus. You can be a ‘historicist,’ you can be a ‘mythicist,’ or you can be an ‘agnostic’. . . An agnostic says: “Well, the data are insufficient to settle the question one way or the other.” That’s where I am.
- Hector Avalos, Ph.D. (June 7, 2014), A Historical or Mythical Jesus? An Agnostic Viewpoint. Lecture given at the University of Arizona,
- In an article ('The Historiography of the Pentateuch: 25 Years after Historicity' Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 13, 1999, 258-283) I have discussed why I think it is very difficult to establish the historicity of figures in biblical narrative, as the issue rather relates to the quality of texts one is dealing with. I work further on this issue in my Messiah Myth of 2005. Here I argue that the synoptic gospels can hardly be used to establish the historicity of the figure of Jesus; for both the episodes and sayings with which the figure of Jesus is presented are stereotypical and have a history that reaches centuries earlier. I have hardly shown that Jesus did not exist and did not claim to. Rather, I compared our knowledge about Jesus to our knowledge of figures like Homer. As soon as we try to identify such an historical figure, we find ourselves talking about the thematic elements of stories.
- Thompson, Th. L. 1974. The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: the Quest for the Historical Abraham, BZAW, Vol. 133, Berlin: de Gruyter.
- Thompson, Thomas (1999). "Historiography in the pentateuch: Twenty-five years after historicity". Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament13 (2): 258–283. DOI:10.1080/09018329908585157.
- One of the chief points of interest in this work [Toledot Yeshu] is its chronology, placing Jesus about 100 BCE. This is no mere blunder, though it is not hard to find anachronisms elsewhere in the text. Epiphanius and the Talmud also attest to Jewish and Jewish-Christian belief in Jesus having lived a century or so before we usually imagine, implying that perhaps the Jesus figure was at first an ahistorical myth and various attempts were made to place him in a plausible historical context, just as Herodotus and others tried to figure out when Hercules “must have” lived.
- From the mid-1990s I became persuaded that many of the gospel traditions are too specific in their references to time, place, and circumstances to have developed in such a short time from no other basis, and are better understood as traceable to the activity of a Galilean preacher of the early first century, the personage represented in Q... This is the position I have argued in my books of 1996, 1999, and 2004, although the titles of the first two of these—The Jesus Legend and The Jesus Myth—may mislead potential readers into supposing that I still denied the historicity of the gospel Jesus. These titles were chosen because I regarded (and still do regard) [the following stories;] the virgin birth, much in the Galilean ministry, the crucifixion around A.D. 30 under Pilate, and the resurrection—as legendary.
- I am currently the world’s leading expert on the specific, hyper-narrow question of the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus. [...] Every historian in this field [of early Christianity] is more knowledgeable than me on something, if not indeed most things, that aren’t directly on the question of historicity. Indeed even most of what I base my own case on, comes from the greater expertise of other published authors, on other hyper-narrow questions that are not directly about that single question [of the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus]...
- The terms "mythicism" and "mythicist" may be new to many people, even though they have been around for a couple of centuries. "Mythicist" was first coined in German and English to describe people who doubted the historical veracity of the Judeo-Christian Bible. The word is used these days particularly to define scholars, researchers and others who investigate whether or not the New Testament character of Jesus Christ was a real, historical person or a myth along the lines of the gods, godmen and heroes of other cultures, such as Hercules, Mithra or Horus.
- Mythicism represents the perspective that many gods, goddesses and other heroes and legendary figures said to possess extraordinary and/or supernatural attributes are not "real people" but are in fact mythological characters. Along with this view comes the recognition that many of these figures personify or symbolize natural phenomena, such as the sun, moon, stars, planets, constellations, etc., constituting what is called "astromythology" or "astrotheology." As a major example of the mythicist position, it is determined that various biblical characters such as Adam and Eve, Satan, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, King David, Solomon and Jesus Christ, among other entities, in reality represent mythological figures along the same lines as the Egyptian, Sumerian, Phoenician, Indian, Greek, Roman and other godmen, who are all presently accepted as myths, rather than historical figures.
- D. M. Murdock/Acharya S. in Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection (2009)
- Whether the gospels in fact are biographies—narratives about the life of a historical person—is doubtful. Their pedagogical and legendary character reduces their value for historical reconstruction. New Testament scholars commonly hold the opinion that a historical person would be something very different from the Christ (or messiah), with whom, for example, the author of the Gospel of Mark identifies his Jesus (Hebrew: Joshua = savior), opening his book with the statement: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s son.”
- [Per writings earlier than Mark] the object of Christian faith [Jesus] is never spoken of as a human man who had recently lived, taught, performed miracles, suffered and died at the hands of human authorities, or rose from a tomb outside Jerusalem. There is no sign in the epistles of Mary or Joseph, Judas or John the Baptist, no birth story, teaching or appointment of apostles by Jesus, no mention of holy places or sites of Jesus’ career, not even the hill of Calvary or the empty tomb. This silence is so pervasive and so perplexing that attempted explanations for it have proven inadequate.
- [The Epistle to the Hebrews chapter 8, verse 4] contains a grammatically ambiguous statement in the Greek: it says either that “If Jesus were on earth [meaning now], he would not be a priest” or “If Jesus had been on earth, he would not have been a priest.” [...] What my analysis does is show that, within the context of the passage and through deductive reasoning, the present sense, allotting the statement to the present time, cannot be supported; in fact, it can be shown that the author can only be applying it to the past.
- [In the Gospels] many elements of the Jesus story [depend] on passages and motifs from the Jewish scriptures. [...] John Shelby Spong (in his Liberating the Gospels) regards the Synoptic Gospels as midrashic fiction in virtually every detail, though he believes it was based on an historical man.
- In the case of Jesus Christ, where virtually every detail of the story fits the mythic hero archetype, with nothing left over, no "secular," biographical data, so to speak, it becomes arbitrary to assert that there must have been a historical figure lying back of the myth.
- Alan Dundes has shown, the gospel life of Jesus corresponds in most particulars with the worldwide paradigm of the Mythic Hero Archetype as delineated by Lord Raglan, Otto Rank, and others.
- Why are the gospels filled with rewritten stories of Jonah, David, Moses, Elijah, and Elisha rather than reports of the historical Jesus? Quite likely because the earliest Christians, perhaps Jewish, Samaritan, and Galilean sectarians like the Nasoreans or Essenes, did not understand their savior to have been a figure of mundane history at all, any more than the devotees of the cults of Attis, Hercules, Mithras, and Osiris did. Their gods, too, had died and risen in antiquity.
- This astonishingly complete absence of reliable gospel material begins to coincide, along its own authentic trajectory ...with another minimalist approach to the historical Jesus, namely, that here never was one. Most of the Dutch Radical scholars, following Bruno Bauer, argued that all of the gospel tradition was fabricated to historicize an originally bare datum of a savior, perhaps derived from the Mystery Religions or Gnosticism or even further afield. The basic argument offered for this position, it seems to me, is that of analogy, the resemblances between Jesus and Gnostic and Mystery Religion saviors being just too numerous and close to dismiss.
- We should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context, only that the fallen angels (Col 2:15), the archons of this age, did him in, little realizing they were sealing their own doom (1 Cor 2:6-8).
- [Per the name Jesus] Philippians 2:9-11, read without theological embarrassment, seems to intend that it was that name [Jesus], exalted above all other names, that the savior received, not the title kyrios.
- All the Epistles seem to know is a Jesus Christ, Son of God, who came into the world to die as a sacrifice for human sin and was raised by God and enthroned in heaven.
- The most striking feature of the early documents is that they do not set Jesus’s life in a specific historical situation. [...] In Paul, for instance, there is no cleansing of the temple (which, according to Mark and Luke, was the event that triggered the resolve of the chief priests and scribes to kill Jesus), no conflict with the authorities, no Gethsemane scene, no thieves crucified with Jesus, no weeping women, no word about the place or time, and no mention of Judas or Pilate. Paul’s colorless references to the crucifixion might be accepted as unproblematic if it were unimportant for him. But he himself declares it to be the very substance of his preaching (1 Cor. 1:23 and 2:2). Yet he lived as a Christian for three years before even briefly visiting Jerusalem (Gal. 1:17f.), and says nothing that would indicate that he took interest in, or even had awareness of, holy places there.
- Moses called Oshea [the son of Nun, by the theological title] Joshua [per Numb. xiii. 17, Septuagint xiii. 16, A.V.], which means Jahweh saves. Jahweh [the deity] means when he says of Oshea “My Name is upon him” that one of the names of God is Jahweh saves. ...Joshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Jesus in Latin, is the personal name of the Son of Man, of the Christ, our Lord. It is the name “which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow of those in heaven and of those on earth and of those under the earth” (Phil. ii. 9–10).
- [Per the Kyrios Christos Cult] The ancient Mediterranean world was hip-deep in religions centering on the death and resurrection of a savior god. [...] It is very hard not to see extensive and basic similarities between these religions and the Christian religion. But somehow Christian scholars have managed not to see it, and this, one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons. [...] But it seems to me that the definitive proof that the resurrection of the Mystery Religion saviors preceded Christianity is the fact that ancient Christian apologists did not deny it!
- Since around 1970 an alternative explanation of the New Testament and related texts has been emerging. Researchers are recognizing precise ways in which New Testament texts are explained as depending not on oral tradition but on older literature, especially older scripture. [...] The dependence of the gospels on the Old Testament and on other extant texts is incomparably clearer and more verifiable than its dependence on any oral tradition — as seen, for instance, in the thorough dependence of Jesus’ call to disciples (Lk. 9:57-62) on Elijah’s call (1 Kgs 19). The sources supply not only a framework but a critical mass which pervades the later text.
- A new wave of critics suggest that the evangelists’ sources were literary sources. Randel Helms, John Dominic Crossan, Earl Doherty, and others have shown the surprising extent to which gospel narrative is simply rewritten Old Testament material. [Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions (Amherst, N .Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989); John Dominic Crossan, The Cross That Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988); Thomas L. Brodie, “Luke the Literary Interpreter: Luke-Acts as a Systematic Rewriting and Updating of the Elijah-Elisha Narrative in 1 and 2 Kings” (Ph.D. diss., Pontifical University of Thomas Aquinas, 1981); Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ." (Ottawa: Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999).]
The New Testament Gospels are not a reliable historical guide to the life, work, and teachings of JesusTweet this!
The Gospels are not a reliable, historical guide to the life of Jesus—@BartEhrman
For this assignment I have been asked to argue the following thesis: The New Testament Gospels are not a reliable historical guide to the life, work, and teachings of Jesus. In particular, they provide no convincing evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
This thesis sounds terribly negative, but I want to start on a very positive note. Let me say here at the outset that I consider the Gospels of the New Testament to be four of the most beautiful, powerful, moving, and inspiring books ever written. I love the Gospels. Their stories of Jesus’s words and deeds have always been and always will be near and dear to me. Among other things, I have always strived to make the values they promote and the ethics they teach the center of my moral life, and I encourage others to do likewise. For me they are the most important books in our civilization and for my own life.
That does not mean that I think they are always historically accurate. On the contrary, even though they do contain valuable historical information about Jesus’s life and death, they also contain a good deal of material that is non-historical. It is my task in this writing assignment to show why I think that is.
I should stress that the views I lay out here are not unique to me, as if I’m the one who thought all this up. On the contrary, the views I will be laying out here are those held by virtually every professor of biblical studies who teaches at every major liberal arts college or research university in North America. Take your pick: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Kansas, University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota, University of Florida, Amherst, Middlebury, Oberlin — literally, pick any top liberal arts college or state university in North America, and the views that I will be sketching here are pretty much the sorts of things you will find taught there.
I want to stress this point because it is important to know that these are not the idiosyncratic ideas of some radical liberal professor with crazy ideas. These are the views shared by critical scholars around the country (and in Europe) who have devoted their lives to studying such things.
How the Gospels Have Been Understood Throughout History
That has not always been the case, however. If I were to try to lay out the history of scholarship on the Gospels in a highly succinct and compact way, I would say that it has gone through three stages.
Stage One: The Gospels as Supernatural HistoriesPrior to the eighteenth century, every scholar who studied the Bible maintained that the stories of the Gospels were what we might call “supernatural histories.”
The first stage involved the study of the Gospels before the Enlightenment. Prior to the eighteenth century, every scholar who studied the Bible maintained that the stories of the Gospels were what we might call “supernatural histories.” Both words in that term are important. First, the Gospels are “supernatural,” that is, they contain numerous stories that are so remarkable that they would require the miraculous activity of God. The Gospels are full of miracles from beginning to end. Jesus’s life begins with a miracle: his mother is, in fact, a virgin. Jesus’s ministry is one miracle after the other, as he heals the sick, casts out demons, walks on the water, feeds the multitudes with five loaves and two fishes, calms the storm with a word, and raises the dead. At the end comes the biggest miracle of all: after he is dead and buried, God raises Jesus from the dead and exalts him to heaven, where he now dwells until the time when he will return to the earth in judgment.For scholars prior to the Enlightenment, these stories were actual events of history.
The Gospels are obviously full of supernatural stories. And for scholars prior to the Enlightenment, these stories were actual events of history. They really happened. If you had been there, you would have been able to record them with your video camera (not that there were video cameras before the Enlightenment, but still … ).
Now, I’m not saying that this older view of biblical scholars is no longer anyone’s views! Quite the contrary, the idea that the Gospels are supernatural histories continues to be the assumption of most Christians today, including many (but not all) Christian scholars, especially fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, even if other scholars have other views (as we will see).
Stage Two: The Gospels as Natural Histories
The second stage in this history of the study of the Gospels happened during the Enlightenment, when scholars began to think about and look at the world very differently. In the Enlightenment thinkers in Europe began to break free of the authority imposed by the Christian church and to develop new, rational ways of engaging in intellectual activity. The sciences were on the rise, and scholars began to realize that one does not need to appeal to the activities of God to explain the events of the world. Lightning strikes, floods, and droughts were no longer thought of as direct interventions of God into the world; they were seen as naturally occurring climactic conditions.The emphasis during the Enlightenment was on the possibility of human reason to understand our world and the nature of life in it.
Medicine was developed, and proved to be much more efficient in solving human illness than prayer and hope. Astronomy developed and people came to realize that the earth was not the center of the universe. Eventually, scientists realized that the world was not created in six days and that humans were not simply created out of the dust, but evolved from lower forms of primates, which were themselves evolved from yet other forms of life.
The emphasis during the Enlightenment was on the possibility of human reason to understand our world and the nature of life in it. We can all be endlessly grateful that these developments occurred. We now have ways of dealing with everything from toothache to polio to potential crop failure to massive starvation to … to literally thousands of things that earlier people could not control at all.
This decision to use human reason to understand the world was applied by biblical scholars to the accounts of Scripture. If we no longer needed to appeal to “miracle” to explain why we got over the flu, or why it finally rained last week, or why the solar system was formed, do we need to appeal to miracle to understand the Gospels?Some scholars of the Enlightenment thought that … the Gospels do not contain Supernatural Histories, but what we might call “natural histories.”
Some scholars of the Enlightenment thought that the answer was No. In their view, the Gospels do not contain Supernatural Histories, but what we might call “natural histories.” Before explaining this view, let me stress that there are very few scholars today who hold to this opinion (of all the hundreds of biblical scholars I personally know, I don’t know of anyone who does). But in the early nineteenth century, this became a common view in scholarly circles. It maintained that the Gospels do contain historical accounts of things that happened. But the things that happened were not miraculous, since these Enlightenment scholars did not think we needed to appeal to the miraculous in order to explain what happens in the world. Instead, the events narrated in the Gospels were non-miraculous, “natural” events that were simply misinterpreted by the followers of Jesus (who were obviously not influenced by the Enlightenment) to have been miraculous, supernatural events.
To explain how the view worked, I might mention one of the great Enlightenment scholars in the field of biblical studies, a German scholar named Heinrich Paulus, whose most important book was called The Life of Jesus (1828) (German title: Das Leben Jesu). Paulus went story by story through the Gospels in order to show that what the disciples mistakenly thought or described as a miracle was in fact a natural occurrence. Let me illustrate with three examples, just so you can get a feel for how it worked.
In the Gospels Jesus is said to have fed the multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Jesus is said to have been teaching the crowds — Mark’s Gospel says there were 5,000 men there, not counting the women and children. So, let’s say 15,000 people altogether. The disciples come to Jesus and tell him the crowds are hungry, he should send them home so they can eat. He tells the disciples that they themselves should feed them. The disciples are incredulous: how can they possibly feed this vast multitude? Jesus asks them how much food they have. It’s not much: five loaves and two fishes. He tells them to have the crowd all sit in groups of fifty and a hundred. They do so, and Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it in pieces, and starts giving it to the disciples, who distribute it to the groups of people. He does the same thing with the fish. And the food just keeps coming. Eventually there is enough for everyone. And there are basketfuls left over.In [Paulus’s] view something really happened (it was history), but not a great miracle.
Now, scholars before the Enlightenment (just as many people still today) would have described this as a “supernatural history,” an event that really took place (history), which is nonetheless obviously miraculous (supernatural). But Heinrich Paulus did not believe in the supernatural. In his view something really happened (it was history), but not a great miracle. It was a natural event that was later misinterpreted.
But what was the event? Paulus argued that what actually happened was this: The disciples tell Jesus to allow the multitudes to go home to eat. Jesus instead tells them to have every one sit and to bring him what little food they themselves have on hand. They do so and he breaks the bread and fish and starts handing it out. When he does this, everyone else looking on sees that it’s time for lunch. And so they break out their own picnic baskets and start sharing their food with one another. By the time it’s all over, there is more than enough food to go around.
Only later, looking back on that great afternoon, did someone say “You remember that day when Jesus was teaching us, and we were all hungry and … ? That was a great day. A spectacular day. In fact, that was a miraculous day.” And so the story started up that a miracle had happened that day. But in fact it was not a supernatural event, but a natural one, that only later was misinterpreted as an actual miracle. (Again, I’m not saying that I — or anyone else I know — think this is what really happened; but it was a popular kind of view in the early nineteenth century.)
Jesus Walks on Water, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)
Or take a second example: After Jesus feeds and dismisses the multitudes, he tells his disciples to take their boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (which is in fact merely a lake, as you will see if you ever visit Israel), while he stays on shore to pray. It is nighttime, and in the dark the disciples head off across the lake, but a mighty storm arises and as they row they are making no headway. When Jesus finishes his prayer he looks up and sees them struggling, and he begins to walk out to them, on top of the water. The disciples, in a boat in the middle of the lake, see him and are terrified. They think it is a ghost. Jesus tells them “No, it is I.” In Matthew’s Gospel, the head disciple Peter (who is always saying ridiculous things) says, “Lord if it is you, let me come to you.” Jesus gives his permission and Peter hops out of the boat and begins walking toward him on the water. But then he looks around and sees the wind and waves and realizes what he’s doing, and he begins to sink. Jesus reaches out a hand and rebukes him, “Oh, you of little faith!” They then get in the boat and arrive at their destination.
Those who hold to the Gospels as supernatural histories would simply say that the walking on the water was an event that really and truly happened, a miraculous occurrence. But Heinrich Paulus could not see it that way. For him it was, again, a natural event that was simply misunderstood. This is how it worked. Recall, we are told that the event took place at night, after it was dark. The disciples set out in their boat, but can make no headway because of the violent storm that had arisen. In Paulus’s view, they literally had made no headway. They had never gotten off the shore. They didn’t know this, of course, since it was dark and rainy and they couldn’t see. They thought they were in the middle of the lake. Wrong. Jesus finished praying and seeing that they were getting nowhere came to them, wading through the water on the shore. Since they think they are already halfway across the lake, they are terrified and cry out. But Jesus tells them not to be afraid, it is just he. Peter wants to know if he can come to him. Jesus, somewhat surprised, says “Of course.” Peter hops out of the boat, but begins to flounder around, thinking that he is trying to walk on the water. Jesus grabs his hand and helps him up, and pulls the boat to shore.
This, in other words, was not a miraculous event, but a rather ordinary one that was simply misunderstood, a natural history rather than a supernatural one.How could one possibly give a “natural” explanation for such an obviously supernatural event?
So, that might work for some of the miracles Jesus did, but what about the biggest miracle of all, his resurrection from the dead? In the Gospels Jesus is found guilty of treason against the state (calling himself the “King of the Jews”), is flogged within an inch of his life, is crucified, dies, and is buried. On the third day the women go to where he was buried and find the stone rolled away from the tomb. Jesus is not there. He later appears to them and then to the disciples. He has been raised from the dead. How could one possibly give a “natural” explanation for such an obviously supernatural event?
As you might imagine, Paulus has a way. Paulus stresses that before Jesus was crucified he was flogged nearly to death. Hanging, then, on the cross, his body was put under the most severe stress. And for Paulus, at that point something truly significant happened. Jesus went into a coma. His vital signs slowed down. It looked like he stopped breathing, and that his heart stopped beating. They thought he was dead. A soldier wanted to make sure and plunged a spear into his side, serving, according to Paulus, the medical purpose of a “bloodletting,” which started the process of healing (remember: in the early nineteenth century one of the ways to heal an illness was for the doctor to cause a bleeding). The soldiers assumed he had died; he was taken from the cross and laid in a grave; and, after a while, in the cool of the tomb, with the smell of the ointments, he awoke. He arose, rolled the stone from the entrance of the tomb, and appeared to his followers.
And what were they supposed to think? They had seen him dead. And now he was alive, no longer in his tomb. They assumed he had been raised back from life. But Jesus had not, in fact, been resurrected, because Jesus had never died.
That was the theory of Paulus. You could probably poke a ton of holes in it. But that was one of the two views that virtually everyone had of the Gospels in the early nineteenth century. They either thought that the Gospels were supernatural histories, or that they were natural histories.
Stage Three: The Gospels as Non-Historical Myths
All that changed in 1835–36 with the publication of one of the most important books in biblical studies ever to be written, by another German scholar, named David Friedrich Strauss. The book was called The Life of Jesus Critically Examined [Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet] (1835). This would then be the third stage in the history of biblical scholarship.
Strauss wanted to argue that both previous ways of looking at the Gospels were wrong. The Gospels were not supernatural histories and they were not natural histories. That’s because the Gospels were not histories at all. For Strauss, they were myths.The Gospels were not histories at all. For Strauss, they were myths … a true story that didn’t happen.
Now, before you reject that view as being a bit crazy, it is important to know what Strauss meant by the term “myth,” since what he meant by it is not what most people today mean by it. Today, people often think of myth as a story that is not true. But not for Strauss. Strauss maintained that a myth was true. For him, a myth was a true story that didn’t happen.
What??? If a story didn’t happen, how can it be true? In fact, I would argue that all of us hold to true stories that didn’t happen. Here’s the example I often give my students. Most of us, when we were young, heard the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Young George is given a hatchet for a present, and he somewhat unwisely uses it to chop down his father’s favorite cherry tree. When his father comes home, he angrily asks, “Who chopped down my cherry tree?” And young George tells him, “I cannot tell a lie. I did it.”
Mason Locke “Parson” Weems
Parents and school teachers continue to tell that story today. But we know for a fact it didn’t happen. There is no dispute about this. The man who made up the story, a biographer of Washington named Mason Locke Weems [generally known as “Parson Weems” — ed.], admitted that he invented the story. (He invented other stories, as well. Among other things, he falsely claimed that he had been Washington’s pastor. These inventions came from a man who made up the story about how “I cannot tell a lie”!)
So, if we know the story about the cherry tree didn’t happen, why do we tell it? We tell it because we appreciate the “truth” that it conveys. For example, with respect to our country, it shows that the Father of this country was an honest man, one who would never lie. How honest was he? Well, one time when he was a boy.… This country is founded on honesty! Moreover, many people tell the story because they think it teaches an important lesson in personal ethics. If you do something wrong, you should just admit it and not compound the problem by lying about it. This is a lesson we want our children to learn. It is important never to lie. It is a true story. But it didn’t happen.According to Strauss, the Gospels are full of stories like that, stories that didn’t happen (they aren’t histories), but that attempt to tell the truth about Jesus.
According to Strauss, the Gospels are full of stories like that, stories that didn’t happen (they aren’t histories), but that attempt to tell the truth about Jesus. Strauss’s term for that kind of story can be off-putting for people today, since it’s a bit hard for anyone to say the New Testament is full of myths. And so scholars today describe the phenomenon that Strauss has in mind by using other kinds of terminology. But the basic idea that he advanced is one that is very widely held today among critical scholars of the New Testament. The Gospels contain stories that did not literally happen. We know that for reasons I will be laying out in a second. But just because they didn’t happen in history does not mean that they cannot be “true” in some other sense. They may be an attempt by the author to convey a “truth” about Jesus that is important for his understanding of him.
Do the Gospels Contain Stories that Cannot Be Historically Accurate?
Let me explain how all this works by taking just one example out of a huge number of possibilities. This is a story that simply cannot be historically accurate the way it is narrated, but that is attempting to convey a true understanding of Jesus (in the view of the author). The example has to do with the death of Jesus as it is narrated in the Gospel of John.Tweet this!
The Gospels certainly do contain historically important information about Jesus. @BartEhrman
First, let me stress a point that I will be making a bit more fully later: the Gospels certainly do contain historically important information about Jesus, especially when it comes to the very broad outlines of what he said, did, and experienced. With respect to the death of Jesus, for example, there are very good reasons indeed (that I have spelled out at length in some of my books, if you’re really interested) for being relatively certain that Jesus went from his home country of Galilee to the city of Jerusalem (about 100 miles away from where he spent his public ministry) the last week of his life in order to celebrate the Passover meal; that there he aroused the anger of the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities; he was arrested, put on trial by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate; found to be guilty of treason against the state; and crucified. That basic story is reported in all the Gospels, and I think it is almost certainly right. But many of the details of the Gospel accounts cannot be right.
To make sense of what I want to say, I have to explain just a little bit of historical background. It is important to know what the Passover feast of the Jews was all about as the context within which Jesus made his last fateful trip to Jerusalem.
Passover was (and is) an annual Jewish festival celebrating the greatest event in the history of the ancient Israelites, their deliverance by God, through Moses, from their slavery in Egypt. You can find the story in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus. We are told that the people of Israel had migrated down to Egypt to escape a famine in the Promised Land. In Egypt they became a numerous people, and out of a fear of their numbers, the Egyptians enslaved them. The children of Israel had been in Egypt for 400 years when God finally heard their cries and raised up for them a savior, Moses. Moses was empowered by God to do miracles against the Egyptians in order to convince the ruler, Pharaoh, to let the people go.
The last of the ten great miracles was the “death of the first born.” God was to send the angel of death to kill every first-born child in the land to convince the Pharaoh that he, God, meant business. Moses was instructed to have every Israelite family sacrifice a lamb, and to spread the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel of their house. Then, when the angel of death came, he would “pass over” their houses to those without the blood to kill their first born. They Israelites all did so, and it happened. Throughout the land there were massive deaths. Pharaoh realized that he was dealing with an implacable power and sent the people away; they made a hasty escape. Pharaoh then had second thoughts and chased them to the Red Sea. God did then another great miracle, parting the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites, but bringing the waters back with a vengeance in order to drown the Egyptian army. This then was the Exodus event.
Hundreds of years later, in the days of Jesus, the Passover was celebrated by Jews throughout the world, but especially in the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the temple of the Jews was, the only place where animal sacrifice could be practiced. At the Passover pilgrims from around the world would arrive, a week early, in order to prepare for the celebration, which involved a special meal in which the Jewish households would eat a lamb and a number of other symbolic foods, including unleavened bread and several cups of wine.
Now, here is the only tricky part of this historical background. It is important (crucial!) to recall the traditional Jewish reckoning of time. For Jews, the new day begins not at midnight (as for most of the rest of us), but when it gets dark. That’s why, even today, the Jewish “Sabbath” dinner is eaten Friday night, even though Sabbath is on Saturday. The beginning of the new day comes when the stars come out.
So too in Jesus’s day. The final preparations for the Passover meal were done after noon on the “Day of Preparation for the Passover.” The lambs were slaughtered, taken home, and cooked; all the other foods were purchased and assembled; all things were made ready. Then, when it became dark, the next day was begun, the day of Passover itself, starting with the Passover meal.
Now we can get to the Gospels and their accounts of Jesus’s death. Our earliest Gospel is Mark’s (written about 70 CE — that is, about 40 years after the events it narrates). In Mark, the disciples ask Jesus “Where do you want us to prepare the Passover for us” (Mark 14:12). He gives them their instructions, and so, on this day of “Preparation,” they get everything ready. That evening, after it gets dark, they eat with Jesus the Passover meal. He takes the symbolic bread and breaks it, instilling yet greater symbolism in it: “This is my body.” He takes a cup of wine and instills greater symbolism: “This is my blood of the covenant.” After they finish eating the meal, they go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prays until the betrayer Judas Iscariot comes with the troops and he is arrested. Jesus spends the night in jail, is put on trial early the next morning, is condemned, and is then crucified at 9:00 am, on the day of Passover, the morning after he had eaten the meal (Mark 15:25). That’s Mark’s version.
Our final Gospel to be written was John (possibly around 90–95 CE, some 20 years or so after Mark, and about 60–65 years after the death of Jesus). Here, too, Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Passover. Here, too, he eats a last meal with his disciples (John 13–17). But in this account the disciples never ask Jesus where he wants them to prepare for the Passover meal, and the meal is not described as a Passover meal. Moreover, in John Jesus does not take the Passover foods of bread and cup and instill any new significance in them. It’s just a meal. Afterward, Jesus goes out to pray, he’s arrested, spends the night in jail, is put on trial, and is condemned to be crucified. And we’re told exactly when this took place: “And it was the Day of Preparation for the Passover, about noon” (John 19:14).
The Day of Preparation for the Passover? How could it be the “Day of Preparation for the Passover”? According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus lived through that day, had the disciples prepare the Passover, and that night ate the Passover meal, only to be crucified the next morning at 9:00 am (not after noon). What’s going on here?Tweet this!
John cannot be historically accurate if Mark is historically accurate. @BartEhrman
What’s going on here is that John cannot be historically accurate if Mark is historically accurate. In John Jesus dies the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten, when preparations were underway for the meal that evening; in the earlier account of Mark, Jesus actually ate the meal with his disciples that evening and was killed the next day.
It may seem like a small detail, and in many ways it is. But why the difference? Scholars have long known the answer to that question. It all has to do with a “truth” that John is trying to convey. He has changed a historical datum in order to convey this truth.
Here’s the deal. John’s Gospel is the only one in which Jesus is said to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (spoken two times: John 1:29 and 35). For John, Jesus himself is like the Passover lamb. Just as the lamb represented the salvation of God that he brought about at the Exodus, so too Jesus is the lamb — the one who brings the even greater salvation, not from slavery, but from sin. For John’s Gospel, Jesus is himself the Passover lamb whose death brings salvation.
And when does Jesus die, in John’s Gospel? He dies on the same day the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. These sacrifices in that time were begun after noon. And so John indicates that Jesus was killed after noon, on the Day of Preparation for the Passover.John has changed the story to make it less historically accurate, but more theologically correct.
John, in other words, has changed the story to make his point. If Mark’s account is accurate, John’s cannot be (and vice versa). But that’s not ultimately the point. For John, the point is not a history lesson of something that took place one Spring day in 30 CE. The point is that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John has changed the story to make it less historically accurate, but more theologically correct (in his view).
Initial Conclusion: Non-Historical Accounts in the Gospels
David Friedrich Strauss would say that the Gospels are chock full of those kinds of stories, stories that are not and cannot be historically accurate. This particular example I have given involves just a tiny little detail (which day Jesus died on, and at what time of day). And you might think, “Who Cares???” Well, John cared. And the reason it matters is because this kind of thing happens all over the place in the Gospels. And — this is a VERY big “And” — in many, many places the non-historical aspects of the Gospels involve not simply tiny little details, but very large parts of stories and entire stories themselves.
To show that this is the case would take far more time and space than I have here. For anyone interested, I’d suggest that you start with my book Jesus Interrupted (HarperOne, 2009), where I go into this matter at great and considerable length. And even there, I am also simply scratching the surface.
Before explaining the matter a bit further and then turning to the stories of Jesus’s resurrection, let me make two fundamental points about the Gospels that are important to understand when discussing their historical accuracy.even though we continue to call the Gospels “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” we do not know who the authors actually were.
Even though we continue to call the Gospels “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” we do not know who the authors actually were. Each of the Gospels is completely anonymous: their authors never announce their names. The titles we read in the Gospels (e.g., “The Gospel according to Matthew”) were not put there by their authors, but by later scribes who wanted to tell you who, in their opinion, wrote these books. But for well over a century scholars have realized that these opinions are almost certainly wrong. The followers of Jesus were uneducated, lower-class, Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee; these books, however, were written by highly educated and well trained, Greek-speaking, elite Christians living in cities in other locations. They were not eyewitnesses to the events they describe, and do not ever claim to be.
Where then did they get their stories? This is the second point to stress. For nearly 100 years scholars have realized that the Gospel writers acquired their stories about Jesus from the “oral tradition,” that is, from the stories about Jesus’s life, words, deeds, death, and resurrection that had been in circulation by word of mouth, in all the years from the time of his death. The Gospels were written between 70–95 CE — that is 40 to 65 years after the events they narrate. This means that the Gospel writers are recording stories that had been told and retold month after month, year after year, decade after decade, among Christians living throughout the Roman empire, in differing places, in different times, even in different languages.
My most recent book, Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016), explains what appears to have happened to these stories that had been in oral circulation for all those years before any of our authors wrote them down. The stories changed. Sometimes in little ways (as in the date of Jesus’s death) and sometimes in enormous ways. How could they not change? Think about it for a second. In the Gospel of Matthew we have the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” It is one of the best known and most beloved set of ethical teachings the planet has ever seen. It takes up fully three chapters of the Gospel (it is not found in any of the other three). But Matthew was writing his account some 50 years or so after the sermon was allegedly given. How would he know what was said?
Give it some thought. Suppose you were supposed to write down a speech that you yourself had listened to a while ago. Suppose it was a speech delivered by a presidential candidate last month. If you had no notes, but just your memory—how well would you do? Or suppose you wanted to write down, without notes, Obama’s first “State of the Union” address? That was only seven years ago. How well would you do? How well would you do with the first “State of the Union” addressed delivered by Lyndon Johnson? My guess is that you wouldn’t have a clue.We always learned that … in cultures where there is no writing, people remember things better, since they more or less have to. … I can tell you the claim is bogus.
When I was in graduate school, we always learned that it was completely different in oral cultures. That in cultures where there is no writing, people remember things better, since they more or less have to. I believed that for years — until I decided to see if there was any research that could back up that claim. I have now read extensively in this research, and I can tell you the claim is bogus. You can read the research for yourself; it is all very interesting.
Since the 1920s cultural anthropologists have studied oral cultures extensively, in a wide range of contexts (from Yugoslavia to Ghana to Rwanda to … many other places). What this scholarship has consistently shown is that our unreflective assumptions about oral cultures are simply not right. When people pass along traditions in such cultures, they think the stories are supposed to change, depending on the context, the audience, the point that the story-teller wants to make, and so on. In those cultures, there is no sense at all that stories should be repeated the same, verbatim. They change all the time, each and every time, always in little ways and quite often in massive ways.
The early Christians were passing along the stories of Jesus by word of mouth. They changed them. Sometimes, in the details. Sometimes, in more significant ways. These are the stories that have come down to us once they were written in the Gospels.
Evidence that Gospel Stories Were Changed (or Even Invented): Discrepancies in the Gospels
But how do we know that the stories have changed? That there are parts of stories — or entire stories — that are not historically accurate? We know this for two reasons: because there are abundant discrepancies among our stories, and because a number of the stories can be shown to be historically completely implausible.
First, let me mention some discrepancies — not an exhaustive list of them (that would take an entire book), but just a couple of examples to give you the idea. If you read the Gospels carefully enough, you’ll find plenty yourself. The way to do it involves a different method of reading the Gospels from how we normally read them. Normally, we read a passage here or there, as we choose. Sometimes, we read the Gospels straight through, from beginning to end. Both ways of reading the Gospels are perfectly great and fine. But there is another way to read them. I call it a “horizontal” reading. This is when you put two Gospels next to each other, on the same page as it were, and read a story in one of them and then the same story in the other. If they were printed on the same page, you could literally do this horizontally; but you can simply read an account in, say, Mark, and then the same account in Luke, and do a point-by-point comparison that way. It’s very easy to do.
When you do it, you start to find irreconcilable differences among the Gospels. Do it — just to pick an example — with the story of Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5:21–43 and Matthew 9:18–26. In Mark, the man Jairus comes up to Jesus and tells him that his daughter is very sick, near to death. Could he come heal her? Before Jesus can get there, though, he is delayed by someone else who needs to be healed, and while he is taking care of this other person, people from Jairus’s household come and tell him that now it is too late, the girl has already died. Jesus tells Jairus not to fear, but only believe, and he goes and raises the girl from the dead. Fantastic story.
Matthew has the story, as well, but in his account when Jairus comes to Jesus he does not say the girl is very sick. He comes to inform Jesus that the girl has died. Could he come and raise her from the dead? And Jesus goes and does so.There is a big difference between being very sick and being dead. … It can’t very well be both. Someone has changed the story.
Again, this is a small detail, but think about it. It’s rather serious. There is a big difference between being very sick and being dead. Imagine a father who learns that his child has been taken to the hospital as opposed to learning that his child has died. Huge difference. It can’t very well be both. Someone has changed the story. (Presumably, Matthew changed it, since it is widely thought that he was using Mark as his source.)
There are lots and lots of detailed differences like this that you will find once you start reading the Bible horizontally. Just take another seemingly small instance. In Mark’s Gospel, at his Last Supper, Jesus informs Peter that he, Peter, will deny Jesus that evening three times “before the cock crows twice” (Mark 14:30). In Matthew we have the same scene, but here Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times “before the cock crows” (Matthew 26:34). Well, which is it? Is it before the cock crows or before it crows the second time? Again, it seems like a picayune detail: but why the difference? What is more interesting (and possibly important), is that in the different Gospels Peter actually denies Jesus to different people on different occasions. So, what is going on?
When I was in college I bought a book called The Life of Christ in Stereo, by Johnston M. Cheney (Multnomah Publishing, 1984), in which the author tried to reconcile all these differences by producing one mega-Gospel out of the four of the New Testament, creating one large narrative with all the details found in one or another of the Gospels. And what happens to the denials of Peter in this inventive book? Here, we learn that Peter actually denied Jesus six times: three times before the cock crowed the first time and three more times before it crowed the second! This is an interesting (and rather amusing) solution to the problem, but it ends up meaning that what really happened is precisely what none of the Gospels actually says!Often the tiniest piece of evidence can help you solve a case. So, too, with history. The small things sometimes have huge implications.
Now, I know some of you are reading these instances of discrepancies and are not at all impressed. These are such little, minor differences. What’s the big deal? I have two responses to that: the first is, that I’m just giving you a couple of small details to make the point; there are very large differences as well, as we will see in a second. But the second is that small details matter a lot in many parts of our lives. If you were reading about a murder investigation in which detectives were arguing about a fingerprint which could solve the case, would you say, “It doesn’t matter! It’s just a tiny thing! It’s just a fingerprint!!!”? Of course not. Often the tiniest piece of evidence can help you solve a case. So, too, with history. The small things sometimes have huge implications.
But as I’ve said, some of the discrepancies are much larger. As a very famous example: when did Jesus cleanse the temple? In the earliest Gospel, the last week of Jesus’s life he travels to Jerusalem, enters the temple, is disgusted by what he sees there, drives out the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals, and declares that this was to be a place of prayer, but they have made it a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:15–19). This is pretty dramatic stuff. And it led to a dramatic end. It was because of this act that the Jewish authorities decided that Jesus had to be destroyed. Within a week he was dead.Tweet this!
If witnesses to an event change their story, do you consider them reliable? @BartEhrman
You have the account of Jesus cleansing the temple in the Gospel of John, as well. But here it is not one of the last public acts Jesus engages in. In fact, it’s one of the very first things he does, at the beginning of a three-year ministry (John 2:13–22). How could it take place here at the beginning if in Mark it takes place at the end? Virtually the only way to reconcile the two is to say that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end (which is kind of like saying that Peter denied Jesus six times!). But if he did it at the beginning, then why wasn’t he arrested then? I don’t think there’s a good answer to that question. John seems to have changed the account. Just as he did with the date of Jesus’s death (before or after the Passover — see my comments at the beginning).
If witnesses to an event change their story, do you consider them reliable?
Sometimes, the differences among the Gospels are far larger and fundamental. Let me give just one example that I explain at length in my recent book How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2015). In the Gospel of John — just to stick with this account — Jesus spends almost his entire preaching ministry explaining who he is. This does not happen in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. In those Gospels, Jesus rarely speaks about himself, except to say that he must go to Jerusalem to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, crucified, and then raised from the dead. In those earlier Gospels, Jesus spends the bulk of his time preaching that God’s Kingdom is soon to arrive, and explaining both what the kingdom will be like and what people must do in preparation for its appearance.
In John, however, Jesus’s preaching is almost entirely about his own identity. Here he makes the most breathtaking claims about himself, repeatedly claiming to be God, to the dismay of his Jewish listeners who regularly take up stones to execute him for blasphemy. You don’t find anything like that in the public ministry of Jesus in the other Gospels. But here in John, Jesus says such things as “Before Abraham was, I am” (Abraham lived 1,800 years earlier! John 8:58); “I and the Father are one” (10:30); “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (14:9). Here, Jesus speaks of the glory that he shared with the Father before the world was created (17:5).
These are spectacular passages, all of them. But did the man Jesus, during his life, actually say such things about himself? Here is a point worth considering. The other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are all considered to be based on earlier sources. Scholars call these earlier sources Q (a source used by both Matthew and Luke for many of their sayings of Jesus), M (a source used just by Matthew), and L (a source used just by Luke). All of these sources were written much earlier than John, much nearer the time of Jesus’s public ministry. What is striking is that in precisely none of these sources or Gospels does Jesus make the exalted claims for himself that you find in John. You will not find these claims in Mark, Q, M, L, Matthew, or Luke.But these would be the most amazing things that Jesus ever said. Did all six of these earlier authors simply decide not to mention that part? All of them?
So, here is the question. If the historical Jesus actually went around claiming that he was God on earth, is there anything else that he could possibly say that would be more significant? That would be the most amazing thing he could conceivably say. And if so, it would certainly be what someone who was recording his words would want their readers to know about him. If that’s the case, how do we explain the fact that such sayings are not found in any of our earlier sources? It’s not simply that one or the other of them chose not to give these sayings. Precisely none of them give them. But these would be the most amazing things that Jesus ever said. Did all six of these earlier authors simply decide not to mention that part? All of them?
The more likely explanation is that Jesus did not actually say such things. Otherwise, they would have been reported. When Jesus says these things in John, it’s because John is putting these words on his lips. You may certainly think that the words of Jesus in John are theologically true, that in fact Jesus was God on earth. But historically, these are probably not things Jesus himself actually said.
Evidence that Gospel Stories Were Changed (or Even Invented): General Implausibilities
I have spent a good deal of time talking about discrepancies among the Gospels. There is one other reason for thinking that in places they are not historically accurate. That is because they occasionally tell stories that are completely implausible historically. Here, I have time (and space) to give only one example. This time I will refer to the Gospel of Luke and one of its most familiar stories, involving the birth of Jesus.
According to Luke’s version of Jesus’s birth (found in chs. 1–2), his mother Mary was a virgin who had been made pregnant by the Holy Spirit. She and her betrothed, Joseph, were from the town of Nazareth (up in the northern part of Israel, about 65 miles from the capital, Jerusalem). But even though they were from there, and Jesus was raised there, he actually was born in the village of Bethlehem (near Jerusalem, in the south). We learn from another Gospel, Matthew, why it was absolutely necessary for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, even if he actually “came” from somewhere else (Nazareth): It’s because of an Old Testament prophecy that said a savior would come from Bethlehem, the city of King David (whose descendant was to be the messiah — see Micah 5:2; quoted in Matthew 2:5–6).But why would Jesus have been born somewhere other than where his parents lived?
But why would Jesus have been born somewhere other than where his parents lived? This is where Luke’s story picks up. Luke indicates that during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria, and Herod was the king of Israel, there was a census that required “all the world” to be registered. Normally, in the ancient world a census was instituted to register people for taxes. This would be an enormous program of taxation indeed, if the whole world had to register for it! But I suppose we are to imagine that this is a census only of the Roman Empire (not China, for example). Still, for Luke it was a very big deal.
Joseph has to register for the census not in Nazareth, where he lived, but in Bethlehem, because he was “from the lineage of David,” and that’s where King David had been born. And so Joseph takes his pregnant espoused, Mary, to Bethlehem to register, and it turns out, while they were there, Mary went into labor and delivered her child, Jesus. So, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, even though he came from Nazareth. Luke then indicates that eight days later, Jesus was circumcised and 33 days later, after Mary performed the “rites of purification” (this is in reference to a law in the Old Testament, Leviticus 12), they returned back to Nazareth.
It’s a very well-known story, and a beautiful one. But did it happen? Among biblical scholars it is widely thought to be completely implausible, for several reasons:
- If Luke is right that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, Quirinius could not have been the governor; he became governor of Syria ten years after Herod’s death.
- We are well informed of the reign of Caesar Augustus. There is no record anywhere of a census in which “the whole world” (or, indeed “the whole Roman empire”) had to be taxed.
- More important, the census simply doesn’t make any sense. Joseph has to register in Bethlehem precisely because he is descended from King David who came from there.
- So, first of all, probably most Jews today are descended from King David, given how genealogies work. Did half the Jewish population of the world descend on Bethlehem?
- Second, David lived 1,000 years before Joseph. Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire is returning to their ancestral home from 1,000 years earlier? Imagine if the Democrats take over in this next election and our taxes get raised and you need to register with the IRS by returning to the home of your (say, patrilineal) ancestor from 1,000 years ago. Where will you go?
- And everyone in the empire is doing this? Imagine the absolutely massive population migrations. And there is no other source that even mentions it?
- If Luke’s account is right about the birth of Jesus, then the one other account that discusses it in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, cannot also be right.
Finally, if Luke’s account is right about the birth of Jesus, then the one other account that discusses it in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, cannot also be right. Read Matthew’s account: what happens after Jesus is born? In Matthew, Herod decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem because he doesn’t want any competitors for his throne as “King of the Jews.” But Joseph is warned in a dream and he escapes with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they stay until Herod dies. But if that’s right, how can Luke also be right that they stayed in Bethlehem just 41 days (eight days till the circumcision; 33 days before the rites of purification) and then returned to Nazareth? If Luke’s right, then Matthew can’t be, and vice versa.
- All of this makes the account in Luke (and Matthew’s account, too, but for other reasons) extremely improbable. The only way to make it work is to interpret it so that it means something other than it says. It can’t literally be right. But why does Luke spin such a tale? For the reason I pointed out earlier. It’s because he thinks that Jesus has to be born in Bethlehem — since that’s to be the home of the savior — even though he knows he came from Nazareth. And so, he came up with a story to explain it. The story, though, is almost certainly not historically accurate.
Applying These Results to the Stories of Jesus’s Resurrection: The Discrepancies
We could look at lots and lots of stories in the Gospels that have similar problems, both because they contain discrepancies and because they involve serious problems of plausibility. Here in my last section, though, let me show how such problems affect the most important stories of the Gospels, the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.When historians try to reconstruct what happened in the past, they desperately want to find internally consistent sources.
Let me stress here a fairly obvious point. When historians try to reconstruct what happened in the past, they desperately want to find internally consistent sources. To that extent, they are like trial lawyers. Suppose there was a court case about a murder: All the witnesses on the stand agree that there was a murder, but that’s the only thing they agree on. Everything they say — about the time, the place, the people involved, the weapons used, the events leading up to the murder, what happened immediately afterward — everything they say is different, from one witness to another, sometimes different in ways that simply can’t be reconciled. And suppose some of them say things that simply defy plausibility. Would a trial lawyer — or a jury! — consider these to be reliable witnesses? How could they all be reliable?
So, too, with historical sources: We want independent and supportive accounts that are completely consistent with each other.
But when it comes to the resurrection narratives, that’s not what we find. Here, I would encourage you again simply to do a horizontal reading of our four New Testament accounts (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20–21). For every detail, ask yourself if you are reading the same account or a different account. What are the differences? It’s fine, of course, for there to be differences: everyone will tell a story in his or her own way. But are the differences of the sort that don’t matter for the accuracy of one account or another, or are they fundamentally at odds with one another? And do any of the accounts give information that is simply implausible, historically?
Here are the some of the differences that you will find, some of which really can’t be reconciled with one another. There are others you will find for yourself. (Recall the setting: Jesus has been crucified and buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea; and then, on the third day.… )
- Who goes to the tomb? Is it Mary by herself, or with other women? If with other women, how many women? And what are their names? (As is true for this and all the other points I made, the answer in each case will appear to be: “It depends which Gospel you read!”)
- Do they find that the stone is already rolled away from the tomb (before they arrive) or does it roll away after they get there?
- Whom do they see there? A man? An angel? Two men? Two angels?
- Do they ever see Jesus himself there?
- What are they told there – that they are to go tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee? Or that they are to remind the disciples what Jesus told them when he was in Galilee?
- That is, are the disciples to go to Galilee (about a four-day walk north) to see Jesus, or are they to stay in Jerusalem to see him?
- Do the women tell anyone? (Take special note of Mark 16:8. The original Gospel ended with that verse – as will probably be indicated in your Bible. It says, “And the women said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that’s where it ends. If the author doesn’t really mean that they never told anyone, why does he say that they didn’t tell anyone? And if he thinks they did tell someone, why doesn’t he say so?)
- Do the disciples ever learn that Jesus has been raised (take note of Mark’s account)?
- Do the disciples go to Galilee? Or do they stay in Jerusalem?
- Does Jesus appear to them just on the day of his resurrection, and then ascend to heaven? Or does he make appearances for a period of time?
- Does he ascend on the day of the resurrection or 40 days later (see Acts 1)?
Let me explore briefly just one of those differences to show you why the accounts seem to be truly at odds with one another. Do the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee or do they never leave Jerusalem? In Mark’s Gospel, the women are told to tell the disciples to go to meet Jesus in Galilee. But they never tell them. So, it’s not clear what Mark thinks happens next: Did no one ever hear? Surely, someone heard, since Mark knows the story!
In any event, the women are told something very similar in Matthew, and there they do tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee. And the disciples go to Galilee (again, it’s about over 60 miles, and they would have gone on foot). Jesus meets with them there and gives them their final instructions, and that’s the end of the Gospel.
But how does that stack up with what we find in Luke’s account? In this case, the women are not told to tell the disciples to go to Galilee; they are instructed to remind the disciples what Jesus had told them earlier when they were all in Galilee. And what happens? Here, it is very important to pay attention to Luke’s explicit chronological statements. On the day of the event, the women tell the 11 disciples what they heard from the two men at the tomb (24:8). “That very same day” Jesus appears to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus (24:13–32). “At that same hour” they went and told the disciples in Jerusalem what they had seen (24:33–35). “As they were saying this” (24:36), Jesus then appears to the disciples, shows them he has been raised from the dead, and gives them their instructions, which include the injunction that they are to “stay in the city” until they receive the promised Spirit from on high (24:49). He then takes them to a suburb, Bethany, and ascends to heaven. The disciples then return to Jerusalem itself and worship in the temple (24:50–53). And that’s where the Gospel ends, on the day of the resurrection, in Jerusalem.
As you probably know, the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke also wrote the book of Acts. It is interesting, and puzzling, to read the first chapter of Acts immediately after reading the Gospel of Luke. Even though Jesus ascends to heaven on the day of his resurrection in Luke, we are told explicitly in Acts that in fact he stayed on earth for another 40 days, convincing his followers “with many proofs” that he had been raised from the dead (Acts 1:3 — I’ve always found this one of the most perplexing verses in the entire New Testament: Why would Jesus need to “prove” that he was raised from the dead? They knew he died and now he was still with them! So, what were his “many proofs”? It’s an intriguing question!). For this entire 40 days, they have followed Jesus’s instruction, and are still in Jerusalem. He then ascends to heaven as they watch (1:9–11).
They continue to stay in Jerusalem until the Day of Pentecost (which would have been 50 days after Jesus’s crucifixion), when they receive the Spirit from on high (Acts 2). And in fact, they continue to stay in Jerusalem even after that (see Acts chapters 3–8).
I am giving this relatively detailed summary in order to make a fundamental point. In Luke’s version of the events, the disciples are told to stay in the city of Jerusalem and they do stay in the city of Jerusalem. Not for a day or two, but for weeks. This is where Jesus appears to them before ascending. But in Matthew’s version, they leave Jerusalem and travel up to Galilee (it would take some days to get there on foot), and it is there that Jesus appears to them.
So, which is it? It depends on which Gospel you read. Can they both be absolutely accurate? I don’t see how. They are at odds on a most fundamental point. I don’t see how we can accept these books as historically reliable sources of information about what happened. There are simply too many discrepancies.My question is whether witnesses that are at odds with each other time and time again can be taken as reliable.
Now, you might say, “Look, these books are trying to describe the most astounding event that ever transpired in human history. Of course the different storytellers had different ways of saying things. And who, when faced with such an amazing event, might not be confused and unable to say things in a completely clear and coherent way?”
Fair enough! But my question is whether witnesses that are at odds with each other time and time again can be taken as reliable. Trial lawyers would almost certainly say not.
Applying These Results to the Stories of Jesus’s Resurrection: Implausibility
There’s one other problem with the accounts, and that is that they contain stories that simply defy what we would think of as plausible. Let me cite just one example, since I’m almost out of time and space. This is an intriguing story found only in Matthew’s Gospel. According to Matthew, Jesus was not the only person raised from the dead. In fact, there were others. Why does none of the other Gospels mention this? It seems like it would be an important point.
According to Matthew, at the moment when Jesus died there were a number of enormous, cataclysmic, mind-boggling events that took place: the curtain in the temple was ripped in half (we have no record of this occurring, by the way, even though Jewish authors talk extensively about the temple at the time and would have been very interested indeed, if part of it had been destroyed!); there was a massive earthquake; “the rocks were split” (it’s hard to know what that means exactly); and, most breathtaking of all, “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52–53).
Really? Are we supposed to think that masses of people came back to life and started walking around Jerusalem on the day that Jesus was raised? And no one else — whether Jews at the time, or Romans, or Christians, or even the other Gospel writers — thinks this is important enough to say something about? What is going on here?Whatever is going on, almost certainly one thing that is not going on is a historically reliable report about what happened three days after the death of Jesus.
Whatever is going on, almost certainly one thing that is not going on is a historically reliable report about what happened three days after the death of Jesus. Even many good Bible-believing people find this one too hard to accept as historical. But if we concede that one part of the story is probably not reliable, what is to stop us from thinking that other parts are not reliable, either?
Some Concluding Reflections: On the Historicity of the Gospels
Let me just wrap up this discussion with a couple of concluding reflections. I begin by stressing a point that may not be altogether clear from my foregoing comments, but is how I started this commentary: I think the Gospels are among the most brilliant, inspirational, and significant writings that have come down to us from the ancient world — arguably the most important books ever to have been written. I love these books, as do, literally, billions of other people in the world.
But I also think that it is important to recognize both what the Gospels are and what they are not. What they are: These are four narratives that attempt to explain who Jesus was and what he said, did, and experienced. They were written by four different authors living many years after the events that they narrate. These authors do not claim to be eyewitnesses to the events they describe, and they almost certainly were not eyewitnesses. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life were for the most part lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee. The Gospels are written by highly literate, well-educated, Greek-speaking authors from other parts of the Roman Empire. They are basing their accounts on stories that they have heard, stories that have been told by word of mouth, month after month, year after year, decade after decade.
You can probably imagine what happens to stories as they are circulated in this way. There was no way for the original eyewitnesses to control what one man told his wife, based on what he heard from a business associate, who had heard stories from his neighbor, who once had a cousin who was married to someone who had known an eyewitness. The stories almost certainly got changed over time. That’s why there are so many differences among them.
But they are fantastic stories. And for many people, they contain not simply inspiring accounts of the Savior, wise words that can help guide their lives; they contain the very words that can lead to eternal life. That is what the Gospels are for many, many people in our world. Without denying their inestimable value, though, it is also important to recognize what the Gospels are not.Tweet this!
They are documents of faith, but they are not reliable historical sources. @BartEhrman
They are documents of faith, but they are not reliable historical sources.
1. Full title: Das Leben Jesu als Grundlage einer reinen Geschichte des Urchristentums (The Life of Jesus as the Basis of a Purely Historical Account of Early Christianity).