Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case


Alleged Scholarly Refutations of Jesus Mythicism
(with comments on "A History of Scholarly Refutations of the Jesus Myth" by Christopher Price)

R. T. France, Graham Stanton, Morton Smith, Ian Wilson

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Part Two:
R. T. France: The Evidence for Jesus
Major items: Non-Christian evidence: Josephus, Tacitus, etc.; New Testament epistles; Paul; "Words of the Lord"; The Gospels; Reliability of evangelists as historians
Graham N. Stanton: The Gospels and Jesus
Major items: The argument from silence; J. P. Holding
Morton Smith: “The Historical Jesus” in Jesus in History and Myth
Major items: The argument from silence
Ian Wilson: Jesus: The Evidence
Major items: Antiquities 20

Part Three:
Robert Van Voorst: Jesus Outside the Gospels
Major items: 7 arguments against mythicism; Thallus & Phlegon; Pliny; Suetonius; Tacitus; Mara bar-Serapion; Talmud; Josephus; Special M & L; Signs Source; Q


R. T. France:  The Evidence for Jesus
(London, 1985)

R. T. France wrote his book, The Evidence for Jesus, in reaction to a rising surge of interest in alternative views of Jesus, both in the media and in new, controversial research. The Jesus Seminar was just getting under way, and Holy Blood, Holy Grail had just been published (two quite opposite poles of responsible scholarship). The 1980’s was the time when the dike was beginning to crack. “Midrash” was the new buzzword for an understanding of how Mark and the other evangelists had put together the Gospel story, and Q was on its way to becoming the hottest property in New Testament scholarship, producing new, unconventional views of Jesus. France was really out of his depth here, thinking that his simple book could plug even some of the holes, and I would characterize his approach as one of naïve conservatism. Jesus mythicism, as represented at that time by G. A. Wells, was only one target in his sights, and his book is largely an attempt to counter what he calls “skeptical scholarship” and reestablish something resembling the comfortable traditional ways of looking at Jesus and the Gospels.

He announces a questionable methodology right at the start, certainly from the point of view of Jesus mythicism [p.14-15]:

It is obvious that the most direct and explicit evidence for Jesus comes from the four canonical gospels. Such evidence must surely take a central place in reconstructing the facts about Jesus unless it can be shown to be unreliable or even deliberately misleading. A good part of the book must necessarily be devoted, therefore, to assessing the value of the gospels as historical evidence. If they are accepted as substantially reliable, all other evidence must necessarily find its place in the context of the framework which they provide.

Shades of Maurice Goguel. It is a foregone conclusion, of course, that France will find the Gospels reliable, and thus—according to his stated method—the remaining record will simply be forced into conformity with them. This is largely the traditional approach.

France begins with a survey of the non-Christian evidence for Jesus, addressing first Tacitus. He readily admits [p.23]—and agrees with Wells—that Tacitus witnesses only to what Christians believed about the origin of their movement at the beginning of the 2nd century. France, to my knowledge, is alone in making this stark admission. He similarly dismisses the letter of Mara bar-Serapion and the reputed reference by Thallus to the darkness at the time of the crucifixion as having no value as a witness to Jesus.

France’s argument in regard to the two references in Josephus depends on concluding authenticity for the second, smaller reference in Antiquities 20. This is based on weak deductions concerning “ho legomenos Christos” and the brevity of the phrase, both of which he claims preclude a Christian interpolation. However, he undermines that judgment (admitting so) by noting the so-called “lost reference” to James’ death (we know it from Origen and Eusebius) which bears a suspicious resemblance to the one in Antiquities 20 but which must have been a Christian insertion. However, France sticks with authenticity for Antiquities 20—and indeed, he must have it, for on that hinges his reliance on an authentic residue in the Testimonium Flavianum of Antiquities 18. Interestingly, France dismisses any legitimacy to the argument that with the Testimonium removed, the flow of the two flanking passages makes better sense. Other than that, he offers nothing original over that advanced by others for a reconstruction of the ‘original passage’ before Christian doctoring. All the factors pro and con are here, the Josephan-like language in certain sentences, its alleged ‘neutral’ character, and so on. I will be discussing these issues more fully when I get to Van Voorst.

Price quotes France’s summary of this discussion:

[T]he skepticism which dismisses the Testimonium Flavianum wholesale as a Christian fabrication seems to owe more to prejudice than to a realistic historical appraisal of the passage.” [p.31]

Price seems to have forgotten that one of those “skeptics” was Maurice Goguel. In any case, he misses the point. Because of the uncertainty, because the reliability of Josephus’s references has been debated for over a century with no resolution (and I might note that Internet discussion of this issue in recent years has raised several points not traditionally considered in this debate), it is impossible to state, as France does, that “it seems safe to assume that Josephus speaks of Jesus,” as though the issue is now settled by these two eternally problematic passages. Rather, it must be decided elsewhere.

Like most of his book, France’s treatment of the complex Jewish record in the search for Jesus in rabbinic memory is clear and readable, but, in a typical comment [p.35], “it can hardly be taken seriously as historical evidence.” The errors involved in the rabbinic references, their conceivable reliance on what Christians were saying about Jesus during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, leads France to conclude that they have “very little” value as historical evidence. Even the “very little” is an exaggeration based on what France has told us about this literature. Price points to his summary conclusion, seizing on France’s own reluctance to dismiss it entirely: “But it seems clear that by at least the early 2nd century Jesus was known and abominated as a wonder worker and teacher.” But this “knowing,” as recorded a century and more later than that, enjoys no security as historically derivable even from the early 2nd century. And once again, France slips into an entirely subjective prejudice against those who conclude “that it is entirely dependant on Christian claims.” This view, he says, “is surely dictated by a dogmatic skepticism.” The only dogma involved is the skeptic’s unwillingness to let religious interests conjure up unjustified conclusions. For France to argue that ‘data’ about Jesus, as imperfect as it is, could hardly have arisen less than a century after a non-existent figure, is a good example of this very thing, since the written rabbinic commentary comes from a considerably later period, not the beginning of the 2nd century, and cannot be relied on to accurately reflect that earlier point in time, much less memories of alleged events even earlier. The rabbis were no more efficient at preserving accurate traditions of earlier periods than Christian Fathers and apologists were.

Nothing new is said about Suetonius and Pliny the Younger who, as “indirect evidence” for Jesus, “tell us nothing about Jesus himself” [p.42]. After a wide ranging and detailed survey of the “background evidence”—the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judaism’s holy men and political Zealots, the Gnostic writings of Nag Hammadi, the lost and fragmentary Christian Gospels, uncanonical sayings collections and the obvious fanciful story-telling by Christians that exploded in the late 2nd century, France concludes that the historical value of this material is dubious. Two approaches lie before us, he says [p.84-5]. One is to use the New Testament as a starting point and measuring rod, leading us to reject any material which does not conform to it. The other is to assume that the New Testament evidence is itself “tendentious and unreliable,” an expression of the later interpretations of developing orthodoxy, and that some other Jesus lies obscured beneath this distortion. He does not mention a third option, the non-existence of any historical figure under all this chaotic and perplexingly inconclusive and contradictory evidence. We know which option he will choose, and so he proceeds to his study of the New Testament, chiefly the Gospels, to supply the picture of the historical Jesus which will support the orthodoxy they served to embody. A clearly circular procedure.

The New Testament Epistles

Before embarking on his study of the Gospels, France spends a few pages on the epistles, “where we may expect to find more independent traditions of Jesus, as his disciples thought over what they either remembered personally or had heard from those who had been with Jesus” [p.87]. He lays out a principle which inherently begs the question. He points out, as an example, that the epistle of James “contains many echoes of Jesus’ teaching,” but they can only be recognized as such because they are in the Gospels. He suggests that there might be other echoes lurking throughout the epistles which could reflect sayings of Jesus not found in the Gospels, and so we cannot recognize them as such. Only where there is an explicit reference to Jesus’ life and teaching attached to such things can we identify them as additional information on Jesus to what is in the Gospels.

The problem here is that there are no such explicit references to be found in the epistles, either as echoes of known Gospel material or as revealing some new data. “They are few and far between,” France admits, but he will do his best to find some, labeling them “reminiscences” and the like. But did it not occur to him to wonder if he might have things backwards? If there is so little to be found in the non-Gospel record which even vaguely suggests a human career for Jesus, perhaps this should be adopted as the measuring rod for the Gospels, which then could be seen as attaching all these ideas and non-attributed sayings to its Jesus figure; this would place the latter a good deal closer to purely fictional status.

As his first ‘reminiscence’ of Jesus’ life, France offers 1 Peter 2:21-24. Here, he says [p.88], the writer “reflects on Jesus’ silent suffering, as an example for Christians to follow.” One has to suppose, however, that such a life was lived in scripture, because all that ‘Peter’ does is paraphrase the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53. Would not the natural thing to do have been to make a reference to some aspect of the crucifixion scene in the Gospels, Jesus’ silence before Pilate or his endurance of the scourge and the nails? This writer, late in the first century, is clearly unaware of any Gospel text or tradition on such a subject. The writer of 1 Clement does the same; at the very end of the century, when giving an example of Jesus’ humility, he quotes (chapter 16) the entirety of the Isaian passage. Goguel pointed to the same perplexing lack of appeal to the historical experience of Jesus in James 5:10.

Like Goguel, France points to 2 Peter 1:16-18 as a reminiscence of the Transfiguration, but as I have pointed out in “Transfigured on the Holy Mountain,” the development must be seen as taking place in the other direction. The Gospels have historicized the tradition of a revelatory event involving early apostles of the faith, possibly including the Peter known by Paul. France, like so many others, interprets the ‘prologue’ to the first epistle of John as a reference to the witness of Jesus’ ministry, but this insists on reading neuter pronouns as though they were masculine, whereas this is the description of another revelatory event that took place at the “beginning” of the sect’s formation, borne out by the fact that in this epistle there is a notable lack of any concept of apostolic tradition and teaching going back to a Jesus. The writer relies instead for proper doctrine on the proper “spirit” from God. Despite the common insistence on the composition of the Gospel of John prior to the Johannine epistles, there is not the slightest suggestion in the latter that the Gospel lies in their background. Indeed, key elements of the Gospel are blatantly missing where they would have served useful purposes. (See my Article No 2: “A Solution to the First Epistle of John.”)

When he gets to Paul’s epistles, France asks [p.88]:

Is not this the most likely place to look for early traditions about Jesus? Even though Paul was not himself a companion of Jesus during his ministry, surely a man so captivated by Jesus would have made sure that he was well informed about what his Lord had said and done, and would take delight in writing about it.

One would certainly think so, and at first glance we might wonder if here a Christian exegete has finally opened his mind to the implications of such a natural assumption. Alas, no. France goes on: “The reality is remarkably different.” He rightly sets aside the standard interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:16 as Paul dismissing Jesus’ earthly life (kata sarka) as no longer relevant, instead siding with C. K. Barrett’s (and others’) proper understanding of the phrase as a reference to an earthly standard. But he finds in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 evidence of a man who was “interested in the factuality of the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection and appearances,” ignoring all the factors which mitigate against the traditional ways of viewing this passage (which I won’t go into again). In fact, France goes so far as to make a completely unjustified claim:

Paul’s own testimony [verse 8], which was not to the event as such but to a subsequent ‘subjective’ vision, is carefully distinguished from these earlier witnesses [verses 5-7] to what happened at the time.

France has realized that the appearances to the others could very well be accused of being “subjective” visions, and to get around this comes up with something unsupportable. Where in the text is his ‘careful distinction’? “Then…After that…then…last of all to me.” This sounds like the simple enumeration of a sequential list, and the fact that Paul’s vision was “last” hardly distinguishes it from the others in any significant way—let alone that everyone else’s was of Jesus in flesh on Easter Sunday. France has actually called attention to the fact that they are all treated in the same manner; and if Paul’s is a subjective vision of the spiritual Christ, the strong implication is that all the rest were, too. France is in a world of his own here, determined by the Gospels.

He is similarly in a Gospel world when he declares that the Lord’s Supper scene in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is the language of received tradition from disciples of Jesus who were at the event. What does he do, then, with Paul’s declaration in verse 23 that he received this information “from the Lord”? He appeals [p.90, n.8] to C. K. Barrett who “helpfully discusses this phrase, concluding that it speaks not of a direct, unmediated revelation, but of a historical tradition which originated with ‘the Lord’ (i.e. Jesus) as the first link in the chain.” Barrett isn’t the only one to have come up with this explanation, usually centering on the usages of the prepositions apo and para, but Barrett in the referenced passage is not so unequivocal. He is also not the only one to scramble and vacillate over this troublesome phrase in an effort to get it to say something to accommodate it to Gospel preconceptions. But there it is, plainly on the page: “I received from the Lord.” To think that Paul would express in this way the idea that Jesus was the originator of these words, and that Paul simply knew it through a chain of oral tradition, shows the bizarre lengths to which orthodoxy must go to manipulate the epistles to fit the Gospel world. And to think that Paul’s Corinthian readers would not furrow their brows or scratch their heads wondering why Paul put something they all knew by historical tradition in this odd, self-important way is equally bizarre.

France claims 1 Thessalonians 2:15, “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus,” as evidence that Paul knows of an historical Jesus, not acknowledging that much critical scholarship rejects this passage as an interpolation. In fact, he accuses Wells of coming up with this “convenient speculation” as his own. The fact that “there is no basis (for interpolation) in the textual evidence” does not prevent scholars from being able to perceive later scribal fingerprints on it, or to recognize that we have no surviving texts of 1 Thessalonians before the 3rd century.

Galatians 1:19, “the brother of the Lord,” Romans 1:3, “descended from David kata sarka,” the Philippians hymn of 2:6-11, are enumerated as “surely enough to give the lie to any suggestion that Paul neither knew nor cared about Jesus as a figure of history.” Of course, mythicists, like myself, have long disagreed, but France shows no knowledge of the difficulties in taking these passages at their preferred face value.

The so-called “words of the Lord” have been given special study by New Testament scholars. (See The Jesus Puzzle, p.29-30.) Are they teachings of Jesus on earth (even if not in the Gospels, such as 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17), or are they “spoken in the context of Christian prophecy,” the product of preachers in early Christianity claiming to have received special revelation and instruction from Christ in heaven? France even points out that the 1 Thessalonian passage could have been Paul indulging in this practice, (“for he apparently claimed to exercise the gift of prophecy” [p.90]). 1 Corinthians 11:23f is also one of those “words of the Lord,” yet France does not raise the possibility that here Paul is also exercising his gifts of prophecy, despite the presence of the key phrase “from the Lord” which points to that very thing. France also clings to the idea that there is at least one reflection of Jesus’ earthly teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10, the prohibition against divorce: “To the unmarried I give this command—not I, but the Lord—that the wife should not be separated from her husband.” Seeing that this injunction is found in the synoptic Gospels, France maintains that Paul “does apparently recognize a difference in principle between historical sayings of Jesus and his own advice” [p.92]. But on what basis in the text does he claim this? He compares 7:10 with 7:12: (“To the rest, I say, not the Lord…”), and 7:25 (“About virgins I do not have a command of the Lord”). The language is exactly the same in all three cases. Paul is speaking about “a command of the Lord,” which perfectly fits the prophetic-speaking concept. He speaks of himself having it, not tradition, not “we” in the sense of a widely-known teaching of Jesus. In 7:10, he has simply corrected the impression from his initial words that this is his own advice; rather it is the Lord’s command, but this does not rule out his personal reception of such a command. The thought in 7:12 and 7:25 is simply the statement of the opposite: that on these particular topics the Lord did not give him a command. There is no historical tradition of Jesus’ teachings in sight anywhere in this passage. France has introduced it without justification—and against the language itself—under the influence of the Gospels and his desperate need to find something in Paul which points in their direction.

When he addresses the final “word of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:14, “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living by the gospel,” France identifies this as referring to Jesus’ command in Matthew 10:10 and Luke 10:7 (from Q), and 1 Timothy 5:18. In the latter, the saying is stated as being from scripture. France remarks on this, but fails to consider that this must mean its derivation is not from Jesus tradition (in which case the writer would have identified him), or even from a written Gospel, which would hardly be looked upon as “scripture” in the early 2nd century. (No one else even quotes from them until Justin in the 150s.)

The consideration which France has given the epistolary material is superficial, shot with inconsistent and sometimes fallacious reasoning. He admits that “the harvest of direct references is meager,” but that “it is also possible to trace many more echoes of themes of Jesus’ teaching in his letters.” Considering that much of that teaching was found in commonplace moral maxims of the day, that some of it (not only in 1 Timothy) is identified as from a ‘scriptural’ source, that the vast bulk of it is never associated with a Jesus figure, France’s claims are fundamentally flawed. The “echoes” of Jesus’ teaching are found throughout the epistles, it is true, but the picture needs to be reversed. These “echoes” represent the primary sound; it is the teachings in the Gospels that constitute the reflection of that sound, through the mouth of a fictional Jesus character. When the non-Gospel evidence is allowed to speak for itself, we get a clear picture of the initial development of Christian teachings (some of which were originally Greek Cynic) to the point where Q adopted a founder for its sayings, and Mark and the other evangelists sat down at their writing desks.

The Gospels

And so France arrives at “The Four Gospels,” remarking that this is “the point where common sense might have suggested that we should have started in the first place” [p.93]. This opinion is determined by assumptions he makes that are unfounded, including that all four were written in the 1st century and that they all “purport to tell us the facts about Jesus.” The latter idea is undermined by the contradictions between them and the significant changes later evangelists deliberately made to the first one, which hardly bespeaks a concern for accurate historical fact reporting. Pervasive midrash on the Old Testament can now be identified as the device by which Mark—followed by his redactors—constructed almost every detail in their story, large and small, which hardly speaks to an intention to produce history at all. The Gospel story shows every sign of being a symbolic tale, with Jesus representing the theology, faith, practices and teachings of the community, making the figure of Jesus himself—if not fully, then to all intents and purposes—entirely fictional. As I have said elsewhere, the only historical thread that might be present in the Gospels is the idea that the evangelists could have imagined that a historical figure lay at the root of the Q tradition which fed into Matthew and Luke and to a lesser extent Mark. But even that tradition shows good signs of being mistaken, and in any event had nothing to do with the epistolary end of things and with any death and resurrection as a means of salvation.

France’s survey of the Gospels is a conservative one, designed less as a counter to Jesus mythicism but rather to skeptical trends within mainstream scholarship of the 20th century. He aims to restore confidence in their historical reliability, though he is not above admitting that a degree of fallibility and self-interest in regard to their own theological agendas can be attributed to the evangelists. Some of his arguments are simply apologetic and would be scoffed at by critical scholars, not just mythicists. I cannot discuss everything he says in these 50 pages, but commenting on some of his positions will help highlight the failings in a usage of the Gospels to defend an historical Jesus, while at the same time enhance the mythicist case.

He gives a useful outline of the history of skepticism in scholarship, tracing the development of form-criticism, views of how oral traditions about Jesus were passed on, to what extent the Gospels are biographies and how they differ from that genre, and so on. France is most exercised to play down or even discredit certain ideas: that the transmission of oral tradition was loose and free, allowing for much unbridled change and legend-building; that the tradition of “Christian prophecy” (discussed earlier in regard to Paul) could have led to all sorts of invention based on perceived revelation, which at some later point would have been transformed into teachings of the earthly Jesus and eventually find their way into the Gospels as historical utterances. Midrash in the Gospels was a relatively new idea at the time, indicating invention by the evangelists based on Old Testament passages. France questions whether midrash in Jewish practice ever invented wholesale, particularly a history purporting to be recent, rather than just embellish using old scriptural themes. (The fact that Jewish midrash was not conducted in a particular way does not rule out someone else, some new group, using it in a new fashion. This is a common type of fallacious argument which gets a lot of use in this field.) France stood only at the cusp of midrashic investigation and could not have been aware of the extent to which scripture dominates virtually ever aspect of the Gospel story (as revealed by J. D. Crossan and Robert M. Price), from large themes to individual details. He asks how the Gospel writers could have laid such emphasis on Jesus fulfilling scripture if the fulfilled events themselves were invented [p.100]. But solutions are suggested by stepping outside the box. If the Jesus character was symbolic of the community, the individual events as portrayed would be fictional, but to the extent that they represented the activities and self-image of the community, scripture could be seen as foreshadowing these. Or, if Jesus was regarded by Mark (and by the later evangelists based on their understanding of Mark) as an historical figure about whom few concrete traditions existed, they may have regarded themselves as deriving from scripture the sort of thing which he must have done, that ‘history’ was deducible from scripture and proven by it.

Against the claim of unreliability in regard to accurate oral transmission of traditions, France offers several counters. Surviving apostles of Jesus, as long as they lived, would exercise a check on the more extravagant accretions, alterations and exaggerations. Jesus, as a Jewish rabbi, may have instituted a system of committing his teachings to memory, designed to preserve them with a good degree of accuracy. In practices of story-telling even today, France notes, the community exercises a collective control over the faithfulness of repetitions. In the service of these proposals (which have not been without their critics within scholarship), France is keen to make as short as possible the time between the life of Jesus and the composition of the Gospels, and so he doesn’t hide his sympathies for theories like that of J. A. T. Robinson (Redating the New Testament) which see all the Gospels as substantially finalized by 60 CE. This alone places France outside the circles of even moderately critical scholarship. When advocating this position, as well as when scorning that of Wells who dates Mark around 90, France makes not the slightest nod toward the question of attestation. He never asks whether the complete silence on the Gospels in the outside Christian record until well into the 2nd century can possibly be squared with a completion date for all four by 60 CE.

This is related to another great void in his arguments, especially concerning the presence and reliability of oral transmission of Jesus’ sayings and deeds: the virtually complete silence on such things in the non-Gospel record. France, and the scholars he quotes, have been at great pains to describe in theory how early Christians could have remembered and passed on the Jesus traditions with remarkably reliable accuracy, or even how some of them could have been written down in certain types of collections or rudimentary narratives, such as of the Passion. But he fails to bring up the observation that there is absolutely no witness to this sort of activity in the epistolary record. If the original apostles were exercising any control over the record of Jesus, we wouldn’t know it from Paul, who can argue issues with them which the Gospels say Jesus pronounced on, without the subject ever coming up. In this supposedly vibrant world of oral transmission of Jesus’ teaching, Paul can say (1 Thess. 4:9) that “you are taught by God to love one another.” Later Pauline communities, obsessed with the presence of the dark power of demonic forces (Eph. 6:12), show no knowledge of Jesus’ miracles of ostracism and his power over the demons. Hebrews and the Didache are ignorant of the sacramental Eucharist. There are no stories of Jesus in the epistles, no anecdotes about his life, no human character traits. No one seems to have heard of Judas, or Barabbas, or Mary Magalene at the tomb—or the tomb itself—or associates Pilate with Jesus’ crucifixion. Where is all this oral data in the world of the epistles? If no one makes use of it, if no on passes it on to readers and converts, where is this shadowy transmission operating? Seemingly in another dimension.

France’s thinking functions like that of everyone else in mainstream scholarship. The Gospels are assumed to be, by definition, a record of the life of Jesus who lived X number of decades earlier, and the object is to discover or deduce how information survived and crossed that gap to reach the Gospel writers, to what degree it underwent alteration, how much may have been piously invented along the way, and how each evangelist made his own use of all this Jesus material. Within that paradigm, vast problems abound, debates rage, quests are conducted, while consensus is never reached. The one alternative that is refused attendance at the table is the idea that, essentially, the first Gospel writer made it up, the characters, the plotline, the nitty-gritty events. He had a sectarian community (his own) which preached an apocalyptic message and radical ethic of unclear derivation, and it had a concept of salvation embodied in an unconventional Messiah and Son of Man. Whether the dimension of the sacrificed Son of God came from another circle of thought is unsure. Out of all this, using scripture as his guide and midrash as his method, he crafted a story which embodied all those beliefs, activities and expectations. Before long, other writers in other communities in the same general area of the North-Eastern Mediterranean encountered it, took it up and ran with it, and eventually the story and its central character became a juggernaut. This is the simplest explanation for all the problems, perplexities and paradoxes which France and countless others have grappled with in the early Christian record and failed to solve.

In addition to dating the Gospels impossibly early, France also claims [p.124] that “there can be no doubt that not later than the middle of the 2nd century (and probably considerably earlier) the four gospels were recognized throughout the Christian church as in a class apart from other writings,” this being “the basis of their authority as canonical scripture.” This, despite the fact that no one before Justin in the 150s quotes from them (and he, at the most, two Gospels), that he vaguely calls them “memoirs of the apostles” with no attribution as to authors, that Papias is reputed barely two or three decades earlier to have only heard from an “elder” that a collection of sayings by “Matthew” (in Hebrew, meaning Aramaic) and a disordered collection of sayings and doings of Jesus by “Mark” existed out there somewhere—he not having a copy of either one of them himselfand despite the fact that no canon is recognized to have existed anywhere in the orthodox church until after Marcion’s own ground-breaking canon was put together around 140-150. (It comprised a single Gospel, a short or shortened version of Luke, and ten Pauline epistles). When declarations are simply made in the face of all evidence to the contrary, we know that dispassionate historical methodology is not being utilized. Ironically, it is mainstream scholars who constantly accuse mythicists of not using “sound historical methods.”

France tackles the reliability of the evangelists themselves as historians. First, he must address the question of authorship. He waffles between accepting the traditional ascriptions and maintaining that it is not really important. He compromises by suggesting that Lukan authorship of the third Gospel and Acts is probably reliable, Luke being a companion of Paul, and possibly Mark as the companion of Peter; this is complementary to his preferred very early dating of the Gospels. Like many other commentators anxious to support Luke’s reliability, he points first to the Gospel’s Prologue, which expresses the writer’s desire to provide the truth of the matter, weighing his many written sources and creating an orderly account. He speaks of “eyewitnesses” among those sources. But it is unclear from the text whether he himself had contact with such eyewitnesses or whether they are at the other end of an intervening chain. There are problems either way which France never addresses. The tone fits the latter interpretation, as does the reference to many writings; it feels like a passage of time is involved. This would pretty well rule out Luke, the companion of Paul (whom Paul himself never mentions), as the author. On the other hand, if the writer had access to these eyewitnesses, and he is at pains to assure “Theophilus” of the accuracy of his research, why does he not identify them? Why does he not identify himself and his connection with Paul? There seems no feasible reason why he would not.

In regard to both Luke and John, France appeals [p.126] to certain “accuracies” to be found in their Gospels. Luke, according to studies conducted by archaeologist Sir William Ramsey, got political background details of 1st century Greece and Asia Minor correct in the Acts of the Apostles, supposedly showing his meticulous historical methods. Now, studies like this always need to be double-checked, if only to rule out exaggeration on the part of those appealing to them, but can we necessarily carry over such a conclusion into the foreground details of the Gospel and Acts? France examines the oft-raised objection that Luke got one thing quite wrong: the tie-in between Jesus’ birth during the reign of Herod the Great and the alleged universal census under Quirinius, the dates of which do not overlap. Nor does the character of the census itself as presented by Luke fit any historical record—indeed, most critical scholars recognize that it is historically implausible. Most readers will be familiar with this problem, and I won’t go into it here, but France sloughs it off as a “peripheral aspect” while alluding to various “suggested solutions.” Most of us are familiar with those as well, all little more than strained apologetic maneuverings that critical scholarship largely dismisses. Alluding to Ramsey’s study, France claims that “in the vast majority of cases where his information can be checked in detail,” Luke can be regarded as reliable. Presumably, the birth of Jesus and the census lie outside that “majority.”

And on closer examination than France has given us, it doesn’t take long to realize that this “majority” is a shrinking one. In regard to Acts, is Luke more accurate than Paul himself, whose companion he is alleged to have been, when he contradicts Paul’s own letters on several matters of importance? Was he historically accurate when he had Jesus hauled off to a hearing by Herod in the middle of his trial before Pilate (Goguel dismissed that as very unlikely), when no other evangelist records it? What about giving the first resurrection appearance to two obscure disciples on the road to Emmaus? Was that based on carefully researched tradition that no one else had uncovered? What about placing all the resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, when Matthew limited himself to Galilee? Both of them can’t be right. Did Luke decide through careful research that Matthew was wrong and there was no slaughter of the innocents by Herod, no visit of the magi at Jesus’ birth? (On that, he was undoubtedly accurate.) France goes so far as to defend the entire first two chapters of Luke as essentially historical, despite the obvious scriptural derivation of chapter 1 (perhaps the most clearly midrashic passage in all of the New Testament) and the incompatible contradictions of the nativity scene with that of Matthew. France fails to see in principle any necessary contradiction between Luke’s clear shaping of many elements to fit his own theological agenda and the stated purpose in the Prologue as an intent to achieve historical accuracy.

And how many times has an apologist pointed to the well-worn Bethesda Pool ‘proof’ in John as a demonstration of that evangelist’s reliability in historical detail? To this, France adds several other indicators of accurate Johannine knowledge about political and judicial practices of the Romans and Jews. It should not need to be pointed out that accuracy in background details does not guarantee factuality of the story placed within those settings. Otherwise, every historical novelist would be an historian.

This point is part of a discussion by France about the reliability and accuracy of the Fourth Gospel in relation to the others, and here France must proceed gingerly, if not deceptively, though one can hardly think that he is fooling any reader who knows the Gospel texts and the differences between them. He speaks carefully about “the recognition of John’s very distinctive presentation of Jesus’ teaching and his very clear drawing out of theological and symbolic significance in the facts he records” [p.133]. Those teachings are indeed very distinctive—such that they bear no resemblance whatever to those found in the Synoptics. How France can consider that this does not undercut “the factual basis for John’s record” is not explained, nor how these unique teachings comprise “a well-informed tradition underlying John’s clearly theological presentation of the story.” This is all doublespeak, in the best Orwellian tradition.

And what about the “facts” John does not record? Or the ones only he witnesses to? Among the latter are the presence of Jesus’ mother at the cross and the piercing of Jesus’ side by the soldier to determine death. Are these accurate? If so, and Luke missed them both, of what significance is Luke’s accuracy of background detail as a measure of his reliability for the elements that matter? Or his silence on the dramatic raising of Lazarus and the miracle at Cana? Obviously, one of the ‘many written sources’ Luke consulted could not have been the Gospel of John, or else he considered John thoroughly in error regarding so many details. John, in turn, must have missed Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and regarded traditions about Gethsemane as pious invention he would have nothing to do with, since neither appear in his Gospel. Nor does Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, something the fourth evangelist has carefully excised. And yet France can say with a straight face [p.133]:

In none of the four Gospels does a thorough-going recognition of their theological and even ‘propagandist’ nature justify us in disputing their claim to be telling us what, as a matter of historical fact, Jesus said and did….[I]t therefore seems responsible to treat their record as factual rather than imaginary.

The essence of rationality is the ability to recognize logical contradictions, to be able to craft arguments using compatible premises leading to supportable conclusions. When preconceptions and confessional interests enter the picture, those processes go out the window. The incongruity, moreover, fails to be recognized even by the guilty party.

Price, in summing up R. T. France’s book, says:

All in all, France makes a concise and persuasive argument that the Gospels must be taken seriously as historical evidence for the life, deeds, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Most Mythologists spend only a few pages explaining the Gospels away as being written late, claiming they contradict each other, or by classifying them as “midrash” or “fiction.” Until they provide in depth scholarship on the nature of the Gospels’ genre and sources, France’s arguments show why Mythologists will remain in the margins of scholarly discourse.

Any remark to be made on Price’s first sentence here would be redundant. However, I agree with him that it is a mistake for radical mythologists to date the Gospels to the mid 2nd century or later (unless it be referring to final redactions to reach the canonical versions we know today). Among other things, it forces an equally radical and late dating of documents like 1 Clement and the Ignatian epistles. But when conservatives like Price argue that attestation (such as by Justin) rules against such a late dating, they have to realize that lack of attestation equally rules against the traditional 1st century datings, let alone the ultra-radical dating of all the Gospels before the Jewish War.

In any case, the Gospels do contradict each other, in debilitating if not fatal ways, and R. T. France and others have demonstrably failed to neutralize that problem. France’s argument that “the Gospels must be taken seriously as historical evidence” for Jesus is neither persuasive nor logically coherent in view of their content and contradiction. If mythologists classify them as “midrash,” critical scholarship today is not far behind; indeed, we have taken our cue from mainstream study in that regard. I acknowledge that it is in the study of the Gospels that mythicism needs to achieve more progress (although R. T. France is not the measure of “in depth scholarship”). My own view of the Gospel story as first arising within the 1st century, amalgamating Q-type traditions and cultic faith, not intended originally to represent history, is I hope a step in the right direction. But to some extent, Price is applying a standard based on the old paradigm. Mainstream scholarship on the genre and sources of the Gospels has been monumental because that is the monumental problem scholarship has always faced in making sense of them as the record of an historical Jesus. Under that assumption, they resist solution in so many ways, yet scholarship continues to battle away with no victory in sight because they are fighting on the wrong ground. That kind of “in depth” study will no longer be needed when the Gospels are recognized for what they are: essentially fictional, symbolic creations into which many unconnected strands fed from the religious and philosophical expression of the time. That realization, that admission, would solve a host of problems and reshape the picture of our ancient religious roots. It would also, no doubt, bring down Christianity with it, and so the battle to resist that eventuality will continue.

Graham N. Stanton: The Gospels and Jesus
(Oxford, 1989)

Graham Stanton contributed a book to the Oxford Bible Series called The Gospels and Jesus. Aimed at the general reader (as was R. T. France’s book), he devotes a short chapter to the debate over Jesus’ existence, focusing again on G. A. Wells. The chapter provides a brief survey of the evidence that is perennially used against mythicists, presented without rancor, as though nothing could be simpler. His discussion of the “Literary Evidence Outside the Gospels” is presented as if no difficulties existed with any of it. But I want to focus on a passage which states the fundamental rationalization we find in just about every response to one of the chief pillars of the mythicist case.

Wells stresses that in the earlier New Testament epistles there is a strange silence about the life of Jesus and his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Wells notes (correctly) that the very earliest Christian creedal statements and hymns quoted by Paul in his letters in the 50s do not mention either the crucifixion or Pilate, or in fact any events in the life of Jesus. But as every student of ancient history is aware, it is an elementary error to suppose that the unmentioned did not exist or was not accepted. Precise historical and chronological references are few and far between in the numerous Jewish writings discovered in the caves around the Dead Sea near Qumran. So we should hardly expect to find such references in very terse early creeds or hymns, or even in letters sent by Paul to individual Christian communities to deal with particular problems.” [p.140]

One hears and reads this sort of thing time and time again. It is stated as though nothing could be more self-evident, more reasonable. Just because the epistles say nothing about the life and career of Jesus, the time and place of that life, the characters that populate the Gospels—from John the Baptist to Pilate, indeed, not even a single reference to Jesus as a recent historical man—this means nothing. After all, to call attention to this is simply the naïve and disreputable “argument from silence,” and everyone knows how fallacious that is! This is such a common and handy attitude to adopt on this question that many quite intelligent people have actually come to believe it.

Stanton’s statement of this claim is particularly vapid. If he is referring (and it is unclear just what he means) to the dearth and intermittency of records for great swaths of chronology, rulers, cultures, events in ancient history, of course he is right. I am, however, unaware of what great errors have been committed, and by whom, in regard to these gaps in our knowledge; no one posits that the Greek Dark Age had no kings during those hiatuses where we have no surviving record of them. But in the case of Christianity, we do have a surviving early record in the epistles and other non-canonical documents, and it is in this record that the historical Jesus is notably missing. Stanton offers an example of the Dead Sea Scrolls not containing much in the way of historical data, but such data would in most cases be incidental or irrelevant to the content of the scrolls and thus there would be no reason to expect to find it there, or to be surprised not to find it there. Despite facile claims to the contrary, the precise opposite is the case with the early Christian documents outside the Gospels and Acts. These writings are about a faith movement presumably centered on the response to an historical man, his teachings, his miracles, his prophecy. They concern issues and debates on which he reputedly had something to say, directions to give, precedents to set. The events of his life and death conferred salvation upon the world, they took place at specific locations that people could visit, stand upon, take comfort from. Nothing of these things is to be found in those documents—almost 100,000 words by a dozen different writers from all over the eastern empire. As far as the Scrolls are concerned, some of them do speak of their founder: the Teacher of Righteousness. We know he was a figure in their memory and devotion. In the entire early Christian record outside the Gospels and Acts, we can detect the memory or knowledge of no such corresponding figure, and that is inexplicable. The blithe dismissal of this problem by commentators such as Stanton is not acceptable.

Stanton suggests that the early hymns and creeds are too “terse” to contain historical references. Were the hymnists restricted to an insufficient number of lines? Was an identification of the Son’s incarnation not considered important enough to include? The Apostle’s creed is not much longer than the Philippians hymn, yet it manages to work in a reference to Mary and Pilate. The hymn has a dozen lines in a mirror-like chiastic structure reflecting the descent and ascent halves of the sojourn of a god: downward to undergo death, and upward to receive exaltation. In the first half, three successive lines say essentially the same thing: “taking the very nature of a servant,” “being made in the likeness of men,” “being found in the fashion of a man.” Could not one or two of those lines have been devoted instead to a reference to the incarnated identity on earth of this descending god, or perhaps an event of his life, or the fact that he taught or performed miracles? What hymnist would want to leave out all reference to such features? What congregation could fail to find it curious and unsatisfying to hear or recite no historical details as part of their creeds and liturgies? What strange twist of the human mind would explain how an entire generation of proselytizers and believers would choose to divorce the man from the god and leave their record devoid of any mention of the former? Does an entire generation of writers and hymnists “lose interest” and turn a blind eye to the man who had begun their faith? Can they carry on a missionary movement or deal with establishment opposition on such a basis? Will they engage in and resolve disputes, settle rivalries in the field, without referring to him at least some of the time?

Stanton says that he “hardly expects” references to historical events and elements of Jesus’ life, teaching and activities “even in letters sent by Paul to Christian communities to deal with particular problems.” That is indeed the fundamental nature of the epistles. They are “occasional” writings, composed to deal with problems. One can only conclude that Stanton regards the Gospels as totally unreliable as a genuine record of Jesus’ teachings, since Paul would surely have appealed to Jesus’ words on the subject in his extensive debates about the Jewish Law; or that others would have appealed to them to point out where Paul was going wrong in his rejection of it. Stanton must regard Mark 7 as invention, that Jesus never said anything about all foods being clean, since Paul would have had every reason to appeal to Jesus’ teaching on the matter in Romans 14:14. Nor can Paul have been remotely aware that Jesus taught about love, since he says in 1 Thessalonians 4:9, “you are taught by God to love one another.” Goguel was one who must have believed the writer of James knew nothing about, not even the fact of, Jesus’ suffering at the crucifixion, since he is silent on the matter when he offers the “prophets of old” as an example of “patience under suffering.”

Clearly, Stanton would never expect a mention of the Paraclete by the writer of 1 John who, in appealing to “spirits” from God to determine correct doctrine, must have considered it irrelevant that Jesus had promised to send his followers the Holy Spirit to guide them and keep them on the correct path. Far be it from Paul to bother with minor historical details in Romans 10, to mention that the Jews had failed to respond not only to apostles like Paul, but to the Lord himself while he was preaching among them; or in Romans 11, that in addition to killing the prophets, they had also killed the Son of God. In all that Paul and others have to say about the coming apocalypse and Jesus’ arrival from heaven, Stanton must regard the Gospel preaching of Jesus on this subject as post-epistolary concoction, since not a single author appeals to Jesus as the original word on it.

Would Stanton, if he were Paul, have said (as Paul does in 2 Corinthians 5:5) that “God has shaped us for life immortal, and as a guarantee of this he has sent the Spirit”? If he were Paul, would Stanton have claimed to the Corinthians that it is he who has been qualified by God to dispense his new covenant, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ own role in that regard in recent history? The present apostolic movement which Paul describes as “the ministry of the spirit in glory” (2 Cor. 3:8) is set against the dispensing of the old covenant by Moses, overlooking any glory that might have been present in Jesus’ own ministry. In this splendorous mansion in which Paul has taken up residence, Jesus is not even let in by the servants’ entrance. The author of Titus neglects to mention a little historical detail—an unnecessary one, no doubtwhen he speaks (1:3) of God promising eternal life ages ago, and that promise now coming to fruition in the proclamation issued by Paul. Apparently, Stanton is not perturbed at the lack of any sign of Christ’s own life and ministry coming between those two events.

All these observations only scratch the surface. They are the tip of a vast iceberg lying beneath the surface of the early Christian sea, the silence of the deep, on which Christian commentators naively sail their Gospel boat, secure that the cargo they carry will sustain them through the storm, oblivious to the great gulf below that threatens to swallow them up. One can understand their reluctance even to look over the side into that dark, mysterious world of mythological creatures and mystical salvation currents, where the waters are cold to any memory of an historical figure.

(See my “The Sound of Silence” feature for 200 occasions in the non-Gospel record where we might expect some mention of the historical Jesus, at least some of the time.)

The notorious Internet apologist, J. P. Holding (a pseudonym), has offered the following as an explanation for the universal silence on the life of Jesus in the epistles: there was no need to mention any of this stuff—everyone already knew it! Quite apart from this never being a reason for Christian writers and preachers, since the Gospels were adopted, not to make mention of things we already knew, it is based on more than one unlikely assumption. Are we to assume that this awareness would universally lead all Christian writers before the Gospels (and many after) to remain silent, suppressing their own instinct to talk about the historical Jesus? Are we to assume that in fact, in every Christian community, everyone did know everything there was to know about Jesus’ life, even in newly-formed congregations such as Paul sometimes writes to? Perhaps such congregations circulated memos admonishing those who wrote to them not to mention details about Jesus because they already knew everything there was to know and were tired of hearing it. (One wonders if Mr. Holding ever receives complaints from his wife that he never tells her that he loves her. Perhaps he answers: “But, dear, you don’t need to be told. You already know that I love you!”)

Holding claims that only if someone forgets a piece of information does it become necessary to remind him of it. To judge by Paul’s letters, many people did indeed forget what Jesus had said on earth, since they were still arguing over issues that Jesus supposedly had settled. Here is Holding’s “need,” yet no one answers the call.

Sentiments like those of Stanton and Holding are beyond naïve. They are a denial, a surrender, of common sense reasoning which a moment’s consideration should render dismissible. The problem is, like so many of the glib arguments used against mythicism, they have not been given a moment’s consideration.

Morton Smith: “The Historical Jesus” in Jesus in History and Myth
(Buffalo, 1986)

Morton Smith is another who makes a glib dismissal of the argument from silence: “This argument is absurd. Silence can be explained by reasons other than ignorance, and ignorance of something does not mean it is non-existent” [p.47]. What Smith and so many others refuse to understand is that such a statement has no force when standing alone. If it is to be applied to a particular case, that case must be examined in order to see whether or to what extent we can justify its application. I have shown in regard to Graham Stanton’s argument that in the case of the silence in the non-Gospel record, such a statement is entirely without merit. It is little more than a smokescreen, a means of sweeping under the mental rug the disturbingly stark void we face in the epistles.

Smith criticizes Wells’ own take on the Pauline view of Christ, which is that Paul envisioned Christ as a man who had lived and died (by crucifixion) in obscurity at some unknown point in the past. Smith calls this a “piece of private mythology.” It is true that Wells’ interpretation of Paul is his own, one not specifically shared by other mythicists that I am aware of. I believe Wells adopted his view because he could find no evidence in the epistles of a recent human man, and much that ruled against it, yet failed to see that the features that led him to think Christ was thought of by Paul as a man who lived in the distant past could be applied instead to an entirely heavenly being in a mythological setting. Smith regards any scenario that mythicism has come up with as “never a better explanation” for the evidence in the epistles than the orthodox one. Price concurs. But if the orthodox ‘explanation’ is dependent on dismissing the silence in the way that Smith has done above, this declaration has little force. And in my own experience, the judgment that mythicism does not offer a “better explanation” is often based on a woeful lack of understanding of the mythical thinking of the time. (When a prominent scholar whom I have addressed elsewhere on this site can simply say that Paul’s references to Jesus’ death automatically bespeak Jesus’ historicity, we realize that Gospel literalism has been securely wedded to ignorance.)

Ian Wilson: Jesus: The Evidence
(London, 1984)

Finally, before going on to the next and final major work, a few comments on Ian Wilson’s Jesus: The Evidence. Wilson is anything but an apologist, and when addressing the question of Jesus’ existence, makes a few admissions about the Gospels which would unsettle many Christian scholars. In detailing the question of the silence in the epistles, his description is only a little less stark than my own. He betrays, however, having given too little thought to the standard explanation for Paul’s silence which he puts forward: that Paul never knew the human Jesus, and based his whole faith on a vision of this Jesus he claimed to have received. Those who appeal to this superficial explanation seem never to have wondered how Paul could function in a missionary world that was preaching an historical Jesus while he had virtually no information about and even less interest in the man. It also involves the unlikely supposition that Paul, even if drawn to believing in Jesus on account of a vision, would in fact have as a consequence no interest in the recent human incarnation of his divine Christ. Quite the opposite seems more intuitively likely.

Wilson does little more than enumerate Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny, merely to remark that “In all this there is scarcely a crumb of information to compel a belief in Jesus’ existence” [p.51]. He has considerably more confidence in Josephus, regarding the second reference in Antiquities 20 as “not sounding like an interpolation,” but instead as “the sort of remark Josephus might well have made.” Considering that the remark included a reference to “the Christ,” which was a subject—Jewish messianism—that Josephus seems to have avoided like the plague, this is a dubious judgment. But Wilson waxes even more certain:

In the third century AD the Christian writer Origen had expressed his astonishment that Josephus, while disbelieving that Jesus was the Messiah, should have spoken so warmly about his brother. This information from Origen is incontrovertible evidence that Josephus referred to Jesus before any Christian copyist would have had a chance to make alterations.

While Wilson doesn’t give a reference, he is undoubtedly referring to Origen’s Commentary on Matthew, chapter 17 (much the same remarks are found in Contra Celsum, Book 1, Chapter 47). Now, the passage of which Origen speaks is sometimes identified, as it is by Wilson, as being an earlier version of the Antiquities 20 reference, but including additional remarks that Origen focuses on: namely, that Josephus judged the cause of the catastrophic Jewish War as being Gods wrath over the Jews’ murder of James, “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ.” But Wilson hasn’t even begun to realize the wealth of problems inherent in such a claim. That Josephus would make such a judgment is virtually beyond belief: that God would destroy the Jewish state and his own Temple because of the murder of a Christian—which by extension, would imply that God supported the Christians. This can only be understood as a Christian sentiment and has interpolation written all over it. But it could not have been in Antiquities 20, since why would the remark about the Jews’ punishment over James have been subsequently removed? (Origen had said here that Josephus should have identified the death of Jesus, rather than of James, as the cause, and if a Christian scribe felt the text should be changed on account of this, he would have altered the remark in that direction rather than remove it entirely.) Most who address this “lost reference” prefer to see it as having been in Jewish War, an interpolation that probably died out through natural causes. But note that this interpolation seems to have contained (and Eusebius confirms this by quoting it) the very phrase found in Antiquities 20: “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ.” This, by association, immediately casts suspicion on the Antiquities 20 reference as likewise an interpolation. Wilson simply hasn’t thought his opinion through; indeed, he is most likely unaware of all the elements surrounding the debate. Nor is it reasonable to consider that Christian scribes had “no time” before Origen, writing in the 2nd quarter of the 3rd century, to make such an interpolation.

Too many commentators who express the comfortable claim that the second, shorter reference to Jesus in Josephus is undoubtedly reliable (unlike the Testimonium with its uncertain reconstructions and its mire of contradictory arguments), are going on wishful thinking as much as anything else. This second reference has its own daunting set of problems. (See Article No. 10, Josephus Unbound, and chapter 21 of The Jesus Puzzle for detailed discussions of both passages.)

End of Part Two


To Part Three: Robert Van Voorst

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