Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
Reader Feedback and Author’s Response
Set 22: November 2003

There has been a regrettable delay since the last Reader Feedback, almost a year. This was due in part to distractions and demands of other matters, but also to a computer crash a few months ago, in the course of which a number of reader e-mails were lost. While there are fewer responses here than usual, they cover important topics, including the syncretization scenario and in-depth looks at those perennial favorites, "born of woman" and "brother of the Lord" as well as Old Testament prophecy. (Minor remarks are attached in brackets to some reader comments.)

Jack writes:

   Thanks! Deconstructing the New Testament in this way is such an incredible relief for my soul, I can let go of so much unnecessary and outmoded moral and intellectual baggage.
   You are probably familiar with more modern attempts to package fiction as religious revelation: Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, and Carlos Castaneda, all of whom demonstrate how incredibly easy it is to create a new religion and gain thousands or millions of adherents.

Luca writes:

   I am reading your book and really appreciate it. If your views are correct, then your work marks a most important turnpoint in human culture; in any case, your ideas are so stimulating and refreshing that I think they will remain with us.

Roland writes:

   I have read both "The Jesus Puzzle" and "Challenging the Verdict" and I must say that you have really opened my eyes to the truth. I think both are brilliant.(I am a former fundamentalist, now proud agnostic.)

Mike writes:

   The Jesus Puzzle arrived today in excellent condition. I dove into it right away, and it is as well written and as persuasively argued as the materials on your website. I sincerely appreciate all the effort and scholarship you've poured into your work.

Jay writes:

   Your analysis of the Hebrews epistle is awesome. You are exactly right that the author has never heard of Jesus of Nazareth and hasn't the slightest idea about any earthly Jesus. More than being right, you demonstrate it quite convincingly.

Kevin writes:

   Thank you for your contribution to my understanding of Christian origins. I have been most impressed by your JESUS PUZZLE web site and book of the same name. I followed up the reading of your book with Robert Price's "Deconstructing Jesus" and have since made something of a pest of myself among acquaintances with interests in biblical studies by trying to get them to take what you are saying seriously. 

Mahima writes:

   To make money for a short life, you are trading money for hell. You still have a chance. May this e-mail be a chance from God to bring you closer to him. Repent!

Ian writes:

   Found your most interesting site today, though I've been thinking and reading over many years about the issues. As one might expect, the 'debate' from many people cannot really be dignified by that name: it's usually abuse of the "you'll go to hell" type. Sad, but perhaps indicative of certain educational lapses. What I find difficult is to keep cool and kind when attempting to argue with intelligent, reasonable people who just happen to have bought the whole Christian mythology.

Vincent writes:

   I admire your courage. You may not be recognized as you deserve during your life, but when christianity will be vanished from the earth, people will see you as an exceptional lucid revolutionary spirit.
   As you may know, Mel Gibson is making a new movie on Jesus' passion. When are we going to have a movie based on your book? Can you imagine a movie on 'Jesus' without any casting for Jesus, Mary, the 12 disciples, without any crucifixion, angels, demons nor special effects for the miracles?
   Thanks Mr. Doherty, I owe you a lot.

Bruce writes:

   I have read close to 100 books on the subject of Christianity, including Mack, Crossan, Price, Wilson, and on and on. Your stuff is just great. Very easy to understand for the common person who has never read anything about the subject. This is the major problem with Crossan and the rest, in terms of enlightening those unfamiliar with biblical criticism.
   What I greatly appreciate about your work is that you provide a very healthy mix of ordinary language and focus on very common sense (as opposed to academic) problems that the average Joe can understand without having taken theology classes.
   I forget which critique it was on your web page that started with the claim that you are not a Biblical scholar. There is a logical fallacy called "appeal to authority" which apparently this guy is unaware of. But if reading hundreds if not thousands of books and articles on the subject, doing your own Greek translations, not to mention the power of your arguments, don't count, I am curious as to what does make a Biblical scholar. Last I checked, Biblical scholars become such by reading books, learning Greek and history, and studying various people's work of Biblical criticism.
   I guess one isn't allowed to raise obvious objections to Christian views unless one is a theologian, almost all of which are Christian to start with (which is why they become theologians in the first place). And while we are on the subject, what intellectual qualification is required of Christians to believe, as opposed to not believe, in Christianity? That they have a pulse? Apparently, anyone can say "Jesus did this and Jesus said that" with no factual or critical basis other than sitting in a church pew every once in a while. Of course, to these pronouncements of "truth" there would be no objection at all from those who criticize your work.
   Still time for the Spring Semester, Earl. Maybe someday you'll make the grade.

Sid writes:

   Please let me add my accolades to you and your website. You and Dan Barker are my Gurus. I am a member of FFRF [Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin] and you are a wonderful addition to free thinkers.
   In my opinion all babies are born atheists. They do not know whether there is one God, many Gods, or no God. Whether they are born Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, etc. From two years of age until approximately eight years, this identification and indoctrination process is instituted for the child in accordance with the particular religion that its parent or surrogate is perpetuating. The earlier and more intense this process, with the accompanying rituals, icons and songs, this person's religion becomes set in concrete.
   There are exceptions. A few people do reason through this process and eventually think for themselves and overcome their indoctrination, but this is very rare. That is why there are so few atheists and why it is so difficult to change anybody's beliefs or way of thinking.
   [E.D.: Perhaps not so rare and so few as we move into the 21st century. Thinking for oneself is becoming more fashionable, and the unbelieving constituency is steadily growing. It just needs to assert itself and acquire a greater voice, a challenging task in a North American society still drenched in irrational faith.]

Dennis writes:

   I have just finished reading "The Jesus Puzzle" and many of the other links on your site. So many questions I have had for so long have finally been answered. I have always had difficulty with the "facts" of Jesus' virgin birth, miracles, death and resurrection, son of God. Finally, you have presented a reasoned perspective which is not only understandable, but also sensitive in its approach for some like myself, wanting to understand, but having great difficulty in reconciling what science tells us vs. the evangelists.
   I cannot adequately convey the feeling of a weight being lifted off my shoulders. To now know that I am not responsible to nor owe a debt to an individual who had to die for me because of my own human qualities is quite a relief, but beyond that, now seeing how the Jesus story fits into the ever-evolving need for man to understand things he cannot "see", and how that story could have evolved out of history, well, it just answers so many questions. If I only could have stumbled across your book many years ago: that is my only regret.
   I just want to reiterate my thanks for the depth of scholarship and your non-caustic treatment of the subject. I dare say I have not heard from anyone who is so thoroughly acquainted with the bible as you are. It is so refreshing in light of having seen so many websites that take a cynical and accusatory approach to the subject.

Tim writes:

   Your work is the culmination of my search. I must say that your analysis is so good that I think you may be right. The concepts that Paul speaks about, the lack of historical evidence in the epistles and early writings does lend a lot to your case. My own experience in dealing with mystical concepts leads me to believe that your conclusions are correct.
   Since the release of your book, I am wondering how many scholars have become "believers" in your point of view. Have there been a number of others that have been willing to concede your points and submit to this new theory? [E.D. Only a handful who were already inclined in that direction, although there may be others I am unaware of. Most will simply not allow themselves to give any serious thought to the mythicist position, as recently demonstrated by a well-known mainstream scholar's reaction to the first of my website articles. I may fashion an article for the site in the near future which will consider a range of negative response to my views, from Amazon reviewers to the aforementioned member of the Jesus Seminar.]

Robert writes:

   Did it occur to you that 99% of biblical scholars (christian and non-christian) believe that Jesus did exist? As a well-read christian I find these Jesus myth arguments self-serving, often deceptive, and ironically requiring a lot of faith. In fact, i might even describe it as a form of fundamentalism. No amount of evidence or reason could be convincing enough for one with such strong convictions. You interpret all evidence and aligned it with your preconception of the "Jesus myth" rather than viewing it with some degree of objectivity. [E.D.: Hmmm...isn't this a little like the pot calling the kettle black?]
   I'm sure you automatically dismissed the recent finding of the James ossuary because otherwise it would surely make you question your faith. While the finding is certainly inconclusive, an objective person would at least consider it.

Jennifer writes:

   I was very happy to find this site a few weeks ago and have ordered your book about Strobel's book.
   Thank you for taking the time to write and publish your thoughts. I wish books like yours were marketed more agressively. Xians push their religion relentlessly and I wish atheists and non-believers in general would do the same. The problem I have found is that when a xian finds you are not only an infidel, but an infidel who has solid, thoughtful, logical reasons for rejecting their religion, they turn on you like a pack of wolves and will tear you to pieces. May I tell you what I mentioned to a xian woman a few weeks ago when she said that she was afraid of the "damage" playing with non-xians might do to her children?
   "The older I get, the more I judge religions, philosophies and political theories not on what they teach or believe, per se, but how they treat those who disagree with them. I do not agree with the teachings of the buddha, but it is a peaceful religion that has a history of toleration and acceptance of varied points of view. Therefore, I admire and respect it. Islam and xianity, however, have historically shown themselves to be religions of hatred, murder, oppression, tyranny and great evil. They treat heretics and infidels with violence and rage. So I would be more afraid of what your xian children may do to the unbelieving playmates they have, than what the infidels might do to your kids."
   Needless to say she was not pleased, but it is the truth.

Robert writes:

   I recently read your book, and found it very informative. I read Strobel's "The Case for Christ" just as I was having serious doubts about Christianity, and I found it lacking even back then. You focus a great deal on how soon/late the Gospels appeared after Jesus' supposed death. Even if the religious scholars could prove that writings were around 20 years afterwards (which I agree they can't), that means almost nothing. Elizabeth Loftus has done a great deal of work on the fallibility of memory. I would say 20 days after something happens, I wouldn't trust eyewitness testimony, as she has proved it is usually flawed. The book "Legends, Myths, and Cherished Lies of American History" documents common myths, even in this age of information and communication, that we believe about people as recent as JFK and Ronald Reagan. Such evidence gives me little hope that illiterate, uneducated people 2000 years ago would have been tenacious about sticking to the truth. We don't even do it today.

Dennis writes:

   I am currently reading "Challenging the Verdict." In Chapter 12, you overlooked an argument against the "Jews bribing the Roman guards" story in Matthew [Mt. 28:11-15]. The Roman guards would have been executed if they had claimed that they went to sleep on the job and let somebody steal the body of Jesus. It is difficult to think that the Jews could have come up with a bribe large enough to get the Roman soldiers to tell such a story to their superiors. [E.D.: Excellent point. Strange how obvious considerations can be missed and yet be so obvious when someone points them out.]

Colin writes:

I have just spent a couple of days perusing your site. Great stuff.
   Perhaps the central idea of your work I have encountered thus far is the paucity of references to an historical Jesus in the Epistles. Something else strikes me in addition to this. Paul is responding to information sent to him regarding conditions in the Christian groups he has created. But Paul is also responding to questions asked of him by his followers. What I never noticed before is, not one of these followers of Paul is asking about an actual Jesus who lived, taught his message, and died under Pontius Pilate. Isn't it strange, not just that Paul provides no information, but NO ONE SEEMS INTERESTED IN THE FLESH AND BLOOD JESUS? If I was a recently converted Christian who had received the Holy Spirit, I would be full of questions.
   Did Paul ignore such questions? Hardly seems likely. What seems more likely is that Paul never taught a flesh and blood Jesus, so his followers had no questions concerning him. It also seems highly unlikely that such questions would have been edited out at a later date. Later Christians would have been more than happy to include such material if it had originally existed.

Bruce writes:

   The non-divinity of Jesus in Q1, perhaps from the Peter & James crowd, does not match up with the same Peter & James as visited by Paul. If James is so hung up on the law, circumcision, etc., one would think Paul's representation of Jesus as divine to Peter and James would have been a major issue, to say the least. Yet, according to Paul, no such issue seems to have come up. You've pointed out previously that Mack fails to address this and it remains a big question for me too.
   I could see how, if Jesus was real and followed by Peter et al that a vision by Peter (out of guilt of denying him, say) may have been the spark and one that started immediately after Jesus death (if real). However, that doesn't make sense in light of Q1, especially if the Q1 group is the very group from Galilee that ends up in Jerusalem. [E.D.: In my view, Q1 had nothing to do with "the Peter and James crowd."]
   Another question regarding the real-time Jesus. If Paul was really persecuting Christians very early on, what are James and Peter doing in Jerusalem, what, 3 years later? Did the persecutors drop the subject? Secondly, if Paul was employed by the temple guard around then, how could he not have at least heard just about everything about the historical Jesus in some detail, especially since he was later to go after his followers? Wouldn't Paul, in fact, have been in a position to know more about the historical Jesus than just about anybody?
   [E.D. Probably anybody outside those followers of Jesus. Again, more obvious questions that don't need fuller comment from me.]

Brian writes:

   You have done an impressive job in explaining the apparent lack of interest on the part of Paul and the other epistle writers in the details of Jesus' career and teachings. He never existed, and was invented later.
   But I wonder whether you haven't created a new mystery: how did it come about that two such disparate religious movements as the "Jerusalem" movement and the "Galilean" movement could be syncretized in the late first century by Mark, and that this syncretization so rapidly dominated the two original movements? As you describe them, the two movements don't seem like obvious merger partners. What made this syncretization so compelling at the time to the two groups that within a hundred years the syncretized faith dominated the two original faiths?
   By the traditional account, of course, the two movements weren't so unrelated: they were different "responses" to the teaching and death of a single historical figure. Even though the two groups initially headed in strikingly different directions, one might suppose under the traditional view that they would share some common traditions and concerns. But if an historical Jesus is removed from the picture, are we not left with a new question as to how a Marcan midrashic fiction or scripture-based reconstruction of an earthly Christ's life and death so rapidly and successfully effected a merger of two initially unrelated and rather different movements?

Response to Brian:

The Crux of the Case: Syncretizing the 'Jeruselem' and 'Galilean' Components of Christianity

Many of the doubts expressed about the mythicist case, and The Jesus Puzzle's particular rendering of it, revolve around questions similar to that expressed by Brian. How and why did this seemingly peculiar syncretization come about, and why was it so successful? Related questions often accompany these queries, such as why the Messiah would be regarded as coming from an unlikely place like Galilee, or why a Jewish movement would adopt a Cynic-based philosophy of ethics. In this response, I will try to address this range of concern.

Such objections often betray some dubious assumptions, and let's start by addressing Brian's.  First of all, I would say that Brian is mischaracterizing the length of time it took for the amalgamation of the two movements by calling it something "rapid". If Mark composed his Gospel a decade or so before the end of the first century (as I suggest), and apologists like Theophilus and Athenagoras are still describing their faith, almost a hundred years later, as basically a Logos/Son of God religion, with no mention of a human founder and his career, this is hardly rapid. Also, the disputes we can detect in the Christian record itself (as in 1 John and the letters of Ignatius) show that such a syncretization was, in fact, not "so compelling" to many groups within the broader Christ movement, and triumphed only over time with some difficulty.

I would also say that it is inaccurate to speak of a syncretization of movements. Rather, it was a syncretization of ideas. The Q-based movement seems to have died out by the mid-second century, perhaps earlier, never having been more than a local one centered in Galilee and parts of Syria (as witnessed by Q and the Gospels—all of which are now regarded by many as coming from this same area—and the Didache). It was not a case of the Galilean movement as a whole joining with the cultic Christ movement. It never came to be "dominated" by the syncretized product. Only in regard to the communities which produced the synoptic Gospels can we see a process of two bodies of ideas coming together, and even this needs qualification.

Rather, the dramatic syncretization, and the one which produced Christianity as we know it, was the gradual adoption by the spiritual Christ savior movement of the idea that their Jesus had actually been to earth (not just the celestial sphere related to "the flesh"), and that the Gospels, which were encountered through the course of the second century, constituted a historical reflection of his life and teachings in the time of Herod and Pontius Pilate. We see this dawning and blossoming belief in the letters of Ignatius, in the epistle of Barnabas, in Justin Martyr and eventually all the major writers of the late second century and beyond. (See my Supplementary Article No. 12 for a tracing of this process through the Apostolic Fathers.)

To some extent, Brian is right, in that the two components of Christianity do not seem like "obvious merger partners." But in the view I've just expressed, the initial 'merger' was a limited one. I have postulated that Mark's community took a rather unusual step, in joining its Q-type background of preaching the coming Kingdom of God, with the concept of a savior divinity. But it is also difficult to be sure how much syncretization existed within the community itself, and how much was a product of Mark's own mind and literary innovation. I have also suggested in my book (see page 239) that Mark's dying and rising Messiah/Son of Man figure may owe as much to its allegorical meaning as representative of Mark's own community of believers, as it owes to the savior-god faith of Paul, especially as Mark's Gospel scarcely makes its Jesus divine or gives him a well-defined salvific role—nothing like on the scale of the Pauline Christ. Thus we cannot be sure how much even Mark himself syncretized the two movements.

Once that first Gospel came into existence, and once it was enlarged upon by later evangelists who combined it with their Q document and fed more of their own scriptural focus into the story of Jesus—perhaps regarding Mark's plot and protagonist as having some foundation in actual history—it became a latent and potent force. Over the course of a few generations, the Gospels came to the attention of various communities of the Son/Christ savior movement and were eventually adopted by them. Those Gospels were attractive for their body of teaching and tradition and their powerful founder figure, who already seemed linked to the cultic Jesus. By this time, the Q-movement itself had died or was dying out, as the non-historical expressions of Christ belief were soon to do as well. While the merger of the two movements may appear to be something unlikely when viewed in the latter decades of the first century, such a process over time can be seen to be feasible and even logical, especially as we can trace that very process through the various elements of the Christian record.

Brian's 'alternative' suggestion, that the two movements were different "responses" to the teaching and death of a single historical figure, is far more unlikely and understandable than the syncretization scenario. Apart from a few general elements that were shared by virtually all the non-mainstream Jewish and Hellenistic-Jewish sects of the time (such as a focus on social reforms, the rejection of the Temple cult, and the expectation of an upheaval brought about by the arrival of a heavenly figure), the quality of 'divergence' between the two movements is so striking as to render it difficult to regard them as different responses to a single man and his career, especially to the one portrayed in the Gospels. As I've demonstrated elsewhere, fundamental elements are missing on both sides. Q shows no death and resurrection, or even a Pauline-type soteriological role, for its founder Jesus; nor is he ever referred to as the Messiah. The Pauline Christ shows none of the features of Q's Jesus figure: no teachings, no miracle working, no Son of Man, no apocalyptic prophesying, no appointment of apostles by Jesus, no role for a recent human Messiah in the run-up to the Parousia, and so on, not to mention a simple identification with the Gospel character. That two 'responses' to the same man could diverge so thoroughly—right from the outset—is virtually impossible to comprehend and can simply be dismissed, especially as the 'divergence' theory is based on perceived necessity rather than evidence. Our need is to understand not how they diverged, but how they came together, and a theory of syncretization beginning with Mark's Gospel best fits that bill. (At most, we are left only with the possibly more feasible idea that there was a human antecedent to the Q movement, with none at all to the Pauline Christ faith, though even here, as I have regularly argued, the evidence is against such a concrete, single-figure, founding Jesus for the Galilean movement.)

When such a syncretization is more carefully examined, certain oft-raised objections can be dealt with rather easily. A common one is that a Messiah who comes from Galilee would have been an unlikely scenario in Jewish circles, and thus would hardly have been accepted—let alone invented—in those circles. Well, first of all, there is no Messiah in Q. We have an expected Son of Man, which is not the same thing. Such a figure was no doubt ultimately based on a reading out of Daniel 7, with its "son of man" evolving into a heavenly figure who would arrive at the End-time, as in Revelation. This is evidenced even in non-Christian documents like 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch. In the latter, and in Mark, he was syncretized with the Messiah and given a semi-divine cast. Christianity's Messiah ended up in Galilee by default, courtesy of Mark. He was an enlargement on the figure in the later stages of Q, one who was based in the apocalyptic preaching movement of that area. Second, it is difficult to define the Markan syncretization milieu as a strictly "Jewish" one. Scholars such as J. D. Crossan regularly argue for a strong Hellenistic atmosphere in Galilee, and it may be—judging by things such as Greek being the language of the entire New Testament—that Mark's community was more gentile with Jewish leanings than mainstream Jewish. That would help explain why a Cynic-based philosophy of ethics and itinerant missionary practice could be wedded to the Jewish apocalyptic tradition at the root of the Q movement.

Brian also included the suggestion that we have "an unexplained coincidence" in that the two movements happened both to have their origins in mid-first century (or at least a documentary record beginning at that time)" and that "the historical Jesus could be plopped into the first part of the century as the initiator of both movements." But again, this is less a coincidence than a natural congruity created by the process of syncretization. As parts of the Kingdom of God movement developed the idea of a founding teacher / miracle-worker / apocalyptic prophet at the genesis of their preaching (a personification of their own activities and beliefs), such a figure was naturally placed at those beginnings, which seem to have arisen around the 20s of the first century. There was also a link made in the Q mind with John the Baptist as a forerunner, and he can be historically located during that period.

Paul's Christ, on the other hand, can be identified with no historical time and place, since Paul and his fellow epistle-writers of the first century never make such an identification, not even when they speak in those occasional human-sounding terms such as "born of woman", "of the seed of David" or when using the phrase "kata sarka" (terms which can be given other interpretations not related to an historical, human individual). When the Pauline Christ became syncretized with the Q Jesus, it would have been natural, indeed inevitable, to associate his human life on earth with the period of Q's perceived founder, as well as with the period of the earliest remembered apostles whom Paul knew, namely Peter and James, who seem to have first operated in the 20s or 30s of the century. Since Paul never refers to such apostles as having known a human Jesus, nor deals with the advantage such an association would have given them, nor seems to have been aware of any teachings, activities or events of such a life of Jesus, there is no 'coincidence' of placement between the two movements. Ignatius' declaration, coming early in the second century, that his Jesus had been crucified by Pilate, was a faith declaration, the product of that new syncretized belief, whose time frame was largely governed by the Galilean side of the 'merger'.

Why did certain pockets of the Christ cult across the eastern empire around the turn of the second century adopt the conviction of a human life for their Jesus in recent history, whether under the direct influence of the Gospels or not? It is difficult to say whether the Johannine community of the period of 1 John (probably a little earlier) did so, since we don't know the exact meaning of the dispute that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (4:1-4). But there has always been a widespread tendency among societies, especially cultic oriented ones, to read present practice and belief into the past and to postulate a great formulator for them. (Originally, it was the gods themselves.) Such a tendency could well have been in the air among Christian communities even before the Gospels started to make their influence felt. The same tendency would have fed into the creation of the Q Jesus, as seen in the latter stages of that document's evolution.

The evolution of a Jesus mythology related to "flesh" was no doubt influenced by the rich mythology of the savior-god cults within Hellenistic society. But we can't overlook the more nitty-gritty impulses for such innovation. These things operate more at the personal level, and could perhaps be more responsible for the evolution of ideas than larger-scale factors. Paul tramped the empire pushing his interpretation of a Jesus from scripture and revelation because of personal drives and motives, or so his letters suggest. Did Christians half a century later push the idea of a Christ come in the flesh, in history, because of personal needs? The answer seems evident from the pivotal figure of Ignatius. The bishop of Antioch's convictions of the humanity of Christ were not those of theological deduction, or even the product of tradition (which he never appeals to), but arose out of his belief that only through a Christ who had gone through human suffering in an historical context could human salvation be accomplished. If Christ's sufferings were not physical and historical, then his own were "in vain". Those individuals and groups who had come to see things this way (and not everyone did, as witness the gnostics) impelled the movement toward the historicization of the spiritual Christ and the adoption of the Gospel story as fact. This new brand of the faith proved to have the greatest potential, both personally and politically, and thus the syncretization process which produced orthodox Christianity was guaranteed success and longevity.

Rick writes:

   I must confess that I ordered The Jesus Puzzle with full intentions of writing a scathing review, and lambasting your position. To that end I was surprised--even shocked--to discover that my review will likely be positive, by and large. The position you advocate is at the very least as reasonable, and often more reasonable, than more traditional interpretations. However, I find myself left with several questions--or perhaps more accurately caveats--regarding your work.
   Why, if Mark does not understand his gospel historically, does he create apologetics that clearly refer to "earthly" events and understandings? Why, for example, did Mk. 15:47 develop without the unstated polemic that they did not know where the body was lain? This is certainly not to imply that this was an historical event, but rather that Mark wished to convey that it was, and plausibly took it for one himself. Further, why does he place it in such a firm historical context, with such firm historical characters, if it is all to be understood as myth and allegory? It seems a bit of a stretch to conclude that Mark did not view at least parts of his gospel as literally true... [more below]

Response to Rick:

Mark's "historical" Nature / Markan Contradictions? / Criterion of Dissimilarity

I think Rick is adopting some unfounded assumptions here, or rather he may be governed by too standard a mindset. There is nothing to prevent allegory from being set within an "earthly" context, especially when the allegory is largely meant to represent the earthly experiences and beliefs of a sectarian group. The passion part of Mark's Gospel may be less such a representation than the Galilean ministry portion, but once the setting was established, as it is in the first ten chapters, it would have been difficult and jarring to somehow render the passion in more mythical terms. Besides, as I have said previously, I suspect that the Markan story of Jesus' passion is also meant to symbolize the fate of the believers as much as it does the spiritual activities of the redeeming Christ.

Rick also tends to judge aspects of the Markan story by old paradigms: that Gospel features were often determined by the writer's need to deal with situations or polemics within the Christian community, or with competing traditions and claims. Whereas, it is often the case that we ought to look at things more simply and to see the story as taking shape to serve the purposes of telling the story. Verse 15:47 ("And Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joseph were watching and saw where he was laid") does not need to serve anything more than to explain the women's actions in the next chapter, when they go to the tomb where Jesus was buried. If they hadn't seen the burial, how could they have known where to go? A little feature in the following chapter (16:3) shows something similar. Mark feels constrained to insert that the women "were wondering among themselves who would roll away the stone for them from the entrance to the tomb," not because there was a tradition that they had so wondered, but because it would have been natural for the writer—and reader—to think of that, since the women were going in order to anoint the body with no expectation that the stone would not be still in place. The detail is the product of the storyteller, necessitated by the story itself, and nothing else.

As Rick suggests, Mark did view parts of his Gospel as literally true, in the sense that they represented literal activities and teachings of the community itself. It was not all "myth and allegory." As for setting Jesus' death and resurrection within "a firm historical context," not only would this have been necessitated by the overall setting of the Gospel, it would make certain elements Mark wanted to convey more vivid, such as the responsibility of the Jewish authorities and the role played by the Romans, factors very much current in the Markan community's world. Besides, it made for a much more powerful story....

...Why do so many things in the gospels fly flagrant not only to the author's own theology, but to the theology of the entire movement? Why does he imply Jesus isn't Davidic (Mk. 12:35-37)? Why is Mark's Jesus, without apology, of Galilee? Why does John the Baptist doubt Jesus (Mt. 11:2-3)?... [more below]

I'm not sure what the "so many things" are that go against Mark's theology, and can only deal with the ones Rick offers. In the matter of the Messiah being "of Galilee" I dealt with that above, that it was largely by default, since some of the Q movement in Galilee had developed the founder figure adopted by Mark, who also made him the Messiah. Moreover, if Jesus to some extent represented the community itself, then he was automatically Galilean if the community was Galilean, or traced its roots back to that area. Why isn't Jesus embraced as Davidic by Mark? Judging by Mark's argument in those verses, this is a case of Mark trying to adhere to his theology, not go against it. As Mark sees it, "David" (of the Psalm) calling Jesus "Lord" must make the latter much more than a simple human "son" of David, as standard Jewish messianism had it. Further, if Jesus is to some extent an allegorical representation of the community, Mark couldn't very well adhere to a strict interpretation of Jesus as a direct descendant of David. (Matthew and Luke after him did not feel the same qualms, perhaps not having the same allegorical outlook as their predecessor and, as well, perhaps regarding Mark's figure as basically historical.)

...As Alan F. Segal notes: "The answer is that the criterion [of dissimilarity] was designed not to make it possible to write a biography of Jesus, but to answer the challenge of the cultural despiser of Christianity as to whether anything--including Jesus himself--is historical in the Gospels. . . Very few things pass (which is just what we would expect), but some do. Of course, this is the most important reason for using the criteria, for if some things pass, then we know that Jesus existed." ("Jesus in First Century Judaism," published in Jesus at 2000, ed. Marcus J. Borg, page 57).
   I suppose that is my chief caveat with your work--it not only doesn't adequately account for the vast majority of that which survives the criteria of dissimilarity, it ignores it entirely.

As I have argued elsewhere, the popular "criteria" used by scholars like Segal and the Jesus Seminar only work in a context of assuming the standard paradigms, including an historical Jesus, which makes Segal's argument (tinged, unfortunately, by ad hominem against the non-believer) circular. While I haven't addressed the dissimilarity criterion specifically, I have pointed out that in regard to the criterion of embarrassment, claims such as that Peter's denial of Jesus in the Gospel passion story is likely to be genuine because no one would preserve a made-up event which would present embarrassment to the community, are unfounded. If the passion tale was not looked upon as historical when first written and received by Christians, and this 'event' only came into existence with the writing of the first Gospel, there would have been no embarrassment, and especially not if that element of the allegory was intended to provide a lesson to the community: such as that even great apostles and leaders could be led, through fear perhaps, to deny their faith and yet could still be forgiven.

In regard to the dissimilarity criterion, I think Rick is giving it far more significance than it can bear.
Scholars came up with it to try to identify those elements of the Gospels that were unlike expressions of  contemporary Jewish and outlooks and subsequent Christian ones, and could thus be assigned to an innovative figure, namely Jesus. But all this really gives them is a body of material (mainly sayings) that seems to have a certain distinctive cast. To extrapolate from that, as Segal does, and claim that such 'dissimilar' elements must then be assigned to an historical Jesus by default, proving his existence, is obviously fallacious. There could be other sources for these 'against-the-grain' features of the Gospel story and its teaching. If the group that first advocated them was a reformist sect, rejecting elements of mainstream Judaism, then that could well be the genesis of such dissimilarity. And not all of them need have originally conformed to later, 'orthodox' Christian outlook. No historical Jesus need be brought into the picture. While I didn't spell out this principle in my book (or on the site, for that matter), it is a rather obvious corrollary from the scenario I have put together.

The more standard scholarship allots a distinctive and innovative voice to the figure of Jesus, the more inexplicable it becomes that an entire dimension of the Christian movement, the soteriological "branch" as preached by Paul, could have become so uninterested in Jesus the ethical teacher, failing to attribute anything to him and failing to draw on those teachings (such as relating to the cleanness of foods) in the crucial debates that were rending the early community. And it still raises the question of how, no matter how distinctive the voice in teaching, such a figure could be elevated to the status of the cultic Christ., preexistent with God, creative agency and sustainer of the universe, sacrificial redeemer of the world.

Gerry writes:

   I very much enjoyed your site, and thank you for your thorough and reasoned work. I have yet to form an opinion on the historicity of Jesus, and am beginning to doubt that I ever will. For me, the matter has been relegated to one of intellectual curiosity only, having rejected Jesus' divinity a very long time ago.
   I have one question. It concerns Galatians 1:19, wherein Paul says he saw "James, the Lord's brother." My understanding of the Greek behind "brother" in that verse is that it refers to an actual brother, rather than a member of some rabbinical or apostolic group.
   If, indeed, Paul claims to have seen "the Lord's brother," then doesn't that put to rest the matter of whether or not Paul believed in an actual earthly Jesus? The passage to me seems critical, but I have searched the web for an anti-historicity perspective on it, and can't find one. Did Paul mean something other than Jesus by "the Lord"? Did he mean something other than an actual brother?

Response to Gerry:

"James, the Brother of the Lord"—Again

I have to confess to being, by this time, somewhat amused by all the fuss which opponents of the mythicist case (not including Gerry here) create over this phrase in Galatians 1:19. These five words, despite their ambiguous meaning, are regularly offered as a secure hook on which to hang the existence position. Let's test them to see how much weight they can bear.

1 - The word "brother" itself. As I have said in my Sound of Silence Appendix (it bears repeating): "Paul uses the term "brother" a total of about 30 times, and the plural form "brothers" or "brethren" (as some translations render it) many more dozens of times. A minority are in the context of ethical teaching, Paul admonishing his audience about how to treat one's "brother." In most of these (if not all), the term means a fellow believer, not a blood sibling. In all of the other cases but one—leaving aside the passage under consideration here—the term can only refer to a Christian believer, usually in the sense of one who is doing some kind of apostolic or congregational work (Timothy, Epaphroditus, Sosthenes, Tychicus, Apollos, etc.). IN NOT A SINGLE INSTANCE CAN THE TERM BE IDENTIFIED AS MEANING SIBLING."...And yet so many traditionalists confidently claim that in this case, "brother" means sibling.

2 - If Paul had meant something as informal or off-the-cuff as "sibling of Jesus of Nazareth", we might have expected him to use the name "Jesus" rather than the title "Lord." And yet we are assured that the "Lord" in Galatians 1:19 can only mean Jesus of Nazareth, sibling of James. We are similarly assured (or at least it is unquestioningly assumed) that "Lord" must be referring to Jesus, and not to God.

3 - It is claimed to be critical that nowhere else does Paul use the singular phrase, "brother of the Lord." At the same time, the plural "brothers of the Lord" in 1 Cor. 9:5 is similarly claimed to refer to Jesus' siblings (as in Mark). However, we read in Philippians 1:14 the phrase "brothers in the Lord." Here we have an identical phrase, in the plural, with a change of preposition. Here, "brothers" is acknowledged to be understandable only in the sense of "brethren," members of a brotherhood or group of fellow believers. Throughout the epistles, we are clearly in the presence of a group centered in Jerusalem and devoted to a "Lord," a group of which James seems to be the head, a group of which 500 members underwent some "seeing" of the Christ. And yet when the word "brother" becomes singular in Galatians 1:19, it reputedly switches to the meaning "sibling." When the group of brethren changes its preposition from "in" to "of", certain members of that group automatically become relatives of a recent human man.

4 - James in Galatians 1:19 is claimed to be the sibling of Jesus of Nazareth. And yet the writer of the epistle attributed to James describes the reputed author this way: "From James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ." No mention of a sibling relationship, despite the fact that pseudonymous authorship was used precisely to give such epistles more authority. Would the writer/forger have passed up the opportunity to appeal to the stature and authority of James as the Lord's very blood brother? Similarly, the writer of the epistle attributed to Jude describes the reputed author this way: "From Jude, servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James." If Jude is sibling of James, he is then sibling of Jesus, as supported by Mark. Another writer/forger fails to appeal to the stature and authority of another brother of Jesus. This would seem to undermine the very fact of James' Gospel relationship to Jesus, and thus cast serious doubt on the meaning of Paul's phrase.

Let's take a look at that related and similarly disputed phrase "brothers of the Lord" in 1 Corinthians 9:5. Automatically asserting that this refers to Jesus' sibling family is not supported by Paul or any other first century epistle writer, since they never talk about their Jesus having a family, or indeed relate him to any recent time, place or event on earth. (The reference to Pilate in 1 Timothy 6:13 is part of an epistle dated to the 2nd century by virtually all critical scholarship.) In the 1 Corinthians passage, Paul is claiming, as an apostle, the same rights as certain others he mentions: "as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas (Peter)". Who are these "other apostles"? Well, the passage shows that he means them in the same context as himself, preachers of the Christ who have also "seen the Lord" in the visionary sense, and it is in keeping with his practice of never differentiating himself from any others in the field on the basis of having been a follower, or not, of an earthly Jesus. He never allows for such a distinction, which would belie his having any concept of fellow apostles having known an earthly Jesus, let alone that one of them was his sibling.

And what of the "brothers of the Lord" next mentioned? Are they not "apostles" as well? If we follow the tendencies of some who base their arguments on the nitty-gritty of extant wording, they must not be  apostles, since they are mentioned separately. And yet both wording and context suggest that this can hardly be the case. They are described as having wives that accompany them, whom they 'take along.' Clearly, they too are on the road. (And they too are undifferentiated from Paul in his present arguments on the basis of any connection to an historical Jesus.) So if they are all in fact apostles who travel about preaching, on what is the distinction based? We see elsewhere—as in 2 Corinthians 10-12—that Paul is one of many apostles who go about preaching the Christ in competing missions, some of whom (including Paul) are not part of the Jerusalem brotherhood. In this great conglomeration of missionaries, some are independent operators, some are members of the Jerusalem-based "brothers of/in the Lord". They are all aware of each others' activities, they have contacts between themselves, though rivalries do exist. As a distinctive, identifiable group, whom Paul throws into the pot of his argument in the plea for equal treatment, it is likely that his "brothers of the Lord" are a sub-group of apostles located in Jerusalem, of which James is a part if not the head. My point in this discussion is to show that viewing them as something other than "siblings of Jesus" is completely feasible and supportable within the context, and thus the phrase is at best ambiguous. It cannot be used to 'disprove' the mythicist case.

The mythicist argument does not depend on conclusively demonstrating the meaning of that phrase "brother(s) of the Lord". The case is based on all the other material and analysis of the early Christian
record. All one has to do is demonstrate that the phrase under debate lends itself to equal or even
better interpretation as not referring to a sibling of Jesus. The larger case has a power of its own, and I am merely demonstrating that the Galatians phrase constitutes no necessary impediment to it.

In any case, the practice of basing one's argument on the nitty-gritty wording of any individual passage is an extremely hazardous affair. The 1 Corinthians 9 passage discussed above is a good illustration. Since Paul goes on to include "Cephas" in his enumeration of those he is comparing himself to, Cephas must not be an apostle, since he is listed separately. Naturally, few would accept this. Rather, it seems Paul is simply singling him out for emphasis. Thus, listing him separately doesn't necessarily mean he is not one of the "brothers of the Lord" in the sense of the Jerusalem brotherhood, since later in the epistle he is clearly portrayed as such. Here again, Cephas, as a star figure in the group, is spotlighted by Paul for the sake of his argument.

Remember that these epistles are mundane, often off-the-top-of-the-head products, and we can't expect them to have some kind of laboratory preciseness that allows us to derive consistently reliable meanings behind what they say. This is doubly so considering that we have nothing close to the original texts. Which brings me back to the Galatians 1:19 phrase. As with its 'brother' in 1 Corinthians 9, this phrase does not appear in extant documents until at least the 3rd century, maybe the 4th (I don't offhand know if either of them appear in the fragmentary parts of some Pauline epistles dating to the 3rd century). And yet I've seen whole arguments for the "sibling" meaning of 1:19 that are based on the presence of the word "the" in Galatians' "the brother of the Lord"! Good grief! How can we be sure that Paul used that word? Similar "indisputable" cases are claimed because he used "of the Lord" rather than "in the Lord" so that there can't be any connection or similarity of meaning with the phrase in Philippians 1:14! How can we be sure just what preposition Paul may have used, especially as a common feature of manuscript transmission is that phrases and references tend to get altered to conform to the most commonly known expression of them. By the late 2nd century, James the Just was known as "the brother of the Lord" in the sense of sibling, which would have been a compelling influence on a scribe to change whatever Paul might have said here to the now-familiar phrase.

In fact, in view of all that we know about scribal alteration of documents, deliberate and accidental, how can we be sure that the whole phrase is not an interpolation, as I've argued more than once (as has Wells)? It would fit the characteristics of an interpolation, and there is a logically "possible" situation available for its creation, namely that some copyist in the latter 2nd century or later thought it best to distinguish Paul's "James" from James the apostle, son of Zebedee, who appears in the Gospels, and so he stuck in the phrase (perhaps in the margin, where it later got transported into the text, a common occurrence) "brother of the Lord." Again, by the copyist's time this phrase had come to mean "sibling of Jesus."

My point is, so much may be dubious and uncertain about the text of this or any NT passage, that we have to be careful of what we presume to rely on, and it is surely unwise to base an historical Jesus on a couple of uncertain passages in the record when so much else argues against making such a supposition. The mythicist case needs to be considered as a whole, and then we can see how much weight we feel justified in according an at best ambiguous phrase as in Galatians 1:19 or 1 Corinthians 9:5. I would certainly hesitate to rely for secure footing on such flimsy foundations.

If I may indulge a little analogy I sometimes think of: A wife is led to be suspicious of her husband because he is suddenly starting to work late, can't be reached at his office after hours, dresses more nattily on some days and comes home with lipstick on his shirt, etc., but one night he rolls over in bed, puts his arm around her and whispers "sweetheart", so she dismisses all her misgivings by presuming he means her, and is thus a loving and faithful husband. I would call that wishful thinking. It reminds me of a lot of anti-mythers.

Julian writes:

   I am very much enjoying your website. In the Reader Feedbacks I noted some commenting on the Isaiah prophecy [7:14]. I do not read Hebrew, but from what I understand there are translation problems with the sentence. I believe the Hebrew uses the word almah and not bethulah, and the word should therefore be translated 'young woman' and not 'virgin'. I also believe that the entire sentence is in the past tense (so that it should read) "A young woman gave birth to a son and his name was Immanuel..." I also believe that this Immanuel is of some importance a few pages later in the conflict with the Assyrians, and therefore has nothing to do with a prophecy of Christ except in the (erroneous) Greek translation on which the Gospel writers would be relying.

Response to Julian:

Isaiah 7:14 / "Born of Woman"

The noun "almah" used in Isaiah 7:14 is ambiguous, because it need not signify a virgin, nor does it exclude such a meaning. The Septuagint chose to render it parthenos, which generally does mean a virgin, but some other ancient Greek translations did not. As to the tense of the verb, it is not "past" but is ambiguous as well. "The Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 does not specify the tense of the relevant verb. The most recent translation of the Hebrew Scripture by the Jewish Publication Society reads, 'a young woman has conceived'; the choice of the future tense, 'will conceive,' reflects a decision that more aptly favors the NT interpretations of this verse but is not dictated conclusively by grammar alone." (Gerald T. Sheppard in Harper's Bible Commentary, p. 556)

Subsequent use in Isaiah of the "child" motif is made in prophecies relating to the later actions of the Assyrians and others, but without specifying the name Immanuel. Rather than this being the same 'child,' this is considered the work of editors who have enlarged on the motif by employing it for later events in a similar manner to that of 7:14. In fact, in 8:1-4, the child is given a completely different name, one relating to the context of those verses, which speak of the impending Assyrian conquest. In the well-known 9:6, heavily messianic in later interpretation, the "boy/child (who) has been born for us" exists within the Israelite context of the expectation of a Davidic-style return to greatness for the nation. Even later, Christians would turn it into a prophecy of their Christ. Sheppard tries to suggest that the latter 'messianic' use of the child motif in these chapters invites a messianic understanding of 7:14. But this seems little more than an apologetic expedient to try to rescue 7:14 as having some import for the future, whereas it was clearly used by the original author of Isaiah as a device relating to his own time and situation. The child is now conceived, and certain things will come to pass before he has grown up.

But I would like to move somewhat beyond the scope of Julian's question and address the probable use of Isaiah 7:14 as the source of Paul's controversial phrase in Galatians 4:4, "born of woman."  It has been my position that many, if not all, of the human-sounding references to Christ in Paul and the epistles generally can be seen to be dependent on scripture (placed within a Platonic higher/lower world philosophic context), and not upon historical tradition or knowledge of a recent human Jesus. In other words, is Paul's "born of woman" motivated or made possible by his reading of Isaiah 7:14 and the necessity he perceived of applying such biblical passages to his divine, spiritual-world Christ Jesus?

Those who appeal to Galatians 4:4's "born of woman" usually do so in conjunction with a handful of other passages, notably Romans 1:3 with its "arising/coming from the seed of David." Without arguing in too much detail (as such passages are dealt with more fully elsewhere on the site), I have pointed out that here the dependence on scripture is, or should be, clear. This Davidic statement about the Christ is declared by Paul to be part of God's gospel about the Son found in the prophets (verse 2). And he immediately follows it by offering another feature about the Son (verse 4: declared Son of God in power after his resurrection) which is a heavenly scene most likely determined by Psalm 2:7-8. We thus have a direct example of Paul stating a "human" feature for Christ based on scripture, with no indication that any of it has anything to do with known tradition about a recent man. Similar cases abound throughout the epistles: among them, 1 Peter 2:22-3, in which the writer illustrates Jesus' humility by paraphrasing verses from Isaiah 53; or Ephesians 2:17, in which the good news Christ proclaimed "in coming" is also derived from Isaiah; or Hebrews 5:7, in which "the days of his flesh" are illustrated not by Gospel events but by more readings out of scripture. The pattern is pervasive. The epistle writers of the first century base their statements about Christ's activities not on memory and historical tradition but on scripture. Should we not be justified in viewing Galatians 4:4 in the same light?

Declarations about "born of woman" are usually made while ignoring its surrounding context. The phrase is introduced by the statement that "in the fullness of time, God sent his Son". Yet what, in that context, has been "sent"? The very next sentence, using precisely the same verb, states that God has "sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts." (The root verb of "sent" is the same as that regularly used for the sending of the Holy Spirit.) In the preceding chapter, what is it that has "arrived" in the present time? In 3:23-25, Paul states it clearly: it is the arrival of "faith", not of Jesus himself. (The occasional translation of verse 24, "until Christ came" stands in contradiction to verses 23 and 25, and can be alternately translated as "to lead us to Christ," as the NIV and NEB recognize.) Furthermore, the subject of the verb "redeem" ("sent his order that he might redeem those under the law"), while technically ambiguous, reads best as referring to God himself doing the redeeming in the present time and not the Son. Such contextual features ought to cast doubt on the phrase "born of woman" as referring to the recent birth on earth of Jesus of Nazareth.

But an even more important objection is usually overlooked. It is often argued that the phrase "born of woman" in Jewish writings always refers to a human being, that it was a Jewish idiom for a human being. Comparisons are made to Job (e.g., 14:1) or Sirach (10:18), or even with Matthew and Luke's reference (from Q) to John the Baptist as "born of woman" (Mt. 11:11, Lk. 7:28). Therefore, it is claimed, Paul must be using the phrase with the same meaning. But there is a serious problem here. Paul does not say "born of woman." Rather, he says something which all English translations render with those words. In fact, the words Paul does use in Greek do not conform to the other Greek versions of that allegedly same phrase, either in the Septuagint or the Gospels. Nor can we appeal to the Hebrew versions, because this begs the question that the phrase in Hebrew is the equivalent of Paul's own Greek phrase. In other words, there are no instances of Paul's specific phrase to be found with the standard meaning of being "born" (physically, humanly) of woman. Consequently, all arguments based on this comparison collapse.

What does Paul say? He notably does not use the standard word for "born" (gennaō) which appears in all the Greek passages appealed to for comparison. (Matthew and Luke use an adjectival relative of the verb.) Instead, Paul uses the verb ginomai. While the latter verb is occasionally used for "born" in Greek, it has a much broader application, in the sense of "come into existence," "be created," "arise, occur, come to pass," etc. We are not justified in taking a similar phrase which nevertheless uses a different verb and start by automatically assuming that the two phrases 'must' have the same meaning. This ought to be compellingly obvious.

In fact, if "born (gennaō) of woman" is so common to refer to a human being, and Paul is referring to a human being, why does he not use the standard phrase? What would impel him to change the verb? Does this very change not imply that Paul does not intend it to have the same meaning? (Paul's own verb ginomai, by the way, is the one he uses in Romans 1:3 when declaring Jesus as "arising from the seed of David." If he meant "born of the seed of David" in the human sense, why did he—or the writer of this piece of liturgy before Paul, as many scholars view it—not simply use gennaō?) I have suggested that the use of the broader ginomai would fit the more mythical context which Paul's Christ inhabits, which is not recent history.

The only attempt I have seen to rationalize this change of verb went something like this: Paul does not want to use "born" because this might imply that Jesus began his life at his human birth; since Jesus pre-existed in heaven, he only "came" to earth through the agency of a woman giving birth to his human incarnation. This suggestion might conceivably be on the right track, but for the wrong reason. Ginomai usually means, as I have said, come into existence or be created, which is exactly what Paul is claimed to have wanted to avoid in passing up the verb gennaō. Furthermore, what believer, subscribing to the epistles' view of the pre-existent Son, would be led by a use of gennaō to think that Christ had somehow begun his existence at his human birth? Such a confusion would simply not arise, and thus Paul would not feel constrained to adopt an unusual word for birth. In any case, Jesus the man—whose arrival on earth Paul is allegedly referring to—was "born" in the gennaō sense, no one would dispute that or consider it philosophically unsound in relation to his spiritual preexistence, so there would have been no logical reason for Paul not to have used that verb IF HE WAS REFERRING TO A HUMAN BEING.

As for what Paul did mean by using ginomai may be difficult to say. Gennaō was ruled out because he was not referring to the human birth of a human man. On the other hand, it's clear he did not mean "be created, or come into existence" by using ginomai. Perhaps it had some mythological connotation for him. Perhaps it could convey the sense of "come" or "change" from one state to another, from purely spiritual to the "likeness" of flesh, a lower state that was "in relation to" the flesh; and it was through the (mythological) agency of "woman" if only because Isaiah 7:14 said so. I am sometimes criticized for not supplying "evidence" for this argument. Who else, it is demanded, uses a phrase like "born of woman" to refer to an entirely mythical figure? No one, of course. Again, Paul doesn't say "born of woman" in the gennaō sense; but even "born of woman" in the ginomai sense is not to be found. Is this significant? I hardly think so. We have no equivalent writings to those of someone like Paul from the Greek savior-god cults. And if this is Paul's personal deduction from his reading of Isaiah 7:14—and most of what he says about the Christ is claimed to come through his own personal revelation—then it is not surprising that no other early writer of the Christ cult happens to use the same expression. (And let's not overlook that no early Christian writer outside the Gospels ever speaks of Christ as "born of woman" even in the gennaō sense!) Argument, rather than evidence, is all that is available, but this does not render using argument any less legitimate an exercise.

By extension, comparisons are often made to certain other passages in the epistles implying birth or human descent. I've already pointed out the most common of these, Romans 1:3, which runs into the same problem as Galatians 4:4 in its use of ginomai. Paul is not saying here that the Son was "born" of the seed of David. Another is Romans 9:4-5, and let's examine this verse a little more closely. Here there is not even a verb at all, neither genna
ō nor ginomai. The NIV begins by nicely reflecting the literal structure of the passage: "Theirs [Paul's kinsmen, the people of Israel] is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them...[here the NIV abandons the literal in favor of reading the historical Jesus into things] traced the human ancestry of Christ." Well, the last phrase is not in the Greek. Literally, it reads: "...from whom [the Israelites] the Christ according to the flesh (kata sarka)." I won't go into the broad and ambiguous usage of kata sarka which I have argued over at great length in many places and on various discussion boards. Suffice to say, this passage when taken as a whole is not strong, let alone conclusive, on implying that Christ is physically descended from the Israelites. Rather, the enumeration Paul gives us includes Christ, but it is in the sense of things that belong to the Israelites, part of their identity (all we get is the genitive plural preposition ōn): the law, the covenant, the temple worship, the promises. Christ, too, belongs to the Israelites, having proceeded in some way (again, influenced by the David prophecies) from them—ex ōnin regard to the flesh or the sphere of the flesh, which does not have to mean physically possessing it in the earthly sense.

All that we can say Paul is declaring about Jesus is that he belongs to the Israelites in regard to his redeeming activities, which took place in a realm that related to the material one. This conforms to my statement that Paul's savior god could be said to have a national "lineage" that was Jewish, just as other savior gods had their own lineage. Some, including Richard Carrier, have taken me to task for not supporting this with direct comparisons to those other gods of the mystery cults, but they have read too much into this. My statement is hardly unusual. Osiris could be styled as "Egyptian" in that he was part of Egyptian mythology and (originally) located in that country; similarly, Adonis as Greek, Attis as Phrygian, Mithras as Persian. Paul's Christ Jesus has a Jewish mythology, grown out of the Jewish scriptures and related to Jewish historical figures by those scriptures. Thus he belongs or is related to the Israelites. The fact that Paul and other writers, in passages like Romans 9:5, never use a more specific phrase such as "Christ's human ancestry" (which translators and critics of the mythicist case nevertheless insist on inserting into their reading of such passages), would strengthen the argument that they are not referring to anything so specific.

I have also been taken to task over another statement relating to "born of woman": that similar things were said about other savior gods, such as Dionysus. (Note that I don't say the phrase itself can be found in reference to this, only the idea.) It is regularly pointed out that such a feature for a god like Dionysus was envisioned as having taken place on earth. That's true, but with two qualifications. This type of mythology tended to be placed in a primordial past; it originated at a time when there was no concept of distinct spiritual and physical worlds. Nevertheless, this primordial (or sacred) past was the earlier equivalent to more Platonic views of the universe, and I have argued that the latter came to largely replace the former by the time of Christianity's beginnings. Things worked in similar ways in the relationship between primordial and historical times as they did between higher and lower worlds in the Platonic system, and so such an evolution would not have been too difficult conceptually. In ways we cannot define too exactly (we don't have enough extant writings), such concepts as Dionysus being "born of woman" should have been able to undergo a transfer to the new Platonic setting. The Christ cult, as preached by Paul, arose at a time when the Platonic view was established, and thus there was no 'primordial past' phase for Christian mythology. It took up residence directly in the higher/lower-world milieu of the mystery cults in general—which is why it had such a paucity of the earth-based style of features until the Gospels came along.

But where it lacked earth-based primordial-past features, it compensated by plumbing an equally rich source, the Jewish scriptures. As I've pointed out above, everything that is said about Christ, his nature and activities, can be shown to have a scriptural precedent or impulse. A few like Romans 1:3 are spelled out for us. Paul's Christ is an evolution out of scripture, particularly the latter's messianic passages, and thus all these references had to be applied to the new savior god. The traditional Messiah had become the divine Son and Logos. Therefore, all the references to a descendant of David restoring the nation had to be applied to the new Christ Jesus; he had to be "of the seed of David." In the confused messianic reading of Isaiah 7:14, he had to be "conceived and borne by a woman." Some difficulty may well have been present in getting the mind around this concept, but there it was, in scripture. Perhaps, as suggested above, this was why Paul chose to change the verb in his Galatians 4:4 phrase and elsewhere. It was too much to style this as a literal, historical birth; and so some nuance, perhaps, entailed in the word ginomai got around the application of Isaiah 7:14. It was too jarringly infeasible to speak of Jesus' "human ancestry" in describing his relationship to the Jews, as in Romans 9:5, and so such a connection was subsumed under the more general "in relation to the flesh": kata sarka.

We must also keep in mind that in this era, the dominant philosophical outlook of the day, Platonism, influenced those who interpreted the meaning of sacred scripture to do so in terms of higher world realities—as witness Philo. Although we have no way of knowing whether Paul had read philosophers like Philo or was simply breathing the atmosphere of his time, Pauline passages like 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Colossians 1:15-20 (as well as yet another writer's very Platonic opening chapter of Hebrews) show that the early Christian epistles inhabited this thought world. (Regardless of whether Paul himself may have been a "Pharisee": Paul was an innovative thinker and not straitjacketed by mainstream paradigms.) Thus it is not a stretch to see statements like Galatians 4:4 and Romans 1:3 and 9:5 as relating to those spiritual world realities and their relationships with the material world, and not to recent history—just as the mystery cult myths were being viewed in the same period.

As for the follow-up phrase, "born under the law," this need be little more than an expansion on the "born of woman." It's a different way of referring to Jesus' relationship to the Jews, as belonging to them. However, there is no necessity to think that Jesus was regarded as personally subject to the law. In fact, the whole of chapter 3 suggests otherwise: Christ supersedes the law, and by belonging to him and sharing in his nature as the "seed" of Abraham, the believer inherits God's promise and emerges in a state free of the law. Both phrases also serve to connect Christ and his believers within that paradigmatic relationship at the foundation of the Hellenistic salvation system: both undergo the same experiences and share elements of nature (a "like" form which the god takes on, suffering and death, etc.), so that humans will receive the benefits and guarantees generated by the god's actions. This is a concept going back into the dim past, long before Paul and his predecessors formulated their redeeming Messiah-Son.

Malcolm writes:

   In Daniel 9:24-27 is a prophecy that explicitly gives the amount of time between when Jerusalem was "rebuilt" and when "the Anointed One" will come. If one dates the timing of the decree to rebuild Jersualem as in Nehemiah 2:1 [444 or 445 BCE], uses known dates for the reign of King Artaxerxes, and counts the number of days according to the different calendar systems, one gets a date for the Messiah's coming around 30 CE. How do you explain this? This seems unlikely to just be a coincidence, as it is just about the only prophecy of the Messiah that gives a specific date for his return. The fact that Daniel was written in the second century BCE would not affect the validity of this prophesy, although it would discredit just about all the other ones in this book.

Response to Malcolm:

The Prophecy in Daniel 9 / Old Testament Prophecy

Old Testament prophecy: one of the most frustrating subjects in the entire field of biblical research. Actually, "research" is almost the wrong word. This subject has little to do with critical research and everything to do with apologetics. Inherent in questions like Malcolm's is not the issue of Jesus' existence or anything to do with understanding the historical development of the bible. Nor is it so much a question of understanding the mechanisms of prophecy and their interpretation. Rather, the apologists who put forward such things as the prophecy in Daniel 9 are claiming that this is evidence of the bible's sacred nature and Jesus' divine role. If Daniel's 'prophecy' can be shown to point to Jesus, this would make Jesus the object of some divine code placed in scripture and boost the claim for his divinity.

Let's approach this from a number of angles, and common sense is going to figure in all of them. Critical scholarship has adequately demonstrated that the writer of the book of Daniel is heavily embroiled in the crisis Israel went through (167-164 BCE) during the reign of its Hellenistic overlord Antiochus IV, a crisis that resulted in the Maccabean uprising. Conforming to one of the features of apocalyptic writing (in fact it was a major trendsetter in that genre), the writer has 'dated' his work to the 6th century BCE and assigned it to the legendary figure of Daniel in order to provide an assortment of 'prophecies' that had already come to pass prior to his own time. By presenting the 6th century Daniel as successfully predicting the future in those cases, the writer strengthens the reader's willingness to believe in the prophecies he is actually making in regard to his own future. But that future is an immediate one, not one almost two centuries hence. The writer's focus is entirely on the Antiochian crisis, and there is no reason to think that in this passage he chooses to step outside his subject and supply a prophecy for the 1st century CE or beyond. (Such an "atomistic" use of scripture—divorcing a given passage from its context—is the mark of conservative apologetics, not critical research.) Even more ludicrous would be the claim that a divine mind behind the author of Daniel took control of his pen at that point and inserted one of the Deity's many cryptic indications of the coming of a Savior-Son the immediate writer had no inkling of.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the prophecy itself and how some interpret it. I'm not sure what Malcolm is referring to by "different calendar systems" or counting by days, but standard approaches to interpreting this 'prophecy' do so in simple terms of years, arriving at 490 years for the so-called "70 weeks of years". First, one must realize that this prophecy is an interpretation of an earlier prophecy of Jeremiah (as in Jer. 25:11-12) which forecast the period of the exile (587-538) as 70 years. Chapter 9 begins with a perplexed Daniel musing about this prophecy. (It was inaccurate, as the exilic period did not last for 70 years, which may explain Daniel's perplexity.)  The angel Gabriel arrives to provide an explanation; he gives it an interpretation which is an expansion of the original Jeremiah prophecy, applying it to (Daniel's) future. The Deity apparently has to revise an earlier prophecy which turned out to be inaccurate in its plain interpretation—Jer. 25:11-12 clearly relates the 70 years to the period of the Babylonian subjection—by letting a later prophet know that it was really more cryptic than that, and was meant to apply to a period in the further future. That later prophet, whether Daniel himself or the 2nd century BCE author writing in his name, in turn misunderstood the explanation, since the context of the book of Daniel makes use of the revised prophecy to forecast the time of Antiochus IV. It was left to a yet future clarification by Christians to apply this evolving prophecy to Jesus and their view of the impending end of the world. Subsequent generations, right into the 20th century, have been forced to manipulate the prophecy's features even further in order to solve the 1st century inaccuracy (the end did not arrive when they expected) and to rescue its continuing relevance.

Several scholarly interpretations of the writer's application of the 70 weeks of years have been offered. But first, let's see how it is claimed to apply in the apologetic sense, as relating to Jesus. If the reference in 9:25 is to the order to rebuild Jerusalem's wall in 445 BCE (and this is not as clear-cut a case as it seems), add 490 years and you come up with a date of 45 CE, not 30 or 33, or whatever date is claimed to apply to Jesus' death or the beginning of his ministry. (I confess I am not familiar with all the ins and outs of the apologetic manoeuvering that attempts to get the dates to properly coincide.) Then there are problems with the prophecy itself. If this is a divine indicator of the future coming of the Son and Savior of the world, it's pretty trivial. Verse 26's reference to "an anointed one" being "removed" (NEB) or "cut off" (RSV, KJ) is all that is said about him, with no indication of any particular importance for this figure, certainly no more than for the earlier "anointed one" mentioned in verse 25 who came centuries earlier. Consequently, to style this passage as a prophecy of "the Messiah" is a little misplaced, since there is no focus on one individual, no single "anointed one". Far more attention, in fact, is given to the "prince" (v. 26-27) who will come immediately afterward to destroy the city and temple, and there is no suggestion that this prince is acting as a consequence of the "cutting off" of the previous anointed one. To interpret Jesus out of all this is an exercise in maddening obscurity.

As far as numbers go, linking the prophecy to the crisis in the time of Antiochus (167-164 BCE) is not so straightforward either. If we take verse 24 to refer to the rebuilding of the city walls in 445 BCE, then 490 years far overshoots the time of Daniel's author. But there are a number of other considerations. First of all, the angel Gabriel is expanding on the Jeremiah prophecy. And as W. S. Towner (Harper's Bible Commentary, p.704) points out, the first seven weeks of the 70 weeks of years exactly fits the period of the Babylonian exile that Jeremiah was forecasting, that is, the 49 years from 587 to 538 BCE. Towner, and John J. Collins (The Apocalyptic Imagination, p.86-7), suggest that the first "anointed one" of verse 25 could be Zerubbabel, styled "governor" in Haggai 1:1 and 2:2; or possibly Joshua, the first post-exilic high priest at the same time. In Haggai, Zerubbabel and Joshua are charged with rebuilding the temple when the exiles first came back to Jerusalem, so perhaps the reference by the angel to the onset of the prophecy's period is intended as the time of the return, rather than a century later under Nehemiah. This doesn't solve the math, however, since 490 years from c.538 is still too far, even if one deducts 49 years as applying to the pre-538 exile period. (62 weeks until the cutting off of the later anointed one, or 434 years, carries us to 104 BCE.)

The details of the latter part of the prophecy, on the other hand, fit very well the circumstances in the Antiochian crisis of 167-164. The later "anointed one" many seek to identify with Jesus is better fitted to Onias III, the last 'legitimate' high priest who was deposed in favor of his brother in 175 and then murdered some time later (2 Maccabees 4). The 62-week period up to Onias is followed by a final week in which the temple is desecrated and other horrors befall. This carries us into the pivotal time of the years following 167 when Daniel's author was writing, and the details of the crisis are mirrored in the details of the prophecy, although the writer goes out on a limb and forecasts an ending to the final week which was not in fact fulfilled in history. (Which leads scholars to deduce that he was writing in the midst of the crisis and before its resolution.) Some try to link the final stages of the prophecy with the Jewish War (66-70 CE), but this doesn't fit the details, which place the arrival of the "prince" and the outbreak of war immediately after the fall of the "anointed one," not 35 to 40 years later.

These discrepancies are much more critical on the apologist side. If this is a divine prophecy, it should be accurate, with no margin of error. If, on the other hand, it is simply a human writing by a mind saturated with the primitive traditions and superstitions of his time, then we need not expect it to conform to our modern sense of accuracy and rationality. In much the same way that the New Testament book of Revelation's inconsistencies and contradictions are not resolvable by rational standards (which doesn't prevent many from trying to make them so, since this document is presumably God's word, too), we need to look elsewhere than strict mathematics for the explanation of the 70 weeks of years prophecy.

John J. Collins (Ibid., p.87) follows this line of reasoning. "The angel explains that the seventy weeks [sic: Collins must mean "years" making this a typo] of Jeremiah are really seventy weeks of years. It is assumed that the biblical number can be regarded as a symbol and interpreted allegorically. The seventy weeks of years, 490 years, are not the product of any chronological calculation. Rather they reflect a traditional schema, ultimately inspired by the idea of the jubilee year (Leviticus 25) and may be taken as an instance of 'sabbatical eschatology.' We have seen similar schemata in connection with the Apocalypse of Weeks, the seventy generations in 1 Enoch 10, and the seventy shepherds in the Animal Apocalypse. At least some of the Enochic passages are older than Daniel and show that Daniel drew on traditions that were shared by other apocalyptic writings."

In other words, counting weeks, days or years is an exercise in futility. The writer of Daniel was governed by "traditional schema" and fitted these into his pattern, regardless of whether the numbers worked accurately or not. But while Collins is following the right track, I think his focus is a bit off the mark. Seventy may be a traditional figure in apocalyptic usage, but the writer of Daniel is setting out not so much to conform to that pattern as to deal directly with the Jeremiah prophecy and its 70 years. That prophecy blithely predicted the establishment of some kind of paradise for Israel at the fulfilment of the period. Such a paradise or transformation of the world, of course, never comes about, and so later generations—continuing into our own day—feel impelled to explain why it didn't come, and to substitute a reinterpreted or new prophecy. It wasn't 70 years that Jeremiah meant before Israel would be restored in all its glory, says the angel, but 70 weeks of years. The writer of Daniel is stuck with the 70 figure and makes do as best he can, without worrying too much about whether it's an exact fit for his purposes.

Despite what he says about the rebuilding of the city, or what specific date he may have had in mind, Jeremiah's 70 years began at the start of the Exile, which supports the theory that the first seven weeks (49 years) of the prophetic span in Daniel refers to the 49 years of the exilic period. Otherwise, we would have quite a striking coincidence. As for the rest of the time span, we should not, as I say, expect the creator of this expanded prophecy to be scientifically accurate. His subsequent 62 weeks are not broken down or identified with any particular events; they are simply the remainder when the outer edges were cut off. (He may not even have bothered to calculate whether they fitted exactly.) It is the final week of his 70 weeks of years that he is most concerned with, and that week is employed quite accurately since they refer to the events of his own time.

We might note in passing that the vagueness and inaccuracy of such 'prophecy' is characteristic of apocalyptic writing generally. This is why scholars and apologists often have difficulty in matching what these prophecies or visions say with actual history. (Revelation's conglomeration of apocalyptic and mythological figures and motifs is notably frustrating in its inconsistency and obscurity.) We have to remember that the genre as a whole is fantastical, crude, and primitive in its mindset, reflective of those who created it. To regard any of it as the pronouncement of an omnipotent God is ludicrous in the extreme.

As Collins intimates, the prophecy in Daniel (along with its other prophetic passages), is in the same genre and possesses the same features and quality as prophetic expressions found throughout Jewish writings over the course of centuries. Since we hardly grant a necessary divine authorship and accuracy to, for example, the Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch 93, what would lead us to do so in Daniel 9? Certainly, the quality of the latter prophecy, in terms of reliability and sophistication, is no greater than those of non-canonical documents. All are an expression of the temper and modes of thinking of the time. To arbitrarily grant divine status to select examples, indeed to regard such ancient, primitive expressions as continuing to have any relevance for modern beliefs and evaluations of history or reality, is a travesty of the intellect.

Yet even segments of modern New Testament scholarship continue to stand by these apocalypses and try to justify their features. J. C. Whitcomb Jr., in the very conservative New Bible Dictionary (p.264), points out that one must posit a "hiatus" before the final week of the 70, since "Christ placed the desolating sacrilege at the very end of the present age" (according to the Little Apocalypse of the synoptics, as in Mt. 24). Arguing that such hiatuses are common in the Old Testament, he inserts an indefinite period between week 62 and the final 7 days, characterizing the latter as "a 7-year period immediately preceding the second advent of Christ, during which time antichrist rises to world dominion and persecutes the saints." When even educated minds can continue to subscribe to such mumbo-jumbo, we as a society are in desperate intellectual straits.

The problem is, so is our view of God—if such an entity exists. All these things are reputed to be his expression, his means of 'educating' the faithful, of pointing the path to salvation. Lee Strobel, in The Case for Christ, devotes an entire chapter to Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, touting it as one of the justifications for Christian faith. Conservative and not-so-conservative Christianity still appeals to the idea of prophecy of Jesus imbedded in the Jewish scriptures, as a 'proof-text' of the validity of the New Testament and Jesus' own divinity. Scriptural passages, such as those of the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53, are pointed to as amazing and telling forecasts of Jesus' experiences in his passion, totally ignoring the far more sensible idea that the passion segment of the Gospels has been constructed by the evangelists, who pieced together those passages and others into a coherent story, which makes the 'fulfilment' of those 'prophecies' part of a circular process.

And there is the larger question of our view of a supposed God, or rather our justification of him. As I say in my book Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel's 'The Case for Christ', (p.137): "Did it not occur to Mr. Lapides [the interviewee in the chapter on prophecy, and a convert from Judaism to Christianity on the basis of its alleged fulfilment in Jesus] to wonder why God would operate in this manner? Was the omnipotent creator of the universe playing with his creatures? To imbed in a motley collection of writings little bits and pieces of data about the future life of his Son on earth, obscured by their contexts, trivialized by their brevity, open to contradiction by their own inconsistencies, and then to expect that all people would divine and recognize a future Jesus figure who turned out to be a dramatic departure from the established expectations set up by many of those alleged prophecies? Such behavior on the part of the Deity would seem bizarre by any standard. When it is claimed that this procedure was God's way of providing the means by which human beings could anticipate and believe in Jesus and thereby gain eternal salvation, the idea becomes positively outrageous."

Look out upon this universe of a billion billion suns, into its fantastic microscopic makeup, its long history of evolution and the complexity of life and the human mind, and then turn to the bible and read Revelation and Danielic prophecy, or Jesus talking to demon spirits that cause illness, walking on water and out of his tomb, the fantasies of heaven and hell, the principle of blood sacrifice of an incarnated deity coming at one time and place as the only means of humanity's salvation. It's time to take stock of the long outdated foundations of western society and bring our belief systems into line with 21st century reality and rational thinking.

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