Did Jesus Exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained
without a founder Jesus of Nazareth?
Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.
The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.
Further Supplementary Articles:
Supplementary Article No. 1: Appolos of Alexandria and the early Christian Apostolate
"Apostles" in Early Christianity
One of the puzzles which Paul in his letters presents to us is the nature of the apostolic movement of which he was a part. If the orthodox picture of Christian beginnings were correct, we would expect to find reference to a system of missionary preaching which traced its impulse back to the group in Jerusalem known in the Gospels as the Twelve. Figures like Peter and John, having had contact with the Master himself on earth, and appointed by him to spread the gospel message, would be regarded as authoritative, and Christian prophets working in the field would inevitably define themselves in relation to this privileged body in Jerusalem and be organized around it.
In later times, efforts were made to create such a picture. Acts, probably written well into the second century (see the Main Articles, Part One), presents a golden-age beginning for the Christian apostolic movement and makes Paul subordinate to and in agreement with the Jerusalem apostles, in blatant contradiction to Paul's own letters. The Gospel of Mark is the first to offer an inner circle of Twelve chosen by an earthly Jesus, a group for which there is virtually no evidence in the earliest record. The mention of the "twelve" in 1 Corinthians 15:5 is anything but clear, since they are listed separately from Peter and "all the apostles." (They may be an administrative body in the sect.) Paul nowhere else gives so much as a hint of chosen followers of Jesus on earth.
The word "disciple(s)" appears not once in the New Testament epistles. This is the word used in the Gospels for followers attached to a ministering Jesus, but in the epistles there is no mention of such followers or a ministry. Instead, we find only the word "apostle," meaning one who is sent out to preach, and it is used for men like Paul and Peter, Barnabas and unnamed others, who are spoken of as being called by God and inspired by the Spirit. (Note that in the Gospels, once the "disciples" are sent out by Jesus, they become "apostles": see Matthew 10:1-2.)
In Paul's frequent discussions about apostleship, any reference to a group who had known an earthly Jesus personally is conspicuous by its absence. In Galatians 2:8 he tells us that God had made Peter an apostle to the Jews just as he had made Paul an apostle to the gentiles; he is clearly allowing no distinction in quality or origin between his own apostleship and that of Peter. Outside the Gospel of Matthew, there is no mention anywhere in the first hundred years to an appointing of Peter by Jesus as the "rock" on which the church will be built. In passages like 1 Corinthians 9:1f and Galatians 1:17, there is no suggestion that the requirement (or even an advantage) for an accredited apostle has anything to do with having known an historical Jesus. Rather, the mark of the true apostle, Paul consistently tells us, is the reception of the proper revelation and authority from God.
For traditional scholars, 2 Corinthians 10-12 has proven a particularly tough nut to crack. Who are these rival apostles (not to be confused with an earlier set in 1 Corinthians, which will be dealt with below) who have come into Corinth behind Paul and won over the hearts of his congregation? They claim to "belong to Christ" (10:7). Well, so does he, Paul states, and supports his apostleship by declaring that he had been recommended by the Lord himself (meaning God). We can be sure that such rivals claimed no personal contact or links with Jesus of Nazareth, because Paul never deals with such a claim, nor could he dismiss them as he does if they had had such contact.
In fact, 11:4-6 shows the basis of these rivals' claim to authority, and it is identical to Paul's own:
"For if someone comes who proclaims another Jesus, not the Jesus whom we proclaimed, or if you then receive a spirit different from the Spirit already given to you, or a gospel different from the gospel you have already accepted, you put up with that well enough. Have I in any way come short of those superlative apostles? I may be no speaker, but I have knowledge . . ." (From the New English Bible translation)
Here Paul spells out that the source of apostolic inspiration for the preaching of the Christ is the reception of a Spirit from God. A few verses later, as he does elsewhere, Paul refers to his preaching message as "the gospel of God," and all the epistles of the New Testament (e.g., 1 Peter 1:12) focus exclusively on this revelation through God's Spirit as the force which has begun and maintains the preaching movement. The spirits received by these various apostles could be so different that Paul accuses his Corinthian rivals of "proclaiming another Jesus," of preaching "a different gospel." He goes on in 11:13 to call these rivals "sham apostles, crooked in all their practices, masquerading as apostles of Christ." He implies that they are agents of Satan, who "will meet the end their deeds deserve" (11:15). And yet a few verses later he allows, grudgingly, that they are, by some objective standard which the Corinthians accept, "servants of Christ" (11:23).
Many have been the attempts to identify these rivals with the Jerusalem group around Peter and James, or to give them some connection to that body, but there are those who sensibly recognize that such uncompromising ire and condemnation cannot be directed at the Jerusalem apostles. Rather, these are unknown missionaries of the Christ, with no connection to the Jerusalem group, and they carry ideas about the divine Son which Paul regards as so incompatible with his own that he consigns them to Satan's realm. Whether they are the same men whom he condemns and curses for preaching a different gospel to the Galatians (1:6-9) is unknown. Again, if the orthodox picture were correct, how could such a situation have arisen in the Christian apostolic movement so soon after its inception?
In fact, what Paul gives us is a familiar, timeless picture. He shows us a group of competing individuals in the passionate and unforgiving field of religious proselytizing, scratching and clawing for a bigger share of the market. They advance rival personal claims and attack one another's motives and qualifications; they are capable of going for the jugular. They are intolerant of opposing views. And they are all on a level playing field. None of them attempts any link to the man himself who is supposed to be the center of their message. No one ever draws a distinction along such lines.
This application of the concept of "apostle" to all and sundry, together with the absence of any early evidence that the term was narrowly applied to a select group chosen by Jesus, has led scholars of no less stature than Rudolf Bultmann ( Theology of the New Testament , I, page 37) to declare that the notion of an inner circle of Twelve surrounding Jesus is not historical, but a later invention. W. Schneemelcher, in New Testament Apocrypha (II, 25), admits that "the origin and idea of the apostolate is one of the most intricate and difficult problems of New Testament scholarship." The problem disappears, of course, when one realizes that no select group attached to Jesus shows up in the early record because there was no Master to whom they could be attached.
Apollos of Alexandria
The rival apostles we encounter in Paul's letters are unnamed. Except for one. The figure of Apollos, an apostle from Alexandria, emerges tantalizingly from the shadows in 1 Corinthians and in Acts. Let's see what we can glean about him, and what kind of insight he provides into the nature of early Christianity.
What does Acts have to say about Apollos? Here are the key verses from 18:24-28:
24Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures. 25He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the Spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and expounded to him the new way (or, the way of God) more accurately. . . . 28For he powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ." (From the Revised Standard Version)
I support the views of John Knox, J. T. Townsend, Burton Mack, J. C. O'Neill and others, that Acts was written a number of decades into the second century. It has no clear attestation before the year 170. The writer of this document, probably the same one who redacted the final version of the Gospel of Luke, has recast whatever traditions he may have used to reflect a belief in an historical Jesus. But he has left telltale contradictions in his account. Ernst Haenchen has discussed these in his The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (p.554f).
One evident contradiction exists between statements in verses 25 and 26. The first says that Apollos taught accurately concerning Jesus, the next states that Priscilla and Aquila had to correct his teaching. Further, if Apollos taught accurately as a Christian apostle, how is it he knew only the baptism of John? John's baptism was one of purification, "in token of repentance" (19:4). Josephus ( Antiquities of the Jews , 18.5.2) tells us that the baptism of John was a ritual washing to purify the body. Paul, on the other hand, baptized in the name of Jesus, which was supposed also to confer the Holy Spirit on the convert. Some scholars have questioned how Apollos could be a Christian missionary and not know the proper Christian baptism, but the answer to this little puzzle must be that no single, universal form of the rite existed at this time, and that it was possible for an apostle preaching the Christ not to be familiar with Paul's type of baptism, but to have knowledge of a different baptism of the type practiced by John.
Certain scholars (see Haenchen, op.cit. , p.554 and 550 n.10) have denied Apollos any Christian status at all, and see him as a Jewish preacher of repentance like John, or, more frequently, as a teacher of wisdom. He may, they say, have been the one responsible for leading Paul's Corinthian congregation astray, offering the view that the believer, through the reception of divine wisdom, could enter immediately into a state of spiritual perfection. Styling themselves "the strong," those who followed Apollos' teaching now claimed that they did not have to await eschatological developments or a future resurrection, but that through baptism they were already resurrected. All this went against Paul's own views, and he hotly contests his position against theirs throughout 1 Corinthians.
Scholarship tends naturally to interpret such wisdom teaching at Corinth (and elsewhere) as founded on an interpretation of the historical Jesus and his teachings. (See Helmut Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity , p.149f.) This, of course, is based on Gospel preconceptions, but we have to note that Paul, in his efforts to counter those who have in his view misled his Corinthian congregation, fails to make any reference whatever to an earthly Jesus or to any presumed wisdom teachings of his which the opponents have supposedly misused. In a dispute over how to interpret the sayings of Jesus, neither Paul, nor apparently his opposition (since he makes no mention of such a thing), appeals to those sayings.
This silence in 1 Corinthians is almost inexplicable—except on one basis: neither Paul nor his rivals knew of any such human teacher or teachings. Koester ( Ancient Christian Gospels , p.60-61) admits: "It is striking that Paul never quotes any of these sayings directly," referring to the wisdom sayings of Jesus which he claims "must have been known to both Paul and the Corinthians," and "must have been the basis (on) which the Corinthians claimed to have received their salvation." New Testament scholarly discussion is full of such "must be" assumptions, even in the face of the stark absence of such things from the record itself, and even as they admit astonishment at this state of affairs.
Thus, we can be fairly confident that Acts has recast traditions about Apollos in order to bring him into the fold as an orthodox preacher of an historical Jesus. But what might Apollos actually have preached? The fact that he came from Alexandria in the middle of the first century makes it highly likely that he offered a type of wisdom theology which came out of the Hellenistic Judaism of his home city, that stream of philosophy expressed in the writings of the Jewish Platonist Philo and in the document known as the Wisdom of Solomon. Apollos was probably a teacher of revealed knowledge which in itself claimed to confer salvation (Koester calls it a "life-giving wisdom"). And it may be that his preaching represented an evolution beyond earlier ideas in seeing a spiritual Christ as a concrete divine figure who was responsible for this revelation, a Christ who had grown out of Alexandrian traditions of personified Wisdom (Sophia) wedded with the Greek Logos. (See chapters 7 to 11 of the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha of most Old Testaments.)
Such an Alexandrian evolution is attested to in a set of "Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers" which have been preserved in the 4th century Christian document known as the Apostolic Constitutions. I will be making an analysis of these prayers in a future posting (see Supplementary Article No. 5). And a related picture of such evolution is evident in the Odes of Solomon, probably from northeastern Syria: see Supplementary Article No. 4.
Apollos in Corinth
But can we lift the veil on Apollos and his preaching still further by what Paul has to say in 1 Corinthians? Though he handles the subject of Apollos in chapters 1 and 3 tactfully, Paul clearly regards the Alexandrian as a rival and disapproves of his teaching. The rivalry, in fact, is so pronounced that the Corinthian congregation has broken up into cliques, specifically those who follow Paul and others who follow Apollos.
"I have been told . . . that there is quarrelling among you . . . that each of you is saying: 'I am for Paul,' or 'I am for Apollos,' or 'I follow Cephas' or 'I Christ'." (1 Cor. 1:11-12)
We should first note that the third and fourth groups mentioned here are considered dubious. Was Paul referring to actual groups in Corinth who declared allegiance to "Peter" or to "Christ"? (There is no evidence elsewhere that Peter ever went to the Greek city.) Or has Paul added them as further illustrations of the concept of allegiance to particular figures, even if it is difficult to know exactly what he could have meant by that last designation? Wayne Meeks ( First Urban Christians , p.117), Walter Bauer ( Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity , p.113), Francis Watson ( Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles , p.81f) are only some of the scholars who have doubted that Peter went to Corinth or that any party there had aligned itself with him. (Paul never discusses such a Petrine rivalry or even mentions "Judaizers" that far west.) Thus it is likely that the only cliques in the Greek city Paul is actually dealing with are those which have aligned themselves behind himself and behind Apollos.
From this introduction to the dispute in Corinth, Paul launches directly into his great discourse on the folly of worldly wisdom vs. God's wisdom, and it is folly in itself not to regard this discussion as directly relating to the dispute with Apollos. But let's delay that for a moment and consider first the next passage in which Paul directly refers to Apollos, the one in chapter 3.
Here Paul presents a series of analogies to portray the relative roles of himself and Apollos in Corinth. He is trying to handle the rivalry as diplomatically as possible. He wants to win back his Corinthian congregation without an overt attack on Apollos and those who have responded to him. But his subtlety does not hide his disapproval of Apollos' doctrine.
In 3:6 Paul states: "I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it; but God made it grow." This pride of place Paul claims for himself in the Corinthian garden (since Apollos came after him) is supplemented by another analogy in 3:10-17, that of "God's building." Here Paul "laid the foundation," which he declares is "Jesus Christ himself," meaning his personal doctrine about the Christ. Upon it, another (he uses no names here, but Apollos is clearly implied) has built a construction. And now Paul lets his animosity shine through, for he warns that the quality of that construction will have to suffer the test of fire on the day of judgment. Then, styling the Corinthians as God's temple, he warns (3:17) that "anyone who destroys God's temple will himself be destroyed by God," and he concludes his little diatribe by revisiting the theme of the foolish wisdom of the world vs. God's wisdom (which is to say, what Paul preaches).
That Apollos comes out on the short end of the critical stick in all this, or that he is to be identified among "those who fancy themselves wise" (3:18) and are in danger of divine destruction, is hardly to be doubted. See Haenchen, op.cit. , p.555-6, for an analysis which similarly judges Apollos as the object of Paul's condemnation, as one who preaches "a foreign element which to him appears as chaff rather than gold." Haenchen regards Apollos as "a missionary quite independent in his work and thought," reading Acts' presentation of him as having "not the slightest support in 1 Corinthians."
Wisdom and Folly
Yet I am quite sure that Haenchen has not perceived the full extent of that "chaff." It's impossible to tell from 1 Corinthians 3 exactly what Apollos preached, but what of chapter 1? In verses 17-31, following on the introduction of the dispute that has arisen in Corinth between supporters of the two apostles, Paul has condemned the "wisdom of the world" in no uncertain terms. And although he seems to broaden his net of condemnation, the fish at the center of his cast, I would argue, remains Apollos, as a preacher of worldly wisdom.
So what is the issue in chapter 1? Let's quote the key verses:
" 17. . . (I was sent) to preach the gospel, but not with words of worldly wisdom, so that the cross of Christ would not be rendered invalid [or, be voided, destroyed, robbed of its significance: there are many translations to be found of this subtle Greek verb]. 18For the message of the cross is foolishness to those on their way to ruin, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . 21. . .God chose to save those who have faith by the folly of the gospel. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a scandal (stumbling-block) to Jews and a folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God." In passing, we might well ask where is Jesus of Nazareth in this "wisdom of God," the fact of the Son's incarnation into flesh, and why the elevation of a crucified criminal, a human man, to Godhead is not also a folly to Jews and Greeks, requiring some defence, some word of reference to it, on Paul's part.
In verse 21, Paul adopts the word "folly" for himself and his own doctrine, in a self-deprecating irony. Paul's folly is in fact God's own wisdom, the wisdom in Paul's gospel message. And what is this wisdom-folly? It is the doctrine of the cross. "We proclaim Christ (having been) crucified." This is an offense to Jews and something foolish to the Greeks.
The point I want to stress is that there is no implication here that Paul is referring to some nicety of interpretation about the crucifixion or its significance. It is the fact itself of Christ crucified, the very import of the act having taken place. Paul's presentation of the Christ centers on the claim that he was crucified, and the purpose this has served in God's plan for salvation. (And crucified, incidentally, by whom? In the next chapter, 2:6-8, Paul attributes it to the demon spirits of the heavenly realm: see my Part Two article, and Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?)
It is this fundamental doctrine which both Jews and Greeks have found objectionable, that the Son of God should have undergone such a fate. And because Apollos is at the center of the net cast over the foolish wisdom of the world, the conclusion must be that Apollos, too, denies this doctrine. After all, it makes no sense that Paul would waste his time in a letter to the Corinthians—one aimed at restoring their splintered allegiance in the face of rival preaching—with arguments directed against people in general who have failed to respond to his gospel. No, those against whom he levels his accusations of folly must include Apollos, and it shows that there are Christian apostles going about preaching a Christ whose crucifixion they ignore or reject, who disparage Paul's own presentation of the Christ as a crucified deity. In other words, they have no theology of a cross.
In the context of the orthodox picture of an historical Jesus, this would be an astonishing development to have taken place only two decades after Jesus' passing, for how could any Christian preacher abandon the central element of the crucifixion if the movement, still in its infancy, had arisen out of the death of Jesus of Nazareth and his supposed resurrection? Such apostles at the time of their own conversion would surely have accepted such a doctrine. And how in their revisionist preaching could they get other Christians, ones previously converted by Paul, even to listen to them?
But, of course, the situation is much starker than this. Paul, as I said, proclaims "Christ crucified," plain and simple. Not a doctrine of the redemptive power of that event, not a claim to its importance, but the fact itself as an item of religious faith . Again, the inference to be drawn is that Paul's rivals have no such doctrine at all. Paul would be discussing his brand of wisdom, Christ crucified, only if the troublemakers in Corinth were advocating the brand of wisdom he disparages, that which considers the cross a stumbling-block and a folly. Thus Paul's opponents, Christian apostles and Apollos himself, preach a Christ who was not crucified, a Christ about whom such a feature was unacceptable, something foolish. In Paul's view, they are the ones "on their way to ruin" (1:18), the sort of language he uses (see 2 Corinthians 10 and 11 and Galatians 1:6f) not for the wider non-believing world but for rivals who preach a different concept of Jesus.
If this were not an out-and-out rejection of Christ crucified, Paul would not put it in such bare terms. He would make some reference to the aspect of the cross or its significance which the dissidents disapproved of. He would point at the very least to the historicity of it and challenge those who did not interpret the event the way he did. That verb in verse 17 is a little woolly, but it conveys Paul's sentiment: I have seen the fact, the veracity, of the cross, it is part of the wisdom of God, while others are ignoring it, labeling it folly, or have rejected such a thing. C. K. Barrett speaks of the "appraisal" of the cross ( First Epistle to the Corinthians , p.55), but this is precisely what is missing. There is no discussion about the cross, it is the cross itself, Christ having been crucified.
Competing Christs from Scripture
In what sort of scenario do all these observations fit best? It would not seem to be one of radically different proclamations of a recent historical event. According to Acts, Apollos was a man "powerful in his use of the scriptures . . . fervent in the Spirit" (18:24, 25). Such a description suggests that both he and Paul (and many others besides) were going about preaching a Christ derived from the sacred writings. Through inspiration, each man interpreted those writings and cast his picture and doctrine of the Christ according to his own skill and disposition. Those who responded to Paul's opponents in Corinth believed that they had now reached a state of perfection; they were wise in the possession of the Spirit and saw themselves as having already undergone resurrection and entered the kingdom. Theirs was a "wisdom" based on revelation, imparted through the spiritual Christ, a wisdom which itself bestowed salvation. (This is a concept akin to Gnosticism as it flowered at a later date.) To these Corinthian enthusiasts the idea of a crucified Christ meant nothing; it was perhaps even repugnant.
Paul, on the other hand, was a man who could make no positive investment in the present, who could feel no delight in this world. In his reading of the scriptures, as he reminds the Corinthians in 15:3-4, he preferred to focus on passages which he saw as pointing to Christ's suffering on a cross (in the spiritual world) and its redemptive power over sin, on the promise for the future which would be realized only at the End-time (15:21-24). He had, through baptism, died to sin and risen to a new life in Christ, but as for glory and perfection, that would come only when the whole world was transformed at Christ's coming. Thus, his message was eschatological, and centered exclusively on Christ crucified, a concept derived from the writings and a "wisdom" some of his rivals labeled folly.
The picture in 1 Corinthians is the picture of varying interpretations of scripture, of individual experiences of inspiration, of different types of personality. The overriding religious atmosphere of the time was the search for the divine communication of salvation, conferred through an intermediary spiritual entity variously styled the Son, the Logos, Wisdom, the Christ (see Part Two). It was the search for a Savior. Jews and those who attached themselves to Judaism believed that information about this Savior—who operated in the higher world of myth, like all the other savior gods of the day—was imbedded in the Jewish writings. But it was cryptic, it needed decoding.
And not all groups or individuals decoded in the same manner, or arrived at a Savior who had undergone suffering and death. The early Christian record is full of documents which offer a Son without these features: The Epistle of James, the Didache, the Odes of Solomon, the Shepherd of Hermas, many second century apologists. In some cases, such a Son is simply a Revealer. (Q and the Gospel of Thomas also have a Jesus who does not suffer and die, but this is a different case in that it reflects an invented human founder of an (originally) non-cultic nature: see Part Three.)
Those like Paul who were convinced that the word of God came to them through the Spirit declared their own interpretations to be correct. Their message constituted the "wisdom of God." Throughout the first century, apostles from a variety of centers were criss-crossing the empire, winning converts to their gospels, countering the differing messages of their rivals. The Corinthians are free to accept one version or another, as they see fit. All Paul can do is protest, point to his own work and dedication, to his conviction that he had been recommended by God, to his visions. Nowhere in this picture do Paul or his opponents appeal to the record of the historical Jesus, to any authorized channels going back to Jesus himself—an impossible void in this competitive apostolic world if such a record, such a Jesus, had existed.