Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
 Supplementary Articles - No. 7: Transfigured On the Holy Mountain: The Beginnings of Christianity

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

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.

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Supplementary Article No. 7

The Beginnings of Christianity

A Genesis From Heaven

Confronted with the possible non-existence of an historical Jesus, many today find it difficult to conceive of how Christianity could have begun. That difficulty is not a new one. The response to a human man by his followers, who were convinced of his divinity and buoyed by his perceived resurrection, was an idea which began to be adopted by the third and fourth generations of the Christian movement as a means of explaining the origins of their faith. This myth came to be embodied in the Gospels and Acts.

The story, however, is different in the New Testament epistles. These diverse writings were produced during Christianity’s first hundred years, in different locations by many different writers, from Paul on his missionary travels, to others in his communities who after his passing wrote in his name, to several anonymous writers who produced little treatises or polemical tracts dealing with local situations and crises within a wide and uncoordinated world of Christian belief. In the second century, as an evolution toward the unification of that world took place, centered upon Rome, these little writings were collected. Where lacking, they were assigned authors, usually drawn from the body of legendary apostles now envisioned as having been followers of an earthly Jesus, such as Peter, John, James and Jude. (A similar process led to the naming of the Gospels.)

In some cases, epistles may have come with such names already attached (they were “pseudonymous”). These names were given either at the time of writing, when no link of the purported author to a human Jesus would yet have been envisioned, or at some intervening time. In some cases, epistolary openings and conclusions were added, to turn them into formal letters, since such a form was considered to be the proper setting in which doctrinal and polemical material should be presented. And universally, the Jesus or Christ spoken of by these diverse and originally anonymous writers was now assumed to be the human man who had recently come to life on the pages of the Gospels. It is perhaps surprising that, given the widespread and blatant practice of revision, interpolation and invention found throughout the Christian documentary record, these writings were not subjected to a degree of reworking which would have incorporated the new assumptions about an historical Jesus and forever eradicated a more accurate picture of Christianity’s infancy.

For these epistles are full of references to how the faith arose and how the movement began. Rather than a response to the ministry of a recent man, whom they never identify, or a reaction to historical events surrounding a crucifixion and imagined resurrection, the driving force was seen to be the Spirit of God, sent from heaven through revelation. Paul in Romans 16:25-26 (though this passage may be a later insertion by one of the pseudo-Pauline writers) declares that he has “brought you the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the divine secret kept in silence for long ages but now disclosed, and through prophetic scriptures by the eternal God’s command made known to all nations” (New English Bible translation). In Galatians 1:11-12 Paul insists that he has received his gospel from no other human being, but “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

That gospel, about Christ’s death for sin and his rising on the third day, has apparently come to him from scripture (kata tas graphas, 1 Corinthians 15:3 and 4.) Compare Romans 1:2f, with its gospel from God “about his son,” kata sarka and kata pneuma, which has been “announced beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures.” The way Paul puts it, God has foretold Paul’s gospel about the Son, not Jesus’ own life and actions!

The writer of 1 Peter tells his readers that the things foretold in the prophets related not to those ancient times but to the present. They have now been announced not through any historical Jesus and his ministry, but “through preachers who brought you the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1:12); this Christ they preach “was revealed in this last period of time for your sake” (1:20). 2 Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 3:5, Colossians 1:26 and 2:2, Titus 2:11 and 3:5: such passages speak of the sending of the Spirit by God to apostles and prophets like Paul as the defining mark of the present period. Only now has the existence of the Son and his redeeming work, “the secret of Christ,” been revealed, and salvation made available as the end of the present age nears.

The Launching of a Sect

But there are several epistles which give us an insight into how, within this overall picture of the sending of God’s Spirit and gospel, certain individual communities among those which eventually dotted the early Christian landscape actually formed. We can perceive a kind of “event” lying at the inception of a given sectarian group or apocalyptic circle. Anticipating a communication from God, awaiting inspiration while perusing the sacred writings, many in the fevered atmosphere of the first century imagined that such things had indeed been forthcoming. We will look briefly at two of these, then focus in some detail on a third, one of the most fascinating passages in all the New Testament epistles: the so-called Transfiguration scene in 2 Peter.

First, the Epistle to the Hebrews 2:3-4. The following translation is based on the NEB, but with its more fanciful elements removed:

Most commentators are anxious to assume that “the Lord” refers to Jesus, and this may be the case, but in what sense? Paul Ellingworth (Hebrews, p.139) compares the phrase “through the Lord” with the earlier phrase “through angels” (verse 2), making the point that in both cases it is God doing the announcing, through old and new intermediaries. This in itself waters down the idea everyone wishes to see in this phrase, namely an allusion to the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth. In any case, this is the language of revelation. The idea being expressed is parallel to the main idea stated at the beginning of the epistle, that “in this final age (God) has spoken to us in (or through) the Son (en huio).” But the voice of the Gospel Jesus is never heard in this epistle; all the Son’s words come from scripture. Thus we are entitled to read these passages according to the overarching philosophy of the period: that God communicates with the world through his emanations, through a spiritual intermediary; in certain sectarian circles of Jewish thought, the “Son” Jesus, the Christ.

The entire passage in Hebrews 1:1-14 reveals an era in which scripture was being newly read and interpreted to find references to—and the voice of—the Son, a spiritual entity who for this writer is “superior to the angels” (1:4). As “the heir of all things, through whom (God) made the universe,” as “the effulgence of God’s splendor and the stamp of his very being, who sustains the universe by his word of power” (1:2-3), the Son is an expression of the wider philosophical concept—primarily Platonic—of an intermediary force who reveals and provides access to God, an agent in the divine scheme of salvation. (See Part Two of the Main Articles.)

The announcement of salvation referred to in 2:3-4, was delivered through God’s Son on a purely spiritual level, derived from scripture. Some experience of revelation, a perception of the intermediary ‘voice’ of the Son, came to a group in the past (how long ago is difficult to say, but some time has elapsed). Those who received this revelation had passed on what they “heard” to the writer and his readers. Likely these two parties were within the same community; perhaps they refer to two generations, though this is not clear, nor is the question of when all the theology contained in the epistle was developed.

Verse 4 speaks of God confirming the original revelation by signs and miracles. The ambiguity of the Greek makes it uncertain whether such signs came at the time of revelation, the time of its passing on (if the two are distinct), or as a reinforcement of the message as the years went by. But those who wish to see verse 3 as a reference to Jesus’ ministry are left wondering why such signs from God would be appealed to as validating the message of salvation, while the writer ignores Jesus’ own miracles which according to the Gospels served this very purpose. As well, we could point out that Hebrews 5:12 also refers to the teaching received at the time of the movement’s inception, but rather than this being Jesus’ own teachings, such things are referred to as “God’s oracles,” a phrase which clearly points to revelation. Nor do the “rudiments” of faith and ritual which are listed immediately afterward (6:12) say anything of an historical ministry.

The concluding phrase of 2:4, “by distributing the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” reinforces the idea inherent in the whole passage. This is a time and a process of salvation impelled by the activity of God’s Spirit, not by the recent work of the Son on earth speaking and acting in his own person. Whether through visionary experiences or simply an inspired study of scripture, God is perceived as making his salvation known, and confirming it by certain wonderful happenings. The conviction of such revelation was the inaugurating event of this sect—or at least of its present beliefs and activities.

The Promise of Eternal Life

The so-called Prologue to the first epistle of John points to a similar experience by the Johannine community at its inception. Here is the NEB’s version of verses 1 and 2:

Here we have the description of an event of revelation, or perhaps a longer process symbolized as a single event, a moment when certain people believed they were receiving evidence of the offering of eternal life. These verses speak of that event, that life, in poetic terms, of seeing it, hearing it, touching it. Despite attempts by most commentators to make this passage a reference to Jesus’ ministry, the pronouns are neuter, the tone is impersonal, the language that of revelation.

As the Prologue now stands, the offering of eternal life (in verse 3, not quoted above) is said to be shared “with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.” But there is some question as to whether any reference to the Son stood in the initial version of this passage. The key verse 2 talks of the eternal life as dwelling in the Father (we cannot presume to read this phrase according to later Johannine understanding) with no mention of the Son, and other parts too of this multi-layered epistle focus entirely on God. It is possible that the sect began with a characteristic Jewish focus on God alone, though with a type of doctrine and outlook reminiscent of groups like the Essenes. (See Supplementary Article No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John, for a fuller discussion of the Prologue and these matters.)

The entire tenor of 1 John points to a belief in God’s actions through the Spirit, and through a Son who is a spiritual intermediary, not a recent historical figure. When the idea is broached in chapter 4 that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” an idea which is denied by other Christians whom the writer condemns, the confirmation of such a doctrine is the proper Spirit sent from God, not apostolic witness or traditions going back to an historical Jesus or remembered historical events. The Johannine community is one which, like the community that produced Hebrews, owes its formation to perceived revelation from God. At a post-epistle stage, some segment of this community came in contact with the Synoptic story of Jesus of Nazareth and incorporated it into its beliefs in a spiritual Revealer Son, producing the Fourth Gospel. (See the final section of Supplementary Article No. 2.)

Spotlight on Jerusalem

Neither the Johannine community nor the one producing Hebrews are clearly locatable in time and place. We know of no names associated with either of these sects at the time these documents were written, with the minor exception of three local people who are mentioned in the little third epistle of John. (The apostle John, of course, is no longer considered the writer of these epistles, or of the Fourth Gospel.) Hebrews’ reference to Timothy toward the end of that epistle (13:22) is not regarded by all scholars as authentic.

But what about the group concerning which we do know names and places, the one that later came to be looked upon as the fount of the whole Christian movement: the circle in Jerusalem around Peter and James at the time of Paul? Paul’s references to this group of “brothers” which numbered over 500 and were engaged in some kind of apostolic work (1 Corinthians 15:6-7 and 9:5) show that it was probably a well-known and established body in Jerusalem itself. They seem to have been referred to as “brothers of (or in) the Lord” (see 1 Corinthians 9:5, Philippians 1:14), while James himself, apparently the head of the order, seems to have been known as the “brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19, if this is not a later marginal gloss to differentiate him from the Gospel James, son of Zebedee).

We do not know when this sect formed, or for what reason. We do not know whether “the Lord” might originally have referred to God himself. What we do know, if 1 Corinthians is to be relied upon, is that members of this group underwent experiences of the Christ. These experiences have for almost two millennia been regarded as appearances of a resurrected human Jesus to his former followers. However, many critical scholars (such as the Jesus Seminar) have come to the conclusion that Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 is describing a set of visionary experiences only, convictions on the part of certain people, including himself, that they had been in contact with Christ in his spiritual, exalted state. But with the possible exception of Paul’s own vision (though I regard Paul’s in the same way as well), these were not ‘conversion’ experiences, since the group was already formed. They did not launch the sect.

And yet these appearances to Peter, James and the others may have played a role of their own in the genesis of the Christian movement. To arrive at what this was, we will look at a different sort of account found in another epistle, 2 Peter.

A Second Century Silence

Scholars date 2 Peter anywhere between 80 and 125 (occasionally even later), but most (e.g., Koester, Mack, Kelly, Sidebottom) lean to a date one or two decades into the second century. The letter cannot be too early, for the author has lifted out passages from the epistle of Jude and worked them into his own piece, and Jude is definitely the earlier writing. Nevertheless, 2 Peter still speaks of Christ as an entity to “have knowledge of” (1:3, 1:8, 2:20, 3:18), implying revelation rather than historical memory, and there are notable silences which indicate that the writer has no concept of an historical Jesus and is unfamiliar with the Gospel story.

Among these silences is 1:20, where the writer says that “no one can interpret a prophecy of scripture by himself.” Yet Jesus is represented in the Gospels as showing how to do this. Another is 2:1, a warning that “you will have false teachers among you,” which fails to include any mention that Jesus himself had prophesied this very thing. A glaring omission is found in 3:10: “But the Day of the Lord will come, like a thief.” Matthew and Luke (from Q) both have Jesus using the identical image, but the epistle writer gives us no hint of this. J. N. D. Kelly (Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude, p.368) states: “Christ had Himself likened the coming of the Son of Man to the surprise break-in of a thief, and the vigorous image soon fixed itself on the primitive catechesis.” Yet something seems missing in this “vigorous” transfer to early Christian tradition, for neither 2 Peter, nor Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, can bring themselves to mention that Jesus had been the source of such an image; both also seem ignorant of the term Son of Man. (Revelation, in its two allusions to the thief image—3:3 and 16:15—does not assign it to an earthly Jesus in his ministry.)

A very telling silence appears in 3:2:

Here the writer seems to lack a sense of Jesus having recently been on earth, issuing predictions and commands in his own physical person. Instead of saying that the Lord had spoken these commands during his ministry, and the apostles had passed them on, the writer is somewhat ambiguous, suggesting that the apostles served as mouthpieces for commands received through revelation or simply through personal judgment of what the Lord wanted. In fact, the parallel between the two phrases in the above verse, the former speaking of God making known his predictions through his prophets, and the Lord and Savior through his apostles, suggests that both God and Savior are using revelatory channels.

Finally, we might note that 2 Peter is a polemical document, primarily concerned with countering accusations and contrary opinions from certain scoffers and errorists (e.g., 1:16, 3:3-4). Apparently these “brute beasts” are concerned solely with the Lord’s power in the present and future, and nothing of his incarnated past, for the author of this epistle never addresses any point of dispute concerning Christ’s life and teachings. No word or incident from the preserved memories about Jesus of Nazareth is offered to counter their objections, no miracle witnessed by many to answer the accusation that the power of the Lord Jesus Christ is based merely “on tales artfully spun” (1:16). And it is certainly a curiosity that nowhere does this author, who writes in Peter’s name, play his best trump card by appealing to the fact that he (Peter) had been a follower of Jesus in his earthly ministry and his chief apostle. (Helmut Koester, in his History and Literature of Early Christianity, p.295, refers to 1:14 as “the tradition that Jesus had predicted Peter’s martyrdom.” But the verb here is not one of speaking, it is deloo, to reveal, make clear, which places it without much doubt in the realm of revelation.)

Transfigured on the Holy Mountain

But there is a key passage in this epistle which clearly demonstrates the writer’s unfamiliarity with both the Gospel story and the figure of an historical Jesus. Here is 1:16-19 in full, courtesy of the NEB:

Commentators have traditionally seen this as a reminiscence of the Transfiguration scene as recorded in the Synoptics: Mark 9:2-8, Matthew 17:1-8, Luke 9:28-36. But this claim can easily be discredited.

The writer represents himself as Peter, one of three apostles who, according to the account first set down in Mark, witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on a “high mountain” in Galilee. Mark speaks only of his clothes becoming bright, while Matthew and Luke have added a brightness to his face. (The incident does not appear in John, despite the fact that “John” is one of the three Apostles who witnessed it.) During the Gospel event Elijah and Moses appear, and a voice out of the clouds says: “This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him.”

Now, in 2 Peter, any idea that this scene had taken place during Jesus’ earthly ministry has to be read into things. The writer supplies us with no such context. Moreover, no mention is made of the presence of Moses and Elijah, or of Peter’s suggestion that three tabernacles be set up, or that the voice came out of the clouds, features found in all three Synoptic versions. Nor is any mention made of Jesus’ clothes or face being illuminated, features which might better identify the figure in the writer’s mind as a human one. All this makes it highly unlikely that he has drawn his knowledge of this “incident” from a Gospel account.

Why is the writer presenting his readers with what is clearly a revelatory event? The reason has to do with the Parousia, mentioned in verse 16: “. . . we told you of the power and Parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The word “Parousia” is used in the New Testament to refer to the future arrival of Jesus at the End-time. Here in 2 Peter translators almost always render it “his coming,” making it a reference to that future event. This would seem to be borne out by a repeat of the word in 3:4, where it clearly entails a future expectation: “Where now is the promise of his coming?” (In 1:16 it could conceivably be limited to the sense of “presence,” a reference only to the manifestation of Christ during the incident being described, but let’s set that possibility aside and go with the more likely interpretation, and the consensus opinion.)

Here, then, the author is presenting this scene as support for his contention that readers can rely on the Lord Jesus Christ as a powerful entity, that he is present among them, and that the promise will be fulfilled of “full and free admission into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (1:11), when that Lord arrives at the Parousia. The writer holds up this incident, however he sees it, as a prophetic vision of what is to come.

The first question which should occur to us—and some scholars have asked it—is this: if the writer is seeking to offer something as “proof” of the power of Christ, something which supports the promise of eternal life for believers, why would he choose an incident from Jesus’ ministry in which his clothes (and possibly his face) were made bright? Even the voice from heaven hardly tells us very much or makes this the most overwhelming of experiences. Why not offer something far more dramatic, something which Peter himself had supposedly witnessed: Jesus’ very resurrection from death? After all, this historical act is the presumed basis for Christian faith in human resurrection. The author could even have supplemented this miracle by enumerating the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his apostles. And if his readers are looking for guarantees of Jesus’ future coming, why not add Jesus’ own promises that he would return? Kelly (op.cit., p.320) acknowledges that “there are fascinating puzzles here which remain unsolved.” Indeed.

Another question: Is all this the language of eyewitness of earthly events? The verb “gnoridzo” (make known—“told”—in verse 16) is a technical term in the New Testament for imparting a divine mystery. “Epoptai” (eyewitnesses) is also used of the higher grade initiates in the Greek mystery cults who had experienced theophanies (the perceived presence of the god). Rather than visual eyewitness, the idea definitely carries a visionary connotation, suggesting, as Kelly puts it (op.cit., p.318), “privileged admission to a divine revelation.”

Thus, indications are that the writer is recounting a visionary experience attributed to the apostle Peter. He knows of a tradition which says that Peter, while with other apostles (here unspecified), had seen the spiritual Christ. Note that there is no mention here of any change to Jesus; we do not have a human figure taking on the appearance of a heavenly one, as in the Gospel scene. Verse 16 simply says: “we saw him in his majesty.” This witness was accompanied by the hearing of a heavenly voice, which further bestowed “honor and glory” upon that majesty. (The NEB is misleading when it separates the “honor and glory” from the voice, implying the Gospel idea of the human figure being transformed. Rather, the Greek states that it was God’s words which constituted and conveyed the honor and glory. Most translations view it this way, or take it ambiguously; the sentence is grammatically awkward, lacking a main verb.)

Verse 18 might seem to suggest the presence of a human Jesus in this scene, but even here the ambiguity tends not to support such an idea. Literally, the Greek says: “This voice we heard borne out of heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.” The “being with him” is unlikely to refer to the Gospel context of the apostles going up to the mountain with Jesus, because in that case, it is the whole transfiguration event that would have taken place “while we were with him,” including verse 16’s appearance in majesty. Instead, the writer restricts himself to the voice from heaven, suggesting that he simply means that this particular manifestation (the voice itself) occurred ‘while they were experiencing his revelatory appearance.’

Notice the high scriptural content of this incident. E. M. Sidebottom (James, Jude and 2 Peter, p.109) points out that the overall atmosphere is similar to Old Testament theophanies of God, as though the scene is modeled on scriptural precedents. The voice from heaven is based on the well-known verse of Psalm 2:7 which crops up in the Gospel scene of Jesus’ baptism as well as of the Transfiguration. (2 Peter’s wording, however, is unlike the Synoptics’ own adaptations, a further indication that the passage is not derived from them.) The “honor and glory” spoken of in verse 17 echoes the words of Psalm 8:5. And the mountain? 2 Peter uses “on the holy mountain,” which is very close to Psalm 2:6: “on Zion his holy mountain.” This the Synoptics have watered down to “a high mountain.”

Kelly, however, has decided (op.cit., p.319) that the Gospels’ “high mountain” evolved into “holy mountain” over the course of time, assuming the Gospel tradition to be earlier. But 2 Peter’s words are almost certainly there because they appear in the Psalm, and Mark may have been forced to eliminate the “holy” because there was no mountain that could be called such in Galilee where he set this story.

I suspect that the tradition about a visionary appearance by the spiritual Christ to Peter has been ‘elucidated’ with the help of biblical references. We’ll consider what that tradition may have been in a moment.

Lamps in the Darkness

That this passage is not a reminiscence of some event which happened during the ministry of an historical Jesus is clinched by what follows. Verse 19 presents us with a bizarre conclusion which the writer draws from this scene. Let’s repeat the verse here:

What is the writer saying? Are we to believe that the eyewitnessed glorification of Jesus of Nazareth into his divine persona, the very voice of God out of heaven acknowledging him as his Son, serves merely to support scripture? That the entire ministry of the Son of God on earth is secondary to Old Testament prophecy? (Kelly calls this “paradoxical”.)

The Translator’s New Testament renders the opening of verse 19 this way: “So we believe all the more firmly in the word of the prophets.” In other words, the writer of 2 Peter is presenting this scene as corroboration for the primary source of information about Jesus and the hope of his coming: the Hebrew bible. It is simply inconceivable that he would have so characterized the Transfiguration as presented by the Gospels. Indeed, it is inconceivable that he could have possessed any concept of a recent earthly life of Jesus, with all its teachings, prophecies, promises, miracles and the conquest of death itself, yet still focus on the biblical writings as the “lamp shining in a murky place until the day breaks.” This would make scripture the primary testimony, the primary basis, on which Christian hopes for the future rested.

Kelly, in his strained attempt to explain the anomaly of verse 19, passes over this astounding focus on scripture rather than on Christ’s recent life as the lamp for Christians waiting in the dark for salvation. So does A. C. R. Leaney (The Letters of Peter and Jude, p.114), who notes instead that, “curiously enough,” verse 19 really says that scriptural testimony to Jesus is “more certain” than the voice of God at the Transfiguration—but only because the prophets spent more words on it and thus made it clearer!

If, on the other hand, the scene the writer is recounting is a tradition about Peter’s vision of a Christ who has not yet arrived on earth, then the weight he gives to this experience is exactly right. Interpretation of the word of God in the sacred writings has been given support by a report about another form of communication from heaven: a vision of the glory of the Son and the voice of God himself identifying and acknowledging him. This vision is taken as a promise of his coming, supporting a promise made in scripture.

It is ironic that the writer began his scene with this disclaimer: these are not “fables” or “tales artfully spun” which he offers, implying that his opponents have labeled them this way. If the writer faced such accusations, surely the most natural rebuttal would have been a spirited presentation of the things Jesus had said and done during his ministry on earth. Instead, he manages to avoid any clear reference at all to an historical Jesus of Nazareth. Kelly, ever resourceful at discerning light where none shines, declares nevertheless (p.316) that “Peter,” in rebutting accusations that his claims are contrived mythology, has given his opponents “the apostolic version of Christianity, with its secure basis in history.”

Evolving Interpretations

2 Peter clearly regards the appearance of Christ in his glory as a forecast of the Parousia. And Kelly allows (p.317) that there is some evidence in early Christian thought that the Transfiguration was an anticipation of the Second Coming. But this is not how the Gospels themselves view it. Instead, Mark 9:9 shows Jesus linking it with his coming resurrection, when he would rise in glory. (The fact that the apostles fail to understand Jesus’ reference to his rising from the dead shows that the evangelist is ‘editorializing’ and that for him the important link is with the resurrection.)

If 2 Peter points to an earlier stratum (it would have to be earlier, since the interpretation found in the Gospels and the force of their resurrection story would hardly be lost sight of or abandoned), it is almost a necessary conclusion that this earlier line of thought was not only unfamiliar with the Gospels, but that it knew of no resurrection intervening between the “transfiguration” episode recounted in 2 Peter and the future Parousia. That resurrection, of a human Jesus in historical time, came only with the Gospels, when the tradition about an event witnessed by Peter and others was reinterpreted to point to Jesus’ glorification at the time of his rising from the tomb. (It does not matter that 2 Peter was almost certainly written after the Gospel of Mark. The latter was not yet known to the author of the epistle, who was drawing on older traditions; and this would support the contention that the Gospels were not widely disseminated for some time after they were written.)

Possibly Mark himself conscripted the ‘transfiguration’ tradition into his story and placed it in Jesus’ ministry, where it served to provide a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection. We must remember that Mark had no post-resurrection appearances to draw on—and unlike his redactors did not invent any—so this scene would have served him as a prophetic substitute (though he was likely writing symbolic midrash, not perceived history). Its old significance as a forecast of the Parousia was abandoned.

Roots of the Christian Movement

All of this opens up some fascinating possibilities. Does the tradition recounted in 2 Peter go back to an actual experience of the apostle Peter who is known to us from the letters of Paul? It is impossible to be sure, but there is no reason why this could not be the case, even if that tradition was subsequently conflated with ‘elucidating’ scriptural material. And if such a tradition shows no knowledge or trace of a resurrection event, we are left with this picture of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem: not a community which reacted to the perceived rising of an earthly Jesus they had known and followed, but one which had come to believe in the imminent arrival of the spiritual Christ at the End time, prompted by a vision (or more likely a series of them) of the sort which later gave rise to the episode recounted in 2 Peter.

The next question is obvious. Do we in fact have an earlier record of that very vision or series of visions of the spiritual Christ? Is it to be found in Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians 15 of those various individuals and groups, including Peter, who “saw” the Christ, in the sense of receiving a revelation of him, an experience of his presence—which many of today’s critical scholars now agree is Paul’s meaning? If so, our analysis of the 2 Peter episode will support that agreement and point to the greater significance of those experiences in Jerusalem.

For we may well postulate that, for this sectarian group, it was these visions of the divine Christ which resulted in the conviction that he was soon to arrive in glory to establish the Kingdom. It may even be that these visions were the “event” which gave rise to the charismatic missionary movement proceeding out of Jerusalem to preach the Christ and his imminent coming, one which the hostile Saul soon joined as Paul. Thus Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 may be regarded as pointing to the inauguration of the “Petrine-Pauline” branch of the Christian faith, at least in its active phase.

Accordingly, we can place these verses in a kind of parallel to the passages we looked at earlier, in Hebrews and 1 John, as a record of events which gave rise to a new sectarian group or activity within the widespread salvation movement which eventually became known as Christianity. The episode which survives in 2 Peter 1:16-18, no doubt “glorified” in the interim (there is no necessity to think that Peter had his vision on a holy mountain, or heard the voice of God from heaven speaking a verse from the Psalm), gives us a window onto that momentous happening, adding some legendary light to Paul’s bare recital.

In all of the passages we have looked at, tantalizing questions remain. Under what circumstances did these revelatory occurrences take place, and were they responsible for the actual formation of the sectarian group? Or, when one thinks about it, must some form of organization have existed already, possibly of recent vintage, within whose volatile and expectant atmosphere the awaited manifestation from God or Lord inevitably took place? Paul’s gospel “kata tas graphas” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) suggests the presence and impact of scriptural study among such groups (as does the entire tenor of the Epistle to the Hebrews), and such intense perusal of the sacred writings may well have triggered the perceived “revelations” all these epistles speak of.

What might have been the content of those revelations? Were they simply a confirmation that the spiritual Christ did indeed exist? Or did they include certain information about his nature and redeeming activities? Paul, as well as those who came after him, spoke regularly about the revelation of the mystery of God, the secret of Christ disclosed in the present time. It may be that ideas about such things as Paul includes in his gospel had been derived from a study of scripture and were then seen to be given confirmation by visions like those enjoyed by Peter and company.

Such study may have been the reason for the formation of the group to begin with. Was this the founding purpose of the “brothers in the Lord” under James, sometime around the quarter mark of the first century in Jerusalem? Were they engaged in any proselytizing activity at the time of those visions, or was such activity largely the result of them? Perhaps the revelation was restricted to the fact that Christ was about to come and inaugurate the Kingdom, prompting an apostolic movement of which Paul became a part.

We have no idea how long the Jerusalem group had been operating. Had it formed specifically to explore contemporary religious ideas about an expected Messiah? Or was it an exploration of the new divine Son: what he had done in his spiritual past and what he would do in the future? Perhaps the latter ideas were a product of the group’s study, no doubt influenced by developing trends of thought in the world around them. Perhaps it had begun as a more mainstream group—with the “Lord” referring not to Christ but to God—only to find itself swept up in the burgeoning new currents of the day. How sectarian was it, and did it have strong apocalyptic expectations from the start? Or did these arise in earnest only following those experiences of the spiritual Messiah and the promise of his coming?

We are almost totally in the dark about the group’s specific beliefs and practices, except for what little emerges in Paul, and that mostly by inference. Acts purports to tell us much, but this document is a second century concoction, entirely at the service of the new myth of an historical Jesus and a unified origin for the Christian movement. While certain elements in Acts have a primitive character which may point to traditions reaching back to early times, no actual sources have been uncovered for anything it presents, and everything would have been recast to fit the new plot line of Christian history.

For a key question remains: how much of what Paul was preaching goes back to the Jerusalem group and how much was a product of his own post-conversion development? Certainly Paul claims no derivation whatsoever from others, even though he acknowledges that they hold common elements (as in 1 Corinthians 15:11). But we must keep in mind that almost everything Paul tells us, or implies, about the group around Peter and James relates to the period when he began to write letters, that is, to the time of the so-called Apostolic Conference around the year 49. It is virtually impossible to tell if the doctrines which the group in Jerusalem believed at that time went back to the period of the initial visions and the sect’s formation, perhaps some two decades earlier. Interim developments, among them perhaps Paul’s own innovations, may have contributed to an evolution in whatever view of the divine Son of God Peter and the others held.

All these questions will never have firm answers. We are in the area of speculation. But we can add one more point here. Did the visions which ended up in scenes like that of 2 Peter have a direct influence on the creation of Jesus of Nazareth?

By the late first century, many factors were converging to initiate the evolution of the spiritual Christ into an historical Jesus, and some of these tendencies may have been independent of the Gospels. If we can impute to the evangelists any sense that the figure they were portraying had any basis in history (which the evolution of Q might suggest), a major factor which led to placing him in the time of Herod and Pontius Pilate may have been these visions. While it might have seemed natural to place Jesus in the generation of the earliest known apostles, the tradition that Peter, James and others had “seen” him in his exalted state could have contributed to the idea that such apostles had in fact been disciples of an earthly Jesus, and that they had witnessed a transfiguration of the human man; later, such visions became appearances he had made to them after his resurrection.

Paul himself had spoken of seeing the “risen Christ.” What was lost sight of was the fact that Paul had not meant the recently risen Jesus of Nazareth, but a divine Christ who in the mythical realm had been killed (by supernatural powers: 1 Corinthians 2:8; see Supplementary Article No. 3, Who Crucified Jesus?), raised and exalted by God, all of this being the great mystery which God, through scripture and the Spirit, had revealed to those earliest apostles.

Is two to three generations enough lapse of time to allow for such a monumental misunderstanding of the past to take place? In an era of war and upheaval during which much of Palestine was laid waste, in a society which (compared to our own) possessed primitive communication, record-keeping, scientific enlightenment and skills of critical thinking, in an atmosphere of religious fanaticism fuelled by fevered sectarian expectations of mythic proportion, that question scarcely needs to be asked.