Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case


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

Introduction, Shirley J. Case, Maurice Goguel

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

When I first embarked on this article, I did not anticipate the length it would eventually assume, especially as it was initially envisioned as a new Appendix for the second edition of The Jesus Puzzle. But this is the first time, to my knowledge, that anyone has undertaken a comprehensive response to the claim that scholarship has addressed and refuted the Jesus Myth theory, and so it had to start from scratch and deal with a century of such literature. While that literature has not been extensive—at least, not as extensive as is often implied—there have been a few full-length books as well as chapters within other books. To be effective, the article had to deal with the major works in substantial detail, since a rebuttal confined mostly to generalities would not have satisfied the reader nor dissuaded the critics. The reader who perseveres across this century-long survey and rebuttal will find a certain amount of repetition, as each writer’s attempt at refutation naturally deals with some of the same documents and subjects. But I have tried to maintain a variety and change of angle in the successive discussions, and I have focused as much on the character of the arguments and thought processes expressed by each individual author. In the end, I trust that the open-minded reader will be satisfied that the claim of refutation has been vastly overstated, if not discredited. And as always, the article will additionally serve to advance many of the arguments for the mythicist case.

An index and list of topics is provided in the Introduction



There has been a consistent conviction regularly expressed that New Testament scholarship has, over the last hundred years, addressed and refuted in decisive fashion various expressions of the Jesus Myth theory. In the first few decades of the 20th century a number of books were written whose sole or main thrust was directed at discrediting writers and lecturers who argued for the non-existence of Jesus, mythicists such as J. M. Robertson in England, Arthur Drews in Germany, William B. Smith in America, Pierre Couchoud in France. In the last 60 years or so, there has been less activity, mostly found as passing sections within books devoted more specifically to attempts to extract the Jesus of history from the record, rather than to defending him against mythicists. But the conviction continues that this work of refutation has long since been completed and scarcely needs revisiting.

A typical example is historian Michael Grant, who in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (1977), devotes a few paragraphs to the question in an Appendix. There [p.200], he says:

“To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars’. In recent years ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’—or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.”

One will note that Grant’s statement about answering and annihilating, and the remark about serious scholars, are in quotes, and are in fact the opinions of previous writers. Clearly, Grant himself has not undertaken his own ‘answer’ to mythicists. Are those quoted writers themselves scholars who have undertaken such a task? In fact, they are not. One referenced writer, Rodney Dunkerley, in his Beyond the Gospels (1957, p.12), devotes a single paragraph to the “fantastic notion” that Jesus did not actually live; its exponents, he says, “have again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars,” but since he declares it “impossible to summarize those scholars’ case here,” he is not the source of Grant’s conviction. Nor can that be Oskar Betz, from whose What Do We Know About Jesus? (1968, p.9) Grant takes his second quote. Betz claims that since Wilhelm Bousset published an essay in 1904 exposing the ‘Christ myth’ as “a phantom,” “no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus.” This ignores many serious presentations of that very idea since Bousset, and evidently relies on defining “serious” as excluding anyone who would dare to undertake such a misguided task.

Betz goes on to provide a paragraph outlining “non-Christian sources” which “permit no doubt as to the actual existence of Jesus of Nazareth.” They include, of course, Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius, whose unreliability for such a purpose has been thoroughly discussed in my book, The Jesus Puzzle and on this website—and will be further discussed in the present article. Even in this cursory outline, Betz inserts all sorts of qualifiers: that the sources are “few and far between” and come at least two generations after Jesus; that the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus “is no longer in its original form but must have been revised by a Christian hand. Nevertheless it is quite possible that at this point Josephus spoke of Jesus…” In regard to Suetonius, he says: “ ‘Chrestus’ doubtless means Christ…though apparently Suetonius had only a vague notion of the actual facts.” Betz goes on to refer to the Jewish Talmud, a compilation produced centuries later whose description of Jesus is widely off the supposed historical mark. Betz admits, “These statements reveal little historical knowledge,” yet “…they indicate no doubt whatever about the genuine existence of Jesus.

One supposes that, for Grant, such timeworn and superficial ‘answers’ to the Jesus Myth represent ‘annihilation,’ but one can perhaps forgive mythicists for begging to differ. Superficiality, reluctant qualifications, distortion of evidence, lack of imagination for thinking outside the box, and the appeal to constant “no doubt” assumptions, are part of the approach of all such refutations, including the most recent, as we shall see. And they bring the same questionable approach to their support for the contention that Jesus did exist and that the Christian record, especially the Gospels, can be relied upon to demonstrate that fact.

Grant himself, not a New Testament scholar, is prey to the same restricted and simplistic thinking that refuters of the myth theory often themselves betray. He too [p.199] appeals to the idea that “Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of the deaths and rebirths of mythical gods seems so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit.” This, of course, ignores the fact that an exclusive form of ‘mainstream’ Judaism that might have had such an attitude was not yet established, especially outside Palestine and in the pre-70 period; this has been acknowledged by critical New Testament scholarship for several decades now. Grant also urges applying the same criteria to the record of Jesus that historians apply to other ancient writings whose authors, like the evangelists, describe events often in differing terms; this ignores the significant and even fundamental differences involved between the two categories. The very fact that no one has ever postulated the non-existence of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, despite the legendary elements accreting to such figures in their histories during ancient times, demonstrates this inherent difference—a fact which cannot be blithely put down, as so many do, either directly or by insinuation, to some kind of anti-Christian or anti-religious motivation on the part of mythicists. Discrediting the messenger has always been one of the weapons in the arsenal of anti-mythicist writers.

Insult is another. In my critique of Mike Licona, I reproduced his quotes from 20th century scholars in regard to those who put forward the mythicist theory. They include:

- Gunther Bornkamm: “to doubt the historical existence of Jesus at all...was reserved for an unrestrained, tendentious criticism of modern times into which it is not worth while to enter here.”
- Rudolf Bultmann: “Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement.”
- Paul Maier: “The total evidence [for the existence of Jesus] is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus' existence. And yet this pathetic denial is still parroted by ‘the village atheist,’ bloggers on the internet, or such organizations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.”

As I said there, such responses are not critiques. They are little more than declarations of faith, offended at the very idea being proposed. Maier is practically foaming at the mouth. They in no way address the arguments of the mythicist case. This is not scholarship, or an appeal to scholarship, since none is presented. It is certainly not neutrality or the scientific approach to a thesis, and any spirit of inquiry is lamentably lacking.

To survey in detail all the attempted refutations of the Jesus Myth over the course of a century would lie outside the scope of any article. I will focus on three representative examples, one old, two new, with side glances at a few others. On an Internet website of the apologetic variety, Christopher Price has posted a survey of this genre, entitled “A History of Scholarly Refutations of the Jesus Myth,” looking at the anti-mythicist cases presented by eight authors from 1912 to 2000. I will be addressing some of Price’s own remarks along the way, but my rebuttal will in all cases be based on my own reading of such texts. They are as follows:

Part One:
Shirley J. Case: The Historicity of Jesus
Major topics: Attestation of Gospels
Maurice Goguel: Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?
Major topics: The Mythicist Case (Couchoud); Josephus rejected; Pliny; Tacitus; Anti-Christian polemic; Docetism; Paul and early Christian unity; Son of David born of woman; 1 Cor. 15; Gal. 4:4; Descending god Myth/Ascension of Isaiah/Philippians hymn; Paul and Hellenistic salvation; Lack of history in epistles; the Gospels and the beginning of Christianity

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

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

Perhaps the primary feature of the various mythicist cases put forward at the beginning of the 20th century involved the postulation that there was a pre-Christian Jewish sect or mystery cult centering on the biblical figure of Joshua (in Hebrew, the same name as Jesus, “Yeshua”). He had, so the theory went, been turned into a savior-god of the dying and rising variety, and some rituals associated with him were formalized in a drama that was eventually regarded as historical. In the more Gentile milieu of the Diaspora, this Joshua evolved into the Christian Jesus, who acquired an historical life and setting in the time of Pontius Pilate.

Virtually all of the early refuters of mythicism focused first and foremost on this postulation of a pre-Christian cult, pointing out that there was no documentary evidence of such a thing, beyond the claimed ‘hints’ pointed at by mythologists. This is one reason why such refutations are largely out of date; they address a dead issue. No mythicist today holds to a pre-Christian Joshua cult, for which there is no direct evidence. The idea, however, could be said to have undergone a simple tweaking—but in a significant way. The Jesus cult of a dying and rising savior need no longer be seen as pre-Christian or as relating to the biblical Joshua. It constituted, in fact, the religious movement to which Paul was a convert, and to which his letters and other early documents bear witness. Thus, there is no longer any question of its existence, but rather of its interpretation. And we are able to derive from that record a much more detailed and nuanced picture of the lines of thought which led and contributed to its genesis and development. Moreover, we can no longer focus exclusively on the dying and rising motif, since many expressions of primitive or ‘proto’ Christianity did not involve it, even into the 2nd century. Christian Gnosticism’s Revealer figure, for example, did not—or only secondarily, under the influence of proto-orthodoxy and the Gospels. Paul witnesses to rival Christian apostles who did not have a theology of the cross, and we can see that void in documents like the Odes of Solomon. All of it seems to have been rooted in what I have called the “intermediary Son concept of divine emanations, something which spanned many cultures: the Greek Logos, Jewish Personified Wisdom, the Egyptian Thoth, and various other expressions.

S. J. Case: The Historicity of Jesus
Chicago, 1912)

This preoccupation with a pre-Christian Joshua cult is found in Shirley J. Case’s The Historicity of Jesus. Nothing further need be said about that aspect of the book. Characteristically, Case accuses mythicists of “displaying a partisan temper not consistent with the spirit of a truly scientific research”—as if New Testament research at the turn of the 20th century could be said to have faithfully followed the principles of scientific inquiry. Case’s sentiments are echoed by Price, indicating that little has changed a century later: “Though the alternative theories may have changed…the rationale upon which they rest appears to be the same—a desire to come up with an explanation, any explanation, other than an historical founder.” Too much of this kind of denigration—one could almost call it demonization—of mythicists and their motives shines through in rebuttals and comments from everyone, from Rudolf Bultmann to today’s Paul Meier, as we saw above.

Price finds the following argument from Case “convincing.” Case is addressing the question of whether the Gospels were in existence, as well as widely known and used, during the first half of the 2nd century, in order to judge their reliability as a witness to Jesus a century earlier. He tries to put the best face on things [p.206f], pointing to “several writers of unquestionable reliability” [all italics are my highlightings] who “in the last quarter of the second century…bear united testimony to the existence of the Gospels.” Further, in the Muratorian fragment detailing the Canon at that time (end of the second century) “the four Gospels were evidently enumerated at the beginning of the list of New Testament books. Tatian incorporated them in his Diatessaron (around 170). Justin, around 155, referred to them as “memoirs of the Apostles” (the first to make identified and identifiable quotes from them, with no mention of authors). Marcion (around 145) “used the Third Gospel and presumably knew the others.” Case admits that Ignatius and Polycarp (110-135?) “make no definite mention of an individual gospel,” but “certainly…were familiar with evangelical tradition.” 1 Clement “cites teachings of Jesus which resemble gospel language, but which are not sufficiently exact to be taken for quotations.” Case sums up: “From this survey it is clear that the gospels were in existence before the close of the 2nd century. They had, moreover, attained the status of canonical.

No one, certainly not I nor any other mythicist, would disagree with that summation. But Case’s litany, as indicated by my emphases, does nothing to support his contention that the Gospels were a vital force in the first half of the century. If anything, he has simply and amply demonstrated the very opposite, that the Gospels began to emerge into Christian consciousness only toward the middle of the century. Does he acknowledge such a conclusion based on the evidence, as a true investigator working in the spirit of scientific inquiry would do? Does he follow the scientific principle of being governed by the evidence, rather than predisposition? These are his follow-up remarks:

But we are not to imagine that the above data convey any adequate idea of the actual extent to which tradition about Jesus was known and used in the first half of the second century. The external evidence now known to us pertains more particularly to the history of the gospels’ rise to prominence than to the fact of their existence. Since they had not been issued under the aegis of any special authority, it was only gradually that they won their way to general recognition. We remember that Ignatius encountered Christians who were unwilling to accept any written authorities except the ‘charters,’ seemingly meaning the Old Testament, yet these individuals were doubtless acquainted with all the essentials of gospel tradition as commonly repeated and interpreted in public preaching and teaching. Their demurrer is not a rejection of gospel tradition but a hesitation about placing any writing on a plane with the Old Testament as ‘Scripture.’ Thus it appears that the scantiness of reference to the gospels in the early second century is no fair measure of the probability or improbability of their existence at that time. [p.207-208]

If there was ever a classic case of someone in denial, this is it. After enumerating all “the above data,” Case simply dismisses it as indicating anything that would be detrimental to his preferred picture. He asks us to believe that Gospels in existence since the latter half of the first century would somehow be kept at arm’s length by Christian commentators for many decades, unaccepted and unused, unappealed to because “they had not been issued under the aegis of any special authority,” a meaningless idea for that period since no “special authority” existed. As well, Case evidently assumes that all early Christians would be governed by certain rational considerations, reserving judgment as to the accuracy and dependability of circulating documents about Jesus. This is so unlikely as to be ridiculous.

Case interprets Ignatius’ remarks (Epistle to the Philadelphians, 8) as meaning that some Christians were reticent about accepting such written accounts, although this is not likely in the view of modern scholars, since the “I do not believe in the gospel” would be judged as referring to the oral gospel message, as it does in Paul, rather than a written Gospel (see Helmut Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels, for example). Certainly, Ignatius neither here nor anywhere else defends a written document, and in fact goes on to state that for him the “charters” are the fact of “Jesus Christ, his cross and death and resurrection,” with not a glance at any alternate form of scripture. Yet in the face of either alternative, Christians rejecting written Gospels or simply ignorant of them, Case confidently declares that these people were “doubtless acquainted with all the essentials of gospel tradition.” Ignatius himself knows a few basics, but seemingly little else. This, together with the claim that such tradition was “commonly repeated and interpreted in public preaching and teaching,” is belied by Ignatius’ own indication that many people did not subscribe to this tradition. (For a full discussion, see my Article No. 12: Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers.) It is unsupported in all the first century epistolary evidence, which is silent about even the basic Gospel data that Ignatius is urging his readers to believe throughout his epistles. Nor does Case’s claim work that the situation concerns “a hesitation about placing any writing on a plane with the Old Testament as ‘scripture’.” Ignatius’ words make it clear that these people are refusing to believe in the content of the gospel, be that oral or written, and Case is simply twisting the passage to try to neuter its significance.

None of this demonstrates that written Gospels were known and used by Christians in the early 2nd century, let alone that they were dependable as witnesses to an historical Jesus, yet Case refuses to accept it. He has certainly failed to discredit mythicist views on this point. (My own view is that while the earliest Gospel(s) may well have been in existence in the early second century, such writings had not been intended or recognized as history, and were gradually disseminated with that new view only as the century progressed). For Price to find Case’s arguments “convincing” shows that he too is operating under the same prejudgment and refusal to properly evaluate evidence.

This example from Case’s book illustrates the kind of wishful-thinking reasoning that is endemic to such so-called refutations, even among “first-rate scholars” and not excepting more recent ones. Now let’s go on to the book that is often touted as the most definitive refutation prior to our own time, Maurice Goguel’s Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?

Maurice Goguel: Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?
(English translation: London, 1926)

Goguel opens his book with an informative survey of New Testament scholarship prior to the 20th century, centering on the question of Jesus’ existence and identity, from Reimarus to Strauss and Bauer, to the “Lives” of Jesus inaugurated by Renan. Here we see the roots of the modern exegetical task of separating out the various elements attached to Jesus, the apocalyptic eschatology, the messianic self-identification, the preaching of the Kingdom, the ethical teachings, and deciding which should be accorded prominence in the portrayal of the career and thinking of the historical man. That question is still being debated today; uncovering the ‘genuine’ historical Jesus continues to be elusive. Some commentators, epitomized by Alfred Loisy, regarded Christianity as the product of the ‘church’ which arose in response to Jesus, but with the part actually played by him as possibly minor and ultimately unknowable.

It was at the opening of the 20th century that the first serious presentations of the Jesus Myth theory appeared. The earliest efforts by such as Robertson, Drews, Jensen and Smith were, from a modern point of view, less than perfect, lacking a comprehensive explanation for all aspects of the issue. Pre-Christian cults, astral religions, obscure parallels with foreign cultures, even the epic of Gilgamesh, went into a somewhat hodge-podge mix; many of them didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Paul. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Paul-Louis Couchoud in France offered a more coherent scenario, identifying Christ in the eyes of Paul as a spiritual being. (While not relying upon him, I would trace my type of thinking back to Couchoud, rather than the more recent G. A. Wells who, in my opinion, misread Paul’s understanding of Christ.)

Goguel’s summary of Couchoud’s case is succinct and illuminating, and while that case has needed refining and augmenting in light of more recent developments, it is worth quoting here [p.26-27]:

In M. Couchoud’s opinion, the method in which historians, from Renan to Loisy, attempt to understand the history of Jesus and the genesis of Christianity is liable to two main difficulties. The first is that it is inconceivable that in less than a single generation a man should be deified, and this within the territory of Jewish monotheism. The second is that historically Jesus escapes us. The testimony of Josephus is an established forgery. The Talmud contains nothing about Jesus which does not come from Christian tradition. Out of three of the oldest pagan testimonies there is one—that of Suetonius—which may refer to an unknown Jewish agitator known as Chrestos. The other two—those of Pliny and Tacitus—establish only the existence of a Christian movement, but as regards its origins, they give only information borrowed from the Christians themselves.

As for the evangelists, M. Couchoud points out that these are not histories, but outlines of the good news; in other words, they are writings of an essentially mystical character. They have two sources: the inspired writings and the visions….Beyond the evangelists it is requisite to go back to the oldest form of the Christian faith, such as the epistles of Paul bring to our knowledge. The Christianity of Paul is neither the deification nor the cult of a man. His Christ is but a new form of the old God of Israel, Yahveh, as Messiah….In reality, Jesus is not a man progressively deified; He is a God progressively humanized. He is not a founder of religion, but a new God….

Jesus must, then, have been at the beginning the God of a mystery. At the time of Paul neither the God nor the mystery had become historical. They were to become so in the period to follow the creative age, when it would be no longer possible to understand the high spirituality which had inspired the primitive faith, and when the celestial drama upon which Christianity of the first generation had lived had been transported to earth.

Couchoud’s case, as excellently summarized by Goguel, makes eminent sense, and Goguel has a task ahead of him to discredit it. And yet at the outset, Goguel declares that he is not going to directly address it. He essentially labels [p.29] the mythicist case in general as “interpretations” upon “facts,” as though the record itself could be labeled the latter in the absence of any interpretation. (Modern theorists would certainly disagree.) He appeals to the need for “objectivity” to evaluate these facts, while at the same time acknowledging that the possibility of such an objective evaluation could be challenged on the grounds that the “solution cannot fail to have a direct bearing upon our philosophical or religious concepts.” In other words, interpretation could be determined by faith. How to get around that? Goguel proposes adopting the principle that

we consent to admit as the first premises of every religious philosophy…that it is not the facts which must be adapted to our theories [i.e., religious beliefs], but rather it is our theories [beliefs] which must, if necessary, be corrected and rectified to put them in harmony with the facts.”

A worthy and ambitious principle indeed—essentially the adoption of the scientific method—and one which religion in general has rarely if ever followed. But will Goguel objectively evaluate the arguments and evidence of the mythicists?

It is a question of fact which is before us: Are there historical proofs of value for the actual existence of Jesus? We shall therefore leave on one side the discussion of the more or less complicated theories offered to explain (other than by the existence and activity of Jesus) the appearance and development of Christianity. It would be easy to show how much there enters of the conjectural, of superficial resemblances, of debatable interpretation into the systems of the Drews, the Robertsons, the W. B. Smiths, the Couchouds, or the Stahls. We shall not linger on the way to do it. We shall not discuss theories which to a more or less extent are inspired by considerations depending neither on history nor on criticism, but upon religious philosophy. [p.30-31]

Goguel simply makes a sweeping and disdainful dismissal of anything the mythicists have put forward. Discrediting them would be “easy,” but he won’t bother to do it. They are conjectural, motivated by prejudice, outside the pale of legitimate history and criticism. For him what matters—the “facts”—are the historical proofs for the existence of Jesus. He goes on to say that if these are shown to be “sufficient,” then any theory about the origins of Christianity “should accommodate itself to them.” He has prejudged the entire field of evidence, closed his mind to the possibility of contrary interpretations, and refused to address the mythicist case itself. (He does, as it turns out, address several elements of the mythicist position, particularly the “pre-Christian cult” proposal, but most of this is done within the presentation of his “sufficient proofs” for Jesus’ existence in the Christian and non-Christian record.)

Thus Goguel has made a mockery of his ideal principle of letting the facts govern his theories. Regrettably, little has changed since Goguel’s time.

The Non-Christian Witness to Jesus

As the first step in his survey of the “facts” that will provide sufficient proof for the existence of Jesus, Goguel looks at the non-Christianity testimony. First, Josephus. I will not be rearguing here the question of Josephan authenticity (that was done in book and website, and will be handled in further detail here later), but will simply take a look at Goguel's rather unique handling of the matter. Price, in his article, says no more than to admit that Goguel “is skeptical of Josephus,” and this is certainly true. But Goguel is very reluctant to find no saving grace in his dismissal of the testimony in Josephus. (It is ironic that so much apologetic defense of Jesus’ existence relies on the conviction that Josephus said something about Jesus, and yet one of the major refuters of mythicism commonly appealed to does himself reject the likelihood that Josephus said anything.) Goguel admits that manuscripts containing the Testimonium Flavianum go back only to the 11th century, that Origen, along with everyone else before Eusebius, ignores any such passage, that certain internal elements are clearly Christian forgeries, and so on. He reviews all the preferred scholarly ways to get around total dismissal, many of them still in effect today, but commits himself to none, admitting that both passages can be “suspected of interpolation” [p.35].

If both references are to be rejected as inauthentic, Goguel asks how it could be that Josephus did not refer to either Jesus or Christianity as an historical force in the pre-70 period, which was the very focus of that part of the Antiquities of the Jews? How could they have escaped his notice? Goguel suggests [p.37] that they did not, that Josephus deliberately expunged from his record anything to do with Jewish messianism and anything that might cause his Roman readers “apprehension.” Goguel uses the same rationale to ‘explain’ how another Levantine historian of the time, Justus of Tiberius, was similarly silent on Jesus and Christianityaccording to Photius in the 9th century who read the latter’s now-lost work. Thus Goguel leaves open the door for reliance on the traditional picture of Christian origins even in Josephus’ house of silence; he has come up with a purely speculative reason for that silence which allows him to sidestep the more disturbing one.

He also notes in this regard that

Josephus portrays John the Baptist [in Antiquities of the Jews, 18] as a moral preacher, and passes by unnoticed everything which presents him as the prophet of the Messiah, the one to announce the baptism of fire… [p.37]

thereby using another silence to support the silence on Jesus, as though combined they render more likely his contention that Josephus undoubtedly knew all about these things even if he didn’t mention them. This naivete is particularly in evidence in the above remarks on John. Despite Josephus’ silence on them, Goguel simply assumes that these features of the Baptist—being a prophet of Jesus and prophesying the latter’s “baptism of fire,”—were historically true, but Josephus left them unsaid because they too were tainted by the forbidden messianism. But these features come only from the Gospels, ultimately from Q, and it is highly unlikely on grounds discussed elsewhere that they can be genuinely attributed to John. Instead of all this silence being evaluated for its proper worth, in scientific fashion, Goguel simply imposes upon it his own faith-based convictions about the reliability of the Gospel record.

Goguel moves on to the letter of Pliny the Younger to the emperor Trajan (c.110) concerning the prosecution of Christians. Goguel admits [p.40] that the enigmatic “Christo quasi Deo” ([worshiping] Christ as (if) a god) “does not say explicitly whether He was conceived to be a personage having lived on earth or a being of entirely spiritual nature.” But Goguel opines that the expression “appears to mean that for Pliny Christ was not a god like unto others,” and he asks “was not the fact that he had lived on earth, that which distinguished him from others?” Goguel has hitched one speculation onto another, trying to squeeze out of a piece of non-evidence some dram of support for the existence of Jesus. While the phrase is indeed an enigma, we can draw from it no more than that Pliny is identifying the object of Christian worship as “Christ” and labeling him “a god.” This information need have no other source than the Christians themselves. Had he been told more, or if he had associated this Christ with the Jewish Messiah, we might have expected him to say more to the emperor by way of elucidation. It is hardly likely that Pliny would have used “Christ” as a name to refer to a crucified man, or that the emperor would be expected to understand it that way. From this, we may deduce that Pliny was not told by the Christians that their “Christ” was a recent historical man, and we may further deduce that the only likely reason they could have had for not giving him this information was because they themselves were unaware of it.

Proceeding to Tacitus, Goguel draws further unfounded conclusions. After outlining how Nero had slaughtered Christians after the Great Fire to throw attention away from himself as the suspected arsonist, Tacitus remarks:

The author of this name [i.e., Christians] had under the reign of Tiberius been condemned to death by the Procurator Pontius Pilate. This execrable superstition, held in check for a time, broke out anew, not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but also in the city in which all atrocities congregate and flourish. [Annals, 15:44]

Goguel claims [p.40] that the first of these sentences “must originate in some documentary source, since it contains no such word as ‘dicunt’ or ‘ferunt’ which would authorize us to suppose that Tacitus is only relating gossip.” Here Goguel is trying to counter the common mythicist argument that Tacitus could simply be repeating Christian hearsay in the Rome of his day (around 115) about the imagined founder of the movement, especially given the absence of any evidence that a written record would be likely to have existed detailing one of countless executions around the empire almost a century earlier. But Goguel has offered a dubious counter-argument. Should we expect Tacitus to include an indicator like “they say” and openly admit that he, the historian, is simply repeating hearsay? Even modern mainstream scholars (such as Norman Perrin, Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed., p.407) have suggested that Christians themselves were the source of Tacitus’ information, perhaps through police interrogations.

Goguel goes on to postulate the nature and source of this supposed written document. He rules out official archives, which would have been secret and not open even to the historian. Similarly discarded is a dependence on Josephus, since the character of the two references is fundamentally different, even contradictory. Differences, too, lead him to reject the information as coming from Pliny, friend to Tacitus. He judges the document as “not Christian, since it presumed an eclipse of Christianity after the death of Jesus,” and rules out the possibility that it was Jewish, which would never have called this founder figure “Christ.” So Goguel is left with no identifiable or reasonable documentary source for Tacitus’ information. And yet, he goes on to say [p.42]:

But one fact is certain, and that is, Tacitus knew of a document, which was neither Jewish nor Christian, which connected Christianity with the Christ crucified by Pontius Pilate. The importance of this observation does not require to be emphasized.

He cannot conceive of what that document was, but he knows it existed. Is this a proper use of evidence? Is this letting his facts govern his beliefs, instead of the other way around? It is certainly true that his observation possesses importance, for without it, the likelihood that Tacitus could reliably witness in any way to an historical Jesus simply evaporates. Refuters of the Jesus Myth seem to have an uncanny knack for bringing out the cloud that obscures the existence of Jesus, but also for finding a way to draw from it—or paint upon it—a reassuring silver lining. Price regards Goguel’s defense of the written document thesis as “persuasive.”

Goguel makes no attempt to draw much from the very ambiguous reference in Suetonius, though he leans toward seeing it as some kind of reference to Christians, and the “Chrestus” as referring to a human figure. The justification for the former is so slender as to be insignificant. If one removes the bias that Goguel clearly shows, his tendency, contrary to his principle, toward letting his beliefs govern the interpretation of the facts, he has so far offered us absolutely nothing in the way of “sufficient proofs” to lead to a necessary conclusion of Jesus’ existence.

(Lions 5, Goguel 0.)

Goguel digresses to discuss the pervasive tradition during the second and later centuries that a document, or documents, known as the Acts of Pilate, or the Letter of Pilate, existed, constituting a report to Tiberius about, and Pilate’s reaction to, the crucifixion of Jesus. In this literature, supposed to have been destroyed at an early period, Pilate is alleged to sympathize with Jesus, indeed almost to believe in him. Both Justin and Tertullian mention this sort of document and allude to certain contents to support their arguments. But Goguel and others admit it is highly unlikely that either Christian apologist actually possessed a copy of such a thing, even as a forgery (there is a surviving forged letter from Pilate as part of the later Gospel of Nicodemus), thus making their references at best unfounded hearsay or wishful thinking, at worst a falsehood. Either way, this does nothing to bestow reliability on the words of early Christian writers (including the “unquestionably reliable” Irenaeus of S. J. Case) in matters of Christian tradition. Yet Goguel shows no sign of factoring this into his evaluation of the evidence.

Two Objections to the Mythicist Thesis

In his Chapter III, Goguel addresses the earlier mythicist postulation of a pre-Christian Joshua cult. As I’ve said earlier, this is no longer held by any Jesus Myth theory (that I know of), so I will pass over this chapter without comment. Far more interesting is the next one: “Two Preliminary Objections to the Non-Historical Thesis.” His first objection relates to the polemics against Christianity by its opponents. He opens with this statement [p.69]:

From the earliest period of its existence, Christianity was the object of the liveliest attacks, both on the part of Jew and pagan, in Jerusalem and Palestine, as also in the Graeco-Roman world through which it spread at a very early date.

Does he then proceed to give us evidence and examples of these polemics “from the earliest period”? No. His list includes Lucian, Celsus, Porphyry, Julian the Apostate, and the apologists from the mid 2nd century on, which give us, he says, “a fairly accurate conception of the doctrines that were opposed to the Christians in the course of the second century.” Very true. But this is not evidence for the 1st century, and cannot be made to stand for it. (He does not mention the references in Paul to persecution of apostles like himself, or Paul’s reference to his own previous role in Jewish persecution of the church of Judea. This would be irrelevant anyway, since Paul does not indicate on what grounds these persecutions were conducted, and persecution is not the same as doctrinal challenges.)

But Goguel is undaunted. He admits, “Doubtless it is not possible to extend to the 1st century the conclusion which holds for the period which followed it.” This conclusion is that 2nd century and later opponents “never stigmatized (the Gospels) as purely and simply fiction.” But then he goes on to ignore his admission and conclude the unconclude-able anyway: “Is it not, however, improbable that the disputants of the second century would have neglected an efficient weapon which they found had been used by their predecessors?” Now, this is all very true. If 2nd century opponents could have found such a polemic in their predecessors of the 1st century, then yes, it makes sense they would have appealed to it. Thus Goguel is undoubtedly right to assume that this polemic did not exist in the 1st century. (The suggestion of it seems to show up first only in the epistles of John and Ignatius.) Where Goguel is making his mistake is in ignoring the simple possibilitywhich the extant 1st century evidence indicatesthat the polemic is missing from the 1st century because no such claim of an historical Jesus was being made by Christians.

That mistake involves assuming that the Gospels were not only written early, but widely disseminated almost immediately, and that such Gospels were understood to be an account of an historical figure. He is attacking a straw man of his own predetermined thinking. There is no evidence within the 1st century itself of the existence of the Gospels; at least, there is no indication of a knowledge, let alone a proclamation, of their content. When we arrive at the beginning of the 2nd century, when the first signs of that knowledge start to appear, there is no reason to expect that opponents of Christianity would be in any position to deny the factuality of the emerging Gospels. I have argued on other grounds that only one Gospel, at the most two, would have been in existence by the time of Ignatius, and even Ignatius himself never appeals to any of them, despite what he may have known of the odd oral tradition which found its way into Matthew or Luke attached to an apparent historical Jesus. Once the story of Jesus of Nazareth escaped its allegorical cage, out into the wider Graeco-Roman world, opponents would have had no other avenue than to give it “an interpretation which eliminated from it the miraculous and the supernatural (but) did not contest its veracity.

Goguel goes on to show how much he is locked into historicist paradigms and unable to think outside the box:

Although no polemical anti-Christian document belonging to the first century has come down to us [so we don’t know what arguments against what doctrines in what circumstances were being used by opponents of Christianity], it is possible to form an idea of its quality by the influence it exerted upon Christian tradition. The comparative study of the four evangelists shows that solicitude for apologetics was one of the factors which most directly influenced the form in which they were cast.

Goguel is claiming that we can deduce 1st century anti-Christian polemics by what the Gospels seem designed to counter, and that this alleged design shows that their writers had a “solicitude for apologetics.” First of all, we cannot judge what role the Gospels played on the 1st century scene, because to judge by the early record they had no impact whatsoever on Christians at that time; there is no sign that anybody knows them, nor do non-Christian writers betray any knowledge. (If required, I’ll appeal to Goguel here, who has rejected any authenticity for Josephus’ references.) If, as Goguel claims, they were written “to gain men to the faith and to strengthen the conviction of those already won,” they must have failed, for no one appeals to them until about the middle of the 2nd century. But leaving that aside, what is it that Goguel detects in the Gospels which points to a 1st century anti-Christian polemic, evidence for the evangelists’ solicitude for apologetics? What he detects is nothing. What he detects is a silence. That silence—on anything to counter denials of Jesus’ historicity—points in his view to another silence: the silence of any anti-Christian polemic denying that the Jesus of the Gospels had existed. So a silence about a silence illustrates the evangelists’ solicitude for apologetics. (He does not give us any example in the Gospels of positive apologetics, though no doubt it would be possible to come up with one, on some other subject.)

Regardless of the stunning case of fallacious reasoning by which he has arrived at it, Goguel's conclusion is correct [p.71]:

The editors therefore had to present the facts in the way most likely to answer the objections of opponents in advance. Now in none of the four Gospels is there to be found anything which directly or indirectly is directed against the thesis that the person Jesus had no historical reality….[N]ever does any evangelist feel the need to affirm the reality of the body of Jesus during His ministry. This is because they were not engaged with opponents who denied it.

True enough. But it does not occur to Goguel that there are other possible reasons for the absence of opponents who might deny the historicity of the Gospels’ central character: that this character was not intended to be historical, that the first Gospel was written late enough (when the century was almost over) that no one was around who could have denied the factuality of its hero, or that whenever they were written, opponents of the movement were simply not aware of them, just as no Christians seem to have been aware of them until we reach the 2nd century. And if Goguel is suggesting that the Christian movement itself, before the Gospels were written and became widely known, was proclaiming an historical Jesus, which would have led the evangelists to include apologetics in their Gospels to counter opposition to that claim, well, we have no more evidence for such a proclamation than for the dissemination of the Gospels themselves. The entire pre-Gospel Christian record, and much of it beyond, is devoid of any picture of a recent historical Jesus, believed in or proclaimed.

Goguel complicates matters by pointing to an emphasis in some resurrection accounts that Jesus’ raised body was really flesh, but this is not to be taken as designed to place stress on his historical existence. It is simply the evangelists’ ‘proof’ that Jesus came back in flesh. Besides, the first Gospel, Mark, did no such thing; he supplied no resurrection appearances at all, in any state. Apparently, then, he was not concerned “to answer the objections of opponents in advance,” belying Goguel’s contention that Mark had a solicitude for apologetics. He did not anticipate denial of Jesus’ physical rising, let alone a denial of his historicity, because Mark was not concerned with declaring his allegorical Gospel factual. Furthermore, it is reasonable to shift the dating of the Gospels a couple of decades later than the standard dating, placing Mark 85-90 and the rest in the early decades of the 2nd century: first, because the traditional dating of 70 for Mark is weakly founded on Mark 13, while the rest are simply placed at what are judged to be reasonable lengths of time after the first one, not because we have evidence for such dating; and second, because of the lack of attestation for all the Gospels until the 2nd century has gotten well under way. (Further on this below, when addressing R. Van Voorst.) Thus, even if the later evangelists were concerned with postulating an historical Jesus with a resurrection in flesh, they would be doing so as part of the wider Christian tendency at that time to turn Mark’s original Gospel story into history. Goguel has failed to grasp the dimension of evolution in Christianity, its development over a century’s time. This evolution is clear from the early record when Gospel associations are not read into the epistles.

Goguel addreses the possibility that the Gospels were written at least 40 years ‘after the fact’ and admits that this would be sufficient time for exact memories to disappear or be transformed, for legends to develop. How does he counter this?

But our Gospels are not the first narrations which saw the light; and before their compilation had begun there existed an oral tradition capable of preserving the facts with remarkable fidelity. The Gospel tradition in its essential elements goes much farther back than the compilation of the first written Gospels. [p.72]

This is quite unfounded, because there is no evidence in the wider record that Gospel traditions existed before Mark was written. Q probably precedes Mark, certainly the roots of Q would have. But Q is a very limited aspect of Gospel traditions,’ pointing toward a Kingdom-preaching movement with a body of teaching and little else, but not necessarily toward an historical Jesus, as I demonstrate in The Jesus Puzzle. We need to find that evidence in the epistolary and non-canonical remains of the day, and it is not there. Demonstrating that oral reciters are capable of astonishing feats of memory in regard to a Cretan poem proves nothing about the Christian situation if it cannot be shown that there existed anything to be passed along orally, or if the record is silent on any such activity of transmission.

Price, too, is locked into the same fossilized ways of thinking. He quotes Goguel’s summary paragraph on this point [p.72], which simply restates the viewpoints and quotations I have addressed above. He seconds it with “there is no evidence of any of its enemies denying the existence of Jesus…Other anti-Myth attacks have leveled this same charge. I have yet to see a substantive response to it.” I doubt that no substantive responses have been offered. In any case, he has gotten one here, and it will be enlarged on further when I address Van Voorst’s similar claim.

Goguel’s second “Objection” relates to the nature of docetism. He makes the point that docetism had nothing to do with affirming or denying the existence of an historical Jesus; it was simply a theological dispute over an historical figure’s nature. Marcion “accepted a Gospel (that of Luke)” and was thus not denying Gospel history. I fully agree, while noting that it is a debatable question as to whether Marcion used a recognizable Luke (let alone the canonical version) and “purged (it) of what he considered Judaising additions,” or whether it was an Ur-Luke which had no attribution (along with no attached Acts, which had probably not yet been written).

Goguel says: “If such was the Docetism of the second century, it would be surprising if there had previously been a Docetism of an entirely different character.” I can see no justification for this opinion. In the first place, if it had been of an entirely different character, equivalent to mythicism, it would not be docetism. And a progression from one to the other would make sense. In fact, a linkage between the two is evident precisely in the early decades of the 2nd century. Goguel admits [p.78] that “there is no evidence for the existence of Docetism older than is to be found in the Epistles of John and Ignatius.” Even this statement is compromised by his earlier admission that “The formula in the first epistle of John about the confession of Jesus Christ having come in the flesh (1, iv. 2) is not sufficiently precise to enable the thesis to which it is opposed to be reconstructed,” and the continuing debate in modern scholarship as to the meaning of this phrase shows that it cannot confidently be identified as a docetic issue. I have suggested that the meaning could refer to a debate over whether the spiritual Christ had come in an earthly incarnation. (Note that, whatever the issue, the two views were based on good and evil “spirits,” meaning revelation to the various disputants, rather than Gospel support or apostolic tradition.) And while Ignatius a decade or two later does witness to a basic form of docetism, he also witnesses to what appears to be a denial of historical fact as well (see Article No. 12 as noted above), indicating that the historicity of Jesus and the follow-up reaction in the form of docetism arose more or less around the same time.

But it goes a little too far for Goguel to say [p.79] that “The Docetists thus appear as witnesses to Gospel tradition.” Since the late 1st century epistles, including 1 Clement, show no knowledge of Gospel details, and even Ignatius, while he knows and promotes belief in certain basic data, does not appeal to any written document, we can postulate that the Gospel story was known by some (and only by some) in bare outline. (I have called it a ‘leakage’ from an as yet little disseminated Gospel of Mark, though the reality may be more complicated than that.) For the first Christians who had philosophical misgivings about the rumor, seized on by the likes of Ignatius, that the divine Christ had been an incarnated Jesus crucified by Pilate 70 years earlier, the solution was to claim that he had only come to earth in spirit form, as a “phantom,” and could not have suffered in human, physical flesh. At the same time, there may have been others who simply denied historicity outright, and Ignatius’ arguments seem to cover both positions.

The Pauline Writings

I will not go into too much depth in regard to Goguel’s treatment of Paul and his writings, as some of it is directed toward the scenario of a pre-Christian Joshua cult. Again, in making his arguments Goguel shows that he cannot free himself from historicist paradigms. Noting the apparent unity of the initial movement, and Paul’s cooperation with the Jersualem apostles and their approval of his mission to the gentiles, Goguel asks [p.85] how this unity and cooperation could take place “if at its origin there only existed conceptions relating to an ideal Christ and to His spiritual manifestations?” (Although, it is ironic that some modern critical scholarship tends, in fact, to postulate a notable difference between Paul’s exalted view of Christ and an alleged view by the Jerusalem apostles that Jesus was not divine; so I guess one of them has to be wrong on the question of unity.) In any case, Goguel’s supposed “unity” is exaggerated. That Paul converted to the faith within the broad circle of Judaean Christianity, which was dominated by the Jerusalem group, is quite clear, and thus he may, as an outsider trying to get in on the action, have felt he owed a certain deference to them and at least wanted them to approve his “gospel to the gentiles.” (This was an audience he apparently turned to only after a few years of failure preaching to Jews.) That said, however, it is clear, as Goguel points out, that his conversion was an independent affair. He did not consult with them for three years. He declared that his gospel came “from no man” but was a product of his own received revelation (Galatians 1:11-12). He could certainly show them disrespect, as he does in Galatians 2. Most telling of all, he never acknowledges that they enjoy a privileged position by virtue of having known Jesus on earth, and even says that it was God who gave Peter and his group the mission to the Jews (Gal. 2:8), in parallel with his own God-given mission to the gentiles. This does not sound like support for Goguel’s claim that unity is inconceivable “unless…the apostle recognized in the activity of the celestial Christ, to whom he attributed the birth of his faith, the continuation and consequence of the historical ministry of Jesus to which the Christianity of the Twelve and the Jerusalem church owed its origin.” If there was a fairly widespread cult of a Savior Christ and divine Son across much of the eastern empire at the time of Paul (which the evidence indicates, virtually none of it having been initiated by Paul), it is fully feasible that individual circles of it could cooperate and enjoy some form of ‘unity.’

But a unity beyond that individual circle? Not a chance. Paul witnesses to all sorts of rival ideas, to communities (including his own congregations) who respond to radically different gospels (Gal. 1:9), to apostles whom he accuses of preaching “another Christ,” which makes them false apostles to be linked with Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15). They can hardly be identified with the Jersualem apostles, not the least because this would contradict Goguel’s unity claim. Those differences are entirely dependent on “spirits” (2 Cor. 11:4), with no appeal to any link with an historical man or group that had known him. Once again, Goguel cannot free himself from a Gospel-colored reading of the epistles.

As for Goguel’s appeal to “the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19), this has been argued at great length in many places. I merely point out here that Goguel’s reasoning is dangerously fallacious. First, he claims there is no foundation for regarding the phrase as a title and that it must be given an interpretation “which belongs to it in the natural sense.” This goes against the fact that the “natural sense” use of “brother” throughout the entire epistolary corpus has the meaning of fellow believer or apostle, so this goes beyond special pleading. He further claims another ‘proof in the fact that “There were then in the Jerusalem church (Paul knew it, and the churches of the Diaspora were not ignorant of it) men who passed for being the brothers of Jesus according to the flesh.” First of all, I’d like to know where “kata sarka” is attached to any reference to the brothers of Jesus. In fact, I’d like to know where the phrase “brothers of Jesus” appears anywhere in the epistles. It is, of course, “brother(s) of the Lord.” So this is an egregious case of begging the question, and circular at that. Since we already know that there were fleshly brothers of Jesus in the Jerusalem church, then it is obvious that James “as brother of the Lord” means he was the sibling of Jesus. It is surprising how much indulgence there is in fallacious appeals like this among refuters of mythicism, though this one is particularly blatant.

Goguel attempts to interpret Galatians 2:6 in a way that points to an historical Jesus: “But as for the men of high reputation [literally, seeming to be somebodies] (whatever they were makes no difference to me…), these men of high repute added nothing to (my message)…” He asks,

What could this former qualification of which the Jerusalem apostles boasted be, other than that they had been witnesses and associates of the historical ministry of Jesus? The controversies between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles thus establish that the latter boasted of having been witnesses of the life of Jesus—a fact which Paul did not contest.


Goguel interprets an ambiguous reference that could be taken in other ways (such as that they were simply an influential group) as an implied reference to knowing an historical Jesus, when there is no direct statement of such a thing anywhere in the epistles, and when clear statements made elsewhere imply quite the opposite.

A Son of David Born of Woman

In the next section, Goguel covers the Pauline material which still today forms the basis of the more sophisticated opposition to mythicism, centering around Romans 1:3 and Galatians 4:4. As a response to Couchoud’s contentions about a Christ myth found in early Christian writings, Goguel also brings in the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 and the Ascension of Isaiah. There is a lot of meat here, but I am not going to reargue the entire case concerning these passages, as this has been covered in book and website, notably in Articles No. 3, Who Crucified Jesus? And No. 8, Christ as “Man” (and those who frequent the IIDB know that they are one of the most oft-discussed areas in that forum). However, there will still be a lot to say in response to Goguel’s particular take on these matters.

Very interesting is how Goguel assesses “born of the seed of David according to the flesh” in Romans 1:3. He starts off by declaring as fact the very thing that is under debate [p.87]:

The fact that the apostle thought he recognized concordance between the history of Jesus and certain prophecies does not prove that the history has been deduced from the prophecies.

Not only is this begging the question, it involves a logical contradiction, for if the first part of the sentence is accepted, the latter is automatically ruled out. He goes on:

Two announcements are made in the phrase before us—one is the existence of Jesus, the other asserts his descent from David. The Davidic origin asserted by Paul on the faith of prophecies gives Jesus a human lineage.

The phrase does declare a descent from David, but what the “existence” of Jesus entails, as announced in scripture, is the issue to be established: was it an historical Jesus, or a spiritual one? I have pointed out that it very much seems to be the latter, because the word of God in the prophets has prophesied, the way Paul puts it, his own gospel, not the life of Jesus, suggesting that in his mind no historical Jesus had intervened between the two. (See Article No. 8, noted above, and The Jesus Puzzle, p.82.) Goguel is addressing Couchoud’s claim that this Jesus Christ, as well as his relationship to David, is part of a myth about a spiritual Son. But Goguel’s last statement above is about to be seriously undermined by how he goes on to assess Jesus’ “Davidic lineage.”

He starts by admitting [p.87-8] that “The notion of the Davidic origin of Jesus appears to have a theological source.” In looking at the various Gospel references to Jesus as “Son of David,” he suggests: “considering Jesus in a more or less vague manner as the Messiah, He was sometimes spoken of as the Son of David.” Further  [p.89], there is “an antinomy between the true Messiahship that Jesus invoked and the popular and current notion of the Messiah, Son of David. The idea of the Davidic origin of Jesus has therefore a secondary character. It is a theological creation made under the influence of prophecies and popular beliefs.

He is not entirely clear here, but Goguel seems to be implying that calling Jesus “Son of David” was not meant literally, at least by Mark, who in 12:35-37 has Jesus declare that he is not the son of David. Goguel points out that the later genealogies may presume—I would say they try to ‘literalize’—the Davidic origin of Jesus, but they are recent elements of the tradition wanting in Mark. Thus Goguel recognizes that this is a movement from symbolism to literal descendancy.

But Paul is earlier than Mark. If that movement toward literalism is followed backward, we should logically see Paul’s reference as entirely symbolic. Paul has lifted this feature of his spiritual Christ out of scripture; that is clear from Romans 1:2. We saw above how Goguel handled this. He simply resorts to declaring that just because Paul saw it in scripture doesn’t mean he didn’t also see it in history, a sorry piece of question begging, since Paul never declares anything about Jesus as ‘historical.’ Now, Goguel lays out the two ‘oscillating’ conceptions of the Messiah in Jewish writings: the transcendent celestial Messiah as in Daniel and Enoch, and the human Messiah, a king of the race of David, as in the Songs of Solomon. He says: “These two conceptions have sometimes been combined; they are constantly so in the Christology of the primitive Church.” Since one has to assume he is not including the Gospels here, which came at least 40 years later, this is again assuming the issue under debate. There is no identifiable Son of David in the Pauline epistles—or any Christology at all—which is linked to an historical man. (To interpret kata sarka that way is by no means secure and is part of the debate.) And here is the crux of the matter, of Goguel’s discussion, which I have been leading up to. He argues [p.89]:

If the Jesus of the most primitive Christianity and of Paul himself had been a purely spiritual and celestial Being with no connection with humanity except an external and unreal form, why should the apostle have contradicted himself in connecting his Messiah to a human lineage?

Well, he has already provided the answer to that question: because Paul was not giving his Messiah “a human lineage.” He was not literally saying that Jesus was a human descendant of David. Goguel himself has thrown open the door to symbolism in this reference, one I have opened myself in arguing that Paul is deriving his information from scripture and applying it to his spiritual and celestial Messiah. If scripture is a window onto spiritual realities and religious truths (and to the voice of Christ himself, as we see in some epistles), then messianic scriptural passages are simply applied to him; they are taken as relating in some way to his spiritual world nature. We don’t have to know how Paul and others understood this; there is plenty of mystical and mythological material descriptive of Christ in the epistles which modern commentators have difficulty getting their minds around. And they never will, as long as they insist on bringing modern, literalist, scientific conceptions to them, as though these 1st century mystics could be expected to think like we do. Goguel has here demonstrated that he cannot lift himself out of his own 20th century thought patterns.

Goguel next addresses Couchoud’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. (Incidentally, while I read Couchoud a few years before I embarked on my own concentrated research, I did not subsequently review him, and am now a bit chagrined to realize just how much of my own independently arrived at ideas were anticipated by him!) Couchoud interprets the kata tas graphas of this passage as “the source of the knowledge” stated in Paul’s gospel. Goguel does not dispute this interpretation on linguistic grounds; it is a legitimate possibility. What he does is focus on the “received” and “delivered” in 15:3:

The apostle draws a parallel between ‘I have transmitted’ and ‘I have received.’ They are facts of the same class, therefore, which leads us to suppose that the apostle presents himself as witness of a tradition. The teaching given and the teaching received could not be thus assimilated if on the one side there had been supernatural revelation or exegetical deduction, and on the other didactic teaching.” [p.90]

But Goguel is pressing his argument too hard here, and ignoring other factors. Paul drawing the kind of strict parallel Goguel wants is largely his own imagination if he is claiming that the apostle must mean that the “received” is through human to human transmission. The wording does not rule it out, but it certainly isn’t strong enough to require it. Simply read it with the Couchoud meaning in mind, and it makes adequate sense. (See my Article No. 6, “The Source of Paul’s Gospel,” for a full analysis of the structure of this passage.) Moreover, that sense is supported by other epistolary passages, notably Galatians 1:11-12. There, Paul not only definitively denies such a human transmission as Goguel wants to see in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul applies the verb “received” in both ways: to reception from humans and reception through revelation. Romans 1:2 is another indicator that Paul got his information from scripture, as is Romans 16:25-26. Taken with the fact that Paul never once tells us that he received information about Jesus from the Jerusalem apostles, and we have a situation in which all the evidence points in the direction of interpreting 1 Corinthians 15 in the manner Goguel chooses to dismiss.

Goguel tries to make something of the fact that kata tas graphas is attached only to the first and third elements of Paul’s gospel, the dying for sin and the resurrection; it is not appended to his mention of burial. This, he says, “proves” that scripture is not being appealed to as the source of the facts, but only their interpretation, since if burial were also a fact derived from scripture, the phrase would equally be required. This is demanding far too much. Goguel has himself told us that the epistles are not treatises but hastily put together occasional pieces designed for a single reading addressing temporary situations. Paul is dictating them. Dropping the phrase from one of his elements would hardly be unusual. Try reading the passage with an insertion of it after “buried” and one can get a sense of how overloaded the passage suddenly becomes. The burial idea, in fact, may not have been derived from scripture, but simply conceived of by Paul because of the mystical parallel it created with the symbolism he used in baptism (Goguel mentions Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12); indeed, Paul gives us mystical parallels in Christian ritual with all three elements of his gospel.

Goguel focuses on the first element, that Jesus not merely died, but “died for our sins,” which supposedly indicates it is not the fact of Jesus’ death Paul is referring to here, but the salvific purpose of that death. Again, this distinction is not necessarily justified, and certainly not by Goguel declaring that Paul, “when he persecuted the Christians, knew perfectly well that their Master was dead.” (How many times must it be pointed out that Goguel has a deep penchant for question begging?) Goguel also overlooks 1 Thessalonians 4:14, where Paul says: “We believe Jesus died and rose again.” This is a genuine parallel to the two elements in 1 Corinthians 15, and Paul is declaring both, including the bare fact of Jesus’ death, to be a matter of faith. He also implies this in 1 Corinthians 15:15, where he says that in preaching the resurrection of Christ, if the human dead are not raised, then apostles like himself are “false witnesses of God, since we witnessed against God [i.e., we lied in our preaching] that God raised Jesus from the dead.” The references to God here need to be seen as referring to the revelation that God has given apostles about Jesus’ rising. Their gospel is received from him, not from historical tradition.

In view of all this, one can go back to the 15:3-8 passage and see that the “apparitions” (as Goguel aptly styles them) do not need to be seen as Gospel-like Easter encounters between the apostles and Jesus in flesh. (The “third day” element is recognizable as a scriptural element: Hosea 6:2.) Rather, they are a series of visions, or a simple conviction of Christ’s presence, as the TDNT acknowledges in regard to the verb used. They are unattached in time to the resurrection, taking place at some possibly early point in the sect’s history, perhaps confirming their belief in a divine Son who had been sacrificed. As I’ve said many times, since Paul lists his own vision of a spiritual Jesus with the rest, we may safely conclude that the rest of the apparitions were similarly spiritual in nature.

Surprisingly, Goguel has not much to say about Galatians 4:4. Noting Couchoud’s contention that it is not an historical reference but a mystical, almost Gnostic idea, he then pleads [p.91]: “But does it not contain at least the idea of the historical life of Jesus?” That’s what needs to be decided. “The Galatians do not separate it from the teaching in which the apostle retraced the story of the crucifixion in so vivid a manner that they had the feeling of contemplating it with their own eyes (Gal. 3:1).” Goguel does not consider that even a mythical story can be told in a manner to move one’s audience. One can imagine the tale of Attis’ self-castration and death, his funeral pyre and the mourning of the Great Mother for her dead consort, moving the devotees of that cult, especially since they observed a multiple-day commemoration of the mythical event very much like the Christian Passion Week. The myth also moved the priests of Attis to cut off their own genitals in a frenzy of devotion, which one has to admit is certainly a good illustration of a ‘story told in a vivid manner.’

Goguel allows [p.91] that Paul borrowed the expression “born of woman” from the Old Testament “where it is used to designate man under the ordinary conditions of his birth and existence.” That may be, but that would not preclude Paul from applying it to Christ in a mystical fashion, just as it has been demonstrated (with Goguel’s help) that Paul could have been taking a very literal ‘son/seed of David’ from the Old Testament and applying it in a symbolic way. (Just as the “born of woman” itself could have been prompted by Isaiah 7:14.) Goguel claims it would be “unintelligible if, in Paul’s view, Jesus had not lived under the ordinary concordances of humanity.” But this is the very essence of the mythicist case, that Paul could conceive of Jesus in a spiritual dimension and form (‘the Christ myth’), adopting, undergoing, symbolizing certain homologic counterpart states and experiences equivalent to those on earth. This was the underlying principle of the mystery cult system of thought, mythical gods and events representing, and conferring guarantees upon, the experiences and fates of humans. The whole idea may be alien to modern thinking, but it fits with the philosophies and cosmologies of the ancient world.

(In fact, it is not so alien. The Christian system remains constructed upon it. Christ died, and this forgives sins. He rose, and this guarantees human resurrection. The difference is, for most of Christianity’s history, the actions of Christ were seen as having taken place on earth; for primitive Christianity, they took place in the spiritual dimension. But the process is exactly the same, and both are highly mystical. If we can demonstrate that the thinking at the turn of the era included a spiritual dimension and actions of gods within that dimension—and that, of course, has long been demonstrated—then there is no impediment to placing early Christianity’s Christ in such a setting. The crux of the mythicist case is that everything in the epistles points to and is compatible with such an interpretation, while forcing it to conform to the later-developed historical setting involves a strained and often fallacious process.)

As an alternative explanation for Galatians 4:4, I will suggest that there is the possibility that the phrase “born of woman, born under the law” is a later scribal insertion. Bart Ehrman, in his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture [p.238-9] has demonstrated that scribes did make alterations to this passage, changing the verb ginomai to gennaō, apparently in order to convey a stronger sense of human birth in opposition to docetism of the 2nd and later centuries. (The former, while it can encompass birth, strictly means “to come into existence, be made,” while the latter means specifically “to give birth, be born.”) Ehrman says [p.239]:

But it should not be overlooked that both passages [Gal. 4:4 and Rom. 1:3] proved instrumental in the orthodox insistence on Jesus’ real birth, making the changes look suspiciously useful for the conflict. In Galatians 4:4, Paul says that God ‘sent forth his Son, come from a woman, come under the law’ (genomenon ek gunaikos, genomenon hupo nomon). The verse was used by the orthodox to oppose the Gnostic claim that Christ came through Mary ‘as water through a pipe’ taking nothing of its conduit into itself….the same change [i.e., as in Latin manuscripts Ehrman also highlights] appear(s) in several Greek witnesses as well, where it is much easier to make, involving the substitution of gennōmenon for genomenon.

Since we have no manuscripts before the 3rd century, we do not know whether earlier struggles with docetic heresy might have led to a first insertion of the entire phrase, to claim a ‘born of woman’ that Paul never envisioned. Naturally, interpolation cannot be demonstrated, but Ehrman has shown us that scribes could have had an earlier eye on this passage. (My two arguments cannot be used simultaneously, of course, they are simply alternate possibilities—despite some dissenters’ refusal to find this reasonable.) In addition, we can tell from Tertullian that Marcion's copy of Galatians did not have that phrase, although whether it was missing because Marcion excised it or was not there in the first place is a matter of debate.

A Pre-Christian Descending God

Goguel next examines the Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 and compares it to the Ascension of Isaiah, in answer to Couchoud, who has linked the two. Both contain basic common themes, and Goguel in examining the Ascension concludes [p.95] that there was probably an earlier Jewish version (certainly a Jewishness not in the mainstream!) which Christians later retouched, probably by the middle of the 2nd century; the original could have gone back into the 1st century. In that earlier version, the heavenly Beloved/Chosen One/Son descends “through the seven heavens, the firmament, the air, and the earth down to Sheol” (note that Goguel interprets the firmament as a location distinct from the earth), changing his form at each sphere. At some point he undergoes a death. When he liberates the dead righteous from Sheol, he reascends in his glorious spirit form to heaven, glorified by angels. Goguel concludes [p.95]:

There is thus recognizable behind the Christian interpretation which dominates the present form of the Ascension of Isaiah a myth of the re-establishment of the sovereignty of God by a divine being who descends into Sheol to despoil the angel of death, and afterwards ascends gloriously to the heavens. It is possible that the myth may be older than Christianity.

The latter is quite an admission, one which more modern scholars seem afraid to make. It opens the door to a mythological background into which so much may be fitted. The very concept, Platonic but also Persian, of emanations of deity which diminish in quality, successive models producing lower forms ultimately to reach the material level of humanity, inherently implies descent through degenerating layers of the universe. The “Heavenly Man” concept, as in Philo, is an intermediate stage of divine-to-human development, a movement from top to bottom. Gnostic theories of evolving Aeons producing lower deities, the fall of divine matter into physical matter, the former’s liberation and reattainment of its original spiritual home, all involved traversing the layers of the heavens, descending and ascending; to these may be added gnostic Savior figures (now seen as pre-Christian) who inhabit a mythical dimension, never quite reaching earth except to confer revelation on the pneumatically attuned. This is the thought world into which we can fit Paul and the early Christian faith, full of Jewish elements adapted to that universal cosmology and soteriology. Paul’s religion was rich in variants, in distinctive innovations on the background noise of the era, but it was still a child of that era. Other Jewish-oriented sectarian groups, such as that behind the original Ascension of Isaiah, had somewhat different variants. All were branches of the same ancient-world tree. Then, through a cosmic accident (we might metaphorically liken it to the gnostics’ heavenly catastrophe which gave rise to the material world), the Gospels came along, innocently at first, and transformed the whole business. Like an unexpectedly arriving comet or asteroid, they would eventually wipe out many older life forms and make possible the evolution of something new.

Goguel acknowledges that the bulk of chapter 11 of the Ascension (now commonly regarded as an interpolation) is one of those Christian retouchings, placing the descending Son clearly on earth, born in Bethlehem and working miracles, crucified when Satan incites the Jews to hand him over to the ‘ruler’ (Pilate is not named). But Goguel does something a bit devious. He notes that the Son in his descent “arrives on earth” and is put to death, referring to the interpolated chapter 11 passage. But that death has been separately described earlier (chapter 9), in a picture which is not identifiable as involving Christian embellishment; and this death takes place not on earth but rather, from the way it is presented, in the firmament, at the hands of Satan and his demon spirits. There is no mention, as there is in the chapter 11 interpolation, of Jews, human rulers or a cross. Instead, the Son, in disguise so that the demons do not recognize him, is hung upon a tree. And there is no intermediary human force responsible for the death, through whom Satan works. Satan and his minions do the deed it directly.

Goguel remains silent on the chapter 9 version of the death of the Son. It is true that this entire document is a confusing jumble, existing in different manuscript lines that often have widely variant texts, with edits and seams all over the place; it is difficult to be sure how to identify the pieces and the editing processes. But chapter 9’s descent, death and resurrection of the Son is distinct from the later one, and it is almost certainly pre-Christian—at least in the sense of Christianity as we know it, or as we think we know it. (A fuller discussion of the Ascension can be found in Article No. 3, “Who Crucified Jesus?” and in my rebuttal to Bernard Muller.)

The picture of the descending-ascending Son in the Ascension is virtually identical in broad outline to the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11; other elements have close parallels to primitive Christian mythology. Goguel does his best to deny this, to demonstrate that the similarities are insignificant, but his maneuverings are transparent:

Outside the idea of the descent of a celestial Being, which has a general character, and that of the ignorance of the angels, developed in both in very different ways, there are only two ideas in common, but which are found elsewhere, and these are the idea of celestial garments and that of the superposed spheres, or heavens.” [p.95]

He is tiptoeing around the two most central elements of both myths, the descent of the celestial Being, as in Philippians (and implied in the hymn of 1 Timothy 3:16), and the ignorance of the angels, as in 1 Corinthians 2:8 (the “rulers of this age” who unwittingly crucify “the Lord of glory”). But these are the essential features which define the myth. They can hardly be slipped to the side as though incidental, as though irrelevant because they are allegedly developed in very different ways. The multi-sphered heavens is also an essential common feature. But Goguel is silent on other common features as well. The descent into Sheol in the Ascension, an essential element in itself, is paralleled by 1 Peter 3:19, where Christ is said to have “made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits,” the dead in Sheol. (This has given us the “he descended into hell” of the Christian creed, although because of the Gospels this became placed before the resurrection, unlike 1 Peter.) 1 Peter also contains another parallel, in its reference to Christ “on the tree,” a term that survived in a few other places in the literature. Finally, Goguel fails to point out the parallel ‘worship by angels’ found in both the Ascension and the Philippians hymn (as well as the 1 Timothy hymn).

Goguel tries to make the most of the differences in detail. In the Ascension 9, the demons do not recognize the Son, presumably hanging him because he is an intruder or because that’s what evil demons do. In 1 Corinthians 2:8, says Goguel (and note that he is yet another scholar who recognizes “rulers of this age” as celestial rulers and not human ones), the demons were not ignorant of Christ’s identity; they just didn’t realize that in killing him they were sealing their own doom. This he claims to be so different from the Ascension that “one cannot have been deduced from the other.” This is simply wishful thinking. There are vast differences in Christology throughout the New Testament, and yet commentators like Goguel would hardly want to say that this means they are not all derived from the same faith movement. Philosophies and religious movements give rise to varied and contradictory expressions all the time. There was no central authority in primitive Christianity, their world hardly entailed efficient communications and cooperation. A myth like the Descending-Ascending Redeemer could over time take root in many corners of the empire in many sects, undergoing many different changes in both major and minor details. There is no justification whatever for Goguel’s claim, except to deny what he does not wish to see. In any case, he waters down his alleged contrast by admitting that Paul does not say one way or the other whether the rulers knew who it was they were crucifying, so there may in fact have been no difference at all between Paul and the Ascension. (He notes that Dibelius believed Paul did think that the archons were ignorant, but he says he “cannot accept” that.) Part of his argument [p.99-100] is that “Paul does not appear to have thought of anything other than the crucifixion of Jesus by men, but by men whom he considers as agents of demoniacal powers.” Does not appear? Based on what? Paul’s reference to Pilate, to Calvary? To the place and time of his death, to any of the other characters populating the Gospel Passion story? The 1st century epistles contain none of these things. (Modern critical scholarship sets aside the reference to the Jews in 1 Thess. 2:15-16 as an obvious interpolation—something Goguel chooses not to subscribe to.) The Christological hymns speak entirely in mythological terms. Hebrews has Jesus’ sacrifice take place in heaven. By what means does Goguel support his claim that Paul regarded Jesus as crucified by men? Apparently, concrete evidence is not one of those means.

Goguel also points to differences between the system of seven heavens in the Ascension and Paul’s own concept of the heavens. There is little to go on for the latter except 2 Corinthians 12:2 in which Paul speaks of being caught up into the third heaven, which he also calls “paradise.” Some lines of Jewish thought (see C. K. Barrett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p.310) divided the heavens into only three layers, as opposed to the seven of the Ascension and other conceptions. Such a difference speaks only to the variety of thought about the structure of the layered universe, which everyone believed in in one form or another. Goguel can hardly say that the two concepts are not related and that a common myth cannot have been applied in two different sets of philosophical and cultural circumstances. In fact, this very divergence between Paul’s and the Ascension’s cosmology shows that in the era of Middle Platonism there was no strict uniformity of conception, and that Paul could envision the activities of Christ in the heavens somewhat differently than did the author of the Ascension. That difference does not preclude Paul and his Christ from operating under the same broad umbrella of mystical and mythical thought common to the period.

Ultimately, Goguel simply reads into the matter what he wishes to see [p.96]:

Replaced in its historical setting, the text of Paul is an attempt to epitomize the history of Jesus in one grand drama of redemption. That it contains dogmatic elements—or, if you prefer, mythical elements—is undeniable, but these elements do not make up the substance of the story; they serve as comments on it, and supply the materials for the speculative construction erected upon the foundation thus furnished.”

Goguel’s “historical setting” and “the history of Jesus” is his own construction, for it is not there in the texts. The “substance of the story” is indeed the mythical elements, for in the hymn, in everything Paul has to say about the death and resurrection of Christ, that is all we are given. What they allegedly comment on, the “foundation” on which they allegedly speculate, is derived from the Gospels, not from Paul. That such language is ‘an interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth’—as scholarship traditionally would have it—is a fantasy, one centuries of readers and exegetes of the epistles have foisted on themselves in order to carry over the Gospel story into the non-Gospel record. It never seems to dismay that page after page, document after document, presents this interpretation without ever mentioning the person that is supposedly being interpreted. Goguel was not the first to don his Gospel-colored glasses when he picked up the epistles, and he certainly hasn’t been the last.

Goguel lays out for us the most elevated Christological passage in the entire body of epistles, 1 Corinthians 1:15-20. Here, he says openly [p.98], “we have the impression of being in the presence of a cosmological theory instead of a human history”: Christ the very image of the Invisible God, all things created through him, all things united in him, and so on. Here, he says, “Christ appears as a divine Being, almost an hypostasis.” It is more than ‘almost’—this is the very essence, in both Jewish and Greek thought, of the classic hypostasis: an emanation of God stripped off from him and assuming the character of a separate divine entity with distinctive roles. The principle is found all over the Near East across centuries of theology. And yet Goguel’s eyes are closed to the obvious: that in the epistles we have one particular expression of that universal trend in ancient theology: the creation of the spiritual intermediary Son. Goguel recognizes that this Christ resembles the hypostatized divine Being found in Philo, even that it “is certainly related to it.” He asks: “Are we to conclude that the Christ of Paul is an ideal Being like the Logos of Philo?” The dispassionate judge would certainly say so. The mind of faith has ways to avoid it. Goguel answers: “It does not seem necessary, for the ancient mentality saw no contradiction between the human character of a person and his divine character.

Contradiction, no. That’s not the issue. But what human person was ever given such a cosmic divine character immediately upon his death, especially a death upon a cross as an executed criminal? What human person, even after death, was ever spoken of by an entire faith movement, by disparate communities who had no organizational links between them, in exclusively one-half of that dual character, in consistently mythological and artificially stereotyped language? What human person ever had attached to himself, especially in a Jewish milieu, the fullest association with God himself, receiving the latter’s divine titles and roles, becoming absorbed into a widespread centuries-old mythological way of thinking which conferred upon him sovereignty over the universe? The idea is absurd.

Goguel points to the association of the two concepts, that human and divine character, “by the fourth evangelist, who means to relate the story of a man who has lived on earth, and whom he identifies with the Creative Logos.” But this came at the culmination of a long process, whose steps we can trace and understand. We cannot be naïve enough to think that the Fourth Gospel sprang full-blown from the mind of one of Jesus’ followers, as Goguel would seem to have it. That association of the two followed a complex, tortuous path, and it was made possible only because the two elements were not originally co-existing. Even the Gospel of John itself underwent an evolution, something recognized by modern scholarship. It passed through several phases of composition. That the drastically different teachings of Jesus in John (in fact they are not teachings, but self-declarations) were originally tied to a synoptic-like passion story is highly unlikely. That was an artificial grafting. It is also quite possible that parts of the Prologue to John had a previous life of their own, as a hymn to the Logos. (That there was a separate line of Logos religion we can tell by some of the 2nd century apologists.) There are seams within the Prologue created by the addition of historical references like that of John the Baptist. This, too, was artificially joined to the evolving Gospel, possibly in its final stage.

The whole process of wedding a mythical divine Being to a human man was not completed until the Church Councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. But it all began with the myth of a Descending-Ascending Savior who operated in the celestial realm, slain by demons, rescuing souls from the underworld, and being exalted to heaven. It lies under our noses (and Goguel acknowledged it under his own) in the epistles of Paul and other early documents, if we would just have the insight and the courage to remove the overlays placed upon it by Christians who came after.

A Survey of the Epistles

The balance of Goguel’s book is essentially his own exegetical study of the New Testament documents, both epistles and Gospels. It is only secondarily concerned with refuting the mythicist case. Much of this discussion is out of date, as it was written in the 1920s, without benefit of the advances in scholarship since that time. But some remarks are in order.

Goguel declares [p.120] that Paul sees an intermediate period between the death of Christ (as an historical event in the recent past) and his return. This again is reading something into Paul of which Paul himself gives quite the contrary indication. There is no interregnum in Paul (between Christ's life and his return at the Parousia), and the only thing that has happened in the past is the arrival of faith (as in Galatians 3:23 and 25). Paul’s is a two-age picture, the old passing into the new, and that passage has been marked by the revelation from God about his Son (thus all those revelation verbs used in the epistles rather than a direct reference to living a life), and the missionary work of apostles like himself. A recent Jesus is not factored into this pattern, only the ‘taking effect,’ now that faith has arrived, of the work of Christ in the spiritual world—or at least in a world which is never identified except as inhabited by “the rulers of this age.” This is clear from Romans 8:22-3, 13:11-12, 1 Corinthians 10:11, 2 Corinthians 6:2. (I devote an entire chapter to this in The Jesus Puzzle, p.47-54.) Nor does Paul ever speak of a “return” of Christ, but only of his coming or revelation (see p.49). That Goguel (and Oscar Cullmann after him) can present a picture which has no basis in, and is diametrically opposed to, what the text actually says is a tribute to the ability of the mind not to see what it doesn’t want to see.

Goguel in one extended passage outlines Paul’s view of the salvific work of Christ and the believer’s relationship to him. This is worth considering. First let’s glance at an introductory comment:

Faith has for its origin the preaching of the gospel by the apostles and the missionaries whom God has appointed to this object (Roman 10:14)…

That is indeed the way Paul puts it. I hardly need to belabor my point that Paul presents a picture of the present time as a revelation from God to apostles like himself. Faith, as Goguel puts it, is the central message of Paul and the exclusive door to salvation. But how could Paul leave out the requirement for faith that the human man, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God; or fail to speak of faith that was generated in his apostles by Jesus, or of an appointment of missionaries by Jesus to spread the gospel? And how, in regard to Goguel's observation above, could Paul possibly have left out the idea that faith has for its origin the preaching of the gospel by Jesus himself? None of these ideas are present in Paul and the other early writers. It is astonishing how much they all left unsaid which modern commentators have been forced to supply on their behalf! Then Goguel goes on to detail the believer’s relationship to Christ [p.129-130]:

The believer united to Christ is made a participator in everything touching Him, and particularly in His death and resurrection. According to 1 Thess. v. 10 Jesus died in order that believers, whether sleeping or waking, may be with Him. This supposes the establishing of an indissoluble bond between the believer and the Saviour….In Gal. ii. 19, 20 Paul declares himself to be crucified with Christ: ‘It is not I that live; it is Christ that liveth in me,’….The explanation of this union is furnished by the idea of the death of Christ in solidarity with humanity. ‘As one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that the living should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose for them’ (2 Cor. v. 14, 15). The mystical union has for its effect the rupture of the bond uniting the man to the world. He asks again: ‘Can it be that you do not know that all of us who were baptized into union with Christ Jesus in our earthly baptism shared His death? Consequently, through sharing His death in our baptism, we were buried with Him; that just as Christ was raised from the dead by a manifestation of the Father's power, so we also may live a new life. If we have become united with Him by the act symbolic of His death, surely we shall also become united with Him by the act symbolic of His resurrection’….The same thing is also true of the believer mystically united with Christ….To Paul, baptism is more than a symbol. Baptism and communion [the Eucharist] are the means through which mystical union is attained.

What we have here is the sum of the religious philosophy of the age in regard to personal salvation (see The Jesus Puzzle, p.33). Union with the divine, transformation into a new state, a sharing in the god’s characteristics and experiences, the homologic counterpart relationship: a philosophy among Greeks, mystery cult devotees, gnostics and Christians. About the only people to whom this was foreign thought were ‘mainstream’ Jews. If it was all the invention of Paul (and one would think that from Goguel), with no parallel existing in the background beliefs of the time, he would have been met with blank stares. If he and other early Christians were applying all this pre-existing philosophy that related in every other case only to mythical gods and spiritual forces—if he were propounding the absolutely unique doctrine that all this mystical understanding was being applied to an historical man who had recently been crucified as a rebel—he would have been met with bafflement and derision. In the face of such an impediment he would have had to place his primary emphasis on justifying the association of this mysticism with that man. (And such a justification would necessarily entail addressing what he had done and been on earth.) There is not the slightest suggestion of having to deal with this dilemma anywhere in the early epistles. The background picture just outlined into which Paul fitted his Christ Jesus was in its essentials a Hellenistic expression, not a Jewish one. Other Jewish elements, and important ones, existed in Paul’s thought; that is not being denied. But like Philo, Paul was wedding the two, and that was the prime accomplishment of Christianity which it carried into the future, one subsequently to be vastly misunderstood after the Gospels came along.

Goguel is forced to grudgingly admit the syncretism, but only in a roundabout way [p.136]: “The theology of Paul asumes a doctrine of redemption whose origins must be sought in Judaism.” But in a footnote to this, he adds: “In a Judaism, which no doubt had not been entirely uninfluenced by foreign ideas, particularly Greek and Persian.” Yet what Goguel introduces here from the Jewish side is simply the other half of the syncretism: the emphasis on sin, the imposing presence of the Jewish Law, the delay of a salvation not achievable in this world but only with the coming (not the return) of the Redeemer (originally in Jewish thought, of God), a future general Judgment. The rest of it, all the essential elements Goguel has outlined above, belong to Hellenistic salvation philosophy. Goguel claims that Paul has split the work of Jesus into two parts, what he did in his recent life on earth, and what he will do upon his return from heaven. But Goguel’s insistence on the former ought to be tempered by what he has said earlier [p.101]. In dicussing how much Paul was “familiar with the life of Jesus,” he says:

It is, in fact, not always possible to recognize whether the passages dealing with this order of ideas apply to Jesus or the Christ in His pre-existence or His glorification, and it does not appear that the apostle made upon this subject a very clear distinction.

In other words, it is difficult to tell the difference in Paul between him speaking of Christ in his human life and Christ in his mystical, glorified state (which would include all those elevated “flesh” and “body” references in relation to believers and the church, the heavenly sacrifice and the unification of a divided universe). Perhaps Goguel’s difficulty is the unfounded presumption that there are two categories here, one on earth and one to come in spirit. Perhaps they are all in spirit, in the mythical reality of past and future to which Paul subscribed. Pauls own words certainly do not tell us otherwise.

In his survey of the non-Pauline epistles, Goguel, like everyone else before and after him, takes refuge in claiming that none of these documents need mention anything in the life of Jesus because they were devoted to other issues. He claims [p.138] that when writers urge “imitation of Jesus” (as in Heb. 11-12:2, 1 Peter 4:1) this can only make sense if the model being compared to was historical. Yet that ignores the spiritual-material counterpart principle. It also ignores two passages in 1 Peter itself. The first is 1:15-16: “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all your behavior.” The Holy One is a reference to God, not Jesus, as is clear from the context. If the holiness of a completely divine being can be taken here for a model, it can be so taken in all “imitations of Jesus.” Perhaps even more revealing, in 2:22: the writer calls on his readers to follow Christ’s example in humility and suffering. Here would have been the ideal occasion to find support for Goguel’s claim: a narration of Jesus’ suffering at Calvary in an obvious historical setting. And why would the writer not do so, following a most natural instinct? Instead, that exemplar for imitation is a paraphrase of Isaiah 53. The suffering Jesus in scripture! A mythical setting, if there ever was one, for mystically-minded Jews—such as Philo who treats scripture in just that way.

Goguel admits that in certain passages of the Pastoral epistles “there is no direct mention of His death…where an allusion would seem natural.” This is “no doubt because these details were in the mind of its readers.” Someone ought to tell most Christian commentators from the mid 2nd century on, as well as modern Christian writers and preachers, that they have been wasting their ink and breath, that all those references to things we already know are unnecessary. In addressing all those “manifestation” verbs used of Christ throughout the epistles (here in 2 Timothy 1:10 and Titus 3:4), both in regard to Christ’s ‘coming to the world’ and his future arrival in glory, these too, Goguel admits, are not clearly words that have a “human character, but more in line with the glorified manifestations of Christ at his return.” Goguel explains this by suggesting: “but it must not be forgotten that the identity of the Christ expected at the end of the age with the Jesus who already appeared in history had for the Christian faith much importance.” Goguel seems to be making this up as he goes along. Once again, he has taken language which does not present a dichotomy of the two elements he wants to see, and excuses this by saying that early Christians blurred the lines between them. The ‘blurring’ is an exegetical device to obscure the fact that no such distinctions are to be found in the texts themselves. (Bultmann and others do the same thing in regard to early Christian prophetic practice: those prophets, they say, did not make a distinction between the words of the Lord delivered by the risen Jesus from heaven and those he had spoken on earth. Perhaps that was because they had nothing of the latter in mind.) The Pastorals don’t use more ‘human character’ terminology because they weren’t describing a human character. And despite all the difficulties of interpretation and compatibility Goguel discusses in the passing reference to Pilate in 1 Timothy 6:13, he never considers the possibility that it is simply an interpolation. (See Appendix 1 of The Jesus Puzzle.)

It is difficult to resist quoting further passages in which Goguel turns a blind eye to what is lying right in front of him. It is the universal way scholars have of dealing with the epistles:

Although the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes current use of the name of Jesus, and not only of Jesus Christ or the Lord, the historical person of Jesus does not in his thought possess very special importance. He who is designated by the name of Jesus is the glorified Lord who pre-existed and who is now in Heaven….this Jesus was a celestial Being, and not a man who had made a profound impression upon those who had known Him. His history is presented in abstract terms which almost all apply to the traditional type of the Messiah, borrowed from the Old Testament and especially from the Psalms. What is said about His death is in some aspects lacking in everything of historical character. The Jesus of the Epistle to the Hebrews is a High Priest who offers His own blood in sacrifice (ix. 11); He is not the condemned of the Sanhedrin, executed by the Romans.” [p.143-4]

It is all there in the texts, and Goguel, like so many others, can recognize the blanks. But these blanks are simply filled in by the Gospels, by question-begging inferences based on them:

If Christ pre-existed, and if He is now in celestial glory, the link which unites these two periods of His history is His incarnation.

But the epistles provide no such link between the two. No such link is needed, because they can readily be seen to inhabit the general mythology of the time. Goguel also closes his mind to a number of obvious questions. It is virtually a given in modern scholarship that the early Christian movement was a fragmentary and uncoordinated one, with widely dispersed groups that could differ substantially in Christology and soteriology. The community of Hebrews, for example, is thought to have had no direct contact with or derivation from Pauline groups; the Johannine community is looked upon as some sort of isolated Shangri-La, developing dramatically different traditions about Jesus. Little can be found in common between the Pauline and Petrine letters. Q is supposed to have had no contact with the entire cultic wing of Christianity, as an explanation for showing no interest in, or even knowledge of, the death and resurrection. Non-canonical documents like The Shepherd of Hermas and the Odes of Solomon are even further out on tangential limbs. Leaving Q aside, all of them show the same perplexing view of their object of worship as having had a life of “not very special importance…not a man who made a profound impression upon those who had known Him.” Did Goguel ever think to ask himself if this could be possible, if this made any sense? How could this happen so universally? If the man himself made no profound impression, how was he turned into the divine Son and Savior of the world by so many? If Christianity was an uncoordinated movement, lacking close contacts and the sharing of ideas between many of its expressions, how was it that so many of these communities followed the same unusual path, turning Jesus into a celestial Being and ignoring his earthly persona? In contrast, it would appear that the traditions surrounding the human man, and especially the entire Passion story of his trial, death and resurrection in Jerusalem, had no multiplicity at all, but was essentially created by one writer, the author of the Gospel of Mark, with a very limited predecessor with regard to the teaching and miracle-working of the Q community. It is ironic that we have one story of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, following a near-identical plot line despite the great variety we should expect to see as the result of uncoordinated oral transmission and differing interests in various communities, while a wide range of theological pictures of Christ exist in the epistles with no historical facts at all, yet it is the Gospels that are allowed to impose their view over everything else. Goguel and a host of others seem oblivious to the ramifications of all these incongruities and paradoxes.

Goguel does his best to find historical allusions in Hebrews. “In this final age he has spoken to us through the Son (1:2)” is supposed to be a reference to Jesus on earth, but nothing about the Son is placed on earth, and the ‘speaking’ is entirely through scripture. Goguel refers to this as “the manifestation of Christ,” without realizing that he has described it exactly: the “revealing” of the divine spiritual Christ, which is the way they all put it in epistle after epistle. “The message has been brought to (the writer) by those who had first heard the preaching of Jesus (ii. 3).” But that passage is the language of revelation, with Jesus as the spiritual intermediary, just as he is throughout the epistle, as noted above. Since the miracles confirming the message are God’s, not those of Jesus, this further discredits the idea that it is Jesus’ ministry being spoken of. (See the section “The Launching of a Sect” in Article No. 7.) Once again, Goguel appeals to the claim that the author had no intention “to rewrite a history that in any case his readers know.

Similar excuses are made for the epistle 1 Peter [p.145]: “The theological interpretation of the Gospel history…tended to become substituted for the history itself.” The author of 2 Peter “alludes to the account of the transfiguration as related in the Synoptic Gospels (1:16-18),” though this fails to realize that the equation does not really fit. (See Article 7: “Transfigured on the Holy Mountain” for a thorough discussion of the absence of an historical Jesus in this document.) As for the epistle of James, “No allusion is found to the history of Jesus, even when the line of thought would seem necessarily to require it, as in 5:10.” That passage reads: “If you want a pattern of patience under ill-treatment, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” The same requirement is present in many places throughout this epistle. Here, Goguel offers no explanation, and it is a mystery why he is not struck by the sheer incongruity of it all, that he must remark, in epistle after epistle, on how there is nothing to be said about the historical life of Jesus, but only theological ‘interpretation’ of the most mystical and obscure nature. That it all lies in the background, unspoken, unneeded, but undoubtedly there, is the final refuge of the hapless exegete who has nothing else to offer.

When Goguel directly address the question of what we know about the Gospel tradition in Paul (and by extension, the rest of the epistles), this is what he comes up with [p.100]:

The epistles of Paul contain but few allusions to the Gospel history, but when these are closely examined it is found that the apostle was much more familiar with the life of Jesus than a superficial reading of the epistles would lead one to think.

And what is it he discovers through this “close examination”?

Paul presents Jesus as a man born of woman (1 Cor. 15:21, Rom. 5:15, Gal. 4:4) belonging to the race of Abraham (Gal. 3:16, Rom. 9:5), and descended from the family of David (Rom. 1:3). He lived under the Jewish law (Gal. 4:4, Rom. 15:8).

Goguel has already labeled some of these things theological statements, many derived from scripture. The rest are so general they can hardly be said to be derived from the Gospel story, and many can readily be interpreted in outright mythological and spiritual terms, such as 1 Cor. 15:21 and Rom. 5:15 and 15:8. This is shavings scraped from an empty barrel. Instead of the rich tradition of Jesus’ life and death that, even in the context of theological interpretation, ought to have saturated the earliest correspondence of Christians, preaching their recent Master, miracle worker and prophet, star of a dramatic trial, crucifixion and resurrection on the very ground they themselves still walked upon, we get nothing. The cupboard is bare.

The Gospels and the Resurrection

In the balance of his book, Goguel first addresses Reinach’s and Couchoud’s contention that the story of Jesus, especially of the crucifixion, is fabricated out of the perceived prophecies in the Old Testament. This is a precursor to the modern idea of midrash as the basis on which the Passion and other Gospel elements have been constructed, though that term is not used by Goguel. He admits that many details in the Gospels were inspired by scriptural passages, but he argues that fundamental elements were at the most ‘corroborated’ by scripture, not produced by them. It is impossible to go through this chapter in detail. Some of Goguel’s protestations are little more than wishful thinking, while other arguments that scripture would not have determined certain Gospel features are at best inconclusive. This is followed by a chapter (10) which analyses the Gospels and their sources, the literary relationships between them, and so on. Much of this is out of date, and it would serve no purpose for me to comment on it. In Part Two I will be addressing a corresponding examination of the Gospels by R. T. France who is considerably more recent (1985).

In his final chapter, Goguel presents his view of the origins of Christianity:

The Christians—and not only thinkers like Paul or the author of the Fourth Gospel, but also the humblest and least philosophical among them—only considered the Gospel history as an episode in a cosmic drama of much vaster dimensions….That which convinced them that Jesus was more than a man was the conviction that He had risen from the dead….The belief in the resurrection is indeed the foundation upon which the whole structure of primitive Christianity is built. The story of its birth is nothing more than the formation of the faith in the resurrection.” [p.216-17]

Today, the average Christian would undoubtedly still agree. Scholarly examination of the record has led us to be not so sure. Q represents an entire line of Jesus tradition (along with parts of the Gospel of Thomas), from apocalyptic expectation centering on the Son of Man to a wide range of ethical teaching and an awareness of miracle-working, yet none of it betrays any interest, or even knowledge of, a death and resurrection for Jesus. The Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Odes of Solomon, show no sign of a death and resurrection either. Many of the 2nd century apologists present their Logos-Son with no sacrificial character, let alone an incarnation. As noted earlier, Paul regards the death and resurrection of Jesus as a matter of faith, not historical record, and he witnesses to apostles and congregations who do not have a theology of the cross (see Article No. 1, Apollos and the Early Christian Apostolate). Goguel’s statement thus goes against the evidence, but as always, that evidence is submerged under the Gospels and the suppositions based upon them.

Goguel would have been considered a “critical scholar” in his day. He is not afraid to question and reject certain elements. Matthew’s guard at the tomb is “a characteristic example of a narrative imagined—in good faith certainly—to reply to a Jewish objection,” although that objection is equally imagined, since there is no evidence for such a thing outside the Gospel of Matthew. He questions whether the empty tomb gave rise to the “apparitions,” or if the latter led to belief in the former. Most perplexing is “the extreme diversity of the apparition narratives,” referring to their irreconcilable contradictions, including their placement by Matthew in Galilee, by Luke in Judea. The ending of Mark is also problematic, in that not only does it have no appearances, the women are instructed to tell no one about the empty tomb. Goguel remarks on various proposals of his day to resolve these issues and contradictions, but offers no endorsement of any of them, simply acknowledging “the true problem existing in its entirety.” If such problems call into question the very event portrayed in the Gospels and yet Goguel postulates it as the impetus for the Christian movement, how can these two positions be reconciled?

Goguel’s solution involves watering down the historical elements and introducing the “faith” component. Without realizing it, he has taken a giant step toward the mythicist position.

The decisive fact in the genesis of Christianity was neither the discovery of the empty tomb nor the appearances of Jesus to His disciples, but faith in the resurrection. From the religious point of view, it is not facts which have importance, but ideas and sentiments.” [p.219]

If faith in the resurrection was not clearly based on a witness to an empty tomb, nor on physical contacts with Jesus in flesh as portrayed in the post-resurrection appearances of the Gospels (and entirely missing in Mark), then we have eliminated all impediment to regarding Christianity as arising from faith in an entirely spiritual Christ who is known through scripture and visions, whose death and resurrection took place in a mythical context. In fact, Goguel shows how unreliable he regards the Gospel traditions as a basis for defining the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection by his appeal to “one precise and accurately dated document which shows us how the apostle Paul conceived the person and import of the risen Christ.” Namely, 1 Corinthians 15. But what does Paul in this passage tell us? Goguel admits it says nothing about an empty tomb, although he is reluctant to go so far as to “conclude from the silence that he was ignorant of the tradition about the empty tomb” [p.220]. Instead, “for Paul, faith in the resurrection is linked with the apparitions.” Linked, perhaps; derived from, one is not so sure. This is dependent on reading “kata tas graphas” as “in fulfilment of the scriptures” rather than as ‘learned’ from them (see above). Paul nowhere discusses the former, and the latter meaning is supported by all sorts of epistolary passages (Romans 1:2, 16:26, Galatians 1:12, 1 Peter 2:22f, by references to the “spirit” as the source of information about Christ, along with scriptural passages quoted as the “voice” of Christ). Goguel points out the term used by Paul in connection with the apparitions: “ōphthē,”

as though he would indicate that in these experiences the initiative belongs to the Christ: He shows Himself to the disciples rather than these see Him. However, the expression which Paul uses must not be pushed to the point of reducing the apparitions in his thought to simple visions with no reality outside the consciousness of those who were favoured with them.” [p.221]

And why not? All these prohibitive qualifications are based in no secure argument except Goguel’s desire not to let such inviting conclusions assert themselves.

He similarly forces 1 Corinthians 15:44-49 into meanings which are not evidently there. In Paul’s presentation, “Christ is a spiritual being…whose attributes are different, and in a certain degree opposed to those belonging to terrestrial organisms.” He contrasts the corruptible earthly man with the incorruptible heavenly man: “The prototypes of these two species of beings are the first man Adam and the second Adam, which is the Christ.” So far, so good. Goguel has accurately presented Paul’s view of Christ in this passage, restricting himself to the words and imagery Paul has presented. Then the Gospels are allowed to intrude: “The risen Christ, therefore, in Paul's view, possesses a body essentially different from that which He possessed during His earthly life….the Risen Christ no longer lives an earthly life.

And so on. So near, yet so far. Without the assumptions of the Gospels superimposed upon the epistles like a suffocating weight, we would be able to perceive from Paul’s own words, here and throughout the epistles, how Christianity did arise and what it believed in. For the balance of this chapter, Goguel engages in a balancing act, between his own critical instincts and his need to rescue something from the Gospel accounts of the resurrection and its aftermath.


Goguel has not even come close to discrediting the mythicist position, and certainly not as it has evolved today. The problem is, for mainstream scholars to be able to perceive this would require them to recognize and acknowledge the special pleading, fallacious reasoning and unjustified conclusions, the reading into the texts the things they want to see there, which scholarship too often indulges in to support its own position. Unfortunately, the inability to do so will effectively prevent a surrender of the view that mythicism has been roundly defeated and needs no further addressing.

Only someone anxious to see a confirmation of their own faith in an uncooperative record, as Price is, could bring himself to regard Goguel’s work as one of “impressive strength” in “the specificity and thoroughness with which he engages the Jesus Mythologists of his time.” While New Testament scholarship has greatly enhanced its knowledge and skills since Goguel’s day, what that progress has achieved has also undercut much of the traditional conviction of reliability placed in the record which Goguel’s generation still enjoyed. This is why the defenders of an historical Jesus need more than ever to readdress the Jesus Myth theory from their modern vantage point, to see whether the confidence that mythicism has been shattered is justified. To judge by the efforts since Goguel, they have no right to rest on their laurels.

In Part Two, we will jump ahead more than half a century. Price refers to two works during the intervening period, Herbert Woods’ Did Christ Really Live? (1938) and I. Howard Marshall’s I Believe in the Historical Jesus (1977). I have not read either, though Robert Van Voorst comments that Marshall’s book contains more faith than substance, and Price regards both books as less than adequate and recommends more recent treatments of the subject.

 End of Part One


To Part Two: R. T. France, Graham Stanton, Morton Smith, Ian Wilson

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