Sunday, April 1, 2007

Did Jesus Exist?

I've been working my way through Did Jesus Exist?. The link takes you to what is a book. The author, Earl Doherty, presents a sustained argument that Jesus never existed. There is no evidence even that some individual, however, misunderstood stands behind the stories and myths of Christianity. Jesus is pure myth.

I don't have the background either in ancient languages, hellenic and roman history, or even in neo-Platonist philosophy, nor do I have any interest in acquiring the requisite knowledge to properly evaluate Doherty's arguments and the evidence he adduces in support of those arguments.

Even though my knowledge of antiquity is lacking, I can judge his mode of presentation. Doherty realizes that he has a hard sell to make and that most readers will not be welcoming of what he has to say. His presentation is calm, rational, and erudite. When he is unsure of how to interpret a text he says so. He understands in his bones that historians do not offer certainties, but shades and degrees of uncertainty. Did Jesus Exist? is not the Da Vinci Code: there are no convoluted explanations or appeals to conspiracies. He presents his evidence and arguments, then leaves his readers judge for themselves.

I won't go into detail in discussing his arguments. Any suitably inclined reader can follow the link given above and make up his own mind. Not being well-versed in these matters, I wouldn't do justice to his presentation, anyway.

To my mind Doherty's most persuasive argument is what is called the "argument from silence." The New Testament always struck me as divided into roughly two parts: the historical/narrative parts of the Gospels plus Acts and an ahistorical part of the Epistles plus Revelations. For all of Paul's whining and complaining about other preachers/teachers, he never once unambiguously broaches the subject of Jesus as historical figure.

What is interesting in Doherty's interpretation of the Pauline Epistles is that Paul comes off as a Judaic Platonist: his Christ dies and is resurrected on a spiritual plane of existence -- I like to call it "myth space." The difference between Paul's Christ and say the Egyptian myths of Horus, according to Doherty, is the specifics of the respective myths. Accordingly, Paul does not assert that his Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected in Palestine. Apparently what was controversial in Paul is the mode of death, i.e., crucifixion.

Further, the silence on the historical Jesus is not confined to the New Testament Epistles but extends into the 2nd Century. The view of Christianity that emerges in Doherty's essay is a plethora of cults strongly influenced by Platonism and Judaism. Over time these cults coalesce into something that is recognizable more or less as what we know today as Christianity.

I had never considered the possibility of a purely mythic Jesus. This possibility slightly unnerves me. It's not that I'm attached to the idea of a historical Jesus, but that I find myself thinking about how unrooted time and history are. Our timekeeping practices are completely arbitrary. I find myself thinking about the madman's speech in Nietzsche's The Gay Science:

.... What did we do when we unchained this earth from the sun? Away from all suns? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? .... (Section 125)

Incidentally, this is where Nietzsche first mentions the death of God. What is perhaps more disturbing to me, former Evangelical Christian, is the death of Jesus. Nietzsche for all of his passionate denunciations of Christendom, accepted until the end a historical Jesus.

But all melodrama aside, is it really all that hard to believe that Christians invented Jesus? I'm sure it was done with the best of intentions. It seems to be a defining mark of a "real" Christian to sloppily misunderstand his predecessors and his opponents. Is it really surprising? Christians seem do it all the time now. Look up David Paszkiewicz. Or the case in Pennsylvania about teaching Intelligent Design in high school. In the latter, the judge voices his strong suspicions that members of the school board lied about their beliefs in order to get a resolution to teach ID passed. have a Bible class in a high school? I wish we could trust the Evangelicals to keep their word. But I digress. Or we can consider the meaning of the word "monkish" in textual scholarship.

Believers have never been known for their attention to empirical reality or for their courage in following an investigation wherever it might lead. So, yeah, when you consider how fast and loose Christians play with the truth, it hardly seems surprising that Jesus of Nazareth was accidentally invented.


  1. FWIW, Richard Carrier did a review of Mr. Doherty's Jesus Puzzle and found it quite compelling. You can read the review here if you're interested.

  2. Sun-god in reality meant to the sages of old, and what it should mean to us. It meant that the divinity within us, our divine soul or Self, was itself the Sun-god, or solar deity. And what does this signify in concrete terms for us? Just this; that the god within us is constituted of the imperishable essence of solar light and energy! In short, we ourselves, in our higher nature, are solar gods in potentiality! Our highest nature is an incorruptible body composed of the glorious essence of the sun's energy! The gods in the Bible were always symboled by the light or fire of the sun. We are now enlightened to see it as a description of our nature as veritable truth and fact. We are Sun-gods. Our immortal spirits within us are composed of the radiant substance of solar energy.

    That the trial of your faith (much more precious than gold which is tried by the fire) may be found unto praise and glory and honour at the appearing of Jesus Christ [1Peter 1:7].


  3. Michael,

    Take a look at this.

    I haven't watched all of it yet. I'm thinking that I might use it for an upcoming post, "And Now for Something Completely Different: A Different Literal Interpretation of the New Testament."


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