2 Did Jesus exist? in:

Steuart Campbell

The Rise and Fall of Jesus, page 15 - 44

A Complete Explanation for the Life of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity

3. Edition 2019, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-4346-2, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-7327-8,

Tectum, Baden-Baden
Bibliographic information
Did Jesus exist? The argument for historicity The question of whether the Gospels are based upon myth or history has exercised great minds even since Bauer claimed that Jesus is the product not the creator of Christianity, although Dupuis and Volney both anticipated his views. Later, Robertson, Kalthoff, Jensen, Smith and Drews were to develop their own versions of a mythical Jesus. Conybeare dealt adequately with the views of Robertson, Smith and Drews, while other mythicists have each received their subsequent rebuttal, although not necessarily from the orthodox.* Klausner (1925) concluded that Jesus did exist and that he lived and died in Judaea under Roman occupation. He claimed that the doubts raised by Bauer had no solid foundation and condemned the ‘conglomeration of pseudo-scientific proofs advanced by Bauer, Kalthoff and Drews’. Goguel (1926) wrote that it would be easy to show how much there enters of the conjectural, of superficial resemblances, of debatable interpretation into the systems of Drews, Robertson, Smith, Couchoud, or Stahl. He went on to state that the argument from silence is unconvincing because, owing to the little that is recorded by secular authors, the silence is not complete and these secular authors were under no obligation to explain the origin of Christianity. Nor, he pointed out, do the Gospels defend the historicity of Jesus, since in those days no one questioned it. He wrote, ‘how did the opponents of Christianity come to neglect the use of so terrible an argument?’ Why did the Jewish opponents of Christianity not undermine the Church by denying Jesus’ historicity? Goguel pointed out that Saul’s persecution of Christianity is a ‘decisive objection against the doctrine that the entire gospel history has been deduced from a theory 2 * Readers unfamiliar with the writers referred to in this chapter may find it helpful to read Appendix A first. 15 or from a pre-existent myth’ and he asked how the ‘well established fact’ that there were, in the Jerusalem Church, men who passed for being brothers of Jesus ‘according to the flesh’ (Gal. 1:19; I Cor. 9:5), can be reconciled with the theory that Christ was an ideal personage. ‘The epistles of Paul’, he wrote, ‘afford precise testimony in support of the existence of the gospel tradition before him. They presume a Jesus who lived, acted, taught, whose life was a model for believers, and who died on the cross’. Goguel concluded that, ‘if there is in early Christianity any speculation assimilated from pre-existing Jewish and even pagan elements, it is upon the basis of a historical tradition about the life and death of Jesus that this speculation has developed. The historical reality of the personality of Jesus alone enables us to understand the birth and development of Christianity, which otherwise would remain an enigma, and in the proper sense of the word, a miracle’. Klausner (1925) considered that Paul is a trustworthy witness to the existence of Jesus and, in Goguel’s opinion, Paul, the persecutor Saul, is a witness to the truth of the Crucifixion (Goguel 1933). Weinel and Widgery wrote that the four chief epistles of Paul are the most certain witness that we have for the fact that Jesus lived. Conybeare took great trouble to show how devious and tendentious are the ‘mythico-symbolic’ methods of certain mythicists. A rationalist, he had no time for those who, through ignorance, embraced wild theories of mystery plays and solar myths. Comparing Jesus with such personalities as Solon, Epimenides, Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana, he claimed that the proof of their existence is more tenuous than that for Jesus and that ‘the historicity of Jesus is much better attested and documented than that of Apollonius …’ . Further, ‘of the life of Plato we know next to nothing, … the only life we have of him was penned by Diogenes Laertius 600 years after he lived. The details of his life supplied by Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, are obviously false.’ If Jesus is a myth, then Plato is a mere figment of the imagination. ‘The thesis, therefore, that Jesus never lived, but was from first to last a myth, presents itself at the outset as a paradox.’ On comparison with other religions, he pointed out that while, for instance, the votaries of Adonis and Osiris and all other pagan gods never regarded their divinity as having had an earthly existence, Christians did claim this for their God. McCabe noted that we have less evidence of the personal 2 Did Jesus exist? 16 existence of Kung-fu-tse or Buddha than of Jesus, yet no historian doubts their historicity. Klausner (1925) noted Rousseau’s statement that the matters told of Socrates, whose existence no one doubts, rest on far slenderer evidence than do those told of Jesus. George Bernard Shaw and H G Wells both believed that a real person lay behind the story of Jesus and that it could not have been invented (Rylands), while Mackinnon declared that ‘without the historic Jesus there would have been no Christianity and no Church to found’. He concluded that ‘the myth theory is an absurdity in the face of the evidence of Paul, let alone the Gospels’. Regarding the motives of the mythicists, Wood claimed that ‘doubts regarding the historical existence of Jesus Christ are advanced only by persons who wish to establish preconceived ideas as to the nature of religion or as to the nature of history …’ while Cohn noted that Rousseau ‘gave early warning that denial of the historicity of Jesus is nothing more than reluctance to grapple with the difficulties presented by the Gospel inconsistencies, not a solution of them.’ In relation to the lack of corroboration from Talmudic sources, Cohn quoted Klausner that ‘Jesus lived in that stormy period when attention was concentrated on other, more important events, and thus passed through Jewish history almost unnoticed’. Jewish students of this subject, like Klausner above, have no doubt that Jesus existed. Vermes was at pains to make it clear that Jesus was ‘a real historical person’. He thought that the difficulties arising from the denial of his existence far exceed those deriving from its acceptance (2008;1). Because the name ‘Jesus’ cannot be used in isolation from the gospel story in which he is the central character, claims regarding his historicity need to be qualified. It is one thing to claim that the picture of a glorified omniscient and omnipotent Christ is false and quite another to claim that there never was a Jewish prophet called Jesus the Nazarene. Moreover, there is a wide difference between the view that there was never such a person as described in the Gospels and the belief that there never existed in first century Palestine a Messianic claimant subsequently known as Christus. What do people mean when they claim that Jesus did not exist? Some mean that they cannot accept the Church’s view of its founder, some that they find the Gospel accounts indigestible, and others that it The argument for historicity 17 is unlikely that there ever was a historical figure behind the legend. The choice will no doubt be made on the basis of the individual religious background and the relevant importance attached to rejecting all or part of the traditional view. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between these various Christs, to get a clear view of whose historicity is in question. Rationalists are certainly not interested in defending a supernatural Christ, nor would they believe that the Gospels are to be taken at their face value. If Jesus existed, he was neither superhuman nor chosen by God. The fundamental questions are, what in the Gospel record can be taken to refer to a real historical person and, if he existed, what can be known about that person. Ory identified three rationalist positions, as follows: 1) there never was a man called Jesus and Christianity grew without him; 2) there was a man called Jesus of whom we know very little for certain and who might as well not have existed; and 3) there was a man called Jesus, but not the person of the Gospels. He claimed that this latter Jesus was a fanatical Jew, a sicarius (assassin) at daggers-drawn with the High Priest and that he did not found Christianity. But what does Ory mean by ‘might as well not have existed’? Is his Jesus-2 the originator of Christianity? Why does his Jesus-3 have to have been a sicarius? Altogether he over-complicated the matter. Either there did exist in first century Palestine a Jewish teacher called Jesus the Nazarene, whose life and more especially whose death generated Christianity, or Christianity arose without any particular nuclear personality. The issue is whether or not a distinct personality lies behind the origin of Christianity. This question may be tackled indirectly by examining the Gospels in the light of the proposal that Christianity arose without a historical founder. If Jesus did not exist, how did the Gospels, to say nothing of the secular accounts of him, come into existence? If there was no Jesus, Burkitt wondered that the early Christians invented so little; how, for instance, did they fail to invent a statement by Jesus that would have settled a burning question of the Apostolic Age – on what conditions Gentile believers were to be accepted into the Church? The complete mythicist case should show a full and convincing explanation for every 2 Did Jesus exist? 18 word of the New Testament; indeed, it should explain certain curious silences. Mythicists should explain how it was that the creators of the myth stated that Jesus came from Nazareth, when every Jew knew that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem in Judaea. The Birth Narratives were contrived, among other reasons, to attempt to reconcile these two conflicting provenances. But why should the evangelists have created such a difficulty in the first place?* Goguel (1926) suggested that, since it caused so much embarrassment, Christian tradition could not have placed Jesus’ origin in Nazareth. The mythicists, he claimed, were hard put to explain how Jesus was called a Nazarene. I shall show that ‘nazarene’ does not signify someone from Nazareth, but rather that Matthew and Luke, writing after Mark, who has no Birth Narrative, misunderstood the meaning because of the belief that Jesus came from Galilee. They presumed that it referred to someone from Nazareth. But why Galilee, a rebellious and not strictly Jewish province? Galileans were despised in Jerusalem as uncouth country cousins, without manners or education. Why select this area for the provenance of the Messiah? A mythical Christ who did not originate in Bethlehem could not have been acceptable to Jews. Wells countered this argument with the help of Lohmeyer, who believed that, at the time the Gospels originated, Galilee was an important religious centre. But it was not explained how this eliminated the need to fulfil the prophecy of Micah (Mic. 5:2). Nor do we see why the evangelist should not place his Jesus in Bethlehem, no matter where the Christian sect originated. His readers were far more likely to know that Christ should come from Bethlehem than they were to know of obscure religious activities in Galilee. Burkitt stated that there were no Christians in Galilee until the days when Christians were to be found in every corner of the Empire (Howell-Smith). The fact that the later authors of Matthew and Luke felt compelled to convince their readers that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem demonstrates how vital a condition this was to the Jews. If Wells is correct, how is it that Mark failed to realize the importance of this basic foundation for the construction of the myth? Salibi (1988:38) suggested that the account of * Hugh Trevor-Roper drew attention to this question in The Spectator, 27 Feb 1971. The argument for historicity 19 Jesus’ initial preaching in Galilee was based on Isaiah 9:1; in fact he located ‘galilee’ in Arabia (ibid:99). Mythicists should also find an explanation for a discrepancy regarding Jesus’ parentage. Although he is given a contrived genealogy, to show his ‘legitimate’ descent from King David, the last link in the line was removed to give him a divine father.* This completely invalidated any proof of descent from the royal line and must have made him an unacceptable Messiah to Jews. Why such confusion in a myth? If the myth-makers were Jews, attempting to show that the expected and legitimate Messiah had arrived, why would they fail to demonstrate his right of inheritance? If Jesus was invented, was John the Baptist also invented and, if so, why? Craveri wrote that if the beginnings of the public life of Jesus had been otherwise, there would have been no need for the early Christians to devise a Forerunner, whom they then had to relegate to a secondary rank and Borsch was sure that speculation that John the Baptist was Christ (Luke 3:15) could hardly have come from Christians. As Goguel (1933) noted, John’s baptism of Jesus is an embarrassment to the Church and so is probably a historical event. However there is no question about John’s existence; he was mentioned by Josephus (Antiq. 18:5:2). How is it that mythicists do not use John as their terminus a quo? How is it that some place Jesus’ existence at a time when John did not exist? How is it that mythicists do not question the existence of John the Baptist? Why would the evangelists commit themselves to the forecast, in the words of Jesus, that all his prophecies concerning the end of the world and the dawning of the new kingdom would be fulfilled before the death of those around him (Mark 9:1; 13:30)? If the Gospels were compiled one or two centuries after the time in which the evangelists imagined and placed their Jesus, why would they put into his mouth words that plainly showed the falsehood of his prophecy? At the time of writing, all the apostles were dead and yet the kingdom as forecast by Jesus had not appeared. That such a subversive statement is included in the Gospels surely reveals that the evangelists were unable to ex- * Tabor claims that the genealogies show Mary to have royal blood. 2 Did Jesus exist? 20 clude the prophecy, it being thrust upon them by a tradition that faithfully recorded the words of Jesus. Then there is the problem of the story of Judas’ treachery. Cohn observed that, on the one hand the story is so unlikely and incongruous that it is unbelievable, and on the other hand that it ‘gives rise to so much shame and despair that it could not just have been invented’. Christianity is embarrassed by the existence in the Gospels of this lurid tale, which shows such odious treachery in a disciple and risked impugning Jesus’ ability to assess character. What explanation do mythicists offer for the invention of this episode? Does a story-teller deliberately create a plot that he cannot explain satisfactorily or at all and which in any case subverts his case? Guignebert (1935) expressed the view that the most likely origin of Iscariot is from the Aramaic root meaning ‘deliver up’ (i.e. ‘Judas-the-Betrayer’) and pointed out that this is the best argument in favour of the historicity of the Betrayal.* If the Betrayal is historical, then the question of Jesus’ existence is settled. Salibi claimed that Iscariot derives from Askar in Arabia and that it was merely a surname indicating that Judas came from that place (1988:99). It would be possible to believe that Jesus had been thwarted in his hope of establishing a Messianic kingdom immediately after his entry into Jerusalem, to believe that the authorities had somehow sensed his attempted coup and had removed him before he could do more damage, were it not for the extraordinary account of Judas’ betrayal. If the account is accurate, it prevents any notion that Jesus was taken by surprise and this in turn means that he anticipated, even hoped for, arrest. If the account is invention, why did the author choose such a dishonourable means of putting Jesus into the hands of his enemies; indeed why did he do this at all? But the most serious conflict arises over the beliefs concerning the death of Jesus. Brandon observed that Christians could hardly have invented the notion that the founder of their faith had been put to death on a charge of sedition and, as Cross (1970b) put it, the Crucifixion is not the kind of story that any Jewish sect would make up about its hero. * Carmichael (1995:78) thought that the name 'Judas' stood for all Jewry and that it was therefore part of an attempt to blame the Jews for Christ’s death. The argument for historicity 21 Guignebert (1935) claimed that if Jews had invented the death of Jesus, they would have chosen some other mode of death than the cross, ‘no one creates difficulties on purpose when they can easily be avoided’. Mark, the first evangelist (but Powell disagreed), writing for Greek-speaking Christians in the Roman Empire, probably shortly after the capture of Jerusalem in 70, was clearly embarrassed by the story he told. How could he describe the execution of his hero without impugning the character of the Roman official responsible? If, as is evident, he blamed the Jews for Jesus’ death, why did he not give Jesus a Jewish death such as stoning?* Why involve the Roman governor? Mark shows great reluctance to blame Pilate for what appears to be the conviction of an innocent man. His readers would have known that the execution of an innocent was a miscarriage of Roman justice and there was an implied criticism of the Lex Julia or its executors. Because this criticism had to be muted, Mark attempted to show that Pilate was unwilling to condemn. He portrays Pilate as humane, when Philo showed him to have been inflexible, relentless, vindictive, stubborn and cruel (Leg. 38). Why should Mark have to go to all this trouble? Why was he at such great pains to exonerate Pilate when he could easily have attributed both trial and execution to the Jews, that rebellious nation recently crushed by Vespasian? But an even more difficult question is why the evangelists record the story of a Messiah who failed. Their hero made great and confident predictions, consistent with Jewish eschatological beliefs regarding the establishment on Earth of a new order destined to subdue even the mighty Roman Empire. Where was the promise of this Jesus? If he had been seen since his death, he had certainly not remained on Earth as the scenario demanded. He had not changed the rule on Earth; the Romans ruled as before. All that those who believed in his power could expect was that he would return at some indeterminate time in the future. This does not seem to be a very satisfactory outcome for the myth. In fact the very state of the world in the first century would have prevented Jews from making any claim that the Messiah had come. They had known from their youth that the coming of the Messiah would be accompanied by such cataclysmic events and lead to such a * Powell thought that Jesus was stoned to death and so blamed the Jews. 2 Did Jesus exist? 22 revolutionary change in both the physical and political world that no one could fail to notice. No Jew could have believed that the Messiah had come already, that he had been meek, impotent, killed and had gone to heaven. The necessary evidence would have been lacking. He would have asked ‘where is the promise of his appearing? For from the day when the fathers fell asleep all things remain as they were since the creation’ (II Pet. 3:4). That many Jews came to believe the Gospel accounts was the result, not of self-conviction, but of the persistent preaching of the apostles and the conviction with which they preached. But not all Jews accepted the story. If the account was so easy of compilation, so obvious a deduction from Scripture, how is it that it was rejected by so many Jews? Sanders noted the difficulty of explaining how to reconcile the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans as would-be ‘king of the Jews’ and the fact that his disciples subsequently formed a Messianic movement that was not based on the hope of military victory (1985:294). Lastly, how does it come about that the evangelists cannot agree on what is meant by ‘the third day’? Matthew stated that Jesus forecast his entombment for three days and three nights (Matt. 12:40), yet how could he write this when he knew or believed that Jesus was resurrected after only two nights in the tomb, on the second day after? If he invented it, how does an evangelist come to have such a glaring discrepancy in his account? In 1744 Annet wrote, ‘if the only sign to be given to the Jews was this parallel with Jonah’s incarceration, then what becomes of the proof of Jesus’ claims when he failed to perform the sign?’ We find that there are a number of statements in the Gospels that are incomprehensible if the whole story is a myth. They are evidence that, although the evangelists manipulated the texts to suit the times in which they lived and the case they wished to promote, they handled basically historical material. There is evidence that they were more prone to add than subtract. It is understandable that they would fear to omit part of what they must have regarded as sacred accounts from Palestine, the Holy Land. But they might not have seen any reason why they should not add their own ‘explanations’. Thus, while we cannot easily distinguish between original and gloss, we can see where the text obstinately subverts the evangelist’s purpose, a subversion he did not fully understand or was afraid to change. Trevor-Roper pointed out The argument for historicity 23 that the fact that the evangelists resorted to explanations suggests a historical basis for the Gospels.* There are serious anomalies in the Gospel texts that are not consistent with the theory that Jesus did not exist and are evidence that real events lie behind the story. The very language of the Gospels reveals their origin in Palestine. Weinel and Widgery noted that Jesus’ mother tongue, Aramaic, permeates the text so plainly that a Hellenized Roman or Latinized Greek of the second century could never have invented such a figure. Jesus is at home and in reality in Galilee, not at the court of the Emperor in Rome of the second century or in the thought of a Hellenistic writer. Having claimed that Jesus was a historical personality, we are not at all driven to accept the Gospel accounts of his life, character and purpose. But if he existed, the one established historical event is his execution by the Judaean governor on a charge of sedition. Let us be clear that either Jesus did not exist and almost anything may be believed of him or he did exist and was tried and crucified by the Roman authorities. This execution is the only reason he can have any claim to reality; both Paul and the secular authors agree that Christ was crucified. If this is correct we may conclude that Jesus had been found guilty of a capital charge and we are given hints that this charge was claiming to be King of the Jews. At that time in Judaea it is the most likely charge upon which he could be convicted. McArthur noted that a historicoscientific description of the life of Jesus would only be possible in the form of a description of his death, its historical presuppositions and the events preceding and following it. The historical method involves starting at a well-known event and working outwards, forward and backward. But how and why Jesus should have fallen into Pilate’s hands is another story, not necessarily the one told by the evangelists. Wells’s theory of Christian origins In 1971 Pemberton Press published a new theory to account for the origin of Christianity, the work of G A Wells, Professor of German at Birkbeck College, University of London (Wells 1971b). * In The Spectator, as footnote on p. 19. 2 Did Jesus exist? 24 Wells’s theory is based on the well-aired presumption that Jesus did not exist as a historical person, although Wells pretended not to treat that controversial issue. However, his theory subsumes this belief. Essentially, his idea was that Christianity is the result of an amalgamation (after 100 CE) of Jewish Messianism and pagan ideas of a historical, suffering redeemer. He believed that the complexity of Christian doctrine had gradually evolved from an original belief that the Messiah had appeared at some time in the recent past. However, Borsch pointed out that, contrary to the usual belief that religious beliefs are at first simple, only later complicated, in fact they are usually complicated at the outset; followers gradually simplify them and eradicate contradictions. As I shall show, Jesus’ original beliefs were certainly complicated and they were followed by the simplistic beliefs of the apostles. Wells asked us to accept that, by the end of the first century, Jewish gnostics had formulated a belief in a supernatural redeemer who would come from heaven. Those who are accustomed to debating this issue in regard to the accepted life of Jesus are at a disadvantage in having to shift ground by at least a century and it is a little disconcerting for Wells to quote Pauline statements as representative of the Jewish view. Naturally, the meaning of Paul’s words will depend upon whether one sees them as the cause or the result of a belief in a historical saviour and they can hardly be accepted as exhibits in this debate. The Jewish idea of the Messiah up to the end of the second-century can be seen in the Mishnah, a collection of precepts forming the basis of the Talmud, the Jewish civil and ceremonial law and embodying Jewish oral law. According to Klausner (1956), the Messianic concept was a consistent developing theme from patriarchal times right up to the completion of the Mishnah and no dramatic changes are detectable. Indeed, no one can be certain as to the exact periods spanned by particular phases of the belief. Klausner also makes it plain that the Jewish Messiah was essentially of human origin, a man of flesh and blood like all other mortals. He was neither supernatural nor an incarnation. Klausner also noted that the entire activity of the Messiah-ben-Joseph, the first of two Messiahs, had a wholly political significance. Such ideas are hardly consistent with a legendary figure; it is evident that the evangelists attempted to dissociate Jesus from any political activity. Wells’s theory of Christian origins 25 Why would the myth-maker build a Jesus, a Messiah, who did not conform to the traditional picture painted by the Mishnah? While Wells was aware that there was a belief in two Messiahs, he appears to have seen them both as war leaders slain in battle. He believed that syncretism reduced these two to one suffering redeemer under the influence of pagan religions. But the Jews believed that only the first Messiah would be killed; the second would rule Israel forever. Wells proposed that the notion of a resurrected redeemer came from pagan beliefs in the first century. As we shall see, the Jews inherited belief in resurrection from Persia. The idea of a resurrected redeemer is one that might have arisen among certain sects of the Jews and that Jesus particularly made his own. One of Wells’s exhibits is the warning against the heresy of Docetism (I John 4:2–3; II John 7). Superficially these verses seem to suggest that some denied that Jesus had lived on Earth and indeed this was Wells’s understanding. He took this as support for his contention that, during the second century, the invention of the myth created a debate as to whether or not Jesus had really existed. But the Docetic heresy was about the nature of Christ’s body.* Docetists claimed that Christ only seemed to be human and was really an ethereal being. This was the reason for John’s warning to his readers to beware of those who would not admit that Jesus had come in the flesh (en sarki). It was not a debate about whether or not Jesus had lived; it was one regarding the nature of his being. Even Docetists would have affirmed that an ethereal Jesus had lived under Pilate and it was naive of Wells to suggest that John could have refuted the Docetists by quoting biographical details of Jesus. These details were not in dispute and John, unlike Ignatius, was not writing to confute Docetists; he had no need to debate Docetism with his ‘beloved’. In any case, the fact that Ignatius confuted the Docetists with biographical details is not evidence, as Wells supposed, that the author of the epistles of John lacked such information. How did Wells explain the choice by the early Christians of the specific historical period in which their Messiah lived and died? How was it that the saviour was given a historical background in Pilate’s Judaea, including death by crucifixion? Wells suggests that Christians * Docetism comes from the Greek dokeein, to seem. 2 Did Jesus exist? 26 placed their hero under Pilate because of the latter’s known cruelty to Jews. Having placed Jesus under Roman rule, the Christians would have expected him to have suffered the fate suffered by other Messianic claimants, if there were any. In his second work (1975), Wells exhibited special pleading by suggesting that the early Christians placed Jesus’ death under Roman rule because Jesus was believed to have been crucified. He also believed that Pilate was ‘just the type of person to have murdered Jesus’. Wells acknowledged that ‘when suffering was greatest, the Messiah would be nearest’ (1973), a thought from the Mishnah. But why did he think that Pilate’s rule was considered the period of Israel’s greatest suffering? From the point of view of a Jew living about 100, Israel’s greatest suffering must surely have seemed to have been the time of the Roman War (66 to 70 CE), which culminated in the destruction of the Temple and the nation. But for Wells, this was too late, in that many alive at the time of the (presumed) evolution of the myth could have recalled the War and denied the existence of an ‘invented’ Messiah. He had to find a period beyond the memory of any living Jew. Then why not choose the period of the rule of Herod the Great? Klausner (1925) states that suffering was so great during the tyranny of Herod and the rule of the procurators (prefects) that many false Messiahs appeared. This period extended from 40 BC to the commencement of the Roman War, nearly 100 years. Why, out of this century, did Wells think the evangelists chose the prefecture of Pilate (26 to 36)? If it was because of Pilate’s reputed cruelty, why do the Gospels portray him as a compassionate governor, reluctant to commit Jesus to death? Why select a cruel governor and then make every effort to conceal his cruelty? Worse, why choose a period when Rome itself ruled Judaea? It was foolish to invent an execution of Jesus that laid responsibility on the Roman authorities; either Jesus would be thought a villain justly punished or the Roman power wicked and stupid to have executed a god. Moreover, those propagating this gospel ran the risk of detention and/or punishment for circulating a story that implied Roman incompetence. Reasonable early Christians, looking for a home for their mythical hero, would surely have set him in Herod’s kingdom. Herod was more cruel than Pilate. By causing Jesus to die at his hand, they could have avoided the embarrassment of blaming Rome. Moreover, Herod ruled before Pilate, so putting the myth further out of reach of Wells’s theory of Christian origins 27 living memory. But the Gospels exhibit a clear intention to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death, an intention subverted by the fact that he was crucified, a Roman death penalty. But placement under Herod would have given Jesus a Jewish death penalty, such as stoning or strangulation. That the Gospels place Jesus as crucified under Pilate makes nonsense of Wells’s theory and shows that the evangelists, unlike a timetraveller, were not at liberty to choose the time to which they would go. The record stubbornly points to a historical figure. Wells believed that the idea that Jesus became an object of worship within a few decades of his death was without parallel, so casting doubt on his historicity. But Renan observed that Jesus would be a phenomenon unparalleled in history if, with the part he played, he had not become idealized. The legends respecting Alexander were invented before the generation of his companions in arms became extinct; those respecting St Francis of Assisi began in his lifetime. A rapid metamorphosis operated in the same manner in the twenty or thirty years that followed the death of Jesus and imposed upon biography the peculiarities of an ideal legend. Wells (1982) has drawn attention to the possibility that the evangelists constructed accounts of events in the life of Jesus by deducing these events from Old Testament prophecy. However, if an evangelist could see the need for actions that fulfilled prophecy, so could the historical Jesus. It may have been Jesus and not the evangelists who constructed the incidents in question and this is a theme I shall explore. JOSEPHUS ON JESUS About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was Christ [Christos]. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. [Antiq. 18:3:3]. 2 Did Jesus exist? 28 Did Josephus mention Jesus? Because of their importance in establishing the existence and worth of the man worshipped by the Christian Church, the brief references to Jesus by the Jewish historian Josephus are called Testimonia Flaviana (Flavian Testimonies). Jesus’ name may be found twice in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (Antiq. 18:3:3 and 20:9:1). The former (see panel) describes Jesus’ appearance in Jerusalem and how many followed him. It also describes how Pilate crucified him and how the sect of Christians are named after him. The latter is a brief reference to Jesus as the brother of James, the leader of the Jerusalem Church. Christianity has long treasured these passages as a defence against those who questioned the historicity of Jesus. Consequently it was natural for mythicists to question the authenticity of the Testimonia; Goguel (1926) noted that such questioning began in the sixteenth century. The oldest manuscripts of Josephus’ work date from the eleventh century, although the original is known to have been published about the year 93 when Domitian was emperor. Josephus was a Pharisee who sided with Rome on the issue of the Jewish War* and who was highly regarded by Vespasian. He settled in Rome under the patronage of the Emperors and adopted their family name – Flavius. Despite the odium he brought upon himself from fellow Jews, he was at pains in his writings to be fair to his nation and he became somewhat of an apologist for Judaism. Interest in Judaea probably grew after its capture and the fall of Jerusalem in 70. Consequently his first work was a history of the War, in which he took part. Only later did he complete the twenty books of the history of the Jews, Antiquities. Josephus wrote under the ever-watchful eye of the Roman state. This probably meant that he had to be circumspect in his writings. Concerned as we are with accounts of the assumed founder of Christianity, it is as well to remember that, at the time Josephus wrote, Christians throughout the Empire were suffering severe persecution. * The Jews called it 'the Roman War'. Did Josephus mention Jesus? 29 The name of Christ was everywhere, those who acknowledged it being suspected of subversive activity against the state and its personalized religion. Goguel (1926) pointed out that Josephus had to avoid associating his race and himself with the Christians. The only connection between the Christians and Judaea was Jesus. If Josephus knew or believed that Jesus was a Messianic pretender, then he might have wished to avoid mention of it. In fact he avoided Messianism altogether, only referring to it obliquely when he stated that prophecies concerning the appearance of a world ruler from Palestine were fulfilled in Vespasian, who was proclaimed Emperor while in Judaea. Thus he failed to reveal that the Jewish prophecies anticipated that the ruler would be a Jew. It is clear that Josephus was prepared to interpret history in such a way as to ingratiate himself with the Roman rulers. Goguel concluded that Josephus’ brevity on Jesus and his absolute silence on Messianism was out of prudence and fear, not wishing to compromise either himself or his people. He could not speak of Christianity whilst amputating it from Messianism and so he kept silent. Goguel wrote, ‘how could he speak of the Messianists, and in particular of that group of them which bore the name of “Christian”, without saying that the object of their ardent hopes was the destruction of all earthly empires …?’ Even if we accept that Josephus did not write of Jesus, we should be left with another, more puzzling problem. How do we account for the failure of Josephus to mention Christianity when everyone knew that it had originated in his country? According to Luke, the early Church caused considerable trouble for the religious and secular authorities, not only in Jerusalem but throughout Israel, and it was greatly persecuted (Acts 8:1). It is clear that Josephus avoided both Christianity and Jewish Messianism. In these circumstances it is a wonder that there is any word of Jesus. As Robertson has written (1953), if Josephus’ (alleged) silence about Jesus proves the latter never existed, his silence about Christianity proves that no Christians existed in his time. The Josephan text, while it identifies Jesus as Christos and by implication the founder of Christianity, does not associate Jesus in any way with Messianism or any other Jewish political movement. Perhaps Josephus regarded Christianity as quite divorced from Judaism and outside his scope (Goguel 1926). His brevity certainly cannot be explained by lack of interest; in 93 interest in Christianity and its founder 2 Did Jesus exist? 30 was high (Klausner 1925). Indeed, some of the Gospels were written about that time. Goguel (1933) noted that Josephus was not the only writer of the period to avoid mention of Jesus or Christianity and that Josephus made no mention of the great Hillel and the Jewish heretical schools. Josephus’ silence on Christianity is more an embarrassment for mythicists than for their opponents, for Josephus is, in the view of the former, silent on both Jesus and the origin of Christianity (Goguel 1926). Wells could object that Josephus was silent about Christianity because in 93 it had not yet been ‘invented’. This is valid only if the Testimonia are shown to be fraudulent interpolations by later Christian redactors. Wells’s view, that Christianity is a second century invention, was proposed by Rylands in 1935. Rylands also proposed that the first Testimonium is a Christian insertion. Wells’s case against Josephus rests partly on the claim that the language used is un-Josephan and partly on the brevity of the Testimonium (Wells 1971). We have seen how Josephus’ brevity can be explained by the uncertain political atmosphere in which he wrote. On the question of language and style, while Wells claimed that the description of Jesus is too glowing to have come from the pen of a Pharisee, other learned critics have found otherwise. Corssen argued that such phrases as ‘received with pleasure … the chief among us … wise man’ (his own translation) were typically Josephan and that the last quoted was unthinkable from a Christian (Goguel 1926). Reville urged that no Christian interpolator would speak of Jesus as ‘a wise man’ and so necessitate the further interpolation (the hint that he was not really human at all) nor speak of ‘wonderful works’ (‘surprising feats’) or call his disciples ‘lovers’ or Christians a ‘tribe’, with its nuance of contempt (Klausner 1926). Klausner endorsed Reville’s claim that no Christian would write of Jesus ‘who was called the Messiah’. Although modern translations employ the word ‘messiah’, Josephus used the Greek word Christos, which, as Whiston pointed out, does not mean that Josephus either endorsed Messianism or believed that Jesus was the Messiah; it meant that this Jesus was to be distinguished from the others of that name by being identified by the name by which the readers would know him (Josephus 1866). Did Josephus mention Jesus? 31 Parts of the first Testimonium do seem unlikely to have come from Josephus’ hand; the implication that Jesus was not human and the statement that he appeared again after the Crucifixion in fulfilment of prophecy are clearly candidates for interpolations, although both reflected firmly established beliefs by the time Josephus wrote. While some believe that Christians have edited a Josephan original (e.g. Sanders 1993:50), Harnack, Bole, Kneller and Burkitt all defended the authenticity of the passage (Goguel 1926). Klausner (1925) thought it partly authentic. It matters little whether or not a Christian has interfered with the text if there remains genuine Josephan material at its core. The briefest authentic phrase from Josephus himself would be sufficient to testify to Jesus’ existence and it does seem that there remain phrases in the Testimonium that no Christian could have written. But they could have been left in by a Christian redactor. Klausner (1925) saw that the residual genuine phrases confirm the existence of Jesus. Feldman summed up the matter by stating that the principal arguments for its authenticity are that it is found in all the manuscripts except perhaps that of Origen, that it is cited by Eusebius, and that the vocabulary and style are basically Josephan (Josephus 1965). Perhaps realizing that any genuine Josephan fragment undermined his case, Wells argued that the first Testimonium occurs out of context and that its removal leaves an argument that runs on in proper sequence. A fair rebuttal to this would be that, if the surrounding text has no connection with either Jesus or Christianity and if there is an essential and evident continuity between the paragraphs before and after, what perversity made the Christian interpolator insert the Testimonium at this point. Surely he would have avoided inserting the interpolation where his dishonesty would be obvious; he would have sought a natural break in the text. Sanders (1993:50) argued that a Christian scribe would have put the Testimonium adjacent to Josephus’ account of John the Baptist. Wells’s argument for continuity between adjacent paragraphs is in fact an argument for, rather than against, authenticity. Wells (1971) relied on the opinion of Norden that removal of the passage leaves the text to run on in proper sequence, but he did not cite Corssen, who opposed the idea. Corssen pointed out that, while the preceding para- 2 Did Jesus exist? 32 graph deals with a difficulty in Jerusalem, the succeeding paragraph deals with a scandal in Rome of no interest to Jews whatsoever. He thought that the whole section was artificially constructed and that it is not difficult to imagine the original to have contained the Testimonium, even though it may have been altered later (Goguel 1933). Goguel (1926) considered that, in this dispute, Corssen’s view was decisive. In fact there is no connection between the subjects of the preceding and succeeding paragraphs or indeed between them and the Testimonium. Wells claimed that both the preceding and succeeding paragraphs treat Jewish misfortunes, the former where Pilate’s troops massacre a crowd in Jerusalem, the latter where four thousand Jews were banished from Rome. In fact the paragraph that immediately succeeds the Testimonium deals with ‘certain actions of a scandalous nature’ about the temple of Isis in Rome. It is the next paragraph that deals with the banishment of Jews. Josephus began the succeeding paragraph with mention of the banishment of the Jews but then proceeded to deal first with the Roman scandal. Wells took the phrase ‘another terrible misfortune’ (in the succeeding paragraph) to demand the removal of the whole Testimonium. Certainly Jesus’ appearance was not a great calamity; Josephus must have been referring to the misfortune of the Jerusalem massacre in the paragraph preceding the Testimonium. This does not demand the removal of the Testimonium. Indeed, the succeeding paragraph begins with the words ‘about the same time also …’, implying that this was the second time that Josephus had referred to time. Indeed it was; he began the Testimonium with the words ‘now … about this time, …’. Thus the removal of the Testimonium would make nonsense of the introduction to the succeeding paragraph. The events of the preceding paragraph occurred about 29, while Josephus believed that those of the succeeding paragraph occurred sometime between 31 and 37. If, as I shall show, Jesus died about 33, Josephus had good reason to associate all these events; he placed them in chronological order. The historicity of the Testimonium was accepted, for the most part, by Vermes (1973), who particularly accepted its position in the text, noting the reference in the following paragraph to ‘another outrage’. Robertson (1953) noted a suggestion by Eisler that the original Testimonium had been a hostile account of Jesus, ridiculing the rumour of Did Josephus mention Jesus? 33 his supernatural birth by showing how divine conceptions were fraudulently counterfeited. Robertson (1946) also commented that the argument that removal of disputed passages leaves no visible lacuna is a dangerous weapon; it could make short work of many passages in Shakespeare. In the case of the second Testimonium, we find not only that scholarly opinion is firmly behind its authenticity, but that Wells himself (1971a) is not convinced that it is an interpolation. There has been no dispute regarding either language or context and Feldman wrote ‘unlike the passage on Jesus … few have doubted the genuineness of this passage on James; … if it had been a Christian interpolation it would in all probability have been more laudatory of James’ (Josephus 1965). Goguel (1933) claimed that there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of this Testimonium. While Wells permitted himself doubts that the arguments against authenticity are ‘absolutely decisive’, he nevertheless argued that since the first Testimonium (in his opinion) is an interpolation, then the second must be also. On the contrary, the second is evidence of a previous introduction of the name Christos. Goguel (1933) noted that the first passage must have existed when the second was written. If it is allowed merely that Josephus made a brief mention of Jesus that occurs in the second Testimonium, then we have evidence of Jesus’ existence. But the second Testimonium requires the existence of the first (in whatever form) and both together, but especially the first, are solid evidence that Jesus appeared in the stream of history. Wells (1971) asked, if Jesus was ‘a leader of Messianic pretensions’, why did Josephus not tell us of his fortunes. He claimed that Josephus elsewhere described three Messianic agitators: Judas the Galilean, founder of the Zealot Party in 6 (War 2:8:1 and Acts 5:37), Theudas (Antiq. 20:5:1), and the Egyptian (Antiq. 20:8:6; War 2:13:5). He claimed that, if Jesus was such an agitator, Josephus would surely have devoted as much attention to him as to these three. However, if Josephus regarded these three as Messianic agitators, he was careful to conceal it. He described Judas as the leader of a sect and author of a philosophical school (Antiq. 18:1:6). While he admitted that Judas called his countrymen cowards for paying taxes to Rome, Josephus concealed the political movement that Judas initiated and nowhere associates him with Messianism. Theudas he called ‘a magician’ and ‘a 2 Did Jesus exist? 34 prophet’ and once more avoided any hint that he represented a political movement. The Egyptian he called ‘a false prophet’. None of them was described as a Messianic agitator. As we have seen, Josephus was careful to avoid Messianism and if Jesus was also a Messianic pretender then Josephus could not have revealed it. As to the number of words employed in describing each person, the number devoted to Theudas is hardly any more than the number devoted to Jesus. Nothing can be made of the relative length of Josephus’ descriptions, unless it is to wonder that Jesus who, as I shall show, led no open revolt and did not openly threaten the Jewish authorities, merited so many words. Josephus’ knowledge of Jesus can hardly have been any more extensive; it was limited to the knowledge that he had appeared in Jerusalem one Passover, had been arrested, tried and executed by the governor and had, apparently, been seen alive afterwards. Only the evangelists knew more. As Weinel and Widgery have noted, Josephus wished to purge his nation and himself from the suspicion of Messianic and anti-Roman tendencies. Josephus isolated John the Baptist from the Messianic hope that the latter proclaimed and represented him as a Greek philosopher of virtue and temperance. In the same way he converted the politico-religious parties of his people into philosophical sects who disputed concerning fate and free will. It may have been painful to him to mention that there was a Jewish sect whose leader had been executed as a pretender to the throne of Israel. Josephus’ account of Jesus betrays no hint of the attempt, evident in the Gospels that were written about the same time, to shift blame for Jesus’ death from Rome to the Jews. This is one more reason to regard it as authentic. Surely a Christian interpolator would have taken the opportunity to claim that Jesus was tried by a Jewish court and imply that he was guilty of an offence, not against Roman law but against Jewish Law. This is what the evangelists did. We shall see that what Josephus wrote is consistent with what might have happened. The ‘men of the highest standing amongst us’ were none other than the Chief Priests, although it is curious that Josephus did not reveal this. Although he deliberately concealed matters that, if revealed, might threaten his life and livelihood, Josephus was an accurate historian. It would appear that there is no reason to doubt what he wrote about Jesus and that he was in no doubt that Jesus had existed. Did Josephus mention Jesus? 35 Did Rome know of Jesus? The works of the Roman historians Suetonius Tranquillius (second century) and Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55 to 120) may contain evidence of Jesus’ historicity. If Christianity had a historical foundation, the debate eventually reduces to the problem of when the new faith reached Rome and whether Christianity began in Judaea or in Rome itself. Suetonius wrote of a tumult among the Roman Jews, instigated by one ‘chrestus’, which caused the Emperor Claudius to expel the Jews (Rolfe; see also Acts 18:2). Debate continues over the meaning of Chrestus, some claiming that it was the name of a local agitator or teacher, others (Rolfe, Sanders) believing that Suetonius either misspelled Christus or was misinformed. Wells (1971) was prepared to accept the latter view, that Suetonius described a Messianic fervour among the Jews led by someone claiming to be the Jewish Messiah. Klausner (1925) drew attention to the importance of Suetonius’ testimony that there was a Messianic movement during the reign of Claudius. But he also pointed out that, even if we suppose that Suetonius referred to a Christian teacher, the fact that, only twenty years after the death of Jesus, there were to be found in Rome Christian apostles and teachers is itself proof, not only of Jesus’ existence, but also of the important effect of his personal influence. Robertson (1946) noted that Christiani (Christians) was often written as Chrestiani, perhaps a Latinized form of the Greek chrestos (good, kind, benevolent). Stewart noted that the oldest New Testament codex, the Siniaticus, dating from the early fourth century, describes how the disciples (sic) were first called ‘chrestians’ at Antioch (Acts 11:26). It seems possible that the early Christians were actually first called chrestos (nice person)*, the name also being a pun on the name Christos, which was not originally a noun and was less familiar to Greek-speakers. The plural chrestoi would translate into Latin as chrestiani and this may have been the term originally used in Rome from where it could have spread back to Antioch. * Ironically and making fun of their unreasonably pacific nature, especially in face of adversity or hostility. 2 Did Jesus exist? 36 It is quite impossible for the Jews to have believed in a Diaspora Messiah. They could not have imagined that he would appear anywhere but in their homeland, where indeed the Scriptures foretold his appearance. It is quite unthinkable that any Jew could have thought that the Messiah had appeared in the city that they called ‘the great harlot’ (Rev. 17:1). Goguel (1926) had no doubt that it is generally accepted that, in this passage, Suetonius refers to Christ. If that is so then the use of the name in Rome at that time (c. 49) can only have been the result of the importation of the belief from Judaea. If the Roman Jews were agitated in the name of Christ, then it can only have been as a result of a rumour that their Messiah had appeared in Israel. Wells (1971) believed that Christianity could not have reached Rome within fifteen years of Jesus’ death and that, in any event, it could not have become powerful enough to have caused a revolt by that time. He had no evidence for this view and few historians would support him. Most accept that ‘christians were at first confused with Jews and in 49 were expelled with the Jews by Claudius’ (Dunan). Christianity was first promulgated by the apostles in Jerusalem during the Feast of Pentecost, probably in 33, in the presence of Jews from all over the Levant, including ‘strangers of Rome’ (Acts 2:10). Luke claimed that in total about three thousand were converted (Acts 2:41) and it may be assumed that many of these converted Jews returned directly to Rome with the new religion. They could have been back in Rome by 34. Every Jewish community in the Empire was fertile ground in which Christianity could expect rapid growth and it is not at all unlikely that Rome became an early Christian outpost. Paul, when he wrote to them in 58, noted that their faith was spoken of throughout the Empire (Rom. 1:8). A dispersion of the Roman Church by Claudius in 49 could easily have brought about this reputation. Luke recorded that Paul met two of the expelled Jews in Corinth (Acts 18:2) and it is understood that they were already converted to Christianity. They were Paul’s fellow-workers by 58 and had already risked their lives for him (Rom. 16:3–4). Their understanding and experience in the faith was so great that they intructed even the great Apollos, a man ‘mighty in the Scriptures’ (Acts 18:24–26). Wells’s theory demands that, before 100, there was no definite knowledge of a historical Jesus. However Suetonius witnesses to the Did Rome know of Jesus? 37 fact that in 49 the influence of Christianity was great enough to provoke the action of the Emperor. In his Annales, written about 110 to 120, Tacitus related how Nero persecuted the Christians in 64 and how they derived their name from ‘christus’ who was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius (Lloyd-Jones, Annal. 15:44). Guignebert (1935) noted how various critics, including Drews, had endeavoured to prove that this passage is an interpolation by a Christian, but that they had not succeeded since no Christian would have spoken of his co-religionists in such a tone. Goguel claimed that the authenticity of this passage is certain and accepted by all philologists. Even Wells (1971) accepted it as genuine. What is in dispute is the significance and value of what Tacitus wrote. Did he, as Wells believed, merely record common gossip or did he have a reference to official documents? Wells himself acknowledged Robertson’s (1953) opinion that Tacitus is more likely to have recorded the official Roman view of the origin of Christianity than to repeat rumour, although he objected to Robertson’s lack of evidence for this claim. If Tacitus merely repeated what some said was the origin of Christianity, then it is surprising that he did not make this clear in his history. As Cross (1970b) wrote, ‘his easy acceptance of the fact seems to indicate that it was uncontroversial’ and Goguel’s (1926) view was that Tacitus’ words must originate in some documentary source since they contain no such word as dicunt or ferunt, indicating rumour, although he could have had no access to secret documents. Goguel (1933) believed that Tacitus knew a document that was neither Jewish nor Christian and connected Christianity with the Christ who was crucified under Pilate and he emphasized how important this conclusion is for the question of historicity. ‘The evidence of Tacitus’, he stated, ‘constitutes a serious objection to the theory of non-historicity’. He noted how it had been suggested by Harnack that Tacitus copied Josephus, thus corroborating the latter’s testimony, but that Goetz, Norden and Corssen had all refuted this idea. Wells (1971) claimed that Tacitus confused Christians with Jews and that it was Jews and not Christians whom Nero persecuted in 64. He found it difficult to believe that a large number of Christians came to Rome so early. We have already seen how feasible it is that Chris- 2 Did Jesus exist? 38 tianity was established in Rome by 49* and Paul’s testimony alone is sufficient to show that there were Christians there in 58. Furthermore Luke recorded that when he and Paul travelled to Rome in 62, they were met by the Roman brothers (adelphoi) in Forum Appii (Acts 28:15). These brothers can only have been Christians. It is scandalous to suggest that Tacitus could not differentiate between Christianity and Judaism, although it is obvious that many if not most of the Christians must also have been Jews. Jews or Gentiles, Tacitus tells us that these people were persecuted for following a person known as Christ. The consensus is that this is a genuine secular testimony derived from sources independent of the Gospels or any other Christian or Jewish literature. It is Rome’s witness to the historicity of Jesus. Commenting on the question as to why there should be so little said of Jesus by the Roman authors, Goguel (1933) noted how Windisch remarked that the silence is not without parallels. Herodotus spoke similarly of the religion of the Persians without any mention of Zoroaster, Dio Cassius gave an account of the Jewish revolt under Hadrian without mentioning the name of Bar Cochba and, apart from Philostratus, we would scarcely know the name of Apollonius of Tyana. The Jesus of Paul The silence of Paul regarding the person and life of Jesus has been taken to support the idea that Jesus was not a historical figure. Wells (1975) argued that Christ did not exist because the epistles of Paul display ignorance of the historical Jesus. It is generally argued that the epistles of Paul were written before the four Gospels and that the figure that emerges in the Gospels has been built up since the earlier time in which Paul wrote. Certainly the dates attributed to the Gospels are later than the dates attributed to Paul’s general and personal epistles. Yet it is generally agreed that the Gospels at least were complied from earlier, now lost, accounts. One of these earlier sources (Q) is thought to have been a collection of Jesus’ sayings and it appears to have been incorporated by both Matthew and * Let alone the probability that it reached the capital in 34. The Jesus of Paul 39 Luke into their Gospels. Both of these Gospels are also known to be based on the Gospel of Mark, which Brandon (1968) has shown to be a reconstruction of a previous account originating in Palestine, his ‘Jerusalem Gospel’. In these circumstances, it seems impossible to argue that there was no Gospel extant in Paul’s time. The fact that we do not possess a document recording details of Jesus’ life and dating from the years not long after his death does not mean that there never was such a document. The available evidence suggests that there was such an early Gospel and it is unlikely that such a Gospel could have emerged without it being based on the life of a real Jesus. Although Paul did not admit the existence of such a Gospel, he did imply that another Gospel, proclaiming another Jesus, existed (II Cor. 11:4). But even his relative silence on this matter does not prove that such a Gospel did not exist. He may have ignored it deliberately because he did not agree with it. Paul wrote (I Cor. 15:3–7) that he received the gospel, we may suppose by hearsay and seems to have been satisfied with the meagre details he gave of its essentials. Paul was not really interested in Jesus the man. He became a Christian after Jesus was dead and gone and after a mystical experience. The latter may have been the result of his own intense form of Judaism, strongly influenced as it was by the Messianic zeal of the time. While others were assembling the details of Jesus’ life into a Gospel, partly biographical and historical and partly mythical, Paul went his own way, preaching a gospel greatly influenced by his own understanding of Old Testament prophecy and the Messianic and eschatological beliefs of the Pharisees. He frequently claimed intimate communion with God’s spirit and was guided by this inner feeling. With such divine guidance, what need did he have of the details of Jesus’ life? To Paul, the future was more important than the past; the return of Jesus and the need for each to live in that hope was far more relevant than the biography of his Lord. Schweitzer (1954) wrote that primitive theology had no interest in dating back the Messiahship of Jesus to the time of his Earthly ministry and that Paul shows us with what complete indifference the Earthly life of Jesus was regarded by primitive Christianity. ‘Primitive theology is simply a theology of the future, with no interest in history’. Guignebert (1935) wrote that Paul had deliberately sacrificed Jesus to Christ and that he was not interest- 2 Did Jesus exist? 40 ed in the earthly life of Jesus. Hoffmann wrote that Paul shows a ‘positive disregard’ for the historical Jesus (Hoffmann & Larue 1986:151). This is the reason we find little of the historical Jesus in Paul’s letters.* The lack of details is not due to the absence of a real Jesus; it is due to a lack of interest by Paul and his followers. In fact Paul may have been relatively ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, an ignorance he did nothing to remedy. Paul’s preaching consisted almost exclusively of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. The epistles written to Jews (not by Paul) display this preoccupation with Jesus as a sacrificial lamb, now raised to a position of power and authority but who is yet to exercise revenge and judgement. But this was the apostles’ understanding of the events that had overtaken them. It was the early evangelists, but not necessarily any one of the disciples, who began the compilation of Jesus’ biography. While the apostles preached a mythical Jesus, others were recording much of the detail that now makes a view of the historical Jesus possible. The apostles may have disapproved of these attempts to record the daily life of the person whom they then considered to be sitting in heaven. That we have any record and that it makes a coherent account is testimony to the patience and diligence of those unknown early biographers. It is significant that the Gospels all date from a period when all the apostles, with the possible exception of John, must have been dead. It is possible that, while they were alive, they actively discouraged the circulation of written accounts of Jesus’ life. They might have argued that his imminent return made it unnecessary and inappropriate to dwell on the sordid details. Furthermore they had been promised that, when the Comforter came, he would remind them of all the things that Jesus had told them (John 14:26). The certainty of what was believed about him was far more important to them than historical details. Paul, as a self-appointed apostle, would have shared these feelings. The spiritual ‘truth’ of the events was supremely more important than actualities. Furthermore the emphasis Paul and the other apostles put upon faith in Jesus precluded the provision of any historical details that might be taken as proof of Jesus’ real existence, his real death and real resurrec- * Some of the epistles attributed to Paul were written by others. The Jesus of Paul 41 tion. If believers were to join the Church on account of their faith alone, what need did they have of the historical evidence? Historical detail was unnecessary; the word of Paul (that the Messiah had come) was all that was required. Converts were not made by showing them any historical evidence.* When the gospel was put before the Jews in Beroea (Acts 17:10–12), they only accepted what Paul said after they had searched through the Scriptures to see if what he claimed to have occurred was indeed prophesied. They did not ask for historical proof or details of Jesus’ life. In a way it did not matter what had happened to Jesus or indeed whether or not he was a real person. It only mattered that what Paul spoke of was forecast by the prophets. In this sense it was more important for Paul to preach a Jesus who could be found in the Old Testament. The Jews already revered their Scriptures. They could not fail to take notice if Paul told them that the prophecies concerning the Messiah had been fulfilled recently in Palestine. Their conversion would then depend on whether or not they interpreted those prophecies in the same way as Paul and whether or not they accepted his word that Jesus had in fact fulfilled them. Clearly some did and some did not. Reitzenstein and Bousset claimed that Pauline thought originated in the Oriental-Hellenistic mystery religions. Paul may have derived his sacramental redemption, his ‘mysteries’, his gnosis and ‘spirit’ from these religions. According to R M Grant, Paul was a man whose spiritual world lay somewhere between Jewish apocalyptic and the fully developed Gnosticism of the second century (Ellis). Gnostic Christianity rejected the authority of the orthodox Church and with it the story of Jesus’ life told by the Church. The Gnostics claimed self-enlightenment and that spiritual ‘truths’ lay behind the bald ‘facts’ of the gospel story (Pagels). In this sense, the Gnostics had no interest in the historical Jesus. Clearly Paul had Gnostic tendencies. He only reluctantly accepted the authority of the elders of the Church in Jerusalem and they found it hard to understand him (II Pet. 3:16). Unlike them, he was not a witness to the life of Jesus and yet he claimed to be an apostle. His spiritu- * They are not made that way today. 2 Did Jesus exist? 42 alization of Christianity parallels that of later Gnosticism, as does his lack of interest in the historical Jesus. The Jesus of Paul 43

Chapter Preview



What really happened to Jesus? Did he rise from the dead, and if not why do Christians believe that he did? Did he have a plan and, if so, what was it? Did he accomplish his purpose or did the plan fail? If it failed, what were the consequences?

Steuart Campbell, once a Christian, takes a rationalist look at the problem of Christian origins and shows that no previous writer has completely solved the riddle of Jesus. Here he shows us a new hypothesis, one that explains Jesus‘ curious behaviour.

Here is Jesus in historical context, the leader of an obscure Jewish sect which believed that it was fulfilling a divine plan revealed in the Scriptures. This plan required the Messiah to die and rise again to become the king of Israel, throwing the Romans out of Judaea and even replacing the Emperor as ruler of the known world. Read how Jesus expected to accomplish this.

The author displays immense knowledge of the Bible and the history of the Jews and he explains many mysteries. He builds on the work of many other authors and constructs what is surely the true explanation for the origin of Christianity. This should be the last word on the historical Jesus. It is certainly an excellent review of the many attempts to solve the mystery.