The Religion of the Word
First-century Palestine was a religious and ethnic melting pot, a crossroads where many peoples, beliefs and cultures intermingled. It was also a time of upheaval – Jewish resentment against Roman rule was building, new sects were splintering off everywhere, and messianic expectation had risen to a fever pitch.
Many new religions arose from this ferment, but most of them faded away or were stamped out by their competitors or the authorities. Out of this Darwinian competition, however, there was one new faith that managed to survive. This religion would not have been unfamiliar to many people living today. At its core it was predominantly Jewish, believing in the monotheistic God of Abraham and relying, at least in part, on the Old Testament scriptures. But it also drew on ideas from Greek Platonism, such as that objects in the material world were only imperfect reflections of objects in a higher, heavenly plane. More importantly, it also incorporated the Platonic concept of the Logos.
The Platonists faced a problem: like the Jews, they believed in a single, ultimate deity possessing all perfections. But they also believed that the material world was composed of imperfect matter. A perfect deity could not interact directly with imperfection, and so their solution was the Logos, Greek for “word”. The Platonists saw the Logos as an agent of the deity – an “emanation” of the divine which could act as an intermediary between God and the world. (Some traditions of Judaism described a similar personified divine agent, which was named Wisdom; see Proverbs chapter 8, for example.)
The new religion incorporated this concept of the Logos, which they styled the Son after dividing the previously united Jewish deity into the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It also drew on the ethical teachings of a band of Greek philosophers called the Cynics, as well as aspects of those ancient, enigmatic cults, the mystery religions: the concept of dying and rising deities (in accordance with the cycles of nature), the idea of a sacramental meal, and the concept of redemptive sacrifice. And finally, it touched on the apocalyptic expectation common among first-century radical sects, the belief that the final judgment and the coming of the kingdom of God were just around the corner.
The religion that emerged from these disparate elements was, of course, called Christianity. An offshoot of messianic Judaism, it believed in a Son of God named Jesus Christ, co-eternal in power and glory with the Father, the agent of creation by which all material things were made and the instrument of humanity’s redemption. He was crucified, and in his suffering and subsequent death took humanity’s sins upon himself, offering his blood as payment for our crimes, and after three days was resurrected and took his place alongside the Father. Jesus was the source of wisdom, the long-awaited messiah, a divine “mystery” whose coming was prophesied by and hidden in the Old Testament scriptures, and he was to be the judge of humankind when the end times came. All in all, it was very similar to what Christians believe today – except for one minor detail.
This Jesus was never on Earth.
The early Christians believed in a spiritual redeemer, a heavenly being whose crucifixion, death and resurrection took place not on the Earth, but in a Platonic higher realm. This Jesus was never incarnated in human form.
This was the Christianity of the earliest Christians, namely the writers of the New Testament epistles (which are widely agreed to predate the gospels). This is the Jesus that Paul believed in and wrote about in his letters.
Of course, this is not widely recognized by Christians today. This is because most of them read the Bible with what NT scholar Earl Doherty calls “gospel-colored glasses” – they know about the gospel stories of a historical Jesus, and so they unconsciously read that material into the epistles, assuming that Paul was talking about the same Jesus that the gospels describe. However, if we examine the epistles by themselves without making that assumption, a number of verses stand out – anomalies that do not fit with the view that Paul believed in a historical Jesus, but that do fit with the alternative scenario described above. Some of the most significant of these verses are listed below:
“Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
According to Paul, Christians do not know how to pray. But how could anyone who had any familiarity with Jesus’ teachings say this? Whatever happened to the Lord’s Prayer? Doesn’t Paul know about it? If he knows so little about what Jesus said and did that he’s never even heard of that, then is he qualified to be writing a significant portion of the New Testament?
On the other hand, if early Christians believed in a spiritual Jesus, this anomaly is immediately cleared up. The reason Paul does not know about the Lord’s Prayer is because no human Jesus ever taught it to anyone – it is most likely an invention of the gospel writers, not to come until decades after his time.
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
This is a truly bizarre statement, considering who is saying it. Is Paul really saying that good men have nothing to fear from the authorities – Paul, follower of a religion that was founded by a man who was unjustly arrested, unfairly convicted, and delivered to an undeserved death, all by the rulers of the day? No one who knew anything about the gospel stories could or would say such a thing.
But the implications of this verse go beyond what Paul knew or did not know about Jesus’ life. Even if he did not know of a historical Jesus, if the people he was writing to did, they would have angrily rejected this verse as a blatant contradiction of the facts. Romans would never have been accepted as canon. And yet it was. The only explanation is that neither Paul, nor any of the early Christian community, believed in a Jesus who had ever been on Earth, and so they could write or read this without it ringing hollow in their ears.
1 Corinthians 9:1-2
“Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?”
In this verse, Paul is attempting to rebut those who question his apostolic authority. “Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” he asks. Well, the problem is, he didn’t – at least not in human form. Nowhere does the Bible claim that Paul ever met the flesh-and-blood, pre-resurrection Jesus. Acts chapters 9 and 22 describe Paul’s Damascus Road conversion, and both make it clear that this, the only time he ever saw Jesus, was in a vision, in spiritual form. It is this seeing which he invokes to justify his authority.
But the problem is this. If Paul only saw Jesus in a vision, while there were others who actually saw Jesus the man, who walked with him, who touched him, who heard him speak – would it not be the natural counterargument that Paul’s authority is not as great as those others? Would this not be an argument that would be repeatedly used against him, that he would therefore be forced to address?
And yet, he does not address it; he gives no sign that it was even an issue. There is no hint here that anyone else has claimed that their knowledge of or relationship to Jesus is in any way superior to his own. And that, of course, implies that everyone else’s “seeings” of Jesus were entirely spiritual in nature also.
1 Corinthians 15:47
“The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven.”
This passage appears innocuous at first glance, but by reading the context there are some powerful implications to be drawn. Paul says that Adam, the first man, is “of the earth”, i.e., he possessed a material body. Jesus, on the other hand, is the “last Adam”, and by contrast, was a “quickening spirit” (according to verse 45). The context of the verse is in talking about the Rapture; Paul is saying that flesh-and-blood bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but after the assumption, believers will get new, spiritual bodies, just like Jesus’ body (compare verse 49, continuing the metaphor begun above: “And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.”)
There is a problem, though. Nowhere does Paul specify that he is talking about Jesus’ body after the ascension. This is a point that he should have to make, because while on earth Jesus had a fallible, mortal body just like everyone else – he became hungry, tired, vulnerable; he ate, slept, felt pain, suffered and died – and that is not the type of body believers will have. This omission would completely ruin the point he is trying to make. Why is he silent on the crucial distinction?
The spiritual Jesus theory, on the other hand, clears this up instantly. Paul refers only to Jesus’ immortal, heavenly body because that is the only kind of body he ever conceived of Jesus as having.
2 Corinthians 5:5-7
“Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit…. For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
What gift has God given his followers to make them “always confident” that they will attain eternal life? Paul says it plainly – he has sent the Holy Spirit down to them.
The silence here should be deafening. Why is Jesus not mentioned in this verse? How could Paul possibly fail to conceive of the incarnate Son as God’s first and most important emissary on Earth? Does Christ not even merit a mention here? Paul speaks as though the sole reason believers trust that they will one day be resurrected in glorified form is the intangible presence of the Holy Spirit – completely failing to mention Jesus, even though the gospels say that many believers saw him undergo this same process themselves.
Verse 7 is no less revealing. Paul says that he and his fellow Christians “walk by faith, not by sight.” How can he possibly say this? Is he ignorant of the fact that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people who saw Jesus with their own eyes, who heard him with their own ears, who touched him, witnessed his miracles and his resurrection, and were healed by him? Why does he express himself as though Jesus’ existence is not a matter of evidence, but rather of faith? The spiritual-Christ theory explains this perfectly, whereas under the historicist conception it is, at best, a serious anomaly.
“Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ… which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
If Hebrews 8:4, discussed below, is the smoking gun pointing to the original spiritual nature of Christ, this verse is equally convincing. The writer says plainly that knowledge of Jesus Christ came to the apostles through the Holy Spirit.
How can this possibly be squared with the account given in the gospels? How could the writer of Ephesians not conceive of knowledge of Jesus as coming through, well, Jesus? Didn’t he tell his disciples who he was and what he had come to do? Why does this verse represent that knowledge as coming only through a revelation given by the Holy Spirit?
Under the alternative theory, the answer is obvious. Knowledge of Jesus came through revelation because that was the only source of knowledge of Jesus. There never was a human Christ who told anyone anything.
“For if he [Jesus] were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law.”
An astounding verse, and one that might well be considered the “smoking gun” proving that early Christians did not believe in a human, historical Jesus. Hebrews chapters 8 and 9 discuss the covenant of sacrifice between God and man. The writer is comparing the Jewish tabernacle, where the high priest makes blood sacrifices of animals to God within the heart of the sanctuary, with the “greater and more perfect tabernacle” (9:11) of Heaven, where Jesus offers his own blood within the heavenly sanctuary as a more perfect sacrifice to God. The underlying theme here is clearly a Platonic one: human actions on Earth mirror divine actions in Heaven, the imperfect material world reflecting the perfect divine world.
As the writer of Hebrews crafts this analogy, he mentions, almost in passing, that if Jesus were on Earth, he would have had nothing to do, because there were already priests there offering sacrifices. Jesus’ role was only in Heaven, where he could offer his blood as a better sacrifice.
But how could any writer who knew a human Jesus possibly have said this? How could he have overlooked the blindingly obvious fact that Jesus did have a purpose on Earth, that in fact he had to come here precisely to fulfill this purpose? Why does he seem to think that Jesus’ offering of his own blood took place exclusively in Heaven?
From the gospel standpoint, this is impossible to explain. From the spiritual-Jesus standpoint, it is very easy, and indeed fits perfectly, like a lock in a key, with the scenario this essay puts forward.
“For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.”
Christians should find it strange that this verse describes Jesus as “he who shall come”. Is this the most natural way to convey the idea that this will be a return? Shouldn’t the writer of Hebrews have said something like “He that has come shall come again”?
Naturally, this is what the writer would have said if he knew of a historical Jesus. But under the alternate theory, Jesus was never believed to have been on Earth. Instead, it was believed that he would come to Earth at the apocalypse, to be the end-time judge. This is exactly what we find in this verse. This writer says, in effect, that Jesus had never been on Earth; rather, he tells us, Jesus “shall come” in “yet a little while”. This is more than just a silence – it is a positive statement that excludes any earthly incarnation.
“Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.”
This silence should be beyond belief. The author of Hebrews is trying to provide an example of a “root of bitterness” growing in the community, a man falling from the grace of God and causing suffering for many. Who could be a more obvious example than the gospel figure of Judas, the archetypal traitor who, jealous and deceitful, sold the Son of God to an unjust and torturous death for thirty pieces of silver?
But no. The best that Hebrews’ author can do is the Old Testament figure of Esau. It is not the selling of Jesus’ life for silver that leaps to his mind, but rather the selling of a birthright for a meal. Was he completely ignorant of the gospel story? How else can his behavior be explained – ignoring the perfect and obvious example of exactly the point he was trying to make in favor of one much more distant and less applicable? Esau had a motive: he wasn’t bitter, he was starving. Judas had no such excuse.
“Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you…. Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.”
Another astonishing silence. James is trying to provide examples of men of God remaining patient and steadfast in the face of suffering, persecution and even death, but the best he can come up with is the Old Testament figure of Job.
Where is Jesus? Where is the man claimed to be James’ brother? What has happened to him in this verse? Has James the Just so readily forgotten the gospel image of Jesus remaining patient and steadfast as Jewish elders interrogated him, as Roman soldiers mocked and whipped him, as he was forced to carry the instrument of his own death to the hill on Calvary while beaten bloody? What could possibly be a better example of exactly the thing he is trying to convey than the behavior of the Son of God himself in that very situation? Why does he not make this most obvious of all connections?
Just as in the verse from Hebrews above, the author of James seeks for an example and ignores a perfect and recent story from the gospels that exactly parallels the point he was trying to make, in favor of a much less relevant fable from the Old Testament. (Unlike Jesus, Job eventually lost his patience in the face of suffering and challenged God to explain himself.) This can only be explained if the writer knew of no such gospel stories, because those stories never happened.
These verses do not make up the sum total of those that cast doubt on the historicist theory; indeed, there are verses like this to be found in every New Testament epistle. A comprehensive discussion of them is beyond the scope of this essay; however, historian Earl Doherty has compiled an exhaustive list that can be found on his website, The Jesus Puzzle, under the section heading “The Sound of Silence”. He also deals thoroughly with epistle verses that might be interpreted as referring to a historical Jesus, also in that same section.
These verses, as well as many others, show that the earliest Christians did not have the gospel story in mind when they set pen to paper. They never quote Jesus directly. They give no biographical details about his life except those predetermined by Old Testament prophecies. They never locate his death and resurrection in any physical place or time, nor do they demonstrate the slightest desire to visit any of the places where he supposedly lived and walked. When they attempt to describe his crucifixion, they often fall back on simply quoting the Old Testament. While they do frequently say things very similar to Jesus’ own ethical teachings, they invariably fail to specifically attribute them to him. These omissions are too profound to be dismissed or denied; this is a serious systematic anomaly that demands explanation.
Why this onslaught of silence from the epistle writers when it comes to the man they loved and venerated, the one who had made such an enormous impression on them just a few years before? Is it not natural that thoughts of him would dominate their minds, that they would find a way to work details about him and his teachings into everything they said? But the apologists would have us believe that immediately after the resurrection and ascension of the glorious teacher who changed their lives forever, he immediately receded into the background for them, becoming nothing more than a shadowy, distant figure disembodied from all recent memory and drifting among mysterious and obtuse metaphors. This is extremely unlikely in the historical-Jesus scenario, but is exactly what we should expect from a mythical-Jesus scenario.
Most interestingly of all, this picture does not end with the epistles. As we progress into the second century and beyond, we find that several of the early Christian apologists apparently share these views of a spiritual Christ.
Theophilus of Antioch
Take, for example, Theophilus, bishop of Antioch in the 160s. His defense of the faith to a pagan is preserved in the treatise entitled To Autolycus.
Theophilus identifies himself as a Christian, but his beliefs appear to be radically different from modern-day Christian views. He never even mentions Jesus Christ. He does have much to say about the Son of God, the Logos, the Word – God’s agent of creation and intermediary with the world – but nowhere does he say that this cosmic force was ever incarnated in a human body. In fact, when asked the meaning of the word “Christian”, he responds: “[One who is] anointed with the oil of God”, and says that Christians have knowledge of God through revelation sent by the Holy Spirit. When asked how one gains eternal life, he says that it comes by obeying God’s commandments, failing to mention any concept of a redemptive sacrifice. Even when Autolycus issues the stark challenge, “Show me even one who has been raised from the dead!”, he is mute, mentioning neither Lazarus nor Jairus’ daughter nor the resurrection of Jesus himself. “Show me thy God,” Autolycus has demanded of him, and this seems to be the best he can do.
Athenagoras of Athens
Athenagoras’ A Plea for the Christians was written at about the same time and follows along much the same lines as Theophilus. In thirty-seven chapters, he discusses in minute detail the concept of the Logos, God’s innate Son and agent of creation, but not once does he ever mention that Christians believe that this divine Word came to earth in a human body and was named Jesus. There is no mention of a sacrificial death, no mention of a resurrection; he too believes that salvation comes purely through knowledge of the Logos. “If I go minutely into the particulars of our doctrines,” he says, “let it not surprise you” – so why does he never mention Jesus the man?
Writing around 160, Tatian’s Apology to the Greeks exhorts its readers to turn to the Christian faith. Like both Theophilus and Athenagoras, he spends much time describing the Logos, but never explicitly refers to any incarnation, nor mentions the name Jesus, and claims that salvation comes through knowledge of God. He later broke from mainstream Christianity, joining a heretical sect, and composed a harmony of the four canonical gospels called the Diatessaron. This may indicate that he changed his beliefs, or it may mean something else; the topic of the gospels and how Tatian and others might have viewed them will be discussed in greater detail below.
And finally we come to the last of the apologists to be discussed here, the “smoking gun” if there is one. Minucius Felix’s Octavius, written sometime between 150 and the 200s, takes the form of an imaginary debate between Octavius, a Christian, and a pagan character named Caecilius.
Minucius Felix’s Christianity, as presented by Octavius, is even more unusual than the picture given by the other apologists. He discusses the monotheistic God at great length without ever mentioning Jesus, or even the concept of the Logos. When Caecilius challenges Octavius, “What single individual has returned from the dead… that we might believe it for an example?”, Octavius fails to give the most obvious of all answers, or any answer at all.
But this is not the “smoking gun” verse. In chapter 9, Caecilius attacks the Christians with a long list of slanders: it is said that they have group sex at every gathering, that they worship the head of an ass or the genitals of their priests, that they kill and eat babies in their rituals, and so on. Caecilius also says this:
“And some say that the objects of their worship include a man who suffered death as a criminal, as well as the wretched wood of his cross; these are fitting altars for such depraved people, and they worship what they deserve.”
Remember, Minucius Felix, a Christian, is writing this passage. He has just included the central tenet around which all of Christianity is based in the middle of a list of ridiculous and disgusting false accusations against his religion. How does he have Octavius respond?
Octavius’ first response is to point out that pagans believe similar things about incarnated gods, but he does not draw parallels. Instead, he ridicules these beliefs. “Therefore neither are gods made from dead people, since a god cannot die; nor of people that are born, since everything which is born dies,” he says. Gods cannot be made of “people that are born”? Gods cannot die? Where is the crucial exception? Where is the essential qualification that no Christian possibly could have left out? But Octavius has no such thing to offer.
But it gets even better. Octavius then goes on to attack Caecilius’ specific claims, and in chapter 29 he says this:
“These, and such as these infamous things, we are not at liberty even to hear; it is even disgraceful with any more words to defend ourselves from such charges. For you pretend that those things are done by chaste and modest persons, which we should not believe to be done at all, unless you proved that they were true concerning yourselves. For in that you attribute to our religion the worship of a criminal and his cross, you wander far from the neighbourhood of the truth, in thinking either that a criminal deserved, or that an earthly being was able, to be believed God.” (emphasis added)
The meaning of this verse could not be more clear. Octavius is denying that Christians worship a crucified earthly man. There is no ambiguity about this. He leaves no saving qualifications, no exceptions, and nowhere does he say that the man they do worship was not a criminal, but innocent, and the Son of God to boot. He says nothing even remotely similar to that. In fact, in the last phrase he says flat-out that no earthly being of any sort could possibly be believed to be God. Without making any exceptions or qualifications, he then goes on to refute the accusation that Christians kill and eat babies.
Certain Christian commentators, unable to believe the plain evidence of the text, have attempted to claim that Felix was in fact implying that Christians worship a human, crucified Jesus, even though nothing he wrote even hints at that, and indeed he flat-out denies it. (The Ante-Nicene Fathers translation gives this chapter the title: “Argument: Nor is It More True that a Man Fastened to a Cross on Account of His Crimes is Worshipped by Christians, for They Believe Not Only that He Was Innocent, But with Reason that He Was God.” How did they get that from the text? Felix says nothing of the sort. The translators are reading into the verses what they think should be there.)
In attempting to explain these early Christians’ silences, even the flat-out denial in Felix’s case, of a historical Jesus, modern apologists have fallen back on some truly implausible strategies. The most common is to claim that the ancient apologists, in essence, thought their audience would find the doctrine of incarnation too far-fetched to defend, so they did not attempt to defend it.
But consider the implications of this. Are we really intended to believe that the ancient apologists immediately abandoned the most significant and important doctrine of their entire religion in the face of criticism? Do any modern evangelists do this? After all, as today’s Christians would surely be the first to insist, without the incarnation there is no Christianity. If they’re not going to defend the very thing that their religion is based on, what’s the point of writing at all?
Athenagoras’ work was written to the emperor in an attempt to stop the persecution and killing of Christians. How much greater wrath would they incur if the emperor later found out he had been lying all along about the fundamental basis of his religion? Similarly, many of the other evangelists were writing specifically to convert others. Even granting that they were afraid to defend the incarnation, what good is it to convert others to a false faith that bears little resemblance to actual Christianity? After winning over a pagan, is one of these apologists going to later take him aside and say, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention this before,” and then drop a bombshell that fundamentally alters the entire belief structure he worked so hard to build up? No, it is an absurdity to believe the ancient apologists did this. If we let their writings speak for themselves rather than force-fitting them into gospel preconceptions, the obvious conclusion is that these men argued as they did because they genuinely did not believe in a historical Jesus Christ. They believed in a Logos, but they did not conceive of this Logos as ever having been on Earth.
But even if one accepts this conclusion, there is one obvious question: Why the gospels? If Christianity did not start with a human founder, why were the gospels written in the first place, and how did belief in such a founder make its way into mainstream Christian thought?
There is no definitive evidence to settle this question, so any conclusion on this matter must remain tentative. However, there are some intriguing hints.
Although Minucius Felix clearly did not himself believe in an incarnated savior who underwent crucifixion, the fact that he rebutted this charge in his book demonstrates that someone was attributing this belief to the Christians. Likewise, while Tatian’s Apology to the Greeks never discusses Jesus or the incarnation at any length, there is one sentence that apparently alludes to these ideas. “We are not fools, men of Greece, when we declare that God has been born in the form of man,” he writes. (This is the only reference anywhere in his works to anything that even might be the gospel story, and he does not elaborate on it.) “Take a look at your own records,” he goes on, “and accept us merely on the grounds that we too tell stories.”
Perhaps this means that Tatian was familiar with the gospel story. Perhaps. But if he did know about it, if he did believe it, why did he not spend more time discussing it? He was writing to convert the Greeks, and while he discusses the Logos at great length, the passing remark above is the only thing in the book that even hints at the incarnation. One might be forgiven for thinking that Tatian is doing a very shoddy job of presenting Christianity to the pagans, considering that he completely left out the central defining element of the faith. Indeed, he seems almost to disparage it. When he says to “accept us merely on the grounds that we too tell stories,” it is as though he regards the incarnation as a legend or a myth, no superior to the Greek myths of Hercules, Achilles, and so on. It is almost as though he has heard the gospel story but considers it only a recent add-on, not in any way essential to the Christian faith.
What if that was exactly the case?
Assume, as argued above, that early Christianity started with belief in a solely spiritual Christ, a heavenly redeemer, and in addition had a pool of ethical teachings derived from Jewish scripture and Greek philosophy. This was the Christianity of Paul and the other early epistle writers. Postulating that the movement began that way would explain much, as previously stated; it would explain why the epistles seem to have no consciousness of the gospel story, why they discuss Jesus’ death at great length but never locate it in any earthly time or place, and why they never describe his miracles or give any biographical details about his life other than those already known from OT prophecies. It would also explain why the epistles quote ethical teachings very similar to those of the gospels dozens of times, but never, not even once, attribute them to Jesus. Teachings such as “love each other”, “turn the other cheek”, “pray for those who curse you” and so on, which were the centerpieces of Jesus’ sermons, are repeated over and over in the epistles, but no epistle writer, not even once, gives them an attribution such as “as Jesus himself taught us”. Usually these sayings are merely repeated without attribution. Occasionally they are attributed to God, i.e., God the Father. Never does any epistle writer say that these are teachings of a recent human being. Under this theory, this is to be expected.
This was the form Christianity took for the first few decades of its existence. Now, sometime after 70 CE, suppose we add to the mix an anonymous writer. Call him Mark. This Mark took these proverbs, combined them with the Pauline tradition of the cosmic Christ as detailed in the epistles, and wrote something entirely new. That document, of course, was the first gospel, the Gospel of Mark.
Why Mark chose to do this can never be known with certainty, but the most likely reason is that he was writing a religious allegory – a story designed to teach and instruct through lessons and parables about a legendary founder-figure. There is a precedent for this: Judaism had a well-established exegetical technique called midrash, which involved taking disparate scriptural verses and weaving them together to make new stories and draw new conclusions. Whatever Mark’s reasons, it is very likely that the document he originally wrote was fictional, and intended to be such. People reading it would have understood that it was not meant to be taken as an actual historical narrative.
Early Christianity was a diverse movement, and over time this story would gradually have drifted into Christian consciousness. At first, people probably understood its intended purpose and did not view it as a central element of their religion, but rather as an instructional fable. You might learn some things about Christianity by reading it, but reading it was not necessary to be a Christian. This might well be what writers such as Tatian and Minucius Felix were referring to; though they may have heard of this story, they considered it a recent addition, unessential to the faith. They even seemed to view it with some disdain. It was the doctrine of the Logos, the cosmic Pauline Christianity, that they truly believed in and that they were intent on preaching to the Greeks and others.
Over time, as the new religion evolved and splintered into sects, other writers seized on this allegorical tale and reworked it to convey their own messages and fit their own communities’ outlooks (whether these later writers had by now come to believe the original story was literally true is an open question). The result was Matthew, Luke and John, as well as a proliferation of other, non-canonical gospels.
The one remaining question, then, is at what point the Christians lost sight of the fact that these gospels were not intended to be historical tales. How did this fact pass out of their consciousness?
One contributing element may well have been the Jewish War of the late first century, when Rome decided to put an end to Jewish defiance once and for all by marching on Jerusalem, conquering the city and burning the Temple to the ground. This was a massive upheaval, killing a significant percentage of the population of Israel and scattering the survivors to the winds. After such a catastrophe, which would almost certainly entail widespread devastation and the loss of many records, no one would have been in any position to refute a story about one more messianic preacher in that area decades ago – no one would have been left who could say with certainty that that story was not historical. Simple time may have been another factor, as the original authors passed away and later Christians forgot their initial purposes.
The bottom line is that eventually, at some point and for whatever reason, the Christians did forget the original purpose of the gospels, mistakenly came to believe that they were depictions of historical events, and began to view them as primary, taking precedent over the epistles from which they originally sprang. As the church accreted, formalizing Christian dogma and assimilating or wiping out other sects, any writings which preserved the original purpose of the gospels would have been viewed as heretical and would have been destroyed. All that is left is to read the gospels back into the epistles, assuming that the two were originally written to describe the same belief set, and modern-day Christianity is born.
This is a significant departure from mainstream thought, to say the least. However, there is evidence for it beyond a mere few lines from the writings of second-century apologists. Evidence suggesting the original purpose of the gospels can be found in the gospels themselves.
The Garden of Gethsemane
Consider the scene of the Garden of Gethsemane. All the Synoptics tell this story in basically the same form (John, who has no desire to portray Jesus as capable of experiencing moments of human weakness, omits it). It is the night of Jesus’ arrest, the night before he is to be crucified, and for once in his life he feels worry, even fear, about what is to come. In a garden called Gethsemane, he leaves most of his disciples behind, taking with him only Peter, James and John, and instructs them to watch over him while he goes to pray. This he does, but when he returns, he finds the three weary disciples asleep. This occurs twice more, for rhetorical effect, and then Judas comes with the Jewish soldiers to arrest him. The story is told in chapter 14 of Mark and mirrored in Matthew 26 and Luke 22.
The problem is this. The gospels themselves say that while Jesus was praying in Gethsemane, he left behind all of his disciples except Peter, James and John – and those three were asleep while he prayed. In other words, no one was watching or listening to Jesus while he prayed there. Yet the gospels blithely record this scene as though there was no trouble with them doing so! How is this possible? Who was writing this down?
The Jews Go to Pilate
The same problem occurs again at the end of Matthew 27, verses 62 to 66. According to the gospel, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pontius Pilate in secret, asking him to set guards at the tomb to prevent the Christians from stealing their master’s body. Again, how is it that this is in the gospels at all? Who was recording this? Certainly none of Jesus’ disciples or supporters were present at this scene.
Jesus’ Temptation by the Devil
And again, in another famous gospel story, we see the evangelists recording information about Jesus’ life that they could not have had access to. After his baptism, Jesus heads into the wilderness to fast for forty days and is tempted by Satan, who offers him power and dominion. Again – who was recording this? Did an evangelist tag along in the desert? More, it must have been more than one evangelist, because while Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written, the others record details about this scene that he does not. And yet this is impossible, because according to the Synoptics, Jesus did not even choose his disciples until after the temptation had occurred.
The Conspiracy Between the Guards and the Priests
Again, in Matthew 28:11-15, we see a gospel recording, with no difficulty, things that none of Jesus’ followers should have been there to witness. In this case it is a conspiracy between the temple priests and the guards set at Jesus’ tomb, after the resurrection, when the priests bribed the guards to say the disciples had stolen his body. Was Matthew present to hear this? Again, how is it possible that any gospel records things that none of the gospel writers could have seen?
The list goes on and on. Matthew 27:19 writes about a private message Pilate’s wife sent to him. Matthew 27:3-8 describes how Judas returned his blood money to the priests and then hanged himself out of guilt. (Did he make a quick detour in between to confess to the other disciples?) Luke 7:39 tells us what a Pharisee was thinking.
These are not pieces of information that the gospel writers should have had access to. However, if we assume that they were merely writing a fictional story, using the third-person omniscient form of narration, this difficulty evaporates.
The obvious Christian counter-argument is that the gospel writers could have learned about these things through revelation, but there is a response to this. Supposedly, in the traditional interpretation, the gospel writers were on hand to personally witness most of the events they wrote about. Yet these other bits, these tiny revelations, are sprinkled throughout their writings with no hint from tone or context that anything about them differs from the rest of the events that they are recounting. If some of the things they write are things they directly witnessed, while others are miraculous revelations from the deity, shouldn’t they make that distinction? Shouldn’t they add an author’s note to the text to let the reader know the difference? This is not an unreasonable suggestion – Paul does this very thing in 1 Corinthians 7, clearly making the distinction between what is a commandment from God and what is his own belief. Why do the gospel writers not do this? Why does Paul feel it necessary but they do not? Indeed, Luke seems to rule out this possibility when he tells us in the very first verses of his gospel that what he is about to recount derives from eyewitness accounts. Nowhere does he mention that part of it also came in the form of direct revelation. It seems like a significant omission, not to mention an insult to God, to receive knowledge from him miraculously and then present it to everyone as something that you yourself saw happen.
Furthermore, if this revelation idea is in fact what happened, it seems a near certainty that the gospel writers would have had to include this fact in their writings. The objection that “you weren’t there to see this” would certainly have been one of the most common complaints made against early Christianity, and it would only have been bolstered by the evangelists’ recording events which they themselves did not witness. The only defense would be to explain how they came by this information, and yet no such defense is provided.
In conclusion, then, what do we have? A corpus of epistles whose writers seemingly did not know of the gospel story. A group of second-century apologists who seem to feel they can present a complete picture of Christianity without mentioning any incarnation; indeed, one of them flat-out denies it. A set of gospels that are written in the style of a fictional story, presenting information that their authors could not possibly have had access to. And, last but not least, a complete lack of reliable first-hand evidence for any such man as Jesus Christ.
Many criticisms of the Jesus-as-myth theory tend to miss the point in assuming that the case for this conclusion is built solely on a lack of evidence for such a person. This is not true. In fact, this theory is also founded on positive evidence, such as the verses presented in this section – verses which, when not read in the light of presupposition, show that the Jesus whom the first Christians worshipped was not a historical human being. However, to make this case, the claimed historical references to such a person must naturally be cleared out of the way first, as part 2 of this essay argued; and furthermore, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that we have every right to expect some extra-biblical evidence if there really was a person who did the things the gospels said he did, as part 1 established.
These various lines of evidence converge on only one conclusion: Christianity did not begin as a response to a historical man. Rather, early Christianity was a diverse tradition originally consisting of a variety of unrelated elements – Hellenistic wisdom, Jewish messianic and apocalyptic expectation, Platonic philosophy, the Jewish Wisdom, gnostic and mystery-cult elements, and the cosmic Son of God and the allegorical gospels – that only gradually coalesced into a more unified expression, eventually solidifying into a single church. At some point, this church latched onto a particular thread that had developed within the movement – Jesus as historical man – and declared it to be dogma, stamping out competing sects and eradicating heretical elements, and rewriting history through the lens of its own new interpretation. (The book of Acts is the canonical example, portraying as it does Paul as a follower of the historical Jesus and subservient to the Jerusalem apostles, even though his own letters show he was neither of these.) It is this gospel-tinted lens that has survived to this day, coloring the preconceptions of modern-day Christians and causing them to read into the epistles and the historical record things which are simply not there.
But when we set aside these preconceptions and read the New Testament documents for what they are really saying, their message is easy to discern. Christianity has been laboring under a misperception of its own origins for almost two thousand years. It is time for us to recognize this, and once we have done so, humanity will be one step closer to the freedom and the enlightenment of atheism.