The Signs Gospel and Mythicism

The blog Synoptic Solutions, at the end of a post on the tradition history of the story about the stilling of the storm, shared these thoughts relevant to the topic of mythicism, which I thought deserve attention and discussion:

He most closely resembles one of the tannaim, the rabbinic scholars and holy men of the Talmud and related texts. The Jesus of the Signs Gospel is thoroughly Jewish.

But are the rabbis of the Talmud mythical? One might try to make a case for this rabbi or that one, but the general assumption is that these were real personages, even if they did not perform the miracles attributed to them. Instead, their acts of holiness were later augmented into miracles. No one tries to argue they are legendary just because, for example, they did not appear in contemporary historical works (like those of Josephus and Tacitus). Why should we not make the same assumptions about Jesus? In the Signs Gospel, Jesus is not being portrayed as a god on earth. Instead, he is portrayed as very human–a miraculous human, but a human nonetheless. Like the rabbis, he is not quite historical, yet he is not mythical, either. Instead, he is legendary.

And so I propose that this is the correct model for understanding the historical Jesus. He is a legendary figure–but that does not mean he is an imaginary figure. Indeed, it means just the opposite: it means that he was most certainly historical. It’s just that he has been surrounded by a legendary aura, like so many other historical figures. To be sure, Jesus would eventually pick up a mythical aura, once Mark identified him with Paul’s Christ and especially after the canonical redactors made sure the gospels conformed to an Incarnationalist theology. But the rabbis of legend were not by and large imaginary; they were very real, even if many or most of the details we have about them are legendary. Just so should we assume that the Jesus of legend is not imaginary; he was very real. The fact that his miracles may or may not have been historical doesn’t alter the historicity of his existence (because, they don’t alter the historicity of the rabbis’ existence).

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  • Anonymous

    Writing up a response now. I think their conclusions are quite absurdly certain for such hypothetical proposals. 

  • Gakuseidon

    Doherty suggests that the Q community (i.e. those responsible for the hypothetical Q document) were a whole community of similar miracle-workers. From his “Jesus: Neither God Nor Man”:

    “The itinerant prophets of this new ‘counter-culture’ expression announced the coming of the kingdom of God and anticipated the arrival of a heavenly figure called the Son of Man who would judge the world. They urged repentance, taught a new ethic and advocated a new society; they claimed the performance of miracles, and they aroused the hostility of the religious establishment.” (Page 3)

    “As for miracles, there is no question that the Q prophets, as preachers of the kingdom, would have claimed the performance of signs and wonders, for every sectarian movement of the time had to possess that facility. These, especially miraculous healings, were the indispensable pointers of the kingdom.” (Page 384)

    We have similar figures in the Talmud, both holy men and sorcerers who lead Israel astray, and Paul refers to the miracles and healings of the early church. So it isn’t unexpected to have Jesus arising out of such groups.

    The hypothetical Q document gives us a view of Jesus as a non-divine holy man, one of a number performing miracles, signs and wonders, and preaching the End Times and the coming of the Son of Man. There is no significance laid on his death, except for perhaps his obedience to God unto death as hinted in “Take up your cross and follow me.” The Gospel of Mark isn’t far from that. Visions and revelations lead Paul to believe that Christ’s death had significance to Jews and especially Gentiles, with the crucifixion and death being the central events. The hypothetical Signs Gospel focuses on the ‘signs’ miracles, and feeds into the higher Christology expressed in the Gospel of John. It all hangs together nicely.

  • Anonymous
  • the_cave

    I’ve left a comment in response to TomVerenna’s response on his own site.  Will also respond to GDon’s comment soon (hi, GDon).

  • the_cave

    Hi GDon–I want to be careful here, so I’ll limit my comments for now to the following: If that is Doherty’s current position (and I’m not sure it is), I can’t
    really see how it represents a mythicist case strictly speaking, or how
    it implies that “Jesus never existed”.  If you’re right, then Doherty
    apparently thinks Jesus did exist after all; it’s just that he was one
    Q-prophet among many, and his name may or may not have been “Jesus”.

    Do I have that right?

  • Gakuseidon

    Hi, the_cave. I quoted two paragraphs from Doherty’s book above, ending with “Page 384”. My own comments follow after that.

    Doherty proposes that there was a “Q” community which preached the coming of the kingdom of God and the “Son of Man” who would judge the world. This community of preachers claimed to perform miracles, signs and wonders, and aroused the hostility of the religious establishment of the day.

    So instead of there being one Jesus, Doherty proposes a whole community of them. Doherty believes that this community was induced to see their sayings as having been spoken through a human mouth, whom at some point received the name “Jesus”. The Q community’s new Jesus figure was the glorified embodiment of the Q preachers themselves.  

    That this community would create a Jesus figure for themselves is possible I suppose, but it seems a strangely contrived explanation. As you point out, we see similar figures in the Talmud. The Signs Gospel, if it existed, fits as being part of the trajectory of the development of a higher Christology.

  • the_cave

    Ah, I see now–yes, that is what I am proposing.  The historical Jesus was a member of this Q-community.  I don’t know if his name was “Jesus” or whether he preached a Christ-figure similar to Paul’s.  More likely he just shared the Q-community’s ideals.  He may however have been a relatively influential member of this community.

    The evidence I am proposing for this is the nature of the Signs Gospel, which presents their prophet (named “Jesus” in GJn, though I can’t tell if this is original to the Signs Gospel) in the same vein as the rabbis and sages of the Talmud, suggesting to me that the Signs community viewed him in the same way they viewed the rabbis and sages.  That to me indicates a historical figure, though one not yet identified with Paul’s Jesus.  In other words, I provisionally accept the mythicist argument, except when it claims that the Jesus-myth was the only source for the historical Jesus.  Instead, the Jesus-myth intersected with a historical Q-prophet, finally becoming united in a single figure, at once historical and mythical, with the Gospel of Mark.

    But before that there was the Signs prophet, whom I call “legendary”, meaning he was essentially historical, but with a miraculous layer applied to his deeds, the way the Tannaim were described as performing various miracles.  I would identify him as originally a member of the Q-community that Doherty describes.  Again, I don’t know what his name was.  It may not have been “Jesus”.  But it may have been.  (In fact, I think it was, but I will have to address that some other time.)