Monday, May 21, 2007

50 Books in 50 Years: Book #8

Book #8: Challenging the Verdict, by Earl Doherty

This book covers much of the same ground as The Jesus Puzzle, but is written as a rejoinder to Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. Doherty wrote the book as a fictional "cross-examination" of Strobel and his expert witnesses. This format is not as distracting as I expected it to be, which was a relief. It also spared me the tedium of actually having to read Strobel.

50 Books in 50 Years: Book #7

Book #7: The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ?, by Earl Doherty.

Even for nonbelievers, the figure of Jesus fascinates. Plenty of people have started new religions, but few of them have taken on divine status. Who was Jesus? Why did his early followers believe that he was God in the flesh?

I sometimes imagine having a machine that would let me look into the past. If I could dial it back to the early first century, what sort of person would Jesus turn out to have been? Perhaps he was like Socrates, a figure of such intellect and magnetism that his followers spent the rest of their lives mulling over his teachings and their significance. Or he may have been a charlatan like Sun Myung Moon or L. Ron Hubbard. But what if I searched Palestine in the first century and found that he wasn't like anything? What if I found no historical Jesus at all? This is the thesis proposed by Earl Doherty in The Jesus Puzzle: that there was no such person as Jesus of Nazareth. All the purported details of his life — his ministry, travels, trial, crucifixion — were invented long after they supposedly happened, by whoever wrote the gospel of Mark.

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At first, this may sound ridiculous. It's true that there is no credible mention of Jesus of Nazareth in the non-Christian historical record before the start of the second century CE, but we find similar historical lacunae for people like Muhammad, whose existence is not seriously in doubt. It's also true that much of the gospel accounts is obvious myth-making, but this is also true of Sakyamuni Buddha, whose mundane activities can be extracted from the wild stories of miracles in the Mahayana canon. Finally, there is the obvious question of how the religion originated if there was no Jesus to found it.

But Doherty's case turns out to be quite strong — shockingly so, in fact. Part of the shock is in realizing how much of the evidence has been sitting out in the open all along, in the New Testament epistles. I always found these to be rather dull going compared to the gospel stories, and Doherty calls attention to the main reason why: they contain virtually no historical detail about their savior figure. This is noticeable to the casual reader, and very familiar to any scholar worth the name. But Doherty delineates it extensively, and adds the crucial (and less familiar) information that the same is true not only of Paul's letters, but of every Christian document (other than the gospels) that can credibly be dated to the first century CE. Not until 107 do we find an extra-gospel account that mentions any of the purportedly historical details of Jesus's life. (And that early mention is very sparse, including only the name of Jesus's mother and the claim that he was tried and executed under Pontius Pilate.)

It is worth pausing for a moment and thinking about what this implies for the traditional understanding of the emergence of Christianity. According to that view of things, an itinerant preacher named Jesus was baptized, taught large crowds in Galilee, traveled with a group of disciples, and was eventually tried and crucified. This ministry, and a subsequent belief in his resurrection, had such an impact on his initial followers that they proclaimed him to be divine — and not just one divinity among many, but an eternal aspect of the God that the Jews believed in, an omnipotent deity, sole creator of the universe and everything in it. But as we have just seen (and as Doherty explains in considerable detail), the specific aspects of that ministry left behind no trace in written or oral tradition (other than in the gospels), even among his most fervent adherents, for seventy-five years. No trace at all: no mention of his teachings, his travels, his miracles, or the circumstances of his trial or his burial.

This demands an explanation. One traditional approach is to claim that Paul mythologized Jesus, and never mentioned historical details because he simply wasn't interested in them. Doherty spends a great deal of time demolishing this line of reasoning. I can't summarize all of his rebuttals here, but I can say that this explanation is barely plausible in regards to Paul, and not at all plausible in discussing the many other Christians of the time, who had many concerns that would have been easily answered by details from the life of a historical Jesus. But these details somehow never surface outside the gospels.

C.S. Lewis takes a similar approach in The Screwtape Letters:

The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had... the "Gospels" come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made.  (Chapter XXIII)
This accords well with Lewis's disdain for attempts to enlighten modern Christianity by appealing to historical facts about the life of Jesus. But it is question-begging: it provides no real evidence that the resurrection actually happened. One could as easily claim that the earliest converts were converted by a non-historical myth of resurrection, not a historical fact.

And this is what Doherty believes. He argues that what actually happened is that some time early in the first century, a new religion arose devoted to the worship of a crucified savior figure. This religion relied heavily on the Jewish scriptures, but also had many parallels to the mystery cults that were common at the time. The savior figure was "real" to his worshipers, but not identified with any historical person. His life and sacrifice were in the realm of the divine and mythical, much as were those of Herakles or Osiris or Mithras or other ancient savior deities. Some decades after the new cult had been established, some anonymous author produced a fictional biography, derived largely by the use of midrash. This is now known as the gospel of Mark, and it served as the basis for the other "synoptic" gospels of Matthew and Luke. (The gospel of John is a different matter, but Doherty argues that much of its biographical material must also have been derived from some synoptic source.) The original Christians never referred to historical details of their savior's life because those details had not yet been invented.

This explanation clears up many of the puzzles that occur to most people who read and teach Christian documents without having a prior commitment to the religion. I have already raised the familiar question of how any human being, however noble and wise, could have convinced his followers that he was not merely a great teacher, or a prophet, or even the Messiah, but God himself walking around in human form. And not just any god: the Jewish god, the only God. But if Doherty is right, there is no mystery because there was no such man. The divine redeemer figure came first, with a putative biography added later.

Other questions are cleared up as well. Paul seems to have converted to Christianity in the early to mid-30s, when Christianity had already gained a substantial number of adherents. (Paul writes that he had been engaged in persecuting Christians before his conversion; there must have been quite a few of them to warrant active persecution.) If the religion had started after the supposed historical crucifixion, it would have needed to spread at an absolutely astonishing pace. But if it started with devotion to a mythical figure, it could have begun some time earlier and spread at a believable rate. And there are highly questionable details about the trial before Pilate which no longer pose a problem: no trial, no problem.

One fact about the story of Jesus which particularly captivated me is that 'Jesus' (Yeshua) translates as 'Yahveh saves'; the name essentially means "Savior." In other words, the gospel accounts present us with the story of a man named Savior who is betrayed to his death by someone named Jew. (Yes, that's what 'Judas' means.) This is so blatantly mythology that one wonders if the author of Mark even intended anyone to treat it as historical fact. (Doherty argues that readers of the time probably would have understood it as allegory.)

For nonbelievers like me, this may be a matter of great interest, but ultimately it is just academic interest. For Christians, though, it would pose a serious problem. Most modern people are simply not capable of worshiping purely mythical beings, overtly understood as mythical. ("Neo-pagans," or at least some of them, may be an exception.) Doherty is not the first to propose a Christ-myth theory, but his book is very well argued and is gaining a fairly wide readership in part because of its mention in the recent movie The God Who Wasn't There. If the Christ-myth theory begins to get serious traction in popular culture, one wonders what its ultimate impact will be.

I recommend the book quite highly. It can be ordered from or directly from Doherty at his website.