Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why Jesus Mythicism is Unconvincing

One of the most radical forms of the theory of Jesus Mythicism (or Christ myth theory) holds that there never was an historical person called Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus, son of Joseph.

I am not referring here to some forms of Jesus Mythicism, like that of G. A. Wells in the The Jesus Legend (Chicago and La Salle, Ill., 1996), in which it is held that legends grew up around an historical figure called Jesus. Rather, I refer to those who argue that an historical Jesus was an invention of early Christianity. As an atheist, I can readily agree that the Jesus of the Gospels is a fiction and legend, that miracles never happen, and that Christianity is false.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the evidence for an historical Jesus is a convincing hypothesis.

According to Richard Carrier (one such mythicist), the respectable or “good” mythicists are himself, Robert Price, Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, Thomas Thompson, and possibly Frank Zindler. The inclusion of G. A. Wells in this list seems strange to me, because in Wells (1996) it is quite clear that the author accepts some kind of historical Jesus. Wells himself states:
“I have never – in spite of what some of my critics have alleged – subscribed to such a view [sc. viz., that of Earl Doherty]: for Paul does, after all, call Jesus a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3), born of a woman under the (Jewish) law (Gal. 4:4), who lived as a servant to the circumcision (Rom. 15:8) and was crucified on a tree (Gal. 3:13) and buried (I Cor. 15:4).”
G. A. Wells, “Earliest Christianity,” 1999.
I will focus on the thesis of Earl Doherty, whose name comes up frequently in internet discussions of Jesus Mythicism. Doherty has written two books and has a website defending his theory, as follows:
Doherty, E. 2009. Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus, Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa, ON.

Doherty, E. 2005 (1999). The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?, Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa, ON.

The Jesus Puzzle, Earl Doherty
First, I accept that Doherty’s work is important and has something to contribute. I have read Doherty’s first book The Jesus Puzzle, and will present a critique of his basic theory below. There are some points where it is possible to agree with him: for example, Doherty (1999: 45) argues that Paul invented the Eucharist through what he thought was a personal vision from the risen Jesus. That, I think, is a persuasive hypothesis. Paul had some dream, delusion, or hallucination in which he saw what he describes in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, perhaps even being unconsciously influenced by contemporary Mystery religions rites (this is also, more or less, the thesis of Maccoby 1991).

But overall I do not find Doherty’s thesis convincing.

Doherty argues from the evidence of the letters of Paul of Tarsus (the apostle Paul) that the Jesus whom Paul believed in was a completely imaginary, mythical figure: a heavenly being who was incarnated in the flesh and underwent a sacrificial death in the lower spheres of heaven (what was called the second heaven in Jewish cosmology) at the hands of evil spirits and demons. He was then resurrected by God to the highest heaven and made known to humanity through visions and revelations, particularly by Paul. Doherty thinks diaspora Jewish-Hellenistic religious syncretism and Middle Platonism influenced this emerging religion.

The points to be made against this thesis are as follows:
(1) Evidence of other Christians with different conceptions of Jesus.

In Paul’s own writings we have references to Christians at Corinth who preached a Jesus different from his own and another gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4). These were Jewish Christian preachers with the authority of those Paul elsewhere calls the “pillars” in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:16–21; 2:1–10), as Michael Goulder (2001) argues. The pillars in Jerusalem were apostles before Paul (Gal. 1:16–21), yet it is very clear that they did not accept his gospel of justification by faith or the view that Jesus’s crucifixion had abolished the Torah (the Mosaic Law). Paul tells us explicitly that he felt he needed to lay out his gospel before them (Gal. 2:1–10), and we can conclude by deduction that his gospel (or at least an important part of it) was new to them. If Acts has any historical value (and here I think it does), Jerusalem Christianity attracted many Jews zealous for the law (Acts 21:20–21), and some Jewish Christians thought Gentile converts needed to be converted to Judaism to be proper Christians (Acts 15:1).

Did these Jerusalem Christians really believe like Paul in a purely heavenly Christ crucified in the lower heavens and not even an earthly figure? Jerusalem is most decidedly not the natural home of Doherty’s Hellenised Jewish sect influenced by Middle Platonism. And 2 Corinthians 11:4 already demonstrates they had a different Christology and gospel. If they did not share Paul’s gospel of justification by faith, what was the point of Christ’s crucifixion in the heavenly realms in their version of Christianity? I doubt that a Hellenised Jewish sect derived partly from Middle Platonism would have been based in Jerusalem and attracted Pharisees and those zealous for the law: rather, the Jerusalem movement most probably had arisen from the ministry of some human figure, the recently executed Jesus.

(2) How did a heavenly Jesus acquire this title of Christos?

The explanation of how Jesus acquired the title Christ (or in Greek Christos), which means “anointed one” or “Messiah,” is straightforward on the conventional view: the human Jesus either claimed it or, more likely, his followers came to believe he was Messiah after his death (as argued by William Wrede in the Messianic Secret), possibly even partly as a consequence of the charge that was made against him by the Romans, that he was a pretender to the throne of Judaea.

Romans 9:31–33 speaks of Jesus’s crucifixion as a stumbling stone to the unbelieving Jewish people, and Paul says God placed it in Zion (Jerusalem), which locates that event in Jerusalem, not in a heavenly realm (see the extended discussion here of this passage, amongst others, which is a critique of Earl Doherty by Bernard D. Muller).

How exactly did a heavenly Jesus become the Christ (the Messiah)? And why was a heavenly Christ in the lower heavens crucified as opposed to some other method of killing? Crucifixion was very much an earthly method of execution associated with the Romans in Paul’s time (on crucifixion in the ancient world, see Hengel 1977).

(3) James is attested as brother of Jesus in other sources apart from Gal. 1:18–19

In Galatians, Paul refers to his meeting with James, the brother of the Lord:
Ἔπειτα μετὰ τρία ἔτη ἀνῆλθον εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα ἱστορῆσαι Κηφᾶν, καὶ ἐπέμεινα πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡμέρας δεκαπέντε• ἕτερον δὲ τῶν ἀποστόλων οὐκ εἶδον, εἰ μὴ Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου.

“Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days; but I saw none of the other apostles, except James the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:18–19).
Now Paul’s writings are not found in a vacuum: they are part of a vast Christian corpus of writing from the first century AD onwards.

We have other sources that name James as the brother of Jesus, and here is a sample:
(1) Gospel of the Hebrews
This Greek work from the first half of the second century AD names James as Jesus’s brother, as quoted by Jerome (De Viris Illustribus 2), in a story where Jesus’s first resurrection appearance is to his brother.

(2) Second Apocalypse of James 50.13.
This Gnostic text written in the 2nd century AD contains Jewish Christian influences and parts of it probably rely on earlier sources.

(3) Clementine Homilies 11.35 (see 4.35).
Doherty suggests that in Gal. 1:18–19 it “may well have been this phrase [sc. James the brother of the Lord] which led later Christians to make James the just … a sibling of Jesus himself” (Doherty 1999: 57).

Yet it is unlikely that the Pseudo-Clementine literature has derived the notion of James as the brother of the Lord from Paul’s writing: the Pseudo-Clementine literature is hostile to Paul and reflects Jewish Christian rejection of Paul as an apostate.

(4) The imminent apocalypticism of Paul

For Doherty the actual death and resurrection of Christ occurred in a timeless heavenly realm:
“in some unspecified time and place, Paul’s Christ had performed a redemptive act.” (Doherty 1999: 95).

“Here [sc. in the realm of the demon spirits] Christ could assume counterpart characteristics of the visible world, undergo suffering and death at the hands of the spirits as a blood sacrifice, and be raised by God back to the highest heaven. Even if it was all a part of God’s ‘mystery,’ something that had taken place in God’s eternal time, hidden for long generations and knowable to men like Paul only through divine revelation in scripture.” (Doherty 1999: 103).
But Paul’s writing shows an imminent apocalypticism—a conviction that the eschaton (end of the world) is near—and the fact that Paul thinks that it was the resurrection of Jesus as the first fruits of those who had died (1 Corinthians 15:20) that initiated the last days of the world would suggest that he did think that the death and resurrection of Christ was a recent event. The mythical death of Jesus in a timeless heavenly world does not seem to be consistent with his expectation of an impending parousia, and the idea that the eschatological times had been begun by a recent event: the first resurrection of a person from the dead throughout history.

(5) 1 Corinthians 2:8: Jesus killed by “rulers of this age”

In 1 Corinthians 2:8, we have this statement:
ἀλλὰ λαλοῦμεν θεοῦ σοφίαν ἐν μυστηρίῳ, τὴν ἀποκεκρυμμένην, ἣν προώρισεν ὁ θεὸς πρὸ τῶν αἰώνων εἰς δόξαν ἡμῶν• ἣν οὐδεὶς τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου ἔγνωκεν, εἰ γὰρ ἔγνωσαν, οὐκ ἂν τὸν κύριον τῆς δόξης ἐσταύρωσαν.

“But we proclaim wisdom from god in the form of a mystery, one having been hidden, which God decreed before the ages, for our glory; and which not one of the rulers of this age has known: for if they knew, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2.6–8).
Doherty argues that the “rulers of this age” that Paul refers to here are actually evil spirits and demons who rule the lower heavens: they are the ones that crucified Jesus, not any human rulers. Doherty can of course cite a number of New Testament scholars who agree with him on this point (cf. Carr 1976–1977).

But in Romans 13:3 Paul used the word “rulers” (archontes in the Greek) in a clear way to refer to human civil authorities and governments. Some interpreters think the context of the passage requires human rulers, and immediately afterwards at 1 Cor. 2:9 Paul speaks of human hearts not understanding God’s plans for those who love him.

Even if Paul envisages evil spirits and demons here, the trouble is that there is no reason why the expression cannot have a double meaning: the Roman political authorities and the evil spirits and demons who rule the lower heavens killed Jesus, the former as the instrument of the latter. G. A. Wells, who regards this as Doherty’s strongest point, nevertheless is not convinced and also takes the view that both human authorities and the evil spirits are meant here. (I will not discuss 1 Thessalonians 2:14–16, where it is asserted that the Jewish authorities were involved in Jesus’s death, because many scholars think this is an interpolation.)

(6) A crucial passage is Philippians 2.6–8:
… Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος• καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ.

“…. Christ Jesus
who, being in the form of God did not deem it a prize to be equal with God,
but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave
born* in the form of men,
and having appeared (or having been found) in shape as a man
he humbled himself, becoming obedient until death
and death on a cross.” (Phil 2.6–8).

* The participle γενόμενος is also used by Paul in Gal. 4:4 in the sense of “born.”
Paul says that Christ took the form of men and came in the shape of a man.

The Mythicists like Doherty might reply that his happened in the second heaven where Jesus was killed by evil spirits. But Paul also says that Jesus was a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3), born of a woman under the Mosaic law (Gal. 4:4), and that he became a servant to the Jewish people (Rom. 15:8). He was crucified on a tree (Gal. 3:13) and buried (1 Cor. 15:4).

Paul’s soteriology clearly requires that Jesus was incarnated in the flesh like a human being. Taken together, all these ideas in Paul’s writings with points (1) to (5) above suggest to me that Paul does indeed think that Jesus had been an individual on earth.
All in all, there is convincing evidence that even Paul believed in an historical Jesus.

In particular, the existence of a brother of Jesus known to Paul is solid evidence for the existence of a recently deceased founder of Christianity.

But obviously there is no denying that in Paul’s writings there is virtually no interest in the historical Jesus. But this is because, for Paul, the resurrected Jesus is far more important than whatever Jesus did during his life on earth, and indeed Paul’s heavenly Jesus has already become a mythologised figure.


The Jesus Puzzle, Earl Doherty

Earl Doherty, “A Comment on Richard Carrier’s Review of The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin With a Mythical Christ?,” The Jesus Puzzle.

Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity,” The Secular Web, 2002.

Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic,” Richard Carrier Blogs, April 19, 2012.

Bart D. Ehrman, “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier,” Bart’s Blog, 25 April, 2012.


Carr, W. 1976–1977. “The Rulers of This Age—I Corinthians II. 6–8,” New Testament Studies 23: 20–35.

Carr, W. 1981. Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Phrase hai archai kai hai exousiai, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Doherty, E. 2005 (1999). The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?, Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa, ON.

Doherty, E. 2009. Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus, Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa, ON.

Goulder, M. D. 2001. Paul and the Competing Mission in Corinth, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass.

Hengel, Martin. 1977. Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

Maccoby, H., 1991. “Paul and the Eucharist,” New Testament Studies 37: 247–269.

Wells, G. A. 1996. The Jesus Legend, Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, Ill.

Wrede, William. 1971. The Messianic Secret (trans. J. C. G. Greig), Attic Press, Greenwood, S.C.


  1. "James, who was called the brother of my Lord, and to whom was entrusted to administer the church of the Hebrews in Jerusalem" says the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies 11.35. This kills Carrier's argument about "brother of the Lord" being a denomination which could be used to refer to ANY Christian man. It does not kill the argument that "the brother of the Lord" was a title used by James, though./Connie

  2. "It does not kill the argument that "the brother of the Lord" was a title used by James, though./Connie"

    It might be some title without reference to a fraternal relationship of descent from the same biological mother and father, but I doubt it: look how frequent the tradition is, not just in the Pseudo-Clementine literature.

    And the Pseudo-Clementine literature is hostile to Paul (Simon Magus is just Paul by derogatory name). I don't buy Carrier's argument that Gal. 1:18–19 has just given rise to all these later traditions. Paul's gentile version of Christianity (and his later Pauline school) was not the only Christian group around in the 40s, 50s and 60s onwards with an independent literature.

    The Jerusalem church was clearly the most important Christian group in Paul's time.

    Also, Romans 9:31–33 speaks of Jesus’s crucifixion as a stumbling stone to the unbelieving Jewish people, and Paul says God placed it in Zion (Jerusalem). That is very telling to me.

    1. Regarding Romans 9:31-33 specifically: Its the crucifixion itself that is referred to as a stumbling block to the Jewish People. (see also 1 Cor 1:23-24 "but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles," (NIV)) Ie, they don't believe the crucifixion itself occurred. Paul isn't indicting them on a fine point of theology here, he's saying they reject the fact of the crucifixion itself.

      That's crazy if its talking about a recent historical event. But if its an heavenly crucifixion revealed by revelation, then the 'fact' of the crucifixion is something that could be disbelieved.

      I'm not convinced Zion is best interpreted as 'Jerusalem' here. Zion is frequently used to mean the Jewish people in the same way that Israel is. Especially in the context of what the stumbling block is - you can't place a belief in physical location, you place it in the realm of thoughts and beliefs - ie, among a people.

      In general I think the Pauline corpus needs to be interpreted carefully because it is almost certainly full of rampant interpolation. Later authors would have wanted to 'save' Paul's letters for orthodoxy, and then use the emended texts against heretics.

      For example, while we have no manuscripts without Romans 1:3, Tertullian seems wholly unaware of it while arguing against the Marcionists. Yet this would be a coup de grace from the mouth of Marcion's sole true Apostle. And Romans 1:3 is part of a lengthy digression in the middle of the salutation which breaks up Paul's typical writing structure in an unusual and unnatural way. (All of Romans 1:2-6 is likely an interpolation, 1:7 follows 1:1 naturally, is typical of ancient salutations, and the couplet has typical Pauline structure).

    2. Anonymous,

      You say:

      "but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles," (NIV)) Ie, they don't believe the crucifixion itself occurred. Paul isn't indicting them on a fine point of theology here, he's saying they reject the fact of the crucifixion itself.

      Your interpretation of Romans 9:31-33 is plainly wrong: Paul is saying a crucified Messiah is a "stumbling block" - not the crucifixion itself.

  3. LK,

    Have you read Bart Ehrman's works? I read two books of his and listened to him on Youtube and he is probably my favorite scholar concerning the New Testament. Would you agree with him in the claim that the gospels were written anonymously and not by the disciples themselves?

    1. By and large, Bart Ehrman's works seem reasonable to me.

      And, yes, I agree with the view that the gospels were not written by the disciples themselves (in fact this view is just mainstream liberal New Testament scholarship).

      The mainstream view is that the Gospels were written years after Jesus's death by people who never knew him in roughly this order:

      Mark (70s AD)
      Luke (70s or 80s)
      Matthew (80–90 AD)
      John (90s-c.100 AD)

      John is the latest a gospel and mostly obviously a piece of Christian fiction -- crude Christian fiction at that.

      As for the disciples themselves, they were most likely illiterate fishermen.