Did Jesus Exist? Thinking About Earl Doherty's "The Jesus Puzzle."

Recently I wrote on this issue here. I've been reading through Doherty's book The Jesus Puzzle since then. It's a great read and very provocative. He does as good as I would expect in arguing there never was a historical Jesus. Nonetheless there is a problem as I see it.

While he says it better in his book than what I quote below from his site, there seems to be at least two major interpretations of the evidence. The puzzle is how to best harmonize all the evidence about Jesus (or the Christ). One thing most all scholars agree on is that even the earliest Christianities were a diverse phenomena. The question is why early Christianity was so diverse?

Other than the fundamentalist view of the evidence which we both discount for many reasons, there are two interpretations of this body of evidence. On the the one hand there is the dominant interpretation, which Doherty informs us about:
Scholars have long tried to offer scenarios to explain this process. One runs like this: In their fervor and distress following the crucifixion, the followers of Jesus scrambled to understand what had just happened, to interpret the meaning of their Master’s life, to put a name to his role in God’s plan. They ran to their bibles and began to apply all manner of scriptural passages to him, especially those looked upon as messianic by the Jewish thinking of the time. But they turned as well to contemporary hellenistic mythology about the Logos, supplementing it with the Jewish equivalent in the figure of personified Wisdom, throwing in for good measure dim (to us) myths about descending-ascending heavenly redeemers. Those early Christian thinkers absorbed all this vast cultural pleroma and decided that their Jesus of Nazareth had in fact been the true embodiment of all these myths and proceeded to pile them, willy-nilly, upon him. This "morning after" ransack of current philosophy and the Jewish scriptures led, so they say, to the highly elevated, mythological picture created of Jesus so soon after his death, and to a conviction that he had been "resurrected".

Newer scenarios about how the Christian movement began and how Jesus became the Christ have attempted to be more subtle and comprehensive. Burton Mack suggests that, in addition to Galilean groups who regarded Jesus as no more than a human teacher, gentile circles in places like Antioch were responsible, over a period of time, for applying current mythological interpretations to Jesus of Nazareth, and that Paul was converted to one of these "cults".
On the other hand there is Doherty's interpretation of the evidence:
We are led to conclude that the beginning of the Christian movement was not a response to any human individual at one time and location. Christianity was born in a thousand places, out of the fertile religious and philosophical soil of the time, expressing faith in an intermediary Son who was a channel to God, providing knowledge, love and salvation. It sprang up in many innovative minds like Paul’s, among independent communities and sects all over the empire, producing a variety of forms and doctrines. Some of it tapped into traditional Jewish Messiah expectation and apocalyptic sentiment, other expressions were tied to more Platonic ways of thinking. Greek mystery concepts also fed into the volatile mix. Many groups (though not all) adopted the term "Christ" for their divine figure, as well as the name "Jesus", which in Hebrew has the meaning of "Savior". Paul and the Jerusalem brotherhood around Peter and James were simply one strand of this broad salvation movement, although an important and ultimately very influential one. Later, in a mythmaking process of its own, the Jerusalem circle with Paul as its satellite was adopted as the originating cell of the whole Christian movement.

Link.
While I don't plan on reviewing his book, I think this highlights a problem Doherty has in arguing his case. Notice the words in bold? He does his best to make his case, but in the end there remains this one problem. A simpler theory of the evidence is the best explanation of it. It is much easier to conceive of a movement splintering into a multitude number of groups than it is to conceive of a multitude number of similar groups arising at the same time across the known world who soon come together and identify themselves as Christians.

And this is where I find his puzzle to be missing a piece, or at the very least, causes me to doubt it. If nothing else, there is no single piece of the puzzle that shows me there was a historical founder to the Jesus cult because no single piece of the puzzle could ever show me this in the first place. That Doherty can offer explanations for (or explain away) several pieces of the evidence does not discount the cumulative case that this evidence leads most scholars to conclude.

It's possible that Doherty is correct though. When it comes to historical investigations like this one perhaps the best we should claim is agnosticism. To claim more than this in the face of contrary historical evidence and arguments may demand more of historical evidence than we can reasonably allow.

Still, I agree with the dominant interpretation.

10 comments:

Tyro said...

That Doherty can offer explanations for (or explain away) several pieces of the evidence does not discount the cumulative case that this evidence leads most scholars to conclude.

Heh, that sounds exactly like what the mythicists say about how people explain the flaws in the historicist case :)

I do wonder how fair it is to point to the 'consensus' opinion on this subject. Do you believe that most scholars examine the cases and conclude that the Jesus probably existed? How many do you believe have seriously examined the issue, how many just accept the traditions which originated in apologetics?

It's possible that Doherty is correct though. When it comes to historical investigations like this one perhaps the best we should claim is agnosticism. To claim more than this in the face of contrary historical evidence and arguments may demand more of historical evidence than we can reasonably allow.

Fair enough. Thanks for the semi-review :)

Mark Plus said...

It is much easier to conceive of a movement splintering into a multitude number of groups than it is to conceive of a multitude number of similar groups arising at the same time across the known world who soon come together and identify themselves as Christians.

If you look at the history of the socialist movement in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, you find people in widely dispersed societies articulating similar grievances about how their respective ruling elites ran things. These people then coalesced into socialist, labor or communist parties which discovered they had similar or complementary values and agendas, and therefore a basis for international cooperation, when they took notice of each other across national boundaries. And this higher-order coalescence happened organically, without any central authority trying to bring it about.

I don't know if christianity started in such a dispersed fashion. But precedents for that sort of social process exist.

Tyro said...

When we look back at the other religions, is it so hard to believe that Judaism and Hinduism didn't start with any single preacher but arose organically out of a large community? Surely everyone accepts that Moses wasn't a real, historical character yet he was the "father" of a religion that's at least as unified as Christianity.

I don't know why a dispersed origin should be a large stumbling block.

John W. Loftus said...

Tyro there is probably a historical basis for the existence of a Moses character too. Check this link to the Nova program The Bible's Buried Secrets, especially the episode on "The Exodus." Watch it and see what you think, although the person we've come to know based on scholarship is nothing like the Mosaic myths in the OT.

Cheers.

Samphire said...

And we still have to account for St Paul's utter silences and apparent lack of curiosity of the man Jesus and his birth, life and sayings.

No mention by Paul of virgins, the sermon on the mount, the miracles, Gethsemane, Golgotha, the renting of the veil, the zombies etc., etc.

Dave said...

I didn't realize Doherty's case relied so much on the New Testament itself. I assumed the main plank of his argument was a debunking of the non-biblical evidence.

I shall be sure to check out The Jesus Puzzle sometime.

Tony Hoffman said...

It is much easier to conceive of a movement splintering into a multitude number of groups than it is to conceive of a multitude number of similar groups arising at the same time across the known world who soon come together and identify themselves as Christians.

I think this is an odd statement to make. History is rife with people coalescing around a set of beliefs or organizational principles. Look at the abolitionists -- a diverse mix of individuals and groups that all opposed slavery, but one that didn't really gain critical momentum until John Brown's raid.

The analogy is inexact (John Brown existed, for one), but the point is that all these anti-slavery forces existed in varying forms and then they were more unified by a flash point event, becoming politically significant in a way they had not been prior to the event of John's Brown raid. I think Doherty is working from very sound historical phenomena when he explains Christianity in this way, that the concept helped to unify a broad range of dissident and discouraged forces in the Jewish community, followers of mystical religions, Platonists, etc.

There is, of course, no reason why Jesus would have to be real ( as John Brown was) for his legend to be an effective unifying force for groups that were groping toward similar ends.

Tyro said...

Tyro there is probably a historical basis for the existence of a Moses character too. Check this link to the Nova program The Bible's Buried Secrets, especially the episode on "The Exodus." Watch it and see what you think, although the person we've come to know based on scholarship is nothing like the Mosaic myths in the OT.

Before I comment, are you pointing us to some interesting if highly speculative hypotheses or are you saying that you and others believe that Moses existed in the same way that Jesus existed? If the "real" person doesn't resemble the biblical myths, in what sense did Moses really exist? And given that his name (like Jesus's) appears to be a ham-handed foreshadowing or a generic title, do you think the "real" Moses was even called Moses?

I mentioned Moses not to get into some semantic argument but to point to an example of a character who supposedly formed a religion but who is fictitious in all practical purposes. Instead of quibbling over details, no doubt you can find other examples yourself so that you could address the main issue, that religions do in fact form from communities (perhaps with several charismatic leaders like Paul or your Moses-prototype) and not necessarily from their mythic characters.

busterggi said...

I don't doubt that disparate groups could have coalesed into Christianity thanks to Paul. It seems that all his accepted authentic letters address differences of practice & dogma between the various churches.

If it weren't for Paul the unifier the Christian movement might well have died in infancy.

Jon said...

It is much easier to conceive of a movement splintering into a multitude number of groups than it is to conceive of a multitude number of similar groups arising at the same time across the known world who soon come together and identify themselves as Christians.

I wonder if this is a good reason to be suspicious of this view. The human mind likes easily comprehensible answers. Simple causal connections. Take the Civil War. What caused it? Slavery. But if you start digging deeper beyond the middle school level you find that it's not so easy, though we might want it to be.

And with regards to this historical consensus that Jesus existed, let's keep in mind that the majority of these scholars are committed Christians. They may not be evangelicals but they still regard Jesus as somehow an object of their worship. What type of consensus would we expect them to draw?

Doherty has a new, greatly expanded edition of The Jesus Puzzle that just went to press and is available for purchase. I expect that will be worth reading.