Daily Archives: February 17, 2010

The Historical Jesus is Lost to History

So it seems that the debate between “historical” Jesus proponents (HJs) and “mythical” Jesus proponents (MJs) has started erupting in the blogosphere. I made a post a couple of days ago where I outlined that the three strongest arguments for a historical Jesus were:

1. The name “Jesus” seems to go back to the earliest traditions.

MJers might counter with the fact that the name “Jesus” was extremely popular in 2nd temple Judaism. The very first person to be named “Jesus” was given that name as a title, not as a name. In the modern era we call that person “Joshua”.

Numbers 13:16

Ελληνικα – και επωνομασεν Μωυσης τον Αυση υιον Ναυη “Ιησουν”
English – And Moses named Hosea son of Nun “Jesus”

If JEDP and other religio-historical writings tell us anything, name changes usually have to do with what the person does. Joshua (Jesus) is YHWH’s instrument for salvation – Joshua literally means “YHWH [is] Salvation” or “YHWH’s salvation” – Jeho was the prefix for Hashem, and Shua means salvation or deliverance. Moses leads the Jews out of bondage, but Joshua (Jesus) leads the Jews to their promised land. So if the MJers are right, the name was chosen simply because of its function.

2. The crucifixion seems to go back to the earliest traditions.

Crucifixions had been knowledge to Jews since at least the time of Antiochus IV (Josephus, JW 11.5.4 describes Antiochus crucifying numerous Jews when he stormed Jerusalem), thus the language of “crucifixion” to mean death, extreme pain, or punishment might have been commonplace when Paul was writing. MJers might say that Paul seems to use “crucified” allegorically some times since he says that he was “crucified” numerous times (Gal 2:20; 5:24; 6:14). So we have to wonder what Paul means when he says that Jesus “was clearly portrayed as crucified” (3:1).

I think the MJ interpretation of (1) and (2) is kinda flimsy. But still possible. Besides (1) and (2), early Christians seemed to disagree about everything else. Which brings up the strongest evidence:

3. The gospel of Mark’s entire narrative seems to be an attack on the “historical” witnesses.

The short of it is that in Mark only the reader, demons, and unnamed people know that Jesus is the messiah. The Jews, priests, and scribes don’t know. And Jesus’ disciples don’t know – save Peter. But he flees at the end. He and the disciples don’t understand Jesus’ resurrection, and the specifically named women who visit the tomb don’t understand.

While this is evidence, it is pretty weak evidence. Even though number three is the best of the list, it actually undermines all of the scholarly inquiries into the “historical” Jesus. Since it’s a polemic against the historical witnesses, this means Mark is useless as history. Ironically, most HJs are committing the same mistake that Matthew, Luke, and possibly John did when they wrote their edited versions of Mark – that Mark has some sort of historical core. Both modern historians and gospel writers after Mark both edit, add, and subtract things to Mark’s basic story that they think should or should not be there to find the “historical” core. Basically HJs make a Jesus in their own image, as R. Joseph Hoffman noted – but Matt, Luke, John; heretics like Marcion, Valentinus, the Ebionites – also made Mark’s Jesus in their own image.

Of course, Mark himself made Jesus in his own image to discredit the historical witnesses.

Though I see a false dichotomy between the “mythicist” and “historicist” positions. A lot of HJs think there are many mythological elements in the gospel narratives (the virgin birth being the most obvious) but think that there’s an authentic core in the gospel narratives (but who knows what that is?). On the other side, the MJ camp thinks that the entire thing isn’t based on a person that existed in history.

I think both are wrong. Or, I think both are right.

Namely, the entire gospel narrative (Mark) could be fiction/mythological/polemic/allegory/what-have-you but there could still have been a historical person it was extremely loosely based on. Consider the following:

An incident more alarming still had occurred four years before the war at a time of exceptional peace and prosperity for the City. One Jesus son of Ananias, a very ordinary yokel, came to the feast at which every Jew is expected to set up a tabernacle for God. As he stood in the Temple he suddenly began to shout: ‘A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the Sanctuary, a voice against the bridegrooms and brides, a voice against the whole people.’ Day and night he uttered this cry as he went through all the streets. Some of the more prominent citizens, very annoyed at these ominous words, laid hold of the fellow and beat him savagely. Without saying a word in his own defense or for the private information of his persecutors, he persisted in shouting the same warning as before. The Jewish authorities, rightly concluding that some supernatural force was responsible for the man’s behaviour, took him before the Roman procurator.

There, though scourged till his flesh hung in ribbons, he neither begged for mercy nor shed a tear, but lowering his voice to the most mournful of tones answered every blow with ‘Woe to Jerusalem!’ When Albinus — for that was the procurator’s name — demanded to know who he was, where he came from and why he uttered such cries, he made no reply whatever to the questions but endlessly repeated his lament over the City, till Albinus decided he was a madman and released him. All the time till the war broke out he never approached another citizen or was seen in conversation, but daily as if he had learnt a prayer by heart he recited his lament: ‘Woe to Jerusalem!’ Those who daily cursed him he never cursed; those who gave him food he never thanked: his only response to anyone was that dismal foreboding. His voice was heard most of all at the feasts.

For seven years and five months he went on ceaselessly, his voice as strong as ever and his vigour unabated, till during the siege after seeing the fulfilment of his foreboding he was silenced. He was going round on the wall uttering his piercing cry: ‘Woe again to the City, the people, and the Sanctuary!’ and as he added a last word: ‘Woe to me also!’ a stone shot from an engine struck him, killing him instantly. Thus he uttered those same forebodings to the very end.

– Josephus, “War of the Jews” 6.5.3

This only has the slimmest commonalities with the Jesus of the gospels. Namely my evidence (1) above, both Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, both being brought by the Jews before the procurator, and both not answering a word in their defense at their trial.

If I think that this Jesus was who the gospel Jesus was based on, would that make me a HJ or an MJ? Doesn’t it just seem ad hoc? What about this Jesus:

Josephus, Life 12

So Jesus the son of Sapphias, one of those whom we have already mentioned as the leader of a seditious tumult of fishermen and poor people, prevented us, and took with him certain Galileans, and set the entire palace on fire, and thought he should get a great deal of money thereby, because he saw some of the roofs gilt with gold. They also plundered a great deal of the furniture, which was done without our approbation; for after we had discoursed with Capellus and the principal men of the city, we departed from Bethmaus, and went into the Upper Galilee. But Jesus and his party slew all the Greeks that were inhabitants of Tiberias, and as many others as were their enemies before the war began.


Life 22

Yet did not this his knavery succeed well at last; for as he was already nearly approaching, one of those with him deserted him, and came to me, and told me what he had undertaken to do. When I was informed of this, I went into the market-place, and pretended to know nothing of his treacherous purpose. I took with me many Galileans that were armed, as also some of those of Tiberias; and, when I had given orders that all the roads should be carefully guarded, I charged the keepers of the gates to give admittance to none but Jesus, when he came, with the principal of his men, and to exclude the rest; and in case they aimed to force themselves in, to use stripes [in order to repel them]. Accordingly, those that had received such a charge did as they were bidden, and Jesus came in with a few others; and when I had ordered him to throw down his arms immediately, and told him, that if he refused so to do, he was a dead man, he seeing armed men standing all round about him, was terrified, and complied; and as for those of his followers that were excluded, when they were informed that he was seized, they ran away.

This also shares evidence (1) above, both Jesus’ are followed around by a group of Galilean fishermen and poor people, both Jesus’ are betrayed by one of their followers, and upon arrest both Jesus’ rag-tag band of fishermen and poor people abandon him.

If I think the gospel Jesus was “based” on this person, would that make me a HJ? This also seems just a bit ad hoc.

One objection to my two “historical” Jesus characters is that neither of them lived during the tenure of Pilate. I really see no evidence that Christianity had to have started in 33 CE. Christianity, just like Rabbinic Judaism, could be a reaction to the end of the Sacrificial System in 70 CE. There’s no internal evidence to date Paul’s letters to before 70. Many people date Paul’s letters to the 1st century because of Acts of the Apostles… but I think it’s a 2nd century work aimed to discredit Marcionites; worthless as history. There’s also a mention of an “Aretas” in Paul’s letters assumed to be Aretas IV, but this also brings up problems.

The first we hear of Pilate in association with Jesus’ crucifixion is in Mark (besides 1 Tim 6:13 which is a Pastoral Epistle, the first witness to them is Irenaeus c. 180 CE). However, the Pilate in Mark is a completely fictional character. The historical Pilate described by both Philo and Josephus was impatient. He’s said to have executed troublemakers without any trials – but in Mark he gives a patient (Albinus-like) trial to Jesus and supposedly to [Jesus] Barabbas as well. He finds no fault with Jesus and wants to release him, but the angry mob persuade him otherwise.

According to Josephus, a similar situation happened when Pilate stole funds from the temple to build an aqueduct. When some Jews gathered to complain, Pilate had them beaten. Some beaten so badly that they were killed. Pilate was eventually recalled back to Rome when he had massacred some unarmed Samaritans who were following a messiah claimant on mount Gerizim.

Mark might have made his narrative occur a generation before the destruction of the temple in 70 for symbolic reasons. One generation before the fall of the temple when Pilate was prefect of Judea.

So – I think that trying to find the historical core to the gospel Jesus is just as ad hoc as my two examples above. The gospel Jesus is also connected to Paul’s Jesus in the least ways – beyond (1) and (2), both Paul and Mark’s Jesus only share mythological elements. The many historical Jesus’ (re?)created by historians share nothing with the Jesus in Paul other than (1) and (2) above.

One objection to what I describe as a weak link in Paul might be the seeming commonality with Cephas/Peter. The problem with this is that Cephas is a proper name, and proper names are usually transliterated as phonetically as possible into other languages. Cephas and the high priest Caiaphas seems to share an Aramaic etymological root – the word “rock”. This is also where the word Peter derives from in Greek etymology.

The Latin Paulus was not translated literally into Greek. If it were, we might be calling Paul “Micron”; “Paulus” being Latin for small. The name Jesus, also, was not translated literally into Greek. Or we might be calling Jesus “Soter” (savior, from y’s[h]ua). So why was Cephas translated literally into Peter in Greek? I think Mark had a polemical reason for doing this.

In Mark, Jesus gives Simon the name “Peter” for no reason (3:16). The first parable that Jesus has to explain to his boneheaded disciples is the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:14-20). In this parable, the “word” gets thrown on the “rocky” (ΠΕΤΡΩΔΕΣ::petrodes) surface and can’t take root: “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (from Mark 4:16-17). Peter received the word with joy at 14:29;31 and then he quickly falls away when trouble starts in Mark (14:66-75). Peter is ΠΕΤΡΟΣ (petros) in Greek. Of course, Matthew didn’t like this discreditation and elevates Peter (Matt 16:18) using the same pun on the name.

Other than sharing the name “rock” albeit in two different languages, is there any reason to think that Cephas and Peter are meant to even be the same person? In an earlier post I listed some reasons why not. It’s not really until John is written that Cephas and Peter are equivocated. Galatians 2:7-8 is the only instance where the name “Peter” is rendered in the Wescott and Hort Pauline corpus (which for the sake of simplicity “represents” the earliest texts).

This seems to be an attempt by a non-Pauline scribe to show Peter (Cephas) as being a leader figure like he’s shown being in the gospel narratives. Without Gal 2:7-8, Paul doesn’t care about the “pillars” and Cephas isn’t seen as a leader per se but as part of the “pillars”. Cephas actually seems to show deference to “men from James”. Of course, this immediately brings to mind 1 Cor 15 where Jesus appears first to Cephas and then the twelve. But according to the gospel narratives, Jesus appears to the eleven because Peter is part of the twelve.

The other connection seems to be James being the brother of Jesus. This is also ambiguous in that Paul mentions two (or three if 1 Cor 15 is authentic) people named James. One James is a pillar, the other is a “brother of the lord”. Again, this phrase is ambiguous. Paul seems to use the word brother multiple times to mean a fellow believer. And “brother of the lord” could be a literal rendering of the proper name Ahijah (brother of YHWH). I personally don’t think that it was a literalization of Ahijah, but it’s possible if Cephas is Peter. Paul might have said “brother in the lord” which is a phrase he uses elsewhere.

In Paul, there seems to be a differentiation between apostles (those who had seen the risen Jesus, 1 Cor 9:5, or those sent to evangelize) and brothers (those had not seen the risen Jesus or those who don’t evangelize).

Then again, Paul’s letters themselves might have been tampered with to “correct” various so-called “heretics”. Our first witness to a collection of Pauline letters is Marcion. Marcion’s reconstructed version of Galatians doesn’t even have the phrase “brother of the lord” at Gal 1:19. His Pauline letters also couldn’t have had the many ΚΑΤΑ ΣΑΡΚΑ (according to the flesh) phrases that many HJs use to cement the belief that Paul believed in a human Jesus. Again, Paul is tampered evidence so I have to withhold judgment on this part. It could go either way.

Considering that “orthodoxy” was a phenomenon of the west[ern Roman Empire] and heresey in the east (including Jerusalem), it’s hard to see how the orthodox had the “original” Pauline letters and the areas where Paul had evangelized to fell heavily away from orthodoxy.

So I am basically agnostic on the issue. Maybe there was a historical Jesus, just like there was probably a historical Roman Leigionnaire named Quintus who killed a bunch of Jews during the war of 70 CE. This doesn’t mean that we can say anything beyond that.

The historical Jesus is lost to history. The only Jesus we have is the mythical one.


Posted by on February 17, 2010 in historicity, jesus myth

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