Given the ubiquitous superstition of his era and the festering resentment of the Jewish populace in Roman occupied Palestine, there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the message or career of a certain Joshua of Nazareth, better known as Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus is the Latinized form of Ihsouj (Iēsous), the Greek rendering of ciriiry (Yehoshua), Joshua, meaning “Yahweh delivers.” Joshua son of Nun, or Jesus son of Nauē (Ihsouj o Nauh),1 the eponymous hero of the book of Joshua, represented the mythic triumph of Jewish theocracy over gentile paganism. The name, which embodied the very hope of salvation, of freedom, of rescue from the gentile Roman overlords, was understandably popular in 1st century Palestine.
It would appear that more than one Jesus imagined himself to be the instrument of Yahweh’s deliverance—Josephus records a military confrontation between Vespasian’s troops and “a certain Jesus by name (Ihsouj tij onoma), son of Saphat”2 and recounts the story of another Jesus as well, “Jesus, son of Gamala (Gamala...uioj Ihsouj),” also known as Joshua ben Gamla, one of the most eminent members of the priestly caste.3 Both Anan, the high priest, and Jesus ben Gamla were murdered in Jerusalem by the Zealot faction during the first Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) and their naked bodies thrown out to be eaten by the dogs.4 We are also informed of “a certain son of Thebouthi, Jesus by name” (tij Qebouqei Ihsouj onoma) who bought off the Romans during the final siege of Jerusalem and whose life was spared.5 Despite the relative profusion of figures bearing the common name Joshua (Jesus) in the 1st century, surviving records reveal very few details of their personal biographies.
Aside from being mentioned in texts, texts preserved by repeated copying, texts for which no originals have existed for many centuries, there is no physical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus son of Saphat, or Jesus ben Gamla, or any of the other hundreds of Jesuses who probably lived in Palestine during the 1st century. Apart from his copied and recopied writings, there is no direct physical evidence for the existence of Josephus who wrote of Jesus ben Gamla, no tomb and no bones, to say nothing of original works in Josephus’ hand, originals that disappeared a millennium ago—the oldest surviving manuscripts of Josephus’ writings date to the 9th century, some 800 years after his death. In point of fact, Josephus, whose history is our principle source of information about the dynasty of Herod as well as the First Jewish-Roman war, is himself unmentioned by Roman historians of the era!
By modern standards there is sparse physical evidence for even some of the most notable actors of ancient history. The burial place of Alexander the Great, one of history’s most famous figures, is unknown. The only physical evidence for the historicity of Pontius Pilate are coins and a partial inscription on a block of limestone discovered in 1961, a block that had been repurposed as building material sometime in the 4th century, proof of Pilate’s existence as well as confirmation that the ancient world continuously cannibalized the material evidence of its own past—most of the ancient buildings in Jerusalem are built at least in part from the spolia of earlier structures.
Three lines of evidence, lines that very seldom converge, might conclusively prove the existence of any given person from the remote past: forensic evidence, archaeological evidence, and textual evidence. The only cases of individuals from the ancient Middle East whose identities might be definitively established by such a concurrence of evidence are pharaonic mummies recovered from intact, unmolested tombs, but to the best of my knowledge no similar case of preservation has ever been recorded from Palestine.
PART ONE: “SOFT” MYTHICISM.
It bears saying right from the start that when it concerns particular individuals, historians of antiquity deal with archaeological evidence and texts, and almost never with forensic evidence. Portraits, statues and inscriptions document the existence of the most eminent, then as now a tiny fraction of one percent of the population, and texts, copied, recopied, and copied yet again, survive from the ancient world, but what would count as definitive evidence today is lacking and if discovered could only very tentatively be assigned to a particular person. It is almost certainly safe to say that no forensic evidence—bones, teeth, hair, or other sources of DNA— could be adduced as positive identification of any figure of the Greco-Roman era, evidence that would stand up in a present-day court of law. In short, evidence of personal existence in antiquity is almost always a matter of probability rather than fact. That the thousands of workers who built the pyramids or Stonehenge really lived may be safely assumed, but aside from the massive monuments on which they labored, every trace of them as particular living individuals has long since vanished and this is true of nearly everyone who lived in the ancient world, famous or not. In short, even the best documented figures of the antiquity inhabit a misty realm in which myth and historicity fade into each other and the reconstruction of their biographies is often a matter of conjecture.
The existence of Josephus, for whom no forensic evidence exists and who, despite his importance to us as a key historical source, passes unmentioned by contemporary historians, is widely regarded as so probable that it is unquestioned, but can his existence be proven? To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever seriously proposed that his extensive histories are forgeries, but is it not at least theoretically possible that they are misattributed or that some clever individual concocted them and passed them off as genuine? To put the issue another way, Josephus is accepted as the author of the histories attributed to him because there is no plausible evidence to the contrary, but his authorship is not, strictly speaking, a fact but a supposition supported by the preponderance of the evidence.
The reconstruction of events in the ancient world therefore falls back upon probability and even though the improbable doubtless occurred in the past as it does in the present, reported events as well as proposed explanations for events must first pass the test of probability. Raising a decaying body from the dead or being born of a virgin is exceedingly improbable now and, ceteris paribus, was presumably so in the past. Claims of resurrection and virgin birth may therefore be accepted as miracles, one-off events utterly outside normal experience and by their very nature not subject to verification, or rejected as so improbable as to be mere fable. The overwhelming majority of mainstream New Testament scholars, basing their conclusions on what is probable, reject the notion that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin or that he rose from the dead and regard these accounts as fables, part and parcel of a mythologizing process that can easily be traced through the documents of the New Testament itself. The majority of New Testament specialists working outside the mental fortress of evangelical literalism are therefore what I will call “soft mythologists,” rejecting the implausible elements of the gospels as mythic accretions, while accepting as probable a historic core that fits the circumstances of the era. More on this point in a bit.
As I have mentioned, there is no forensic evidence for Jesus of Nazareth; the evidence for Jesus’ existence, like the evidence for Jesus ben Saphat and Jesus ben Gamla, is documentary. However as documents the gospels have several obvious flaws, two of which are pointed out by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman: “...none of the Gospel writers ever identifies himself by name or narrates any of his stories about Jesus in the first person...The Gospels are all written anonymously...we do not have any eyewitness report of any kind about Jesus, written in his own day.”6 The presumed oral sources for the gospels are unknown and unknowable and whatever written sources may have formed the basis for the gospels are likewise lost. The church historian Eusebius says of Mark, the putative author of the earliest gospel, “he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him.”7 On the best evidence, the gospels were not even composed in Palestine where the events of Jesus’ life took place. It is conjectured that Mark was written in Rome, Matthew in Syria, and John perhaps in Asia Minor. To make matter worse, the First Jewish-Roman War burst out in Galilee in 67 CE, culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, and smoldered in the hills to the south for several more years before finally ending with the fall of the last Jewish garrison at Masada in 73 CE. Given the vast devastation of the war, any surviving eyewitnesses of Jesus’ brief career were likely killed or scattered.
No sane person with even a passing acquaintance with the documents of the New Testament could fail to notice the emergence of a Jesus myth within them, a progressive accretion of the divine and corresponding fading of the human. Many examples of this process might be cited, but for the sake of illustration let’s consider only a few of the more obvious.
According to Mark’s gospel, the villagers of Nazareth ask, “Isn’t this the laborer, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and aren’t his sisters here among us?”8 The Greek tektōn (tektwn), usually translated “carpenter,” basically means laborer, someone who works with his hands, generally with wood or stone. The gospel of Matthew, a revision and expansion of Mark, rephrases the question to avoid making Jesus out to be a mere laborer: “Isn’t this the son of the laborer...?”9 The apologist Origen, writing in the early 3rd century, chided the pagan critic Celsus for calling Jesus a laborer, claiming that Celsus was “unaware that in none of the gospels proclaimed in the churches has ‘carpenter’ (tektwn) been used to describe Jesus himself.”10 Clearly Jesus’ lowly origins were an embarrassment to the church, which from a very early period set about ‘polishing,’ i.e., falsifying, his résumé.
The editing of details such as this can be multiplied: the gospel of Mark contains thirteen healing narratives and “the largest single category is that of exorcisms.”11 In the reworked narratives of Matthew12 and Luke,13 however, the lurid physical effects in Mark—“Shrieking and convulsing him horribly, [the spirit] came out and left [the boy] like a corpse”14—have dropped out. Matthew and Luke also edit out the Aramaic healing formulas15 recorded by Mark—“he cast out the spirits with a word”16—but the word is never specified. Matthew and Luke also omit the story of the blind man cured with spit,17 a story immediately identifiable as an application of folk magic, almost certainly due to charges of sorcery. “Jesus’ opponents accused him of black magic, an accusation which stands as one of the most firmly established facts of the Gospel Tradition.”18
Aune has proposed a motive for Mark’s retention of the Aramaic: “In view of the importance attributed to preserving adjurations and incantations in their original languages, these formulas were probably preserved for the purpose of guiding Christian thaumaturges in exorcistic and healing activities,”19 but as Hull observed in his landmark work, “Matthew has a suspicion of exorcism...This is because exorcism was one of the main functions of the magician. The magic consisted in the method; Matthew retains the fact without the method, trying in this way to purify the subject.”20 Matthew’s editing of potentially embarrassing details is widely acknowledged: “Matthew excised not only the more blatant thaumaturgical traits but even whole incidents, such as the stories of the healing of the deaf mute (Mark 7:31-37) and of the blind man near Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26), both of which might lend themselves to magical interpretation...Luke seems to have made an intentional effort to distance Jesus and church leaders from magical notions.”21 The revisions of the later synoptics were almost certainly done in response to Jewish and later pagan claims that Jesus was a sorcerer, a charge documented in Mark, the earliest gospel:
The scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He has Beelzeboul! He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons!”22
The pagan polemicist Celsus, writing about 180 CE, knew that Jesus had been accused of sorcery: “After being brought up in obscurity, he hired himself out in Egypt and having become experienced in certain magical arts, he made his way back and on account of those powers proclaimed himself a god.”23 Celsus concluded that Jesus was merely “a worthless sorcerer, hated by God.”24
Fritz Graf: “...those who accused Jesus of being a magician (they were not few among the pagans) argued that he, after all, had spent part of his youth in the homeland of magic, after the escape from Palestine.”25 It is likely that Matthew’s infancy story, which connects Jesus both with magicians and Egypt,26 reflects past and current accusations that Jesus practiced magic and sought to disarm by explaining Jesus’ association with Egypt as circumstantial and not the true source of his amazing powers—“...the story of the flight to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15), which [Matthew] strains to relate to an Old Testament prophecy...is perhaps a response to the Talmudic charge that Jesus had learned magic and sorcery in Egypt.”27
Although the reason may ultimately remain a matter of speculation, exorcism is remarkable for its absence in the gospel of John. Plumer has suggested that charges of sorcery resulted in the omission of this key form of miracle,28 and while questioning that conclusion, Piper admits that “control over spirits ...leaves Jesus himself sometimes open to suspicion and accusation” and concedes that “persons who had the capacity to perform exorcisms or control spirits in other ways were quite liable to be suspected of sorcery.”29
Perhaps Celsus had the answer all along. The charge of sorcery spurred Origen into a frenzy of writing, pouring out page after page in his attempt to disprove it. It seems likely that the accusation of sorcery, which originated during Jesus’ own career, motivated the gospel writers to substantially alter the primitive tradition. Leaving aside the facticity of miracles generally, it is abundantly clear that the people of the New Testament believed demons were real, that magic was real, and that exorcists were casting out real entities. The controversy over Jesus’ powers, as well as the defensive posture assumed by the later gospel writers in the face of accusations that Jesus practiced magic, cohere perfectly with what we know of the era from multiple sources. While all this does not and cannot prove the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, it is completely consistent with what we know about similar figures from antiquity such as Apollonius of Tyana, widely conceded to have been a real person.
That Jesus is the Son of God is an essential Christian claim: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing you might have life in his name.”30 Surprisingly, if asked when and how Jesus became the Son of God, the New Testament provides no less than four different answers!
At the beginning of his epistle to the Romans, written around 55-56 CE, Paul appears to quote a pre-existing creed: “Through his prophets in the holy scriptures, [the gospel] promised beforehand about his Son, born from the seed of David according to the flesh, declared the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” 31 According to the wording of this early confession, formulated mere decades after Jesus’ death, at least some of the first believers appear to have decided the resurrection was the momentous event by which God designated Jesus as his Son. The second Psalm—“You are my son; today I have become your father.” 32 —is interpreted by Paul as applying to Jesus’ resurrection according to Acts.33
The early Christians, searching for validation of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptures, appropriated the language of the psalm, “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.”34 The second psalm is taken as foretelling the exaltation and triumph of Jesus in both Hebrews35 and Revelation.36
Soon, however, the declaration of Jesus’ unique status moved back from the end of his career to its very beginning. According to Mark’s gospel, written around the year 70, Jesus’ sonship is affirmed at the moment of his baptism:
It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John and immediately as he came up out of the water he saw the heavens ripped open and the spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son the beloved in whom I was pleased.”37
The gospel of Luke, however, written toward the end of the 1st century, associates Jesus’ status as the Son of God with his very conception:
“And look! You will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and be called Son of the Most High and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father ...holy spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore what is conceived will be called holy, the Son of God.”38
In the gospel of John, written at the end of the 1st century or early 2nd century, Jesus has become the pre-existent Word, the Son of God since the beginning of creation:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. 39 In the beginning this One was with God. Everything came to exist through him and apart from him not even one thing exists that came to exist...And the Word became flesh and dwelled in our midst and we beheld his glory, a glory such as an only-begotten from a father, full of grace and truth...for God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but to save the world through him...“Truly, truly, I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am.”40
According to John, the Word was the Son before being sent into the world, and by making Jesus say, “before Abraham was born, I am (egw eimi)” the author is deliberately recalling Exodus 3:14 in the Greek Septuagint: “And God (o qeoj) said to Moses, ‘I am the One Who Is (egw eimi O Wn)...this is my name forever.’”41 As is well known, the process of Jesus’ deification finally reaches its reductio ad absurdum in the early 4th century at the Council of Nicaea.
The process I’ve briefly described, the tweaking of Jesus’ thin résumé, the exorcism of the magical details of his career, and the extension of his sonship ever backward in time from his resurrection to the very beginning of creation, are examples of myth making familiar to anyone conversant with the New Testament documents. However none of these features of the New Testament has convinced the vast majority of New Testament specialists that the existence of Jesus is likewise a myth and it is worth taking some time to understand why that is the case.
Based on evidence from the history of Josephus and what is known about religious ideas current in 1st century Palestine, I propose that the existence of Jesus fits the classic argument to the best explanation based on consilience, the convergence of evidence from multiple sources. The hypothesis that Jesus was a real person has greater plausibility and explanatory power than any alternative and is supported by a variety of data that fit the social and religious circumstances of the era. Based on the gospels, and possibly more importantly other writings of the time, I propose Jesus of Nazareth was a person of scant importance from a village of no importance, a man of humble beginnings who achieved a brief regional reputation as an apocalyptic preacher who established his bona fides by wonder working. He became a disciple of John the Baptist, and like John he drew excited crowds as well as the surveillance of the Jewish authorities.42 At Passover he went to Jerusalem, raised a ruckus in a religiously explosive atmosphere, and being marked as a troublemaker, got himself arrested, handed over to the Romans and executed. Basically that simple.
To clarify my position I believe it is sufficient—at least within the limits of an essay—to establish how Jesus garnered a following and to identify the gist of his message, both rather easily accomplished using the New Testament and early Christian writings as sources.
Jesus the miracle worker.
The powerful works by which Jesus secured his reputation are well documented—the gospel of Mark rapidly establishes Jesus’ regional fame as a master manipulator of spirits. Jesus teaches “as one who has authority (wj exousian ecwn) and not like the scribes”43 and lest any doubt remain about what Jesus’ authority encompassed, Mark has Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries answer:
“What is this? A new teaching based on authority (kat’ exousian)—he gives orders to the unclean spirits and they obey him!” And instantly the report about him spread out in every direction into the whole region of Galilee.44
It is clear that Jesus quickly established a regional reputation as an exorcist and healer—“he went through all of Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out devils.”45 After the initial report from Capernaum,46 news that Jesus has returned home causes a dense crowd to gather47 and when Jesus leaves, a mob of Galileans follows, joined in turn by the curious from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, from villages across the Jordan, and from Tyre and Sidon.48 By now Jesus’ renown is such that he can no longer openly enter a town,49 and at this point Jesus chooses twelve disciples and sends them out “to preach and to have authority to cast out demons.”50 Jesus’ fame as an exorcist continues to spread; soon other exorcists begin to invoke the power of his name—“for his name became known.”51 Jesus’ name is not merely his reputation, it is literally a name to conjure with:
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”52
The use of Jesus’ name by other exorcists is “clearly an example of professional magical use,”53 a practice that appears to have continued even after Jesus’ death.54
Regarding the unknown exorcist of Mark 9:38, Schäfer observes, “using the powerful name of Jesus had nothing to do with believing in Jesus...the magical use of the name of Jesus worked automatically, no matter whether or not the magician believed in Jesus.” 55 Origen expresses just this understanding, common throughout the Mediterranean world; demons “are spellbound, constrained by the magical arts” and therefore forced to “obey magicians.”56 Christian exorcists prevail by the name of Jesus: “demons and other unseen powers...fear the name of Jesus as superior” and the demons fly away “at the recitation of his name.”57 Origen’s superstition coincides exactly with the nonsense derided by Lucian: “the fever or the swelling is in fear of a divine name or barbarous invocation and because of this flees from the inflamed gland.”58 The Christian confessions of faith that Celsus regards as “vulgar words” are for Origen “just like spells that have been filled with power.” 59 This understanding behind the efficacy of Jesus’ name will eventually flow seamlessly into what Weltin described as “Augustine’s pseudo-magical theological speculations on the ex-opere-operato virtue of the sacraments.”60
Josephus reports several rabble-rousing, wonder working, Kingdom-of-God types who authenticated their message by dramatic charismatic performance —given the long history of conflict between the Jewish masses and the Romans, it comes as no surprise that such ‘prophets’ were Jewish nationalists whose influence was feared and who were carefully watched. Theudas, for example, is described as a gohj (goēs), a sorcerer or impostor, as well as a profhthj (prophētēs), a prophet whose followers expected the Jordan to part so they could cross on dry land.61 Theudas was killed and his head brought back to Jerusalem to be put on display pour encourager les autres.
Josephus also informs us about a mob deceived by another man, “a magician” (gohj), who “proclaimed salvation and an end to their troubles.”62 This man and his followers were also promptly dispatched. Another character, “the Egyptian,” “a man, a magician who established a reputation as a prophet (anqrwpoj gohj kai profhtou...)” led a throng of 30,000 in an attack on Jerusalem but was repulsed and escaped.63 The gospel of Luke may contain an oblique reference to the suppression of yet another local independence movement: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.”64 Since the Temple was the only place where Jews offered sacrifices, the report indicates that the rebellious elements had been slain within the Temple compound itself. It is probably not coincidental that around the same time the infamous Barabbas had been imprisoned along with “the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.”65
Origen acknowledged the existence of charismatic figures who Celsus compared to Jesus—deceivers “of Jesus’ type” (opoioj hn o Ihsouj)—among them Theudas, a certain “Judas of Galilee” who the Romans executed, Dositheus, a Samaritan who was supposedly “the one prophesied by Moses,” and the infamous “Simon the Samaritan magician [who] beguiled some by magic.”66 It is clear both that Celsus recognized Jesus as belonging to a familiar category, and that Origen regarded ‘signs and wonders’ as the calling card of a prophet, even of a false prophet: “If there arise among you a prophet or one who receives revelations in dreams, and he gives you a sign or wonders...”67 Regarding the terms planoj (planos), deceiver, magoj (magos), magician, and yeudoprofhthj (pseudoprophētēs), false prophet, Stanton notes that “the most widely attested ancient criticism of Jesus: he was a magician and false prophet who deceived God’s people...accusations of magic and false prophecy are very closely related to one another.”68
None of Christianity’s ancient critics denied the existence of Jesus, an obvious polemic tactic, likely because the ancient Middle East pullulated exorcists, prophets and magicians, characters that came along with the predictability of sunrise, and Jesus was simply another one among a multitude. “Many sources, especially the N[ew] T[estament] and Josephus, recount Jewish and Samaritan miracle workers at the time of Jesus. It is not even difficult to name more than ten of them.”69 From a skeptical Roman point of view, the miracle working Jewish exorcist from Nazareth was basically a walking, talking banality, a Middle Eastern cliché. “Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was at hand, and he was executed by the Romans as a royal pretender. Prima facie, he invites comparison with the various prophets and messianic pretenders, such as Theudas and the Egyptian, described by Josephus.”7°
The writer Lucian describes the career of two notorious religious hucksters, Peregrinus, the wonderworker or conjurer (qaumatopoioj) 71 who suckered credulous Christians during part of his career, and the false prophet Alexander of Abonoteichus, inventor of Glykon, the talking snake oracle.72 Lucian’s brilliant story, The Lover of Lies, may very well contain an oblique reference to the fame of Jesus as well—“everyone knows of the Syrian from Palestine, the master beyond compare,73 how many moonstruck he takes in hand, their eyes rolling, mouths overrun with foam...he asks, ‘From whence have you come into his body?’ The sick man himself says nothing, but the demon answers,74 in Greek or some barbarian tongue...uttering oaths,75 and if it does not obey, by threats,76 he drives the demon out.”77 It is quite possible that Lucian based his account on Christian exorcists driving out demons in the name of Jesus78 or on the stories from the gospels,79 and when the symposiasts veer to a discussion of restless ghosts, it may be more than coincidence that “someone who hanged himself”8° or was beheaded,81 or crucified”82 are singled out as exemplary.
How did Jesus and early Christians gain followers? The documents of the New Testament, starting with the letters of Paul, Christianity’s most effective missionary by far, provide a clear answer: by “works of power,” “wonders” or, if one prefers, by magic. As Jesus himself observed, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will never believe”83 and our sources completely support that claim that links miracles with belief.
...Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has been affirmed for you by God by powerful works and wonders and signs that God performed through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.84
Many signs and wonders were performed through the hands of the apostles...so that a multitude of men and women began joining those who believed in the Lord with the result that the sick were carried into the streets on litters and cots so that as Peter passed by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. Crowds from the towns around Jerusalem congregated, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and all were healed.85
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God.”86
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom...My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power87...I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.88
Eusebius corroborates the evidence from Paul’s letters: “The divine nature of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, proclaimed among all men by his wonder-working power (paradoxopoiou dunamewj), attracted countless numbers...”89 “by the power of Christ through the teaching of those who follow him together with amazing deeds (paradoxopoiiaj)...” 90 “[the apostles] were unskilled in speech (de glwttan idiwteuontej)...but bold in the divine and wonder-working power (paradoxopoiw dunamei) that had been given them...they set their hand only to a display of the divine spirit...and the wonder-working power of Christ...(qaumatourgw tou Cristou dunamei)” 91 Narcissus of Jerusalem was alleged to have turned water into oil for lamps92— the spread of Christianity “came to depend largely on widely disseminated reports of miracles that were performed either by Jesus himself or in Jesus’ name.”93
“The form of early Christianity associated with Paul can be characterized as a spirit-possession cult. Paul establishes communities of those possessed by the spirit of Jesus.” 94 Paul assures the Corinthians, “because you are zealous devotees of spirits (umeij epei zhlwtai este pneumatwn), on that account I reveal to you that no one speaking by a spirit of God says, ‘Anathema Jesus!’ and no one is able to say ‘Lord Jesus!’ except by a holy spirit.”95 “The worshippers and the attending spirits form a double assembly.”96 The first Christians believed in a plurality of spirits: “...do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”97 It is important to remember that at rock bottom ancient Christians and pagans shared an essential belief: spirits pulling the wires behind the scenes control the visible world.
In the New Testament the ‘holy spirit’ is conflated with the “spirit of Jesus” —Paul and his fellow missionaries are “prevented by the holy spirit from speaking the word in Asia...the spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”98 “But you are not in flesh, but in spirit if indeed the spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the spirit of Christ...”99 The author of 1 Peter attributes the predictions of the Old Testament prophets to “the spirit of Christ in them,” 100 but receiving the spirit was somehow contingent upon Jesus’ resurrection: “For as yet there was no spirit because Jesus had not yet been glorified.”101
Paul’s discourse on the signs and wonders of the spirit is directed to people who had once worshipped the pagan deities 102 and were familiar with manifestations of spirit possession such as ecstatic oracular speech.
...tongues are a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers, and prophecy, not for unbelievers, but for those who believe. In the same way, if the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues and strangers or unbelievers enter, will they not say you are possessed?103
Glossolalia is a sign for unbelievers because ecstatic speech, already familiar to pagans, is proof that Christians have a spirit—“that religious trances and ecstasy were the manifestations of possession by a god was one of wide currency in Greek and Near Eastern religions.”104 It was no wonder and it requires no miracle to explain Christianity’s rapid incursion into the fabric of the Greco-Roman world, its explosive growth among the unlettered working class or its appeal to the despised and disenfranchised masses: the raving Christians of Paul’s churches imagined themselves talking to God, vouchsafed sacred mysteries “by the spirit.”105 Christianity inverted the social norms—foolishness became the new wisdom,106 the kingdom belonged to the poor, 107 the ragtag Christian rabble, derided by Lucian as, “half-baked philosophers drawn from cobblers and carpenters,”108 are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood.”109 “I do not know,” Origen huffed, “in what rank to place [a Christian believer] who has need of arguments written in books”110— burning books is one of the oldest documented Christian activities. 111 “Christians were constantly amazed to find themselves cast as enemies of the Roman order, but in retrospect we must admit that it was the Romans who had the more realistic insight...To Roman eyes, the obstinate and incomprehensible intolerance of Christians made them appear not only foolish but treasonable.”112
According to Eusebius, who may have exaggerated their numbers, Christian zealots rushed headlong to martyrdom, their fanaticism astounding Roman judges.
Jesus the apocalyptic prophet.
Apocalypticism is the bedrock of the earliest form of Christianity. Jesus predicts the imminent arrival of the kingdom: “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power”113 and “by no means will this generation disappear until all these things happen.”114 The High Priest “will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power.”115 These predictions “announce [the kingdom’s] arrival prior to the end of the generation to whom Jesus was speaking...the community which produced the Gospel of Mark [was] an apocalyptic millenarian community living in the imminent expectation of the end of the age.”116
The kingdom in question has nothing to do with heaven; it is the earthly kingdom of David: “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.”117 Jesus’ disciples will receive “houses” and “fields” a hundred-fold “in the present age”118 and those that have followed him will sit on twelve thrones and judge the tribes of Israel.119 At some point in Jesus’ career it is quite likely the disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”120
The conviction that the present religious and political order is soon to come to a violent end is reflected in the primitive tradition: the ax is ready to strike at the root of the tree,121 family members will turn on one another, becoming bitter enemies,122 the disciples must hate their families, their wives, children and parents,123 and the disciples must not pause to say farewell to those left behind.124 The nearness of the end abrogates even the most basic filial responsibilities: “Follow me and let the dead bury their dead.”125 There is no time to gather possessions or even to pick up one’s cloak.126
Nothing must distract the disciples from the imminent End. They must become like children127 and disregard their standing in the community of the lost—“I swear to you that the tax men and the whores are going ahead of you into the kingdom of God!”128 Ethics is reduced to a stark polarity of black and white, anger is equivalent to murder, 129 desire to adultery. 130 This “intensification of ethical norms...is a phenomenon typical within communities committed to the belief that time is rapidly drawing to a close...This impracticality in turn allows us to glimpse the intensity of expectation that motivated Jesus’ mission and the community that formed around him: the Kingdom was at hand.”131
So intense was the expectation of Jesus’ quick return that his followers sold off their property and lived communally.132 Writing to the newly converted, Paul advised slaves to remain slaves and the unmarried to remain single “for the time allotted has become short.”133 The sexual hysteria provoked by the impending End resulted in “a household of brothers and sisters rather than husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.”134 Paul’s letters exhibit “numerous and sometimes astonishing parallels to apocalyptic texts, primarily to IV Ezra and Syrian Baruch...Paul is linked to the Qumran writings by his basic eschatological-dualistic attitude, his sense of an imminent end to this aeon and of the presence of salvation, concealed from non-believers...the eschatological gift of the Spirit, which among other things makes it possible to interpret scripture ‘congenially’ in terms of the eschatological present...”135
Obviously the generation that heard Jesus preach, “this generation,” did not witness the return of the Son of Man despite Jesus’ promise, “Truly I tell you, by no means will you finish going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man arrives!”136 As Paul’s generation began to die awaiting the Coming of the Son of Man, anxiety reached a peak. His letter to the Thessalonians, generally regarded as the oldest surviving Christian document, offers these words of false assurance:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore comfort each other with these words.137
Those who heard the reading of Paul’s letter were led to believe that some of their number would be physically, corporeally, alive to witness Jesus’ return —“we who are still alive and are left.” “...the Second Coming of Jesus will occur in the immediate future...the hope that the vast majority of Christians would be living witnesses to Christ’s return from heaven points to the likelihood of composition in the first decade of the Christian movement.”138 By the end of the 1st century, however, hope was fading. The promise, “We will not all sleep but we will all be changed,”139 is met with skepticism: “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”140
Like Christian apologists of the present, the Christian apologists of the past were great fans of “context.” As the Second Coming threatened to become the grandest non-event of all time, the gospel writers “recontextualized” it. For Mark, writing a generation after Paul, the Roman invasion of Palestine was the latest ‘sign of the times’—“when you see these things happening, know that he is near, right at the door.”141 “The Temple’s recent destruction clearly marks the beginning of that period that will terminate with the Second Coming of the Son of Man. In fact, the Lord has already shortened the days before the consummation for the sake of his elect (13:14): the Parousia could occur at any time, certainly within the lifetime of Mark’s community.”142 Whether written just before or after the Roman invasion, the prophesied destruction of the Temple is a vaticinium ex eventu, an attempt to rescue Jesus’ failed prediction by continuously reframing it. “...the precision of the ‘prophecy’ in [Mark] 13:1-2 indicates that it has been written after the event.”143
For Luke the destruction of Jerusalem was a sign of fulfilled prophecy— Jerusalem surrounded by armies is the “fulfillment of all that has been written”144 just as the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was a “sign” for present day Armageddonists. “Later Christians seem to have advanced a variety of inconsistent rationales for the delay [of the Second Coming]...We must see all these rationales, strictly speaking, as the defensive posture of a community challenged to provide evidence of its beliefs.”145 By the end of the 1st century “no one knows the day or the hour, not even the angels, or the Son”146 has been even further recontextualized: “to the Lord a thousand years is like a day.”147 By that math, an hour of Jesus time would be about 42 years. Conveniently for the emerging Church, not to mention the religious Christ peddlers of the present, “no one knows the day or the hour” really means no one can guess which century or even which millennium the Son of Man might arrive, despite the clear meaning of Jesus’ promise: “You will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”148
It is consistent with surviving sources to understand the career of Jesus and the emergence of the Christian movement as a logical outgrowth of Jewish apocalyptic expectations, a conviction fed by the continued Roman occupation of the ‘Promised Land,’ and disgust with the connivance of the Jewish elite, cooperation that could easily be understood by some as treasonous collaboration. The appearance of apocalyptic preachers of impending judgment such as John and Jesus would not only be a logical religious response on the part of the downtrodden, it would be expected. As Collins remarks, “there was also a popular eschatology, manifested in the activities of the prophets and messiahs described by Josephus...the eschatological hopes of the Gospels are couched in forms and language that reflect their origin in a popular movement in Galilee...the restoration of Israel is set in a context of cosmic upheaval, which typically includes the judgment of the dead.” 149 Given the brutality with which the Roman authorities crushed aspiring prophets and messiahs, it beggars the imagination to suppose the appearance of such figures was unexpected, much less unhistorical. Eusebius verifies this conclusion: “[Herod] therefore considered it much better, before a revolt should spring from John [the Baptist], to put him to death in anticipation, rather than be involved in difficulties through the actual revolution and then regret it.”150
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1 Josephus, Jewish War IV, 459.
2 Ibid, II, 599, III, 450, IV, 450-451.
3 Ibid, IV, 8, 161, 238.
4 Ibid, IV, 324.
5 Ibid, VI, 387.
6 Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 47, 49.
7 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 39, 15.
8 Mark 6:3.
Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Greek sources are my own.
9 Matthew 13:55.
10 Origen, Contra Celsum VI, 36.
11 Dunn & Twelftree, Churchman 94 (1980), 211.
12 Matthew 17:18.
13 Luke 9:42.
14 Mark 9:26.
15 Mark 5:41, 7:34.
16 Matthew 8:16.
17 Mark 8: 22-26.
18 Plumer, Biblica 78 (1997), 357.
19 Aune, Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, II.23.2, 1535.
20 Hull, Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition, 73.
21 Kee, Religion, Science, and Magic, 143.
22 Mark 3:22.
23 Origen, Contra Celsum I, 38.
24 Ibid, I, 71.
25 Graf, Envisioning Magic, 94-95.
26 Matthew 2:1-2, 13, 19.
27 Hoffman, Jesus Outside the Gospels, 40.
28 Plumer, Biblica 78 (1997), 350-368.
29 Piper, Christology, Controversy and Community, 259.
30 John 20:31.
31 Romans 1:2-4.
32 Psalm 2:7 (NIV).
33 Acts 13:33.
34 Psalms 2:7-8. (NIV).
35 Hebrews 1:5.
36 Revelation 2:26-27.
37 Mark 1:9-11.
38 Luke 1:31-32, 35.
39 “...the Word was God” (qeoj hv o logoj). The anarthrous construction of qeoj implies that the Word was not identical to God (o qeoj) but was more than merely
divine (qeioj), a grammatical subtlety impossible to capture in English.
40 John 1:1-3, 14, 3:17, 8:58.
41 Exodus 3:14-15.
42 Compare Mark 3:22, 7:1.
43 Mark 1:22.
44 Mark 1:27b-28.
45 Mark 1:39.
46 Mark 1:21.
47 Mark 2:1-2.
48 Mark 3:7-8.
49 Mark 1:45.
50 Mark 3:14-15.
51 Mark 6:14.
52 Mark 9:38. (NIV.)
53 Hull, Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition, 72.
54 Acts 19:13.
55 Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud, 60.
56 Origen, Contra Celsum II, 51.
57 Ibid, III, 36.
58 Lucian, The Lover of Lies, 9.
59 Origen, Contra Celsum III, 68.
60 Weltin, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 3 (1960), 78.
61 Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XX, 97.
Theudas and his fate are mentioned in Acts 5:36.
62 Ibid, XX, 188.
63 Josephus, Jewish War II, 259.
64 Luke 13:1 (NIV).
65 Mark 15:7 (NIV).
66 Origen, Contra Celsum I, 57, II, 8.
67 Ibid II, 53.
The reference is to Deuteronomy 13:1.
68 Stanton, Jesus of Nazareth Lord and Christ, 166-167.
69 Koskenniemi, Journal of Biblical Literature 117 (1998), 465.
70 Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 256.
71 Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus, 17.
72 Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet, addressed to a certain Celsus, perhaps the very Celsus who wrote a polemic against the Christians.
73 “the master beyond compare” (ton epi toutw sofisthn). Elsewhere Lucian uses the term sofisthj (sophistēs), master or adept, or cheat, fraud, of Jesus, “that crucified sophist himself” (aneskolopismenon ekeinon sofisthn auton), The Passing of Pere-grinus, 13.
74 Compare Mark 5:9: “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied. (NIV)
75 Compare Mark 5:8: “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” (NIV)
76 Compare Mark 5:7: “In God’s name don’t torture me!” (NIV)
77 Lucian, The Lover of Lies, 16.
78 That Christian exorcists still operated as late as the 3rd or 4th century is supported by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History VI, 43, 14; VIII, 6, 9.)
79 Compare Matthew 8:29, 12:43.
80 Matthew 27:5.
81 Matthew 14:10.
82 Matthew 27:35.
83 John 4:48. (NIV.)
84 Acts 2:22.85 Acts 5:12-16.
86 Romans 15:18-19. (NIV.)
87 1 Corinthians 2:1,4. (NIV.)
88 2 Corinthians 12:12. (NIV.)
89 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History I, 13, 1.
90 Ibid, II, 3, 2.
91 Ibid, III, 24, 3.
92 Ibid, VI, 9, 3.
93 Garland, The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, 89.
94 Mount, Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005), 316.
95 1 Corinthians 12:3.
96 Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic, 382.
97 1 John 4:1.
98 Acts 16:6-7.
99 Romans 8:9.
Compare Galatians 4:6, Philippians 1:19.
100 1 Peter 1:11.
101 John 7:39.
102 1 Corinthians 12:2.
103 1 Corinthians 14:22-23.
104 Esler, The First Christians in their Social Worlds, 46.
105 1 Corinthians 14:2.
106 1 Corinthians 3:19.
107 Matthew 5:3.
108 Lucian, The Double Indictment, 6.
109 1 Peter 2:9.
110 Origen, Contra Celsum I, 4.
111 Acts 19:19.
112 Gager, Kingdom and Community, 27-28, 124.
113 Mark 9:1.
114 Mark 13:30.
115 Mark 14:62.
116 Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity, 172, 194.
117 Luke 1:32. (NIV)
118 Mark 10:30.
119 Matthew 19:28.
120 Acts 1:6. (NIV)
121 Matthew 3:10.
122 Matthew 10:34-37.
123 Luke 14:26.
124 Luke 9:61-62.
125 Matthew 8:22.
126 Matthew 24:17-18.
127 Matthew 18:3.
128 Matthew 21:31.
129 Matthew 5:22
130 Matthew 5:28.
131 Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, 100.
132 Acts 4:34-35.133 1 Corinthians 7:21-31.
134 Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, 108.
135 Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul, 49-50.
136 Matthew 10:23.
137 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
138 Lüdemann, Paul, 14,49.
139 1 Corinthians 15:51.
140 2 Peter 3:4.
141 Mark 13:29.
142 Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, 50-51.
143 Marcus, Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992), 460.
144 Luke 21:20-22.
145 Hoffman, Celsus On the True Doctrine, 9-11.
146 Mark 13:32.
147 2 Peter 3:8.
148 Matthew 10:23.
149 Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 260-261.
150 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History I, 6, 6. (I have retained Lake’s translation.)