Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up...Oh, Wait…

A review of David Fitzgerald’s Jesus: Mything in Action

Christians Aren’t Going to Blow the Whistle

A famous atheist once railed at me for giving a damn about the “Jesus Question”—that is, whether or not Jesus existed. It’s not a relevant issue—so he said, and it’s a waste of time to devote any energy to it. Really? Since about two billion people are obsessed with Jesus, it doesn’t hurt to find out if their obsession is warranted—especially if we suspect that something isn’t quite right. Religiously-biased scholars, as it turns out, have done their best to maintain a cover-up—of course, they don’t call it that; so okay, they’ve been sincere, pursuing their agenda without guile. But they have been covering up: the case for Jesus is deeply, sadly flawed.

In Jesus: Mything in Action (Volume I, Volume II & Volume III), David Fitzgerald puts a bright spotlight on the “Jesus Question.” He displays a sweeping command of the writings of New Testament scholars, and he has taken a journey into their world—one that most Christian don’t even know exists.

Fitzgerald wants his readers to understand who he is: “…very little of the information and opinions I present are my own insights. I regard myself as a combat reporter, not a front-line soldier of the Jesus historicist/mythicist war.” Christians would love to jam their fingers in their ears and hum loudly, but it sure wouldn’t hurt for them to get acquainted with the upheaval going on in Jesus studies—quite apart from the debate about whether or not he existed. Nor would it hurt for Christians to get a few second opinions.

Fitzgerald brings considerable humor to the task, gearing his work to the lay reader. The folks in the pews should give it a try. The only prerequisite is curiosity—and, okay, some willingness to take a risk.

Testing, Testing, Testing All Ye Faithful

So, getting to the heart of the matter: Here’s a pop quiz for Christians, three questions that they should be able to wrap their minds around if they read Jesus: Mything in Action.

(1) What are the differences between Jesus in Mark’s gospel and Jesus in John’s gospel—and why are these gospels so different? 500 words please.
(2) Discuss what we know about Jesus of Nazareth from the letters of the apostle Paul. 500 words please.
(3) What is your opinion about the turmoil in Jesus studies during the last few decades? 500 words please.

Actually, turmoil is nothing new in Christian theology. From the very beginning Christians got nasty with each other over “correct” belief. The apostle Paul bragged about telling off Peter (Galatians 2:11); he also complained about the other versions of Christ being preached (I Corinthians 1:10-13).

When You Paint Yourself Into a Corner

But in more recent times, after historians began scrutinizing the gospels—as they would any other documents from the ancient past—turmoil of another kind ensued: Are the gospels history at all? Among many other red flags, how could Mark and John have come up with such radically different depictions of Jesus? How could they both be right? And Bible scholars themselves, digging through the same gospels—but with no agreed methodology for nailing down facts—what is history, what isn’t?—have come up with divergent portraits of Jesus. The lack of consensus is, in fact, a scandal. Something is wrong. The alarming possibility that Jesus fails as a historical character has been raised by serious scholars.

But Christians who “love their Jesus” seemingly couldn’t care less. They trip lightly through the gospels looking for the Hallmark moments…and let it go at that.

Fitzgerald’s work is a highly accessible resource for getting a handle on the scandal. But isn’t he the enemy? After all, he made his fame in Jesus studies with his earlier volume, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show that Jesus Never Existed at All (2010). Clearly he is a far cry from the devout scholars to whom Christians turn for insights into the Bible—to help them love their Jesus. But in this debate, we want to hear a strong case for the opposing point of view.

The legions of devout scholars will not allow themselves to wander too far from orthodoxy: Jesus is their lord, so his divinity is not up for debate—much less his existence. Hence we hear so much about the “consensus” among New Testament scholars, i.e., of course he existed; of course there is a historical core in the gospels that can be trusted. What else would you expect them to say? How can all these NT scholars be wrong?—they’ve spent decades studying every letter and syllable of the holy writ. They can be wrong because they can be blinded by their faith biases. Moreover, they can lose their jobs if their love for Jesus shows any signs of fading because of skepticism about Jesus.

In fact, Fitzgerald shows what happens when Christian scholars step out of line; they really do lose their jobs. He devotes a chapter to the grim stories of those who have fallen victim to the terrible swift sword of evangelical academia (what Hector Avalos has called the “ecclesiastical-academic complex”). I prefer a combat reporter who doesn’t side with the totalitarians.

Too Many Jesuses Spoil the Broth

It turns out that unwavering Jesus scholars have been their own worst enemy; relying on their hunches about what to take seriously in the gospels (“Ah ha, this tidbit is history”), they have proposed many different versions of “who Jesus really was.” Unwittingly they help the Mythicists make their case. In Chapter Three Fitzgerald provides an annotated list of tweny guys that Jesus could have been—as various scholars have reconstructed him, including, e.g., apocalyptic prophet, zealot revolutionary, magician/exorcist/faith healer, radical social reformer. “This multiplicity of convincing possibilities is precisely the problem: the various reconstructions of Jesus cancel each other out. Each one sounds good until you hear the next one.”

Okay, I’ll take one thing back: scholars don’t rely on their hunches; rather, they are guided by “authenticity criteria.” These supposedly provide a way to plow through the theological bluster, myth, and exaggeration in the gospels to dig out the nuggets of “real history.” Fitzgerald makes it abundantly clear, however, that there is no solid foundation at all: “…a dizzying number of these [criteria] have been floated in the field of Jesus studies over the years; many dozens, in fact. But for the better part of a century, there have been scholars who have called them into question.”

Fitzgerald provides an annotated list of the “authenticity criteria”—and explains how each one fails to do the job, e.g., Oral Preservability, Vividness of Narration, Aramaic Context, and about twenty others. If you want to grasp why the historical Jesus is in such trouble, pay attention to this chapter (Number Four). We are thoroughly stymied trying to figure out the Galilean peasant.

So asking the real Jesus to please stand up doesn’t work: we have no idea at all who that would be.

There is no way to get around that brick wall: the theology-soaked gospels. We know the authors’ motivations—to get people to believe—but we don’t know their sources (other than, e.g., that Matthew plagiarized most of Mark) and there is no trace of the use of contemporary documentation (e.g., that the Sermon on the Mount is based on notes taken at the time). The criteria of authenticity are thinly disguised guessing games, shots in the dark. It would seem that we’re back to hunches.

In fact the reality of Jesus is sabotaged by the gospels themselves—which can’t be grasped by casual reading; kudos to Christians who tackle the chapter-a-day plan, but deeper drilling is required to appreciate the problems. Fitzgerald offers an overview of the gospels, describing church traditions about the authors (e.g., Luke the Beloved Physician), but then explains that all such beloved assumptions have been washed away by careful historical analysis.

In fact, on close examination, the story of gospel evolution emerges. Mark set an early course, and by the time John was written, the “earliest Jesus” had been transformed beyond recognition. Fitzgerald shows that Mark’s Jesus “…becomes increasingly improved in Matthew and Luke; and by the time John’s story is written, Jesus has become a cosmic deity from the very creation of the universe who strides around Judea fearlessly declaring to all that he is God almighty made flesh.”

The Stories Wouldn’t Hold Up in Court

Those who “pretty much know about Jesus” from hearing Bible verses in church can benefit especially from Fitzgerald’s analysis of stories that most Christians are aware of, all of which are dragged down by problems, e.g., the baptism by John, the temptation in the desert, stilling the storm, the Passion narrative, the death of Judas, the Last Supper (which Fitzgerald also calls the Lost Supper, since John omits it). Fitzgerald is a superb tutor, showing why all these episodes—and many others—fail to pass muster as history.

Maybe the gospel writers would have taken more care, had they known their four renditions of Jesus would one day be bound together in billions of Bibles. This makes it easier to spot their sloppy approach to history—well, they weren’t aiming for that anyway.

In the first chapter of Volume II (Number Thirteen), Fitzgerald explains why the gospels are so short on history. Not only do those old stand-by certainties, e.g., “they are based on eyewitness reports,” “they derive from oral tradition” fall apart on close examination, but when the gospels are seen in the context of literature of the ancient world, we can appreciate why history is missing from the New Testament.

Now, take a deep breath: When’s the last time the Rank-Raglan Mythic Hero Archetype was discussed in Sunday School? It sorta puts Jesus in his place, and throws light on the origin of the gospel tales. On page 36 (of Vol. 2) Fitzgerald writes:

“And our Gospels, each an assembled network of vignettes (or pericopes, to use the technical Biblical studies term) look precisely like the edifying—but entirely fictitious—biographies of composed for many other legendary heroes and figures of renown.”

For all the details, read on, page 37-52 (and don’t skip the footnotes through page 60). The gospels have let us down.

The Apostle Paul to the Rescue? NOT

So where can we find reliable, verifiable information about Jesus? Well, there aren’t many options left once we’ve quit the gospels. Luke also wrote the Book of Acts, but Fitzgerald doesn’t skimp (a 61-page chapter) in showing its abundant flaws: “Much like his gospel, Biblical scholars today don’t take Luke’s book of Acts seriously as genuine history. As it turns out, there are many reasons why they don’t…” Christian historians “…tiptoe around the ugly fact that it is only historical fiction.” A 61-page chapter may seem like a lot of homework to those who dip into the Bible on the chapter-a-day plan, but genuinely curious folks will find Fitzgerald’s tour of Acts helpful.

Of course, the apostle Paul is one of the heroes of Acts—it might as well have been written by his publicist. So can’t we go digging through Paul’s letters to glean information about Jesus? Incredibly, this “source” is a washout. Fitzgerald begins his chapter on Paul (Number Fifteen) with a long list of things (15 actually) that Paul did say about Jesus, e.g., he is at the right hand of God, death no longer has dominion over him, we were washed and sanctified in his name.

But what’s missing here? “I think that we can all agree,” Fitzgerald says, “these are all fine qualities. But if it seems odd to you that [Paul] doesn’t seem to have many facts to share about what Jesus did, or taught, or indeed, anything about his life on earth, you aren’t alone.” And there is a long history of theologians, apologists and scholars wringing their hands about Paul’s lack of interest in Jesus—before the latter’s resurrected self appeared to Paul in visions. Fitzgerald describes the evasive steps that have been proposed to explain Paul’s silence. Bottom line: Paul was driven by his hallucinations of the risen Christ—and that was all that mattered. During the period that Paul wrote his letters, the much-vaunted “oral traditions” about Jesus don’t seem to have reached him. We know stories about Jesus that somehow never reached Paul’s ears.

But isn’t there one great exception to this, namely, I Corinthians 11:23-25, where Paul quotes Jesus’ words at the Last Supper? But beware of taking things at face value, and read this text carefully. Paul is writing about what he heard in visions. Isn’t that enough to make you suspicious? And read carefully what Fitzgerald writes about this text, pp. 154-160.

Sorry, Christians are in for a major disappointment; it’s not a stretch that the gospel accounts of the last supper can be traced to Paul’s imaginings—and to similar rituals in pagan religions that influenced him. Fitzgerald points out that “…communion rituals involving bread and a cup of wine or water had long been a staple feature of pagan mystery faiths found throughout the Mediterranean world.” All is not what it may appear—if the NT texts are given more than superficial scrutiny.

But there must have been a real person behind the gospels and all those NT epistles, right? Fitzgerald notes that deep skepticism about so much in the gospels is hardly anything new; hence confidence in the Jesus figure has been eroding among scholars for a long time. But maybe later Christian and non-Christian sources can at least show that Jesus had been real. Fitzgerald discusses this possibility at length, analyzing the usual suspects that scholars want to lean on (including the spurious Josephus “testimony”). But Jesus is missing in action; secular historians of the time simply didn’t notice him, although the gospels depict him as insanely famous. But there are records for a dozen other messiah contenders during the first century. Go figure. (See Fitzgerald’s list in Volume I, pp. 114-117.)

If We Could Drop By for a Visit

When we encounter the parochial pride of Christians we’re tempted to say, “You should get out more often.” Maybe take in a course in comparative religion. Try to find out where your religion came from. How do your beliefs fit into the big picture? In the third volume of J:MIA Fitzgerald offers a “bold thought experiment” that he calls The Gospel according to H. G. Wells; he takes us on a time-travel adventure in the ancient world to provide glimpses of the Christian spawning grounds.

Christianity is one weed among many that thrived in the ancient world, and it is crucial to see it in that context. In Chapter Twenty-One (the chapter numbering in J:MIA flows through all three volumes) Fitzgerald describes the valiant struggle of Christian apologists to deny that their faith fits so well in its context: the popular mystery religions that promised eternal life.

Using this scheme of a time-travel adventure, Fitzgerald makes stops in a wide variety of places and contexts; he cleverly works in the crucial insights about the gospels: “The author of Mark build his Jesus upon Paul’s mystery-style Christ and expands on him in ways Paul never imagined…But the simple truth is that Paul does not echo Jesus’ teaching—Jesus echoes Paul’s.” (Then as now, theologians disagree: Matthew resisted Paul’s views on the law; he has his Jesus say that not one jot of it could be ignored.) Volume III is a fun romp through so many of these major problems encountered in the gospels.

Ten Problems…or a Thousand?

One of the most common reactions to the title of my book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief has been, “What? Only ten?” …although some Christians—can they really be so dense?—have said, “What problems?” Their homework must include Jesus: Mything in Action. We can see that the problems number in the thousands.

By the way, Jesus: Mything in Action is part of Fitzgerald’s The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion. But we can appreciate his monumental achievement with these three volumes alone.

Whether or not you accept his conclusion that Jesus never existed—well, assent on that issue is not important; Fitzgerald has demonstrated, as have many other experts on the New Testament, that knowing much of anything about the Galilean peasant—well, that’s beyond our reach. Theology conspired against and smothered history. The gospel writers and Paul were experts at mything.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.