Jesus of Nazareth Missing in Action

Different views of Jesus in the New Testament 

Where did the gospels come from? Since these documents overflow with details about Jesus—his coming and goings, sayings, impressive miracles—it has been commonly assumed by the laity that they were written by people who knew Jesus. It has been easier to think this because they are “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: these names add a personal touch. But when historians—including pious believers—began applying to the gospels the same standards they apply to other documents from the ancient world, the common assumptions about gospel origins didn’t hold up. In fact, it has been a struggle—and oh how Christian scholars have tried—to find a way to demonstrate that the gospels qualify as history. 


In the documents themselves no authors claim credit, e.g., “written by Mark,” nor are any of them signed and dated. We don’t have any idea either where they were written, that is, where the authors lived. There has been an awful lot of guesswork and speculation, but it remains just that.



So where did the gospels come from? Ironically, it’s the New Testament itself that prompts suspicion that the gospels might be—it this too strong? — fake news. It has been commonly assumed by the laity—and in Christian academia as well—that the gospel Jesus stories were handed down faithfully by the people who had witnessed his ministry. That is, there must have been robust oral tradition in wide circulation in the decades before the gospels were written. 


If only we had some way to verify that, but the evidence, in fact, suggests otherwise. And that evidence is in the New Testament. There are large stretches of this document in which Jesus of Nazareth is absent. This is hard to account for if the gospels got it right—if they’re based on robust oral tradition that early Christian writers had access to. A good introduction to this puzzle is Earl Doherty’s essay, “A Sacrifice in Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” which is Chapter Ten in the new anthology edited by John Loftus and Robert Price, Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist?  


As Doherty points out, the Letter to the Hebrews is the second longest epistle in the New Testament (after Romans). Even in antiquity, there were doubts that it was written by Paul, whose name does not appear in the text. At the outset of his essay, Doherty notes: “Who the writer is, where he writes, whom he is addressing remain unknown.” (p. 239) And the ancient writer betrayed no knowledge at all of any stories about Jesus of Nazareth that supposedly were cherished in Christian circles: 


“In Hebrews 9:11 the author says that ‘Christ has come,’ but is this a reference to his life on Earth? Rather, the context indicates that he is referring to Christ’s ‘entry’ into the new tent of his heavenly priesthood, the spiritual sanctuary…This Christian writer can speak of Christ’s ‘coming’ and yet not say a word about any of his works on earth, only of what he did in heaven.” (p. 264) 


Devout scholars have had to deal with this silence about Jesus of Nazareth in the letters of Paul as well. We search in vain in Paul’s letters for mention of Jesus’ birth, his teachings and miracles. Paul doesn’t even mention the empty tomb, and boasted in Galatians that he received no information whatever about Jesus from the people who knew him. He found out about Jesus exclusively from his visions. Word-of-mouth stories didn’t reach him either—or if they did, he ignored them.


If there was no oral tradition—and we lack any contemporary documentation to verify the words and deeds of Jesus—then just how did the gospel writers come up with their stories? The opening sentence of Mark’s gospel indicates what we’re dealing with: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The gospel writers were theologians, not historians; their goal was to win converts to the small Christian sect. Careful readers can see how the theologians who copied Mark’s text—Matthew and Luke—wrote from their own theological perspectives. And the author of John was in a world of his own; as I have written elsewhere, he contributed mightily to theological inflation about Jesus. 


The author of Hebrews took this to his own extreme, well illustrated by the opening four verses of his treatise:


“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”


It would be hard to find a more glowing description of an idealized superhero, but in the whole letter the author makes no attempt to place his holy hero in Galilee or Jerusalem. But this letter does illustrate how ideas and philosophies current at the time shaped this particular brand of Christianity. In an article here last month, I discussed Derreck Bennett’s essay in this new Loftus/Price anthology about Christianity in the context of other dying-and-rising savior gods at the time. Doherty discussed the influence of Platonism:


“…Hebrews provides perhaps the best example in the New Testament of how Christ belief arose spontaneously out of currents and trends of the day, in independent expressions, each taking its own characteristics as a result of local conditions and the people involved. The epistle is what it is because a distinct group formulated their own picture of spiritual realities.


“They searched scripture for information and insight about the Son of God, under the influence of the wider religious and philosophical atmosphere of the first century, especially Alexandrian Platonism, and this is what they came up with.”  (p. 255)  


They searched scripture. My tattered old RSV—now held together with tape and glue—includes a very handy tool: at the bottom of each page there are footnotes cross-referencing other scripture verses that apply. In the thirteen chapters of Hebrews, there are 98 references to Old Testament texts. This is where the author of Hebrews was sure information about his Jesus could be found.  


He wasn’t interested in what went on with Jesus of Nazareth; Doherty makes these points:


“In Hebrews, there are no sayings of Jesus quoted; there are no events of his life as recorded in the Gospels which the writer draws on to explain his interpretation of Jesus as High Priest. Not even the central concept of Jesus’ sacrifice as the establishment of a new covenant has been illuminated by the slightest reference to the Last Supper or to the words Jesus is said to have spoken on that occasion inaugurating such a covenant.”  (p. 256)


“The sacrifice of Christ in the heavenly realm is laid out in Hebrews 8 and 9. The structure of this thought is thoroughly Platonic, though it mirrors some longstanding Jewish ideas as well.” (p. 256)


“The ‘event’ which the writer constantly focuses on seems not to be Christ’s death itself, but his action of entering the heavenly sanctuary and offering his blood to God.” (p. 258) Doherty refers to this as “the center of gravity” of Hebrews.


So here was an ancient theologian who was certain of his own version of Christ, but he seems to have been unaware of the Jesus depicted in the gospels. How could that happen? For one thing, there was no quality control, as Doherty notes:


“Hebrews provides strong evidence that independent expressions of belief in the existence of the divine Son and his role in salvation were to be found all over the landscape of the first century, with no central source or authority and little common sharing of doctrine and ritual. Just where the community which produced Hebrews was located, or the year in which this unique document was written, it is impossible to tell, but that it owed its genesis to any historical events in Jerusalem, or anywhere else, is very difficult to support.” (pp. 252-253)


Independent expressions of belief. The apostle Paul—dead certain as he was about Jesus, based exclusively on his own hallucinations—was annoyed that other preachers were going about promoting other versions of Christ. He scolded the congregation in Corinth:


“But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.” (2 Corinthians 11:3-4)


Both Paul and the author of Hebrews had minds locked by theological certainty—which is rarely a good idea. For Paul, belief in the resurrection of Jesus was key, e.g., Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The author of Hebrews didn’t bother to emphasize the resurrection, but focused on Jesus offering his blood to God: “…he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12)


I doubt that the Letter to the Hebrews ranks as a favorite part of the Bible for most of the laity: it doesn’t get much traffic—as is probably the case with the letters of Paul. Of course, there are enough feel-good saying in Paul’s writing that it seems right to designate him a “saint.” There are feel-good sayings in Hebrews as well, e.g., “…he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” 


But it is important to tackle the letter to the Hebrew with our critical faculties on high alert, and Doherty’s essay is an important tool to help with that. Apologists resist the idea that this early Christian theologian thought of Jesus functioning only in heavenly realms—with no footprint on the ground. However, it is precisely this feature of these earliest writings about Jesus—the failure to mention the ministry of Jesus as described in the gospels—that prompt suspicion that he might have been a mythical figure from the get-go. 


Please note as well that here is theology thoroughly grounded in magical thinking: “…he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12) The very idea that a god can be mollified by offerings of animal blood is primitive superstition, and Christianity kicked this up a notch with the idea that the blood of a god’s son was powerful enough to guarantee eternal life. Frankly, this was the gimmick that gave the early Christian cult its appeal, and this ancient superstition survives in potent form to this day.  


The author of Hebrews was focused on keeping the faithful in line, thus he reminded his readers about God’s wrath. Yes, Yahweh of the Old Testament is still waiting to get even:


“For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy ‘on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:26-31) Who is, he adds in 12:29, “a consuming fire.”


With so much magical thinking and revenge theology in this text, couldn’t the god who so loves the world have done a better job inspiring his holy word? 





David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.


Please support us at DC by commenting on and by sharing our posts, or subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon.