The Absence of a Human Jesus

Untangling the mess of Christian origins

Once upon a time—way back when the overwhelming majority of people were illiterate—God decided that the best way to tell people about himself was to write a book. That is, so the theologians assure us, he inspired humans to write it for him. Dropping a book in an illiterate world? This doesn’t strike us as a good plan, and it went downhill. Once the book was finally finished, God neglected to find a way to prevent mistakes as the manuscripts were copied by hand for centuries: thousands of errors were made. Scholars still haven’t been able to figure out for sure the wording of the original manuscripts. And, for centuries, God couldn’t find a way to make the book available to the masses. Even after the printing press had been invented, religious leaders resisted having the Bible translated into the languages of the people. Even now, with billions of copies available, this holy book is a dud, by which I mean that most of the faithful don’t like to read it. Actually read it, take to heart the idea that God’s word is there for the taking. If they really believed that, we wouldn’t be able to stop them from reading it.


And why in the world did God choose to inspire so many different authors, who—of all things—set out to correct and revise what the other inspired authors had written? This error has caused so much anxiety and grief among even devout Bible scholars who make their livings trying to sort out the confusion and conflicting theologies just in the New Testament. Moreover, why in the world didn’t God preserve evidence for the life of Jesus? The stories in the gospels look so much like exaggeration, hearsay, fable, and fantasy—which is no surprise in gospels written decades after Jesus lived. Why did God wait so long?    


Eventually, secular scholars took up the work of serious Bible analysis, and they have not been constrained by faith-bias. They don’t have to make Christianity look good, despite all the defects in the New Testament. The origins of Christianity have been scrutinized especially, and, frankly, things aren’t looking good for the old-time religion that the church has championed. 


Most fundamentally, the lack of evidence—solid, verifiable, objective evidence—for a Galilean peasant preacher has renewed serious speculation that he may never have existed at all. For such a long time this was considered a fringe, crank position: “The solid consensus in New Testament scholarship is that the existence of Jesus cannot be doubted.” But that’s a lazy defense; a widely accepted consensus that prevailed for centuries may crumble as thinking evolves based on new evidence—or because of fresh perspectives on old evidence. 


A major puzzle for New Testament scholars has been the apostle
Paul’s enthusiasm for the risen Christ—based on his visons—while at the same time he neglected to mention details of the life and preaching of Jesus in his letters. After all, the gospels were written well after Paul’s time, so he didn’t have them handy to look up details about Jesus. But study of this puzzle may provide clues about Christian origins. One approach to consensus-busting is R. G. Price’s essay in the anthology edited by John Loftus and Robert Price, Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist?, titled “Pauline Origin of the Gospels in the Wake of the First Jewish-Roman War.”


Did we read that right? …Pauline Origin of the Gospels… How did Price get there? 


Price describes his journey, i.e., reaching the conclusion that Jesus-mythicism is a legitimate, defensible position. Originally, he had set out to debunk mythicism, assuming that it was the work of cranks. But his research included studying books by mythicists Robert M. Price and Earl Doherty. It’s hard to unsee the failure of the gospels as reliable, verifiable evidence for Jesus. He researched


“…the lists of prophecies that Christians claimed Jesus had fulfilled. It didn’t take long to see what Christians were calling examples of ‘prophetic fulfillment’ were in fact examples of literary constructions. These weren’t examples of recorded events that corresponded to passages from the Jewish scriptures, these were clearly instances where the writers of the Gospels had fabricated scenes based on scripture. Many of these scenes were in fact foundational to the biography of Jesus.”  (p. 111)


He also notes Robert M. Price’s conclusion (in The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man) that


“…even the Crucifixion itself was one of these scenes clearly derived from scripture. Every aspect of the Crucifixion scene, in every single Gospel, indicates that the scene is fully fabricated and not in any way based on eyewitness testimony or even merely on oral tradition. The scene is clearly meticulously crafted from scriptural references, a product of literary development, not secondhand accounts or even urban legends.”  (p. 111)


He admits, “…I had gone from thinking that mythicism was utter nonsense, to starting to develop my own theory of Christian origins in the absence of a human Jesus.” (p. 111, emphasis added)


Since the church has long promoted Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament expectations, it has been hard to perceive that the story of Jesus was actually created using texts from the Hebrew Bible. Even devout laypeople who get seriously into Bible reading are commonly awed by the “fulfilment” claim without seeing what was really happening. Price notes two books that provide close analysis of Mark’s methodology—and this is crucial since the other gospel writers based their stories on Mark: in 1988, Wolfgang Roth’s Hebrew Gospel: Cracking the Code of Mark, and in 2010, Adam Winn’s Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narratives. “These works show how the writer of Mark constructed his narrative from one of the most popular and well-known narratives in the Jewish scriptures.”  (page 112)


So just what was Mark’s agenda? Why did he write his story of Jesus? Perhaps he was motivated by the widespread destruction wrought by the First Jewish-Roman War. In 70 CE Jerusalem was reduced to rubble, including the Temple, and no doubt any surviving members of the original Jesus sect were swept away as well. But the cult had enough churches scattered outside the battle zone—even as far away as Rome—that it was probably considered good strategy to create stories about Jesus, as a way to keep the cult going.  


Of course, there had already been a lot of writing about Jesus as a dying-and-rising savior god, especially in the letters of Paul and a few spin-off forgeries of his letters. It would appear that these letters were a major influence on Mark as he created his own story of the Christ. So we’re getting closer to understanding Price’s title, the Pauline Origin of the Gospels.

Price notes two books that came along while he was deep in study of this issue: (1) David Oliver Smith’s Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul: The Influence of the Epistles on the Synoptic Gospels, 2011, and (2) Tom Dykstra, Mark, Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertexuality in Mark’s Gospel. “Dykstra showed that the proposition that the Gospel of Mark was dependent upon the letters of Paul had been put forward as far back as 1857 by the German biblical scholar Gustav Volkmar, at which time it was harshly criticized by establishment scholars…” (pp. 112-113)


Establishment scholars = protectors of orthodox church beliefs, i.e., the consensus.


“In addition to these works, there has been a growing realization that the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark, are not historical in any sense…the Gospels are literary constructs, filled with allegory and symbolism, not historical accounts of real events.” (p. 113) 


Dennis MacDonald has looked at Mark from yet another angle, and published two books of especial interest: (1) The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, 2000, (2) The Gospels and Homer: Imitations of Greek Epic in Mark and Luke-Acts, 2014. It seems that Mark had been educated in Greek schools, hence Greek classics influenced the construction of his Jesus story.


So here we have three streams of influence that help account for the story Mark came up with: The Old Testament, the letters of Paul, and Greek classics. Yet devout scholars hold out hope that authentic bits of history have been preserved in these Christian documents. They are confident that oral traditions about Jesus were in circulation for decades—but, it would seem obvious, with no fact-checking and other quality controls! That, in itself, is a major flaw. They also speculate that there were written “sources” for the gospel authors to use, e.g., the Q document. Yet there is no real evidence for this speculation either—and how do you authenticate an imagined lost document?


To eliminate all this confusion, speculation, and guesswork about the origin of the gospels, why didn’t God inspire the authors to identify themselves and their credentials, i.e., state their names, where they lived, how they were educated, which Christian communities they wrote for. Above all, how could an all-knowing God not have anticipated the era when many humans would escape superstitions and figure out how the world works? He might thus have inspired the gospel authors not to include the fantasy and miracle folklore so typical of other mythologies of the time. We know now that these are not evidence for Jesus.  


If we were to ask devout folks to describe the impact of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple on the development of Christianity, would they be able to make a stab at an answer? But Price points out the importance of this catastrophe: 


“…Paul’s message was one of universality and reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, while the other leaders of the movement opposed such universal view. The war between the Jews and the Romans that resulted in the destruction of the Temple was then viewed by the writer of Mark through this lens. The Jews had brought this destruction upon themselves because they had failed to heed the message of the prophet Paul. Peter, James, and John, the reputed pillars of the Jesus movement, were a party to this failure. This is what the allegory of Mark is all about.”  (p. 119)


Christians who freak out over the blood-curdling 13th chapter of Mark might find that Price’s argument here makes sense.


In the final few pages of his essay, Price mentions several major weaknesses of the mainstream models of Christian origins, and sees a parallel between mythicism gaining credibility and the traction that Darwin’s On the Origins of Species finally achieved:  “…I do believe that the case being put forward for a new explanation of Christian origins, in which no human Jesus played a role, will eventually win out based on its merits.”  (p. 130)


So, the Pauline origin of the gospels. There is a famous text in the New Testament that confirms this idea. Notice what Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation (I Cor. 11:23-26):


“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  


One of the first images that come to mind is Da Vinci’s Last Supper. That famous scene. But Paul wasn’t there, so how did he know this script? He says it come to him in a vision: “I received from the Lord…” There is no description of disciples gathered around a table. There is no mention of Judas. “On the night he was betrayed…” The Greek word can also be rendered handed over, but Christian translators use betrayed to evoke the gospel scene. In Paul’s thinking, the crucifixion and resurrection might have happened in heavenly realms. Based on what he says in Romans 13, he wasn’t even aware that Jesus had been put to death by Roman authorities.  


It would appear that Mark lifted Paul’s words from I Corinthians 11 and dropped them into his account of the last supper. But Mark wasn’t there either! The author of John’s gospel—go figure—felt that Mark got it wrong and deleted these words in his depiction of the last supper.    


There’s too much mess here. Maybe God deserves an “F” grade for Bible Inspiration.





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.


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