Fictional Jesus Synthesis
Prior to publishing my new book, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never
Existed, I had not yet read Tom Dykstra's book, Mark,
Canonizer of Paul. I knew of it and had read some reviews and
summaries of it. I became aware of it prior to publishing my book, but
intentionally avoided reading it because I didn't want to be influenced
by it. I prefer to approach my research and my undrstanding of subjects
from primary sources, or at least as close as possible to such.
However, I began reading Dykstra's book once my manuscript was
completed and I see that his work is extremely compelling, well
composed, and of significant importance. Of critical note, however,
Dykstra is not a mythicist and does assume that Jesus was a real
person. Nevertheless, I believe that our works complement each other
very nicely. His book fills in gaps in mine and provides stronger
academic support for some of the positions taken in my book. My book
fills in gaps in his and provides additional material not found in his.
I believe that a synthesis of our works, and others mentioned by him,
provides an extremely compelling explanation for how and why the first
Gospel was written - an explanation that completely overturns
traditional biblical scholarship. The fundamental conclusion reached by
both Dykstra and myself is that the Gospel of Mark is a “fictional
story,” in which the life and teachings of Jesus are based on the
letters of Paul. This is the core upon which both Dykstra and I agree.
What exactly is meant by saying that the Gospel of
Mark is “fictional”? What is meant by this is that the writer of the
story knew that the narrative he was creating was not literally true,
and the writer was not attempting to convince anyone that it was true.
If the writer of Mark wasn’t attempting to record history or convince
anyone of the literal truth of his narrative, then what was the purpose
of the story?
Dykstra offers an explanation that I believe is
correct but incomplete. Dykstra states that, “Mark’s primary purpose
was to defend the vision of Christianity championed by Paul the Apostle
against his ‘Judaizing’ opponents.” (Mark, Canonizer of Paul pp 23)
Dykstra goes on to conclude that the narrative is not based on
testimony from the disciples or any oral tradition, rather that it is
based on the Old Testament, Homeric epics, and the Pauline epistles.
I think the assessment of Mark’s narrative being a defense of Paul
against “his ‘Judaizing’ opponents” is correct, but fails to really
address why this defense was needed. As I explain in my book, I think
it was the First Jewish-Roman War, and the destruction of the temple in
70 CE, that precipitated this defense. I think the writer was a
follower of Paul, who saw in the outcome of the war the proof that Paul
had been right. I think the writer’s view was, “See, if they had
listened to Paul none of this would have happened”, or perhaps, “This
was destined to happen, in accordance with Paul’s gospel.” So I think a
critical piece that is missing from Dykstra’s work is the relationship
between the war and the Markan narrative.
I think the perspective of the writer of Mark was
that the war happened because of Jewish opposition to Gentile
integration, or rather because of those Jews who did not believe that
their god was a god of all people as opposed to being just a god of the
Jews. So the message of the writer is that the Jews brought the war
upon themselves because they failed to heed Paul’s teachings.
Dykstra’s vision doesn’t extend far beyond the
scope of Mark. Dykstra concludes that Mark is a literary invention that
tells us nothing (or very little) about any actual teachings or deeds
of Jesus, but fails to fully assess the implications of this
conclusion. As I show in my work, once we recognize that the Gospel of
Mark is entirely fictional, it becomes clear that every single
biography of Jesus actually flows from the Gospel of Mark, and that
thus no account of the life of Jesus has any basis in reality. It’s not
just that the Gospel of Mark is fictional, the human Jesus himself is
What is so important about Dykstra’s work,
however, is the academic support and background it provides for the
“fictional Mark” assessment. Dykstra points out that many elements of
this conclusion have been in place for some time and have been
supported by various esteemed scholars over the years. Dykstra also
provides background on opposition to this view and explains in-part why
it has taken this assessment so long to come to light.
After reading Dykstra’s book, I am more confident than ever in the
“fictional Jesus” theory and believe that it is only a matter of time
before this view becomes widely accepted. As Dykstra noted, the idea
that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional allegory based on the letters of
Paul goes back at least to Gustav Volkmar in the mid-nineteenth
century. Dykstra explains how and why Volkmar’s assessment was rejected
and addresses the faults of Volkmar’s critics. The difference between
now and then, however, is that there are much more sophisticated tools
available today for intertextual analysis and the internet provides a
means to publicize findings beyond an insular group of conservative
The reality is that the evidence is there, and the
evidence cannot be denied. As Dykstra notes, the current consensus of New
Testament scholarship is built on several baseless assumptions, all of
which are proven to be false by clear evidence. To date, the full
impact of this newly assembled evidence has not yet been felt, and it
is clear that the scholarly community is trying to ignore it for as
long as possible; but this is a case of the ostrich sticking its head
in the sand.
The fact is that many of the core “theories” of
mainstream New Testament scholarship are bridges built to nowhere.
Biblical “scholarship” has been done entirely wrong, in large part I
believe because biblical scholarship, by its very nature, doesn’t
descend from a scientific heritage. Biblical scholars, by and large,
haven’t employed scientific methods or thought processes to their work.
They have, in fact, done the exact opposite and fallen into the very
cognitive traps that the scientific method is designed to avoid. They
have started with assumptions and then developed explanations that
support their assumptions. This is exactly what the scientific process
is designed to prevent.
Instead of creating testable hypotheses, biblical scholars build
logical “proofs” that justify starting assumptions. This is no
surprise, because this is a methodology that has been a part of
Christian theology from the very beginning. This is how theology has
been done for almost two thousand years. You start with something that
you “know is true”, e.g. God caused a global flood, and then explain
how observed evidence can be interpreted to support this assumption.
The scientific process is the exact opposite. Using the scientific
process, you take no starting assumptions - you start instead with
collecting data. You use that data draw conclusions. You may then form
a hypothesis and conduct explicit tests that can validate or invalidate
your hypothesis. This isn’t how mainstream biblical scholarship has
Nevertheless, it’s quite difficult to continue
avoiding obvious truths that the data show. Dykstra conveniently notes
the many scholar’s whose work has challenged mainstream assumptions and
contribute to the conclusion that, at the very least, the Gospel of
Mark is fictional. Of particular note is the work of the following
- Gustav Volkmar (1809-1893): Volkmar had a
distinguished career as a professor of New Testament studies at the
University of Zurich in Germany. In 1857 he published The
Religion of Jesus and Its First Development According to the Present State of Science, in which he argued that the Gospel of Mark was an
allegory based on the life of Paul. Volkmar’s conclusion was that no
aspect of the story had any basis in fact. This work was heavily
criticized, and specific proofs were drawn up against it. Some of the
arguments leveled against Volkmar’s work, particularly those of Martin
Werner, became the foundation of mainstream biblical scholarship and
have gone largely unquestioned until recently.
- Michael Goulder (1927-2010): Goulder was
Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Birmingham in
Britain. Goulder’s work refutes the Q hypothesis and proposes that the
author of Luke used the Gospel of Matthew as a source. Goulder also
supported the idea that the authors of the Gospels were themselves
largely the inventors of their own narratives, as opposed to being mere
chroniclers of oral traditions.
- Wolfgang Roth (1930-2013): Roth was primarily
an Old Testament scholar, but in 1988 he published Hebrew Gospel:
Cracking the Code of Mark, in which he put forward the case that the
Gospel of Mark is fundamentally based on the story of Elijah and Elisha
from 1 and 2 Kings.
- Mary Ann Tolbert: Tolbert is an esteemed
Professor of Biblical Studies, most well known as an advocate of LGBT
rights. Nevertheless, her literary analysis of biblical works is highly
regarded. In her 1989 publication, Sowing the
Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective, she noted,
contrary to popular opinion at the time, that the arrangement of Markan
narrative is so complex it's hard to imagine that it wasn’t at
least partially invented by the author himself. Tolbert
explicitly stated that Mark is fiction and advocated strongly for
literary analysis of the Gospels as opposed to form criticism.
- Thomas L. Brodie: Brodie is an accomplished
biblical scholar, who was a Dominican priest, but was banned from the
order in 2014 after his 2012 publication, Beyond the Quest for the
Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, made clear he did not
believe that Jesus had been a historical person. A core aspect of
Brodie’s work has been showing that the idea the Gospels are based on
oral traditions is unsupportable.
- Adam Winn: Winn is a devout Professor of
Christian Studies with a PhD in New Testament Studies from Fuller
Theological Seminary. Nevertheless, Winn’s 2010 publication Mark and
the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman
Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material, makes a
considerable contribution to the case that the Gospel of Mark is a
fictional story, with no basis in oral tradition.
Mainstream biblical scholarship, and the entire
popular concept of where our knowledge of Jesus comes from, is all
dependent on the supposition that the Gospels are rooted in some early
“oral tradition.” Yet the reality today is that the hypothesis of “oral
traditions” underlying the Gospel narratives has been completely and
thoroughly disproven by reputable scholarship. This reality does not
yet seem to have sunken in, but it is the reality.
“Oral tradition” is debunked, and with it all
possibility that the Gospels could tell us anything real about Jesus is
gone as well. The understanding of Gospel origins has basically taken
the following path from the earliest days of Christianity: First it was
believed the Gospels were independent eye-witness or second-hand
accounts. Then it was realized that some borrowing had occurred among
the Gospels. Then it was realized that the Gospels couldn’t be
eye-witness accounts. Then the idea was developed that if the Gospels
weren’t eye-witness accounts they had to be based on other written or
oral accounts from people who were eye-witnesses. There was no evidence
for written accounts, so it was supposed that the narratives are based
on oral stories handed down from eye-witnesses to Jesus’s life. We can
now see that the Gospels are purely literary works, the narratives of
which are developed from other sources that have no direct relationship
to a real Jesus, such as the story of Elijah and Elisha, the letters of
Paul, other “Old Testament” passages, possibly Homeric epics, the
letters of Philo, and the works of Josephus.
There isn’t one shred of credible evidence for an
“oral tradition” going back to the life of a real Jesus, and there is a
mountain of tangible evidence for the literary basis of Gospel origins.
The second major pillar that mainstream biblical
scholarship rests on is the idea of some “Q” document. If not oral
traditions, then maybe this theoretical “Q” document can save Jesus?
No. Q is another theoretical bridge to nowhere. And just like the “oral
traditions,” there significant tangible
evidence against it. Q is the hope that there is some unknown document
that goes back to the time of Jesus, something that someone actually
wrote down to record his sayings while he was alive. But the “Q”
material is clearly highly integrated with the Markan narrative. If the
narrative from Mark is a later literary invention, then dialog that
fits directly into that narrative, seamlessly tied into key scenes,
has to have either been invented along with the narrative or after it.
Whatever the source of the Q dialog is, it doesn’t pre-date the Markan
This is where the scholarship is today; this is
what the evidence clearly shows. The Gospel of Mark
is a fictional story. As Tolbert stated in 1989, “Mark is a self-consciously
crafted narrative, a fiction, resulting from literary imagination.”
(Sowing the Gospel pp 30) As goes Mark, so goes Jesus, and it’s only a
matter of time before everyone realizes that.