Fictional Jesus Synthesis

 By - 9/28/2018


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 entirely fictional.

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 academics.

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 been done.

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 scholars:

  • 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 narrative.

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.


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