On the Origin of Jesus by Means of Mythical Propagation

 By - 11/1/2018

Evolution of Jesus

At present the consensus among historians and biblical scholars is that the Christian religion was founded, or at least inspired, by some real person named Jesus. And in our present cultural environment there is strong support for academic consensus among “rational thinkers”. Thus, many rational thinkers conclude that Jesus must have been a real person because that is the consensus among experts in the fields of history and biblical studies.

We are in a time when many people, for various reasons, are doubting and challenging the academic consensus on many important issues, such as climate change, the safety of vaccinations, the theory of evolution, and the list goes on. Many rational people rightly recognize that such challenges to academic consensus are not credible and are in many cases motived either by profit or delusion or some political agenda, etc., and thus condemn such challenges to academic consensus. We are told things like, “95% of scientists agree that humans are causing climate change,” and “97% of the scientific community accepts the theory of evolution,” etc. Consensus is pointed to as evidence in and of itself that something is true. This is a very difficult issue to address because average people cannot directly observe and conduct experiments to verify many scientific claims, so we then use consensus as a way of judging if something is true or not. But is consensus alone enough?

In reality, consensus alone is not a very good indicator of truth. The consensus has been wrong about almost everything at some point. This is a very touchy subject because academic consensus is one of easiest and most direct ways to affirm the truth of a claim, and it makes sense that experts who study a subject will have better judgement about the validity of a claim that non-experts or non-professionals – and in most cases that is true.

However, there are two major fields in particular where academic consensus is highly questionable: economics and religious studies. The academic consensus is suspect in these fields because there are strong incentives for biased findings and the fields do not strictly follow scientific methods. Indeed, in both the fields of economics and religious studies there is a superficial veneer of scientific rigor, but on close inspection it is not difficult to see that real scientific processes are not embraced or widely utilized in these fields. Recall that back in 2006 the consensus among economists was that a housing bubble in America was impossible, yet it was not actually difficult to see that the consensus was wrong, even at that time.

But nevertheless, denying the historical existence of Jesus is currently equated in many circles with Holocaust denial, flat-eartherism, climate change denial, etc. The overwhelming academic consensus is that Jesus was a real person, so anyone challenging that consensus must be a crack-pot, right? The difference, however, is in clearly demonstrable facts that consensus academics are loath to address. Consensus alone cannot be used to establish truth, you have to also assess the data for yourself and see if the consensus view adequately explains the data.

I believe that the current consensus around the historical existence of Jesus is akin to the pre-Darwinian consensus among scientists that life on earth was the product of divine creation. Indeed, I think that the state of so-called “mythicism” (the proposal that Jesus was a “myth”, not real person) today is much like the state of “evolutionism” on the eve of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin in 1859. The concept of biological evolution had actually been around for thousands of years, and there was growing support for the idea among fringe philosophers and naturalists in the centuries prior to Darwin’s publication.

Prior to Darwin, many people could see that there was something wrong with the consensus view – they could see that it didn’t adequately explain all of the observed facts about life on earth. However, no one was able to really propose an alternative explanation for the existence of life on earth that was fully supported by data. Many different people in the 18th and 19th centuries proposed versions of evolutionary explanations for the development of life. None of these explanations were completely right and many had obvious flaws to them, but they were all getting at something many people could see but not fully explain about the development of life on earth. These various evolutionary proposals were viciously attacked by establishment scientists and soundly ridiculed. The fact that these various proposals had flaws in them was loudly touted by the opponents of evolution and used as a cudgel against any new evolutionary proposals. As new evolutionary proposals were put forward critics would often use flaws from prior proposals to attack the new ones, effectively lumping new propels into the same basket as prior flawed proposals. Darwin, of course, faced this very problem when he published his work. The difference, however, was that Darwin had collected a massive array of data to support his position. It was the insurmountable volume and quality of data that Darwin had amassed in his five-year voyage around the world that ultimately turned the tide.

I believe that “mythicism” has gone through essentially the same process, and “mythicism” is now at its “Origin of Species moment.” Yet there are differences between the state “mythicism” finds itself in today and the state of evolutionary theory after the publication of Origin of Species. One big difference is that evolutionary theory had practical implications and was needed to explain many relevant things, whereas there isn’t a real “need” for “mythicism”. In order words, the sciences had need for the theory of biological evolution to explain evidence that was increasingly difficult to explain any other way. Evolutionary theory was, in a sense, inevitable, because it would have been impossible to continue to advance scientifically without it. The same is not true for “mythicism”. There is no real need to prove that Jesus never existed, and thus it is far easier to continue to affirm his existence. And of course, there is huge incentive to continue to affirm his existence, both institutionally and for individual academics.

But let’s address the evidence. Let’s lay out the evidence and see which proposal best explains the evidence. The first problem with this, of course, is getting agreement on what the evidence is, and this is a central point, because many “Jesus historicists” are actually unaware of many points of evidence and some points of evidence are in contention. Indeed, I would say that the overwhelming majority of academic historians are actually unaware of much of the evidence regarding the historicity of Jesus and of the current state of biblical studies. Even most biblical scholars are actually unaware of many points of evidence. This is because, in many cases, claims that Jesus never existed are dismissed out of hand without the evidence even being reviewed. So, let’s lay out the evidence and address it.

The earliest writings about Jesus describe Jesus as a divine being with godly powers. The reasons for worshiping or believing in Jesus provided in the earliest writings are all based on godly powers.

The earliest writings about Jesus are thought to be the letters from Paul, the letter from James, the letter from Jude, the Apocalypse of John, and possibly the letter to the Hebrews. In all of these writings Jesus is described as a being with supreme powers. Jesus is variously said to be able to absolve the world of sins, overcome death, bring divine justice to the world, absolve individuals of sins, create a new perfect heavenly world, and destroy the evil material world. Jesus is also said to have existed since the beginning of time. These are the reasons that are provided for worshiping Jesus in the earliest sources. These are not attributes of a person.

The Epistle of James only mentions “the Lord Jesus Christ” and provides no description of Jesus as a human being. Yet the letter of James states that Elijah was human with divine power and provides examples of people who should be emulated from the Jewish scriptures (Isaac and Rahab).

The letter of James is an early writing that goes into extensive theological discussions. Yet within this letter Jesus is only referred to as a “the Lord” – a being who will bring divine justice to the world. The letter of James explicitly states that Elijah was a human being with the power of prayer and talks about Elijah’s deeds, yet the letter makes no mention of Jesus being human and describes no deeds of Jesus.

The letter also uses examples from the Jewish scriptures to convey the importance of works as opposed to faith alone. Again, in these examples the writer doesn’t use Jesus as an example of someone who performed works that lead to salvation. The writer provides many teachings and lessons in the letter but ascribes no teachings or actions to Jesus at all.

The Epistle of Jude only mentions “the Lord Jesus Christ” and describes him as a savior who will provide eternal life.

Like the letter of James, the letter of Jude also only refers to Jesus as “the Lord”. The letter from Jude makes references to the legend of Enoch and talks about prophecies being made about the coming of Jesus. Jude says that apostles have interpreted scriptures to predict the coming of the Lord Jesus, who will execute judgement on the world and bring eternal life to the godly. Jude gives no indication that Jesus had ever come to earth before; the letter talks about the coming of Jesus as some future event that will happen for the first time.

The Epistle of James tells readers to wait until the “coming” of the Lord, not the “return” of the Lord.

As previously mentioned, the letter of James only describes Jesus as “the Lord” and talks extensively about the deeds, powers, and teachings of figures from the Jewish scriptures, but ascribes no teachings or deeds to Jesus. The writer also, however, tells readers to, “Be patient, therefore, brothers until the coming of the Lord [Jesus].” (James 5:7) If Jesus were a person, then wouldn’t the writer tell readers to wait for his “return”?

The Letter to the Hebrews states that Jesus is a heavenly High Priest.

While the letter to the Hebrews appears to describe Jesus as a person in several places, the letter itself makes it clear that the Jesus being described is a heavenly being.

“Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one;” (Hebrews 8:4-5)

The letter to the Hebrews discusses theology in great depth and makes it clear that Jesus’s sacrifice and actions all occurred in the heavens. It provides the theological explanation for why Jesus must be an immaterial being, not a being of flesh, who would be inferior. The letter to the Hebrews also “quotes” from Jesus many times, but always by quoting from the Jewish scriptures and saying that these passages from the scriptures are messages from Jesus that have been revealed through prophetic and divine interpretation.

Richard Carrier gives a full assessment of Hebrews in On the Historicity of Jesus and explains how the theology of Hebrews is significant evidence supporting the position that the original conception of Jesus was as a heavenly deity, not a real person.

The traditional Christian interpretation of Hebrews has always been, and remains, that Hebrews describes Jesus as a heavenly being because he was believed to be in heaven after he had died on earth, but this explanation falls flat for many reasons that Carrier provides. The theology of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus’s sacrifice itself must have taken place in the heavens. And the letter provides not one single detail of the life of a real person and provides no quotes from a real person, only quotes from scriptures.

Many statements in the letters of Paul also tell readers to wait until Jesus “comes” and Paul never says anything about a “return” of Jesus. Paul always describes the coming of Jesus as though it will be the first coming of Jesus at some time in the future.

Like the letters from James and Jude, the letters of Paul also tell readers multiple times to wait until some future time when Jesus will come, but never gives any indication that Jesus has ever come before. For example, “But our commonwealth is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)

Paul describes Jesus as a mystery being revealed through reading of the scriptures and ecstatic experiences.

Paul says multiple times in his letters that Jesus is a mystery. The following passage from Romans is but one example:

“Now to the one who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever!” (Romans 16:25-27)

In statements like this from Paul, Paul essentially says that Jesus is being revealed through the interpretation of scriptures. How could this possibly be if Jesus were a person who had just been alive some 10-20 years prior? These types of statements are pervasive in Paul’s writings and are foundational to the concept of Jesus that Paul presents.

Paul’s whole case about why people should listen to him, and why Paul’s message is important and has meaning, rests on Paul’s claim that Jesus is a mystery that cannot be known other than through divine revelation and the interpretations of prophets like himself. The whole crux of Paul’s message has no point if Jesus was someone who had just been on earth and proclaimed all of these things himself and made these teachings publicly known.

That Jesus is a mystery revealed through divine revelation is the whole driving factor behind Paul’s ministry.

Paul touts his knowledge of Jesus from “revelation” as superior to the knowledge of others because it has not come from any human source.

In Galatians Paul touts the superiority of his teachings over the teachings of other apostles because his teachings come from revelation.

“For I want you to know, brothers that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12)

Paul goes on multiple times to tout the superiority of his teachings because they come “directly” from Jesus. But if Paul knew that Jesus was a person who had been alive some 10-20 years prior, and that apostles such as James, John, Peter and others were direct witnesses to Jesus and his teachings, then how could Paul possibly tout his knowledge from “revelation” as superior? Clearly, if Jesus were a real person and Peter and the others were actual disciples of his then their knowledge would obviously be superior. The only reason Paul would make this statement is if Paul viewed “revelation” as the most direct form of knowledge that one could have of Jesus.

There are some statements in the letters of Paul that seem to indicate Paul knew Jesus was a real person.

There are a handful of statements in the letters of Paul that do seem to describe Jesus as a real person. However, the issue is that all of these passages are very isolated in context and don’t tie into broader themes in Paul’s writings. They can all either be explained as later additions to Paul’s letters or can be interpreted in non-literal ways.

Two of the most prominent examples of this are statements from Paul’s letter to the Galatians – one in which James is referred to as “the Lord’s brother” and another in which the text says that Jesus was “born of a woman”.  These passages, and others, have all been addressed by various scholars to show that the consensus reading of such passages is not conclusive.

Many defenders of the idea that Jesus was a real person point to a passage in Galatians that refers to James as, “the Lord’s brother”. Defenders of the historical Jesus point to this passage and say, “See, this proves that Paul knew Jesus was a real person, because only a real person would have a brother.”

“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.” (Galatians 1:18-19)

There are many problems with such a simple assessment however. It is possible that “only James, the Lord’s brother,” is a later addition to the text, or that “the Lord’s brother” is a later addition to the text. It is also possible that this is original to the text but the phrase “the Lord’s brother” isn’t meant literally. The term “brother” was commonly used among the early Jesus worshiping community.

In fact, such explanations for this passage are well supported by multiple scholars, going all the way back to Origin in the 2nd century. Not only this, but there is overwhelming evidence that none of the early Christian writers identified the James Paul was talking about here as a literal brother of Jesus as I explain in Chapter 9 of Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed. It was not until the late 2nd century that people started thinking that this James was a literal brother of Jesus.

Richard Carrier gives perhaps the fullest assessment of the passage itself in On the Historicity of Jesus (pages 582-592).

Another passage pointed to by Jesus historicists is a line in Galatians that says Jesus was “born of a woman”.

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4:4-5)

Again, there are explanations for this passage that show a simple reading is not so clear. In Chapter 9 of Deciphering the Gospels I show that the “woman” being mentioned in verse 4 by Paul is an allegorical woman as Paul himself states in verse 24. Richard Carrier also reaches this conclusion with a fuller explanation in On the Historicity of Jesus (pages 577-578).

There are a few other isolated passages as well that seem to indicate that Jesus was a person, but all of these are explained by scholars as either later interpolations added to the text by different authors or as misreadings like those previously described. There isn’t a single clear definitive statement from Paul that shows Paul thought of Jesus as a real person who had recently lived, while there are many statements from Paul that show Paul thought of Jesus as a divine being that no one had direct knoweldge of.

The early Jesus cult may have evolved out of the worship of Joshua.

Multiple scholars have made that case that the original worship of “Jesus” evolved out of the worship of “Joshua”. Indeed, “Jesus and “Joshua” are just two different translations of the same Hebrew name – “Jesus” and “Joshua” are really one and the same.

In Not the Impossible Faith (2009), Richard Carrier shows that Philo of Alexandria, a prolific Jewish writer from the first half of the first century, had associated Joshua, a figure from Jewish mythology, with the Logos, a.k.a. “Word of Creation”.

The German scholar Hermann Detering has recently published a work that goes into much deeper detail on the relationship between Joshua and the origins of Jesus worship in his book, The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus and the Beginning of the Joshua/Jesus Cult.

While the evidence is not conclusive, it does provide one plausible explanation for the origins of Jesus worship. One possibility is that, in some fashion, some Jewish religious movement emerged rooted in gnostic interpretations of stories about Joshua. Perhaps influenced by Philo (or the other way around), they saw Joshua as some eternal savior who now resided in heaven and who would come to bring justice to the world. This would have been the “Jesus” worshiped by James, Jude, Paul and other early “Christians”.

This was a savior figure whose true identity was “revealed” through the study and interpretation of Jewish scriptures. The Joshua/Jesus hypothesis may not be correct, but it is one model for explaining the earliest emergence of the cult without a real Jesus at the core.

And regardless of whether this particular explanation is correct or not, what we do know for sure is that the idea of other powerful heavenly deities and saviors existed in Jewish culture at this time and there were thousands of different gods and heavenly deities being worshiped in the region.

There is strong evidence that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional story (the Jesus character is not based on a real Jesus person and none of the scenes are based on real events).

This is one of the most important and far-reaching findings of modern biblical scholarship. That the Gospel of Mark is a fictional story is actually a conclusion that has been reached by multiple scholars, often independently. This view goes back at least to the 19th century scholar Gustav Volkmer. 

In Deciphering the Gospels I explain in great detail why the evidence shows that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional story, written with no intention that it be taken as literary true.

The following is a list of scholars and works that have advocated the view that the Gospel of Mark as a fictional story:
  • Gustav Volkmer: The Religion of Jesus and Its First Development According to the Present State of Science; 1857
  • Marc Stéphane: The Passion of Jesus: Made of History or Object of Belief; 1959
  • Michael Goulder: Various works including Luke: A New Paradigm; 1989
  • Mary Ann Tolbert: Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective; 1989
  • Paul Nadim Tarazi: Paul and Mark; 1999
  • Thomas L. Brodie: Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery; 2012
  • Robert M. Price: Many works, including The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man; 2003
  • Tom Dykstra: Mark, Canonizer of Paul, A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark’s Gospel; 2012
The “oral traditions” hypothesis for the source of the Gospel narrative is solidly disproven.

The Gospel of Mark is based on at least three clear distinct literary sources: the letters of Paul, the story of Elijah and Elisha from 1 and 2 Kings, and the books of the prophets and psalms from the Hebrew scriptures. I detail Mark’s use of these three sources in Deciphering the Gospels. The teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark are actually the teachings of Paul, copied from Paul’s letters. The personality and relationships of Jesus are all based on Paul. The events and flow of the storyline are based on the story of Elijah and Elisha, and many specific scenes are literary references to psalms and the books of the prophets.

Mark’s use of these sources has actually been documented by many scholars. Yet, despite the fact that many scholars have concretely established that the Gospel of Mark is heavily based on these sources, the real implications of this have yet to be acknowledged by advocates of the mainstream consensus.

The foundation of modern Jesus historicity is based on the hypothesis that the core narrative of Gospel of Mark and other gospels is based on oral traditions that developed among a community of people who witnessed the life of the real Jesus. But this hypothesis is soundly disproven by all of the solid evidence showing that the Gospel narrative is based on literary references. What the mainstream establishment has not come to grips with is the fact that the disproving of the oral traditions hypothesis completely pulls the rug out from under the assertion that Jesus was a real person.

Scholars and works that refute the oral traditions hypothesis are as follows:
  • Marc Stéphane: The Passion of Jesus: Made of History or Object of Belief; 1959
  • Michael Goulder: Various works including Luke: A New Paradigm; 1989
  • Wolfgang Roth: Hebrew Gospel: Cracking the Code of Mark; 1988
  • Adam Winn: Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material; 2010
  • Robert M. Price: Many works, including The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man; 2003
  • Tom Dykstra: Mark, Canonizer of Paul, A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark’s Gospel; 2012
All of the Gospels (other than Mark) show evidence of dependence on the Gospel of Mark.

This is another important point that I make in Deciphering the Gospels. In chapters 3, 6, and 7 I show that not only are the canonical gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John dependent on the Gospel of Mark, but all of the non-canonical gospels that provide any narrative description of Jesus share text with the Gospel of Mark as well.

The implications of this are quite profound given that it was long believed that each of the canonical Gospels was independently written and given that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional story.

The majority of scholars now support the position that each of the three other canonical Gospels is dependent on the Gospel of Mark. It is universally accepted that the gospels of Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark, and most scholars now accept that the author of John had knowledge of the Markan narrative as well.

Once we see that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional story based on literary references, the fact that all other writings about Jesus are based on the Gospel of Mark is a significant blow to the position that Jesus was a real person. Clearly, the Jesus person that all Christians worship is really just a fictional character invented by the author of the story we call the Gospel of Mark.

Every writing about Jesus the person shows evidence of dependence on the Gospel stories.

Writings about Jesus can essentially be categorized into two groups: Gospel Influenced and Non-Gospel Influenced. Every single writing about Jesus the person contains evidence of dependency on the Gospel of Mark or on works that were derived from the Gospel of Mark. None of the writings that are independent from the Gospels provide any description of Jesus the person; all of those writings describe Jesus as a divine being and ascribe no teachings or deeds to him. 

Below is a classification of the major writings about Jesus regarding their relationship to the Gospel narrative.

Non-Gospel Mark& Derivatives
Authentic Letters of Paul Fictional Story
1 Thessalonians Mark
Galatians Gospels
1 Corinthians Matthew
Philippians Luke
Philemon John
2 Corinthians Pseudo-Historical account
Romans Acts of the Apostles
Colossians Letters
2 Thessalonians (uncertian) 2 Peter
Pseudo-Paul 1 John
Ephesians 2 John
1 Timothy 3 John
2 Timothy Non-canonical
Titus Gospel of Thomas
Other letters Egerton Gospel
James Gospel of Peter
JudeOxyrhynchus Gospel
1 Peter
Hebrews
Apocalypse of John (Revelation)

 There are no established pre-Gospel writings that describe any teachings or deeds of Jesus or that describe Jesus the person in any way.

When we look at the writings that are clearly independent of the Gospels, none of those writings ascribe any teachings or actions to Jesus. The letters from Paul, James, and Jude, as well as the Apocalypse of John, are all likely the earliest writings about Jesus, and none of these writings provide any description of Jesus, ascribe any teachings to him, or talk about any deeds of his. Indeed, the letters from James, Jude, and John give no indication that Jesus was a person at all. And as already discussed, while there are a few passages in the letters of Paul that can be construed as indicating that Jesus was a person, even the letters of Paul give not one single detail about a human Jesus and ascribe no teachings to him. Like James and Jude, First Peter also refers to Jesus simply as "the Lord Jesus Christ" and provides no description of Jesus the person. The letter to the Hebrews explcitly says that Jesus is a heavenly being whose actions have taken place in heaven.

If Jesus were a person, then why didn’t the first people to write about him describe him in any way?

The Gospel of Mark, and all other writings about Jesus the person, were produced after the First Jewish-Roman War of 70 CE.

Although the earliest Christian scholars all believed that the four canonical Gospels were written before the First Jewish-Roman War of 70 CE, it is now universally accepted by biblical scholars that all of the Gospels were written after the First Jewish-Roman War. Some scholars put the writing of the first Gospel, Mark, as late as the 90s CE. I think that the Gospel of Mark was written shortly after the First Jewish-Roman War, sometime in the 70s CE, as I explain Deciphering the Gospels.

But regardless of when exactly the Gospel of Mark was written, it is clear that it wasn’t written until after the First Jewish-Roman War. If the life of a real person named Jesus were the inspiration for the worship of Jesus, then why was nothing written about the human Jesus until after the war?

There is no good explanation for why this would be if the Gospels were inspired by the life of a real person named Jesus. However, that the first story about Jesus wasn’t written until after the war does have good explanations if a human Jesus isn’t what inspired it.

The two primary and compatible explanations for why the first Gospel was written are that it was written in reaction to the war and to the death of Paul. These two events are what inspired the writing of the story, not the life of someone named Jesus.

Paul died in the late 60s CE and the First Jewish-Roman War lasted from 67 to 73 CE, with the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple occurring in 70 CE.

Gustav Volkmer and Marc Stéphane both attribute the writing of the first Gospel to the death of Paul, as does Tom Dykstra. I attribute the writing of the first Gospel to both the death of Paul and the First Jewish-Roman War, seeing the message of the story as being that the war was a result of not following the teachings of Paul in regard to harmony between Jews and Gentiles.

So there are explanations for why the first Gospel was written when it was, but those explanations have nothing to do with the life of a real Jesus. These explanations are supported by multiple solid lines of evidence from within the story as I explain in Deciphering the Gospels.

Once the Gospel of Mark was written, then many other stories about Jesus the person quickly followed. This shows that there was an interest in the “Jesus person” described in the story called the Gospel of Mark, so if there had been any real Jesus that bore any resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels then surely people would have written about him much earlier.

There are no credible accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus.

The crucifixion of Jesus during or on the eve of Passover is not credible, yet every account of Jesus’s crucifixion states that this is when it happened. In addition, all accounts of the crucifixion are clearly copied from the account in the Gospel of Mark, which is based heavily on literary allusions. The scene in the Gospel of Mark is implausible on multiple levels, and that all other accounts copy from it not only shows that none of the accounts of the crucifixion are credible, it shows that the writers of the other accounts had no concept at all of any historical reality regarding such an event.

According to Paul, all of his knowledge of Jesus came from revelation. Paul’s mentions of the crucifixion are all metaphorical and theological in nature and lack any kind of detail that could tie his discussions of the crucifixion to any real event. The letters of James and Jude don’t mention the crucifixion at all. The letter to the Hebrews describes the crucifixion in vague ways that don’t tie to the Gospel narrative.

There is only one single seemingly historical account of the crucifixion, and that is the account that first appears in the Gospel of Mark and is then copied by everyone else. That account is based entirely on literary references to the Jewish scriptures and is entirely implausible.

But, as Robert M. Price points out in The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, the fact that there are no credible accounts of the crucifixion makes the claim that there was ever any real crucifixion to begin with highly doubtful. Furthermore, the fact that all accounts of the crucifixion rely on the narrative from Mark shows that even once there was interest in describing the event, there was no information other than the fictional narrative from Mark to go on.

The crucifixion is the single most important event in the “life” of Jesus. The crucifixion is of supreme theological significance to Christianity. How could we not actually have a single account of the most important event of Christianity? If a real crucifixion event were actually influential in the formation of the religion, then surely there would have been some real account of it, yet there is not.

The only materials that give any indication as to why a human Jesus would be worshiped are materials that are all shown to be dependent on the Gospel of Mark. Without the Gospel of Mark and its derivatives there is no explanation for why people would have been worshiping a human Jesus.

There is nothing in the pre-Gospel writings that explains why anyone would have worshiped a person named Jesus. The letters of James, Jude, and Paul provide no description of Jesus the person. They ascribe no teachings to someone named Jesus and they describe no deeds of someone named Jesus. All of these writings tell us why these people worshiped Jesus the heavenly being.

The reasons for worshiping Jesus that are given by Paul and James are variously that he had overcome death, that he would absolve the world of sins, that he would destroy evil people, that he would bring justice to the world and that he would create a new world in heaven for the souls of the righteous to live in eternally.

None of those things are things that a real person could have done. So, if those are the reasons that the earliest writers say they worshiped Jesus, then how would a human being have inspired such worship?

Later Christians worshiped the human Jesus described in the Gospels – a miracle working teacher who could magically heal the sick, raise the dead, walk on water, rise from the grave, and conveyed mystical teachings.

But we now see, as described by myself in Deciphering the Gospels and Tom Dykstra in Mark Canonizer of Paul, that “Jesus’s teachings” actually come from Paul. The teachings from the Gospels that people attribute to Jesus come almost entirely from Paul. Paul tells us that his teachings were unique to him – that they either came to him via revelation or that he divined them from the reading of scripture.

So we have no information at all as to why anyone would worship a “real human Jesus”. A real human Jesus wouldn’t have performed miracles, raised the dead, or overcome death. The earliest writers about Jesus don’t even pass on any teachings of Jesus and say nothing about worshiping him because of his teachings or wisdom.

Once we recognize that the Gospel narratives are entirely fictional and provide no description of a real person whatsoever, we see that there are no materials that provide any explanation for why any of the early Jesus worshipers would have founded their worship of Jesus on a real person. The only being named Jesus that any of the earliest writers describe is a heavenly deity called “the Lord Jesus Christ” whom they worshiped because of his godly powers.

There are no writings from Jesus.

While it has always been known that there are no writings from Jesus himself, this has typically been dismissed as just a triviality. However, this is actually an issue of significant relevance. This is a very controversial issue because there is no solidly established estimate for the literacy rate in Israel during the first century. People like Bart Ehrman claim that the literacy rate was quite low, and many scholars place the literary rate in the region at this time between 1% and 3%. However, there are many good reasons to think that the literacy rate was substantially higher than this, particularly the literacy rate among the religious movements that gave rise to early Jesus worship.

The following is a page dedicated to exploring the subject of Jewish literacy “during the time of Jesus”: Jewish Literacy Rates in Antiquity

I don’t endorse all the views expressed on that page, but it does present a reasonable consolidation of evidence that the literacy rate in Israel during the first century was higher than common estimates suggest. It should be noted that the author of that page is a believing Christian who thinks that a higher literacy rate would lend credibility to the works of the Bible and thus to lend credibility to the claim that Gospel narratives are historically true.

Nevertheless, much of the research and documentation put forward on the page is reasonable. Furthermore, the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that literacy must have been far more widespread at least within the religious movements that Jesus cult was a part of. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain almost a thousand different writings produced largely between the second century BCE and the First Jewish-Roman War of 67-73 CE. These writings must have been produced by hundreds of different people.

We know from the Dead Sea scrolls, other Jewish writings from this time, and early Christian writings, that the culture early Jesus worship was a part of was a religious culture that was obsessed with reading and commentary on scriptures. Indeed, that we have so many surviving writings related to early Christianity and Judaism from this time is a testament to how involved this culture was in the reading of scriptures, writing of commentaries on those scripters, and the invention of new stories based on prior scriptures. We also know that many of the documents of early Christianity are letters, not formal documents. That the early Jesus worshipers were writing letters obviously implies that there was a literate audience for those letters, and Paul wrote letters to many different people.

Much of the case against the expectation that Jesus should be able to write has been built on descriptions of Jesus based on the Gospels, such as the claim that he was a carpenter from a tiny village in Galilee. But such descriptions are themselves dubious and obviously symbolic in origin, they are not credible. We can’t assume that some real Jesus was actually a carpenter, this is a symbolic profession that references Jesus’s supposed role of building a new paradise in heaven. And even the place of Jesus’s origin provided in the Gospels is symbolic.

But the Jesus character described in the Gospels was someone who clearly would have been a literate person, because the Jesus of the Gospels was constantly quoting from scriptures. Of course, the reality is that it was the authors who used the scriptures to create Jesus’s dialog, but if defenders of the historical Jesuss use the Gospels as their guide then we must use the Jesus character from the Gospels as our reference point. Nevertheless, Jesus is clearly portrayed as a literate person in the Gospel narratives as he is constantly making direct references to passages from the scriptures.

This again gets back to the question of why a real human Jesus would have been worshiped? If the “real Jesus” didn’t perform miracles and the “real Jesus” didn’t rise from the dead, then why would people have worshiped him? How would he have attained a following? There is really no explanation for this. The explanation often offered is that the wisdom of his teachings are what inspired his followers, but this doesn’t make any sense.

What we know about the culture that the Jesus movement developed in is that it highly valued scriptural literacy, and indeed Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as being scripturally literate.  If Jesus were able to read the scriptures then he would have been capable of writing. If the worship of Jesus was rooted in his wisdom and knowledge of scripture, then how would he attain such wisdom and knowledge of scripture if he couldn’t read and write? If Jesus was a real person who was capable of writing, then why didn’t he write anything down himself?

This is the paradox that modern Jesus historicists have gotten themselves into. The traditional Christian explanation is that Jesus was worshiped because he performed miracles and rose from the dead. These were his acts that showed people he was divine. If Jesus were real and he did those things, that would indeed explain why people worshiped him. But modern secular scholars claim that the “real Jesus” didn’t perform miracles or rise from the dead, so he must have been worshiped for his teachings. But how would a supposed backwoods carpenter have gained a following for his teachings in a culture that valued knowledge of the Torah and the law, which required knowing how to read? And if he knew how to read then why didn't he write anything himself? 

The fact that no writings of Jesus survive to this day isn’t the issue either. We know that there never were any writings of Jesus because there aren’t any sources from early Christians that attest to any writings of Jesus. If there had been a Jesus who produced writings, early Christians would have known about it.

So, the fact that there are no writings from Jesus is really a huge issue, because the only explanation for why someone like Jesus, if he were real, wouldn’t have produced writings is that he was illiterate and was unable to do so. But everything we know about the religious culture that early Jesus worship emerged in is that it was a culture that highly valued literacy and had the expectation that religious leaders would be highly knowledgeable of the Jewish scriptures and be able to write their own teachings, as Paul and other early Christians clearly did. So why would an illiterate, non-miracle working, non-rising from the dead Jesus have been worshiped exactly?

There are no contemporary accounts of Jesus from any sources.

While it is commonly acknowledged that we don’t have any contemporary accounts of Jesus from non-Christian sources, the reality is that there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus from any sources, Christian or non-Christian. And while it is often pointed out that there are reasonable potential independent witnesses to the life of Jesus, such as Philo of Alexandria or Justus of Tiberius, the fact is that even the so-called disciples and relatives of Jesus gave no account of him.

According to Christian lore, the “James” who became a prominent leader of the movement after Jesus’s death was his literal brother. If a literal brother of Jesus became a leader of the movement and wrote letters after his death, then this James would have been the ideal witness to the life and deeds of this person. Yet the letter of James tells us not one single thing about Jesus. Maybe this “James brother of Jesus” couldn’t actually write, and thus wasn’t the real author of that letter. Still, if Jesus were being worshiped, as Paul clearly indicates that he was during a time when James was alive, then why wouldn’t this James have at least dictated some account of Jesus to someone who could write? Obviously, Paul could write. Obviously other early Christians could write because we have their writings.

And again, if this James were a leader of the movement then surely he actually would have been literate. As already discussed, literacy and the ability to read, interpret, and comment on scriptures was an expectation of religious leaders in this culture. So either “Jesus’s brother James” was also illiterate and thus didn’t write anything about him (but then how was he a leader of a movement?), “Jesus’s brother James” was literate but decided not to write anything about Jesus, “Jesus’s brother James” did write something about Jesus but it was lost and none of the early Christians were aware of this document, or James wasn’t actually a brother of Jesus and James didn’t write anything about the life of Jesus because the Jesus James worshiped was a heavenly deity.

The early Christian scholars from the second century on all thought that the Gospels were accounts written by people who actually had firsthand knowledge of Jesus or were records of testimony from firsthand witnesses to the life of Jesus. We now know that this is not the case, but that again raises the question of why there wouldn’t be any such firsthand accounts. Obviously the early Christian scholars found it plausible that Jesus's associates would have been able to write. There is nothing in the scholarship of early Christianity that calls into question the ability of Jesus's followers to read and write. The early Christian scholars thought that the Gospels and other letters were all produced by eyewitnesses, so clearly they had the expectation that such people would be able to read and write.

Even if James couldn’t write an account of the life of Jesus, why wouldn’t any of the other supposed followers of Jesus have written anything? Again, this was a religious movement within a culture that was more literate than average for the time. Jewish religious leaders at this time were expected to be able to read and write, so surely someone involved in the worship of Jesus would have been able to write and would have seen fit to record something about the teachings or deeds of this person if such a person had existed.

Simply glossing over the fact that there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus, either from himself or others, is gross negligence of scholarship, especially given the fact that Christianity was founded on the assumption that the Gospels were essentially firsthand accounts of his life and teachings. There just isn’t any logical explanation for how this person could have attained a following and inspired this religion within a culture that prized literacy while no one who had direct knowledge of him wrote anything about what he said or did; especially given the fact that so many writings were produced by early Christians and other apocalyptic and messianic movements of the time.

There are no credible independent accounts of Jesus from any sources.

Not only are there no contemporary accounts of Jesus from any sources, there are no credible accounts of Jesus from any independent sources at all. As reviewed in Deciphering the Gospels, there isn’t a single account of Jesus that is credible and is not either based directly on the Gospels or on stories told by Christians who believed in the Gospels.

The account deemed most likely to be a legitimate independent attestation to the existence of Jesus is a passage known at the Testimonium Flavianum from Josephus written in 94 CE. But the vast majority of scholars accept that this passage is at least partly inauthentic. I explain in Deciphering the Gospels, chapter 10, why the passage is either wholly inauthentic or entirely dependent on the Gospels.

That this passage is not a credible attestation to Jesus is acknowledged by many scholars, including many early Protestant scholars. R. Joseph Hoffmann, Louis H. Feldman, Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier, Ken Olsen, and many others all present strong cases against the passage having any legitimacy at all, i.e. that it is entirely inauthentic, not just partly inauthentic.

So, the reality is that there isn’t a single writing in existence that provides any credible description of a human Jesus. The only writings that describe a human Jesus are the Gospels, writings that are derived from the Gospels, and accounts of things said by people who believed in the Gospels.

The Gospels are the one and only source of information about Jesus the person, and all the Gospels derive from the Gospel of Mark, which is a fictional story. Every single account of Jesus the person is ultimately derived from the fictional story that is now called the Gospel of Mark.

There is no evidence of a burial site of Jesus.

It has long been acknowledged that the supposed burial site of Jesus has never been found. Early Christian scholars from the second through sixth centuries searched for his burial site but were never able to find evidence of it. The lack of evidence for Jesus’s burial site was used to support the claim that Jesus had ascended bodily to heaven. The argument was that no one knew where Jesus’s tomb was because he left his original tomb and after he had come back to life he ascended bodily to heaven, removing all traces of his existence from the face of the earth. Thus, he was not actually buried anywhere as his body had disappeared.

But if Jesus were a real person, and not divine, then of course he would have to be buried somewhere. So, if there was a real Jesus who had followers and inspired the religion, then wouldn’t those followers have venerated his grave?

The argument against this has been either that he wasn’t actually worshiped until some time after he had died, that his followers were uninterested in his human self, that his body would have been cast into an unmarked mass grave, that his followers didn’t know where he was buried, or that his remains were intentionally destroyed to discourage remembrance and veneration of him.

Some of these things are presumably plausible, but there is no evidence for any of them. Furthermore, some of them aren’t even plausible. For one thing, there is no record of any of this happening. All of these scenarios assume some end to the life of Jesus that doesn’t correspond to any account of the events of his death and burial. So, in other words, the only way to salvage the plausibility of the existence of a real human Jesus is to deny all accounts of how he died, because there is no plausible explanation for why his followers wouldn’t have venerated his grave if any of the accounts of his death bore even the slightest resemblance to reality.

What we know about this culture is that if Jesus were a real person who had followers during his lifetime or was worshiped shortly after his death, as would be implied by a historical reading of Paul’s letters, then his worshipers would have known where his burial site was and venerated it, even if he was no longer in it. If, somehow, his followers did believe that he rose from the dead, they would have worshiped his tomb as the site of the miracle.

That this is the case is made obvious by the fact that so many later people wanted to find his grave in order to do just that. And even today people flock to places where they believe Jesus or his associates lived or died.

The fact that early Christian scholars used the lack of knowledge of a tomb of Jesus as evidence that he had ascended to heaven and was no longer buried on earth shows just how obvious it is that if Jesus had been buried somewhere his grave would have been known and venerated. Everyone knew that if Jesus were buried somewhere that people would have known where the grave was, which is why the only “plausible” explanation for the fact that no one knew of such a grave was that Jesus’s body was entirely gone and not buried anywhere. But, of course, that explanation assumes Jesus was actually divine and that his body really did supernaturally leave the planet.

Other than supernatural explanations, there is no good explanation for how the tomb of a real-life Jesus would have been unknown. The best possible explanation is that the real-life Jesus was held in so little regard that people didn’t care about his grave, but if that’s the case then why was Jesus worshiped?

Jesus is very similar to other mythical savior figures from Jewish lore of the time, such as the Book of Enoch, Apocalypse of Zephaniah, Martyrdom of Isaiah and many other stories from around the same time as the rise of Jesus worship.

In chapter 8 of Deciphering the Gospels I provide multiple examples of Jewish stories written shortly prior to the rise of Jesus worship that feature savior figures that are very similar to Jesus. These saviors are sometimes called Son of Man, just as Jesus was, and they are often tortured and executed by demons or various other heavenly powers. The mission of these saviors was often to either destroy the world to rid it of sinners, to redeem sinners, to absolve various individuals or groups of sin, to overcome the sinful rulers of the world, etc. This is all of course very similar to the story of Jesus.

Not only this, but it is clear that those involved in the early Jesus cult believed heavily in these stories. Paul referrers to characters from these stories in his letters as if they are real. In the letter of Jude the author explicitly states that Enoch had foretold the current state of affairs of the world. In the letter of James the author discusses multiple mythical figures from Jewish lore as if they were real people, such as Elijah, whom he states is an example of a real person who could use the power of prayer to perform miracles. So clearly these people believed heavily in the reality of these stories.

Jesus was simply a mythical figure like those of these other stories that these people believed in. Indeed, the attributes of the heavenly Jesus are almost identical to the Son of Man described in the Book of Enoch, which we know for certain is a story that this group of people was familiar with and believed to be true based on the letters of Jude and Paul.

Many early Christians worshiped an immaterial Jesus who had never been human.

As I show in chapter 5 of Deciphering the Gospels, there were many Christian sects, at least in the second through fourth centuries, that worshiped an immaterial Jesus who had never become incarnate. We don’t know with certainty the nature of the Jesus worshiped by the earliest “Christians” (or this discussion would be a moot point), but we do know that at least by the early second century there were people who worshiped an immaterial Jesus and also people who worshiped a human Jesus “of the flesh”.

Advocates of Jesus historicity have always argued that beliefs in an immaterial Jesus arose long after his death among various confused groups for theological reasons. But this doesn’t really make any sense. We don’t have definitive evidence as to the how people like Paul, James, John, Peter and other early Jesus worshipers viewed Jesus. There is nothing from the earliest sources that unequivocally states either that he was a person or that he had never been a person. But we do know that once the Gospel stories were produced and became popular that many people believed those stories and the view that Jesus was a real person became widespread.

The issue is that the Gospels really give no reason to believe that Jesus wasn’t a real flesh-and-blood person. Anyone whose impression of Jesus came from a literal reading of the Gospels would believe that Jesus was a real-live person. So, if the Gospels provide no reason to think that Jesus was immaterial, then why would the belief that Jesus was immaterial arise after the spread of the Gospel stories? There really is no logical explanation for how belief in an immaterial Jesus would arise after the dissemination of the Gospels.

This means that belief in an immaterial Jesus had to have existed before the writing of the Gospels. And from what we know, the primary evangelist of Jesus before the Gospels was Paul. This would indicate that the Jesus Paul was promoting was an immaterial Jesus. This is supported by the fact that Marcion was a Christian from the late-first through mid-second century who was an advocate of the view that Jesus was immaterial, and Marcion claimed that his views on the nature of Jesus were derived from Paul. Marcion also claimed that those advocating that Jesus was a real person had twisted Paul’s teachings and had intentionally inserted false statements into the letters of Paul to make Paul’s letters appear to conform to their doctrines.

So, all of this is strong supporting evidence that indeed the Jesus preached by Paul was an immaterial being, not a real person. Now, the views that we have on the immaterial nature of Jesus were recorded in the second through fourth centuries by opponents of this view. So we only have biased sources and unfortunately we don’t have any direct sources about the views of the earliest Jesus worshipers. Most of the views about the immaterial nature of Jesus that we do have are also clearly influenced by the Gospels. For example, many of the views basically accept the Gospels narratives as true, but state that Jesus was really just a ghost or apparition. Some claim that he wasn’t born of Mary and that he just appeared on earth as an illusion without ever having been born, etc.

But the Gospels themselves give no reason to think this, which means that the belief that Jesus was immaterial had to have come from somewhere other than the Gospels.  The most reasonable explanation is that the original worshipers of Jesus were worshiping an immaterial Jesus, but that after the Gospel stories became popularized later generations integrated the Gospel narrative with their existing beliefs about the immaterial Jesus. They may have even considered the Gospels to have affirmed their belief that the heavenly Jesus would come to earth.

In other words, it makes sense that existing beliefs in an immaterial Jesus could be harmonized with the Gospel narrative, but it does not make sense that belief in an immaterial Jesus would arise after the spreading of the Gospel story. It had to be that pre-Gospel Christians were worshiping an immaterial Jesus, and that after the Gospels were written the existing sects harmonized their views on the immaterial Jesus with the Gospel stories, while new sects that were introduced to Jesus via the Gospel stories had no reason to think that Jesus was immaterial and so all believed that he was a real human being.

Early Christians who believed that Jesus was human made significant efforts to prove that Jesus was real in the 2nd-4th centuries, but the only “evidence” they were able to produce was the Gospel stories.

What I also show in Chapter 5 of Deciphering the Gospels is that the conflict between those who believed that Jesus was human and those who believed he was only spiritual resulted in a need for those who believed Jesus had “become flesh” to prove their case. What we find in the arguments made by the defenders of the “flesh of Christ” is that all of their arguments rely entirely on the Gospels and interpretations of Jewish scriptures. They did attempt to produce real evidence, like artifacts or outside testimony, but no such real evidence was forthcoming, so the Gospels served as the basis for their case.

So, with the “flesh of Jesus” in doubt and of extreme doctrinal importance, the only evidence ever provided to “prove” that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood person was the Gospel stories, which we can now see are entirely fictional.

Conclusion

In light of all of this evidence we can now consider two general explanations for the rise of Jesus worship and Christianity: firstly that it was inspired by a real person named Jesus and secondly that it was inspired by the worship of a heavenly deity named Jesus.

The following is a scenario that explains how worship of Jesus could have started with worship of a real person in light of the evidence that has been presented:

There was some person named Jesus who was born in Galilee around the beginning of the first century. This Jesus had a brother named James and some other family members. He produced no writings, but apparently garnered a small following of worshipers based on his teachings and lifestyle. Even though Jesus's teachings were heavily based on the Jewish scriptures, he was apprently illiterate. For some unknown reason this person was executed, either by the Jews or the Romans, sometime between 20 CE and 40 CE.  Either no one knew where Jesus was buried or they didn’t care about where he was buried, though later Christians were obsessed with knowing where his original tomb was.

After his death, this person’s brother, James, carried on his movement and became the leader of a modest group of people who worshiped Jesus in Jerusalem. Jesus’s brother, who had presumably grown up with him, thought that Jesus was a godly being with immense powers who could “save the world” from beyond the grave. The group led by James evangelized about Jesus in Jerusalem and surrounding areas. Yet despite being the leader of a modest group with outreach and organizing functions, James was unable to write and thus recorded nothing about the life of his brother. Nor did any of the people who knew and followed Jesus while he was alive record anything about him.

There is one surviving letter that is purported to be written by the James who was a leader of the movement, but it provides no description of Jesus, so this letter must not have actually been written by the “real James”, because if this letter were written by the “real James” who was Jesus’s literal brother, then surely he would have either mentioned something about the life of Jesus in the letter or would have written something else about the life of his brother. So, this letter must be a forgery. The same goes for the letter from Jude. It must also be a later forgery, for why else would this person not have recorded anything about the life of Jesus?

Someone named Paul came along who was the first person to really spread the news about Jesus far and wide. But Paul had never met Jesus. Paul claims that all of his knowledge of Jesus came to him in mystical visions and that he learned nothing about Jesus from any other people. Even though Paul tells us more about Jesus than any of the other early writers, Paul must have been a liar. Paul must be lying when he claims that he didn’t learn about Jesus from anyone else, because otherwise nothing that Paul says has any relevance to the real human Jesus. Paul must have actually learned about the real human Jesus from James and Peter and others in Jerusalem and then he must have lied to all the people he preached to, claiming to have unique divine knowledge, that was actually common knowledge and known by many other people. So even though Paul is the main early source of information about Jesus, in order to believe that Paul tells us anything meaningful about the real Jesus we must assume that the fundamental basis of Paul’s teachings (his unique divine knowledge of Jesus) is a lie. When Paul talks about things like Jesus being a mystery that was being revealed through revelations, this is just an oddity of Paul’s writing style and can be ignored with no further explanation.

Despite the fact that Jesus must have been worshiped because of the wisdom of his teachings (what else could a real non-military leader do to inspire their worship?), neither Paul nor any of the other early writers about Jesus pass on any teachings of Jesus or tell anyone about anything that Jesus did. The early leaders of the Jesus movement told their followers to worship Jesus not because of what he said or did, but because he had risen from the grave and was going to come from heaven to punish bad people while rewarding good people with enteral life in a new immaterial world. Why none of the early writers about Jesus described who he was, his teachings, or things that he did is simply an unsolvable mystery.

After the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, someone finally decided to record the details of Jesus’s life and teachings. Unfortunately, by this time all of the original followers of Jesus had died, thus this writer had little to go on, so he used the story of Elijah and Elisha as the template for his account and used the writings of Paul to fill in the teachings of Jesus since no actual teachings of Jesus had been recorded. But nevertheless, elements of the story were somehow inspired by oral accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, despite the fact that virtually every teaching of Jesus in the story is culled from the letters of Paul and all of the scenes are based on literary references.

After this story became known several other writers decided to finally record their accounts of Jesus, based on additional information they knew about Jesus the person that had been passed on to them. Nevertheless, most of what these other writers wrote borrows from the first story, including things that clearly never really happened; but still their accounts somehow provide additional insight into “who Jesus really was.”

For some reason, many people began worshiping an “immaterial Jesus”, who was not human. For some unknown reason these people thought that Jesus had not become incarnate and was not a real person. These people were just simply confused.

The above is basically the most coherent possible interpretation of the facts in support of the position that the Jesus of Christianity was a real person. Let’s now review a scenario in which the Jesus that inspired Christianity was originally conceived as heavenly deity, not an actual person:

Sometime in the mid-first century a small cult sprung up in Jerusalem that worshiped a heavenly savior named Jesus. This savior was patterned on other popular savior figures from Jewish lore, such as Joshua, Isaiah, and the Son of Man mentioned in various works such as Daniel and Enoch.

James was likely the leader of this movement. The Jesus worshiped by James was a spiritual messiah who would bring retribution and justice to the Greek and Roman rulers that oppressed the Jewish people – something quite typical of Jewish savior figures. The letters attributed to James and Jude in the New Testament are authentic letters from those actual early leaders of the Jesus cult. The letters mean exactly what they say and provide a coherent explanation of the early beliefs of the Jesus cult. These letters don’t describe anything about a human Jesus because a human Jesus was not conceived by these people.

Paul came along and, unlike James and the other leaders of the movement, Paul sought reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles as opposed to retribution against them. Paul preached harmony between Jews, Greeks and Romans in opposition to James and others who preached that Jesus was a purely Jewish savior who would deliver the Jews from Gentile oppression. Paul said that Jesus was a savior for all people. Paul said that this message was unique to him, but that it was to be believed because he had direct divine knowledge of Jesus. This of course only makes sense if Jesus was not a real person whom James, Peter, and others personally knew. When Paul said that his knowledge of Jesus was unique to him he was telling the truth. Many of Paul’s teachings were unique to him just as he claims, potentially even the crucifixion concept, as crucifixion is not mentioned in the letters of James or Jude. Paul died sometime around 67 CE.

Hostility between the Jews and their Gentile occupiers escalated. Jewish protests against Roman occupation gained momentum and in 67 CE the Romans responded by invading Galilee and waging a war of suppression all the way through to Jerusalem, where they sacked the city and destroyed the temple in 70 CE. Hundreds of thousands of Jews died or were enslaved during this conflict.

Some follower of Paul saw Paul’s death and the conflict with Rome as related. He wrote a fictional story that is now called the Gospel of Mark, in which he cast Jesus as an allegorical figure who showed that those Jews who did not heed Paul’s message had brought the war upon themselves. This writer used the letters of Paul as the source for the teachings attributed to Jesus, and he patterned the main narrative on the popular story of Elijah and Elisha. The writer also used literary references to passages from the prophets about how God would punish his people and destroy them by sending foreign armies against them, to craft an allegorical story with a strong message about how the Jews had brought the war upon themselves.

The story was fascinating and the many hidden literary references within it gave the story an air of prophetic mystery. Someone created a longer version of it by adding on a birth narrative and a few additional elements. This is what we call the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew popularized the Jesus narrative and was believed by most people to be literally true. Other versions of the story were made, known as the Gospel of Luke and Gospel of John and many other writings were produced that all stemmed from the core narrative developed by the author of what we call the Gospel of Mark.

Earlier sects that had originally worshiped the immaterial heavenly Jesus came under scrutiny by those who thought that Jesus was a real person as a result of the Gospel stories. Some of those sects tried to reconcile their concept of the immaterial Jesus with the Gospel narratives, resulting in sects such as Marcionism, which accepted basic elements of the Gospel narrative but maintained that the Jesus of that narrative was a ghostly apparition.

The view that Jesus was immaterial was a dominant view among Jewish Jesus worshipers, while the idea that Jesus was a real person was more popular among Romans who were introduced to Jesus via the Gospels. Romans Christians saw the Gospel narratives as pro-Roman evidence that the Jews had abandoned by their own savior. The themes of the Gospels seemed to support the idea that the Roman conquest of Judea was divinely ordained and that the life and deeds of Jesus, as well as the Roman subjugation of the Jewish people, fulfilled ancient Jewish prophecies. That Jesus was a real person was central to upholding the literal truth of this interpretation.

It was through this lens that Roman Christians interpreted the writings of early Christianity. Some of the letters of Paul were altered to conform to the Roman view of Jesus, both intentionally and unintentionally. In some cases, revisions to Paul’s writings were made out of honest mistakes or attempts to clarify what they thought Paul was saying, and these versions became favored by Roman Christians. In other cases, small revisions were intentionally made to bring Paul’s writings in line with Roman Christian doctrine. The suppression of sects that didn’t believe Jesus was a real person was perpetrated out of an honest belief that those views were false.

The scenarios outlined above are essentially two ways to explain the evidence we have regarding the origins of Christianity.

The first scenario outlined above is essentially the most plausible explanation for the evidence, assuming that Jesus was a real person who was not divine. If Jesus were a real person, given all of the evidence we have, it would have to be the case that Jesus couldn’t write, nor could any of the people who had direct knowledge of him. The letters of James and Jude in the Bible must be later forgeries, not letters written by real leaders of the early Christian movement. Paul must have been a massive liar who intentionally misrepresented fundamental aspects of his life, interactions with other apostles, and knowledge of Jesus. The account of Jesus’s death in the Gospels can’t be remotely true because if it were the tomb of Jesus would have been a known place, which it wasn’t, so the burial of the real Jesus must have been radically different than any accounts of the event. Jesus must have been someone who was barely known and had a tiny following in his lifetime, but for some reason after he died his brother and a few other people came to believe that he was the incarnation of a powerful enteral being who had existed from the beginning of time. This is, essentially, the only way to reconcile a “real Jesus” with the known facts. For some unknown reason an illiterate wandering Jewish preacher was executed. He was then worshiped by his brother and a few others after his death as the supreme Lord of the universe, and tales of his life morphed via oral accounts into the inspiration of the Gospel stories. This view requires threading a needle whereby Jesus was simultaneously unknown and of little significance in his own lifetime, but immediately worshiped as an all-powerful heavenly deity upon his death.

The second scenario assumes that the worship of Jesus developed out of the interpretation of stories and Jewish scriptures. In this scenario a small group of Jews, led by James, began worshiping what they believed was a heavenly messiah that had been revealed to them through prophetic writings. This group developed various doctrines and teachings, and someone named Paul started spreading these ideas among non-Jewish communities as well. The writings from these early sources don’t describe Jesus because Jesus wasn’t a person to be described. After the First Jewish-Roman War someone was inspired to write an allegory about the cause of the war, in which the main character was an anthropomorphized version of the heavenly Jesus preached by Paul. That story is ultimately what led to the belief that Jesus was a real person.

The second scenario is actually far more plausible than the first scenario. In terms of questions, the first scenario needs to be able to answer many paradoxical questions, including the following:

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus describe who he was as a person?

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus convey any of his teachings?

Why didn’t Jesus produce any writings of his own?

If Jesus couldn’t read and write, then why would people, in a culture that highly valued the reading and writing of scripture, worship such a person for their “teachings”?

Why would people think that a person, who presumably didn’t perform miracles or rise from the dead, was “the Lord Jesus Christ”, an eternal being with godly powers?

If people did think that this person was some eternal Lord, then why didn’t they record anything about him or things that he said that convinced them that he was this eternal all-powerful Lord?

Why would someone’s brother, who grew up with him and likely had fights with him as a child and saw him get in trouble, get sick, etc. think that he was a perfect all-powerful deity – the only being in existence capable of bringing justice to the world?

Why does the letter to the Hebrews “quote” Jesus by quoting from scriptures and give no details about this person's real life?

Why does the letter to the Hebrews say explicitly that Jesus is a heavenly High Priest?

Why does Paul talk repeatedly about Jesus being a divine mystery?

Why doesn’t Paul attribute any of his teachings to Jesus?

Why would Paul think his teachings were better than, or even on par with, people who had personally known Jesus and learned his teachings directly from his mouth?

Why does the Gospel of Mark use so many literary sources?

Why does the Gospel of Mark use teachings of Paul as Jesus’s teachings?

Why does the Gospel of Mark portray the disciples so poorly?

Why does every single story about Jesus share text with the Gospel of Mark?

I could go on, but really, all of these questions, and many more, need reasonable answers in order for the idea that the Jesus of Christianity is based on the life of a real person to have any plausibility.

On the other hand, there is really only one question that needs to be answered for the scenario that the Jesus of Christianity isn’t based on a real person to be plausible and that question is:

How do you explain the five or six short passages in the letters of Paul that suggest Jesus was a real person?

That question has been answered multiple times by various scholars. Each of the passages that are pointed to as evidence that Paul was describing a real person named Jesus has been explained as either a later interpolation or a misinterpretation caused by reading the passage through the wrong lens.

When you actually look at all of the evidence you see that the proposal that Jesus was a real person is vastly less plausible than the idea that worship of Jesus began with a conceived heavenly deity, about whom a story was later written that led people to believe he was a real person. The second scenario does a vastly better job of explaining the evidence than the first scenario does, and the second scenario is something that we know commonly happened in ancient times. We have multiple examples from history of the second scenario happening. William Tell, King Arthur, Romulus and Remus, Moses, and on and on. There is simply no plausible explanation for how a mundane wandering preacher or rabble rouser would be worshiped by his own brother and other associates as an all-powerful eternal Lord who had overcome death, whose role was to bring divine justice to the world, and create an eternal paradise for the souls of all the righteous who had ever lived.

So this is where we are today. The consensus regarding the historical existence of Jesus is like the consensus among scientists before the publication of On the Origin of Species, that the variety of life on earth was a product of divine creation. The consensus view is maintained almost entirely due to the weight of cultural familiarity. It is the view that the vast majority of people assume to be true because that’s what they have been taught since childhood, but when you examine the details it isn’t difficult to see that this view is woefully lacking. Yet since this view is an object of religious faith, very few people actually examine the details.

I'm not sure what it will take to get establishment academics to acknowledge the implausibility of the claim that Jesus was a real person. There will likely never be a smoking gun that provides direct irrefutable evidence either way. However, I do believe that the case that Jesus worship began with the worship of a conceived heavenly being, not a real person, is just as strong today as the case for biological evolution. Just as we cannot go back in time and directly prove that people ultimately evolved from single-cell organisms, we will never be able to go back in time and directly prove that Jesus never existed. But the most plausible explanation of the evidence by far, is that the Jesus of Christianity evolved from the worship of a heavenly deity, not a real person. 

 

 
 
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