Cleansing of the Temple – Intertextuality Overturns the Consensus

When I was researching literary relationships in the Gospel of Mark and identified the relationship between the temple cleansing scene and Hosea 9, I knew it was a big deal. In fact, finding that relationship is what inspired me to begin writing the material that eventually became the book Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed.

It turns out that Earl Doherty had previously noted this relationship, though he never explored it to the fullest extent. I was unaware of Doherty’s citation of Hosea 9:15 as the literary basis for the “driving out” of people from temple when I discovered the relationship myself. But Doherty never noted the relevance of the fig tree elements in the scene to my knowledge.

I believe that the relationship between the temple cleansing scene in Mark and Hosea 9 is the single most important finding presented in Deciphering the Gospels. This is a simple and clear case of literary dependence that has significant implications on our understanding of how the Gospels were written, the historical validity of the Gospel narrative, and the validity of mainstream biblical scholarship. What I find so compelling about this particular issue is how concise, clear, and demonstrable it is. This isn’t a case of vague interpretation or debatable positions that have no ultimate resolution, etc., this is a clear demonstrable evidence-based answer to a problem.

So first let’s review the case I put forward in Deciphering the Gospels:

“We now arrive at one of the most important scenes for establishing our understanding of the Gospel called Mark and the other canonical Gospels. The reason that this scene is so important is because it is so widely believed to be historically true and it is seen as the justification for the Crucifixion. This scene is widely believed to be historically true because it exists in all four canonical Gospels, and it is not supernatural, so it is seemingly plausible. As we shall see throughout this book, however, the case against the historical validity of the temple-cleansing scene based on the literary evidence alone is overwhelming. So let’s start by looking at the literary allusion used to craft this scene.

Mark 11:
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written:
“‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19 When evening came, they went out of the city.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

This scene is clearly based on a passage from the book of Hosea, shown below:

Hosea 9:
1 Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God; …
7 The days of punishment are coming, the days of reckoning are at hand. Let Israel know this. Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great, the prophet is considered a fool, the inspired man a maniac.
8 The prophet, along with my God, is the watchman over Ephraim, yet snares await him on all his paths, and hostility in the house of his God.
9 They have sunk deep into corruption, as in the days of Gibeah. God will remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.
10 ‘When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.
11 Ephraim’s glory will fly away like a bird—no birth, no pregnancy, no conception.
12 Even if they rear children, I will bereave them of every one. Woe to them when I turn away from them!
13 I have seen Ephraim, like Tyre, planted in a pleasant place. But Ephraim will bring out their children to the slayer.”
14 Give them, O LORD—what will you give them? Give them wombs that miscarry and breasts that are dry.
15 “Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there. Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house. I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious.
16 Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit. Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring.’
17 My God will reject them because they have not obeyed him;

We can see in the Gospel text that the cursing of the fig tree, the driving out of people from the temple (house of God), and the hostility toward Jesus are all related elements that are drawn from Hosea 9. All of these elements and the order in which they are presented in the Gospel called Mark are necessary to make the association between Hosea 9 and the narrative.

Most important, however, is that if we accept the fact that the Markan narrative is actually a literary allusion, then it means this scene is not based on any real event that ever took place. It means that “Jesus” never cursed a fig tree, and “Jesus” never threw anyone out of the temple. None of this actually ever happened; this isn’t a historical event. The scene is merely a literary allusion, yet every other Gospel contains the temple-cleansing scene. If the cleansing of the temple comes from Hosea 9, not from a real-world event, then the fact that it exists in all of the other Gospels means that all of the other Gospels, including John, had to have ultimately gotten the scene from Mark, as we will explore in chapter 3.

This is extremely significant because this is one of the actions attributed to Jesus that is most widely believed to be true, even by secular New Testament scholars. The fact that this scene is based on a literary allusion has not been recognized even by top theologians and Bible scholars.”
– R. G. Price; Deciphering the Gospels; pp 21-23

Let’s now compare this to some popular mainstream assessments of this same scene:

E. P. Sanders:

“Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction. The accusation that Jesus threatened the temple is reflected in three other passages: the crucifixion scene (Matt. 27.39f.//Mark 15.29f.); Stephen’s speech (Acts 6.13f.); and with post-Easter interpretation, in John 2.18-22. The conflict over the temple seems deeply implanted in the tradition, and that there was such a conflict would seem to be indisputable.
– E. P. Sanders; Jesus and Judaism; pp 61 (emphasis mine)

Sanders relies on the criterion of “multiple attestations”. In this case, he’s noting attestations in sources other than the Gospels in addition to the Gospels themselves. Sanders, like many biblical scholars, starts with an assumption of independence. In fact, there is significant evidence that none of these sources are independent, and that every account of the life of Jesus is based on the Gospel of Mark. The fact that the temple cleansing scene in the Gospel of Mark is based on a literary reference is just more evidence of the dependencies across all of the Jesus accounts. What Sanders has called “indisputable” is actually easily disproved by intertextual analysis.

J. P. Meier:

“In the spring of 30 A.D. (or possibly 33), Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem for his final Passover. As he entered the ancient capital of King David, he apparently chose to make a symbolic claim to messianic status by riding in on a donkey amid the acclamation of his followers (multiple attestation of Mark 11:1-10 and John 12:12-19), thus evoking the memory of a prophecy by Zechariah (9:9) about a righteous, victorious, yet peaceful king entering Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus followed up this symbolic entry with a symbolic action in the temple, disrupting the selling and buying of sacrificial animals (multiple attestation of Mark 11:15-17 and John 2:13-17). While this so-called cleansing of the temple has often been interpreted as a call for reform of the temple and a purer worship, in the context of Jesus’ eschatological message it more likely symbolized the end of the old order, including the temple. These two symbolic actions of Jesus may have been the reason why the priestly aristocracy chose to arrest Jesus during this particular visit to Jerusalem, as opposed to his earlier stays. Jesus himself chose to press the issue, forcing the authorities to make a decision for or against him.

Various sayings in the Gospels that probably go back to Jesus show that he reckoned with the possibility of a violent death (Matt. 23:37-39; Luke 13:31-33; Mark 10:35-40; 8:32-33; 12:1-12).”
– J. P. Meier; Jesus Christ in the New Testament: Part One: The Historical Jesus behind the Gospels; pp 15-16 (emphasis mine)

Here highly esteemed biblical scholar John Paul Meier states that Jesus engaged in a series of deliberate symbolic actions based on references to passages from the Jewish scriptures. Meier has no problem stating that various sayings in the Gospels “probably” go back to things the real Jesus said. Like Sanders, Meier assumes that multiple attestations to an event give credibility to the historical reality of said event. But as is shown in Deciphering the Gospels, these multiple attestations are merely the product of copying. The fact that a single story was copied many times doesn’t lend credibility to the story, in fact it does the opposite.

Bart Ehrman:

“Most scholars recognize that some aspects of our accounts appear exaggerated, including Mark’s claim that Jesus completely shut down the operation of the Temple (if no one could carry any vessels, it would have been impossible to sacrifice and butcher the animals—which was after all what the Temple was for). As we have seen, the Temple complex was immense, and there would have been armed guards present to prevent any major disturbances. Moreover, if Jesus had actually created an enormous stir in the Temple, it’s nearly impossible to explain why he wasn’t arrested on the spot and taken out of the way before he could stir up the crowds. For these reasons, it looks as if Mark’s account represents an exaggeration of Jesus’ actions. But exaggerations aside, it is almost certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple — for example, overturned some tables and made at least a bit of a ruckus. As I’ve noted, the event is multiply attested in independent sources.

Moreover, it coincides with Jesus’ predictions about the Temple, that it would soon be destroyed. For this reason, a good number of scholars have begun to recognize that Jesus’ actions in the Temple represented a symbolic expression of his proclamation. We should recall that Jesus sometimes engaged in symbolic acts that illustrated his apocalyptic message
– Bart Ehrman; Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium; pp 212-213 (emphasis mine)

Starting to see a pattern? One may question whether Ehrman’s assessment here is really just cribbed from Sanders? Nevertheless, Ehrman is concluding, due to “multiple attestations”, that he is “almost certain that Jesus did something”. But as we can see, the scene is clearly a literary fabrication. The literary basis of the scene is solid actual evidence that the scene is a fictional invention of the author. The case I lay out in Deciphering the Gospels shows that the scene was invented by the author of Mark and then copied by the other Gospel writers. Thus, “multiple attestation” is meaningless as a means of supporting the reality of the narrative.

Regarding the “symbolism” of “Jesus’ actions”, I explain in Deciphering the Gospels that all of this symbolism is an invention of the author of the story; it is not an account of a real person undertaking a constant series of symbolic actions that correlate with scriptures and foretell future events. Jesus wasn’t engaging in symbolic acts to illustrate his apocalyptic message – the writer of the Gospel of Mark was creating a symbolic story about the outcome of the First Jewish-Roman War, that had just resulted in the destruction of the temple and the decimation of Judea.

So what does this tell us about the methodologies and approach of mainstream biblical scholars? This is a clear-cut case of those methodologies failing to reach the right conclusion. The approaches used by Ehrman, Meier and Sanders here are essentially text-book approaches for assessing the historical validity of Gospel accounts. They are all relying heavily on the criterion of multiple attestations to support the claim that this “really happened.” But clearly, that criterion doesn’t work and isn’t actually a reasonable indicator of historical reliability. These scholars were apparently unaware of the relationship between Mark and Hosea 9. It isn’t something that even factors into their thought process or assessment. These scholars, despite being among the most credentialed and highly regarded faces of popular biblical scholarship, completely failed in their assessment of this passage – and this is solid proof of their failure.

This also gets a why – why mainstream biblical scholarship is so wrong. This is a perfect example of how mainstream biblical scholars are so disoriented. As many people who have commented on my book have noted, I’m not a biblical scholar. I don’t have even the slightest official credentials in biblical scholarship. But yet, when I sat down to approach how to assess the historical validity of the Gospel narratives, the very first thing I did was try to identify all of the literary relationships among the texts, and particularly the literary relationships between the first Gospel and prior writings. That seems like an obvious starting point. Yet that’s not the approach used by mainstream biblical scholars, and the reason is that biblical scholarship is fundamentally rooted in Christian theology, not science, not logic, not the methods of historians or anthropologists, nor even the methods of those who study other forms of ancient mythology. No, mainstream biblical scholarship is fundamentally rooted in the rationalization of evidence to support Christian assumptions.

When you look at who all of these supposed biblical scholars are, and what their degrees are in, what you see is that they all have degrees in theology and divinity, even Bart Ehrman. John Paul Meier’s degrees come from Christian seminary schools, as do Bart Ehrman’s and E. P. Sanders’. Ehrman likes to tout the fact that he is no longer a believing Christian and that he doesn’t think that Jesus is the son of God or performed any miracles, but Ehrman’s background all comes from seminary schools. All of the approaches and methodologies he learned come from Christian theologians. You can see the influence when you compare Ehrman’s assessment of the temple cleansing scene to that of Meier and Sanders. It’s almost impossible to tell them apart – they all say essentially the same thing.

Mainstream biblical scholarship is fundamentally rooted in the rationalization of evidence with Christian assumptions and theology. It’s all about how to interpret the evidence in a way that supports Christian beliefs. Even when a biblical scholar like Ehrman, who claims not to be a Christian, approaches the subject matter, he’s still approaching it using tools created by Christian theologians that are designed to rationalize Christian theology. The toolset Ehrman was provided with at seminary school was designed to verify the historical truth of the Gospels. It’s a toolset that is clearly and demonstrably flawed – biased by design.

But while Ehrman, Meier, Sanders and hundreds of other mainstream scholars have advocated the historical reliability of the temple cleansing narrative, dozens of other scholars have called it into question for a variety of reasons over the decades. We can now see clearly that those who were advocating against the validity of the scene were right and those who maintained its credibility were wrong. That tells us that the methodologies and arguments of those who were against the historical reality of the scene have more merit than those who maintained that it was historically true.

In 1991 Burton Mack argued against the historical truth of the temple cleansing scene in his book A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Mack noted that the scene is built from many scriptural references (even though he was unaware of the exact relationship to Hosea 9) and that the whole scene appeared to him to be contrived for narrative effect. Mack explained the symbolism of the scene and noted that such perfect symbolism doesn’t arise in the real world.

Other arguments against the historical validity of the scene include noting that the temple was a huge well-guarded structure that someone wouldn’t just be able to go into a throw people out of. Any such disturbance would have been met with immediate police intervention, and possible immediate arrest, or at least an armed escort out of the area. This wasn’t just some church, this was “the” temple we are talking about – the one and only. It was a massive building. The temple plaza was approximately the size of six football fields and there were strict rules about who could enter the temple and rituals that had to be followed to enter into the temple itself. This wasn’t some place that people were free to just stroll into whenever they wanted. There were gates and guards and fees that had to be paid, rituals that had to be performed.

So many people have noted over the years that the scene itself is just unlikely on the face of it, yet mainstream scholars continued to maintain their certainty that it was true. Ironically, a key argument of those who conclude that this really happened has been that it “had to have happened,” because without this scene the entire narrative falls apart. Arguments like those put forward by Sanders have essentially staked the entire legitimacy of the Gospel narrative on the literal truth of the temple cleansing scene. Sanders and others have rightly noted that the temple cleansing scene is the lynch-pin of Mark’s Gospel narrative (and thus all of the other Gospels as well). The whole story drives to this point of confrontation, and this confrontation then becomes the reason for the crucifixion. The Gospel story without the temple cleansing scene is like the Star Wars trilogy without Luke’s confrontation of Vader resulting in the “I am your father” scene. Thus, Sanders concludes it must be true, because without it the story falls apart. Well, Sanders was right about one thing.

The relationship between the temple cleansing scene and Hosea 9 is real and it needs to be addressed by mainstream biblical scholars. It requires revising the models of mainstream scholarship and seriously reevaluating mainstream positions. The implications are vast and profound. The idea that it’s, “certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple,” is no longer tenable. Anyone continuing to claim it is in light of this evidence should no longer be considered credible. Anyone who addresses the temple cleansing scene without addressing this literary dependency is either unaware of the most recent scholarship or intentionally ignoring it because they are unable to address it. From this point forward, addressing the temple cleansing without addressing its relationship to Hosea 9 is untenable.

Is it really impossible to “prove a negative”?

A recent review of Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed on Kirkus states that, “it is famously impossible to prove a negative…” There is just one problem: It is not impossible to prove a negative. Indeed, proving negatives is central to many aspects of logic, science, and criminal justice. If we couldn’t prove negatives we essentially wouldn’t be able to prove anything at all. What is famous, are the efforts of people defending indefensible claims to try and structure their claims in ways that that are difficult to disprove, often in ways that require opponents to prove negatives, and then to claim, falsely, that it can’t be done.

I’m not saying that the reviewer on Kirkus intentionally did that, as their review is generally positive, but it is a common misconception that you “can’t prove a negative”, which you most certainly can. The most obvious way that negatives are proven is to prove that alternative mutually exclusive claims are true. This is a guiding principle of how our criminal justice system works. If you are accused of a crime you can prove that you didn’t do the crime by proving some other explanation for the crime. Now this isn’t even required in our justice system, nor is it generally required in science. The burden of proof lies on the one making the claim or accusation. In other words, if you are accused of a crime you don’t have to prove that you didn’t do it, the accuser has to prove that you did do it.

Obviously if you are accused of murdering someone for example, you can “prove the negative” of that claim, i.e. that you did not murder someone, by proving that someone else committed the murder or that it is impossible for you to have done it, etc. That is an example of “proving a negative”. Likewise, if someone says that, “there is a red balloon in that box,” you can prove the negative, i.e. that there is not a red balloon in the box, by simply opening the box and showing that there is no balloon in it. Again, a simple example of proving a negative.

But what about more difficult things. What about proving that “there are no leprechauns”, for example? Is it possible to “prove” that leprechauns don’t exist? Generally yes, it is possible to prove that leprechauns don’t exist. Is it possible to construct claims that cannot be proven or disproven? Yes, it is possible to do that, but that is really a philosophical debate and has little to do with real-world claims.

We can prove that leprechauns don’t exist by proving that all of the claims/evidence put forward for their existence are false. When all of the claims for the existence of something are proven to be false, then it is proven that that thing does not exist by definition. This is because the definition of what the thing is, is determined by the claims for its existence. To continue to claim that “leprechauns” may exist once all evidence for their existence has been disproven requires changing the definition of what a “leprechaun” is to something that no longer matches the definition of what was disproven. At that point you are just making up words.

In the real world, mythical beings, gods, paranormal phenomena, etc., have real definitions and descriptions. Yes, it is possible to contrive a description of something that can’t be disproven, but that’s not what real legends are based on. Real legends tend to form around well described things and events that people believe are true. Is it possible to come up with a definition of “god” that is undetectable and cannot be disproven? Yes it is, but traditional gods that have been worshiped by people for thousands of years aren’t like that. All traditional gods have explicit and testable definitions. Traditional gods are described as having some features, they are claimed to have done various things, they are claimed to be able to do various things, and are often said to have certain qualities. All of those things can be proven or disproven.

But what about “ancient people”, it is possible to “prove” that someone didn’t exist? Yes, it is possible to prove that someone didn’t exist, just like it is possible to prove that leprechauns don’t exist. One can prove that a “historical person” didn’t exist by disproving all of the evidence for their existence and by demonstrating other alternative explanations for the emergence of belief in their existence.

So what are some ways that you can prove an ancient person didn’t exist?

  1. Archaeological evidence that the civilization they are said to be from didn’t exist at the time they were said to have lived.
  2. Evidence that descriptions of someone like the person the pre-date the time the person is supposed to have lived.
  3. Evidence that the account of the person’s life is copied from a story from a different culture.
  4. Archaeological or documentary evidence showing that the individual was known to be a divine or imaginary being prior to the belief that they were a real person.
  5. An authentic statement from the writer of the first account of the person that the account is made up.
  6. Establishing that every detail of a person’s description is not true.
  7. Testimony from someone of the time explaining that the person wasn’t real.

I’m sure there are others as well. Some of these things may not be very likely to be established, but they are ways that you can “prove” that a person didn’t exist.

The classic example of this is the case of William Tell of Swiss legend. It is now widely accepted by historians that the legend of William Tell is not based on the life of any real person. One of the key lines of evidence against the reality of the Tell legend is comparative mythology, showing that the core narrative of William Tell’s “biography” comes from Germanic myths that predate the time of the supposed life of Tell.

Another problem we have, however, in “proving that someone didn’t exist”, is defining what it means for “that person” to “exist”. This is a challenge when it comes to establishing that “Jesus” did not “exist”. There are those among Jesus historicists who basically claim that the Jesus of the Gospels was inspired by a real person, even if the real person did and said none of the things described in the Gospels. According to this argument, basically anyone could be Jesus. I would dispute such a position. If it can be shown that every aspect of the description of a person is not true, then by definition that person did not exist.

There are some Jesus historicists who take the position that even if it is proven that the Gospels are entirely fictional, and nothing that Jesus said or did in the Gospels really happened and that the Gospels are proven not to be based on the life of a person named Jesus at all, that even that wouldn’t prove that “Jesus never existed”. According to this view, there could still be some theoretical Jesus person who it is impossible to prove never existed. But even if we assume that to be true (which it isn’t), that “Jesus person” would clearly not actually be the Jesus of Christianity, because the Jesus of Christianity is the Jesus described in the Gospels.

But even a theoretical undescribed Jesus person cannot be a full defense against establishing that Jesus never existed, because it is possible to show that the Jesus being worshiped by the earliest worshipers was a celestial deity, not a person. For example, if a document was found that was conclusively dated to around 10 CE that explicitly said something like, “We worship the Lord Jesus Christ, who is a heavenly ruler and has never been incarnate, who was crucified in the heavens,” that would be singularly conclusive evidence that the concept of “Jesus” began with the  worship of a heavenly deity, not a person, and thus that Jesus didn’t exist.

When it comes to Jesus, defenders of the historical Jesus have been playing a self-referential game of sorts. You see, there is already compelling evidence that the earliest form of Jesus worship was worship of a celestial deity, not a person. The defense against this evidence, however, has always been the Gospels, with the claim that because the Gospels describe a person the interpretation of the evidence that the original conception of Jesus was celestial must be wrong. However, once we establish that the Gospels are fictional and that nothing in them is based on the life of a real Jesus person, as I do in Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, then the Gospels can no longer be used to defend against the evidence that Jesus was originally a celestial deity.

And that is how it is “proven” that Jesus never existed. Yes, it is provable.

Point 1: There are no credible description of Jesus the person
Point 2: There is strong evidence that worship of Jesus originated with the worship of a celestial deity

The original Jesus was a celestial deity and the Gospels do not counter the evidence that Jesus was originally conceived of as celestial being. The Gospels were always the only defense against the idea that Jesus was just a celestial deity, so once we establish that the Gospels not only have no basis in fact, but are not even inspired by the life of a real person (other than Paul), the evidence proving that Jesus was originally a celestial deity is decisive.

It is, of course, possible to “prove a negative”. It is possible to prove that a supposed ancient person never existed. And in fact the case against the existence of Jesus is arguably stronger than the case against the existence of just about any figure from ancient lore because of the nature and quality of the documentation that we have from the time of the origin of the myth. I would argue that it’s actually more difficult to prove that Hercules or even Zeus didn’t exist than it is to prove that Jesus never existed. And in reality, the case against the existence of Jesus is far stronger than the case against the existence of William Tell.

So the next time someone tells you that you can’t prove someone didn’t exist, explain to them why you actually can.

For more info on “proving negatives” see:

THINKING TOOLS: YOU CAN PROVE A NEGATIVE

Can’t prove a negative? Sure you can!

You Can’t Prove a Negative : MYTH

Proving Non-Existence

Academic consensus is important, but it’s not always right

Most rationally minded people tend to be supporting of the academic consensus on most subjects. For example when it comes to climate change, vaccinations, the evolution of life on earth, etc., rational people tend to side with the the views of the academic and scientific establishment, and for good reason. But does that mean that the academic consensus is always right?

Certainly not, and we can’t blindly bow to academic consensus on every subject.  There are near infinite examples of the academic consensus being wrong about things. Academic consensus is important and meaningful and it does certainly lend credibility to a position, but it isn’t the end-all and be-all hallmark of truth.

Furthermore, there is a huge difference between “scientific consensus” and “academic consensus”.  Many people, however, seem to conflate the two. Scientific consensus is a product of the scientific process, arrived at through the collection of data and conducing of experiments. “Academic consensus”, however, is much broader and is not necessarily based on scientific rigor.

For example, it can be the academic consensus that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a brilliant writer, but it’s really just an opinion. Likewise, that in many cases “academic consensus” is held by academics who haven’t actually deeply studied a subject. This is the case with the historical existence of Jesus.

Yes, the consensus among historians is that Jesus was a real person, but very few historians have actually deeply studied that topic, they are just themselves conforming to the consensus that they have been taught.

I address this subject in detail in my new article, On the Origin of Jesus by Means of Mythical Propagation.   In this article I show that the consensus today among academics that Jesus was a real person is like the consensus among academics prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species that life on earth was the product of divine creation. It is a consensus that rests heavily on cultural bias and longstanding assumed truths, not real scrutiny. It is a consensus that attempts to support longstanding religious beliefs, but that, in the light of real evidence, falls apart just like the Christian claims of divine creation.

The Gospel of Mark is an unrecognized literary masterpiece

One of the supreme ironies of biblical scholarship is that it fails to recognize the literary genius of the story called the Gospel of Mark, because it presumes the writing is something that it is not. For Christians, the “Gospels” must be historical works – biographies.

The Gospel of Mark was long the least appreciated of the Gospels. It appears that the Gospel of Matthew was the first well know Gospel story. Matthew is actually a recasting of the Gospel of Mark, and what Matthew does is it takes the story from Mark and makes it appear more like a biography, more like “real history”. The Gospel of Luke does the same thing. Both Matthew and Luke read much more like “historical accounts”.

So it seems that the historical nature of the other Gospels colored how people interpreted Mark as well. Believing that Mark was supposed to be a “true historical account” caused readers with that expectation to view Mark as a “poorly written” biography that “get’s many things wrong”. The geography of Mark is all messed up, the main characters in Mark are portrayed poorly, there aren’t any real lessons in Mark, scenes like the cursing of the fig tree seem unlikely and nonsensical, and many details seem to be left out. From the perspective of a “historical account”, this story seems to be a real mess.

But the reality is that Mark isn’t a work of history; it’s not a biography, it’s an entirely fictional story and a  work of literary genius. Matthew and Luke aren’t the “real and accurate accounts”, with Mark being a poor parallel – Mark is the real story, from which everyone else copied.

But recognizing the literary genius of Mark means recognizing that Mark is fictional, and thus Christians are incapable of actually recognizing Mark for what it really is. It’s as if someone started a religion based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and took his account of Middle Earth as the real literal early history of the world. It’s as if they took Tolkien’s stories as actual factual accounts and thus failed to recognize the real symbolism and creativity in them. Followers of such a religion would be incapable of recognizing Tolkien as a creative genius because that would mean that he wasn’t an accurate chronicler of real events.

That’s the situation Christians are in with the Gospel of Mark. Christianity is a religion founded on a fictional story and Christians can’t recognize the literary genius of the writer of the story they worship, because to do so would be to recognize that the figure they are worshiping is a fictional character, not a real god. This is a shame, because this story that Christians call the Gospel of Mark is actually one of the most ingeniously written stories ever composed, which has a lot to do with why a religion ended up forming around it.

The writer of the story incorporated so many layers of meaning and symbolism into the story, along with so many puzzles and mysteries, that the story mesmerized its audience. It was a story unlike anything anyone had read before, not in its basic outline, but in the tantalizing clues that hinted as deeper secrets. Many of the mysteries and puzzles got corrupted when they were inartfully copied by the writers of the other Gospels, but enough of them shone through to excite readers even through the other Gospels.

The way that the Gospel of Mark was written literally must have required a true genius to compose. The writer must have been deeply familiar with a wide body of works, including the works of the Jewish scriptures, the letters of Paul and likely other  apocalyptic Jewish works and Greek classics. The writer was then able to take references to so many other works and weave all of these references together into a coherent multi-layered narrative. The story is compelling on its own with a superficial reading, but the story actually has two layers, and if you follow all of the other literary references made in the story you can see that there is a second narrative, or rather that the superficial narrative is augmented by the “hidden narrative”.

Making all of this work, especially at a time when the only way to really construct such complexities would be in your mind, is mind-blowing. Today it would be far easier with the ability to have many references on a computer to draw from, but whoever wrote this story must have memorized many writings and also had copies of them so that he could quote from them directly as well. But the writer would still had to have memorized them in order to be able to build the overall plot and have ideas about what references he wanted to use where.

Just thinking about how this story had to have been constructed is awe inspiring. Yet, Christians cannot recognize the genius of this story because doing so is to acknowledge its fictionality. I think the story called the Gospel of Mark (which really needs to be re-named to something else), should be recognized as one of the great master works of ancient literature and studied far more broadly in a secular context. The story truly is a masterpiece and deserves appreciation on par with the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, etc.

To be sure there were a handful of people worshiping “Jesus” prior to the writing of this story, but it is this story that really founded the religion. It is easy to see how this story and its derivatives inspired a religion, but its time to recognize the creative genius of the author instead of worshiping the fictional protagonist.

That the Gospels are fictional is more broadly supported than most realize

The claim that the Jesus of Christianity is a fictional character may sound a bit absurd at first. This is essentially the contention that I lay out in Deciphering the Gospels. But this position is actually much more widely supported by the scholarship than most people realize – even than I realized myself.

I provide a brief overview of the growing consensus among respected biblical scholars that the Gospel of Mark  is an entirely fictional story here: Fictional Jesus Synthesis.

The case that I make in Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed is really just the logical extension of the realization that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional story. Some people may not fully appreciate what is meant by saying that the Gospel of Mark is a “fictional story”, but what this means is that the Gospel of Mark was never intended to convey any real facts about someone named Jesus. The entire story was fabricated by a single individual with no objective of creating a biography. The story is an allegory, and the writer himself knew that Jesus was not a real person just the same as Mark Twain knew that Huckleberry Finn wasn’t a real person. Once this fact is realized the entire framework of Christianity falls apart. That is, essentially, what my book is about.

I do believe that this assessment of the Gospel of Mark will inevitably win out because the data to support it is overwhelming. I also believe that once it becomes widely acknowledged that the Gospel of Mark is fictional the conclusion that the human Jesus is fictional will be inevitable as well.

Does it really matter if Jesus existed or not?

In discussing my new book with various people, I’ve been told by some that whether Jesus existed or not “doesn’t really matter.” This is, of course, a view held by non-Christians, and from a personal perspective I can see that this may be true. If you already don’t believe that Jesus is divine and aren’t a Christian, then the question of whether or not Jesus was real is purely academic. Even if he was real, from this perspective, it doesn’t change anything about your life or your beliefs. Jesus being real or not doesn’t cause such a person to change their views on God or Christianity.

This may well be true, but the question of Jesus’s existence is still a matter of extreme importance. Firstly I will say that, while the nonexistence of Jesus has many implications, the question has to be answered honestly for its own sake, it cannot be answered with an agenda. By this I mean, we cannot say that if Jesus never existed then it proves Christianity is false, therefore we need to prove that Jesus never existed.

No, that cannot be how this issue is approached. The question of Jesus’s existence has to be approached not with an anti-Christian agenda, but as an earnest effort to understand our history.

So does this question matter? Is it important? Yes, I believe it is vitally important. I believe it is perhaps the single most important question of history. If Jesus did not exist it changes our entire conception of the past and the present and it changes many people’s perception of the future.

The most intriguing question for me is, if Jesus didn’t exist, then how exactly did belief in his existence become so widespread and bring about a revolution in Roman society? This question alone has vast implications. I offer at least a part of the answer in my book. If Jesus didn’t exist then it shows that massive changes were made in Roman society based entirely on misunderstandings. When you understand the scope of the changes that were brought about in the Western world due to Christianity, to think that all of that happened because of “a myth” is astounding. Quite literally the whole of Roman civilization was changed because of this person – Jesus. And if he wasn’t even real???

The question drives directly at the issue of authority, knowledge, leadership and trust. If Jesus wasn’t real then it shows that those in power are just as fallible as anyone else, if, indeed, not more so.  Are those in power perhaps more fallible due to their power? And it’s not just those in power, it shows the fallibility of humans in general – to be so overtaken by false claims and beliefs.

The question has to be properly answered if for no other reason than to set the history books straight. Jesus pervades all of Western history, even secular history. The entire timeline of Western history is created relative to the supposed birth of this person. Even secular historians divide time into the period before and after Jesus. The life of this individual is presumed, somehow, to have completely transformed the world, or at the very least the Western world. Even most secular historians take the view that this individual “did something” that “completely changed everything.”

But this goes beyond just setting the historical record straight. If Jesus did not exist then both Christianity and Islam are fundamentally discredited. The legitimacy of Christianity is entirely dependent on the existence of Jesus. Various beliefs of Christianity can be discredited without disproving the existence of Jesus, but Christianity itself is fundamentally discredited without a human Jesus at its core. That is not a reason to disprove the existence of Jesus, but it is a result. If it is widely and academically accepted that Jesus never exited, Christianity as we know it will fundamentally collapse overnight. My motivation for addressing this question is not to cause the collapse of Christianity, but I know that will be the outcome of widespread acceptance of the position that Jesus never existed.

We also have to understand that belief in the existence of a real human Jesus  who fulfilled ancient Jewish prophecies is what led to the adoption of ancient Jewish mythology as literal history. It led to the perception that “divine revelation” was a confirmed real phenomenon. It led to the belief in divine creation, the belief in a young earth, belief in the divine supremacy of man over the animal world, confirmation of the the soul, confirmation of life after death, confirmation of divine prophecy, and of course an impending sense of doom with generation after generation of Westerners believing that the end of the world is a welcome event that is just right around the corner. All of this stems from the belief that Jesus was a real person. And while you don’t have to believe that Jesus never existed to see error of these beliefs, proving that Jesus never existed fundamentally discredits all of them.

As I say in my book, proving that Jesus never existed is like showing someone how a magic trick is performed. In India there are supposedly still many people who believe in magic and many charlatans that use magic tricks to deceive people.  If a crowd of people watch a charlatan perform a magic trick, and they all believe that “it’s real”, you may be able to convince some of them that it’s not real if you explain to them that such things are impossible and you tell them about scientific principles, and you offer philosophical arguments against the claims of the charlatan, etc. But, if you simply demonstrate to the audience how the trick is done, all of them will immediately recognize that there is no real magic being performed. They will see that “it’s a trick”, and nothing mystical is taking place. In fact, there are  organizations in India that travel the country doing just this.

Proving that Jesus never existed does to Christianity what showing someone how a magic trick is done does to the perception of magic.  Showing someone how magic is done simultaneously proves that “magic isn’t real” and can also give people a new respect and interest in the art of the performance. Likewise, proving that Jesus was a myth, not a real person, can give people a new appreciation for Jewish and Christian literature, as has certainly been my experience.

I don’t view Christianity as a “trick”, however. I think that the spread of Christianity was much more like the reaction to Orson Welles’ radio performance of The War of the Worlds. I think that a fictional story was perceived to be true and people reacted to that fictional story as if it were true. However, unlike the War of the Worlds incident, the misconception was never rectified, and as a result, large numbers of people, including leadership of the Roman Empire, came to believe that the fiction was literally true.

In this view, the rapid spread of Christianity was a type of mass hysteria that resulted from the spread of the Gospel writings, facilitated by the Roman network of roads. The pre-Gospel worship of Jesus was insignificant, and would likely have died out without notice if not for the writing of the Gospel of Mark, which became a sensation. The widespread adoption of the religion resulted from belief that the Gospel stories were literally true. This is not how most traditional religions developed and spread. The rise of Christianity wasn’t the development of a traditional religion, it was like the spread of a viral video –  ancient “fake news”, rapidly shared across the ancient network of Roman roads.

But regardless of how exactly this all happened, determining whether or not a real person was at the root of it is of critical importance. The implications are profound, both academically and culturally. If Jesus didn’t exist then Christianity is discredited, the legal and political weight of Christian conservatives evaporates overnight, opposition to various findings of science become baseless, and the realization that we have to solve our own problems becomes immediately real for millions of people.

We cannot let these implications color our assessment of the evidence, but we also cannot ignore the gravity of the question.