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Earliest Christianity - G.A.

Wells

(1999)

Professor G.A. Wells continues the debate about the origins of Jesus and the dev
elopment of Christianity. Drawing on the writings of recent theologians and hist
orians and alluding to his latest book, The Jesus Myth, he throws light on the e
arly history of Christianity.
[This article was originally published in The New Humanist Vol. 114, No. 3. Sept
1999, pp. 13-18.]
It is almost universally accepted that Jesus lived in the opening decades of the
first century, taught certain doctrines in Galilee, worked there what were at a
ny rate taken for miracles, and died in Jerusalem, at the behest of the Roman go
vernor Pontius Pilate. In my most recent book on Christian beginnings -- The Jes
us Myth, 1998, not to be confused with my The Jesus Legend of 1996 (both publish
ed by Open Court, Chicago) -- I have reiterated that none of this is told of Jes
us in the extant Christian epistles (Pauline and other) which are either earlier
than the gospels or early enough to have been written independently of them. Th
is discrepancy is particularly striking when behaviour or teaching ascribed to h
im in the gospels has obvious relevance to the concerns being persued by the wri
ters of these epistles. The New Testament scholar Professor Graham Stanton frank
ly calls it 'baffling' that Paul fails to 'refer more frequently and at greater
length to the actions and teaching of Jesus', particularly at points where 'he m
ight well have clinched his argument by doing so'. And Stanton is aware that oth
er epistles present us with 'similar problems' (Gospel Truth? New Light on Jesus
and the Gospels, London: Harper Collins, 1995). Similar remarks have been made
by the German New Testament scholar Walter Schmithals, who also notes that one s
upposed reference by Paul to gospel material that is commonly adduced is based o
n nothing better than mistranslation of his Greek [1]. There is, then, a discrep
ancy between the earliest documents and later Christian ones that should not be
brushed aside.
This earliest literature includes, additionally to the genuine Paulines, three p
ost-Paulines ascribed to Paul (2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians) and al
so the letter to the Hebrews, the epistle of James, the first epistle of Peter,
the three epistles of John and the book of Revelation. If Paul alone had written
as he did of Jesus, one might just possibly be able to attribute this to some p
ersonal idiosyncracy; but a consistent silence by numerous independent authors a
bout matters which, had they known of them, they could not but have regarded as
relevant to their purposes, cannot be so explained. It is perverse when critics
ascribe to me the view that my whole reconstruction of Christian origins depends
on the silence of one writer -- Paul.
Moreover, it is not just that the early documents are silent about so much of Je
sus that came to be recorded in the gospels, but that they view him in a substan
tially different way -- as a basically supernatural personage only obscurely on
Earth as a man at some unspecified period in the past, 'emptied' then of all his
supernatural attributes (Phil.2:7), and certainly not a worker of prodigious mi
racles which made him famous throughout 'all Syria' (Mt.4:24). I have argued tha
t there is good reason to believe that the Jesus of Paul was constructed largely
from musing and reflecting on a supernatural 'Wisdom' figure, amply documented
in the earlier Jewish literature, who sought an abode on Earth, but was there re
jected, rather than from information concerning a recently deceased historical i
ndividual. The influence of the Wisdom literature is undeniable; only assessment
of what it amounted to still divides opinion.
When we come to Christian documents, in and outside the canon, which are known t
o have been written late enough for the gospels (or at any rate some of their un
derlying traditions) to have been current, then we do find clear allusions to re

levant biographical material about Jesus in a way that is earlier unknown. These
later documents, from the first half of the second century, include, within the
canon, the Pastoral epistles and 2 Peter, the very latest of the twenty-seven c
anonical books; and outside the canon there are: the short manual on morals and
church practice known as the Didache; the epistles of Ignatius, Barnabas and Pol
ycarp, and the two epistles ascribed to Clement of Rome; the apocryphal Epistle
of the Apostles, the Apology of Aristides and the surviving fragment of Quadratu
s' Apology -- both these were addressed to Roman emperors -- and the two Apologi
es of Justin Martyr. Naturally the documents in this large group do not all refl
ect the same elements or the same amount of gospel matter, partly because their
authors do not all have identical aims, and partly because older Christologies w
ill have continued in some quarters when newer ones were emerging in others, par
ticularly as we cannot assume complete inter-communion between different Christi
an centres. Furthermore, some second century apologists (not the ones I have men
tioned) say little, even nothing, about the historical Jesus because they were c
oncerned to advocate a Christianity acceptable to philosophical pagans. Pagan Pl
atonists who held that God is incorporeal, passionless and unchanging did not wa
nt to hear of a God who took human form and suffered humiliation on Earth. Thus
the epistle to Diognetus --a Christian address possibly as late as the end of th
e second century --speaks indeed, in the manner of the fourth gospel, of 'the on
ly- begotten Son', but does not even call him 'Jesus' or 'Christ'. He is a heave
nly being, God's agent in creating the universe, who descended, 'sent' to mankin
d as a redeemer who came not in power but 'in gentleness amid humility', as 'a r
ansom For us'. Commentators observe that this writer obviously found the Pauline
literature more suitable to his purpose than the gospels. Nevertheless, in spit
e of such residual persistence of older Christological thinking, there is no dou
bt that, in the first half of the second century, the Christian writers I have s
pecified refer to Jesus in a way quite unknown in the earlier documents. I have
repeatedly insisted that, until this distinction is accepted as fundamental, the
re will be no adequate understanding of Christian origins.
How unsatisfactory it is to ignore or gloss over the cleavage between the earlie
st Christian documents and the gospels, and to rely on the latter for an overvie
w of earliest Christianity, is surely apparent from the extent to which theologi
ans themselves have discredited the gospels. The Finnish theologian Heikki Risnen
lists the considerable number of incidents in them which Strauss set aside in 18
35, and comments -- in his Beyond New Testament Theology (SCM, 1990) -- that, al
though this was found shocking at the time, one could today 'glean a very simila
r list from almost any non-fundamentalist book on Jesus', with the exception per
haps of some few of Strauss' items, while the interpretation of the 'Easter' exp
eriences, which Strauss regarded as mystical visions with no basis in reality, r
emains a most controversial issue'.
That this latter controversy produces much that undermines the traditional creed
s is apparent from the most recent contribution to it that I have seen, namely B
eyond Resurrection (SCM, 1999), by the Protestant New Testament scholar A.J.M. W
edderburn, who confesses that 'the result of a historical investigation into the
traditions of Jesus' resurrection seems to yield very little that is of much us
e for Christian faith', and who urges 'a reverent agnosticism as to 'whether any
thing in fact happened at Easter above and beyond what went on in the minds of'
the followers of Jesus'. In accordance with the title of his book, Wedderburn wa
nts to move 'beyond resurrection' to 'a faith that is thoroughly this -- worldly
', which questions whether Jesus or anyone else can survive death. This and much
else in the book goes quite against what is witnessed in the New Testament; yet
Jesus, as there witnessed, remains the author's 'primary orientation point', It
is not surprising that, as a result of such 'wrestlings with faith and understa
nding', he finds 'both God and reality most mysterious'.
If the gospels do not help us, we fare no better with the equally late Acts of t
he Apostles. In his first speech there Peter claims that he and others had kept

Jesus' company from his baptism onwards. But in no extant document before the go
spels is Peter or anyone else called a 'disciple' in the sense of a companion du
ring a ministry. The term used in the earliest documents is 'apostle' and it the
re means missionary'. After Acts 16:4 there is no further mention of these alleg
ed companions of Jesus. They disappear from the narrative, with no suggestion th
at they appointed successors. The missionary work in the Diaspora is represented
as effected principally by Paul.
Acts does not carry the history of the church up to the author's own time, but d
epicts only Christianity's path from Jerusalem to Rome -- the 'heroic' period wh
en the church was (supposedly) free from heresy, and when its officials still be
haved impeccably, leading an ideal and completely harmonious community, widely r
espected and secure with its miraculous deeds. This was not conscious idealizati
on, but was how the author and Christians generally of the early second century
will have viewed the original period.
One of Acts' overall concerns is to make clear that Christianity posed no threat
to the authority of the Romans. Hence, although the author could not -- against
the obvious truth -- conclude the book by having Paul set free from Roman capti
vity, he does his best to insinuate that this is what the Romans wanted. At 28:1
7-19 he goes so far as to make Paul say as much ('the Romans, who, when they had
examined me, desired to set me at liberty') and to make him claim that he had t
o appeal to stand trial in Caesar's court in Rome only in order to protect himse
lf from hostile Jews in Judea. In his invaluable commentary on Acts -- its seven
th and final edition appeared in 1977, two years after the author's death -- Ern
st Haenchen observes that even the account in earlier chapters of the book of Ac
ts itself fails to bear this out; for only those Romans who do not have authorit
y to decide Paul's case are there represented as favouring his acquittal. Thus C
laudius Lysias found him innocent (23:29), but, as a subordinate official, was o
bliged to send him to the governor Felix for trial. Later, Felix' successor Fest
us declared him innocent (25:18. 25 and 26:31 1) only after the appeal to Rome h
ad taken the case out of his hands. It is, then, clear what the author of Acts w
ants us to believe, and equally clear that he was not able to make the evidence
add up to it. Moreover, Paul's arrest and the proceedings against him are, for A
cts, no minor matter, but occupy the whole of the final quarter of the book (cha
pters 21 to 28).
Some few theologians now go as far as to discount the gospels and Acts altogethe
r, or nearly so. John Bowden, Anglican priest and Managing Director of SCM Press
, designates them as 'ideology, party history, which does not fall within the ca
nons of what is acceptable history for us'. (This in his Appendix to his English
translation of Gerd Ldemann's The Unholy in Holy Scripture, SCM, 1997.) Yet neit
her Bowden nor most of his theological colleagues show any inclination to read e
arly Christian documents which are clearly independent of gospel material withou
t importing into them the gospels' ideas about original Christianity. One reason
for this is that, in the earliest documents, the apostles understand their 'Eas
ter' experiences as manifestations of a particular person, whom they can name as
'Jesus' and who therefore must have been in some way already known to them (jus
t as those who had visions of Jupiter or Isis experienced a figure known from th
eir traditions): and the gospels supply what does seem to be the obvious basis f
or their knowledge of this Jesus, namely that they recognized him as a resurrect
ed form of the person in whose ministry some of them had so recently participate
d. Thus even so critical a theologian as Risnen can insist (in his book already qu
oted) that, while Jewish apocalyptic eschatology provided ideas of resurrection
which enabled the apostles to interpret their visions as evidencing the resurrec
tion of someone, it was recent (first-hand or reported) experience of' the pre-c
rucifixion Jesus which enabled them to understand that, in these visions, 'they
had encountered that very Nazarene who had preached a particular message and inv
ited them to a particular way of life'.

However, 'Jesus' means something like 'salvation', and would have been an approp
riate name for the earliest Christians to give to anyone regarded as ensuring th
eir salvation, whether or not he was a recently deceased familiar. (Even the rel
atively late gospel of Matthew betrays, at 1:2 1 that he shall be called Jesus b
ecause 'he will save his people'.) Moreover, Paul does not say that the crucifix
ion and the resurrection three days later were recent events. It is the visions
of the risen one which he and some of his contemporaries experienced which he de
signates as recent. He specifies eyewitnesses of these visions, but not of the d
eath and burial, which he represents only as having happened 'in accordance with
the scriptures'. 'Scriptures' here certainly designates the sacred books of the
Jews, and he may well have had in mind allegorical interpretations of Old Testa
ment passages.
Alvar Ellegrd, Emeritus Professor of English in the University of Gteborg, Sweden,
has stressed the significance of these facts in his latest book, Jesus One Hund
red Years Before Christ (London: Century, 1999). He argues that what was known o
f the person named as 'Jesus' in the Easter visions was, prior to those visions,
some traditions about the Teacher of Righteousness who figures in Dead Sea scro
lls written ca. 100 B.C. as a revered leader (not the Messiah, and not a superna
tural personage) to whom God had made known all the mysteries of the prophets, a
nd who had been severely persecuted. Whether he was an actual historical figure
or largely a construction to give substance to his followers' conception of the
founder of their movement cannot now be determined. In any case, the Scrolls sho
w that his memory was still treasured a century or more after his presumed death
. What his followers thought they knew about him was that he had lived long ago
and had been maltreated and persecuted probably dying as a martyr. It would be n
atural for those who knew, even indirectly, of what is said of him in, for insta
nce, the Qumran Habakkuk commentary, to assume that the persecution eventually l
ed to his martyrdom. The Scrolls do not name him -- they avoid actually naming t
he sectarian personages (including the Teacher's chief enemies) whom they mentio
n but, as we saw, 'Jesus' would be an appropriate name to give to someone of suc
h religious importance.[2] Ellegrd's case is that visions of the Teacher convin
ced Paul and others that he was more than what he appeared to have been on Earth
in the past, and was in fact a heavenly figure -- an idea reinforced by' the Wi
sdom literature which told of a supernatural personage who had sought an abode o
n Earth, and, rejected, had returned to heaven. The visions gave an assurance th
at this heavenly figure was now preparing to descend to Earth for the last Judge
ment.
An important feature of Ellegrd's argument is that the Essenes, whose ideas about
the Teacher are reflected in the Scrolls, were established not only in Palestin
e but also in the Diaspora, where Jews were numerous and where some of them deve
loped religious ideas which were much more accommodating to their gentile enviro
nment. Certainly, the descriptions of the Essenes given by Philo Judaeus of Alex
andria ca. A.D.20 and by Josephus ca. A.D.80 portray a much more open community
than that of the Qumran Scrolls. The Jewish Diaspora also housed some important
early Christian communities, and the notable similarity between Christianity and
Diaspora Judaism is exemplified by Philo. Ellegrd holds that the Essene branch o
f Judaism in the Diaspora was particularly important for Christian origins. He i
nstances the Therapeutae -- Philo said they existed 'in many parts' of the Empir
e -- as a special contemplative section of the Essenes who were so close to Chri
stian ideas that Eusebius and other Christian writers could regard them as Chris
tians. Philo tells that they studied 'the writings of the founders of their way
of thinking', so they will surely have known of the Teacher of Righteousness.
The earliest Christian documents are directed to Diaspora communities, and were
probably also written in the Diaspora. The addressees could hardly have known an
ything of a nearly contemporary Palestinian Jesus, and it makes sense to suppose
that they treasured the memory of Jesus as a prophet of long ago. That the Teac
her of Righteousness was regarded as such a person among the Essenes is, Ellegrd

says, beyond doubt. What the recipients of the early Christian epistles needed t
o be told, and are told in these documents, was that Jesus has now revealed hims
elf as a heavenly figure and would soon come as judge. These early documents nev
er (with the exception of Hebrews 9:28) call this coming what it is so often cal
led in later Christian literature (e.g. in chapter 14 of the fourth gospel), nam
ely a 'return' or 'second coming'. This is not (as Earl Doherty supposes -- see
below) because he had never lived on Earth, but because, when he comes as judge,
he will come in his true supernatural form, quite different from the form he ha
d assumed on Earth in the distant past. In later Christian writings, however, wh
ere he and his followers are contemporaries, and where his supernatural powers a
re already manifest during his ministry, there is, appropriately enough, talk of
his 'coming again'.
The title of Ellegrd's book is intriguingly reminiscent of G.R.S. Mead's Did Jesu
s Live 100 B.C.? (London and Benares: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1903). Me
ad, who died in 1933, of course knew nothing of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But he tho
ught that 'Jesus was probably an Essene', and he pointed to 'the patristically a
cknowledged striking similarity between the practices of the Therapeut Essene co
mmunities and the earliest Christian assemblies'. His main concern was to demons
trate that the dating of Jesus as a heretic who was put to death about 100 B.C.
for misleading the people is 'one of the most persistent elements of Jewish trad
ition concerning Jesus' and 'goes back to the floating mass of tradition' from w
hich the Talmud drew. He allows that this dating may have originated as a result
of controversy between orthodox Jews and Christians of Pauline type, whose Chri
stianity comprised 'a minimum of history and a maximum of opposition to Jewish l
egalism'. In other words, if Pauline Christians thought of the earthly Jesus as
a holy martyr of 100 B. C., the Jews would have replied that he was a heretic of
that time.
Ellegrd naturally has to account for how it came about that the gospels place Jes
us' life in the early decades of the first century. In the compass of this artic
le I can do no more than indicate one significant point he makes in this connect
ion. The evangelists, he says, writing not earlier than the end of the first cen
tury, will have known that Paul and his fellow apostles experienced their vision
s of the risen Jesus about the year 30, and so they naturally assumed that the c
rucifixion and resurrection had occurred shortly before. This is not what Paul h
ad alleged, but it would seem plausible enough half a century later to evangelis
ts writing outside Palestine, after earlier events there had been obscured from
their view by' the devastating war with Rome from A. D. 66. The earliest Christi
an writer outside the canon to link Jesus with Pilate was Ignatius, Bishop of An
tioch, writing ca. A. D. 110. He does not implicate Pilate in the events of Jesu
s' life, but mentions him in order to date that life in the 30s ('in the time -Greek epi -- 'of Pontius Pilate'), this being the normal way' in Antiquity of d
ating events by reference to the reign of emperors, kings or governors. Ignatius
was impelled to specify historical circumstances for the life because of the ra
mpant Docetism confronting him. The Docetes regarded flesh as sinful, and suffer
ing and pain as incompatible with the divine nature. Hence they supposed that Je
sus did not have a real human body, but lived on Earth as a phantom, incapable o
f any suffering. Against them, Ignatius insisted that he really suffered by bein
g nailed to the cross in a specified historical situation.
Ellegrd finds that a Diaspora origin for Christianity, rather than a Galilean one
, better accounts for the fact that the language of the early Christian document
s is Greek, not Aramaic. He attributes the Galilean setting of the synoptic gosp
els to misinterpretation of nazoraios as a reference to Nazareth. Parallels betw
een the ministry as depicted in the synoptics and the biographies of Cynic philo
sophers available in the first and second centuries have recently attracted much
attention. Ellegrd finds them intelligible enough if the evangelists modeled the
ir hero on a type of preacher popular at their time of writing.

I have treated both the Galilean and the Cynic elements less skeptically in The
Jesus Myth, allowing that they may contain a core of reminiscences of an itinera
nt Cynic-type Galilean preacher (who, however, is certainly not to be identified
with the Jesus of the earliest Christian documents). I also find Ellegrd's excep
tionally early dating of some of the early documents questionable. Nevertheless,
his overall thesis concerning the earliest ideas of Jesus does not depend on wh
at I question, as there is a genuine disparity between the way he is portrayed i
n the earliest and in later documents, and Ellegrd's reconstruction has the great
merit of addressing itself to this disparity. Moreover, although much nonsense
has been written linking Christianity' with the Qumran scrolls, there is neverth
eless a consensus that some beliefs and practices of the early church are prefig
ured in these documents. One striking similarity to which Ellegrd points is the C
hristian and Essene use of the same names for the members of their movement: the
Church of God, the Saints, the Elect, the Poor, those of the Way. The idea that
the Teacher of Righteousness died by crucifixion (not suggested in the Scrolls)
could have been prompted by awareness that, as we know from Josephus, holy Jews
had been crucified live on spectacular occasions in the past.
Risnen observes, in his illuminating study of Paul and the Law (1987), that earlie
st Christianity was 'a charismatic movement where ecstatic experiences were dail
y bread'. It was in such a milieu that the visions of the apostles occurred and
convinced them that a revered figure of the past was in fact a supernatural pers
onage -- an idea which I have argued was also prompted by musing on the Wisdom l
iterature. Jewish conceptions of the Messiah were also relevant. William Horbury
's Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (SCM, 1998) shows that in Judaism 't
he Messiah could be understood as the embodiment of an angel-like spirit', that
spiritual and superhuman portrayals' of him were 'more customary than has been c
ommonly allowed', and that there is 'a considerable extent of common ground, esp
ecially in the period from the first century to the fourth, between ancient Jewi
sh conceptions of a pre-existent Messiah, among other pre-existent entities, and
contemporary Christian conceptions of the pre-existent Christ reigning over the
church or creation'. There is thus a strong Jewish background, additional to st
atements in the Wisdom literature, to Paul's idea of Christ as a supernatural pe
rsonage, briefly embodied in human form. Horbury is quite orthodox in accepting
that Jesus conducted a Galilean ministry, as depicted in the gospels. He is conc
erned only to explain how the cult or worship of him originated, and supposes th
at it probably' developed from praise offered by followers during the ministry,
But his book does show how extensive were the Jewish traditions on which Paul co
uld draw for his portrait of a Jesus who 'emptied himself' of all that was super
natural in him while he was briefly on Earth as a man (Phil.2:6-8).
In my The Jesus Myth I had to come to terms with apologists such as Professor J.
Dunn, who holds that neither the Jewish Wisdom literature, nor the Pauline lett
ers admittedly influenced by it, contain anything incompatible with the strictes
t monotheism. Dunn denies that, on the basis of Jewish accounts of Wisdom, Paul
regarded Jesus as pre-existent (living in heaven, alongside God, before corning
to Earth). This denial has naturally been welcomed in conservative quarters wher
e, for instance, the veteran theologian John Macquarrie is 'grateful' for this a
ttempt to free the sources from such obviously mythological ideas. The Jewish li
terature describes Wisdom as God's chief agent, a member of his divine council,
etc., and this implies supernatural, but not, I agree, divine status. Dunn, howe
ver, supported by Larry W. Hurtado's discussion of Wisdom in his One God, One Lo
rd (Edinburgh: Clark. 1998), will not allow even the supernatural status, and re
gards the Wisdom of the Jewish literature not as an actual being in God's servic
e, but as a mere personification of some of his attributes. Hurtado does not, ho
wever, dispute, as Dunn does, that Paul's Jesus was pre-existent.
Jewish monotheism did not stop the Jewish authors of the Wisdom literature from
speculating about semi-divine figures, any more than Christian monotheism has pr
evented Christians from seeing Jesus as God. In this connection it is relevant t

o keep in mind what may be called the degradation of ideas, something very often
significant in religious history. Statements which may perhaps have originated
as merely what Dunn calls 'some form of poetic hyperbole' can readily be taken m
ore literally in the course of their transmission. In his 1940 book Stoic, Chris
tian and Humanist, the classical scholar Gilbert Murray gave as examples the way
in which, in some late pagan documents, 'the providence (Pronoia) of God' becom
es a separate power; the wisdom of God' (Sophia) becomes 'the divine Sophia' or
'Sophia, the daughter of God'. He adds that 'the doctrinal history' of the conce
ption "Logos" as the "word" or "speech" of God, shows similar developments'. Put
ting this important phenomenon in general terms, we may say that religion compri
ses beliefs and practices, and that, while a practice can be imitated without re
ference to any underlying belief -- it is common for even civilized persons to c
onform to rites the precise purpose of which they cannot explain -- a belief can
not be imitated in the same way; for, unless arising spontaneously out of common
experience -- and with religious beliefs this can seldom be the case --it must
be conveyed from one mind to another by some kind of language. The essential amb
iguities of language, combined with different capacities for abstraction in the
persons who use it, are bound to lead to different interpretations of the same f
ormulae; and this distortion will result in religious change, or at least affect
the uniformity of belief even in a small community. In this way, complicated an
d sophisticated ideas become degraded into more tangible concretes.
Some recent critics have gone so far as to deny even that the early Christians b
elieved Jesus ever to have lived on Earth as a man. I refer to Timothy Freke and
Peter Gandy, joint authors of The Jesus Mysteries (London: Thorsons, 1999), and
to Earl Doherty, whose relevant publications include a 1997 article in the Jour
nal of Higher Criticism and a series of articles on the Internet. [3] The streng
th of Freke and Gandy's account lies in bringing out the pagan parallels, partic
ularly in the mystery religions, to earliest Christianity. They do not, however,
accept that pagan motifs have been grafted onto a Jesus who was at least believ
ed to have existed historically, but insist that Paul regarded Christ as 'a time
less mythical figure'. Doherty likewise holds that Paul speaks of Jesus 'in excl
usively mythological terms'. I have never -- in spite of what some of my critics
have alleged -- subscribed to such a view: for Paul does, after all, call Jesus
a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3), born of a woman under the (Jewish) law (Gal.4
:4), who lived as a servant to the circumcision (Rom. 15:8) and was crucified on
a tree (Gal.3:13) and buried (I Cor. 15:4). Doherty interprets these passages f
rom the Platonic premiss that things on Earth have their 'counterparts' in the h
eavens. Thus 'within the spirit realm' Christ could be of David's stock, etc. Bu
t, if the 'spiritual' reality was believed to correspond in some way to a materi
al equivalent on Earth, then the existence of the latter is conceded. In any cas
e, what was the point of Christ's assuming human form (Phil.2:6-11) if he did no
t come to Earth to redeem us? It is of course true that the source of statements
such as 'descended from David' is scripture, not historical tradition. But this
does not mean, as Doherty supposes, that the life and the death were not believ
ed to have occurred on Earth. The evangelists inferred much of what they took fo
r Jesus life-history from scripture, but nevertheless set this life in a quite s
pecific historical situation. I am quite unconvinced by Doherty's suggestion tha
t 'it is very possible' that even these four evangelists 'regarded their midrash
ic tale as symbolic only and its Jesus figure as not historical'. Again, Doherty
does not allow that stories of martyrdoms in historical situations -- in, for i
nstance, the books of the Maccabees -- could have prompted Christian ideas about
Jesus' death as a historical event, since the deaths in the Jewish stories were
'invariably for the sake of the Law' and 'dying for sin is not in the same cate
gory'. But, as has been pointed out,[4] the Jewish stories do exemplify the desi
re to comply with God's will, and so can have influenced the early Christian ide
a that Jesus did the same, even though he did not die for the Law.
Perhaps Doherty's strongest point is Paul's assertion (1 Cor.2:8) that Jesus was
crucified by supernatural forces (the archontes). I take this to mean that they

prompted the action of human agents: but I must admit that the text ascribes th
e deed to the archontes themselves.
Doherty tells that he was launched on the path of scepticism by my own critical
work, but finds that my scepticism does not go far enough. This is certainly a n
ovel criticism for me to face.
NOTES
1. Translations represent Paul as speaking of the night when Jesus 'was betrayed
' (1 Cor. 11:23), as if he were alluding to Judas, when the Greek has, not 'was
betrayed' but 'was delivered'. Schmithals comments (in chapter 16 of his The The
ology of the First Christians, a 1997 English translation, published in America,
from the German of 1994) that 'Paul did not have in mind the betrayal by Judas
at all, but rather was reaching back to the early Christian confessional traditi
on according to which God himself' -- the passive voice of 'was delivered' impli
es, as so often in the Old Testament and in early Christian literature, that God
was the agent, while obviating any need to mention him directly -- "delivered"
Jesus into the darkness of human guilt and of death (cf. Isa.53:6; Rom.4:25: 8:3
2; Gal.2:20)'.
2. R. Eisenman and M. Wise (in their The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, Shaftesbury
(Dorset): Element, 1992, pp. 2431) observe that at Qumran the use of the noun '
Salvation' or the verbal noun 'His Salvation' is both 'fairly widespread and muc
h underrated'. They instance a phrase such as 'the children of Salvation', and t
hey point to 'the personification of this concept in the Gospel presentation of
Messianic events in Palestine in the first century'. Another factor which may we
ll have contributed to the naming of Jesus is that, in Greek, 'Joshua' is render
ed as 'Jesus', and Joshua was the model for some who claimed (or were expected t
o come and claim) supernatural powers. Details in my Did Jesus Exist?, 2nd editi
on, London: Pemberton, 1986. p.69 n.28.
3. The Journal of Higher Criticism (JHC) is published by the Institute for Highe
r Critical Studies, Drew University, Madison NJ. The reference to Doherty's Inte
rnet articles is http://pages.ca.inter.net/~oblio/home.htm
4. By David Seeley, JIIC. vol.1 (1994).