I didn’t think to write a second part of this article, but there is an issue with mythicists in general that really upsets me, and it has to do with their criticism of the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity as possible pointers toward Jesus’ historicity.
The argument in general as advocated by Robert Price and Richard Carrier, among others, goes like this (and I hope not to misrepresent their positions):
The arguments from embarrassment and dissimilarity are seriously flawed, because if the Gospel writers were “embarrassed” by the information they were sharing or told something that contradicted their narrative, they would not have included it in the text. Actually, if it was included, it is because it proves a point that the Gospel writer is trying to make.
Here is a fuller description of this rejection. I disagree with this statement, but to illustrate my point, I want to show how it is used, not only in New Testament criticism, but in actual historiographical labor regarding other historical subjects.
Eusebius and an Angry Constantine Not Caring about Christ
It is known and very well established by scholars that Eusebius of Caesarea is not exactly the best reliable source in the universe if you want to know anything about the actual history of Christianity or what happened during the Emperor Constantine’s reign. Recently, Donald Robertson wrote an excellent article on how Eusebius seems to have made up the persecution against Christians supposedly engaged by Marcus Aurelius. The statement agrees fully with what scholars have found about stories of martyrdom in early Christianity, and which have been publicized by Candida Moss’ excellent book, The Myth of Persecution. In his article, Robertson quotes Eusebius himself when he states in one of his writings:
“That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.”
Jakob Buckhardt, the nineteenth century historian of Antiquity, is famous for characterizing Eusebius as a compulsive liar, needless to say that for him, the description of Eusebius as “historian” does not fit well, but rather “propagandist”.
Therefore, if you want to read a book such as Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, we should expect more propaganda than and actual systematic objective narrative. For instance, most people think that Constantine’s apparition of the Cross in the heavens as told by that book is historical, and that it was the point where he converted to Christianity. Yet, when we go to the Arch of Constantine, which commemorates his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, there is no sign of Christ anywhere, nor of the Labarum, nor the chi-rho symbol that supposedly he saw with the Labarum, nor do his soldiers appear with it inscribed in their shields. We see evidence, though, of an homage to Sol Invictus. Needless to say that Constantine used Sol Invictus’ symbolism everywhere, from his statue, to coins, to legislation, etc. In fact, no one else knows Eusebius’ account of his conversion (notoriously different from Lactantius), and he says that Constantine told him the story in secret and under oath (!) (see Book 1, ch. 28). Yes we agree that the chi-rho sign was distinctive of Constantine’s reign and we have evidence for it (and the use of the Labarum), but is it clear that it is a Christian symbol? Some scholars dispute it, given that the earliest account of an actual vision apparently as told publicly by Constantine himself, occurred in 310 CE, where the Sol Invictus and the goddess Victory handed him a military standard with the description of a symbol that is suspiciously similar to the chi-rho sign. Of course, nobody was able to ask Constantine about any of the claims of the apparition of the Cross, given that when Eusebius’ book was written, the “sole eye-witness who swore this under oath to him and no one else” was dead.
Yet, not everything that Eusebius wrote about Constantine is a lie. Some of the facts he tells us did happen, perhaps not in the way he portrays it. Besides, there are many aspects where Eusebius seems to be surprisingly honest. For instance, when he reproduces Constantine’s own letters and official documents. How do we know that he didn’t distort them? Mainly because of … the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity. AS in the case of the Gospels, these letters actually served Eusebius to make an immediate point in his narrative, BUT by using this information, he reveals Constantine’s true attitudes towards Christianity that do not serve the author on other grounds.
If Eusebius’ writings are apologetic to the core, then we must ask, what was the purpose of his Life of Constantine? Apparently, from reading the text, and what we know about his exaggerated claims and omission of information, we can infer that Eusebius wanted to show Constantine as a Christian model, following the archetypal path of Biblical figures such as Moses and David. That is what we see page after page of Eusebius accounts. There is no question about it in the realm of scholarly Antiquity. Yet, in order to tell us about the Council of Niscea, and Constantine’s role in it, he has to tell us about Alexander and Arius’ dispute about the nature of Christ: Was Christ a lower divinity in the same nature as the Father, but not God Himself? Or was He as God as God the Father, coeternal and cosubstantial?
For Constantine, this was not a trivial matter, but not because he was bothered subjectively regarding this Christian conviction. He was worried because the dispute was generating a level of conflict that literally was tearing apart his Empire, the one he fought so hard for so many years to unify. Eusebius tells us that when he knew about this dispute, he was deeply saddened by it. In order to find unity among Christians, he wrote a letter calling Arius and Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, to peace. Because the letter itself could not resolve this dispute, Constantine called for a Council to decide this debate once after all. In this sense, the letter served Eusebius’ point, that Constantine cared for the peace and unity of Christians (a real Peacemaker with a capital “P”), especially by calling for a Council that decided what was the Truth (with a capital “T”).
Yet, if we read the letter itself, we can see Constantine’s true attitude towards the whole subject. His motives were political, not doctrinal in any sense. He couldn’t care less about whether Arius or Alexander was right. He wanted a unified Empire. This is transparent in the letter. Here are some observations about it (if you want to read the letter in its entirety, see Book II, chs. 64-72). From the letter we get that Constantine condemns Arius and Alexander, both, for disputing about a subject he describes with these words:
- “… having made a careful inquiry into the origin and foundation of these differences, I find the cause to be of a truly insignificant character, and quite unworthy of such fierce contention” (ch. 68, my emphasis)
- “I should say, that you [Alexander] asked them something connected with an unprofitable question, then you, Arius, inconsiderately insisted on what ought never to have been conceived at all, or if conceived, should have been buried in profound silence” (ch. 69, my emphasis).
- “For those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly entrusted to the general ear. For how very few are there able either accurately to comprehend, or adequately to explain subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature?” (ibid., my emphasis).
- “For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, it is not fitting that so large a portion of God’s people should be under the direction of your judgment, since you are thus divided between yourselves. I believe it indeed to be not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that such should be the case.” (ch. 71, my emphasis)
- “But let us still more thoughtfully and with closer attention examine what I have said, and see whether it be right that, on the ground of some trifling and foolish verbal difference between ourselves, brethren should assume towards each other the attitude of enemies, and the august meeting of the Synod be rent by profane disunion, because of you who wrangle together on points so trivial and altogether unessential? This is vulgar, and rather characteristic of childish ignorance, than consistent with the wisdom of priests and men of sense.” (ibid., my emphasis)
- “And this I say without in any way desiring to force you to entire unity of judgment in regard to this truly idle question, whatever its real nature may be. For the dignity of your synod may be preserved, and the communion of your whole body maintained unbroken, however wide a difference may exist among you as to unimportant matters” (ibid., my emphasis)
- “For while the people of God, whose fellow-servant I am, are thus divided among themselves by an unreasonable and pernicious spirit of contention, how is it possible that I shall be able to maintain tranquility of mind?” (ch. 72, my emphasis)
And HERE is where the criterion of embarrassment (and also dissimilarity) kicks in!
Does this letter serve Eusebius? Again, yes, it does! Read in its totality, it serves to point out how much of a peacemaker he was towards Christians, and how concerned he was for “true peace” within the one true Catholic Church.
Yet, it also contains elements that do not favor the main thesis of his book! How likely is it, that Eusebius would make up a letter that has so much unflattering things to say about both sides of the discussion (including the “orthodox” side represented by Alexander)? There is next to no chance, since we know that Eusebius is notorious for distorting facts to his brand of Christianity. How likely is it that Eusebius would make Constantine regard the issue as “unimportant”, “a trivial and foolish verbal difference”, “positively evil”, and so on? Minute, almost non-existent. Yet, these elements are there for one reason… and one reason only: because historically, Constantine did write the letter, and because he did not care about Christology. This is the criterion of embarrassment in action! This is why it is useful in the field of history.
We are still left with a question. Why couldn’t he just forge the letter? For one simple reason: that he is still living in a time where Constantine just died, but his advisers, his friends, his militia, his scribes, Arian friends of the Emperor (like Eusebius of Nicomedia), and so on, were still living. He would have been caught with the forgery if that happened.
In general, it is unlikely that Eusebius could have made up material that would be contrary to his intent of presenting Constantine as a devout Christian, and in such “embarrassing” levels. Yet, he still used the letter, because despite of some of its content, it “proves” that Constantine was a Peacemaker.
Is this criterion a sort of the criterion of dissimilarity? Yes. And all of the above shows that these criteria are useful in History as a discipline.
The Criteria of Embarrassment and Dissimilarity in New Testament Scholarship
How does this apply to the New Testament? In our previous post, we saw that Jesus’ baptism was an inconvenient factor for all of the Gospels’ authors. They are not properly speaking “embarrassed” on the whole of the story, in the sense that it deals with how Jesus was actually declared Son of God at the moment of his baptism. As a matter of fact, the whole episode in the Synoptic reads like a prophet anointing a new king (just like Samuel anointed David). This is emphasized apparently in Luke, in whose original text (or at least according to some scholars) the Holy Spirit appears pronouncing the verses of Psalm 2, regarding the king being begotten as the Son of God (Ps. 2:7; Lk. 3:22).
But still, any attentive reader should feel nagged by the premise of John’s baptism: this is a baptism of confession and repentance of sins! That’s why people were being baptized by him. Why did Jesus go there? Why not just begin his ministry separately from John the Baptist. The historical answer is that Jesus began as John’s disciple. In order to eliminate the inconvenience of this undeniable fact, the Gospel writers (specifically Mark’s Gospel) changed the meaning of his baptism: Jesus’ is not a baptism of confession and repentance of sins; in this particular case, it was an “anointing” by a known prophet. Then, according to Mark, Jesus had a vision and knew that he was the Son of God … even though he never said that publicly!
An this fact is another inconvenience. What is the evidence that Jesus was the Son of God? The problem, Mark would say, is that when he was recognized as the Son of God by demons or others, he ordered them to shut up; but his disciples were supposed to know, yet never understood him. There is no debate among scholars that this claim, as absurd as it sounds, is the literary motif of that Gospel. Don’t believe me? Read that Gospel from beginning to end! That’s the whole idea! Even after his resurrection, the women never told the disciples about those news (remember that the Gospel actually ends in Mark 16:8, the rest of the verses were a later addition).
Why? Again, Mark wanted to explain why Jesus historically never appeared to have called himself Son of God in public, and wanted to explain away why the Messiah, who knew since his baptism that He was the Son of God, never revealed it publicly: because he either shut people up about it, or he was misunderstood by his disciples.
If we go to the other synoptic Gospels, we find another inconvenience for both of their authors. This time, their common source, the Q text, tells us about John’s reaction when he heard the news about Jesus’ activity. According to Q (or at least what it supposedly should have said, Q is a hypothetical document):
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’ (Lk. 7:18-23; Mt. 11:2-6).
Of course, this served both Matthew and Luke regarding their immediate point: to confirm the authors’ conviction that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the miracles that he carried out proved without a doubt that he was “the one who is to come”. Yet, now a question nags: “But, wait a second! According to Matthew, John actually did know that Jesus was the Messiah (Matt. 3:14)! And in Luke, even when John didn’t baptize Jesus, he was a close relative of his and should have known all of the fantastic stuff that happened to Joseph, Mary, Zechariah, and his mother Elisabeth, and he must have known that Jesus was the Messiah, right? (Lk. 1-2)” If you follow both Gospels, John should have known better than to ask that inconvenient question, and yet, historically speaking, John seems not to have known that Jesus was “the one to come”. Still with that problematic issue, both Gospel writers used it to prove their immediate point, that Jesus’ activity did show that he was the Messiah, and THAT was included in Jesus’ reply to John. This is the reason why scholars think that most probably this event of John sending his disciples to ask Jesus actually took place.
Now, why didn’t any of the Gospel writers follow the path of the Gospel of John, of omitting (or even denying) that Jesus was baptized? Very simple! Because Mark’s account, which is the basis for both Matthew’s and Luke’s, apparently collected early traditions among Christians. Besides, through critical scholarly analyses, we know that during the first century, John the Baptist also had disciples, and his sect gradually became confrontational with Christians. This can be shown in John’s Gospel, when (apparently responding to this sect) states clearly that John was not the Light, but he was a “witness to the Light” (John 1:6-8). Also, it was widely known at the time, that the custom of Baptism in Christianity had its roots from John’s activity as a baptizer. The author of the Gospel of John is far enough from that historical moment in order to omit (or deny?) that Jesus was ever baptized by John. Not so in the case of the earlier Gospels, whose writing took place when a wide variety of people, including Christians, did know that Jesus was baptized by John. Besides, the Gospels reflect an admiration for John that was shared by all Christians … they just think that Jesus was greater than John.
Note: If you want to read how can scholars have an idea of the disputes between Christians and the followers of John the Baptist, read Raymond Brown’s book, The Community of the Beloved Disciple.
So, they didn’t change the fact of the event initially, but rather changed the meaning of the event. This was at the beginning, but as I showed in my previous post, at least from a literary point of view, the first account of Jesus’ baptism shows him being baptized by John; in the second account (Matthews’) we see a bit of an effort of the Gospel writer to explain this fact; then in the third account (Luke’s) Jesus’ baptism is dissociated from John; until finally (in John’s Gospel0, Jesus was not baptized by John, nor baptized at all.
Everything in all four Gospels points at some level of “embarrassment” regarding these issues. The only explanation for why they initially had to tell the story, is because historically Jesus was baptized by John, and everyone knew that. If THAT is the case, then Jesus is not a fictional or mythical character of a story, and most probably (to the point of almost absolute certainty) he truly existed.
The Limits of the Criterion of Embarrassment
Is this criterion infallible? Absolutely not. There are cases where it fails, and mythicists are right that it can fail often. Yet they forget some important factors:
- To discard this criterion because it fails sometimes does not mean that it will fail all of the time. We can see in this article at least four cases where it clearly shows that it does help us obtain some historical information: 1. that Jesus was baptized, 2. that he never claimed to be the Son of God, 3.that John didn’t know about Jesus being “the one to come”, and 4. that Constantine wrote a very unflattering letter to Christians and didn’t care about Christology.
- They give the public the impression that these limits are not being discussed among New Testament scholars.
Regarding this second point, this is simply untrue. The limits of the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity are widely discussed by scholars in the field and are very well known (see here, here, here and here). However, we have several good news:
- Although these criteria have a subjective degree that it cannot be denied, their discussion with scholars who hold very different points of view on the matter help refine their methodological use, given that they cannot be mechanically applied to everything (e.g. to Jesus’ cry of Psalm 22 on the Cross).
- These discussions also help combining these criteria with several others (criteria of coherence, consistency, social and cultural context, literary style and message, etc.)
- Mythicists often complain against these criteria saying that many ancient writings contradict themselves. Yet, what they miss is that often these contradictions are examined by critical scholars and historians in order to explain them. When it is a appropriate, guess which two criteria (among many others) do they have in mind when they examine them?
In all this discussion, let’s remember that not only the NT reconstruction of the “historical Jesus”, but also all of the History is this incredibly difficult process of arming a coherent jigsaw puzzle that takes the bits and pieces left to us from the past (documents, archaeological discoveries, etc.) and reconstruct the past into the best picture we are able to. This is the reason why people often we see historians “revising” history. This is not because there was an original infallible picture of what happened in the past, and then those “damned liberal” historians want to distort it … History is rather an ongoing process of refining its methods, reevaluating the evidence, and refining their historical theories using criteria (all of themfallible) to formulate the best theoretical picture we have of what actually happened in the past.
Like the natural sciences, this happens frequently. Unlike the natural sciences, this is not an exact hard discipline like Physics. Finding an accurate picture of the past is a lot harder and includes a lot of things that Physics doesn’t have to deal with: for example, cognitive science, sociology, economics, political science, and so on.
So, if anything, we have shown once again the validity of the arguments of embarrassment and dissimilarity, and saw how they point at the fact of an actual historical Jesus.
Like ghosts that constantly come back to haunt the public’s intellect, so does mythicism show up its infamous presence again and again, especially during the Christmas season and Lent. There are two camps in this realm, one which is made up of non-experts who have absolutely no authority in the area, and will claim that Jesus’ life is crafted after Horus, who was crucified died and resurrected, as well as Krishna, Mithra, Buddha, and so on. Of course, any historian with the most basic knowledge of Antiquity can dismiss all of these claims as totally untrue.
Yet, there is another sector of mythicism that is more respectable and is being held by authoritative historians and scholars, such as is the well known cases of Robert Price and Richard Carrier. Of the two of them, Price is the only one with a Ph.D. in New Testament scholarship, Carrier is an expert in general Antiquity, not Bible scholarship. This doesn’t mean that these are the only two academics who hold a mythicist view. For instance, there is also Raphael Lataster, who wrote an article for the Washington Post about two years ago regarding his view that Jesus didn’t exist. I will use this article to show why this academic mythicist view is simply wrong. Of course, I cannot respond to all of their claims, but I will give enough in this post to show why this is an extremely minor view held by academics, and why the overwhelming majority of specialists in the area reject it.
Before I begin, I want to accept that Lataster’s is an article with a limited space to argue his position with all due nuance. I will try my best not to take him out of context. I’m also aware that he is unable to respond to all of the objections presented against this mythicist view.
Oh! And another thing. I am not a Bible scholar with a degree in the field. This means that you should take my assertions with care, and talk to an actual professional Bible scholar about the issue. All I can promise you here is that my statements will abide as best as possible by the best Bible scholarship that I know.
What I Agree with Mythicists
Surprisingly enough, there are areas where, from a historical standpoint I can agree with mythicists. From a methodological naturalistic point of view assumed by history, it is very unlikely that there was a virgin birth, or that someone ascended “to the heavens” defying the laws of gravity. Most probably there were no miraculous healings in the strictest sense of the word, and most probably Lazarus didn’t rise from the dead. So, from a historiographical standpoint, I agree that there was no Jesus who was miraculously conceived, carried out miracles, died, resurrected, and ascended to heaven, etc. A lot of this is a product of fantasy.
I also agree with one very important point brought constantly by mythicists. There is no smoking gun that proves without a shadow of a doubt that Jesus existed. If you want to argue that there is no archaeological discovery of the first century that talks about Jesus, or that there is no text written by him, or that the information that we have from them is contradictory, written decades, even centuries later, etc., I would be forced to agree.
Yet, as historians of Antiquity know very well, if these variables were the sole determinants of the existence of an ancient person, we would have to wipe out almost all of the information that we have gathered from Antiquity, and stay with a minutia of what we do have evidence for. We would have to erase from history, Thales of Miletus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Apolonius of Tiana, Spartacus, etc. Your 20 volumes of an encyclopedia of history would be reduced to a 20 pages pamphlet (I’m exaggerating, but you get the point), because besides claims made by documents, we have next to no evidence of a lot of claims that they make. History is not an exact science like Physics, and it can only suppose provisionally what documents can tell us after they have been rigorously qualified by the available evidence using the best methods that historians have available.
One of the things that most people don’t know, and mythicist continually exploit this ignorance, is that virtually all ancient documents do have agendas. None of them are neutral. Do you think that Julius Caesar was “100% objective” regarding his recount of his conquest of Gaul? No, many of his claims have been found to be false! Do you think that Josephus was “100% objective” with no agendas tied to the Roman Empire? That Aristotle was “100% objective”, especially with his tendency to demean other philosophers to make himself look greater? That Herodotus was “100% objective”? NO! None of these authors were “agenda-free” historians or thinkers! If this is the case … what does it mean when mythicist claim that you should never believe ANY information provided by Paul’s letters or the Gospels, because they have agendas?! If every historian behaved this way, we would know next to nothing about history. Of course, an “agenda” is something to keep in mind, but it does not discredit historical claims automatically.
Whether there was a historical Jesus beneath this fiction, I agree with the overwhelming consensus among scholars of Antiquity and the New Testament: YES! Most probably a historical Jesus did indeed exist in the past.
Mythicists often argue that the reason why such consensus exists is because most of them are believers. Yet, this is overly simplistic, given that a lot of the most renowned scholars had trouble with their respective churches for holding such controversial use. The classic case of Rudolf Bultmann should be recalled, since he held in the nineteenth century that most of what the Gospel say didn’t happen. The Catholic priest, Raymond Brown, who has become a must-read for every New Testament scholar today, had huge problems with the Vatican due to inconvenient scholarship regarding his scholarly stance on Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as well as controversial statements regarding John’s Gospel (see his Community of the Beloved Disciple as an example). The priest John Meier has often differed scholarly from the dogmatic positions of Roman Catholicism (e.g., he holds from a scholarly view that Jesus had brothers and sisters who were the sons of Joseph and Mary, against the Catholic dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary).
Yet, briefly, for the sake of argument, let’s take believers out of the equation. The vast majority of non-believers in the field also hold that Jesus did indeed exist. In this case, mythicists argue that the problem is that the minds of these scholars have been manipulated and conditioned (they were brainwashed?) by previous Christian scholars. Yet, this claim has no more credibility than the allegation from the political Right-Wing that the anthropogenic view of climate change is held by most scientists as part of a conspiracy by the U.N. and Al Gore to take away the sovereignty of the countries of the world and steer them towards socialism; or the political Left claims that most scientists favor GMOs because they have been bought by Monsanto. It basically supposes that Bible scholars who agree with Jesus’ existence have no actual agency of their own, despite the fact that virtually all of them have studied Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Coptic, have had historiographical education and instruction, and more often than not they learn to defy convention.
So, it is not surprising what Lataster says in his article:
Numerous secular scholars have presented their own versions of the so-called “Historical Jesus” – and most of them are, as biblical scholar J.D. Crossan puts it, “an academic embarrassment.” From Crossan’s view of Jesus as the wise sage, to Robert Eisenman’s Jesus the revolutionary, and Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic prophet, about the only thing New Testament scholars seem to agree on is Jesus’ historical existence. But can even that be questioned?
And yet, of all of these listed above, Ehrman’s views corresponds better to the consensus, and most scholars reject Crossan and Eisenman’s views, even though these are still in debate. This is an idea defended by the some of the most hard core scholars such as John P. Meier, E. P. Sanders, Paula Fredriksen, Gerd Lüdemann, Antonio Piñero, among others. The reason why scholars gravitate towards the view that Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet is due to the whole primitive Christian movement was apocalypticist (as we shall see), and this can be inferred from Paul’s authentic letters as well from the Synoptic Gospels (the most primitive documents on Jesus we have). Yet, Jesus did not carry out any revolution nor was he thinking about an armed revolt. The most common view today is that Jesus was awaiting the Son of Man, who would dispense justice and place him as king of Israel with all twelve tribes ruled by the twelve Apostles (Mt. 19:28). Eisenman’s effort to present this “revolutionary Jesus” is based solely on his reading of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls which he holds some are Christian documents (especially the Habakkuk pesher; carbon-14 put that matter to rest for good, as well as analyses made by the vast majority of experts in these ancient documents). Also his exotic views on James and Paul are not embraced by almost anyone in the field. Regarding Jesus as a sage, scholars have realized that Jesus’ wise views can only be understood within an apocalypticist context and framework, so, again, it is more reasonable to suppose that he was an apocalypticist prophet.
So, the situation is much less “embarrassing” than Lataster wants us to believe. Pointing out the discrepancy among three scholars hardly constitutes a case against Jesus’ existence.
The Early Sources
Lataster tells us:
The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them. The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify. Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.
This is a non-sequitur. Even if the Gospel authors fail to name themselves, that by itself does not mean that they are not using earlier sources and traditions. Quite the opposite, all of the analysis made by scholars in the twentieth century have identified in the four Gospels many early sources that form the basis of their writings.
Also the fact that they want to promote Christianity doesn’t mean either that Jesus didn’t exist, or that the traditions lack any validity. At best, this argument is a red-herring, and tells us nothing about Jesus’ historicity or lack of it. Julius Caesar was heavily promoted by a lot of the literature of his time, including his own. They all present, strictly speaking, a fictional Caesar reconstructed as a form of propaganda in his favor. Does that mean that he didn’t exist? Through Virgil, we learn that Caesar Augustus is divine because he was a descendant of the hero Aeneas, who had Venus as his mother. Does that mean that Augustus didn’t exist? A divinized Jesus is nothing strange in Antiquity, and follows the tendency of turning eminent historical people in his time to become divine. Bart Ehrman wrote an excellent book about this subject.
Even though we have no smoking gun-proof of Jesus’s existence, the question historians ask is where does the evidence tends to point at? Towards his existence or non-existence?
Criteria for Historicity
This is perhaps the weakest argument from mythicists. The criteria of embarrassment, multiple attestation, and others are not perfect, yet they are not exactly useless either. It is overly simplistic to see one case where these don’t work, and then throw them to the waste basket. Each of these criteria has its own limitations, sometimes they need to be combined in order to work, in other cases they are not enough to decide whether a passage reflects history or not.
Yet, they are important and still extremely useful. Lataster discusses the three. I don’t have time to discuss all of them, but I will respond to this one to show how short-sighted are his (and other mythicists’) views on this subject. He says:
The methods traditionally used to tease out rare nuggets of truth from the Gospels are dubious. The criterion of embarrassment says that if a section would be embarrassing for the author, it is more likely authentic. Unfortunately, given the diverse nature of Christianity and Judaism back then (things have not changed all that much), and the anonymity of the authors, it is impossible to determine what truly would be embarrassing or counter-intuitive, let alone if that might not serve some evangelistic purpose.
And yet, anyone who has taken into consideration literary analysis of the Gospels and letters in the New Testament, can identify pretty accurately, regardless the anonymity of the authors, what he thinks, what he believes, what his public is, what is the literary message of the writing, and so on. Whoever establishes this as a problem simply does not know how to read a text. From the context itself we can know what the author is embarrassed about. I can use lots of examples, but for the sake of argument, I’ll use one particular case: Jesus’ baptism. All I require my reader to do is to actually read the passages I’m going to discuss in their New Testament (Don’t take my word for it! Read them yourselves!)
We know today (and few academics challenge this view) that the Gospels were written between 68 and 100 CE in this order: Mark (68-70 CE), Matthew (80-90 CE), Luke (80-90 CE), John (90-100 CE). This is provisionally accepted by virtually all Bible scholars. So, regarding Jesus’ baptism, we see a gradual effort to distance him from John the Baptist’s ministry, and at the end negate the event of his baptism.
Let’s look at the passages carefully:
- Mark 1:1-15 – Let’s note that this is our earliest Gospel, and says nothing about Jesus’ miraculous birth, nor early life in either Bethlehem or Nazareth. It limits the information to the fact that Jesus came from Nazareth, and that’s it! But that’s not the actual beginning of the story. It begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, and establishes the reason why he was baptizing. He was inviting people to confess their sins and submerge them in water as a sign of being cleansed of the dirt of sin. It is a sign of conversion from a sinful life (Mark 1:1-4). Then Jesus appears, gets baptized, and sees the heavens open up with the Holy Spirit declaring him Son of God (Mark 1:11). After that, we are told that Jesus spent time in the desert, and only began his ministry after John was arrested (Mark 1:14). The whole episode feels rushed: Why did Jesus baptize? We are never told. Did Jesus become the Son of God after “repenting from his sins” or did he do it for any other reason? We are never told. Why did he spend time in the desert? We are not told. Why did he begin his ministry after John’s arrest? We are never told. It is as if the Gospel writer wanted to skip all of this information related to John the Baptist to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
- Matthew 3:1-16 – This story assumes the framework established by Mark, but apparently includes material that presumably comes from the text that scholars call Q. Yet, there is another difference between Mark’s and Matthew’s account: John stops Jesus briefly to ask him why is he going to be baptized, if John himself should be baptized by Jesus. After that, Jesus gives John a non-answer: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15) That’s it! Again, no explanation whatsoever. It is as if the author of this Gospel was trying to explain away the reason why Jesus was baptized by John. Unfortunately, Jesus’ answer doesn’t explain anything, except to say that it is God’s will.
- Luke 3:1-22 – The story presented here is more curious than the preceding ones. Here, we find the same Markan framework, it includes Q material, plus more statements from John the Baptist. Yet, something curious happens. Question to you: In this Gospel, is Jesus baptized by John? Pay attention to the text! In vv. 19-20, we find that John was arrested and imprisoned. THEN, Jesus appears baptized! (vv. 21-22) What?! Who baptized Jesus? Was it John the Baptist before being arrested? We don’t know. The text says that he was already baptized and that when he was praying, he saw the Holy Spirit descend declaring him Son of God.
- John 1:19-34 – Of all of the Gospels, this one is the most interesting! Why? Well, I’m going to ask you a question: “Was Jesus baptized (by John or ANYONE)?” Feel free to roam around the passage or the whole Gospel. Your answer is negative. There is NO story at all about Jesus being baptized! And as specialists of John’s Gospel will tell you, usually when a text is notoriously silent when it should not be, usually that’s the author negating the event. (For example: Jesus goes through no agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and totally refuses to ask God to avoid his suffering. John 12:27; 18:1-12). As a matter of fact, in the Gospel of John’s version the story of John the Baptist, it is not Jesus, but John who sees the Holy Spirit revealing Jesus as the Son of God. It is as if, Jesus already knew he was the Son of God anyway. Why need the baptism? (John 1:33-34)
So here’s the scenario. Mark is extremely brief about the John the Baptist’s activities and tells us nothing about why Jesus went to be baptized (in the context where baptism clearly implies repentance from sin). In Matthew, there is an “attempt to explain” how the sinless and righteous Jesus needed to be baptized by John, although it doesn’t give us much to go on. In Luke, the author purposely dissociates Jesus’ baptism from John’s activities; it is as if Jesus’ baptism is different from the rest of the baptized. Finally, the Gospel of John, the last of the Gospels to be written in the first century, completely denies that Jesus was baptized by John.
That gives us a pattern, which can only be explained by the criterion of embarrassment. No historian today doubts the historicity of John the Baptist, since Josephus gives us clear testimony that he existed and tells us about his activities in many ways that are clearly not based on the Gospels (which means that the story was not created or interpolated by Christian hands). The Synoptics show John as being an apocalypticist typical of the era, calling for conversion, for the one to come (the Son of Man?) is close.
What explains these New Testament passages? Why is there a pattern towards a gradual dissociation of Jesus from John? The reason is historically simple. Here it is:
Historically, Jesus went to John to repent from his sins to confess them and be baptized. He became John’s disciple. We don’t know if historically he went through the desert. What is clear from Mark (our earliest Gospel) is that once John was arrested, Jesus decided to begin his ministry by preaching an apocalypticist message (Mark 1:14-15), which basically said that the time for God’s Kingdom was very close and that the Son of Man was going to appear soon to judge the living and the dead, that the Messiah was going to rule this Kingdom. It is important to note that when John the Baptist heard about Jesus’ deeds in jail, he was particularly skeptical about it, another embarrassing fact revealed by the Gospels and based on Q (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-19).
After Jesus died and his disciples began to proclaim his resurrection and that he was the Son of God, they had a problem! They were saying that the Messiah and Son of God … was baptized by John!!! He was baptized because he repented, because he wanted to be John’s disciple. That seems embarrassing! Jesus, not John, was the Messiah. So our earliest Gospel only dwells just a bit on the story, and apologetically implies that Jesus was chosen Son of God after he was cleansed of his sins. Matthew went a bit further, and implied that Jesus was already sinless and righteous, but because “God wills it”, he chose to be baptized by John. Luke went further still and dissociated Jesus’ baptism from John’s. And John’s Gospel, the last of the Gospels, represents the culmination of all of this process: John did not baptize Jesus.
Now, we have two ways of looking at this: either Jesus existed and what is stated above is true, or Jesus did not exist, so, we are left wondering why the earliest portrayal of Jesus includes a story that reflects a notorious embarrassment for all four Gospels, If Jesus existed, the explanation is pretty simple: Jesus’ baptism was an undeniable fact known to everyone in the movement, including to followers of John the Baptist. Each of the authors had to explain or negate in some way what actually happened. This information was very inconvenient for Christians.
So, if Jesus existing gives us the simplest and most plausible explanation for these attitudes regarding Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels, (voilà!) the criterion of embarrassment pointed out an actual historical event that apparently did take place: Jesus’ baptism.
Lataster’s view that this story was included in the Gospel because it was “convenient” for the authors or their churches does not even begin to make sense of the data we have just discussed. You will really have to do mental gymnastics in order to “save the mythicist theory” to then explain these attitudes reflected in the Gospels.
Paul’s Jesus: The “Heavenly Christ Crucified by Spirits”?
One of the unresolved issues in New Testament scholarship is the attitude of indifference by Paul of Tarsus regarding the life and deeds of Jesus. I provide my reasons for this in my book Pablo el Emisario, although I don’t claim to have hit the jackpot regarding this matter: basically that his letters were not gospels or expositors of Jesus’ biography, but arguments to address very specific problems of the Christian communities in gentility. Yet, even when I accept that this is not wholly satisfactory, it would be misleading to then to take this factor and pretend that for Paul Jesus was a celestial being with no past presence on Earth, or that the crucifixion took place “in the heavens” (sublunar realm to be more exact) and was “carried out by demons”.
Quite the opposite, Paul does remind us about Jesus’ humanity. He was actually born from a woman under the dominion of the Torah, the Law (Galatians 4:4). According to Paul, where did the Torah rule? In the sublunar regions of the heavens? No! It ruled right here on Earth, particularly on the Jewish people. In other words, Jesus was born a Jew according to the flesh (that is, in a physical body), an idea he states clearly in his letters (Rom. 9:1-5). From this theological framework, we can understand perfectly Paul’s view on the soteriological dimension of Jesus’ crucifixion. Basically, Jesus was ruled under the Torah and was crucified, making himself damnable under the Torah — just like all gentiles are—, so that Jesus would assume the sins of the gentiles, and finally defeat death with his resurrection (Gal. 3:13-14; 1 Cor. 5:20-21; Rom. 5:20-21; 6:1-14). In other words, contrary to what Lataster and other mythicist claim, Paul did believe that Jesus existed as a historical and physical Jew born of a woman who was actually crucified on Earth. His theology would be incomprehensible if he believed otherwise.
He also states very clearly, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus had brothers, and one of them was called Jacob, who was the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and whom he met personally (Gal. 1:19; 1 Corinthians 9:5-6). This agrees perfectly with the list of names and references to Jesus’ own brothers and sisters in the Gospels and other writings (Mark 6:3; Jude 1). May I remind you, that in the earliest Gospel, there is no miraculous birth story, and portrays his relationship with his family as less than ideal (they believed that he was out of his mind), not a celestial status by any means, and completely consistent with his apocalypticist views (Mark 3:20-21,31-35; Luke 14:26). Paul didn’t tell us anything miraculous about his birth either, and by the adoption of the Greek word “adelphos“, he did believe that James and Jesus were brothers from the same mother and father.
But what about the passage mentioned by Lataster about Jesus being killed by demons (1 Cor. 2:6-10)? Actually, this issue is debated. Some scholars think that these powers are demons (spiritual powers). Other scholars think they refer to earthly powers (political powers). In my view, they are both. The problem is that he misses one basic fact about Paul … he was also an apocalypticist. Even when you can point out Hellenistic influence in his thinking (since he was formed in a Judeo-Hellenistic environment as most scholars agree), he was nonetheless an apocalypticist, just like all Christians at the time. You can see evidence of this in his genuine letters (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:28; 1 Cor. 7:25-35; 15:1-53). For apocalypticists, there is an interplay between spiritual and earthly powers, all of them are acting simultaneously as forces of good or evil, forces of light and darkness. Those who believe are the sons of light, and those who disbelieve are in darkness. This is exactly what Paul believed (e.g. 1 Thes. 5:5-8; Rom. 13:12-13). Hence, what does 1 Cor. 2:6-10 tell us in this context? Very simple, that the spiritual powers acting in the world (through political and religious forces) led to Jesus’ crucifixion. That they did not know that he was the Messiah and Son of God , so they crucified him.
If we add up all of the passages we have thus considered, one thing is clear: Paul did believe that the crucifixion took place here on Earth, not in the sublunar heavens … period!
About Carrier’s Views about a Gradual Descent from the Celestial Christ an Earthly Jesus
Richard Carrier and two or three other people hold that Jesus was originally conceived in Christianity as being a celestial being (an angel and Logos) to an Earthly Jesus who walked on Earth.
Yet, this is not the case. Carrier’s argument rests on his belief that Paul conceived Christ as a sort of Logos as held by Judeo-Hellenistic philosophies of the time. Only then he gradually started being portrayed as having walked this Earth (the “historization” of Jesus). With the exception of an extremely reduced number of academics, no New Testament scholar buys this for a second.
First, he mentions that for Philo of Alexandria, whose philosophy was written before Paul’s Letters and the Gospels, the Logos was called “Jesus” (“Joshua” to be more precise). This claim has been refuted again and again by experts and knowledgeable non-experts alike, and they never cease to call Carrier’s position a big stretch, because he ignores on purpose the meaning of Philo’s text in order to make it fit his mythicist views.
But let’s go even further. The earliest writings we have of Christianity are Paul’s genuine letters. This is taken by mythicists to mean that Paul’s writings, which according to them present a “celestial Christ” and Logos, are the earliest form of Christology in early Christianity. They forget, for instance, that there are some traditions that Paul quotes in his letter that are even earlier, and whose content Paul didn’t share. For example, in his letter to the Romans, he is writing to a church established apparently by a Palestinian branch of Christianity, probably associated with the Church in Jerusalem. Paul has not visited this Church, but plans to do so after going to Jerusalem. In order to do that, the purpose of this letter is to gain its sympathy and explain his novel theological views about Christ. For this reason, he quotes the following creed:
… the gospel concerning [God’s] Son,
who was descended
according to the flesh
and was declared to be
the Son of God [in power]
by the Spirit of Holiness
by the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:3-4)
Due to literary criteria, some scholars have pointed out that this is an ancient creed of Aramaic origin (it contains Aramaisms such as the unusual “Spirit of holiness”, instead of Paul’s usual term “Holy Spirit”) in a poetic style where ideas from some verses match with others. The only element that does not fit the scheme is the term “in power” placed there by Paul in order to make it agree better with his incarnational Christology (Philippians 2:5b-11).
This creed was most probably of Palestinian origin, due to both the Aramaisms and the circumstances of the community Paul is addressing in this letter. Note that according to it Jesus became Son of God, not before his birth, not at the moment of his baptism, but at the time of his resurrection. This is consistent with the primitive belief that we find in our earliest Gospel (Mark) where Jesus refused to call himself Son of God in public, which is “Mark’s” way of explaining away why Jesus never called himself “Son of God” during his ministry (another historical revelation from embarrassment). The creed quoted by Paul is also preserved and repeated in another different way in the book of Acts (Acts 13:32-33).
What do these small creeds mean? Simple, mythicists are purposely ignoring that there are even more primitive traditions in Paul’s writings: ones where Jesus was an earthly man who was to be the Messiah, and only became Son of God after his resurrection. The incarnational Christology held by Paul and others was elaborated later by Judeo-Hellenistic Jews, and which Paul adopted (as the Judeo-Hellenistic Jew that he was). This is not explained by Carrier’s model.
As a matter of fact, for New Testament scholars in general, the tendency is exactly the opposite than pointed out by Carrier:
- The initial Palestinian Christology preached a Jesus who was earthly, died crucified, and became Son of God when he resurrected; then a variety of Christologies branched, such as …
- The adoptionists who believed that Jesus became the Son of God at the moment of his baptism (as we saw in Mark)
- Incarnational which made Jesus Son of God because of the intervention of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:20b-23; Lc. 1:31-35)
- Or that he was a pre-existent divine creature or angel who incarnated and was Son of God from the beginning (Philippians 2:5b-11)
- Or that Jesus was a pre-existent Divine Wisdom, also God’s prime creature (Colossians 1:15-16).
- Or that he was the divine Logos, sharing oneness in divinity with God (John 1).
If you look at the whole process, the texts where Christ is clearly identified as God’s celestial Wisdom or Logos are later Christologies: Colossians was not written by Paul, and it is dated approximately to 70 to 80 CE. John’s Gospel was written from 90 to 100 CE.
The same can be said about the Gospels: the most “human” Jesus appears in Mark, the earliest Gospel; the most celestial and deified Jesus as the Logos appears in John our latest Gospel.
In short, Carrier has zero evidence that the belief in Jesus began as a divine Logos and ended up historicized. The tendency is the opposite: the belief in Jesus began as a flesh-and-blood historical actual Jesus on Earth who was born from of a woman and died on the cross, who was later divinized in different ways by Christians as time went by.
All of this has been shown again and again by scholars. The mythicists are the ones who refuse to see that the best explanation for all of the documents we have of Christianity is that Jesus existed. In order to save their theory, they need to either distort the original meaning of the documents or ignore clear evidence that place this content in a particular literary context.
I end up with Bart Ehrman’s own statements about mythicism. Please, pay attention to his words.
Recently, I’ve been involved in some debates online regarding Jesus’ existence. One of them was in the Facebook account of LiberalAmerica.org, regarding this particular (bogus) article. I’ve refuted some of these claims before in a previous post written some years before my deconversion from Roman Catholicism, and my opinion on this matter hasn’t changed in the least.
Since, I’ve already refuted the claim, I want to make a more positive approach, that is, to present clear cases where the mythicist views of Jesus clearly fail, and the evidence for Jesus’ existence is positive. I want to begin with one of the known but least discussed stories about Jesus: his baptism.
The Texts We Will Evaluate
There are no first-century texts outside the New Testament about Jesus’ baptism. The Gospel claims are pretty much all we have for now. Before we begin, we must remember the way they were written. The earliest Gospel we have is the Gospel of Mark (ca. 70 C.E.). The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were written later using Mark as a source, but also using another one scholars call Q. Even though Q is a hypothetical document, most scholars consider its existence as highly probable. For many, Q took its final form about the year 60 or 65 C.E. Matthew and Luke were written about 80 to 90 C.E. It is said that these gospels also had some other sources that scholars have called M and L respectively. The last of these first century writings is the Gospel of John (ca. 90-100 C.E.) What do these Gospels have to say? Let’s have a look (all of our quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version).
The Gospel of Mark
What follows is our earliest account of Jesus’ baptism:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John [the Baptist] in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11).
The Gospel of Matthew
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:13-17).
The Gospel of Luke
So, with many other exhortations, [John the Baptist] proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from the heaven: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Luke 3:18-22, I have adopted the rare text as the most probable original, for more on this read Bart D. Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).
The Gospel of John
The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:29-34).
I hear some of you saying:
Me: “Yep, that’s it!”
—“But doesn’t John tell us the story of Jesus’ baptism?”
—“As I’ll show you, that’s exactly part of the evidence … John does NOT tell us anything about Jesus’ baptism. And THAT fact is a great piece of this puzzle.”
Qualifying the Evidence
Historians in general do not immediately suppose that whatever they read in a document is true. Quite the contrary. As Bart Ehrman has argued in his most recent book, eye-witness testimony is very unreliable. Yet, none of these Gospels come from eye-witnesses, but have received these traditions from earlier sources by word of mouth. Mark was written 40 years after the events, so that means that this took at least 40 years of oral tradition to reach the author of Mark. And THAT is a problem. We must keep this in mind when using this Ancient writing.
Yet, that does not mean that we cannot get some historical facts out of it. For instance, what was the purpose of the Gospel of Mark? Answer: to show that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. How do we know that this was the purpose? Simple. If you read all of that text you will realize that it has one very basic literary theme: that Jesus was the Messiah, but the people who heard him did not get that he was the Messiah, because Jesus didn’t want it revealed to the public; and that he also got upset with those who were close to him, because they didn’t understand his Messianic role. Regarding the first part of the theme, we can see that Jesus often gets angry when people (and demons) confessed his Messianic role public; he literally tells them to shut up, and, despite the fact that later his fame spread like wild-fire (e.g. Mark 1:23-28,32-34,40-45; 3:10-12; 5:42-43; 8:11-13,22-26, 27-30). It is as if Mark were showing this particular fact about Jesus as “a secret” that he didn’t want to be known.
We could ask, why was there such an insistence on Mark. Think about it! If Mark was written to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah, but shows him forbidding everyone to tell this “secret”, then what the text is doing is providing the readers the reason why Jesus never publicly proclaimed himself to be the Messiah! Notice that already the theory of Jesus’ non-existence starts to crumble. Someone may ask,
–“But wait! Didn’t everyone watch the heavens open and the Spirit speak?”
Ummm… no! Read again the texts of Mark and Matthew. According to them only Jesus saw the heavens open up and watch the Spirit descend on him!
So, here is our first historical fact that happened to be very inconvenient to Christians: the historical Jesus never publicly claimed to be the Messiah or Son of God. These were claims made after he died. The Gospel of Mark was written to explain away this problem. If Jesus didn’t exist, then it would be hard to explain why the author of Mark wrote his Gospel as if he actually existed but never publicly claimed to be the Messiah. Why wouldn’t he have written the Gospel in such a way as if he did announce it?!
Yet, there is still another inconvenience in our story: Jesus’ own baptism! Isn’t Jesus’ vision of the Holy Spirit descend and proclaim his Sonship as convenient? Actually, no. If you read the first chapter of Mark in its entirety, you find what the writer had to say about John’s activity as a baptizer:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized to him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mark 1:4-5).
Why would Mark or any Christian at the time make up the story that Jesus was baptized if John’s baptism was for the repentance from sins? In their view, would it be acceptable that the Messiah repented from sins? Obviously, there is a problem. How can we explain this from a historical standpoint?
It is clear just from this text that before Jesus’ ministry, he began as John’s disciple who repented from his sins and was baptized (our second historical conclusion). Mark‘s story about Jesus’ vision was apologetic, he wanted to explain away why despite the fact that the “Messiah wasn’t a sinner”, he let himself be baptized. For Mark‘s author, Jesus was not baptized because he was a sinner, but because was going to adopted by God as His Son with this act. Mark wanted to persuade readers why, despite the fact that John’s baptism was about the repentance of sins, Jesus could still be considered the Messiah.
But wait … why didn’t Mark just omit the whole story of Jesus’ baptism in the first-place?! Again, take into consideration that this is the earliest Gospel. This means that most probably some of the eye-witnesses to Jesus’ baptism could be living at the time, and someone like the author of Mark could not deny this simple fact. He needed to address this inconvenient fact when confronted by other people like, let’s say, John the Baptists’ disciples that still persisted at the time, or from other Jews who were acquainted with that same information. After all, Christianity’s custom of baptism clearly derived from John the Baptist’s activity, right?!
From Mark‘s text, we can also see that it omitted any reference to Jesus’ own activity as John’s disciple. As we can also observe, Jesus began his ministry, shortly after John was arrested (our third historical fact, Mark 1:14).
Qualifying Matthew and Luke
The confirmation of the Christian embarrassment regarding Jesus’ baptism doesn’t stop with Mark, but continues with the gospels of Matthew and Luke. We can see that clearly they borrowed their respective stories from Mark. Let’s have a look at Matthew‘s account first.
One of the things that we notice at first glance is that Matthew‘s author adds a small dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus. This exchange is made to address a concern that he attributes to John, but obviously is everyone‘s question when reading about Jesus being baptized, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”. In other words, “Hey! You are the Messiah! You are above me! You are sinless and blameless! If anything, this poor sinner should be baptized by YOU!” The account gives us Jesus’ (non)answer to his question: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Why did Matthew include this awkward eye-brow-raising dialogue? Because, as in Mark’s case, he tried to explain away the reason for Jesus’ baptism: it’s all God’s will, so that Jesus’ sonship will be revealed.
But the embarrassment in Matthew doesn’t stop there! Matthew shares with Luke a story not found in Mark, which is a strong indicator that it comes from Q. After John was arrested, Q tells us this story:
When John heard [about all of these things], he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'” … And [Jesus] answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the [skin-diseased] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:18-23; Matt. 11:2-6)
At first, we might be impressed by Jesus’ claim, but the most embarrassing section is the first part of the story. Any attentive reader should stop and say: “Wait a minute! In Matthew‘s story of Jesus’ baptism, John knew perfectly well who Jesus’ was! Now he is asking if he’s the Messiah?! What is going on!” Scholars in general agree that this story contains what is perhaps a core historical event, when John really questioned whether his disciple, Jesus, was “the one who is to come”, the Son of Man or the Messiah. There is no certainty whether Jesus’ reply is historical or not, although it does seem to resemble apocalypticist language very well, as we can attest with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The story itself as a whole served both gospels in order to confirm their views of Jesus as the Messiah, but at the expense of revealing a historical inconvenience: that John did not know that Jesus was the Messiah (our fourth historical fact).
As a matter of fact, Q’s story seems more coherent in Luke. There is no dialogue between John and Jesus in that text, and, most interestingly, there is no case of John baptizing Jesus in that gospel. Jesus was baptized, yes … but after John’s arrest. In other words, Luke is establishing a distance between John’s activities and Jesus’ baptism, so that it no longer looks as if Jesus was baptized because of his repentance of sins, which is what John proclaimed.
Yet, if we look thoroughly at Luke (that rhymed!), how come John never knew that Jesus was the Messiah, if chapters 1 and 2 made them cousins? They should have known each other! Yet, as many scholars have pointed out, it seems that its author’s original project intended to begin his gospel with chapter 3. After finishing his work (whether in that edition or a later one), the same author added chapters 1 and 2. As many scholars have pointed out, these chapters are too fantastic and too inconsistent with historical data to be historically reliable. Luke‘s author’s original intention was to present Jesus’ sonship as God’s adoption at the very moment of Jesus’ baptism. Yet, he went further back, and justified his sonship because he was the fruit of the Holy Spirit. So, in Luke‘s “original project”, apparently he made it as to make John totally oblivious regarding Jesus’ status as the Messiah.
As we have pointed out, there is no story of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of John. As many scholars know, many times when John omits information that is found in the Synoptic Gospels, it usually is a form of denial. For instance, in all three Synoptic Gospels we find the scene of Jesus’ agony in the garden, either throwing himself at the floor or kneeling, and asking God to keep his future suffering away from him (Mark 14:32-42; Matt. 26:36-46; Luke 22:40-46). Yet, in John we find no agony at all! On the contrary, the soldiers are the ones who throw themselves to the floor when Jesus reveals his divinity when he says “I am” (John 18:1-11). At one point in the Gospel, Jesus even denies that he is going to ask God to keep the crucifixion away from him (in John it is portrayed as his “moment of glorification”; John 12:27-28).
Notice also that this time, Jesus is not the one who sees the Holy Spirit, but John the Baptist! In other words, John recognizes Jesus as being the Messiah, does not baptize him, and has the vision revealing him to be the Messiah. Being the one to write the Gospel at the very end of the first century C.E. has its advantages … the main one is that despite the gospel writer’s evident conflict with the disciples of John the Baptists, none of them are eye-witnesses of the event … hence none of them can deny the “truth” as John understands it.
All of the evidence thus far screams for Jesus’ historicity as the best explanation for the way these texts have been written. Mythicists really have a very, VERY hard time explaining all of these texts from their standpoint. Some people might say that the story of John the Baptist as a whole is a carbon-copy of Horus’ Anup’s the Baptizer. People who argue this way forget two things:
- The story of Anup baptizing the god Horus is a hoax. Scholars all over the world have recognized it as being a complete fabrication from late 19th or early 20th century so-called “scholars” who wanted to make up evidence to “disprove” Christianity’s “lies and fabrications”. People who keep believing that the Horus’ thing nonsense is true will never know the irony!
- The historicity of John the Baptist is well attested, not only by the Gospels, but also by external sources such as Josephus’ writings, particularly, Antiquities of the Jews. The way he is portrayed in that writing has convinced scholars that this was not a later addition by Christian hands. There is no debate that this is Josephus’ actual story about him.
From all of our analysis we can state the following as the most probable historical theory about Jesus:
- He existed.
- He probably began his apocalypticist journey by being a follower of John the Baptist.
- Jesus was baptized by John, because he believed that he was a sinner, and repented.
- After John was arrested, Jesus began his ministry.
- It seems that at no point Jesus proclaimed publicly that he was the Messiah.
- John the Baptist didn’t know that his disciple, Jesus, was the Messiah.
All of this tells us that Christians found Jesus’ baptism by John as being highly embarrassing to the point of us being able to see the efforts of explaining it away, or denying that Jesus was baptized by John, or even that he was not baptized at all! All of this only makes sense if he was actually baptized, which would inevitably mean that Jesus existed!
We will keep exploring more in the series. For now, just be aware that from just this post alone, we have established the unequivocal existence of Jesus, not only as the most probable theory, but as a very strong one.
For these, and many other reasons, scholars in general no longer argue about his existence. It is non-issue!