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.
In our first article in our series, we saw that there are some questions regarding the story of the Eucharist as it has come down to us. We have seen that most probably the original meal that Jesus carried out in the Last Supper was a kiddush, a ceremonial meal that Jesus would have interpreted as being the last one before the definitive establishment of the Kingdom of Yahweh on Earth.
We have seen that Acts of the Apostles and the Didaché talk about this ceremony, where the wine is presented first, and without any reference to an atoning sacrifice or a vicarian death of Jesus. Yet, in this section, I will argue that the author of the Gospel of Luke holds the very same tradition of the kiddush, not the Pauline one. This might seem a bit strange, given that Luke seems to be a fan of Paul. Yet, as I will argue (some time in my life), Luke agrees less with the historical Paul than with his reconstructed version of the eminent Apostle. Yet, note that it makes perfect sense when the celebration of a kiddush by the first Christians and their activities in the Temple agree with Acts‘ version of events. There, we don’t see any vicarian vision of the Eucharist, but only of a ceremony. Both books were written by the same author (we’ll call him “Luke”, although it is most probably not his name).
For such a purpose, I will set aside Antonio Piñero’s analysis for the moment, and embrace the analysis of the Last Supper in Luke made by Bart D. Ehrman in his famous book The Orthodox Corruption of Christianity.
Luke’s Passage and Signs of Interpolation
One of the passages explored by Ehrman in his book is the one on the Last Supper in Luke, where there are elements which he considers have been added by later Christian scribes in order to harmonize the passage with the other versions of the Gospels (Mark’s and Matthew’s). He also thinks that the scribe were holding “anti-Docetic” views, but I will not discuss that conviction in this blog post.
Here is the passage as it has come down to us in our versions of the Gospel of Luke:
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took the loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body [which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.] But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined but woe to the one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:14-23).
As we pointed out, it seems as if Jesus presented the cup of wine twice. The passage in brackets and bold is the one under our scrutiny.
Contrary to practically all of the ancient manuscripts that we have, only very few of them appear with the shorter text, i.e. the text without the bracketed section (D a d ff2 i l syh). Ehrman points out that there are some of its aspects that are not Lukan in character: for instance saying “for you”, “remembrance”, or “new covenant”, three terms that only appear here and never elsewhere in Luke or Acts. The reason should be obvious for anyone who is acquainted with both books, and that is that their author does not portray Jesus’ death as an atonement for sins. In fact, he changes Mark’s texts where this theology appears. For Luke, Jesus’ death was a miscarriage of justice, and the death of an innocent who was vindicated at the moment of the resurrection (Acts 2:22-36; 3:12-16; 14:8-12; 7:51-56; 13:26-41). For example, when Jesus dies on the cross, this happens:
Now when a centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39).
Luke’s Gospel says:
When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly, this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47).
Another example: In Mark, we find the following passage:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).
In Luke we find the following:
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one serves… (Luke 22:24-27).
Where is the reference to “giving his life as a ransom”? It is totally absent! Luke omitted the last part of the Markan passage.
In Acts, Luke quotes the Isaiah prophecy of the Suffering Servant, yet he is careful to choose which passages he quotes. For example, in Acts 8, an eunuch is trying to find the meaning of this passage of the Suffering Servant:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth (Is. 53:7-8a; Acts. 8:32-33).
Philip explains that it refers to Jesus. Yet, the author of Acts uses this passage to insist on the fact that Jesus is an innocent victim, and omits any reference to the Suffering Servant as atoning for sins (Is. 53:5,8b,10).
What does all of this mean? That, for all practical purposes Luke refuses to subscribe to the idea of Jesus either an atoning of sins or offering his life for others.
Given this scenario, what is more likely: that he changed all of the passages where Mark alludes to an atoning death of Jesus except this fragment of the text of the Last Supper, or that he also corrected Mark’s version and omitted the presentation of the wine as a new Covenant of Jesus’ blood, and that some other scribe added to the main text? I think that the latter option seems to be most probable.
I think that the case presented by Ehrman is very strong.
Not only that, but I want to argue that Luke (whoever he was) chose to “correct” the Markan text in a very specific way: by making it fit the ceremonial form of the kiddush. He did this by making Jesus bless the wine first and the bread later. As a result, here we have Luke‘s original text:
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took the loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body; but see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined but woe to the one by whom he is betrayed!”
And this is perfectly consistent with what we find in Acts 2:43-47, where Christians were celebrating a Eucharist that omitted all reference to an atoning or vicarian view.
Why did he adopt the kiddush variant of the Last Supper? My hypothesis: It is most probably because Luke’s church belonged to a tradition that practiced it, much like in the case of the churches that produced the Didaché. This tradition met its dead end when the process of institutionalization ended up adopting Paul’s, Mark‘s and Matthew‘s versions of the Last Supper.
Again, this reinforces the conviction that most probably the original story of the Last Supper was most probably a story of a farewell kiddush ceremony, and that the Gospel writers Mark and Matthew were most probably directly or indirectly influenced by Paul’s version of that event.
Ehrman, Bart D. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
The Christmas Stories in the New Testament
Contrary to what people use to think, there is no one Christmas story in the New Testament. There are two of them: one in Matthew 1-2, and the other in Luke 1-2. As pointed out by many Bible scholars, both of the stories are incompatible, and critically divergent from more reliable historical data.
According to both stories, Jesus was born of a virgin called Mary, and who was betrothed to a man called Joseph, and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Practically the similarities end there. After that, both stories diverge from one another in significant ways. Generations of Christians have tried to reconcile these contradictions without distorting their content, with no apparent success. For example,
In the case of Matthew 1-2:
- Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph, became pregnant without Joseph’s intervention.
- In dreams, Joseph is announced by Yahweh’s angel that the child is the act of the Holy Spirit and that her child is the Son of God (the Messiah).
- Jesus was born in Bethlehem, because both Joseph and Mary lived there (Matt. 1:11).
- Certain Magi went to Jerusalem searching for the “King of the Jews”, and who were following a star in the sky.
- According to Matthew’s Gospel, Herod the Great and “all of Jerusalem” were startled by the claim.
- Herod asked them where was this “King” who was born, and to indicate where he was when they find him.
- The Magi follow the star to Joseph and Mary’s house.
- The Magi worship him and offer the newborn three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh,
- Later, they are told in dreams to avoid Herod and go another way.
- Joseph is told by an angel of God in a dream to take the baby and flee. He does so, and flees to Egypt.
- Herod unleashes a persecution against two years old children and below.
- Herod dies, and Joseph is told in a dream to return.
- To avoid Herod’s son, Archelaus, Joseph avoids his hometown in Bethlehem. So, Jesus’ family made Nazareth their new home.
In the case of Luke 1-2 (omitting the story of John the Baptist):
- Mary lived in Nazareth and was betrothed to a man called Joseph.
- Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary, telling her the news that she was going to be the mother of the Son of God.
- She was told that she was going to get pregnant by an act of the Holy Spirit of God, by covering her with His shadow.
- Gabriel told Mary that her family relative Elizabeth, despite of her advanced age, was six months pregnant.
- Mary traveled from Nazareth (Galilee) to Judea to visit Elizabeth. There, Elizabeth’s baby skipped in her womb, and Mary recited the Magnificat, and stayed with her for three months.
- By the time when Cirinus was Syria’s governor, Ceasar Augustus implemented a census everywhere in the Roman empire.
- Due to the census, Joseph (and a pregnant Mary) had to go to Bethlehem, because Joseph was David’s descendant.
- They had to stay in an “Inn” (most probably the part of the house where animals were kept).
- Jesus was born there, and was placed in a manger.
- Angels gave the shepherds the good news of Jesus’ birth saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
- Shepherds went to Bethlehem and saw the child in the manger.
- The child was called Jesus.
Why are these stories incompatible? Let’s begin with Jesus’ own birth date. For starters, according to Matthew, Jesus was born when Herod the Great was still alive. He died in the year 4 B.C.E. Since, he ordered children to be killed from 2 years old below, that would suggest that Jesus was born from from 6 to 4 B.C.E. Yet, according to Luke, Jesus was born when Cirinus was Syria’s governor, which was the year 6 C.E. So, there is an 11 years distance (remember there is no year 0 C.E.) between Matthew’s account and Luke’s.
[Note: Many people ask scholars when was Jesus born, and expect a “definitive” answer. Scholars may actually tell you one of these dates. Reality is that, given these dates, no one knows when Jesus was born. Anyone who claims otherwise is either deluded (in all his or her sincerity) or lying to you. Yet, for reasons that escape me, the public won’t accept “we don’t know” as an answer. But look at the New Testament material that we have, can you decide on its basis which is the real date?]
Another source of contradiction has to do with the place where Jesus’ family lived originally. “Matthew” assumed throughout the story that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem, since they had their house there (Matt. 1:11). This is so, presumably because he was David’s descendant. then he moved to Egypt, and then to Nazareth. Yet Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, and for reasons of the Augustus’ census, had to move to Bethlehem, so that Jesus would be born there. In Luke, there is no story of the travel to Egypt or Herod’s persecution.
To make matters worse, none of these stories are considered historical by serious Bible scholars and historians. Even when they talked about historical figures (Herod the Great, Archelaus, Caesar Augustus, Cirinus), none of the alluded facts check out historically:
- Matthew’s story:
- There is no record of the Magi’s visitation that “startled Herod and all of Jerusalem”.
- There is no record of Herod ever carrying out a massacre or persecution in Bethlehem.
- Luke’s story:
- There was no census carried out by Caesar Augustus for the whole empire at the time.
- Even if there were a census, at the time, there was no irrational requirement for people to move to the cities of their ancestors’ origins. As a matter of fact, historians find Joseph’s move to Bethlehem particularly unbelievable, since David, his ancestor, was born in Bethlehem a thousand years before. And why David has to be the criterion and not any other ancestor before or after? Bart Ehrman always asks his students at this stage: “Imagine that the IRS in all of its wisdom required that you move to the city of your ancestor who lived a thousand years before. Where would you go?! And no one else in antiquity mentions this, not even ‘their newspaper’?!”
Obviously as a Religious Naturalist, I question a supernatural intervention by the Holy Spirit, or the virgin birth. Even without being a Naturalist, these two factors as they are told are considered highly improbable (to the point of impossible) to be integrated to history.
The Mythical Background of the Stories
If none of these stories can be considered historically accurate and reliable, then where did the stories come from? Why were they written the way they were written.
The answer is twofold, because they are two stories, written by two different authors, with two very different worldviews, two different mindsets, and two very different messages they wanted to convey to their respective communities.
Before starting this analysis, know that it is a popular belief that the Christmas stories are just Xeroxed copies of Pagan legends of gods who were born and raised. Yet, as most historians specialized in the subject and serious Bible scholars agree, this is not the case. The similarities with much of these legends is simply accidental, but as we will see, they are more inspired in the Hebrew Bible than on Pagan legends.
A. Matthew’s Story’s Background
If you look at the author of Matthew’s Gospel (we’ll call him “Matthew” with quotes), you see a behavior everywhere that you don’t see in Luke. About every story you read in it, the he says: “… and this was to fulfill such and such a prophecy”. Reading the text in Greek, we know that whoever the author of the gospel was, wanted to convince the Jewish sector of the diaspora that Jesus was the Messiah. So, he engaged in copious statements about how Jesus fulfilled God’s prophecies.
There is one small detail, though. “Matthew” evidently didn’t know Hebrew (one of the reasons we think that the author of this gospel was not Matthew (a.k.a. Levi). In fact, he used the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible extensively. The problem with using the Greek version (probably a version of the Septuagint) is that much of it is translated in a way that is close to the meaning in the original Hebrew, but there are other significant passages that distort the original meaning considerably.
To make matters worse, in order to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, he tried in many passages to fit Jesus deeds to the mistranslated prophecy from Hebrew to Greek. For example, Matthew’s Gospel is the only gospel where it says that Jesus entered Jerusalem seated on top of two animals, a donkey and a colt (Matthew 21:1-7). If you are scratching your head confused, don’t worry. We all are at first. However, the confusion dissipates once you realize that the reason why Matthew’s Gospel does present Jesus making an amazing physical feat, it is because it was prophesied in the Greek passage that said this:
Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of donkey”
Yet, the original Hebrew prophecy actually said this,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout out aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Notice that it doesn’t say, “on a donkey and a colt” (which is what the Greek version said), but really on a colt (to emphasize the humble reception of the king). So, not knowing that, “Matthew” (whoever he was) made Jesus ride on a donkey and a colt to fulfill the Greek version of the prophecy.
The same very thing happens with the story of Jesus’ birth. In Hebrew, the prophecy about the birth of “Emmanuel” talked about a “young woman” (‘almah) being pregnant with “Emmanuel”.(Isaiah 7:14). Yet, scholars know that the Greek version of that same prophecy translated ‘almah to the Greek parthenos (meaning “virgin”). In “Matthew”‘s mind, this meant that Jesus mother had to be a virgin! (Matthew 1:22-23)
The rest of the Christmas story is to emphasize that Jesus, not only was the Messiah, but also a Second Moses … even better than the First Moses. This is a theme that appears everywhere in Matthew’s Gospel. For instance, in the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus revises and culminates the Torah (the Law). Why on a mountain? Because Moses was given the Torah in Mount Sinai (or Horeb).
In the same way, the story of Jesus’ birth is reminiscent of the Genesis and Exodus stories, but adapted to Jesus’ birth in Palestine:
- Joseph descends from Jacob, just like Joseph the Patriarch (Matthew 1:16). And who is the next important patriarch after Joseph? Moses, right? Jesus is the very next in line after Joseph, betrothed to Mary.
- Just as the patriarch Joseph received and interpreted Yahweh’s induced dreams, so does Joseph, Jesus’ father has dreams from the Angel of God (Genesis 36:5-33; 40-41; Matthew 1:20-21).
- The visit of the Magi and their gifts reminds us of a prophecy of (Third-)Isaiah about foreigners visiting Israel (Isaiah 60). The three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myhrr are simultaneously symbolic of Jesus’ kingship, divinity, and burial.
- Just as Moses had to be saved from the massacre by pharaoh, Jesus had to be saved from Herod’s cold infanticide (Exodus 1-2:10; Matthew 2:12-18).
- Just as Moses fled and returned to Egypt to save Yahweh’s people from slavery, Jesus returned to Ancient Palestine to save it (Exodus 3; Matthew 2:19-23).
B. Luke’s Gospel’s Story
“Luke”‘s story (whoever “Luke” was) has tangential similarities with Matthew’s as I stated at the beginning of this article. Yet, the reasons for the similarities are very, very different from Matthew’s.
We have to point out that some analyses made by some scholars indicate that Luke’s Gospel was originally planned to begin the text in what we now call chapter 3. The stories of Jesus’ birth apparently were added later by the same author. This point is still debated by scholars, but I wanted to point it out anyway.
“Luke”‘s story include the story of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, which is intermingled with Jesus’. If you take both stories side by side, you’ll notice that they are mostly the same story with the same structure. The stories only differ in the degree of importance of the main characters involved, John the Baptist and Jesus
- John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus, hence, he is born first.
- Both Zechariah (John’s father) and Mary (Jesus’ mother) question the Archangel Gabriel on how would their respective children being conceived. Yet, Zechariah’s question expresses doubt, which is the reason why he is chastised with dumbness. Mary’s question is an inquiry, not doubt.
- Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:49-56) is more glorious for her than is the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79) is for Zechariah and John the Baptist. As a matter of fact, the Benedictus, praises Jesus (“God’s savior”). It is very important to point out that in the case of the Magnificat, some ancient authorities attribute this saying to Elizabeth. Many scholars believe that Elizabeth was originally the one who sang the Magnificat, while later copyists may have added the phrase “And Mary said …”. In either case, the Magnificat seems to praise Mary, “God’s servant” (e.g. Luke 1:38,48).
Yet, why are both stories so similar in structure. The explanation is very simple. They are both a mix of two stories we can find in the Hebrew Bible: 1) the Yahwist story of the conception of Isaac (as announced by Yahweh’s Angel), and 2) the story of the conception of Samuel (Genesis 18:1-13; 21:1-8; 1 Samuel 1-2). In both cases, there was an old couple who tried to have children for years together, and then Yahweh announced that they were going to have a child, which was exactly what happened. Yet, when you look at “Luke”‘s narrative, you see that its structure is mostly similar to that of 1 Samuel. In fact, the Magnificat, and the Benedictus express exactly the same ideas and in a similar poetic form that Hannah Song does (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
Some scholars go even further, it is not only that “Luke” narrated two stories that are strikingly similar to another, but that Jesus’ birth story, may have been based on John the Baptist’s birth story, which is also based on the stories of the Hebrew Bible. The thing that leads some of them to think this way is that “Luke” makes Mary and Jesus’ birth look better than Zechariah and John the Baptist’s conception. After trying many times, God finally lets Zechariah and Elizabeth have their own child. Yet, Jesus birth is even more extraordinary, because neither Joseph nor Mary “knew” each other (in the Biblical sense), making Jesus’ conception altogether 100% miraculous, because the whole thing happened without Joseph’s intervention. Elizabeth was not a virgin, but Mary was! Why is that? Because Jesus is not only the Messiah, but the Son of God, because God’s own Spirit made her pregnant … hence, HE is the Father! (Luke 1:35)
(LOL … Sorry, I couldn’t resist! Ahem… Let’s continue!)
Notice that in this case the reason why Mary was a virgin had little to do with prophecy, and much to do with “Luke”‘s particular notion of why Jesus was called “Son of God” and why his birth was superior to John the Baptist’s. He also insinuates that he received this information from Mary herself, which is historically unlikely (Luke 2:19,51).
Further, some other themes appear throughout the story that were inspired by the Hebrew Bible:
- Gabriel said that the way that Mary was going to be pregnant was by being covered by the shadow of God’s spirit, which reminds readers about God’s glory covering the Tent of Meetings, to make it sacred (Luke 1:35; Exodus 40:34-35).
- Mary visited Elizabeth and John the Baptist skips in her mother’s womb, which reminds readers of how David danced in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant (Luke 1:40-44; 2 Samuel 6:16).
- Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months, which reminds the three months the Ark of the Covenant stayed with David in Obed-Edom and his household (Luke 1:57-58; 2 Samuel 6).
No wonder Catholics noticed these pattern and included in the Litany’s to Mary the name “Ark of the Covenant”.
There are many other stories being borrowed in “Luke”‘s account, but this is enough for our literary and historical analysis.
As popular it is that the idea of Jesus’ birth derived from Pagan birth stories, the evidence is clearly abundant (even to the point of literary content and structure) that the stories derive from stories in the Hebrew Bible. They are not historical precisely for this reason, and because they clearly conflict from other historical information that scholars and historians consider far more reliable.
Does that mean that we cannot know where and when Jesus was born?
Actually, both stories give us hints … but it is not Bethlehem. As we can see, both of these stories make Jesus be born in the City of David to emphasize that he was David’s descendant. Yet, there are also four things we have to notice:
- Mark, the earliest Gospel (65-70 C.E.), does not begin with a birth story. In that text, Jesus apparently was revealed (to himself) to be the Son of God when he was baptized, and ministry begins when John the Baptist was arrested (Mark 1:9-11,14,15). Why wasn’t Jesus’ birth story included? Presumably and probably, because it wasn’t remarkable (at least to the gospel’s author). After all, our earliest report on Jesus’ birth (and affirmation of his humanity) comes from Paul, where he says that he was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4).
- When comparing both stories, we can see that their authors are trying very hard to explain why did Jesus’ family live in Nazareth (Galilee) while simultaneously accounting for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Judea). Since the stories are too invested in explaining this fact and that the stories clearly conflict, then it seems more reasonable to suppose that he was not born in Bethlehem. That Jesus’ family lived in Nazareth, and that, most probably, he was born there.
- John’s Gospel seems to pick up the tradition that Jesus actually came from Nazareth (John 1:46). Notice also that this Gospel does not have Christmas story, nor does it say anywhere that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
- Another reason why Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem is the fact that Nazareth in Galilee was an extremely poor town, which would make it (in the minds of many) unlikely for the Messiah to have been born in. John’s Gospel confirms this fact when he reports that Nathanael said: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
Archaeologically, we know that Galilee was mostly Jewish (especially in the rural towns). Hence, Nazareth was mostly Jewish. Houses and structures from the first century confirm that it was extremely poor, and its small economic life was possible due to the fact that it was close to Sephoris. Presumably, as an artisan, Joseph and Jesus took advantage of that fact. The fact that Nazareth didn’t appear in Roman maps at the time, far from establishing its non-existence (as many people mistakenly argue), it establishes how unimportant it was. Even “Matthew” feels forced to provide a reason (a prophecy) for why did Jesus’ family ended up living there (Matthew 2:23).
So, if anything, one of the very few historical factors that critical analysis leads us to is that Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth. The other historical important factor from the stories seems to be that he was born between 6 B.C.E. and 6 C.E.
Yet, I have only addressed Jesus’ birth stories from a critical literary and historical points of view. But do these myths actually capture something valuable for all of us, and what is their spiritual message for today? That will be the subject in my next post…
To be continued …
In my earlier blog, I responded an article written by Simcha Jacobovici regarding his recent discoveries “proving” that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. This is the n-th claim for that, even though there is no evidence to support it.
Of course, my problem is that I am not a New Testament scholar, and amateurish at best. However, as I indicated in my previous blog post, Richard Bauckham (a recognized New Testament scholar) has been responding to Jacobovici’s and Barry Wilson’s claims in their new book The Lost Gospel. I want to share with you the series of responses written by him. I hope you see why Jacobovici and Wilson are misleading the public. Bauckham’s whole writing is called “Assessing The Lost Gospel“, and there are 7 parts of it linked to NT Blog, managed by Mark Goodacre. Thank you Mr. Goodacre for making these available!!!!
- Part 1: The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor – Content and Context
- Part 2: Misinterpreting Ephrem
- Part 3: Misreading Joseph and Aseneth (i)
- Part 4: Responding to Simcha’s Responses
- Part 5: Misreading Joseph and Aseneth (ii)
- Part 6: On Mary Magdalene and Magdala
- Part 7: Conclusion and Pauline Postscript
I hope you enjoy the reading. Again, this is an intellectual elephant stepping on an intellectual ant on this subject. Yet, you can always learn a lot in this process.
A Fragment of a Lost Gospel Discovered!
The scholar of Coptic and Gnosticism, Karen King at Harvard Divinity School has made what could potentially be one of the biggest discoveries of the twenty-first century. It is a fragment of a papyrus manuscript, smaller than a credit card. These are the images and translation obtained from Karen King’s own website:
Front: written text
] “not [to] me. My mother giave to me li[fe …”
] The disciples said to Jesus, “[
] deny. Mary is worthy of it [
] …..” Jesus said to them, “My wife … [
]… she will be able to be my disciple .. [
] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
] an image [
] my moth[er
] three [
] . . . [
] forth which … [
] (illegible) [
] (illegible) [
The fact that it is written in front and back is significant, because, if authentic, it tells us a little about the origins of the text and what it was used for. As many of you know, the vast majority of books in the ancient world were written in scrolls. However, Christians originated what could be considered one of the most revolutionary steps in publication: publishing books in codex. Scrolls are written only in one side of the papyrus, but not so in codex. A codex is basically taking one page and binding them together in one of their margins, creating what looks like modern books today. And, just like today’s books, the papyri pages were written on both sides.
Why would Christians do this? Mainly because of disputes among themselves regarding passages of writtings considered sacred. It is a lot easier to search for passages in the middle of a dispute with a codex than with a scroll. How early was this tendency? It was a tendency we can actually trace to the second century C.E. For example, our earliest New Testament manuscript that we have is called P52 (you can see it here), a piece a bit bigger than this new controversial scrap, and we know that it comes from a codex because it is written on both sides. It contains some verses of the Gospel of John and paleographers have dated it to a period from 117 to 150 C.E.
What makes Karen King’s piece of codex so controversial in terms of its content is the apparent claim that Jesus had a wife. Due to the degree of lack of text, we are not sure if the Mary talked about is either his wife or his mother, although it is highly probable that he refers to his wife. King thinks this piece of codex dates to the fourth century C.E. and may be based on a second century original text, probably a Gnostic text.
Did Jesus have a Wife?
No one can say with absolute certainty (100% accuracy) whether Jesus was married, but all the available evidence points towards the fact that he was not. The New Testament contains what is practically the earliest testimonies we have about Jesus. The earliest writings are those from Paul. His letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians) is the earliest surviving Christian text (50 C.E.). The latest New Testament books seem to be the so-called letters of Peter and the Pastoral Letters, which are dated to the first part or mid-second century C.E. Of all of the four Gospels, Mark seems to be the earliest (68-75 C.E.), and the other Gospels were written later: Matthew and Luke (80-100 C.E.), and John (100 C.E.). Matthew and Luke were based on Mark’s Gospel, but they also seemed to have shared another writing now lost which has been called “Q” by scholars, and it seems to be dated from 50 to 70 C.E. There could be other Matthean, Lukan or Johanine early traditions that were included within these late Gospels.
As any scholar will tell you, none of these writings have a monolithic view of Jesus. Quite the contrary, as they could tell you, even when many of the Gospels share the same story, their views on Jesus are dramatically different. For instance, Mark’s perspective of Jesus passion is different from Luke’s in significant ways. In Mark, Jesus agonized and suffered tremendously. He seemed to be in a state of shock before the authorities and Pilate, being silent the whole time, and at the very end there was a cry of desperation and he died. Luke’s perspective is different, for he does not portray Jesus agonizing or suffering at all (in fact the whole episode of Jesus sweating like blood was added later by some unknown Christian scribe), he was perfectly calm during the whole process, even to the point of establishing a conversation with women along the way, and having an intelligent conversation with the criminals who were crucified with him, and there is no cry of desperation at all. This is what is called by scholars a “passionless passion”. In John’s account, there is even less passion. Mark does not seem to share the high Christological level that John had. For Mark, Jesus is pretty much human and deeply emotional. John made Jesus the pre-existing Logos and divine (perhaps God Himself), rational, and in control at all times.
So, the Gospels may agree on some of the facts, but it would be a very big mistake to think that they share the same view about Jesus, or that they thought about him exactly the same way. To be more to the point, there is absolutely no reason for these Gospel writers (at least for Q and Mark, and perhaps Matthew and Luke) to have hidden information about Jesus’ marriage in any way. Also, Paul had absolutely no reason to hide this information. Contrary to what people think, Paul was not himself against marriage of any kind. He was just worried that Jesus was “soon to come” and that we should be prepared for his arrival, and marriage could be a bit of a distraction. But Paul worked intensively with the assistance of couples, and once he mentioned the Apostle’s own wives as a positive thing (the negative part being that Paul was criticized for having women working for him). Paul stated several times that he actually met and talked to Jesus’ own “brother” James, at least three times (the three times he visited Jerusalem). There is no mention Jesus’ wife or children in any of his references to his visits. There is also no mention of any “Mary” wife of Jesus (he did mention other Mary’s, though).
The Gospels, which are later writings, but that kept earlier traditions do not mention Jesus’ wife or children. In many occasions you learn, implicitly, about the fact that some Apostle was married (for example when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law), but no mention of Jesus’ wife. There is, strangely, no reference to Jesus’ wife either looking at his crucifixion from afar (in the Synoptics), or even at the foot of the cross (in John’s Gospel at least). There is no mention of his wife assisting the other women when they went to the tomb. There are no news at all about Jesus’ wife or children, anywhere after he died or what happened to them.
More to the point, little reference to any issue about the existence of Jesus’ wife or lack of anywhere during any discussion or writing during the first three centuries of Christianity. I want to say this in order to deflate any “conspiracy theory” regarding embarassing information that “the Church may have wanted to hide”. Today we have many documents with all sorts of insults made against Jesus during the first four centuries C.E. For instance, we know of an accusation that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was a prostitute who slept with a Roman soldier called Panthera, a claim made by the philosopher Celsus during the second century C.E. In the Gospel of Thomas, we learn that Jesus may have had a love affair with a disciple called Salome, who complains to Jesus about sharing her bed with him (ambiguous phrasing), and eating at her table. The text itself is ambiguous enought to interpret one of two things: either Jesus slept with her, or that Jesus slept on her bed at some moment alone to rest. In the case of the former (the worst case scenario) it is interesting that at no point Salome complains to Jesus about Jesus’ being married and cheating. There are other sorts of insults where Jesus is being compared to a donkey as some Jewish texts seem to imply. Apparently this insult was prevalent enough to be found in Rome (of all places), and today it is known as the Alexamenos graffito, that displays Jesus crucified with the head of a donkey. It is thought to have originated in the third century C.E.
The scribing is in Greek: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον
Translation: “Alexamenos, worships God”
In the texts of the Holy Fathers of the Church, and the renowned Non-Christian (and sometimes Anti-Christian) texts, the issue of Jesus’ wife remains completely silent, as if it were not an issue at all, nor a . The closest we have to something like that has to do with a reference to “Jesus family” in later centuries, but probably meaning the descendants of Jesus’ own “brothers and sisters”, who were, apparently, Judaizing Christians. Other than that, no reference to Jesus’ wife or descendants. At most, we have some evidence of it being an issue by Clement of Alexandria (late second century) making a reference about Christians who insisted that Jesus did not marry. That would mean that at least in the late second (perhaps third?) century it was an issue among Christians, but relatively a minor one in relation to other well known doctrines and claims about Jesus that the Fathers of the Church were trying to fight against, such as the claim that Jesus was not human at all. Others argue that the fact that Paul shows himself as an example of being single and not Jesus is proof that the latter was married. Perhaps, perhaps not. After all, for the churches he wrote to, he is a more immediate and live example of being single and an authority, but having a lifestyle, than Jesus, who is gone and will come back later.
As it is often objected, many people assume by default that he was married, because you had to be married in order to be considered a “rabbi”. Yet, as archeological and textual evidence have shown, there were many celibate teachers in this period. The Essenes of Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) are an obvious example of this. Contrary to what many people think, the Essenes did not just live in Qumran. Yes, Qumran was their center of worship, but many of them (men, women and children) lived all throughout Judea, and perhaps Galilee. As far as we know, not even John the Baptist seems to have married. Paul himself seemed to allude to Jesus’ teachings on celibacy too for the sake of God’s kingdom. So, it is not unhistorical to say that there were teachers in the time of Jesus who were celibate, and that Jesus was one of them.
But what if King’s new fragment is authentic? Karen King herself tells readers to be cautious about her findings. She says in her website, the following:
No, this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. The comparatively late date of this Coptic papyrus (a fourth century CE copy of a gospel probably written in Greek in the second half of the second century) argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus. Nor is there any reliable historical evidence to support the claim that he was not married, even though Christian tradition has long held that position. The oldest and most reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus’s marital status. The first claims that Jesus was not married are attested only in the late second century CE, so if the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was also composed in the second century CE, it does provide evidence, however, that the whole question about Jesus’s marital status arose as part of the debates about sexuality and marriage that took place among early Christians at that time. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better to marry or to be celibate, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began using Jesus’s marital status to support their different positions. Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married, but now the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife shows that some Christians claimed Jesus was married, probably already in the late second century.
So, with this caution in mind, and the fact that practically the vast majority of scholars (all across the spectrum) tend to think that Jesus was celibate, we shall proceed to the next question: Is the Fragment Authentic?
Is the Fragment Authentic?
For scholars, the issue of whether Jesus was married or not is relatively uncontroversial, most of them believe he was celibate, but there is still (minor) debate about it. If there is some element that could be considered truly controversial regarding this discovery, perhaps it is about the fragment’s authenticity. Karen King is not a coptologist nor a paleographer, but she did talk to experts in those areas: Roger Bagnall (perhaps one of the most renowned papyrologists in the world), and AnneMarie Juijenijk of Princeton. In their opinion, apparently the fragment is authentic, and that it was written around the fourth century C.E. (the details can be found in this PDF document written by Prof. King). Other scholars, such as Scott Carroll of Oxford University has dated the fragment to the first half of the fifth century.
Yet, what surprised me was how cold has been the reaction of the experts in the field. While the big corporate media and the social networks have expressed overwhelming enthusiasm in this area, scholars have not reacted the same way.
In a blog post titled “Reality Check: The ‘Jesus’s Wife’ Coptic Fragment“, Daniel Wallace tells about the first reactions of scholars when the announcement was made:
Dr. Christian Askeland, in attendance at the International Association of Coptic Studies conference in Rome, noted that about two thirds of those in attendance were very skeptical of its authenticity, while one third were “essentially convinced that the fragment is a fake.” Askeland said he did not meet anyone at the conference who thought it was authentic (posted at the evangelical textual criticism website on Wednesday, 19 September 2012). This presumably does not include Professor King. A number of noted coptologists have pronounced it a fake or have expressed strong reservations, including Alin Suciu of the University of Hamburg, Stephen Emmel of the University of Münster, Wolf-Peter Funk of l’Université Laval in Quebec, Hany Sadak the director general of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Scott Carroll, Senior Scholar at the Oxford Manuscript Research Group, and David Gill of the University of Suffolk.
There are a number of reasons why some scholars think so. One of the things you might note above is that the edges of the writings have been cut. Such cuts are characteristic of modern cuts, not ancient. With a very suggestive title (The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a Fake Gospel-Fragment was Composed), Francis Watson (University of Durham) questions how old is the ink, which should be tested in some way. He also thinks it is a fake because it uses individual phrases found in the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas and shows how this might this might have been accomplished (Here is the Summary, Here is the Complete Text of his Analysis. See also his “Addendum: The End of the Line?“). Other scholars have pointed out to the “too good to be true” sort of discovery. What are the odds that the only surviving fragment of an entire writing happens to contain a very controversial claim? Did a person “cut” the fragment because it is controversial and preserved it? In such case, why not cut the whole integral text so that we can contextualize the writing better? Other scholars have pointed out that the writing “looks fake”, or that there are grammar problems. See comments by these scholars: Christian Askeland (here), and other scholars such as Stephen Emmel, Alin Suciu and Wolf-Peter Funk (here).
There is nothing to conclude yet, as far as I know. At the end of the day, if it proves to be authentic, it would only show that some Christians in the fourth (or fifth?) century, more likely a minority, believed that Jesus married, and that would be all.
As a Roman Catholic and Christian, if this “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” turns out to be authentic, it wouldn’t be any threat at all to my faith. And if someone could prove that Jesus married, it would not be a threat to my or anyone’s faith, anyway! If Jesus really married, it would only show that he was human and was married (something that does not contradict any article of faith in any Christian denomination as far as I know). However, I do think, at least in the historical dimension of the problem, that it is highly unlikely that Jesus was married (mostly for the reasons I’ve stated above).
Regarding the scholarly part of the issue, it is very early to call the manuscript as being definitely a fraud. However, I do agree with Bart Ehrman, after the first analyses made by some renowned scholars, things don’t look so well for people who believe in its authenticity.