Response to Mr. Doherty's
The Jesus Puzzle
On Peter Kirby's recommendation I read The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty. As a Christian whose beliefs have been nourished from more progressive traditions (Episcopal, Unitarian
Universalist), I was interested in examining the question as to whether Jesus of Nazareth was purely a literary creation. Also, as someone who is seminary-trained (Drew Theological School, M.Div, 1980), I wanted to
'catch up' a bit on recent trends in biblical studies and see how Mr. Doherty's theory fairs in comparison to other theories.
I would like to say that my own personal commitment to the Christian faith will not be
allowed to influence my weighing of the evidence, but that is certainly more of an ideal - if not an illusion - than an absolutely attainable goal. I would therefore encourage those coming from other personal
commitments to keep me honest, and can only ask that they too be willing to consider their own possible biases in examining the data.
Typical Consensus Reconstruction of Early
It seems to me that the consensus scholarly reconstruction of the beginnings of Christianity would run something along these lines...
preached and healed in Galilee. The Jesus' constructed by the various scholars would differ in a number of ways, but most of the ones I've read see Jesus as a Jewish/Cynic type preacher from the peasant class who also
had a reputation as a healer and an exorcist. His ministry involved, among other things, a table fellowship that ignored priestly or scribal concerns1
regarding clean and unclean persons. According to the consensus, Jesus' efforts to reform the practice of his fellow Jews brought him to Jerusalem where, after a confrontation with Jewish practice at the temple, he was crucified by the Roman authorities.
After his death, various people in Galilee and / or Jerusalem carried on the itinerant preaching / healing / table fellowship movement Jesus had created. Some of these people (again, in Galilee and / or Jerusalem)
reported that he had "appeared" to them. Others seem to have continued the original movement without any apparent interest in his crucifixion and resurrection.
The issue of obedience to the Law arose early
in the growth of the new Jesus movement - an issue which possibly goes back to the practice of Jesus himself - with the liberal or Hellenist faction teaching that the Law no longer applied and the conservatives
insisting that it did. The liberal faction was persecuted by those conservative Jews who were not followers of Jesus and ended up fleeing to other more Hellenistic urban centers. The followers of Jesus who practiced
law-obedience seem not to have suffered persecution and remained in Jerusalem until the flight to Pella shortly before the outbreak of the 1st Jewish War in 70 CE
At any rate, normal trade and travel - with the added
impetus of the expulsion of the Hellenistic-Jewish followers of Jesus who did not strictly follow the Law from Jerusalem - soon brought the message of the Jesus movement to Antioch.
In the more cosmopolitan, tolerant,
syncretistic climate of Antioch (as well as other similarly cosmopolitan Hellenistic cities) the Christ cult was born and flourished. As the Christ cult quickly developed into a fully hellenized Jewish-Gentile mystery
religion with a predominantly Gentile base, it was rapidly communicated and took root (through the aid of missionaries like Paul) throughout the Mediterranean world.
By the end of the 1st Jewish war (shortly after 70
CE) and the destruction of the temple the community of the original law-obedient Jewish followers of Jesus either died out or resolved itself into the later Ebionites.
The infant Christian church - entering what the
late Norman Perrin would call the middle period of New Testament Christianity - began to deal with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and with the delay of Jesus' return (the parousia) though the construction of
gospels (the first of which was Mark's).
Mr. Doherty's Challenge
Mr. Doherty's challenge to this reconstruction is his
claim that Christianity had multiple points of origin that are better explained as resulting from Hellenistic myth or scriptural midrash rather than a single origination point in a remembered historical person.
Mr. Doherty, these multiple mythic and midrashic points of origin are first brought together to form the literary invention of Jesus of Nazareth (interpreted as a person in recent history) by the author of Mark's gospel.
Mr. Doherty believes this can clearly be seen if one will remove the gospels from consideration and read the epistles of the New Testament without filling in the missing information regarding Jesus from the gospel
If one does this, one will find that the writers of the epistles evidence no understanding of Jesus Christ as a historical person of recent historical memory.
The Issue in a Nutshell
Is the evidence as we possess it most adequately explained by a rural, Palestinian, itinerant preacher / exorcist / healer who
(apparently) was crucified in Jerusalem and whose followers 'transmogrified' that movement into a Hellenistic mystery religion in a very short period of time (2 - 3 years at most)?
Or is it more reasonable to suppose
that the two events (rural preaching movement vs. urban mystery-type religion) are independent of each other with neither Marcan source (i.e., Doherty's Galilean rural preaching tradition and the Jerusalem resurrection
tradition) traceable back to an historical individual?
I am (at least at this point)
tentatively persuaded by the consensus position.
Mr. Doherty seems to construe the New Testament epistles as thoroughly gnostic texts absent any trace of a Hebrew historical consciousness - gnostic texts that present
a descending-ascending savior whose feet never quite touch the ground.
If he is correct, then the church fathers who canonized these writings either glossed the daylights out of them (I've never been big on conspiracy
theories, being the last person in America to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone :-), rather stupidly misunderstood their true gnostic character, or both.
It is my humble opinion (subject to change, as the
evidence warrants) that Mr. Doherty's book is a well-written, informative, page-turner (none of which is to be despised in this field :-) of a mystery in its own right. But, in my opinion at this time, the thesis that
drives the book ultimately makes the evidence more difficult to understand not less.
I will attempt to address his argument chapter by chapter.
- My original phrase was rabbinical concerns. Thanks to Kelly of
JesusMysteries@yahoo.groups.com for pointing the anachronism out to me.
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