Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?
By Richard Carrier, Ph.D.
Last year I had an erudite and friendly debate on London radio with an excellent and well-respected professor of New Testament studies, in which he claimed that in 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul wrote that he received the gospel he summarizes there “from those who were in Christ before him.” Indeed this professor insisted that “from those who were in Christ before him” was in the text. This was perplexing, because I knew that wasn’t the case. In fact, quite the opposite. Paul rather conspicuously never says this in any of his letters. He even explicitly denies it in one (Galatians 1). My opponent was a bit nonplussed when we looked at the text, and to his astonishment, the phrase he was sure was there, was not.
This is not an isolated story. This has happened to me countless times. A superbly qualified scholar will insist some piece of evidence exists, or does not exist, and I am surprised that I have to show them the contrary. And always this phantom evidence (or an assurance of its absence) is in defense of the historicity of Jesus. This should teach us how important it is to stop repeating the phrase “the overwhelming consensus says…” Because that consensus is based on false beliefs and assumptions, a lot of them inherited unknowingly from past Christian faith assumptions in reading or discussing the evidence, which even secular scholars failed to check before simply repeating them as certainly the truth.
It’s time to rethink our assumptions, and look at the evidence anew.
There are at least six well-qualified experts, including two sitting professors, two retired professors, and two independent scholars with Ph.D.’s in relevant fields, who have recently gone on public record as doubting whether there really was a historical Jesus. I am one of them. And I have recently published the first-ever peer reviewed academic study making the case for this conclusion. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt was published this year by the University of Sheffield (Sheffield-Phoenix, 2014). It continues the case I began in a prior peer-reviewed book, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Prometheus Books, 2012), on why the methods employed in Jesus studies today are not logically valid, and what must replace them.
Of course overthrowing centuries of assumptions cannot be done in a mere two thousand words. Hence the book. But I can here summarize the reasons for suspecting we’ve been wrong all along about how the Christian religion began. Objections one might then raise are of course answered in my book. Meanwhile, as Philip Davies recently said, “a recognition that [Jesus’s] existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.”
I think it is more likely that Jesus began in the Christian mind as a celestial being (like an archangel), believed or claimed to be revealing divine truths through revelations (and, by bending the ear of prophets in previous eras, through hidden messages planted in scripture). Christianity thus began the same way Islam and Mormonism did: by their principal apostles (Mohammed and Joseph Smith) claiming to have received visions from their religion’s “actual” teacher and founder, in each case an angel (Gabriel dictated the Koran, Moroni provided the Book of Mormon).
On this model, Christianity, as a Jewish sect, began when someone (most likely Cephas, perhaps backed by his closest devotees) claimed this “Jesus” had at last revealed that he had tricked the Devil by becoming incarnate and being crucified by the Devil (in the region of the heavens ruled by Devil), thereby atoning for all of Israel’s sins, so the Jerusalem temple cult no longer mattered, the sins of Israel could no longer hold back God’s promise, and the end of the world could soon begin. On this theory, Christians did not go looking for proof-texts after their charismatic leader died, but actually conjured this angelic being’s salvific story from a pesher-like reading of scripture, finding clues to the whole thing especially in the conjunction of Daniel 9, Jeremiah 23 & 25, Isaiah 52-53, and Zechariah 3 & 6. Because it solved a major theological and political problem of the time: how the world could be saved when God’s temple (and thus atonement for Israel’s sins) remained in the hands of a corrupt elite “obviously” rejected by God.
It would be several decades later when subsequent members of this cult, after the world had not yet ended as claimed, started allegorizing the gospel of this angelic being by placing him in earth history as a divine man, as a commentary on the gospel and its relation to society and the Christian mission. The same had already been done to other celestial gods and heroes, who were being transported into earth history all over the Greco-Roman world, a process now called Euhemerization, after the author Euhemerus, who began the trend in the 4th century B.C. by converting the celestial Zeus and Uranus into ordinary human kings and placing them in past earth history, claiming they were “later” deified (in a book ironically titled Sacred Scripture). Other gods then underwent the same transformation, from Romulus (originally the celestial deity Quirinus) to Osiris (originally the heavenly lord whom pharaohs claimed to resemble, he was eventually transformed into a historical pharaoh himself).
Contrary to an oft-repeated myth in contemporary scholarship, before Christianity began both Romulus and Osiris were believed by their devotees to be slain deities subsequently resurrected to heavenly glory (as were many others of the type, from Zalmoxis to Dionysus to Adonis to Inanna), who now could bring glory or salvation to their followers. Of these Osiris presents the most apt theological parallel: as Plutarch explains in his treatise on the cult, in public stories Osiris was placed in history as a historical king subsequently deified, but in private exegesis these were explained as allegories for the actual truth of the matter, which was that each year Osiris descends and becomes incarnate and is slain not on earth, but in the lower heavens, and then rises from the dead and reascends to power in the upper heavens, having gained power over death by this cosmic ritual, which he then shares with his earthly devotees. In the earliest redaction we can reconstruct of the Ascension of Isaiah this appears to be exactly what was imagined to happen for Jesus, only once for all, not yearly.
On this theory, when Paul says “the scriptures” tell us that Jesus “died” and “was buried” and only then was he ever “seen” by Cephas and the apostles (1 Cor. 15:3-5), he means exactly what he says. Just as in this and all other summaries of the gospel Paul provides (from here to Philippians 2) there is no mention of a ministry, or of Jesus being seen by anyone (much less anyone taught and hand-picked by him in life), because these things did not yet exist in Christian conception. They would be allegorical fictions contrived later by the authors of the Gospels. When Paul wrote, the death and burial of Jesus were known only from hidden messages in scripture, just as Romans 16:25-26 says. And this knowledge was facilitated by this Jesus then at last appearing to the apostles to inform them of all this, and what it meant. In fact, being thus visited by the celestial Christ is what secured one’s status as an apostle (1 Cor. 9:1; Gal 1:11-12).
Just as Satan was declared the Archon “of the powers of the air” (Eph. 2:2) and the God “of this Age” (2 Cor. 4:4), so when Jesus is said to have been crucified by the “Archons of this Age” (1 Cor. 2:8), we might be seeing what would later be described in the earliest redaction of the Ascension of Isaiah: a reference to Satan and his demons crucifying Jesus, not the Jews and Romans. And just as Adam was in some accounts buried in the heavens (as in chapter 40 of the Greek text of the Life of Adam and Eve), so possibly was Jesus imagined to have been. The incarnation, in a body of Davidic flesh, still would have been imagined as necessary to fulfill scripture. But as depicted in the Ascension of Isaiah, this would have happened in “the sky.”
This “Jesus” would most likely have been the same archangel identified by Philo of Alexandria as already extant in Jewish theology. Philo knew this figure by all of the attributes Paul already knew Jesus by: the firstborn son of God (Rom. 8:29), the celestial “image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4), and God’s agent of creation (1 Cor. 8:6). He was also God’s celestial high priest (Heb. 2:17, 4:14, etc.) and God’s “Logos.” And Philo says this being was identified as the figure named “Jesus” in Zechariah 6. So it would appear that already before Christianity there were Jews aware of a celestial being named Jesus who had all of the attributes the earliest Christians were associating with their celestial being named Jesus. They therefore had no need of a historical man named Jesus. All they needed was to imagine this celestial Jesus undergoing a heavenly incarnation and atoning death, in order to accomplish soteriologically what they needed, in order to no longer rely upon the Jewish temple authorities for their salvation.
Such is the theory. Why might we conclude it’s the more likely explanation? Because the sequence of evidence aligns with it. As Bart Ehrman himself has recently confessed, the earliest documentation we have shows Christians regarded Jesus to be a pre-existent celestial angelic being. Though Ehrman struggles to try and insist this is not how the cult began, it is hard to see the evidence any other way, once we abandon Christian faith assumptions about how to read the texts. The earliest Epistles only ever refer to Jesus as a celestial being revealing truths through visions and messages in scripture. There are no references in them to Jesus preaching (other than from heaven), or being a preacher, having a ministry, performing miracles, or choosing or having disciples, or communicating by any means other than revelation and scripture, or ever even being on earth. This is completely reversed in the Gospels. Which were written decades later, and are manifestly fictional. Yet all subsequent historicity claims, in all subsequent texts, are based on those Gospels.
We also have to remember that all other evidence from the first eighty years of Christianity's development was conveniently not preserved (not even in quotation or refutation). While a great deal more evidence was forged in its place: we know of over forty Gospels, half a dozen Acts, scores of fake Epistles, wild legends, and doctored passages. Thus, the evidence has passed through a very pervasive and destructive filter favoring the views of the later Church, in which it was vitally necessary to salvation to insist that Jesus was a historical man who really was crucified by Pontius Pilate (as we find obsessively insisted upon in the letters of Ignatius). Thus to uncover the truth of how the cult began, we have to look for clues, and not just gullibly trust the literary productions of the second century.
Jesus belongs to a fraternity of worshipped demigods peculiar to the Greco-Roman era and region. All were “savior gods” (literally so called). They were all the “son” of God (occasionally his “daughter”). They all undergo a “passion” (literally the same word in the Greek, patheôn), which was some suffering or struggle (sometimes even resulting in death), through which they all obtain victory over death, which they share in some fashion with their followers. They all had stories about them set in human history on earth. Yet none of them ever actually existed. Jesus can be shown to belong to several other typically mythical classes of person as well, unlike almost every other figure of antiquity (even the greatest of emperors and kings). These people were, more often than not, not historical. Yet all were depicted as such in stories written by their believers. We cannot therefore simply declare Jesus the unusual exception. We need a reason. We need evidence. And when we look for it, it dissolves.
No evidence outside the Bible can be shown to be based on anything but the Gospels or Christian testimony derived from the Gospels. And inside the Bible we have (1) forgeries (which, being fake, cannot count as evidence), (2) the earliest Epistles that seem strangely silent or ambiguous as to the earthly existence of Jesus, and (3) the most suspiciously mythical Gospels. Not exactly good evidence to go by.
Of course there is much to debate. When Paul twice refers to “Brothers of the Lord,” does he mean biological kin, or baptized Christians (who were all Brothers of the Lord: Rom. 8:15-29)? When Paul says Jesus “came to be” (genomenos) from the “sperm of David” does he mean descended from David, or manufactured by God, literally from the sperm of David? When Paul says Jesus “came to be” (genomenos) “from a woman” does he mean literally, or allegorically (as in Gal. 4:24)? When Paul says Jesus was “tempted in every way,” does he mean as an ordinary man, or merely resisting the temptation to seize absolute divine power (as in Phil. 2:5-9)? When Paul says Jesus was “declared” the “Son of God in power” from his resurrection, is he referring to a post-hoc rationalization of a cult leader’s death, or to God’s heavenly re-bestowment of a humbled archangel’s prior status?
We need to ask these questions. Because the old way of looking at the evidence does not fit so well as has been thought. And even among secular scholars this has until now been driven by Christian faith assumptions, rather than a new and genuinely objective look at what the evidence tells us. When we look instead without those assumptions, that Christianity may have been started by a revealed Jesus rather than a historical Jesus is corroborated by at least three things: the sequence of evidence shows precisely that development (from celestial, revealed Jesus in the Epistles, to a historical ministry in the Gospels decades later), all similar savior cults from the period have the same backstory (a cosmic savior, later historicized), and the original Christian Jesus (in the Epistles of Paul) sounds exactly like the Jewish archangel Jesus, who certainly did not exist. So when it comes to a historical Jesus, maybe we no longer need that hypothesis.
 For a list (which I will continue to update), see item 22 in Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Historicity Recap,” Richard Carrier Blogs (24 July 2012): http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/1794#22.
 Richard Carrier, “Bayes’ Theorem and the Modern Historian: Proving History Requires Improving Methods,” The Bible & Interpretation (April 2012): http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/car368023.shtml.
 Philip Davies, “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible & Interpretation (August 2012): http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml.
 The evidence for these being dying-and-rising gods (usually with associated personal salvation cults) is overwhelming, and it is a scandal that anyone who should know the facts of the matter would still be claiming the contrary. I collect the evidence and scholarship in Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 45-47, 56-58, 96-108, 168-73.
 Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 36-48.
 Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 200-05.
 Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 143-45, 153-59.
 Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014).
 Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 168-73, 222-34.
 After reviewing the extensive new look at the evidence now surveyed in Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, see also Richard Carrier, “List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus” (18 June 2014): http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/5730.