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Earl Doherty


Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ?

[Note added 13 October 2015 and revised 1 January 2018. For a good discussion (and refutation) of the idea of a non-historical Jesus see Did Jesus Exist?", by Bart D. Ehrman. My review of Doherty's book reflects what I thought in 2005 after reading it. Almost 13 years on I've decided to leave it unaltered, but if I were writing now I would have to say that the idea of a non-historical Jesus does not seem to me to be plausible.]
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

Before reading this book I tended to think of theories about the non-existence of Jesus as being roughly on a par with those about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays: food for a little idle speculation but not substantial enough to be worth dwelling on for long. And reading The Jesus Mysteries by Freke and Gandy a little while ago didn't do much to alter this opinion.

I feel rather different about Doherty's book, however. After reading it, I still don't know for certain whether I think Jesus was a historical character or not, but at least I am convinced that the question is still open and is worth asking. And I've learned a lot about the origins of Christianity that I didn't know before.

I was of course aware that modern Biblical scholarship had shown conclusively that the Gospels cannot be taken at face value as historical documents, and I had also realized that much of what we now understand as Christianity emerged from Paul's writings. It was clear to me that considerable transformation in the original understanding of Jesus must have taken place, but it didn't occur to me to doubt that Paul had had a historical personage in mind when he referred to Christ. It is however Doherty's case that he did not.

Scholarly books about the origins of Christianity tend to be pretty baffling for the non-specialist and Doherty is to be congratulated for making his discussion so commendably clear. Whether you agree with him or not, he presents his facts and arguments in terms that can be understood by the layman, yet he does so without sacrificing the detailed evidence which is needed to support his case. At the start of the book he provides a convenient twelve-point summary which I draw on in part here to indicate the general scope of his argument.

  1. The earliest reference to Jesus and his story is in the Gospels, the first of which is Mark. The earliest Christian writing we have is the letters of Paul plus some other letters, and these do not show any knowledge of a historical Jesus. Rather, they speak about the death and resurrection of a supernatural or mythical Christ, with the events occurring in a spiritual realm "above" the earth. This scheme has important counterparts in the pagan "mystery cults" of the time.

  2. All the Gospels derive their basic story of Jesus from one source: whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark. The Acts of the Apostles, which supposedly describes the beginnings of the Christian movement, is a second century piece of myth-making.

  3. The Gospels are constructed by a process of "midrash", a Jewish method of reworking old biblical passages and tales to reflect new beliefs. This is particularly apparent in the story of Jesus's trial and crucifixion, which is a pastiche of verses from scripture.

  4. Scholars have long postulated the existence of a lost document called Q, which both Matthew and Luke drew on in writing their gospels. This did not contain any reference to a historical Jesus. The "Q community" preached the kingdom of God and its traditions were eventually assigned to an invented founder who was linked to the heavenly Jesus of Paul in the Gospel of Mark. In other words, Paul's mystical or other-worldly Christ later became merged with Mark's Jesus, who was a literary creation rather than a real person. Eventually, Christians came to believe that Jesus had been a real individual living in Galilee.

  5. There were many sects calling themselves Christian in the late first century and they held many different beliefs. Only gradually did a unified form of Christianity emerge from this chaos and, even well into the second century, many Christian documents lack or actually reject the notion of a human man at the heart of their faith.

One does not have to make up one's mind immediately about Doherty's main thesis in order to see that what he says can make sense of a number of obscurities. This applies particularly to the Epistles of Paul, which are remarkably difficult to understand. If you look at them from Doherty's standpoint they begin to make more sense (though difficulties in plenty remain). And Jesus's frequent references to himself as "Son of Man" also fall into place: the phrase derives from the Book of Daniel and was incorporated into the text via "midrash". (Paul and other New Testament letter writers do not use the expression.) Attempts to explain (or explain away) the Resurrection, of course, cease to be necessary.

That this is a radical reinterpretation of Christianity hardly needs stating; it could not be more revolutionary. As such, it is not about to obtain widespread acceptance overnight, even among the most open-minded of New Testament scholars. As a reader with no scholarly pretensions, however, I found it thoroughly intriguing. It even made me inclined to look up the original texts—something I had not done for many a long year.

8 March 2005

%T The Jesus Puzzle
%S Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ?
%A Earl Doherty
%I Canadian Humanist Publications
%C Ottawa
%D 1999
%G ISBN 0-9686014-0-5
%P viii + 380 pp
%K religion
%O paperback
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