In which Kapyong explains how an initially heavenly or spiritual being seen only in visions, was later believed to be a real historical person. Based on the ground-breaking work of Earl Doherty and Dr Richard Carrier.
(Painted by Berthold Furtmeyr (c.1481) commissioned by Bernhard von Rohr, Archbishop of Salzburg.)
Key points in my theory include :
Some people had some sort of visions of a spiritual being they came to call Jesus Christ (i.e. Joshua Messiah.) A loose mystery-like cult formed around this demi-God. Two people were prominent - Peter, and James who was revered with title 'the brother of the Lord' (perhaps he was especially wise, or had the first vision?)
Two books possibly known to Paul were - The Life of Adam (and Eve) aka The Book of Adam aka The Revelation of Moses; and 2 Enoch. Both books place Paradise in the Third Heaven. 2 Enoch also puts the Tree of Life in Paradise, a place that is 'between corruptibility and incorruptibility'. This Tree of Life is where the Lord rests when he 'goes up into Paradise', and it bears 'all fruits'. Yet the Third Heaven is also a 'very terrible place' with 'all manner of tortures' for the wicked. The Life of Adam tells of a son of God - who died, is buried in Paradise, and eventually resurrected.
It seems likely that Paul imagined Jesus Christ crucified on the Tree of Life in Paradise in the Third Heaven. Both Acts and 1 Peter claim he was crucified on a tree, and some writings mention the curse of 'hanging on a tree' in reference to Jesus e.g. Irenaeus, Melito of Sardis, Origen, Tertullian, Ambrose, Athanasius and Augustine. Some later writers associate Jesus Christ with the tree of life - Teachings of Silvanus, Justin Martyr, Celsus, Hippolytus, and Victorinus. The confused and controversial Vision of Isaiah, (which Dr Carrier argues has Jesus crucified by Satan in the Air, after descending from Heaven), has Jesus crucified on a Tree - possibly a Tree in the Air (the lowest level of the heavens.)
The theme that earthly things were a reflection of heavenly was known in the 1st C. - e.g. Ladder of Jacob, and Ascension of Isaiah. Paul contrasted Jerusalem above with Jerusalem below (Gal. 4:25-26.) The confused Life of Adam may also be evidence for this - an earthly body buried in Paradise on earth mirrored by a soul buried in Paradise in the third heaven. Hebrews too has a heavenly Jerusalem (and a heavenly Jesus Christ who apparently was never on earth at 8:4.)
Paul had a life-changing visit to the Paradise in the Third Heaven (2 Cor. 12) where he believed he saw this being Jesus Christ and learned of his crucifixion - which happened in Paradise in the Third Heaven. Paul saw Jesus Christ as a heavenly contrast and successor to earthly Adam (1 Cor. 15) as described in the Life of Adam and adds the novelty of a crucifixion to the themes in that book - expanding the Jesus Christ story to include : crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection. All in Paradise in the Third Heaven - all events in heaven that affect us on earth.
Paul believed he had had a grand revelation from and/or about Jesus Christ which has given him new insight into ancient mystery (Rom. 16:25) so he travelled and wrote and preached a crucified yet spiritual Jesus Christ that is totally real (to him and the others). Paul expanded the small Jesus Christ communities with his fervent preaching of the reality of the crucifixion from personal revelation.
The crucifixion was Paul's baby - it was HIS revelation, and he preached it hard and emphasized its reality - but in metaphorical, not historical ways (Gal. 2:20, Rom. 6:6.)
The Christian book Hebrews is clearly a very early work because so much is not mentioned. It is roughly contemporary with Paul, from maybe c.60 - but obviously before the Gospels. It describes a heavenly Jesus in many high-flying ways :
4:14 ' Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. '... 8:1 'Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, ...' 8:4 'Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. '
Jesus 'passed through the heavens' ? And 'if he were on earth' ? No suggestion there he ever was on earth. Some ambiguous passages do suggest a physical life on earth :
2:9 ' But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, ' 5:7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. ... 12:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
What strange phrases - how much 'lower than the angels' ? How odd 'the days of his flesh ' (sometimes even mangled into 'the days of Jesus' life on earth ' e.g. the dubious NIV.) There is mention of death and suffering and 'enduring the cross', without the slightest hint of anything historical on earth - no dates, places, names, no empty tomb, no trial.
Hebrews appears to be a very early work which has a spiritual Jesus Christ, but with enough ambiguity to let it pass the censors.
The Gospels are not entirely clear that Jesus Christ came from Nazareth. The first term used is 'Nazarene' (Ναζαρηνέ) in G.Mark 1:24 'What do we have to do with You, Jesus the Nazarene?' Later Gospels and Acts tend to use Nazorean, e.g. G.Matthew explicitly notes an unknown prophecy when he explains 'He shall be called a Nazorean' (Ναζωραῖος) because he was from Nazareth (Ναζαρέτ) in Matt. 2:23.
'Mark' was a literate and educated pagan genius from Rome who had heard of the Jesus Christ mystery cult and also read :
Around the time of the fall of the Jerusalem Temple Mark wrote a masterpiece of religious literature. He took names and central themes from Paul, stories and episodes from the Tanakh, and wove a wonderful tale of a god-man/Messiah set in a Jewish milieu and echoing the pattern of soter (saviour) from the mystery religions. Literature, even myth, perhaps even prophecy - but not history. Nor a fraud, hoax, or lie.
G.Mark was of such quality that other writers copied it, while redacting it for their own beliefs. It spread out into four communities, none of whom thought it was history. The Gospels remained unknown outside their own communities until mid second century.
The earliest Christian writings used Jesus Christ as a divine name with no historical context - Paul, Hebrews, Colossians, 1,2,3 John, James, Ephesians, 2 Thess., 1 Peter, 1 Clement, Revelation, Jude, Pastorals, 2 Clement. No mention of any historical details like Mary or Pilate or the Empty Tomb or miracles or any date or place for Jesus Christ.
Paul does describe Jesus Christ as a 'man' who was 'born of woman' - but that does not mean they were a physical, historical man and mother (whom he never names) - any more than does a reference to Eve giving birth to Cain and Abel, or Alcmene giving birth to Hercules, or the woman in Revelation giving birth among the stars. Paul is making an analogy about birth to a heavenly Jerusalem vs an earthly Jerusalem in which Jesus Christ is allegorically born to Hagar.
The Epistle of James e.g. says nothing about a historical Jesus Christ, even when the context calls for it. The author shows no signs he had ever even heard of such a person.
The Didakhe (The 'Two Ways' aka The Teachings of the Apostles) c.100 oddly has a ritual meal with NO mention of any Last Supper with Jesus Christ.
A very few elements of the Gospel stories were mentioned before the Gospels appeared - such as Barnabas and Ignatius. Barnabas c.110 was the first Christian book to mention that Jesus Christ did miracles, or to say Jesus was 'pierced'. Ignatius c.130 was the first to mention Mary or Pilate or the Passion of Jesus. He was the very first Christian writer to specifically claim that Jesus Christ was a historical person.
Papias c.130 (according to Eusebius two centuries later) was the very first Christian on record to refer to any Gospel-like writings. He described Mark recording the recollections of Peter in Rome, and Matthew recording Jesus' sayings in Hebrew. Those descriptions do not match our two modern Gospels that well. He confusingly refered to hearing from followers who may have known followers of Jesus.
Some second century Christian apologists show no mention of a life of Jesus Christ. A letter from Mathetes To Diognetus c.140 has plenty to say about the Word, the Son of God, but no mention they had anything to do with a Jesus Christ, who is never mentioned.
Minucius Felix' Octavius c.150 describes a Christianity without any Jesus Christ, and even seems to reject the Gospel stories by insisting Christians do NOT worship a 'criminal crucified on a cross'.
Tatian c.160 (just before his mentor Justin Martyr died c.163) wrote an Address to the Greeks describing Christian beliefs in terms of the Logos, the first-born Son of God - without mentioning Jesus Christ.
Athenagoras c.170 wrote a Plea for the Christians which says much about the Logos, the Son of God, but nothing of Jesus Christ. Athenagoras even wrote a lengthy work On the Resurrection in which he discusses Christian beliefs about resurrection - without ever once mentioning Jesus Christ or his resurrection.
Theophilus of Antioch wrote an Apology To Autolycus explaining and defending Christians beliefs without ever mentioning Jesus Christ once. He explains the meaning of the term 'Christian' like so (the Greek word means anoint, or smear, with oil) :
And about your laughing at me and calling me Christian, you know not what you are saying. First, because that which is anointed is sweet and serviceable, and far from contemptible. For what ship can be serviceable and seaworthy, unless it be first anointed? Or what castle or house is beautiful and serviceable when it has not been anointed? And what man, when he enters into this life or into the gymnasium, is not anointed with oil? And what work has either ornament or beauty unless it be anointed and burnished? Then the air and all that is under heaven is in a certain sort anointed by light and spirit; and are you unwilling to be anointed with the oil of God? Wherefore we are called Christians on this account, because we are anointed with the oil of God.
Aristides of Athens wrote either c.125 or 140 (the evidence is unclear) and described an (un-named, singular) Gospel as having only been preached for a short time, in his Apology :
' The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it. '
Justin Martyr collected several documents which he called 'Memoirs of the Apostles' and the 'Memoirs of Peter', which are also 'called Gospels'. He gave no author's names, and his quotes do not match our Gospels very well - but Justin was the very first Christian writer to have access to written Gospels. He clearly saw them as historical books.
Oddly, the Gospels were apparently numbered four before they were even named - by the DiaTessaron of Tatian. The name means 'From Four' and it was a harmony, or combined version, of the four Gospels, but it had no author's names. Possibly Justin had handed on his precious four Memoirs to his student Tatian when he died.
Theophilus' Apology To Autolycus described Christians and their beliefs in lengthy detail without ANY mention of Jesus Christ at all, but rather basing his arguments on the Old Testament. Notably, Theophilus was the very first Christian writer on record to describe a 'Trinity', and it did NOT include Jesus Christ :
' In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom. '
Theophilus even quoted the preamble from the Gospel of John about the 'Word ', but connects it to the divine principle of Reason, not to any Jesus Christ - who is never mentioned.
In the second century, there were many Christian groups who did NOT agree that Jesus Christ came 'in the flesh ', as we can see from various Christian comments such as :
There was obviously a huge argument about Jesus Christ having come 'in
the flesh' or not which raged through the second century, and
lasted much longer. Some of these heretics really did believe in a phantom
or illusory Jesus Christ :
Marcion, (and Cerdo, Lucan, and Apelles said Tertullian), claimed Jesus Christ was an illusion (Oration on the Distribution of Talents, Theodoret) :
'...they deny ... His humanity, and teach that His appearances to those who saw Him as man were illusory, inasmuch as He did not bear with Him true manhood, but was rather a kind of phantom manifestation. Of this class are, for example, Marcion...'
Basilides, Simon Magus, Menander, Saturninus, and Nicolaus all denied Jesus was physical, said Tertullian :
'Christ sent, not by this maker of the world, but by the above-named Abraxas; and to have come in a phantasm,'
Bardesanes and Axionicus claimed that Christ's body was spiritual, according to Hippolytus :
'... Axionicus and Bardesianes, assert that the body of the Saviour was spiritual;'
Simon and Cleobius, according to The Acts of Paul, argued the crucifixion was appearance only :
'... that Jesus Christ was not crucified, but it was an appearance (i.e. but only in appearance), and that lie was not born of Mary, nor of the seed of David.'
These arguments took place mostly from mid 2nd century and on - because it was only then that the Gospels became available for discussion and argument etc.
1 John appears to be an account of a Christian spiritual experience. There are various other non-historical views e.g. Hermas, Naassene Fragment, the Valentinians, Vision of Isaiah, Ptolemy, Heracleon, Theodotus, The Interpretation of Knowledge etc.
Irenaeus was the very first Christian writer to name all four Gospels, and quite clearly named them himself - based on the hints in Papias and his own imagination. He obviously believed them to be historical accounts.
Although the Gospels were probably written from c.70 to c.100, they remained unknown outside their own private communities until mid second century or so. The first Christian writer to have Gospels to quote from was Justin Martyr c.150. By the end of the second century the Gospels were named and well-known and quoted at length by Irenaeus, Clement Alex., Tertullian, Origen and Hippolytus.
This concise table details the spread of knowledge of the Gospels and their stories, and clearly shows that the Gospels were LATE arrivals on the Christian scene.
The heavenly and mythical origins of Jesus Christ were gradually over-written with a later detailed earthly story. As the late-arriving Gospels and their stories slowly spread from mid second century, there was a common tendency of Christians to believe that they were true, and simply filling in the vague stories they already knew. Even miracles were believed in these times - the Jesus Christ stories were no less believable than, say, Aesclepius the healer.
Some Christian communities received the Jesus Christ story in three phases :
Each layer became more detailed, and it ended with an apparently historical story. Early beliefs in a heavenly Jesus Christ were supplanted by later historicity. Jesus Christ solidified from myth into history due to the favourable Christian reception of the Gospels. Communities knowing only the basic details had their beliefs confirmed and expanded with the new story.
But the context of Jesus Christ being a spiritual, then mythical being, was simply over-written by the later historical story.
The rest is history.
There is a famous passage in Paul's letter to the Galatians 4:1 which is frequently cited as evidence for a historical Jesus -
' I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. '
That is clearly all metaphors - 'no longer a slave, but a son'. The mother is a metaphor too, it certainly isn't Mary. Paul goes on to describe an allegory of mothers and sons :
Gal 4:22 ' For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.
Here we see explicit allegory about two mothers :
Paul is apparently saying :
It's an allegory, and nothing to do with history.
Paul refers to James as 'The Brother of the Lord ' in Gal. 1:19 and this is often presented as evidence for a historical Jesus Christ.
But there are many examples of Paul and other early writers using the term 'brother' in non-literal ways - such as 1 Cor 9:5 'the brothers of the Lord ', or 1 Cor 1:1 or Col 1:1 or 1 Cor 6:5 1 or 1 Cor 15:6.
In the contemporary book called The Wisdom of Solomon we see the metaphor of a righteous man being called a 'child of the Lord ' :
2:12 ' Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us or sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.  He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. '
Hebrews makes a specific defence of the term 'brothers' for the sanctified :
2:11-12 ' For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” '
Thus there are many examples where Paul (and Christians generally) use the term 'brother' in a metaphorical sense. The term 'the Brother of the Lord ' does not necessarily mean a literal brother, but could quite reasonably be used as a special title.
Josephus (later surnamed Flavius when he joined the Roman royal family, after having succesfully predicted Vespasian would become Emperor) wrote a book The Antiquities of the Jews c.94 which has a passage called the 'Testimonium Flavianum' (Latin for the Testimony of Flavius) which has a controversial mention of Jesus Christ.
It is clear the T.F. cannot have been entirely original to a Jew like Josephus - as it calls Jesus the 'Christ' when his book was partly about false Christs (Messiahs) leading the Jews astray. Modern scholarship is divided between the passage being entirely forged by later Christians, or merely corrupted from some milder original.
A speculated re-construction of this dubious passage is presented as some of the best historical evidence for Jesus Christ.
Josephus also refers to ' the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James ' and this is widely regarded as good historical evidence for Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately it's not clear whether Josephus is refering to the Christian Jesus - the only Jesus mentioned nearby is Jesus son of Damneus. The small phrase 'who was called Christ' looks suspiciously like a marginal notation later incorporated into the text, as commonly happens.
The Annals of Roman historian Tacitus have a passage which mentions the crucifixion of Christus (no mention of the name 'Jesus') under Pontius Pilate. This is considered good evidence for a historical Jesus Christ.
But Tacitus does not give any sources, and he refers to the man as 'Christus' which is the Christian title, but certainly not a name that a Roman would use - e.g. Jesus son of Joseph. Tacitus is likely just repeating the beliefs of Christians from the early second century.
Why didn't pagans or Jews point out that Jesus never existed ? Well, how would they know - far away and long ago ? When Celsus heard the Gospel tale of a miracle worker from far away over a century ago - how could he POSSIBLY know Jesus didn't exist ? Unless he knew everyone and everything that happened, and realised Jesus was not on that list. It's a preposterous argument. Celsus did the obvious - assumed Jesus existed and criticised the stories told about him. That is NOT 'admitting Jesus existed.' Jews too - never heard of any Jesus until long after. When they found out, they too abused Jesus, having no idea he was just a myth.
Why didn't Christians object to the Gospels ? Obviously the very earliest Christians who believed in a heavenly Jesus Christ, e.g Paul, had nothing to object to. Later Christians DID argue - that Jesus Christ was just a phantom, an illusion; others argued a Christianity that didn't include any Jesus Christ. One argued against the incarnation and resurrection. Others complained the stories were being falsified.
Suetonius, Thallus, Phlegon, Mara bar Serapion, Talmud ? Worthless.
If it was just myth - then they would not have written XXX. Nonsense - how could we know what an ancient writer would have done in a hypothetical situation ? I could easily argue - 'if Jesus really existed, then the writers would certainly not have allowed all those obvious contradictions and historical and geographical errors - therefore they cannot be true.' Or 'if Apuleis' Golden Ass was just a myth, there is no way he would have claimed to be turned into an ass - therefore it is true.' Or 'if the Leda story was a myth, there is no way the author would make a swan have sex with a woman - therefore it must be true.' It's a worthless argument.
The only reason for Mark to include the awkward Baptism by JohnB is historicity. Not so. Mark may have had other reasons : he may have known a popular story about Jesus, he may have respected JohnB; he may have wanted Jesus Christ baptised to fit his plot line (Jesus starts out humble, a man of the people) - the mere existence of other possibilities disproves this argument. A new apocryphal story about Odysseus must have his faithful wife called 'Penelope' - not because it's historical, but because everyone already knows the story.
If we allow Jesus Christ didn't exist - then we have to throw out most of history - e.g. Socrates or Julius Caesar. Rubbish - every ancient story and character is equally evaluated on their merits. If Jesus didn't exist that has nothing to do with anyone else. Anyway - there ARE doubts about the existence of many ancient figures, even Socrates, even Mohamed ! Maybe Socrates didn't exist - I can handle that. I suspect many people could not handle Jesus being a myth. Yet Jesus scores highly on the Rank-Raglan scale of myth, he is nothing like the solidly historical Caesars. If he were not OUR culture's myth, he would be no more real to us than Odysseus or Hercules or Krishna or ArchAngel Michael or Satan or Xenu.
Why would they die for a lie ? Oh please. No-one had to die for a lie at all. Most martyr stories are late fiction anyway. Maybe some Christians DID die for their beliefs - so what? They believed them - just like suicide bombers die for THEIR beliefs about 72 virgins. Does that make the virgins story true?
But the consensus of scholars agrees Jesus existed ! Well - after a millenium or more when everyone HAD to agree, sometimes on pain of death; followed by some centuries when everyone believed Jesus Christ existed because everyone believed Jesus Christ existed - yes, we still have most scholars agree that Jesus existed - 99% of which scholars are faithful Christians and/or work in a Christian institution, whose very job, reputation, friends, social life, family bonds and faith DEPENDS on believing in Jesus. The most biased sample one could imagine.
Last update - October 2018.
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