All posts in this series are collated here.
Chapter three of Derek Murphy’s book, Jesus Potter Harry Christ, discusses the evidence commonly cited for the historical existence of Jesus. In his view the arguments used to support the historicity of Jesus
are often a mixture of inferences, deductions and references to common knowledge and unfounded associations. (p. 68)
He uses Lee Strobel’s claims for “overwhelming evidence” for Jesus’ existence as his foil, beginning with the claim that gospels such as that of Luke are “so painstakingly accurate” in their historical details. Murphy knocks this argument out flat by comparing the many researched minute details and accurate facts in the tales of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Rowling’s Harry Potter.
Other common arguments are addressed and refuted with reference both to the facts of the historical record and the logic of the claims themselves:
- Martyrs would not have been willing to die for a lie;
- Christianity could not have started without a founder;
- The life of Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament;
- Jesus was the founder of our higher ethical ideals.
When Murphy comes to discussing the popular claims about the historical evidence itself I find myself in complete sympathy with his indignation that pastors and scholars will rattle off ancient sources (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus) to the inquiring lay researcher without offering any indication that those sources have all been questioned by academics.
Search online for any one of them and you’ll find that they are constantly and readily given as the definitive historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, on many thousands of faith-based and apologetic websites. However, among biblical scholars and church historians (even Christian academics) they are not universally accepted.
But aren’t they all accepted by today’s scholars?
Although all four of them were considered complete forgeries throughout much of the last two centuries, today an uneasy truce has been established that in general recognizes that at least some of the quotes may be partially authentic. (p. 75)
This is a slight overstatement, since in the case of Suetonius the question has not been so much that of possible forgery, but of the meaning of Chrestus and the nature of the historical event described.
Murphy traces over two pages some of the early criticism of the famous passage in Josephus, and includes a useful and hard-hitting table of reasons to question (still today) the authenticity of the passage. He concludes this overview with quotations from historical Jesus scholar Paula Fredriksen, asserting partial authenticity, and from Christ mythicist Earl Doherty, epitomizing a range of reasons to seriously doubt the authenticity of the passage completely.
As for the reliability of Tacitus, Murphy shows that Tacitus writes other details about Jewish history (e.g. Moses leading a colony of lepers) that no-one today accepts as reliable. He also refers to the forgery-glutted world of the fifteenth century in which the Tacitus manuscript first emerged. Murphy is not absolutely discounting the passage on these grounds, but is interested in informing readers of sensible reasons to at least raise questions about authenticity.
Murphy’s discussion of modern questions applied to the testimonies of Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius is concise and a useful reference, and demonstrates that the claim “that the life of Jesus Christ was one of the best attested events in history” is unsupportable.
Murphy tackles the other side of this question as well, which is the complete absence of contemporary accounts of Jesus, and demolishes the apologetic plea that the absence of contemporary references is to be expected if Jesus was an insignificant preacher in a remote part of the world.
Murphy is not saying that silence is an argument for nonhistoricity, but that it does open up questions given the nature of the claims made about Jesus and the earliest reception of the faith.
As for the nature of the most commonly cited documents, he justly concludes:
If experts cannot agree on the validity of the document, and if they argue for centuries about whether or not it is genuine, a forgery, or a well-intentioned interpolation, and if in general there is no consensus, then the document should not be used as valid evidence in a research investigation. (p. 81)
I imagine quite a few New Testament scholars today would insist that Josephus did say something about Jesus, and Murphy could have addressed this situation to have presented a sounder case here. He might have noted that this current “consensus” is quite a recent development and appears to be closely related to social, cultural and religious changes since the Second World War, especially as influenced by the unique role of religion in a culturally dominant America.
I also cannot forget a comment made by a pre-war scholar to the effect that any evidence that has shown to be contaminated or interfered with in any way at all is never allowed in a court of law. So how can we validly rely on any of the Josephan evidence?
Perhaps Murphy would excuse himself from such thoroughness by reminding us of his primary purpose:
we should not be concerned here with proving the matter one way or another; all that is needed is to fully understand the various reasons why each side claims what it does. (p. 86)
The alternative, beginning with the Old Testament
So how can we explain the gospel narratives if we imagine there was no historical Jesus behind them? If the New Testament writings attempt to relate Jesus to the Old Testament writings, what sorts of writings make up the Old Testament?
Murphy attempts to show that these New Testament stories could have arisen in a manner similar to the way the Old Testament fictions were created. He shows that readers that there were highly advanced civilizations preceding the Jews and that clearly influenced Jewish culture. The Genesis flood story of Noah, for example, is clearly adapted from the older Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. The account of the Exodus finds no support in the archaeological evidence, so it, too, was a product of imaginative creativity.
Although many of the accounts in the Old Testament many be historical — i.e. the names of specific places and rulers — the writers in general adopted myth, fable and folklore and tied it into current Jewish happenings, as a commentary on contemporary events. In identifying this process in the Old Testament, we already have a working model of how the New Testament gospels may have been written. (p. 86)
Murphy is introducing a lay audience to the the concepts for purposes of provoking thought and discussion. Looking ahead from here and where Murphy is leading with this discussion, what Murphy does not do is to address the clear literary structural and conceptual influences that have been identified from the Old Testament itself on the Gospels. His focus is going to be on the borrowings of mythical ideas from the wider Greco-Roman world by the Gospel authors. However he does not, as Dennis MacDonald and others do, analyse potential specific structural literary borrowings. Discussions at this level are not part of his book’s intention. This disappointed me a little since it was what I had been hoping for after his initial detailed comparisons between Jesus Christ and Harry Potter as literary figures. But I have to accept I am not the average lay reader and I have had the opportunities to read ahead of many other interested people.
The New Testament as evidence
Murphy shows that biblical scholars have long denied that the Gospels are eye-witness accounts of Jesus, although some do claim they record genuine testimony passed down from eye-witnesses; that the names attached to the Gospels are not true indicators of their authors; and that the motivating factor for their creation was to enable the later church to establish a claim of descent from apostles who knew Jesus in the flesh. This was at a time when various Christian communities claimed authority from various apostles on the basis of their visions of a heavenly or resurrected Christ or association with a non-human figure. So in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus chose James to be the leader of the church; in the Gospel of Mary, Mary was the spiritual guide.
So one of the purposes of the Gospels was to argue that Jesus did come in the flesh and spend time with the founders of what became the orthodox church. Peter was to become the foundational rock who could claim an intimate knowledge of Jesus even before his death and resurrection. And if that was the motive behind their production, then surely their value as evidence for the historicity of Jesus is open to question.
This explanation makes sense to me as an explanation of the theological biases of the Gospels and their artificial portrayals of Jesus. The main argument against it — one that Murphy does not address here — is that most scholars would date the canonical Gospels well before the other gospels such as those of Thomas and Mary. I personally see no reason to date the gospels as early as most scholars do, and that the early dating is primarily intended to place them as close as possible to the supposed time of Jesus to increase their value as sources. But there is no external evidence for the Gospels until well into the second century — the same period to which other gnostic gospels are also assigned.
Murphy returns to a less direct explanation for this chicken and egg question at the end of this chapter, and I will discuss his views at the end of this chapter review.
Murphy does not discuss any of this, however. Perhaps he considered such a discussion too technical for his target audience, especially since his main purpose is to promote awareness of the inconclusiveness of the evidence and the legitimacy of debating the historicity of Jesus.
I particularly liked Murphy’s all too brief mention of the impersonal nature of the Gospels and what this indicates about the claim that they are based on personal reminiscences.
Later in the chapter Murphy returns to discussing the literary style, and this time addresses the “sober and responsible fashion” of the narratives that give them an air of being historical reports. Murphy’s response is simple and on the mark: apart from the fact that the stories are about a man who walks on water, pulls coins from fish and rises from the dead, one could aptly argue that the authors wrote in such a style because they wanted readers to believe their narratives.
I can hear fundamentalists screaming “Foul!” when he says, however,
In fact there is nothing in the text themselves [sic] that would give the impression that they are eye-witness accounts . . . . (p. 87)
Many apologists do point to details (e.g. the grass was said to be green) that they claim are evidence of eye-witness reports. Murphy has already addressed the fact that accurate details do not necessarily argue for the truth of the plot. But there is a sense of incompleteness in his covering this new line of thought that is begging opponents to seize upon.
This in itself is a very minor point, and the reason I mention it is because throughout the book’s chapters this scattered organization and repetition of points do sometimes interfere with the flow of argument. In the above quotation I have included one of the somewhat too frequent typos that also spoil the presentation. There is sometimes a sense that Murphy has been in just too much of a rush to complete the book without taking the added time needed to tidy up some of the chapters and remove more of the typos, and even to improve consistency of spelling, verb forms (e.g. “resurrected” as an active verb beside its more common use as a past participle), alternating use of numerals and their word equivalents, etc.
Murphy is at his best when he addresses the noncanonical writings that refer to Jesus, 1 Clement and the Didache. Murphy shows readers how ethical requirements, the role of Jesus, even the resurrection are all written about without any indication that they came from a life of Jesus at all. This discussion is one of the strongest of Murphy’s points and should raise questions among those new to the topic. As he quotes from Karen Armstrong:
there is scarcely a verse in the New Testament that did not refer to the older scriptures . . . . some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that it would be possible to construct an entire gospel from Jewish scriptures, without quoting a single word by Jesus himself. (p. 90)
Sources of Jesus’ teachings
Murphy outlines the evidence for various key teachings of Jesus being well known in both the Jewish and Roman environments. If teachings attributed to Jesus can be found, for example, among popular Stoic writings and among the sectarians responsible for some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, then it is clear that those teachings cannot have originated with Jesus at all. (Bultmann is appropriately invoked here.)
So Murphy here moves into the view, widely held among contemporary New Testament scholars, that while the Gospels are primarily about theology and later Church beliefs and include mythological trappings, they are said to nonetheless be based on a historical person. The task of historical Jesus scholars is thus to try to peel away the layers of nonhistorial material in order to find the real Jesus beneath.
Clearly such a process assumes that there is a historical Jesus to begin with:
But it should not be forgotten that this method begins with the hypothesis of a historical Jesus. (p.96)
Moreover, Murphy explains elegantly how this same scholarly process routinely discards any evidence that does not describe Jesus in potentially historical terms as irrelevant. In the quest to find the original Jesus anything that points to a mythical character is rejected. Its relevance is only applied to an understanding of the later development of Christian thought.
The Gnostic Gospels
Murphy here returns to the question of the relationship between ideas found in the Gnostic gospels and the creation of the canonical gospels, and begins by summarizing the reasons scholars dismiss the gnostic gospels looking for Christian origins. Principally, they are considered latecomers into the field, and have nothing to say about the historical Jesus. Murphy then shows the hand he is about to play in the remainder of his book:
It can be demonstrated, however, that the beliefs and ideologies of Gnosticism come directly from traditions that are older than mainstream Christianity. Therefore, rather than offshoots of orthodox Christianity, they actually represent co-existing, contemporary communities which developed around the same time as normative Christianity. Although I will not argue that the Gnostic gospels have more authority or are earlier than the canonical ones, I think it reasonable to accept that they may have at least something to tell us about the diverse early practices of worshipping Jesus, as well as the reliability of the tradition of a historical founder. (p. 99)
Murphy outlines the teachings (in particular those relating to the Demiurge, Sophia, the Logos, the nonhuman nature of Jesus, various baptisms, and allegorical meanings of ) of a range of gnostic or gnostic-like groups, such as those of Basilides, Valentinus, Saturnius, Heracleon and Marcion. The significance of many of these is that they synthesized Jewish and pagan thought. The Old Testament, Paul, Philo, Homer and Plato came together in their search for spiritual truths. Much of the remainder of Murphy’s book will examine in detail the pagan and Jewish antecedents of Christianity that are found among the gnostics. The branch of Christianity that evolved into the establishment we know today was, alternately, developing strict hierarchies, organisational structures, controlled canons.
The Jesus of the Gnostic gospels is, clearly, a completely different Jesus from the orthodox canonical gospels. What can be his relevance to any quest for Christian origins? Murphy offers an answer to that question that I myself have wondered often enough:
And yet it is difficult to see how the appearance of the historical figure of Jesus Christ could produce one community which remembered him as a human being and several other communities which worshiped him as an eternal, spiritual entity. (p. 103)
I think this is a vital question that demands serious examination, despite the fact that it appears to have barely ruffled the consciousness of current biblical scholarship. A few scholars, such as Robert M. Price, have, however, addressed the next question raised by Murphy:
On the other hand, a model of how certain Jesus-based communities developed the need of a historical Jesus to justify their unique beliefs about a physical resurrection, which is supported by all available evidence, can be presented very clearly.
That need lay in the political need of being able to claim genealogical descent back to disciples who knew an earthly Jesus before and after his resurrection.
But Murphy alludes to the possibility that gnosticism really did precede Christianity on the basis that Church Fathers attributed gnosticism to Simon Magus, and to the tradition that Simon Magus was himself a student of Dositheus who was connected with the Essenes. if so, then we do have before us the possibility that gnosticism did precede our orthodox understanding of Christianity. Murphy also refers to Herman Detering’s argument for the possibility that Simon Magus and Paul were one and the same.
All of this may seem too much for many readers. But Murphy leaves readers with one thought that he hopes will keep them bound to where he is leading:
However, even if [the Gospels] are read literally and seem to describe Jesus the man, there are symbols, motifs and elements in them which stem from the same mystic and philosophical blend of paganism and Judaism which also gave rise to Gnosticism, lending credence to the claim that the story was originally created by those who intended it to be interpreted allegorically. (p. 105)
Derek Murphy has thus established the various bases for the controversy over the historicity of Jesus. After scholars complete unwrapping the multiple layers that clearly do not speak of a historical figure, “virtually nothing remains”.
The problem intensifies when you look outside of Judaism and compare Jesus to older mythological and religious traditions. This is true especially of his central features: his resurrection and ascension, miracles and teachings, forgiveness of sins, relationship to God and role in creation as the Logos or Word.(p. 106)
Murphy’s conclusion is reasonable:
Is the evidence for the historical Jesus strong enough to save him from this unraveling process? The short answer is no — in fact it points in the other direction: that Jesus may have been a literary metaphor and religious symbol, which became historicized deliberately for a specific agenda.
So the rationale for the theme of Derek Murphy’s book is set. One cannot use the presumption of the historicity of Jesus to differentiate him from other mythological figures. Where there are very precise coincidences between the Jesus we know and figures of mythology and literature, then it is reasonable to assume that to that extent Jesus derives from those figures. If there is nothing left over, then . . . .