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The Jesus Puzzle. Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? : Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus Paperback – October 19, 1999
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If you want to read the Christian side (and you should) I recommend "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel. Strobel is very selective in his use of evidence, but the book is a good read, and probably the best that can be done for the Christian faith. Read it first if you like, and then read Doherty. There's no comparison.
Doherty also has a web site. I recommend you first read his book and then visit the site. Spend the time to go through everything he presents there - it's well worth it. The site also contains a novel (also titled "The Jesus Puzzle") I thought it was excellent. It deserves to be published. Doherty also provides a lengthy and devastating critique of the Strobel book on his site.
As I read "The Jesus Puzzle" I was surprised at how resistant I was to the thesis that there had been no historical Jesus (I'm not a Christian), but I was impressed at how thoroughly Doherty overwhelmed my resistance. This book deserves the whole world as its audience. Buy it, read it, buy more copies and give them away, spread the word. Nineteen hundred years of misconception has finally been clarified.
In his book "The Jesus Puzzle", Earl Doherty demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ is a fictional character. No such person ever existed. The notion may be shocking to the general populace, but it is not a new idea, and has been endorsed by a minority of scholars for over a century.
The best evidence comes from the Christian writers themselves. The New Testament epistles and most of the non-canonical literature until the mid-2nd century show a resounding silence on the earthly life of Jesus. No teachings or miracles. No references to Mary, Joseph, the disciples or the holy places, such as Bethlehem, Nazareth and Calvary. No trial or details of the passion story. And so on.
Scholars try their best to explain this phenomenon, but this degree of silence from so many writers over so many years has one and only one adequate explanation: the writers ignore Jesus's life on earth because they don't KNOW of a life on earth. Jesus Christ started out as an entirely divine being, just like all the other gods in all the other religions of the day. The idea that he lived a full, human life was a later development in Christian mythology which gradually caught on, proved to be popular and eventually became standard orthodox belief.
Another problem with the traditional view of Christian origins is the wide diversity of expressions shown in the early Christian record. These are unlikely to have stemmed from the life of a highly-revered human founder. "Rather, Christianity was born in a thousand places, in a host of different forms, growing out of the broad, fertile religious soil of the time." (Page 139).
Doherty considers (and refutes) the various attempts people make to prove a historical Jesus, including the infamous forgery in the writings of historian Josephus and the handful of vaguely-phrased epistle passages which, on the surface, have a "human" sound to them, but in fact can apply equally to divine beings.
The author has a website, and I have put him to the test by discussing his work on the Web with people who are far more knowledgeable on the subject than I. Most disagree with Doherty's views (sometimes throwing tantrums in the process!), but when they try to present a convincing argument to the contrary, they can't do it. They don't even come close. At best, they will nail him on an insignificant technicality. Too often people read the epistles with gospel-tinted glasses.
The Great Silence is carefully examined, but the book offers much more. There is a lot of general education material which is great for the average reader. We get an introduction to the philosophies of the time, such as Platonism and Cynicism. Doherty closely examines the lost document of Q and considers the similarities between Jesus and the competing savior gods, such as Attis, Osiris, Dionysos and Mithras. He describes the universe as perceived in those days and the spiritual realm where Jesus and the other gods operate. And we are treated to several passages which managed to escape Christian censorship and show without question that the authors do not have in mind a human Jesus executed under Pilate.
There's very little in the way of weak points. At times Doherty may exaggerate the significance of a particular silence. And I'm a bit uneasy with some of the assumptions and speculations in Parts 5 and 6 concerning the Q document and Christian origins. But none of this is harmful to the overall case. Doherty is a fine writer, is very well-read and does not depend on sources of dubious reliability.
Now, there IS one significant hurdle which the author may never overcome. It's not deficient arguments, but rather human nature. For scholars to admit that Doherty is right means to admit they've been under a monumental misconception for their entire careers. Time will tell whether they have the courage and dignity to do this.
Read, learn and spread the Good News to your friends! If justice is served, this book will change the world.
"What is needed is a new paradigm, a new set of assumptions by which to judge the epistles (as well as the other non-canonical documents ...), one capable of resolving all those contradictions and uncertainties. That paradigm should be determined by what we can see in the epistles themselves and how we can relate their content to what we know of the spirit and conditions of the time."
This is how Doherty approaches not only the epistles but the gospels and noncanonical writings as well.
Why do the earliest New Testament documents (the epistles) show no knowledge of the life and teachings of the historical Jesus (apart from a few passages that are said to be revealed via scripture or vision) yet speak of this Jesus, without any justifying reference to his human life, as God and sustainer of the universe? Doherty shows that the traditional scholarly explanations for this puzzle are with less than adequate documentary and logical support. But by looking at the philosophical and theological milieu of the authors of the epistles (who wrote before the gospels were known to them) we see that their ideas of Jesus Christ are a part of the broader literature about an increasingly personified divine Messiah, Logos, Wisdom figure. Paul also appears to demonstrate closer affinities with some aspects of the mystery cults than with any knowledge of an historical Jesus. Doherty shows that many of the ideas expressed in the theologically divergent epistles of Paul, James, John and that to the Hebrews are more satisfactorily explained as a part of broader Son of God literature emerging in some circles of Hellenistic Judaism, and to whom this figure was exclusively a spiritual revelation of scripture or personal vision - not an historical person.
Part 2 of Doherty's book essentially explains why modern Christian scholarship finds so elusive the nature of the historical Jesus assumed to lie hidden beneath the earliest Q sayings and the gospel of Thomas. Doherty asks the questions that both conservative and liberal Christian scholars fail to address seriously - Do these earliest sayings point to a single Jewish historical figure at all? Or is the evidence more satisfactorily explained as the product of a more general counter-culture, cynic-like movement arising from economic oppression in Galilee and to which a Jesus figure was later added and gradually fleshed out? Much of this section is a response to modern Christian scholars (especially John Dominic Crossan ("The Birth of Christianity" et al.) whose theological assumptions seem not to allow them to ask such a fundamental question. Doherty would say that such a question should be obvious when the earliest evidence shows no knowledge of any of Jesus' works or life-experiences (but only a collection of sayings that have little to commend themselves as unique) and especially when the evidence rather points to a gradual elaboration of biographical details of a Jesus character over time?
Doherty then looks at the tendentious nature of Christian scholarship's interpretation of Jewish and pagan sources such as Josephus and Tacitus and finds it logically flawed.
He points to the Gospel of Mark as the first attempt to unite the Galilean tradition (the evolved Q sayings) of Jesus with the completely separate Jerusalem tradition (of a dying and rising Messiah who becomes God). Historians such as Crossan see links between these two traditions in the Didache or even the Cross Gospel in the Gospel of Peter, but Doherty deconstructs such arguments with a rigorous but lay-reader-friendly analysis of the textual evidence. He takes us through a survey of Mark showing how these two traditions have been united through midrashic re-writings of many old testament passages and tales designed to meet the needs of the Markan community. The result was the first gospel of Jesus. This literary work was possibly the real beginnings of Christianity as we know it.
Finally Doherty examines the earliest post-gospel writings of Christians beginning with Ignatius and through to Papias. The relationship between Marcion, the writings of Paul and the Book of Acts is discussed. The second century apologists' writings are shown to draw more heavily from Middle Platonism than any gospel Jesus, and at least in one case appear to deny the very idea of such a figure being associated with their Christian faith.
The footnoting and appendices in the book are set out in such a way as to make this book one of the easiest introductions to the documents of early Christianity and also as one of the most accessible and easy return-reference tools I have read.
The book's strength is that it accepts modern scholarship's foundational evidence for the origins of Christianity (canonical and non-canonical writings along with their generally accepted dates) and shows that traditional interpretations raise unsolvable problems of logic and consistency. It shows how these problems are largely removed if we interpret the same evidence as pointing to Jesus being a creation of the broader philosophical, theological and religious world of the time. This Jesus then only gradually evolved into an historical founder after the original midrashic nature of the gospels was later confused with biographical reality.
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I would recommend it to any reader though because it puts together thoughts well.