Reproduced from the JOURNAL of THE MRI, March 1997, Vol. 1, no. 4, (ISBN: 1209-8507 © Copyright: For each item by its author, 1997)
Book (Serial Publication)
THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF JESUS
AND THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTIANITY
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
Dedicated to all those who have labored or are laboring to find the historical truth behind the Jesus tradition
PART I: JESUS AND THE EARLIEST JESUS PEOPLE
Chapter 1: A Look at the Life of Jesus
Chapter 2: The Existence of Rival Jesus Groups From the Beginning
Chapter 3: A History of the Earliest Jesus People
PART II: THE EARLIEST TRADITIONS ABOUT JESUS' FATE AND PERSON
Chapter 4: Formative Processes for the Jesus Tradition
Chapter 5: Tradition of Jesus' Disappearance (Hiding/Exile)
Chapter 6: Tradition of Jesus' Execution
Chapter 7: Tradition of Jesus' Ascension
Chapter 8: Tradition of Jesus' Return
Chapter 9: The Earliest Beliefs about the Religious Identity of Jesus
PART III: THE EMERGENCE OF THE TRADITION OF JESUS' RESURRECTION FROM THE DEAD
Chapter 10: The Origin of the Belief in Jesus' Resurrection From the Dead
Chapter 11: Paul and the Historical Value of His Witness
Chapter 12: Tradition of Rejecting Jesus' Death and Resurrection
PART IV: NON-NARRATIVE TRADITION ABOUT JESUS' DEATH AND RESURRECTION
Chapter 13: Proclamations and Predictions of the Death and Resurrection
Chapter 14: According to Scriptures
Chapter 15: Other Religious Interpretations of Jesus' Death and Resurrection
PART V: THE FORMATION OF THE PASSION NARRATIVES
Chapter 16: Events Leading to the Passion
Chapter 17: Sanhedrin's Decision and Jesus' Hiding
Chapter 18: Judas Iscariot and the Betrayal
Chapter 19: The Last Supper
Chapter 20: Prayer and Deliverance/ Distress and Sleep
Chapter 21: Arrest and Desertion
Chapter 22: Peter's Denial and the Jewish Trial
Chapter 23: The Roman Trial and Barabbas
Chapter 24: The Trial by Herod and the Gospel of Peter
Chapter 25: Mocking, Crucifixion and Death
Chapter 26: Death on the Cross
Chapter 27: Burial
PART VI: THE FORMATION OF THE RESURRECTION STORIES
Chapter 28: Appearances in Galilee
Chapter 29: The Empty Tomb
Chapter 30: Appearances in Jerusalem
Chapter 31: Words Spoken by the Risen Jesus
This book arose out of the conviction -- which I share with many writers -- that at present we do not have a satisfactory explanation of how the Jesus tradition originated and how it developed during its earliest stages and that it is possible to find such an explanation. After spending about twenty years examining the New Testament and other writings about Jesus and the early Christian church without any satisfactory results, one day in the summer of 1991 I had a thought which struck me as very promising. I had a strong feeling that I might have finally found a provable hypothesis which provided the key to solving the mystery of the origins of Christianity and hence to a much fuller understanding of the whole Jesus tradition. I started to test the hypothesis (which is stated below in the Introduction) and found that the more I examined the evidence in its light the more the pieces of the puzzle of Christian origins began to fall into place. Sometimes I had doubts but not because of any evidential or logical reasons. My doubts arose entirely from the radical originality of the hypothesis: the hypothesis was so different from what all other writers -- many with amazing learning and impressive intellectual abilities -- have been saying that it may be absurd. But each time I tried to see whether any alternative hypotheses offered by others or any that I could myself think of could explain the puzzle of the origin of Christianity better, my doubts were overridden by the initial realization of the potential of the new hypothesis and I would continue to develop and substantiate it. This process of testing and developing continued for the next five years, culminating in this book.
Despite the originality of the main thesis which required radical revision of many of the views established among scholars of Christian origins, I have naturally benefited immensely from the earlier discussions among those very scholars and some of their conclusions. However, my knowledge of such discussions is not of the same level on all relevant issues, as a result of which the reader will notice a certain unevenness in the degree to which I take the views of other scholars into account. In this connection I take comfort in the fact that the field of Christian studies is so vast that no one can go through the entire literature much less digest it unless perhaps one lived like the ancient biblical figures such as Noah for hundreds of years. Consequently a writer has no choice but either to write on a very specialized subject or to write in ignorance of a large part of what others have written and hence risk making some naive judgments. But the need for works seeking global explanation of the Jesus tradition is at least as important as the need for specialized studies and therefore the risk is worth taking.
E.P.Sanders has talked about the "sweat which comes from the effort to explain history" (Jesus and Judaism, p. 7). Writing this book has made me experience the meaning of these words. I have, however, attempted that no sweat will be necessary on the part of the reader to follow this book. In order to achieve that goal I have not shunned detailed discussions of relevant issues but I have presented the material in as readable a fashion as it was in my power to do. In particular, the need on the part of the reader to read for herself/himself the texts cited is reduced to a minimum by as many quotations of the most relevant texts as was possible without having to divide the book into two volumes.
What historically reliable information about Jesus do the New Testament and other contemporary documents about him and his churches contain? How did Christianity originate and develop to take the forms that it took in the decisive first century and half of its history? These are the two most central problems about early Christianity. They are central regardless of whether we are interested in early Christianity from a historical point of view or from a purely religious point of view.
The early writings about Jesus and his churches, both canonical and non-canonical, and their Semitic, Greek, Roman and Persian backgrounds have been intensively studied in the past couple of centuries. Literally millions of pages of research have been published by scholars of every conceivable background. Yet a satisfactory solution of the two central questions have so far alluded scholars. By a satisfactory solution I mean one that possesses the following three characteristics:
1) Comprehensiveness. This receives more precise definition below. Here we can understand the concept to mean that our picture of the historical Jesus and of the development of the early Christianity must explain all the relevant traditions in our documents and not just a selection from them. If a tradition is historical, our picture should be consistent with it. And if a tradition is unhistorical, then we should be able to explain why and how it was fabricated.
2) Plausibility. This means that our picture of Jesus and of the development of earliest Jesus tradition should be plausible in the light of what we know about human history generally and of the history of the near east in the first century. This does not exclude the possibility of miracles but nevertheless requires that the reports of any miraculous events should pass plausible tests of historicity. The occurrence of unique and very unusual events other than miracles is also not excluded by this criterion; in fact, it is plausible that the life of the founder of a lasting religious movement as well as that of the movement itself will have some very unique and unusual happenings. The criterion of plausibility assumes that despite the possibility of the presence of some miraculous, unique or unusual elements a great deal of the life of Jesus and the development of the traditions about him can be understood like we can understand any other individuals and movements in history.
3) Broad Acceptability. Our answers to the two questions should be acceptable to scholars of many different backgrounds after enough time has passed for those answers to be duly examined. This criterion is valuable only as a confirmation that the first two criteria have been met.
At present there is only one theory that fulfils the first criterion for a satisfactory solution, namely, comprehensiveness and that is the traditional Christian view. According to this view, Christian documents can be divided into two categories: canonical and apocryphal. The canonical documents represent by and large reliable records of events that actually took place. The contradictions among the various traditions are either only apparent or result from some lapse of memory or misunderstanding or some form of human error on the part of the original narrators or reproducers of the original narrations; such errors in any case do not effect the historicity of the main outline. The apocryphal documents, on the other hand, are largely fabrications except where they are dependent on the canonical documents and few other instances where they are consistent with them. This theory is, however, rarely presented in a scientific spirit and when it is, it is clearly seen to lack plausibility, the second criterion for a satisfactory theory. For there are so many contradictions even among the various canonical traditions that to provide plausible harmonization is seen to be impossible. And in many cases separate motives behind the contradictory traditions are so apparent that we cannot attribute the contradictions to failure of memory or any "human error." The traditional view also fails the third criterion, namely, that of broad acceptability to scholars of varied different backgrounds, since this explanation has satisfied only Christians committed to the traditional Christian teachings.
Critical scholars with a more scientific approach have effectively demonstrated over the last couple of hundred years the invalidity of the above-mentioned traditional view but they have not been able to offer an alternative. Any theories they have put forward fail in regard to the criterion of comprehensiveness. This is because until recently scholars were busy in the study of small parts of the early writings about Jesus and his churches. Even when they attempted an overall explanation of all the data, they used largely the parts they had the opportunity to examine in detail. This was necessary because the data were so extensive that it was impossible for individual scholars to fully analyze them in their totality.
Now, however, thanks to the labors of a great many scholars of every possible background most of the relevant facts have been brought forward in readable books and it should be possible for individual scholars to review them and fit a satisfactory theory into them. Yet no such theory seems to exist even now.
This situation has raised the question whether we can ever know the historical Jesus and how Christianity began. The answer to this question is of course in the negative if "knowing" means the ability to answer all questions. We can rarely know anything in that complete way. But the answer is in the affirmative if "knowing" means finding the best explanation of the data that we possess about early Christianity. For every data set there is at least one theory that best explains it and the same must also be the case with the data about early Christianity. To find a "best fitting" theory for these data is to know the historical Jesus and the origin and development of early Christianity.
The Key to a Solution: Explaining the Resurrection
A central part of any theory explaining the set of Jesus traditions known to us must include an explanation of the traditions of Jesus' death and resurrection. And here I mean not just general explanations but detailed explanations which start with certain hypotheses and then show how the traditions took the form in which we find them in the New Testament and other Christian documents of the period. In recent critical scholarship such explanations are almost never provided and when they are they lack comprehensiveness and/or plausibility.
Some books dealing specifically with the resurrection do raise the relevant historical issues and a few such as the one by Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, to which my attention was drawn by Dr. Marshall D. Johnson, even attempt "honest" and "reasonable" historical explanations of the resurrection (p. vii). But books about the historical Jesus and the origin and early history of Christianity either ignore the resurrection tradition or give very tentative and vague explanations of it. This can be illustrated by reference to the books by Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of New Testament Images of Jesus), E. P. Sanders, (The Historical Figure of Jesus) and John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus). Meier expressly declares the belief in Jesus' resurrection as outside the purview of his work (Vol. 1, p. 13). This, at first sight, looks reasonable, since resurrection belongs to the period after the end of Jesus' ministry and hence is not strictly relevant to the study of the historical Jesus. But all historical facts about Jesus are to be recovered from the subsequent church tradition and unless we understand how this church tradition, which was based in large measure on the belief in the resurrection, originated and developed, any reconstruction of facts about Jesus can only be tentative.
In Sanders' works what happens in the church after Jesus plays an important part in the reconstruction of historical traditions about Jesus. But he too has to leave the origin and development of the tradition of resurrection unexplained.
When Jesus was executed, his followers fled or hid, but their hopes were renewed when they saw him alive again. Here I wish to say nothing at all about the disciples' resurrection experiences, which we shall briefly consider in an epilogue, but rather focus on their subsequent behavior. They were convinced that the kingdom that Jesus had predicted would soon arrive, and that he would return. They settled down in Jerusalem to wait. While waiting, they tried to convince others that their Master was the Messiah of Israel and that he would soon return to establish the kingdom of God (The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 58).
Considerations promised above for the Epilogue consist of general and tentative suggestions of the type that fill the literature on resurrection, with the difference that unlike most writers Sanders admits what he does not know.
Faced with accounts of this nature -- sharply diverging stories of where and to whom Jesus appeared, lack of agreement and clarity on what he was like (except in negatives) -- we cannot reconstruct what really happened. Throughout this book I have offered suggestions about what lies behind passages in the gospels. On the present topic, however, I do not see how to improve on the evidence, or how to get behind it. (Ibid. , p. 278)
In an earlier book, Jesus and Judaism, Sanders' admission is even clearer: "I have no special explanation or rationalization of the resurrection experiences of the disciples" (p. 320). This means that we can think of Jesus and the church as two ends of a dark tunnel. The tunnel represents the period between the crucifixion and the disciples' experience of the resurrection. On one end of the tunnel is Jesus and on the other the church. Sanders' admission means that we do not know much about what is in the tunnel. But then the confidence found in Sanders' books about our ability to construct certain and probable facts (p. 321) is hardly justified. If our information about what came before the dark tunnel and what came after it was reliable, we would not have to concern ourselves with what went in the tunnel for reconstructing the historical Jesus and the earliest development of the Jesus tradition; in fact by looking at what went into the tunnel and what came out we may even find out what was in the tunnel. But that is not at all the case. There is not much light even outside the tunnel. Therefore, in order to reconstruct the history of Jesus and/or the earliest church, we need to find a way to get under this tunnel with some light.
Paula Fredriksen's book is more about the origin of the Jesus tradition than about Jesus himself. But even she talks mostly of the responses to the resurrection but not of the resurrection itself. The resurrection itself receives the brief comment that "what actually occurred ... is now impossible to say" (p. 133). Other books that expressly deal with the origin and history of early church also have no detailed explanation of the resurrection. In other words, present studies of the Jesus tradition tend either to end before the resurrection or start after it, leaving the resurrection unexplained.
As noted earlier, some of the books that deal specifically with the tradition of Jesus' resurrection do attempt to give a reasonable explanation of the tradition. But at least I find them completely unsatisfactory. The reasons for this are given at various points in this book. Here I will briefly comment on the recent book by Luedemann to which a reference has already been made.
Luedemann bases his proposal on the following two assumptions (The Resurrection of Jesus, pp. 30-31):
a) Paul is our earliest witness and hence the most reliable. It is, therefore, above all from Paul that "we are to expect access to the manner of the appearance of the risen Jesus to the rest of the eyewitnesses."
b) Paul knew Cephas and other leaders in Jerusalem and hence in talking of the appearances of the risen Jesus to them he "must have known what he was talking about."
These two general assumptions enable him to agree with the following more specific judgement of David Friedrich Strauss:
When Paul there places the christophany which occurred to himself in the same series with the appearances of Jesus in the days after his resurrection: this authorizes us to conclude that, for all the Apostle knew, those earlier appearances were of the same nature with the one experienced by himself. (The Life of Jesus (1836), 1973, p. 740)
But both of Luedemann's assumptions are questionable. In regard to the first assumption: a set of tradition which at first exists in oral form undergoing change and development and are then written as the need arises after a considerable period of time, the earlier writing of a particular version of an event or story may often be just an accident of history and may not represent the most reliable or even the earliest version. Paul only once refers to the appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples. Had the circumstances in the Corinthian church, in a letter to which this mention is made (1 Cor 15), been somewhat different, we would have been deprived even of this one mention of the appearances. In regard to the second assumption: It is manifestly wrong to draw from the fact that Paul knew Peter and others the conclusion that he must have known about the nature of their experience of Jesus' resurrection. How easy would be the work of the historians and human life generally if we can trust the testimony of every witness about some other persons whom he had met a few times during his life! More specifically, it is generally recognized that the traditions of Jesus' appearances to "Cephas, then to the twelve" (1 Cor 15:5) and to "James, then to all the apostles" (1 Cor 15:7) are rival traditions. Luedemann himself recognizes this when he says: "The text 1 Cor 15:7 arose when followers of James (or James himself) claimed Peter's role as witness for Jesus. To this end they adopted the account of the appearance of Jesus to James to the formula of 1 Cor 15:5 ..." How far can we trust in the personal knowledge of Paul about the persons to whom Jesus appeared if traditions he quotes are rival traditions?
In view of the fact that Luedemann proceeds from questionable assumptions it is not surprising that he arrives at a conclusion which does not explain all the important facts. Paul says in 1 Cor 15:6 that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at one time, most of whom were alive at the time he wrote. No proposal of the origin of the tradition of Jesus' resurrection can be accepted unless it can explain this statement of Paul satisfactorily. Luedemann's proposal does not pass the test as he has to resort to the explanation that tradition of the appearance to "the more than 500" is based on the Pentecostal descent of the Spirit, an untenable view (see Ch. 28).
This is not a reflection on the scholarship of the writers cited above as examples. Indeed, their books are well written justly acclaimed works, helpful both for scholars and general readers. What the above comments are meant to show is that at the present stage of Christian studies there exists a huge gap in our understanding of the earliest Jesus tradition which begs to be filled if we hope to ever arrive at some satisfactory understanding of Jesus and his movement. And it seems to be possible to fill that gap with reasonable degree of satisfaction. For the process which created the belief in resurrection must in some way lie behind the extant tradition about the resurrection, albeit in a hidden form. The extant tradition is extensive enough so that its careful analysis can be expected to reveal the underlying process which created the belief in the resurrection and at the same time reveal the development of the extant tradition itself.
In this book I offer a radically new explanation of the traditions about Jesus' death and resurrection which, in case of resurrection, goes beyond generalities and, I think, explains almost all the specific details found in the extant resurrection tradition. In a subsequent work I hope to show that starting from this explanation of the traditions of death and resurrection and using the large number of insights that have already been offered by scholars we can provide an overall explanation of the entire extant Jesus traditions.
The Stumbling Block of the Crucifixion
To introduce the theory presented here I start with the observation that, as shown by the history of other fields of knowledge, and also in detective work, when it is difficult to find a satisfactory explanation of the known facts it is because certain assumptions are made that one never thinks of questioning and yet it is those very assumptions that are false and therefore must be rejected in order to arrive at a satisfactory explanation. This book will show that this exactly is the situation in the field of Christian studies. In this field everything from miracles to the existence of Nazareth has been questioned but there are a few traditions that are considered above question. Among these the most important is the crucifixion of Jesus. The only writers who have seriously questioned the crucifixion are those who reject the very existence of Jesus. In other words, the existing attitude is that if Jesus existed he must have been crucified. I hope to show that it is this very assumption that is in the way of our understanding of the origin and early development of the tradition of Jesus' death and resurrection and therefore of Christianity as we know it. The cross may or may not be a stumbling block for faith, as Paul said (1 Cor 1:23), but it is most probably a stumbling block for the historical truth. For, to understand the resurrection we need, surprisingly, to reject the historicity of the very presupposition of the resurrection, which is the cross.
The reason that scholars consider the historicity of the crucifixion above question is not that the evidence in its favor is compelling. The crucifixion is mentioned only in two of our earliest sources: Mark and Paul. It is not mentioned in Q, the set of traditions that are found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark and that are widely believed by scholars to come from a very early written source. The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas and the canonical Letter of James, both considered by many scholars as very early, also do not mention the crucifixion even when a mention is almost demanded by the context.
The sort of attestation that does exist for the crucifixion places it in an early stage of oral tradition but that hardly makes it historically certain. The tradition of Jesus' resurrection has as early an attestation as that of his crucifixion but no scholar has argued seriously that this early attestation alone assures the historicity of the resurrection. There is, in fact, no stage of tradition which can be regarded as above all suspicion. As Paula Fredriksen, referring to the studies by G. W. Allport and L.Postman (The Psychology of Rumor), J. Vansina (Oral Tradition) and John Gager ("The Gospel and Jesus") has noted:
Further, ... even reports going back to eyewitnesses are far from historically secure. Interpretation or distortion between an event and the report of an event occurs almost inevitably, first of all because the observer is human. If the report is communicated through different people over a period of time before it achieves written form (as is the case with the gospels), revision can occur at every human link in the chain of transmission. In brief, though the oral transmission of traditions about Jesus allows us to assume some relation between what the gospels report and what might actually have happened, it also requires that we acknowledge an inevitable -- often incalculable -- degree of distortion in those traditions as well. (From Jesus to Christ, p. 5)
On the basis of the studies cited by Fredriksen and other similar studies (see Ch. 4), one can in fact go further and say that even reports of eyewitnesses themselves are not necessarily entirely trustworthy. If reports can get distorted after being heard, there is no reason why events cannot get reported erroneously after being witnessed. Moreover, not only there is distortion but given the right circumstances creation of reports can also take place at any stage. Among the factors that result in distortion and creativity at an early stage is the degree of the reliable knowledge with which the reporting first starts. The less of this knowledge people have, the greater is the room for distortion and speculation. In case of the Jesus tradition we cannot exclude the possibility that the disciples did not have any firm knowledge about the fate of Jesus (see below), in which case the reliability of the report of the crucifixion despite its early date is put into question. Another factor is the environment in which a story develops and travels. In societies or social classes experiencing great emotional stress, a story may suffer much greater distortion than in societies or social classes where there is relative calm. Palestinian society in which Jesus' movement arose, being torn between the brutal fact of Roman occupation and the stringent demands of Jewish law and history, was under considerable emotional strain. The alienated classes of Gentiles from which most of the early Gentile converts came also lived under a great deal of stress and a profound need for emotional release. Factuality, historicity, even consistency were not their primary concerns, if at all; participating in some group where they could feel some security was their main concern. Under such circumstances the Jesus story could easily undergo profound distortion and abuse within a matter of months. Ernst Renan, more than a century earlier, notes:
It is the greatest of errors to suppose that legendary lore requires much more time to mature; sometimes a legend is the product of a single day." (Ernst Renan, The Apostles, p. 58).
The truth is that critical scholarship has so far offered no theory about the origin and early development of the Jesus tradition which does not imply some creativity almost from the beginning.
The extensive passion narratives describing in vivid, and often plausible, details Jesus' arrest, trials and the execution also do not constitute a compelling evidence for the historicity of the crucifixion. The historicity of almost every single unit of tradition in these narratives has been questioned. Moreover, two different but extensive "infancy narratives" in Matthew and Luke, whose central themes (the virgin birth, the birth in Bethlehem etc.) are widely regarded as unhistorical, show how lengthy narratives can develop without even their central themes being historical. The extensive and different passion narratives in the gospels could have developed in the same way without the basic underlying tradition of crucifixion being historical. It is true that the infancy narratives are found only in two of the relatively late gospels. But it is possible that the five extant passion narratives (in the Gospel of Peter and the four canonical gospels) are all dependent on only two primitive versions that were written not too much before the infancy narratives (see Part V).
The reason for the solid consensus on the crucifixion is not the compelling force of the evidence but the fact that it is a tradition that is acceptable to traditional as well as critical scholars, to conservative as well as liberal scholars. It is acceptable to the traditional and conservative scholars because the cross came to be a cornerstone of the Christian faith while the critical and liberal scholars find it acceptable because in a tradition dominated by the miraculous and the supernatural the crucifixion is one of the few mundane "facts" that modern man can easily accept. Then also consensus has a great potential for self-perpetuation. Once formed, it has a strong tendency to continue and reinforce itself.
The result of this consensus is that writer after writer either assumes it or supports it with very brief arguments without raising or discussing the relevant issues. This can be illustrated by the books of E. P. Sanders, R. E. Brown and John P. Meier, all three scholars assuming the historicity of the crucifixion without discussion. Two volumes of Meier's book, A Marginal Jew, consisting of over 1500 pages have already been published with a promise of a third volume. Meier gives five primary criteria for deciding whether a gospel tradition is historical. The fifth of these criteria is that authentic words and deeds of Jesus must fit the "historical fact" of Jesus' trial and crucifixion (Vol. 1, p. 177). One would expect that before coherence with the tradition of Jesus' crucifixion can be made a criterion for the historicity of all other traditions, the question of the historicity of the crucifixion itself should be first raised and discussed. But Meier spends about 200 pages of his Vol. 1 on "issues of definitions, method and sources" (p. 13) and yet he nowhere raises and discusses this particular question. Brown, in a parenthetical remark in the Introduction to his The Death of the Messiah describes the crucifixion "as bedrock history" (Vol. 1, p. 13) but to the best of my knowledge his massive two-volume commentary on the passion narratives (!) does not again raise the question of historicity of the crucifixion much less examine it with some care. It is true that Brown's primary goal is to interpret what the gospels say in narrating the passion of Jesus but he does devote considerable space to a careful examination of the question of historicity for various individual items and one should expect some discussion of the most basic of all historical questions raised by the passion narratives, Was Jesus executed? E. P. Sanders in his Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus does not state coherence with the "fact" of the crucifixion as a criterion for authenticity of a tradition about Jesus but it practically governs his reconstruction of the historical figure of Jesus. He includes it among the facts about Jesus that are "almost indisputable" and that must be explained by "any interpretation of Jesus" (Jesus and Judaism, p. 11). He does support by arguments some of the other "almost indisputable facts" (e.g. Jesus' baptism by John and the choice of the twelve disciples by Jesus, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 94 Jesus and Judaism, p. 98-101) but not the crucifixion.
When scholars do spend some space in supporting the historicity of the crucifixion they resort to one or both of two arguments. One is that the crucifixion is incompatible with the belief in Jesus' messiahship and therefore could not have been invented by Christians. In this connection the question is never raised that if the belief in the crucifixion could not have been invented in the face of the belief in the messiahship, then how could the belief in the messiahship have arisen or continued in the face of the crucifixion. Some writers do raise the question, not in connection with the historicity of the crucifixion but in connection with the question whether the belief in the messiahship arose with Jesus or after him. They argue that since the belief in the messiahship could not have arisen in the face of the "fact" of the crucifixion, it must have been based on Jesus' own view of himself, which still does not explain how even Jesus' own claim to messiahship could have continued to be believed in the face of his crucifixion.
There is, however, considerable evidence that Jesus did not himself come forward as the messiah and that the belief in his messiahship arose after him. Be that as it may, even the scholars who face this evidence and accept that the belief in the messiahship arose after Jesus do not explain how this belief could have arisen in the face of firm knowledge of Jesus' reported crucifixion. To be sure, the resurrection or the "Easter experience" is said to be in some sense responsible for overcoming the obstacle that the crucifixion provided to the belief in the messiahship. But since the nature of resurrection itself is left obscure, this amounts to replacing one difficulty by another. Meyer (Aims of Jesus, p.177) says with justification that in the writings of many scholars "'the Easter experience of the disciples' had been turned into a magic top-hat from which, like so many rabbits there unexpectedly emerged the church itself, its messianic proclamation, and its basic soteriology." And there is also some point to the question by A. Schweitzer (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 345): "How can the appearances of Jesus have suggested to the disciples the idea that Jesus ... was the Messiah"? Many scholars (e.g. Edward Schillebeeckx) define resurrection or Easter experience in terms of the revival of the disciples' faith in Jesus after the despair of the cross but this leaves the basic question unanswered: how could the revived faith take the form of faith in Jesus' messiahship? Moreover, it is not clear what provided the motivation for the disciples to overcome the obstacle of the crucifixion and to imagine or "experience" the resurrection of Jesus and to regard Jesus as the Messiah?
The argument that the crucifixion must be a historical fact because the belief in it could not have arisen in the face of the messiahship of Jesus is part of a more general principle employed in sorting out authentic traditions about Jesus from unauthentic ones: if a tradition is dissimilar to the views of the early church and to the Jewish traditions then it is historical. But this principle, even if we ignore its shortcomings (see below) does not apply to the time immediately after the conclusion of Jesus' ministry, since at that time there was no church whose views could be compared with reports concerning Jesus. In that "primeval" period conflicting beliefs could arise and establish themselves to be later reconciled, rationalized, harmonized or synthesized.
Thus belief in the messiahship can be used to argue for the non-historicity of the crucifixion with as much justification as for its historicity.
The second argument used to support the historicity of the crucifixion is that two non-Christian historians, a Jewish one, Flavius Josephus writing in 93-94 C.E., and a Roman one Cornelius Tacitus, writing sometime between 110 and 130 C.E. refer to the crucifixion. This argument is used infrequently. One of the scholars who uses both arguments is John Dominic Crossan (The Historical Jesus, pp.372-376). Crossan is a scholar who has probably contributed more than all others to show that passion narratives are largely fictional. He proposes that "Jesus' closest followers knew nothing more about the passion than the fact of the crucifixion, that they had fled and later had no available witnesses for its details," and that the passion narratives were created out of verses and images in the Old Testament and out of details invented to enhance narrative plausibility. But then if the disciples fled sometimes before the crucifixion and there were no other witnesses, Crossan's confidence can hardly be justified when he says :"I take it absolutely for granted that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate." As for Josephus and Tacitus, it is doubtful that one can describe them as "two early and independent witnesses". Documents written sixty to ninety years after an event can hardly be "early witnesses" if we want to reach absolute certainty on their basis. We cannot be certain whether the event of Jesus' crucifixion was recorded in any of the Roman sources used by Josephus or Tacitus or whether they were simply reflecting what Christians were saying for more than sixty years before they wrote. Odds are that the event, if it did take place, was too unimportant to be recorded in contemporary records. Crossan himself has observed the insignificance of an execution like that of Jesus: "The elimination of a dangerous peasant nuisance like Jesus need not have involved any official trials or even consultations between Temple and Roman authorities. ... After two thousand years of Christianity, it is hard for us even to imagine the brutal offhandedness with which a peasant nobody like Jesus would have been dispatched in a Jerusalem under Caiphas and Pilate" (Who Killed Jesus? p. 212). If there were no official trials, then the existence of any records for Tacitus or Josephus to use in their references to Jesus' execution becomes highly doubtful. Consequently, in his reference to Jesus' execution Tacitus is in all likelihood dependent on the Christian traditions. In doing so Tacitus would be following a practice common among historians: to use traditions of a group as a source for the history of that group.
It may be asked why Tacitus mentions only one tradition about Jesus, namely his crucifixion. This is explained by the fact that in Gentile Christianity with which Tacitus is expected to be most familiar this tradition stands out most prominently among all those in whom a pagan historian would be expected to take interest. Indeed, we can go further and produce an almost exact parallel between the concentration on crucifixion in Tacitus and in Gentile Christianity. In 1 Cor. 2:2 Paul tells the Corinthians: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." Tacitus has exactly the same combination: Christus and his crucifixion, except that writing about half a century after Paul he is aware of the gospel tradition that the crucifixion was carried out by sentence of Pilate, of which Paul does not give the slightest indication in his letters.
It is worth noting that not all scholars who accept the crucifixion as certain share with Crossan his assessment of the testimony of Tacitus. E. P. Sanders, for example, says: "But knowledge of Jesus was limited to knowledge of Christianity; that is, had Jesus' adherents not started a movement that spread to Rome, Jesus would not have made it into Roman histories at all. The consequence is that we do not have what we would very much like, a comment in Tacitus or another Gentile writer that offers independent evidence about Jesus, his life and his death" (The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 50).
The situation with regard to the reference to the crucifixion that appears in a passage in Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, 18:63) is similar. All scholars, including Crossan recognize that this passage contains Christian interpolations and some have doubted the authenticity of the whole passage. The part that is considered authentic by Crossan not only refers to the crucifixion but also says this: "For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks." Josephus must have known that Christians claimed Jesus to be the messiah. It is difficult to see how Josephus after saying that Jesus performed surprising feats and was a teacher of people who gladly accept truth and then not to accept Jesus as the messiah and instead give this role to the emperor Vespasian. Also, the comment that Jesus won over many Greeks along with Jews can be understood to mean that Jesus had Greek disciples which is very doubtful. The best explanation of the comment is that in the time of Josephus there were Greeks among Christians and he had simply assumed that the conversion of Greeks started with Jesus himself. It then becomes quite possible that his reference to the execution of Jesus is also based on what he knew of Christianity of his time. This reference in any case does not come from any independent Jewish records. For Jewish sources talk of Jesus' execution by the Jews through stoning rather than his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate.
An illustration of how even historians could accept the historicity of an unhistorical crucifixion is provided by the passion traditions. Crossan thinks that the accounts of Jesus' arrest on the Mount of Olive, Jewish and Roman trials, Peter's denial, Barabbas and the whole story about him, Joseph of Arimathea and the story of burial by him are all fictional creations, mostly of Mark (Who Killed Jesus? pp. 81,111-112,117,132,159,172,179,188). Now there are many critical historians who believe that Barabbas and/or Joseph of Arimathea were historical persons and some at least of the stories considered fictional by Crossan are historical. Also, some scholars think that the incident known as cleansing of or attack on the temple and Judas and the story of his betrayal are fictional but Crossan accepts both the cleansing/attack and the betrayal as historical (pp. 65,81). Examples such as these show that a story once created can be easily accepted, in part or in full, as historical even by the most critical and objective historians. The same could well have been the case with the story of Jesus' execution and its acceptance by Tacitus and Josephus. To be sure, these two historians were much closer to the time of Jesus than we are but that is hardly a guarantee of superior knowledge on their part.
It is worthy of note that the non-Christian references to Jesus' execution conflict with each other as to who was responsible for that execution. The Jewish Talmud mentions the Jews alone in connection with the execution. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions Romans alone as responsible for killing Jesus. And the Jewish friend of Romans, Josephus, says that the Romans killed Jesus after he was accused by the Jews. The full significance of these facts will become clear in Ch. 6 but they should caution against putting too much confidence into non-Christian references to Jesus' execution and at least raise the possibility that the real answer to the question, Who killed Jesus? may be: Nobody. It is noteworthy that Crossan does not deal with the Talmudic evidence which calls into question the account of both Tacitus and Josephus. Morton Smith, on the other hand, makes the Talmudic evidence as the very basis of his picture of Jesus in his Jesus the Magician.
The above observations show that the crucifixion is not a certain fact. Evidence in its favor is such that one can tentatively assign to it a high probability of historicity but we must not be prevented from exploring the possibility of getting better explanation of the data as a whole by tentatively rejecting its historicity. This book will show that such exploration does indeed result in a much better understanding of the origin and formation of the earliest Jesus tradition. More specifically, it will be shown that the following scenario explains the data far more satisfactorily than the usual scenario which assumes the historicity of the crucifixion and then explains the resurrection and the origin of Christianity in some way.
1) Jesus was from Galilee where after some initial success he met with indifference from the people, opposition from some scribes and a threat from Herod.
2) He went to Jerusalem, during a feast time, in order to reach Jewish people of many different backgrounds. There a confrontation and a skirmish developed between the temple traders on one side and Jesus and his followers on the other. This put Jesus' life under serious threat from the Jerusalem authorities, who became nervous at the slightest sign of trouble on feast days.
3) Jesus quickly went into hiding and secretly left for Galilee as soon as he could, probably on the Sunday after the feast. Somewhere near the sea of Galilee he saw some of his disciples and relatives who were to subsequently play a leading role in the Jesus movement. He also had a simple meal with a much larger number of sympathizers to whom he entrusted with the mission to preach the nearness of the kingdom of God and of healing the sick, thus launching one of the two main wings of the movement, the other being the wing started by the Hellenists in Jerusalem. Later he disappeared never to be seen again except possibly by a few who have themselves disappeared from history.
4) Jesus' mysterious disappearance made him a hot subject of conversation throughout Palestine during which there was a great deal of speculation as to what happened to him. Some were sure that he was executed, others were equally sure that he had gone into exile while still others were convinced that he was taken up to heaven. (For examples showing that it is possible for reports of an execution that never happened, even when the person is alive and active in another place, to be generated, see Ch. 6).
5) Soon there came forward different individuals or small groups of five to twelve persons with the purpose of continuing Jesus' work. These individuals/groups had heard and seen Jesus at different times and places and so their views of the work of Jesus, his fate and his role were different. Some saw him as a prophet-reformer who for that reason was executed by the Jewish authorities. Some viewed him in more messianic terms, either as Elijah-type forerunner of God who after calling people to repentance before the imminent judgment and salvation has ascended to heaven or as a messiah in exile who will soon return to perform his function as the Messiah or as someone who has assumed the role of the heavenly Son of man and who will soon come in the clouds of heaven.
6) Early, oral Jesus tradition developed out of the conflicting speculations, built on some historical reminiscences, about what happened to him and about the significance of his work.
7) Along with some rivalry between these views, there was also a tendency to produce a consensus by synthesizing them. One such synthesis was that Jesus was the Messiah and a prophet and that he was executed as well as raised to heaven after being resurrected from the dead by God. By the time of Paul this synthesis was well-established although not all Jesus people accepted it or accepted it wholeheartedly. In due course of time this synthesis became the basis of mainstream Christianity. (For evidence showing the inherent plausibility such a synthesis see Ch. 4).
8) In the first century many documents were written, reflecting various other combinations of the earliest rival speculations and beliefs but by and large only those gained acceptance who conformed to the mainstream synthesis.
9) Our gospels are produced from different sources, some of which represent earlier rival views, brought together within the overall perspective of the mainstream synthesis.
In the next thirty one chapters I hope to show that puzzle after puzzle about the origin of Christianity begins to be solved on the basis of the above theory. Why the resurrection tradition conveys a strong impression that there lies behind it some actual event and yet we find it impossible to reconstruct those events? Why in the synoptics we have one trip of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem while John has more than one? Why some stories appear both in the ministry and as resurrection stories? Why Mark has no resurrection appearance? Where does the tradition of Jesus' appearance to more than 500 brethren mentioned by Paul come from and what happened to it after Paul? Why the last supper of Jesus is presented as a Passover meal in the synoptics while in John it takes place a day before the Passover? Why the attack on the temple occurs in the synoptics in the last week of his ministry while in John it takes place in the first week? How could the Jesus' movement operating by and large well within the thought-world of Judaism have arrived at the belief in the crucified messiah, a belief which in that thought-world is an absurdity? How could early Christians think that the death and resurrection of Jesus took place according to scriptures when the scriptures say nothing of the sort? And so on. Moreover, a continuity expected to exist between Jesus and the Jesus' movement is established. We can see more clearly the processes by which Jesus' work led to the Jesus movement and then see the earliest stages of its development.
The methodological approach followed in this book is the scientific approach which is now followed in different fields of learning including physical and social sciences. Its main features include the following:
1) Scientific activity starts with some data consisting of "facts" and construction of hypotheses or theories that fit the data. Since the statement of what we call "facts" is always influenced to some degree or the other by some assumptions that we have already made prior to the examination of the data, it is often necessary, during the process of fitting hypotheses or theories, to restate "facts." The final result of this activity is a restatement of the given facts (the data) together with a set of hypotheses or a theory fitting that data. Apart from the data and the theory which explains it, there is no other way to state any truth. This is not to say that there is no absolute truth but only that such absolute truth which may in some sense be identified with God is not accessible to human intellect.
Furthermore, each theory is as valid as any other provided both explain the whole data set and not just a selection from it. On the other hand, any hypothesis which explains only a selected part of the data is worthless except as a means of one day playing a role in the discovery of a comprehensive theory that would fit the data set as a whole.
In case of scientific studies related to Jesus and early Christianity, the data consist of statements of facts of the form "such and such document, e. g. Mark or Didache, says such and such" and we must devise hypotheses that explain how these statements came to be formed. The "restatement of facts" consists of settling some textual questions and determining the meanings of the statements in our ancient texts, which to some extent is determined by some of our prior assumptions. Along with determination of the original text and meaning of the documents we need to devise hypotheses that explain how the statements came to be formed, sometimes revising our prior assumptions, making it necessary to re-examine some questions of text and meaning, finally arriving at the best combination of interpretations of the texts and hypotheses fitting them. There is no truth about Jesus or early Christianity apart from an interpretation of statements in our documents and hypotheses explaining those statements in their entirety. Every set of hypotheses that explain the whole data set is as valid as any other while any partial explanation is ultimately of no real value.
It has been said that enlightenment comes not with new hypotheses but by new discoveries. This statement at most contains a partial truth when it comes to the study of Jesus tradition. We possess a great deal of data and great deal of enlightenment can come by coming up with hypotheses that better fit these data even if we make no new discoveries.
The truth is that some relatively recent phenomenal discoveries such as those of the Qumran scrolls and the Nag Hammadi documents have not resulted in a solution of how Jesus tradition was formed. These discoveries have greatly enhanced our understanding of some individual pieces of tradition but not provided us with any breakthrough in understanding its origin and earliest development. One can expect that any future discoveries of written documents will also not shed a direct light on this problem, since the secret of the origins of Christianity most likely is hidden in its oral pre-history and there may not be any document in existence which we can discover and from which we can directly read the story of Jesus and of the origin of Christianity.
2) One of the fundamental axioms of the scientific approach is that phenomena in any particular domain in time and space are related. Consequently, what lies outside the domain to which the observed facts belong can sometimes be reconstructed from those observed facts. What happens in the inaccessible past, lives on in some form in the present and what is invisible shows itself in the visible. For example, from the observation of the earth at the present time we can tell what happened to it millions of years ago or by observing visible phenomena we can learn about some invisible particles and forces.
Similarly, in Christian studies even events that took place in the "pre-history" of the Jesus movement with no direct reference in the extant sources in some sense lived on in history and therefore may be found in the extant documents in some form. The more foundational these "pre-historic" events, the more likely they are to lie hidden behind the extant Jesus traditions.
One of the invisible things about which we can learn from extant sources is Jesus himself. Morton Smith has said:
Trying to find the actual Jesus is like trying, in atomic physics, to locate a submicroscopic particle and determine its charge. The particle cannot be seen directly, but on a photographic plate we can see the lines left by the trajectories of larger particles it put in motion. By tracing these trajectories back to their common origin, and by calculating the force necessary to make the particles move as they did, we can locate and describe the invisible cause. Admittedly, history is more complex than physics; the lines connecting the original figure to the developed legends cannot be traced with mathematical accuracy; the intervention of unknown factors has to be allowed for. Consequently, results can never claim more than probability; but "probability," as Bishop Butler said, "is the very guide of life." (Jesus the Magician, p. 6)
The "pre-historic" foundational processes that led to the formation of the primitive beliefs of Jesus' death, resurrection and messiahship are also expected to lie behind our extant sources and should be recoverable in their main outline with considerable probability by using those sources like "photographic plates". Indeed, the "photos" contained in our documents are more directly influenced by these beliefs and the processes of their formation should be recovered first, before finding the historical Jesus.
3) In various fields of knowledge the phenomena studied are extremely complex. Successful explanation of the phenomena begins with the demonstration of how a relatively few elements combining according to a relatively few and simple principles can produce something like the complexity actually observed. Then such a theory usually requires almost continuous refinement to better explain the facts already known or newly discovered.
Likewise, the theory proposed here about the origin and early development of Christianity is a basis for explaining the data that we possess and even if found adequate by the majority of scholars will almost certainly require refinement.
4) The best fitting theory generally is not a theory that explains fully every individual fact, not even in physical sciences. The best fitting theory is like a line which best fits a set of points. Often not all the points may be on or close to the best fitting line, so that the line does not "explain" them all. This may be either inherent in the nature of a field of inquiry or due to some practical problems. In physics, for example, we can fully explain and predict a great many observed phenomena but not all. Thus we can fairly accurately describe the movements of the sun in relation to the earth and accurately predict its position at different times, but it is difficult to describe accurately the movements of winds on the globe, which is the reason why we cannot predict the weather for tomorrow with the same certainty with which we can predict the time of sunset for tomorrow. Yet most physicists are confident that the known laws of motion best explain all that has been observed so far in the universe. Our failure to accurately describe the movements of the winds and their temperatures etc is either due to the fact that the best explanation of the known phenomena does not necessarily explain everything or due to a practical difficulty of obtaining all the initial measurements that are required to accurately predict the movements of winds.
Likewise when we seek a theory explaining the data we have in the early Christian documents, we do not necessarily seek to explain every single word in the documents. But we must be able to give with reasonable confidence a historical outline of the personality and life of Jesus, an explanation of how the ministry of Jesus led to basic beliefs about him in the early churches such as beliefs in his death, resurrection, parousia and messiahship and then outline the processes which led to subsequent developments in the Christian tradition in, say, the New Testament times.
We can now give a more accurate definition of comprehensiveness than the one used earlier in this Introduction: a comprehensive theory is one that best fits the data as a whole.
Since in the formation and transmission of Jesus traditions many individuals participated with their own complex mental processes, it is possible that some of the statements may not be explainable even by the best-fitting theory. But a comprehensive theory does not concentrate on a part of the data set and ignore the rest. It takes into account the whole data and then may find that some facts are not plausibly explained by it. Usually the facts not explained by a truly comprehensive theory would be randomly distributed in the set.
5) When in science the best fitting theory or a basis for it has been found for a data set, every one with a reasonably objective attitude can see it like one can see when the pieces of a puzzle fit. This then creates wide acceptability among scholars of very different backgrounds. The same must be the case in the field of the early history of the Jesus tradition. It is sometime said that even if someone found the answers to questions about the early history of the Jesus tradition, she or he may not be able to convince the rest of the scholars. But there is no reason why that should be so. To be sure, in the beginning there is resistance to accept any new theory, however successful it may be in explaining the known facts. But sooner or later, this resistance is overcome except in those who use their scholarship to serve particular vested interests. The fact therefore that until now no comprehensive theory of early history of the Jesus tradition has won wide acceptance supports the observation made earlier that no existing theory meets the universal expectations of comprehensiveness and plausibility. A related observation is about the emphasis that in recent times is placed on the background of a scholar. While background is in many ways important, it is possible for scholars of all background to strive for objectivity and reach a consensus when a theory in fact does fit the entire data.
I therefore present my theory here with the conviction that if it is valid, then it will be generally accepted by scholars of many different backgrounds.
6) It is generally thought that in the natural sciences theories are built from facts through a rigid use of logic. In reality, however, the construction of theories requires both a leap of imagination as well as systematic thinking. Once imagination and systematic thinking has suggested a theory it is tested against facts. The theory is accepted if it explains to a reasonable degree all the relevant facts; otherwise it is discarded and a new search begins. The same should be the case in the research about Jesus and his earliest churches. However, in this field there is often the tendency to either use imagination ignoring much of the evidence that lies before us or not to use imagination when the evidence does not provide clear guidance. The result is that we have either imaginative works that propose theories without explaining much of the evidence or very careful works that minutely examine most of the relevant data but serve mostly to expose the inadequacy of proposed solutions without providing a more adequate one. Once we have committed to meeting the criteria of comprehensiveness and plausibility, we can let our imagination free to aid systematic thinking in the search for a suitable theory, for the limits imposed by the two criteria on the final theory would restrain the ability of the imagination to lead us astray.
7) Research in science is often faced with the question of its practical value. Such a question becomes important because of the limited resources available for research. But often it is not easy to decide, especially at the early stages of the development of a field, what line of research would be of immediate practical value. Answers to questions that at first appear, at least to some, as mere theoretical curiosities, can prove of great practical significance.
In case of studies related to Jesus and the early Christianity the situation is the same. Here "practical significance" is significance for the religious life of Christian believers. And theoretical curiosities are what R. E. Brown has called "obsessive history-hunting" (The Death of the Messiah, p. 24) but what may not always be "obsessive". One can take the view that history is completely irrelevant to faith and hold that the New Testament traditions contain some valuable spiritual and moral truths which have significance regardless of whether they are historical or not. Within such a way of thinking it is even irrelevant whether Jesus existed or not. But few if any believers hold such a view. It is, for example, important for most believers to believe that Jesus was a real person and that his resurrection had an objective reality. Even those who may hold that history is completely irrelevant for faith, probably arrived at such a position after a historical judgment that no reliable history can be recovered from the Christian documents. That means that history is relevant to the practical significance of the New Testament. And if history is relevant, then "history-hunting" (pursuing the recovery of the historical as if for its own sake) can be useful.
Criteria for temporal priority of traditions
Scholars have used several criteria to decide about the authenticity of a reported saying or deed of Jesus. In reality, most of these criteria at best enable us to decide whether a tradition found in a document is earlier than the document. For example, scholars often consciously or unconsciously use the "criterion of embarrassment," according to which a tradition about Jesus that created difficulty or embarrassment for the church is authentic. This criterion assumes that "the church" was a homogeneous entity with well defined and uniform views. But such an assumption cannot be accepted without the sort of discussion that must come after the establishment of the criteria for historicity. The reason for this is that extant Christian documents show a great deal of diversity even on the most fundamental issues. Thus while miracles are prominent in the gospels, Paul's letters do not concern themselves with the miracles. In the synoptic exorcisms form the most important core of Jesus' healing ministry, while in John there are no exorcisms at all. In Paul and the four gospels the death of Jesus occupies a central place, while in some documents such as the Gospel of Thomas, Q and the Letter of James the death is not even mentioned. In the synoptic Jesus proclaims the coming kingdom of God but does not say much about his identity. Instead of himself declaring his identity, he wants to know what the disciples and other people think about him. In John the proclamation of the kingdom of God is absent and Jesus is principally occupied with about his identity both in private discourses with the disciples and in the public teaching to the Jews. The identity of Jesus itself has few common elements in various documents. In Q he is the apocalyptic Son of man while this term is absent from Paul. In some synoptic traditions he is the Davidic Messiah while in some Johannine traditions he is a Gnostic revealer who comes from the Father and returns to him. In the Stephenite tradition Jesus was a fiercely anti-temple prophet while in many traditions in the gospels and Acts Jesus and the twelve are represented as being faithful to the temple cult. Paul regards the law as a curse to be dispensed with. But many other traditions regard the law to be still valid. Whatever unity that we may see in our sources may be the result of catholicity that gradually developed instead of being present from the beginning. One may argue that there must have been some set of beliefs and traditions in the beginning on the basis of which the Jesus movement started. We will see in Ch. 2 that this was not the case and that from the beginning there were different groups in the Jesus movement which had nothing in common with each other than the name of Jesus.
Furthermore, there are many traditions that are found to be embarrassing or problematic by some gospels but not the others. For example, Luke and to a lesser degree Matthew remove or tone down some of the negative references in Mark to Peter and the twelve. In Mark the story of Peter's confession in Caesarea Philippi concludes with a severe rebuke by Jesus to Peter, in which Peter is banished and called Satan (8:33). Luke has removed this verse from his gospel. He also removes the reference to the flight of the disciples at the arrest of Jesus found in Mark 14:50. It is possible that what Luke found embarrassing, Mark did not find so. Thus a tradition may be created at one time and/or place without any embarrassment and is found embarrassing or problematic in another time and/or place. The safest conclusion when we notice that a document is having difficulty in dealing with a tradition is that the tradition reached the author from an earlier time and is not his own creation. Similar arguments show that some other commonly used criteria of historicity or authenticity are more logically regarded as criteria of priority in time rather than authenticity. For this reason I use two sets of criteria -- those that decide a tradition's priority in time and those that decide whether what is reported in the tradition is historical. It needs to be noted by way of clarification that the temporal priority is spoken of only in reference to the Christian tradition: we are not concerned here with how early a tradition or motif or phrase existed outside the Christian church but with how early it was found in the Christian church.
There are six main criteria for deciding a tradition's priority in time. They necessarily lead to probable and not certain results, since they all have both theoretical and practical uncertainties. By theoretical uncertainty I mean an uncertainty that arises from the very nature of the early Christian tradition. By practical uncertainty I mean an uncertainty that arises in applying a criterion. After stating each criterion I will illustrate both types of uncertainties.
1) Criterion of earlier attestation. If the earliest attestation of the tradition, motif or phrase A is earlier than the earliest attestation of the tradition, motif or phrase B, then A is earlier than B.
This may look like a tautology, but this is not the case because there exist theoretical uncertainties. One such theoretical uncertainty arises from the fact that oral tradition continued long after the writing of traditions started. In the middle of the second century Papias is on record as saying that he preferred to learn from living voices rather than from written word. Thus it is quite possible that an earlier tradition lived on in oral form only to be recorded in a later document.
A practical uncertainty in case of this criterion is created by the fact that its application requires relative dating of our sources, which in some cases cannot be done with confidence.
2) Criterion of multiple attestation. If a tradition, motif or phrase is found in two or more independent documents, then it was well known before any of the documents mentioning it was produced. If a tradition is not only attested by two or more independent documents but is also attested in different literary genres (miracle story, controversy story, parable, prediction etc), then we can consider it even earlier and more established than we would otherwise.
For this criterion a theoretical uncertainty arises from the fact that a tradition etc. could have been borrowed independently from a non-Christian source by several different documents, in which case as a Christian tradition it is only as early as the earliest document. A practical uncertainty in application can arise from the difficulty of deciding whether two documents are independent.
Many scholars use the criterion of multiple attestation as a criterion of historicity rather than for temporal priority. The logic for this seems to be that a tradition could not have been widely spread among the Jesus followers at a very early time unless it originated from Jesus. In view of the very distinct possibility noted earlier that the creation of traditions started at a very early date, this logic is not sound.
3) Criterion of lack of explanation (within a document) for creation. If a tradition, motif or phrase cannot be reasonably explained in terms of the special purposes of a document, then it is earlier than the document and was well known at least in the community in which the document was produced.
A theoretical uncertainty arises here because it is possible that a piece written by an author at one time may not fit well with the remaining document. A practical uncertainty arises out of the difficulty of determining the purposes of an ancient author.
A particular case of the criterion of lack of explanation for creation is the criterion of embarrassment mentioned earlier: if a tradition etc is problematic in a document, then it was well known before the document was written, at least in the community where it was produced. In this case, the lack of reasonable explanation of creation of a tradition by the author(s) of a document is positively concluded from the "embarrassment" shown by the author(s). Consequently, the conclusion about the earlier existence of the tradition can be affirmed with more confidence than in the case when lack of explanation for creation is supported only negatively by our inability to point to such an explanation.
4) Criterion of knowledge of known events. A tradition which shows knowledge of certain historical events is later than those events.
Once again this is not tautological, since there are theoretical uncertainties. One such uncertainty arises because it is possible to foresee some events. Also, some events used by scholars are vaguely defined and it is difficult to place their occurrence in the Jesus tradition at a unique time. For example, often traditions containing a developed Christology or referring to a developed church organization are used to argue for their late origin. But our sources do not present a simple linear picture on the basis of which we can use such characterizations to relatively date traditions. Thus Christology of Paul is much more developed than that of the later synoptic gospels as is the Christology of John which comes after the synoptic. Similarly, Matthew assumes a much more developed church organization than does the earlier Mark or the later John.
A practical uncertainty arises because sometimes allusions to an event are not clear.
5) Criterion of links to Palestine. A tradition showing contact with Aramaic and specialized knowledge of Palestinian environment of the time of Jesus is earlier than the documents in which it is found. The basis for this criterion is the sound assumption that our documents were originally written in Greek and outside Palestine while Jesus and his closest disciples spoke Aramaic and lived in Palestine.
A theoretical uncertainty is caused by the possibility that a Christian writer could be familiar enough with Aramaic and Palestinian environment to create a tradition influenced by Aramaic and knowledge of Palestine. A practical uncertainty arises because of the difficulty in some cases of detecting traces of Aramaic origin and Palestinian environment.
6) Criterion of being less developed. Of two versions of the same tradition, the one which is less developed is the earlier one.
A theoretical as well as a practical uncertainty arises here from the difficulty to define "developed". One way to define the word is in terms of how detailed and explicit a tradition is. The assumption behind the criterion then is that with time stories tend to become more explicit and definite. In particular, individuals and groups, left unspecified in an earlier version tend to get named in later versions and indirect speech in an earlier version tends to become direct speech in a later version than vice versa. However, details and explicit references can be easily omitted by a later narrator because he found them uncomfortable or too irrelevant to the main theme. The assumption has some validity when we look at a large number of narrations of a story over a period of time. More exactly, we can state with justification that all the narrations, taken together, of a tradition existing at a later time are expected to contain more details and explicit references than all those existing at an earlier time. This does imply that if we select two versions of a tradition belonging to different times, the later version has some likelihood of being more detailed and explicit. But this likelihood seems to be too small to be of much use.
Another way to define "developed" is in terms of the degree to which a tradition reflects later developments in the church. In this case, a theoretical uncertainty arises because not every tradition reflects all the earlier developments. A practical uncertainty arises because of the difficulty of determining "later developments".
Criteria for historicity
The first of the criteria of historicity is the same as criterion 3 above for temporal priority, except that now it is applied to the Jesus tradition as a whole rather than to particular documents.
1) Criterion of lack of explanation (within the whole Jesus movement) for creation. A tradition is historical if no reasonable explanation can be found for its creation by the church as a whole.
A theoretical uncertainty arises because if an explanation cannot be found, this does not mean that it did not once exist. We may be unable to find it because of gaps in our knowledge. If we knew enough about early Christianity, we may be able to see the processes by which a tradition came to be fabricated, but now because of our incomplete knowledge we cannot see any reasonable scenario for the fabrication of the tradition. A practical uncertainty arises from the difficulty of determining what is "reasonable."
We can relate the above criterion with another criterion for historicity that is widely used by scholars, namely, the criterion of originality, dissimilarity, discontinuity or dual irreducibility, according to which a tradition about Jesus is authentic if it is derivable neither from Judaism of the time of Jesus nor from the teachings of the early church. We can understand this as a form of the criterion of lack of explanation for creation if we admit only one of two explanations for creation of a tradition as reasonable -- the tradition was derived from Judaism of the time of Jesus or it was derived from the teachings of the church. If none of these two explanations for its creation is judged to be valid, then the tradition is judged to be authentic. Needless to say that this reasoning is not sound.
2) Criterion of being early without being challenged by another equally early tradition. A tradition shown by various criteria of temporal priority to be well established at a time close to the reported events with no other equally early tradition contradicting it is historical.
A theoretical uncertainty arises because of the strong possibility, raised earlier, that false reports can be generated at any time. Any of the practical uncertainties associated with the various criteria of temporal priority may arise here. Also, whether a tradition contradicts another is sometimes difficult to decide.
For an experimental assessment of the effectiveness of the two criteria of historicity see Ch. 4.
I have not illustrated the individual criteria by examples because these criteria usually need to be applied in combinations to yield any dependable results. Now that I have described all the main criteria, I will illustrate their application with some examples.
Mark describes Jesus as a carpenter (6:3). Mark has no difficulty with this tradition. But both Matthew and Luke find it hard to accept; they in two different ways change this. Matthew has "carpenter's son" (13:55) while Luke omits any reference to the carpenter (4:22), once again showing that what is embarrassing or problematic for one writer may not be so for another. The tradition that Jesus was a carpenter, although attested only by Mark 6:3 in the New Testament is accepted as historical by some scholars (e.g. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1) on the grounds that there is no other explanation for it, that is, by the criterion of the lack of explanation for why someone would fabricate the tradition.
The tradition that Jesus was from the line of David (a son of David) is attested by Paul and therefore has an attestation earlier than the tradition that Jesus was a carpenter. The historicity of the tradition of Jesus' Davidic descent, however, has been called into question by the possibility that this tradition may have been the product of the belief in Jesus' messiahship and not vice versa. If we consider this argument valid and if we accept that Jesus was a carpenter, then we have here an example that a tradition with a later attestation is earlier and has more claim to historicity than another tradition with an earlier attestation.
The tradition of baptism of Jesus by John is found in Mark and Q, both being followed by Matthew and Luke. It is also mentioned in some extracanonical traditions that are considered independent of the canonical tradition (The Gospel of the Hebrews 2, Ignatius, Ephesians 18:2). Thus it is quite early by the criterion of multiple attestation. Furthermore, these documents show difficulty in dealing with the tradition and try in various ways to cover the inferior position Jesus took in relation to the Baptist by submitting to him for baptism. Hence the criterion of embarrassment further confirms that the tradition was well established before Q which is dated in the fifties. Some scholars conclude the historicity of the baptism from such considerations but in fact the conclusion is not justified only on the basis of criteria of multiple attestation and embarrassment. It is possible that the tradition of baptism was first created and then found embarrassing by most Christians. A crucial part is played by the criterion of lack of explanation of creation: we conclude the historicity of the baptism because we feel confident that there is no reasonable explanation of how or why the tradition of baptism came to be fabricated, if it is not historical.
The case with the tradition that one of the companions of Jesus used his sword to cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest is somewhat like that of the tradition of baptism, except that it is attested only by the canonical gospels. It does not fit in any of the gospels and they all in their different ways try to dissociate Jesus from it. Mark does that by using the phrase "one of those standing by" for the man who used the sword, in this way suggesting that the man was not a companion of Jesus. Matthew and John make Jesus rebuke the man but in different ways. Luke makes him heal the victim. Clearly the tradition existed well before any of the gospels and since no reasonable motive for its creation is visible, it can be accepted as historical. We will later see that the context of the tradition in the gospels, however, is not historical.
The belief that Jesus is the Messiah is attested in Paul, Mark, Q and John in a variety of forms and therefore was widely established at a very early time. However, Jesus' claim to be the Messiah has far less independent early attestation. This suggests that the belief in Jesus' messiahship came before the tradition of Jesus' claim to be the Messiah. Starting with the belief in Jesus' messiahship we can easily understand how and why the tradition of Jesus' claim to be the Messiah arose: Christians simply attributed their belief to Jesus. But how did the belief in Jesus' messiahship arise? At this point we can judge that there is no reasonable explanation of this belief other than that Jesus himself claimed to be the Messiah. This would require accepting a tradition whose attestation is relatively late to be earlier than a belief which is attested earlier and more widely. Because our criteria only give probabilistic results, it is possible to make exception to them.
However, it has been argued that Paul and the early apostolic preaching in Acts not only do not attribute the claim of messiahship to Jesus but implies that it was after his ascension that he was made Lord and Christ by God. It is suggested, moreover, that Mark knew that Jesus was believed to be the messiah only after his resurrection and tries to explain this embarrassing fact by his theory of the messianic secret. Because the church believed in the messiahship of Jesus, such evidence contrary to its position, if accepted as such, could not have been invented by the church. Consequently, the claim on the part of Jesus to be the messiah is not historical. Notice that the tradition of Jesus' claim to be the messiah is of antiquity comparable to that of the challenging traditions. But on the basis of the criterion of lack of reasonable explanation, the latter is seen to be historical, resulting in the rejection of the historicity of the former.
The tradition of Jesus' execution also has multiple attestation (Paul, Mark and John). By the criterion of multiple attestation, it was well known very early. In this book an explanation is presented in detail how the tradition of execution came to be created. If this explanation is reasonable, then despite its antiquity the tradition of execution cannot be considered historical.
The gospels attribute to Jesus a number of sayings about the Son of man. Some scholars note that the expression "Son of man" is not used as a title of a figure of salvation in Judaism and Jesus is not confessed as the Son of man in early Christian preaching as far as it can be known from the Acts and "apostolic" epistles. Therefore by the criterion of discontinuity or dissimilarity it is concluded that the use of the title goes back to Jesus. However, it is possible to give an explanation of how the reference to the Son of man as an eschatological figure started in the early church without Jesus or Judaism referring to him. The expression "son of man" can be used in Aramaic to refer to oneself out of humility. Jesus referred to himself using this expression as is shown by a number of early sayings. Daniel 7:14, however, talks of a vision in which after seeing a number of beasts the prophet sees "one like a son of man" who represents the Jewish kingdom in contrasts to the beasts in the vision who represent previous Gentile empires. Under the influence of the belief in the early church that Jesus was seated on the right hand of God as the anointed king or Messiah from where he will soon return to establish the messianic kingdom, Jesus' use of the expression "son of man" to refer to himself combined with Dan. 7:14 to create the title "Son of man" as a messianic title as well as the application of that title to Jesus. If this explanation is judged as reasonable, then we cannot conclude that Jesus used "Son of man" as a messianic title whether in reference to himself or to a future figure other than himself. The crucial point in our decision is not whether the tradition is dissimilar to both Judaism and early church teaching, but whether there is an explanation, judged to be reasonable, of how or why it came to be created.
The tradition that Jesus talked about the "kingdom of God or heaven" is attested in Q, Mark, John, Thomas, material found only in Matthew or only in Luke. Paul also talks about the kingdom of God a few times (Rom 14:17, 1 Cor 4:20) but does not attribute its proclamation to Jesus. It was therefore well established at a very early stage. The antiquity of the tradition is further increased if we note that it is found in many different literary genres: miracle story, beatitude, prayer, parable etc. This massive attestation and the great antiquity which it implies strongly suggests historicity. Most scholars have in fact accepted that Jesus did indeed proclaim the kingdom of God, although there is no agreement about how central the kingdom of God was in his work Jesus and what did he mean by it.
In 1 Thess. 2:14-16 it is said that the wrath of God has overtaken those Jews who persecuted the Christians. This seems to be an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. If so, the passage cannot be the original composition of Paul who lived before this historic of a well-known date. Here there is a difficulty in this use of the criterion of knowledge of known events: the expression "the wrath of God has overtaken" may be using apocalyptic way of talking, in which the distinction between past, present and future is often blurred. In that case, the verse does not refer to the destruction of Jerusalem but simply to the imminence and certainty of the divine judgment.
Matthew 16:17-19 is an addition to the Markan version of the story known as Peter's confession (Mark 8:27-30). This raises the possibility that Matthew has himself composed this passage. However, the passage has several Semitic features such as the Aramaic form of Peter's name "Simon bar-Jonah". By the criterion of links with Aramaic and Palestinian environment, we may be more willing to conclude that Matthew is dependent here on an earlier tradition.
The ultimate criterion
The criteria stated and illustrated above are useful in reaching valuable results with some probability but our results must finally meet the following criterion:
Our conclusions about individual traditions must add up to an explanation of the extant Jesus traditions which is plausible and comprehensive enough to meet in due course of time wide acceptance from scholars of different backgrounds.
This is the criterion that is ultimately the only one that matters. Other criteria are helpful in practice in guiding our thought, but they are not in principle necessary: if by any method we can arrive at a picture of the development of the Jesus tradition which plausibly explains the whole extant set of traditions about Jesus, then it does not matter whether or not we made use of any of the above criteria.
The structure of the book
A brief outline of the contents of the book will undoubtedly help the reader go through them more easily.
The story of Christianity is told in this book by and large in a chronological order. We begin with an account of Jesus' life followed by an account of developments that took place at different successive stages after him. However, since we can often reconstruct the history of Jesus and other earlier stages only by reports that are heavily influenced by subsequent developments, it will be often necessary to look at different stages simultaneously or to go back and forth between later and earlier stages, always dealing with the very distinct possibility that the actual story may be different from what is being reported. Also, sometimes it will be necessary to make statements about an earlier stage that will be more fully supported only when the evidence pertaining to a later stage is more fully examined.
The book consists of six parts.
Part I introduces the most
important persons and groups in the Jesus tradition. It begins with a brief look
at Jesus himself and then examines such earlier groups as the seven, the twelve
and Jesus' brothers.
Part II deals with earliest Jesus traditions such as the traditions of his disappearance, execution, ascension, his return as the Messiah and other views about his religious identity.
Part III is concerned with the early development of the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus and evaluation of Paul's witness.
Part IV looks at the non-narrative tradition about Jesus' death and resurrection such as the kerugmatik formulas in Paul and the passion predictions in the gospels.
Parts V and VI attempt to explain the formation of the passion narratives and the resurrection stories. In each part the proposed theory finds two types of support: support by direct arguments and support by providing on the basis of the theory a better explanation of the evidence.