If Jesus is a myth, who invented him? How and why?
In his book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (2009), popular American Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman came to the conclusion that the Jesus of the gospels was not God, but an apocalyptic preacher proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Messiah. For reasons Ehrman couldn’t explain, soon after his death, Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had risen from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven.
A few years later, in his book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014) Ehrman’s thoughts had evolved somewhat, and he now posited that Jesus did claim to be the Messiah, but that the Christian doctrine that Jesus was God developed slowly over several centuries.
However, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and ascent into heaven are asserted in the earliest epistles, and described in the gospels and Acts, and who but a god would be able to do such things? Perhaps the question should not be ‘How did Jesus become God’? but ‘How did a god become Jesus?’
The Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts
As even the most conservative biblical scholars agree, the epistles were written well before the gospels, yet it is the gospels that are cited as evidence of Jesus’ historicity. What better evidence can we have, they claim, than four independent eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection?
Those eyewitnesses have been identified as Matthew Levi, a tax collector and one of Jesus’ twelve disciples; John Mark, the apostle Peter’s interpreter; Luke, Paul’s personal physician; and the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. However, these attributions were only made generations after the gospels were written anonymously and even then, the claim was not that these men wrote the gospels, only that the gospels were written ‘according’ to them.
We can tell by the literary skill with which the gospels were written that the authors were certainly not illiterate, Aramaic speaking fishermen, but well-educated Greek speaking Christian theologians. As these authors remain anonymous, we continue to call them by their traditional names as we have no others for them.
As Bart Ehrman points out in Jesus, Interrupted, there are vast differences between the four gospels. However, as far as historicists are concerned, these differences only add to the gospels’ authenticity, as four different witnesses would see Jesus from four different viewpoints. However, what is telling about the gospels, especially the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, is not their differences, but their similarities.
The shortest gospel, and the one generally accepted as the earliest, is the Gospel of Mark. Biblical scholars know this because the longer gospels of Luke and Matthew are largely cribbed from Mark.
More than 50% of the Gospel of Mark is reproduced in Luke, while 90% is reproduced in Matthew. Or looking at it from the other side, about 30% of the Gospel of Luke is lifted from Mark, while more than 50% of the Gospel of Matthew comes from Mark. Why would someone writing an eyewitness account need to copy so much of their account, virtually verbatim, from another source? The only conclusion we can draw is that Matthew and Luke were not writing original accounts, but taking the Gospel of Mark and adding to and changing it to convey a different message. (See Why I am a Mythicist.)
Does that mean we can take the Gospel of Mark as an eyewitness account? Let’s see.
Jesus and the Fig Tree
I don’t have the capacity here to examine all of the Gospel of Mark, so I shall take as a sample an extract from Chapter 11, which is examined in detail by Dr Richard Carrier in his book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.
This chapter contains one of the most memorable stories in the gospels, Jesus Clearing the Temple. According to the Gospel of John, it occurred very early in Jesus’ ministry, just after the Miracle at Cana. [John 2:13–16]. However, according to the Gospel of Mark, the incident occurred towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, just before his crucifixion. In fact, Mark states that it was this act that provoked the chief priests to begin ‘looking for a way to kill him’. [Mark 11:18]
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written: My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ (Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 56:7 and Jer. 7:11) [Mark 11:15–17]
This story might seem plausible on first reading, (and another of Jesus’ lessons that the modern Christian churches choose to ignore), but it contradicts historical fact. The Temple grounds were vast, occupying more than 15 hectares (40 acres) of which about 25% was public space that would have been teeming with hundreds of merchants and money changers. It would have been impossible for Jesus to singlehandedly overturn all their tables or stop them from moving through the courts. Not that he would have got that far, as the Temple was guarded by an armed force whose purpose was to prevent just such disruptions.
Furthermore, the story isn’t even entirely original. As Mark himself indicates, it derives from an incident in the Old Testament when Jeramiah stood outside the Temple gates and railed at the corruption of the Jewish people who had made the Temple a ‘den of robbers’. [Jer. 7:1–11]
Even stranger, however, is the story that brackets the Clearing of the Temple, the Miracle of the Fig Tree.
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard him say it… In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!’ [Mark 11:12–14, 20–21]
This story paints Jesus in a rather unfavourable light. While we might say that he was moved by righteous anger in clearing the Temple, this incident portrays him as a petulant and illogical child. How could he be angry with a tree for not bearing fruit out of season? And even if you were to accept that Jesus had the miraculous power to wither the tree, why couldn’t he use that power to conjure up a few figs?
To add to the strangeness, Jesus doesn’t respond directly to Peter’s remark, but instead launches into a sermon on the power of prayer and forgiveness:
‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’ [Mark 11: 22–25]
Jesus may have believed in his heart that the fig tree would wither, but he certainly didn’t forgive it for disappointing him.
In a literal reading, this extract makes little sense. It goes against historical fact, the laws of physics and human nature. It’s derivative and its inconsistencies are such that it isn’t even plausible as a work of fiction. The only way we can make sense of it is to read it as allegory.
In structuring this sequence Mark uses a literary device in which one story is wrapped around another. In this case the story begins with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem when he sees and curses the fig tree. That afternoon he enters and clears the Temple. The following morning, he passes by the now withered fig tree. This is called intercalation, a literary trope in which one story illuminates the other. In this case there are parallels between the fig tree and the Temple, and Jesus’ cursing of the tree and his clearing of the Temple.
The central precept of Christianity, which Mark teaches in his Gospel, is that the sacrificial system practised at the Temple in Jerusalem had become corrupted and therefore no longer effective. It has been superseded by one supreme sacrifice, the sacrificial death of Jesus, God’s own son.
The fig tree is a symbol of the Temple cult whose time has passed and can no longer satisfy man’s hunger for a relationship with God. It has now been replaced with a new cult comprised of the Christian faithful, without a central authority or location, and free of the corrupting influence of money. (See Jesus and the Naked Man.) Instead of animal sacrifices at the Temple, Christians achieve God’s forgiveness through faith, prayer and the renunciation of vengeance.
So, while Mark’s Gospel may have been the first, it is clear that even it could not have been an eyewitness account, but was created as an allegory to convey a spiritual narrative, not an earthly one. (See Passion Play: Mark’s Passion Narrative as Allegory)
You might wonder if perhaps, as mythicists, we’re imposing our own interpretation on Mark’s Gospel, but in fact we’re taking our cue from Mark himself, who has left us a hint as to how his Gospel should be read.
In Chapter 4, after Jesus relates a series of parables, his disciples struggle to understand his teaching methods.
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them: The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ (Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 6:9–10) [Mark 4:10–12]
In other words, Mark himself is telling us that his Gospel is an allegory that only makes sense to those in the know.
Where does the Gospel of Mark come from?
How the gospels were derived and written is a contested issue amongst both biblical scholars and mythicists. As do most traditional biblical scholars, Bart Ehrman believes that the gospels evolved from a long oral tradition that preserved memories of an historical Jesus. They contend that this tradition was previously recorded in a hypothetical text known as Q (from the German ‘quelle’ or source) which is believed to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings. Biblical scholars have created this text from the material in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that was not derived from the Gospel of Mark and claim Q as the source of this extra material.
Richard Carrier, on the other hand, sees no evidence for this hypothetical text and believes that the Gospel of Mark was an original creation based solely and directly on Paul’s teachings about a celestial Jesus. He contends that Matthew copied from Mark, while adding his own original material, then Luke copied from both Mark and Matthew and added more of his own. This puts Carrier at odds with the very author who inspired his own work.
As Carrier tells the story, after gaining his PhD in ancient history, and working and writing extensively for the atheist movement in the United States, his attention was brought to the work of Canadian researcher, Earl Doherty in his book, The Jesus Puzzle, (which he has since expanded into his new book Jesus Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus.) Doherty proposes that Jesus was not an historical figure, but was conceived of as a celestial being by preachers such as Paul, and that the concept of Jesus as an earthly, historical being was developed over time.
Carrier found this thesis compelling and so wrote his own book, On the Historicity of Jesus, in which he sets out to vigorously and academically test Doherty theories. However, on the question of Q, these two mythicists strongly disagree.
Doherty sees the Gospel of Mark as a literary creation which constructs the figure of Jesus by cleverly weaving together elements from two major but separate religious movements within Judaism – the Galilean and Jerusalem Traditions – both of which, themselves, are a confluence of several movements. Doherty is a strong advocate of the existence of the Q text, and sees it as having originated from, and as evidence of, the Galilean Tradition, while the Jerusalem Tradition can be discerned in the epistles.
The Galilean Tradition was a Jewish movement of wandering preachers centred in Galilee. Some of these were apocalyptic preachers proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God and anticipated the arrival of a heavenly figure called the Son of Man who would judge the world. Others were philosophers teaching ethics and ‘wisdom’. Some were renowned as miracle workers. Over time followers of this movement envisioned for themselves a founder figure who fed into the creation of the gospel Jesus.
The purveyors of the Jerusalem Tradition taught different versions of a heavenly son and emanation of God, an intermediary between God and the world, whom some saw as a personification of God’s wisdom, while others saw him as a saviour figure who was crucified and rose from the dead in a heavenly realm. These versions of the heavenly son were inspired by several schools of thought, including traditional expectations of the Messiah, Greek Platonism, and a wide range of pagan dying-and-rising saviour gods found in the ‘mysteries’, the dominant form of popular religion in this period. As can be discerned from his epistles, Paul’s teachings about Jesus came out of the Jerusalem Tradition.
A similar interpretation of the pre-gospel era is presented by Michael Lawrence in his book, The Seventy-Year Construction Thesis and Christians Before Jesus. Lawrence argues that, not only did Paul live and preach a century earlier than generally believed, but forms of Christianity already long pre-dated him, that in fact, even at that time, there were many different concepts of the heavenly son, and also many Christian communities devoted to one or other of these Christs. Paul’s innovation, Lawrence argues, was to bring together these different concepts of the heavenly son with the apocalyptic message found in the Galilean tradition. Lawrence maintains that the congregations Paul wrote to had not been established by him, but were pre-existing Christian communities that Paul had converted to his version of Christianity. (See In the Beginning: When did Christianity Begin?)
From God to Jesus to God
So, how was Jesus invented and by whom? How did a god become Jesus? Perhaps it went something like this.
The Galilean and Jerusalem movements co-existed for a long time, perhaps in parallel, perhaps in rivalry. Both movements had their own literature and their own concept of the saviour figure. Eventually these two concepts were brought together by Paul, who envisioned a saviour figure who was the heavenly son of God, who had made the supreme sacrifice in the celestial realm in the past, and who, in the future, would descend to earth to establish the Kingdom of God. The Gospel of Mark is an allegorical narrative which presents Paul’s version of a celestial Jesus in an earthly context.
To create the Jesus figure of his fictional narrative, Mark fused the literature of the Galilean tradition with the beliefs of the Jerusalem movement. In doing so, I would suggest, he set the first part of his narrative in Galilee and based it on stories surrounding the mythical founding figure of the Galilean movement, a wandering apocalyptic preacher and miracle worker, and set the last part of his narrative in Jerusalem, writing a prose version of an already well-established Passion Play which brings to life the sacrificial act made by the celestial son of the Jerusalem tradition as taught by Paul. (See Passion Play: Mark’s Passion Narrative as Allegory.)
Eventually, however, Mark’s fictional, allegorical narrative was taken literally, and Christians came to believe that Jesus had been a human being who walked the earth. It then took several centuries of conflict between competing theologies to come to the orthodox position that Jesus was God and a member of the Holy Trinity.
So, we have an answer to Bart Ehrman’s mystery. Jesus is an apocalyptic preacher because, in part, he is based on the apocalyptic preachers of the Galilean tradition. However, it was not the case that Christians came to believe over time that Jesus resurrected and became God. This was the core of their beliefs all along. The role of apocalyptic teacher was added to the portrait of their sacrificed celestial deity by Mark to flesh out his story. When read allegorically as intended, Mark’s gospel tells the story of a celestial being whose sacrifice changed man’s relationship with God. It’s only when Mark is read literally that we find a baffling story of a wandering preacher whose followers came to the irrational belief that he was God.
© Pauline Montagna 2023
Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, HarperOne (2009)
Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, HarperOne (2014)
Dr Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Sheffield Phoenix Press (2014)
Earl Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus, Age of Reason Publications (2009)
Michael Lawrence, The Seventy-Year Reverse Construction Thesis and Christianity Before Jesus, NOTORIUK (2020)