Book Review: The Jesus Puzzle
Was the figure of Jesus of Nazareth historical? Historian and classical scholar Earl Doherty wants to know. In the book The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?, Earl examines the the idea that the central figure to the Christian religion was a mythical figure, a concept more popularized by G.A. Wells. Earl bases his analysis of the theory on a twelve facts. To name a couple, 1) our secular records of Jesus and the Christian tradition are much later than most people are aware, and 2) the earliest Christian writings speak of Christ as an abstract spiritual or heavenly being similar to beliefs held by the “mystery religions” that were popular in the Roman Empire at the time.
Earl emphasizes that it is important to realize that the Christian tradition we have today is a composite of two opposing views, that he labels the Jerusalem Tradition, and the Galilean Tradition. The earliest gospel, Mark, appears to be an attempt to reconcile them.
Much of the book is spent analyzing these two traditions, so that we can more accurately looking at the composite that resulted from their syncretism. Doherty defines The Jerusalem Tradition as a Jewish/pagan mixture that worshiped a savior figure called Yeshua (“Yaweh Saves” in Hebrew) or the Christ (Greek for “the anointed one”). This “intermediary with God” concept was a result of the Hellenistic influence in the region and is very similar to beliefs held by other mystery religions.
The Galilean Tradition was a Jewish movement that preached the coming of the “kingdom of god”. This was a revolutionary movement with no mention at all of an earthly teacher with a ministry. The central teachings of the movement were a collection sayings, similar to the type of associated with Confucius. These were preserved in the documents known as The Gospel of Thomas and Q.
Once we are aware of these tradition, the combination of them into the Gospel of Mark, fleshed out with passages from Psalms and the prophets using the Hebrew tradition of midrash makes a lot of sense. Mark is literally built out of quotes from the Old Testament, including the passion sequence which is an extension of the Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One, a framework that was used for several stories both scriptural and apocryphal.
The Jesus Puzzle is a thoroughly researched book, and Earl provides ample notes, citations, and appendixes to assist anyone that wishes to dig in deeper into the Christ Myth Hypothesis. Earl also houses supplementary articles and answers to criticism on jesuspuzzle.humanists.net. As well researched as it is, it is not the easiest book to read, and it quotes the Bible and other ancient texts quite heavily. So it may be more than a bit daunting to readers than are not familiar with the subject matter.
It’s not really necessary to accept the Christ Myth as Doherty defines it in order to find insight in this book. What is does is show rather conclusively that the Jesus story is just that: a story. It grew over time as any legend would, and when any Christ Head points to the gospel stories as “proof” of their beliefs, what they are pointing to the end product of a syncretism of Jewish a pagan beliefs, not an eye witness account. Could there be a grain of truth to the gospels? Sure. But, it would be so buried in a bed of myth and legend that it would be impossible to uncover it.
We have become so accustomed to hearing theories of the “historical Jesus”, that a mythical Christ concept may seem shocking at first, even to atheists. But, for my money, I’ll accept the myth theory over the “the creator of the universe appeared in a remote area of the middle east to reveal himself to a handful of people, but didn’t get the message across very well so he had to re-appear in a vision to another guy so that he could write letters to all the churches that went off course within minutes of converting and then let the the salvation of the rest of the world lay in that hands of missionaries and military conquest of foreign lands” theory.
Every culture in the world has mythology. There is absolutely no reason to suspect that the middle east is any different.