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Books for and against the Existence of Jesus


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Though dead in scholarly circles - even among moderate and liberal ones - the idea that Jesus never existed has visceral appeal to many with negative attitudes towards Christianity. Presently, the Jesus Myth’s most forceful proponent is Earl Doherty with his book The Jesus Puzzle.  There are various scholarly popular treatments such as The Jesus Mysteries. Both these books and some responses to the Jesus Myth are reviewed below.

The Jesus Puzzle
Jesus Outside the New Testament
The Evidence for Jesus
I Believe in the Historical Jesus
Jesus Under Fire
The Evidence for Jesus
The Jesus Mysteries

The Jesus Puzzle
Earl Doherty

Though not a serious academic work (it's published by "Canadian Humanist Publications", whose bias is obvious and shared by the author), this book distinguishes itself from similar efforts by laypersons in its expansive scope. Rather than skirt the Pauline references to Jesus' human life, it embraces them and claims they support the notion that Jesus never existed. And rather than accept the consensus among historians and New Testament scholars that Josephus referred to Jesus on two occasions in Jewish Antiquities, the book rejects the idea that either reference is valid. Doherty’s use of purported Middle Platonism to undercut seeming references to Jesus' human life in Paul's letters and Hebrews is especially clever (not the least because so few readers will have any understanding of what Middle Platonism is).

Though Doherty often shows familiarity with his topic, the writing is uneven and at points amateurish and simplistic. The chapter titles and subheadings are often of no help in understanding what any particular chapter or section is about. There is no scripture or ancient writings index, though some of these are in the general index. The use of endnotes instead of footnotes (or even endnotes at the end of each chapter rather than lumped together at the end of the book) is particularly unhelpful because so much of the argument rests on the supporting references or discussion. And as I learned, checking Doherty's endnotes is vital given how unsupported many of his key arguments turn out to be.

So, what about the substance? For more thoroughgoing responses, please see the four essays Replying to Earl Doherty on the Jesus Myth Index page of Bede's Library. For the purposes of this review, however, more succinct comments will be provided.

Doherty's attempt to explain away references to Jesus' human life in Paul's letters (and Hebrews) is ambitious but unconvincing. As the book goes through these passages, it becomes clear that time and again he resorts to unsupported translations, far fetched interpretations, misrepresentations of Middle Platonism, and creative - to say the least - use of secondary sources in order to support his theory. This foundation is shaky and gets weaker the more closely it is examined. One example which taught me to check the endnotes closely was the book's assertion that the phrase "according to the scriptures" in 1 Corinthians 15, when referring to Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection, had nothing to do with fulfilled prophecy. Instead, Doherty claimed it meant that Paul had learned about these things from the Old Testament - not James and Peter and other Christians. The support for this interpretation? It is not in the text and the reader is referred to an endnote. To my surprise, the endnote does not refer to Paul's use of the phrase elsewhere. Nor does he refer to another New Testament writer's use of the phrase. Or to any Greek Lexicon. Or to any other Greek writer using the term as Doherty claims Paul uses it. All that Doherty refers to is an extraordinarily anachronistic modern day example of reading a newspaper. I was genuinely surprised at how weak and anachronistic the support was for such a crucial point. The rest of the book's explanations for the troubling Pauline and Hebrew references to a human Jesus are no more convincing and are just as ad hoc. Rarely does Doherty conduct any sort of meaningful textual discussion of how Paul uses these phrases elsewhere in his writings. This is especially true of his attempts to dismiss Paul's statements that Jesus was "born of a descendant of David according to the flesh" in Romans.

Another problem throughout Doherty's book is his use of secondary sources. Often they are quoted so selectively that they are offered to support points that the source's author would denounce in the strongest terms - as is the case with his use of C.K. Barrett's fine commentary on Romans (while trying to dismiss Romans 1:1-4 as a reference to Jesus becoming human).

Regarding other issues, Doherty relies on theories that have already been debunked, such as his attempt to dismiss Acts as a source for early Christian history by referring to Vernon Robbins' oft-refuted theory about the 'we' passages, or his insistence that neither of the references to Jesus in Josephus are authentic (despite overwhelming contrary opinion and evidence). A continuing flaw in Doherty's argument is his rush to explain things in terms of Middle Platonism, while ignoring obvious Jewish influence, parallels, and beliefs. Finally, the dismissive classification of the Gospels as midrash is so brief and so uninformed that it is of almost no worth (and his radically late dating of them unsupported by the evidence)

This may be the best presentation of the Jesus Myth argument in print. Nevertheless, any informed and rational investigation into it will lead the reasonable person to conclude that if this is the best that the Jesus Myth has to offer, there is little to commend the theory.

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Jesus Outside the New Testament
Robert Van Voorst

Judging this book by its cover, you would expect a discussion of references to Jesus outside the New Testament. And that you do get. Jesus Outside the New Testament is the best introduction to all of the usual topics, from the Roman references--Thallus, Suetonius, Pliny, and most importantly Tacitus--through the Jewish sources--Josephus and the Talmud--to post New Testament Christian writings. The term "introduction," however, may be deceiving. Van Voorst deals with each subject in accessible depth, addressing often overlooked objections to such passages as Tacitus' references to Jesus (said objections shown to be without merit). He takes these seriously and concedes their merit (admitting that Pliny is not "a witness to Jesus independent of Christianity") or refutes them decisively (showing that Josephus provides two "non-Christian witnesses to Jesus").

But what you may not realize you are getting with this book, based on its cover, is an effective one-chapter discussion of the Jesus Myth and a very informative discussion of the Gospel sources. Indeed, Van Voorst is one of the few contemporary New Testament scholars to devote much time to the Jesus Myth. Most of Chapter 1 discusses the Jesus Myth, including a helpful overview of its historical development. At the end of the chapter, Van Voorst helpfully summarizes seven grounds upon which New Testament scholars and historians have continuously rejected the Jesus Myth:

  1. Jesus Mythologists routinely misinterpret Paul's relative silence about some biographical details of the life of Jesus.
  2. Jesus Mythologists are forced to offer radically late and unsupported datings of the Canonical Gospels.
  3. Jesus Mythologists often claim that evidence of literary development and errors in the Gospels support the idea that Jesus did not exist. But as Van Voorst points out, "development does not necessarily mean wholesale invention, and difficulties do not prove non-existence."
  4. Jesus Mythologists have failed to "explain to the satisfaction of historians why, if Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100, no pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus' historicity or even questioned it."
  5. Jesus Mythologists rely partially on "well-known text-critical and source-critical problems" in ancient Non-Christian references to Jesus, but go beyond the evidence and difficulties by claiming that these sources have no value. They also ignore "the strong consensus that most of these passages are basically trustworthy."
  6. Jesus Mythologists are not doing history, but polemics. "[G.A.] Wells and others seem to have advanced the non-historicity hypothesis not for objective reasons, but for highly tendentious, anti-religious purposes. It has been a weapon of those who oppose the Christian faith in almost any form, from radical Deists, to Freethought advocates, to radical secular humanists and activist atheists like Madelyn Murray O'Hair."
  7. Jesus Mythologists have consistently failed to offer a better explanation for the origins of Christianity than the existence of Jesus as its founding figure. Though various mythical origins have been attempted, they are even more deficient in corroborative evidence than the existence of Jesus.

Though Van Voorst does not re-fight all of the old battles, he helpfully summarizes a war already won. The book is worth the price just for Chapter 1, but the rest of the book is an excellent overview of the non-Gospel and pre-Gospel sources of Jesus – which themselves are highly relevant to the Jesus Myth.

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The Evidence for Jesus
RT France

One of the few full-length treatments of the Jesus Myth by a leading New Testament scholar, The Evidence for Jesus is an inexpensive and accessible refutation of that theory. Though it gives special focus to the arguments of G.A. Wells, it also responds to other radical theories about Jesus--not all of which are Jesus Myths.

France begins with a sober discussion of the non-Christian evidence related to Jesus. Most of it, such as Tacitus and Mara bar Serapion, he finds offer little direct evidence about Jesus. He then turns his attention to the Jewish evidence, providing a thorough discussion of the two references in Josephus--quite forcefully dismantling Well's rather dismissive approach to the subject. After one of the better treatments of the subject in a popular book (though relatively brief), France rightly concludes that "the scepticism which dismisses the Testimonium Flavianum wholesale as a Christian fabrication seems to owe more to prejudice than to a realistic historical appraisal of the passage."

After discussing references to the historical Jesus in the Epistles of Paul, France concludes that it is from the Gospels that we gain the bulk of the evidence for Jesus. With a scholar's familiarity with his subject, France moves through questions such as the genre of the Gospels, the fluidity of oral tradition, the creativity of early Christians, theological motivation and historical credibility. His discussion of midrash is particularly relevant, showing that mythic attempts to cast the Gospels in such terms fail because evidence that midrash was ever used to invent recent historical episodes is lacking. France then provides an informed, yet common sense discussion, of the differences between the Gospels. Though by no means dismissive of these difficulties, he cautions that normal historical methods should be followed to address them. In short, France spends much of his discussion of the Gospels in effectively responding to the more sensationalistic claims against their trustworthiness. Time and again France reveals the problems underlying the scepticism many cling to regarding the Gospels. Though the treatments are by necessity brief, they are concise and persuasive. Those looking to dig deeper into these issues will find that France's endnotes provide helpful resources.

Having shown that the Gospels were intended to be read as history as well as theology, France reveals a significant weakness of the Jesus Myth. Even if written later than the modern consensus, the Gospel authors' intent to write history combined with the confirmed accuracy of many of their references and characterizations show that they are better explained as ancient biographies of a real person who has left behind traditions of his deeds and teachings rather than an entirely mythical creation. All in all, France makes a concise and persuasive argument that the Gospels must be taken seriously as historical evidence for the life, deeds, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Most Mythologists spend only a few pages explaining the Gospels away as being written late, claiming they contradict each other, or by classifying them as "midrash" or "fiction." Until they provide in-depth scholarship on the nature of the Gospels' genre and sources, France's arguments show why Mythologists will remain in the margins of scholarly discourse.

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I Believe in the Historical Jesus
I. Howard Marshall

I. Howard Marshall is a leading New Testament scholar who is especially well known for his works on Luke-Acts, including Luke: Theologian and Historian and his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. His book, I Believe in the Historical Jesus, was written in 1972 and is a response to some rather unsophisticated articulations of the Jesus Myth, including the early work of G.A. Wells.

In the introduction, Marshall cogently describes the state of the question by pointing out that in the mid-20th century, one of the few "authorities" to consider Jesus as a myth was a Soviet Encyclopedia. He then discusses the then recent work of G.A. Wells, who he finds to be imminently unpersuasive:

[A]n attempt to show that Jesus never existed has been made in recent years by G.A. Wells, a Professor of German who has ventured into New Testament studies and presents a case that the origins Christianity can be explained without assuming that Jesus really lived. Earlier presentations of similar views at the turn of the century failed to make any impression on scholarly opinion, and it is certain that this latest presentation of the case will not fare any better.

Though writing more than 30 years ago, Marshall was correct that Wells' impact on the scholarly community would be nil. Wells has convinced no one of importance.  Nevertheless, Marshall's own treatment of the question is somewhat unfocused and dated. Despite its title he does not focus exclusively on the Jesus Myth. Nor does he interact with the more recent efforts of commentators such as Earl Doherty.  Though I highly recommend all of Marshall's writings on Luke-Acts, readers would probably be better served by obtaining more recent discussions of these issues.

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Jesus under Fire
Michael J Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (eds.)

Although focused mainly on the Jesus Seminar and left-leading New Testament scholarship, Jesus Under Fire has at least four chapters that are relevant to the Jesus Myth – all penned by respected scholars.

First, Craig Blomberg focuses on issues of the authorship, purpose, and reliability of the Gospels in “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus.” It’s a quick trip, but he ably covers many topics. Probably the most relevant sections are his six points in support of the thesis that the early Christians were intent on preserving reliable history and his conclusion that the early Christians in fact preserved reliable history.

Second, Darrell Bock discusses the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus in “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?” As the subtitle indicates, the focus here is largely in response to the Jesus Seminar’s infamous “coloured bead” method of measuring authenticity and its conclusions. There is, however, a helpful discussion about the methodology of historians in evaluating such material.

Third, Craig Evans has a chapter simply titled, “What Did Jesus Do?” Drawing on John P. Meier’s seven undisputed facts about Jesus’ life, he adds more details which he believes are firmly established. His central methodology is to compare the Gospels to Josephus, and then work backwards from Jesus’ execution by Pilate with some Jewish leaders involved. By doing so, he handily demonstrates the authenticity of much Gospel material.

Fourth, Edwin M. Yamauchi closes out the relevant chapters with his “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?” Yamauchi discusses the Jewish, Roman, and non-New Testament Christian sources for the life of Jesus. Though space is limited, he actually does a nice job of giving an overview of the academic community’s evolution of perspectives on these sources. His discussion of the value and relevance of each source is also a good introduction. Any one of these sources could easily fill a chapter, so keep in mind that this is only an introduction to them. But it is a good one.

Overall this book is a good resource, especially if someone is looking for a resource that covers many issues related to the study of Jesus, including the Jesus Myth. It serves primarily as a grounded introduction to the issues it presents. Check the endnotes and references for further research.

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The Evidence for Jesus
James D.G. Dunn

Dunn is a pre-eminent New Testament scholar. As such, I had high hopes that this book may be “the” response to the Jesus Myth. Although useful and well-written, its focus is not necessarily the Jesus Myth, but some of the other liberal treatments of the historical Jesus. The book appears to have been prompted by a British television special featuring a preponderance of radical liberal New Testament scholarship.

A scholar of a moderate bent, Dunn begins by mentioning the difficulties created by the “gap” between Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the gospels (which he places at 36-39 years), the fact that the Gospels were written in Greek but Jesus taught in Aramaic, and the redaction of the sources in the Gospels. The discussion of the redaction of material in the Gospels is surprisingly in-depth for such a short book. Dunn demonstrates that though there is redaction, it is focused on a core of historical information accepted by each of the gospels.

Dunn goes on to demonstrate quite convincingly that Jesus considered himself uniquely to be God’s son and that the earliest Christians believed in the empty tomb and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. These chapters are not your typical apologetics, because Dunn has quite a sceptical eye for some material. Nevertheless, his careful analysis shows the emptiness of overly sceptical conclusion-jumping.

Though Dunn wrote years before the Doherty phenomenon, Chapter 4 is a sober response to The Jesus Puzzle’s supposed “riotous diversity” of early Christian development. Dunn considers the early Christian epistles and other evidence to conclude that there was diversity in early Christianity, but not nearly as broad as Doherty and others contend. Ultimately what bound Christians together was their belief in “Jesus as the climax of God’s ongoing purpose for man’s redemption, the one whom God had raised from the dead and exalted as Lord, the man who demonstrated most clearly what God is like.”

A notable feature of the book is the one to two-page “note” responding to specific commentators from the TV program. This includes professors G.A. Wells and Morton Smith.

All in all, I am sure this book is a compelling response to a British TV show. But it is not a direct engagement of the Jesus Myth and is somewhat dated Still, Dunn is a careful scholar and engages relevant issues carefully and in surprising depth for such a relatively short book.

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The Jesus Mysteries
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy

(I have also written an article of the Orpheus amulet used as the cover for this book and the likelihood that it is a fake)

The basic idea behind the Jesus Mysteries is that tired old saw that Jesus never existed and was a product of various pagan myths. With a background in New Age mysticism and spiritualism neither Gandy nor Freke have ever before demonstrated much grasp of critical history or biblical interpretation. During a short exchange I had with Peter Gandy on an Internet Discussion Board I asked him if any academics at respectable universities supported his thesis. Of course, he did not give me an answer as it would have to be in the negative. Instead, ‘wah-wah’ book authors like to claim that real scholars secretly agree with them but dare not speak out and face the scorn of their colleagues. This, if true, would be most unfortunate for academic research but thankfully it is just another myth from the conspiracy theorists. I mean, to challenge the hegemony of evolution is professional death for any scientist but there seem to be quite a few willing to speak out. Perhaps, it’s just that Christians are more willing to take risks for their beliefs than our opponents….

The truth, of course, is that the academy is no longer the friend of Christianity. The Jesus Seminar are quite happy to challenge our most central claim about the Resurrection and there is no doubt that if their misguided researches were to tell them that Jesus was a pagan myth, they would be shouting it from the roof tops (or at least, the cover of Newsweek). Yet even they, willing to discard all notions of objectivity to recreate a Jesus who is to their liking, have no time for the Jesus myth. And if even the enemies of orthodox Christianity do not take it seriously, why on earth should we?

One thing that can be said for the Jesus Mysteries is that it has a long bibliography and lots of notes. This is an essential part of any scholarly work but sadly in this case it does not live up to its billing. For a start, very many of the books referred to in the notes are extremely old and very hard to get hold of for any one without a first class library at hand. I took my copy of the Jesus Mysteries with me when I went to a summer school at the University of Wales thinking that there at least I would be able to find the books the authors refer to. Not a bit of it. Unperturbed, I tried the unfeasibly large University of London Library where I met with a shade more success but still found few of the older authorities on Mithras.

This is serious because many of the claims made about parallels between Jesus and pagan figures are only justified by reference to books that are nearly a hundred years out of date and, as J. P. Holding has demonstrated, modern Mithras studies have moved on a good deal. In the few cases where I could check their sources something rather surprising came up. Freke and Gandy are so selective and vague with their references that I could find a statement that totally contradicts their central thesis on the very page that they pointed to.

A couple of examples will surface to show we are not dealing with a pair of objective scholars but people who are willing to pull the wool over the eyes of their readers. They refer many times to The Mysteries of Mithra by Francis Cumont and published in 1903. Yet we find that in his comparison of Mithraism and Christianity, Cumont (certainly no friend of Christianity himself) specifically states that unlike Mithras, Jesus was a real person.

When dealing with ancient sources they are even more blatant. On the basis of a third century picture of the crucifixion, which we now know is probably fake, the authors claim Bacchuus was crucified and Christians copied the idea. This is their piece de resistance and they even put a pictures of the likely fake on the cover of their book without breathing a word about the doubts about its veracity. And suppose there existed an earlier source who stated categorically that no pagan godman was crucified. That would destroy their case and reading the Jesus Mysteries you would assume that neither Freke or Gandy knew of such a source even if it existed. You would be wrong.

They quote from Justin Martyr many times about his concerns that pagans and Christians had some similar rituals (they did and modern scholarship is totally unsurprised by this). He is a second century writer who therefore predates all the pictures of pagan godmen being crucified and he writes:

"But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter, did they imitate the being crucified; for it was not understood by them, all the things said of it having been put symbolically.” Justin Martyr ’s First Apology LV.

No honest scholar would simply fail to quote this vitally important contradiction to their thesis. Gandy did attempt to explain away this passage when it was presented to him but failed utterly and certainly could not say why he ever felt he could simply miss it out of his book.

A few other points should be made in case anyone is still tempted to take this book seriously. The most quoted New Testament ‘scholars’ are Ian Wilson and our old friend G. A. Wells (a professor of German!). They claim to make reference to Wilson because his books are widely available but far superior scholarship is to be found in any library. It is ironic they are concerned that their readers should be able to find this book easily but use much older and more obscure books for the meat and drink of their argument.

Also, they claim that the ancients ‘knew’ the earth went around the sun. This is untrue. Although some Greek thinkers (well, one I know of) suggested this, the model of the Earth being the motionless centre was nearly universally accepted by the Greeks (including Aristotle and Ptolemy among others). To hint that the heliocentric model was knowledge lost because of Christianity is simply daft.

They say that ‘no serious scholar’ believes Josephus wrote any of the Testamonium Flavium. I take it this is a joke or else they are claiming J. D. Crossan, R. T. France, Raymond Brown, John P. Meier, Michael Grant, Robin Lane Fox etc etc are not serious scholars. We might not agree with all of these guys (I mean, the last two are atheists) but we certainly consider them serious scholars.

Freke and Gandy claim early Christians destroyed ancient pagan texts wholesale. In fact the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature makes it clear that there was no policy of destruction and the church was active in preserving ancient texts. Glenn Miller has fully investigated this widespread and baseless accusation. The oft repeated accusation that Christians destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria is simply an eighteenth century myth. In fact, the quotations in The Jesus Mysteries are from Ray MacMullen’s Enemies of the Roman Order which is a book that demonstrates that Christian policy was basically identical to pagan policy with regard to the suppression of subversive literature.

In their survey of the New Testament, the authors say that only seven of Paul’s letters are genuine and that the Acts of the Apostles is a second century fiction. They explain that the Paul revealed in the genuine letters was a Gnostic and that the spurious letters and Acts were written to cover it up. The allegation that the letters are fakes is dealt with elsewhere but just suppose it is true. In that case, we would not expect to find Freke and Gandy quoting from Acts and the spurious letters to make their ridiculous point that Paul was really a Gnostic. But that is exactly what they do using both Colossians and Ephesians.

Lastly, I should point out a relatively minor error that would however expose any undergraduate who made it to the scorn and derision of their tutor. Pretty much throughout the book the authors refer to the Roman Catholic Church as if it were the same entity that it is today. The fact is that during the period they discuss there was no distinct ‘Roman Catholic Church’ because all orthodox Christians were still united. I expect, however, that the policy was deliberate on the part of the authors as no ‘wah-wah’ book is complete without an evil conspiracy emanating from the Vatican.

Still, if anachronism is the greatest crime a historian it is probably the least of the sins of Messrs Freke and Gandy.

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Last revised: 08 December, 2009.