Recently, I entered into a squabble with an atheist on The Forerunner discussion board on the topic of whether Jesus ever existed.
This atheist insists that the early Christians were actually Gnostics who took some ancient pagan myths and invented a god-man hero by the name of Jesus. He also insists that there is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus of Nazareth was a true historical person. This idea is popularly known as the “Jesus myth.” When I asked who among academic scholars actually accepts the Jesus myth conspiracy theory, I was pointed to the writing of Earl Doherty and Timothy Freke.
The problem with writers such as Freke and Doherty is that they are authors who read some books written in the late 19th and early 20th century heyday of higher criticism. They are basically regurgitating the modernism of 100 years ago.
J.P. Holding comments:
Does the “Jesus-myth” have any scholarly support? In this case, to simply say “no” would be an exaggeration! Support for the “Jesus-myth” comes not from historians, but usually from writers operating far out of their field. G. A. Wells, for example, is a professor of German; Drews was a professor of mathematics; Acharya only has a lower degree in classics; Doherty has some qualifications, but clearly lacks the discipline of a true scholar. The greatest support for the “Jesus-myth” comes not from people who know the subject, but from popularizers and those who accept their work uncritically. It is this latter group that we are most likely to encounter – and sadly, arguments and evidence seldom faze them. In spite of the fact that relevant scholarly consenus is unanimous that the “Jesus-myth” is incorrect, it continues to be promulgated on a popular level as though it were absolutely proven.
A quick read proves these are not accomplished scholars. They are self-proclaimed “experts” who present a one-sided view. The basic tactic of Earl Doherty is to deny everything. There are evidences for the existence of Jesus that are accepted by most modern scholars, but Freke and Doherty simply deny the facts.
In “The Jesus Puzzle,” Doherty makes some amazing denials, such as:
In the first half century of Christian correspondence, including letters attributed to Paul and other epistles under names like Peter, James and John, the Gospel story cannot be found.
Here Doherty makes a huge assumption popular among the 19th century critics that the Gospels were not written in the first century. Most scholars now admit that they were.
He then goes on to state that none of the Gospel story appears in the Epistles.
Here is just a brief summary of the “non-narrative” evidence from the Epistles that also appear the Gospel stories. Those points also attested to by non-Christian writers are marked with an asterisk.
1. Jesus was a human person (Paul, Hebrews)*
2. Jesus was a Jew (Paul, Hebrews)*
3. Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (Hebrews)
4. Jesus was a descendant of David (Paul)
5. Jesus mission’ was to the Jews (Paul)*
6. Jesus was a teacher (Paul, James)*
7. Jesus was tested (Hebrews)
8. Jesus prayed using the word ABBA (Paul)
9. Jesus prayed for deliverance from death (Hebrews)
10. Jesus Suffered (Paul, Hebrews, Peter)
11. Jesus interpreted his last meal with reference to his death (Paul — mentioned also in the writings of Tacitus and Josephus)*
12. Jesus underwent a trial (Paul)*
13. Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate (Paul)*
14. Jesus death involved the Jews (Paul)*
15. Jesus was crucified (Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter)*
16. Jesus was buried (Paul)
17. Jesus appeared to witesses after death (Paul)
So it is clear to see that the most vital elements of the Gospel story appear in the Epistles.
In “The Jesus Puzzle,” Doherty then goes on to write that:
The Gospel Jesus and his story is equally missing from the non-Christian record of the time.
Ironically, what follows is the list of pagan historians who do mention Jesus. Doherty counters this by denying the fact that they all mention Jesus. Then in the same paragraph he admits that the these writings do mention Jesus. He brushes this off by claiming that they must be forgeries — even those that are not doubted by scholars. It’s a classic example of the “begging the question” fallacy.
The problem is that historians do not universally consider these passages to be forgeries. In addition, Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny, Lucian and Celsus refer to Christ and Christians sometimes in negative terms. This is hardly the strategy for a Christian forger who is trying to gain credibility for his movement.
When we look at Freke (great name!) we see much of the same posturing by a man holding a B.A. who professes to be a modern day Gnostic. The agenda here is not scholarship, it is to promote Neo-Gnosticism.
To say that Paul was a Gnostic is to deny many the points made by Paul (in the above list) that are incompatible with the religion of Gnosticism. Since the Gnostics believed that all matter is evil, they taught that Christ was a spirit being and had only an illusive body. The Gnostics taught that Christ was a spirit temporarily inhabiting the body of the man Jesus who died.
Freke describes his beliefs on his website as – “the timeless wisdom of awakening” – and this gem: “that the Earth could be conceived as a Global Brain which was in the process of awakening to itself, with the explosion of connections being made across it right now comparable to neural networks.”
Yes, I am supposed to take seriously the rantings of a man who claims that the earth is a giant brain and yet there is no evidence that the historical Jesus existed. Am I supposed to take this seriously? In fact, it strengthens my faith as a Christian to see that the alternative is so, well, “Freke-ish.”