A Question on this Christmas -- Did Jesus Even Exist?
Recently I wrote on this issue here. I've been reading through Doherty's book The Jesus Puzzle since then. It's a great read and very provocative. He does as good as I would expect in arguing there never was a historical Jesus. Nonetheless there is a problem as I see it.
While he says it better in his book than what I quote below from his site, there seems to be at least two major interpretations of the evidence. The puzzle is how to best harmonize all the evidence about Jesus (or the Christ). One thing most all scholars agree on is that even the earliest Christianities were a diverse phenomena. The question is why early Christianity was so diverse?
Other than the fundamentalist view of the evidence which we both discount for many reasons, there are two interpretations of this body of evidence. On the the one hand there is the dominant interpretation, which Doherty informs us about:
Scholars have long tried to offer scenarios to explain this process. One runs like this: In their fervor and distress following the crucifixion, the followers of Jesus scrambled to understand what had just happened, to interpret the meaning of their Master’s life, to put a name to his role in God’s plan. They ran to their bibles and began to apply all manner of scriptural passages to him, especially those looked upon as messianic by the Jewish thinking of the time. But they turned as well to contemporary hellenistic mythology about the Logos, supplementing it with the Jewish equivalent in the figure of personified Wisdom, throwing in for good measure dim (to us) myths about descending-ascending heavenly redeemers. Those early Christian thinkers absorbed all this vast cultural pleroma and decided that their Jesus of Nazareth had in fact been the true embodiment of all these myths and proceeded to pile them, willy-nilly, upon him. This "morning after" ransack of current philosophy and the Jewish scriptures led, so they say, to the highly elevated, mythological picture created of Jesus so soon after his death, and to a conviction that he had been "resurrected."
Newer scenarios about how the Christian movement began and how Jesus became the Christ have attempted to be more subtle and comprehensive. Burton Mack suggests that, in addition to Galilean groups who regarded Jesus as no more than a human teacher, gentile circles in places like Antioch were responsible, over a period of time, for applying current mythological interpretations to Jesus of Nazareth, and that Paul was converted to one of these "cults."
On the other hand there is Doherty's interpretation of the evidence:
We are led to conclude that the beginning of the Christian movement was not a response to any human individual at one time and location. Christianity was born in a thousand places, out of the fertile religious and philosophical soil of the time, expressing faith in an intermediary Son who was a channel to God, providing knowledge, love and salvation. It sprang up in many innovative minds like Paul’s, among independent communities and sects all over the empire, producing a variety of forms and doctrines. Some of it tapped into traditional Jewish Messiah expectation and apocalyptic sentiment, other expressions were tied to more Platonic ways of thinking. Greek mystery concepts also fed into the volatile mix. Many groups (though not all) adopted the term "Christ" for their divine figure, as well as the name "Jesus", which in Hebrew has the meaning of "Savior". Paul and the Jerusalem brotherhood around Peter and James were simply one strand of this broad salvation movement, although an important and ultimately very influential one. Later, in a mythmaking process of its own, the Jerusalem circle with Paul as its satellite was adopted as the originating cell of the whole Christian movement.
While I don't plan on reviewing his book, I think this highlights a problem Doherty has in arguing his case. Notice the words in bold? He does his best to make his case, but in the end there remains this one problem. A simpler theory of the evidence is the best explanation of it: It is much easier to conceive of a movement splintering into a multitude number of groups than it is to conceive of a multitude number of similar groups arising at the same time across the known world who soon come together and identify themselves as Christians.
And this is where I find his puzzle to be missing a piece, or at the very least, causes me to doubt it. If nothing else, there is no single piece of the puzzle that shows me there was a historical founder to the Jesus cult because no single piece of the puzzle could ever show me this in the first place. That Doherty can offer explanations for (or explain away) several pieces of the evidence does not discount the cumulative case that this evidence leads most scholars to conclude.
It's possible that Doherty is correct though. When it comes to historical investigations like this one perhaps the best we should claim is agnosticism. To claim more than this in the face of contrary historical evidence and arguments may demand more of historical evidence than we can reasonably allow.
Still, I agree with the dominant interpretation.