Refutation of Doherty's Evolution of Jesus: part 1


Non canonical sources such as Gospel of Thomas and Egerton 2 establish an ancient and independent tradition of Christian witness that did not rely upon the canonical Gospels. Though much of that material is used in the canonical, scholars argue that the infant church was diverse and not all groups clung to the cross or the empty tomb. Doherty uses that as a thin end of the wedge to argue that these sources weren't even Christian and knew nothing of Jesus, they were taken by Christians for whom Jesus was a mythological and ethereal being, and only in the second century evolved into a historically grounded story. I argue that the cross and the tomb prove to be just as old, and the fact that the canonical used the material indicates that its tradition, while not dependent upon canonical writing, nevertheless, agreed with it. The sources used for this "other tradition" are late Gnostic sources. While they make use of early material the cross and the tomb have merely been expunged.

Jesus Mythers often tip their hands by quoting the wrong sources. It is common to find the source Franz Cumont on most of their bibliographies. But they have not read Cumont because he says that Mithraism copied Christianity. That totally defeats their copy cat savior idea.

In the same vein Doherty uses a source as an authority which totally destroys his entire thesis. He quotes Helmutt Koester, probably the major source critic in the world today, trying to use him as support for the Jesus puzzle theory. But Koester disproves Doherty's theory by showing that the historical aspects of the Jesus story, including the empty tomb, were being written as early as AD 50 (see Ancient Christian Gospels, p 218). This makes them as old as any tradition Doherty can draw upon.

All of my criticisms in these five pages will come form Doherty's one page:

Earl Doherty
Jesus Puzzle Part 3:
Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth.

Doherty wrongly assumes that Justin Martyr is the only Christian writer before the end of the 150s to make identifiable quotations from some of the canonical Gospels. This will be soundly disproved later. He also makes other assertions:

Scholars such as Helmut Koester have concluded that earlier ‘allusions’ to Gospel-like material are likely floating traditions which themselves found their way into the written Gospels. (See Koester's Ancient Christian Gospels and his earlier Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den apostolischen Vatern.) Is it conceivable that the earliest account of Jesus' life and death could have been committed to writing as early as 70 (or even earlier, as some would like to have it), and yet the broader Christian world took almost a century to receive copies of it? (Jesus Puzzle, part 3: “Evolution of Jesus Of Nazareth”)

The problem is Koester himself (in Ancient Christian Gospels) says that people were writing Gospels as early AD 50.

Moreover Doherty’s already distorted what Koester says. Nowhere does Koester argue that the early Gospel traditions blew in from non Christian sources, or merely "floating traditions" that found their way in late. Koester presents a cogent picture of a unified tradition that is use by all the canonicals and non canonical such as Peter, Thomas, Q and the Unknown Gospel of Egerton 2. Where he speaks of "floating traditions" is only in the epiphanies, the various sightings of the risen Christ after the discovery of the empty tomb. Those sightings Koester believes come from many sources, but the main story, including the empty tomb he thinks, seems coming from a single ancient source that predates all of the above mentioned gospels. In this regard Doherty has not done his homework.


A third problem regarding Crossan's hypotheses is related specifically to the formation of reports about Jesus' trial, suffering death, burial, and resurrection. The account of the passion of Jesus must have developed quite early because it is one and the same account that was used by Mark (and subsequently Matthew and Luke) and John and as will be argued below by the Gospel of Peter. However, the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection in the various gospels cannot derive from a single source, they are independent of one another. Each of the authors of the extant gospels and of their secondary endings drew these epiphany stories from their own particular tradition, not from a common source. (Koester, p. 220)

Studies of the passion narrative have shown that all gospels were dependent upon one and the same basic account of the suffering, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. But this account ended with the discovery of the empty tomb. With respect to the stories of Jesus' appearances, each of the extant gospels of the canon used different traditions of epiphany stories which they appended to the one canon passion account. This also applies to the Gospel of Peter. There is no reason to assume that any of the epiphany stories at the end of the gospel derive from the same source on which the account of the passion is based. (Ibid)

Doherty asserts a gulf between the world of the epistles and the world of the Gospels. He also asserts the conventional dating schemes are hard and fast such that the Gospels are written after the Epistles. While that is true of the Gospels in their final forms, the forms in which we know them, it is not true of the material in them.

To move from the New Testament epistles to the Gospels is to enter a completely different world. In Parts One and Two, I pointed out that virtually every element of the Gospel biography of Jesus of Nazareth is missing from the epistles, and that Paul and other early writers present us only with a divine, spiritual Christ in heaven, one revealed by God through inspiration and scripture. Their Jesus is never identified with a recent historical man. Like the savior gods of the Greek mystery cults, Paul's Christ had performed his redeeming act in a mythical arena. Thus, when we open the Gospels we are unprepared for the flesh and blood figure who lives and speaks on their pages, one who walked the sands of Palestine and died on Calvary in the days of Herod and Pontius Pilate.

But Paul speaks of Jesus as flesh and blood in at least four passages, and Hebrews clearly states that Jesus had a life on earth in the flesh. John's Epistles speak directly of “that which we heard and which we touched” stating clearly that he was flesh and blood. John goes so far as to denounce as anti-Christ anyone who denies that Christ came in the flesh. The problem is Doherty's assertion that the world of the Gospels was constructed after that of the Epistles. but the very scholar he looks to as an authority dispels that myth by arguing for a pre Marcan redaction (PMR) which places the Passion narrative and empty tomb, and a flesh and blood Christ in history, penned as early as AD 50, before most epistles were written! That in itself invalidates almost everything Doherty says. (see Gospel Behind the Gospels.)

Doherty assumes that the Gospels must be the products of their namesakes in order to be valid. He grounds the chain of redaction in the Ur-Mark, the original composition that later became Mark, and ascribes the creativity of all Gospels to that single author. He even alludes to modern scholars who find connections between Mark and John: "This picture of Gospel relationships is really quite astonishing. Even John, in its narrative structure and passion story, is now considered by many scholars (see Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus, p.239) to be based on Mark or some other Synoptic stage." (Ibid.) While new connections have been found between Mark and John, this is not due to mere copying, but to the mutual dependence upon the single source, the PMR. (see Koester, Ibid.)

Doherty assumes that this is evidenced by haphazard growth of the early church in all directions, while the same basic story, following Mark, is still kept in line even when a supposed Apostle writes it (Ibid.). Of course what he's missing is the fact that the four Gospels were products of core communities which strove to control the telling of the basic story. The fact that there is only one story, and that the facts of it were kept in line, serves to illustrate the historical nature of the material. Secondly, he completely misses the fact that the Ur-Mark is placed at the beginning of a process which probably started in the 40's. Its many editions prove that it was not written for the first time in AD 70 but many years before that.

He also misses the fact that many pre-Marcan sources existed, saying sources like Q and narrative material, and all of this existed on different trajectories all going back to the original preaching of the Christian message. The link between Mark and John is explained by Koester in this Pre-Marcan Redaction which dates to AD 50; all four canonical gospels used that same material. What all of this means, which Doherty just ignores, is that the assertion that Jesus’ concrete historicity only comes in the second century, is empirically disproved through Koester and his source and redactional criticism. But Doherty can't face that fact. Instead he distorts the information and bends it to his own purpose, which would be to place the actual making of the Gospels as late as possible. The tendency in scholarship now is to place them early; certainly the source-evidence in the texts proves this.

In his attempt to stretch the dates of composition out to as late as possible, Doherty places them in the second century, which almost no scholar does nowadays.

When were the Gospels—or their earliest versions—written? Mark is usually dated by its "Little Apocalypse" in Chapter 13, which tells of great upheavals and the destruction of the Temple, spoken as a prophecy by Jesus. This must, it is claimed, refer to the first Jewish War (66-70); thus Mark wrote in its midst or shortly after. But even Mark is presumed to have drawn on source elements, and some think this Little Apocalypse could originally have been a Jewish composition (with no reference to Jesus), one that Mark later borrowed and adapted. Or, if Chapter 13 is by Mark, it could well have grown out of a later period, for other documents, like Revelation and some Jewish apocalypses, show that vivid apocalyptic expectations persisted until at least the end of the century. In fact, 13:7 has Jesus warning his listeners not to regard the End as imminent even when the winds of war arrive. Nothing in Mark should force us to date him before the 90s.

Almost all modern scholars date Mark to AD 70, and not without good reason. Doherty is right that that reason revolves around the destruction of the temple. That is a good reason to assume that the writing was after the destruction, but there is no reason at all to put it as late as 90. Placing the writing of Mark in 90 would put it in a totally different period, when the concerns of destruction of the temple would be over. The Evangelist could be reflecting upon a past event to show Jesus' prophetic gift, but why that event? The reason for choosing that event would be its timely nature. It seems more likely that writing in 90 would have him reflect upon events in 90. As a persecution was starting at that time, and the Jews were holding the council of Jamnia, these would seem more likely since they would seem more related to current events..

But that is as much a reason to date Mark in the early 60's rather than after 70. The winds of war were predictable, even though they had not come yet, so it would make sense to say "don't panic when the first winds of war begin to blow." It would make no sense to say that after the temple has been destroyed. The total lack of any military imagery or any statement to the effect of the temple being destroyed by the Romans, would seem to indicate that the idea was more hypothetical and the writing prior to 70. Besides, the idea of the end of the temple being connected with the coming of Messiah was already part of Jewish thinking (see Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah).

Doherty asserts that the parting of the ways between Jews and Gentiles is used as the major key to dating the Gospels, and that took place as a consequence of the war of 66-70.But again, he forgets (a) that conflict began long before AD 70 and was ripe by the time of the revolt, (b) he's talking about the final form of Mark's redaction, but there were different versions of Mark. It's the process which we know took place and the evidence from source and redactional criticism that shows the many prior versions and the concrete historical nature of Jesus as early as mid century.

Page 2 of the essay: "Primitive Tradition and the Gospels"


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