Has Earl Doherty proved that Jesus did not really walk on earth?

October 11, 2008 | By | 6 Replies More

On several prior posts, I’ve referred to Earl Doherty’s extensive website, Jesus Puzzle. I’ve visited Doherty’s site numerous times. I’ve pulled out a Bible and double-checked the passages he cites, especially those of the Epistles, the only Christian writings that were written during the 40 years subsequent to the alleged death of Jesus. I’ve admired Doherty’s writing for many reasons. He readily admits where he is engaging in speculation or where guesswork is involved. On the other hand, where he claims to have strong arguments, he backs up his claims with citations.

Doherty’s main conclusion is that the existence of Christiantity was not based on an historical Jesus. Rather, it was based on a mythological Jesus:

“Jesus” (Yeshua) is a Hebrew name meaning Savior, strictly speaking “Yahweh Saves.” At the beginning of Christianity it refers not to the name of a human individual but (like the term Logos) to a concept: a divine, spiritual figure who is the mediator of God’s salvation. “Christ,” the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah,” is also a concept, meaning the Anointed One of God (though enriched by much additional connotation). In certain sectarian circles across the Empire, which included both Jews and gentiles, these names would have enjoyed a broad range of usage. Belief in some form of spiritual Anointed Savior—Christ Jesus—was in the air. Paul and the Jerusalem brotherhood were simply one strand of this widespread phenomenon, although an important and eventually very influential one. Later, in a myth-making process of its own, this group of missionaries would come to be regarded as the whole movement’s point of origin.

From “Was there no historical Jesus? Part II: Who was Jesus Christ?


Doherty has set up his site so that you can’t link directly to particular articles. The only link available is to the home page. To get to the article cited above, you must enter by the home page, then scroll down to the section called “MAIN ARTICLES: The Jesus Puzzle: Presenting the basic case for the non-existence of an historical Jesus and a different origin of Christianity.” This article is divided up in the following sections:

  • Preamble
  • Part One: A Conspiracy of Silence
  • Part Two: Who Was Christ Jesus?
  • Part Three: The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth
  • Postscript
  • The Second Century Apologists

Doherty’s argument from silence is striking. While I was attending Catholic school (which I did for 12 years), we often heard readings from the Epistles and the Gospels. Only once was I in a class where the students were told that the Epistles were the only existing Christian writings for the 40 years following the alleged death of Jesus (the earliest date on which scholars affix the writing of the Gospels was about 90 A.D.). Even more striking, it was never pointed out to the students that the Epistles failed to even mention Mary, Joseph, the birth of an historical Jesus, the miracles of Jesus or the teachings of an historical Jesus. This is rather incredible, given that an earth-residing Jesus was allegedly God.

Think about this: out planet was visited by God incarnate (Creator of the Universe), whose earthly life was snuffed out by a bloody crucifixion after He performed dozens miracles allegedly witnessed by thousands, and we get . . . silence. For 40 years. Imagine an event that is much less noteworthy, for instance imagine that San Francisco suffered a massive earthquake in 1906 but no one wrote anything about it for 40 years. Jesus did something even more amazing, it is claimed. Upon his death, the earth shook, tombs opened and dead people walked around the town. But no one wrote about this for 40 years. Or imagine Michael Jordan dazzling the basketball world for years, but no one writing about it . . . for 40 years.

Again, Doherty’s Argument from silence has always seemed to me to be a powerful argument. Today, I discovered a detailed article by a well-credentialed scholar, Richard Carrier, who argues that Doherty really knows his stuff (though Carrier does have minor criticisms). Carrier further argues that Doherty’s “ahistoricist” argument from silence is not Doherty’s most convincing argument against the Standard Historicity claim (the claim that Jesus actually walked on earth). Carrier argues that Doherty’s companion argument, the “argument to the best explanation” is even more convincing with regard to the “standard historicist theory” (that a divine Jesus did walk the earth). I wanted to take the time to share the ideas of both of these writers, Doherty and Carrier. What follows below is the conclusion from Carrier’s article, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity (2002).”

When we compare the standard historicist theory (SHT) with Doherty’s ahistoricist or “mythicist” theory (DMT) by the criteria of the Argument to the Best Explanation, I must admit that, at present, Doherty wins on at least four out of the six criteria (scope, power, plausibility, and ad hocness ; I think DMT is equal to SHT on the fifth criterion of disconfirmation ; neither SHT nor DMT wins on the sixth and decisive criterion). In other words, Doherty’s theory is simply superior in almost every way in dealing with all the facts as we have them. However, it is not overwhelmingly superior, and that leaves a lot of uncertainty. For all his efforts, Jesus might have existed after all. But until a better historicist theory is advanced, I have to conclude it is at least somewhat more probable that Jesus didn’t exist than that he did. I say this even despite myself, as I have long been an opponent of ahistoricity.

However, I think the fault is more with historicists who have stubbornly failed to develop a good theory of historicity. By simply resting on the feeble laurels of prima facie plausibility (“Jesus existed because everyone said so”) and subjective notions of absurdity (“I can’t believe Jesus didn’t exist!”), the existence of Jesus has largely been taken for granted, even by competent historians who explicitly try to argue for it. The evidence is selectively mined for confirming evidence, and all challenging evidence is ignored, especially when it is weird. But Doherty deals with the weird evidence in a way few historicists ever have. In fact, I have never seen any historicist case made by comprehensively explaining all the evidence in this way. At present, historicists “can” account for all the evidence, but they do so at great cost to their theory’s merits, building ad hocness, or diminishing scope, power, or plausibility. Worse, each problem by itself would not be serious, but to have to resort to such excuses for hundreds of such problems is very serious indeed, a problem DMT avoids.

And it is for these reasons I am forced to rule against the historicist case, even if by a small margin. Maybe someone can finally take Doherty’s thesis seriously and develop a single, coherent theory of Jesus’ existence that explains all the evidence as well as Doherty’s theory does, or better. As I have not seen it tried, I cannot say it can’t be done. But someone is going to have to do it if they want to refute Doherty. Merely picking at his arguments, and again flinging prima facie plausibility and subjective notions of absurdity at it like they were heavy artillery, is not going to work.

Finally, all this is not to say that the historicity of Jesus has been refuted or that it is now incredible. Many arguments for historicity remain. They simply are not as abundant, strong, and coherent as Doherty’s thesis, no matter how abundant, strong, and coherent they may be. That Jesus existed remains possible, and if Doherty could take early Christians to court for the crime of fabricating a historical Jesus, they would go free on reasonable doubt. Still, the tables have turned. I now have a more than trivial doubt that Jesus existed, to my surprise. But this stands only by a margin, allowing that I could easily be wrong. This is the impact I believe Doherty’s book will have on any careful, objective reader. As an historian, I do not believe truly decisive evidence exists either way. It could. We might turn up proof that Jesus did or didn’t exist, if we had better documentation of the 1st century, especially of early Christian communities and beliefs, but we don’t, a fate that leaves many an historian in an inescapable position of relative ignorance. As it is, we must entertain the plausible possibility that Jesus didn’t exist.

I find these discussions of Doherty and Carrier to be fascinating. In fact, these sorts of discussions should really be one of the starting points for any thoughtful Christian’s education. Shouldn’t anyone who wants to follow the truth consider even those things that might appear inconvenient or even hostile to those beliefs? In the same vein, shouldn’t those who want to use the Bible itself as the starting point for their beliefs, consider the origin of the Bible writings, including the undeniable fact that numerous biblical writings have been tampered with over the years?

I’m not disparaging the teachings of Jesus. Many of those teachings are challenging, humanitarian, even revolutionary. We don’t need to believe in a flesh and blood Jesus in order to find value in those teachings that have value, right? Nor do we need to believe in a physical reality of Atticus Finch to be inspired by the kind of man he was portrayed to be. Therefore, I want to make it clear that I am raising the issue of the existence of a flesh and blood Jesus, but not contesting that many of his teaching were inspirational.

Nor am I raising alarm that many people are striving to seek out higher meaning in the absence of sufficient facts on which to base that meaning of life. All of us, those who believe in God and those who don’t, are all in the same boat in that respect. But I also think that beliefs should always be thoughtful, striving, humble and willing to consider all serious opposing views and consider where and when they don’t know what they don’t know.


Category: History, Religion, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Here's a direct link to the Preamble

    He simply has his site in a url aliasing frame, probably as a cost cutting measure, while the content is stored on the humanists.net site

  2. Derek says:

    Great book, I read it through after I read through "Dialog with a christian proselytizer" by Todd Allen.

    Another great book on the subject is "The Incredible Shrinking Son Of Man" by Robert Price

  3. Ebonmuse says:

    Doherty's book, in my opinion, is superb. I had never really thought to question the hypothesis that Jesus was a historical person, but his book weaves together a lot of evidence and is astoundingly good at explaining some very strange anomalies which the conventional Christian view either ignores or deals with only very awkwardly.

    For instance, Paul – the first evangelist, the devoted convert – never expresses any interest in visiting the places where Jesus supposedly walked on earth. Nor does he ever recount any story that clearly is drawn from the gospels. His Jesus is a maddeningly vague and shadowy character, never quite placed firmly on earth. In fact, Paul explicitly contradicts his teachings as recorded in the gospels on more than one occasion.

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