The most compelling reason to assume Jesus Christ existed is because so many people believe he did, and apparently did so by the mid-2nd century; however, to paraphrase part of Frank Zindler‘s question to Bart Ehrman at the Ehrman/Price Mythicist Milwaukee debate, “if the Docetists had won the wars of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, we might be debating something else, such as whether there was a historical tooth fairy”.
Zindler’s point was more loaded than the casual observer might appreciate, as the Docetists believed Jesus Christ did not actually appear on earth in the flesh; rather, they believed he was an apparition. More bluntly, if secular historians were trying to discern the probability that someone (who was not Jesus Christ) existed, and whose historical attributes included those the Docetists gave to Jesus Christ, it would not be at all unreasonable to assume that person did not exist.
A careful historian would not rule out the apparition legend’s existence simply because of this strange attribute, but if this character were not the God and savior in the minds of billions of people worldwide, there would be much less hostility surrounding the debate, particularly towards those who have the audacity to reject this character’s historicity.
My conclusion about Jesus Christ’s historicity is similar to others who reject it, although the strategy I use is probably different. I assume Jesus Christ was a composite of many historical and non-historical figures.
My particular interest as of late has been to elaborate and speculate on the religious and political underpinnings of the group which gave rise to Christianity: the Nasarenes. My assumptions are largely based on the works of Margaret Barker, who makes the case that Christianity emerged from a version of Judaism which was less concerned about Mosaic law, and more concerned with Wisdom as spiritually propagated by a feminine angel and the wife of the most high, known to her incense-burning worshipers as the Queen of Heaven.
The speculation of this detail provides remarkable explanatory power. For instance, the story in Revelation 12, where a woman, clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet bounces back and forth between heaven and earth, escapes the clutches of a celestial dragon who previously ignited a war in heaven, and gave birth to a son who was taken up to heaven by God. Revelation 12 closes by assuring its readers that those who revere the woman and her son are the true keepers of the law (Rev 12:17); this is a clear allusion to the Nasarenes – the Hebrew term for keep, guard, or preserve is Nasar. In this context, it is no wonder Christianity and Judaism’s primary schism (aside from the obvious) related to their propping up of Moses. If Moses’ law was not the centerpiece of Judaism, then what was their ethical and spiritual center? For the Nasar, it was a spiritually derived wisdom sent from another realm by the Queen.
Church father Epiphanius of Salamis gives insight into the Nasar in his Panarion, where he describes them as a Jewish mystery cult (in other words), living amongst the Jews, practicing their customs, but rejecting the Pentateuch, and believing they have the true teachings of Moses. Put another way, to the Nasar, Moses’ teachings were inferior to the spiritual wisdom of the Queen, whose days as a centerpiece of Orthodox Judaism, according to 2 Kings, ended with Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform in the 7th century BCE.
The Nasar show up again elsewhere in Epiphanius’s writings, when he describes an Elxai, who lead a collection of Essenes, Ebionites, Nazarenes, and Nasarenes, and whose chief concern appears to be 96-mile tall masculine and feminine Spirits in the sky – the male Spirit was the Christ.
It is my contention that Elxai has much explanatory power when parsing the curiosities of several Christian sects that early church father Irenaeus first described around 185CE, notably the Ebionites. Many Christian scholars have no trouble presuming that it was the Ebionites who preceded Pauline Christianity, and had in their ranks, among others, James, and those men from Galatians 2, who convinced Cephas to stop eating with the uncircumcised.
Put generically, these Ebionites saw Jesus Christ as less supernatural than Paul did. But it is in the specifics where the dots begin to align. Like a similar group of early Christians known as the Cerinthians, the Ebionites believed that a Spirit from heaven descended upon Jesus like a dove after his baptism. This is detectable in the Synoptic Gospels, which is no surprise, considering that the Cerinthians and Ebionites are both associated with various (perhaps proto) versions of the sans virgin birth Gospel of Matthew; my suspicion is that it was some symbiosis between these groups which resulted in the proto-Synoptic Gospel’s creation.
An obvious link between Elxai and the Ebionites already exists via Epiphanius, who wrote that Elxai’s followers included some Ebionites. But consider the parallels between Elxai’s view, which had 96 mile tall Spirits in the sky, and the Ebionite view, which had the Christ Spirit descending onto the ordinary man Jesus. The two views are entirely compatible. In other words, Elxai’s Spirits were sending out signals of themselves to the elect, which we might presume, given the immediately preceding event in the Gospels, were the people who received baptism.
Since we already concede that the Ebionites preceded Paul (he even admits this – Galatians 1:17), and were therefore the earlier Christians, it strikes me that the Gospel story of Jesus was nothing more than an allegory to explain what could happen to those Nasarenes who received proper spiritual initiation: they would gain magical abilities, their spiritual senses would increase to the point of being able to detect and purge demons within the temple and the synagogues, and they would have deeper insight into the realm of the unknown God. They would become the Christ.
A reason the specific timeframe was selected for the Gospel story, 40 years prior to the temple’s destruction, was to indicate that the Christ Spirit, which should substitute for the temple, and which would be encapsulated by a human being, had been on earth prior to the temple being destroyed. This could explain why Jesus cursed the fig tree, even though it was entirely expected that it would not bear fruit during that time of year – this was an allusion to the temple’s spiritual deficiency: the temple no longer housed the Christ – that job was now assumed by the carrier of the Christ Spirit: Jesus. Given the fact that the Gospel of Mark generally dates to around 70CE, perhaps one reason for this timeframe would be to give “spiritual proof” that the writers of Mark had received this Spirit after Jesus died, and were therefore, the true inheritors of the Spirit, which later became known as the Paraclete.
The temple’s spiritual deficiency is detectable in Paul’s writings, as well. For instance, he wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” He also said that he was “once again in the pains of his childbirth until the Christ is formed within” his followers (Galatians 4:19). I think it clear that, to Paul, the Christ was likewise the Spirit of the temple, and therefore, the physical temple was not necessary (although it is nearly universally assumed, I do not believe it is clear whether Paul was writing before the temple was destroyed). This Pauline trope of recalling his own childbirth is remarkably similar to a notion which existed in a sect, very similar to the Ebionites and Cerinthians, which Irenaeus described as the Carpocratians in Against Heresies i.25:
They also hold that Jesus was the son of Joseph, and was just like other men, with the exception that he differed from them in this respect, that inasmuch as his soul was steadfast and pure, he perfectly remembered those things which he had witnessed within the sphere of the unbegotten God. On this account, a power descended upon him from the Father, that by means of it he might escape from the creators of the world
In the next sentence about the Carpocratians, Irenaeus explains
They further declare, that the soul of Jesus, although educated in the practices of the Jews, regarded these with contempt, and that for this reason he was endowed with faculties, by means of which he destroyed those passions which dwelt in men as a punishment [for their sins].
If we reconsider the lens through which we look at these claims, consider an intriguing speculation: Paul (or whoever wrote Paul) saw himself as Jesus Christ. These attributes the Carpocratians assigned to Jesus Christ are just as much a match to Paul as they are to Jesus! Irenaeus even makes allusion to the Carpocratians using Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
One common Pauline passage used to support Jesus Christ’s historicity (and that Paul must have considered Jesus a human, as well) is Galatians 4:4-5:
But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law, that we might receive our adoption as sons.…
Does this passage really reflect Paul’s views on a human Jesus? Or is this passage a reference to Paul himself receiving ownership of the Spirit? Paul was genomenon (manifested/born) from a woman, as is evidenced by his miscarried birth (1 Corin 15:8) He was also born under the law, in the tribe of Benjamin, as he writes in his letters. Indeed, this passage reads equivalently when the reader assumes that Paul is talking about himself.
The flip side of this story comes in 1 Corinthians 15 7-8
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one born from a miscarriage (ektroma)
Once again, Paul’s insight into his own abnormal birth (a miscarriage) is directly linked to the Carpocratians, who believed the Spirit-encapsulator would remember details prior to their birth. The Carpocratians also believed in reincarnation and in the transmigration of souls. In my estimation, the odds are that Paul’s stories were contributed to by multiple members of the community who saw themselves simultaneously as reincarnations of Paul and the encapsulators of the Christ-Spirit. I have made the case in another post that a character who shows up in Mark’s Gospel (a gospel which is sympathetic to Paul), named Simon of Cyrene, that character plucked from the field in Mark 15 (the field was synonymous with the New Jerusalem where the Queen of Heaven’s spirit would reside), was one such iteration of Paul (who was the Paraclete – the heretical sect known as the Basilideans believed Simon of Cyrene was the Paraclete). The Gospel of Matthew, which is explicitly hostile to Paul’s theological system, omits the reference to Simon coming from the field, but leaves him in the story. As I have argued, the whole point of Simon of Cyrene showing up late in Mark’s Gospel was to close up the loose end Mark put into 9:38-40, where an unnamed demon-caster was doing Jesus’s work for him. In contrast, Matthew writes that demon-casting will not get anyone priority in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:22), particularly if that person instructs his followers not to follow Moses’s law (Matthew 5:19).
Recall my reference to Frank Zindler’s question at the Price-Ehrman debate. Zindler referenced the Docetists. Right or not, the name we tend to associate with Docetism was Marcion, that ship merchant who preserved Paul’s corpus, but rejected other apostolic traditions, such as those of Peter, James, and John. Marcion was also evidently responsible for the first multi-text canon, which was composed entirely of Paul’s letters.
One rightly wonders: why would Marcion do that? What could possibly trigger an early Christian to accept Paul at the expense of apostles who supposedly accompanied Jesus?!?
One solution to this oddity is that Marcion knew the other apostolic traditions were fake, and that the Gospels were allegory. Perhaps this was part of it. But how does Marcion fit into the model I have described so far?
In my model, Marcion must have believed Paul was the Paraclete who received the Christ Spirit. In that sense, the Christ was an apparition: it was not material. The man who encapsulated it was material, just like in the Cerinthian and Ebionite systems. Though this assumption deviates from Irenaeus’s and Tertullian’s characterization of Marcion, it strikes me as more economical.
The recipient of the Christ spirit was only half the story. Recall that Elxai had 2 spirits: the masculine and the feminine. One theme that emerges in many of the heretical sects described by early church fathers, is that there was often a prominent female. For instance, the Carpocratians, whose theology match Paul’s views in not inconsequential ways, had a Marcellina. The supposed “father of all heretics”, Simon Magus, had a female companion named Helen, who was supposedly a reincarnation of Helen of Troy. The Montanists, that sect which was obsessed with the “New Jerusalem”, which was located in Central Turkey, had Prisca. Even Jesus had Mary Magdelaine! In Against Heresies i.13, Irenaeus notes that Marcus the Magician, who had a penchant to turn water into wine, also had a female companion who was originally the wife of an Asian deacon.
Among other things, this Marcus declared:
…the infinitely exalted Tetrad descended upon him from the invisible and indescribable places in the form of a woman (for the world could not have been borne it coming in its male form), and expounded to him alone its own nature, and the origin of all things…
Irenaeus rejected Marcus, and deemed him a heretic. My assumption is that Marcus represented the earlier version of Christianity. The woman who descended was the Queen of Heaven, and along with the Christ, acted as a proxy between the highest heaven/God and the Earth, and (as in the Gospel of Mark and Matthew), the spirit descends on the elect.
Even Paul’s adversary in the earliest days of Christianity, James, seems linked to these more mystical concerns, including the inclusion of the female Paraclete. Consider the Naassenes, an early Christian group, described by Hippolytus. The Naassenes revered James, but (unlike the Ebionites) had a tremendous amount of Gnostic influence; in fact, Hippolytus referred to them as the first so-called Gnostics.
According to Hippolytus, the Naassenes claimed to be disciples of Mariamne, who was a disciple of James. Consider an alternate reading: The Naassenes were followers of James who saw Mariamne as the Earthly encapsulator of the Queen’s spirit. Another way of looking at this is that, according to the Gospels, Mary was the name of Jesus’s mother and companion. Did Mary Magdelaine become James’ follower after Jesus died? Or was Mary Magdelaine James’ companion the whole time, and the Gospel story assigns to Jesus Christ a collection of attributes from various Paracletes throughout Nasarene history, including James and Paul? In this light, it is interesting that no such explicit link to a Mary exists in the Paul sects. In my model, this is because the story of Mary receiving the feminine Spirit came from the Jamesian side of Christianity, not the Pauline side. And the name of the earliest Jamesian Christians who believed in the virgin birth: the Nazarenes.
A fragment from the Naassene sermon is below. One of the details I have noticed since drawing this connection between the Queen of Heaven and early Christianity is how many of these pre-Orthodox references to the mother there are – something which decreased post-Orthodoxy.
From thee, father, through thee, mother, the two immortal names.
Recall my earlier speculation that Paul saw himself, rather than some Judean minister, as the (current) vehicle of the Christ. Perhaps what we have with the Naassenes is a sect who saw James as Jesus the Christ. That would explain Paul’s strange statement in 2 Corinthians 11:4
For if someone comes and proclaims a Jesus other than the One we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit than the One you received, or a different gospel than the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough
This notion reemerges in several early Christian texts, not just Paul’s writings, which has the Christ appearing to James prior to appearing to Paul (1 Corin 15:7-8), but also in the Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus tells his followers to go first to James, but to be on the lookout for a potential leader who was “not born of a woman” – this tradition, in my view, was Paul’s motivation to claim he was born from a miscarriage, and also explains references to his recalled child birth pains. The similar naming between the Naassenes and Nasarenes might be explained by the Hebrew translation into Syriac (although the traditional assumption is that it comes from the Hebrew naas, which means snake).