The God Who Wasn't There

Flemming asks, “Why is it that Christians can be so specific about the life of Christ but they’re vague about what happened after he left? Aren’t Christian leaders telling them the story?” He then launches into a critique of the New Testament. Mark was written first “and the other three are clearly derived from Mark. Mark mentions the destruction of the Jewish Temple which happened in the year 70. So, the Gospels all came later than that; probably much later. There’s a gap of four decades or more. Most of what we know about this period comes from a man who says he saw Jesus Christ come to him in a vision. He was the apostle Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus.

Flemming (in the main video) and Doherty (later in the 2nd Commentary) assert that all of the Gospels derived from Mark. This is far from the truth. Although it is granted by most scholars that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources, they had other sources as well, for example the hypothetical “Q” source, which Doherty acknowledges may be one of those sources.[2] Luke reported that many had written accounts of what Jesus said and did before he wrote his Gospel (Luke 1:1). Regarding John’s use of Mark, the prominent New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes that:

probably most (but by no means all) scholars nowadays hold that the author(s) of John (at least at the earliest stage of the process that led to our present text) either did not know of, and refer to, any of the Synoptic Gospels or, at the least, did not use them as sources in the way the authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark (and Q).[3]

Moreover, most of today’s scholars believe that much of the tradition in John is from one of Jesus’ disciples, although there is no consensus about who that disciple was. Many believe the author was the apostle John or a minor disciple who traveled with Jesus but was not one of the twelve.[4] Some details in John (e.g., Jesus’ arrest & trial) actually cohere better with known historical conditions and are not related to John’s theology, which lends credibility both to independence and historicity. John likewise contains very early tradition, although it is the last of the Gospels to be written. James Charlesworth of Princeton, who is no friend of evangelicals, states that nearly all Johannine scholars “have concluded that John may contain some of the oldest traditions in … the Gospels.”[5]

When were the Gospels written? In Flemming’s PowerPoint presentation he writes: “The earliest possible date for Mark was used on this timeline [AD 70]. In fact, the 40-year gap [between the death of Jesus (who never existed!) and the time in which Mark penned his Gospel] is probably much wider. Scholarship shows that Mark could have been written as late as 85-90 A.D.” This position derives largely from Doherty who says the following in his interview: “The first Gospel wasn’t written until almost the end of the first century.... The others follow over the next several decades.

Flemming is out of touch with scholarship and Doherty takes a radical position. Nearly all modern scholars hold that all four Gospels were written by the end of the first century.[6] That is not “much later” than AD 70 as Flemming claims. The dating of the four Gospels is a very involved discussion and beyond the scope of this review. Arguments for particular dates for the composition of the Gospels can be found in New Testament Introductions or most scholarly commentaries. One would be hard-pressed to find a modern scholar who is convinced that the Gospels were written as late as Doherty and Flemming propose. Moreover, they seem unaware that even a gap of sixty to seventy years between the writing and the events they purport to describe is quite early compared to what historians work with when it comes to other ancient biographies. For example, historians obtain nearly everything they know about Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) from four sources: Diodorus of Sicily (60-30 BC), Quintus Curtius Rufus (?-AD 53), Plutarch (AD 46-c. 122), and Arrian of Nicomedia (c. AD 87-after 144). The bulk of our information on Alexander comes from Plutarch. Thus, the earliest source for Alexander used by modern historians is more than 260 years after his death and the most reliable source is more than 370 years removed. Flemming’s attempt to get his viewers to regard the Gospels as unreliable because they were written 40-70 years after the life of Jesus would be laughed at by the large majority of modern historians of antiquity.

Referring to Paul’s letters, Flemming states:

These documents represent almost all we have of the history of Christianity during this decades long gap. And here's the interesting thing: if Jesus was a human who had recently lived, nobody told Paul. Paul never heard of Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, Herod, John the Baptist. He never heard about any of these miracles. He never quotes anything that Jesus is supposed to have said. He never mentions Jesus having a ministry of any kind at all. He doesn't know about any entrance into Jerusalem. He never mentions Pontius Pilate or a Jewish mob or any trials at all. Paul doesn't know any of what we would call the story of Jesus, except for these last three events. And even these, Paul never places [sic] Jesus on earth. Just like the other savior gods of the time, Paul’s Christ Jesus died, rose, and ascended all in a mythical realm.

It is not true that Paul’s letters are all we have about Christianity during the decades that occurred between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. The book of Acts is usually dated to have been written between AD 61-85. Even if we date Acts on the outer end, we have a document that is a history of the Church between AD 30-61. That is, it was written only 25-55 years after the events it purports to describe, given the outer limits of a critical dating. Most professional historians would rejoice at such a short gap. Another issue to consider is whether Luke’s intention was to write a historical account. Most modern scholars including the agnostic critic Bart Ehrman believe that Luke’s intention was indeed to write a history of the first decades of the Church. Although Ehrman believes there are fictional elements in Acts, he states that it is best to conclude that “Luke meant to write a history of early Christianity, not a novel.[7] It is also interesting to note that the early kerygma[8] indicates that there was an interest in the historical Jesus and that people already knew the stories of what Jesus did and what was done to him (Acts 10:34-43).

Flemming also states in his video that:

Paul doesn't believe that Jesus was ever a human being. He's not even aware of the idea. And he's the link between the time frame given for the life of Jesus and the appearance of the first Gospel account of that life. This is why you don't hear many Christian leaders talking about the early days of Christianity. Because when you assemble the facts, the story is that Jesus lived, everyone forgot and then they remembered. But it gets even shakier than that. Allegorical literature was extremely common back then.

Contrary to Flemming, there are a number of reasons for believing that Paul was familiar with the historical Jesus. First, since Paul was a committed Jew, he would have been in Jerusalem during the Passover as Jesus would have been. Thus, there is a good possibility that both Jesus and Paul were in Jerusalem at the same time and that Paul even heard Jesus teach. Second, Paul declares that he opposed the Church to the point of persecuting its believers. Acts reports that Paul had heard the testimony of Stephen about Jesus just before Stephen was martyred. And surely others, both the persecuted and the persecutors would have shared information about the historical Jesus with Paul. Third, Paul wrote, “We have known Christ according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16 NKJV). This seems to imply that he had some knowledge of Jesus’ earthly life. Fourth, on three occasions in Paul’s letters he shows that he is familiar with the sayings of Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:10; 9:14; 11:1, 2, 20-25). Fifth, Paul’s words may indicate that he knew that the historical Jesus was meek and gentle (2 Corinthians 10:1) and that either he came from a poor family or lived a poor life, or both (2 Corinthians 8:9). Sixth, Paul reports that he went to Jerusalem to visit Peter. The word he uses for visit in Greek is historēsai, from which we derive the English word history. Thus, as many scholars have noted, during Paul’s first visit with the apostles as a new believer, he is certain to have asked them for details about the Lord he now served, details of both his earthly life and his teachings, the same information each of us would be interested in if we were now in Paul’s place. Seventh, as Luke began to write his Gospel, he reported that others had previously compiled accounts of the things Jesus did. Paul could have been familiar with one or more of these. Thus, there are a number of good reasons for believing that Paul knew of the historical Jesus. This becomes especially strong when all seven reasons are considered collectively. The Australian New Testament scholar Paul Barnett writes, “There can be no doubt that, both before he was a disciple but also afterwards, Paul knew a lot about the historical Jesus. There can be no support for the idea that Paul was some ‘Robinson Crusoe’ figure cut off from historical knowledge and entirely dependent on ‘heavenly revelation.’[9]

Let’s look at a few more of Flemming’s claims about Paul.

He never quotes anything that Jesus is supposed to have said.” This is easily debunked. In 1 Corinthians 11:24, Paul writes of Jesus that, “when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Paul is obviously aware of the Jesus tradition known by the Evangelists (Mark 14:22; Matthew 26:26; Luke 22:19). As noted above, there are also a number of passages where Paul shows he is familiar with the sayings of Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:10; 9:14; 11:1, 2, 20-25; 2 Corinthians 5:16). Paul is familiar with Pilate and John the Baptist in his speech in Acts 13:25, 28. Colin Hemer argues that the speeches in Acts are probably summaries of what certain apostles taught on a specific occasion[10] as does Craig Keener in his forthcoming commentary on Acts. He also knows that Jesus had a brother, indeed several, which places the historical Jesus within Paul’s generation (Galatians 1:19; 1 Corinthians 9:5). Flemming accepts Doherty’s explanation that the term “brother of the Lord” probably referred to a specific group of Christians who named themselves “brothers of the Lord.” However, no evidence is provided in support of this thesis and it does not fit well with other reports that Jesus had brothers (Matthew 12:46-50; cf. Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21; Matthew 13:55-57; John 2:12; 7:3-11; Acts 1:13-14). (See more on this topic near the end of this review.)

Just like the other savior gods of the time, Paul's Christ Jesus died, rose, and ascended all in a mythical realm.” This statement in the main video is supported by Robert Price in a later interview. (For the record, I’ve met Bob Price and have exchanged a few cordial emails with him in the past. I really like the guy and find him pleasant on a personal level.) Price says that:

in the case of someone like Caesar Augustus, around whom many of the same myths clustered, we know there nonetheless was a Caesar Augustus, because he's intricately tied into the history of the time and many secular historians talk about him. You can't rewrite history without Caesar Augustus. But at the very two points that Jesus appears to be locked into history these stories are either still mythical like the slaughter of innocents arrived right out of the book of Exodus or they contain outrageous improbabilities, such as the Jewish supreme Council meeting on Passover Eve to get rid of this guy. It's just out of the question. Or Pontius Pilate letting go a known killer of Romans and insurrectionist, Barabbas, and just letting Jesus being thrown to the mob after, however, trying to get him off the hook, as if he has to have a vote on it. It just defies any kind of historical verisimilitude. And that when you realize, well, you know, there were other ancient Jews and Jewish Christians that believed Jesus had been killed a century before under King Alexander Janaeus or in the Gospel of Peter it says that Herod had Jesus killed. Well how could this be a matter of such diversity if it was a recent event that people remembered? It just begins to make you wonder is this man really part of the historical time stream or does it begin to look like someone has tried to put a figure originally mythical into a historical framework and made various stabs at it?

While the historicity of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent and the Jewish trial of Jesus in the Passion accounts have been questioned, no decisive arguments have been presented against them. This is, however, not the place to provide a robust defense of the historicity of the biblical accounts. Flemming’s video does not provide any more than assertions and, thus, I am not obligated to reply with a detailed refutation. I will comment that, in the first century, Bethlehem was probably a small village. Thus, the number of infants under the age of two would probably have been quite small. Would an action by Herod that caused the deaths of a small number of infants in a small village in an unpopular section of the Roman Empire have caught the attention of a number of ancient historians? We do not know. However, we should not be surprised if only one source reports it, in this case Matthew. For a good case for the historicity of Jesus’ trial by the Jewish leadership, see Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume Two, 1085-89. See also Raymond Brown’s The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1, 328-83.

While Price is quick to tell his viewers about the deaths of pagan gods, Martin Hengel of Tübingen lists a number of pagan gods who died violent deaths but notes how they differ from Christian reports of Jesus: “not only did all this take place in the darkest and most distant past, but it was narrated in questionable myths which had to be interpreted either euhemeristically or at least allegorically.[11] The resurrection of Jesus is not reported to have taken place in the gray and distant past. Rather, it was linked (1) to the time of Tiberius and Pilate, (2) to a specific location: Jerusalem within Judea, and (3) to numerous eyewitnesses who were still alive, including Jesus’ own family members. That the Jesus of whom Paul spoke is a contemporary rather than a mythic figure from an unspecified time in the past could not have been any clearer. [12] Thus, the reports of Jesus were of a contemporary nature that could to some extent be checked at the time. Hengel goes on to point out that crucified gods can be tormented for a while, but can never die. Greek heroes “cannot on any account be allowed to suffer such a painful and shameful death – this can only befall evil-doers.... The hero of the romance is saved at the last moment ...[13]In the romances ... crucifixion made for exciting entertainment and sensationalism. Here the suffering was not really taken seriously. The accounts of the crucifixion of the hero serve to give the reader a thrill: the tension was then resolved by the freeing of the crucified victim and the obligatory happy ending.[14] Thus, the contemporaneousness of Jesus to the reports about him and his fate distinguishes him from the mythical gods and heroes known to the people of that era.

But it gets even shakier than that. Allegorical literature was extremely common back then.” It is true that allegorical literature was common in antiquity. However, so was historical literature. The question to be answered here is what genre are the Gospels? Below we will see that they are historical rather than allegorical writings.

Flemming interviews Richard Carrier who says that the earliest Gospel, Mark, was not written as history: “Mark himself probably did not believe he was writing history. He was writing a symbolic message. He was writing a gospel, you know, the good news and symbolizing it using Biblical parallels, using parallels to pagan religions and so forth.[15] Carrier does not support his assertion in the interview. However, he provides three reasons for his contention in his chapter “The Spiritual Body of Christ” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.[16] Let’s look at these.

Psalmic Origins. Christians have long recognized that Psalm 22 appears to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. Carrier sees additional parallels relating to death and resurrection in Psalms 23-24. For him, this indicates that Mark invented the empty tomb and, thus, exploited these Psalms in order to “convey deep truths about the Gospel.[17] A few points may be made in reply. First, there seems to be little dispute among historians of Jesus that he thought of himself as Messiah and that his followers regarded him in this manner. However, it is disputed whether Jews in Jesus’ day thought of a suffering Messiah. The majority of today’s scholars tend to think that most thought of Messiah in purely victorious terms. If this is true, which seems to be the case given the confused, even aghast response of the disciples when Jesus announced to them that he would soon be killed, then Jesus’ death would have seemed terribly out of line with Messianic expectations. Jesus’ resurrection would likewise have appeared out of place, given the Jewish belief that the resurrection would occur on the last day. Thus, Christians would have searched the Old Testament scriptures in an attempt to make sense of what had occurred to their Rabbi. Accordingly, we expect to find parallels between Jesus and the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as the fulfillment of Old Testament promises regarding the Messiah. Paul wrote that “All the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20 ESV). We are not surprised, therefore, to find embedded in the kerygma that the early Christians viewed some of the Psalms like 16 and 22 as prophesying the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Since the kerygma predates Mark’s Gospel, at best Carrier could argue that Mark went further in his rhetorical skills. However, this is not even close to justifying the hypothesis that Mark invented the empty tomb as Carrier contends. Therefore, his first point fails.

Orphic Origins. The ancient Gentiles believed that the body was a prison for the soul and, thus, viewed death as a liberation where the soul would become a disembodied spirit. Prior to Plato, the Homeric view dominated. The afterlife involved a gloomy existence, even for the righteous. Thus, it is not surprising that everyone wanted to put off death as long as possible. Plato and Philo introduced a new view that held that the righteous would have a blissful afterlife. Both held to disembodied existence, however. Carrier writes that “an empty tomb would therefore symbolize an empty body, representing the fact that the soul has risen (into a new body), leaving a mere ‘shell’ behind, which was its ‘tomb’ in life.[18] He goes on to say that:

[t]his is exactly what Paul calls a ‘mystery,’ and like all mysteries, it would not be written down in the cult’s sacred story but explained through an oral exegesis, and only to initiates, while the outward appearance of the story would serve to conceal this mystery from the uninitiated. This could well be just what Mark was doing.[19]

Thus, he believes that Mark may have encoded Gentile belief in a disembodied spirit in a symbolic empty tomb account in order to conceal what Paul regarded as a mystery from those who were not initiates. Carrier notes what he sees as a few parallels between Mark’s empty tomb account and the Orphic cult, then concludes:

Thus, Mark’s empty tomb story mimics the secret salvation narratives of the Orphic mysteries, substituting Jewish-Messianic eschatology for the pagan elements. Only in an understanding that Christ is not here (meaning: the land of the dead, but also the corpse) will the water of life be given. This is the fundamental underlying message of Mark’s empty tomb narrative.[20]

A few problems with this view immediately stand out. First, the early Christians were not Gentiles, but Jews. It is granted that Jews held a variety of views regarding the afterlife. But resurrection was a major view and it was very clear that resurrection meant a returning of the corpse to life, although this body would be transformed. [21]

A second problem with Carrier’s view is that when Paul spoke of resurrection, it is certain that he meant that the mortal body would return to life, although transformed. Carrier takes issue with this view in his chapter “The Spiritual Body of Christ.” But his interpretation of Paul’s Greek and thoughts elsewhere are severely flawed, as I noted in our debate.[22] The point is that if Paul believed that resurrection entailed the corpse’s return to life, he must have believed in an empty tomb. Thus, it seems implausible that Mark invented it, since he is later than Paul.

A third problem concerns Carrier’s understanding of Paul’s use of the term ‘mystery.’ When Paul used this term, he usually meant that it was now revealed that Gentiles were now included among God’s people. Salvation was no longer available primarily to Jews. Gentiles had been grafted into God’s kingdom.[23]

A fourth problem with Carrier’s “secret salvation narratives [in Mark]” hypothesis is that Mark’s Jesus wants everyone to know the Gospel. In Mark 4:11, Jesus explains to his disciples that “to you is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those outside, everything is in parables.” At first look, this seems like a cryptic gospel as Carrier contends. Unfortunately, there is no consensus among commentators concerning how this passage is to be understood. But a fuller understanding of Jesus’ use of parables can be helpful. New Testament scholar R. T. France writes:

The focus throughout is not on the aim of the teacher so much as on the receptivity of the hearers. And the appropriateness of the parabolic method to this situation is that the parable, like the cartoon, is by its very nature adapted to elicit the appropriate and contrasting responses from the different kinds of hearer. Its challenge to think through the significance of the image, and to respond appropriately to its demand, will inevitably show up the division which already exists between those who are open to new insight and those who are resistant to change. Thus the same parable which to some brings an understanding of the secret of God’s kingship will leave others cold. They are the ones who remain [outside], and for them there is nothing but parable.[24]

It is also important to note that, immediately after making this statement, Jesus had to explain the parables to his disciples. The very ones to whom the parables were supposed to have been clear were given a secretive interpretation! He then adds that nothing will be hidden. Accordingly, although Mark’s passage may not be clear to many modern readers, Carrier is mistaken in his insinuation of God’s intent to hide the truth from those genuinely seeking truth. Carrier’s second argument fails.

The ‘Reversal of Expectation’ Motif. Carrier notes nine examples in Mark’s Gospel where readers expect one thing but get another.

  1. James and John ask to sit at the right hand of Jesus and are replaced by two thieves at his crucifixion. (This appears to me to be quite a strain.)
  2. Simon Peter who was told to take up his cross and follow Jesus is replaced by Simon of Cyrene, a foreigner who carries the cross of Jesus. (Although it is Peter’s comment that spurs Jesus to utter the statement about taking up one’s cross, Jesus is reported to say this to all of his disciples, not just Simon Peter [Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23]. So, Carrier strains to make this appear to be a parallel.)
  3. Simon of Cyrene is from the opposite side of Egypt, a symbol of death? (This is grasping at straws in order to find a reversal.)
  4. Instead of his family burying him, it is his enemies.
  5. Pilate’s expectation that Jesus would still be alive is confounded.
  6. Jesus’ own people deny him, while a Gentile military officer acknowledges him as the Son of God.
  7. Jesus’ own disciples abandoned him while the lowly women attend his death and burial. “The least shall be first.” (This is mistaken. The statement that “the least [elachistōn] shall be first” does not appear in the New Testament. Instead, Jesus said that “the last [eschatoi] shall be first” [Matthew 20:16]. “Last” refers to chronology, whereas “least” refers to quality. The only reference I can think of that would be closer to Carrier’s argument is found in Luke 9:48 where Jesus says, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great. (NASB)” But here Jesus is speaking of humility and the disciple who wants to be great must be humble. Although this reference is slightly closer to the point Carrier attempts to make, it still misses the mark, since the women did not become major leaders in the early Church. It is true that the lowly women attended Jesus’ death and burial while his disciples were nowhere to be seen, except the beloved disciple at the cross. But this is simply because the women posed no threat to either the Roman or Jewish authorities, whereas the disciples did.)
  8. The biggest reversal according to Carrier is when Mark’s Gospel ends with the women fleeing and saying nothing, the opposite of how Mark started with John the Baptist being “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
  9. The reader expects the women to see the body of Jesus but the tomb is empty. (Carrier adds that the parables are a reversal of expectation. “And so, the empty tomb story is probably itself a parable, which accordingly employs reversal of expectation as its theme. The tomb has to be empty, in order to confound the expectations of the reader.[25]After all, it begs credulity to suppose that so many convenient reversals of expectation actually happened. It is more credible to suppose that at least some of them are narrative inventions. And one such invention could easily be the empty tomb.[26] 

Carrier’s reversal of expectation motif is possible but unconvincing as evidence that the resurrection of Jesus is a legend, since he may well have employed the motif to illustrate examples by which he was himself was fascinated. Moreover, we may employ our imagination and see a number of striking reversals in almost any story. For example, let’s consider a future biography of John F. Kennedy:

  1. We expect the Catholic JFK to exhibit good morals. Instead, we learn that he has multiple affairs.
  2. We expect JFK to die when his boat was sunk by the Japanese in WWII. Instead, he leads most of his crew to safety.
  3. We expect to see the popular and young JFK live a long and prosperous life. Instead, he is beset by a bad back, was never very healthy, and is the youngest president to be assassinated.
  4. At the Cuban missile crisis, we expect a war with a foreign nation and that masses will die. Instead it is JFK alone who dies when he is killed by a fellow American.
  5. JFK tells Americans to ask what they can do for their country. He is assassinated by an individual who probably believed the country would be better off without him as president.
  6. We expect Oswald to go to trial. Instead, he is killed by civilian Jack Ruby.
  7. We expect to see Ruby tried. Instead, he also dies before his trial.
  8. We expect to see JFK’s brother replace him as president. Instead, he is assassinated, too.
  9. We expect the government to figure out what happened. Instead, rumors surface that the government is involved. 

With a little thought, we can probably find reversals in just about any story. The reader expects one thing to occur and instead is told something else. Life itself is filled with reversals. These are the cause of both disappointment and surprise. We want or expect something and get something else. If Carrier had demonstrated that the “reversal of expectation” was a common motif in first century Greco-Roman and/or Jewish literature – and he did not – this would have served to strengthen his case. [27] If several of his nine examples had required less strain on the reader’s part so that they clearly showed that Mark’s intention was to illustrate a reversal of expectation, this would have provided us with a greater impetus for giving Carrier’s hypothesis serious consideration.

Even if all of Carrier’s examples stood, Mark could have modified a few of the data and employed a reversal of expectation motif in order to improve the quality of his story telling. On one or more occasions, all of us have altered stories of actual events we witnessed in order to emphasize a particular point or make the story more relevant to the particular person or audience to which we were speaking. Normally, we would not claim that a person doing this was being deceitful, unless an unreasonable amount of liberty was taken that distorted the facts to be contrary to what actually occurred. Thus, wholesale invention on Mark’s part would at best be only an option. But it does not follow that it is more probable than other options. In fact, given Paul’s view, which predates the writing of Mark’s Gospel, that the post-resurrection Jesus included his transformed earthly body, Carrier’s hypothesis that Mark invented the empty tomb is not plausible. Thus, his third point is incorrect.

It is not uncommon for scholars to see all sorts of interpretations about what biblical authors really meant, rather than what seems plain on the surface. Carrier has provided a creative interpretation of why and how Mark invented the empty tomb account, and we have seen that it is quite problematic. Myriads of scholarly interpretations are sometimes interesting, but few are actually convincing. To illustrate, let us see what kind of interpretations we can come up with regarding Jesus and JFK. Of course, it would be anachronistic to claim that Christians patterned their account after the life of JFK. Thus, we will postulate that the year is 4005 and a few scholars are advancing the hypothesis that JFK was a mythical figure, since there are so many parallels with Jesus. How might those historians interpret JFK?

They may conclude that JFK was created as a type of Jesus. Many of the ideas held by Jesus were likewise held by JKF (after all, JFK was a Catholic). Anyone who holds these views will be persecuted. JFK's honorable burial in a tomb and the fact that others mourned him serve as signs that anyone who follows the ideology of Jesus will be honored. Therefore, the creator of the JFK myth must have invented him in order to make this ancient ideology relevant to mid-twentieth century Americans.

Let us try another interpretation. This time we will say that JFK is the antithesis of Jesus. The creator of JFK was anti-Christian, and wanted to show that a leader could be the antithesis of Jesus and still be effective. Kennedy was good looking, married, had children, cheated on his wife, came from a wealthy family, and achieved power with the help of bribes. Yet, he managed to be fairly effective and one of the most popular American presidents ever. Both of these interpretations (type of Jesus; antithesis of Jesus) are coherent and consistent with the facts. Both are mutually exclusive. And both are completely wrong.

These examples bear a close resemblance to much of what we observe in modern scholarship. Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer refer to this practice of imagining all sorts of interpretative constructs as “modern mythologizing.” [28] They add that in this type of New Testament criticism “everything seems possible.” [29] However, most of these interpretations are unprovable. I am not suggesting that none of the interpretations offered are correct. The scholar suggesting that a parallel or certain interpretation is true must make a case that it is the best explanation for all of the data. Rarely is this attempted. Many times no conclusive case can be made. When this occurs, the scholar should be humble and state that “‘such and such’ is a possibility, but that is as far as we can go.” Instead, the message of the hyperskeptics featured in Flemming’s work is “This is how it occurred and what it means.

Returning to Carrier, we have seen that he is mistaken when he says that Mark did not believe he was writing history. Indeed, his argument fails every step of the way. We could stop here since his argument is dead. But further flaws are revealed when we search for positive evidence against his thesis. So, is there any evidence that Mark intended to write history? The answer is definitely ‘yes!’ Prior to the 1990s, the consensus of scholarship was that the Gospels represented a sui generis, that is a genre unique to the Gospels and viewed as a type of mythology. Consider what the Jesus Seminar wrote in 1992: “[T]he gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand. Supposedly historical elements in these narratives must therefore be demonstrated to be so.[30] In other words, according to the Jesus Seminar at that time, the Gospels belong to a mythical genre and, thus, anyone making a claim to historicity bears the burden of proof.

If the Gospels belong to mythical genre, then it is true that claims of historicity bear the burden of proof. However, the converse is likewise true. If the Gospels belong to a historical genre, then claims of myth bear the burden of proof. What, then, is the genre of the Gospels? This is a question which has received much attention over the past twenty years, resulting in robust advances in our understanding of the issue. [31] The consensus of scholarship has changed significantly from the opinion of the Jesus Seminar. [32] This shift was initiated by Charles Talbert’s book What is a Gospel? followed by the more influential and less problematic work by Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels? Burridge is a classicist who set out to disprove the thesis first proposed by Talbert and a few other American scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography. During the course of his research, he reversed his opinion. [33] Graham Stanton of Cambridge University writes in the foreword to Burridge’s book that “very few books on the Gospels ... have influenced scholarly opinion more strongly” and that it “has played a key role in establishing that the Gospels were read in the early centuries primarily as biographies.” He adds, “I do not think it is now possible to deny that the Gospels are a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of ‘lives’, that is, biographies.[34] Of Burridge’s book, Talbert writes, “This volume ought to end any legitimate denials of the canonical Gospels’ biographical character.[35] Throughout the entire book, Burridge shows that ancient biographers were concerned with a number of issues pertaining to the person who is the subject, including their history, especially their death, their moral philosophy, their teachings, their political beliefs, stories told in tribute and praise, and they presented all of this in a narrative format. Although the Gospels do not possess all of the internal and external features of ancient biography, they do not differ from the genre “to any greater degree than other [works belonging to the genre of biography: bioi; bios for singular]; in other words, they have at least as much in common with Graeco-Roman [bioi], as the [bioi] have with each other. Therefore, the gospels must belong to the genre of [bios].[36]

Was ancient biography concerned with history? Burridge answers that it was “a flexible genre having strong relationships with history ...[37] Craig Keener, a classicist and former atheist, who became a New Testament scholar, writes, “The central difference between biography and history was that the former focused on a single character whereas the latter included a broader range of events.[38] David Aune who is a specialist in ancient genre writes, “While biography tended to emphasize encomium or the one-sided praise of the subject, it was still firmly rooted in historical fact rather than literary fiction. Thus while the [Gospel writers] clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicated that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened.[39]

That the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography seems secure. However, this does not rule out the possibility that the Evangelists were attempting to deceive their readers, which is an entirely different question. Neither does it establish that they intended every detail in their biographies to be understood precisely in literal terms. Ancient biographical genre allowed for flexibility on the part of the biographer to interpret what the subject said and accomplished and encomium was often included. What is secure for our present purposes is that the Evangelists intended for their readers to believe that their story of Jesus had actually occurred. That is why they chose to write biography. Accordingly, Carrier’s position that “Mark himself probably did not believe he was writing history” is grossly mistaken and exhibits an antiquated view of the Gospels, i.e. one that has been abandoned by the scholarly community.

I do not want to belabor the point. But there are reasons for believing not only that Mark wanted his readers to believe he was writing history but also that he himself believed he was writing history. Having combed through a number of ancient sources, Samuel Byrskog established that eyewitness testimony was of first-rate importance to ancient historians and that Mark demonstrates this concern in his Gospel. In 11:21 and 14:72, Mark seems to be reporting notes from Peter who has remembered things Jesus told him. This is entirely compatible with the early report of Papias that Mark reported what Peter had relayed to him. [40] In 15:40 Mark reports the women as observers of the events. The women are at a distance, but they observe. The verb used is theorein, which means “to look at, observe.” “Their function as eyewitnesses is further accentuated as three or four of them are singled out by name.[41] The same occurs again in 15:47 where the women are listed by name and said to observe the burial (theorein). Then again at the empty tomb in 16:1, 4-5, the women appear by name and observe that the tomb is empty (theorein, horan). “Specifically named women are thus eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death and of the location of his tomb, as well as of the empty tomb itself.[42] Given the importance of eyewitness testimony, which Byrskog’s research demonstrates, Mark’s recurrent reporting of presumably eyewitness testimony in relation to the burial and empty tomb of Jesus clearly reveals his intent to report accurate history.

Carrier mentions the silence of the women after being commissioned to tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised. This passage continues to perplex scholars and the reasons provided for the silence of the women are legion. Carrier says that it is a reversal of the reader’s expectation. Dunn says it is because Mark wants his readers to know that they are the witnesses and that they should therefore go tell what they know happened to Jesus. [43] Byrskog thinks that Mark deliberately silences the women so that they will not be the primary witnesses: “The voice of the women was not permitted to be heard in its own right, but it was never entirely ignored or silenced.[44] Hurtado holds that the reporting of resurrection appearances were neither necessary nor important. The empty tomb and the angel’s announcement that Jesus had been raised are to be seen as announcing the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies in 8:31; 9:9, 31; 10:34; 14:28. [45] Thus, for “readers who are to live with trust in God for their own vindication, it was sufficient to affirm that God has raised Jesus, the paradigmatic figure for their own lives and hopes.[46] Hendriksen believes the women’s silence refers only to the fact that they stopped and told no one until they saw the disciples. [47] Other notable scholars such as Craig A. Evans and R. T. France hold that it is probable that Mark’s ending has been lost. [48]

We may never know with certainty why Mark reported that the women were silent or if a section reporting Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances has been lost. Carrier’s explanation that Mark is employing a “reversal of expectation” is neither new nor convincing, since it requires belief that Mark was employing a “reversal of expectation” device throughout his Gospel and that this literary device was responsible for his invention of the empty tomb. Again, we have seen that Carrier’s arguments for this are both strained and mistaken.


[2] A number of scholars are now questioning whether Q existed. For a good statement of the contrary view, see Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perrin, Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).

[3] Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 355-56.

[4] More scholars including conservatives such as Witherington and the late Raymond Brown hold that the eyewitness testimony in John is probably from a minor disciple. However, strong cases for Johannine authorship have recently been proposed by Craig S. Keener in his massive two-volume commentary on John, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003) and Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1998).

[5] James H. Charlesworth, “Scrolls & Gospel,” in Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith, R. Alan Culpepper and C. Clifton Black, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Know, 1996), 66.

[6] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Third Edition (New York: Oxford, 2004), 49.

[7] Ehrman (2004), 134.

[8] By kerygma I am referring to what scholars recognize as certain remnants of the teaching of the apostles embedded in the oral traditions found in Paul’s letters, several of the sermon summaries in Acts (especially from the earlier chapters), and a few verses in the Gospels. Since the word kerygma refers to a formal and official proclamation, we may think of kerygma as the official and formal proclamation or teaching / preaching of the apostles. Accordingly, kerygma is thought to be pre-redaction content.

[9] Paul Barnett, Crux, September 1994, Vol. XXX, No. 3, 4.

[10] Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 418-26.

[11] Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 5-6.

[12] Hurtado (2003), 266.

[13] Hengel (1977), 81-82.

[14] Hengel (1977), 88.

[15] See also Flemming’s interview with Doherty who says, “It’s almost impossible to believe that they were writing what they were presenting as accurate history. And we can tell by the fact that Matthew, Luke, and John; they rework Mark in ways which are just a wholesale change of the situation. The words that were supposed to have been spoken by Jesus. They wouldn’t feel that they have the right to do that if they were presenting it to their readers as strict historically accurate accounts.

[16] Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005), 105-231, esp. 158-165. In my 2004 debate with Carrier, he provided three additional reasons. He includes his point about Jacob’s well in his first point in his chapter under Psalmic Origins. In that debate, I noted that his theory seemed heavily influenced by a book he had endorsed by Dennis MacDonald: The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark [New Haven, CT: Yale, 2000], a thesis that has many problems. Carrier denied his endorsement or that it had influenced his position. Thus, it is interesting that he writes on this very topic in this chapter that “Mark may have had some inspiration from Homer” (Carrier, 158). In the endnote to that statement he writes, “That Mark emulated and ‘transvalued’ Homer is demonstrated by Dennis MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark” (Carrier, 219). Carrier denied endorsing the book when I noted a number of major flaws in MacDonald’s thesis. But note his comments written prior to our debate: “MacDonald's case is thorough, and though many of his points are not as conclusive as he makes them out to be, when taken as a cumulative whole the evidence is so abundant and clear it cannot be denied. And being a skeptic to the thick, I would never say this lightly. Several scholars who reviewed or commented on it have said this book will revolutionize the field of Gospel studies and profoundly affect our understanding of the origins of Christianity, and though I had taken this for hype, after reading the book I now echo that very sentiment myself.” (See My criticisms of MacDonald included the following: Many times, MacDonald has to strain and contort the text to find his parallels, especially when he comes to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. In the Iliad, Hector’s body is burned and his tomb holds his remains forever, while Jesus body is resurrected three days later. Resurrection is mentioned three times in the Iliad; twice regarding its impossibility and once as a metaphor for Hector’s survival [avoidance] of certain death. Moreover, Mark differs in many ways from Homer. In order to account for this, MacDonald claims that “Mark hid his dependence by avoiding Homeric vocabulary, transforming characterizations, motifs, and episodes, placing the episodes out of sequence, and employing multiple literary models, especially from Jewish scriptures” (170). In other words, MacDonald is claiming that all of the characteristics the historian would look for in order to show a borrowing are absent because Mark changed everything intentionally to keep from being detected!

[17] Carrier, 161.

[18] Carrier, 162.

[19] Carrier, 162.

[20] Carrier, 163.

[21] See N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

[22] April 14, 2004 at UCLA for the Veritas Forum. 800 attended.

[23] Following is every use of the term ‘mystery’ in the Pauline corpus: Romans 11:11-26, especially verse 25 (where ‘mystery’ refers to the Gentiles now being in the body of Christ); 16:25-26 (where ‘mystery’ refers to God’s being made known to all the nations); 1 Corinthians 2:7 (where ‘mystery’ probably refers to knowledge not achieved by human intellect alone); 15:51 (where ‘mystery’ refers to the fact that some Christians who are alive at the Parousia will have their mortal bodies transformed into immortal resurrection bodies without going through death); Ephesians 1:9 (where ‘mystery’ refers to our having an inheritance in Messiah); 3:3-9, especially verse 6 (where ‘mystery’ refers to the Gentiles being fellow-heirs); 5:28-33, especially verse 32 (where ‘mystery’ refers to members of the Church as being one with Christ just as a wife is one with her husband; 6:19 (where ‘mystery’ of the Gospel is not explained); Colossians 1:26-27 (where ‘mystery’ refers to Messiah being available to Gentiles); 2:2 (where ‘mystery’ refers to all treasure and knowledge being in Christ); 4:3 (where ‘mystery’ is not explained); 2 Thessalonians 2:7 (the ‘mystery of lawlessness’); 1 Timothy 3:9 (the ‘mystery of the faith’ is probably the same as the ‘mystery of godliness’ a few verses later, since it is in the context of a godly life), 3:16 (an oral tradition that speaks of the story of Jesus being the ‘mystery of godliness’).

[24] Comments on Mark 4:11 in R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A commentary on the Greek text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[25] Carrier, 164.

[26] Carrier, 164-65.

[27] Support for “reversal of expectation” motif is not found in his chapter “The Spiritual Body of Christ” where he employs it in making his formal case that the empty tomb was an invention of Mark. Price notes “Reversals as noted by Dundes.” Perhaps Carrier received his idea from Dundes.

[28] Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years (London: SCM, 1997), 147.

[29] Hengel and Schwemer (1997), 119.

[30] Funk, Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar 1993, 4-5.

[31] The most significant contributions have come from Charles Talbert who was first to suggest that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977). Other significant contributions have come from David Aune, Philip Shuler, Robert Guelich, and Albrecht Dihle. The most recent and most influential by far is the contribution of Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[32]Fifty years ago we were drilled in the critical orthodoxy of the form-critical school which insisted that the gospels were not to be seen as biographies, but since then there has been a massive swing in scholarly opinion on this point, and increasingly sophisticated study of the nature of biographical writing in the ancient world has led to a general recognition that, for all the distinctiveness of its Christian content and orientation, in terms of literary form Mark’s book (and those of Matthew, Luke and John) would have seemed to an educated reader in the first century to fall into roughly the same category as the lives of famous men pioneered by Cornelius Nepos and soon to reach their most famous expression in the ‘Parallel Lives’ of Plutarch” R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A commentary on the Greek text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[33] Burridge (2004), 101.

[34] Burridge (2004), viii-ix.

[35] Talbert, “Review,” 715, cited by Keener, 12.

[36] Burridge (2004), 250. Keener writes, “The Gospels are ... too long for dramas, which maintained a particular length in Mediterranean antiquity. They also include far too much prose narrative for ancient drama” (Keener, 10). However, Keener adds in agreement with Witherington that John is probably a biography using the mode of tragedy (10-11).

[37] Burridge (2004), 67.

[38] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John, Volume One (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 12.

[39] David Aune, Biography, 125.

[40] Papias is now believed to have written during the first decade of the second century. His writings are no longer extant. However, they have been preserved in fragments. On the topic we are considering, see Eusebius’ Ecclesiatical History 3:39:16. Here Papias is quoting an even earlier authority who is probably John the apostle.

[41] Samuel Byrskoog, Story as History: History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History (Boston: Brill, 2002), 76-77.

[42] Byrskog, 78.

[43] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 833.

[44] Byrskog, 82. Dunn agrees in Jesus Remembered, 830.

[45] Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 311, n.138.

[46] Hurtado (2003), 311.

[47] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), comments on Mark 16:8.

[48] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20 in WBC, Volume 34b, comment on Mark 16:8; R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark in NIGTC, comment on Mark 16:8. Also see N. Clayton Croy, The Mutilation of Mark’s Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003) who argues that both the beginning and the end of Mark’s original Gospel have been lost.

© 2005 Mike Licona
Used on by the kind permission of Mike Licona.
Other resources by Mike Licona are available from his website

This article is reproduced by the kind permission of Mike Licona from his website