The God Who Wasn't There

Flemming refers to Doherty as a “historian and classical historian” and “one of the most important figures writing on the Jesus myth.” As the interview progresses, the viewer becomes increasingly aware that Flemming’s presentation has been largely influenced by Doherty’s work. Notice the following statements by Doherty seen earlier in this review:

The first Gospel wasn’t written until almost the end of the first century.... The others follow over the next several decades.
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.
Paul never places Jesus’ death and resurrection in an historical setting. He never identifies a time or a place.

I explained earlier in my critique of Carrier that 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. Doherty shows he has creative skills in this area, too. Of the story of Jesus’ multiplying of the loaves and fishes, he writes, “These are direct reworkings of the miracles of Elijah and Elisha.” Doherty thinks of the New Testament as Midrash, a new way of seeing spiritual truth. He claims that the Evangelists went to the Old Testament and created a Jesus based on certain Old Testament passages. Thus, they were using Old Testament passages to create the story. Most scholars see things differently. They recognize that the New Testament writers attempted to make sense of Jesus by going back to the Old Testament to see what it may have said about him. Midrash was an attempt to take old stories and make them relevant to the people of the writer’s own time and culture. But we can note that those writing the midrash believed the stories they were adding to. When we consider that a number of ancient non-Christian sources mention a historical Jesus, it is easy to know which option to prefer. No doubt Doherty will claim that these are all interpolations by later Christian editors or that their sources for this data were Christians. But the majority of Josephus scholars see good reasons for holding that Josephus knew of and mentioned Jesus in his writings and it is unlikely that a Roman historian such as Tacitus who had no respect for Christians would rely on their reports about Jesus for his own writing of history.

Doherty questions whether the apostles died as martyrs: “... there is no evidence in the early record that any of the apostles were actually martyred. Paul makes no mention of any of the ones that he knew as being killed, even when he speaks about the hardships that he and others had to endure. That’s a much later Church tradition and it was a popular myth in itself.” He says that Paul was not aware of any of the disciples who had died. But this seems unlikely. Paul said that he had consented to the executions of Christians. Luke reports that Paul consented to the death of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:3; 9:1). The speeches attributed to Paul by Luke very clearly say that Paul was aware of Christians who had been martyred and was involved in the process (Acts 22:4; 26:10). Scholars are divided as to whether Paul uttered these speeches or if Luke is reporting early Church tradition in narrative format by placing these traditions about Paul in the mouth of Paul himself. Few believe that the content of the speeches was invented by Luke. Either way, we have early tradition about Paul.

What does Paul himself say? In two of Paul’s undisputed letters, he makes statements that are compatible with what Luke reports he said (1 Corinthians 15:9; Philippians 3:6). Moreover, Paul may have been one of the first apostles to die. In this case, he would not have reported the deaths of other apostles. His martyrdom is attested by no less than seven ancient sources, the earliest of which is Clement of Rome (c. AD 95) who was most likely a disciple of Peter who died around the same time as Paul.[62]

That Christians were being executed by the middle of the first century is certain. The Roman historian Tacitus reports that in the time of Nero, a “multitude[63] of Christians suffered martyrdom: “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired” (Annals 15:44). Many scholars believe that Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom during the Neronian persecution.

The reports concerning the individual martyrdoms of most of the disciples are late. However, in the case of Peter, Paul, and James, they are not. And we have multiple reports regarding the willingness of the disciples to suffer continuously and even die for their conviction that Jesus had been raised. Only the hyperskeptics to whom we are responding question the sincerity of the apostles’ claim to have seen the risen Jesus. After all, if you do not believe that Jesus ever existed, you must likewise deny that a historical Jesus had apostles who saw him die and who were transformed when they saw him alive again.

Doherty attempts to dismiss the dual passages in Josephus that mention Jesus by claiming they are both interpolations. But this is not as easy as Doherty imagines. I have answered a similar attempt by an amateur scholar to dismiss Josephus as an authentic first century source who mentions the historical Jesus. (See both critiques of the book by Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold at By far, most scholars hold that Josephus knew of Jesus and mentioned him twice in his works.

Doherty believes there was a Q community that did not believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Jesus in Q is not considered a Savior figure, but bears a strong resemblance to the Greek cynics of the period. Doherty thinks the documentary record shows that today’s Christianity is a combination of the Christianities of both the Q community and Paul and that this combination took place in the Gospel of Mark. It is not a mix of oral tradition that Mark has tied together.

In Larry Hurtado’s recent work on Christology, which is quickly becoming the major work on the topic, he interacts with John Kloppenborg’s work on Q. Kloppenborg seems to agree with Doherty that Q’s failure to note any passion narratives or redemptive interpretations of the death of Jesus indicates that Q does not know them. But Hurtado points out that it is “not credible to imagine these Q people as somehow remaining ignorant, while all about them interpretations of Jesus’ death as redemptive, and belief in Jesus’ resurrection as well, were circulating among followers of Jesus.”[64] Paul is clear that what he preaches is essentially in agreement with what was coming out of Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-10). Moreover, the Semitisms in some of the oral traditions found in his letters likewise seem to point to a Jerusalem origin. We know that the Jerusalem apostles and Paul were preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:11). Thus, if there was a Q community, and this is questioned today,[65] we must ask why this document, if it was a document rather than an oral tradition, did not mention the death and resurrection of Jesus. We may postulate a few options. First, it could be that, for reasons unknown to us, Matthew and Luke preferred to use other sources when it came to these stories. Second, it could be that Q was composed during the lifetime of Jesus. In this case, we would not expect passion and resurrection narratives. The bottom line is that Q may or may not have existed and there is far more skepticism over the “Q community”, to which Doherty refers to as fact, than there is for a Q source. If Q indeed existed, the absence of a passion and resurrection narrative is curious. But I have presented two possibilities for why this may be so. Moreover, if Mark used Q as one of his sources, we must ask how we may detect this in his Gospel. After all, scholars identify Q by tradition common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark! Thus, Doherty’s argument that Mark combined Q and Paul does not make much sense.

Doherty says he has two “smoking guns” when it comes to shooting down the position that Jesus was a historical person. His first is comprised of two passages in Hebrews (8:4; 10:37). Hebrews 8:4 reads, “If Jesus had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest” (Doherty’s translation). Doherty comments, “‘if Jesus had been on earth’ ... Now those words in the context convey the clear implication that he never was.” He then cites a scholar who says that the normal interpretation of those words allow this interpretation. But since this would mean that Jesus never existed, we should prefer other options. “This shows you the kind of thinking and interpretation of texts that goes into regular New Testament scholarship. It just doesn’t allow you to see what the texts are actually saying.

Does the text actually imply that Jesus never existed? Let’s look at how it fits into its context. In Hebrews 7:14 the author says that Jesus came from the tribe of Judah and then offered himself as a sacrifice (7:27). Being from the tribe of Judah ties Jesus to an earthly life. In 8:1 he says that Jesus is a high priest who took his seat at the right hand of God. In 8:4, the verse under consideration, he says Jesus would not have been a priest if he had been on earth. In 8:6 he says, “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises”.[66]

In context, the author of Hebrews is saying that if Jesus had continued to be on earth rather than going to heaven, he would not be serving as a priest as he now does. Instead, he sacrificed his life in order to inaugurate the new and heavenly covenant and serves as our priest in heaven.

When this verse (8:6) is considered in its context, Doherty’s interpretation is very awkward. But there is another reason for rejecting Doherty’s interpretation that weighs even more heavily. Elsewhere, Hebrews presents Jesus as one who lived on earth (2:9, 14, 17; 5:7; 7:14; 10:5, 10; 12:2-3; 13:12). Thus, it seems very unlikely that he would speak of the earthly existence of Jesus on a number of occasions, then contradict himself by speaking of his non-existence on two other occasions. This is why New Testament scholarship will never adopt Doherty’s interpretation.

Doherty mentions a second passage in Hebrews as part of his first smoking gun: 10:37. He translates it, “the one who is to come will come and soon,” then comments:

by saying that the Messiah is coming soon, this shows very clearly that the writer has no knowledge of him already having been here in the person of Jesus. Now Christian commentators have to do a bit of twisting to deny the same meaning of that passage. But they do that all the time. They’ve developed a real proficiency in obscuring what the texts are really saying.

Once again, it is very clear that Doherty does not bother to read the context. Nor does he seem familiar with the ancient Christian belief that Jesus would return from heaven very soon. In context, the author is encouraging Jewish Christians, who have begun to be persecuted by imprisonment and were having their property confiscated. He encourages them to remain steady in their faith and that they will be rewarded. It is in this immediate context that he then writes, “For in a very little time, the one coming will come and will not delay.” It is just like encouraging an injured car accident victim by saying, “Hang in there! The ambulance will be here very soon!” Doherty has totally missed the meaning of these verses. As we saw, the author of Hebrews is familiar with a historical Jesus. Thus, Doherty’s two bullets in his first ‘smoking gun’ have backfired.

His second smoking gun is found in an apology by Minucius Felix, which is a debate between a pagan named Octavius and a Christian Minucius. The Anchor Bible Dictionary dates this works sometime between the late second and early third-centuries.[67] Octavius provides a list of accusations he has heard about the Christians, such as, they adore the head of a donkey, have secret and nocturnal rituals, worship the genitals of their priests, are incestuous, worship a wicked and crucified man and his cross, kill an infant, lick its blood and divide its limbs, etc.[68] He thinks there is probably some truth to the accusations but does not know. Felix denies it all and says that Christians are not even allowed to hear of such horrible things, much less do them. He adds, “For in that you attribute to our religion the worship of a criminal and his cross, you wander far from the neighbourhood of the truth, in thinking either that a criminal deserved, or that an earthly being was able, to be believed God.[69] In other words, Felix says that Christians neither worship a criminal nor his cross. For a criminal is unworthy of worship and an earthly being cannot be thought of as God. By no means is Felix saying that Christians believe Jesus was a criminal or that he was merely a human – or that he never existed.

These are Doherty’s two “smoking guns.” But they are nothing more than a child’s capgun. It makes noise, but it cannot deliver what it threatens. I strongly recommend that Doherty stay away from gunfights.

Flemming compares Doherty’s work with that of Galileo. Galileo presented evidence that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around, yet others refused to look into the telescope. In a similar manner, Flemming claims that people won’t look at Doherty’s work because it will destroy the assumptions of biblical scholarship over the past 1900 years. Doherty says the idea has been around for 200 years and that he has contributed only a few new ideas to it. He adds that avant-garde scholarship is perhaps 10-15 years away from giving serious consideration to the idea.

He also says he is not the only one writing on the subject. There are others. But he admits that these writings are found on the internet by amateur scholars, a community with which he identifies himself. He defines an amateur scholar as one who has not come up through the established ranks but has done private research. Flemming butts in and says this is not a problem, since Galileo was an amateur. (Flemming is mistaken. Galileo received formal education in physics and mathematics. He made a number of notable inventions, including the pump and the telescope. Anyone with a grandfather clock in their home can also thank Galileo. He was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the University of Padua.)

When Flemmings asks Doherty if there have been any attempts to refute The Jesus Puzzle, Doherty answers that there have not been any attempts to refute his work on the internet by recognized scholars. While he is correct that recognized scholars have not given his work any attention, he and Flemming are incorrect that no attempts have been made. A number of good critiques are posted online.[70] While it is true that Doherty would label most if not all of these as “amateur scholars,” why should he or Flemming balk at that? Just a few minutes earlier they attempted to justify Doherty’s status as an amateur scholar. This is doubletalk on the part of Doherty and Flemming. They seek recognition for the work of amateur scholars while refusing to recognize the work of amateur scholars who offer critiques of Doherty’s work.

While professional scholars have paid no attention to Doherty’s work, they have certainly responded to the hypothesis he proposes, namely, the idea that Jesus never existed.

Günther Bornkamm: “to doubt the historical existence of Jesus at all … was reserved for an unrestrained, tendentious criticism of modern times into which it is not worth while to enter here.[71]

Rudolf Bultmann: “Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement.[72]

Michael Grant: “To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars’. In recent years ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’—or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary."[73]

Paul Maier: “the total evidence [for the existence of Jesus] is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence. And yet this pathetic denial is still parroted by “the village atheist”, bloggers on the internet, or such organizations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.[74]

Michael Martin: “Well’s thesis [that Jesus never existed] is controversial and not widely accepted.[75]

Robert Van Voorst: “Contemporary New Testament scholars have typically viewed their [i.e., Jesus mythers] arguments as so weak or bizarre that they relegate them to footnotes, or often ignore them completely.[76]

Flemming and Doherty need to realize that professional scholars spend their lifetime in research. This involves interacting with the works of other professional scholars who both agree and disagree. Interacting with amateur scholars is not a good use of their time, unless a particular work has become influential. This is not at all to claim that amateur scholars do not produce good work. To the contrary, several amateur scholars have distinguished themselves as very sharp thinkers. However, unless an amateur scholar or one or more of their contributions have become influential to a wide audience, why should professional scholars feel obligated to interact, especially if an adequate reply has been provided by another amateur scholar?

There comes a point when a conspiracy theory has been investigated and rejected so many times that one cannot be expected to open a new investigation every time someone cries ‘conspiracy,’ unless there is a good amount of new information that accompanies that claim. Doherty himself says that the hypothesis that Jesus never existed has been around for 200 years and that he has only contributed only a few new ideas to it. Thus, since scholars have totally rejected the Jesus myth hypothesis again and again and little new information is offered, we are under no obligation to give it new consideration.

This ends Flemming’s case for the non-existence of Jesus.


[62] For details and documentation on the fate of the disciples, see Habermas and Licona (2004), 56-62; 65-69.

[63] Latin multitudo.

[64] Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 230.

[65] Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perrin, Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).

[66] These biblical citations are from the NASB.

[67] Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 4, page 842.

[68] 'The Octavius of Minucius Felix' in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume IV, chapter IX.

[69] 'The Octavius of Minucius Felix', chapter XXIX.

[70] See (in alphabetical order) Bede and Christopher Price:; Bernard Muller: (no longer available as of Sep 08); Christopher Price:; Doxa website:; J. P. Holding:; Patrick Narkinsky:; At least the last of these reviews was unavailable at the production time of Flemming’s video.

[71] Jesus of Nazareth, 28.

[72] Jesus and the Word, 13.

[73] Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York: Collier Books, 1992), 200.

[74] “Did Jesus Really Exist,” an article on

[75] The Case Against Christianity, 67.

[76] Jesus Outside the New Testament, 16.

[77] That Hitler was an atheist is debatable. For an interesting article that can be viewed online that has a number of interesting quotes from Hitler, see

© 2005 Mike Licona
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