Jesus Always Existed

a place for the best evidence of the historical Jesus

The Screaming Silence

It would not be unfair to say that a chief permutation of the Christ myth thesis today is founded on nothing. It could also be taken as a double meaning quite accurately.

According to some mythicists, the New Testament itself tells us that Jesus never existed as a person in the first century A.D., and it tells us this not by what it does say, but what it does not. In quick order, the Gospels are dismissed in some way as merely evolved legend — usually via the expedient of late-dating, which is never argued originally, but merely presumed true with citations to those who also say so, and perhaps a few perfunctory arguments are provided which would be readily answered with a little digging. Once past that, it is to the epistles of the New Testament – hereafter, the NTE – that these mythicists, the “silence mythcisists,” will turn. Let us let them speak for themselves in summing up their case, starting with the dean of mythicists, G. A. Wells:

[The epistles of the New Testament] have no allusion to the parents of Jesus , let alone to the virgin birth. They never refer to a place of birth (for example, by calling him ‘of Nazareth’). They give no indication of the time or place of his earthly existence. They do not refer to his trial before a Roman official, nor to Jerusalem as the place of execution. They mention neither John the Baptist, nor Judas, nor Peter’s denial of his master …These letters also fail to mention any miracles Jesus is supposed to have worked, a particularly striking omission, since, according to the gospels, he worked so many ...Another striking feature of Paul’s letters is that one could never gather from them that Jesus had been an ethical teacher ... on only one occasion does he appeal to the authority of Jesus to support an ethical teaching which the gospels also represent Jesus as having delivered.1

Or, as it is put by Earl Doherty, author of The Jesus Puzzle:

Before Ignatius, not a single reference to Pontius Pilate, Jesus’ executioner, is to be found. Ignatius is also the first to mention Mary; Joseph, Jesus’ father, nowhere appears. The earliest reference to Jesus as any kind of a teacher comes in 1 Clement, just before Ignatius, who himself seems curiously unaware of any of Jesus’ teachings.

To find the first indication of Jesus as a miracle worker, we must move beyond Ignatius to the Epistle of Barnabas. Other notable elements of the Gospel story are equally hard to find.

This strange silence on the Gospel Jesus which pervades almost a century of Christian correspondence cries out for explanation. It cannot be dismissed as some inconsequential quirk, or by the blithe observation made by New Testament scholarship that early Christian writers “show no interest” in the earthly life of Jesus. Something is going on here.2

According to silence mythicists, the silence of the NTE on these details is so far-reaching that a mythicist explanation is the only one that is satisfactory. The silence mythicists thereafter recast Jesus in different ways; for Wells, it is not so much that Jesus did not exist as that he existed at an unknown time in the past, so that Paul, for example, “supposed Jesus to have lived long ago.”3 The silence is explained by lack of knowledge due to distance in time. For Doherty, the silence rather renders Jesus the inhabitant of a mystical, “sublunar” realm, “a supernatural dimension above the earth”4 where demons and other figments dwelt.

In this chapter, we will examine the most critical aspect of the silence mythicist case: The meaning and significance of the NTE’s “silence” about Jesus. Their explanation, in order to be regarded as better than the historicist explanation, will have to overcome significant hurdles. As we shall see, this perceived silence is indeed not an “inconsequential quirk” – it is, rather, a function of the way the world of the New Testament worked.5

Is The Silence Meaningful?

The initial question to be answered here: Is the “silence” in the New Testament epistles concerning the life of Jesus even meaningful? It is indeed not possible to dispute the premise that some (not all) of the details about the life of Jesus are absent from the NTE. But the question of whether this is a meaningful silence must first be determined.

To silence mythicists, the answer is obvious: Of course it is meaningful. Wells regularly uses words like “striking” and “significant” to describe this perceived lack. Doherty often refers to such things as a “natural impulse” to refer to some detail or another in a specific context, or to a “common sense” expectation that a detail will be mentioned. In so doing, these authors reveal the inherent bias in their most critical argument and expose its most serious weakness. Wells and Doherty have merely assumed that what they consider normal or “natural” was likewise so for the authors of the NTE. It is our contention that the NTE authors were fully aware of such things as the trial before Pilate, and Jesus’ residence in Nazareth, and simply chose not to mention them, because these were details known to the readers. Doherty and Wells are aware of such explanations, and dismiss them; they reply, for example, that it is assuming too much to say that the early Christians knew of the earthly Jesus and took information about him for granted. But such a reply would, in fact, presuppose an anachronism.

The death blow to the silence thesis rests in a significant difference between the social world of the NTE and our own – and that is, that the New Testament was written in what anthropologists and sociologists call a high-context society. This is an important factor that governed their modes of communication. As the cross-cultural anthropologist Edward Hall has described it:

A high-context communication (HC) or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in that person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. A low-context (LC) communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of information is vested in the explicit code.6

In high-context societies, people “presume a broadly shared, well-understood, or ‘high’ knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing.”7 Readers were required and expected to “fill in the gap” because their background knowledge was a given. Extended explanations were unnecessary. Details were superfluous unless they served a specific purpose in communication, or were being related to someone new to those details.

In contrast, we in the modern Western nations (including Wells and Doherty) are part of a low-context society. We assume little or no knowledge of the context of a communication, so we do indeed find it “natural,” as Doherty puts it, to add extra detail to our speech and writing, even if the person to whom we speak knows those details. To put it another way, a high-context person might say of a low-context person that they “talk too much” but say very little.

The general classification of societies as either high- or low- context should be closely understood. Obviously, even within a low-context society, there can be situations with “higher” contexts than others. Families can have “inside jokes” or stories; a single word or phrase can hold a conceptual package which brings to recollection the events of a particularly memorable day, or weeks, or even years. To an “outsider,” the family is a higher-context setting; they will not be able to grasp the inside jokes without explanation. Rating of context can be a matter of degree. Nevertheless, American culture (and much of the west) is, on the whole, on the “low” end in terms of “contexting needed in everyday life.”8 Doherty’s native Canada and Wells’ United Kingdom can hardly be said to fare much differently.

So it is that Malina and Rohrbaugh set forth in summary what becomes a stinging indictment of the silence mythicist’s most critical premise:

The obvious problem this creates for reading the biblical writings today is that low-context readers in the United States frequently mistake the biblical writings for low- context documents. They erroneously assume that the author has provided all of the contextual information needed to understand it.9

Thus, Doherty is unwittingly correct to say that when the NTE seem to “show no interest” in the life of Jesus, it is not merely “some inconsequential quirk” – it is, rather, a function of their membership in a high-context society. In such a society, the details will be presumed to be known; repeats of details would only occur if some need required it. Otherwise, details would only appear in the course of evangelism, when persons new to the faith were instructed. 10 Wells and Doherty are, as Malina and Rohrbaugh put it, mistaking the Biblical writings for low- context documents. The entire silence mythicist thesis is premised upon a gross anachronism.

The silence mythicist case is therefore without merit, unless it is demonstrated – strongly – that some writing of the NTE lacks an important detail that the high-context nature of that social world would not impose upon. In response to a challenge I issued some years ago, Doherty did produce a list of what he considered to be difficult or inexplicable silences. As we shall see, the two hundred citations can mostly be boiled down to a handful of the same arguments, used again and again on different citations, and we shall attend to these in chapters following.11 But we must emphasize the exceptional burden upon the silence mythicist’s shoulders. By the time of the writing of the NTE, it had been anywhere from 13 to 25 years since the time of Jesus, and at least 10 years since any church or person written to has heard the gospel, and been instructed in the words and deeds of Jesus and been socialized into the church. (There would of course be new converts who would need instruction, but that would be the job of those in the local church - not the NTE authors). Is it really incredible to suppose that a great deal of background teaching is being taken for granted in the NTE? In a high-context setting, not at all.

The silence mythicists’ second major appeal has to do with the reputed silence of the NTE regarding the teachings of Jesus. Although the high-context setting provides a meaningful answer to this issue already, more can be said about the subject of quotations of Jesus’ teachings in particular. As another of Doherty’s principal objections goes:

Consider another great silence: on the teachings of Jesus. The first century epistles regularly give moral maxims, sayings, admonitions, which in the Gospels are spoken by Jesus, without ever attributing them to him. The well-known ‘Love Your Neighbour,’ originally from Leviticus, is quoted in James, the Didache, and three times in Paul, yet none of them points out that Jesus had made this a centrepiece of his own teaching. Both Paul (1 Thess. 4:9) and the writer of 1 John even attribute such love commands to God, not Jesus!

Wells offers similar sentiments, saying, for example, that though he repeats something similar to a teaching of Jesus, Paul “seems not to know” or could not have believed that Jesus taught anything of that nature, or “could hardly have failed to say so” in a given context. His conclusion is thus that it is a “reasonable inference”12 that teachings that look like those of Jesus had not yet actually been ascribed to Jesus.

More will be said on the specific citations below. But the argument, put another way, is this: The epistles contain sayings that match those of Jesus - but since they never are prefaced or qualified by some sort of introductory or crediting formula (like “Jesus said...”), this may be taken as evidence that there is no historical Jesus behind these words.

Again, there would lie behind these epistles many, many years of intimate familiarity, in a high-context setting, with the words and deeds of Jesus. These words and deeds would have been laid as a foundation at the very beginning; they would have been taught, repeated, recited, analyzed, and respected for this entire time. This being the case, it would hardly be odd if these words are not prefaced with some sort of essentially superfluous formula like, “Jesus said...” Even in our low-context world, Shakespearian experts, when speaking to one another, do not preface quotes with “Shakespeare wrote in Othello...” or, “As the bard wrote in The Tempest”. A patriotic American does not need to be told that “...all men are created equal” comes from the Declaration of Independence, or that Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you...” or that Orwell penned the phrase, “Big Brother is watching you.” Where there is some central figure such as Shakespeare, Aesop, Muhammed, or Jesus, a figure that becomes important to a particular group, attribution will often simply be taken for granted. Applied to the situation of the NTE, familiarity has already been established for a decade or more by the time Paul and the others have written their epistles; their world is high-context, and there is no need for citation formulae.13

A further point can be made here, though, beyond the high-context setting, and indeed is interlocked with it. A “high context” pattern can be discerned by examining the citation practices of the NTE for material other than that which can be connected to Jesus. It is certainly indisputable that Paul and the other NTE regarded the Old Testament (OT) as an authority. By mythicist logic, any time a NTE quotes or alludes to the OT, we should see some sort of citation formula, such as “as David said,” or “as Moses said,” or even “as God said.” But is this what we find?

Let’s use Paul as an example. Most of his OT quotations are found in our first four epistles: Romans, Galatians, and the Corinthian correspondence. Depending on who is counting, you may find reported approximately 80 or 90 quotations of the OT in Paul’s letters. In light of the mythicists’ insistence concerning methods of attribution, it must be asked: How does Paul cite these OT quotes? How many times does he make an “attribution” of these quotes?

The answer is: In the way that mythicists require, very seldom! Of these quotes, in perhaps only a dozen cases does Paul give the name of the person who wrote the selected quote (e.g., Isaiah, David). Most of the quotes are prefaced with a remark of more general nature, such as “Scripture says...” or “It is written...” (Of course, neither of these formulae could yet be used for the words of Jesus as they had so far only been orally transmitted. The publication of the Gospels likely did not occur until late in Paul’s career.) In a few cases Paul merely offers a quote with no formula whatsoever. This being the case, why should we think it anomalous that Paul or any other writer does not use some sort of introductory formula (IF) to introduce words of Jesus?

Elsewhere, in Hebrews, a human author is adduced only twice. Even the Jewish author Philo, who was a believer in “mechanical” inspiration, only occasionally mentions a human author, which suggests a paradigm of not highlighting the human aspect of Scripture. (For the NT as a whole, Shires indicates that 239 of the 437 OT quotes have IF of some sort, while 198 do not; of those 239, a human author of some sort is credited less than 30 times.)14

But there is more. Paul and the other NTE also make an incredible number of allusions to (not direct quotes of) OT sayings and events. Some count over a thousand of these in the New Testament as a whole. But do the NTE even once indicate where these allusions come from? No! Revelation, for example, is full of allusions to the OT; but the writer of that book never even once says, “This is from the book of Isaiah” or even “Scripture says” for that matter. Rather, the author of Revelation “expects his readers to recognize his vast numbers of allusions to the Old Testament, even though he at no point explicitly indicates that he is using the Old Testament.”15 Can we then argue that the author of Revelation did not know of an OT, or that he did not believe that the OT books were written by those to whom they attributed?

Examples of this phenomenon can be multiplied. The book of James is heavily indebted to Proverbs as well as extra-canonical Jewish books. Paul in Romans owes a debt to the Wisdom of Solomon, an extra-canonical book. The theological arguments in Galatians and Romans assume knowledge of the OT books used, and the NT as a whole can be said to depend on several extra-canonical books (which are almost never quoted, but often alluded to). But we never see a single credit to any of these works and/or their human authors and characters – save perhaps Jude’s attributions to Enoch.

Obviously, making an allusion to the OT or even other works did not require a citation or credit of any sort. Nor was it required for direct quotes, though it did happen. Doherty’s suggestion of a “natural impulse” to preface words similar to those of Jesus with, “As Jesus said” is thus proven false by incessantly repeated example: The overwhelming majority of what is found in the epistles in terms of the Jesus-tradition does not consist of direct quotes at all, but rather, of allusions — and since allusions to the OT do not have introductory formulae, we would not expect such formulae for allusions to Jesus’ words either. In sum: The words of Jesus are treated the same way the words of the OT – including God’s own voice – is treated.

Thus Doherty merely evades the issue by saying:

An argument is delivered more forcefully precisely by appealing to a point that does mean something to the reader or listener, something the audience is familiar with. Adding, for example, the simple phrase “as Jesus himself said” could not help but support many of the views these letter writers are urging, and there hardly seems any good reason, especially a blanket one, for why they would all consistently fail to do so.16

In reply to this, I pointed out that if adding the superfluous words “as Jesus himself said” adds “support” to the views of the NTE, then why did they absolutely never offer an attribution for allusions from the OT, and only sometimes for direct quotes from the OT? Surely if Doherty is correct, to have added words like, “as David said” (Israel’s greatest king!) or “as Solomon said” (reputedly the wisest man ever to have lived!) would have added “support” to whatever point the NTE authors were making, or done “honor” to the person who said or wrote it. All Doherty has done is anachronistically assumed a modern citation and authority structure upon a time and place where such did not exist. That authors like Josephus freely used material from other writers without regular citation, for example, strongly suggests that the authority was held not in merely the person that said the thing, but in the thing itself. In any event, the data shows that allusions required no introductory formula, and that direct quotes required no name attached to make them authoritative.

Doherty further attempts to circumvent this problem for his thesis by arguing that “there is a significant difference in the case of Jesus” because he “was supposedly the founder of the movement, he was supposedly the man for whom many believers surrendered their Jewish heritage, their sensibilities about monotheism, their prohibitions against associating humans and human images with God.” Where and how this changes the methods of citation in the NT world, and turns it into a low-context society concerned with such things, is not explained. God is quoted in the NT, and God is surely more important than Jesus to the NTE, so why is “God said” not more often used? Indeed, if this is logical, then one’s rank in importance should be reflected pro rata in the amount of times one’s name is cited; but if this is so, Doherty has not shown any such pattern to exist, and he will never be able to show it, because it does not exist.

In short, Doherty merely creates out of whole cloth an equation that “veneration” equals more precise methods of citation, of the sort that we use in the modern era, but which were not commonly used among ancient writers. Having conducted no serious study of the nature and use of allusions in the New Testament, Doherty simply waves off a scholar who recognizes allusions to the teachings of Jesus in the NTE, as “defining the silence so as to make it appear the opposite of what it is.” It is in fact Doherty who is improperly defining the context here, as he completely ignores, or is unaware of, normal literary practice for this period.

Read the full chapter in Debunking the Jesus Myth Part 3.