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James Still Doherty

Book Review: The Jesus Puzzle

James Still

Doherty, Earl. (1999): The Jesus Puzzle. Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Humanist Publications. 380 pages. U.S. $14.50.

Most survey books on the historical Jesus begin with the quiet assumption that a human man lay at the core of a superstructure of myths piled upon him in the subsequent four centuries following his life. After all, the project of the quests for the historical Jesus was to chip away at the layers of myth–much as an art restorer carefully peels away the accretions of grime on a masterpiece–in order to reveal the historical figure at the center of the Jesus movement. Invariably these attempts have failed to reveal anything of the sort as layer after layer is removed to expose only raw canvas.

Doherty takes a refreshingly different approach in his book. He decides to turn the problem on its head and embrace instead a mythical savior figure at the core of the movement, around which grew the later biographies as codified in the gospel accounts. In this sense, Doherty is a "Christ mythicist," one for whom Jesus of Nazareth never existed as a historical figure, but rather as a Pauline invention which came to be understood historically over time. Yet, it would be grossly unfair to say that Doherty hails from that nineteenth-century skeptical tradition which tended to embed Jesus firmly in the pagan world. Again and again, his book turns to the Hebrew Scriptures and to the theological forerunner from which the young movement emerged.

The Jesus Puzzle concentrates on two principle trajectories of the Jesus movement: the Jerusalem Tradition and the Galilean Tradition. The Jerusalem Tradition is preserved in the Pauline corpus and emphasizes an other-worldly Christ while the Galilean Tradition is best represented by the gospels and their various forays into historical biography. Doherty considers the divide between these two trajectories to be deep and wide. Paul’s "intermediary Son philosophy," the dying and rising savior motif so replete at the time, was forever wedded to the Jesus movement in its formative years. Doherty writes:

"The gnostic Savior figure is derived in part from a philosophical concept current in the early centuries of our era, which spoke of a ‘Primal Man’ or ‘Heavenly Man.’ In the same way that the Logos was described as God’s primary emanation, this myth said that God produced an Archetypal Man, the first (spiritual) being apart from himself, his direct image" (p. 137).

"None of that mythological system," writes Doherty, "had any reference to an historical person" (p. 138). Christ-mythicists, best represented by the contemporary historian G. A. Wells but reaching back to antecedents in the German school of the past two centuries, usually stop at this point to conclude that since the Hellenistic world was dominated by intermediary god-son movements, Christianity too was based on religio-philosophic ideals rather than history. Doherty does eventually believe that this is so, writing that the Markan Jesus is symbolic of "the community’s relationship with God and its expectations for the future" (p. 238). However, Doherty takes the internal and external evidence quite seriously in order to put the Christ-mythicist position on sound footing.

One of the strengths of The Jesus Puzzle is its free-form conversational style. Doherty belongs firmly in that small group of informed popularizers–of whom I consider myself to be a part–that act as intermediaries between trained scholars and interested lay persons. As such, he wisely relies on authority in those places when he would otherwise be in over his head (as, for example, in his discussion of the Gospel of Thomas). Yet, Doherty has the confidence to discuss difficult concepts in his own words when it is necessary to do so.

Critics will invariably pounce on Doherty’s reliance upon arguments from silence, notably in his discussion of the authenticity of Josephus’s testimony in Book 18. To insist, as Doherty does, that the collective silence of the apologists in the first two centuries tips the balance in favor of a forged Josephus testimony is probably too ambitious. An argument from silence can only demonstrate that Josephus is a poor witness to a historical Jesus. It is too much to ask that we treat the apologists’ silence as evidence for later editorial mischief, a much stronger claim.

What I like best about The Jesus Puzzle is, ironically, its weakest part. That is, it makes a surprisingly valiant organizational attempt to connect many of the far flung strands that comprise the whole of ancient Christianity. In numerous instances, Doherty tries to cover too much ground and readers may find themselves flipping back and forth to keep up on the various pieces of the puzzle. In his defense, however, let me say that this is a problem with the subject matter rather than the book. The people and places within ancient Christianity, like a web page, have many links to other related topics so that writers must be very disciplined in order to focus their thesis narrowly rather than succumb to the temptation to address all of these related strands. Doherty wisely relegates many of these strands to endnotes and appendices so that readers may follow up on them at a later time. In most cases, Doherty’s attempt to connect all of the dots is beneficial to the reader. For instance, he takes the time to point out that the "Righteous One" motif (the Zaddik famously depicted in the Qumran documents) has many templates in the Hebrew Scriptures from which early Christian Jews could consult. Too often, polemical writers have ignored the bond between Judaism and the young cult in favor of parallels within the pagan world. Indeed, the NT as a whole should be understood as a an interpretation (midrash) of the well-known stories in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Jesus Puzzle has much to offer everyone interested in the quest for the historical Jesus and the origins of ancient Christianity. It is easy-to-read (yet not simplistic), reviews the contemporary literature very well, and suggests conclusions to readers rather than demands assent from them.