THE JESUS PUZZLE Was There No Historical Jesus? by Earl Doherty
This is an edited review which I wish to use as a springboard for my own growing list of questions about Burton Mack’s work and the general drift of New Testament discourse toward a viewpoint that is essentially agnostic regarding the materials that were both included in and excluded from the New Testament canon when it came into being in connection with Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.
Rather in the style of theological works of several centuries ago I will quote the review and offer my comments in the italicized texts throughout.
Please note that this will be a work in progress. It is a means of wrestling with the Mack material. I will date my entries.
The Full Text of the Earl Doherty Review:
WHO WROTE THE NEW TESTAMENT?
The Making of the Christian Myth
by Burton L. Mack
HarperCollins SanFrancisco (1995)
Burton Mack, recently retired as Professor of New Testament at the Claremont School of Theology in California, is perhaps the most secular scholar working in the field of New Testament research today, having no confessional axe to grind. In this cutting edge book, he offers a picture of Christian origins and early history from the standpoint of the modern secular insights which he himself helped to create. That Christianity was first and foremost a social movement, growing out of the cultural dynamics of its time. That it expressed itself in a great variety of theologies and multiplicity of social formations. That in keeping with the laws by which sectarian groups behave, these communities were engaged in creating epic myths for themselves based on the figure of Jesus to support their various needs and identities. The New Testament as it emerged in the late second century and beyond was, as Mack presents it, the collective myth of that brand of Christianity, centrist and orthodox, which emerged out of the riotous multiplicity of the earliest period. His overview of the subject and his ability to assemble many complex threads into a coherent picture is impressive.
My growing sense reading Mack is that his time line is skewed in favor of his key contention which is that there was an early Q1 community that regarded Jesus as a sage, a (good) cynic, an aphorist — anything but the apocalyptic, healing prophet-sort who comes to light in Mark, for example. I take it we will assume that Jesus died in the area of 30. I also take it that he was indeed killed by folk we might broadly group not by whether they were Romans or Jews but whether they correspond to what the New Testament refers to as principalities and powers. That is to say the sort of people excoriated by Jesus, provoked by Jesus and determined to tar him as a blasphemer for manifesting powers they attributed to Beelzebub aka Satan. In other words, if any community assembled Jesus sayings, it was a community that knew that Jesus had in fact been done in for whatever reason. Since this in the first decade or so would have been self-evident, its absence in early sayings materials would mean not that it did not happen but that it was assumed in the same way that one might write about the triad of the 1960 without alluding to the deaths of KFK, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr.
OK. Within a decade, I am assuming, there were already communities of the type Paul refers to in the first text anyone can actually authenticate. His initial letter to the Thessalonians which is dated 50 or 51. I therefore assume that within 10 years of Jesus’s death there were congregations who fundamentally operated with the rudimentary creedal affirmation that Jesus was Lord and that he was indeed a Risen Lord. I am not arguing here that this affirmation was correct, just that it is not something, as Mack seems to imply, that was tacked on as people’s imaginations ran away with them. July 3, 2007.
Coherent, that is, until one does a bit of digging.
The conventional picture of the New Testament has traditionally been that it consists of a collection of writings produced by various figures who were involved in the beginnings and growth of the new religion inaugurated by Jesus. At its center lies the record of the singular, indeed miraculous events which set everything in motion. “Unfortunately for this view,” Professor Mack says, “that is not the way it happened.”
Instead, the New Testament grew out of a motley and often incompatible array of writings representing different groups at different times. They all had “their own histories, views, attitudes and mix of peoples . . . . Each writing has a different view of Jesus, a particular attitude toward Judaism, its own concept of the Kingdom of God, a peculiar notion of salvation, and so on.” (p.6) As all these writings and the views they represented were brought together, they had a uniformity of thought imposed on them; the result was the myth of origins which Christianity has accepted about itself for almost 2000 years. Mack puts it as a “catch-22”: the myth embodied in this later product (the New Testament) created and verified the conventional picture of Christian origins, and this conventional picture provided the explanation for how the New Testament came to be written and by whom—a “circular, interlocking pattern of authentication” for the official view of how the new religion began.
So far so good.
The basic problem with the scenario which Mack builds upon this foundation is that it is guilty of the same fallacy he has just outlined for the New Testament. The problem centers on the figure of Jesus. Jesus is someone who, like the myth of origins in the canon, emerges at a later stage of the evidence. Even here the picture of him is inconsistent, contradictory and lacking any ring of authenticity. That is, as found in the Gospels, even at the stage when they emerge into the light (toward the middle of the second century), Jesus is clearly an embodiment of the various theologies and editorial purposes of the evangelists, the faith of the communities they represent. The earlier evidence, in the first century epistles, has an even more inauthentic ring: here Jesus seems nothing less than a wholly transcendent deity, scarcely identifiable with a recent historical man. That these writers have the Gospel Jesus in mind is not at all evident. Thus Mack takes the myth of Jesus—that is, that such a man existed—as it was produced by the boiling pot of early Christianity’s first hundred years, and imposes it as the starting point of Christian beginnings. Granted, the scenario he attaches to this man is nowhere near the conventional one, but the existence of Jesus is an imposition nonetheless, one that is never questioned let alone argued, and it makes Mack, as representative of today’s cutting edge scholarship, guilty of his own catch-22.
Without getting into all this catch-22 business, let me interpose another way of looking at all this. It has never failed to amaze me that a coherent sense of who Jesus is cannot be derived from the Canon — or more precisely from the composite texts of the four Gospels. But amazement turns to comprehension if one concludes, as I do, that very early, well before Mack supposes, a “religious” construct entirely at odds with what Jesus was about was placed on things. When Jesus became Lord and Savior, he became precisely what he did not intend to become. And the tendency of persons to move from an honest veneration to an oppressive messianic idolization was as predictable as that a man in middle age tends to be be tempted to stray from his marriage vows. July 4, 2007
The new interpretation of Christian origins which Mack espouses is necessitated by the picture of rampant diversity to be found in the early Christian record, something which can no longer be glossed over or watered down, as it was in previous generations of scholarship. Here, then, is the scenario, as Mack presents it (p.6): “We now know that there were many different responses to the teachings of Jesus. Groups formed around them, but then went different ways depending upon their mix of peoples, social histories, and discussions about the teachings of Jesus and how they were to be interpreted and applied. Some were of the type we call Jesus movements. Others became congregations of the Christ whose death was imagined as a martyrdom to justify a mixture of Jews and gentiles as equally acceptable in a new configuration of the people of God (or ‘Israel’). Still others developed into enclaves for the cultivation of spiritual enlightenment or the knowledge (gnosis) Jesus had taught. Each of these branches of the Jesus movements, including many permutations of each type, imagined Jesus differently. They did so in order to account for what they had become as patterns of practice, thinking, and congregating settled into place. And they all competed with one another in their claims to be the true followers of Jesus. . . .”
We must break into the new catch-22 which Professor Mack has created. The Gospels have combined various elements (he would call them “responses to Jesus”) into a composite picture. This picture created the Jesus known since by orthodox Christianity. But what were those individual elements, the components of the Gospel amalgamation, based upon? It is essential that Mack demonstrate that each of these ingredients goes back to a common human figure—indeed, to any human figure. One cannot just assume that a given ingredient found in the later evidence can simply be extrapolated backwards and identified as a certain “response” to an original Jesus. This is what such scenarios do. No documents record the genesis or early phases of these postulated responses, how they arose and why, while at the same time exhibiting a clear link to an historical man. As in the case of Q, for example, such things are instead read into the later evidence. As Mack has said (A Myth Of Innocence, p.83), “Much of the evidence is secondhand, all of it is later.” Another requirement is that the scenario of this initial breakup of Jesus into his component parts must hang together, without fallacies and contradictions. And it must be shown to be at least theoretically supportable by the earlier evidence. All this is something, I would argue, that neither Mack nor anyone else has achieved.
Let me argue that what we have, shall we say in Mark, which may have been the first effort to create a narrative text, is not entirely without connection to an historical figure named Jesus. If I am not mistaken the troublemaker in Mark was also cited as a troublemaker in contemporary histories and as one executed for his crimes. I think it can be assumed by putting what is in Mark together with what Mack has extrapolated in the three levels of Q (earlier) and factoring in the Thessalonians creedal presentation of Paul, that there was a Jesus who did organize a small movement, who was perceived to have had an inner core with whom he may have shared things, that he did some sort of healing which was the basis for elaboration of this into possibly more than he actually did in the way of miracles — in other words that there was a real Jesus. July 3, 2007
New Social Formations
The Christian movement was a product of certain dynamic forces operating during the first century. The Middle Platonist scholar John Dillon has characterized this period as “a seething mass of sects and salvation cults.” Within Jewish circles across the empire, this volatility was centered on the anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God; new social groupings (some with a notable gentile component) were being formed. These sects focused on “a desired transformation of the world,” as Mack puts it (p.11). He and others cast this sectarian picture as primarily one of striving to create a reformed and better society (the proclaimed aim of all counterculture movements), accompanied by the rejection or softening of traditional bases of identity, such as ethnic background or social rank, substituting one based on the group’s beliefs, a new social “vision”.
These are universal sectarian expressions, of course, as is the focus on eventual personal salvation to some kind of higher existence. All such groups go on to create myths of origin which serve to explain themselves, glorify and sanctify their past and their beginnings, and justify their present faith and practices. In the case of the Christian movement, says Mack, not only did each of the various social groups form out of an initial response to the historical man Jesus, each of them further evolved its own response into a distinctive myth about this figure.
One question Mack might have asked right at the outset. If the primary impulse to such social formation was the anticipation of God’s Kingdom, is an historical Jesus required to explain such groups? Was it not possible that the whole idea of a human Jesus was part of the myth which was later developed to explain the onset of the movement (one of the purposes which myth serves), perhaps a later evolution of an earlier kind of belief? Unfortunately, he does not, and thus closes off a promising avenue of investigation.
The Jesus Movements
Professor Mack divides his various responses to Jesus into two basic types. The first he calls “Jesus movements”. For the most part, they are supposed to have started in Galilee in response to Jesus’ teachings. They all regarded Jesus as a human man, not as in any way divine. They had no response to his death and no belief in a resurrection.
Mack classifies five different groups of Jesus people, each derived from a document or Gospel ingredient: the community of Q, those who produced the Markan pronouncement stories, the community of the Gospel of Thomas, those who composed certain Markan miracle sets, and—amazingly—the Jerusalem “pillars” talked about by Paul in Galatians, namely Peter and company. To restate the fundamental objection: not one of these sources exists in the form which supposedly represents the initial response to Jesus (the last is a special case). Q and Thomas must be peeled away to try to expose their early layers and original nature, and the Markan ingredients have to be extrapolated backwards. Ironically, the one source we do have, the Pauline letters, has nothing to say about an historical Jesus. Conveniently, Paul has “lost all interest in him”, the standard explanation for his silence.
The postulated groups lying behind these various “records” formed, as Mack would have it, by discussing Jesus’ ideas and their ramifications in the marketplace. Well, who knows? But the idea suggests that any response to Jesus would have centered on his teachings. If such outdoor gossipers had gone on to engage in a “social formation” and create a myth of Jesus as its basis, one would expect that the memory of him and of his teachings would be preserved. Thus we are suspicious when Mack actually goes on to declare (p.46) that “the first followers of Jesus were not interested in preserving accurate memories of the historical person.” How about any memories? We are justified in asking if this makes any sense. And having characterized Jesus as “the founder-teacher of a school of thought,” Mack states the principle of “the continued attribution of new teachings to a founder-teacher.”
Oh? If we leave aside Q and the Gospel of Thomas, which as we can see them represent much later stages in the evolution of those documents, what do we encounter in all the more contemporary records of the “teacher Jesus”? In short, nothing. Teachings resembling or identical to those of the Gospel Jesus are found all over the place in the first century documents with no attribution to Jesus: James, 1 Peter, the Johannine epistles, the Two Ways sections of the Didache and even the later Epistle of Barnabas. Paul shows the same silence, even attributing some of these teachings to God, while his few paltry ‘words of the Lord’ are now generally recognized as personal revelations he believed he had received from heaven.
Where is the great teacher-founder of the Christian movement, to whom “new teachings were continually attached”? In Mack’s scenario he exists only at the obscured first levels of Q and the Gospel of Thomas, together with a little in the Gospel of Mark, a later artificially constructed product. “Knowing Jesus was a teacher is all we need to get started,” (p.46) is a presumption Mack has hardly proven and which seems to be contradicted by the silence on any such thing in all the first century records we do have outside the Gospels.
Excavating the “Authentic” Jesus
It is telling that so much stock has been put into the first layer of a non-extant document which is removed from the one we can extract from Matthew and Luke by half a century and two or three stages of revision. And yet we are supposed to accept that this exhumed layer gives us a clear “focus” on the real teaching Jesus. We are supposed to be able to get back beyond its recasting by the evangelists, who have each been forced to add their own (completely different) contexts, even their own set-up lines to virtually all the sayings (only a few built-up anecdotes in the Q3 layer contain any sort of ‘context’), and arrive at a sure picture of the original nature of the document and the community’s beliefs, including the presence of a Jesus at earlier levels.
This “authentic” layer bears such a striking resemblance to the style and content of the preaching of wandering Cynics of the time, that Mack (and others) have been forced to describe Jesus as a ‘Cynic-style sage’ who had little concern for things Jewish, since none of his ‘teachings’ show any focus on Jewish issues or institutions. This characterization of Jesus as Cynic is perhaps more clearly stated in earlier publications by Mack, though in the present book he says that “It does appear that Jesus was attracted to this popular (ie, Cynic) ethical philosophy,” and he refers to the “Cynic-like challenge in the teachings of Jesus” (p.40). Mack declares (p.47) that “(earliest) Q puts us as close to the historical Jesus as we will ever be.”
But should Mack not have asked the question: why would the teaching Jesus have come to us in such a meager, tortuous fashion? Why is the picture thus created of him so incongruous? Considering that such a teaching Jesus is utterly missing in the first century epistles, should not the possibility be examined that this original layer of Q did not belong to a Jesus at all, but was in fact ultimately the product of a Cynic milieu, something which found its way into a Jewish preaching movement in Galilee and only later got attached to the idea of an historical figure? Certainly, Q1 sounds like the product of a school or lifestyle, developed over time and hardly the sudden invention of a single mind. Once again, a logical avenue of investigation was never opened.
Another logical line of investigation would assume that the material attributed to cynics was merely an aspect of a totality that Jesus was/is. This line of investigation would assume that all of the materials we have are an effort to arrive at ways of describing a person too large, too unique, to uncategorizeable to be deemed one or the other or another of a fragmenting series of efforts to pin him down. I think we must concede that when we confront varied viewpoints and traditions and even modes of speech, we are glancing off of the same person, not presenting a choice that eliminates other choices. The small body of “wandering cynic” phrases are essential to a portrait of one whose approach contains a high degree of ambivalence toward the family, an attitude which does not idolize or even highly value “things” and so forth. And this need not be inconsistent with the entire take we might identify as “gnostic” — or apocalyptic — or eschatalogical.
Nor has Mack taken into account the deep incongruity between Q1 and Q2. From the cosmopolitan, open-minded teaching of Q1 with its visions of the ideal society, we suddenly move to the harsh and punitive, narrow-minded apocalyptic fulmination of Q2, whose atmosphere and interests are quite definitely of a Jewish sectarian nature. That the same community would have been responsible for both is highly unlikely, which invites one to consider that the Q1 material is taken from an external source, namely a Cynic one. Mack’s explanation (p.51) that tensions resulting from rejection caused this about-face do not seem to me to be adequate, especially to account for the stark shift to Jewish apocalypticism.
There are indications in the second layer of Q that all this condemnation was originally directed at a failure to respond to the community’s preaching of the Kingdom, not to the teaching or person of Jesus. At a later stage, several sayings would have been recast to relate them to the new idea of an historical founder, but reference to him is missing in key places such as Lk. 11:49f and in the Son of Man sayings which are not identified with Jesus. The Q2 community even looks back (Lk. 16:16) and sees John the Baptist as marking the turning point to the new preaching of the Kingdom, not Jesus himself. John in the Q2 layer (3:7-19) prophecies an End-time judge (the Son of Man), not a teacher-founder Jesus.
As for the silence on Jesus’ death and resurrection (there is nothing of them in Q), Mack explains this by postulating that once Jesus left the environs of Galilee, the Q community lost all touch with and interest in his subsequent fate. This is surely incredible. One of Q’s major motifs is the (false) accusation that the Jewish establishment had a history of killing the prophets and messengers sent from God. The Q preachers see themselves as the latest in this long line of sufferers. If their founder had gone on to suffer that very fate in Jerusalem (something the cultic groups were supposed to have seized on) is it feasible that the community could have ignored this, or remained ignorant of it?
Like most modern scholars, Mack appeals to the Gospel of Thomas in support of the Q Jesus, labelling it a “Jesus movement” in its own right. But he acknowledges (p.61) that Thomas “has much in common with the earliest phase of the Q movement.” Should he not consider the possibility that Thomas is an offshoot from Q (or maybe vice-versa) at an early or incipient stage? This would remove Thomas as an independent witness to the presumed person and teaching of Jesus. (At best, it would witness to the original Cynic product.) In fact, Thomas’ link with a Jesus is limited to a very simple tag prefacing most of the sayings: “Jesus said.” A handful have scraps of set-up lines. This hardly shows a strong integration of the Jesus idea with the Thomas material. Rather it suggests that the identification of the sayings with a Jesus is a secondary layer, introduced probably toward the middle of the second century under the influence of newly-developing historical Jesus ideas.
The presence in Thomas of an extensive collection of gnostic sayings not found in Q shows that wholesale recasting and invention was the practice as time went on. Simple sayings in Thomas (such as #78) which are found in Q in extended constructions indicate Q’s own, more complex, evolution over time, a revisionary process which seems to be part of the introduction of a founder figure at the Q3 level.
The fact that both Q and Thomas, two distinct communities, show no biographical interest in Jesus’ life and remained impervious to ideas of a death and resurrection as elements of faith and soteriology, should raise alarm bells and lead any conscientious historian to examine the possibility that both these documents began as simply sayings collections, unattached to any Jesus figure.
Professor Mack, building on older studies, isolates (p.54) a series of pronouncement stories in Mark which bear a strong resemblance to the Greek style of aphorism called chreiai (they’re also found in the Cynic layer of Q). These were little anecdotes made up of a set-up line, usually a question or accusation made by a disciple or antagonist, followed by a clever rejoinder or putdown by the one being challenged. This literary device was popular and widespread among Cynics and Socratics. Compare the style (and content) of Mark 2:17: “When asked why he ate with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replied, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician’,” with: “When censured for keeping bad company, Antisthenes replied, ‘Well, physicians attend their patients without catching the fever’.”
Mack points out that scholars regard most of these as pre-Markan, that they were stories being told of Jesus in Mark’s community before incorporation into the Gospel. They were suitable for Mark’s purposes because his story of Jesus was basically one of conflict between Jesus and the establishment, and they could be used to illustrate this. But an equally natural interpretation would be that (a) such anecdotes reflect the conflict that existed in the Markan community between the sect’s members and the antagonistic establishment around them, and Mark recast them in terms of his Jesus character, and that (b) whenever they were formed, they were modelled in style and even content on the Cynic tradition of chreiai. Some of them may even have been lifted directly from Cynic precedents, perhaps with minor changes to fit the issues of the Markan community. There is no compelling evidence to postulate any association of these anecdotes with a Jesus prior to their introduction into Mark’s Gospel. Mack and others readily admit that many pronouncement stories in Mark are the evangelist’s own invention.
And yet from these scraps which are rooted (like the first layer of Q) in a Hellenistic gene-pool, Mack looks behind Mark and his community and postulates a distinct Kingdom group (he calls it “The Jesus School”) which responded to Jesus by adopting him as the founder-teacher of their movement, viewing him as the one who had first been engaged in their own primary activity: debating the Pharisees over the continued applicability of the purity laws. The principle involved here is a common sectarian manifestation. That the group’s practices are given legitimacy, even sanctity, by being seen as the continuation of those established and first practiced by a strong founder figure. But Mack does not need this earlier hypothetical group to embody such a principle. The Markan community itself fills this role, when its disputes with the establishment around it got cast in chreic form and became attributed to a founder Jesus in the course of the Gospel’s formation.
The pronouncement stories are also about the question of Jesus’ “authority” to teach and do certain things. Since any sectarian group, like the Markan community, is always engaged in teaching a new doctrine and going against the grain in its activities, controversy with the wider establishment is an ever present situation. The pre-Gospel state of these stories, therefore, is much more likely to be a reflection of those controversies in the community’s own history, rather than a “response” by some distinct prior group going back to Jesus.
Because of what is and what is not to be found in this set of extracted pronouncement stories, Mack declares (p.59) that this group did not envision Jesus as divine man, savior or martyr. Once again we have a group which is blissfully unconcerned with any death of the man, let alone a resurrection. Nor did they profess an apocalyptic view of the end of the world, since nothing to do with a Parousia or Son of Man shows up. Rather, they saw Jesus solely as some kind of clever defence attorney advocating a more relaxed way of life, free of the strict codes the Pharisees were trying to impose on everyone in the wake of the Jewish War.
Surely this is the creation of the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. The pronouncement stories represent one aspect of a reform movement’s difficulties with the hidebound tradition they are trying to shake off. By creating a distinct social group out of this one element, with its own set of individual responses to Jesus, Mack is giving the Christian movement even more of a schizophrenic quality than it deserves.
To the pile Professor Mack adds (p.64f) something he calls “The Congregation of Israel”. This is yet another distinct response to Jesus, springing to life out of two sets of five miracle stories to be found in Mark’s Gospel. They were, he says, the product of a prior group (mostly the socially marginalized) which sought to claim for itself the status of a new Israel. They set Jesus up as their founder, a new Moses and prophet, which conferred on them the desired status.
The miracles constituted their “myth of origins”, the justification for their view of themselves. In each miracle set Jesus performs a wonder relating to water (Stilling the Storm, Walking on the Water) which mirrors the parting of the Red Sea; at the end of each set comes the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, which corresponds to the desert manna from heaven during the Exodus. Between are three healing miracles paralleling (and lifted from) the miracles of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings. This makes the point that Jesus is the eschatological prophet reflecting popular expectation that Elijah would return during the last days. Here was a Kingdom group expecting an imminent End.
All well and good. But is this the response to Jesus of yet another distinct social group, or is it a product of the Markan community itself, or some earlier phase of it? The occurrence of miracles was an indispensable sign of the imminence of the Kingdom. Any community preaching such a thing, whether Q or the one Mark worked in, had to claim the performance of signs and wonders. Miracle-working was the stock in trade of every wandering prophet and sectarian circle of the day, and similar miracle stories abounded among Graeco-Roman groups. If the Markan community saw itself as a “new Israel” emerging from the wilderness and announcing the Kingdom, Mark or a predecessor could have reworked the community’s miracle traditions to create the Exodus-prophetic pattern. The healings are also symbols for the acceptance of the “unclean” in the new Kingdom, which would have reflected the policy in the Markan community. None of it need go back to a Jesus. Like the pronouncement stories, the miracle sets provided yet another ingredient for the community’s newly-developed historical founder when the composite picture was put together.
Furthermore, the immediate point of each miracle has always something to do with the disciples of Mark’s story. Since one can assume Mark relates the disciples to his own community, this suggests that the miracle tales and their formation are bound up with the functioning and identity of that community. Mark, in everything, is ‘teaching’ his own people. Other miracle stories in the Gospel are readily acknowledged by Mack and others to be Mark’s invention.
Once again Mack gives us a distinct group with distinctive characteristics; it has no conflict with others around it, no need for a death and resurrection, which it shows no knowledge of. Another schizophrenic expression. Why this selective picking and choosing of the elements of Jesus’ teachings and experiences by the early Christian movement, this bizarre preservation of separate elements of Jesus by separate communities? How did all these fragmented little groups, Q, the Jesus School, the Thomas people, the Congregation of Israel, exist in glorious isolation from each other, immune to crossover influences, and all of them blithely indifferent to the cultic movement which had turned Jesus into God and had chucked the whole teaching tradition and every aspect of a recent human ministry onto the scrap heap?
And the isolation is reciprocal. In the letters of Paul, in the epistles written in the last half of the first century, like Hebrews, 1 Peter, the Deutero-Paulines, James, etc., there is not the slightest hint of all these other “responses” to Jesus, merrily flourishing and going their own way in other parts of the world.
Did they all exist in alternate universes?
Instead of postulating that all these “Jesus movements” reflect groups of Jesus’ followers who “didn’t understand” what he was about (p.45), thus producing so many disparate views, why not consider whether this array of ingredients reflects various sectarian phenomena of the times, all of which came or were brought together in the creation of a composite Jesus picture? ‘Jesus’ became the artificial embodiment of all the elements of the period.
Mack also fails to address the question: how and why would Mark, wherever he was located (Mack has suggested Sidon or Tyre), have come in contact with and deliberately collect all these disparate traditions—from all over the geographical map, presumably—and put them together in his Gospel? Is it not more likely that someone in Mark’s position reworks his own traditions, recasting them into a new picture, rather than borrow from all and sundry? (The latter might be so if Mark had been an historian, bent on creating a true picture of Jesus of Nazareth, but no scholar in the critical field would think to style any of the Gospels this way.)
One could perhaps accept a single input from an external source (such as Q), even as a kind of trigger for the evolution to the next stage which the Gospel represents, but new developments tend to grow out of older conditions within the same setting. Only in this way do they have ongoing relevance for the community. The creation of a larger-than-life founder figure is a universal sectarian practice in order to embody all of its own beliefs and practices in a glorified origin and originator. (I would suggest, however, that when Mark first set down his tale of Jesus he was engaging in a common Jewish practice, creating an allegorical midrash on scripture and not perceived history, though that would soon change: see the John Shelby Spong book review.)
Mack’s final “Jesus movement” is the group known as the “pillars” in Jerusalem, but this will be left until after a discussion of his second general type of early Christian response to Jesus: the Christ cult, with Paul as its high priest.
The Christ Cult
Professor Mack’s “Christ Cult” is already familiar to us as the earliest and only recorded “response” to Jesus before the Gospels: declaring Jesus as the Son of God, throne-partner of the Deity himself, Lord and sustainer of the universe, pre-existent before the creation of the world, an agent in that creation, redeemer of the world’s sins and conqueror of the demon powers through his death, guarantor of eternal life through his resurrection from the grave. One has to stand agape at the quantum gap that existed between the mind of someone like Paul and of those who saw no more in Jesus than an attorney who made it OK not to wash their hands before eating.
Mack himself is not immune to wondering how such a cosmic, unprecedented deification of his teaching Jesus could have taken place. In A Myth of Innocence (p. 101) he called it “one of the most difficult challenges confronting the historian.” In the latest book, his solution is to regard the cultic expression as an outgrowth from a Jesus movement, over the course of about “25 years of social experimentation” (p.75). There was a gradual focus, he says, on Jesus’ death and away from his teachings and the sense of belonging to a school. Jesus became a divine, spiritual presence. This coalescing cult produced hymns, prayers, complex theological constructions around the significance of that death. It gradually elevated the man to cosmic status and imagined that he had been raised from the dead.
The problems? First, out of all the writings of these cultic groups—and there were more than one, for the Pauline school and Hebrews, to take only one example, have no points of contact—none of them contain an inkling that they grew out of previous views of Jesus as a human man and teacher; they say nothing about a life and ministry on earth. Such an elevation would surely have been at the center of their presentations, their theologies, their attempts to justify so colossal a transformation—and one which would have been utterly blasphemous to centuries of Jewish tradition and sensibilities. You cannot turn a man into God and attach every mythological concept of the day to him and then ignore the human antecedent as though he never existed. And you certainly cannot do it and go unchallenged. In any case, how likely is it that such a total excision of the cult’s previous interests in Jesus would have taken place, even in the process of a dramatic elevation to divinity? This silence is a problem scholars have faced for a century, and I would say that Mack has not solved it.
Because he is sensitive to those Jewish sensibilities, Mack must postulate that this elevation of Jesus took place away from the centers of Jewish orthodoxy like Jerusalem and instead was largely the product of gentile influences in places like Antioch. One of the problems here is that such groups, being distant from the places of Jesus’ ministry and forming after his death, would have had no contact with the man himself. Perhaps Mack sees this as an advantage, but I would question how anyone, gentile or Jew, would have been impelled to create such a cosmic product out of someone they never laid eyes on. There is no question that what was presumably made of Jesus smacks of Hellenistic ideas, but these ideas not even gentiles had ever applied to an historical person, so the leap would have been, in its own way, as unprecedented and shocking for them as it would be for Jews.
In any case, even in Antioch Jews were a strong component of cultic Christ circles. Either they suppressed their own traditions about divinity or they allowed the whole blasphemous proposition to be foisted on them by persuasive gentiles. Should not the likelihood of this be questioned?
Such discussion Mack does not locate in the marketplace, but his picture (p.77) of the Kingdom groups who were led to debate human equality at table gatherings, and their need to provide such a vision with a model representing God’s plan for restructuring human society does not, it seems to me, generate enough fuel to send the human Jesus into a divine orbit, especially since nothing that this Jesus had done or taught on earth gets translated into the epic myth of a redeeming death and resurrection, and certainly not its historical details.
The colossal anomaly involved here obviously causes Professor Mack some discomfort, for in the space of a few pages (p.78f) he uses words and phrases describing this myth, such as “excessive”, “far-fetched”, “unimaginable”. “The resulting Christ myth strikes us as an uncalled-for overreaction.” Indeed it does, and Mack himself is voicing a legitimate criticism of his theory.
Mack admits that the Christ cult bears close parallels with the Greek cults which offer their own mythical saviors and that the Christ myth drew on current Hellenistic and Jewish mythology. Here again, he might have asked the obvious question: Was the Christ myth simply a product of this universal religious tendency of the time? Was it the Jewish equivalent (in certain sectarian circles) of the current mythical savior-god expression? After all, if every contemporary record of the Christ myth never speaks in terms of a human Jesus, makes no connection to a recent teacher, should we unquestioningly assume that such an unusual antecedent lay behind its development?
Paul and the Pillars
In any case, the whole theory collapses under the weight of one particular consideration. This is a point Mack never addresses and it is inconceivable that he did not think of it. If the Christ cult is a development over time in largely gentile settings outside Palestine, how does Paul’s conversion fit into such a picture?
Add up the 17 years Paul itemizes in Galatians 1 and 2 and count back from the so-called apostolic conference, which cannot be dated any later than 48 or 49. Thus, Paul was converted in the year 31 or 32. Jesus’ corpse was scarcely cold. (Scholarly opinion usually places the crucifixion around 28 to 30.) Yet the Christ cult already existed at the time of Paul’s conversion. Mack slips in an admission of this without squarely facing the huge problem it creates.
In all that Paul says about Jerusalem and the Jerusalem apostles (“those who were apostles before me”: Galatians 1:17) there is no suggestion that his beliefs differed critically from theirs. We don’t know where Paul underwent his conversion experience. (Nothing he says suggests that it was a dramatic event such as Luke portrays on the road to Damascus in Acts—a legend which no doubt developed later.) But wherever it was, he was able to make contact with the Jerusalem group without theological difficulties. Who, then, in the very heart of Israel, had turned Jesus into a cosmic deity and attached Hellenistic mythologies to him almost as soon as he was laid in his grave? Did Paul, a Jew born and bred as he tells us, simply swallow the whole thing without a murmur of indigestion? And where is the space for the earlier Jesus movement this cult is supposed to have grown out of—over a period of 25 years?
This has brought me to another major flaw in Mack’s scenario. Among his “Jesus movements” he lists the “pillars” in Jerusalem, the group around James and Peter whom Paul talks of in Galatians and with whom he was associated at various stages of his career. And what is Mack’s definition of a Jesus movement? “No early Jesus group thought of Jesus as the Christ” (p.45). In other words, all these people regarded Jesus as a human teacher, not a divine Son of God. These pillars had apparently emigrated from Galilee and taken up residence in the capital, presumably following Jesus’ own migration there.
But Mack faces all sorts of problems with this. He is almost willing to discount the entire idea that Jesus went up to Jerusalem (p.69), since nothing in the record of any Jesus movement would suggest a reason for doing so, and the story in Mark that he did go there is obviously a plot device, and an anachronistic one at that. Besides, if Jesus, for whatever reason, was executed in Jerusalem as a subversive, why, Mack wonders, did his followers remain there—with impunity, to boot? Of course, not a hint of such questions arises anywhere in Paul’s references to the Jerusalem brotherhood.
Now, Mack (p.69) characterizes this particular Jesus movement as one which claimed that the traditional Pharisaic purity codes had to be adhered to, and this is borne out by Galatians (regardless of what Luke presented of the matter in Acts). These stricter attitudes toward the Jewish Law Mack can only conclude were derived from this group’s own particular view of the teachings of Jesus. Quite apart from the fact that all other postulated Jesus groups are supposed to have drawn precisely the opposite conclusion from those teachings, this raises a perplexing question.
For here is precisely the bone of contention between Paul and the pillars: whether converts to Christianity had to adhere to the purity and circumcision requirements of the Law. If the pillars derived their interpretation of things from Jesus’ teachings (erroneously or not), why is there no mention of any appeal on the pillars’ part to Jesus and those teachings? Why is Paul not forced to address and counter such an appeal, since he obviously disagrees with it? Peter and the others would surely have presented their interpretation of Jesus’ views in the dispute with Paul, and he would have had to deal with it. How could a discussion of Jesus’ own pronouncements on these subjects (regardless of whether they were grounded in what he might actually have said) not surface somewhere in the bitter debates Paul regularly engages in on questions of the Law?
Of course, this is not the only thing which fails to surface. Would Professor Mack really have us believe that if the Jerusalem group were one that did not regard Jesus as divine, did not attach any significance to his death and presumably knew of no resurrection, that such a radical divergence of opinion would not elicit some reference to that effect by Paul? How could he refer to them simply as “apostles before me” if they didn’t preach a redeeming Christ? Why would Paul go to Jerusalem “to discuss his gospel” with a group who had no Christ myth at all? How could he label Peter and his people as commissioned—by God!—to preach to the Jews while he, Paul, was commissioned, also by God, to preach to the gentiles (Galatians 2:8)? Were the Jews not to learn that Jesus had died for sin and risen from the dead? Could Paul associate with such a group, collect money for them, risk his neck by going back to Jerusalem to deliver it, if these were people who merely regarded Jesus as a human teacher, a role which Paul, apparently, had entirely expunged from his own consciousness? Are we to believe that if Peter had no concept of Jesus as God, he himself would associate with a man who was involved in doing something so horrifying to his apparent Jewish loyalties and sensibilities? The issue of whether Jews could eat at the same table as gentiles would be insignificant beside the dispute that would have set Peter and Paul at each other’s throats over converting a Galilean preacher into the Son of the God of Abraham!
But once again Mack undercuts a position he takes by another feature of his scenario. Those spiritual expressions of the myths of the Christ cult—prayers, hymns, etc.—include the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 where Paul states the basic gospel he preaches about the Christ, then lists a series of ‘appearances’ of the risen Christ to people in Jerusalem, ending with himself.
Regardless of the fact (as Mack acknowledges, along with most liberal scholars today) that Jesus’ “raising” seems, in Paul’s mind and that of the early cultic movement generally, to have been a raising in spirit only, Mack has here gotten himself into a monumental contradiction. If the pillars are members of a Jesus movement, which by definition did not hold Jesus to be divine but only a human teacher, what are they doing in a formulaic statement of the Christ myth? What are they doing having visions of a “raised” Christ? Why would Paul, or a cult member off in some remote area to Jerusalem, like Antioch, even think of offering a group of Jerusalem followers of Jesus the teacher as proof of cultic beliefs about a risen Son of God? Mack cannot have it both ways. He cannot put them in both camps.
Is this a misinterpretation of what Mack has said? It is admittedly hard to believe that a scholar of his rank could be guilty of such an apparent fallacy. But I quote from page 103: “Paul’s report of these encounters . . . fits the suspicion that the Jesus movement in Jerusalem was not a congregation of the Christ cult kind (my italics). Unless he has made an exception which he does not spell out, this has to mean that the pillars had no divine view of Jesus. According to the characteristics Mack has given all his other Jesus movements (he is sometimes a bit inconsistent when using this term, as one can see from the above quote), this included no special view of Jesus’ death and no concept of a resurrection. The Jerusalem group’s inclusion in this Pauline passage about the gospel of the cultic circle Paul belonged to, the lack of any differentiation made by Paul between himself and the others in regard to the visions of the Christ, has to belie Mack’s entire characterization of the pillars.
Interpreting the Death of Jesus
Professor Mack has a number of related things to say about the death of Jesus. He compares it (p.80) to the Greek idea of a noble death. The trouble is, this noble death was classically of the warrior or teacher who died for his country, his followers, his teachings. These things focus on a life, on a cause. This is precisely what is missing in the Christ cult, which has nothing to do with Jesus’ life, teachings or followers. Dying for sin is not in the same category; this is a mystical, spiritual concept.
The Jewish idea of martyrdom saw such a death as one for the sake of the Law, the Jewish heritage and beliefs. It related to the circumstances of the world the martyr moved in. Paul (and other writings, like Hebrews) never portrays or speaks of Jesus’ death in such a light. Jesus is never placed in an historical, worldly setting. Rather, he is locked in a struggle with evil spirits, those who slay him unwittingly (1 Cor. 2:8) and those he conquers (Col. 2:15). The other Jewish idea Mack appeals to, that of the persecuted sage, is a theme worked out in the Gospels, but there is not a hint of it in Paul. Instead of the story of the persecution of a righteous innocent man, Paul has God himself delivering Jesus up (Romans 8:32). This is because it all took place in the spiritual realm, which was the setting in which the early cultic groups placed their god Jesus.
Mack then tries (p.82) to link the concept of Jesus’ death “for sins” (15:3) with the Jewish idea of the martyr whose death expiates (or “ransoms”) the sins of the people. But this sinfulness, in the Jewish mind, was always closely tied to a failure to keep the Law, and in fact Mack points in this direction. But can this possibly be what Paul has in mind? He who has been busy relegating the Law to the waste bin, declaring it only as God’s temporary measure until faith in Christ came (Gal. 3:23-5)? Should we think that gentiles in Antioch would have had such a fixation on the Law either—they who were breaking down doors to get themselves circumcised? (Mack makes the same questionable analysis of the concept of sin in Romans 3:21-6.)
Whatever Paul does mean by Jesus’ death “for sin”, it does not seem to fit the standard Jewish conception. Thus, Mack’s suggestion that the death of Jesus was a type of Maccabean-style martyrology in the minds of the formulators of the myth, is dubious. Again, this is because the myth described the death of a spiritual deity in a mythical realm, not some human teacher, and thus could not be compared to a Maccabean martyr—except perhaps in a paradigmatic fashion (the upper world prototype for a lower world copy; see below). Paul’s fixation on the power of sin in the world, his view of Satan as a controlling force in this regard, may point to the nature of Paul’s view of how Jesus “died for sin”. In any case, it was a spiritual act. If this is to be regarded as martyrology, it is of a special and mystical kind.
Mack himself (p.90) seems bothered by the element of Jesus’ blood sacrifice and its obvious associations with the animal sacrifices of the old covenant and Temple cult. He puts it down to “active early Christian imaginations”. Of course, Hebrews (which Mack does not address here) pulls no punches in this regard. Christ is the new and final ‘burnt offering’ in a way that has no relationship to Maccabean martyrology.
Such considerations break Mack’s attempted bridge from a Jesus movement to the Christ cult. He has tried to suggest that the death of the teacher Jesus could originally have been seen in entirely human terms, along the lines of past martyrs for the nation. No such idea surfaces in Paul. If he thinks to point to a simpler, less mystical phase lying behind Paul, he has little supporting evidence. Sam Williams’ excavation of a pre-Pauline fragment behind Romans 3:21-26 (p.85) is speculative, and in any case still makes no clear pointer to a human view of Jesus. Mack, in his analysis of this Romans passage, is forced to assume that a key word (pistis, faith) was originally aligned in a different way.
Early Christian Mythmaking
Professor Mack properly regards (p.87f) the “Ritual Meal” scene in 1 Corinthians 11:23f as “not historical but imaginary,” a creation of the Christ cult surrounding meal practice “in keeping with their mythology.” He makes several links with the Hellenistic tradition of meals of fellowship which had patron deities. The mystery cults also had their sacred meals, and mythic traditions of the god having established that meal. The door is wide open, then, for seeing Paul’s scene as an origin myth (one he may have developed himself under the Lord’s inspiration, as he says in verse 23) which described the establishment of the meal observed by his congregation in Corinth. Like the Mithraic myth which said that Mithras and the sun-god had established a covenant by sharing a meal after Mithras’ slaying of the bull, the scene which Paul describes is something which had taken place in a mythical setting, in the spiritual realm where the activities of all the savior gods of the day were located.
Mack’s final pre-Pauline fragment of the Christ cult (p.91f) is the well-known christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. Since he admits that this is the earliest of its type, and already represents “mythmaking on a cosmic scale,” there does not seem to be much room left to insert the prior development he is postulating from Jesus movement to cultic divine Christ.
Further, there is no martyrology in view here (which Mack admits), no died for sin or anything else, which has been the essential ingredient in that postulated prior development. Jesus dies and is exalted, period. Since the hymn must be trying to make a theological statement, we must assume that the death is for the purpose of the exaltation. The exaltation is the desired consequence of the death. This is borne out by the ‘dio’ (therefore, for this reason) at the beginning of verse 9. Here is the central concern of the group which formulated this hymn, their mythical view of Jesus, that “obedience unto death” (verse 8) will lead to exaltation. Jesus and his fate serves as their paradigm. What he underwent guarantees the same result for them. This has little to do with martyrology, but rather has a Platonic basis in the idea of counterparts between the spiritual and material worlds. And it does not require Jesus to have been a human figure. The Greek savior gods were doing virtually the same thing, providing their devotees with paradigmatic benefits, within their mythical settings.
Thus, the hymn in Philippians points to a ‘death of a god’ myth which takes place entirely in the spiritual world, just like the redeeming activities in many of the other savior god stories of the period. The descending-ascending motif of the hymn (found in the Gospel of John as well) also parallels a widespread myth of the time about a Descending-Ascending Redeemer, although pre-Christian evidence of this is sketchy and debated. The early Christian cultic mythology fits perfectly into this wider phenomenon, a Jewish (with Hellenistic input) expression of the religious pattern of the time. Whereas only by dint of questionable assumption, interpretation and sheer force can we see it in the usual fashion, the elevation of a human man to the level of the God of Israel, the unprecedented equation of a humble Jewish preacher with all the going divine myths of the day.
Mack seems to recognize this, and once again (p.92-5) has recourse to terms like “stupendous”, “audacious”, “mind-boggling”, that a human preacher could come to be spoken of (as the mystery deities were) as “Lord over all,” to whom every knee would bow, every tongue confess throughout the very heavens and underworld, as the hymn says. When one considers that the myth shows no survival of such a human starting-point, that no defense of this mind-boggling elevation is anywhere to be found, we have to agree with Professor Mack that the whole idea is “absurd”.
A Cosmic Force
In a few passages in the book, Mack describes the world-view of the Christian cultic circles, such as Paul’s congregation in Corinth. Here he provides a perfect description of early Christian faith in a divine spiritual Christ and how such an entity fitted into the picture of the cosmos. All we need do is delete the superimposed equation with a recent human man.
Speaking of Paul’s Corinthian congregation (p.128), Mack offers the opinion that “the Corinthians had indeed gotten excited about the report of a god recently crucified who was then transformed into the lord of the spiritual kingdom he represented and revealed. Perhaps they understood it on the model of the world of the gods with which they were familiar from Greek mythology, or perhaps they understood it as a cosmic essence or sphere, as taught by their philosophers.” Mack has no trouble envisioning a cosmic sphere, a world of gods who acted within it as in the Greek myths, and a god Jesus as the lord of this spiritual kingdom. But to judge by Paul’s two lengthy letters to them, the Corinthians didn’t get the “recently crucified” part from him. Not even his impassioned defence of Christian folly (of a Christ crucified) against scandalized Jews and Greeks (1 Cor. 1:18-2:16) can lead him to justify the folly of turning a man into God, to mention Pilate as Jesus’ executioner, or to suggest that, yes, there was one man, quite recently, who “knew what God is.”
On page 146, Mack offers a perceptive description of the spiritual Christ. “In Paul’s mind, the Christ was now an historic person, now the son of God, a ‘corporate personality’ representing a collective humanity, a cosmic king, a spiritual power pervading the cosmos, the hidden meaning behind the significant events of Israel’s history, and the incarnation of the very mind, promise and intention of God for humankind.” Only the first phrase is out of place, for it is not based on anything Paul actually says.
Finally, Mack conveys beautifully (p.184) the highly mystical view of the Christ/cosmos which Colossians and Ephesians present: “What happened to Paul’s Christ was that he became an imaginary world the size of the cosmos. With a little help from the Stoics, Christians of the Christ cult had reconceived the image of Christ as cosmic lord by thinking of his kingdom as the hidden structure of the cosmos and he himself as the creative power that brought it into being and continued to sustain it. The Greek penchant for correlating anthropology with cosmology had, in this case, the weird result of imagining the Christ-cosmos in the monstrous form of a person, with Christ as the ‘head’ and both the world and the church as his ‘body’.”
Weird and monstrous the whole thing may indeed seem to us. But for Christ to be imagined as a cosmic power that created the world and held it together, as the hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 presents him, is weird and monstrous only when we insist on imagining that Paul and his contemporaries had turned a human being, a crucified criminal, into this cosmic force—especially when they never show any sign of having that man in mind.
But to imagine a divine entity of this nature, who existed and worked in this great spiritual cosmos, one who was “the effulgence of God’s splendor and the stamp of God’s very being, who sustains the universe by his word of power,” (as Hebrews 1:3 puts it—also without mentioning one little detail: that he used to be a humble Jewish preacher by the name of Jesus of Nazareth), this would have been quite acceptable in the context of ancient world philosophy.
Apostles and Disciples
One of the principal threads of development in the making of the Christian myth which Professor Mack focuses on is the idea of apostolic tradition. Here he gets into considerable difficulty. First of all, he points out that during the early period (until the end of the first century) there was no record of any teaching of Jesus as having been passed on through appointed disciples. The Jesus movements, he says, had all attributed their traditions to Jesus himself. (This statement is largely based on interpretation of the early layers of Q and of the Gospel of Thomas with its “Jesus said” accretions.) As for the cultic groups, says Mack (p.200), they never felt that it was “necessary to call on the name of a disciple in order to feel sure about their experience of the cosmic Christ.” (Or the name of the human Jesus, for that matter!) Mack never examines the question of how so many Jesus groups and cults could have formed without the aid of apostolic intermediaries, apostles who should have survived in some group’s traditions.
Mack assumes that Mark knew of hazy traditions about the disciples of Jesus, such as Peter, James and John, and the Twelve, both from Paul. The problem is, Paul never refers to these people as “disciples” of Jesus in the sense of followers, and exactly what his “Twelve” constitutes is far from clear, since in 1 Corinthians 15:5f (the only place a “Twelve” is mentioned in all the New Testament epistles) he lists Peter and “the apostles” separately from this body. So we have no record before Mark of any individuals referred to as “disciples” or even of the term itself.
This does not stop Mack from indulging in a clever bit of mental gymnastics. Keep in mind that no one before the Gospels calls Peter or anyone else a “disciple”, meaning a follower of the earthly Jesus during his ministry.
Mack says (p.201) that the term “apostles” began to be used in place of “disciples”. We find the term “apostle” in Paul; he uses it of himself and everyone else who preaches the Christ. But Mack suggests that Paul himself may have adopted this term for the missionary movement and substituted it for “disciple”, since by this device he could get around the ‘fact’ (something Paul never even alludes to) that he had not been a disciple of Jesus as the pillars had been, and he could claim his own special status as one who had been “sent out” (the meaning of apostle)—in his case, by God. Never mind that no hint of the idea that the pillars had been disciples of Jesus ever emerges in Paul, Mack can discern it clearly in the background. Never mind that Galatians 2:8 declares that God (!) had made Peter an apostle to the Jews just as he had made Paul an apostle to the gentiles. But Mack goes even further and suggests that Paul calling Peter an “apostle” was a “clever strategy on his part,” for it was designed to dismiss Peter’s former role as Jesus’ “disciple” and force on him Paul’s term, with the implication that they now both shared the same level of authorization. (Paul records no objection on Peter’s part to this outrageous sleight-of-hand.)
This is mind-reading (and across almost 20 centuries!) of a most impressive sort. Did Mack not consider that Paul is not being clever here, he is simply being straightforward? He calls Peter and everyone else “apostles” because that’s what they all were, on an equal footing, called by God to preach the newly-revealed Son (Gal. 1:16, Rom. 16:25, Col. 2:2). In the entire catalogue of New Testament epistles there is no mention of any disciple attached to Jesus, no appointment of anyone to apostleship by Jesus on earth, no appeal to the authority of those who can trace their preaching pedigree back to an earthly Jesus. The term “disciple” never appears because there was no Master to whom such followers could be attached. Open Strong’s Concordance and glance over the three solid columns of the word “disciple(s)”. Is it not exceedingly suspicious that almost 300 occurrences can be found in the Gospels and Acts and not a single one in any New Testament epistle?
1 John is another document Professor Mack spends some time on in connection with the concept of apostolic tradition. Here is a community which, one would think, must have derived its traditions about Jesus from a disciple, at least in its own mind, because it deviates so radically from the Synoptic outlook. Such uniqueness always needs justification. The community would have had to defend its doctrine as coming through some authorized channel. (One was later invented in the person of the “beloved disciple”, subsequently identified with the apostle John.)
But where does 1 John declare that its witness to the Son comes from? As chapter 5 says, from God himself and through the community’s rather cryptic rites of “water, blood and spirit.” Nor does the epistle make even a glance in the direction of Jesus’ own teachings. “All knowledge”, “all you need to know” (2:20f), says the writer, the believers have received—from God—at their anointing, evidently the sect’s initiation ritual. In chapter 4, the epistle declares that correct doctrine (such as that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”) is received through spirits sent from God, ie, by divine inspiration. False doctrine is the work of false spirits sent from Satan. So much for apostolic tradition and tracing anything back to Jesus in the Johannine community at the end of the first century.
A Teaching Document Without a Teacher
In connection with the idea of apostolic tradition, Professor Mack examines the document known as the Didache (p.239f). This he dates (more or less correctly, though this is probably a layered piece of writing) to the turn of the second century, and it requires something of a juggling act on his part. The word means “Teaching” and later its contents were associated with the Twelve Apostles as a body. Mack labels it as part of the development of apostolic tradition whose purpose is to “trace back to Jesus.” But he is caught in a bind here. On the one hand, Twelve Apostles or no, this is a manual of instruction for a network of Christian congregations reflecting the teachings, views and practices of the community(s) which produced it. It contains a “Two Ways” section, that is, a version of the traditional Jewish set of Right vs. Wrong ethics. Parts of this collection of moral maxims, etc., are clearly related to teachings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.
And yet one looks in vain for an attribution of anything to Jesus in this document. In fact, a careful analysis of the use of the term “Lord” throughout the Didache (it always refers to God), shows that even the so-called Lord’s Prayer has been attributed to God, as part of the inspired message the community preaches (i.e., the “gospel”, a term which some commentators admit does not refer to any written document). God is the source of all “commandments” in the Didache. We note further that in chapter 11, when the legitimacy and proper teachings of travelling missionaries and charismatic prophets are under discussion, no reference is made to the idea of apostolic tradition, no appeal to any authority or correctness of doctrine going back to Jesus or any inaugurating phase of the movement.
So we have a “manual of instruction for Christian communities” wherein the authority of Jesus himself as one source of such instructions is an idea which is never mentioned. This in itself is astonishing. On the other hand, Mack places the Didache in his line of development to apostolic tradition. Yet neither the latter idea nor a single name of an apostle is anywhere in evidence. Mack thus assigns the document to some limbo region, “a period of transition” (p.239) when it was not necessary to spell out apostles’ names or their specific instructions. So the Didache has no human Jesus as the source of anything and no apostles handing it on.
But we find a further complication here. There is no death and resurrection of Jesus in the Didache. The community has a eucharistic meal (its prayers are recited in chapter 9) which has no sacramental significance to any death of Jesus, thus no pronouncement of Jesus’ words over the bread and cup, and there is no mention of any establishment of this meal by Jesus. (In this document, “Jesus” puts in his sole appearance in these prayers, as the “servant/child” of God who has made known God’s “life and knowledge”. This, I suggest, is a reference to Christ as a spiritual intermediary like personified Wisdom, nothing more.)
All this, in Professor Mack’s eyes, makes the Didache community a Jesus movement, a non-cultic, Jesus-was-our-teacher/founder type. And yet there is no teaching Jesus on its pages. Added to this conundrum is the fact that there seems to be some connection between the Didache and the community that produced the Gospel of Matthew, because the two texts “have much in common” (p.241). Not in regard to the Gospel story or the cultic picture of Jesus—which are nowhere in sight in the Didache—but in some of the ‘teaching’ material. (This can be explained by seeing some copyist at a later date, familiar with the Gospel of Matthew, altering the Didache’s text in the direction of Matthew’s wording, but without inserting any references to Jesus himself.) Mack postulates that the Didache and Matthew “stem from the same or closely related communities,” and yet his respective dates put the Didache perhaps a decade later. So now he has to explain why “the Didache does not make a point of the ‘teaching’ coming from Jesus at all.” What happened, he asks, between the time of Matthew and the time of the Didache?
His answer (p.242) lies in a type of interpretation which is one of my reservations about all of Mack’s recent books. So much of what he offers is simply too clever, too ‘modern’ in its sophisticated analysis. It is the expression of an intelligent, subtle 20th century scholarly mind, and I think it would go over the head of any first century Christian writer.
The Didache, he says, has formalized the teaching into daily and weekly rituals. It “is interested in behavior, not mood.” Whereas, “Matthew’s strategy was to reduce the impact of Jesus’ teachings to attitudes and motivations…” Presumably, one required an attribution to Jesus, the other didn’t.
Does this ‘explanation’ really mean anything? If the writer is instructing the community, advocating certain rituals and practices for a network of churches, how does this any less require or persuade him to quote the basis of these practices in the things Jesus said? Certainly, the instructions and the exhortation would thereby be strengthened. And to think that a community “rooted in a Jesus movement”, which had no Christ myth, no death and resurrection theology, would abandon the one thing it did have—namely the tradition of Jesus as its teacher and founder—as something of no interest, as unnecessary to plug, even to give a single, solitary mention to in the course of this whole manual, is simply beyond belief.
Mack does not assuage that disbelief by declaring that this community was so secure in itself (another too modern touch) that it didn’t need to push “links to special charismatic leadership” (p.242). Nor does it seem reasonable that mentioning Jesus as the source of the community’s teaching, its one claim to fame and identity, would be “to make extravagant claims about Jesus.” As for its unique prayers, which are not found in any other Christian document, Mack suggests: “And, come to think of it, it may have distinguished itself consciously from other Christian groups simply by crafting its own prayers to God.” This kind of improvisation does not confer the legitimacy he is seeking to impose on material which is clearly broadcasting quite another message. It is anything but “self-evident” that, even though they are not mentioned, the authority of the traditions contained in the Didache include “the teachings of Jesus and the Gospel story of Jesus.”
Burton Mack, with the insights, depth of knowledge and keen analysis he does show, is quite capable of coming to the conclusion—or at least of addressing the possibility—that an historical Jesus may never have existed. Instead, he and so many others seem determined to take refuge in the most unlikely fantasies about the early Christian movement, as though the integrity of the historical Jesus must be preserved at all costs. Is it out of fear of the unknown?
I would say we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Here is an effort to refute Doherty