“Did Jesus Really Exist?”
By Avrum Stroll
Before beginning today’s talk, I should like to discuss a matter with you which seems to me of great urgency and importance. And I should like to introduce what I have to say about this subject by reading the concluding paragraphs of a letter printed in the “Letters to the Editor” column of the Vancouver Sun last Friday. This letter, signed with the name “Mrs. Ruth D. Golman,” contains a lengthy and highly critical discussion of an address given before the Philosophy Club a week ago today by Professor Peter Remnant of the Philosophy Department. Its concluding paragraphs read as follows:
A man’s religion is his own personal right and privilege, with which no other being has the right to interfere. Therefore, Dr. Remnant also has the right to his own personal views on the matter of God. But the University of British Columbia is, or should be, a purely educational institution. As a citizen of British Columbia, and a taxpayer, I therefore strongly protest his action in using the university and his affiliation therewith as the medium through which to express his personal ideas on religion by means of a lecture to over a thousand students. Not only are such views obnoxious to the time of the year, but to the time of world history. Never has mankind needed the consciousness of divine wisdom and strength as much as now.
There would be no point or purpose in reading this letter to you if it were simply an isolated expression of misinformation about the nature and function of a university in a democratic society. But unfortunately this is not the case. The views expressed by the writer echo a chorus of voices raised in condemnation of the university ever since the Cuban crisis. It is time that the character of this challenge be identified, be recognized for what it is, and that the sort of claims it makes be met head-on and resisted. If we fail to do so, we not only abandon one role of the teacher— to explain what he is about, and why his activities constitute important civic functions— but we also, by our inaction, open the door to further attacks on the democratic process itself.
For what we have here in Mrs. Golman’s letter (and in the letters like it) is a direct challenge to the right of a professor, or for that matter, anyone else, to speak his mind before a group of university students. Mrs. Golman not only disagrees with Dr. Remnant’s philosophical position— and we surely wish to defend, and even insist upon, her right to do so— but with his right to express it, using, as she puts it, the university facilities to do so. This is a clear and unmistakable challenge to academic freedom.
But the challenge does not end here: it is this further threat to freedom of inquiry in the university which I wish to stress at this gathering. Dr. Remnant addressed this club at the invitation of its executive; the professors who spoke to a student group about the Cuban situation did so at the invitation of the executive of that group. What is being challenged here, in effect, is the right of student groups in a free university in a democratic society to invite speakers of their choice to address them.
What I wish to insist on today is that it is the defining function of a university in a democratic society to provide a forum where free debate and free inquiry can take place. It is not only the right, but indeed the duty, of faculty members and students to consider, examine, judge and make appraisals of the issues which concern them. This right can only be exercised in those circumstances where there are no barriers to free inquiry. The university is, in this respect, a model or smaller image of the wider democratic community itself. The university student exposes himself to a wide variety of opinions, views, and doctrines on the assumption that the techniques and procedures he develops in the process of making such judgments will be carried on into his daily activities as a citizen of the community when he leaves the university. It is a condition of being a good citizen in a democratic community that one treat the issues which come before him in this way, and it is important to stress that it is the university which provides part of the training ground for his becoming a good citizen in this sense.
The voices which speak with Mrs. Golman are in effect threatening us with censorship, with some restriction upon the right of faculty members and students to inquire into the subjects of their interests in an effort to develop mature, responsible and informed views of the world. This threat must not go unanswered. I urge you here today to protest against this challenge to your right to freedom of inquiry and investigation. How you go about doing this, I leave to you. But speak out. As the long history of tyranny only too well teaches us: if we do not speak out under such conditions, we may ultimately lose the right to speak out at all. As a philosopher speaking (by invitation I might add) to the members of this philosophical association, may I use this opportunity for purposes of instruction? Let us not forget the best argument which has been proposed against the imposition of censorship. Roughly speaking, it is this: one of the paradoxes involved in the notion of censorship itself is that it cannot be applied to all members of a society. Even Plato, history’s most celebrated defender of the need for censorship, wished only to apply it to the masses of his ideal society, but not to the ruling classes.
And why? Because he correctly saw that those who are required to make wise and judicious laws for society must expose themselves to all the facts, to full and open debate about them, to all the pros and cons of a question which untrammeled investigation could produce. He saw clearly that without a free inquiry of this sort all the facts could not come under the surveillance of those responsible for making just laws; and so he argued, correctly I believe, that they should be exempted from censorship. In a democratic society, which is a self-governing institution, it is the citizen who participates in the governing process and who is, in the end, responsible for the laws which bind the members of the body politic. By the reasons I have just advanced, it follows that there can be no censorship in a democratic society: that all of its citizens must be in a position through free and unhampered inquiry to assess the merits of a question by having access to all the facts and opinions concerning it. As a training ground for the discovery and appraisal of facts the university is thus at the core of the democratic, decision-making process itself.
Let us now turn, if I may employ a Gilbertian phrase, from matters political to matters theological. And here I wish to discuss the question, “Did Jesus of Nazareth really exist?” This question, “Did Jesus exist?”, is to be distinguished from the question, “Did Christ exist?” I will illustrate why later on. I might also point out that in distinguishing these questions from one another, I do not mean to revive any variant of the Monophysite heresy, a heresy which turned on the question whether Jesus was fully human or fully divine, or to what degree he was both.
What I want to do, instead, may be summarized as follows. In contemporary philosophical theology one of the most widely debated questions concerns the relation between the historical Jesus, a man supposedly living in Palestine sometime between 9 B.C. and A.D. 32, and the Jesus described in the Gospel writings. The form this discussion takes is reminiscent of the discussion which historians of ancient philosophy have engaged in concerning the existence of Socrates. “Did Socrates really exist?” Some scholars, Winspear for example, have argued “No.” Most historians of the period have rejected this view, and have argued that he did. But the evidence for his existence is fragmentary. It mainly consists of a report by Xenophon of the trial of Socrates, allusions to a certain Socrates in two of the plays of Aristophanes, and the writings of Plato which purport to contain an eyewitness account of the life and activities of Socrates. But even if it is granted that there was such a person, it is difficult to separate the views of the real Socrates from those of Plato, and all sorts of conjectures about the relation between the views of Socrates and those of Plato have been put forth in recent years. A typical and characteristic response of many philosophers who are not historians is to raise the question: “What difference does it make whether there was a real Socrates or not? The figure who appears in the Platonic dialogues, even if only a literary invention, represents a certain philosophical position on all sorts of important matters: on the nature of knowledge, or the relation between knowledge and virtue, and so forth— and it is these positions which are, and ought to be, of interest to the contemporary philosopher.”
I find it of some interest that a comparable issue should exist in contemporary theology about the nature of the historical Jesus and his relation to the figure portrayed in the gospels. This issue is the main theme which runs through Albert Schweitzer’s book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first published [in English] in 1910. In concluding this work, Schweitzer says: “There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb.” (p. 398). And again, in developing this theme, he remarks: “Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity. The mistake was to suppose that Jesus could come to mean more to our time by entering into it as a man like ourselves. That is not possible. First because such a Jesus never existed.” (p. 399)
One of the most important Christian theologians of the post-war period is Rudolf Bultmann, whose work evidences a remarkable lack of concern with the historical Jesus. Expressing what has been described as “a mixture of radical historical skepticism and existentialist disinterest in objective history” (Schubert M. Ogden), Bultmann, from the time of his 1926 monograph on Jesus to his lecture given before the Heidelberg Academy of the Sciences in 1959, takes the view that there is a difference in principle between the historical Jesus and the message of the church that sets an impassible limit to any attempt to establish their identity. Insofar as the old quest for the historical Jesus sought and seeks to reconstruct a picture of the life and personality of the historical Jesus and in that way to provide historical justification for the existential decision of faith, Bultmann completely rejects the question. In his view, such an effort is historically impossible and theologically illegitimate. The knowledge available to us, he argues, through responsible critical analysis of the Synoptic Gospels simply is insufficient for the reconstruction of a picture of Jesus’ character and inner development.
This view has, of course, had its critics among New Testament scholars, among them James Robinson in his A New Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1959, Gunter Bornkamm (a pupil of Bultmann’s) in his Jesus of Nazareth, and Schubert M. Ogden (see his article, “Bultmann and the New Quest,” in the July 1962 issue of the Journal of Bible and Religion). Now I do not wish to take part in this controversy; not only am I not a theologian and hence not competent to form judgments on this matter, but the issues which turn on detailed considerations are simply too complex to be discussed in such a meeting as this one.
What I should like to do, though, is to raise the question: “What evidence is there for the existence of the historical Jesus?” without in any way attempting to relate this evidence to the figure presented in the gospels. I should begin by pointing out that the number of modern, or even relatively modern, scholars who explicitly deny the existence of Jesus is few indeed. The orthodox position, which is one of caution, is expressed by Bornkamm who says, writing in 1956:
“. . . admittedly the difficulties in the way of arriving at a reasonably assured historical knowledge in the field of tradition about Jesus have increased. That is inherent in the nature of the sources . . . their investigation has, in point of fact, greatly enriched our understanding, but at the same time has made our knowledge of the historical Jesus ever more uncertain. It has also driven the ship of enquiry so far in another direction that the map of the actual history of Jesus, once so clearly marked, must in the opinion of many today be in all honesty left blank.”
But there do exist even stronger views than these, although they are expressed by a minority of scholars. Bruno Bauer’s work, especially his Criticism of the Gospel History of the Synoptics, written in 1841, contains an explicit denial of the existence of Jesus. Toynbee notes that the suggestion by Frazer that the Jesus legend may have risen from annual rites celebrating the death of a mock king cannot be entirely discounted, while Robertson and P.L. Couchoud are both modern proponents of the purely legendary origin of Jesus. But the weight of scholarly opinion is against these writers, and in his From the Stone Age to Christianity, first published in 1946, William Foxwell Albright, biblical archeologist at Johns Hopkins, dismisses Couchoud’s work as containing “historical extravagances.”
One may, I think not unfairly, summarize the scholarly opinion on this question as follows: the existence of Jesus is beyond question, but the information we have about him is a composite of fact and legend which cannot reliably be untangled.
Given that this is the situation, what I should like to do here today, then, is to examine the evidence which is often adduced in favor of the view that Jesus did exist. It seems to me that a review of the available evidence will be of some interest to you. I find it tenuous; more tenuous, indeed than do the scholars I have quoted, but nonetheless, for reasons which I shall advance in connection with recent findings involving the Dead Sea Scrolls, I also find it persuasive that there was an historical Jesus. This is a matter I shall turn to after considering the evidence in detail.
The first question which strikes anyone who approaches the question of the existence of Jesus is whether there is any first hand evidence for his existence; for example, documents written by eyewitnesses to his ministry.
Our possible sources of such direct evidence fall into three classes: the writings of Roman historians of the first century A.D.; the writings of Jewish historians such as Philo and Josephus Flavius; and the writings from Christian sources.
The works of Seneca, Petronius, Pliny the Elder, Juvenal, Martial, Quintilian, Epictetus, Plutarch, Appian and Philo, written in the first century, make no reference to Jesus or even to the existence of Christianity, a fact which has weighed heavily with some scholars when they discuss the question of possible interpolations by later writers into the works of Josephus, the Jewish historian. Gibbon, for example, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (written during the late 18th century) ironically comments on this fact as follows:
During the age of Christ, of his apostles and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, demons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alteration in the moral or physical government of the world.
The case of Pliny is of particular interest in this connection. According to Christian tradition, the whole earth, or at least Palestine, was covered with darkness for three hours after the death of Jesus. This took place within the life of the elder Pliny, who has a special chapter in his Natural History on the subject of eclipses, but he says nothing of this eclipse (see Gibbon, Chapter XV, Vol. ii, pp. 69– 70).
The first mention of Jesus by a Roman historian occurs in Tacitus’ Annals written in A.D. 117, or about 85 years after the death of Jesus. Tacitus says (Fifteenth Book, Chapter 44), speaking about the burning of Rome under Nero in A.D. 64:
In order to counteract the report which laid the blame for this conflagration on Nero he accused persons who were called Christians (by the people) and who were hated for their misdeeds of the guilt, and visited the most excruciating penalties upon them. He from whom they had taken their name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the Procurator Pontius Pilate; but though this superstition was thus for a moment put down, it arose again not only in Judea, the original home of this plague, but even in Rome itself, in which city every outrage and every shame finds a home and wide dissemination. First a few were seized who confessed, and then on their denunciation a great number of others, who were not, however, accused of the crime of incendiarism, but of that of hating humanity. Their execution was made a public amusement; they were covered with the skins of wild beasts and then torn by dogs or crucified or prepared for the pyre, and then burned as soon as night came, to illuminate the city. For this spectacle Nero lent his gardens and he even arranged circus games in which he mingled with the people in the costume of a charioteer, or mounted a racing chariot. Although these men were criminals deserving of the severest punishment, there was some public sympathy for them, as it seemed they were being sacrificed not to the general weal, but to the cruelty of a single man.
Scholars have disagreed about the weight to be attached to this passage. The contemporary Roman historians do not mention the Christians in connection with the burning of Rome, and Dio Cassius writing a century after Tacitus does not mention them either. It is worth noting that the name “Jesus” is not mentioned; and as I shall point out later, the fact that these people are called Christians is also not regarded as particularly significant. The words “ho christos” are simply the Greek equivalents of the Hebrew term, Mashiah, or Messiah: and in a period of Messianic fervor it is quite likely that many individuals were declaring themselves to be the Messiah, come to fulfill the prophetic claims advanced in the Old Testament. Homer Smith in Man and His Gods (p. 179) commenting on this passage says:
Some historians have debated whether this passage is wholly authentic, or contains Christian interpolations; but the answer is relatively unimportant since at this late date Tacitus could have obtained the all-important name of Pontius Pilate from Christian tradition.
The earliest mention of Jesus by a non-Christian is to be found in Josephus Flavius’ Antiquities, a work written in A.D. 94– 95 or some 15 years after his History of the Jewish Wars. In Chapter 3 of the eighteenth book of this work, Josephus says:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if he may be named a man, for he achieved miracles and was a teacher of men, who gladly accepted his truth, and found many adherents among Jews and Hellenes. This man was the Christ. Although Pilate then had him crucified on the accusation of the most excellent men of our people, those who had first loved him remained faithful to him nevertheless. For on the third day he appeared to them again, arisen to a new life, as God’s prophets had prophesied this and thousands of other miraculous things of him. From him the Christians take their name; their sect has since then not ceased.
In Chapter 9 of the twentieth book, Josephus again speaks of Jesus, saying that the High Priest Ananus, under the rule of the Governor Albinus (in the time of Nero) had succeeded in having “James, the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, haled to court, together with a number of others, indicted as transgressors of the law and stoned.”
Josephus, who was born approximately in 37, could not have been an eyewitness to the events reported; and, in view of the fact that he was an Orthodox Jew, a Pharisee who had no particular reason to color the facts in favor of the Christians, these passages have long been suspect as interpolations into his works by later Christian writers. Shurer, in his History of the Jewish people during the Time of Jesus Christ, published in 1901, argues that the first passage I have cited was added in the third century by a Christian copyist who was evidently offended by the failure of Josephus to produce any information concerning the person of Jesus while he repeats the most childish gossip from Palestine; and Karl Kautsky adds in 1907, that it is certain that the passage is a forgery and not written by Josephus at all. Origen who lived from A.D. 185– 254 mentions in his commentary on Matthew that it is peculiar that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Christ, given that he refers to James as Christ’s brother. Scholarly examination of the evidence surrounding this matter indicates that the second passage is also, in all probability, an interpolation by a Christian writer sometime in the second century. The problem raised by this passage, however, is too detailed for examination here.
These passages from Josephus, and the passage from Tacitus, contain the only information we have about the existence of Christ from non-Christian sources in the first century. It is clear that neither writer could have been an eyewitness to the events he describes, and that considered as indirect evidence for the existence of Jesus, none of the three passages will bear much weight.
The remaining evidence we possess which might possibly contain first-hand information about the existence of Jesus comes from Christian sources. This evidence itself falls into two classes, the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John forming one of the categories, the writings of St. Paul forming the other main category. Let us turn to the Gospels first.
The Gospels, of course, purport to contain descriptions of the life and activities of Christ, from the time of his nativity, through his baptism, crucifixion and resurrection. Until the attention of historical scholarship was directed to these documents early in the nineteenth century, it was commonly assumed that they contained eyewitness reports of the events described. This assumption was questioned later in the century by D.F. Strauss in his Leben Jesu (1835), by Reimarus, Bauer and others. The issue which was debated by these scholars turned upon the dating of the documents in question, members of the Tubingen School, for example, dating the Gospel according to St. John as late as A.D 140. This led to a distinction between the Gospels— a distinction first noted by Origen. It was pointed out that the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke formed a unit: that similar phrases, a similar arrangement of the narrative, takes place within them. Placing these Gospels side by side, one can correlate passage with passage for large sections of the discourse they contain. Hence they were called the Synoptic Gospels in contradistinction to the Johannine Gospel. K. Lachmann in 1835 also suggested that the Gospel according to St. Mark was the oldest of these documents, and that many of the common features exhibited by the Gospels of Luke and Matthew were derived from the Marcion gospel. This general result is still accepted, although the dispute about the dating of the Gospels still continues. C.H. Roberts in 1935 published a fragment of the Gospel according to John which dates from the early part of the 2nd century, and which showed that the Gospel in question cannot have been written much later than A.D. 100. But even accepting this date, it is unlikely that the author of John could have been an eyewitness to the events he describes. Even this is disputed by C.C. Torrey who argues that all the Gospels are translations into Greek of works originally composed in Aramaic and that none of the Gospels dates from the period later than A.D. 70. But in general, New Testament scholars have been hesitant to accept this result and contend instead that Mark was written about the time of the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and that Matthew and Luke were probably composed between A.D. 70 and 90, with the Gospel according to John being composed shortly thereafter.
The issues involving the dating of the Gospels are extremely complex. According to many New Testament scholars even the document we now have called the Gospel according to St. Mark is antedated by an older document originally written by Matthew, one of the twelve disciples, and commonly called the “Q” document. The existence of this document is inferred primarily from the fact that the Gospels of Luke and Matthew contain in common large sections of the teaching of Jesus not borrowed from Mark or from one another, and therefore presumably derived from some other common source. This document called “Q,” it is argued, for example by C.J. Cadoux, was originally written in Aramaic, and was subsequently translated into Greek. If it does contain the testimony of a personal disciple of Jesus its date may be very early and its reliability may be very great. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence for the existence of this document, the only evidence being an inference from the large amounts of common material found in Luke and in Matthew.
In recent years, though, the question whether the documents we have in the Gospels were actually composed by eyewitnesses to the activities of Christ has been relegated to a position of secondary importance. For internal reasons it is extremely unlikely that the writers of the documents we possess would have been eyewitnesses to the activities of Jesus. C.J. Cadoux, late professor of Church History at Mansfield College in Oxford, describes the situation in the following words: (because of time I shall read his comments only about the Gospel of Matthew pp. 14– 15).
The Gospel which bears the name of “Matthew” probably owes its designation to the fact that it incorporates Q (which it seems the real Matthew did write), but that, unlike the Gospel of Luke, the name of its final compiler had been forgotten. The compiler produced it in Greek, probably at or near Antioch in Syria in the eighties. He took Mark’s Gospel as his framework. Into this he sandwiched large sections of Q, rearranging them in topical order, and also numerous passages from yet another supposed collection of material (usually called “M”) which was strongly Jewish and even anti-Pauline in tone. It has been plausibly suggested, though there is no means of proving it, that the compiler desired to bridge the gulf between the Judaistic Jacob of Jerusalem and Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles, not only by utilizing these various sources, but by placing Peter in the position of the chief of the Apostles. Where “Matthew” (so I propose to designate this anonymous evangelist) is quoting Q or— as in the parables of the Treasure and the Pearldrawing on some other obviously trustworthy source, his authority stands high. But a close examination of the treatment he gives to his borrowings from Mark show that he allowed himself great ‘freedom in editing and embroidering his material in the interest of what he regarded as the rightful honouring of the great Master. The same tendencies are often visible elsewhere when he is reproducing Q or providing matter peculiar to himself. Anything, therefore, strictly peculiar to “Matthew” can be accepted as historical only with great caution.
But independently of these difficulties, even if there were reason to believe some of the material to express eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life, the accretion of legend, the description of miracles performed by Jesus, which exist in these writings make it difficult, if not impossible, to extract from them any reliable historical testimony about the events described. It is this fact which has led to the views of Dibelius, Schweitzer and Bultmann to the effect that the questions of the historical reliability of the picture of Christ given us in the gospels ought not to be the basis for the Christian tradition which stems from the gospels.
The last source which I wish to consider is St. Paul. We have thirteen epistles which are attributed to St. Paul, and all of them have at one time or other been challenged as genuine. But even independently of challenges of this sort, it is agreed that Paul never met Jesus, although he does claim personally in A.D. 68 to have met one of Jesus’ contemporaries— his brother Jacob, also known as James. Paul also speaks of having persecuted “Christians” before his conversion experience— his seeing of Christ in a vision while on the road to Damascus.
In the foregoing account, then, I believe that I have summarized all the available evidence from writers of the first century A.D.— evidence which seems to me, in the light of this account, to be tenuous indeed.
In view of this is it then likely that the Jesus of the Gospels did not exist at all? I do not think that this conjecture is a likely one, and I shall now proceed to explain why.
This explanation will turn upon the history of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C. From this period on, the Jews of Palestine lived in a power vacuum between the great powers of Egypt on the one side, and between Babylon, Persia on the other. The lives of Jewish citizens from this time until the beginning of the Christian period were insecure indeed. After the eclipse of Persia as a power, the Mediterranean world was conquered by the Greeks under Alexander, who regarded the Jews as barbarians and who insisted upon Hellenizing them. With the fall of Alexander, the Jews came under the domination of the Persian Seleucids, and then the Romans, both of whom initiated legislation inimical to the religious traditions of the Jews. The history of this period, as revealed by recent studies, exhibits a picture of a people living under the domination of foreign rulers, but unable to throw them off. Under such conditions, when revolution fails and all other alternatives are exhausted, the appeal of consolative religion, especially of another worldly sort, becomes very compelling. These frustrations produced documents such as the Book of Daniel of the O.T. and hundreds of apocryphal works written in the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C., documents of a species called “eschatological” and “apocalyptic” by Biblical scholars. They stress the coming of a Messiah or Redeemer who will throw off the hated conquerors, restore the law, bring about an era of peace. These documents clearly reveal the character of the post-exilic, pre-Christian era. It is difficult for us today— except in contemplating the consequences of nuclear war— to imagine what the temper of the time must have been like. With Judgment Day at hand, with the Kingdom of God momentarily expected, with the Messiah awaited, the intellectual ferment and the psychological instability produced by such expectations must have been tremendous. These expectations were reinforced by the writing of apocryphal works containing predictions of just these events to come. Not all the Jews accepted such apocalyptic teachings: the Sadducees, for example, rejected some of them, and they were in other respects inconsistent with the main teachings of Orthodox Judaism. Splinter groups formed, breaking away from these main areas of traditional Judaism, to go off into the wilderness there to await the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ. It is clear that the Essenes formed one such group. Indeed, it is believed that John the Baptist emerges from an Essene community preaching his doctrine that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is also clear that recent investigations into the history of the period, aided by findings based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicate that the Essenes formed a much larger group within the Jewish community than had previously been believed. The belief in a coming apocalypse must thus have been part of the everyday views of a large segment of the Jews of the period.
Recent findings also reveal that persons whose lives and careers are strikingly parallel to that of the Christ as he is portrayed in the gospels— persons who practiced baptism, who defied the laws of the Pharisees, who were crucified and who even advanced a redemptive doctrine of salvation— were identified with the Messiah, or with the so-called King of the Jews, by the Essenes (see Matthew Black’s The Scrolls and Christian Origins, 1961). There can be no doubt that this messianic fever was characteristic of the age, not only in the sense that the Messiah was awaited or expected momentarily, but more than that, there can be no doubt that some of the Jews contended, as early as the 2nd century B.C., that the Messiah had in fact arrived. Many contemporary scholars now believe that the origins of Christianity are to be located in the activities of these splinter, eschatologically dominated groups— and that the Pauline teaching that Jesus is the arrived Christ exhibits the influence of this group upon St. Paul. Paul’s own reference to his previous persecution of Christians (i.e., of followers of the Messiah) bears this out, as does the gospel warning in Matthew that we must be aware of false christs, of false messiahs.
Given these facts, it seems to me likely that during this period a prophet arose, belonging to one of the apocalyptically minded Jewish sects, such as the Essenes, and that he did preach the doctrine that the Kingdom of God was at hand, that he did preach the soteriological doctrine that through his coming death mankind would be saved (it is in this sense that I believe one can justify or support the claim that the historical Jesus lived); but an accretion of legends grew up about this figure, was incorporated into the Gospels by various devotees of the movement, was rapidly spread throughout the Mediterranean world by the ministry of St. Paul; and that because this is so, it is impossible to separate these legendary elements in the purported descriptions of Jesus from those which in fact were true of him.