From the New Testament or extra-biblical writings of the first century, even the secular conclusion is generally that Jesus was a historic person, he was a teacher, he was crucified. But when we date the sources of information we have about Jesus and place them on a timeline, we see a competing hypothesis appear. The two hypothesis are:

  1. Jesus was a real person, had a ministry, was crucified.
  2. Jesus was an idea found by a new interpretation of the Old Testament.

Either of one is a candidate for the original source of what we know about Jesus.

Reinterpretation of Prophetic Writings

This new idea was a reinterpretation of who and what the messiah, whom the Jews expected, was going to be. Instead of a next king David making things right for the Jews on earth, it was a high placed angel1 made incarnate and accountable under the law2; was tempted but persevered3; given over and killed, but by keeping the law lived4; now those who live by faith5 can live forever in a, soon to come, heavenly Jerusalem6.

Reading any of the gospels we must conclude the reinterpretation hypothesis does not fit at all. But the letters from Paul, written in the 50s, are an earlier source that even place Paul preaching in the late 30s7. And Paul literally tells us his sources: “revelation” of a “mystery hidden for long ages past” now “made known through the prophetic writings”8.

Paul’s Sources

And Paul is consistent in his use of sources, some things he knows because Jesus appears to him in visions9, most things he knows because of his interpretation of scripture10. Nothing Paul writes can be traced back to teachings by a historic Jesus. This is the main argument that turns the conclusion about a historic Jesus upside down. Paul only knows about Jesus appearing to people, but not of Jesus teaching, not of disciples, let alone of them passing down teachings.

Examples

Take for example the Lord’s supper, our earliest source is 1 Corinthians 11:23, where Paul tells us his source: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you”. This is not sourced from the disciples, not from history, but from revelation by Jesus. The verse continues: “on the night he was betrayed, took bread…”, that sounds a lot like the gospel stories. But the word used by Paul is “παρεδίδετο”, from paradidómi, meaning: to hand over, to give or deliver over, to betray11. It is still a good word to use even if it doesn’t involve a Judas12.

If we break it down in table form:

Stance Compatible Explanation
Christian yes Jesus tells Paul in a vision, but it was also a real event the disciples witnessed. With God this is possible of-course.
historic no Paul is misrepresenting his source.
idea yes Paul originates the idea, gospel writers later historize the idea.

We can also look at the creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, something most will agree predates Paul. He writes: “what I received I passed on to you”, leaving it up to us to interpret from whom it was received. We can assume the earliest believers, the very people Paul was in conflict with before he himself converted. That “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”, which can be read in two ways: the explanation why the teacher had to die; or pointing to the source how people know about the death of Jesus, namely scripture. Then Jesus appears: “he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve…five hundred of the brothers and sisters…”.

Stance Compatible Explanation
Christian yes Everybody knew Jesus died in Jerusalem, this explains why what should have been the end was the start, with supernatural appearances to confirm.
historic yes Same as above but the appearances point to strong convictions and shared narrative, not supernatural events.
idea yes They knew of Jesus from scripture and were convinced they now lived in the “coming of age” with this mystery being revealed by what they experienced as appearances.

As it is Written

Paul defends himself and his authority a few times. Under the historic Jesus hypothesis we would expect Paul to sometimes say things along the lines of: “remember what Jesus taught”, “remember when Jesus said this”, etc. But he doesn’t. He mostly says “according to scripture”, or “as it is written”. Or in Galatians 1 he defends himself by saying “I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ”.

But lets look at 1 Corinthians 9:1-14 instead. He starts: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?” (verse 1). Then continues to say “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (verse 14). How does Paul source that “For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?” (verse 9-10). This is the pattern in Paul’s writing over and over again, who Jesus is, what he did or said, the theology behind it, what Gods plan is, what is expected of us, all by reinterpreting what is written. But not once by telling us what Jesus taught while on earth.

What then are the Gospels?

But what then are we to make of Mark and the other gospels? Are they flat out lies? Not in the least! Paul asks often to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ”13, to “fix your thoughts on Jesus”14. Or in Romans 15, also an example of Paul’s “as it is written”-pattern, Paul writes: “[may God] give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had”15. Elsewhere “we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ”16. Mark is this written down, made clear and relatable for the masses. But written in imagery and parable — itself a parable17.

One can ask, is Barabbas18 history or imagery? “Bar” means “son of”, “abba” means father. Before Pilate were two sons of the father, one a sinner but send into the world, one perfect but sacrificed. This is the human version of the Yom Kippur ritual of the goats, the final sacrifice to end all sacrifice. This is not history but imagery. Like so much else about the crucifixion story. Crucifixion was normally a prolonged affair with the victim lasting days before dying and then would be left hanging for the animals to eat. Jesus instead dies within the day and is buried, again, this is not likely history.

One Strong Counter: Brothers of the Lord

In Galatians 1, and 1 Corinthians 9, Paul refers to the brothers of Jesus. A reinterpreted messiah would have no brothers but a historic Jesus would. While a strong, and probably only, argument one can make against the reinterpretation hypothesis from Paul’s writings, it is ambiguous. According to Paul, we all become adopted son’s of God, we all become brothers of Jesus. It may be that it was a common title that referred to the elders in the first church or other group the readers would recognize.

Many Weak Counters

Many criticize this non-historic Jesus idea, both Christian and secular. Unfortunately, often without being able to articulate the position they are criticizing fairly. I will just repeat the two hypotheses here:

  1. Jesus was a real person, had a ministry, was crucified.
  2. Jesus was an idea found by a new interpretation of the Old Testament.

We find nothing in Paul’s writing that traces back to the first hypothesis. But Paul’s writing has a clear “as it is written”-pattern to it, even for things that are supposed to be historic19, that renders the first hypothesis unlikely. Bringing up things like “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) as evidence for a historic Jesus only betrays a misunderstanding of the second hypothesis. Bringing up anything from, for example, Acts or Tacitus betrays a misunderstanding of the method used.

There is much more to say on this topic and where the debate currently stands. For more, I can recommend this hypothetical debate between Richard Carrier and Bart Erhman.

  1. Hebrews 1:4 “So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” 

  2. Galatians 4:1-6 “…as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate … we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces … God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts…” 

  3. Hebrews 2:18 “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” 

  4. Romans 3:21-26, 5:18-19 “Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous” 

  5. Galatian 3:7-8 “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham” 

  6. Galatian 4:25-26 “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” 

  7. Galatians 1:11-21, Galatians 2:1, 2 Corinthians 12:2 

  8. Romans 16:25-26, Galatians 1:11-20, 1 Cor 2:9-10, 1 Cor 15:3-8, 2 Cor 12:1-4 

  9. 2 Cor 12:1-4 “I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord … was caught up to the third heaven … whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know … and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” 

  10. See for example Galatians 3 and 4. The many OT references re-interpreted explain and source Paul’s views. 

  11. https://biblehub.com/greek/3860.htm 

  12. 1 Corinthians 15:5 mentions Jesus appearing to twelve, but without Judas there should have been eleven. Furthermore, the Judas story is itself conflicting: see Matthew 27:5 vs Acts 1:18-19. 

  13. 1 Corinthians 11:1 

  14. Hebrews 3:1, note that Hebrews is not likely by written by Paul 

  15. Romans 15:5 

  16. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 

  17. Mark 4:11, 25, 34: “He [author] did not say [write] anything to them [world] without using a parable. But when he [author] was alone with his own disciples [those on the inside], he explained everything [the more deep and difficult to understand idea is explained].” 

  18. Mark 15 

  19. 1 Corinthians 11:23, Romans 15:3, Hebrews 10, 1 Corinthians 9