The Search for a Non-Unique Jesus
Built into the naturalistic assumption that drives the liberal New Testament search for the “man behind the myth” is the notion that, whoever Jesus was, he cannot have been utterly unique. The laws that operate in the world today, including the laws of human behavior, have always operated. And thus, when we are trying to understand who Jesus was, they argue, we must assume that he was in principle like the rest of us.
The major obstacle to this, of course, is that the New Testament unequivocally speaks of Jesus in radically unique terms. It is reported that he made unprecedented claims for himself, lived a truly extraordinary life, performed miraculous deeds, drove out demons, and was raised from the dead. How is this radical uniqueness to be explained if the “real” Jesus was, in fact, in principle no different from other people?
One major “discovery” that helps explain this, in the eyes of many liberal scholars, is that such claims, and such deeds, were not all that uncommon in the ancient world. The Gospel portrayal of Jesus as a miracle working “divine man,” it is argued, has many parallels. Thus, for example, we sometimes read in the media or in popular books certain scholars claiming that stories about virgin births were also told about Alexander the Great; stories about people being raised from the dead were also told about a man named Apollonius; stories about resurrected deities were also told in ancient “mystery religions”; stories about healings and exorcisms were also told about a host of magicians in the ancient world; and stories about stupendous miracles were also told about certain Jewish holy men.
The Bible’s supernatural stories of Jesus, then, are not all that unique after all. To people who have always assumed that Jesus was unique, these reports can obviously be most disturbing. But, in the interest of being truly “religiously literate,” you need to know that there is another side to this story.
Jesus the psychosomatic healer
The observation that there were others in the ancient world who purportedly performed miracles just as Jesus did can be pushed in one of two directions. Some liberal scholars, following a tactic used by the skeptical philosopher David Hume two centuries ago, argue that the miracle stories in the ancient world cancel each other out. That is, if we’re not willing to believe the other stories of healings, exorcism, and divination found in other ancient literature, then we shouldn’t feel compelled to believe the miraculous stories about Jesus either. All such stories are on the same par. They are legendary.
An increasing number of other scholars, however, find the historical evidence that Jesus actually performed something like healings and exorcisms too strong to be rejected, and thus hold that Jesus must have possessed some sort of extraordinary power. But, they continue, this extraordinary power was not necessarily unique to Jesus. While it is perhaps foreign to modern westerners, it was not uncommon in the ancient world. Nor is it yet uncommon, some would add, in other parts of the world today. So, while many of the ancient stories about healers and exorcists may be legendary—including some of the stories in the Gospels—some may in fact contain an element of historical truth. But this, they argue, does not make Jesus altogether unique.
Thus, to mention a few of the most noteworthy examples of this view, Geza Vermes, Marcus Borg, and Sean Freyne see Jesus as an example of certain Jewish charismatic healers and/or wonder-workers that we know of in ancient Judaism. Scholars like John Hull, Morton Smith, and Otto Bocher, however, see Jesus as one more example of the various magicians and/or exorcists that roamed the ancient world and that can be found in some primordial cultures today. In both cases, something extraordinary and perhaps even inexplicable about Jesus’ ministry is admitted.
This position is better than the view that writes off all of Jesus’ “miraculous” ministry as legendary in that these scholars at least see that the Gospels’ stories about Jesus working miracles couldn’t have been conjured up from nothing. And, while these scholars don’t usually embrace anything like a traditional Christian “supernatural” explanation for Jesus’ ministry—it wasn’t necessarily God the Father who worked through Jesus—they are at least willing to stretch their understanding of the natural world far enough to encompass the radically “extraordinary.” This is a small step in the right direction.
Nevertheless, this view does little by way of coming to grips with the New Testament proclamation that Jesus was the unique Son of God and that it was God the Father (not merely an extraordinary ability) who was working through him in a miraculous way to confirm his unique Sonship. While admitting that Jesus performed extraordinary feats, these scholars nevertheless usually explain this as a natural ability, albeit an ability that is foreign to most western people (hence it is called “extraordinary”).
The most prevalent explanation of this extraordinary ability among scholars today is that Jesus was a “faith healer” correcting “psychosomatic disorders.” He probably used some sort of “trancelike therapy,” Crossan speculates, such as is used by shamans today in primordial cultures. (1) Many within the Jesus Seminar embrace something like this explanation. But, in any case, the central controversial point made by such explanations as this is that Jesus was not unique.
What is one to make of such explanations? Is there really historical evidence that indicates that there were others who did what Jesus did? Is the portrait of Jesus as “divine” in the New Testament shared by others in the ancient world? And are such stories as the virgin birth and the resurrection found outside the Bible and attributed to other figures? In the minds of many scholars—those usually not given much press time—these parallels between Jesus and other ancient “wonder workers” are not very impressive.
The uniqueness of Jesus’ claims and deeds
For starters, the Bible never questions the fact that healings, exorcisms, and other miraculous acts can be done, by whatever means, by a wide variety of people. Nowhere does it assume that such feats are the exclusive domain of Jesus, or of his followers. Nor has such a claim ever been part of the Christian Church’s official teaching. In principle, therefore, a person who believed in Scripture should have little difficulty also accepting that certain ancient wonder-workers performed feats that to some degree parallel Jesus’ own ministry—if the evidence indicates this (more on this below). For it is not Jesus’ supernatural power that, in and of itself, makes Jesus unique.
What makes Jesus radically unique, according to the New Testament, is not so much that he performed supernatural deeds, but why he performed them! For Jesus, such feats were never just random exhibitions of a curious ability he possessed. Such feats rather expressed and demonstrated the truth that he embodied the Kingdom of God. “If I drive out demons by the finger of God,” Jesus says, “then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20).
Such “signs,” as John calls them (John 4:54), expressed God’s unconditional love and amazing concern for the needs of people, and they were demonstrations of the truth that Jesus Christ was the Son of God who had come to save the world. They expressed and demonstrated the truth that God himself was graciously present in, and working through, this one unique historical person to set up his Kingdom on earth. It is, then, the total picture of who Jesus is that is radically unique. This uniqueness includes, is expressed by, and is verified by, his supernatural deeds. But it is not reducible to these supernatural deeds.
Whatever we make of the supposed parallels to the deeds of Jesus, we can conclusively say that there is not, and never has been, anything remotely parallel to the total picture of Jesus we find in the New Testament.
Greek Heroes and Wonder-Workers
We see, then, that even if there were people in the ancient world who, either by Godly, demonic, or parapsychological power, did deeds that somewhat parallel Jesus’ miraculous deeds, the uniqueness of Jesus which the New Testament speaks of is not thereby compromised. But, many scholars would argue, we do not have any good reason to admit such parallels in the first place. When the supposed parallels are taken on a case by case basis, they do not stand up to scrutiny.
Legendary “Divine Men”
Perhaps the most frequently cited parallels for Jesus’ ministry come from various stories that circulated in the Greco-Roman world about certain legendary “divine men.” Many emperors were spoken of as being “a god” by the common people, and stories would sometimes spring up that attributed supernatural deeds to them.
The most frequently cited example of this is Alexander the Great. Alexander was said to have been born to a virgin, to have done wondrous deeds, and to have accepted accolades as being a god. Do these facts undermine the uniqueness of the Gospel story that Jesus was born to a virgin, did miraculous deeds, and was worshipped as God? On the basis of the following considerations, many scholars would answer this in the negative.
- The earliest accounts of Alexander we possess contain none of the features of later legends about him. But, despite the best efforts of certain scholars, no “pre-supernatural” stage of the Jesus tradition can be found.
- The stories of Alexander’s supernatural life developed gradually over a thousand year period of time. This hardly parallels the Gospel accounts which are written within thirty or forty years of Jesus’ life and which demonstrably contain material that is even earlier.
- The legendary accounts of Alexander arise after Christianity—indeed, after Christianity has spread throughout the entire Roman world. Hence, it is likely that the stories of Alexander were influenced by stories about Christ.
- The Gospels were written in the context of a Jewish world view which held, as a central feature of its theology, that human beings could not be God. The accounts of Alexander were circulated in pagan environments where the concept of “divinized men” (men being transformed into a god) was common. Thus, when the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament portray Jesus in divine terms, it has a much more profound significance than when Alexander, or any pagan person, is called “a god.”
For these reasons, many scholars judge all attempts to reduce Jesus to anything like a Greek “divinized man” to be completely misguided.
Apollonius the Wonder-Worker
Slightly more compelling, however, are the supposed parallels between Jesus and a certain Apollonius of Tyana, and for this reason he is the most frequently cited Greek parallel to the New Testament’s portrait of Jesus. Like Jesus, Apollonius is said to have lived in the first century, was said to have healed people, to have exorcised demons, to have perhaps raised a young girl from the dead, and to have appeared to some of his followers after his death. These parallels with Christianity initially look impressive. But on closer inspection, their impressiveness diminishes considerably. Consider the following:
- We have only one account of Apollonius, written about one and a half centuries after his life. This is much less impressive than the four accounts of Jesus we have that were written within one generation of his life.
- We have no way of assessing the historical accuracy of this one report, whereas we have a number of ways of assessing the accuracy of the Gospels (See The Jesus Seminar and the Reliability of the Gospels).
- We have some reason to suspect that Philostratus, the biographer of Apollonius, had financial motives for embellishing his account. He had been commissioned by empress Julia Damna, a follower of Apollonius, to write an account for the expressed purpose of glorifying Apollonius on the occasion of a temple being constructed in his honor (funded by Julia’s son, Caracalla). The Gospel accounts, of course, were also written to glorify Jesus Christ—though, in the interest of truth, they also contain features that appear counter-productive to this intention, as we shall see. But, more importantly, it is also clear that the authors of the Gospels had nothing personal to gain, and everything to lose, by publishing their works. One cannot therefore suspect them of possessing ulterior motives.
- The account of Apollonius was composed in the early third century in Cappadocia, where Christianity had been present for a long while. This greatly increases the likelihood that stories about Apollonius had been influenced by earlier stories about Christ. Discovering parallels between the two, then, is not surprising.
- The account of Apollonius is filled with overt sensationalism centered on Apollonius’ use of charms, omens, incantations, etc. The Gospel accounts, however, are remarkably sober in their telling of Jesus’ deeds. They read like straightforward reports, and altogether lack the sensationalism and superstition found in Philostratus’ account.
- Finally, even though he had been commissioned to write a biography glorifying Apollonius, Philostratus’ account is often quite tentative. He reports what has been said about Apollonius, whereas the Gospels write from the perspective of eyewitnesses. In the account of Apollonius raising the young girl from the dead, for example, Philostratus reports that some say that the girl “seemed to have died,” but others say that Apollonius had detected “some spark of life in her which those who were nursing her had not noticed.”
This tentative resuscitation is hardly parallel to (say) the story of Jesus raising Lazareth from the dead after he’d already been decomposing for four days (John 11:38–44). And it cannot stand next to the four Gospel accounts of Jesus himself rising from the dead! Whoever the real Apollonius was, therefore, he provides, at best, a very shaky parallel to Jesus.
Christianity and the Mystery Religions
There were, throughout the Greco-Roman world, numerous secret religious societies that have come to be called “mystery religions.” While they frequently had features in common with one another, they each had their own deity, their own mythological stories, their own initiation rites, and their own esoteric religious practices. Liberal scholars early in this century frequently argued that Christianity borrowed many of its ideas from these mystery religions. They argued, for example, that the notion of a “dying and rising god,” of “being cleansed by the blood,” and even of baptism and communion were inherited from these mystery religions.
By the second world war, however, this theory had universally been abandoned by scholars because the evidence for it was so scanty. Recently, however, a few of the scholars that are getting media attention, such as Burton Mack, have attempted to resurrect it. In his popular book, The Lost Gospel, for example, Mack argues that the apostle Paul formed “a spirited cult…on the model of the mystery religions, complete with entrance baptisms…rites of recognition…[and] ritualized meals (the lord’s supper)…” (2) And so, in the interest of getting “the rest” of the story, a brief rebuttal is in order. Five basic points can be made against this theory.
- We have no concrete evidence of what mystery religions believed or practiced before the second century A.D., and most of the evidence from which supposed parallels are drawn is much later than this. There is, therefore, simply no basis for arguing that Christianity borrowed from these religions. If there was any borrowing, it was in the other direction.
- Some mystery religions did speak about a “dying and rising god,” but this bears absolutely no resemblance to the Gospel’s proclamation that Jesus died and rose from the dead. As most scholars now realize, the deities of these mystery religions were simply symbols of the cycles of the seasons. Vegetation dies in the fall and winter but is “resurrected” in the spring. Ancient people frequently created myths to express the mystery of this on-going occurrence. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as it’s portrayed in the Gospels, has absolutely nothing to do with this.
- The deities of the mystery religions are completely divorced from history, whereas the Jesus of the Gospel is completely rooted in history. What these mythological deities did, including their dying and rising, happened “once upon a time.” The Jesus that the Gospel’s speak of, however, lived just prior to the writing of the Gospels. People were still around who knew him, his mother, his brother (James), and Pontius Pilot under whom he was crucified, when they were written. In this light, the attempt to draw any parallel between the resurrected Christ of the Gospels and vegetation deities has to be judged as desperate.
- The attempt to draw parallels between the mystery religions’ practice of baptism and communion is no better. First, all of the evidence for such supposed parallels comes after the third century. So, if there is in fact any commonality between these mystery religions and Christianity, it must be attributed to the mystery religions borrowing from Christianity, not the other way around. But, even more fundamentally, the supposed points of commonality simply do not exist if you examine them on a case by case basis. We know, for example, that devotees of the god Mithra would stand under a bull while it was gutted and would be bathed in its blood. They would, with the other devotees, then eat the bull. This was part of their initiation into the inner circle of the Mithra cult. One could call this “baptism” and a “communion meal” if they wished. But trying to argue that it actually parallels Christian baptism and communion is outlandish.
- Finally, it is important to remember that Christianity was born within a Jewish, not a pagan, culture. While the religions of the Greco-Roman world were very eclectic, borrowing freely from various religions and philosophy in their environments, orthodox Jews always resisted such a practice. They knew that they had been called by God to be “a separate people.” They therefore looked on pagan ideas and practices with disdain. This was carried over into Christianity. It is reflected, for example, in the apostle Paul’s warning to steer clear of pagan philosophy and mythology, for it might corrupt the Gospel (Col. 2:6—8; 1 Tim. 6:20). To suggest that the early Jewish followers of Jesus would have, or could have, modeled their religion after their pagan neighbors flies in the face of this.
Jesus and Ancient Magicians
A third area from which certain scholars have tried to construe parallels between Jesus and others in the ancient world concerns the widespread practice of magic. Unlike the evidence for mystery religions, there is a wealth of evidence that a good many people in the ancient world believed in the effective power of such things as protective charms, love potions, spells, and incantations. And many times this magic was used to effect physical healing in people’s lives or to deliver them from evil spirits.
It is not surprising, then, that some scholars such as Morton Smith and John Hull have tried to make the case that the historical Jesus was simply an ancient magician. There are a number of considerations, however, that put this theory quickly to rest. I shall briefly outline the three that are the most forceful.
- The Jesus of the Gospels never bases his healings or his exorcisms on magic. All of his miracles are based on a) God’s concern for the individual, and b) the individual’s faith. “According to your faith,” Jesus repeatedly says, “be it unto you” (e.g. Matt. 9:2, 22, 29). This approach has nothing in common with the magical practices of his day in which people invested objects, formulas, or rituals with power. If one is going to argue that the “real” Jesus was a magician, one is going to have to dismiss all the evidence we have of him to do so. And this doesn’t enhance the credibility of any theory.
- Relatedly, Jesus never employed anything like magical practices in his healings or exorcisms. He twice applied spit on a blind man’s eyes, and once on a mute person’s tongue, while performing healings (John 9:6, Mark 7:33, 8:23), and some have found parallels to this in extant magical literature. But the similarity is only apparent, for the biblical accounts nowhere suggest that this practice somehow contributed to the healing process. The fact remains that we never find Jesus using spells, incantations, or magical objects such as amulets, ashes, dog’s hair, or incense such as we find throughout the ancient magical literature. And this renders the thesis that Jesus was anything like the magicians of his age most unlikely.
- While we have a wealth of literature on the belief in magic in the ancient world, we possess no reliable literature which suggests that the practitioners of this magic were actually successful. Many, of course, claimed that their magic worked, just as practitioners of magic today claim that their crystals, mini-pyramids, incantations, etc., actually work. They “feel” luckier, healthier, more protected, and so on. But such convictions can hardly be said to parallel the kind of thing we find in the Gospels. Here we do not find formulas that someone thinks will work: here we find four reliable accounts of how an extraordinary man did work.
For these reasons, the attempt to argue that the historical Jesus was just another magician must be judged as being misguided. How Jesus healed and casted out demons was as unique as why he healed and performed exorcisms. And, most certainly, it had nothing to do with magic.
The final, and most compelling, area from which some recent scholars attempt to draw parallels which call into question the uniqueness of Jesus’ ministry is found in what certain scholars have called “charismatic Judaism.” There were, according to Geza Vermes and others, certain Jewish “holy men” about whom miraculous stories are told which look similar to the stories told about Jesus. We have, then, good reason to see Jesus as one more example of these holy men, the only difference being that Jesus’ followers eventually formed a religion that broke away from Judaism while the followers of other holy men did nothing of the sort.
This approach has the distinct advantage over the others of locating Jesus within his Jewish environment. It sees that Jesus was first and foremost a first century Jew, and thus that he would not likely have been inclined to borrow elements of pagan religions around him. But, I argue, on closer inspection the supposed parallels are not much more compelling than those looked at in the first three areas. Three things can be said against this theory.
- The accounts of “holy men” performing miracles are really about God answering the prayers of these holy men. In the available accounts we have, these men pray to God for rain, and it rains. They pray for someone to be healed, and they are healed. As impressive as this is (some accounts are undoubtedly historical), this is not at all parallel to the kind of authority Jesus displays throughout the Gospels. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus himself is portrayed as commanding sicknesses, demons, and death to leave, and they “obey.” This was in part why the crowds, along with his disciples, marveled that his authority was like none they had ever seen (e.g. Luke 8:24–25). Even when Jesus does pray to the Father before raising Lazareth, he notes that it is only for the crowd’s sake that he does so (John 11:42). Their are no known parallels to this kind of authority.
- The occasional miraculous answers to prayer that are attributed to certain holy men in the extant Jewish literature are just that—occasional. In no instance do these “feats” (if you can call them that) take center stage to what these men were all about. Such is not the case with Jesus, however. While Jesus was certainly about more than his miracles, his miracles were nevertheless central to who he was. Almost every page of the Gospels contains them. Take away the answered prayer of the holy men, and little about them is changed. Take away the miracles from Jesus, and little is the same.
- This leads directly to a third major difference between the miracles of Jesus and the answered prayers of ancient Jewish holy men. The reasons behind the miracles are fundamentally different. As one would expect, the Jewish writings which allude to the answered prayers of certain holy men see these answered prayers as helping people and glorifying Yahweh. For Jesus, however, the purpose for the miracles was not only to help people and to glorify God, but even more fundamentally, to do so by glorifying himself!
The Father has given him authority, the Jesus of John’s Gospel claims, “that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (John 5:23). In other words, for Jesus, glorifying God and glorifying himself were intrinsically bound up with one another. So much so that he could add, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him” (John 5:24). So also he tells Lazarus’ sisters that Lazarus’ sickness “is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).
This is unprecedented! There is no parallel to a man, within orthodox Judaism, making such stupendous claims. And there certainly is no parallel to anyone performing miracles, on his own authority, to substantiate such claims! Whatever commonalties Jesus may have with other Jewish “charismatics,” they are dwarfed in significance by this monumental difference. Indeed, so different was Jesus from other Jewish holy men that Jesus was (understandably) accused of blasphemy—claiming to be God. And his miraculous powers were therefore attributed to Satan (Matt. 12:24; Mark 3:22). And in the light of this, all attempts to make Jesus simply one of the holy men whose prayers God answered must be judged as extremely weak.
The Miracle of all Miracles
There are, we see, no clear parallels to the radically unique ministry of Jesus. With few exceptions, his miraculous ministry is the only one we have any reliable information about. But, even beyond this, the amount of miracles he performed, the way he performed them, and the reasons he performed them were all radically unique. Jesus is, plain and simple, one of a kind.
But we have not yet addressed the chief thing that sets Jesus apart not only from all other supposed ancient miracle workers, but from all other people period: this miracle worker was raised from the dead and never again died! This proclamation lies at the foundation of everything the New Testament says about Jesus. While the character, teachings, and wondrous deeds of Jesus had already impressed the multitudes that he was more than just a teacher and prophet, it was the resurrection more than anything else that finally convinced them that this man was indeed the Son of God!
This event sets Jesus miles apart from any other historical figure, but for just this reason it cannot be admitted as historical by those scholars who work with naturalistic presuppositions. It must, therefore, somehow be explained away.
(1) J.D. Crossan, quoted in R. Ostling “Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple” (Time, January 1994), 38.
(2) B. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 220.
There is an extensive critique of the attempts to find parallels to the Jesus of the Gospels in P. Eddy & G. Boyd, The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007) as well as (on a more popular level) G. Boyd & P. Eddy, Lord or Legend? (Baker, 2007)