Continuity — The Problem

I write this essay in order to focus on just one main trajectory in the historicist argument that Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy put forth in their books (The Jesus Legend and Lord or Legend), which, if shown to be specious, would effectively render the rest of it moot. I single it out also because it is the one and only instance where one of his arguments gave me significant pause for a moment. I call it the Boyd Objection. When I first heard it, this was probably the strongest argument I had heard against the Christ Myth.

A good encapsulation from the opening of one of Boyd's debates against Robert Price:

Boyd: " First century Palestinian Judaism, I submit to you, is the single worst environment for a legend about a crucified god-man to evolve. […] First, the Jews of the first century, especially Palestinian Jews of the first century, since that was the most conservative area in first century Judaism. They deplored the idea that a man could be God. It was revolting to them. These were people that prayed the Shemmai Israel every day of their life (“Hear O Israel; the lord our God is one Lord”). If they believed anything, it was that God is God and that humans are humans and never the twain shall meet. They were all the more resistant to this idea because it was common for the pagans around them to believe in divine men, that a certain human or an emperor human was a god. As my former professor from Yale has shown in his doctoral dissertation—Carl Holloday has shown in his Oxford dissertation [on] the “Divine Man“—the more the […] Jews were encompassed by these divine man legends, the more resistant they became to them. So the question is this: How do you explain the evolution of a legend about a god-man in an environment that is completely hostile to it? Now, the problem is so severe that a number of the more liberal scholars in the twentieth century began to say ‘maybe the Christian faith, the Jesus story, wasn’t birthed on Jewish soil. Maybe it’s actually a pagan legend. They tried to make that case. It’s called the “history of religions” school. It has been, in my estimation, thoroughly discredited. Hardly anyone, even the most liberal scholars, hold to the history of religions school any more because of just overwhelming evidence against it. For one thing, you have to give the book of Acts and the gospels zero credibility—they have to be entire fabrications because they portray the story as originating on Palestinian soil, and very few scholars are willing to go that far."
"And the other thing is that the earliest advocate we have, first spokesperson we have, is Paul. And Paul is thoroughly Jewish. He thinks Jewish. He talks Jewish. His letters are filled with references to the Old Testament (OT). He presupposes a Jewish framework in all of his epistles and the congregation he’s writing to. In fact, a number of scholars have been arguing over the last twenty years especially, the Jesus story, abstracted out of a Jewish context—the OT context—makes absolutely no sense. And so for very good reasons, very few are advocating that now. The Christian faith was born on Jewish soil and that causes this tremendous problem: How do you explain how this, on a naturalistic basis, could evolve?"
“We're talking about monotheistic Jews here. They prayed to Jesus. Paul himself prayed to Jesus, often in the same breath as praying to God, the father. This is outstanding. You can show examples of how in some segments — fringe segments— of Judaism people venerated intermediate beings, but as Larry Hurtado and a number of others have argued, never did it cross the line into worship and invocational prayer. Jesus is seen as the judge of the world in Paul, but only God is the judge of the world. He is seen as being the creator of the world, but only God is the creator of the world. Paul says in Phillipians 2 that he is by his very nature God and equal with God. Scholars recognize this a being a traditional hymn, it's already in place in the early church —we're talking twenty–twenty-five years after Jesus lived [that] this is already in place— That's incredible! What explains that? We need to have an explanation for that. [He's] God over all and blessed forever in Romans, and if you accept Colossians and Titus, he is fullness of God in bodily form, and he's our great God and savior. And so the question is this: We need to have a historical explanation for […] What must Jesus have been like to have impacted Jews against all of their cultural and religious presuppositions that this man could be God?"

Before tackling this general reasoning, one minor point should be noted: Boyd’s claim that the History of Religions School (HRS) has been “thoroughly discredited” is a gross oversimplification. His characterization of the intents and methods of the History of Religions School is but a thumbnail caricature of what was in fact a highly influential movement. To hear him tell it, one would think that the HRS merely sought to discredit the church by making these "outlandish"  comparisons to the mystery religions and other Pagan spiritual outlets of the day. In fact, the function of the school was primarily to promote the scientific study of religion through a rigorous multi-discipline historiographical approach to the materials that utilized archeology, sociology, anthropology, comparative religion, and a host of other academic disciplines. It was invaluable for the advancement of our modern understanding of the development of religions generally, and of the origins of Christianity in particular. If the HRS was the dismal failure that Boyd asserts that it was, then someone forgot to tell Hans Conzelmann, Rudolf Bultmann, James Dunn, Geza Vermès, Mircea Eliades, Dom Crossan, Karen Armstrong, and countess other scholars who have since then sought to make sense of the history of Christianity by means of a systematic cross-discipline approach to their research. The legacy of the school is reflected in much of the research done on the historical Jesus and Christian origins in the twentieth century and on into the twenti-first century. Boyd is simply selling it way too short here.

Having said that, Boyd does bring up an interesting fact in these objections, that the Judeans of the time would have rejected the notion of such a failed god-man. This is sort-of true.  Boyd contends that, had they not been compelled to a new faith by the portentous miracles described in the texts, the Judean Jews (and those dispersed throughout the provinces) would surely have rejected the crucified god-man doctrines that are espoused in the Pauline epistles outright as anathema to Jewish culture. The very ‘fact’ that they ‘accepted them’ (so Boyd) is evidence that the historical and supernatural events described in the texts are ‘probably’ true. He further infers from this idea that these first ‘Jewish’ believers were already promulgating highly advanced christologies and soteriologies as early as the fifth decade of the first century. Alluring at first sight, these objections revolve around a single common theme, namely, the Jewish background of the story. For Boyd it is a given that the first Christians (in Jerusalem) were first and foremost Jews who found in Jesus their promised Messiah and then elevated him to a status of mediator god-man. The Jews of Palestine, so says Boyd (and, again, I would not necessarily disagree with this), would never have accepted or subscribed to a dying un-messianic Messiah. This is a major problem for the Christ-mythers as he sees it.

But even if what Boyd says about Judeans is true ... Did Jews really accept this god-man in this way? I think the texts themselves show that they did not.

I had been reading John Shelby Spong's Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes at the time that I first heard this line of argument, wrestling with what seemed to me to be Spong's forced attempt to find a liturgical continuity between Judaism and christology, and so Boyd's questions were falling on pre-sensitized ears in a way. Until that moment, I had never stopped to consider why we so easily assume that James and Cephas and all their followers were "Christian" in the same sense that Paul was. On what grounds can we ascribe a Pauline kerygma to a Jerusalem church? We don’t have any reliable texts that can inform us at all on the fate of the reputed disciples. The idea that they were more or less in agreement with Paul theologically could be no more than a presupposition, an unexamined given. Boyd is certainly not alone in holding to this idea. It‘s almost universal— even among liberals, even among seculars who don't care about religion. Here we have another example of an imagined consensus which is really just passive adherence to an unexplored notion. The Boyd objections presuppose a 'given' continuity between

  • an actual, historical Jewish peasant sage (Jesus of Nazareth) whose seemingly radical teachings inspired an

  • esoteric messianic Jewish cult in Jerusalem with James and/or Cephas at its helm(s) which

  • Paul at first fiercely opposed and persecuted, but eventually converted to, championed, and insisted should include gentiles. Subject to the ‘original’ Jerusalem cult, he became the earliest known expositor and witness of this new ‘fulfilled’ Judaism, writing a series of pastoral letters to churches throughout the Diaspora, some of which he had founded himself.

This supposed continuity from normative Judaism to the Christian faith expressed in the epistles is what vouchsafes the historicity of Jesus for Boyd. His arguments depend on it. In that view Christianity is essentially a revamped form of Judaism. The earliest followers were thorough Jews who only reluctantly (eventually) allowed gentiles into their fellowship (with Paul of Tarsus as their spokesman). Later on, in the process of developing into something distinct from its “mother” religion, Christianity progressively took on a more and more Pagan flavor, until it was basically unrecognizable as any kind of Judaism anymore. This has been the traditional way to see the origins of Christianity for a long time. Our image of Paul has been influenced by what we've already read in the Acts of the Apostles (the pauline corpus immediately follows Acts in the canon, after all) whose portrayal of the Jerusalem community of Jesus devotees is not much more than an idyllic fanfare before the true hero of the story, Paul, enters the stage. But who were these people, really? What did they believe? What was the connection between Jerusalem's authority and Paul's submission to it? What was their parallel devotion to Jesus about? Were they parallel? Simply assuming them to be equivalent based on the Acts' cursory treatment of this seminal period would be too uncritical and too simplistic a way out of the puzzle. The truth is that we just don’t know much about the so-called Jerusalem church.

I therefore challenge that presumed axiomatic continuity and find that appeals that assume a thoroughly Jewish-Christian matrix from which the Pauline variety essentially took its cue are circular, assuming that which they aim to demonstrate. I propose that if it can be shown that these presuppositions are invalidated by no more evidence than the texts of the New Testament themselves, then these Boyd objections, which necessarily project an advanced christology onto the Jerusalem proto-church, are rendered weightless. It is my contention that, since there are no extant contemporary records which might tell us what these original Jewish-James-Christians were all about (either liturgically or rhetorically) other than Paul's condescending (while simultaneously submissive) letters, then we have no basis for attributing any kind of christology to them, particularly in light of the existence of later traditions (e.g., the Ebionites) which can arguably be traced to this group which explicitly oppose Paul’s idiosyncratic thinking. The assumption that the “Jewish” Christianity of the Jerusalem group was akin to that which was emerging in the Diaspora in Jesus’ name (egged on by the Paulinists) although almost universally held, is an invalid one.

For Boyd's objections to have any relevance, he must first demonstrate:
  1. the ‘thorough Jewishness’ of the Pauline communities and

  2. a Jacobean christology.

Lacking this, the Boyd objections are an incomplete, half-thought-out apologetic appeal. One must first demonstrate a continuity before one can appeal to it. 

The problem, though, is that there seems to be a hazy gap between what we know and what we think we know. We know that there were some forms of Jesus-adoration which probably preceded Paul’s missionary activity. We know that the pauline epistles refer to one such group, that of Yacob in Jerusalem, as somehow authoritative, and that Paul desperately sought recognition and legitimatization from it. We think we know that they were ‘thoroughly Jewish’, but we just cannot escape the fact that the only textual corroboration whatsoever that we have from this proto-sect is one side of a heated (if muffled) multi-sided conversation.

I would like to stress before proceeding that it is NOT the Judean origin of the Jesus story that I doubt here. What I question is the implicit continuity that is too easily presumed between the seminal Judean messianic cult of Jerusalem and the Christianity which would later claim it as its direct ancestor. I explicitly say this in case there might be those who will grasp onto some sensationalist mischaracterization of what I am actually saying here and twist it. I have little doubt that the Jesus legend started in Judea. The NT is replete with symbolism borrowed from the pages of the ancient Jewish scriptures and from Levant culture. But it is one thing to examine the Judaic content of the texts and another to ask who the audience of this borrowed symbology within was.

These are two separate questions. In the next installments, I will try to look at the audience first ..


  1. I think that the author has presented a reasonable counter-argument to Boyd. I, however, would point out that I couldn't be bothered to go past Boyd's contention that "They [First Century Palestinian Jews] deplored the idea that a man could be God. It was revolting to them.".

    I have argued many times that First Century Palestinian Judaism was not nearly as monolithic nor as monotheistic as the surviving propagandist literature portrays it. The DDS and Nag Hammadi texts make it clear that there were a lot of different theological ideas going on outside of Main Temple Theology. The Second God Heresy involving Metatron shows that a man transformed into a divine being was not without judaic believers at the time. Somewhat later judaic magical texts also showed that the average Jew-on-the-Street might not have been strictly monotheistic (it seems that many Jews accepted that there was reason that the commandment was "You shall hold no other gods before me!" rather than "You shall hold no other gods!"). Whether this was a grecian influence, a continuation of native Judaism, or some combination of the two is impossible to know.

    This being the case, there is absolutely no reason to believe that belief in a man-god couldn't have arisen among First Century Palestinian Jews. Being based on such an suspect foundation, the rest of his argument can have little validity in my opinion. The man simply doesn't know his history or what he is talking about.

    1. I understand why you think Boyd is wrong in being so certain of his claim regarding the viability of a god-man in their midst.

      My point, however (which I hope to demonstrate with follow-up posts), is that even if we for the sake of argument allow for this idea of Jewish hyper-monotheism, there is still no textual evidence to compel us to say that Jesus was accepted as that kind of god-man.

      In other words, the question is not whether god-men were "possible" at the time, but, rather, whether Jews actually saw Jesus as one of them.

      I don't think the NT can tell us that they did. It's a tradition without any basis.

      That is my point.

      Thanks for taking the time to read my post.

  2. Looking at all the available data concerning racial relations in the United States in 2008, one might reasonably conclude that the country was still twenty-five years away from electing a Black President. However, it does not follow from this that the election of Barack Obama was the product of fraud or divine intervention. The fact that he was elected at the very very least raises the possibility that the available data didn't provide an accurate picture of what was really going on.

    By the same token, the fact that Christianity grew and spread is at least some evidence that ideas like a crucified messiah and a god-man were not anathema to all Jews. It may be very surprising that anyone embraced these ideas given the other available data, but don't scholars have to at least acknowledge the possibility that the other available data is incomplete?

    I agree that the evidence that Jesus was originally accepted as that kind of god-man is not compelling. However, even if it were, I think we would have to take it as at least some evidence that such god-men were possible.

    I think that this is a big problem with all "nobody could have invented it" arguments. How can you ignore observed data points in determining the degree to which particular ideas were culturally tolerable? Of course this doesn't mean that some response to an actual failed messianic claimant isn't still the most likely explanation for how the idea arose, but the argument has got to be more sophisticated than Boyd's.

    1. Sure . . . I think that god-men were possible (as Dr Barton pointed out) . . . but Jesus doesn't seem to be seen as such by Jews of the time . . . gentiles? . . . for sure . . . . jews? . . . . i don't see it.
      I took a look at your blog today . . . nice work . . . i'll check it out more in depth tomorrow.

  3. In addition to what Dr. Barton said, the assumptions of Eddy and Boyd seem to be in tension with one another.

    Even if Jesus went around doing miracles and was resurrected, the logic of Eddy's and Boyd's insistence on the pertinacity of Jewish monotheism suggests that Jesus being God would resist such easy and simple formulation. Why would they think he was God? I've read 'The Jesus Legend' and to my memory, they offer no argument for how such a deduction could be made within the categories they supply for 1st century Judaism, even if Jesus did miracles and was resurrected. That would have been, on their own reconstruction, the very *last* thing coming to mind. It just doesn't follow. Even N. T. Wright thinks arguments to that effect don't work (cf. Wright in Borg & Wright 1999, THE MEANING OF JESUS: TWO VISIONS, 163).

    The only other way such an idea would have suggested itself is if Jesus told them he was God himself. He must have been affirming his divine identity all along while on earth. If any gospel suggested this it would undoubtedly be the Johannine gospel which Eddy and Boyd, although they do not deny its equal historical reliability with the Synoptics (THE JESUS LEGEND, 14n.1), nevertheless for the most part avoid in their case. At this point we can understand the exclamation of Thomas (Jn 20.28) designating Jesus as God upon seeing him alive again. Up to this glorious moment of vindication, Jesus must have been teaching them this.

    But then Eddy and Boyd face a crippling dilemma: What on Palestinian earth were Jesus's disciples doing following him around and reposing in him hopes of kingdom and restoration in the first place while he was claiming these revolutionary and, given the argued Jewish context, blasphemously absurd appropriations of divinity? What would supernatural displays of power have done except immediately be attributed to magic and demon-possession as was the case with his enemies...enemies who accused him of this for reasons far short of this highest order of blasphemy?

    On one side, their sweeping generalizations of 1st century Judaism debar the disciples' belief in Jesus's divinity without the explanatoral power of his miracles and resurrection. On the other side, these same generalizations would have prevented their original disposition to embrace him as their leader. Either Jesus never made these claims or 1st century Judaism was far more 'flexible' than Eddy and Boyd understand it to have been. The logic of their reconstruction does not actually support their reconstruction.

    They face another conundrum: Given the fact that Jews deducing this on their own is totally unsupported and implausible on Eddy and Boyd's reasoning, and that the only other option is Jesus explicitly preaching this himself, they are at a loss to explain why this is hardly the evident central feature of the Synoptics (whose reliability they are specifically committed to demonstrate) that it should be. They relegate its proof to a single footnote of references (THE JESUS LEGEND, 98n.24).

    I mean, really--a man who eats, sleeps, craps and eventually dies is (contrary to the central defining tenet of your religion) God, and you're puzzled over and preoccupied with arguing about almost everything in your early literature except explaining how that's possible? The argument makes no sense of the actual data.

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. You've shown that Boyd's claim is necessarily inconsistent.

      I agree.

      The purpose of this series is to focus on "there's no evidence for that" and so to inspect each book individually to look for this "evidence" which he is so certain is there (and is supposedly obvious).

      It isn't.

  4. I agree with Vinny wholeheartedly, and I think that's supported by my own reasoning.

  5. Hi Quixie, I love your blog!

    You wrote: "For Boyd's objections to have any relevance, he must first demonstrate: 1. the ‘thorough Jewishness’ of the Pauline communities, 2. a Jacobean christology"

    I don't understand (1). From what I read in your quote above, Boyd's point is that Christianity was "born on Jewish soil", and that Paul wrote to communities that "presupposes a Jewish framework". I think both points are reasonable assumptions, given Paul seems to defer to the Jerusalem group, and his letters contain many references to the OT. Does Boyd really stress the "thoroughly Jewish(ness)" of Pauline communities? Since Paul styles himself as "apostle to the gentiles", I find that strange. God-fearer communities have been suggested as his target.

    For (2): Isn't a Jewish Christian community believing something like Paul but before Paul implicit in his letters? Paul persecutes churches in Christ in Judea who apparently are preaching a message similar to what he converts to; after conversion he goes to James and Peter to validate his 'gospel' message: they agree that Paul preaches the gospel message to the uncircumcised (sounds to me like they were just trying to get rid of him!) while Peter preaches the gospel message to the circumcised. This is suggestive for an earlier belief similar to Paul's, if not proof.

    (For full disclosure, I am a 'historicist' though I don't think Jesus was virgin-born and Son of God, and I think that many legitimate questions can be raised about the historicity of events in the Gospels. I do believe there are many problems with the theories of Doherty and Carrier, though I'm only an amateur with zero knowledge of ancient languages.)

    1. Hi Gakusei Don ... you are familiar to me from past interactions on Vridar, a blog I read fairly often.

      on #1 ... Boyd's point is not just that Christianity was born on Jewish soil. His point is the "thorough Jewishness" (it is a direct quote) of the communities he's addressing, which is a bit closer to your second objection here, but not quite on the mark either. God-fear communities are, indeed (I would argue) his intended audience. As I have tried to show in this series (I know it's asking a lot, but I think a reading the whole thing - so far- would answer your first objection- and presents the inherent paradox re: Paul's audiences as one of the crucial problems in understanding Christian origins).

      A short answer, though, would be:

      ........ a) His audiences are demonstrably not Jewish.

      ........ b) His citations of the Old Testament are facile affectations when examined closely.

      on #2 ... Yes. It is implicit. And yet it's a case that can only be argued by harmonizing the epistles with the Acts, which, as you probably know, is one of the big problems with the study of Pauline "thought." Such a harmonization paints the pre-conversion Paul as a thug hired ( ¿ by the Sanhedrin, presumably ? ) to hunt down and persecute heresy wherever it was to be found, even as far away from Jerusalem as Antioch and Damascus. This is very problematic, first, because there is no precedent for such heresiological activity on the part of "Jewish authority" in any primary sources re: Second-Temple Judaism. Note, for example, that though the Qumran community felt isolated both physically and ideologically from the Jerusalem temple, no "persecution seems to have taken place in either direction. A case of sour grapes is far from persecution. Secondly, when we finally encounter actual intra-Jewish discourse on such things (The Mishnah and general Talmud), what we find that there is a lot of tolerance for dissenting views, rather than the kind of violent repression we think Paul engaged in. We therefore (I think) have both negative and positive evidence for considering this aspect of the Pauline story tendentiously specious, though cultural and academic inertia continues to accept the story as accurate despite these problems.

      Thirdly (though less important), ... if it was decided, as Paul says in Galatians (and is implied in Matthew) that Peter would preach to the gentiles, isn't contradicted by Acts 15?

      I too am an amateur with no grasp of Hebrew of my own, though I have been working on my Greek chops for a while now.

      I generally agree with Doherty and Carrier, though I have some small differences of opinion on some points, such as Carrier's assesment of the dating of Hebrews for instance (which is too early in my opinion, and also too uncritically-calculated on his part).

      Thanks for dropping by.

  6. correction . . . "that Peter would prech to the Jews" . . . sorry . . . you know how it is to respond on the fly to these things . . . :)

  7. Thanks Quixie for your response. I believe that Acts was created much later as fiction to harmonize Peter and Paul, so I'm not worried by discrepancies between Acts and the Pauline letters, and my comments above for #2 only reflect what is in Paul.

    For #1: is there a quote from Boyd that you are using but is missing in your article? Boyd doesn't say the communities that Paul writes to are 'thoroughly Jewish', but that Paul himself is 'thoroughly Jewish.' The quote you give above by Boyd is:

    "And Paul is thoroughly Jewish. He thinks Jewish. He talks Jewish. His letters are filled with references to the Old Testament (OT). He presupposes a Jewish framework in all of his epistles and the congregation he’s writing to."

    Perhaps Boyd does mean that the communities were thoroughly Jewish, but since Paul describes himself as 'apostle to the gentiles' I'd assume Boyd is talking about a gentile community with a 'Jewish frame-work', i.e. the God-fearers. Does Boyd claim the communities are 'thorough Jewish' elsewhere?

    1. I think you may be right about my citing him on that . . . I stand corrected on that point. I'll have to look at his (and Eddy's) two books again ... to see what they actually say about it. I'm in the Caribbean for a few more days, but I'll check in when I get back home.

      I do think that what I said about Jewish precedent is important to note, though.

  8. Thanks Quixie. A couple of further points. Carrier writes that Paul defers to James and Peter on page 93 of OHJ. Carrier writes:

    "...the fact of the matter is our earliest Christian documents widely attest this was a standard, fundamental, and pervasive Christian belief, and affords no evidence of any prior version of Christian­ity (1 Cor. 15.3; Rom. 3.23-26; 5.6-11 ; 2 Cor. 5.18-19). This is particularly clear in Galatians 1-2, where Paul emphatically insists 'preaching another gospel' is enough to condemn anyone as cursed and shunned (Gal. 1 .6-9), but that his gospel was in accord with that of the 'pillars' Peter, James and John (Gal. 2.6-10), whom he implies are the founders of Christianity (he certainly here treats them as the ultimate authorities whose blessing any Christian apostle required...)."

    I agree with Carrier above. Also, Paul writes that he got his gospel message from no man. If that gospel message is that Christ has significance to the gentiles, it suggests that Paul was the first to go to the gentiles; meaning the gospel to the circumcised entrusted to Peter was earlier. And a gospel to the circumcised suggests an earlier Jewish Christianity.

    Anyway, have fun in the Caribbean!

    1. And yet there are epistles to communities of gentiles that Paul did not have a hand in founding (cf. Romans) ... explicitly. ... and so the suggestion is not as compelling to me. I therefore am not with Carrier on that.

      Carrier accepts as genuine seven letters. I don't, or, rather, I accept them here only theoretically, for the sake of Boyd's arguments, which I don't think stand even if their authenticity are allowed. (I hope you have kept that in mind -- it's been a issue with a couple of people on another forum.)

    2. I'll look forward to reading when you have written it on your view of Christianity where the authenticity of Paul is not granted, including who wrote the Pauline letters under that scenario. They do seem to grant the primacy of James and Peter, whether they were forged or not.

    3. Indeed they do . . . but if forged, they could just as easily be tendentious rather than describing a real event/scenario ...

      I'll get to that topic eventually, I'm sure ...

    4. just out of curiosity . . . nihonjin desu ka ...

  9. (iie, Australia-jin desu. But I lived and worked in Japan for a number of years.) The issue is that if the forgeries of Paul are by proto-orthodox Christians after the Gospels were written, you will run into the problem that some mythicists raise about the lack of Gospel details in Paul. So curious about how you will approach this.

    1. Not AFTER the gospels ... both are later than we normally think but the epistles precede them.


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