Editor, physician and documentarian Lena Einhorn has written a book, A Shift in Time, arguing a new theory of the historical Jesus: that he actually was a violent rebel from the era of Claudius, who was later whitewashed into a pacifist from the era of Tiberius. My brief review here will cover her argument, its merits and problems, and what this tells us about the methods we need to deploy in studying this question.
Normally I wouldn’t bother with another amateur treatise on this subject. And in fact, please don’t send me yours. As a rule, I have no interest in such works. I barely have interest in expert treatises on the subject, as there are hundreds, all contradicting each other, and they tediously just reflect what each historian wants to be true rather than what is (just peruse James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Terror and Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism, Mark Powell’s Jesus as a Figure in History, or Craig Evans’s Fabricating Jesus). There is no coherent or reliable methodology being deployed in Jesus studies. As John Dominic Crossan wrote in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Jesus scholarship is often “a disguise to do theology and call it history, do autobiography and call it biography, do Christian apologetics and call it academic scholarship.” Ironically. Because Crossan then proceeded to do exactly the same thing himself. As Donald Denton wrote of him, “it is frequently suspected that in his portrait of Jesus Crossan is…actually seeing his own face at the bottom of a deep well,” attempting to recreate the historical Jesus into a form that would resonate with Crossan’s own politics, and aid his dreams for a reformed Christianity better suited to modern times (Historiography & Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies, p. 11).
So, in short, even most expert work on Jesus is eye-rolling confabulation not worth the reading. Amateur work is only worse. The paradigmatic garbage of the genre is Joseph Atwill’s. There are very few exceptions. Earl Doherty is one. Even though I think he is wrong about a lot, he is also right about a lot, and mostly applies a careful and competent method, and he knows what he’s talking about. Lena Einhorn now joins this list. I would have not bothered, but for the fact that a preliminary look at an advance paper from which the book was crafted told me she does her homework, knows what she’s talking about, and applies adequate caution (even if her conclusions are overstated in the end, they are stated more cautiously as she proceeds). Indeed, she presented her preliminary paper at the Society for Biblical Literature and reviews from experts were not dismissive. I concur with Neil Godfrey that her argument is an interesting possibility that ultimately does not rise to a high enough probability to credit as likely. But that’s true of pretty nearly every single theory of historicity throughout the Jesus studies establishment. So she’s in good company.
My overall objection to her paper’s thesis matches my overall conclusion regarding her book, which aims to extend the same thesis more broadly. In her paper she argued that Jesus of Nazareth is actually The Egyptian in the narrative of Josephus (see OHJ, p. 70), and that the Gospel authors were just erasing the militaristic aspects of the truth of their would-be savior and relocating him in time to conceal that fact. Neat idea. And not implausible. But the similarities between Jesus and The Egyptian are too few and too generic to be that telling, and in fact they sooner suggest the Gospel authors were just borrowing “modern” ideas with which to construct their stories of Jesus.
Just as they lifted the story of Jesus ben Ananias, from the era of Nero, to fabricate a plot for their Jesus ben Joseph (OHJ, pp. 428-30), they may well have done the same for The Egyptian, and indeed may have borrowed from all the Josephan Christs to build their mosaic (all of whom were portraying themselves as a Jesus Christ, i.e. a messianic Joshua reborn: OHJ, pp. 67-73, 245-46). That does not in any way mean Jesus of Nazareth is Jesus ben Ananias, and thus actually lived under Nero. He very certainly is not, and did not. Nor, therefore, can it mean he “is” The Egyptian, if he was built out of him, too. Rather, the stories that accumulated from famous Jesuses and other prophets in the three decades between when the sect began its new gospel in the 30s and the Jewish War of the 60s were simply thrown in a hamper and drawn from, collectively, when finally there came the thought of building the mythical Jesus of the Gospels. The tendency to use the more recent memories of the times more frequently in constructing that narrative would explain all the other evidence Einhorn amasses.
This in fact better explains why the chronology of the Gospels is so incoherent.
Einhorn’s book’s central thesis is that when you gather up all the datable references and events in the Gospels and Acts, there appears to be an abiding incoherence between a collection of facts from the 30s and 40s A.D. (like the presence of Pilate and Caiaphas and John the Baptist and Herod Agrippa I) and a collection of facts from the 50’s and 60’s A.D. (which she enumerates chapter by chapter). Her conclusion is that Christianity actually began (and Jesus actually lived) in the 50’s AD., and that the Gospels conceal this by trying to relocate it to the 30’s A.D. in order to hide certain uncomfortable political truths about what actually happened. But they couldn’t fix everything, so the original chronology is still there, under the veneer of the fake one.
Such is her thesis. But this does not take into account the best alternative theory, and methodologically it is not logically possible to argue for a hypothesis in isolation from competing hypotheses. The probability of a hypothesis being true is always relative to its best competitors. Hypotheses therefore must be compared. (See my article, If You Learn Nothing Else, point 1.)
The best competing hypothesis is simply: the Gospel authors are making Jesus up. That is, there was no historical Jesus. He didn’t walk anywhere or do anything on earth (in belief there was still a historical Jesus, undergoing historical events in outer space according to ancient cosmology, but not as a part of human history, which is the Doherty Thesis, and the thesis of my book On the Historicity of Jesus). So he didn’t “actually” or “originally” belong to any decade of history. And indeed, there were Christians dating him even to the 70’s B.C., so variable could they be with where to put him (OHJ, Ch. 8.1). So when the Gospel authors created a historical Jesus out of other heroes and prophets (from Moses to Elijah to Jesus ben Ananias and, we may even suppose, John the Baptist), they were not particularly concerned with chronological precision. They saw the whole period from the 30s to the 60s as simply one and the same time, and borrowed from all those decades whatever resonated for them the most. And for this they all drew on Josephus (particularly Mark on the Jewish War and Luke on the Jewish Antiquities), who is also Einhorn’s only source for comparison, thus explaining all the convenient agreements. The end result would be exactly the same evidence Einhorn points to.
So in the end, Einhorn’s theory does not achieve probability. There isn’t any evidence that can tip in favor of it over any alternative. And that’s even if we assume Jesus existed at all. If, as I find in OHJ, he probably didn’t, we have a much better theory than hers to explain all this weird inconsistency in the evidence. Ultimately, her theory is not impossible. It’s not absurd. But it’s not likely enough to be true. At least on the scant and problematic evidence we now have. But again, to put this result in context, I would aver that her theory of historicity stands on much better evidence, and is far more probable, than Bruce Chilton’s (see OHJ, pp. 24-25), and he’s a well-respected and fully-fledged expert in Jesus studies.
Unlike Atwill, Einhorn is well-informed, careful in demarcating evidence from conjecture, is modest in her conclusions, openly admits uncertainty, has a good grasp of the cultural and political context she is talking about, and has a fair enough understanding of the relevant linguistic issues—even though she is not expert in the languages, she relies competently on available English-language tools. Like many a historian, where she goes wrong, as I already mentioned, is in failing to compare her thesis against others in respect to explanatory power. Also like many a historian, she cherry-picks the evidence her thesis explains well, and does not address evidence it doesn’t (such as assimilating events not just in the 30s and 50s, but even in the 60s and 40s, and before the 30s, as if they all happened in the 30s, thus not singling out any one decade; or the absence of any historical Jesus in the letters of Paul—though she has another thesis about that in another book, The Jesus Mystery, wherein she argues Paul is Jesus, that’s so wildly implausible I won’t even bother addressing it).
Einhorn also brings into evidence a lot of interesting facts, and writes well, so by and large her book is a good and edifying read. Even if ultimately these facts don’t entail much, they are still educational, and as best I could tell she is usually accurate in what she presents. She also, again, tends to do a good job distinguishing facts she ascertained from the scholarship and her own opinions or conclusions—unlike many other amateur writers in this genre. But she also sometimes slips into incoherence (I could not make sense of the logic of her chapter on “enigma six,” pp. 77-84) or is overly dismissive of a sound historical consensus—such as doubting that Josephus routinely identifies past high priests as retaining the title, being in effect high priest emeritus (the same way in the U.S. we still call ex-presidents Mr. President). This is no great mystery, nor a chronological confusion. Josephus even says at times that several high priests would work together, even though only one actually held the appointment (not knowing this similarly led astray the much less competent Tim O’Neill; and because of this even Einhorn at one point also confuses the younger and elder Ananus—though to be fair, the authors of the Gospels may have as well). But at least she acknowledges the dominant position and makes clear she is dissenting from it and why.
A related example of the same methodological defect (of not entertaining alternative theories) occurs when Einhorn makes too much of the fact that Matthew puts Jesus in Egypt—something no other Gospel does, not even Luke (in fact Luke effectively says Jesus never left Judea). In far more probable fact, Matthew did that to assimilate Jesus mythically with Moses, as nearly the entire biblical studies establishment would agree. It’s therefore not a clue to Jesus being The Egyptian. But what her argument here reflects, as well as many other arguments she makes (such as when she makes much of material added in John that’s missing from the Synoptics), is a common amateur mistake: assuming the Gospels are a coordinated harmony of stories.
In fact, the Gospels are arguments against each other. When Luke has Jesus stay in Judea and not go to Egypt like Matthew does, Luke is arguing against Matthew. It’s not as if Luke just forgot to mention that or assumed his readers had read Matthew and knew that part of the story so he didn’t have to repeat it. To the contrary, Luke is refuting it, by changing the story. Similarly, when John invents Lazarus, he does so to refute Luke’s parable of Lazarus, a parable that never existed before Luke wrote it down (see OHJ, pp. 502-05). When we recognize that what’s in the Gospels is made up, theories like Einhorn’s begin to dissolve. And Jesus studies has made a lot of progress in identifying how the Gospels fabricate their accounts (even if many in the field still refuse to accept such obvious conclusions), such as Matthew’s penchant for assimilating Jesus to Moses even more thoroughly than Mark did. When you eliminate these fabrications, there isn’t really much left in the Gospels to assess as history (see Ch. 10 of OHJ).
Similarly, Einhorn tries to pile up “arguments from amazing coincidence” a bit too much without a disciplined way of ascertaining if the coincidences she sees are actually all that unlikely. I discuss the methodology of this, and the need for more discipline in deploying it lest it just become so much tea leaf reading, in Proving History (pp. 192-204). Atwill went insane with this kind of absurdity. Einhorn at least admits the speculative and tentative nature of what she is seeing. But there are just too many instances where the things she sees are not unlikely enough to indicate support for her thesis. And not only because “borrowing from Josephus” explains them all and is just as likely on the theory the Gospels are making everything up—even the thesis that something was borrowed from or correlates with Josephus at all is often under-motivated by her evidence (as when assimilating Jesus to Moses already explains all the evidence she adduces; and we already know for a fact the Gospel authors were wont to assimilate Jesus to Moses, so precedent is already against the novelty of her thesis, therefore requiring more definite evidence for her conclusion than she has).
In conclusion, Einhorn exhibits a lot of good methodological principles most amateurs, and even many experts, don’t consistently employ. But she also exhibits some methodological failings, albeit again the same ones we can often find even in the expert literature. Her thesis is at least as well-argued and respectable as most expert alternatives proposed and defended in the field of Jesus studies. That she is wrong is no more to her discredit than the fact that they all must be wrong as well—after all, they all contradict each other, so all but one of them must be as incorrect as Einhorn, and maybe not even one. With the methodological correctives I elucidate above, amateurs, and even some experts, can benefit from her book as a model of both how and how not to argue.
I would only add that most of Einhorn’s argument is speculation; and gets more speculative as the book progresses. And I don’t like people confusing speculation for conclusions. What’s possible is not the same as what’s probable. If we don’t know, we don’t know. I think most of Jesus studies needs to learn that lesson. But because they haven’t, they can’t criticize Einhorn for the same folly. Her thesis thus warrants the same expert attention as any other theory the academy deems respectable.