In my book On the Historicity of Jesus, I covered pretty much every possible verse in the Epistles that any expert has ever tried to claim proves Jesus really lived. You can check yourself: it has a complete scripture index (pp. 661-71). And Chapter 11 rakes the whole thing over with a fine toothed comb (pp. 510-95). The big ones of course get the most attention (“Paul says Jesus was made of sperm!” “Paul says Jesus had a mom!” “Paul says he met Jesus’s brother!” “Paul says Jesus was buried!” “Paul says the Jews killed him!” “Paul says Jesus broke bread one night!” Etc.). When you look at them without the lens of fundamentalist interpretation, those verses don’t really say what people think. Or at best we honestly can’t tell if they do. And that’s weird.
I’m often asked, if, after years of critics trying desperately to refute OHJ (but failing), there is anything that’s been pointed out to me that I overlooked. Not really. But when all of someone’s toys have been taken away, they will scour through the dust-bunnies under their bed for any bit of whatsit they can make a doll of. Realizing there isn’t a case to be made from the obvious verses, some try as hard as possible to find some verse, any verse, in the Epistles, a verse they’ve never even considered before, that they can possibly prop Jesus back up on. Since I published OHJ, I’ve encountered only two attempts at this so far, two verses I don’t discuss in OHJ: Hebrews 4:15 and Galatians 2:29. And it’s been three years now. So that’s probably literally the bottom of the barrel. So for convenience I’ll survey those two here. (If anything new comes up later, I’ll tack it on in addenda at the bottom. Feel free to submit suggestions. Anyone may do so in comments here—you don’t have to be a patron.)
This one was brought up a while ago by Nicholas Covington. I’ll summarize our conversation there. Covington made a good point that Hebrews argues even more strongly against historicity than even I realized in OHJ (pp. 538-52). But he also asked about Hebrews 4:15, which says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one [Jesus] who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Covington asks, “If Jesus was tempted in every way, doesn’t that sound like an earthly Jesus?” For instance, wouldn’t this have to include “sexual temptation / temptation to steal / etc., which would only seem plausible on earth?”
That’s a stretch, of course. Because that isn’t actually said (e.g. no description of anything he was actually tempted with is given). But it also doesn’t follow. When you see Jesus being “tempted in every way” by the Devil (and passing that test) even in the historicizing Gospels, sex and stealing don’t even come up (pp. 468-69). Submitting to Satan in exchange for worldly power, preferring material sustenance to the word of God, and testing God, were the three sins that encompassed all other sins (all possible sins being one or more of those very three things), and they were the same sins of the Jews in Exodus that Jesus had to reverse (ibid.).
In like fashion, even in the cosmic reading of Philippians 2, Jesus was tempted to assume and exercise all possible power (p. 547). That by definition included every conceivable sin. If Jesus had seized the powers of God (becoming “his equal”), he could have anything he wanted—including taking (stealing) anything he wanted, and having sex with any woman he wanted, the same temptation other celestial angels had succumbed to (Genesis 6:2, producing the demons, according to the Book of Enoch—regarded as scripture by the first Christians). By thus resisting that temptation, and instead submitting to everything, “even death,” Jesus had been tempted in all things (Phil. 2:6-9).
Literally, Hebrews 4:15 says “we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested according to everything, in the same way, without sin.” His temptation “concerning everything” is most likely what is simply stated in Phillipians 2:6-8: he was tempted to acquire all the power of God and declare himself his equal (much as Satan had done) but voluntarily refused that temptation and allowed himself to become weak and powerless, submitting fully as a slave to the natural order (which, by the way, means he renounced all powers—so Paul’s Jesus can’t ever have performed any miracles in life, nor ever exorcised demons; and indeed, Paul shows no knowledge of anyone ever thinking Jesus ever performed any such feats when he was human: OHJ, p. 535). And this is just like us, because we too face the temptation to put other goals and rewards before God, to prioritize our own gain, to put ourselves before God and His word, the fundamental sin all particular sins are just iterations of.
That’s the way in which the earliest Christians (who crafted the Philippians hymn) imagined Jesus experienced “all temptation”: he resisted all possible offers of power, and he voluntarily suffered for that refusal all the way to the point of dying. That’s already explicitly in the cosmic version of the incarnation stated in Philippians 2. Where no visit to earth is mentioned. Nor required. Jesus could have, like the fallen angels serving Satan, seized power and gone to earth and ravished any woman he wanted. But he didn’t. Thus, he, like us, withstood every temptation (indeed, more even than we ever face, though it’s all still the same fundamental sin that tests us).
I did address Hebrews 2:17 in OHJ, which is similar. As I wrote there (pp. 547-48):
The notion that Jesus had to ‘become like his brothers in all respects’ (Heb. 2.17) is sometimes adduced as evidence a historical Jesus is meant, but this does not follow, nor is it all that plausible. This phrase is very strangely worded if a regular man is meant …. You do not normally describe this as a supernatural preexistent being ‘becoming like’ [homoioô] a human. And ‘in all respects’ translates the phrase kata panta, ‘according to everything’, in other words, everything that matters to being someone’s ‘brother’, a fact known only from scripture. Thus, to make the scripture true, Jesus had to be sufficiently ‘like us’ in all the respects that would establish us as his brothers. Therefore (at least [the Hebrews] theologian is inferring) [Jesus] ‘must’ [opheilô] have put on a body of flesh so he could be tempted and suffer and die like us. Here Jesus is not being ‘born’ as one of us but simply ‘becoming sufficiently like’ us. And it appears we know this happened only because it’s theologically required by scripture and logic. A cosmic supernatural event of donning a human body fits this way of speaking well enough, and arguably better.
This likewise explains why they imagined that their calling to join this new religion (their homologia, ‘agreed-upon creed’) came ‘from heaven’ and not from an earthly ministry (Heb. 3:1). After that we again get quotations of scripture and still not a single quotation from a historical Jesus.
…nor any presentation of any witnessed evidence that he had ever been a man—always the only sources they have for knowing this even happened, is revelation or scripture. That’s it. Jesus was tempted in all ways not because he was here and someone saw it or heard him say so, but because scripture says so. Just in the same way everyone knew Satan was tempted and failed—without Satan ever being a real historical person any more than Jesus was. And like Jesus, Satan wasn’t tempted on earth. He was tempted in heaven. He was cast down only after succumbing to temptation. And even then set up residence in the sky, not on earth.
(The notion of Satan residing below the earth in hell did not exist until the Middle Ages. Such an idea evolved out of the very different promise in Enoch and Revelation that after the apocalypse that’s where Satan would be cast. Similarly, ancient Christians believed the loyal angels of God would govern hell and torture sinners there; whereas the notion that it would be Satan and his demons who would do so, is again a Medieval invention.)
This verse says, “But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.” Someone recently suggested this means that the women people are born to in Galatians 4 can’t be allegorical as Paul says they are (in Gal. 4:24; see OHJ, pp. 577-82), because being “born according to the flesh” means being born to (the allegorical) Hagar, as Paul says, so if that’s what Paul meant when he said Jesus was also born of the same mother, then Paul would be saying that Jesus is now persecuting the children of the celestial mother (the allegorical Sarah), and surely that can’t be. Paul wouldn’t have said that. Therefore, he can’t have meant that about Jesus.
But this is confused. Paul says Jesus was only born of the ‘flesh woman’ (Hagar, the world of flesh) to die. But when Paul wrote Galatians, Jesus was long dead; he had already become born of the heavenly woman (Sarah). Just as we wish to do. That’s Paul’s entire argument in Galatians 4. When Paul says the one born of flesh “then” (meaning Ishmael in the Old Testament story, the disinherited son of Abraham, and thus not an heir to the kingdom of God) was a persecutor then, “just as now,” he cannot be referring to Jesus. Because Jesus is no longer flesh. Jesus was reborn of the celestial woman, just as Paul says we will be (and in the meantime can now be, by “promise,” through our “inner man”: see The Empty Tomb, pp. 139-40).
In talking about persecutors, Paul is referring to anyone who clings to this world, who remains born to the flesh rather than to the spirit. And he means just what he says in the next line, Galatians 5:1: that anyone who remains in their heart a son of the flesh remains in bondage to the old law and will be tormented by it and doomed to sin and to persecuting others (see Romans 8 for a full explication of his metaphysics on this). Therefore we should become (as one can through baptism) a reborn son of the celestial mother, so that we can be free and saved. In short, the system Paul is talking about allegorically is not which literal woman you were born to, but which world you are submitting to, and what the consequences are of that. Jesus, exceptionally, submitted briefly to the world of flesh so he could defeat it (again, as Philippians 2 explains). And having defeated it, be escaped it (he got to be reborn to the celestial mother: 1 Corinthians 15:35-54). Thus demonstrating we can do the same. Thus we should emulate Jesus in this.
Thus in the allegory Paul is building (and explicitly says he is using), Jesus is not a persecutor like Ishmael “because they were born to the same mother, the same world.” Rather, they are alike for that reason only in that they both submitted to the world of flesh and its burdens and temptations. But unlike Ishmael (and all others today who are enslaved to the world of flesh), Jesus resisted that temptation and overcame it, and thus got to be reborn—as a son of Sarah, like we will be, if we do the same. And as Jesus is thus a son of Sarah now, when Paul speaks of those born to Hagar now, he certainly wouldn’t be including Jesus in that remark. Because when he wrote that, Jesus was no longer born to Hagar. He was born to Sarah.
There is nothing in this that makes Jesus historical. To the contrary, this verifies that Paul is not talking about a literal human mother here at all. And therefore there is nothing in Galatians 4 that supports historicity. In just the same way, Paul calling Jesus a “man” (anthrôpos) affords no evidence of historicity, either. Nor references to his mortal body, when he was briefly given one, being made out of Davidic semen and thus Jewish (OHJ, pp. 575-77). That’s all consistent with the Doherty Thesis, that this incarnation, which was required by scripture, took place in the sky. Which is why the only way Paul says anyone knew it had ever happened, was by hidden messages in scripture and divine revelation (e.g. Romans 16:25-26).
Always the problem is that people who want the Epistles to attest a historical Jesus have to import meanings to it from the Gospels. But the Gospels were written decades later and wholly unknown to Paul—indeed, the Gospels say many things that were clearly not even being preached in Paul’s day. And this is the wrong way to read evidence. If you want to test two competing theories against each other, you have to do it in a logically valid way, which means first assuming each theory is true and then asking if the evidence makes sense, if it matches what we expect (or not), on that theory—and how much it does (see OHJ, pp. 513-14). And when we do that, we have to take into account how background facts affect our expectations in both cases (e.g. pretty much all evidence against historicity was destroyed: OHJ, pp. 275-77, 279-80, 349-56; so we can’t expect explicit evidence to survive—for instance, if Paul ever outright said Jesus died in the sky, that verse certainly would have been expunged, as we know whole letters of his were: OHJ, pp. 280, 511, 582, etc.).
Accordingly, you have to ask, “if Paul was really writing about a cosmically crucified and buried archangel, and all his explicit statements to that effect were expunged, what would we expect to find his Epistles saying today?” Rather than just assuming the Gospels are all accurate histories or even have any real sources whatever. You have to assume they don’t. And then ask how well the evidence of the Epistles fits expectation. And you’ll find the answer is: pretty much exactly (I allow some exceptions on the a fortiori side, but it turns out they aren’t strong enough to carry the case the other way: OHJ, pp. 592-95). Then you compare that result with the other: How well does that same evidence fit the expectation if there was a Jesus, and Paul wasn’t talking about a celestial one all that time? Not really all that well. And indeed, the more you assume in the Gospels is true, the less probable the contents of the Epistles become (e.g. see OHJ, pp. 354-55; p. 557 nn. 55 and 56; pp. 574-75, n. 82). Which is why only a theory of historicity that assumes the Gospels are almost entirely mythical has any chance of being true (OHJ, Ch. 2).
These two verses now exemplify the point: they barely even make sense on the fundamentalist assumption that the authors are referring to an earthly Jesus with them. They hardly are what we’d expect Paul or the Hebrews theologian to say if there was already a lore about Jesus having an actual mother named Mary or being tempted by Satan in the Jordanian desert. We wouldn’t expect this talk of Sarah and Hagar as allegorical mothers, or even a mention of Jesus being born of a mother at all—that’s not something you ever think to say of a human, any more than you’d take the trouble to mention they had skin.
We likewise wouldn’t expect such abstract talk of his being tempted to seize the powers of God and showing he resisted sin by not doing that. We’d sooner hear stories of actual earthly sins he was tempted by and resisted, verifying the fact being asserted (contrast, for instance, the method of argument in Hebrews 11 and 12: OHJ, pp. 550-52)—rather than being told what we know of all this comes from an analysis of scripture, instead of reminding us of things he told his disciples, or what the disciples saw. There aren’t even any disciples. In Hebrews and all the letters of Paul, “disciples” never appear. The word is unknown to them. The concept is likewise unknown to them—neither of whom mention anyone ever knowing Jesus before he died, much less having been hand-picked by him or witnessing his life or being the principal source of relaying his words.
By contrast, given the Doherty Thesis, and the conjoint fact of the suppression of all evidence too explicitly worded, these two verses are exactly the sort of thing we expect to find in Paul and Hebrews. Abstract references to Jesus’s cosmic temptation (reversing and thus undoing the myth of Satan), and speaking of mothers metaphorically rather than literally, meaning simply which world one is linked to (the earthly or the heavenly), using words for Jesus that mean manufacture rather than natural birth, and words for ourselves that mean natural birth rather than manufacture (compare Philippians 2:7 and Romans 1:3 and Galatians 4:4 with Galatians 4:23, 24, 29, etc.; see OHJ, pp. 575-76, 580-81). This is all just what we expect on minimal mythicism (OHJ, Ch. 3). Though not impossible, it’s still hardly what we expect on historicity.
And it’s the ratio between those two probabilities—the probability this is what we’d see in the Epistles today if minimal mythicism is true, compared to the probability this is what we’d see in them today if any form of historicity were true—that determines the effect this evidence (the surviving content of the Epistles) on the final probability that Jesus existed (see If You Learn Nothing Else). And here, the evidence remains the same as I found it in OHJ: either the evidence supports both equally (and thus supports neither), or it’s all leaning against historicity, not for it. Regardless of what the Gospels say.