John Bennison Words and Ways | 2013 | October

Guest Essay: Is Jesus a Composite Character? The Evidence and Implications

by Harry T. Cook

The Faces of Jesus, with text by Frederick Buechner, left to right: 18th C Ivory Head of Christ, Mexico; medieval wood carving detail, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.; 11th C bronze relief, door of the San Zeno Cathedral, Verona.

“The Faces of Jesus,” with text by Frederick Buechner, left to right: 18th C Ivory Head of Christ, Mexico; medieval wood carving detail, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.; 11th C bronze relief, door of the San Zeno Cathedral, Verona.By Harry T. Cook

This month Words & Ways welcomed guest commentator, the late-Harry T. Cook. Harry’s info can be found at the end of this article, including a link to his last essay just days before his death in October, 2017. The following commentary was originally delivered at a recent Pathways Faith Community gathering. A pdf copy to read and/or print is here.


Is the Jesus of the New Testament a composite character? The question is a piece of research and textual analysis in which I have been engaged for several years. The question was born of years of dealing with gospel texts in the New Testament, as well as gospels not included in that familiar corpus.

But why ask such a question? It probably wouldn’t be the first question that would be posed by one who has been conditioned culturally (and quite possibly catechetically) to assume that the name JESUS refers to the person so named in the pages of the New Testament gospels, as well as in the other 16 or so extant documents called “gospels.” Don’t underestimate the force of that conditioning.

I will never forget my sister’s reaction when she figured out that the big department store we were taken to as kids to see Santa Claus actually had several Santa Clauses working at the ends of separate lines entering by separate doors so as to accommodate the large crowd of children waiting. She was aghast that Santa was not one person, which, of course, led her to the correct conclusion that Santa was a myth. My sister’s first shocked reaction is the very same as those who are offended by the mere articulation of the question: Is the Jesus of the New Testament a composite character?

If, however, one came to the question as an entire stranger to the name JESUS and to the tradition built around that name, and if one spent some time with the textual material in which that name figures largely, he or she would  have soon to acknowledge that there might well have been several different persons with the same name.

Should he or she consult the works of Flavius Josephus, the proto-historian of the first century, it would be found out that in Josephus’ work alone are mentioned several Jesuses: Jesus son  of Phabet, Jesus son of Anaus, Jesus son of Sapphias, Jesus brother of Onias, Jesus son of Gamaliel, Jesus son of Damneus, Jesus son of Gamala, Jesus son of Nun, Jesus son of Saphat, Jesus son of Thebuthus, Jesus son of Josedek, and a single entry (a few lines) in 814 pages set in 8-pt type about a Jesus, who, Josephus said, was a wise man, was the messiah and then goes on to paraphrase was Christians know as the “Apostles’ Creed.”

The first thing this data tell us is that “JESUS” was a popular given name among Palestinians in the early 1st century of the Common Era. No wonder, because in the Aramaic of the time it was JOSHUA pronounced YESHUA, which means “one who saves.” So, in one sense, there was more than one Jesus in that time, probably many more. – Yet our unconditioned-to-general-assumptions friend would want to explore further. He or she would quite naturally turn to the western world’s all-time bestseller known as “the Bible,” and to its last 27 documents known as “the New Testament. I like to call it “the Christian appendices to the Hebrew Bible, which they are.

In those pages of whatever you wish to call it are to be found much about a Jesus, THE Jesus about which Christianity has made such a big deal for so long. Josephus does not refer to that Jesus as the son of anyone – a curious omission. If our inquirer sought a little expert assistance, he or she would be directed to the earliest stuff in the New Testament to see what it has to say about any Jesus. That would be to Paul’s authentic epistles – those being in the order of their occurrence in the testament (not the chronological order of their writing, though): Romans, I/II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I/II Thessalonians and Philemon – none earlier than 50 CE, none later than 60.

Yes, I have omitted Colossians and Ephesians because it has become clear to the multitude of scholars who have worked and are working on these texts that the vocabulary, style and subject matter of Colossians and Ephesians do not indicate that they are of the same voice as the earlier ones mentioned. Paul dictated his epistolary work to a scribe called in Greek a grammateus, whence our word “grammarian.” There are frequent mentions of a Jesus in those epistolary documents. None of them quote anything that Jesus elsewhere is credited with saying or doing — save, possibly, the passage at I Corinthians 11:23-26 in which Paul says he is passing on “from the Lord” an account of what we call The Last Supper, quoting from Mark 14:22-25; with parallels at Matthew 26:26-29 and Luke 22:14-20.

Supposing there was such a Jesus of whom Paul spoke, he tells nothing about him, save the Last Supper tradition Paul said he got from the Lord (“Lord” in most New Testament instances refers to the one some believed has be resurrected. That gives the passage a kind of supernatural or mythical tone). Most often Paul uses the term “Christ Jesus” (meaning essentially “The Anointed One – or Messiah – named Jesus”), and if one tracks Paul’s statements about this Christ Jesus — Paul’s proclamations, really — it becomes clear that Paul has turned some possibly historical personage from what John Dominic Crossan called “an itinerant sage” into a larger-than-life Graeco-Roman myth figure whose death and resurrection were the most important things about him – with no mention of the ethical wisdom other sources attribute to him.

Our non-conditioned non-assumer would be quite justified in figuring, say, if the Jesus credited with the wisdom sayings that appear in what we call “the Sermon on the Mount” (in Matthew) or “the Sermon on the Plain” (in Luke) was or were different persons than the one about whom Paul spoke at length. – Now I know that what I just worked out there goes against the grain of everything many of may you think you know and may take for granted, which is the #1 problem scholars of these texts run up against, especially if such scholars happen to be parish priests, pastors or ministers.

Whoever is studying the documents in question appropriately starts with what is best known among them: the four canonical gospels. Actually, to help me keep track of some of the relatively few things of which this kind of scholarship can be sure, I name them in the generally accepted order of their appearance in the first century: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. How we have figured out that order is part of another lecture.  Suffice it to say that the earliest of them appeared some time after 70 and 72 CE. Again, why we think that is another lecture.

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