Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No Historical Jesus?

A modern American person cannot escape Jesus. That name, that imagery and iconography, the followers - Jesus is everywhere. If one is not a Christian, life can feel like a constant argument against a steady barrage of Jesus 'facts' and 'theology.' Just to get some peace from the world, many Jews tend to take the position that "Jesus was a good guy, a Jew like me who had some great ethical teachings."

Unfortunately, many who profess to be Christian know very little about the history of Christian beliefs or about the many serious questions surrounding the historicity of Jesus. They rarely seek to know if any physical and historical evidence actually supports the hypothesis that Jesus existed as a person in the world.

The rarity may seem strange since, presumably, Jesus is the central figure of Christianity. Except that often the centrality of Jesus seems not to be the case. In the beliefs and practices of even major holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, Jesus is not so much a person as the person that stuff happened to. Someone was miraculously born of a virgin (who was herself born of a virgin) in a stable? Oh, it was Jesus. Someone was crucified and later rose from the dead? Oh, it was Jesus.

I've always been struck at the emptiness of Jesus, and I think this emptiness may actually contribute to keeping people in the churches. All the shit happened to Jesus, but he doesn't ask anything of you directly. His emissaries in church ask, but you know them and they're OK. Go to church and celebrate the shit that happened, and then pass the money over to the emissaries.

It's about being together in a community and affirming that shit happens. It's not about Jesus; it's about the shit that happened. It's not about Jesus; it's about Christianity.

And so we come to Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, authors of The Jesus Mysteries, who offer a different view of Jesus and Christianity. As I see it, they hypothesize that modern Christianity is based around one big misunderstanding about Jesus. They say:
The traditional history of Christianity is hopelessly inadequate to the facts. From our research into ancient spirituality it has become obvious that we must fundamentally revise our understanding of Christian origins in the most shocking of ways. Our conclusion, supported by a considerable body of evidence in our book, The Jesus Mysteries, is that Christianity was not a new revelation. It was a continuation of Paganism by another name. The gospel story of Jesus is not the biography of an historical Messiah. It is a Jewish reworking of ancient Pagan myths of the dying and resurrecting Godman Osiris-Dionysus, which had been popular for centuries throughout the ancient Mediterranean.
The similarity of the Jesus narrative to pagan myths is well known. In modern times, however, we tend to equate myths with lies. This is not how the ancient world understood myths.
It is hard for us today to imagine the Jesus story being consciously created, but this is because we have misunderstood ancient spirituality. Myths were not seen as untruths as they are now. They were understood as allegories of spiritual initiation, which encoded profound mystical teachings. Reworking old myths to create new ones was a standard practice in the ancient world.
These are serious and high-impact claims being made. It should be noted that neither author is, so far as I know, an academic researcher. But folks such as G.A. Wells, Gerd Lüdemann, and many others have done real work that makes a "Christ-myth" theory not only viable but very likely. After all, according to the myth, a man comes to life after being dead three days. That man then ascends to heaven. It's a nice story, but let's not forget that such an occurrence would go against the way the world actually works. We need to employ the reality principle every now and again.

So, having taken a several grains of salt, we hear more from Freke and Gandy:
The conquests of Alexander the Great had turned the Mediterranean world into one culture with a common language. This created an age of eclecticism, much like our own, in which different spiritual traditions met and synthesized. Jewish mystics of this period, such as Philo Judeas, were obsessed with synthesizing Jewish and Pagan mythology. In light of all this, it is actually no surprise that some group of Jewish mystics should synthesize the great mythic hero of the Jews, Joshua the Messiah, with the great mythic hero of the Pagans, Osiris-Dionysus.

At the time, both Pagans and Christians were well aware that the Jesus story was a myth. The early Christians, known as Gnostics, understood the Jesus story as allegory, not history, and even called Jesus by the names of the Pagan Godman. The Gnostics were brutally eradicated by the Roman Church in the 4th and 5th centuries, and since then we have believed the official propaganda that these Christians were dangerous heretics who had gone Pagan.

Actually the evidence suggests the opposite is closer to the truth. The Gnostics were the original Christians, just as they themselves claimed. They had synthesized Jewish and Pagan mythology to produce the Jesus story and many other extraordinary Christian myths largely unknown today. The Roman Church was a later deviation, which misunderstood the Jesus story as history. It was, as the Gnostics said at the time, an imitation Church teaching a superficial Christianity designed for the masses.
The authors clearly make a target of the Roman Catholic Church's brand of Christianity, as well they should. But I part ways with the authors when they obviously sympathize with the Gnostics:
Roman Christianity, and all its subsequent offshoots, is based on the idea that if you believe in the existence of an historical Jesus you will go to heaven when you die. For the Gnostics, however, Jesus is an everyman figure in an initiation allegory. They taught that if you yourself go through the process of initiation symbolized by the Jesus myth, you would die to your old self and resurrect in a new way. The Greek word we translate as resurrect also means awaken.

For the Gnostics, Christianity was about dying -- the idea of giving up your mortal body and awakening to your immortal essence as the Christ within -- the One Consciousness of the Universe. This mystical enlightenment was not something that happened after death, but could happen here and now.
I am intrigued by the different picture of Jesus that the authors paint, clean-shaven and such:
The historical figure of Jesus has been so central to Western culture that it is hard to question his existence. As soon as we hear his name we can see him in our mind's eye, in his flowing white robes, with long hair and a beard. Yet this picture of Jesus was not created until the 8th century. Early portrayals of Jesus show him clean-shaven with short hair and wearing a Roman tunic. St Paul says that long hair disgraces a man, so presumably his image of Jesus was not the same as ours.
In the next passage, the authors err by going all sensationalist on us - "everything you thought you knew is WRONG!!!" If anything makes me think these folks are snake-oil salesman, this is it. However, their points about the paucity of physical evidence for a historical Jesus are legitimate. I wish more Christians would ponder these ideas a bit more.
The fact is that everything we think we know about Jesus, like this romantic picture of the bearded savior, is a creation of the human imagination. Actually there is barely a shred of evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus and this dissolves on closer inspection. Paul, the earliest Christian source, shows no knowledge of an historical man, only a mystical Christ. The gospels have been thoroughly discredited as eyewitness reports. Other bits of traditional evidence, such as references to Jesus by the Jewish historian Josephus, have been shown to be later forgeries. If solid evidence had existed, there would have been no need to have created such fabrications.
The authors try to close out with a statement that basically they are helping people be even more spiritual. They somehow have the secret to help people be happier and more personally in touch with the divine. This is voodoo mystical shit. It's the same old story: there's something better, somewhere, out there, "beyond" this reality. I don't understand why people repulse themselves from reality.
A little over a century ago most people believed the story of Adam and Eve to be history. To most thinking people today its is obviously a myth. We predict that within a generation a similar revolution will have taken place in our understanding of the gospels. People will look back at the beginning of the 21st century and be amazed that a culture with the technology to travel to the moon could see the fabulous story of Jesus as anything other than a myth. However, we do not want to dismiss the Jesus story as nonsense. For us it is truly the greatest story ever told, because it has been thousands of years in the making. It is a perennial tale that has fascinated the human soul since the dawn of time.

Whilst our ideas clearly rewrite history, we do not see ourselves as undermining Christianity. On the contrary we are suggesting that Christianity is in fact richer than we previously imagined. According to the original Gnostic Christians, the Jesus story is a perennial myth with the power to impart the mystical experience of Gnosis, which can transform each one of us into a Christ, not merely a history of events that happened to someone else two thousand years ago.
So, this is interesting stuff unfortunately packaged in sensationalism. Interested readers will be better served by reading the excellent review by Richard Carrier of Earl Doherty's book, The Jesus Puzzle.


  1. Shalmo3:21 PM

    "They rarely seek to know if any physical and historical evidence actually supports the hypothesis that Jesus existed as a person in the world."

    That Tacitus mentions Jesus is enough to rule that indeed a history jesus existed, thought not the same as christian dogma posits

  2. No. If I remember the Annals, Tactitus was merely reporting whay the Christians called themselves Christians.

    I could be wrong, however. Do you have the relevant passage(s) available?

  3. Johan2:46 PM

    "Gerd Lüdemann"

    Gerd Ludemann certainly does not believe in a purely fictional Jesus.

    As for the paucity of physical evidence, what do you expect for a guy who lived 2000 years ago and was mostly unknown during his life-time?

    I see no particular reason to doubt that there really existed a Jewish dude named Jesus (Joshua) who preached in Palestine, said some of the things in the Gospels and then got crucified. It is easy to explain how this came to give rise to the myth we have today and certainly there would be nothing unusual about the story then.

    It is harder to see why Christians invented the myth they did if it is all fake.

  4. Your point on Lüdemann is well taken, but I am not claiming he himself espouses "Christ-myth" theory. I only mean that Lüdemann's writings have led me toward the myth conclusion.

    Am I all the way at the myth conclusion? No. I don't wish to be the type of person who doubts indiscriminately. On the other hand, I just don't see much evidence of a historical Jesus. The extra-NT sources are problematic, to say the least.

    Now, we can say that after the 4th century the figure that emerges as the icon of the religion is certainly a myth. This Jesus is a bizarre combination of king, savior and end-times warrior.

    One final point: You use the word "fake," but this is a modern word and connotes an intention to deceive which fits not so well to the early history of Christianity. My own view is that the first voices in what we would now call Christianity thought that they were bringing forth a truth about the nature of God and the world.

    The respected religious scholar Hoffman says eloquently: "There is simply no evidence that the early Christians were concerned about 'whether' Jesus had really lived and died. They became Christians because of the Gospel, and the Gospel was a summary of 'things believed' by the brethren."

    Your word "fake" just doesn't apply in its modern sense to the world of these people 2000 years ago in the Palestine region.

  5. Johan6:23 AM

    I agree there is not much evidence outside the Gospels. There is some however, the strongest probably being the passage in Josephus that mentions Jesus' brother being executed.

    Where we disagree is that I think the NT is evidence enough to make it highly likely Jesus existed.

  6. The martyrdom of James in Josephus is highly dubious. It's very likely a later Christian interpolation so far as I gather.

    Christipher Hitchins has some interesting arguments as to why elements in the Gospel accounts may refer to an actual character in history.

    But this reminds me: Have you ever read the Gospel of Judas? Strange, strange stuff. It makes you wonder what history would have been like if it had been canonized.

  7. You are thinking of a different comment in Josephus, I believe. (Jesus is mentioned twice.) The James story is perfectly credible as a writing by Josephus.

  8. As they reportedly like to say in Missouri, "Show Me."

  9. Johan3:57 PM


  10. "Perfectly credible" seems to be an exaggeration.

    Please see a later post of mine for the following quote, which addresses standards of evidence.

    'Historically, the existence of Jesus to be indubitable would need to be demonstrated in the same way the existence of any other human being can be shown. The standard of proof is fairly high, making allowance for the age in which the person lived or is thought to have lived. Normally we would expect records, reports, artifacts (bones are best), or the writings of people who mention Jesus in their reports of other events. For example, a chronicle of the Roman administration of Pontius Pilate in Palestine with a mention of the crucifixion of an outlaw named Yeshu, a Galilean, would be very helpful. But we do not possess such a record. Instead, we possess reports written by members of a religious group that had very specific and self-interested reasons for retelling his story. And the way in which it is told differs so markedly from the sorts of histories the Romans were writing in the second and third century CE that scholars have acknowledged for a long time the “problem” of deriving the historical Jesus from the Gospels—and even more the problem of deriving his existence from the letters of Paul or any other New Testament writings.'

  11. Johan8:10 AM

    I dispute that we would expect to see any of these things your quote claims. Pilate had many people killed, you would not expect any records of him executing just another religious lunatic. How many records of his decision do you think have survived?

    Compare with the what we know of Pilate himself. We actually know quite little about him, so we do not know where he was born or what happened to him after his stint in Palestine. We have for example no idea where he is buried.

    In fact many of the few sources for the life of Pilate are the same as for Jesus, namely th New Testament, Josephus and Tacitus. (There is also Philo that mentions Pilate.) We have exactly one inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate from his rule as a governor. And this was only discovered in the last century.

    If this is what our sources look like for a high ranking official of the Roman Empire what do you expect for a failed Messiah-candidate?

    Oh, and to answer a previous question of you: No I have not read the Gospel of Judas though I have read other non-canonical Gospels.

  12. Dispute all you like. It seems like you want Jesus to have a special allowance on what gets to be considered evidence demonstrating his existence.

    Guess what? There probably was no King Arthur, etiher! Unless we don't need any proof of his existence, in which case he probably was real.

  13. Johan7:38 AM

    Not at all, I want normal historical standards applied to judging his existence. Do you disagree that written sources regarding his life constitute some evidence?

    Regarding king Arthur, I am under the impression that many historians take the idea that he is very loosely based on a real character seriously?

    Anyway, the situation when it comes to sources isn't comparable. In the case of Jesus we have several written sources that claims he existed that are written within one hundred years of his life. In some cases (ie the letters of Paul) they are likely written within 30 years of his supposed death.

    You seem to be the one who wants a special standard applied to the existence of Jesus by demanding physical proof or something similar. The question isn't whether his existence is proven beyond reasonable doubt, it is what the most probable guess is given the evidence we have.

    Frankly I do no understand your comment at all that we would expect records and artifacts connected with Jesus. You cannot seriously mean that if Jesus existed there should be records of his execution preserved or that we should know where he was buried?

    I also do not understand why you reject the Josephus quotation.

  14. Johan, that quote I gave was from R. Joseph Hoffmann a highly distingushed biblical scholar. But I do some historical research myself as a matter of necessity, and I don't think Hoffmann's list is off at all. All it gives is a "wish list" of records we would like to have in order to establish the historicity of a particular person with certainty.

    In the original post, I added a link to a review by Richard Carrier. Carrier's thinking is often in line with my own. I recommend it as reading.

    For myself, I don't see Paul's letters as proof that Jesus existed as an actual person. And Josephus, well let's talk about him.

    Josephus, you'll remember, was born in 37 CE and was writing the Antiquities somewhere in the nineties, right? So, there's a natural time gap here of some 25 years between the event (of which Josephus was not himself a witness) and the record.

    Add to this that Josephus' writings all come to us from Christian sources, not Jewish ones. Another thing, we would normally expect James to be identified as "son of xyz," not brother of xyz.

    This is why I say the Josephus passage is not "perfectly credible." I agree that this passage is more likely to be authentic than others, but it is not without problems. That's my point.

    Interestingly, Origen apparently knew and cited this passage, but Origen's version included an addition in which Josephus says that it is as punishment for the execution of James - yes, of James - that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed.

    Finally, on King Arthur. He seems to be pure legend, a figure of British resistance against the Germanic invaders in the fifth and sixth century. He eventually becomes a central figure in Welsh wonder-tales, but the textual record really only goes to the ninth century so it's hard to dtermine whether there was a real war-leader 300 to 400 years earlier that may have been an inspiration to tale-tellers.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.