The Historical Jesus

This is a quest that interests me. I find it similar and as important as the search for what Shakespeare actually wrote, or how and who composed ‘Homer’. I’m not trivialising the matter: these are questions I think important. In my library are books by Desmond Steward, Michael Grant, A N Wilson, Hall Caine, Frank Morison, Gordon Thomas, S G E Brandon, Burton L Mack, E P Sanders, John Dominic Crossan, the Jesus Seminar, Johannes Lehmann and others, I have discarded books by Morton Smith, S Acharya and Michael Baigent which I found disordered, and I have just read with interest comments on the book The Historical Jesus by Gary R Habermas

My experience is that it is useful to find out what motivates the authors of such books. People write them because their faith is a tyranny they seek to escape, because they are afraid of the emotional power of faith, because they wish to use reason to subvert faith, because they wish to devalue established ideas, hope to introduce structured evaluation into a subject often treated in a misleading way, of course because they wish to convert – and a million other reasons. Find out why the author has written, and gain an insight into what the book is for.

My first question is, why is there such a search for an historical Jesus? I believe it is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that this is a function unique to Christianity: that it takes place in history. But why is that important? How does it add to the strength of anyone’s faith that they believe in an historical person? For instance, although there were Greeks who speculated that Orpheus was a real person, it made no difference to the devotees of that faith in antiquity whether Orpheus existed once or not. There are many devotees within Christianity of the Virgin Mary, yet no emphasis is placed on the actual existence or not of such a person. Yet there is on Jesus. This last is actually quite an important distinction for those interested in the mythology of Christianity.

My next question is how would you prove such a person existed? Obviously enough, if you want to prove Jesus was god, you would need evidence from god, a document or statement that was demonstrably divine, exhibiting the qualities of eternity, infinity or omnipotence, and as these qualities cannot be comprehended by human beings, the chance of us recognising such a testimony are slim.

But supposing you merely wanted to prove there was such a human being as Jesus? How does one demonstrate that someone lived 2,000 years ago? There is no physical evidence, no remains that can be exhumed, no photograph or painting that can be examined for clues. It comes as a shock: you can’t prove the existence of anyone from the past. Not in the sense you can prove the piece of fish that made you feel ill last night was contaminated by phosphate poisoning.

Napoleon, Caesar, Orville Wright…how do you know they existed? Can you weigh them, examine their chemical composition, understand their genetic structure except in general terms? No. You can’t. The first thing you have to understand is that in every single case when you react to an historical figure you are reacting to the ideas those people had in their lifetimes, and only in a secondhand way. You are reacting to the way their contemporaries reacted to their ideas.

Look at the ‘evidence’ we have for the existence of Jesus. In every case it turns into evidence of what people of his time, and to a greater extent after his time, believed about him. This is normal, and is true for all of what we regard as history. History is a record not of facts, but of beliefs.

This is not the same as saying history is unknowable, or imaginary. We, and our ancestors, are capable of comprehending what happens to us, and evaluating that experience. History is as ‘true’ as that evaluation can be. It’s just that at no time are we dealing with scientific facts.  The artifacts that archaeologists so painstakingly assemble tell us facts, but mostly trivial ones that often distort ancient societies rather than reveal them.

Had we been dealing with evidence of the existence of Jesus we would be looking for material dating about 30 AD which might include:
1) skeletal remains of supernormal provenance ie some trace of god
2) autobiographical writings whose handwriting was demonstrable, whose content was transcendent
3) photographs
4) evidence of miracles, such as food remnants that had been divided to feed a multitude in a way unknown to science
5) uniform but unconnected testimony from contemporaries of a known historical and geographical provenance, with no possibility of transference of ideas from one source to another.

This doesn’t exist. What we have is:
1) statements from the classical authors Pliny and Tacitus (both writing c. AD 100) that there were groups called Christians who practised a ritual based on the death of a god called Christ
2) letters from the very first born-again Christian, Paul (writing c. 80 AD), urging his belief that Jesus had died for our sins (bear in mind Paul was a Graeco-Roman Jew who would have been aware of the born-again rites of Eleusis)
3) about 100 documents (dating c. 60-200 AD) elaborating on the possible significance of the life and teachings of Jesus, some of which utilised allegedly historical, but demonstrably mythologised, accounts of his life in a typical literary form of their time, the hero ‘biography’
4) some of these ‘gospels’ exhibit cross-fertilisation with other belief systems of the time, and are just as much off-shoots of Judaism, Pythagorism, Zoroasterism, Platonism and neo-Platonism as evidence of Christian beliefs. Some, such as the Gospel of Matthew, can be seen just as much as Jewish documents as Christian ones.

The search for the historical Jesus often focuses on an examination of the four Gospels. Paul is not concerned with the life of Jesus, only the significance of his death. The bulk of the surviving gospels are mired in an allegorical interpretation of a few anecdotes, and the elaboration of a few sayings, in a way quite foreign to our own cast of thought.

But there are Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. For some reason, many treat these documents as histories, because they are cast as narratives of a life. But the gospels are not history: they are belief statements, supporting a specific cult, the good news that glues a religious community together. Turning them into factual reports is about as valid as turning Darwin’s Descent of Man into an epic poem because you noticed rhyming phrases in some passages. In the gospels things are said to have happened because they were foretold about the Messiah in the prophets, and as Jesus is the Messiah they must have happened. Thus the Galilean was born in Bethlehem and travelled to Egypt. In the gospels, wisdom statements attributed by Jewish writers to the teacher Hillel are appropriated to Jesus, because he was the son of god and must have said them. The gospel writers, like Paul, were ignorant of the life and times of Jesus. They combed the Jewish scriptures for prophecies, quoted extensively from the Torah, borrowed from other traditions, invented an inaccurate historical background, and were self contained and so mutually contradictory. Had they been writing history they would be discounted as unreliable, and their evidence could be used to prove there never was a person as Jesus Christ.

But the gospels are not history. They are not even contemporary evidence. They are evidence that in the first century a new, revitalising faith was sweeping the Roman world. It’s the content of that faith that makes it important, not its antecedents. Paul saw this clearly: he wrote about the meaning of his faith, not its origins in the life of Jesus. It did not matter to Paul if Jesus had never existed. The writers of the gospels felt the same. It was the ritual that mattered, and what they wrote was in support of it. As a belief system the gospels are impressive; as history, they are full of doubtful processes such as backward looking prophecies – this was foretold by the prophets so it must have happened – or,  we believe this, so Jesus must have said so – this is in fact an extremely common way of thinking. If you are rigorous with yourself you’ll find that some of your beliefs are formed the same way.

I know there are people who need to believe in miracles, in wonder workers, in voices from the sky and burning bushes, in prophecies, in heroes who surmount death, in immortal life in a concrete form, in pearly gates and angels’ wings and streets of gold and heavenly choirs. I sympathise with this. But I believe things are really much simpler.

We can emerge from such an examination of sources with only two conclusions. Firstly, that in the first century many people throughout the Roman world believed that a Jew from Galilee had been crucified by the Romans, and that this death had eschatological significance for them. We have to acknowledge that at the same time, as many, if not more, believed in the eschatological significance of the death and birth of Mithras, or of Osiris, and no-one claims these were historical persons. And secondly, we have to admit that the surviving documents of Christianity exhibit traces of one of the most profound awarenesses of spiritual values we possess.

In this history of beliefs, it is the spiritual content that sends us looking for historical ‘proof’. For some reason a Buddhist priest or a shaman or a devotee of Isis or Dionysos doesn’t need to do this. My intuition is that proof is only needed where doubt has crept in, that 200 years of the Scientific Revolution has made us uneasy about faith. One result is the phenomenon of Fundamentalism, which rejects both faith and reason, and is an extreme form of Bible-quoting atheism (where it is not just an excuse for terrorism).

But the search for an historical Jesus is a valuable activity. For one thing it focuses attention on our past, and more importantly on the significance of that past, and in that past lies our future. And it serves a meditational purpose, through which we can transcend that past.

My belief? What if each one of us believes each person we meet is divine, that god was somehow manifested within that other? How many crucifixions would there be, how many adorations? How many practise a faith, how many merely belong to one?

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


3 thoughts on “The Historical Jesus

  1. you forgot Pilate’s letter to Tiberius on his report on his trial of Jesus, and Gamamiel’s description of him.

    The letter from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar

    This is a reprinting of a letter from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar describing the physical appearance of Jesus. Copies are in the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C.


    A young man appeared in Galilee preaching with humble unction, a new law in the Name of the God that had sent Him. At first I was apprehensive that His design was to stir up the people against the Romans, but my fears were soon dispelled. Jesus of Nazareth spoke rather as a friend of the Romans than of the Jews. One day I observed in the midst of a group of people a young man who was leaning against a tree, calmly addressing the multitude. I was told it was Jesus. This I could easily have suspected so great was the difference between Him and those who were listening to Him. His golden colored hair and beard gave to his appearance a celestial aspect. He appeared to be about 30 years of age. Never have I seen a sweeter or more serene countenance. What a contrast between Him and His bearers with their black beards and tawny complexions! Unwilling to interrupt Him by my presence, I continued my walk but signified to my secretary to join the group and listen. Later, my secretary reported that never had he seen in the works of all the philosophers anything that compared to the teachings of Jesus. He told me that Jesus was neither seditious nor rebellious, so we extended to Him our protection. He was at liberty to act, to speak, to assemble and to address the people. This unlimited freedom provoked the Jews — not the poor but the rich and powerful.

    Later, I wrote to Jesus requesting an interview with Him at the Praetorium. He came. When the Nazarene made His appearance I was having my morning walk and as I faced Him my feet seemed fastened with an iron hand to the marble pavement and I trembled in every limb as a guilty culprit, though he was calm. For some time I stood admiring this extraordinary Man. There was nothing in Him that was repelling, nor in His character, yet I felt awed in His presence. I told Him that there was a magnetic simplicity about Him and His personality that elevated Him far above the philosophers and teachers of His day.

    Now, Noble Sovereign, these are the facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth and I have taken the time to write you in detail concerning these matters. I say that such a man who could convert water into wine, change death into life, disease into health; calm the stormy seas, is not guilty of any criminal offense and as others have said, we must agree — truly this is the Son of God.

    Your most obedient servant,
    Pontius Pilate


    The Description of Publius Lentullus

    The following was taken from a manuscript in the possession of Lord Kelly, and in his library, and was copied from an original letter of Publius Lentullus at Rome. It being the usual custom of Roman Governors to advertise the Senate and people of such material things as happened in their provinces in the days of Tiberius Caesar, Publius Lentullus, President of Judea, wrote the following epistle to the Senate concerning the Nazarene called Jesus.

    “There appeared in these our days a man, of the Jewish Nation, of great virtue, named Yeshua [Jesus], who is yet living among us, and of the Gentiles is accepted for a Prophet of truth, but His own disciples call Him the Son of God- He raiseth the dead and cureth all manner of diseases. A man of stature somewhat tall, and comely, with very reverent countenance, such as the beholders may both love and fear, his hair of (the colour of) the chestnut, full ripe, plain to His ears, whence downwards it is more orient and curling and wavering about His shoulders. In the midst of His head is a seam or partition in His hair, after the manner of the Nazarenes. His forehead plain and very delicate; His face without spot or wrinkle, beautified with a lovely red; His nose and mouth so formed as nothing can be reprehended; His beard thickish, in colour like His hair, not very long, but forked; His look innocent and mature; His eyes grey, clear, and quick- In reproving hypocrisy He is terrible; in admonishing, courteous and fair spoken; pleasant in conversation, mixed with gravity. It cannot be remembered that any have seen Him Laugh, but many have seen Him Weep. In proportion of body, most excellent; His hands and arms delicate to behold. In speaking, very temperate, modest, and wise. A man, for His singular beauty, surpassing the children of men”


    Don’t forget, his visit to India.

    1. Thank you Elton. I looked up information on the two documents you refer to: the first is thought to date from the 4th century AD, the second from the 10th to 14th century AD. They are thus evidence of what believers thought about Jesus at those times, rather than evidence from his own time. Enlightened thinkers such as Jesus, Gautama Buddha or Zarathustra did have some ideas in common, but did not necessarily learn them from one another. The ideas are the very best things our species has achieved, but we prefer to go on witch hunts for conformity, or explorations of historical origins instead of learning to practise them.

  2. Why it should not be clear to you I have no answer. Why it appears unclear to me is that it was written extempore and moves directly to related topics much as thought usually does. Generally speaking, I am arguing that when historical investigation is separated from faith it reveals little direct evidence about Jesus (I’m not saying that Jesus did not exist), that the quest for historical evidence for Jesus is a concealed attempt by many to bolster their faith (whether that faith is Christianity or atheism), and that this attempt is not necessary, because the roots of faith are emotional ones, not intellectual ones.

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