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What if we discovered the gospel writers had made a mistake? Really there had been several Jesus Christs in Judea at the same time (actually there were a few Jeshuas) and they had confused the story of two of them? One was a great teacher and miracle worker called Jeshua, the other an obscure carpenter who had been involved in civil unrest and been crucified by the Romans and known ironically as Christos (the King), one of many would-be Messiahs of the time? Acting on divine inspiration, the Pharisee Paul had seen the crucified man as an incarnation of god sent to save mankind from their sins. Which man was the most important? For whom was there more evidence of his existence? Which one would you believe in?
The uniqueness of Jeshua
Evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ is apparently crucial to the faith of many Christians. Allah, Jehovah, Ishtar, Zeus, Mithras, Isis and other figures worshipped in ancient times were not living human beings. Jesus is the only one of his kind. Other gods took on human form sometimes, but Jesus was born as a human being, suffered death and rose again. Other gods suffered death and were resurrected, such as Osiris, Atthis and Orpheus, and the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries apparently offered something resembling a holy communion and an eternal life in heaven to devotees through participation in the experience of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, who spent time in Hades but was able to come back to earth as the new life of the Spring, yet these gods were not thought of as human (the Eleusinian Mysteries could have been the model Paul of Tarsus took to create meaning out of the death of Jeshua, as it may have included a last supper, a partaking of the life of the god through a shared meal, a common descent to the underworld preceded by a confession of faults, and a resurrection rite accompanied by the promise of eternal life in heaven. Paul, whose culture was Greek, may have known initiates).
Assessing the evidence
There have been many attempts to find evidence of Jesus. The first thing to note in this attempt is the name. Jesus is Latin for Aramaic Jeshua, or Hebrew Joshua. It, like James and Judas, was one of the most common names in Judea, Samaria and Galilee in the first century, so a reference without qualification to this name could mean anyone.
Secondly, ‘evidence’ is not the same as ‘fact’ or ‘proof’, though some people tend to use all three words as though they meant the same thing. Think of a court of law, where evidence is assessed by a jury before a decision is reached. You start with the evidence, not finish with it.
When assessing ancient authors it is as well to remember that they used different conventions than we do today. A statement in an ancient source is not a fact. We rarely know what evidence it is based on. Usually a writer made enquiries of others who claimed to know something of the matter he was writing about, but they rarely assessed his competence to speak with authority. Writers felt free to add detail from general knowledge, and they often added details they thought likely to have occurred or words likely to have been spoken. The point of all ancient writing from Greece and Rome was rhetoric. It was not what was said, but how it was said that was important. To read, or much more likely to hear these works (it was a preponderantly oral culture) was to practice the art of civilisation. Remember too, that these works were later copied by hand, sometimes by people who couldn’t read the language they were written in, so texts vary, some have passages missing, others passages added, others errors hard to detect.
We do not know what records were kept by governments of the past, what they contained or if they survived. For instance, in the matter of Jeshua’s trial, Pilate may have given a report to the Emperor on returning to Rome, but it would most likely have summarised his term as administrator, and been used by him to justify his conduct and promote his reputation rather than been a detailed record of events. All the information about early Christianity we have from non Christian sources would be assessed today as rumours. Not facts, not proof, but circumstantial evidence.
Non Christian sources
The bible seems to be a good place to look for the proof of the existence of Jeshua’s life. But this might be special pleading. Evidence for the beliefs of early Christians can be found there, but evidence of their beliefs does not prove Jeshua’s existence, just as evidence of the beliefs of members of the religion of Isis is not proof of the existence of Osiris. So non Christian references look more promising, more impartial. What are these ancient non Christian references to Jeshua?
Josephus, Antiquities 18.3-4
Joseph ben Matityahu lived between 37-100 AD. He was a Jewish historian who wrote an account of Jewish affairs for Romans in about 94 AD. His Antiquities includes brief references to Jeshua, James and John the Baptist, some of which have material added by a later Christian writer.
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. And he gained a following among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day”. (This is a version of this passage with Christian additions removed).
We have no knowledge of Josephus’ sources. He was writing 60 years after Jeshua’s death and is the nearest in time to the events he describes here of any other surviving writer except Paul and Mark. However, if you compare his account to Tacitus’ it seems likely the same source is being used by both historians, a belief creed made by Christians about their central doctrine, that Jeshua died under Pilate for their sins. The reference to Greek followers suggests that the information came to Josephus from a Greek Christian, who would only have existed after the missionary activity of Paul. It looks like we have here a statement of the beliefs of early gentile Christians, not proof of Jeshua’s existence.
Pliny, Epistles x. 96
Pliny the Younger lived between about 60-112 AD. He was a lawyer and administrator, a friend of Tacitus and wrote letters to the Emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians. These were a problem because they refused to honour the gods and were thus guilty of treason.
“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind”.
Pliny, like Josephus and Tacitus, is reporting on what Christians believed. He needs to explain the shared meal, the body and blood of Christ, was not cannibalism as sometimes alleged but ordinary food. Both Pliny and Tacitus refer to the deity worshipped as Christus. This means anointed one, king, and in the context of the time, Messiah. There is no mention of the name Jeshua or Jesus. There were apparently many contenders for the long expected Messiah in Jeshua’s time, so these Christians (Messiah followers) could have been worshipping anyone (but probably Jeshua).
Tacitus, Annals 15.44
The Annals covers the years 14-68 AD, the reigns of Tiberius to Nero, and was likely written soon after 116 AD, over 80 years after Jeshua’s death. The passage in question is about the year 64 AD. Tacitus was extremely prejudiced against many Roman Emperors, of none more than Nero. The passage shows Nero as responsible for a disastrous fire in Rome (unlikely) willing to shift the blame onto groups of Christians in the city, infamous for the treasonable act of refusing to worship the state religions.
“Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome”.
What Tacitus is saying is that the Christians existed in Rome and were not liked. It was not their beliefs. You could believe anything in ancient Rome, even follow a man who had been crucified. But Christians refused to honour the gods. They were in effect a fifth column, irreverent, sacrilegious folks abominated by self respecting citizens. Tacitus is reporting on first century beliefs, not giving facts. He wasn’t that objective an historian.
Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13
Lucian was a satirical performer who lived in the second century AD. He came from the region of Turkey, ancient Assyria. His Death of Peregrinus (170-180 AD) is an attack, common in his work, on a fraudulent teacher who fleeced his students. Peregrinus was a philosopher who was a Christian for some time before joining the Cynic school of thought. Lucian evidently thinks it amusing that people would worship a criminal.
“The Christians . . . worship a man to this day–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers from the moment that they are converted they deny the gods of Greece and worship the crucified sage and live after his laws”.
So again we have non Christian evidence that supplies some information of the beliefs of early Christians, but still no evidence of the existence of Jesus. Three of these four passages state only that Jesus died under Pilate’s administration, but was held in such veneration that his supporters stayed loyal and continued to commemorate him. This sounds like it comes from a common source, something well known about Christians. The belief has common elements to a resurrection myth found in Summerian or Babylonian clay tablets telling the story of Atthis who died and rose again to bring eternal life to mankind. The same myth has been found in Greece, this time around the name of Adonais consort of Aphrodite, (a form of Adonai or Lord, a title of Baal, consort of Ishtar). In fact the early Christians did attach this kind of value to the death of Jeshua.
But in addition there is one detail that is quite telling. The reported Christian beliefs specifically say, Jeshua died when Pontius Pilate was Prefect or governor of Judea, and was condemned by him to death. So although there is no evidence for the existence of Jesus in the literature we have, there is evidence that the early Christians believed in the historicity of his death, as early as 94 AD, a quite unique belief.
These quotations sound like a reference to actual events, but they’re not. They’re not evidence of government archives of Jeshua’s time that somehow survived and were consulted by Greek and Roman writers: we have no evidence of this procedure in any ancient surviving author’s work, and it would be odd if it were so only in reference to Jeshua, whose case was an incidental footnote in these authors’ works. The passages derive from a creed of beliefs that early Christians recited, similar to the later Nicene Creed, which reads in part:
“For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried”.
What we have from these early sources is an indication that Christians had evolved a belief system in the period 94-116 AD that contained elements later found in the Nicene Creed of 325 AD.
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end”.
In other words, all the evidence points to the fact that Christianity was a faith, not a school of history writing. Throughout Paul’s letters there is a continuous belief in the saving power of Jeshua’s death and resurrection. Little about his life or trial. That wasn’t important. The most we can find is that incidental to this supremely important fact of Jeshua’s death, early Christians believed that there was a trial under Pontius Pilate. This belief in itself does not make it a fact that Jeshua was so tried. The Christians would have believed it true had there been a passage in the prophets that indicated it would come about. It can’t be said too often the Christians were not looking for mundane facts but eschatological ones.
Looking for evidence of the existence of Jeshua is to miss the whole point of Christianity, as finding Bacon is the real author of Shakespeare’s plays misses the essential point that the plays are supreme poetry.
Then there are the gospels. Michael Gleghorn writes on Probe: “Although there is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament is an accurate and trustworthy historical document…” (http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.4223639/k.567/Ancient_Evidence_for_Jesus_from_NonChristian_Sources.htm) – but I don’t believe that many would agree with this statement. The gospels and other documents collected together as the New Testament are not history, and there is overwhelming evidence that they are not. I believe the writers of those documents would have considered such a claim of historical value as sacrilegious. The gospels were gospels, good news, statements of belief to church members and converts that salvation had been found through the death and resurrection of Jeshua.
Here’s a scenario for those who insist the New Testament is a collection of historical documents and not a statement of faith. Jeshua died at age 30 it was said. For his time, that was middle aged. Many then died in the twenties. A 50 year old man would have been considered elderly. So if any of Jeshua’s family, friends or disciples survived him, it would most likely not have been for long. Had a few lived to 70, they would have been slaughtered when Titus stormed Jerusalem.
The earliest surviving works referring to Jeshua are the seven genuine letters of Paul of Tarsus, written in Greece about 60-70 AD. The gospels were written about 70-100 AD. Other material in the New Testament comes from the period 100-200 AD. This material was thus written between 40 and 170 years after the likely death of all the apostles and of Jeshua (unless they had life spans like the Old Testament patriarchs), far away from where Jeshua lived, in Greece and Rome, at a time when all who could have added authentic detail had been destroyed with Jerusalem. Given that Jeshua was said to be a carpenter from Galilee, the chances of he or his circle being literate are low. His teachings would have been passed on orally. Such stories would have been retailed in Aramaic, a language we don’t know the new testament writers understood. No knowledge of his life would have survived in any detail, no anecdotes about his disciples. We can imagine a great teacher lived and taught and passed on wisdom to his followers. We know of other such teachers of the time. It is not improbable. But we cannot know what Jeshua’s life was like, or the nature of his teachings. Like most of human experience, it vanished at or shortly after his death.
Forty years after his death however, documents survive about Jeshua. The letters of Paul were written by a man who didn’t know Jeshua, didn’t know what he had taught, but who had a theory of the meaning of his death. Jeshua would have been a contemporary of Paul’s grandfather. Paul’s letters are proof, the only proof we have, that the teachings of Jeshua had made a great impression on some who had known him, and that these had been shocked by his death. His death needed explanation. It was the unjust death of a good man. Paul had such an explanation. It was so radical he had to break away from Judaism and form a new faith, Christianity.
The other documents in the New Testament are later than Paul’s letters. They were written in response to his interpretation of the meaning of Jeshua’s death. The gospel writers would have no way of knowing anything of the life of Jeshua, who had died 40 or 50 years before they started writing, in distant Jerusalem. They were writing, however, for believers in the meaning of Jeshua’s death as outlined by Paul. They had a traditional list of sayings, some parables, and scriptures from the Jewish bible, Talmud, writings we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as knowledge of the rites of Greek religions. They were writing to celebrate the new faith known as Christianity. And despite the names attached to the gospels, they are anonymous. We do not know who wrote them, but certainly not the apostles whose names are attached to them, all of whom had died 40 years before these works were written. Furthermore, it is likely that all four gospels had multiple authors, like almost all of the books of both the New and Old Testament. The New Testament writers were inspired to write by their faith, not by factual knowledge of Jeshua they wished to preserve on antiquarian grounds.
Evidence as far as the gospel authors were concerned included passages of the Jewish scriptures which they arbitrarily chose to regard as prophecies. When they did so, it followed they could then trace events in Jeshua’s life, for the Jewish scripture they quoted was proof the event had occurred. Hence the birth in Bethlehem, the virgin birth and many other passages (‘virgin’ was a mistranslation in the Vulgate of ‘nubile’, girl of marriageable age).
The gospels include an historical framework, the names of rulers, but it isn’t the same in each gospel. They include genealogies, but it isn’t the same one in each gospel. They include folk stories like the flight to Egypt and the birth in a manger, but not the same ones in each gospel.
By comparing the so called Synoptic gospels scholars can tell they were preceded in composition by lists of sayings and collections of parables or moral lessons. I believe other sources were used to create the gospels as well, such as classical myths and religious practices, and Jewish scriptures.
So where did the gospel story come from? I believe it is a myth. Before proceeding any further, we need to look at the word. “Myth”. Not a lie, not a fact, but an entire category of experience. See Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth or The Hero with a Thousand Faces for the importance of myth. When the early Christians told converts, our religion is the truth, it really happened, the other religions are myths, lies and snares of the devil, they were engaging in conversion. It was a sales pitch. We don’t have to preserve their rhetoric today.
Look at the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the mystery religions of ancient Greece. Thousands of people believed in it. Did a great lyre player called Orpheus actually go down to Hades and resurrect his wife Eurydice, only to look back and lose her at the last minute? Can we find evidence it actually happened? The Greeks would have thought the attempt that of a madman. It was a myth, something we have lost familiarity with.
The nearest analogy I can think of is the function of metaphor in poetry (though we’re not too familiar with that either). When Shakespeare’s Brutus in Julius Caesar says “there is a tide in the affairs of men/which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”, he is not saying there is a lot of water around and his army better move to avoid getting wet. By invoking the rhythm of the sea he assumes a larger than life, inspiring dimension to his ambitions and plans that gives him greater energy to pursue them. A myth functions that way too.
The story of the god who died and is resurrected to give mankind eternal life is just about the oldest story ever told. We have it from the remains of the first known civilisation in Sumeria 4000 BC. It is found in Babylon, Syria, Greece, the Black Sea area, Italy and even, with modifications, in Germany. Myth engages with basic parts of the brain we are not conscious of. It helps give meaning to our lives by creating a larger perspective for them than we can otherwise do. Think of a baby, a few weeks old. Life is a confused blur of colours, shapes and sounds. Eventually the baby recognises the warm, soft shape with the thudding noise as a nurturing, safe place to be. From there explorations of the world become possible, spaces investigated, fears quelled and distinctions made in the ever expanding area about. Myth is part of this process. Faith is part of this process. Early Christianity was part of this process.
Understanding the gospels
What we have to avoid is castigating the gospel authors as dishonest writers, or of defending them as honest writers, as creators of myth (falsities) or recorders of fact. These attempts are ahistoric and show ignorance of first century writing conventions and belief systems. Now we value originality. Then they didn’t. Now we ascribe allusions and quotations. Then they didn’t. Now we discriminate between truth and probability on one hand and fiction and unlikely events on the other. Then they didn’t. We read and consider. They listened and were swayed by their emotions.
It is worth saying again, this was good news. The life of converts had been transformed by the new faith. It was a millennium period. The messiah had been expected. The Romans thought it had been the Emperor Augustus, who had stabilised the Empire and ended almost 100 years of civil war. The Jews thought they were to achieve the Kingdom of David. The Christians believed it meant the coming of a world saviour. People were full of doubt and uncertainty. But Jeshua had come. All who believed in him were to be saved. It was good news. Nobody was interested in writing an historical account, a life of Jeshua. History hadn’t yet been invented, save the exceptional case of the work of Thucydides.
The attempt to find the historical Jesus is one of the great time wasters in our recent past. The attempt to prove or disprove the existence of a spiritual object of faith is meaningless and frivolous, a kind of parlour game that both sides take part in to conceal their lack of commitment, hope, faith and charity. Whether you attempt to prove Jeshua existed or did not exist, you are doing exactly as a fundamentalist does, engaging in an act of atheism. A fundamentalist quotes scripture to preach hate and destruction to what they dislike or fear. A historicist or anti historicist quotes scripture to prove or disprove faith. Would anyone try to prove the existence of Zeus? That at a certain period a man of over eight feet in height, powerfully built and armed with an explosive projectile weapon Greeks mistook for a thunderbolt actually came down the slopes of Mount Olympos to demand tribute at Dodona? Homer has a story of the goddess Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda who may have been an Argive version of Aphrodite. According to him she married Menelaus and then eloped with Paris of Troy, and thus precipitated the Trojan War. Did Homer turn myth into history? Scholars are still arguing about it. Nobody can prove or disprove faith, and the attempt is bizarre, a sign of how spiritually bankrupt we have become in the 21st century. The debate on the historical Jesus is what George Carlin would have called a bigger dick theological contest, engaged in by those with very small faiths.
To end on a personal note: I am not a Christian, though I once was, and as a child wanted to be a priest. I think that Christianity is of immense value, and that scattered throughout the gospels and letters of the New Testament are many passages of awe inspiring wisdom. I can understand that mourning the death of Jesus and feeling joy at his resurrection is a fulfilling experience (but doubt anyone now feels this way), just as sailing the boats of Adonis and planting the new shoots in the soil was fulfilling and joyous for ancient Athenians. That’s how I feel when I watch the sunrise and sunset and contemplate the mysterious force at work in stars and trees. I’m religious in that I feel awed and exulted in considering my smallness and the extent and power of the universe and that all this is something I can never understand.
©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.