Questioning the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth
This is one of those posts that could be written in four different ways, which may explain why I restarted three times. The subject matter is so extensive that to merely tough upon most of it would require an article of three times the size. I may end up arguing the same point once more, in other words, using other references in a later post. I came to this topic many years ago, merely wanting to see the best evidence, the clearest picture if you like, regarding Jesus of Nazareth. I ended up confused, disappointed on the side of people that were branded ‘extremists’.
“If a tree falls in a deserted forest and no-one is there to witness it, does it make a sound?” I used to answer this question with ‘YES’. Trees that fall exert force part of which is converted into sound. As energy is conserved it does not only influence the occasional eardrum, it influences many things even when eardrums are absent. Now let’s imagine you mark a tree with paint, you leave the forest and you hear a tree fall. On your return you find that, apart from the tree with paint, several other trees that were standing are now down. Did your tree make a sound when it fell? Sure, it did. Did you HEAR it fall? Maybe, perhaps, no way to know for certain which tree it was you heard. No way to be sure if the sound you heard was actually from a tree at all.
Now imagine that you are on the edge of the forest. A man comes up to you and says:”My name is Isaiah, I painted a cross on a tree, that tree will die.” A little while latter you hear a tree fall. You are so impressed with this fact that you write a short article about ‘a tree marked for death, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah’. Perhaps you would be a little less impressed if you could see that the tree with the painted cross was still standing or if you knew that, on average, every hour a tree can be heard falling in this huge forest, but unfortunately none of this is the case. Now, after having written it, you push your little article through Google Translate -just for fun-. As an experiment you push the translation back into the original language. Whatever survived this inexact process you push once more through the translator into Bulgarian and you send it to a Bulgarian journalist friend of yours.
Your Bulgarian journalist is always under a lot of pressure to deliver content to his editor, so fact-checking comes a close second to getting the job done. This badly translated piece needs to become an article between 2000 and 3000 words by tomorrow so the journalist gets to work immediately. Does Bulgarian journalism preclude the man from adding pure conjecture and inductive thinking into it as fact? I have no idea and neither do you. Does it allow for similar stories he heard of to spill over into this one on the thin basis of similarity? Again, we have no idea. Bulgaria, like “The Past”, ‘is a foreign country’, they do things differently there. We can only wonder regarding whatever is left of the link between what the journalist eventually writes about and that tree with the cross in the forest near you. The tree that is probably still standing in that forest; or perhaps it isn’t standing there anymore; or perhaps… the tree was never even there.
We are faced with the same issue with the Jesus character in the Bible. There are many things in the story we know to be factual. There existed a city called Jerusalem. People lived there. At the time of the story it was occupied by Romans. This is similar to the story of the Bulgarian journalist that features a forest with trees, things that were factually present. Similarly the Bible tells about a person in a specific context who could actually have existed there just like the story of the journalist is about a tree that very well may have existed. Yet both stories share the same problem that the line between the reality as it is described and the reality as it was, is irreparably cut. The reality of the tree, if it actually exists, is not the cause for the content of the article nor can the reality be derived from the article. This I don’t mean to say that it is hard in a practical sense; I mean to say it is impossible in an absolute sense.
Suppose you write a story of a 100 characters. Next you scramble the story into gibberish but you keep de decryption key. If you give this key to someone else the message can easily be read. If you destroyed the key you might think that the information is lost. This is not the case. As long as we’d have enough other messages that were encoded the same way (preferably some decoded examples) we’d be able to retrieve the key and hence the information.
This is what the historical practice does: it gathers as much information it can about the same points in time and it decodes the various sources for its biases, its motivations and its dishonesty and from this it braids together the decoded pieces that confirm one another’s story.
Now suppose the only way to transmit your code was to feed it into a machine that, by default sends a 100 random characters a minute and ‘eats’ one inputted character at random intervals. You feed it your 100 characters and instruct the person you are sending it to that your message is in the first 200 characters. Can he decode it? No. Does his chance of decoding become higher if he has more messages containing some of the same information? No, not if the machine is truly random.
Furthermore the receiver can never be sure that there was actually a message in there to begin with. With or without message, the machine will spew out 200 characters just as with or without history, men will tell tall tales, tell each other inspirational stories and worship golden calves. To say that there was a historical Jesus, based on the Bible, is like claiming there stood a mermaid ice-sculpture uphill based on a water sample one took from the river-delta downstream.
For the Bible and our Bulgarian journalist the black-box transmitter through which the information was send ensures that what they tell may link to just about any person or any tree from the context they are discussing or even none at all. They share the heuristic problem of knowing about the specific person or tree in a very indirect way and having it supported by a signal that is ambiguous at best. For the journalist this is the signal of the alleged sound of a falling tree, for the writers of the gospels it is the contemporary existence of a Christian religion/cult. Both these signals are very common and they do not necessarily indicate some actual event. Their interpretation to be indicators of the past existence of some specific tree or person is entirely speculative. We need to add to that that nothing of the subsequent transformations and additions added any trustworthy information. None of it did anything but further obscure the indirect signal and make the whole narrative resemble other contemporary stories and memes to the point of absurdity. Both the Biblical narrative as the Bulgarian story may refer just about any person or any tree in their context and they do not necessarily refer to any actual person or any actual tree.
Like characters in unambiguous fiction Jesus and our tree may also be a “typical person” or a “typical tree” of average height with some unique, yet fantasized, properties attached just to keep the reader interested. As is often the case with fictional stories all this could be indirectly ‘inspired’ by some ‘non-Jesus’ acquaintance of the writer or by some tree the writer had in his back-yard. We are therefore unable to say whether we are dealing with a mutilated thread of information that originated from within the forest or with one that originated at the edge of the forest (based on partially factual information) or with a thread that is entirely based on conjecture and wishful thinking. We can’t tell whether we are dealing with a narrative about the fall of The Tree, A tree or whether it is the mere result of a pre-existing folk-tradition in which marked trees always end up falling.
If you want me to believe that you used to own a unicorn you better show me more than the snapped lead on which you held it. For all I know it was just a normal white horse you held on it, or any kind of horse for that matter, or it may in fact not have held anything at all. If you want to make an extraordinary historical claim you better hold something more in the way of proof, than a busted lead, leading nowhere. In what sense can we possibly say then, that our busted Jesus-thread indeed leads somewhere, that there was indeed a historical Jesus?
Santa is real! His name is, “Harold,” he’s a skinny retiree living in Florida, he hates children, and he’s allergic to reindeer (though he’s never actually seen a living one), he’s a Jewish atheist, and he’s never given anybody a Christmas present in his entire life…but he’s the real Santa! Ben Goren.
The historicity of Jesus matters. In this respect it differs from the discussion regarding ‘spaces or tabs’ in programming-code or the private life of Rihanna, in that these discussions only interest certain fringes of society while leaving the rest rather indifferent. But the historicity of Jesus, whether you think the discussion is important or not, is something most people have subconsciously taken a position on. We can further underline the importance by stating that for millions of Christian believers there is, in fact, only one correct answer. For many of them even the mere suggestion that there is a discussion to be had is unacceptable and the position -that Jesus is a myth- is considered ‘extremist’ in the same sense that suicide-bomb-jackets are considered as much. And while this is a fact we may, before entering the discussion, take a step back and wonder why this is so. After all there are countless religions that are believed in unconditionally without requiring the believer to claim that any of the gods or demi-gods or spirits ever existed ‘below the heavens’. As a historian I find it funny beyond reprieve that during the council of Nicaea violent discussions raged about whether, apart from being a man and a prophet on earth, whether Christ was also a God or Demi-God (which Jews and Muslims obviously deny). This is ironic in the light of today where the discussion, with equal passion, is fought about whether the God believed to be in heaven was ever also a man on earth.
The reason why the current discussion is so controversial is, I think, because of science. Science has explained many of the phenomenon’s that used to serve as a proof of God’s existence (and naturally this God had to be Yahweh who had a son in Christ because that is what ‘lightning’ suggests). In the beginning of Christianity it was easy to believe in the physical reality of ‘Heaven’ as a place above the sky where people could go and ‘be real’. This was also how the world was often represented in medieval writings. With the science-driven orientation of Earth in the galaxy however, heaven was banished to the metaphysical realm and dead people would subsequently go‘up’ in a rather more ectoplasmic form. This hurt all the religions of the book equally. It was all good and well to imagine something real to exist beyond what you could see, it was a whole other matter to believe in something that didn’t have a ‘where’ in the physical world at all. For Christians, the less ‘actual’ heaven became, the more ‘historic’ Christ had to become. Fortunately Christians were still physically connected to that ectoplasmic reality through the historical workings of this obviously divine person, Jesus of Nazareth, …or were they?
Some religions, both ancient and modern, require no historical basis, for they depend upon ideas rather than events. Christianity is not one of these. The religion of Jesus Christ stands or falls upon the events of history. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever live? Is the New Testament data regarding him reliable? This is a crucial issue. E.F. Harrison
Not only did the nature of heaven change, Christians changed as well. For centuries now Christians have shared the same physical space as Science. If the Bible said that Jesus was in some historical city at some historical time, Christians gradually could no longer accept that this was true ‘in a way’. Over time it very much meant for them that the historical existence of Jesus was a historical fact and that this fact lay at the core of their religion. The majority (literally the MAJORITY!) of Christians will therefore claim that the existence of Jesus of Nazareth (referred to as The Christ) is a historically attested FACT. [Newsflash: there is a reason why they do not print this ‘fact’ in the history-books at University.] Paradoxically this may mean that the historicity of Christ is more controversial today than it would have been in the third century. People didn’t really care about history in the same way. Many things that weren’t part of history were more real to them anyway.
The mentality today is closely related to one of the last ‘miracles’ that rational Christians still hang on to; the ‘miraculous’ way in which the teachings of one man captured the minds of millions to form a religion across entire continents. It is a miracle that is often referred to from the pulpits. ‘The Church’ as a proof of Gods divine plan. Indeed, had it happened like that, it would have been a very impressive fact, as anyone that ever tried to convince a boardroom may attest to. Also, Christians may not see the ultimate circularity in -millions believe in something because millions believe in something-. The growth of Christianity from the charisma of one person may be interpreted as some kind of proof of divine intervention and in a way ‘ground’ the religion in reality. Off course if you are going to prove religious claims on historical facts it kind of makes it important that those ‘facts’ you claim to be true are not disputed. If the very historical existence of Jesus were to be questioned, meaning that Christianity was a cultural phenomenon instead of a divine one, it would mean the crumbling of the very last bastion of the religion at this side of purgatory.
Jesus theories for dummy’s.
We can list the positions on the historicity of Jesus from the extreme literal to the far mythistic.
• The Theistic Literalist view: Jesus was superman on steroids and arose after death as a God.
• The Theistic Historist view: Jesus was the son of god, but not all miracles are literal and his historical footprint was understandably small, which is why we can live with the bible as the only source and some open questions.
• The Secular Historist view: Jesus was this dime-in-a-dozen self-pronounced leader of a semi-rebelic jewish cult who after his death, rather accidently, got inflated into a god of a religion of millions of people. Much of what is said is myth, but there are some kernels of truth.
• The Academic Mythist view: There is sufficient explanation for the rise of a religion independent of an actual historical Jesus and in fact there are many things in scripture that are better explained by the theory that a historical Jesus did not always belong to the Christian faith. It is therefore probable, yet unprovable, that there has not been a Historical Jesus.
• The Internet Mythist view: the Jesus myth is such a copy-paste of preexisting mythology that the very idea that there is some historical guy at its base, for whom secular evidence is absent and much is even contradictory to much of the myths historical claims, is actually insulting.
Earlier I proposed an overarching mythist view on the historicity of Jesus that centers on the indirect and mutilated heuristics of the information on Jesus. It is as a result impossible to distinguish the account in the Bible from accounts based on an actual historical person, accounts inspired by several persons or accounts that are completely fictional. This does not preclude a historical Jesus from actually existing but any coherence between him and the Bible narrative would be purely coincidental and therefore extremely unlikely. It may perhaps not be possible to absolutely prove that Jesus did not exist, but by arguing that the line of information is scrambled and cut we may not even need to.
The argument from silence
The academic mythists as Earl Doherty and Dr. Richard Carrier focus on the early Christian writings of, primarily, Paul. By doing so they ignore the bulk of the post-dating gospels of which the problems have long been known and addressed. These gospels still remain the favorite ‘food’ of the internet mythists though. This is justified as long as there are theist literalists that still maintain these gospels as a proof of Jesus’ historicity. It is Dr. Richard Carrier that, in criticizing the internet mythists, questioned the validity of the ‘argument from silence’. This argument basically says that for such an important figure as ‘J.C.’ the fact that there is no evidence regarding Jesus’ existence shows that he likely didn’t exist. Carrier categorically reduces this by saying ‘absence of evidence is no evidence of absence’. Indeed as theistic historists have added, a small-town Jewish prophet would not necessarily make a large footprint with the authorities who created the records.
While both these things are true I would not entirely demolish the complete absence of sources corroborating the Biblical narrative as a factor. For starters the burden of proof does not lay with the person that beliefs there is no such thing as pink-flying-elephants. It lays on those that claim these creatures do indeed exist. Failing this you may still believe that these things exist, it is your right, but it is not reasonable to do so or to claim rights on its basis. Secondly if there had been more sources confirming the Biblical story, especially if these had confirmed some of its details, this would have proven that the Biblical account of the gospels was at least still indirectly connected to some actual historical events surrounding a specific person.
In the end this is what the discussion comes down to: whether you believe that in the period of silence before the first written Biblical reference to Jesus as a person, there is a thread of knowledge that, however indirectly, links a historical Jesus with the mutilated account in the Bible. Besides merely linking, the account needs to explain how this thread was maintained and why, at the same time, no written thread was made.
I think we should be skeptical of the existence of such a thread.
One of the things the academic mythists have looked at is the references to a human Jesus in the early Christian texts. Earl Doherty takes this as far as to look at the most original Greek versions in order to make sense of the translations as well as the original. This is often very unapproachable stuff unlike the gospel contradictions. What it boils down to is that all the references in the early epistles to the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ are in accordance with it all taking place in another celestial realm. Now, you may call this an interpretation of an insufficiently described back-drop, but you may also realize that this entire argument could have been destroyed by just one clear reference to an earth-dwelling-Jesus. Any such reference is remarkably absent despite the large amount of content and the fact that referring to a historical Jesus could easily settle the discussions among the early Christians. Furthermore like many things in the gospels, the theme of celestial death and resurrection is not an uncommon theme in Middle Eastern religions of the day, as Carrier points out in his review of Doherty’s book. For in depth reading on the topic, if you can stomach such extensive Bible study, I do refer you to the books of both authors.
Focusing on their conclusion that the earlier Christian text are extraordinarily agnostic and indifferent regarding the earthly life of Jesus we fall back to the writing of the earliest of the gospels to have any indication that Jesus started life as a historical figure on earth.
Mark, dating from around 70CE at the earliest (up to 140CE), would therefore be the first source of an explicitly earthly human Jesus. For a connection between a historical Jesus and this gospel the span of 40 years seems actually a rather doable gap to bridge. This is also the argument from the literal theistic historists. And frankly historians have relied on oral traditions over longer timespans than 40 years to draw conclusions on the history of some illiterate peoples. But on the other hand, such oral traditions are always in settings were a written record couldn’t be produced and the oral tradition was a highly valued intrinsic part of the culture. Lacking any such tradition it would be hard to maintain that the indirect oral testimony that is supposed to have acted as a source to Mark, could rise above the level of trustworthiness of the indirect eye-witness accounts that wouldn’t be admissible in courts today. The historist view also poorly explains why it takes 40 years for the first record to be produced when that history takes place in a setting with otherwise very decent historical records of rather comparable events. This makes even less sense if we consider that the history is allegedly so compelling and moving to win the hearts of millions at first encounter. We would instead expect that the details would have been written down many times during those 40 years as people endeavored to get “The Good Word” out.
From a mythist viewpoint however, I would venture that those 40 years make perfect sense. They place the fictional story just beyond the event-horizon of what people at the time could remember, yet sufficiently close as to be relevant and still identifiable with. This also explains why the gospel of Mark is dosed in an unhealthy amount of historical and geographical errors. If the author was trying to project religious truth onto a historical setting that lay just beyond the immediate reach of the contemporary fellow Christian it would be logic to find that he himself also struggled a bit with it.
So here’s what I think happened:
Once upon a time the tribes of Israel evolved from polytheism to monotheism via the gradual route of henotheism. They made up all sorts of legends, inspired by the war infested surroundings, about how they were God’s chosen people and were lead out of slavery from Egypt (which they weren’t in the archeologically attestable reality). Why God would have its chosen people enslaved in the first place is chalked up to the ‘mysterious ways’. When the militarily superior Romans came however, destroying anything that didn’t agree with them, the Jewish people suddenly had a problem. It’s one thing to be enslaved and be saved. To be enslaved again after that would perhaps make you wonder what it meant to be “God’s
bitches people”. Perhaps the Roman’s had better Gods? But off course, this was all just another test and God’s people would soon be saved by ‘the anointed one’ The Christ.
Now any Dick, Kate and Tom can smite evil once they’ve read Harry Potter. To really do it ‘in style’ you must be prepared to die while doing it. Don’t worry, you’ll get resurrected, the heroes in these stories always are. Now as in Plato’s allegory, which predates Judaism by some years, the things on earth are just reflections from another realm where the perfect prototypes of everything are kept. Indeed everything on earth is a shadow of the divine realm. So if you want to save people here on earth, you must fight and die while killing Evil in the “other world”. And that’s basically what some Jews came believe. This was just a ‘fork’ of the religion, another ‘Linux Distribution’ pleading for adoption by the masses. This split the Jews in those that believed that The Christ would soon come to help them, and those that believed he already won in a way and that they, the true believers, would profit after death when they’d go up to heaven.
The earlier Christians thus came to call Plato’s realm of perfect forms ‘heaven’. It’s hard to really know what happened next. Was it a sign of the natural desire for differentiation towards Judaism? We know Paul argued against some of his contemporaries that you no longer needed to become a Jew in order to become a Christian and also circumcision was abandoned (my foreskin thanks you). Was it for the same reason that Christians over time placed Jesus on earth instead of having The Christos battle evil ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far far away’? Or was it just the myopia of bad collective memory infused in an unintended game of Chinese wispers? Either way, after 4/5th of a century being agnostic about the human origins of the man that gave his name to the religion, suddenly some very familiar stories claimed to have tremendous details of Jesus’ origins. And while the details go to the level of ‘gifts-received-at-birth’ and ‘words-spoken-at-sentencing’, most of that human life still remained as obscure as it was before. In fact most of the stories in the gospels deal with birth and death as almost to be allegorical of the agricultural cycles found in many other Neolithic religions. The parts in-between reflecting tales also found in preceding religions and equally poorly situated as those in both place and time. None of it is very indicative of real life events or precludes a ‘Homeric’ explanation. Just as many official nation histories retraced their origin’s to the Ilias and Odyssey, likewise the adoption of preexisting mythical traditions as ‘real’ into the “history of Jesus” explains much of what remains open to question in the literalist explanation.
The fallacy of overwhelming consensus
The aforementioned nation-histories, retracing their origins to the fictional Greek literature, do not bode well for the objectivity or the professionalism of the historian. The same I think must be concluded when considering most historians to date have regarded Jesus a historical figure. It seems they did not always do so for the rational reasons: Jesus was “far beyond the power of men to invent” German historian Adolf Harnack(1851-1930).
The fact is that historians, given the lack of evidence, have mostly left the field with regard to a historical Jesus to the Bible scholars. Some of those, like Bart Ehrman, are both quite liberal and extremely erudite. Some of the most critical dissections of the gospels were done by these very people and as a result, if they said Jesus existed, this carried a lot of weight. If they said that Jesus mythicism was extremist propaganda, they were believed as well. But should they be? Do we not require them to justify their conclusions? Do we accept their judgment without a rebuttal to the mythic arguments? In what quantity are the claims of mr. Ehrman based on the assumption that without historical Jesus no grand church religion as Christianity could have emerged?
It may be or may not be that most of the historians and scholars are convinced that Jesus was a historical person; but once all the forgeries are eliminated from the ‘evidence’ there is little to none that all these professionals have contributed that clinches the case. I found none that, as a historian I found very convincing. The indirect evidence is all based on the spread of Christianity in some place early in the timeline since the supposed death of Jesus. Since none of these followers knew of Jesus directly we can’t distinguish this as evidence for an influential permeating HISTORY or as evidence for an influential permeating MYTH.
In our globalised world there are sexually tinted jokes about bears that are known by people across multiple continents, there are urban myths regarding the garlic-sauce in pitta-joints equally well spread if not as well in taste (no pun intended). The point is that certain ideas have a life of their own and spread very far very fast, ‘The Christ’ tradition may well have been like that. If the ideas of the New testament were permeating among the Jewish population well before Paul, (the post-factum invention of) the historic Jesus would not necessarily be needed to account for the spread of the early Christian church. The idea that, within an existing religion, variations can arise and copy themselves (meme-style) imperfectly would both account for the spread as well as the diversity among the early Christian sects, far better even, than if an actual authoritative historical Jesus had ever existed.
If a tree falls in a forest and there is no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
If a tree is told to have fallen, but there were plenty of witnesses that saw and heard nothing and this is told many years later by people who seem unaware of these witnesses… If a tree is told to have fallen, by people who know surprisingly little of the actual circumstances and whose account about the tree is fragmented if not anecdotal… If a tree is told to have fallen, by people who seem mostly intended on selling you a specific kind of wood, pushing their acclamations from the incredible to the utterly magical, by copying prevailing stories and myths about trees from other times and nearby places… If a tree is told to have fallen, taking on enormous proportions while also remaining humble and inconspicuous, being both stern as oak and as flexible as spruce… If a tree is told to have fallen, without a sound, without a witness to its fall, with no independent attestation to its resurrection and disappearance; if such a tree falls in a forest, I beg that we’d be allowed to consider:
Was that tree ever there?
I bring nothing really new to the debate except perhaps to show that the Bible not merely contains insufficient evidence for a historical Jesus, but that this evidence leads to a black box. Not only does the official account suffer from several holes and inconsistencies that Christian Literalists refuse to acknowledge, these are actually better explained if we do not assume that the Christ myth followed from a historical Jesus but was rather a product from the black box itself. This follows patterns for schism observed in other religions and later in Christianity as well as the spreading-patterns of memes we know about today. The black box, the period in which either the ‘Good News’ about Jesus of Nazareth spread via a implausible oral tradition or contrastingly during which the celestial Demi-God Christ was humanized via a natural regression in a collective meme, was identified and supported by the conclusions of the academic mythicists. If anything I attacked the ‘historical consensus’ meme by adding that historians have not only adopted obvious mythology in the past, based on emotional reasoning, for the largest part they have ignored it and left it to Christian scholars, whose arguments have been discredited by both Doherty as Carrier and countless others. The one remaining evidence must be the size of Christianity itself. I have shown this reasoning to be circular and to be a plausible result of the black box itself. The notion that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person is not supported by evidence. His acceptance as such is solely based on his role in the religion and can be likened to a historical Aneas from the once considered historical work of Homeros.