In Search of the Historical Jesus

Jimmy Carter once said, “If you don’t want your tax dollars going to the poor, then stop saying that you want a country based on Christian values, because you don’t.” More recently, Stephen Colbert was quoted as saying, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” And Jesus himself is famously quoted as having said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

One of the ironies of modern American politics is the distinction between what Jesus said about poverty and how conservative evangelical Christians treat the issue. If you read the various “biographies” of Jesus written over the years — whether by Reza Aslan, Dominick Crossen, or even Bill O’Reilly for God’s sake — it quickly becomes apparent that one of Jesus’ central concerns, if not the central concern, was for liberating the poor and oppressed. The things that Jesus said about the poor are legion, and many of them are well known.

This central concern has, however, been completely lost in the evangelical conservative tradition. It’s not that evangelicals cannot be personally generous; conservative Christians tend to give more to charity then moderates or progressives, although much of their charitable giving is church-based and a good amount of it is for the upkeep of their own churches. But when it comes to using public resources to provide a social safety net, evangelicals say no. Even though Jesus said that we should take care of the poor.

So today, at Christmastime, regardless of whether you believe Jesus was the son of God or whether you don’t — and I’m in the camp that doesn’t even believe that there is a God, at least not one who walks and talks and answers our prayers, or procreates — now may be a good time to search for the historical Jesus and to connect to what his message was apparently supposed to be.

The Time Leading up to Jesus

For many years Semitic peoples of Israel lived in the area that is now known as greater Palestine in various tribal configurations. The eventually grew to be the “twelve tribes” of Israel, arranged in coalition with each other (much like Native American tribes lived in coalition with each other). The Israelis weren’t alone in the region — they competed at least with the Philistines, among others. Around 1020 BCE the tribes united to form the Kingdom of Israel and Judah. Following a civil war between forces loyal to Saul on the one hand and King David on the other, it was David who created the first real Israelite monarchy, and established Jerusalem as the national capital in 1006 BCE.

Under David, Israel grew into a regional power. Under Solomon, David’s successor, Isreal continued to grow in influence, including building the First Temple in Jerusalem. However, on the succession of Solomon’s son, the nation was split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah (containing Jerusalem) in the south. The Jews were arguably at their political and military apex around this time. In the 1000 years between King David and the arrival of Jesus, other powers invaded and grew dominant, including the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and eventually the Romans, who conquered the region around 63 BCE. This was during the time that Julius Caesar was still the emperor of Rome, having converted Rome from a Republic into an autocracy, so very much near the zenith of the Roman empire. It was also a time during which there were any number of zealots and revolutionaries — the term “zealot” actually derives from the revoutionaries of this, the “Second Temple” period — who were ardently trying to overthrow Rome.

It should also be noted that after Jesus’ death, the Jews successfully ousted the Romans from Jerusalem for several years during what became known as the First Jewish-Roman War from 66 AD through 73 AD. In 70 AD the Romans lay seige to Jerusalem, and the city eventually fell in 73 AD. Desiring to make a point, the newly crowned Roman emperor Vespasian, practically obliterated Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple, dispersing the remaining Jews throughout other parts of the Roman empire. The Jewish rebellion was made to be an example to any other wayward parts of the empire. This first war was followed by the Kitos War in 115-117 AD and Bar Kokhba’s revolt in132-135 AD. The resulting devastation was arguably the first genocide of the Jewish people and the beginning of the Jewish diaspora.

There is a great irony that Rome ended up being the center of the Catholic Church, and is still so today, given that it was Rome that destroyed the Second Temple, Rome that destroyed Jerusalem more than once, and Rome that engaged in aruguably the first genocide of its people. It is in the context of this destruction that the New Testament was written.

What We Know About Jesus

Part of the difficulty in locating the historical Jesus is that there is so little actually known about him. We can be reasonably sure that he lived. He was most likely born in Nazareth; he led an apocalyptic ministry for roughly three years; and he was crucified. That’s about all we know for sure. Jesus himself left no written record of anything; it is highly unlikely that he was even literate. There is no independent verification of his life: no record of an indictment, no transcript of a trial, no notation of his crucifixion. Almost all of what we do know comes from the four gospels of the New Testament, those of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, and more recently, the gnostic gospels. And, of course, the letters of Saint Paul. As “histories,” the gospels and letters are notoriously unreliable.

     First of all, the Gospels were variously written roughly between four and nine decades after Jesus’ death. No one who was alive or actually knew Jesus was involved in the writing of the Gospels. The oral tradition that developed around his legend was, as with all oral traditions, evolving and metamorphosizing. It is certainly an enhanced reading of what actually happened.

     Second, the Gospels are generally acknowledged not to have been written by the authors to whom they’ve been attributed. These are known as “pseudepigraphical” works. It’s not even clear that they were written by one person.

     Third, the Gospels are not consistent with each other. For example, the Gospel of Mark has no birthing narrative and no story of Jesus’ resurrection, while the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew have inconsistent birthing narratives. In the Gospel of Luke, Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census, and Jesus is born there and laid in a manger. In the Gospel of Matthew, three wise men follow a star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus, born the King of the Jews. Aware of his arrival, King Herod orders the massacre of all the boys less than two years old in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph flee with their baby to Egypt and later settle in Nazareth. These stories are simply inconsistent.

     Fourth, all the Gospels were written after the destruction of the Second Temple and burning of the city of Jerusalem after the First Roman-Jewish war. The writers of the Gospel were acutely concerned with offending the Romans; their portrayal of Jesus accordingly de-emphasized the messianic nature of Jesus’ ministry and the complicity of the Romans in bringing about his end. Instead they shifted the blame to the upper class of Jerusalem’s Jews, thereby helping to lay the grounwork for millenia of anti-semitism.

     Fifth, the New Testament excludes non-Canonical Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Secret Book of John, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and a other writings discovered near the town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.

     And finally, there are the problems of translation and interpretation already discussed at length in the previous article on Biblical Literalism.

Even if we confine ourselves to the four Gospels of the New Testament, we quickly run into obvious contradictions and examples where the Canonical editors “spun” their story of Jesus in such a way as to be in accord with Old Testament prophecies. The birth narrative of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew locate Jesus as having been borne in Bethlehem to a virgin mother, when he was almost certainly born in Nazareth to a single mother. The reason for wanting to locate his birth in Bethlehem, the “City of David,” is that this is the city from which the savior is to arise. Likewise, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus fleeing into Egypt to escape Herod’s search for him is pure mythology designed to be aligned with the story of Moses. Not only is there not a shred of evidence for this as a historical event; in fact, it flies directly in the face of what is known about King Herod, whose life was relatively well documented. The reasons for not wanting to report him as having been borne to a single mother are self-evident.

The Gospel of Mark describes Jesus as a carpenter, which is not the same thing as the skilled craftsmen we know as carpenters today. In the Palestine of the turn of the Century this would have made him one of the lowest of the peasant classes, barely better than a beggar of slave. As a peasant Jesus would have been illiterate, and instead of speaking Hebrew, he would have spoken Aramaic. Jesus, almost certainly had a number of brothers and cousins, including his brother James, who took over his movement after the crucifixion. Again, Jesus was likely born out of wedlock; he may have been married.

One of the few things that every Gospel seems to agree on is that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, an apocalyptic and charismatic preacher who was prophesizing about the end of times. However, the Gospels struggle with how to interpret this symbolically: that Jesus let himself be baptized by John when Jesus is supposed to be the son of God. So they create contrivances by having God speak after Jesus’ baptism, letting everyone know that “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

After John the Baptist was sized by Herod Antipas, Jesus essentially inherited his ministry. At least he inherited his first two disciples — Andrew and Phillip — from John’s followers. Jesus himself began an itinerant ministry, where he initially wandered from town to town performing miracles, exorcisms, and healing the sick. By all available evidence, his ministry stayed within the confines of Galilee. The type of ministry that Jesus was involved in was apparently not that uncommon at the time. Unlike other wandering healers, Jesus did not charge for his services. This alone provided him with some notoriety.

If we take the Gospels at their word, it appears that the central theme and unifying message of Jesus’ brief three-year ministry was the promise of the coming Kingdom of God. This Kingdom was not some far-off goal in an otherworldly state, but as proclaimed by Jesus, John the Baptist, and other messianic preachers of his era, a tangible kingdom that would free the Jews of Palestine from the oppression of Rome. Yahweh, the God of Abraham, would help the Jews triumph over their oppressors, the Romans, and they would triumph over them by slaying them.

Eventually, after three years of itinerant preaching, it appears Jesus decided to take his message directly into Jerusalem. Why he makes this choice is entirely unclear. What is clear is that instead of making a discreet entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus chooses to go to the Temple — the central institution of Jewish religious life — and directly challenge its Guardians. There he famously turned over the tables of the money changers, liberated the animals waiting for sacrifice, and generally caused as much havoc as possible. Appearing to know what the likely response is going to be, Jesus then went to the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples to await his capture.

It is highly unlikely that Pontius Pilate gave Jesus a “trial.” Pilate was famous for sending thousands to be crucified as enemies of the state without any process at all. Nor is it likely that Jesus received much of a hearing from the high priest Joseph Caiaphas, who had basically been Pilates’ in-house Jewish administrator for Jerusalem for the entirety of his reign. Crucifixion was, by all accounts, a common Roman punishment for any “enemies of the State,” and had even been used by Jewish authorities as a punishment for Jewish dissidents. Jesus, by proclaiming himself the “King of the Jews” had directly challenged the authority of the Roman governance of Palestine.

The Romans had designed crucifixion as a public spectacle. It took place where in highly visible venues, and the bodies of the dead were routinely not buried, but left on the cross so that animals could peck at the carcases. For these reasons, it is highly unlikely that a peasant insurrectionist, such as Jesus, was ever buried; he certainly would not have been buried in a “tomb,” which was a kind of burial reserved exclusively for the wealthy.

In the four Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus did not proclaim himself to be a God and he did not indicate that belief in him would “save” anybody. Jesus referred to himself primarily with the deliberately ambiguous phrase the “Son of Man.” In his proclamations, Jesus said that to have eternal life his followers must obey the Jewish laws and the Ten Commandments. Jesus does not condemn slavery or homosexuality; he says nothing at all about abortion; a fair reading of his ministry suggests that his primary concern was for the poor and dispossessed, and for liberation from the oppression of the Romans. Although not personally violent, he did not proclaim himself to be a pacifist, but was ready to use the sword.

So where did we get the notion that all you had to do to be saved was to believe in Jesus? There seem to be two primary sources for this: first, the Apostle Paul, and second, the two “Great Awakenings” in the United States of the 1800s. A few words about the Apostle Paul (originally known as Saul of Tarsus): he was not, as is generally understood, one of the twelve apostles. He never met Jesus; in fact, early in his career he actively persecuted believers in Jesus until he himself had his conversion on the “Road to Damascus.” As the story goes, Paul was actually on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus and imprison them when there was a blinding light and a voice from the heavens asking Paul, “why do you persecute me?” Paul remained blinded for several days, requiring that he be led to Damascus by his companions. The encounter with the incorporeal Jesus had devastated him. Following his conversion, Paul became a major force in the nascent Christian movement, but much of what he advocated has little to no relationship to what Jesus actually preached. Such as that salvation can be achieved simply through a belief in Jesus.

The Creation of the Early Church

If we don’t know that much about Christ, we know a good deal about the Church that grew up in his name. The earliest followers of Jesus composed an apocalyptic sect, occurring during the lifetimes of the Twelve Apostles and known as the “Apostolic Age.” What followed was the “Ante-Nicene Period” (literally meaning “before Nicaea”), which bridged the divide between the Apostles and the First Council of Nicaea on May 20, 325 AD in what is now Turkey. Christianity had gained favor in the Roman empire after the conversion of Constantine the Great, who reigned from 306 to 337 AD. It was Constantine who issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed tolerance of all religions throughout the empire, including Christianity. And it was at Constantine’s behest that the Council convened. The most important question that the Council addressed was the deity of Jesus Christ himself: was Jesus a man or was he a God himself? The council also articulated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

One of the ironies of Christianity as a “monotheistic” religion is its tripartite nature: the doctrine of the Father (Yahweh), the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. I have yet to read an explanation of the Holy Spirit that allows me to understand what it is and how it is supposed to function. The doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three divine persons or “hypostases”; the three persons are distinct, yet are one “substance, essence or nature.” Each entity is God, whole and entire, and yet they are distinct from one another in their relations of origin. As the Fourth Lateran Council declared, “it is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.” The Trinity is considered to be a “mystery of Christian faith.” I don’t know about that, but it certainly remains a mystery to me.

Through the patronage of Constantine and subsequent emperors, the “Catholic” (or “Universal”) church developed a large following. The head of the Church was the Bishop of Rome, later to be known as the Pope. The first great schism in Christianity occurred when the Eastern Orthodox communities split from the Catholic Church because of by ecclesiastical differences, theological disputes, and the Pope’s claim to universal jurisdiction. Pope Leo IX excommunicated the followers of Michael Cærularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who eventually returned the compliment, and ex-communicated the followers of the Pope.

The second great schism was the arrival of the Protestant (or “Protesting”) reformation, through the persons of Martin Luther (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546), John Calvin (10 July 1509 – 27 May 1564), and Ulrich Zwingli (1 January 1484 – 11 October 1531). Also contributing was the political separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII, beginning in 1529 and completed in 1536. The initial catalyst for the reformation was Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses.” Although it was only one of 94, the central and most controversial thesis was Luther’s opposition to the Catholic practice of selling “indulgences,” which involved the remission of temporal punishment for sins which have already been forgiven. In other words, indulgences were granted by the Catholic Church after the sinner had confessed and received absolution; they were granted for specific good works and prayers. Following the excommunication of Martin Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the Pope, the writings of John Calvin in Switzerland were influential in northern Europe. These theological disputes led to significant warfare, including the German Peasants’ War of 1524-1525 in the Bavarian, Thuringian and Swabian principalities; the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 in most of Central Europe; and the Civil War of the 1640s in England.

In the 20th century, Protestantism, especially in the United States, was characterized by accelerating fragmentation. The century saw the rise of both liberal and conservative splinter groups. Although the doctrines of Protestant denominations are far from uniform, some beliefs extending across Protestantism are the doctrines of sola scriptura – which maintains that the Bible (rather than church tradition or ecclesiastical interpretations of the Bible)is the primary and supreme source of binding authority for all Christians – and the doctrine of sola fide – which holds that salvation comes by grace through faith alone in Jesus as the Christ – rather than through good works. Over the years Protestantism has split into the major denominations of Adventists, Anabaptists, Baptists, Calvinists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostalists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians. Within those major denominations there other dozens of individual churches, many in opposition to each other theologically.

Finally, not to be neglected entirely are the uniquely American churches, including the Mormons, (or Latter Day Saints) which began with the visions of Joseph Smith in upstate New York during the 1820s, and the Christian Scientists, developed by Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), based on her reading of the Bible and her personal experience, and described in her book Science and Health (1875). I’m excluding from this discussion religions like Scientology, which is not based in Christianity, but the fantasies of L. Ron Hubbard.

The Dilemma of the Sophisticated Believer

If we can’t believe the Bible literally, then how do we believe it metaphorically? This is the dilemma of the sophisticated believer. In order to call yourself a Christian, a person has to “believe” in Christ. More specifically, he or she has to believe in salvation through Christ. Or so it seems. Otherwise, what would it mean to be a Christian?

However, Christ, as we’ve already seen, has not claimed that salvation comes through belief in him. Salvation comes through feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, and keeping the Jewish laws. Particularly the Ten Commandments. That salvation comes through belief in Jesus is the assertion of Saint Paul.

But let’s deconstruct that notion a little bit more. As developed by ecclesiastical authorities, Jesus died to atone for our sins. The concept of original sin was first alluded to in the 2nd century by Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons. Sin is disobedience to the “will” of God (if that can be ascertained) In Christian soteriology, original or ancestral sin was accomplished by the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, and is distinguished from mortal sin, venial sin, and the seven deadly sins. The concept of original sin was first alluded to in the 2nd century by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in his controversy with certain dualist Gnostics.

So what does a sophisticated believer do with this? But wait, there’s more!

Depending on how one counts, there are at least five different theories of atonement (not counting various splinter theories). These include the moral influence theory, the ransom theory, the satisfaction theory, the penal substitution theory, and a theory known as Christus Victor. These theories are all delineated in detail in other places, and I won’t reiterate them all here. Suffice it to say, that they are variations on a theme, the theme being that Christ died for our sins either as a ransom sacrifice to the Devil, or as a substitute on behalf of humankind satisfying the demands of God’s honor, or as punishment in the place of sinners on a substitution theory, or as the means by which the powers of evil were defeated. The most enlightened of these theories is, I suppose, the moral influence theory of the atonement, which teaches that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity through his teaching and example and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection.

It seems that many sophisticated believers just jettison this whole set of questions, and believe instead that what is important is to live as a “good person.” For them, there may be a wise God out there somewhere, neither male nor female, who is wise and good and invisibly guiding us in the right direction. They may pray from time to time, although not expecting an actual answer from their God. They may believe in the existence of the soul, and some kind of incorporeal afterlife, without attaching too many specifics to the equation. All these things I can identify with and relate to. But that begs the question, are these believers still “Christian?” How is that different from any generic philosophy of goodness, in which Jesus is just at the forefront of a series of wise men? It certainly doesn’t make Jesus a “God,”

If we look at it more closely, Jesus’ legacy, at least from what we know him to have said in the Gospels, is decidedly mixed. At one level, that shouldn’t be surprising, because he lived in a truly barbaric time. And Jesus’ advocacy for the powerless and the dispossessed is admirable to be sure. But Jesus also forgot to condemn slavery, or to stand up for women, or to oppose violence. If you read the Gospels literally, you will find, among other things, these little nuggets purporting to be from the mouth of Jesus:

     “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [Matthew 10:34] “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” [Luke 12:50]

     “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:26]

These nuggets don’t detract from the essential wisdom that were part of Christ’s teaching, but it does indicate that he was a creature of his time; he’s not a creature of 20th century enlightenment. One could at least argue that both Gautama Buddha — who lived about 500 years before Christ — and the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, have much more enlightened ideologies than Jesus had. Regardless of where you think Jesus fall’s on the Enlightenment spectrum, one thing has to be conceded: his central concern was for the poor and oppressed. And it’s clear that we, as a society, have completley lost contact with that concern. The compassion gap is now a compassion gulf.

Whatever else we do in this Holiday Season of 2013, we’d be well advised to look into our hearts and find compassion there again.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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