On the Historical Jesus

If we can agree that the Bible should not be taken literally, then the question arises, how should it be taken? And if you are among the multitudes who call yourself a Christian, what does that mean? What does it mean to “believe” in Christ?

What We Know About Jesus

Part of the difficulty in locating the historical Jesus is that there is so little 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 unreliable, for various reasons.

  • First of all, the Gospels were variously written roughly between four and nine decades after Jesus’ death. No one who was alive and who actually knew Jesus was involved in the writing of the Gospels. The oral tradition that developed around his legend is, as with all oral traditions, unreliable.
  • Second, the Gospels are generally acknowledged not to have been written by the authors to whom they’ve been attributed. These are what are known as “pseudepigraphical” works. It’s not even clear that they were written by one person.
  • Third, the Gospels are internally inconsistent. For example, the Gospel of Mark has no birthing narrative and no story of Jesus’ resurrection, while Luke and Matthew have inconsistent birthing narratives.[1]
  • Fourth, all the Gospels were written after the destruction of the Second Temple and burning of the city of Jerusalem after the Jewish rebellion of 66 AD (also in some ways the beginning of the Jewish diaspora). The writers of the Gospel were very concerned about offending the Romans, and 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 priestly class of Jerusalem’s Jews.
  • 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 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, but he was almost certainly born in Nazareth. 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; it flies directly in the face of what is known about King Herod, whose life was relatively well documented.

Jesus is reported in the Gospel of Mark to have been 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. 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, and began wandering 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. But 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’s 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 decides to take his message directly into Jerusalem. Why he made this choice is entirely unclear. Instead of making a discreet entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus chooses to go to the Temple, the central institution of Jewish religious life in Jerusalem, 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 havoc. Subsequently, appearing to know what the likely response is going to be, Jesus 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 essentially been Pilates’ in-house Jewish administrator for Jerusalem. 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. Jesus, by proclaiming himself the “King of the Jews” had directly challenged the authority of the Roman governance of Palestine.

Crucifixion was designed as a public spectacle, and the bodies of the dead were routinely not buried, but left on the cross so that animals could peck at the carcasses. For these reasons, it is also highly unlikely that a peasant insurrectionist, such as Jesus, was ever buried.[2]

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 himself with the deliberately ambiguous phrase that he was the “Son of Man.” Instead, Jesus proclaimed 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, as much as it can be discerned from the Gospels, 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 does not proclaim himself to be a pacifist, but is ready to use the sword; and Jesus condemns the rich in no uncertain terms. Famously, he says that 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.” After the beatitudes, he presents us with the woes. To wit: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”

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 was blinded for several days. Upon his recovery he converted to a follower of Jesus. 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. First of all, Saint Paul was primarily the creator of the Christian religion. 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 trinity, with co-equal status given to 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.[3]

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 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).[4] 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, 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, has been 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 oneself 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.

What does a sophisticated believer do with this?

But wait, there’s more! For example, depending on how one counts, there are at least five different theories of atonement (not counting various splinter theories). These include:

  1. the moral influence theory;
  2. the ransom theory;
  3. the satisfaction theory;
  4. the penal substitution theory; and,
  5. the Christus Victor

These are mostly 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.

Many sophisticated believers just jettison this whole set of questions and believe that what is important is to behave and 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” or co-equal with God.

[1] The Gospels also differ on what Jesus said at the end of his life: in Matthew and Mark, Jesus says “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke he says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and in John he says, “It is finished.”

[2] Jesus certainly would not have been buried in a “tomb,” which was a kind of burial reserved exclusively for the wealthy.

[3] 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.

[4] Also contributing was the political separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII, beginning in 1529 and completed in 1536.

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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3 Responses to On the Historical Jesus

  1. lyart says:

    Very well written, I like reading your articles about religion. Are you a scolar of history or theology? By any means, you have not been lazy at all (going by one of your quotes: Faith is often the boast of the man who is too lazy to investigate. ~ F.M. Knowles).

  2. jakester48 says:

    I don’t see why we have to “believe” the Bible, or any part of it, wholly or not at all. “Belief” is for matters of fact, otherwise it is faith. For any of the matters of fact alleged in the Bible, we should treat its statements as evidence offered by its authors (of whom there are obviously very many). This evidence has to be weighed against, or along with, other evidence (e.g. archaeological) relating to the same matters of fact. When the weight of evidence is sufficient, we may decide that that particular fact is true. I appreciate that this is a legalistic approach, but it serves a purpose. On this basis, it is impossible to say that as a matter of fact Jesus lived. The evidence for this is all circumstantial and arises after the supposed date of his death. Nevertheless it will be highly persuasive to some.

  3. 2000detours says:

    Interesting approach to the history of the Bible, and I can’t say I disagree with many of the conclusions you reach. While I am fully convinced Jesus is the Son of God, I’ve never bought into the image of the sacrificial lamb. Why would God have to send His son to be sacrificed? Couldn’t He have just made the decision to forgive sin, snapped His fingers and made it happen? What He did do is make His son mortal in order that we could hear and understand His message of love, and the inevitable ending for all humans is death. I believe when Christ said to believe in Him, He was asking us to believe His words and follow His message of charity, justice and love.

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