By David Fitzgerald | 19 January 2012
Christianity had a good, long run. But we are long past the point where it’s reasonable to be agnostic about the so-called “Jesus of Faith.” It’s ridiculous to pretend the lack of historical corroboration of the spectacular Gospel events, let alone the New Testament’s own fundamental contradictions, aren’t a fatal problem for Jesus the divine Son of God.
- Why does Philo of Alexandria discuss the contemporary state of first century Jewish sects in several of his writings, but not a word on the multitudes who followed the miracle-worker and bold, radical new teacher Jesus throughout the Galilee and Judea – or of all the long-dead Jewish saints who emerged from their freshly opened graves and wandered the streets of Jerusalem, appearing to many?
- If Jesus was really found guilty of blasphemy by the Sanhedrin, why was he not simply stoned to death, as Jewish law required (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4 h & i)? Why is the original trial account of Jesus so full of other unhistorical details and just plain mistakes that could never have actually happen as portrayed? How can each successive gospel continue to overload the original story with their own additional layers of details that are mutually incompatible with the others?
- Why does Seneca the Younger record all kinds of unusual natural phenomena in the seven books of his Quaestiones Naturales, including eclipses and earthquakes, but not mention the Star of Bethlehem, the pair of Judean earthquakes that were strong enough to split stones, or the hours of supernatural darkness that covered “all the land” – an event he would have witnessed firsthand?
- Why can’t the Gospels agree on so many fundamental facts about Jesus’ life and ministry, such as what his relationship to John the Baptist was – and why was John the Baptist’s cult a rival to Christianity until at least the early second century?
- Who were Jesus’ disciples, and why is it no Gospels agree on who they were? Why do the disciples disappear so quickly in the New Testament after the Gospels, only to pop up again centuries later when churches start spinning rival legends that they were busy founding Christian communities all along? If any were martyred for their faith, as Christians frequently insist, why don’t we have any details of any of the disciples’s deaths in the bible?
- When his skeptical Roman opponent Celsus asks the early church father Origen what miracles Jesus performed, why can Origen only respond lamely that Jesus’ life was indeed full of striking and miraculous events, “but from what other source can we can furnish an answer than from the Gospel narratives?” (Contra Celsum, 2.33)
- Why can’t the Gospels agree on so many fundamental facts about Jesus’ life and ministry? For instance, if he was born during the reign of Herod the Great, or over a decade later, during Quirinius’ tenure? Or why he was arrested? Or on which day he died? Or whether he appeared alive again for just a single day, or for more about a week, or for forty days? Or where and when he appeared alive again, and to whom?
- Why are there so many anachronisms and basic mistakes and misunderstandings about first century Judean Judaism? Why are the Gospels all written in Greek, not Aramaic? Why do Christians insist that they are eyewitness accounts when none claim to be, or even read as if they were, or if all contain indications that they were written generations later?
- Why is Paul – and every other Christian writer from the first generation of Christianity – so silent on any details of Jesus’ life? Why do they display so much ignorance of Jesus’ teachings and miracles?
- Despite the frequent boasts in the New Testament of Christianity spreading like wildfire, attracting new converts by the thousands with every new miracle or inspired sermon, why does Christianity remain a struggling, obscure cult of feuding house churches on the fringe of Roman society for more than three centuries?
- Why is there not a single historical reference to Jesus in the entire first century; a pair of obviously interpolated snippets in the works of Flavius Josephus notwithstanding?
We could pose similar thorny questions all day and never run out of them. It’s embarrassing to have to dignify any of the obvious mythological elements of the Gospels, and yet the better part of 2.1 billion people seem unaware of how ludicrous any of them are. We don’t even have to rule out whether or not miracles even can occur, or point out that stories, delusions and lies are common while verified miracles are few if any – we merely have to ask: if they did happen, why didn’t anyone else notice them? Christians are perfectly free to put their faith in whichever messiah they please, though it will take more than blind faith and selective hearing to convince the rest of us that their Christ is anything more than a Jesus of their own making. But what about the real Jesus?
Apologists love to parrot the old lie that “no serious historians reject the historicity of Christ,” but fail to realize (or deliberately neglect to mention) that the “Historical Jesus” that the majority of historians do accept is at best no more than just another first century wandering preacher and founder of a fringe cult that eventually became Christianity – in other words, a Jesus that completely debunks their own.
For your average atheist activist, all this should be more than enough to settle the matter. But the truth is, the issue isn’t even that cut and dry. What about this “Historical Jesus” at the core of all this legendary accretion? Can we actually know what the real Jesus of Nazareth really said and did?
Over a decade ago, after reading Ken Smith’s hilarious and brilliant Ken’s Guide to the Bible, I became curious to know the answers to questions like these. (Very) long story (very) short: I began researching the historical evidence for Jesus, a process of pulling a thread that, for me, unraveled the whole sweater. The result is my book Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. And I really mean it; I’m convinced there couldn’t even have been an ordinary guy behind our familiar Jesus of Nazareth. No, really.
The H Word
Isn’t there an atheist Jesus? You might think so, from how vehemently some of my fellow heretics defend him. I’ve long since gotten used to their usual charges: this doesn’t matter; this is all old stuff, this was long since discredited by all reputable scholars. Charitable critics call it just minority opinion; the less so call it nothing more than historical revisionist nonsense, fringe pseudo-scholarship, junk history, crackpottery, the atheist equivalent of creationism, etc. Robert Price, as usual, answered this crowd best when he asked: the Jesus Myth theory has been debunked? When did that happen? The truth is, the arguments of the Mythicist camp have never been rebutted – they’ve been ignored, declared to be mistaken, or simply irrelevant; in short, they’ve only ever been, in a word, Harrumphed.
In fact, ironically enough, comparing Jesus Myth theory with creationism is exactly 100% backwards. Consider: Evolutionary theory first began to be taken up when higher education was completely under the thumb of Christianity. Contrary to popular belief, it did not begin with Darwin. His bombshell was the mass extinction event, but the cracks had started accumulating in Creationism’s official story long before him. Discoveries in biology, zoology, geology and other fields of science all built up a steady pressure on beloved, long-accepted biblical “facts” of the Flood of Noah, the Garden of Eden, the Firmament, and the like, until the contrary evidence reached such a critical mass that finally – however much it displeased the clergy and their flocks – no intellectually honest academic could deny it. And then the great paradigm shift began.
Not that I’m comparing Jesus Myth to as earthshaking a concept as Natural Selection, but again, consider the parallels for a moment. Most historians aren’t biblical historians; so when the question of Jesus’ historicity comes up, it’s only natural that they’ll turn to the majority opinion of bible scholars. But who are the majority of biblical scholars? Biblical history has always been an apologetic undertaking in the service of Christianity; even today it remains perhaps the only field of science still overtly dominated by believers. So to begin with, how many of them do you suppose are open to entertaining the idea that the lord and savior they depend on for their salvation might never have existed?
So of course this is minority opinion – and likely always will be as long as biblical studies continue. As theologian Wilhelm Wrede cautioned in the 19th century, facts are sometimes the most radical critics of all. Every single advance in the history of biblical scholarship has begun as heresy. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where now, secular biblical historians are the only ones who are actually uncovering new strides in the field – the majority are too busy circling the wagons to protect their doctrines and dogma from dangerous new knowledge.
And even among secular biblical scholars, it is difficult to find one who doesn’t come out of a religious background. Rabbi Jon D. Levensen, one of today’s most prominent Jewish biblical scholars, notes, “It is a rare scholar in the field whose past does not include an intense Christian or Jewish commitment.” (The Hebrew Bible: The Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies, Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, p. 30) What’s more, religious scholar Timothy Fitzgerald (no relation) points out in The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 6-7) that theological assumptions are a pervasive difficulty in the field, not merely among practicing believers, but for the formerly religious as well: “even in the work of scholars who are explicitly non-theological, half-disguised theological presuppositions persistently distort the analytical pitch.”
But the problem of bias aside, the old paradigm of Jesus studies has long been showing worrisome cracks of its own. Incidentally, in his devastating The End of Biblical Studies (Prometheus, 2007) Hector Avalos has convincingly demonstrated that cracks are rife throughout the entire field. First of all, it is a misnomer to even refer to the “Historical Jesus” as if there ever was any such clearly defined thing. Nor is it correct to think that there is only one.
Who Do Men Say That I am?
Albert Schweitzer in his From Reimarus to Wrede: A History of Research on the Life of Jesus (1906), was already discovering that every scholar claiming to have uncovered the “real” Jesus seemed to have found a mirror instead; each investigator found Jesus was a placeholder for whatever values they held dear. Over a century later, the situation has not improved – quite the contrary. To say there is still no consensus on who Jesus was is an understatement. A quick survey (Price presents excellent examples in his Deconstructing Jesus, Prometheus, 2000, pp. 12-17) shows we have quite an embarrassment of Jesi:
Cynic philosopher – The many borrowings from Greek philosophy in Jesus’ teachings would make sense if Jesus had actually been a wandering Cynic or a Stoic philosopher, or the Galilean equivalent. Burton L. Mack, John Dominic Crossan, Gerald Downing and others have strongly defended this view, citing plenty of Cynic statements with their equivalents in the Gospels.
Liberal Pharisee – Something like his predecessor, the famous Rabbi Hillel. In Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus, historian Harvey Falk argues that virtually all of Jesus’ judgments on the Halakha, the Jewish law, are paralleled in the Pharisaic thought of that time, as well as later rabbinic thought.
Charismatic Hasid – Similarly, Dead Sea Scroll authority Geza Vermes, an expert on New Testament-era Judaism and author of Jesus the Jew: a Historian’s View of the Gospels, sees Jesus as one of the popular freewheeling Galilean holy men, unorthodox figures like Hanina Ben-Dosa or Honi the Circle-Drawer. Just like Jesus, they had little respect for the niceties of Jewish law, which of course ticked off the religious establishment.
Conservative Rabbi – On the other hand, Jesus upholds the Torah, insisting “not one jot or stroke of the Law will pass away” (Matthew 5:17–19). He wears a prayer shawl tasseled with tzitzit (Matt. 9:20-22), observes the Sabbath, and worships in synagogues as well as the Temple.
Antinomian Iconoclast – But on the other other hand, Jesus then turns around and point by point dismantles the Torah (Mark 7:18-20, Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-37, 38-42, 43-44, etc.) and dismisses the Temple (Matt. 12:6, 23:16, 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6).
Magician/Exorcist/Faith Healer – Morton Smith, discoverer (or more likely, its forger – but that’s another story) of the Secret Gospel of Mark made the argument that Jesus the Christ was actually Jesus the Magician in the book of the same name. Like the pagan miracle workers, Jesus cast out demons and healed the blind, deaf, and mute with mud and spit, using the same spells, incantations and techniques as taught in the many popular Greek magic handbooks of the time (Mark 5:41; 7:33–34).
Violent Zealot Revolutionary – But maybe Jesus was really a political messiah, inciting a revolt against the Romans; like Theudas or “the Egyptian,” the unnamed Messianic figure Josephus describes, or the two “robbers” crucified with him (since rebel bandits were commonly referred to as “robbers”). Why else would it be the Romans crucifying him, rather than the Jewish Sanhedrin just stoning him to death for blasphemy? There is evidence one can point to: Luke’s Gospel lists a disciple called Simon “the Zealot,” and seems to hint that Jesus had other Zealots in his entourage: at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his followers to grab their bags and buy a sword (22:36); they tell him they already have two swords on hand (22:38); when Jesus is about to be arrested they ask if they should attack (22:49). In Mark 14:47, one of the disciples does just that and cuts off the ear of one of the High priest’s men (the story grows more details in the other Gospels: Matt. 26:51-52, Luke 22:50-51, John 18:10). Many capable scholars including Robert Eisler, S. G. F. Brandon, Hugh J. Schonfield, Hyam Maccoby, and Robert Eisenman have thought this is where the real Jesus is to be found, and there are many scholarly variations arguing for the Jesus as Che theory.
Nonviolent Pacificist Resister – but then again, Jesus isn’t called the Prince of Peace for nothing; there’s no trace of such political agitation when he instructs his followers “if someone strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39), or when conscripted by Roman soldier to lug their gear for a mile, to “go with him two” (Matt. 5:41).
Apocalyptic Prophet – This is the Jesus that Albert Schweitzer and many subsequent historians have thought was the real thing: A fearless, fiery Judgment Day preacher announcing that the end was nigh and the Kingdom of God was coming fast. Like Paul (and many other first century Jewish apocalyptists) this Jesus did not expect the world to survive his own lifetime. Bart Ehrman makes a well-reasoned case for such a figure in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
First-Century Proto-Communist – Was Jesus the first Marxist? Milan Machoveč and other leftists have thought so. You have to admit Jesus has nothing good to say about the capitalist pigs of his day (Luke 6:24, 12:15), repeatedly preaching that they cannot serve both god and money (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13), that they should sell all they own and distribute the money to the poor (Matt. 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22) and most famously, that it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven Matt.19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25) – and don’t forget his casting the Moneychangers out of the Temple with a scourge. Acts not only depicts the early Christians as sharing everything in common, it even the states the Marxist credo: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” (Acts 4: 34-35).
Early Feminist – Or was he the first male Feminist? Some scholars like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Kathleen Corley point to his unusual attitudes towards women, some of which seem remarkably progressive for the first century. They say not only were some of his closest followers women, but he forgave the woman caught in adultery, and challenged social customs concerning women’s role in society (John 4:27, Luke 7:37, Matt. 21:31-32).
Earthy Hedonist – Or was he a male chauvinist pig? Onlookers criticize him for being “a glutton and a drunk” who consorts with riffraff like tax collectors and whores (Luke 5:30; 5:33-34; 7:34, 37-39,44-46).
Family Man – but then again, Jesus is a champion of good old family values when he gets even tougher than Moses, ratcheting Old Testament law up a notch and declaring “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11–12). He also reminds his followers to honor their father and mother, then sternly warns “whoever speaks evil of father and mother must surely die” (Matthew 15:4).
Home Wrecker – Though when Jesus speaks evil of the family, apparently it’s okay: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). When Jesus is told his mother and brothers have come to see him, Jesus ignores them and asks, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:47-48) “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34–35).
Savior of the World – But despite all that, Jesus loves everyone; he even preached to Samaritans (John 4:39-41; Luke 17:11-18) and Gentiles (Matt. 4:13-17, 24-25).
Savior of Israel (only) – Well, he loves everyone except Samaritans or Gentiles.
When a Canaanite woman begs him to heal her daughter he ignores her; after the disciples ask him to make her go away, he first refuses, saying “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). When Jesus sends out his disciples, he commands them not to preach the good news to Gentile regions or Samaritan cities (Matthew 10:5-6).
Radical Social Reformer – Still others like John Dominic Crossan and Richard Horsley see Jesus as a champion for the Jewish peasants suffering under the yoke of the Roman Empire and its rapacious tax collectors; a Jesus somewhat along the lines of Gandhi and his struggle against the British Empire.
Will the Real Jesus Please stand up?
How plausible are any of these reconstructions? As Price notes in Deconstructing Jesus (p. 15), many of the above are quite plausible, make good sense of a number of gospel texts, don’t violate accepted historical method, aren’t impossibly anachronistic, and are the result of deep and serious scholarship. As far as it goes, all of them have their strengths. None of them are particularly far-fetched. All tend to center on particular constellations of Gospel elements interpreted in certain ways, and reject other data as inauthentic – something all critical historians do, regardless of the subject. All appeal to solid historical analogies for their new take on Jesus. But, as Bart Ehrman points out, one fatal flaw haunts most if not all of them:
“The link between Jesus’ message and his death is crucial, and historical studies of Jesus’ life can be evaluated to how well they establish that link. This in fact is a common weakness in many portrayals of the historical Jesus: they often sound completely plausible in their reconstruction of what Jesus said and did, but they can’t make sense of his death. If, for example, Jesus is to be understood as a Jewish rabbi who simply taught that everyone should love God and be good to one another, why did the Romans crucify him?”
(Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, p. 208)
Ehrman adds that for most theories, their proposed connections between Jesus’ life and his death are at times rather shaky and unconvincing. But to be fair, the problem may go deeper than just poor reconstructions. After all, the original source for all of them, the Gospels, also fail to make a credible link between Jesus’ life and death – and disagree with each other on just what led to Jesus’ death.
And incidentally, the list above is not the last word on revisionist Jesuses; there are even more reasonably plausible “Historical Jesuses” to consider before you finally reach all the hopelessly crackpot Jesus theories moldering away at the bottom of the barrel. But this multiplicity of convincing possibilities is precisely the problem: the various scholarly reconstructions of Jesus cancel each other out. Each sounds good until you hear the next one. Price makes this very clear:
“What one Jesus reconstruction leaves aside, the next one takes up and makes its cornerstone. Jesus simply wears too many hats in the Gospels – exorcist, healer, king, prophet, sage, rabbi, demigod, and so on. The Jesus Christ of the New Testament is a composite figure … The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.”
(Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 15-16)
The Jesus Seminar’s John Dominic Crossan has observed this very problem and has frankly complained that the plethora of historical Jesus reconstructions has turned into a circus. In his The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, New York, HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) he puts it bluntly:
“But that stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography.”
The upshot of all this is simply that all of the secular reconstructions of the “Historical Jesus” remain speculative. No one can claim to have cornered the market. And there is a good reason for that – our problematic historical sources for Jesus.
What can we know? Sources for Jesus
Despite centuries of historical scholarship on a figure millennia old, we have not been able to come up with a single verifiable fact about Jesus. Not one. And how could we? Our only sources are nowhere near trustworthy. What are the sources? As I hope I made very clear in Nailed, though many people assume there were scores of contemporary historical witnesses who mentioned Jesus (and this assumption is both encouraged and trumpeted by apologists) the truth is that there are exactly – none. Bart Ehrman details the depth of the problem:
“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.”
(Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, p. 56-57)
On nearly every criteria of historical verification available, Jesus has no evidence at all, and even where there is any at all, the evidence of the Gospels is not the best, but the very worst kind of evidence – a handful of biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, second-hand witnesses.
As it turns out, even in the New Testament, our sources boil down to just the Gospels. Searching for biographical information in Paul’s letters reveals a mythological figure, and the epistles forged in the names of apostles contain no details on their Lord’s life either; even the author posing as Peter can only quotemine Old Testament prophecies for his “eyewitness testimony”!
Of course, there are far more gospels written than just our familiar four, but they only muddy the water further. And regardless of the number of gospels you may choose to accept, for centuries biblical scholars have been in agreement that all ultimately stem from the original one: the modest, anonymous, imperfect, no-frills book entitled The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, much later renamed The Gospel According to Mark.
Without repeating all the arguments given in Nailed and other books, suffice it to say that none of this is an invention of godless atheists; the overwhelming consensus of all biblical scholars has long recognized the priority of Mark and that the solution to the infamous “Synoptic Problem” is that Matthew and Luke were directly dependent on Mark. Every gospel writer after Mark made their own “corrections,” additions and changes, but even those much later works like the Gospel of John (and Peter, Mary, Judas, et al) were all were to some degree taken from Mark’s original, no matter how far off they go in different directions of their own.
The overabundance of Gospels is the main reason for contradictions between them, but not the only reason. Even manuscripts of the exact same gospel texts do not always agree with each other. And all of the existing manuscripts suffer from interpolations and alterations from every time period that we can examine – and for the first 150 or 200 years of Christianity, there is a blackout period in which we have absolutely no way to check the reliability of any biblical manuscripts – from the second century nothing survives but handfuls of tiny papyrus scraps; from the first century, nothing at all.
Another serious problem is the startling number of unhistorical fabrications and anachronistic mistakes of the Gospels. Matthew is constantly correcting Mark’s errors about basic Judaism and Palestinian life and geography. Luke claims (1:1-4) to be the only gospel of many that gives the real story; but this is a blatant lie, since he’s plagiarized his Gospel from Mark and perhaps Matthew, too (with other details swiped from real historians like Flavius Josephus, as Josephan expert Steve Mason and other historians have detailed). Pagan and Jewish critics have been pointing out holes in the Gospels almost from the beginning; their arguments and harsh criticisms are still just as sharp and relevant nearly 2000 years later. The “biography” of Jesus simply does not hold up under scrutiny.
But was Mark even a biography in the first place? Mark tells us what he is doing right from the outset: he is writing a gospel, not a history or a biography (Mark 1:1). And numerous historians, including Arnold Ehrhardt, Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Randel Helms, Dennis MacDonald, Jennifer Maclean and others have detailed the ways that Mark’s entire Gospel is a treasure trove of symbolic, rather than historical, meaning. This is allegory, not history.
Could Jesus have been a Stealth Messiah?
Is it possible that despite our total lack of reliable documentation, there could still have been a real Jesus who lies buried underneath centuries of legendary accretion? It’s certainly possible. Is it plausible? Maybe. Do I think that’s what happened? Not really. As I say in the final chapter of Nailed, “Can Jesus be Saved?”:
“There comes a point when it no longer makes sense to give Jesus the benefit of a doubt. Even if we make allowances for legendary accretion, pious fraud, the criteria of embarrassment, doctrinal disputes, scribal errors and faults in translation, there are simply too many irresolvable problems with the default position that assumes there simply had to be a historical individual (or even a composite of several itinerant preachers) at the center of Christianity.”
I go on to provide of how differently the New Testament and early Christianity would look if even a merely human Jesus had been an actual historical figure. One problem I find with the suggestion that Jesus was a fairly unknown figure in reality has to do with the other messianic figures we know about in this period. There was certainly no shortage of saviors then; we know of a surprising number of wanna-be Judean messiahs from around the time of the first century. Here are some of them:
John the Baptist – John appears in all four gospels and defers to Jesus, but we actually have more extrabiblical evidence for John than Jesus. Josephus mentions John the Baptist briefly, and his sect shows up in a 2nd century Apocryphal Acts novel, the Clementine Recognitions (where they are debating against their rivals, the Christians, and arguing that John the Baptist, not Jesus, was the messiah). The first chapter of Luke appears to have been taken from Baptist scriptures originally, with Jesus and Mary added later.
Apollonius of Tyana – Philostratus the Elder wrote a biography of this Neopythagorean philosopher and alleged miracle worker, though many now question whether Philostratus’ earlier biographical sources (or their subject) ever really existed at all.
“The Egyptian” – In Acts, Luke name-drops the name of three failed messiahs lifted from Josephus. Incidentally, Luke’s mistakes describing these figures are one of the reasons we know he was stealing from Josephus, and not vice versa. This one, known only as “The Egyptian” (possibly as a nod to Moses, rather than his actual nationality) led his followers up to the Mount of Olives so they could watch him command the walls of Jerusalem to fall down. For some reason, this plan failed, the Romans slaughtered his flock, and he fled.
Judas of Galilee and Theudas the Magician – Luke has the famous rabbi Gamaliel mention the failed uprisings both of these two messianic pretenders in a speech shortly after Jesus’ death (Acts 5:34-37); unfortunately for Luke, Theudas’ uprising wasn’t until over a decade after this, under the reign of Fadus, procurator from 44 to 46. Compounding the error, Luke also blunders by reversing the correct order and saying Judas came after Theudas, when in fact Judas came first, predating Theudas by decades!
Athronges the Shepherd and Simon of Peraea – Judas of Galilee’s uprising was one of several after Herod the Great’s death. Athronges the Shepherd and Simon of Peraea were two other failed usurpers mentioned by Josephus (Simon, a slave of Herod’s, was also mentioned in Tacitus).
“An Imposter” – An unnamed Moses-like messiah who promised to deliver his followers to freedom if they would follow him into the wilderness; but only succeeded in getting them and himself slaughtered by troops sent by the Roman governor Festus.
“The Taheb” – An unnamed Samaritan styling himself as the Samaritan messiah the Taheb (“the Restorer”) led his armed followers to their sacred Mount Gerizim, where he would show them “sacred vessels” buried there by Moses – or at least, he would have, if Pilate and his forces hadn’t gotten there first, killing many of them in battle, scattering the rest, and executing the leaders, including “The Taheb.”
Jonathan the Weaver – yet another Moses-like messiah who convinced a throng to follow him into the wilderness with promises of “signs and apparitions,” only to have the Romans come and kill most of them.
Carabbas – Philo of Alexandria describes this madman who was forced to become a mock-king by a street mob in ways that eerily parallel Christ’s mockery by the Roman guards in the Gospels.
Yeshua ben Hananiah/Jesus ben-Ananias – In The Jewish War, Josephus mentions another madman, this one in Jerusalem, who also shares some striking similarities to our familiar Jesus; so much so that like Carabbas, his story may well have been an inspiration to Gospel writers. This “very ordinary yokel” one day becomes a doomsday prophet, and after wandering the streets day and night shouting, until he is beaten by irate listeners. The Jewish authorities take him before the Roman procurator, where he is “scourged till his flesh hung in ribbons” before being released. Josephus explicitly notes repeatedly he says nothing in his own defense.
Simon bar-Giora – Yet another messianic figure with interesting similarities to Jesus, revolutionary Simon was welcomed with leafy branches into Jerusalem as a deliverer and protector from another wanna-be messiah, the Zealot John of Gischala, whose faction had occupied the sacred precinct. After this triumphant entry he commenced the cleansing of the temple, “sweep(ing) the Zealots out of the City.” But Simon ultimately surrendered to the Romans and after suffering abuse at the hands of his guards, was executed as a would-be king of the Jews.
Other Gospels, Other Jesuses, Other Christs
If Jesus’ fame was anywhere near the levels depicted in the Gospels (Multitudes following him, fame spreading throughout Judea, to Syria, Egypt, the ten cities of the Decapolis league, etc.) his achievements were easily on par with even the best of these. So why did loser messianic figures like “the Taheb” and Jonathan the Weaver and the rest manage to leave a historical footprint – but not Jesus?
Conversely, if Jesus was so forgettable he wasn’t even as interesting as any of these (and still others), then how did he inspire a fringe religion of tiny feuding house churches to pop up all across the far-flung corners of the Roman empire?
And there’s still another consideration – what about all the other Christs of the first and second century that we find in the Gospels, Paul’s letters and other early Christian writings? As I mention in Nailed (pp. 151-152) Paul himself complains about the diversity among early believers, who incredibly treat Christ as just one more factional totem figure, some saying they belong to Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas – or to Christ. Paul asks, “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor. 1:10-13). Paul also repeatedly rails against his many rival apostles, who “preach another Jesus.”
In his letters Paul often rages and fumes that his rivals are evil deceivers, with false Christs and false gospels so different from his own true Christ and true Gospel, that he accuses them of being agents of Satan and even lays curses and threats upon them! (2 Cor. 11:4, 13-15,19-20, 22-23; Gal. 1:6-9; 2:4)
Other early Christians were just as concerned as Paul. The Didakhê, an early manual of Christian church practice and teachings, spends two chapters talking about wandering preachers and warning against the many false preachers who are mere “traffickers in Christs,” or as Bart Ehrman wonderfully names them, “Christmongers” (Didakhê 12:5).
The evidence is clear; there were many different Jesuses and Christs being preached in the first century (and even into the early second century, when the Didakhê was written). No single individual Jesus made an impact on history, but many different ones made an impact on theology; at least on the cultic fringe. The “Stealth Messiah” approach to the problem simply fails to make any sense of the evidence.
It’s a Mystery (A Mystery Faith, that is)
As Price, and others before him, observed (and as I’ll argue in Jesus: Mything in Action), Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.
Written generations later, the entire Gospel of Mark – the original gospel all the rest were based on – is one great parable to conceal the secret, sacred truths of this mystery faith, the Mystery of the Kingdom of God. Mark has Jesus give this clue to the reader of his Gospel:
“The Mystery of the Kingdom of God is given to you, but to those who are outside everything is produced in parables, so that when they watch they may see but not know, and when they listen they may hear but not understand, for otherwise they might turn themselves around and be forgiven.”
This exclusive secrecy makes no sense at all for a savior who came to save the whole world, but it makes perfect sense if Christianity began as a mystery faith. Like the pagan mysteries, the truths of Mark’s mystery of the Kingdom of God are being concealed behind parables, only explained to insiders. Mark is not reporting history; he is creating a framework for passing on a sacred mystery to a chosen few and no one else.
Jesus: Mything in Action
Even if there had been a historical Jesus that somehow managed to simultaneously spawn all this diversity without leaving a trace in the contemporary historical record, the fact is for all practical purposes, there isn’t one any more! No sources we have can be reliably linked to anyone who really was on earth two thousand years ago. As Schweitzer and so many others have realized, any real Jesus is irrecoverable, completely lost to us. Price adds:
“What keeps historians from dismissing (Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Cyrus, King Arthur, and others) as mere myths, like Paul Bunyan, is that there is some residue. We know at least a bit of mundane information about them, perhaps quite a bit, that does not form part of any legend cycle. Or they are so intricately woven into the history of time that it is impossible to make sense of that history without them. But is this the case with Jesus? No. Jesus must be categorized with other legendary founder figures including the Buddha, Krishna, and Lao-tzu. There may have been a real figure there, but there is simply no longer any way of being sure.”
(Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 260-261)
Though there’s simply no way to prove that no “real” Jesus ever existed behind what Price aptly calls the Stained-Glass Curtain, the closer you look for him the harder he is to see. When we search for what we think of as new innovations brought about by Jesus, invariably we find the same ideas have already come from some other source. He was a placeholder for all the values bestowed by all the other savior gods; he taught all the things Greek philosophers and Jewish Rabbis taught; he performed the same miracles, healings and resurrections the pagan magicians and exorcists did; in other words Jesus Christ was not a real person, but a synthesis of every cherished and passionate notion the ancient world came up with – noble truths, gentle wisdom, beloved fables, ancient attitudes, internal contradictions, scientific absurdities, intolerable attitudes and all.
We are past the tipping point: it’s no longer reasonable to assume that there had to have been a single historic individual who began Christianity. In fact, as we’ve seen, the evidence points away from such a conclusion. What we see instead is a historical record complete devoid of corroboration for the Gospels; a Darwinian theological environment teeming with rival Jesuses, Christs, gospels and house cults competing along the religious fringe of the Roman empire (and languishing there for three centuries); indications that the first generation of Christianity began as a Jewish version of the Mystery Faiths, and that all the confused, contradictory “biographical” information for Jesus stems from a deliberate allegory. A single founding figure is not just unnecessary to explain all this; it is unwarranted.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
David Fitzgerald is an activist, writer, and public speaker. He is the co-founder & director of the world’s first Atheist Film Festival. He works for the Secular Student Alliance and co-runs The Godless Perverts Story Hour. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All, voted one of the Top 5 Atheist/Agnostic Books of 2010; and The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion series. The follow up to Nailed is Jesus: Mything in Action, which will be coming out this year.
David Fitzgerald – The Weird-Ass Morality of the Bible (2015 American Atheists National Convention)
Ricky Gervais – The Bible
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