Posts Tagged “historicity of jesus”

Popular Mechanics / The Real Face of JesusChristians love to assume their religion is founded on historical fact. Specifically, they’re absolutely certain their Jesus lived and walked the earth in the first decades of the 1st century CE. This assumption is so compelling that we count the years in terms of Jesus’ supposed lifetime … i.e. our Year 1 is, supposedly, the first year he was on earth.

The reality of it, though, is that it’s by no means certain at all that Jesus ever actually lived. Many people find this surprising, but Jesus’ historicity has been a subject of scholarly review and conjecture for over a century now. While devout believers in Christianity are certain Jesus lived, the rest of us, and scholars especially, aren’t as sure, because the historical record of his existence is vastly less clear and compelling than Christians claim.

Despite the lack of scholarly certainty, this month’s National Geographic cover story proudly trumpets that Jesus definitely lived (Archive.Is cached article). Their evidence? The discovery of a tomb:

Just yards from the tomb of Christ [at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem] are other rock-hewn tombs of the period, affirming that this church, destroyed and rebuilt twice, was indeed constructed over a Jewish burial ground.

Nat Geo has made a big deal about the recent discovery of one particular tomb near the Holy Sepulchre. The problem is, in historical and archaeological terms, this finding doesn’t really tell us anything, and it certainly doesn’t prove Jesus must have lived. The site of that church was “found” by the (Christian) Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. When she was there in the 4th century, it’s possible she knew tombs were nearby, and that may have been why she picked that location. So finding a tomb in the area doesn’t mean anything.

The problem here is that Nat Geo is accepted as an authoritative publication. Many Christians looking to promote Jesus’ historicity are sure to use this article as ostensible “proof” that he actually lived. Unfortunately for them, it’s not “proof” of anything, other than that Christians would like to think he existed and will go to ridiculous lengths in order to say they’ve “proven” it.

Hat tip: Friendly Atheist.

Photo credit: Popular Mechanics.

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Jesus weptWhen I heard Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s screaming, tantrum-throwing prime-time gadlfy, was writing a book about the life and death of Jesus Christ, I groaned inside. Lots of people over the years have attempted to write about the historicity of Jesus, so it’s not as though the topic has never been handled. I’ve read a lot of those books, and most of them are poor attempts at historiography. Based upon reviews of Billy’s book I’ve seen, by scholars like Candida Moss, the Fox News host’s effort is no exception.

O’Reilly’s contention is that Jesus was killed, because … <drumroll please> … he objected to Roman taxation.

That’s right, folks. Billy-boy’s Jesus was a first-century tax protester, ergo he was killed.

Think about that for a moment. Just stop, and think about it. For a moment.

There’s a very simple and very obvious problem with this claim. It shouldn’t take most Americans long to come up with it.

Go ahead. Stop. Think. I’m sure it will come to you.

In case you haven’t got it by now, I’ll explain: According to the gospels (well, three of them anyway!), Jesus was clearly, explicitly, and specifically not a tax protester! Allow me to quote from the Billster’s own Catholic Bible:

Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away. (Mt 22:15-22)

They sent some Pharisees and Herodians to him to ensnare him in his speech. They came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion. You do not regard a person’s status but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?” Knowing their hypocrisy he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” They brought one to him and he said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They replied to him, “Caesar’s.” So Jesus said to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’ They were utterly amazed at him. (Mk 12:13-17)

They watched him closely and sent agents pretending to be righteous who were to trap him in speech, in order to hand him over to the authority and power of the governor. They posed this question to him, “Teacher, we know that what you say and teach is correct, and you show no partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful for us to pay tribute to Caesar or not?” Recognizing their craftiness he said to them, “Show me a denarius; whose image and name does it bear?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” So he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” They were unable to trap him by something he might say before the people, and so amazed were they at his reply that they fell silent. (Lk 20:20-26)

Given that Jesus was reported by three gospels to have said this, how can anyone rationally conclude that Jesus objected to the Romans’ taxation? Clearly, he did not! The Billster’s effort to turn Jesus Christ into a classical-era prototype teabagger is laughable, transparent, absurd, and — perhaps most importantly — directly contradicts what Christian legend tells us about Jesus.

Before anyone asks … no, I haven’t read O’Reilly’s book. And no, I have no plans ever to read it. (The same goes for Reza Aslan’s book that I blogged about back in July.) I’ve long since soured on books that claim to dig into the life of Jesus as a historical topic. Almost invariably those books have nothing to do with “history”; truthfully, most of their authors are not interested in “history” in the first place. All they’re doing is selling their own ideas about Jesus by cloaking them behind the claim of being “historical.” Unfortunately, the actual historicity of Jesus is more elusive than most people, including scholars, will admit. Barring some kind of discovery that sheds new light on the matter, that’s the way it’s going to stay. Centuries of Christian legends, history revision, myth-making, and trampling of the historical record, have made sure of it.

P.S. If you really feel the need to read about books that examine the historicity of Jesus, I suggest starting at the beginning of that contemporary effort, and read The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer (yes, that Albert Schweitzer, the famous philanthropist-physician … he’d been an accomplished theologian before embarking on a career in medicine). Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, nor do most other scholars, his book got the ball rolling, and that alone makes it seminal. For a more recent work on the subject, I suggest Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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ZEALOT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH, by Reza Aslan, via Reza Aslan Web siteYou’d think people in the United States in the 21st century would be clear about “freedom of speech.” You’d think they’ve read the First Amendment and understand that, barring slander, libel, or extremes (such as the proverbial “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater”), people can say and/or write whatever they want to. You’d think they understand there are no controls on who can write about what. Americans learn about this in school and they have no excuse for not being aware of it.

But when the people you’re talking about are the Religious Right, all of that goes out the window. They get their self-righteous knickers in knots when certain people write about certain topics, sanctimoniously presuming the authority to pronounce certain topics off-limits to certain people.

A sterling example of this religionistic outrage involves scholar Reza Aslan, who wrote Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. As Slate reports, the problem here is that Aslan is (curses!) a Muslim (WebCite cached article):

Fox News anchor Lauren Green had religious scholar Reza Aslan on her show Friday to talk about Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, his book that has been stirring up some online controversy recently. And right off the bat, Green gets to what is important: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan seemed a little flabbergasted: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim.”…

Aslan has become the target of anti-muslim rhetoric this past week as he’s made numerous media appearances to publicize his book. Author and pastor John Dickerson harshly criticized media outlets on FoxNews.com [cached], saying reporters “have failed to mention [Aslan] is a devout Muslim.” In a piece for WorldNetDaily [cached], Pamela Geller writes that “jihadist operatives like the vicious Reza Aslan are carried on the shoulders of the media and intelligentsia like a football hero at the end of an impossibly fought game.” Many who share these views have taken to Amazon to give the book one-star reviews. Aslan “is a Muslim and not a historian,” reads one of the one-star reviews.

The train-wreck Fox News interview mentioned in the Slate report is available via Youtube:

For any other Religious Rightists who’re furious over this horrific Muslim-&-Mass-Media conspiracy to dis your precious Jesus, allow me to explain a few facts that I’m sure you’re unaware of:

  1. As I explained above, “freedom of speech” entitles any American Muslim to write about Jesus if s/he wants to, and there’s not one fucking thing you can do to stop it.
  2. Aslan is a multi-degreed academic, with expertise in religions (contrary to what some Amazon reviewers have said). He has the credentials to discuss the topic of Jesus competently. In fact, he has more credentials than the average Christian, to do so: The average Christian has no education in ancient history and does not know any Biblical languages.
  3. Muslims do, as it turns out, have a religious interest in Jesus, because they view him as a prophet. They don’t believe the same things about him that Christians do, but that doesn’t mean they have no interest in him or his teachings.
  4. Christians themselves have no reservations about discussing Islam and/or Muslims. Franklin Graham, for instance, has pontificated about Islam. And here’s a report about a conference where a whole bunch of Christians went to blather on at length about Islam and Muslims (cached).

Seems to me that any Christians who’re sanctimoniously enraged that an insolent “jihadist” Muslim dared write about their Jesus … and worse, that the mass media have insidiously conspired with him to cover this up … are being hypocritical, if they also feel free to call Mohammad a pervert (cached), or a cross-dresser (cached), a moon-worshipper (cached) … or any number of other disparaging claims. Those Christians need to crack open their Bibles for the first time and read about how their own Jesus clearly and explicitly forbid them ever to engage in any hypocritical behavior, and then just fucking stop already. Their childish act is wearing pretty thin.

Oh, and one last thing: This cold-hearted, godless agnostic heathen also hosts a Web site concerning the early history of Christianity. Yes, that’s right. An insolent non-believer has dared write about your precious Jesus and the origins of the religion he supposedly founded. How awful of me!

Photo credit: Reza Aslan Web site.

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Nativity Scene / Ian Britton, via FreefotoI’ve mentioned the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman a few times on this blog. The most recent edition of Newsweek contains a piece he wrote, about what we do and don’t know about the Jesus Christ and his birth (locally-cached article):

As Christians around the world now prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, it is worth considering that much of the “common knowledge” about the babe in Bethlehem cannot be found in any scriptural authority, but is either a modern myth or based on Gospel accounts from outside the sacred bounds of Christian Scripture. Some obvious examples: nowhere does the Bible indicate what year Jesus came into the world, or that he was born on Dec. 25; it does not place an ox and an ass in his manger; it does not say that it was 3 (as opposed to 7 or 12) wise men who visited him.

So not only do most Christians believe things about Jesus and his birth which are not in their Bible, what’s actually contained within that Bible has more than a few holes:

For centuries scholars have recognized that the birth narratives of the New Testament are historically problematic. For one thing, the two accounts—the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke—are strikingly different from one another, in ways that appear irreconcilable. To start with, they both give genealogies of Jesus’ father, Joseph (it’s an interesting question why they do so, since in neither account is Jesus a blood relative of Joseph), but they are different genealogies: he is said to have a different father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, and so on. It is not that one is a genealogy of Mary and the other of Joseph. Both Gospel authors are crystal clear: they are giving Joseph’s genealogy. …

Moreover, both accounts contain contradictions with the known facts of history. Just take Luke as an example. Only in this Gospel do Joseph and Mary make a trip from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census when “the whole world” had to be enrolled under Caesar Augustus. The whole world? Luke must mean “the whole Roman Empire.” But even that cannot be right, historically. We have good documentation about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there never was a census of his entire empire. Let alone one in which people had to register in their ancestral home.

If one assumes — as most Christians do — that the gospels are “history,” in the sense of being a direct and accurate record of true historical events as they happened, this can, indeed, be troubling. But as Ehrman points out, this need not be the case:

The accounts of Jesus’ life in the New Testament have never been called “histories”; instead, they have always been known as ­“Gospels”—that is “proclamations of the good news.” These are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts. For believers who think that truth must, necessarily, be based on history, that probably will not be good news at all. But for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of ?literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that ?stories such as these can convey a ?greater truth.

Cue the inevitable sanctimonious outrage … against Ehrman for having written it, and Newsweek for having printed it. Cue the accusations that Ehrman, or Newsweek, or both somehow “hate” the Baby Jesus and that they’re “dissing” him. Cue the outrage that they insolently chose the precious Christmas season to unleash their attack on Christianity and on Christians everywhere.

This is only natural, and they largely can’t help themselves. For Christian fundamentalists … unwilling to accept that the content of their Bible might be “true” only as metaphor or inspiration … Ehrman’s piece is blasphemy of the highest order. Because fundamentalists have been the most vocal wing of American Christianity over the last several decades, they’ve laid the foundation for what most Christians in the US think about the Bible — even if their own denominations don’t teach the fundamentalists’ kind of Biblical literalism — and that means most other, non-fundamentalist Christians will also be offended at what Ehrman wrote. But the bottom line is that what he says is nothing new, and is not at all strange to anyone who’s familiar with the material in question. Which ultimately, and ironically, is all the more reason why no one ought to be offended by it at all. There’s nothing new or novel here. No major revelations. Just old news … to those who know the early Christian texts and the religion’s history.

Photo credit: Ian Britton, via Freefoto.

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In his defense of Christian exclusivity (i.e. that there is no salvation without Jesus Christ), Cal Thomas trots out an old apologists’ argument:

It finds most Americans believe there are many ways to salvation besides their own faith. Most disturbing of all is the majority of self-identified evangelical Christians who believe this.

Apparently they must think Jesus was a liar, or mistaken, when he said: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me.”

Thomas implies here that it’s scandalous that anyone might think Jesus could have lied … so — since we know this accusation is such an outrage that it cannot possibly be true — then of course he is the only way.

Unfortunately Thomas forgets a few things:

  1. Do we even know there was a Jesus who said such a thing? (As it turns out, Cal, Jesus’ existence is not the least bit certain).

  2. Even if Jesus did exist, do we know he said such a thing? (No, Cal, we only have this from the evangelists, who wrote decades afterward … not the most reliable accounts.)

  3. Third, if Jesus lived and if he actually said them … ? Yes, Cal, he may actually have lied.

You read that right. I did, indeed, dare say it: Jesus may have been a liar. But that assumes he lived, which is not certain, and that he said this, which in turn is even more uncertain.

It’s time people stopped letting their assumptions and their outrage guide them.

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