Category Archives: Quest for the Historical Jesus

The Jesus Hoax?

"Who's your daddy?"

Did Jesus exist?

Certainly, most people in the past 2,000 years have assumed Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. Virtually all scholars in the field believe he walked the earth. But since modern textual studies emerged in the 19th century, demonstrating just how interpretive and — well — constructed the primary witnesses to Jesus’ human life were, plenty of people have wondered aloud whether the whole Jesus thing is just a pious or political fiction.

Is it possible there was no human Jesus?

A historian of any ancient figure would start by looking to the sources. There are no physical artifacts of Jesus himself, his followers, or even the Christian movement until the late 2nd century (around 120-130 years after Jesus died). The evidence is entirely literary.

Outside Christian circles, there are just a few scattered references (Pliny the Younger, Tactitus, Josephus) that do little more than show there were indeed Christians who followed a person (presumably human) called Christ. The only real biographical sources are the Christians Gospels.

Moreover, no original written documents exist. The evidence consists of copies of copies of copies made centuries later. There is a tiny fragment of the Gospel of John pulled from an Egyptian garbage dump in the last century that is dated to, say, 120 or 130 C.E. So we can safely say documents about this “Jesus” character existed 100 years after his “death.”

Historians make the convincing case that nobody from that era (other than Roman Emperors and celebrity poets) has ANY physical or literary evidence attesting to their existence. There is more reason to think Jesus existed than 99.9% of the region’s population.

But ignoring that. What do Jesus deniers claim?

There’s a long-running web hub and discussion forum inspired by the tireless efforts of British atheist Kenneth “Jesus Never Existed” Humphreys that offers the following:

  • Evidence is too scanty — as scholars have lamented for centuries, why don’t the great writers of the period, such as Philo and Seneca, say anything at all about Jesus?
  • Some evidence is contradictory — for example, the genealogies for Jesus given in Matthew and Luke don’t agree at all and seem fictional
  • Evidence is self-serving — the Gospels and other Christian scriptures contain material that legitimizes the Christian movement; i.e., the 12 disciples mirror the 12 tribes of Israel and allow the Christian cult to claim legitimacy
  • Christianity is a hodge-podge of external ideas that required no founder — messages of love and faith and God-men can be found in Stoicism, Mithraism, Judaism, Egyptian religion, and so on
  • Early Christianity was chaotic — the documented scattershot of beliefs, including all those Gnosticisms and neo-Judaisms, as well as a certain lack of interest in the human Jesus, shows there was no real focus from the beginning, aka, no Jesus

Like John William Draper in the 19th century, Humphreys is really using his thesis to bash the Church, which he calls a “tragedy” and an “active agent in destroying knowledge” and “an industry of deceit.” And so on.

Focusing on the Jesus question itself, however, is more difficult. No doubt early Christians were self-serving, imaginative, fictionalizing, chaotic, swayed by all manner of local beliefs . . . but does any of that prove Jesus himself is a fiction?

Jesus, Screenwriter

Contemplating the high drama of Easter a couple weeks ago — the minor chords of Friday, the muted lighting climaxed by a candle snuffing Holy Saturday, the over-the-top Gloria explosion on Sunday — I thought: This is like a screenplay. Then I went to L.A. to, ahem, consult on a TV show and was sure.

Research complete, I am ready to unleash an outrageous proposition for the people now.

Here goes: Modern American screenplay structure is based on the New Testament story. Not loosely based. Exactly based. And modern American movies in whatever genre are structured like the story of Jesus.

Bear with me, sisters. Screenplays have a structure. You probably know this, right? There are three acts, an “inciting incident” at 10 minutes, a big event at 40 minutes, an act break that’s often signaled by a change of scene and dawn breaking, a major betrayal at 90 minutes, battle with the enemy at 100, and so on. These are the rules.

Not only that — they feel right. Good movies are comforting because they follow a pattern and intriguing because they color it. Story beats are like notes on a scale: it’s amazing so many tunes can be made from twelve notes. But try inventing your own notes and you’re probably unemployed, or French.

Taking a homogenized view of the Gospels from the New Testament, here’s the basic outline of the Jesus story (including minute markers, per a movie):

Act I (0 mins): Intro to setting
10: Jesus born (“inciting incident”)
20: Jesus baptized: 40 days in desert; John the Baptist subplot
Act II (40 mins): Ministry begins: first miracle (water into wine); miracles, healings, travel
60: Herod kills John the Baptist; all-out war of Jesus vs. Romans/Jews starts here; transfiguration
Act III (80 mins): Jesus enters Jerusalem; cleanses temple; plots begin
90: Judas (close disciple) betrays him; trial begins
100: Passion & death; burial
110: Jesus reappears to Mary and others
120: Ascends to Heaven: Fade out

Next time, we’ll see how that movie you sat through last Sunday at the Loew’s Lincoln Center mirrored this story without even knowing it!

A Brief History of Doubt, Backwards (Part II)

And then that odd Danish hunchback, a man who pre-emptively dumped the love of his life because he thought he (not she) had a bad personality. Bow down to Soren Kierkegaard, sarcastically arguing for a passionate, struggling faith, one full of “fear and trembling,” in Paul’s phrase, and a radical submission to a God that is absurd.

Danish hunchbackHis God, like Barth’s, has personality.

And then all this Otherness is watered down, in a gradual process, like a cat growing old. Hegel and Baruch Spinoza talk about a God that – far from being utterly apart from creation – actually was creation; that God and matter are the same. And the so-called first Quest for the Historical Jesus, wherein brave souls such as David Strauss get fired and die in shame-based circumstances simply for arguing that miracles don’t happen.

Miracles do happen, my friends. Just not to you.

And for the record, Thomas Jefferson, most elegant of Founding Fathers, did not believe that Jesus was divine. (Some modern political parties would be shocked – outraged – to discover just how skeptical the Framers were.)

We’re in the 19th century. And religion is getting anonymized. That is Deism, Natural Theology, academic Protestants – everyone in a rush to define the big Faith under all the little faiths. We can blame the Reformation, I think: with no command center, no network of monasteries and convents to contain the passions of the devout and the insane, it gives an impression of confusion.

As we move on, we find the German Friedrich Schleiermacher writing On Religion, a beautiful little book that begins the very same Liberal theology Barth rejects a century later. Schleiermacher has a kind of soft, mystical quality that we here at the God Project Dot Net find very appealing. What he says is hard to deny: that religion is never wholly rational, that it is a “feeling of ultimate dependence.”

Note that feeling?

Now, we’d like to skip over Kant because we don’t quite get him. We never will. What can we say about a person who discovered the space-time continuum just by thinking hard enough? Yikes. He defended God, “proved” there was life after death. Surprised?

The 18th century. A few, very few, philosophers and men of independent means become more skeptical, even as there’s the Second Great Awakening, and the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Jewish Hasidism.