Tag Archives: historical jesus

Crimes of Passion

imageSo what’s the Passion story, really? It’s difficult to peel the historical layers back to Jesus because the closer you read the scant source material (four Gospels, a few letters of Paul) the more, um, different they seem.

Luckily, smarter people than I got here first. For example, there’s this reconstruction, helpfully color-coded in the style of the Jesus Seminar, based on a tabulation of the work of thirty-four scholars done by Marion Soards. Colors represent “heat” — i.e., a greater number of scholars believing it to be authentic, the redder the words.

There’s also this “tentative reconstruction” by Yarbro Collins (2007). 

Paraphrasing, the “original” probably went something like this:

Jesus goes to Gethsemane and is upset. He can’t sleep and prays while his posse sleeps.

While he’s speaking, Judas comes up and kisses him. Jewish leaders take Jesus away, even as one of his followers (unnamed) cuts off the ear of the chief priest’s servant.

Jesus’ followers all flee, including a naked young man.

There may have been an appearance of some sort in front of Jewish authorities. (The charge isn’t clear: What did Jesus do?) They turn him over to the Roman leader Pilate.

Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews,” and Jesus neither confirms nor denies.

Pilate releases a criminal named Barabbas and delivers Jesus to guards to be crucified.

Jesus is mocked by the crowd and brought to Golgotha, where he is given tainted wine and crucified between two other convicts.

On the cross, he is taunted by those who say, “If you’re King of the Jews, come down here.”

It gets eerily dark. Jesus cries out and dies. The curtain of the sanctuary is split.

WWJD #1: The Passion Narrative


Note: We are going through the earliest Christian documents, one by one, to find out for ourselves what they actually say about Jesus. Today we look at the earliest one, which doesn’t exist as a separate doc anymore.

The so-called “Passion Narrative” is a scholarly reconstruction of a hypothetical early document that almost certainly did pre-exist the Gospels, at least in oral form, but has been lost. Like “Q” and the “Sayings Gospel” (both of which we’ll get to), the PN is a ghost doc, a reasonable guess based on the existing Gospel texts. In fact, it represents almost the only episode in Jesus’ life on which all four Gospels agree — or almost agree.

As Mel Gibson told us, Jesus’ “Passion” is the story of his accusation, hearing, sentence and execution. Ouch!

Now it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of the scholarly consensus that Mark was probably written first, around 65 CE, that Matthew and Luke had Mark in front of them when they wrote, and that John did not use Mark directly — although he obviously had access to some similar oral or written traditions, one of which was . . . the Passion Narrative.

So in reading the Gospels, we don’t really have four independent sources, do we? It’s not like there were four bloggers at the site and we can triangulate (or quadrangulate) the real story from their separate accounts. As scholarly consensus has it, there is only one source — this long-lost so-called “Pre-Markan Passion Narrative.” (BTW the Gospels were almost certainly not written by men or women who knew Jesus personally. Now you know.)

What’s exciting about this earliest story-snippet, though, is precisely how early it would have to have been solidified in the Christian tradition to appear in roughly similar outline in both Mark and John. Because otherwise, Mark/Matthew/Luke (the so-called Synoptic Gospels) and John look like biographies of different people.

So what does this early-early PN tell us about traditions about Jesus? The four accounts have been laid out side by side here. The story has four parts:

(1) The Arrest

(2) Jesus Before the Temple Priests

(3) Jesus Before Pilate

(4) The Cross

To be continued . . .

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?

The Historical Jesus in 90 Seconds

Jesus was at least a human being, male, who lived in Palestine in the first third of the first century. Human Jesus is not the Jesus of faith. Christianity is a post-Easter religion; its subject is Christ after death. But with David Friedrich Strauss in 1836, historians began the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

No physical artifacts exist attesting even to Christianity until 160. Only three non-Christian documents mention Jesus within 100 years of his death: a brief note by Pliny the Younger; a mention in Tacitus’ Annals in connection with Nero; and two passages in the Jewish historian Josephus’ Antiquities that say Jesus was a wise man said to work wonders and was crucified.

Everything else comes from believers. Sources outside the New Testament, including infancy gospels, were written 100-200 years after Jesus’ death and are fictional. So the only non-trivial record of Jesus’ biography is the New Testament. Data outside the four Gospels include nine bare facts in the letters of Paul, including that Jesus was a Jew, had brothers, 12 disciples, a last supper, was betrayed and crucified.

Gospels are problematic sources. Unless you’re Evangelical, contradictions are clear. (Look at the infancy stories of Matthew vs. Luke; the death scenes of Mark vs. John.) 200 years of debates center on how and what to trust as fact. Scholarly consensus: Mark came first, about 60-70AD; Matthew and Luke used Mark a decade or so later; John was last and independent. None knew human Jesus.

Criteria applied include favoring data that are earlier, appear in multiple sources, and are less likely to be made up (e.g., crucifixion, considered humiliating). The authors were educated Jews with the Hebrew Bible top of mind; Matthew, in particular, includes many details meant to mirror David and the Prophets. The “prophecies” of Jesus found in Isaiah and Psalms could easily be retrofits.

Using criteria, what does human Jesus look like? Definitely a Jewish male, born around 4BC in Palestine under Roman occupation. Also, most likely:
He was from a small semi-rural town of Nazareth in Galilee and spoke Aramaic. Had brothers, including one named James, and perhaps sisters. His parents were named Mary and Joseph; dad worked with his hands, and Jesus learned such a trade before abandoning his family at about age 30 to follow an apocalyptic guy named John the Baptizer.

Jesus himself held apocalyptic beliefs – “the time has been fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). He knew the world would end soon, God would rule a place on Earth where mighty would be humbled and humble glorified – an inverted world. This would happen soon (“Some of you standing here today will not taste death until you see the kingdom” Matt. 6:28). Alarmed, Jesus collected 12 male followers to parallel the 12 tribes of Israel.

He preached itinerantly for a year and ran into minor trouble with some strict Jews, but was observant. Was widely rejected. Did not believe he was God – but a kind of prophet. Told parables. Counseled keeping the Commandments, giving up possessions, loving others but leaving your family: time was short. Hated the rich. Associated with social misfits, criminals, women. Reputed to be a healer of the sick.

Took the 12 to Jerusalem at Passover where he offended Jewish authorities, perhaps because he predicted the Temple’s destruction; they complained to the Romans. Jesus had a last meal with his Disciples. He was betrayed by Judas, who may have revealed Jesus called himself King of the Jews (in the new post-apocalyptic Kingdom). Romans arrested him; a brief trial; executed by crucifixion that day, abandoned by his friends.

* Inspired by this great lecture course by Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman

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.