Thursday, September 12, 2013

10 Things You Didn't Know About Jesus

Perhaps I was a particularly uninvolved, incurious, or unquestioning Christian (which, I guess, probably made me a really good one), but it occurs to me now that I knew very little about the religion that I was allowing to dictate my beliefs and opinions about the world. If you had asked me, for example, basic questions like who wrote the Bible? or when was it written? or how do we know what we know about Jesus? I would not have had thoughtful or impressive answers. In fact, I'm not even certain what I would have said. I didn't have answers for those questions, because they had never occurred to me. I assumed that nobody talked about these things because the answers were so obvious and well-known that they needed no mention. God spoke some words, and the dudes whose names are on the title pages wrote them down, or something.

That's not what happened, though, and even your church pastor wouldn't say so. I realize that there are many different churches led by different pastors with different agendas, but I've personally never heard a sermon (and I sat through a lot of them) in which the historicity of the Bible was addressed. This is really odd now that I think about it, because the only unique knowledge that a pastor possesses is this academic information about what Biblical and historical scholars, archaeologists, and textual critics say about the Bible. This is the sort of thing which pastors could share with the laypeople of the congregation, but they don't. Instead, they just read and talk about verses from the Bible, which anybody with a Bible could do by himself. (I don't mean to generalize; this has been my experience.)

Since nobody ever told me the answers to these questions, I had to find out on my own. I know everybody likes even-numbered lists of things, so without further ado, here are 10 things that you (probably) didn't know about Jesus and the New Testament:

1. There are no sources contemporaneous with Jesus.

There is no historical evidence of any kind (epigraphical, archaeological, or literary, including the Bible) dating from the time when Jesus is supposed to have lived, i.e. from the late 1st century BCE to the early 1st century CE. Nothing that mentions Jesus comes from the time when he was said to have lived. Nothing.

2. Nearly nothing about the life of Jesus is known with certainty.

As you might expect given the fact that we have no writing from his contemporaries, exact details about Jesus' life are, well, non-existent. We don't know what year he was born; the gospels of Luke and Matthew suggest dates that are 9 years apart. (We certainly don't know what day he was born -  December 25th was made up by Hippolytus of Rome by a completely arbitrary method and is not historical.) We are equally puzzled about when he died; it was somewhere between 30 and 36 CE.

This isn't simply because it was 2000 years ago and record keeping was spotty. There is general scholarly consensus about when King Herod of Judea died (4 BCE), for example, and the infamous Egyptian queen Cleopatra died August 12th, 30 BCE, as recorded by sources contemporaneous with the event. In the world of the fastidious record-keeping Romans, we have no trouble constructing extremely detailed timelines of the lives of many historical figures, like Cicero and his contemporaries. About Jesus of Nazareth, though, we know practically nothing at all.

3. There are problems with the virgin birth.

One of the things supposedly identifying Jesus as the son of God is the fact that he was born of a virgin. This is known to be a famous translation error, as the Old Testament prophecy in the book of Isaiah says that the savior would be born of an almah, which simply means "a young woman" and has no inherent connotation of "virgin." The Greek Septuagint writers chose the word "parthenos," which does mean "virgin," when they translated the text. All the writers of the New Testament only had this reading, as they were working from the Greek text and not the original Hebrew.

This is evident in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which each tell the story of Jesus' birth. Their stories differ on various details, but they both mention the virgin birth, as the writers of both books believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy, and so Jesus needed to be born of a "parthenos" in order to fulfill it - that's what their version of the text said. Had they been working from the original Hebrew texts, the writers of these gospels may have told the stories even more differently.

4. There is a supportable, not-crazy case against a historical Jesus.

Although most scholars will agree that there probably was a human being called Jesus who was wandering around the desert around 2000 years ago, it's not the case that a historical Jesus has ever been (or could probably ever be) established as fact. There are several scholars who doubt that anyone called Jesus ever existed, and their position is tenable.

Scholars supporting this theory do not simply cite the so-called "argument from silence," i.e. Jesus didn't exist because we don't really know anything for certain about him. They point to many other things, such as the fact that mythologies of the time frequently portrayed the supernatural beings of their stories in an Earthly and even sometimes historical context, so the fact that the stories about Jesus are set on Earth and in a historical period does not mean that they must be historical. The process has newly been named "Euhemerization," referring to an ancient writer (Euhemerus) who actually did this with Greek myths. A well-known example of this is the story of Romulus being the ancient founder of Rome in 753 BCE - an existing God is placed into a historical context at an important time. It is also reasonable to fit Christianity into the historical context of Classical myth when considering it as a syncretism of newer Hellenistic elements with established Jewish traditions.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides, generally supportable by some evidence. My point is simply that rejecting a historical Jesus is not as crazy as, say, denying the Holocaust, or the Moon landing, or the death of Elvis. Jesus is not an undeniable ancient historical figure. (If you're interested in this, the prominent scholars putting this theory of a Secular Non-Historical Jesus out there are Richard Carrier, Robert M. Price, and Earl Doherty, among others.)

5. There is nothing really unique about Jesus' story.

The more a broad contemporaneous mythological context is considered when looking at the figure of Jesus, the more it makes sense that the stories about him are simply stories. Nothing about the mythology of Jesus is particularly novel. The Egyptian god Osiris, for example, was said to have died and been resurrected, and he offered immortality to his followers if they led a moral life. In some versions of the myth, he was a mortal who was murdered by conspirators, and worshipers of Osiris convened annually to re-create this scene in remembrance of his suffering. Zalmoxis in ancient Thrace had a similar story as well. Plenty of parallels can also be drawn with Mithras worship, which was in direct competition with Christianity in the early centuries CE. If we simply place Christianity and its myths into a historical context of ancient mythology in general, it is possible to see how these particular traditions developed. The stories about Jesus are products of the social, historical, and political contexts of the various authors who wrote them.

6. There was no concept of a "New Testament" when it was written.

The writers of the NT did not all set out with a collective, predetermined goal of writing a new holy book about the life and deeds of Jesus to append to the existing Hebrew scriptures. The writers of the books of the NT probably didn't even know each other (although they did share sources), and what we have today as the NT is the product of several committees of church officials at several different times in history deciding upon what is and what is not the officially approved text.

7. We don't know who wrote the synoptic gospels.

The four "synoptic" (meaning to be looked at together) gospels, which we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These gospels, in the oldest manuscripts we have, are all anonymous. The writers never identify themselves, and historical chronology basically eliminates Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John from being the actual writers. These names were added to the gospels in later centuries.

8. The New Testament contains forgeries.

Even though the NT is a product of nearly two millennia of editing, there are still passages within it which scholars agree are likely forged and interpolated into the old manuscripts. Even apologists admit the existence of these forgeries, but they give them the fancy word "pseudepigraphical." You will at least recognize the root pseudo- meaning "false," as in "this wasn't actually written by the author listed on the pages."  A recent book claims that 11 of the 27 books of the NT are forgeries by the early Christian church in an effort to settle debates about the faith. Perhaps that's a fringe view, but parts of the epistles of Paul have generally been agreed upon as inauthentic, such as 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. In the case of those Pauline examples, the interpolations occurred even before our oldest existing manuscripts, meaning that an uncorrupted version of those books does not exist.

9. The New Testament wasn't established until 1546.

The text as we have it today, i.e. the 27 canonical books that make up the NT, was not formally declared as "official" until the Council of Trent in 1546. These particular 27 books existed and were generally considered to be authentic as early as the 5th century CE (which is, please notice, still several hundred years after Jesus' supposed death), but no formal declaration was made about which books were official (and, therefore, which books were not) until this famous ecumenical council. This leads me to the last point, namely...

10. There are lots of apocryphal gospels about Jesus.

Perhaps the most interesting part about NT scholarship is looking at the apocrypha, books which have been officially rejected by the church for various reasons. There are only four canonical gospels, for example, because Irenaeus said so in the 2nd century CE. His reasoning was sound, though: since there are four primary winds, and the Earth is held up by four pillars, there should likewise only be four gospels. Makes sense.

But there are the so-called "infancy gospels," which describe the early parts of Jesus' life and which date from as early as the 2nd century CE, which have never been allowed into the canon. Even more interesting is the gospel of Marcion, which might even be older than Luke's gospel, but the early church condemned it as heretical, and so we only know about it via Christian authors writing scathing condemnations of it. (In fact so many of them did so that scholars generally feel like they've nearly got the original text.) The Gnostic gospels,
written in the same Koine Greek as the NT, also possibly date to the 2nd century CE and paint a very different picture of Jesus and the idea of salvation, but these have been entirely rejected as well. My personal favorite is the gospel of Judas, in which the story goes that Jesus actually told Judas to betray him, as it was part of Jesus' grand plan to be martyred.

All of these writings and many more have been rejected from inclusion in the NT, even though many of them date to the same period as the canonical works. This is an inconvenient fact for apologists who cite the NT's consistent message despite its many different authors.The only reason the NT has a consistent message (an arguable statement in itself) is that it was made to by the church.

The point of all of this:

Like I said at the beginning, I didn't really know very much about our knowledge of Jesus and the historicity of the NT when I was a Christian. I believe that most of the people around me at the time didn't know these things either; I never heard anybody talking about it, at least. Maybe you already knew some of these things, maybe some of it is news to you. If you don't believe that something I've written here is true, I'd urge you to look into it for yourself and see what you find.

I think the most important thing to realize is that the evidence for believing anything at all about Jesus is extremely scant, to the point where nearly nothing about him can be said confidently. I'm sure some percentage of the faithful will either not care about any of this information or dismiss it as lies. What I have collected here is not my opinion, but the collective assessment of well-qualified people whose life work it is to look into these matters. I would have been happy to have this information when I was a believer, so I hope it will be enlightening to others as well.

1 comment:

  1. This might be my favorite blog, to date. I even learned a thing or two, and not just big words which only people cheating at scrabble would ever use. Each one of these points could be expanded into a full book; this would be a great outline. :) I like the conciseness of your points and the links are nice touch too.