In my previous post, I talked about some of the reasons that others have decided that Jesus never existed, and I hinted at some of my own. I say ‘hinted’ because it seems that I was too subtle. I’m often asked to explain things more deeply, because I often give the evidence that I think paints the picture obviously enough that I can safely assume that my listener will see the image indicated. However that rarely happens for reasons that are usually my fault. So I’ll go into it a bit more.
I said there are two possibilities regarding Jesus: He was either an ignorant 1st century charlatan and cult leader heavily exaggerated like Robin Hood, or he’s a completely imaginary legendary character like Hercules. Everyone seems to be OK with the first option, except for the Christians of course, and a lot of people have problems with the second one. But think about this. There’s really not that much difference between them, is there? Already we’ve established that by either option, there can’t have been a real Jesus.
One of my oldest friends still calls himself a Christian even though he doesn’t believe a word of the Bible. He told me he’s Christian because he likes to believe that; not because he thinks it’s true. I don’t think he realizes what that admission means to me. He says Jesus was just some schmuck who had a lot of legends lumped onto him. When I suggested there might not have been any one actual Jesus at all, he got angry. He said he wanted there to be some schmuck, by which he meant some truth at the root of the tale.
We all do. For whatever reason, I used to look at all the old myths wondering what really happened. But it’s not as simple as that. Sometimes none of it is true at all, and sometimes, it’s a blend of distortions or exaggerations compiled from multiple original events that aren’t related, and then what have you got? If there were three to five actual people at the root of that story, and none of them would even recognize themselves within that story, then what?
Looking at the contested option first, let’s imagine that we’ve constructed a time scanning app that allows us to watch history unfold on our screens and pan around or explore where we want to. Now let’s go look for King Arthur. How could the Arthurian legends have emerged unless there was a King Arthur at the root of it, right? Except that what we get there is a collection of fanciful legends full of impossible nonsense, and when you strip all of that out, you don’t have any indication of one particular guy. Historians can’t point him out either in time or in space. Some of the multiple potential Arthurs weren’t even in England, and I don’t think any of them were even named Arthur. If there was one, he wasn’t an actual king. So if there ever was an Arthur who was something else, living somewhere else, would that mean there was also an Excalibur? Lancelot? Camelot? Or did each of those other elements come from somewhere else and someone else? What happened with King Arthur is what I think happened with Jesus.
If you found the guy named Jesus who had a brother named James who also met Paul, (assuming that Paul was talking about a real person) then maybe that guy was either Jesus of Damneus, someone different than the character we’re looking for, or that guy was never even aware of the mountain of nonsense that has been heaped upon his name. He wouldn’t recognize HIMSELF as the Jesus we’re looking for, because some of those stories had nothing to do with him. Maybe what happened with Jesus is more like what happened to Brian.
The problem that a lot of people have with this is that they think we only need to match a few details from a handful of different versions of what is essentially one story, and that everyone has always agreed on what that story is. But I don’t think it’s like that at all, not even part of it. We can’t expect that any collection of details in the gospels are true, that they’re the actual story at all, or that they all originated only from the things that one guy actually did or said. Look how the rumor mill turned Darwin into a racist and Hitler into an evolutionist. That happened almost immediately. The gospels were written decades later with an obvious agenda, attempting to depict Jesus as the new David, the new Moses, a king, a messiah, or a god. My suspicion is that even if you found someone whom you think might be that guy, then other time-travelers, or archaeologists or historians would likely say it was someone else, or that parts of that legend pertain to someone else. And if you let that guy see any version of Christianity even a century later, he wouldn’t recognize it, and wouldn’t even think the story was about him.
Let’s choose an easier one. Let’s look for Noah. That name doesn’t show up until the priestly writers exiled in Babylon around 500 BCE. Prior to that the Noah character was known as Ziusudra, Atrahasis, Utnapishtim, and possibly Ubar-Tutu, all of whom have slightly different backgrounds attached -since they all hail from different Mesopotamian regions. However we know that the story is a gross exaggeration of a localized inundation of the Iraqi flood plain, centered on the city of Shurripak around 2900 BCE. So many of the details between these different accounts are consistent, that we know they’re talking about the same event, and that event has been confirmed by archaeologists and geologists. So we’ve found Noah, right? Except that he’s a handful of different people, none of whom match the 600 year-old codger in the Bible. The stories match each other more closely than they do the Biblical version, because they were all written closer to the actual event. Importantly, the additional stories like where Noah curses his own kids afterward, and sends them off to populate different parts of the world, that did not come from any of these earlier legends; that came from somewhere else, meaning that it pertains to someONE else, and some of these other characters may be completely imaginary.
No one goes looking for the truth at the heart of the tales of Prometheus, Dionysus, or Hercules, because we’re all pretty sure that was just people making up stories based on nothing but imagination. That could be true of Jesus too, and that is what others have suggested, but that’s not exactly what I’m suggesting. I think Jesus was more in line with Noah -in that you’ve got all these fanciful exaggerations, but they’re not all on one guy, and they’re not all real either. I’m not just talking about the other pre-Christian god-men that Jesus was apparently based on, although that’s an important point too. I’m talking about the most that I think we could expect of an historical Jesus, and I don’t think that would either qualify as historical or Jesus.
In the very early years of Christianity, you already have factions arguing over whether Jesus is a real person. The Ebionites or Nazarenes were a renunciate sect who held that Jesus was a purely human prophet, but did not accept Paul’s account of it, which is important here. Then you have the Docetics, who say that Jesus was a fully divine being who merely appeared to be human as an illusion. So Jesus is not a physical person and can’t really die, unless it happens in the celestial realm, which is what Richard Carrier suggests. Then you have the Gnostics, who are even older than Christianity, and they cast Jesus as an emissary between man and God. However they did not believe that Jesus died for our sins, and that’s a significant difference too. Then you’ve got the Coptic version which again is early enough that it might even be contemporary with the gospel of John. Their account includes the gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus says that if God wanted men to be circumcised, then men wouldn’t be born with foreskins. The rare bit of actual wisdom is part of the Nag Hammadi library, where God himself is oblivious to the fact that he was created by older gods in secrecy, and where Jesus is less important a character than their few different recurrent versions of Adam. Then there’s the infancy gospel, contemporary with the gospel of Luke, which tells the story of Jesus as a boy. In that the young Jesus is more like Damien from ‘the Omen’, because he kills other children with incantations and brings clay figures to life with a golem spell. Remember this gospel is said to have preceded the gospel of John, and what does that mean about the credibility of John, and look at all the disparity already!
We’ve got sixteen non-canonical gospels emerging in the early days of Christianity, all of which purporting to tell the story of Jesus, yet they’re all different stories, and the early church banned them all as being completely heretical. The only gospels which are canonized are the last one, (which shouldn’t be, for obvious reasons) and the ones largely based on the first one. Even that first one was written decades after Jesus’ allegedly died, and it is missing important elements of his life, like the Virgin birth. That was anonymously added later! The gospel of Mark is 92% identical to Matthew, except that it corrects some of the errors that shouldn’t have been in Matthew. One that did not get corrected was Chapter 1, verse 23. It’s a misreading of Isaiah 7:14 –as if that was supposed to be a prophesy pertaining to Jesus. Read the rest of that chapter. It can’t be. Isaiah was talking about another prophesy that was to be fulfilled some 700 years earlier by some other perfectly ordinary bastard. That prophesy failed spectacularly too, but that’s a rant for another time.
Still in the first couple centuries of Christianity, we have Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist telling Hellenist Greeks that Jesus is no different than of their half-human god-men such as Hercules. We atheists understand that Jesus isn’t significantly different than other god-men like Hercules, but it’s nice to see a Christian apologist admit that too. Also remember there was never an historic origin for Hercules.
Justin Martyr accepts as gospel the story of Jesus being strong like a giant to run his course around the world. Where the hell is THAT story? What was he reading back then? Where did ANY of these fanciful tales come from? What this should imply is that we have no idea today how many different legends original Christianity was based on, or what those stories were even about, because they’ve been censored, hidden away, or destroyed. Even the early Christians had a very different concept of theology than we do today. Certainly Jesus himself, (if there was one) would have too.
We’ve got two different birth dates in different centuries for a kid who grew up in multiple towns in two different countries. Christopher Hitchens says that this indicates a historical origin, where someone was trying to fudge the data to make the actual person fit all the myths and fulfill their prophesies. But at the same time, it implies two different realities at least, and that fact refutes the first assumption. How much of this came from some other actual figure? And how do we discern it from all the other sources, some of which weren’t based on any actual living person at all? I mean, c’mon; we know that certain elements of Jesus’ life were adapted from earlier tales, like the slaughter of the innocents, which was adapted from childhood of Moses, which was itself adapted from the childhood story of Sargon. If you read the myths of Dionysus, you quickly see parallels too, as with Krishna and Buddha as well. How much (if any) of this story actually pertained to any confused and delusional 1st century faith healer and cult leader who really lived? Had that person ever even heard of Mary or Judas? Had Pilate ever heard of Jesus? I really don’t think so. All we know about the gospels is that most of it didn’t happen that way, and that’s the only thing we can be sure of.
So my thinking is that, even if there was one only guy whom any number of analytical observers would all agree was THE guy that the first version of Christianity was based on, (which I don’t think is the case) then I think that if that guy got to see any of the incarnations his cult has evolved into, he would say, “No, that is not what happened. That didn’t happen. That’s not what I thought, that’s not what I taught. That is not me!” And then he would lament the things he really did that got forgotten or confused with something else that either never happened or had nothing to do with him.