Monday, December 03, 2007

The real or imagined messiah

Well, it’s almost Christmas, so let me say, Jesus Christ!

Efforts to “find” a historical Jesus began to interest me about 15-20 years ago. John P. Meier, a Catholic Priest teaching at Catholic University in D.C., and the author of the three volumes “A Marginal Jew” makes two related suggestions as to why it was important to study this issue. He first proposed that it is because “the life unexamined is not worth living” (quoting Plato). Maybe, maybe not. As Woody Allen has illustrated in film, examining one’s life can be quite painful and ignorance much more blissful. I can think of some people I know who would be clueless at the idea of examining their lives, but whom are among the happiest people I know, and visa versa.

Meier also argues that no religious person can claim themselves educated without investigating the historical Jesus. Poppycock. That’s just the sort of illogical drivel he spends the bulk of his book knocking down. It’s hard to believe after these first two paragraphs that I’m actually very impressed with his work, but in my opinion he has written the most readable, thoroughly researched and comprehensive effort of recent Jesus scholarship. Still, there were many conclusions he made which I felt he couldn’t support, or which supported other theories. But I’m not here to examine his work, but to review some of the possibilities of an historical Jesus and state my humble opinion. I do this because of the many educated people I’ve met, who believe that it is well documented that there was an historical Jesus (who is usually reckoned to have been born around 6-4 B.C. and died around 29-33 A.D., give or take) and those who argue that there is no proof he existed. I have big problems with both perspectives.

My personal reason for looking at this is just because it interests me, as reading on the JFK assassination interests me too (I haven’t read the most recent mammoth work, but I already feel fairly convinced that Oswald acted alone). With Jesus, as with so many other figures, you have to first readily acknowledge that we will never know for sure, and it doesn't really matter in anyone's day to day lives. If a group of universally esteemed religious figures, historians and anthropologists from the Pope to Indiana Jones, suddenly found verifiable and confirming evidence that Jesus Christ was the one and only messiah, it wouldn’t matter anymore than it would if they found proof that the resurrection was a hoax, and the evangelists were just angry at Judas, who owed them a lot of shekels. Those who believe in Jesus will wave a dismissive hand and continue to believe, and those who don’t will smirk and say “Told you so”. But the overwhelming idea of Jesus, real or not, has been with us for nearly 2,000 years and cannot be extricated from our culture very easily.

As proof of this, crypts purportedly bearing the names Mary, Jesus (son of Joseph), Mary Magdalene and Jesus and the latter two's purported sons were discovered over a quarter century ago, but were revealed to the public only recently. The excitement of it lasted a mere news cycle, and despite the attempts of famous film maker, James Cameron, to publicize it, has not put a dent in the appreciation for Jesus among Christians, whether they are true believers or not. Why would it? We cannot know if it is a later hoax, or if the names were similar enough to come up by chance (unlikely in my view), etc. My analysis below doesn't consider the crypts because I believe it is still too early to weigh their significance, if any.

Lack of firm proof about an ancient figures' existence is not a strange circumstance, even going back a few hundred years. In fact, as far as I know, there is no literature concerning Buddha of which we have any record until at least a half millennium after his supposed life and death. Proof of the major figures in the Old Testament is similarly problematic. However Moses and Buddha, should they have existed, lived many hundreds of years before Jesus. The closer we get to now, the more likely there will be more evidence.

What evidence do we have of Jesus’ existence? Let’s break it up into smaller categories. First, evidence from people during the time Jesus was supposed to have lived; second, evidence from after his death by people who would have known him; third, evidence from people who would have some probability of knowing Jesus’ companions; and, fourth, evidence from people who were alive at the same time as Jesus’ companions, but did not likely know them.

Evidence from Jesus’ lifetime: This first category is easiest – there is none. Not the gospels (canonical or otherwise) or any other part of the New Testament appears to have been written during the life of Jesus. It would be strange if it had. Jesus, presuming he existed (and I do, by the way) was certainly not that well known, and his death and reported resurrection was the most important part of his claim to fame. There would have been little reason to write about him before that. Although there is certainly evidence of people existing who were in the gospel (e.g., Herod, Pilate), that is not proof of Jesus’ existence anymore than if I now write a fictional story about a 21st century messiah which includes George Bush and Howard Stern as characters.

Evidence after Jesus’ death from those who knew him during his life: The natural guess would be from the apostles, the dozen plus (one replaced Judas) who were in the inner circle. There are those who advocate, including the Catholic Church, that, at least the evangelists Matthew and John were the apostles of the same name. I don’t believe the likely evidence bears this out, as discussed below, so I tend to believe this category must also be empty, although by no means impossible. I should point out that most of the scholars I have read on this topic are religious people themselves, often Catholic, who separate history from their faith. I have no problem with a perspective that is based on faith provided it is also based on some attempt at evidence and not just “thou shalt believe”.

The third category, evidence from after his death but by people who knew Jesus’ companions is a little more helpful, although, at the same time, much more complicated. Because the four gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (no coverage of the apocryphal gospels here, which almost certainly all came later) come before Paul’s letters in the Bible, many people believe that they were written first. Most of the credible evidence seems to point to the contrary, although, as with everything in the Bible, there is always a different opinion, usually many. One of the most compelling considerations is that it would seem difficult to believe that Paul himself would not have mentioned the evangelists’ accounts in some fashion were they already written.

Paul, or St. Paul, certainly did not know Jesus. He supposedly had his epiphany while on the road to Damascus in order to persecute the late Jesus’ followers, the yet unnamed Christians, when he was temporarily struck blind by Jesus’ spirit (he literally saw the light), got a very stereotypical Jewish sounding guilt trip from his spirit (Oh, Paul, why do you persecute me?), and became a believer. Leaving aside the fact that some of Paul’s letters contained in the Bible are no longer deemed by some scholars to be his own work, he was, according to well authenticated letters (by convention), acquainted with at least James and Simon (aka Peter, the Rock) of Jesus' companions.

Some information about Paul derived from his own letters differs enough from information about the Paul of Acts of the Apostles such that more than one scholar (including one of my favorite classicists, Michael Grant) has concluded that the Paul (originally Saul) of Acts of the Apostles, was not the same person as the Paul who wrote what are now called Ephesians, Romans, etc. Even seeking evidence of Jesus from the earliest commentators we are confounded by riddles within riddles. It is not for nothing that history has been called “argument without end” by historian Pieter Geyl.

Since this is a blog, not a book, let’s presume for arguments sake that it’s the same Paul, which is the convention, in any event. His life was certainly chaotic; he was chased out of towns, stoned and jailed among other things and appears to have shied away from no argument, including with so esteemed a Christian as Simon Peter. It was possibly first from Paul (again, ignoring the order in the New Testament) that a larger audience of converts, and ultimately, we, learned of the Last Supper, the crucification, the resurrection and Jesus’ supposed descent from King David (which only one of the evangelists held to be the case). No doubt, Paul would have learned of these things from Jesus’ followers, as it seems unlikely that the Romans were talking about it amongst themselves. Thus, unless Paul was involved in some bizarre conspiracy to create a Jesus myth out of whole cloth or was the victim of such a conspiracy, both which seem incredible, and of which there is no evidence, his non-eyewitness testimony is among the best evidence we have for Jesus’ existence.

Paul died in the mid-60’s A.D., conventionally either 64 or 67 A.D., several years before the appearance, as many scholars believe, of the earliest of the four canonical gospels.

The order the gospels were written in is especially controversial. According to one theory cleaved to by some scholars (but far from all) Mark was the first of the three synoptic (or similar) evangelists -- Mark, Matthew and John. It cannot be known whether he is the same Mark who was a companion of Peter’s (after Jesus’ death), a companion of Paul’s, or both. The same can be said for Luke, who is believed to be the author of both the Gospel of Luke and Acts, both of which were dedicated to Theophilos (meaning friend/lover of God and possibly a metaphor) and who also may also have been Paul’s companion. The single name only shtick in the Bible makes it tough on historians.

As for Matthew, who other scholars believe to be the first evangelist, he may have been, in fact, the same Matthew the tax collector called by Jesus and made an apostle. I cannot subscribe to this opinion, as I believe that if it were true, his gospel would have been written and known before Paul’s letter’s, would have been given greater prominence among the gospels as being written by an actual witness, and would have given his work such credibility, that it would have made no sense for the other gospels, particularly Mark and Luke, to have differed from him in personal details about Jesus’ life. Given that, and my own review of the scholarship which tries to ascertain who borrowed from whom (all interesting, but highly speculative), I would hold with scholars who believe that Mark proceeded both Matthew and Luke, and, if the author of Matthew lived at the same time as Jesus, he was not an eyewitness to the events. Admittedly, my own opinion is heavily biased by writers who seem to me to be the most objective.

In any event, there is probably a rough consensus among modern scholars that Mark, Matthew and Luke were written between 70 and 90 A.D. (although I cannot hedge enough). It must also be noticed that many scholars do not presume that the evangelists knew Jesus’ companions at all, but only that there was a tradition or traditions about Jesus that they utilized. Sometimes, a source or group of traditions which underlie Matthew and Luke are referred to as Q, which is not meant to mean a specific person. No documentary proof of Q exists, however, and I have grave doubts about it.

The fourth category is those who may have been alive at the same time as Jesus’ companions, but did not know them. Among them, I would include John, whose gospel is not one of the synoptic (or fairly similar) gospels and was probably written somewhere between 90-110 A.D. ( again, a rough modern consensus), although there are arguments for as early as 50 A.D., which I personally doubt. People who hold for the earlier date believe it was written or at least taken from the testimony of the Apostle John, and the earliest of the four. This gospel stands out from the other three authors in that John deems Jesus as more than just the Messiah, but one with God, and, in some authors’ opinion, is the most Christian (some also say most anti-Semitic) of the four gospels.

I can’t see putting John in a category where the author would have likely known those who were Jesus’ companions or eyewitness, both because its late date and its many differences from the other three evangelists’ works, from which John takes little except the broadest information. The earliest papyrus fragment existing containing John's gospel is usually dated about 125 A.D., although this is, of course, problematic too. John 21, sometimes called the “appendix” to John, refers to the death of Peter (like Paul, likely also in the late 60’s A.D.), which leads to the more likely conclusion that, if written at the same time as the rest of John, it probably was not written before the other gospels. Then again, it is called the appendix for a reason, and may have been written later than the rest of John (the so-called “appendix” to the “appendix” also lists the evangelist’s death).

Certainly in the last category of those being alive at the same time as Jesus’ companions, but without knowing them, is Josephus, who wrote about the Jews under the Romans somewhere around 100 A.D. There are perhaps three references in Josephus’ two books to Jesus, however, the one sometimes said to be in The Jewish Wars appears almost beyond doubt to be a later addition by a Christian as it speaks of Jesus as one with God in glorious, religious, terms, very much differently from the first occurrence, and, more importantly, occurs only in a much later Russian version, not any of the original ones.

In Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, however, another reference is made to Jesus in passing while discussing the stoning of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” At the least, this is evidence that this Jewish, but at the time he wrote, pro-Roman historian, seemingly without a dog in the fight, and who was writing within a long lifetime after the events of the passion would have occurred, believed Jesus to be an historical figure. The third reference, also in Antiquities is also of extremely doubtful authenticity. Of course, some scholars even believe that the shortest reference to Jesus was a later interpolation as well. I disagree.

Interestingly, Josephus writes in much greater depth about John the Baptist, which would seem to lead to the conclusion that he considered him to have been a far more important religious figure than Jesus. Both John and Jesus, presuming they were ever alive, were certainly dead years before Josephus was born around 37 A.D. Although it is possible that he knew some of Jesus’ companions, there is no mention of them, other than the one reference to Jesus’ brother, and that does not contain any eyewitness information. Josephus wrote at roughly the same time as the earliest gospels.

Some mention must be given to Tacitus as well. His Annals, a history of the Roman Empire during part of the first century A.D., were written near the end of his life, thus in the first part of the second century. He also mentions Jesus in passing (referring to Christians being persecuted by the Roman Emperor Nero, who reigned from 54 A.D. to 68 A.D.) as being executed by Pontius Pilate, but shows no sign of having even any second degree information. Born around 56 A.D., Tacitus may have known early Christians, but his opinion of them was so low (he described their religion as an “evil”) that it seems highly unlikely. It appears to me he is merely an historian (although one of the most important) as opposed to say, even a second degree source. Unfortunately, there are many lost books of the Annals, including one which would have very likely covered the time period of Jesus’ ministry and trial (probably around 29 A.D. – 31 A.D.). You never know what may turn up in an excavation someday, so there may be more from this source at a later date.

In all, there is far more evidence than is necessary for me to believe that Jesus was an historical person and that he was initially important to at least a small group of followers. There is no reason to doubt that the gospels and other biblical material such as Paul’s letters do not contain at least secondary historical information just because they also have religious import. Frankly, if we know absolutely nothing of Jesus except from that one phrase by Josephus concerning his brother, James, we would almost certainly assume it was history, not fiction.

Not believing Jesus to have been historical also leaves a pretty big problem. Where did his Christian followers come from and why would they create this story and religion at such great risk to their lives and well being?

Once again, let me give a great big, who knows? Certainly not me, but I do like to read about this stuff, and am always impressed by the level of scholarship in a very gray area. Next week’s -- Marvin the Martian: Historical Fact or Warner Bros.’ hoax?

Abidih, abideh . . . that’s all folks.

Postscript: While writing this blog I began to wonder if I might be the only one to find it interesting. I shouldn't have given it any thought. Just prior to hitting publish for this post, I went online to double check a documentary fact and was surprised to see any number of blogs covering it. Apparently, lots of people are interested. Good. I can only hope that my recitation is more objective than the few I perused.

1 comment:

  1. PBS did a great series on this. I have the DVD, which you should watch. Was hoping for something new... alas was not to be. Ambiguity is boring, Franklin.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .