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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Did Jesus exist?

J.C. meets the 9/11 nuts. A few months back, the sad Jared Lee Loughner incident brought increased attention to one of his influences, a strange 2007 film called Zeitgeist which became a viral sensation on the internet. You can watch it here.

In earlier posts, I argued that, although Loughner may have suffered from schizophrenia, he worsened his condition by avid consumption of psychotoxic material like Zeitgeist. This is a work of surreal stupidity. Its popularity among conspiracy buffs leaves me filled with despair over the sad state of American dissent.

The filmmaker, one Peter Joseph, seems to have had a hard time choosing a topic. His film has three: The historicity of Jesus, the alleged "controlled demolition" of the twin towers, and the evils wrought by those pesky "international bankers." (In conspiracy buffdom, that phrase is usually code for you-know-which-group.)

Since this is Easter Sunday, let's stick with the Jesus material.

The first part of Joseph's movie derives from a book called The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, the author of which is a "scholar" who goes by the not-terribly-promising pseudonym of Archaya X. Her real name, it seems, is D.M. Murdoch. X (or is it D?) believes in the theory that Jesus never existed. She thinks that the gospel story is a mystical fiction cribbed from earlier mythologies.

This idea has become popular with a growing number of young pseudo-hipsters. These cocksure, ill-read kids exemplify the phrase "a little learning is a dangerous thing." They constitute the primary audience for Zeitgeist.

Not long ago, I heard a talk by renowned Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who ran into some pseudo-hipsters of this sort. In this case, they were Swedish. Not only did they accept the Jesus myth theory, they seemed to think that it was the only alternative to belief in Biblical literalism. They were surprised to learn that Ehrman -- a recovering fundamentalist who now calls himself an agnostic -- nevertheless stipulates the historicity of Jesus.

Incidentally, Ehrman's position is shared by the vast majority of New Testament scholars -- many of whom are as irreligious as Ehrman is.

The work of these scholars remains invisible to a whole generation of haughty young numbskulls who do not realize that they have bought into a false dichotomy. These dolts seem to think that one must choose between the Jimmy Swaggart version of reality or the Archaya X version of reality.

In fact, both of those realities are indefensible.

History. The "Jesus myth" hypothesis, as it has been called, is nothing new. It goes back to a couple of French Enlightenment thinkers named Constantin-François Volney and Charles François Dupuis. (Here's Dupuis' book, if you care to skim it.) In the early 19th century, wits mocked the pseudo-scholarship of those two gentlemen by mounting similar arguments to "prove" that Napoleon Bonaparte was a myth -- even though Boney was, at the time, still alive and puttering around St. Helena.

The "Jesus Myth" theory thus had an inauspicious start.

Toward the end of the 19th century, one Bruno Bauer took up the idea. (I first encountered the theory by way of Bauer, back in my college days.) Bauer hated Jews passionately, and he managed to conflate his pet theory about Jesus with his anti-Semitism.

Ever since that time, the Jesus Myth theory has had a following among anti-Semites of a certain stripe. Perhaps the disturbing Bauer legacy explains why Peter Joseph (staunch enemy of those "international bankers") finds the theory so attractive.

In recent times, the Jesus Myth hypothesis has also had some prominent followers who are not bigots.

Among the more interesting thinkers to explore this position are John Allegro (who thought that early Christianity was a mushroom cult -- no, I'm not kidding) and Bertrand Russell. Among the least interesting are the ever-annoying Christopher Hitchens and the supremely dull Richard Dawkins, a classic blowhard who often pretends to know all about topics he hasn't researched.

(When will the BBC learn not to use Dawkins as a talking head? The man never has anything to say that cannot be predicted with 100% accuracy.)

New Testament scholar Robert Price is a "myth" guy. He is worth reading. But he confesses that his is a minority position.

Zeitgeist. Peter Joseph's version of the Jesus Myth theory is the most thoroughly bonkers rendition ever offered. Like most modern conspiracy theorists, Joseph thinks that adopting the persona of a radical outsider gives him the right to concoct facts out of whole cloth. When I first saw the film, I considered offering a point-by-point refutation. Fortunately, that job has already been done, and done well, by a fellow named Edward L. Winston (who has no discernible religious ax to grind). Go here.

Let's look at an example. This comes from the Joseph's film:
Broadly speaking, the story of Horus is as follows: Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east, which in turn, three kings followed to locate and adorn the new-born savior. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry. Horus had 12 disciples he traveled about with, performing miracles such as healing the sick and walking on water. Horus was known by many gestural names such as The Truth, The Light, God's Anointed Son, The Good Shepherd, The Lamb of God, and many others. After being betrayed by Typhon, Horus was crucified, buried for 3 days, and thus, resurrected..
If you know anything at all about Egyptology, you'll see right away that Joseph pulls nearly all of these facts straight out of...well, out of an orifice which Aleister Crowley jokingly called "the eye of Horus."

Hit Google, hit the library, double check what I'm about to say as thoroughly as you can: You won't prove me wrong. Horus was not born on December 25. His Mom Isis was no virgin; she was married to a guy named Osiris, who may or may not have spent some time trapped in a tree stump (depending on which version of the myth you prefer). Horus was never called the Good Shepherd or the Lamb of God or any of that crap.

Sweet merciful Ra, where did Peter Joseph come up with the notion that Horus was crucified? No ancient Egyptian ever wrote down a story like that. I don't know of any ancient myth that has Horus trotting across H2O or teaching at the age of twelve or gathering twelve disciples.

Bottom line: Nearly every word that Peter Joseph has written is pure crap. His entire movie operates on this same low level. The guy is a toon.

Most of the time, I applaud those who offer quirky, outside-the-mainstream views. We need more people who, when handed a sheet of lined paper, insist on writing the other way. But alternative thinkers must still be thinkers. They have to have standards. History isn't Calvinball: You can't just make it up as you go along.

So. Now that we've swatted the behinds of infants like Peter Joseph and Archaya X, let's get back to the main question. Did Jesus exist?

Setting a date. I may be a layman, but I've been reading about the origins of the New Testament since the 1970s. I feel certain that Jesus did exist. I also believe that oral testimony from eyewitnesses mutated over time. The anecdotes in circulation became encrusted with spurious and legendary material added by early Christian writers who allowed their nascent theology to color the facts.

That position, as mentioned previously, is held by most modern scholars.

I differ from them only in questioning their late dating of the four Gospels. Most scholars place Luke after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70; many would place all four Gospels after that date. But what is the evidence for this contention?

Near as I can tell, the argument all comes down to those passages in Luke which predict the destruction of the holy city. There are three such passages in the book. Here's one from the 21st chapter:
And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.
And that, friends, is it. That is the reason why scholars date Luke after the year 70: The prophecy came true, therefore the text must have been written after the event.

Alas, many NT scholars are, like Ehrman, escapees from the restrictive religious traditions of their earlier years. Quite understandably, these guys don't want to concede any territory to the blinkered reactionaries who once made their lives miserable. Thus, they reason: If we date Luke before AD 70, we are allowing for the possibility that Jesus really did possess supernatural powers. And we can't have that!


We need not admit a supernatural explanation. You don't need ESP to make an accurate forecast. Jesus, or the writer of Luke, may simply have made a logical deduction based on a ground-level knowledge of political reality.

As early as 2005, I predicted that the housing bubble would turn into a disaster. I don't possess mystical powers; I simply reasoned that home prices could not continue to rise while wages remained stagnant.

There were several revolts against Rome before the great war of 66-70; Josephus discusses an earlier uprising led by an Egyptian Jew, who also rates a mention in the book of Acts (21:38). The Jesus movement originated in Galilee, a hotbed of anti-Roman sentiment. I have no problem believing that Jesus -- or his early followers -- sniffed the air and smelled revolution. They came to the sensible conclusion that Rome would win.

There's your explanation for Luke 21. The book could have been written in AD 60 or 50 or even earlier. We simply have no way to know.

But I don't think it was written after the fall of Jerusalem. Think about it: If the above-quoted passage were written after AD 70, then Luke (whoever he was) would not have hesitated to crow about the fulfillment of the prophecy. The Gospel writers certainly were never shy about shouting the first century equivalent of "He shoots; he scores!"

Anne Rice (of all people) once wrote some wise words along these lines. She noted that there are zero concrete, unmistakable after-the-fact references to the destruction of Jerusalem to be found anywhere in the New Testament. The loss of the war was an awe-inspiring, shattering event -- yet the NT authors don't talk about it. Therefore, she reasoned, most of the NT material was probably written earlier.

That argument makes sense to me.

Please understand: Positing an earlier date for these texts doesn't mean that guys like Tim LaHaye are anything other than a bunch of silly-billies. Heck, they're almost as silly as Peter Joseph.

(Yes, I know that the earliest extant copy of the complete New Testament dates to the Fourth century. So? The earliest extant copy of Julius Caesar's The Gallic Wars dates to 900 A.D. That fact doesn't make Caesar a myth.)

So why do I think Jesus was real? The Gospels are filled with funky details that make no sense as fiction. For example, there's the famous lacuna at Mark 10:46:
And they come to Jericho: and as he went out from Jericho, with his disciples and a great multitude, the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the way side.
He goes in, he goes out... For centuries, scholars have suggested that a "Jericho story" once existed here.

No ancient writer of fiction would have strewn his narrative with the messy, inessential details that abound in the Gospels. I've certainly never seen a myth with this kind of stuff in it.

You can feel the hand of a narrative artist on every page of Homer and Virgil. The Gospels, by contrast, are rough-hewn and stitched together, filled with contradictions, stylistic shifts and endless streams of needless trivia.

The notorious formal weirdness of John -- just try to make sense of the thing chronologically -- tells me that some more-or-less factual bits and pieces, gathered from a number of sources (oral and written), have been stitched together with some legendary material and a lot of concocted ex-post-facto sermonizing (e.g., the big after-dinner speech).

So how can we know which bits are reliable history and which are not? We can't. Not with any certainty.

Scholars break up each Gospel -- each speech, each mini-story -- into discrete pieces. "Pericope" is the term of art. Determining which pericopes "feel real" and which do not is a fuzzy, frustrating business. It certainly is not a hard science.

But logic gives us some guidelines. Most scholars offer these three rules:

1. The rule of chronology. Earlier texts are considered more reliable than later ones.

2. The rule of multiplicity. If a story shows up in all four Gospels -- and, even better, in non-Gospel sources -- it is more likely to be true than if it shows up in only one Gospel.

3. The rule of embarrassment. If a story would have inconvenienced an early Christian -- if it made the faith look dubious, if it gave a proselytizer a "lotta 'splainin' to do" -- then, paradoxically enough, that story is likely to be true. Think about it. Why include so humiliating a story as Peter's denial if it isn't true?

Consider the crucifixion. It appears in all four Gospels, including Mark, which is probably the earliest of the texts. The crucifixion is mentioned in the Pauline epistles, which were probably written before Mark. So from the standpoint of Rule 1 and Rule 2, the crucifixion of Jesus seems likely to have been a real event. And the fact that the religion's founder was executed as a criminal certainly brings the rule of embarrassment into play.

Consider, as well, the baptism by John, which is described in all of our sources. It's a somewhat embarrassing story point because it places John in the "mentor" (or sensei) position over Jesus. Conclusion: The basic account probably has a factual basis -- but certain details, such as the descent of the dove (not mentioned in the earliest text) were probably added to lessen the embarrassment factor.

The despairing cry of "Why have you forgotten me?" comes under the third rule. So do the passages where the apostles jockey to be "the big cheese" in heaven. A fiction writer intent on propagating a new myth simply would not have concocted such difficult, cheek-reddening material.

Now consider the raising of Lazarus, a story which isn't mentioned in the synoptic Gospels. It appears only in John, the last Gospel written. The tale's absence from all other texts is downright suspicious. And there's no embarrassment factor at work here -- at least, none that I can discern.

All three of our rules render the Lazarus pericope very suspect.

I would offer a fourth rule: The rule of likelihood. Is the tale injurious to common sense?

To illustrate my point, let's posit that an extra-canonical Jesus text turns up at Oxyrinchus. It isn't much of a text -- just a small, difficult-to-read scrap of paper from the first century. But it does mention Jesus. (A few items of that sort have turned up over the years.)

The passage reads: "And then Jesus and four of disciples walked to Caesaria Philippi, where they stayed with a man named Benjamin."

Would you consider this passage historical? Or at least credible?

Before you answer, let's suppose that we also find another passage which reads a bit differently. It says: "Jesus flew to Caesaria by flapping his arms like a bird."

Which passage seems more believable to you? Obviously, we can't know whether the "walking" version is true, but, on its face, it certainly seems more credible than does the "flying" version.

Rule 4 makes the Crucifixion easy to believe. Lots of guys back then were crucified. But the Resurrection -- well, that's a Rule 4 toughie.

If you have faith, I suppose, Rule 4 considerations simply won't matter to you.
I see. You believe Jesus existed. You also believe the planes of 9/11 existed even after September Clues. When will you write the definitive post proving the existence of the Easter Bunny? Can't wait for that one.
According to the Koran God sent an angle who looked like jesus down. So the Romans thought they were crucifying Jesus when in fact it wasn't him, and of course angles don't die, not on the stake anyway.
Jesus, the Free Market, the Clinton murder spree, what is with our need to believe in myths?
Nice post for Easter. Happy feasting, those who celebrate the wonderful pagan tradition ingrained in our human psyche.

Joseph, you should check out King Jesus, by Robert Graves, for a compelling reinvention of Jesus' reinvention I mean, creative imagining of a completely plausible version.

Robert Graves also annotated/cowrote a "corrected" New Testament, which I haven't read.
Bless you, Joseph, for what may be one of your most thoughtful posts yet.

But since you referenced the grinning Tucson madman in the same post, I feel it's only fair to ask the reciprocal question, "Did Jared Lee Loughner really exist?"

Check here and see:

Andy Tyme
Did Jesus exist?
That may depend on who you mean by Jesus. A man named Jehoshuah, whose life mirrors Jesus in many ways was born in 14 B.C. to a woman named Mary and whose father was Tonatha.
He spent the later years of his life preaching and healing the sick. He really got the bankers (moneylenders) pissed off at him and decided to leave town. There was no crucifixion. After sleeping for three days, to brace himself for the trip to come, he arose and addressing a large crowd who followed him around everywhere, he said, "I shall return," plus a few other sayings and was whisked off the Earth in a spaceship. He later returned with Mary Magdalen to France where they had a bunch of kids and started the Merovingian line of Kings.
2cents worth (maybe less).

1) Zee, I loved King Jesus. Fabulous fun and very thought provoking.

2) Probably worth remembering that early Christians were members of an illicit sect that would have been closely associated with the troublesome Jewish sect. In the years after the fall of Jerusalem, it would have been impolitic to mention that the Romans had destroyed the City utterly (if one believes Josephus then they were asking for it but thats not the point). Similar points can be made about the Pilate story. Better for Jews to kill Jesus/Joshua than Romans. Very bad politics to claim the dominant political authorities murdered God's only son. Better to edit those bits.

Wow, I haven't the slightest interest in this subject but managed to really enjoy your article. It has quite a length for a blog post so i assume you must be procrastinating from working on something else even bigger or at least better paying. So, thanks and happy hop-hop. And may the House of Guitars commercials continue to fill my/our dreams.
"The Gospels are filled with funky details that make no sense as fiction. For example, there's the famous lacuna at Mark 10:46..."

Do you think "Secret Mark" is spurious?

"And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them."

I guess it doesn't fill in much but it does reveal that Jesus was a bit of a jerk.
Eric: I picked that passage because, while writing, I was thinking of segueing into the Secret Mark controversy. But the post was already way too humungous.

Yeah, Smith faked it. I read a book last year -- can't recall the title; I'll look it up again -- which proved the point beyond rational debate.

The reference to Salome was one of several jokes that Smith sneaked into his hoax. The first thing you have to understand is that Smith was gay. He concocted his fraud to lessen the social stigma against homosexuality. ("Hey, even Jesus practiced gay sex..."

At the time Smith cobbled together his fraud, Oscar Wilde was the common reference point whenever the subject of homosexuality came up. That's why Smith worked in the name "Salome," even though his Salome was not Herod's daughter. That name was tossed in there as a sly wink to the shade of Oscar Wilde.

The REAL giveaway is the reference (in the "Secret Mark" material) to the "seven veils." That phrase takes us out of the ancient world and places us in modern times.

We've all grown up hearing about the dance of the seven veils. As a result, we think that those words are in the Biblical texts, or in some other ancient account.

Nope. Oscar Wilde came up with the phrase.

Incidentally, in a previous post which you may have missed, I said that the implied gay sex in Smith's passage was the origin of the "back to Jesus" movement.

Oh -- and you should look up the monastery of Mar Saba online. AMAZING artwork there! As far as I know, no art historian has made a proper study of those wall decorations.
Happy Easter, Joseph! Wonderful post!

Zee, I love King Jesus and all of Robert Graves's works. If you loved King Jesus, you may love Homer's Daughter, as well.

Joseph, I also love Calvin & Hobbs. "History isn't Calvinball: You can't just make it up as you go along." Well said, indeed, sir!

You think Jesus existed partly because,
'No ancient writer of fiction would have strewn his narrative with the messy, inessential details that abound in the Gospels'.
I have heard that argument before but that makes little sense. I had a class in college all about the Gospel of Mark. Best class I ever took. First class the Professor gave us a handout with all the known contemporary references to Jesus. It was less than one page.
Sure Josephus mentions Jesus but it sure looks suspect.
The random and mostly contradictory stories in the 4 Gospels makes Jesus' actual existence quite unlikely. But just my opinion as the contrary is to yours.
'So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.' (Mark 16:8 NRSV)
Marcus, I never understood the constant focus on non-NT references to Jesus. What on earth makes you think that there would BE any contemporary written references to a little-known oddball from a craphole like Galilee? A guy whose audience was almost entirely illiterate?

"The random and mostly contradictory stories in the 4 Gospels makes Jesus' actual existence quite unlikely."

Come on, Marcus. Stop mindlessly repeating what you've heard. Think critically and independently.

The "random factor" -- as you accurately call it -- makes his existence MORE likely.

Why? Because you do NOT see that random factor in fictional works from this period. Or any other period.

Read the large-scale fictions produced in the ancient world. Read the Aeneid. Daphnis and Chloe. The Metamorphosis. None of them are like the Gospels. Not even remotely.

Now imagine what it would be like to piece together a narrative about an obscure dead guy based on scattered texts (letters and so forth -- maybe Q, if you believe in Q theory) along with whatever first, second or third person oral accounts you can get hold of.

The result would be a lot like Mark, wouldn't it? A patchy, formless, quirky, odd and random piece of writing.

Writers of fiction instinctively impose form. They don't preserve details that have nothing to do with the larger narrative threads. They don't contradict themselves.

Fiction has a narrative structure. Real life is just one damned thing after another. And that's how Mark reads: One damned thing after another.

And if the whole story were myth, then why would the Gospels contradict each other? Think about it. Why are the Resurrection narratives different in subtle (and not so subtle) ways, while other stories have nearly word-for-word similarities?

If the story were myth, then why aren't the miraculous events more impressive, as they are in other myths? Many of the healings can be ascribed to what we now would call the placebo effect. If the writers were making it all up, they'd concoct some miracles with a bigger WOW factor.

I mean, go re-read Mark 11:1-11. The donkey thing. That's Mark's idea of a miracle. Big whoop. If he were making it all up, why not have Jesus do something REALLY cool, like conjuring up a donkey out of thin air? Or turning Mary Magdalene into a donkey? You know -- something with pizzazz.

Why would all the early enemies of Christianity stipulate the historicity of Jesus? See, for example, the snide references in the Talmud. Wouldn't it have been easier to say "Dude just didn't exist"?

Okay, I guess now we are playing the extracanonical game. A bit. In that light,
I would not lightly dismiss the Slavonic Jospehus (of which you seem unaware -- and no, we're NOT here talking about the disputed passage of which you ARE aware).

But really, we needn't go extracanonical. The writings of the NT are rather plentiful. How many ancient texts attest to the existence of, say, Phidias?

The NT writings were obviously made within a fairly brief historical period by a number of different authors. You have to account for this compilation of widely varying books and letters somehow.

Why would a mythmaker include that "Why have you forsaken me" line? Why would a mythmaker come up with a Jesus who could not perform a miracle in his hometown?

Look again at the healing of a blind man at Bethsaida in chapter 8 of Mark. Why would a mythmaker have Jesus using spit and dirt, and then failing the first time? Why would Mark (if he were writing fiction) have Jesus forbidding divorce, a move that could only piss off both Jewish and gentile audiences?

Face it: The proponents of the Jesus myth theory are no better than the proponents of Biblical inerrancy. They both disdain sound historical methodology. They are both motivated by polemical and emotional factors.

Look, I can understand being ticked off at fundamentalist knuckleheads. They piss me off too. Those people have ruined this country. But we can't let our antipathy for that type of person warp the objectivity of our research.

By the way, I'm well aware of the weird "in medias res" ending of Mark. In all likelihood, something went missing. In the days when people wrote scrolls, endings and beginnings sometimes got lost. But what the hell does THAT have to do with the historicity issue?

You're not thinking logically
"The people who put together the Old Testament used the Greek canon of Homer and Hesiod as a template."
Good post Joseph, I more or less agree. I studied the bible, primarily the old testament, in college (Religious Studies degree). My doubt about the existence of Jesus began there. I found quite a wealth of books (mostly from the 50's and 60's) questioning the notion of his having been a real, historical person. In good scholarly fashion, they came to no conclusions, but simply laid out their case methodically and logically. For myself, I go back and forth on this one, based on new information (and old information I haven't seen before). In the end, it's nearly impossible to say for certain one way or the other. I agree though, that the adherents of the "Jesus never existed" variety are more than a little difficult to argue with, just like the "Bible is infallible" folks. The Bible is definitely a patchwork quilt, of various sources and tales, but you are correct that it lacks a narrative structure (though people impose it in their minds, which leads to all sorts of inaccurate assertions). Also, there were many changes and alterations over the years by scribes and monks and whatnot, further obscuring the original texts. Not to mention translation issues with the earliest versions. Anyway, I lean more towards the idea that a real person was the basis for the New Testament than that it was all just made up, but I also do feel that previous religions mythology found there way in there as well (which still wouldn't discount it, of course).
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