Was there a Jesus? If so, what was he like?


In many cases, you can strip away the fictions surrounding a legendary figure, and discover the historical original.

For example, there probably was a King Arthur.

Troy was a real place, and the Trojan War a real event. Achilles, Odysseus and Agamemnon were probably real people.

What about the Jesus of the Bible?

Circumstantial evidence exists to suggest there probably was such a person. Textual evidences are available to suggest what he may have been like. He may or may not have been as Christianity presents.

Circumstantial evidence

There is no direct evidence of a historical Jesus apart from Christian sources. Indirect or circumstantial evidence is available from other known facts, including these:

(1) In 90 C.E., the Council of Jamnia — the supreme religious authority in Judaism at the time — expelled Christians from the synagogue.

(2) The Gospels were written between 70 C.E. and 100 C.E. Classicists base those dates not on the dates of the manuscripts or papyri, nor on paleography, but rather on the texts themselves and external historical evidence. Paul’s letters are earlier.

(3) In 63 C.E., Nero blamed the Christians in Rome for the Great Fire. There must have been many there, for him to do this.

(4) There were Christians in Rome prior to Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

(5) Some of the letters the New Testament attributes to Paul, such as 1 and 2 Timothy, are probably pseudoepigraphical. That is, someone else wrote them “in the name of” Paul, or “in his spirit.” Others, including Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians, are unquestionably Paul’s own work. That is, there was a real person named Paul who wrote them. There is no other conclusion to be drawn, if one takes the texts seriously.

(6) Paul reports interactions with the Twelve Disciples. Then they must be historical also.

These facts aren’t creations of the Christian myth. They are taught in secular universities just as I have reported them here, no differently than the church has taught. If there was no Jesus, where did the Twelve come from? Where do the mists of mythologization stop and concrete realities begin? The simplest and best way to account for all these facts is to conclude that Jesus probably did live.

This proposition in and of itself does not confirm anything that Christianity says about him.

Textual evidence

If one assumes a historical Jesus, one can ask what he was like.

Examination of the textual evidence follows these steps:

  • Strip away everything the church says about him — all the theology.
  • Strip away everything Paul and the other epistles say about him, which except in Paul’s case isn’t much.
  • Discard the Gospel of John. The Jesus who speaks in John does not sound at all like the Jesus who speaks in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke). His style of language is completely different. John’s Jesus is, in effect, a literary character whom the author created to propound various doctrines. The book confesses its purpose to be not to record Jesus’ life, but rather to persuade the reader of what had by that time (~95 C.E.) become the teachings of the church (John 20:30-31). John’s Gospel includes passages of literary and theological genius, but few if any authentic sayings of Jesus.
  • In the Synoptics, attend only to the sayings attributed to Jesus himself.

This done, one immediately finds that Jesus’ parables are of two kinds. Many, like the Parable of the Yeast and that of the Mustard Seed, are short and pithy, almost riddles. Others, like that of the Sower and of the Prodigal Son, are longer, elaborate allegories. If one were to sort the parables into two documents on that basis and examine them side by side, it would quickly become apparent that the two documents cannot have the same author. Whoever said those things cannot have said these.

The teachings present in the two documents differ, also.

One document appears far more likely than the other to be the real words of a real person — one real person, not several. He is markedly different from the Jesus of Paul or the Christ of the church.

The Jesus Seminar undertook a far more exhaustive, thorough and rigorous examination of the sayings attributed to Jesus, using criteria that were already well established. Those criteria are well summarized in an article at Wikipedia, here. I wish to expound further on two of them now.

The criterion of multiple attestation

In a court of law, different eyewitnesses to the same event will offer different testimonies about the event. The more witnesses who attest to any particular detail, the more likely is that detail to be historical.

The Synoptic Gospels include the testimony of four “witnesses:”

  • Mark was the earliest of the Gospels. Matthew and Luke each had a copy of Mark and copied from it extensively word for word.
  • The Matthew source (“M”) consists of additional material to which only Matthew had access; such as the Parable of the Bridesmaids.
  • The Luke source (“L”) consists of additional material to which only Luke had access; such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
  • “Q” (from the German word “Quelle,” meaning “source”) is a body of additional material to which only Matthew and Luke had access; such as the Beatitudes.

The Teaching on Divorce occurs twice in Matthew. Do they come from the same source? There are many sayings about “the greatest and the least.” How many witnesses attest to each?

If two sayings are similar, determining their source depends on a word-by-word comparison of the texts. Only if a given word occurs only in Matthew, is “M” the source. Only if a given word occurs only in Luke, is “L” the source. Only if a word occurs in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, is “Q” the source.

If a saying is found in, say, “M” alone, it is counted as attested to by one witness. If it is found in both “M” and “Q,” it is attested to by two witnesses. Some may be found in three witnesses, some in four. But because Matthew and Luke are assumed to have copied from Mark; if the exact same word occurs in all three Gospels, there are not three witnesses, but one — Mark.

The accompanying illustration shows a word-by-word comparison, and source analysis, of the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

The criterion of inconvenience

This is also called the “criterion of embarrassment.” Any witness can make up testimony that flatters himself or herself. He or she will not make up testimony inconvenient to himself or herself. Thus the latter is more likely than the former to be historical.

In Mark, the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels, the disciples (the “Twelve”) are often portrayed as anxious, contentious, fearful, and not understanding what Jesus tells them. One finds fewer of such “warts” in their portraits in the somewhat later Matthew, and still fewer in the still later Luke. It appears that, these individuals being the pillars and heroes of the Christian community, it was felt that they needed to be held on pedestals and never portrayed as undignified. Some texts clearly display a polishing of their images over time.

In Mark, at one point James and John approach Jesus asking that they be appointed to exalted positions in his Kingdom. The others of the Twelve take offense at this presumption, and Jesus rebukes them all sharply. By the time Matthew was written, apparently the author found it unseemly to attribute such a request to James and John themselves; he attributes the request instead to their nameless mother. In turn, by the time Luke was written, that author found the story too unseemly to report at all.

The resurrection appearance stories pose a problem: no claim is made that the risen Jesus ever appeared to anyone but believers. Thus the reports all come only from those whom the reports tend to flatter.

Such considerations weigh into decisions of which sayings attributed to Jesus are likely to be historical.

Different methods, same results

The very informal approach I described at the beginning of this article yields much the same results as the far more rigorous approach used by the Jesus Seminar. Years ago, when the Jesus Seminar announced its conclusion that only roughly 12.5% of the sayings attributed to Jesus were actually said by him, my immediate response was, “That sounds about right.”

The Wikipedia article says:

“The seminar’s reconstruction of the historical Jesus portrayed him as an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage and faith healer who preached a gospel of liberation from injustice in startling parables and aphorisms. An iconoclast, Jesus broke with established Jewish theological dogmas and social conventions both in his teachings and behaviors, often by turning common-sense ideas upside down, confounding the expectations of his audience: He preached of ‘Heaven’s imperial rule’ (traditionally translated as ‘Kingdom of God’) as being already present but unseen; he depicts God as a loving father; he fraternizes with outsiders and criticizes insiders. According to the seminar, Jesus was a mortal man born of two human parents, who did not perform nature miracles nor die as a substitute for sinners nor rise bodily from the dead. * * * Rather than revealing an apocalyptic eschatology, which instructs his disciples to prepare for the end of the world, the fellows argue that the authentic words of Jesus indicate that he preached a sapiential eschatology, which encourages all of God’s children to repair the world.”

I dissent from those conclusions on two points.

First, as to “nature miracles,” it appears to me that, albeit a mere man, Jesus was perfectly capable of psychokinesis (“mind over matter”). Spiritual healing itself is a form of psychokinesis.

Second, “sapiential eschatology” appears to refer principally to conditions of society. Jesus’ authentic teachings appear to me instead principally to address conditions of the individual psyche. The “kingdom of God,” which he compared to a “pearl of great price” and a “treasure in a field;” that which he exhorted followers to “seek first;” was a state that can be called “peace of mind,” and is tantamount to what the Recovery Movement calls “serenity.” His teachings were designed to enable any disciple to attain that state. He is not by any means the only person ever to have taught these things; in our time, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Scott Morrison, among others, have taught the same. The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast provide metaphors of the social effects of the presence of any number of persons who have established profound intrapersonal coherence (integrity or “faith”) and harmony.

SCRIPTURE REFERENCES

The Banquet — Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:15-24
The Beatitudes — Matthew 5:3-11, Luke 6:20-26
The Bridesmaids — Matthew 25:1-13
The Confession of Peter — Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30, Luke 9:18-20
The Good Samaritan — Luke 10:25-37
The Mustard Seed — Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19
The Prodigal Son — Luke 15:11-32
The Request of James and John — Matthew 20:20-27, Mark 10:35-45
The Sower — Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20
The Teaching about Divorce — Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9
The Yeast — Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:21

(Originally published 2013-04-09 at Yahoo! Voices.)

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