“As for the story of Jesus, there were at least 50 gospels written in the first and second century CE. Four of them (Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John) were included in the official canon during the fourth century CE and are found today in every Bible. All of the original copies of the gospels were lost. What we have now are handwritten copies, which are an unknown number of replications removed from the originals.”
Background: Were I to point to a single evidence stream to substantiate my description of insecurity at the base of Christianity it would be the more that two centuries-long search for evidence to prove existence of the central figure of that religion, Jesus. This is precisely what is represented by the Search for the Historical Jesus begun during the 18th century Enlightenment and continuing even today. Certainly hints of “insecurity” are present in earlier Christian history: Paul, for instance, forced repeatedly to put off the parousia; or Augustine needing to explain, “that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” But the search by modern Christian scholars to prove Jesus’ existence, a quest embarked upon almost immediately “historical” tools arrived with the Age of Reason, leaves little doubt regarding unease at the heart of the religion pointing directly to Christian Insecurity.
As always in discussing matters regarding issues the Christian religion I rely entirely on Christian authors to advance the discussion.
“We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.”
Rudolf Bultmann, German theologian
P52, a papyrus fragment from one of the earliest know NT manuscripts (90-160)
“The Quest” of our title takes its name from Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book, History of Life of Jesus Research which was translated into English as The Quest for the Historical Jesus. While the term “quest” is relatively new, the effort to uncover evidence for a historical Jesus has been ongoing since the earliest days of the Enlightenment.
Evolution of the Search: Hermann Samuel Reimarus (d. 1768) is most credited with initiating the Search with his, “An apology for, or some words in defense of, reasoning worshipers of God,” perhaps his last work and only appearing in fragments in a work by Lessing around 1776 (US Declaration of Independence, for time reference). An early example of the drive behind the Search is represented by Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. Jefferson wrote his, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, (1819), In which he admires Jesus for ethics but concludes that the miracles described in the gospels were likely embellishments, inventions of gospel authors.
The Search, hereafter “Quest,” falls neatly into three (some prefer five) stages with Reimarus’ “rational” method describing the first; Schweitzer representing the start of the next, and the Third Stage which I represent by the Jesus Seminar. The stages seem united as efforts to prove Jesus existence. But another track followed by some scholars is to question whether there was such a person, or whether he is an amalgam of other Jews in the struggle against Rome; or even an adaptation of a figure from Paganism into Judaism. It is to the Pagan Mystery religions that we now turn.
Mystery Religion and the man-god Osiris-Dionysus: The argument against a “historical” Jesus revolves around the peculiar similarity, almost identity, between Jesus as described by Paul and the gospels, and Osiris -Dionysus of the Pagan Mystery religions. Osiris was an Egyptian god first appearing in Egyptian tombs approximately 2500 years before the birth of Jesus; Dionysus (or Bacchus) about a thousand years later. The pairing of the deities first appears in the Roman Empire about a century before Jesus. Were I to simply describe Dionysus without attribution the reader would immediately I was describing Jesus.
The following comparison of Jesus and Dionysus appears on multiple web pages. I draw the following from Freke and Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries, p.5:
“Osiris-Dionysus is God made flesh, the savior and “Son of God.”“His father is God and his mother is a mortal virgin.“He is born in a humble cowshed on December 25 before three shepherds.“He offers his followers the chance to be born again through the rites of baptism.“He rides triumphantly into town on a donkey while people wave palm leaved to honor him.“He dies at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.“After his death he descends to hell, then on the third day he rises from the dead and ascends to heaven in glory.“His followers await his return as the judge during the Last Days.“His death and resurrection are celebrated by a ritual meal of bread and wine, which symbolize his body and blood.”
Towards the end of their study (p. 207) the authors summarize:
“In synthesizing the perennial myth of the dying and resurrecting godman with Jewish expectations of a historical Messiah the creators of the Jewish Mysteries took an unprecedented step, the outcome of which they could never have guessed. And yet, upon analysis, the end was already there in the beginning. The Messiah was expected to be a historical, not mythical, savior.”
Freke and Gandy are, in some ways, better known than others doubting the historicity of Jesus. But they are not alone and I include other studies by critics and proponents of a Historical Jesus in a “bibliography” below.
Critique of the “Quest”: The above is not intended to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus, is meant merely to illustrate another, perhaps more obvious element in my description of Christian insecurity. On the other hand I do question the methodology of most “mainstream” researchers who place the cart of Jesus historicity before the horse of establishing the evidence.
The most popular recent approach to the Quest is the Critical Method, by which a biblical text of interest is compared with others assumed contemporary for similarities and differences. One example is the work of The Jesus Seminar. Founded in 1985 the Seminar comprises more than a hundred eminent scholars and theologians who “vote” on the authenticity of sayings in the gospels with colored beads representing degrees of agreement. Since all are expert on the period, the more positive votes a particular saying receives the greater the likelihood that it was actually spoken by Jesus.The task the Seminar set itself was to distinguish, “what the authors of the gospels said about Jesus [from what] Jesus himself said,” (The Five Gospels, What did Jesus Really say? p.2). I will quote extensively portions of the volume’s Introduction because the several issues raised provide an excellent perspective from which to critically view any historical event. But the quotes also illuminate those invisible frailties at the heart of Christian belief that inspired Augustinian doubt and sensitized Nicholls’ to the danger which, when religious belief is threatened, can surface as threat to Jewish survival.According to the authors, “Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him.” In other words, the Seminar is questioning,
“the alleged verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.” (p.5) “Why,” ask the authors, “if God took such pains to preserve an inerrant text for posterity did the spirit not provide for the preservation of original copies… we do not have original copies of any gospels… The oldest surviving copies of the gospels date from about one hundred and seventy-five years after the death of Jesus, and no two copies are precisely alike… And handmade manuscripts have almost always been ‘corrected’ here and there [in the process of copying them], often by more than one hand… Even careful copyists make some mistakes, as any proofreader knows. So we will never be able to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was.” (p.6)
And finally a reminder of the problem of oral tradition to written transcription:
“The temporal gap that separates Jesus from the first surviving copies of the gospels—about one hundred and seventy-five years—corresponds to the lapse in time from 1776—the writing of the Declaration of Independence—to 1950. What if the oldest copies of the founding document dated only from 1950?” (p.6)
Critique of Methodology: As I wrote in introducing this submission, I am neither historian nor theologian and would not undertake to criticize Christianity as religion if I were. But one thing stands glaringly bright in my readings of the Quest: nearly all authors, including those participating in The Jesus Seminar (nearly entirely non-Jews and whose honesty I generally respect), begin with the conclusion which their researches are meant to prove: that Jesus was a man of flesh, a pre-assumed historical figure. This brackets the entire project, makes any conclusions dubious by definition.Let us assume, for example, that The Jesus Seminar has developed a productive method for evaluating gospel sayings attributed to Jesus. What precisely have they proven? If, as the authors themselves note, the oldest such document dates to nearly two hundred years after the events described, that they have, as the authors recognize, gone through many generations of re-write, etc: even if Seminar experts all agree regarding authenticity of that “twelve percent” which they assume reliable, how can they conclusively decide that it was the person of Jesus, from among the several million Judean Jews of that time, who actually uttered the words? Yes they might distinguish the language, the manner of forming sentences between a later and earlier speaker. But attribute them to a single individual, and assume that individual Jesus? I doubt any objective scientific enquiry would support such a conclusion.
I’ll end this discussion by again reminding that my writing is not intended as criticism of Christianity as religion or belief system. If I raise issues of internal and usually submerged contradictions and uncertainties in its texts and practice it is only to identify sources of those unconscious anxieties described by Nicholls as a danger to Jewish existence.
In recognition of the sensitive and potentially disturbing nature of this material I provide a suggested reading list, both pro and con:
John Paul Meier is author of the three-volume study, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus
John Dominic Crossan is a former priest and chair of The Jesus Seminar: The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant; and, The Historical Jesus: Five Views;
The Jesus Seminar: The Five Gospels, What Did Jesus Really Say? (discussed above); and Finding the Historical Jesus: Rules of Evidence (discussed above without attribution);
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (see above)
Earl Doherty: The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus
George Wells: The Jesus Myth
And finally I have to mention the Jewish historian (not discussed above), Robert Eisenman, who more often than not challenges my thinking on matters First Century. Regarding our present topic I recommend his discussion of Paul in: James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls.