“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 [historical] sources about Jesus do not exist.” Rudolf Bultmann, German theologian
“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.”
The past two chapters have represented Christian insecurity as, first, the need to affirm identity, with Augustine’s concern that, “we have not forged the prophecies about Christ” providing an early example. Had the early Church instead followed Marcion and jettisoned Jewish scripture rather than absorbing it into its “new” Testament, become the new religion divorced from Judaism the compulsive competition with Judaism for identity would have been averted. Instead Jewish survival amidst Christianity presented a continuing threat to Christian claims and identity.
A second and related source of insecurity for Christianity is the result of the failed Parousia. With Christian promises based on Jesus return, theologians have yet to agree on an explanation for the failure of all predictions for Parousia by Paul, but even by Jesus portrayed in the gospels for the Delay. On what does Christian Promise stand?
In the present chapter we turn to another problem, most significant, perhaps, to Christian theologians and other scholars: Did the Jesus described by Paul and the gospels actually ever exist? And if so, how explain the lack of any documentary or archaeological evidence for his presence in the first century? Minus material evidence for the man, on what rests the resurrection or any claims made by Christianity stand?
It is this, the absence of evidence regarding Jesus, that led to Augustine defending Christian claims as not forged. It is this absence of evidence that sat disquietedly in the background for centuries resulting in the tragic reminder that, despite claims to having “replaced” Judaism, Jewish survival remained living evidence of the weakness of such claims as recently inspired the closing statement of the 2010 Special Synod of Bishops for the Middle-East:
“We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ... In the kingdom of God… there is no longer a chosen people”
For more than 250 years Christian historians and theologians have applied scientific and less-so techniques to the millennial effort to prove the existence of a “human” Jesus of Christian scripture. Some scholars claim that Paul, writing decades before the appearance of “Mark,” the earliest gospel, made no claims for a Jesus-of-the-flesh. But if Jesus never lived, how understand Romans 8:11:
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead [my italics] is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.”
In order for God to have “raised [Jesus] from the dead” Jesus must have previously been “alive.” So the claim for Jesus’ mortality dates back to pre-gospel claims in Paul. And Paul, unable point to historical evidence was dependent on faith (his “vision” of Jesus) as his proof of Jesus’ earthly existence. Alan Segal approaches Paul’s “confusion” regarding Jesus’ return to his own impending death, fear driving expectation. And while Segal’s argument is radical in terms of previous theological explanations, it is another approach to Paul’s repeated failed predictions of an imminent Parousia surrendering to Parousia indefinitely deferred.
Insecurity regarding Christian origins surfaced almost immediately with the 18th Century Enlightenment, the period of transformation from religious-feudal to “modern”-secular in western society. Loosened restrictions on science provided a critical approach to the history of Christianity and initiated what would become the Search for the Historical Jesus. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (d. 1768) is most identified with initiating the Search in his, An apology for, or some words in defense of, reasoning worshipers of God. Another early predecessor to the Search is Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. In The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, (1819). Jefferson admires Jesus for his ethics but concludes that the miracles described in the gospels were likely embellishments added by the gospel authors.
The Search falls neatly into three (some prefer five) stages with Reimarus’ “rational” method describing the first; Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus inspiring the Second. The Jesus Seminar may serve to initiate the Third Stage The stages seem unified as efforts to prove Jesus existence.
But there is another search also taking place, one that begins with the assumption that there is no historical Jesus; that “Jesus of the cross” is an amalgam of Jews crucified in the struggle against Rome or, most commonly, that the Christ figure is an adaptation of the Pagan man-god to the crisis in Judea facing the tragic end of the Roman War.
The argument against a “historical” Jesus revolves around the peculiar similarity, near identity, between Jesus as described by Paul and the gospels, and Osiris-Dionysus of the Mystery religions. Osiris was an Egyptian god who first appears in Egyptian tombs approximately 2500 years before Jesus. Dionysus (or Bacchus) is Osiris Greek representation and first appears about 1500 years before Jesus. A description of Dionysus agrees almost point to point with the gospel descriptions of Jesus (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):
“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 other studies by both critics and proponents of a Historical Jesus are included in the Bibliography.
The above is not intended to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus but merely to illustrate another, perhaps more obvious element of Christian insecurity, that even the earliest “evangelizers” were also familiar with the similarity of Jesus to Pagan mangods (1.Apol 21). On the other hand the methodology of most “mainstream” researchers begins much as did Paul’s falacy in explaining Jesus-the-man by already assuming Jesus existence.
The Critical Method takes a biblical text of interest and compares it with other texts assumed contemporary for similarities and differences. This is the approach of The Jesus Seminar. Founded in 1985 the Seminar brings together more than a hundred eminent scholars and theologians who “vote” on the authenticity of sayings in the gospels by colored beads representing degree-of-agreement. The more positive votes a particular saying receives the greater the assumed 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 Christian faith 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 an apt 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)
To this point the authors appear on firm ground.
I am neither a professional historian nor theologian and would not undertake to criticize Christianity as religion if I were. But one thing stands out, that nearly all involved in the Search, 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 “scientific” project, makes any conclusions unconvincing 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 those “originals” 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 identify the speaker as Jesus? Perhaps they are entitled to more or less reliably conclude that they are characteristic of early first century Judea, but that one specific person was the speaker? 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, Ruether, Carroll, Fredriksen and other Christian theologians and historians as danger to Jewish existence.