Christian Insecurity: The Search for the Historical Jesus

Hermann Samuel Reimarus (d. 1768) may have been the first to seriously approach Jesus from a non-theological position. His book, An apology for, or some words in defense of, reasoning worshipers of God launched what would become a multi-century quest to establish Jesus as a man among men. Another early effort to view Jesus beyond gospel portrayals was Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. In his, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1819). Jefferson admires Jesus for his ethics while dismissing the miracles as embellishments added by the gospel authors. Such early efforts occurring on two continents provides a glimpse into the early effort to separate “Jesus” from myth. 

In 1906 Albert Schweitzer wrote his ground-breaking Von Reimarus zu Wrede. In English translation the book title was The Quest for the Historical Jesus. The title soon became the umbrella for scholars dedicated to discover evidence for the man Jesus in first century Judea. But beyond describing life and society in first century Judea and Rome Quest scholarship has failed to arrive provide any evidence to support a historical Jesus able to satisfy scientific scrutiny. Which might make sense if Jesus was just that “itinerant rabbi” described by John Dominick Crossan in his The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. But Jesus described in scripture was well-known in Judea. His greeting by multitudes as he approached Jerusalem; his trial before the Sanhedrin, by Rome’s Governor himself describe Jesus as anything but anonymous. 

How then explain his absence from sources outside scripture, from the historical record? 

The “Search” (Quest) falls generally into three (some prefer five) stages with Reimarus’ “rational” method describing the first and Schweitzer’s “Quest” inspiring the second. For our purposes I suggest the still functioning Jesus Seminar as representing the beginning of the third stage. But there has always existed another stream whose focus is that Jesus of scripture is mythic, that the Christ figure is instead an adaptation of Paganism’s man-god. 

The argument against a “historical” Jesus revolves around the near identity between the Pauline/gospels Jesus and the figure of Osiris-Dionysus of the Mystery religions which dominated the Roman Empire at the time. Osiris was an Egyptian god who first appears in carvings in tombs beginning approximately 2500 years before Jesus. Dionysus (or Bacchus) is Osiris’ Greek representation and first appears around a thousand years later, about 1500 years before Jesus. 

Following is from The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy: 

“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.” 

As a summary towards the end of their study, 

“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.” (p.207) 

The above is not intended as proof for or against the historicity of Jesus but merely to illustrate another, perhaps more obvious element of Christian insecurity: that even the earliest “evangelizers” were familiar with the similarity of Jesus son of God to the Pagan man-gods (1.Apol 21). But it is also important to point out that Freke and Gandy produced an analysis more representative of historical method than do more mainline works seeking to prove Jesus existence while taking a priori that which they purportedly are committed to prove: that Jesus already exists! 

The Critical Method begins with a biblical text and compares its similarities and differences with other texts assumed contemporaneous. This is the approach of The Jesus Seminar. Founded in 1985 the Seminar brings together some one hundred scholars and theologians who “vote” with colored beads on the authenticity of gospel sayings supposedly spoken by Jesus. The more positive colored beads a particular saying receives the greater the assumed likelihood that it was spoken by Jesus. 

The Introduction to The Five Gospels, What did Jesus Really say? provides a more or less useful tool to critically view any historical event. But the quotes below, drawn from that Introduction, by seeking objectivity regarding their subject also illuminate the weakness at the heart of Christian claims and belief. According to the authors of The Five Gospels, What did Jesus Really say? “[e]ighty-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... 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, 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.” 

And an apt reminder of the problem of oral tradition compared 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?” 

To this point the authors appear on firm scholarship ground. And while they are committed to provide an honest and authoritative study of their subject, in the end their “method” proves nothing since, as most students of the Search, they begin by presuming their conclusion: Since Jesus existence is “known” and accepted by most scholars their “search” centers only providing proof of that which they already “know.” And this reduces their “search” to voting on those gospel sayings that can authoritatively be attributed to Jesus himself. If, as the authors note, the oldest surviving gospel remnants are dated to “about one hundred and seventy-five years” after the events they purport to represent, and that those earliest remnants are themselves only copies which the authors admit were transcribed by generations of re-write; even if our Seminar experts unanimously conclude a single source for their “eighteen percent” of gospel sayings, how attribute those sayings to particular individual from the millions of Judeans of that time and place? And were that possible, how conclude that that particular person was actually “Jesus”? 

Outside of “biblical scholarship” I doubt any other historical field would support either such methodology or the resulting conclusions.