"I believe that Christ was a man like ourselves; to look upon him as God would seem to me the greatest of sacrileges."
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
"If I had the power that the New Testament narrative say that Jesus had, I would not cure one person of blindness, I would make blindness impossible; I would not cure one person of leprosy, I would abolish leprosy."
Joseph Lewis (1889-1968)
On The Sources
The events surrounding Jesus were supposed to have taken place within a certain time in history, normally taken to be around 4 BCE[a] to 33 CE. Thus it is important to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the history during that period.
The main information sources of Jesus' life are from the documents known as the gospels[b]. Contemporaneous sources, external to the gospels, gives very little information about Jesus. Thus it becomes very important to know as much as we can about the background of these gospels: namely the authorship, date of composition and general reliability.
Let us look first at the synoptics, which tradition claimed to have been written by an apostle (Matthew), a follower of an apostle (Mark who followed Peter) and a companion of Paul (Luke). We will start to notice flaws in this tradition.
First we see that Mark, not Matthew, was the earliest written gospel and both Matthew and Luke were heavily dependant upon it.
We also note that Matthew and Luke copied extensively from another (now lost) document referred to by scholars as Q. Both Matthew and Luke also made use of other, probably oral, independent sources.
Analysis of the internal evidence also shows that the synoptics were all written after 70 CE. Close to half a century after the death of Jesus. Some conservatives and liberals have suggested earlier dates but their arguments are seriously flawed.
Internal evidence shows us that the author of Mark could not have been the historical Mark, follower of Peter. The author was not a witness nor was he the friend of a witness to the events in Jesus' life. His identity is unknown to us. The findings above have implications regarding the authorship of Matthew and Luke. Both the authors of Matthew and Luke are also unknown to us.
Looking next at the gospel of John, we see that it is a late and unreliable work. As in the case of Mark, Matthew and Luke - the author of this gospel is unknown to us.
Thus the names Mark, Matthew, Luke and John represent nothing more than second century guesses by the early church fathers as to the identity of the evangelists. Of course, they guessed wrong. Attempts by conservative apologists to try and reassert the reliability of this second century tradition is not convincing.
Next we ask ourselves the obvious question, could documents written at least close to half a century after the death of its main character, by non-eyewitnesses, give reliable testimonies of that person's life. We ask whether the oral tradition gives us confidence in the gospels? The answer is a resounding "No." The elapsed period between the written account and the purported events certainly allow corruption of the stories.
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Now let us look at the gospel stories in more detail. We start with the Nativity, the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. We note that there are many problems with the stories:
Thus we can safely conclude that the Nativity is almost surely 100% mythological with no basis in historical fact. Ironically, the best external support for this comes from an episode in the gospel of Mark.
- The genealogies in Matthew and Luke contradict one another.
- The Virgin Birth is based upon pagan myths and a mistranslation of Isaiah.
- Despite what the Catholic Church teaches, Mary was no "perpetual virgin".
- The stories relating to Jesus' birth in Bethlehem are not consistent.
- The story of Herod's slaughter of the innocents , told in Matthew is a work of pure fiction.
- The two stories in Matthew and Luke with respect to their (Joseph, Mary and Jesus) settling in Nazareth are not compatible.
- Matthew openly relies on Old Testament passages to construct his story of the nativity.[c] In some cases he even twisted the Old Testament passages to fit his story.
- Two historical events, the census of Quirinius and the death of Herod, separated from each other by a decade, were presented in the gospels as contemporaneous.
- The Herod-Quirinius problem means that any attempt to date the birth of Jesus based on the gospel accounts, is predestined to fail.
- Other elements of the Nativity can also be shown to be unreliable. These stories were most likely constructed from the ground up from Old Testament accounts and popular myths.
Nothing much is known also about the childhood of Jesus. The sole account, told in Luke, of Jesus' childhood, reads like fiction constructed from Old Testament passages.
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We would expect stories told during his ministry, to be more reliable as these are the public period of his life with, presumably, many witnesses. Yet, even here, we find that we lack even some basic information about his life, for instance we no longer know how long his ministry lasted.
It is important to note also, the rural nature of his itinerary. How is this relevant to our investigations? It tells us how sophisticated most of his audience and followers were. Thus any kind of historical testimony would most likely have come from ignorant, uneducated and uncritical Galilean peasants. This was the kind of audience who witnessed his “miracles” and listened to his teachings.
We will note that some of the major "facts" about his ministry present problems under close scrutiny.
Let us now look at the miracles Jesus was supposed to have performed. We need to take the right epistemological position to this before we start our analysis: skepticism but not outright dismissal with the burden of proof squarely on the side that makes the extraordinary claim. As we have come to expect from earlier analysis, the accounts of the miracles are fraught with difficulties.
- First is the story of his baptism by John the Baptist. Here we see that after Mark's simple account, Matthew, Luke and John each freely modified the story to conform to their own theologies of Jesus. We have reasons to believe that the whole account of the baptism is unhistorical.
- The story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is very obviously mythological.
- Finally even the twelve apostles dissolve under close scrutiny.
It is important at this juncture to remember the uncritical attitude and the general intellectual environment of the "audience" to some of these miracles during that time.
- The transfiguration epiphany was derived from Old Testament sources.
- The healings are either unhistorical or have trivial explanations.
- The nature miracles, such as turning water into wine, walking on water, are all demonstrably unhistorical.
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The Teachings and Personality of Jesus
Let us look now at the teachings of Jesus. First we note that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus are demonstrably false.
From this collection of sayings we can summarize a few things about the teachings of Jesus:
From these collection of sayings, we can also discern something about the personality of the Galilean peasant. We find that he:
- they were meant for the Jews only. (This is to be expected of a first century ethno phobic Galilean peasant itinerant preacher.)
- they were fundamentally about the imminent "coming of the kingdom of God" and not much else.
- the atonement, the idea that Jesus died for the sins of the world, such a central part of Christian theology, did not originate from Jesus.
- his ethical lessons were unimpressive and unoriginal.
- did not have a great intellect.
- has a personality probably not much different from other peasant preachers of his era. He was a fanatic, preaching love at one moment and cursing his enemies the next.
- Some psychologists even went as far as to say he was insane!
Almost all Christian denominations claim that Jesus is God. Yet when we look at the authentic sayings of Jesus, taken from the synoptics, we find that he never claimed to be God. We find many examples where Jesus expressly affirmed his subordination to the divine. Part of the confusion comes from an early misunderstanding among the church fathers of the terms Son of Man and Son of God. We also conclude that, in all probability, the "I am" sayings in the gospel of John are unhistorical. We do not know what he actually claimed himself to be. We are not sure if he even claimed to have been the Jewish messiah.
Of course all these considerations have not stopped fundamentalists from coming up with proofs of Jesus' messianic status or divinity. One of the most commonly used proofs is the claim that details about Jesus and his life were predicted by Old Testament prophecies. We see that these claims are clearly false.
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Triumphal Entry to Betrayal
Next we look at the events immediately preceding his crucifixion. We will see that:
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Trial and Condemnation
There are also many difficulties associated with the stories regarding Jesus' trial and condemnation:
- There are three mutually incompatible sequences of the trial of Jesus (first by the Jewish Sanhedrin and then by the Romans) in the gospels.
- The account in the synoptics of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council, given what is known about Jewish traditions, is almost certainly unhistorical.
- John's account of the trial before the Jewish authorities is completely different from the synoptics but is also of doubtful historicity.
- The trial before Pontius Pilate is also largely fiction.
The gospels' portrayal of Pilate as a weak and uncertain man, is in direct contradiction that what we know of him from other historical sources.
The account of the trial (before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate) probably evolved because of the historical development of Christianity away from its Jewish roots towards a Roman home.
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The crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus are pivotal events in Christian theology. Before we start with a detailed analysis of these events we will first give a summary of the episode as depicted in Mark.
Yet here too, we find confusion, contradictions and outright fiction. We will look at the crucifixion first.
Let me state that I am of the opinion that the crucifixion did happen as an historical event. However since I accept that the crucifixion is historical, some fundamentalists may claim that this event was one that was unambigously prophesied in the Bible - in Psalm 22:16. However a closer analysis shows such a claim to be nothing more than wishful thinking.
Most of the details of the events surrounding the crucifixion depicted in the gospels are demonstrably false.
Let us start with a supposedly historical event: the episode in which Simon of Cyrene was asked to help Jesus to carry the cross. What some scholars claim to be an "authenticating event" (i.e. an event which proves the historicity of the basic story in the gospels), dissolves into contradictions upon closer analysis.
There are also blatant contradictions in the details of the crucifixion in the gospels. The gospels couldn't agree on:
Apart from these contradictions, other details on the crucifixion in the gospels seem to be taken directly from Old Testament passages.
- the drink that was given to Jesus on the cross.
- whether the robbers who were crucified with him both insulted him, or only one of them did. (While the other was a "repentant sinner")
- the time when the sky supposedly darkened.
- the last words Jesus uttered before he died.
- the timing of the crucifixion.
Matthew added a clearly unhistorical account about how the dead rose from their tomb at the moment of Jesus' death.
And, as usual, the maverick John adds his own fictional embroidery to the events.
We have seen from our analysis above that:
These findings lead us to conclude that no eyewitness accounts made it into the tradition utilized by the evangelists and that the evangelists used passages from the Old Testament to concoct the details of the crucifixion.
- Many of the events depicted in the various gospels contradict one another.
- Some of the events, such as the sun going dark (Luke) and the dead rising their graves (Matthew), are fantastic and uncorroborated events.
- Many of the details of the crucifixion have parallels in various Old Testament passages.
In all probability, all his disciples deserted him after his arrest. And perhaps the only reliable information in the last week of Jesus' life is this line from Mark, about what happened after Jesus was arrested:
Then everyone deserted him and fled.
The attempts by theologians to claim authenticity by claiming the witness of the women at the crucifixion are untenable. We conclude, like the late Professor for History of Christianity, Charles Guignebert:
As a matter of fact, early tradition, ..., was not in a position to do more than assert the essential facts: Jesus was arrested, tried, condemned and executed. Of that alone we are certain.
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We now look at the accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus.
Burial and Resurrection
We encounter similar problems with the burial accounts:
The first thing we must discuss is the empty tomb. The "fact" that there was an empty tomb is often touted by fundamentalists as the proof of Jesus' resurrection. The fundamentalist preacher/writer Josh McDowell wrote this hyperbole in his book More Than A Carpenter:
How can we explain the empty tomb?..on overwhelming historical evidence Christians believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected...
Yet, like so much of our analysis above, the "overwhelming evidence" disappears on close scrutiny. The story of the discovery of the empty tomb is filled with contradictions. There are contradictions in almost every detail in the discovery of the empty tomb. This includes details such as which women actually visited the tomb, whether the stone was moved before or after the women arrived, the setting in which the announcement of the resurrection was made and the commands given to the women.
Now if the events surrounding the discovery of the empty tomb are historically suspect, how confident are we of this central "fact" of the fundamentalists: that there was actually an empty tomb? The balance of evidence seems to show that there was no empty tomb; that the empty tomb itself was a later development or addition in the legend of Jesus' resurrection.
We have similar problems with the resurrection appearances of the risen Jesus. It should be mentioned of course that it is a proven fact that the whole of Mark's account of the resurrection was never part of the original gospel.
Similar to the empty tomb account above, the other gospels ( and Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians) couldn't agree on many details of the resurrection appearances. In the case where extraordinary proof would be required, we have only mutually contradictory accounts.
We can conclude that the initial appearances of Jesus were hallucinatory in nature. The older documents, such as Paul's epistles, seem to indicate nothing more than a hallucinatory experience. In fact there are some convincing psychological explanations as to why the resurrection appearances happened to Peter and Paul.
We also note that the resurrections of gods are a very common theme in Greco-Roman paganism. Just like the case of the virgin birth, it is very likely that the story of the resurrection is the result of this cultural cross breeding of myths.
Perhaps the most poignant summary of the modern research into the Resurrection is that of Gerd Ludemann, Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Gottingen:
We can no longer take the statements about the resurrection of Jesus literally...So let us say this quite specifically: the tomb of Jesus was not empty, but full, and his body did not disappear, but rotted away.
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What can we conclude from our look into the account of Jesus's life in the gospels? We see that:
In short, all we know about the events in the life of Jesus is this:
- The gospels were not written by eyewitnesses.
- The names attached to the gospels are second century guesses.
- The nativity accounts are 100% fiction.
- The one account of his childhood is more likely a fictional creation by Luke based on Old Testament passages.
- There are major problems with all the major events in his life: the Baptism by John, the temptation in the wilderness and even whether there were actually twelve apostles.
- None of the miracle accounts seems credible. The nature miracles and the epiphanies are obviously false, while many of the healings are unimpressive and could be explained by non-miraculous means.
- Jesus’s teachings were not that much different from the teachings of other major religious traditions and were well within the tradition of various contemporaneous Jewish itinerant preachers.
- His personality was probably not that attractive: the evidence points to the fact that he was, like most Jewish preachers of his time, a xenophobic, rather fanatical, Jew.
- He never claimed to be God.
- Many events surrounding the "passion week" are of dubious historicity.
- The account of Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin is obviously fiction as it contradicts everything we know about the procedures of the council.
- The trial before Pilate is largely fictional as well.
- The accounts of Jesus' crucifixion read like fiction.
- The accounts of the burial and resurrection could not be true as they stand for they contradict one another openly.
Jesus hailed from Nazareth, a small town in Galilee. We know nothing of his life before he started his public ministry. He preached initially in the small towns and villages of Galilee. He had some followers, thought the exact number is uncertain. His teachings, while radical, did not seem to involve a repudiation of Jewish laws. He came to Jerusalem with his disciples, was arrested and crucified. His disciples fled after he was arrested.
The above is not a summary but represents all that can be said for certain about his life.
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|| The reader will see why it's 4 BCE and not 1 CE later.
||The gospels refer to the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
||The uninitiated reader may be surprised to hear this for two reasons: first of all it implies dishonesty on part of the evangelists to simply construct a story like this and second that this should actually prove that the Old Testament prophecies are being fulfilled in Jesus. These are understandable but flawed positions.
First rewriting Old Testament stories to make up new stories have little to do with dishonesty, at least in the way the first century evangelists see it. The key word here is midrash. It is a method used by the ancient Jewish theologians to interpret and expand the sacred scripture. It is the belief that current events are somehow tied to past sacred events in a very systematic way. That it is present in the Old Testament has been long known to theologians. [see Spong's "Resurrection: Myth or reality" chapter one] One example of this should suffice: Moses parted the red sea (Exodus 14:22-31) which showed he was God's prophet. To ensure continuation of this prophetic line, the authors of the Old Testament repeated the same archetypal events in Joshua's miraculous parting and crossing over the River Jordan (Joshua 3:14-17), Elijah did the same thing (II Kings 2:7-8) and when Elisha took over the waters parted again (II Kings 2:14). Now we know these events were mythical, the fact that they are repeated in the same form shows the midrash in action. So, in a nutshell, what the evangelists were doing were simply using a traditional method of writing sacred stories.
We find, in many cases, that Old Testament passages actually takes precedence over the evangelists other source documents. As example, Matthew copied extensively from Mark, and must have considered it to be a reasonably reliable source. Yet he would change Mark's account if it does not fit into what Matthew believed to be Old Testament prediction about Jesus. The glaring example is the passage where Matthew had Jesus sitting on two donkeys at the same time during the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Secondly, we see above that Matthew did not faithfully record what the Old Testament verses said. He twisted and changed the passages to make them fit his theological preconceptions.
So, far from proving the Bible prophecies, reliance on Old Testament passages tends to point towards the basic unhistoricity of the stories.
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1.|| Guignebert, Jesus: p489
|| McDowell, More Than a Carpenter: p92|
Ludemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: p134-135
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