Long ago a customer sent me a book, to convert me, titled Who Moved the Stone? I read it. The whole book sought to prove by logic that Christ must have risen from the tomb, and so forth, because that’s the only possible explanation for the events chronicled in the New Testament. My friend was confounded when I told him those events simply never happened. The Bible saying so doesn’t make them true. He’d never considered that possibility.
Recently I read various articles (in Free Inquiry magazine) that help clarify the history. I also read Zealot, by Reza Aslan (an Iranian-born scholar who left Islam for Christianity), purportedly attempting to chronicle the “historical” Jesus as distinguished from the Biblical one.
Firstly, if Jesus did exist, he didn’t make much of a splash at the time, didn’t even make the “newspapers.” Of course there weren’t newspapers, but tons of stuff was being written, and nothing contemporaneous even mentions Jesus. One of the articles I read counts (and actually names) 126 writers of the time who, if Jesus had existed, would have been expected to mention him. They did not. Only decades later does the name first surface.
Believers point to a passage in historian Josephus’s writings, that does briefly recap the familiar Jesus story. Josephus wrote in the later decades of the First Century. However, the subject passage only appears in copies of Josephus’s work made centuries later. Not in early copies. It seems obvious it was inserted long after Josephus’s death, to give Jesus false historicity.
Even Aslan begins by conceding “there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus” — he was a Jew who led a popular movement in First Century Palestine; and he was crucified. Yet Aslan’s confidence in even these limited “facts” seems misplaced. He cites only a tangential reference to “Jesus, who they call Messiah” in Josephus, apparently a different passage from the one discussed above, which Aslan does not mention. Plausibly both suffer the same problem. Meanwhile, interestingly, Aslan does cite a whole long list of Jesus-like First Century Jewish rabble-rousers who did certifiably get into the historical record. How did one so initially obscure become so important later?
Despite the lack of documentation for Jesus, Aslan’s book is a quite detailed biography. Where do all his “facts” come from? Directly contradicting his claim to be separating historical Jesus from the Bible, his only source is — guess what — the Bible. That is, the New Testament Gospels. He just blends their stories into one coherent narrative (trying to reconcile their inconsistencies, fleshed out novelistically with loads of made-up detail, including mind-reading of the characters). It should be titled The Gospel According to Aslan.
He does reject as implausible some of what’s in the Gospels — notably their blaming the Jews, rather than the Roman Pilate (who killed thousands), for Christ’s execution. But Aslan has some trouble with Christ’s supposed miracles. He acknowledges that an objective modern reader will laugh at things like walking on water and raising the dead. He struggles to evade the issue of whether Jesus actually did these things or not (or used stagecraft). Instead Aslan confines himself to saying that a miracle-working Jesus would not have been unique in First Century Palestine — lots of guys were running around doing such magic — though normally for a fee — and also that “everybody” in Christianity’s early days (according to Christian writers) accepted Christ’s miracles as fact. Well, that settles it.
Aslan does call the resurrection a matter of faith, not history, and notes that its concept was wholly alien to Judaism. Yet he is impressed that so many of Christ’s contemporary followers are said to have testified to their personal experience of the resurrection. But here again nobody wrote anything at the time; those purported testimonies are all hearsay in the Gospels written by others much later. Meantime, as Aslan himself suggests, the resurrection story was concocted to solve a very big problem: otherwise any idea of Jesus as messiah or divine would seem to be contradicted by an ignominious death. And, most strikingly, Aslan says not even the Gospels talk about resurrection until the nineties CE.
In Aslan’s telling it would appear the Jesus cult originated in his lifetime and was sustained among his followers in the decades after, led by his brother James. This comports with most Christian histories. But this too is based on no evidence save the Gospels. Yet wasn’t Nero blaming Christians and persecuting them for Rome’s great fire as early as 64 CE? Or was he? Upon examination, the actual historical documentation for that too is dubious. Maybe more Christian mythology.
So when and how Christianity became a thing remains a puzzle shrouded in mystery. But it’s impossible that events as public and dramatic as the Gospels story could have occurred without being recorded and commented upon by numerous other contemporary chroniclers. Most likely Christ was a later fictional creation modeled upon that gaggle of familiar Judaean troublemakers Aslan describes.
His first incontestable appearance doesn’t come until Paul’s Epistles, written a couple of decades after the supposed crucifixion. While Paul’s writings apparently did exist in the 50s, there’s again the problem that we don’t have originals, and the texts in the Bible may well differ greatly. But anyhow, here’s the interesting thing: Paul says almost nothing of Christ’s life. He does not seem to be discussing an actual personage. Instead, his “Christ” was an idea, the martyr’s crucifixion as atoning sacrifice presented as a myth that Paul could internalize — “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” and “I have been crucified with Christ.” (Note that crucifixion was actually a common punishment, meted out to thousands.) Other very early Christian writers wrote in a similar vein, with no mention of Christ’s earthly story.
Meantime there’s “Gospel Q” from about the same time as Paul and thus also predating the New Testament Gospels. No actual copy of “Q” has survived, but scholars have reconstructed it from later writings that relied on it, mainly the Biblical Gospels. Q — unlike Paul — does talk about the life of a Galilean named Jesus, and his supposed preachings. But here’s the interesting thing: Q says nothing of Jesus’s death! He doesn’t seem to be the same guy Paul was writing about.
And now we come to the Gospel of Mark, still later, dating from around 70 CE. Mark was probably writing down a story that had started as a meme a little earlier. But here for the first time Paul’s “Christ” is melded with Q’s Galilean “Jesus” — by some religious genius (we don’t know the true author; the type recurs, think Mohammad or Joseph Smith). The teachings are put together with the idea of crucifixion and all the mysticism Paul spun around that. And voilà, a compelling story of “Jesus Christ” is created.
To see why that story turned out to have such legs, Aslan does provide the historical context. In 66-70 CE there was a failed Jewish revolt against Rome. It was a national catastrophe. Jerusalem was destroyed, its inhabitants slaughtered, the survivors carried off in chains to slavery. That put paid to the cults of messianic Judaism that had been so rampant. Nobody wanted to be tarred with that stuff now; it was a dead end.
Jesus was, to be sure, yet another of those messiah figures. But with a difference: his cult could distance itself from Jewish pariahdom. His teachings differed radically from those of his insurrectionist predecessors. “Hey, lookit, this is not Judaism here,” its followers were saying. No challenge to Rome. And blaming the Jews, not Romans, for Christ’s death was politic when trying to sell their story in the Roman Empire. The Romans may indeed have tolerated them better than Jews, for a while at least. But nevertheless, it’s easy to see why in Palestine the Jewish revolt’s horrible trauma provided fertile ground to plant the seeds of a new religion. With a new divinity — Jesus Christ.
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