Archive for April, 2010

Who is this Jesus guy anyway?

April 1, 2010 5 comments

I am ever confronted with atheists and agnostics who while they disbelieve in the existence of God they totally believe that Jesus was an actual historical person. Could he have been a real person, separate from all the mystical hogwash? Perhaps, but no more than any character in any work of historical fiction might be. However it is something that I have been asking more and more lately. Did he even exist? I honestly can’t think of any reason to believe he even did. Lets examine the evidence, since if he did exist then there certainly should be some.

The logical place to start is the Bible. You would go to a science text for information on science, a history text for history so why not start with the Bible for what is biblical. Seeing as Jesus is a player in the New Testament (NT) we can disregard the Old Testament. This leaves us with half the book to examine. The NT is generally broken down into two parts, the Gospels and the Epistles. Lets start with the Gospels.

As you can see the two passages from the original Koine Greek are fairly identical to one another.

Almost from the start we can eliminate two of the four Gospels for the literary violation of plagiarism, namely Matthew and Luke. Both are a retelling (almost verbatim) of Mark with some of Jesus’ sayings thrown in for good measure. These saying come from the so called Q Document. A document of unknown origin which is said to be a compilation of the sayings of Christ. Now about 55% of Matthew and 42% of Luke come directly from Mark while 25% of Matthew and 23% of Luke are shared with one another (sans any corroboration with Mark). This means that a mere 35% of Luke is original to itself while only 20% of Matthew can claim the same thing. If the authors of Luke and Matthew were first hand witnesses of Jesus then they would certainly not need to plagiarize the work of Mark. Beyond that places where the two diverge tend to contradict one another on things such as the genealogy of Jesus, since both cannot be correct in this matter and because they are definitely not eye witness accounts we can immediate dismiss them.

So what about Mark? Mark is the oldest of the Gospels arising in its completion at around 90 CE (Common Era) but believed to have been circulating as a working core version by about 70 CE. The problem with Mark is that it was certainly not written by a Palestinian. Mark’s understanding of Palestinian culture and geography diverge so heavily from reality that it could not have been written by someone who lived in Roman Palestine. My belief is that the author of Mark was a Greek. The first problem is that Mark obviously knows little about Palestinian geography. When Jesus sails the Sea of Galilee he comes across a man who is beset with demons and casts them out into a herd of pigs who then drown themselves (Mark 5:9). Mark places this story at Gerasenes in the old Greek manuscripts. Problem is that Gerasenes is about 30 miles from the Sea of Galilee. That’s a pretty far run for these pigs and as Bible Atlas dot com puts it, “Here the slopes descend swiftly almost into the sea, and animals, once started on the downward run, could not avoid plunging into the depths.” If we assume that a decline that “swift” is something akin to 45 degrees that would put Gerasenes somewhere in the stratosphere. Matthew knew a little more about geography and placed it somewhere called Gadarene but that is still 5 miles from shore and in a different country. Copyists who transcribed the whole thing into English for the King James Version (KJV) put it at Gergesa, a region now thought to have actually formed part of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

The next thing about Mark is that he knew little about Palestinian traditions, especially marriage and divorce. For example, in Mark 10:12 it says, “And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery” (KJV). This is nonsense. Palestinian women at the time were not afforded the right to divorce. This is a gentile ruling put into Christ’s mouth to give it authority after the establishment of a church outside of Palestine. If Jesus had said this it would be like saying “a man who has an abortion has committed murder” well men can’t have an abortion and therefore the point is moot. Mark fumbles again in the 7th chapter when Jesus is debating the Pharisees. He quotes Isaiah 29:13, but his quote is the wording taken from the Greek Septuagint.  The differences? In Hebrew it says, “their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote,” but in the Greek version it says “Why the Lord said, For as much as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:” (KJV). No Pharisee in his right mind would take a Greek mistranslation of the Hebrew scripture as a valid point when debating. Mark was obviously not familiar with the Hebrew version or he would not have made this mistake, he was however familiar with the Greek Septuagint which I would say proves he was Greek not Palestinian and his errors show that he had never been to Palestine. With this we can eliminate the oldest Gospel, Mark.

Finally we come to John, the most supernatural of the Gospels and also the youngest. It arose in about 110 CE making the author, had he been born at the same time as the crucifixion about 80 years old at the time of its writing. Fairly unlikely considering the average life expectancy for a Palestinian at that time was about 45. John starts of with a mystical beginning stating, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (KJV). No swaddling clothes, no manger, no pregnant virgins, just God and the word. Beyond the blatant time difference between the writing and the events we need only look at John 21:24 which states “This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true.” Not a problem, except that the original versions of John end at 20:31, the 21st chapter were added much later. So much for the Gospels.

St. Paul is healed by Ananias after being blinded.

The next biblical source are the Epistles these are some of the oldest texts in the NT having been established by the middle of the first century CE. Most of the letters were supposedly written by Paul. Background on this Paul character goes as such; Paul was a man who was originally named Saul of Tarsus, and though he was  Hebrew he was a Roman citizen. He was a Pharisee who violently persecuted Christians before his conversion, even approving of the death of St. Stephen (Acts 8:1) showing that he was possibly of the Sanhedrin. On the road to Damascus he had a vision of the resurrected Jesus which blinded him and he began to proselytize in the name of Christ. Now remember that by his own admission he never met Jesus in person (Gal. 1:11-12), but lets get back to the Epistles. He is traditionally thought to have been the author of 13 of the Epistles accordingly named the Pauline Epistles. However, scholars having examined the writings deem that only four of them were written by the same person, these are the first four: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

G.A. Wells, in his book The Historical Evidence for Jesus [22-23], sums things up so succinctly:

The…Pauline letters…are so completely silent concerning the events that were later recorded in the gospels as to suggest that these events were not known to Paul, who, however, could not have been ignorant of them if they had really occurred.These letters have no allusion to the parents of Jesus, let alone to the virgin birth. They never refer to a place of birth (for example, by calling him ‘of Nazareth’). They give no indication of the time or place of his earthly existence. They do not refer to his trial before a Roman official, nor to Jerusalem as the place of execution. They mention neither John the Baptist, nor Judas, nor Peter’s denial of his master. (They do, of course, mention Peter, but do not imply that he, any more than Paul himself, had known Jesus while he had been alive.)

These letters also fail to mention any miracles Jesus is supposed to have worked, a particularly striking omission, since, according to the gospels, he worked so many…

Another striking feature of Paul’s letters is that one could never gather from them that Jesus had been an ethical teacher… on only one occasion does he appeal to the authority of Jesus to support an ethical teaching which the gospels also represent Jesus as having delivered.

These factors should not be ignored and with this we can dismiss the Epistles as first hand historical evidence of Jesus. That eliminates the Bible as a historical source, so what is left? Well there are a few historical instances of Jesus being mentioned. Namely they are by the historians Josephus and Tacitus. Josephus was a Jew and more than that a Pharisee. He is often quoted as having said in his anthology Antiquities of the Jews as thus:

About this time, there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Now if we bear in mind that Josephus is a Jewish Pharisee and not a Christian he would never call Jesus the Messiah. Beyond that admitting to the resurrection and still not being a Christian is even more unbelievable. Reason for that is simple, this is a forgery. It was added to the book by later hands; one need only check the paragraphs before and after to see how disjointed this point is. Immediately before this part about Jesus he says, “About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder…” Josephus had previously been talking about awful things Pilate had done to the Jews in general, this is a horrible break in the literary seam. Couple this with the fact that Josephus was born in 37 CE, more than half a decade after the crucifixion and you can eliminate this theory.

The next historian is Tacitus, a Roman Senator and lifelong pagan as well as historian.

Before considering the alleged witness of Pagan authors, it is worth noting some of the things that we should find recorded in their histories if the biblical stories are in fact true. One passage from Matthew should suffice to point out the significance of the silence of secular writers:

Matt. 27:45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. [46] And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? [47] Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias. [48] And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. [49] The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him. [50] Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. [51] And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; [52] And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, [53] And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

The Romans recorded everything, wouldn’t they have noticed and recorded a solar eclipse? Wouldn’t someone have remembered and recorded the name of at least one of those “saints” who climbed out of the grave and went wandering through town? Well, they didn’t. More so, Tacitus was born in 55 CE, a quarter century after the crucifixion. He couldn’t have been a historical witness to Jesus. Tacitus’ single allusion to Jesus being crucified under Pilate (whom he names a Procurator, an incorrect title at the time since that title was not used until the second century CE, Pilate’s correct title was Prefect) is something that came to him secondhand at best.

That leaves us with no credible evidence for the existence of Jesus in any historical sense. No historical evidence in the Bible, and the only two credible historians to mention him in any respect are at best second hand accounts based on Christian retellings or at worst complete forgeries. Does that mean that Jesus was made up? Probably, considering the similarities to other Mediterranean gods floating around at about that time it isn’t unlikely. I promise to examine those aspects in later posts as this is already fairly long.