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Shorter look at the question of the historical Jesus

What follows is a letter to the editor of Skeptic point out that in their book review the author assumed that there was an historical Jesus.


There has been a consistent promotion by the media and most scholars of the fiction that there is a history of the life of Jesus. In your review of Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, you continued in print to perpetrate the myth that there was an "historical Jesus" (by this statement historians mean that the documents concerning the person of Jesus are too unreliable as to rise to the level of history.) Allow me to go over the convincing arguments presented by these historians.

Silence of the Epistles: Paul who is attributed with 13 out of the 21 Epistles admits:
"For the Jews demand signs and the Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ cru-cified, a stumbling block to the Jews and a foolishness to gentiles" (1 Corinthian 1:2224).
And all of the Epistles confirm these words of Paul's, for the Epistles are without miracles (signs), without sayings (wisdom), and without confirmation of Old-Testament prophecy, which the Jews believed that the Messiah must fulfill (more signs). All we have in the Epistles is Christ crucified and salvation through faith. We do not have the Christ of the Gospels in the Epistles. The only reasonable explanation is the Gospels are fiction. This conclusion is strengthened from other inferences drawn from the Epistles. (Acts because of the style and contents is just as unreliable as the Gospels.) First Paul, based upon the content of his Epistles, appears to have traveled and preached in at least some of the communities to which the Epistles have been addressed to. His travels undermine the Christian rebuttal that the silence of the Epistles was because he had not come across the Gospels. Any eyewitness account, or a Gospel derived from such account, would most probably have been circulated--just as the various Gospels were later circulated. Paul would have known of them and used them. Yes, for him not to use the teachings of Christ is like a Christian preacher today producing 160 pages of instruction and exhortation to Christian communities, yet deliberately excluding the teachings of Christ. Just as that would have be inexcusable today, so too it would have been in Paul's time. Thus we must conclude from this train of thought, that Paul did not encountered the teachings of Christ. (The Eucharist and salvation through faith, given the overall silence, seem likely to have been derived from church teachings.) If we assume the other position, that Paul did come across some teachings, then his silence indicates that he though such teachings to have been fiction. The two most reasonable inferences to be drawn from the silence of the Epistles are that the Gospels have not yet been invented, or Paul considered them to be unreliable.

Fictive elements: Support of hypothesis that the Gospels are comes from their very form, that of a mythic tale. Consider the mythic elements: walking on water, splitting of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes to feed 5,000, the healing of the sick and disabled, the calming of the storm at sea, the resurrection, and the claim to be the greatest of Yahweh's prophets (I am not sure how to handle the claim of being the "son of god," for in those times such claim had different significance, ones which at this point are off the topic). Moreover, Paul would have recognized how the Gospel of Mark was designed to fulfill the Jewish expectation of the new and greatest prophet fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies. But at his early date, neither he nor the Counsel in Jerusalem were turning to the oracles of the Old Testament to find out about the life of Christ--a thing done by the authors of the Gospels. (The best scholarship on this point is the Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions, available through The Skeptic).  History is not crafted to fulfill the factual expectations of its audience or for theological purposes.

How to view the Epistles in light of the Gospels: The contrast between Paul's and the other Epistles and that of the Gospels is strong evidence for the argument that the Gospels are not to be read as history; and continuing with the same argument, nor can we suppose their teachings put in the mouth of Christ were the actually teachings of Christ. We can suppose that they were consistent, in the main, with the teachings of the Christian Counsel in Jerusalem (whom Paul refers to and relied upon), but given the silence thereon the Epistles, we cannot reasonable suppose them to be the actual words and teachings of Christ.

The rewrite: Of the 661 lines of Mark, over 600 are found in Matthew and over 350 in Luke. Not only is their new materials added such as the virgin birth (Mark begins with the Baptism), but the old has been reworked. For example the story of how Jesus cured a blind man (Mk 8:23-25). Mark has him do it the traditional way (see Josephus' account of the emperor Vespasian 69-79 AD, and the Old Testament's version in The Book of Tobit). But for Luke and Mathew, the power of Jesus was such that he did not need ritualistic magic or medicinal spittle, or a brief interlude for the cure to work. This example is typical of the reworkings of the miracles found in Mark. Similarly the teachings have been reworked. Clearly this and other changes (Helms is the best source thereon) are indicative that the authors of Mathew and Luke considered Mark totally unreliable as history and teachings. Why else would Matthew and Luke change the words and deed of the Son of God, unless they thought Mark's Gospel to be fiction? Professor G. A. Wells, in Did Jesus Exist? Shows (like Helms) where the authors of Matthew and Luke made changes to Mark, and the purpose for such changes. Wells writes: "What we are to understand him to have said at the last supper, on the cross, and by way of instruction to the Eleven after his resurrection depends entirely on which Gospel we consult" (at 157). This reworking is strong evidence that the authors of the Gospels did not consider their works to be preserving the actual events and teachings.

The silence of the historian: Josephus, a religious leader at the time of the destruction of the Temple, 70 AD, was silent. (Historians have convincingly reasoned that the 3 lines about Christ and another several about James the brother of Christ and about John the Baptist were interpolations). Tacitus (writing around 110 AD) was merely repeating what Romans believed about the Christians. The very references demonstrate that he had not consulted archives (see The Historical Evidence for Jesus, G. A. Wells, p. 16). Suetonius (writing about 100 AD) though mentioning the Christians, is silent about Christ. The Jewish writings about Christ though in the form of history, are seen as being the opposite of the Gospels: one for the purpose of aggrandizement, the other for the purpose of slander. Interestingly, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd Ed. has no entry for Christ but there is for Paul. And Lewis Hopfe's Religions of the World, Third Ed., a college textbook, assumes the negative: "The only truly objective facts we have about the life of Jesus are that a group of people who were called Christians began to be recognized in the Roman Empire around 60-65 AD (at 375)." Though Christian propagandists write otherwise, ancient historians failed to record to take note of the Messiah.

Once the Gospels are recognized as fictions, then the search for the source of the myth and of the teachings becomes all the more significant and interesting. Scholars, including some noted Catholics, have turned to other mystery religions as an influence upon the development of Christianity. Kerry Temple the managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine (Catholic) writes of the parallel with the worship of Mithras:

"Mythic quality of the New Testiment: Tales of virgin births, divine heroes, and miracle workers were relatively common 2,000 years ago and simply did not mean what they do to us today. One such mythical hero was Mithras, a Persian deity introduced to Rome midway through the first century, shortly before the synoptic gospels were written. He, too, was said to have been sent by a father-god to vanquish darkness and evil in the world. Born of a virgin (a birth witnessed only by shepherds), Mithras was described variously as the Way, the Truth, the Light, the Word, the Son of God, and the Good Shepherd and was often depicted carrying a lamb upon his shoulders. Followers of Mithras celebrated December 25 by ringing bells, singing hymns, Black Friday, commemorating Mithras' sacrificial bull slaying." (Reprinted in The Humanist, May/June 1991, p. 9).

Mythras was one of those foreign, and according to Tacitus, "evil things that had come to Rome [in the first century AD] and flourished"--Tacitus said this in a passage about the Christians. Relying on snippets in Paul, Wells writes: "The Pauline Christians thought of the earthly Jesus as a holy martyr of 100 B.C., the Jews as a heretic" (199). Others think him to be an Essene (Hebrew sect) leader-- point of debate among scholars. The Dead Sea Scrolls refer to "the sects leader who had been tortured and killed by the official priesthood of Jerusalem some time before 63 B.C. (Wells, 199). The Essenes Righteous One and Christ could well be the same person. With so little known, speculation is adrift.

There is even a problem of naming. The name of the Essene Righteous One was not recorded, and 'Jesus" is but a common first name meaning god is help in Hebrew. "Christ" is not a proper Hebrew name but an epithet meaning anointed. Today we crown kings, the Hebrews anointed with oil their kings. Messiah derived from a similar sounding also means anointed. And to be anointed to the Hebrew was to be chosen through Yahweh to rule Yahweh's people. The family name of Jesus was not recorded. When Paul writes of "Christ crucified," he is writing of the anointed one being crucified. There is much that is not write in the translations of the Bible, for those who have done it have brought later understandings and dogmas to their desk.

This brings us back to the question of what ought to be said in a publication dedicated to reasoned skepticism about a popular mythic and religious figure? Certainly the review should not treat the Gospels as sources for history ("So it seems likely that John was an established teacher before Jesus began his ministry(at 91)." One can call this to the reader's attention that the Gospels are not to be considered history, but rather fiction of a lofty sort upon which were added theology and dogma. Among the theological tenets was the apocalypse, the primary theme of the book being reviewed in The Skeptic. The review ought to fault the author of the book for not warning the reader as to the fact that there is no historical Christ, an argument that all biblical scholars are well aquainted with, and since the begining of this century when in German the question was serious discussed, and which now has been taken as a serious problem even by the American Christians who consider themselves bibilical scholars. Even before then, some the Deist consider all of the bible too unreliable for a source of history--most notable is the American patriot Thomas Paine. There is no excuse for not raising the question within the context of the book and a fortiori the review that there is no history of Jesus.

More on the historical 1/2, 1/6, 1/19, 16/4, 16/6, 16/11, 16/13, 16/25, 16/27 through 30, 19/5,24/3, 20/12, 24/2. 24/10, 24/11, 24/12.  In ?1/2", the first number corresponds to the address, the second to the id #.  1 = enlightenment, 16 = newtestament, 19 = againstreligion, 20 = chxbible, 24 = bible, thus "1/2" = skeptically.org/enlightenment/id2.html).

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The letter was to the SKEPTIC, the scholarly publication of the Skeptical Society, under the editorship of the noted teacher at Caltech, Michael Shermer, who has written such highly praised books "How We Believe", "Why People Believe" Weird Things". Their web sites (both magazine and society) is www.skeptic.com.

The skeptic is one who judges all things according to the evidence.  The common herd affirms many things to a degree well beyond what the evidence supports; and conversely doubts that which is worthy of greater affirmation.  The humanistic skeptic applies a second measure, that of  harm resulting from such beliefs.  Issues of economics and politics, of religion, quackery and corporate medicine, and of imprudent behavior top the harm done list.   Education and scientific psychology are gateways to following the dictates of reason.