06 March 2013

Why I believe in a historical Jesus

Jesus bar Joses the Nazarene of Galilea and Arthur the Soldier of Britannia share a lack of direct empirical historical evidence for their existence.  Almost equally, a great number of people have faith they once existed without knowing any empirical, or even anecdotal, evidence.  Both are alike covered over by a great weight of myth, forgery, and fraud.  Nor can we forget that both lived within the Roman Empire.

I say "Jesus bar Joses the Nasorean" because (1) Jesus bar Joses is the name by which he would have been known in the language in which the gospels were written, and (2) in that actual Greek he is called Jesus the Nasorean not Jesus of Nazareth.  There is no independent mention of a town of Nazareth by any source until the 3rd century CE; the title "Nasorean" was given to the priesthood of the Mandean religion, an offshoot of mainline Hebrew religions which now reveres John the Baptist above all over figures.

I’ve been into the whole Arthur thing since I can remember, and I am convinced, based purely on anecdotal evidence, that there is a real person behind the stories.  Arthur was not a king and there was no Camelot.  He was not a Sarmatian, and may not have even been a Briton.  He was not the chief of a heroic age war band.  He was mostly likely a military leader because of his extraordinary charisma and natural tactical skills, and may have been from among the Irish settlers on the west coast of the island.  The why of any of these is unimportant because Arthur is not the subject of this piece.

Despite the fervent desire of countless Christians throughout the past two millennia, no empirical evidence has yet been unearthed that an actual person behind the story of Jesus of Nazareth as we have it in the Gospels ever existed.  There has been plenty of forgery, fabrication, and “pious fraud”, but nothing that stands up to the test of empiricism.  For example, the direct references to Jesus bar Joses in Flavius Josephus' The Antiquities of the Jews have long been known to be fraudulent interpolations.  

Why the Gospels are unreliable witnesses, empirically-speaking, is a subject for a different essay.

One could argue that Christianity came out of nowhere and was unique, with doctrines of an incarnation of the divine come to Earth to live as a human among humans, salvation from sin, blood atonement, etc., etc., but you would be wrong.  In fact, one of the chief arguments of several Early Church Fathers in their debates with pagan apologists was that everything they then believed about their Savior was mirrored in the cults of Osiris, Adonis, Dionysus, Attis, Tammuz, Serapis, Mithras, and several others.

But that’s not the point either, except that it is useful to point out that this identification of Jesus bar Joses of Nazareth with the protagonists of the Mystery Cults.  The Mystery Cults were a group of religions which had developed out of traditional national religions of various cultures in the Meidterranean and Near Eastern world and shared common features such as a dying and rising deity who was a Savior of humanity from its sins collectively and individually.  These flourished throughout the Mediterranean basin, North Africa, and Southwest Asia from the 2nd century BCE through the 3rd century CE.

The worshippers in the Mystery Cults other than Christianity knew that the deities to whom they paid homage were archetypes that represented greater truths rather than being truths in and of themselves.  Jesus bar Joses’ identification as a Jewish protagonist of his own Mystery Cult is a large part of what drove the historical person into obscurity.

I’m about to digress, but there’s a point, so hang with me.

I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, even during the decade and a half I was Roman Catholic; the only way out is excommunication and as far as I know, the Anglican Communion doesn’t do that.  Maybe some of the African churches.  Anyway, when my mother was confirmed she was already pregnant with me, so I was Episcopalian even before I was born, you could say.  So, when I was thirteen and starting to think for myself, one of the first things that occurred to me was to change churches.  Not to another parish within the Episcopal Church, but to the independent Baptist church down the street in our neighborhood.

The announcement of my intention brought about a fair amount of family members pulling their hair, weeping, gnashing of teeth, and wearing sackcloth & ashes.  The new deacon at our church (the Episcopal church) entered into the civil war our family had degenerated into.  He offered to have a meeting with the pastor of the afore-mentioned Baptist church to make sure the decision was all mine and I wasn’t being unduly pressured.

According to the Episcopal deacon (later priest and a very good family friend), his meeting with the Baptist pastor proceeded quite smoothly and civilly, and he was convinced I was making my own decision.  So my parents reluctantly conceded.

After I had been attending a few months, the pastor in a fit of being “carried away by the Spirit” talked about how he had confronted this Episcopal minister and forced him to back down.

I left the Baptist Church that Sunday and never went back voluntarily.

Several months ago, I heard an evangelist speak, and besides running down Janis Joplin over her song “Mercedes Benz” (which he clearly does not get), he talked about a confrontation he had with a Middle Eastern-looking Muslim about to board a plane.  In his favor, I doubt the evangelist was as confrontational as he made it sound and he probably just chatted with the guy, who was there was his wife.  But the only point of such claims made in front of an audience, other than to repent of bigotry if that had really happened, was to puff himself up by claiming to stand tall in an imaginary confrontation.

Now we can get back to the main point.

Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is one of the seven attributed to him that is of almost certain authenticity (the others are Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon).  Meaning it is one he actually wrote as opposed to Hebrews, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus.  Hebrews was not written by Paul, but more probably by James the Just, who wrote the epistle by that name (James); the other non-authentic epistles are pseudepigraphal.

So, Galatians is a good source for the real thoughts of Paul of Tarsus.  The reason I mentioned the exaggerations of the Baptist pastor and the evangelist is because Paul sound just like them in his account of his alleged confrontation with Peter in Antioch over what he claimed was the latter’s refusal to eat with Gentile believers after speaking with representatives of James the Just, brother of Jesus.  In his account, Paul sounds just as puffed up as that pastor and that evangelist did when they had their own imaginary encounters.  I’m not saying there wasn’t a discussion, or even an argument, just that he probably wasn’t as triumphal as he made it sound.

In the same chapter of Galatians (the second), Paul also mentions that James, Cephas, and John were the pillars of the Christian community in Jerusalem, James being the same brother of Jesus not the James who was the brother of John.  Paul uses Petros and Cephas interchangeably for the same person, Peter. 

It’s interesting that, at least in the Synoptic Gospels, the three disciples always in the center of things are James, Peter, and John, only in this case, the James refers to James the Great, the brother of John.  In those gospels, those three are the witnesses to the raising of Jairus’ daughter and to the Transfiguration as well as being called to be with him as he prayed in Gethsemane, all three incidents at best apocryphal.

All three Gospels are much later than Paul’s epistle and it is not hard to imagine how someone not reading carefully and/or wanting to obscure the prominence of Jesus’ very Jewish family who formed the leadership of Jewish Christians or Judaizers in the Early Church would replace James the Just with James the Great when featuring the three most prominent apostles when composing tales about how they came into such prominence, a prominence of which the spinners of tales probably learned from Paul’s epistle.

There are references in the time of Domitian to James and Zoker, grandsons of Jesus bar Joses' brother Judas, and earlier to Simeon (supposedly successor to James the Just) bar Cleopas, alleged to be a cousin of Jesus bar Joses and their predecessor as leader of Jewish Christians in Palestine in the time of Trajan.  Furthermore, if Irish priest Martin Malachi is to be believed, a group of the descendants of the family met with Sylvester I, Bishop of Rome, in 318.  None of these references, which are at least somewhat credible, provide any evidence of the things attributed to a historical person in the gospels but they are reasonable anecdotal evidence that an actual person did exist.

So, that’s why I believe in an actual historical Jesus.  Because of the lies.  Because those lies and the exaggerations have the ring of truth lying underneath them, a truth to be lied about and twisted in order to advance one’s own agenda.

Just like all the lies and stories told about Arthur the Soldier, a 5th century warrior and general fighting for the survival of Roman Britain against the invading Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Geats, and Frisians who was twisted into a legendary Once and Future King of All England.

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