18 June 2015

Historical Jesus

Once upon a time, and up until not very long ago, I believed that individual known to most English-speakers as “Jesus Christ” never existed as an actual, real, in-the-flesh human.  A big part of that was the Misty Mountain of bullshit that has been piled so deeply on top of any base that might have existed that the “real Jesus Christ” is farther beyond all possible hope of recovery than the actual historical figure behind the legend of King Arthur.  That doubt was related to, though not dependent upon, my atheism.

Light began to slice its way through the impenetrable fog, and I began to doubt my doubt.  Not my doubt about theism, but about the historical existence of a real human behind the legend and myth of Jesus Christ.

First, I had to ponder the fact that, in spite of there being a near equal amount of concrete evidence (in other words, virtually none), and with that splinter of a fragment of a section of truth likewise buried under a nearly equal amount of self-serving fraud, forgery, and fakery, I still believed that there was a real person behind the legend of “King” Arthur, I had to sort of reassess my then-current assessment. 

Some people are quite comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of holding completely contradictory notions in their head and denying any inconsistency, but I am not one of those humans.  I have sort of a phobia of self-deception.

My last year at Dalton State I took an early American lit class in which we studied at one point the growth of the story of Hannah Duston’s capture by and later escape from a party of Abenaki in 1697 Massachusetts.  Cotton Mather of Salem witch trial infamy wrote the initial story, which in the following century and a half grew faster and beyond recognition than the Universe after the Big Bang.

Don’t get me wrong; the Jesus Christ of the creeds is utter bullshit with zero trace of anything real remaining alive.  Christ the Vampire (or maybe Zombie Jesus) in a very real sense.  The Jesus Christ of the gospels is almost entirely fictional also, but at least there’s a trail of bread crumbs to reconstruct enough of the puzzle to get some of a picture, even if many of the pieces are missing.

The final kicker came during a wandering mindless harangue by one of the idiots whom I was forced to endure in what was called “chapel” at the mission I stayed at while homeless.  In order to drown out the noise, I began reading the only thing available, and came across the first chapter of Galatians.  What convinced me that there was a real person behind the legend of Jesus Christ was the fact that Paul seceded to James the Just, his chief antagonist as he saw it, the status of “brother of the Lord” is what convinced me. 

No one as much of a pompous, egomaniacal arse as Paul of Tarsus would make such a concession were it not beyond question that that status was a cold, hard fact.  And if there was a brother of Jesus Christ, then there must have actually been a Jesus Christ.  There is some evidence outside of the New Testament that such a person existed, which, unfortunately have been weighed down by “pious fraud” in terms of interpolations.


Of the three mentions of events relating to the life of Jesus Christ present in the second major work of Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, published around 90 CE, the first and most direct is also that which has been most heavily interpolated by Christian monks.  Called the Testimonium Flavianum, its fraudulent additions are so obviously forged and inserted that I am not going to bother.  However, I will supply what most scholars believe to be closest to the original:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

An Arabic copy dated to the tenth century is worded more or less the same, but adds after “did not forsake him” the following: They reported that he had appeared to them after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.  Not an endorsement of those beliefs, just reporting them.

The second is the account of John the Baptist, which Josephus places in the months preceding the outbreak of war between Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilaea and Peraea, and Aretas, king of the Nabataeans that took place in 36 or 37 CE, a few years after the death of Jesus Christ, rather than afterwards as per the gospels.

Third is the opportunistic judicial murder of James the Just and several companions by the new high priest, Ananus ben Ananus, that took place when the seat of procurator was physically vacant.  The text as we have it refers to James as the “brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”, not an endorsement of Jesus’ status but rather a designation of which James was meant.


In his Annales of 116 CE (Book 15, Chapter 44), Tacitus tells of emperor Nero blaming the Chrestianoi of Rome for the Great Fire, for which suspicion had fallen (almost certainly inaccurately) on him.  He describes their namesake, Chrestus, as having suffered crucifixion under Pontius Pilatus.  Later copies have the words “Christianoi “ and “Christos”, but textual critics agree these are not original. 


In his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius reports in Claudius 25 that the Jews were expelled from Rome because of rioting stirred up by “Chrestus”.  In Nero 16, he echoes Tacitus’ report about the aftermath of the Great Fire, saying it was blamed on Christianoi.

The Acts of the Apostles reflects the first of these entries in describing Paul’s meeting of Aquila and Priscilla (18:2-3) who had left Rome for Corinth after Claudius expelled all the Jews of Rome, though the passage in Acts does not give the cause.  At the time of the expulsion, Jews made up some 10% of the city’s populace.  The Roman writers Cassius Dio and Paulus Orosius also speak of the expulsion.

On Christus/Chrestus vs. Christianoi/Chrestianoi

Evidence from several sources demonstrates that outsiders and even some insiders such as, for example, Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr, in the first few centuries of the Common Era used these terms interchangeably.  This, and the account mentioned above about Aquila and Priscilla make various speculations about the Tacitus and Suetonius entries about “Chrestus” referring to someone other than Isho the Nazorean rather fanciful.

A final thought

My last word about this is that while there is no direct empirical evidence either for Arthur the Soldier or for Isho the Nazorean, and the fact that supporters of both have over the centuries twisted facts into legends that have metamorphosed into elaborate myths, there are enough ripples, however small, in their respective times (separated by half a millennium), to show the path of a tiny pebble, even if it’s original trajectory remains lost.

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