(This sketch not only compliments but also contains some bleed-over text from an earlier post, Jesus: Facts, Fiction, and Metafiction)
Christianity has a problem: it’s dying, dying rapidly by all indications, and although its retreat into obscurity will be retarded in the more deeply superstitious corners of our planet the next generation or two born into industrialised nations will see its influence fade, its landholdings contract and its more vocal apologists become the subject of parody until the religion itself is eventually filed away on the same bookshelf as Mithraism.
The unravelling of this once ‘great’ religion will continue at an ever increasing pace as assuredly as wheels roll and office towers don’t not because it’ll be superseded by some newer religion decreed by some future emperor, because the folly and contradictions of the bible can no longer be tolerated by rational, reasonable people, because absurd notions of a personal God evaporate, or because of some natural repulsion to the ignorant edicts issued from its pulpits. These will all be helpful nudges in the right direction, but ultimately Christianity will slip beneath the waters because every new generation from this point on will have greater access to a largely overlooked but increasingly unavoidable body of scholarly work that points to the rather awkward fact that the religions central character, Jesus, never existed.
To some that might sound astonishingly brazen, certainly heretical, probably even extremely offensive, and I can at the very least sympathise with those emotions. I felt genuinely defiled when someone told me Santa Claus didn’t exist and remember quite vividly marshalling a spirited, albeit ultimately futile argument in the days after for the kindly old man from the North Pole. So ingrained however is the notion that the man, Jesus, actually lived that even suggesting he is nothing but a fictional invention (a metafictional device fashioned to impart doctrinal messages, not embody an entire religion) sounds flatly absurd.
Indeed, for the last 55-odd generations his existence has been rubber stamped by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even the vast majority of agnostics and non-believers alike. Interpretation of his life may vary greatly depending on whom you talk to – the son of a God and long awaited messiah (homo usias), a prophet (homoi usias), a hippy philosopher, or even simply a 1st Century Occupy Wall Street protestor – but actually questioning whether or not the individual walked the earth has in this time come across as being preposterous to a great number of us.
Of course he existed.
This apparent statement of fact is false, an illusion first touched on in the modern era over two centuries ago, although admittedly you’d be hard-pressed finding a handful of people in a good-sized crowd today who’d be able to confirm it.
That is the fault of popular culture, but the assertion that Jesus never existed is by no means new, or for that a particularly startling one. Questions as to the historical nature of the character date back to 2nd and 3rd Century gnostic sects including the Docetists, the Ophites, and the Naassenes who were fierce critics of the notion of the physical teacher and often belittled those outside Judea for failing to understand that “Jesus” was a concept of spirit, a philosophy, and never a real person.
The only thing that is ‘new’ in any true sense of the word is the access to superb scholarly work begun over 200 years ago when men and women charged with the confidence of the Enlightenment turned their attention backward to examine the nature of religiosity in much the same way the curious Leonardo Da Vinci before them had opened corpses to reveal the inner working of the natural organism.
Admittedly, few today know their names but two curious champions who leapt out from the emboldened 1700’s were Frenchmen, Charles François Dupuis and Constantin-François Chassebœuf, who sought to pry open the scholarly nature of Christianity and if need be redress the nature of myth and European religiosity based on a scientific understanding of the story and its constituent parts. Working independently what they found over the course of their investigations not only drew into question the accuracy of the self-described, self-anointed holy documents but more importantly challenged the very nature of the works central character: a historical Jesus.
Through his focus on astronomical mythology Dupuis, a savant, unveiled an uncanny, un-ignorable correlation between the character, Jesus, and far older myths – particularly sun god myths – which flourished across the east, including those of the pagan Dionysus, and Roman Sol Invictus. Chassebœuf – a linguist, philosopher, historian, and friend of Benjamin Franklin – travelled east through the Ottoman Empire and over a decade-long examination of religious source documents arrived at the conclusion that a historical Jesus never existed but was instead a representation of universal human hopes and desires fashioned in a time of crisis – a ‘crisis response’– which had been either deliberately or accidently misinterpreted by early church fathers far removed from the true context of the stories.
It was a thunderclap heard by very few but Dupuis and Chassebœuf’s work opened the first fissures in the once quarantined universe of religious immunity, shattering the wall that had stood between scripture and unencumbered outside investigation. Their inroads inspired a flotilla of men and women to undertake similar voyages down corridors considered off-limits since the first Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E, including the German philosopher and historian, Bruno Bauer, who was the first to trace the entire gospel tradition to a single anonymous author responsible for the Gospel of Mark. The consequences of this find led Bauer to first admit to the possibility that the New Testament was a wholesale invention and then ultimately conclude that Jesus himself was entirely fictional.
Now the subject matter I’m touching on here is far larger than any single post can possibly accommodate, but at its heart the mechanical arguments for this assertion all boil down to problems of basic verification. That is to say, there is nothing, not a single shred of evidence – hard or soft – which even remotely corroborates Jesus’ apparently remarkable life. There are no first-hand eyewitnesses, there are no external references to events or persons mentioned in the non-first-hand accounts, and perhaps most importantly historical documents have been tampered with so as to create an illusion of life where there was none.
To dive a little deeper, neither of the anonymously authored synoptic gospels (Mark, Mathew, and Luke), John, nor the 50-odd Gnostic gospels was penned by an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. At best these works are hearsay – very late hearsay it should be said – bristling with sometimes catastrophic contradictions which leave the texts inadmissible as evidence. Confusing the matter of authenticity even more, the phrase Gospel ‘according to’ Mark, for example, was a 3rd Century addition to the writings; an editing trick used to give the illusion of first-hand commentary inserted during the translation of formative Christian documents from Greek into Egyptian Coptic. Before the Coptic editions no such first-hand claim was made by the anonymous authors regarding a physical connection to the character. And perhaps more tellingly, there is no mention of Jesus in any external document from the era. No Roman, Greek or Jewish historian, no satirist, and no judicial court record keeper made a single passing note of the man or the deeds mentioned in the gospels.
That is, of course, barring a lone, strikingly bizarre entry in Flavius Josephus’s 1st Century work, The Jewish Antiquities, which has been recognised since the 1800’s to be an outlandishly careless 4th Century interpolation attributed to Eusebius of Caesarea. It reads:
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was 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. He was [the] Christ. 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; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”(3rd Chapter, Book 18, The Jewish Antiquities).
In approaching the nature of a historical Jesusit is essential to zero-in on this entry, this particular piece of tampering since named the Testimonium Flavianum due to its importance at one time in verifying the life of Christendom’s central character and revered prophet in Islam. I say that for this simple reason: police detectives, to use an example, typically don’t irrigate evidence unless they fear the case they have will fall part under even mild cross-examination. In more cases than not such tampering – planting evidence in this instance – invariably takes place shortly after the crime, and in Christianity’s story this rings entirely true.
Eusebius of Caesarea was the seminal church historian, a Roman, a Bishop, translator, and fervent 4th Century apologist who just so happened to have titled the 32nd chapter of the 12th book of his Evangelical Preparation, “How it may be lawful and fitting to use falsehood as a medicine for the benefit of those who want to be deceived.”
One person above all others in the early church fits the candidacy to be fed what Eusebius considered necessary falsehood: Roman Emperor Constantine to whom Eusebius was advisor and spiritual consul. Constantine is, of course, best known asChristendom’s first and greatest sugar daddy; the man who as General adopted a branch of Christianity promoted by a faction of Hellenised Jews living in modern day Turkey and later as Emperor green-lighted the systematic persecution of competing Christian sects including the Judean based Docetists,Ophites, and Naassenes.
Now regarding the Testimonium Flavianum, the answer as to why Eusebius choose Josephus’s work, The Antiquities, and not some other historians to doctor is two-fold. Firstly, by the 4th Century (prior to 1st Council of Nicaea convened by Constantine) Christian apologists had burnt just about all source documents, including entire libraries, which didn’t suit the story they were fashioning. And secondly, Josephus was an authority on 1stCentury Judean history who had a particular interest in Hagiography: the subject of ‘holy people,’ and was therefore both personally and professionally drawn to such characters regardless of their fame or obscurity. He wrote about the revolutionary crisis-cultist, Simon of Peraea, who was put to death in 4 B.C.E, and Menahem, the leader of the Qumran sect who lived a generation later. He penned small but detailed paragraphs on the messianic exploits of Simon Magus, Apollonius of Tyana, Athronges the Shepherd, Judas the Galilean, John the Baptist, the mysterious sounding ‘Samaritan Prophet,’ Theudas, the nameless ‘Egyptian Prophet,’ John of Gischala, Jonathan (the weaver), and even the spiritual revolutionary Simon bar Giora as late as 70 C.E
To put it another way, if there was a 1st Century authority on insurgent messianic figures, an authority whose works had survived the bonfires and scrutinisers would naturally turn to it was Josephus: a native of Judea, the one-time governor of Galilee and as such the perfect vehicle through which to try and pull a historical fast one. It was an attempt to re-write history – a 100 odd word entry that floats without any connection to adjacent paragraphs – which might have slipped in under the radar of 17th Century examination had Eusebius not carelessly used 3rd and 4th Century Christian and Greek terms and phrases entirely unknown to 1st Century Josephus. The blunder, and it was a terrible blunder, was the equivalent of writer today mistakenly having a Victorian era nanny, Mary Poppins for example, having a Facebook account or using an iPhone.
So complete was the dissection and debunking of this wart-like entry that by the 1800’s it was more or less forgotten to all scholars, including the most enthusiastic apologists who remained desperate to find a single crumb of verification outside the bible which they could point to as evidence for the life of the man, Jesus. For 200 years the Testimonium Flavianum was ignored until it experienced a revival of sorts in the mid-20th Century after empty handed Christian polemicists returned to the entry and began pushing a notion that there had in fact been a nucleus contained in the original 1st Century text. It was their contention that although Eusebius of Caesarea might have indeed tampered with the original document there was, they promoted, an aboriginal core inside the exaggerated entry which did mention Jesus.
As far as verifiable suppositions go this notion is pure fantasy; a wish based on as much factual evidence as Jesus’ foreskin orbiting Saturn. This however has not stopped apologists from even going as far as to suggest that this ‘nucleus’ might have been a single sentence mentioning Pontius Pilate having a man named Jesus put to death. The idea of a nucleus, let alone an assumption of what might have been written, is entirely groundless. No pre-4th Century copies of Josephus’s work exist. In all reality, no pre-11th Century editions exist making any claim of a nucleus all the more implausible and the suggestion of the actual composition of the alleged sentence/sentences utterly nonsensical.
Conversely, whereas there does not exist a pre-4th Century edition of the Antiquities to prove or disprove the idea either way there does exist numerous pre-4th Century (pre- Eusebius) commentaries on Josephus’s work, including those made by Origen, Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Theophilus, Tertullian, Anatolius, Cyprian, and Arnobius who all fail to mention the suspect entry. These 3rd and 2nd Century commentaries, not least of all those made by the Christian church father, Origen (whose library and copy of Josephus was bequeathed to Eusebius), are proof in and by themselves that there never was an entry, be it one sentence or four. Suggesting Origen, one of Christianity’s first International Marketing Managers, a man hell-bent on promoting the emergent religion he oversaw simply forgot to mention the only external source-document for the religion he was in charge of promoting is as preposterous as suggesting Ramses II forgot to mention losing his army to a fleeing Jewish Union leader.
Looking at the historical nature of Jesus what is left by way of evidence of the man is no more compelling than the evidence we have for the existence of Batman. What is present is a reservoir of evidence swirling around deliberate, well-intentioned tampering and misdirection , rendering the gospels no more a factual account of 1st Century Judean events than J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is factual account of World War 1. The logical conclusion, a conclusion based on the facts, is that a historical Jesus was entirely fictitious; the amalgam of a number of revolutionary figures, notions, and philosophies promoted by Gnostic “crisis cults” which flourished at the time across Roman-occupied Judea. Those teachings and philosophies were in-turn weaved into an easily transportable story centred around a metafictional character, a teacher: Jesus. Against a backdrop of very real war and subjugation that story (that’s to say multiple versions of the story as there were at least twenty distinct Jesus’ exhibiting entirely different personality traits doing completely different things at entirely different times depending on which account you read) travelled and the further afield it did the more prone it appears it was to misinterpretation.
In the end it’s clear that the absence of any evidence pointing to a historical Jesus raised some fairly ugly problems for the early Christian marketing managers; problems that could not be ignored after the religions greatest ever benefactor, Constantine, hopped on board. The fact that the era’s leading historian on all things messianic, Josephus, would even bother to pen 600 odd words on the wildly obscure figure known as Athronges the Shepherd, or some 200 words on a nameless Samaritan prophet, but fail to dedicate a single word to Jesus who we’re told performed miracles across Galilee, preached to enormous crowds and stirred up terrible trouble in Jerusalem (which surely should have been noticed by someone) must have been terribly embarrassing. The early church fathers, none of which were actually Judeans, were sitting on a colossal fraud, a fraud of their own making, and in response apologists like Eusebius, Jerome, and Clement of Alexandria to name just three of the more notable charlatans, set about to create an illusion of life where there never was one. The demigod we know today was promoted and the historical metafictional reality of the story shown the door.
The reasons why this happened are however as common today as they were 55 generations (seventeen centuries) ago. The horse had already bolted, Rome had adopted Christianity as its state religion, and the cash registers were ringing. In his twenty year-long, $65 billion Ponzi scheme, disgraced financier, Bernie Madoff, gave almost exactly the same explanation to a prison counsellor when asked how it had all happened: “People just kept throwing money at me.”