Let’s be brutally honest: Islam is a circus tent of contradictions, a mesmerizing colossus of interpreted and re-interpreted absurdity, but Muslims can at the very least claim that the temporal lobe epileptic merchant from Mecca with a name that would give any sane stationary printer a nightmare, Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim, was real. He lived, he spoke gibberish, fools listened, and eyewitnesses – unfortunately – copied it all down. Christianity can’t claim the same. Christianity in fact can’t even produce a single gram of evidence – hard or soft – to prove its central character, Jesus, ever even lived. What does exist is an awful lot of absolutely nothing other than 50-odd wildly differing 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Century versions of a story centred on a 1st Century Judean gnostic character who exhibits different personality traits doing completely different things at entirely different times depending on which account you read. Since his invention in 1939, Batman has also exhibited over 50 entirely unique versions of himself depending on which account you read.
In the original 1939 version Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, but in DC Comics Azrael’s version it’s the computer science graduate student, Jean-Paul Valley, who assumes the role of masked crusader. In Batman Earth Two Bruce Wayne is born in 1910, but in Gotham by Gaslight Batman starts his crime fighting career in 1889. In The Batman of Arkham Bruce Wayne is a psychiatrist who runs the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, while in Castle of the Bat, Bruce Wayne is a geneticist who brings to life a patchwork corpse containing bat DNA and the brain of his father. Like Batman, Jesus suffers similar bipolar fits of character. Man of peace? “Put your sword back into its place, for those who live by the sword, die by the sword (Matt 26:52), or, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10.34). Man of strong family relationships and brotherly love? “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34) or perhaps, “For I come to set the son against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law” (Matthew 10.35,36).
So who was this Jesus fellow? Real person? Given the evidence highly unlikely. Fictional character? Almost certainly, but it’s a little more complicated and potentially a lot more interesting than just that. “Jesus” was more than likely a metafictional character. That is to say an orally transported literary devise knitted together by 1st Century Judean crisis cultists to impart a series of socio-philosophical teachings. Most superheroes, Batman included, were and still are to this day invented for much of the same reasons. The really interesting part is not however that, rather the seemingly obvious but also seemingly overlooked metafictional nature of the stories. Metafiction is a cunningly clever narrative tool used to expose the ‘truth’ through illusion by implanting a work of fiction inside another work of fiction, like Will Ferrell’s character Harold Crick in the movie, Stranger than Fiction. The purpose of this method is to draw the audience deeper into the story in the hope they will get more out of it. It’s a layered effect, a technique of immersion which until recently was believed to have only first been used in the 20th Century. That, however, has proven to be incorrect. Leeds University’s Owen Hodkinson has demonstrated the tool was not only known to the ancients but was in use throughout the eastern Mediterranean well before the 1st Century.
Importantly, as a tool or method of storytelling, a metafictional story does not seek to hide the fact that it is fiction. Instead it intentionally reminds the audience that they are participating in a fictional story and quite purposefully draws attention to itself. In fact, it shouts out “Look at me, I’m fiction!” and that’s the method’s genius. The function of this devise which deliberately jogs the audience’s mind to remember they’re experiencing fiction (like Emma Thompson’s voiceover narration in Stranger than Fiction) is to encourage the individual to engage the ‘truth’ at a deeper level. Another excellent example is Douglas Adam’s character, the Guide, in his comic masterpiece The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:
The metafictional tool in use, “A towel, it says…” promotes immersion greater than that experienced through simple dialogue. Instead however of encyclopaedic entries used by Adam’s Guide, the character Jesus uses parables which are in and by themselves an even better example of metafiction in action: a fictional character using fictional micro-stories to make doctrinal points. The character Jesus in fact ‘speaks’ in parables thirty separate times, and unlike the sometimes wild variations in what the character does, when he does it, and where he does it these parables do not change to any great extent from one version of the story to another.
He set another parable before them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed…” (Matthew 13:31–32)
He spoke also this parable to certain people… (Luke 18:9-14)
Then Jesus told them this parable: … (Luke 15:3-7)
Jesus spoke to them again in parables… (Matthew 22:1-14)
The notes to the parables appear to be there on purpose. They are identified, which is a hallmark of the tool in use. They’re spotlighted, even announced, and given that this core of thirty parables are repeated across both gnostic and synoptic gospels are a pretty clear indication that they were in fact the aboriginal root of the original Judean story; a story centred on teachings, not a man per say. As if to hit this point home the Jesus character in the wholly Judean gnostic gospel of Thomas (which predates all synoptic gospels by at least two generations) does not move or eat or exhibit any life at all. The character simply speaks in cryptic kōans, a form of single-person dialogue, and more specifically in parables when the character himself is addressing larger (fictional) audiences. It’s an ingenious method which exposes the real audience to a fictional audience listening to a fictional character. It’s doubly-ingenious when you consider how easy these core doctrinal points were then able to be transported. A travelling gnostic teacher needed only to remember the parables and sayings, and having those down he or she could easily spin additional parts of a story so as to appeal to different audiences. And spin it they most clearly did, leaving us a veritable zoo of differing characters, but not radically differing versions of the parables themselves.
To be sure, the use of this metafictional tool is deceptively clever, but being handled by numerous orators meant the character Jesus was bound to grow a few extra heads, and sure enough he did. Indeed, of all the Jesus’ none is more aberrant than the one contained in the gospel of Thomas which is for quite obvious reasons simply ignored by Christian polemicists today. And no one can really blame them for ignoring it. In Thomas the character Jesus isn’t even crucified which indicates that that element of the story was an embellishment added by other – much later – storytellers who despite using the same vehicle to relay the sect (or sects) teachings felt free enough in the metafictional medium to change the tracks of the story for creative effect.
Now let’s be serious, missing the crucifixion is like the Elephant Man missing his Elephantiasis, comparable perhaps only in script deviation to the corrupt Batman in The Tyrant who singlehandedly takes control of Gotham City and turns it into a police state, or the even more bizarre Batman in The Kingdom Come where a time-ravaged Bruce Wayne keeps Gotham’s peace using remote-controlled robots.