So did, uh… did jesus really exist?

If you’ve read anything else on this blog, you might think it’s curious (or completely out-of-character) for me to even be asking this question, especially since I’ve been pretty clear about its relative worth. From a strictly historical standpoint, however, it retains a certain mystique, and I’m going to present my own perspective on it. Does it actually make any difference at all? No, because of several factors that will be enumerated below, but… well, let’s go into the details.

We’ll get a couple of things straight right up front. I’m no biblical scholar, not even close; if you’re looking for a detailed and dependable treatment, you’re looking in the wrong place. Second, there are a lot of distinctions to be made, but the foremost among them is that even the proven existence of jesus has no actual bearing on whether he was divine in any way, or any actions or events claimed to be associated; those are all separate factors, and mostly ones that I’m not even going to try to tackle – partially because it would be impossible without huge inferences, but mostly because of the flaws in the entire narrative. And finally, this particular aspect has certainly been approached numerous times by others, but I haven’t bothered to see what they have to say; I’m only vaguely interested in scriptural history, and basically believe that anything derived from it will be trivial and largely worthless. Let’s face it, we’re dealing with a lot of issues these days concerning economy and ethics and cultural interactions, and nothing from any scripture is capable of addressing these in any meaningful way – as demonstrated by the still-significant numbers of religious folk in the world and the very existence of such problems after all these centuries. It’s been the same messages all this time, so something should have worked by now if there was any value whatsoever to be found in them.

But hard as it may be to believe, I think there’s some compelling evidence that the scriptural accounts of jesus were at least based on a real figure, and the evidence that I’ll present for this also argues that he wasn’t terribly divine.

There is little question that, at the time of the events recounted in the gospels, the basic books of the abrahamic religions were at least partially known; the Dead Sea scrolls date from that period and match (with varying degrees of inaccuracy) many of the chapters that would later be adopted into the hebrew bible, the christian bible, and the qur’an. However, at that point they were still scattered and not ‘canonical’ – the decisions as to what books were official scripture for each religion would come later on, and hashed about countless times even after that; there is no rational way to say, “These are official,” if one knows anything at all about scriptural history. What was known at the time, though, would be considered most closely related to judaism, though the emphasis on moses as the key prophet was almost certainly widely varied. Which means that the chroniclers of the gospels could easily have been aware of the various prophesies of the hebrew bible/old testament.

It should also be known that christianity did not arise soon after the gospels appeared. Even as they began to be adopted as a prime influence in religions, there were a lot of splinter factions, including a major schism between a) those that believed that every man had the ‘spark’ or potential pathway to divinity, and b) those that maintained that mortals could not in any way demonstrate divine powers. These would make jesus either a) a true mortal that realized his full potential, or b) an actual resident of the supernatural planes that only appeared on Earth, without any real connections to mortality. You will notice that either can can be supported by the gospels, depending on your interpretation, so no help there (surprise surprise.) It would not be until Constantine I adopted christianity as his state religion that it gained enough momentum to become prominent, and this occurred around 300 CE.

Well known, too, is that none of the gospels were contemporary to the events portrayed therein, the earliest (mark) referring to events several decades afterward and thus preventing it from being written any earlier, while two of the others (matthew and luke) are largely considered to be cribbed from the first, and the fourth (john) has numerous watermarks of being much later, including little resemblance to the earlier books. The evidence indicates that we have no eyewitness accounts of the events, instead being retellings at best; this doesn’t mean the events must be inaccurate, but it greatly increases the probability of such. Many of the details of jesus’ life were presented by later gospels, far removed from when they were supposed to occur, and with this distance comes an even greater probability that they are inaccurate; who was bothering to note the circumstances of his birth, and why did the earlier gospels not have access to these writings? Scholars tend to treat the later gospels as being embellished to a large degree, and I can easily see their point.

So let’s get down to the main narrative. Regardless of being either a chosen mortal, semi-, or completely divine, jesus is presented as the catalyst, the sacrifice for all mankind to ‘save’ us; this aspect is undeniable, and what christianity is based upon, differentiating it from all other religions that emerged from the same initial stories. The death of jesus was prophesized, intended, and completely according to plan – with all of the variations that can be found now (much less throughout history,) this is one aspect upon which there is no disagreement. The value of jesus is almost entirely in the sacrifice, with only an occasional nod towards any bits of wisdom he is said to have voiced.

Curiously, however, most of the narrative fails to reflect this foreknowledge. Instead of reaching a central location in the Roman Empire with a horde of followers and witnesses, he makes his way to an outlying province with a mere handful of disciples. Capable of demonstrating his credentials with supernatural powers regarding healing and wine and fig trees, he somehow remains an insignificant and even secretive figure. Even as his fate is playing out, he is sought after for being abusive to people in the temple, but has to be ‘sold out’ to the Roman soldiers, somehow not even producing enough of a spectacle at the time to warrant his public arrest. For an event that would affect all mankind, it’s remarkably low-key.

[A sideline here to touch on one of the more confusing aspects of the story. Nearly every account, for centuries, has judas betraying jesus by delivering him to the guards for his trial and execution, despite this being the intention all along and, in fact, the event that creates salvation. Jews were persecuted for fucking centuries over the condemnation of jesus by the sanhedrin trial, despite this supposedly fulfilling scriptural prophecy – there isn’t a lot of sense to be found within this. However, the recently rediscovered gospel of judas presents the story in a different light: judas was not a betrayer, but selected by jesus to be the one to deliver him to the guards and fulfill his destiny, making judas the most-favored disciple. This, at least, fits the events and even the dialogue within the gospels a lot closer, though not without other contradictions.]

Even as he is fulfilling his entire purpose and dying on the cross, jesus wails about being forsaken by his father. Witnesses? Barely a handful. His followers prepare him for burial without any recognition that this is not a lasting state, and are openly shocked when he reappears, even requiring proof that it was really him that died. And the gospels vary widely on what he did during his brief return to the mortal sphere before ascending to heaven, but again, eyewitnesses to this singularly most important event in the history of mankind somehow did not make a single mark in the records, even though we have pages of stuff from the empire itself. The gospels, in fact, are the only writings that indicate that this figure even existed, much less performed miracles, and again, they were written decades later and remained obscure long after that. It’s hard to reconcile this with the literally Earth-shaking nature of the event. It is much easier to see their stories as completely fabricated.

However, this has its own issues. A fabricated narrative shouldn’t have as many inconsistencies, but most importantly, it’s a lame story for being an epic, the epic. If it was written long after the time period it portrays, long after anyone ‘who was there’ could still be alive, then the author could play freely with the events without fear of contradiction or reprisal, and the events could be truly astounding, the miracles magnificent in scope instead of just making wedding guests merrier. A contemporary fabrication, however, is open to the damning possibility that no one alive remembers anything of the sort occurring, nor even heard it passed down by relatives – accounts of astounding miracles that supposedly occurred only a few decades back are pretty easy to dismiss. And the story itself is peculiar, and quite disturbing when it comes down to it. We are constantly told that god sent his son to Earth to sacrifice himself, thus saving all of mankind, but from what, exactly? There is no consensus on what this accomplished or changed, and the idea that a being that could create the entire physical world wouldn’t have any reason whatsoever to play games seems to be openly ignored. This god created the planets and mankind, not to mention all of the rules regarding the afterlife, but has to put on a torture-porn martyr play to change them? We can’t ignore the omniscience angle, where knowledge of how and when this would have to take place (as well as the disobedience in eden, as well as the flood, and on and on,) was there right from the beginning, before creation even began. In what way can this even remotely be considered ‘salvation?’ And as a curious side note, abraham was tested by being asked to sacrifice his son, but god went through with it – there are some really odd messages being put forth in here, and more than a little sadistic.

Or, are there? Let’s imagine someone rolling into town and claiming to be divine, charismatically gaining a bunch of followers convinced of this state; this is hardly a stretch even today in the age of reason and science. Eventually he runs afoul of the authorities, who have rather specific rules about religion: believe what you want, but don’t mess with what other people believe, and don’t defy the empire. Given the chance to recant, he defers, and joins the other common criminals in execution. Abruptly, his followers find that he’s just an insignificant mortal after all. They shrug, realize they were wrong and had been played, and move on, wiser for the experience.

Yes, I’m being snide now – we’re all familiar with how denial works. No no, jesus was supposed to die, yeah, that’s the ticket, and by dying, he proved his value and divinity! In fact, one could only be truly devout by believing in him, rather than the large collection of books that preceded him. It is next to impossible to find a religious person who is not absolutely sure that their particular version of religion is correct, regardless of how many splinters there might be – being wrong is simply out of the realm of possibility. The son of god could not die, unless he was supposed to! And if he was supposed to, then it must have accomplished something important.

Bear in mind that this was a tumultuous time for judaism; emperors would occasionally declare themselves a god, which didn’t play well with moses’ decrees and the commandments, and several jewish uprisings took place around that time. The message of jesus could easily be taken to mean that jews did not have to die for their faith, because jesus already had. Historically, judaism had grown to possess much power and authority in the region – until it ran up against the expanding Roman Empire. Over time, it became clear that being the ‘chosen people’ wasn’t enough to win out over Roman rule. And abruptly, we have the sudden change in message from the new testament, which emphasizes peacefulness and judgment in the afterlife, as well as faith being the only thing that was necessary – all qualities that work a lot better against a strong government than the idea of being backed by god. Or evenly openly assisted by god, as many portions of the old testament portray at length.

The later gospels made it a point to tie jesus in with the previous scriptural stories, providing him with a direct-only-not-exactly lineage with david and fitting in with various prophesies; it’s hard not to see these as opportunistic attempts to woo the jews that viewed moses as the last of the prophets because, you know, that’s what was written. Without this legitimacy, jesus was just another street preacher that could not compete against the established religion of the time.

Seen from the standpoint of a created mythology, the tales of jesus are unimpressive, vague on details, and don’t make any sense – even as a moral fable the messages are not just hard to fathom, but remarkably weak in nature. Seen from the standpoint of being accurate accounts of true events – well, they can’t be, because they’re contradictory on far too many details, so something is wrong therein, and there is no way to determine what; it could be all of it. [Note that even if all accounts agreed, this wouldn’t bring them any closer to being true – they could all simply originate from the same source of fabrication.] Moreover, none of them have any outside corroboration or demonstrable evidence, the only things that could assist in authentication. They had remarkably little impact at the time – even the gospels themselves harp constantly about those who do not believe this figure is divine in any way – and the still-present problem that they just make no sense. But seen in the light that someone was trying to capitalize on existing folklore – that fits the evidence rather well, as I see it. There are several other known gospels that never got accepted into the christian canon, and more that were only hinted at, all differing on details; the only consistency seems to be the emphasis on jesus himself. Yet still in a very narrow way, since no outside historical accounts make any mention of him whatsoever. It has all the earmarks of legends built up around a cult following – one with little to show for itself, as well, since it wouldn’t have been hard for someone truly divine to have a hell of a lot more impact. Given, you know, that his dad stopped the entire planet from rotating and moses parted the waters and all that jazz. If we are to believe that the gospels still recount the legends of a divine miracle-worker, then why can’t they agree on the miracles, and why aren’t those miracles carrying their own weight in the legends outside of christianity? However, mythology is easily built around a single common figure – witness all of the emphasis on Christopher Columbus that made it into common knowledge without being true at all, or all of the quotes misattributed to Mark Twain, despite both of these being well within the era of meticulous recordkeeping.

Christians will tirelessly argue that the gospels are distinctive evidence of both existence and divinity, while completely dismissing very similar accounts regarding mohammed and buddha – double-standards are de rigueur among religious folk. There are entire books that try to excuse the countless issues in one way or another – often by claiming metaphorical meaning or by asserting that the message (whatever it is supposed to be) is true even if the gospels have problems. Yet even from an unbiased, objective standpoint, there are numerous other possibilities for how these stories arose, including a cult following of an entirely fabricated legend, including the shaping by unknown events and cultural influences of the time – there is likely no way that any theory regarding the gospels could be raised above a 2% probability. But to me, the explanation that seems to fit the best is the desperate attempt to glorify a rather mundane figure and event, and to do this, you first have to have a figure to build upon. The gospels are curious in that they each pretty distinctly describe their own versions of the myth, but rely on the same figure.

Some more fun reading:

Shredding the Gospels: Contradictions, Errors, Mistakes, Fictions

How accurate are the gospels? (This one recounts the extremely common christian response to debate, which is why there is little reason to even engage in such.)