Searching for a Historical Jesus

By | April 2, 2010

I’m a former Catholic. After some research, I have doubts that Jesus existed.

When you question religion, some people freak out, especially if you make a lot of sense. Losing one’s religion can raise many fears. It is my belief that a person without religion will not run amok. Even without religion, you have a human responsibility to follow the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated.  About saving your eternal soul: I don’t believe we have immortal immaterial essences. You can stimulate part of the brain during surgery and someone will be instantly outside of their body. Stop the stimulation and they are back. Works every time. Consciousness is a brain function. Put the right chemicals in the brain and people go unconscious. My consciousness did not exist before I was born, and I have no reason to believe it will continue after I expire. ( Yet, there is exciting research by science into replacing organs with stem cell technology. Some of us alive today might outlive Methuselah! ) Non-existence is painless. No need to fear it. Another interesting option is that the nature of reality may be that we never actually die… or when we do, our consciousness just branches off to a different universe. Perhaps that’s what happened when I had a dream I died that one time… perhaps our misunderstanding of space-time and alternate universes explains reincarnation.

On to the search for the historical Jesus:

The evidence for his life seems to be only the Gospels which didn’t show up until over 100 years after he was gone.

A gospel (from Old English, gōd spellgood news“) is a writing that describes the life of Jesus. The word is primarily used to refer to the four canonical gospels: the Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Luke and Gospel of John, probably written between AD 65 and 110. They appear to have been originally untitled; they were quoted anonymously in the first half of the second century (i.e. 100–150) but the names by which they are currently known appear suddenly around the year 180.[1]

If the Gospels are, as they seem to be, separate accounts by different people who knew Jesus personally, why are parts of Matthew and Luke identical? This is known as the Synoptic problem.

File:Synoptic word-for-word.png

We are in the age of “spam,” the age of computer viruses and email hoaxes.  Email hoaxers often exactly “cut and paste” the text from a previous hoax to create a new one. Is this the real solution to the Synopic problem?

I wondered if the Gospels were partly a Roman deception after they won against the Jews in order to keep their vanquished foes peaceful.  Perhaps not. The Gospel stories seem to have evolved organically because they had a ring of truth and they helped people.  Parts of the Gospels are certainly based on real history. But then so was Homer’s Odyssey, it seems …

The Jesus story, which borrows from or parallels other savior stories (Mithra, Horus, Osiris, Zarathustra, Tammuz, etc. ) seems to be a thought virus born not from the designs of a Roman hacker, but from basic human needs for mental protection from life’s troubles. The story says something important about the human mind. We aspire to truth, fairness, clean living, immortality, and super powers.

We have problems. We always have had problems, and we’ve always known that. This explains the 10 commandments, and before that, the 42 Principles of Ma’at, upon which the 10 commandments are based. You can’t deny the similarities.

A “trojan” in computer security terms is a program which seems useful but delivers an evil payload. It is an age of deception… but this is nothing new.

The modern word comes from the story of the Trojan Horse in the writings of an ancient Roman poet (Virgil) who died in 19 BCE, years before Christ.  This is the most famous deception from the time of Christ, the one most people know, and it is clear evidence that great war time deception was practiced in that time period, in this case, by Odysseus, a Greek king.

I grew up thinking Jesus was so important in his time that the calendars were all changed based on his birth! Why else would we have AD and BC (“After Death” and “Before Christ”) when talking about ancient times? I now know that the people then did not use these designations for the years.

“The AD/BC notation was first proposed by the monk Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little) in the year 525 CE.” – religioustolerance

I never bothered to check my assumption… until now.  I read Gilgamesh a few years ago and saw in that very old story a more complete and quite different account of the later Bible stories I’d heard. This led me to start questioning everything.

Jesus Christ did not make the list of the 101 most influential people who never lived, but if he never existed, he certainly should. I’m astonished that not one person has been able to show archaeological evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus … or even clear evidence for one of the 12 Apostles… beyond written stories.

We have archaeological evidence for people who lived after and before Jesus Christ:

  • Alexander the Great Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BC). After 200 CE, his body went missing from the tomb, but it had been around for a long time. In addition to stories, we have hard archaeological evidence. We know Alexander lived and we know what this person who lived 323 years BCE looked like because there are coins and a Roman copy of a statue by Lysippus, in the Louvre Museum.
  • Plato (~428  BC to ~347 BC), unlike Jesus and Alexander, did a lot of writing when he lived and his students wrote about him.  We know what Plato looked like because we have physical evidence, a bust by Silanion, a Greek sculptor of the 4th century BC.  He died at 81. He was supposedly buried on the grounds of the Academy, the school he founded, after his death around 348. No one has located his grave because in 86 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla “ravaged the Academy”, which was about 2.5 km from the Acropolis near Colonus Hippius.  Today its modern name is Kolonos and it is a densely populated working-class district of the Municipality of Athens. }
  • Odysseus – called Ulysses in Latin (~1184 BC) – The date of the Trojan War Odysseus won was given as 1194–1184 BC by Eratosthenes. Odysseus was, according to legend, the inventor of the large wooden horse that allowed him to take the city of Troy. Once thought to be a mythical person, a discovery in 2005 revealed that Paliki on the Ionian island of Cephallonia (aka Kefalonia), near Ithaki, was Odysseus’ homeland. Visitors to Kefalonia, an octopus-shaped island off the west coast of Greece, can see the evidence for themselves. Archaeological evidence includes a gold brooch on display in the archeological museum at Argostoli that matches the description in Book XIX of Homer’s “Odyssey.”
  • Gilgamesh (Bilgameṣ) of Ur (~2700 BC according to the Sumerian king list. ) – “central character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the greatest surviving work of early Mesopotamian literature. In the epic his father was Lugalbanda and his mother was Ninsun (whom some call Rimat Ninsun), a goddess. Gilgamesh is described as two parts god and one part man.”  If you read the Epic of Gilgamesh, you will find the flood story, a rib (CORRECTION: A ROCK) which becomes a person, an evil serpent and many more elements which made it into the Old Testament bible story. The Euphrates river was temporarily diverted to build his tomb, and then, as was the custom then, his entire household was buried alive with him in the tomb and the water was diverted back over it.

Accuracy takes a back seat to an emotionally moving story passed on mostly by word of mouth.  This is the result of the way our memories work. We forget so easily.

I suggest we look at ancient history with fresh eyes, that it is worthwhile to sort the myth from reality, where possible. Is there evidence for characters mentioned in the bible? What is the historical evidence that Joseph, Moses, Saul, David and Solomon actually lived three to four thousand years ago?  Were Joseph and Imhotep of Egypt The Same Man?

Was there a historical Jesus? If you are certain, where is the evidence?  Perhaps this is the tomb of Jesus in Talpiot, Jerusalem!? Uh, no, never mind.

Tomb of Jesus

Jesus as myth

The views of scholars who entirely rejected Jesus’ historicity were summarized in Will Durant‘s Caesar and Christ, published in 1944. Their rejections were based on a suggested lack of eyewitnesses, a lack of direct archaeological evidence, the failure of ancient works to mention Jesus, and similarities early Christianity shares with then-contemporary religion and mythology.[106]

More recently, arguments for non-historicity have been discussed by George Albert Wells, Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle, 1999), Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (The Jesus Mysteries) and Robert M. Price. Doherty, for example, maintains that the earliest records of Christian beliefs (the earliest epistles) contain almost no reference to the historical Jesus, which only appears in the Gospel accounts.[107] He suggests that these are best explained if Christianity began as a mythic savior cult, with no specific historical figure in mind. – wikipedia

Isn’t it surprising that, given the boundless energy of Christians and their strong desire to prove their faith, that we have better physical evidence for Odysseus than Jesus Christ?  (Does someone have a photo of Odysseus’s gold brooch from the Argostoli museum? It would be surprising since we would not expect the Cyclopes that Ulysses fought to be real. And what of the Sirens? What of Medusa? And Cerberus/ Kerberos? Will we someday know the exact roots of these myths? The Greeks and Christians stories contain many elements  from earlier Egyptian stories … who adapted some of their stories from the Summarians.

“The Sumerian language is the earliest known written language. The “proto-literate” period of Sumerian writing spans ca. 3500 to 3000 BCE.”

Inanna and Jesus both travel to a big city, where they are arrested by soldiers, put on trial, convicted, sentenced to death, stripped of their clothes, tortured, hung up on a stake, and die. And then, after 3 days, they are resurrected from the dead….

The 2nd part of the Inanna myth really focuses on her husband Dumuzi. Dumuzi is the prototype of the non-aggressive, non-heroic male; he cries easily; he is the opposite of the warrior-god in the ancient pantheon. …The summer month which corresponds to our month of July is named after him in both the Babylonian and Hebrew calendars, and during this month each year his followers, mostly women, mourn his death. From this myth we are talking about, and from a few other references, we also know that he is resurrected. But unlike Jesus, who dies and is resurrected once, he is imagined to die and be resurrected over and over, each year. … there really are a lot of similarities between the personalities and the stories of Jesus and Dumuzi. They both are tortured and die violent deaths after being betrayed by a close friend, who accepts a bribe from his enemies. They both have a father who is a god and a mother who is human. Dumuzi’s father, the god Enki, also has many similarities to Yahweh, the father of Jesus.

… Inanna becomes known outside of Mesopotamia by her Babylonian name, “Ishtar”. She is a personification of Venus as an evening star, and there is also a male aspect of the deity who is usually the morning star. At the end of the Book of Revelation when Christ speaks to John he says, “I am the bright morning star.” In ancient Canaan Ishtar is known as Astarte, and her counterparts in the Greek and Roman pantheons are known as Aphrodite and Venus. In the 4th Century, when Christians got around to identifying the exact site in Jerusalem where the empty tomb of Jesus had been located, they selected the spot where a temple of Aphrodite (Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna) stood. So they tore it down and built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest church in the Christian world. – huffingtonpost

Nothing new under the sun.  Is the Son?


27 thoughts on “Searching for a Historical Jesus

  1. sciencerules

    There is little evidence for a historical Jesus.

    The prolific historian Josephus mentions Christ two or three times (he wrote twenty books, so it seems Jesus didn’t have the same widespread impact that his followers say he did). At least one of those paragraphs is widely believed to be an insertion by a later unknown person, because the style of prose is quite different and the following paragraph doesn’t quite make sense unless the Jesus-mentioning paragraph is removed.

    Many scholars believe that the gospels are derived from a common source text which is lost to history (the ‘Q’ document) but none of these are contemporary texts; they all appear at least 30 years after the purported death of Jesus.

    Also for the Christians in the audience who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God … there were several competing gospels and books were added or removed for political reasons during the next 500 years.

  2. sciencerules

    The Bible itself doesn’t count as evidence except to the extent to which it recounts events and people which are known from other historical, non-biblical sources. There is no evidence for many of the events mentioned in the bible (e.g. 40 years wandering) but some other events and people mentioned in the bible are backed up by other sources.

    It’s just a fact that Jesus got a lot written about him in the bible but almost nothing from secular sources.

  3. Eliyahu

    Hmmmm. This is a bit confusing. You show a picture of the Talpiot Tomb and say that it is no evidence for J-sus. Are you saying that a historical man named Yeshua or Yehoshua ben Yoseph also didn’t exist? Because most people equate the two, Yehoshua ben Yoseph and J-sus to be the same, a solution becomes intractable (unsolvable.) But if one is logic driven he will understand that the two names are intractably different. Yehoshua ben Yoseph was the Torah observant shophet (judge) of the 1st century that fit the qualifications of the time and for all time, of Mashiach. A man who died for the Torah that his people the Jews, and geirim, would come back to Torah. Jzeus on the other hand is the poster child for Torah rejection. How are they the same? Hello!!! Is any one home? Netzarim

  4. Ann

    Just as with any other subject, be careful of people who talk about history as if citing dogma. History is an ongoing study.

    Studies of early secular sources must consider not only the works of the first-century historian Josephus, which was at one time was thought to be “a kind of fifth gospel” or “little Bible” but also Lucian, Pliny the Younger (62?-113)the Governor of Bithynia, the “Chrestus” of Suetonius and Tacitus, besides the Talmud authorities, who it seems wanted to discredit Jesus.

  5. Kevin

    “After Death” is actually a common misconception. A.D. actually stands for Anno Domini, meaning roughly “In the Year of the/our Lord.”

    1. Sam

      No, Kevin, Latin is a very precise language. Anno Domini is not “roughly” “In the year of the/our Lord.” It is exactly “In the year of the Lord,” and there is no “our” in it. “Nostri” would have to accompany “Domini” to be “OUR Lord.”

  6. sciencerules

    We need to distinguish between historical evidence for Jesus the person and historical evidence for Jesus being the Christ (Son of God). Finding the former doesn’t affirm the latter. Indeed, there is no evidence for the latter, despite the earnest faith of tens, hundreds, millions.

    The problem with talking about Lucian, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and so on is that these dudes lived way too late to provide any actual historical evidence. Their works can prove that _Christians_ existed around 100 A.D. or later, but no actual Jesus.

  7. Ann

    Reviewing again this article, it starts out on the wrong foot:

    “As a former Catholic, now a believer in scientific method,..”

    Unless the author (Xeno? please forgive me) was he a Medieval Catholic, there should not be a discrepancy.

    Some ordained, Communion-serving Catholic priests (even!) are also full-blown PhD scientists publishing in peer-reviewed journals, attending scientific conferences etc., working in fields such as astronomy, biochemistry, biology, physics etc., etc., besides a whole realm of social sciences, including history. You couldn’t tell any difference in their work from any other scientist in their particular field. (In fact, at scientific conferences some don’t even wear the normal uniform of a white collar and black gown.)

    I think the author has got a strange view of Catholicism as much as he does, perhaps, about “science.” This doesn’t give much support to his arm-chair analysis of history.

    Given all that … whatever! …

    Does it make any difference, if we think Jesus ever existed? We do know for certain, however, that for the first 300 years, even before Constantine was converted, Christians existed, they worshiped a Jesus. Who was He? What did he do? We only have glimpses.

    One might note an interesting aspect about Christianity, more so than other major religions. And that is what happened to the religion after an emperor was converted into it. How did it change?

    1. Xeno Post author

      Could you refresh my memory about the historical artifacts that make it certain “that for the first 300 years, even before Constantine was converted, Christians existed, [and] they worshiped a Jesus”?

  8. Ann

    Ok, here we go …

    Xeno, do you know what you’re up against? (No, not me, God forbid!)

    Well, wiki begins like this:

    “The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity following his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312.” [1]

    And [1] is this:

    “An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors Constantine I (306 – 337 A.D.)” by Hans A. Pohlsander
    SUNY Albany

    Who is Hans A. Pohlsander? As if it makes any difference, but in this case…. This guy has been publishing scholarly works for nearly 60 years. He’s German, migrated to States and got his PhD in 1954, from University of Michigan (after earning degrees at University of Utah and the University of California, Berkeley). One his early publications is “Metrical studies in the lyrics of Sophocles” in 1964. He’s listed in the “50 [or more] year club” in American Philological Association, meaning he knows his ancient languages and available artifacts.

    Currently, he’s professor emeritus at Albany. His latest publication was in 2010 on German monuments in the U.S. (of all things!)

    But, his focus, the topic that captivated his interested was over the years was Constantine, about which he published a book in the late 1990s, which means numerous scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals preceded this publication. As one might guess, he was also interested in the world around the emperor and wrote about the Empress Helena, and Crispus, the oldest son of Constantine (as well as Philip the Arab, 244-249, for whatever reason)

    Well, any way …

    in [1] Pohlsander says this:

    “… in 305, the problem posed by the Christians was unresolved and the persecution in progress. Upon coming to power Constantine unilaterally ended all persecution in his territories, even providing for restitution. His personal devotions, however, he offered first to Mars and then increasingly to Apollo, reverenced as Sol Invictus.

    The next significant event in Constantine’s religious development occurred in 312. … ”

    Thus, we may presume Sol Invictus was not Christianity.

    Well, what happened in 312?

    Jan N. Bremmer begins his recent book-chapter, “The Vision of Constantine” like this:

    “Can one still say something new about the vision of Constantine and his conversion [to Christianity]? Already in the middle of the 1950s, Kurt Aland (1915-1994), who was a reputable church historian in addition to being editor of the Greek New Testament, wrote that he had composed a bibliography of more than 1500 titles on Constantine, and since those years several hundreds more have appeared.”

    Bremmer answers his own question by writing something new, presumably. And, he divides his chapter into three parts: (1) Constantine’s vision as reported by himself, (2) Contemporary reports of the vision, and (3) Eusebius and Constantine’s vision.

    What am I leading to? (God only knows!) But may say something happened to Constantine to convert him, or change him, or cause him to take a different role, or attitude toward a different form of worship.

    Can you deny “Christians” existed before Constantine? And, their form of worship was distinct enough from all other contemporary religions to cause them to be uniquely persecuted?

    Can you deny they worshiped “a Jesus”? I didn’t say who or what Jesus was, but He, She or It was distinct enough from other Gods, or gods, or idols, to form a distinct type of worship, a religion that was distinct enough for the Romans, anyway. To substantiate the material existence of a Jesus is irrelevant. It’s past tense. The “artifacts” were there for the early Christians. It formed the basis of their religion.

    Unless, you want lay waste to a lot of scholarly energy and endeavors, as well as an early religion, there was a someone or something, “a Jesus,” … which, by the way, even the secular BBC notes was transformed to “Christ” with Constantine: a clue to how Christianity changed when it became the religion of the Roman elites.

    1. Xeno Post author

      Presuming we both just want the truth, I’m on your side and I appreciate this thoughtful reply. I enjoyed reading it and while I do not doubt the early Christians existed, I seek substantiation that this early sect of Judaism had the same views as modern day Christians. I doubt this because the stories in the bible changed over time, morphing into what we now know from different sources and from polytheistic views. That sect could have existed first with a different focus, and later came the story of Jesus the Christ.

      What traces of these people still exist? Any books on the topic?

  9. Ann

    Yes, even if stories themselves don’t so much change over time, their interpretations certainly do.

    I think most people today would agree that “slavery” is wrong. Yet, biblical sources were used, once upon a time, to justify slavery in the United States.

    Today, with the dreadful, but real, possibility that the U.S. may be in constant, endless war, the bible is used used to justify war. And, as one example, Rev. Robert Morey questions whether Jesus was really a pacifist by going directly to the scriptures. He slams all notions of pacifism including the “Sermon on the Mount” in his book: When is it Right to Fight? (Christian Scholar’s Press, 2008) (He’s also written about the “femination” of the church in his “Fearing God: The Key to the Treasure House of Heaven” [Faith Defenders, 2000])

    But, as Wilma Ann Bailey writes, “People want to kill people, and they want biblical permission to do so” in her work on the 6th commandment (“You Shall Not Kill” or “You Shall Not Murder”? The Assault on a Biblical Text [Liturgical Press, 2005]).

    Thus, it would seem likely that “Christianity,” or whatever it was that was persecuted by the Romans, was transformed after it became the state religion by the very nature of that transformation. We know what happened after the conversion of Constantine, but what was it like before?

    At BBC’s “Legitimization Under Constantine” site, Shaye I.D. Cohen, a professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, says, “The triumph of Christianity is actually a very remarkable historical phenomenon.” The descendants of “a small group from the backwaters of the Roman Empire … after two, three centuries … somehow taken over the Roman Empire and have become the official religion, in fact the only tolerated religion, of the Roman Empire.” Cohen also notes, “One of the first things Constantine does, as emperor, is start persecuting other Christians. The Gnostic Christians are targeted … and other dualist Christians. Christians who don’t have the Old Testament as part of their canon are targeted. The list of enemies goes on and on. There’s a kind of internal purge of the church …” (When is “purge” used in modern times to describe an internal governmental action?)

    Harold W. Attridge, professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, at the same BBC site talks about The Council of Nicea, which took place in 325, which resulted in a creed, which all good Catholics know by heart, even to this day (at least when I understood what a “good Catholic” was like).

    But, the question is what were the pre-Constantinian “Christians” like? Shouldn’t we look at those persecuted such as the Gnostics?

    The Greek word “gnosis” means “knowledge.” And, the way to salvation for the Gnostics was through knowledge, through understanding, not blind acceptance (as in memorizing the Nicean Creed). But, this might have been threatening to a Church who, perhaps, wants obedient followers, who must obey.

    But, put this in context of the pre-Constantinian world. There was a line of thought/personal-action that carried much weight, if not in official, elite circles. And, it lasted for several hundred years. In this regard I credit Peter Kingsley works (“In the Dark Places of Wisdom [Inverness, 1999] and “Reality” [Inverness, 2003]) for introducing light into how, perhaps, people may taken or did [note] religion (which is actually very nebulous term in itself). Kingsley focuses on the early work of Parmenides, a pre-Platonic Greek, who thought of religion not as something to believe, but something to learn, through experience. Of course, the Athenian philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, changed the experiencing of reality to debating it, discussing. And, that fit nicely into line of thought of the elites, which carries through to this day.

    1. Sam

      You know, Ann, I don’t always agree with your views, but I must say you are amazingly verbose and lucid. I think you would be an incredibly successful writer. (Assuming you aren’t already!) You could probably write — and write intelligently! — about just about anything.

      1. Ann

        No, I’m not writer, but verbose I’ve always been. As to my lucidity … it’s for my listener or reader to decide! Thank you!

  10. Hemoroidy

    arold W. Attridge, professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, at the same BBC site talks about The Council of Nicea, which took place in 325, which resulted in a creed, which all good Catholics know by heart, even to this day (at least when I understood what a “good Catholic” was like).

  11. Trawertyn

    Bremmer answers his own question by writing something new, presumably. And, he divides his chapter into three parts: (1) Constantine’s vision as reported by himself, (2) Contemporary reports of the vision, and (3) Eusebius and Constantine’s vision.

  12. Radek

    Christians who don’t have the Old Testament as part of their canon are targeted. The list of enemies goes on and on. There’s a kind of internal purge of the church …” (When is “purge” used in modern times to describe an internal governmental action?.

  13. Radek

    The descendants of “a small group from the backwaters of the Roman Empire … after two, three centuries … somehow taken over the Roman Empire and have become the official religion, in fact the only tolerated religion, of the Roman Empire.” Cohen also notes, “One of the first things Constantine does, as emperor, is start persecuting other Christians. The Gnostic Christians are targeted … and other dualist Christians.

  14. Grzesiek

    Of course, the Athenian philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, changed the experiencing of reality to debating it, discussing. And, that fit nicely into line of thought of the elites, which carries through to this day.

  15. Odbitki

    Bremmer answers his own question by writing something new, presumably. And, he divides his chapter into three parts: (1) Constantine’s vision as reported by himself, (2) Contemporary reports of the vision, and (3) Eusebius and Constantine’s vision.

  16. Sofy

    Bremmer answers his own question by writing something new, presumably. And, he divides his chapter into three parts: (1) Constantine’s vision as reported. No, I’m not writer, but verbose I’ve always been. As to my lucidity … it’s for my listener or reader to decide! Thank you!

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