Monday, February 1, 2010

An Unassuming Historicity: Tracing Jesus’ Historical Roots


1.      If we have a clear cut idea of when a supposed historical figure lived and died, and what they did in-between, we can have a better overview of events of their lives which tie into the fabric of history, and if they hold up well against scrutiny, gain credibility. If, for some reason, these events are indistinct or else lack corroboration then it becomes increasingly difficult to place the person or event in the proper historical context.

2.      Consider these simple questions:

a.      When and where was Jesus of Nazareth born?
b.      When and where did Jesus of Nazareth die?
c.      What was his mission/ How does history contrast this with what his followers said?

A-1: An uncertain birth date quite often means an uncertain existence, or else a mythologized one. It is a well established fact that Jesus was not born on December 25th in a manger in Bethlehem as commonly believed in the Christian Nativity tradition. In fact, from what I can discern, the Jesus Christ of the New Testament is, in all likelihood, mainly an amalgamation of mythic deities and heroic figures such as Oedipus, Apollonius of Tayana, Hercules, Romulus, Empedocles, Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, Mithra, Dionysus, and Odysseus.[i]

Where was Jesus born? Not in Bethlehem. Most historians agree that Jesus was born in Nazareth, since this is the city he was initially from, where his parents lived, and where he had family ties. When was he actually born? Nobody knows, although there have been numerous speculations and guesses, none of them historically substantiated, and as such, they become negligible as they don’t get us very far. We do not know when Jesus was supposedly born and we have an unconvincingly vague guess as to where.

B-1: Jesus death is as about as curious as his popping into existence. This second date, the demise of Jesus, believe it or not, is as mysterious and perplexing of a mystery as that of his birth date. Again, we are left to surmise.

Good critical thinkers know that evidence which should exist but does not gives reason to be skeptical. Either the evidence is lost or else nonexistent. By contrast, we happen to have impeccable records of the time periods both prior and hither to the already well documented first century. Subsequently we know, to cite one example, that Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemies, was born in 69 B.C.E, became co-ruler of Egypt in 51, was exiled in 48, restored by Julius Caesar in 47, met Mark Antony at Tarsus in 41 consequently sparking one of the greatest love affairs in antiquity, had children together in around 37, and after all this lost everything to Octavian Augustus in 32 in the Battle of Actium. Finally, we know that her empire divided and her fortunes plundered, a destitute Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 B.C.E.[ii]

Now if the news of Queen Cleopatra’s death resounded throughout the ancient world, certainly the news of the King of the Jews, a genuine messiah, who returned to life after being put to death by Imperial Rome, would have been news worthy enough to have been recorded by numerous keenly interested historians. This would yield an ability to corroborate all of their detailed accounts of this unforgettable event and give us an exact date of such an incredible event. But low and behold, before any such date can be given we need to know when Christ died, if he died, so that a resurrection account would be at all believable. Quite unlike Cleopatra’s headline suicide several years earlier however, we have no idea when the man Jesus, called the Christ, actually died. We have approximations and estimates which (according to the barely reliable Gospel sources and the frequently unreliable Jewish historian Josephus Flavius)[iii] estimate that Jesus died somewhere between c.30 and 33 C.E.

The lack of sturdy historical corroboration and indistinct dates surrounding Christ’s death and rebirth scenario is indicative that it is a later Christian tradition which was amended to the already established atonement story that was conveniently historicized to fit, or rather align, with mainstream history for all too obvious reasons.

C-1: What do we know of Jesus’ spiritual mission? A lot actually. Modern scholarship and Higher Criticism of the New Testament, such as Form, Source, and Redaction criticism, along with new archeological finds such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library,[iv] have done wonders to reveal the roots of early Christianity. The problem is most all of it is trapped within the confines of Judeo-Christian tradition only, and few if any reliable sources exist independently outside of the Christian framework within that time frame which can be validated. This alone should leave us highly suspicious since the overwhelming predisposition is that, basically, only Christians have the historical “truth” because no other historical account exists, therefore are free to state any Christian story they deem satisfactory as a Christian truth, according to themselves, and this is a bias which shouldn’t be overlooked when considering the trustworthiness of a historical piece of information.

The fact that we only have Christian tradition to rely on and inform us on Jesus Christ’s life may even be an indirect indicator for why record of Jesus’ birth date and physical time of death did not survive. One plausible explanation is that, Jesus, a rather controversial Jewish preacher, became mythologized, as to lose his historical ties, therefore Yeshua of Nazareth’s real life birthday and death are supplanted by orthodox Christian tradition, displaced by his larger than life legend, and become antiquated and soon forgotten in the process. Accordingly, the Jewish Yeshua, a humble servant of Yahweh and an apocalyptic preacher of unassuming class, becomes the mighty messiah, King of the Jews, aka Jesus the Christ almost overnight! Another possibility is that the real historical Yeshua was just too inconsequential, so insignificant, that nobody cared to remember his personal details enough to care to write his biography. A man who was not of nobility or of renown could not possibly hope to grab the undivided attention of important historians under commission of the Caesars and Kings. Indeed, this is what we find to be the case. Only later doe the Jesus legend become note worthy, but by this time it already caries with is the stamp of evangelicalism and the prevailing attitude of the early Christian church.[v]

Conclusion: Contrary to what Christians might think, the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are highly suspect, and what’s more, cannot simply be considered historical facts. Because the fact of the matter is, when investigated in detail and critically scrutinized, they fall short every time of meeting the basic prerequisites for what qualifies as historically reliable.

For me personally, this information detracts from the Christian faith immensely. It makes it, in all honesty, uncertain. Christian apologists will claim that since we cannot prove that Jesus did not exist, or that he did not die upon the cross, or that he wasn’t born of a virgin birth then they are safe to maintain their overly confident faith, but only (I might caution) at the sake of making it exceedingly vague and nebulous thus impervious to exacting criticism, and therefore, this formless variety of Christianity is even less likely to be the authentic historical account. In fact, Christians are only left with what is, quite frankly, unbelievable, and that’s before getting into the philosophical arguments about the shakiness of Christian doctrine and theology. Suffice to say, what we have here, everything we know about Jesus’ historical record, just isn’t good enough to establish a basic historical conviction to hinge a belief on.

Biblical scholar and historian James D. Tabor has recently put forth, “The history of ideas always remains a tenuous enterprise with no definable terminia post/ad quem,” that is to say, no precise knowledge can ever be gained as to what really occurred absolutely. I tend to agree. Definitive historical conclusions are always the hardest to establish, we only have our best guess, but at the end of the day our best approximations must be based on solid and sturdy research, and not simple unfounded convictions, and that’s why I find that Jesus Christ’s historical chronology is nowhere near trustworthy. As for his historicity, that too is put into question by the failure to establish a reliable historical chronology of confirmed (basic) events.

[i] See: The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by historian Barbara Walker
The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Professor Robert M. Price
Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? by Dennis R. MacDonald
The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Dennis R. MacDonald
The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “original Jesus” a Pagan God? by Peter Gandy & Timothy Freke

[ii] See: The Oxford Dictionary of World History and

[iii] See: The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave Ed. By Robert M. Price
The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty
Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier
Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of Christian Myth by Burton L. Mack

References and Resources on Josephus Flavius:

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist