The Prophet Paradox: Jesus the Legend & Problems with Messianic Truth Claims
Below is a list of those who dazzled crowds with their magic, miracles, parables, and other wonders, but more importantly, who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah! Messiahs have come and gone, but even before Jesus of Nazareth, there was a plethora messianic savior types to choose from. A person of antiquity had their pick!
Almost all of them, if not most of them, accomplished a few of the same miracles that Jesus did. Simon Magus was probably the most notorious of the lot. From his namesake we get the sin of ‘simony’ which comes from the ungodly attempt to buy spiritual salvation and miraculous powers, something that was so disgusting to Peter that it made it into the canonical Gospels (see: the canonical Acts of the Apostles, verses 8:9-24). Funny that some years later the Catholic Church would begin selling Indulgences, the very thing early Christians detested and viewed as signs of false prophecy and heresy.
A few of these wannabes even claimed to have died and were, apparently, resurrected(!) They even had followers to voucher for them. Others brought people back to life while others offered salvation. This was the particular trade of Simon Magus, who was said to have rescued the prostitute Helen who then becomes his companion, and in their intimate sexual relationship led to the formation of a new offshoot Gnostic Christianity called Simonianism, which flourished in the Syrian region till about the mid fourth century.
Many of the self proclaimed prophets were virgin born (no surprise there). It seems that in and around the first century Palestine such conjuring and sorcery was common fair, a form of sensationalist entertainment and spectacle, to wow crowds. Nothing could be more ubiquitous than miracle working in superstitious cultures of early man. The more supernaturally inclined the more readily they accept any old Joe-Shmoe with a messiah complex, a perfect breeding ground for religion, today as well as in times of antiquity. But if you ask me, the only way to buy into any of it is to remain credulous. At any rate, here is the list of Jewish messiah claimants:
• Simon of Peraea (ca. 4 BC)
• Athronges (ca. 3 BC)
• Judas of Galilee (?)
• Jesus of Nazareth (ca. 4 BC — AD 30-?)
• Theudas (? - 46)
• Menahem ben Judah (?)
• Agrippa II
• Vespasian, c.70
• Simon bar Kokhba (?- ca. 135)
• Moses of Crete (?)
• Ishak ben Ya'kub Obadiah Abu 'Isa al-Isfahani (684-705)
• Yudghan (?)
• David Alroy (?)
• Nissim ben Abraham (?)
• Moses Botarel of Cisneros (?)
• Asher Lemmlein (?)
• David Reubeni (1490-1541?)
• Solomon Molcho (1500-1532)
• Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676)
• Barukhia Russo (Osman Baba)
• Jacob Querido (?-1690)
• Mordecai Mokia (1650-1729)
• Löbele Prossnitz (?-1750)
• Jacob Joseph Frank (1726-1791)
• Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994)
Christian messiah claimants and those who claimed to be the second coming of Jesus is still going! Bunch of hippies!!
Some Christian/post-Christian messiah claimants are:
• Simon Magus and Dositheos the Samaritan, mid first century
• Montanus (?)
• Adalbert powers circa 744.
• Tanchelm of Antwerp (ca. 1110)
• Ann Lee (1736-1784)
• Bernhard Müller (c.1799-1834)
• John Nichols Thom (1799-1838)
• Arnold Potter (1804–1872)
• Hong Xiuquan of China (1812-1864)
• Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892)
• William W. Davies (1833–1906)
• Father Divine / George Baker (c. 1880 – September 10, 1965)
• Georges-Emest Roux (1903-1981)
• Sun Myung Moon (b. 1920)
• Yahweh ben Yahweh (1935-2007)
• Iesu Matayoshi (b. 1944)
• Jung Myung Seok (b. 1945)
• Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda (b. 1946)
• Inri Cristo (b. 1948)
• Apollo Quiboloy (b. 1950)
• David Icke (b. 1952)
• David Koresh (Vernon Wayne Howell) (1959-1993)
• Maria Devi Christos (b. 1960),
• Sergei Torop (b. 1961)
• Wayne Bent (b. 1941)
• David Shayler (b. 1965)
• Laszlo Toth
The thing to keep in mind is this, when Jesus' miracles and dramatic displays of magic power are juxtaposed with those who came before him as well as after, there is no distinguishable difference. The name changes, the contents remain the same. So confirmation of a real miracle which Jesus performed would be necessary as proof that Jesus was the real deal, and not just another doppelganger, huckster, and/or fraud. Otherwise, he just blends into the scenery… with a bunch of Joe-shmoe-messiah-wannabes.
After examining the above list, a Christian friend of mine asked, “What does this list of derelicts prove?” and went on to add, “Jesus doesn’t need smoke and mirrors to perform miracles. He created the entire universe and every one of those false prophets you mentioned.”
Yet isn’t this the dilemma? How do we know Jesus was the real deal? How do we know he wasn’t just another false prophet? If you will, consider this dilemma along with me for a moment.
Prophet A claims to have made a ball of clay turn into a living dove. Upon seeing the popularity of such a conjuring trick Prophet B claims to have done the same. Prophet C looks at the popularity of both of their claims and thinks to himself it’s time to find a new bag of tricks, and says to have raised someone from the dead. Hearing this grandiose news, Prophet A and B suddenly claim to have done the same. Seeing the popularity of each other’s miracles, and of the good old ones that never go out of fashion (such as levitating, flying, shape shifting, raising the dead and walking on water as Simon Magus supposedly did), they keep trying to one up each other to gain new followers and prestige.
Quetsion: Of prophets A, B, and C who is the *false prophet?
Answer: All of the above. Since none of their truth claims or claims to be messiah are vindicated, we cannot assume one is superior to the next. Moreover since we have no reason to doubt them, other than the dubious attempts to demonize and slander the other, in all cases being similar, and being impossible to verify beyond a reason of a doubt, it is therefore impossible to know who the genuine article is. Because of this we the only logical deduction which can be made, giving the evidence we have, is that they are either 1) all telling the truth, e.g. a paradox, or 2) are all lying. Which seems more likely to you? Even so, when we take into consideration that the stories may all be apocryphal, in other words, myth and legend, then the problem goes away. But we are left with an even bigger problem, trying to prove the historicity of a person (or persons) who we’ve just concluded were all mythologized messiahs or legendary lore.
A Big Frakkin Problem: For Christians that Is
What most Christians don’t seem to realize is that if you make a claim that prophet A is the one and only true prophet, then clearly, you need to back this claim up with evidence, otherwise you are only left with a paradox. You can’t simply espouse because all other prophets are false, because this is one of the signs of a false prophet, claiming there are no other genuine prophets. Since all other prophets have claimed the same authority, and can recreate one another’s miracles, and all have followers who swear that they saw these miracles with their own two eyes, we must be highly skeptical.
As David Hume reminds us, “...no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.” (Section 10 : Of Miracles Pt. 1) Hume goes on to inform:
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (Section 10 : Of Miracles Pt. 1)
Christians claim Jesus is the real deal. But how do they know this? Because the Bible tells them so? Because it states in the Gospels that there were eye-witness testimonies to support this claim? So what?! All of the professed messiahs have had eye-witness testimonies, and as Hume already pointed out, these are categorically untrustworthy.
Christians have to do better. Mainly, they need to bring forth some trustworthy evidence which supports their premises, because making the claim “I’m a Christian and the Bible tells me so” is so unconvincing as to actually dissuade people from believing. No joke. Circular logic as inept as this just shows critically minded skeptics that there isn’t a real argument here to begin with—we forget it in a couple seconds after the novelty has worn off—and move on.
Besides, if the Bible was 100% historically reliable, and everything was in order and in tune with reality, then it would have more credence than it does. Only then would an ardent skeptic be justified in checking out the truth claims of the religion. And then, once held up to scrutiny, these claims would either have to check out or be discarded. If the original claims stand up to the test of scrutiny, and corresponded with outside sources, and were verifiably accurate with what history and science say, then it might pass muster. Yet the Bible rarely has this sort of consistency and dependability, so simply espousing it does is not the way to prove Jesus was the one and only messiah. As such, Christians cannot simply say that Jesus was the real deal and all else are frauds. First we must have proof that Jesus wasn’t a fraud himself, and that takes more historical research than just saying it.
Theists readily take it on a matter of faith that Jesus was the chosen messiah without ever looking into the matter. How do they know this? The Bible tells them so. How do they know the Bible is infallible and wholly accurate? Because the Bible says so. And that’s how they know. Moreover, it appears what they think they know is all they know. Anything outside of their sources is written off as either too trivial or heretical and so not really worth bothering about.
That’s why the above list of messiah wannabes and derelicts seems so unimportant to Christians. Mostly because it’s just not a concern of theirs to have to debunk frauds and false prophets—since the Bible is the authority on the subject—they can take it at its word. But to anyone who knows the implications of such a list knows that it is more than a small concern, it’s a major conundrum. In the end, minus a biased book that claims it’s its own source of authority, what is there to prove to us the authenticity of one messiah over the next? Not much, and that’s an understatement; which reminds me of the words of Alexander Pope, who once remarked, “Skepticism is as much of the result of knowledge, as knowledge is of skepticism.” I couldn’t agree more.
From Preacher to Prophet to Messiah to Son of God—Fact or Legend?
None of the guys on the list of would be messiahs used smoke and mirrors, they were believed because they had the backing of religious authority and the credulity of the crowd. Maybe this is all the illusion one needs to become a messiah? At any rate, they all were being sincere; they all were the real deal! That’s the claim anyway. We simply have no evidence to back up their wonder-working claims nor refute them, including the miraculous deeds of Jesus Christ.
Remember the example from above of prophet A, B, and C? They all claimed to have god-given authority too. There is just no telling who the real one is, and pointing fingers and making accusations of who is a false prophet will get you nowhere. Whatever their names were and whoever they turned out to be, they made virtually the same claims based on the same level of testimony of nearly indistinguishable miracle making. So will the real prophet/messiah please stand up? Oh, all of you? Okay the, whose got the holy book which demonizes everyone else and claims that all prophets are false except for the select chosen prophet? Oh, all of you again? Dang it, this is tricky business. Alright then, how about this, whom among you has claimed to be the way and the light, the source of true salvation, and has died and come back to life after three days? Three of you?! It’s just so hard to tell who can be telling the truth here. What’s your name son? Osiris? Oh you too Mithra? Jesus? Okay then, all of you.
Now a trained apologist will emphatically state that Osiris and Mithra are obviously myths, and that Jesus was a real historical figure! No comparison! So Jesus, by means of his ties to historicity, becomes the champion by default! He must be the genuine Messiah! That’s the only logical deduction, right? Or could it be more likely that Christians took the stories they liked best and crafted a messiah, which was grafted to a historical figure they admired, and in an age of high superstition filled with credulous believers who’d follow you to the depths of hell for doing one little magic trick, created a legend?
Indeed, this seems to be the more likely scenario, since there is so much similarity between these three figures and Jesus that it is beyond uncanny! In fact, it’s down right inconceivable, unless of course, we’re dealing with retellings of myth. Then it all makes sense. But if Christians insist on Jesus being historically true in all aspects, then they must accounts for the 95% of him which overlaps with the pre-existing mythical tales of those like Osiris, Mithra, Oedipus, Apollonius of Tayana, Asclepius, Hercules, Romulus, Empedocles, Adonis, Tammuz, Attis, Dionysus, etc. Not only this, but they must account for the unknown to reasons why Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s story of fidelity coincides with the symbolic undertones as those found in the Osiris and Isis relationship? Can we really believe the numerous overlapping facets of their teachings and sometimes verbatim claims are purely coincidence? I find that a little far fetched. Since when do two different people, from different cultures, speaking different languages, make both the same exact statements? It seems a literary borrowing is more likely. That behind it all was the inspiration of external literary sources, such as the literary parallels of the Gospels and Homeric epics, which apparently the Gospels borrow from liberally.
If this is all impossible to believe, then we have the difficulty of proving the trustworthiness of the claim full well knowing that these legends and myths came first. It’s no coincidence that Jesus’ character life can be recreated nearly piece for piece from various overlapping pagan sources. This has often been referred to as the Jesus Puzzle, because you can take these various mythical elements, piece them together, and reconstruct a nearly exact image of Jesus Christ—along with everything he ever said and did.
Such a rather unfathomable string of coincidences has caused knowledgeable Christians a rather big headache, not because it seems so far-fetched, but rather, because there is just no way to currently disprove such a theory. C.S. Lewis, however, tried his darnedest though, by proffering that Jesus was either a liar, lunatic, or Lord. Since Lewis can use deductive reasoning to reason away liar and lunatic, we are left only with Lord, to which Lewis deliberately misinforms his readers that this is the only possible conclusion a reasonable person can make. Actually, not so. Lewis anticipates his mostly Christian audience will agree with him, and so he avoids the problematic fourth option of: Jesus was a legend.
Certainly a shocking amount of scholarly research on New Testament criticism and Biblical history seems to support the Jesus was legend hypothesis. Legends are based upon real historical figures and events, which consequently get exaggerated and blown way out of proportion as times marches on. Since this hypothesis seems to explain many, if not most, of the problematic elements of the Jesus story, and also seesm to be the theory which exercises the greater objectivity in distinguishing between the various truth claims, it appear to me that this is the more likely possibility. Jesus was legendized, or maybe a legend got historicized (since it can go both ways), from the role of an itinerant preacher, to a foretold prophet, to a would-be king of the chosen race, to eventually become the God of the universe! The trend seems to be pointing toward an inflation of importance and eminence. It fits the theory.
Yet such a pattern is so obvious that I don’t quite see how Christians can simply ignore it. I would think that further inquiry is beyond justified, it’s downright necessary! Accordingly, it seems to me to be of utmost importance in establishing the truth claims perchance to lend them verifiable credence, because if Christians can disprove the legend hypothesis beyond a reason of a doubt, then they would have eliminated the main objections to the claims surrounding Jesus Christ’s historicity. I would be a win for their side. The fact that Christians have not done this, not even in the past two thousand years of trying, is a sign that the legend theory of Jesus Christ is undeniably the biggest historical obstacle Christians have ever faced. All these historical discrepancies, literary anomalies, and lack of satisfactory evidence all accumulates over time to form a perplexing puzzle of loose ends, some call it the Jesus Puzzle, I have termed it the Prophet Paradox.
Conclusion: Jesus is More Legend and Fact
David Friedrich Strauss was the first to launch a scathing critique Christ’s historicity and really question the plausibility of it or consider if there was another better explanation in his exhaustive analysis The Life of Jesus: Critically Examined. It seems that to ignore this stalemate between devotional messianic truth claims butting heads with real discernable history and the natural knowledge we have acquired after hundreds of years of detailed scholarly research says to me that Christians don’t want to confront the evidence but, rather, choose to simply restate over rehearsed rhetoric. I know, because I used to do it too. And that’s fine if their goal is to convince/convert/and win souls for Christ and Christianity, regardless—and even contrary—to what the evidence may say. But if you’re in want of the truth, you have to dig deeper, and at least make the attempt. Instead of tackling the seemingly insurmountable hurdles head on, however, they would rather shift the burden of proof onto the skeptics. You can’t prove the Jesus didn’t do a miracle!—they’ll say. Yes, but the point is, neither can you. Nor can Christians prove or disprove the miraculous claims of any of the listed prophets that are outside of our current historical reach. Simply put, those who deny that Jesus is (in all likelihood) a legend hypothesis just haven’t looked into it thoroughly enough to even be bothered by it, or perhaps, haven’t fully understood the ramifications of what it would entail if it turns out to be true. If true then Jesus was, as C.S. Lewis honestly admitted was a real possibility, all one big Christian lie. And if this is the case, then Christianity could never be truly vindicated.
For the Christian who is seriously haunted by such prospects, the next step would be to begin trying to disprove it—but for this we need more evidence, which we just don’t have. So Christians are up the creek without a paddle, so to speak, caught once again between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Believers can say Jesus was the real deal all they want. They can argue the Resurrection all they want. They can quote the bible all they want. This devotional tract doesn’t prove anything. It’s simply arguing back to the statement Christians want to affirm in the first place, that Jesus is the genuine article. It’s circular reasoning through and through. For someone like me, and I can only speak for myself, it just won’t do. This is not how you go about proving or disproving theories.
In order for people to believe Jesus was the Messiah, instead of just professing it, Christians need to validate their claims, and maybe then they’ll have something worth defending and championing as the historical truth. But this is not the case, Christians are wrong about the reliability of the Gospels as well as the historicity of Jesus and everything we know about him, as I so often shrewdly point out on this blog. The way I see it, Christian apologetics is sorely losing the match with Atheism. Atheism is a true dynamo—a force of arresting skepticism and incontestable sagacity—it floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee!