Whence Jesus?

Either he did, or he didn’t. Exist, that is. Jesus of Nazareth, I mean. When a friend sent me a link to a conference on proof of the non-existence of Jesus, I had to look. Such claims have been made before, but new documents are being found all the time and I supposed that I had been too busy commissioning books on religion to find out what was happening in religion. After all, the Gospel of Judas emerged, reversing, for a while, the idea of Judas’ good-guy/bad-guy polarity. A Coptic fragment suggested Jesus had been married. Maybe something new had come along. The story on PR Web announces that Joseph Atwill will unveil his new discovery later this month, proving that Jesus did not exist. While the article doesn’t give too many specifics (why would anybody come to the conference if it did?), the initial hype seems overblown. The gist of it is that the Romans invented a peaceful messiah to try to calm the foment to rebellion that constantly plagued the borders of the empire. Is he onto something?

Perhaps what Atwill has unwittingly stumbled onto is the truth that proof derived from ancient written documents is notoriously difficult to verify. Historians have criteria for determining whether ancient documents are “historical” or not. Their methods, while not foolproof, have rescued some great lights of human thought from the netherworld of fiction: Socrates, Solomon, and Gilgamesh, a shaky consensus holds, were historical characters. Of course, each of them has their detractors. No one is perhaps as contentious as Jesus of Nazareth, although, all things considered, his historical place is fairly secure. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Paul seems to have been misinformed on some points. No authentic, contemporary documents describe Jesus. If, however, he was an obscure figure until some thirty years after his death, we would not wonder at such lack of attestation.

What does it mean to be a historical person? I used to pose this to my students. Each of us in the classroom knows we exist. There are records to prove it. How many of us, however, will make it into the history books? After the zombie apocalypse occurs, and civilization collapses, written records may be destroyed. Are we, Guy Montag-like, destroyed with our papers? Historical existence is something determined by others long after we are gone. Most of us don’t stand a chance of making it into the twenty-second-century’s history books. We simply will have been. But what of Mr. Atwill’s proof? Well, we don’t have it yet. Even if he has a letter from Caesar Augustus or Tiberius saying “let’s make up a story of a baby born in a manger,” it is pretty certain that the historical importance of Jesus will remain secure. If you can drive through any one-horse town in this country without finding a church of some kind or another, perhaps I may be wrong. In another century or so, I won’t be in the history books, but I will be history.

Come listen to a story 'bout a man named Josh... (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Josh… (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

5 thoughts on “Whence Jesus?

  1. robcrompton

    Whether Jesus did or did not exist isn’t a straighforward question. I can think of at least three Jesuses: the Jesus of Christian belief, the Jesus of the Gospels, and the Jesus of Galilee and Judea. Each of these in turn can be further broken down into possibly different characters. And then the question arises to what extent are these the same Jesus?

    Beginning with the Gospels and looking at them with the eye of a story-teller/editor I seem to be able to spot a historical character underlying the stories. Someone about whom stories were told, re-told and elaborated. The sometimes contradictory aspects of the Gospel Jesus suggest a possible amalgam of stories having their roots within a community’s tales of different heroes. The dominant character from whom these tales emerge seems to me to have been a Hillelite rabbi with a penchant for story-telling and banter, but there are echoes also of the Essene, the apocalyticist and even the Sadducee. So I wonder to what extent it might be true to say that Gospels tell the story of a historical character.

    And the Jesus of Christian belief, in turn, is very much a further elaboration from the Gospels, and the epistles (and what about the apocryphal documents?)

    Which of these candidates was the more influential? Without Rabbi Jesus of Galilee the whole enterprise would never have started. But to understand him is hardly to get any closer to a “true” understanding of Christian doctrine.

    And I wonder which Jesus Atwill’s Roman aristocrats may have fabricated. And, of course, how come those fabricators did not themselves become heroes of the movement they evidently set in train. Like Joseph S mith, L Ron Hubbard and the like.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Well put, Rob. There are no doubt many Jesuses to consider. Atwill does seem to be a savvy player when it comes to getting attention!

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  2. And another thing – this Atwill guy, his theology and his history and scholarship may be off the wall but he’s getting a lot of publicity for his story. Maybe, on second thoughts, I have something to learn from him after all.

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  3. I have always understood that part of what makes Jesus a ‘historical’ figure (as opposed to an obscure person who nevertheless DID exist) is that historians independent of the Gospel writers attest to his existence. Josephus and Tacitus didn’t have as much to lose as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John if it came out that they’d done sloppy history.

    There’s a problem, though, with uncovering new evidence that the Romans faked the whole thing: you now have to prove that your new evidence is historically sound, or else history has to stick to the original assumption (i.e., that he IS a historical figure). If I can make a convincing rebuttal that the Roman conspiracy was a later fabrication intended to discredit the Christian story, or even to co-opt it to the service of the Empire, then it becomes an interesting historical curiosity, but not authentic ‘history’.

    But it sounds like an interesting premise. I see At will has a book: it might be worth looking at.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Indeed, Jonathan. These are the reductios about which we all have been warned. The real issue is belief, a topic that I plan to revisit shortly.

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