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)


Back in my first exposure to state university life in Wisconsin, I frequently received eager guidance from students on religion in the media. After having taught in a seminary where interest in the world beyond ecclesiastical walls was rare, this exposure to wider interpretation was welcome. One of the movies suggested to me by helpful undergraduates was the then fairly contemporary Stigmata. My interest in horror films was burgeoning again after my nightmarish experience at Nashotah House, so I watched the movie with renewed appreciation for the abuses presented on the part of the established church. I rewatched Stigmata this past weekend and a number of features stood out as apposite for this blog.

As always in movies, liberties are taken with reality. Stigmata presents the Gospel of Thomas as a serious threat to Catholicism. Of course, even the Gospel of Judas made a public splash back in my Oshkosh days, but the great Titanic of the church remained steadily afloat. The contents of the Bible are secure and non-negotiable for the vast majority of Christianity. There is no more room within its black leather binding for further revelations. The movie also presents a woman – an atheist, no less – as being the vehicle for a truth she can’t understand. In the masculine citadel of the Catholic Church she must be silenced, in an overly dramatic way, of course. The message seems to be that religion is unwilling to learn from secular women, even if they bear the truth.

The critics were not kind to the movie, but I found it a strangely religious film. The premise behind it advocates the reality of Christianity, only the Jesus of history is occluded behind a great mask of human tradition. Enamored of power, the church decides what will be revealed to the masses since control is more important than truth. A woman cannot correct the false belief of men, since a masculine god has given manly instructions to a male institution. Underneath it all, however, is a virgin Mary weeping real human blood as half of humanity is simply disregarded by the half that retains its abusive strength. Perhaps the commentary was a little too close to home, even for the (mostly male) critics.

Nag Hammadi

Want to create some excitement in the middle of a gaggle of scholars of ancient history? Just throw some newly discovered ancient text in their midst and sit back to watch the fun. This scenario has been (metaphorically) repeated many times in the last century and a half. New texts come to light and revolutionize what we know of ancient religions. The Nag Hammadi library represents one such flair up of excitement and intrigue. Discovered in 1945, this cache of mostly Gnostic texts has forced a new paradigm upon early Christianity. It has become clear that several flavors of early Christianity existed side-by-side until one group, claiming divine support, became the “true Christianity” (orthodox) while the others were just plain wrong. The Gnostic field of study received a shot in the arm with the publicity fair surrounding the Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic text not found at Nag Hammadi, early in the new millennium.

Good News, Gnostic Style

Discovery can be a dangerous luxury. When new evidence surfaces it can’t be ignored. When the religions of the ancient world reached their imperial stages it had already become too late to admit that mistakes may have had been made way back in ancient times. You can’t conquer a country and then just take it back. We now know that it is far more appropriate to refer to Early Christianities and Early Judaisms than to utilize their singular (if more prevalent) forms.

Nag Hammadi, a mid-size town in Egypt, has been back in the news since Coptic Christmas (just a couple of days ago) saw the death of six Copts when a Muslim extremist gunned them down on their way out of church. In turn, the Coptic community has been running riot in the town, destroying ambulances and shattering shop windows and driving Muslims off the streets. Those who hold their religions to be unchanging have the most to lose when new discoveries surface. It seems unlikely that exploration will cease; more ancient interpretations will emerge. When they do it also seems unlikely that they will find parent religions mature enough to accept their long-lost children. We could still use a little bit of secret knowledge, it seems, even today.

Sunday Morning Football

There is a Baptist Church in East Orange, New Jersey that celebrates Football Sunday to draw the menfolk in. Complete with a tailgate party after the service, this event may boost numbers, but the winner of this divine gridiron has not yet been determined. Not being a fan of football (or any other sport — oh, the heresy!) this particular tactic would not appeal to me, but knowing that when guys get together the topic of sports always seems to come up, well, it just makes sense.

According to the canonical Gospels, Jesus never played football. (The Gospel of Judas, however, does mention a quarterback-sneak, I believe.) The few times I’ve watched games on television (generally under duress) I see a bunch of men trying their physical best to beat some other guys up. Rampaging after a pig-skin (definitely not kosher), they attempt to score and prevent the other team from doing so. This is my amateur analysis of what I am told is a very complex game.

Rewind. Stop. Replay. The Baptist Church. Founded to protest against the vicissitudes of the Church of England, the Puritan-inclined Baptists wished to establish a church free from the constraints of the formalism inherent in the staid worship of either Roman or Anglo-Catholic England. Breaking from tradition was an honored principle here. Like our football heroes, they joined a team against the competition for that Super Bowl in the sky. Will the men stick around for the post-season slump? Maybe not, but as Notre Dame has always known, the divine man is a big fan of the Catholic team.

Notre Dame's famous Touchdown Jesus