Will the REAL Jesus Please Stand Up?

jesus is coming

Speaking FRANK-ly About Jesus: Critique of alleged evidence of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Frank Zindler’s blog dedicated to the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed.

Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating!

 In his blog posting “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus,” Philip Jenkins asserted the existence of “a sizable body of writings dating from within a half century of the events described”—meaning the events relating to the earthly misadventures of Jesus of Nazareth. In discussing this claim we need to consider two separate but interrelated problems: (1) when is Jesus supposed to have lived?; and (2) when were the New Testament documents composed and when did they attain their present textual condition?

When Did Jesus Live?

We have a further problem: exactly which Jesus are we talking about? Are we talking about the Jesus of Luke, Chapters 2 & 3, the Jesus born at the time of the census under Quirinius in 6 CE, when Herod was Tetrarch of Galilee and Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea? (Apologists try to invent a Quirinian census at an earlier date—before the death of Herod the Great—but there is no room in Quirinius’ CV for such.) Or, are we talking about the Jesus of Matthew 2:1, the one born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE? Or are we talking about the Jesus of the oldest gospel, Mark’s, the Jesus who has no birth or childhood at all? Or are we talking about the Jesus of John’s gospel—the one who started his life “in the beginning”? Or the Jesus of Saul/Paul who can hardly be said to have had an earthly life in Galilee at all?

Perhaps we are talking about the Jesus of the Church Father Irenaeus [Against Heresies, XXII] who lived into his 50s and died during the reign of Claudius? Or how about the Jesus of the Toldoth Yeshu—the Jesus born around 100 BCE, during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus? Or maybe, then, are we talking about the Jesus who, it was decided in 336 CE, had been born on the winter solstice (December 25, Julian calendar) or on January 6—take your pick!—along with Mithra and the other sun gods of antiquity? Lastly, are we talking about a Jesus of Nazareth, or a Jesus of Someplace Else?

Trying to date the birth of Jesus reveals an important fact: The earliest documents “know” the least about his life and childhood; the latest know the most. Apocryphal gospels postdating the canonical ones know by far the most about his supposed earthly life. Must we suppose that Jesus lived his life backwards? Or are we just dealing with a story that, like rumor, grows in detail with retelling?

Dating the New Testament Documents

We have no “autographic copies” of any of the books of the Christian Bible. That is, there are no manuscripts surviving that display the handwriting of “Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and John,” or of Paul or Peter or St. John the Revelator. While this certainly is not surprising, it creates the difficulty of having no manuscripts that could be reliably dated (say by carbon-14) to settle within a tolerable margin of error when that particular book was formed. All we have are copies that were made from copies—a sequence tracing back to uncertain antiquity. NONE of the manuscripts can be traced to the first century CE. The best and most complete manuscripts date only from the fourth century, and manuscripts going back to century II become more and more fragmentary the older they can be shown to be, and the less useful they are for discovering the evolutionary changes in the biblical texts with time.

The problem of dating the time of composition of the New Testament documents is aggravated by the reality becoming ever more apparent: the quest for the “original texts” of the New Testament books is as futile as the “Quest of the Historical Jesus,” as Albert Schweitzer judged the situation back in 1906.

This shocking situation is due to the fact that no New Testament book is a unitary composition (except, perhaps, for Philemon); rather, all are composite texts that have grown by accretion.  Thus, some of the Pauline epistles can be shown to be made up of two or more separate letters—and of course, there is the embarrassing fact that not all of the letters can be shown to have been written by the same author.

And then, there are all those gospels. Of the canonical four, “Mark” is the oldest and (as I will show in a later post) was written by someone not familiar with the customs and geography of Galilee. The gospels of “Matthew” and “Luke” (I put scare-quotes around these names because the gospels are actually anonymous and were assigned imaginary authors at the end of the second century) are the only gospels that purport to anchor the birth of Jesus in time. Alas, those anchoring tales are the only “information” that is original with those authors. In point of fact, they plagiarize nearly the entire Greek text of Mark and add numerous alleged sayings of Jesus that are thought by most scholars to have been contained in a hypothetical “Q Document.” “Q” apparently was little more than a list of wise sayings—sayings that came to be related to Jesus. (One of these—“I have piped and ye have not danced”—I have shown comes not from any Jesus of Nazareth but from Aesop’s fable of “The Fisherman and the Flute”!) On top of all this, Matthew and Luke paste onto the plagiarized material two conflicting genealogies and mutually exclusive accounts of the miraculous birth of the would-be messiah.

As if this were not enough, the traditional dating of the Pauline Epistles and the gospels has been repeatedly challenged by secular scholars. The Dutch “Radical Critics” of the early twentieth century and their present-day disciples date the entire Pauline corpus to the second century CE. The gospel of Mark is believed by believers to have been written before 70 CE (the date of the Roman destruction of the Temple of Yahweh, an event supposedly prophesied by Jesus), or slightly after that (by traditional secular scholars). However, there is one astonishing problem that I have recently discovered, reading Michael White’s 2001 From Jesus to Christianity. White indicates that Herod’s building and enlargement of the Jerusalem temple was not completed until shortly before it was destroyed in 70 CE! (For partial confirmation of White’s claim, see the appendix at the end of this post, “Jerusalem’s Temple Mount Not Completed by King Herod.”)

The meaning of this for dating the gospel of Mark is stupendous. In Mark 13:1-2, Jesus and the disciples are visiting the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem. (According to traditional dating, this would have been around 30-33 CE—more than thirty years before completion of the building project!) In the passage in question, one of the disciples exclaims, “Master, see what manner of stones, and what buildings are here!” Jesus answers, “Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” Traditionally, this is believed to be a prophecy of the coming destruction of the temple. Secular scholars, of course, view it as vaticinium ex eventu—prophecy after the fact.  They usually date the gospel of Mark to the first half of the 70s CE.

BUT, if the temple story had actually occurred, the disciple would have said something more like “Master, how shall these mighty stones be raised that they be set the one upon the other?” Jesus then would have replied, “Verily I say unto you, Vitruvius of the Gentiles hath holpen them, and hath taught them how that great work shouldst be accomplished. Yea, verily I tell you, these stones shall be raised up in vain. When the fig tree’s fruit hath rotted into roaches, these stones shall once again recline where now they stand.”

Okay, this is more than enough for this posting. Next time we shall learn that “mainstream scholars are not terrified to venture into nonconformity,” and we shall learn what it is that scholars do.

APPENDIX

Jerusalem’s Temple Mount Not Completed by King Herod

Bible and archaeology news

Biblical Archaeology Society Staff  •  11/28/2011

Coins discovered beneath the foundations of Jerusalem’s Western Wall prove that Herod the Great did not even come close to completing construction on the Temple Mount compound. The coins, stamped around 17 C.E. with the name of the Roman proconsul Valerius Gratus, were found inside an earlier ritual bath (mikveh) that had been filled in to support the construction of the Temple Mount’s western wall—some two decades after Herod’s death. The finds tend to confirm the account of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who records that the entire complex was only completed during the reign of Herod’s great-grandson, Agrippa II, probably around 50 C.E. “The find changes the way we see the construction,” said Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Eli Shukron. “[The coins] show [the Temple Mount’s construction] lasted for longer than we originally thought.”

Frank Zindler is the past interim President of American Atheists, a member of the American Atheists board of directors, the chief editor of American Atheists Press, and an esteemed academic and activist.

Photo credit:  Andrea Allen; “Jesus is Coming”; https://www.flickr.com/photos/sloth_rider/512662165/

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