Speaking FRANK-ly About Jesus Part 6
Did Jesus Have a Body?
Frank Zindler’s blog dedicated to the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed.
Modern Christians take it for granted that Jesus of Nazareth once existed as a man—a human being. Most modern scholars also accept this as axiomatic, even if they are Atheists who do not believe that Jesus the Man was also a god. The answer to the question ‘Did Jesus have a body?’ would be considered a no-brainer by believers and skeptical scholars alike. Of course Jesus had a body! If he once existed as a man, perforce he had a body.
While scholars would consider their answer to be a logical necessity, believers could adduce further proof of the corporality of Jesus from the New Testament of the Christian bible. Was not Jesus born of the Virgin Mary? Mary was a human mother, and women don’t give birth to ghosts!
Didn’t Jesus grow up in Nazareth, the home town of his parents? (Forget, for the moment, that René Salm’s new book NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus proves the place didn’t exist when the physical body of Jesus should have been contributing to its gravitational mass.)
Furthermore, even after Jesus was killed and resurrected, he had a physical body. Did not Doubting Thomas verify the fact when he thrust his hand into the risen Jesus’ side (John 20:27–28)? Did not Jesus eat a breakfast of bread and fish with the Disciples when he appeared to them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:12–15)?
It is a curious fact that the answer to this simple question—so obvious to modern Christians — was not at all obvious to many ancient Christians. The earliest ‘heresy’ that we know of appears to be that of Docetism. The Docetists took their name from the fact that they believed that Jesus only seemed (Greek dokein ‘to seem’) to have a physical body and only seemed to suffer on the cross but was, in fact, a spirit.
So early and so serious was this opinion that some of our earliest Christian witnesses—the so-called Apostolic Fathers—were moved to denounce the Gnostics and anyone else who held Docetic beliefs. In or about the year 110 CE, St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, sent a letter to the Christians of Smyrna in present-day Turkey. In that epistle Ignatius told the Smyrneans that “[Jesus] suffered all these things for us; and He suffered them really, and not in appearance only, even as also He truly rose again. But not, as some of the unbelievers, who … affirm, that in appearance only, and not in truth, He took a body of the Virgin, and suffered only in appearance, forgetting as they do, Him who said, ‘The Word was made flesh’ [Jn 1:14]… I know that he was possessed of a body not only in His being born and crucified, but I also know that he was so after His resurrection, and believe that He is so now.” [Ignat Smyrn Chapters 2–3] [The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I. The Apostolic Fathers—Justin Martyr—Irenaeus, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985, p. 87]
Let us think about this for a moment. Jesus is supposed to have died somewhere around the year 33 CE. Within 77 years, church leaders were in serious dispute over whether or not he had had a body! Let us translate this to a modern context. Imagine Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford arguing over the question of whether or not William McKinley had had a body. But the facts of Christian history are even more absurd than is this modern scenario.
It is clear that Docetism was a problem even in the days when letters now attributed to the Apostles Paul, Peter, and John were being written. How do we know this? Consider the following verses:
Galatians 4:4–5. But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law… [A.D. 58]
Romans 1:3. Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh… [A.D. 60]
Romans 8:3. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh… [A.D. 60]
Colossians 1:21–22. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death… [A.D. 64]
1 Timothy 3:16. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory. [A.D. 65]
1 Peter 3:18. For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit… [A.D. 60]
1 Peter 4:1. Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind; for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin… [A.D. 60]
1 John 4:1–3. Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. [A.D. 90]
2 John 1:7. For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. [A.D. 90]
Before going further, I must confess that the dates given with each quoted verse is the date assigned to it by the infamous Archbishop James Ussher [1581–1656] — the same guy who determined the biblical ‘fact’ that the world was created in the year 4004 B.C. Even so, a very large number of Christian scholars even today would assert that these dates are essentially correct.
It should be noted that in all of the verses I have quoted the writers seem to have gone out of their way to stress that Jesus had a body—something that one might think would be a given. Why would these sacred authors bother to mention such a fact? If I were writing about my childhood and talking about the exciting times I had with my grandfather, wouldn’t it seem more than odd if I mentioned even once, “By the way: my grandfather had a body”? What if I told you, “My grandfather had a mother”? Clearly the verses quoted were written to contradict rival Christians who were claiming that Jesus only seemed to have a body. Docetists were the antichrists of the first century.
Now let us think about this a bit more. If the Epistle to the Galatians was in fact written in the year 58, and Jesus was crucified in the year 33…
I can hear Franklin D. Roosevelt arguing with Herbert Hoover: “Did Theodore Roosevelt have a body?” “Did Mittie Roosevelt really bear Teddy?”
The fact that Docetic actors are standing on the Christian stage as early as the raising of the first curtain of our passion play is of considerable explanatory significance. If Jesus of Nazareth never existed as an actual man of flesh and blood, but rather began as a god who had come to earth to help the souls of men and women find their ways back to their heavenly home, there would arise lots of questions concerning what he had actually been like when he was on the earth. Very early on, we might expect to find squabbling theological factions engaging in arguments concerning his terrestrial nature.
Did a god perhaps take possession of the body of some human? This actually was an early ‘Adoptionist’ view of Jesus that is reflected in some manuscript readings of the story of the baptism of Jesus found in Luke 3:22. These have a voice from heaven tell Jesus as he emerges from the water “Thou art my Son, my Beloved; this day I have begotten thee.” After the crucifixion, the god abandoned the physical body of Jesus and flew back to heaven.
Did a god — as Orthodoxy now holds — impregnate a mortal woman in the way that Zeus had done on a number of occasions? Was Jesus then simultaneously a god and a man of flesh and blood? Was his mortal human mother then literally ‘the Mother of God’?
Or were the Docetists and Gnostics correct? When the god came to earth he only seemed to be the mortal man Jesus. Throughout his enactment of this divine drama, Jesus never had a mortal body, but continued to the end to be composed of whatever ectoplasmic essence it is that gods are made of. How could Jesus have been mortal if he was a god? How can a god die? Gods are immortal—that’s the main difference between gods and humans. If Jesus had had a physical body, ipso facto he could not have been a god. Q.E.D.
Scholars who believe without evidence that there once was a man called Jesus of Nazareth surely must experience a bit of Angst because of this silly situation. This must be made even more anxiety-provoking by the fact that René Salm has shown, in his two America Atheist Press books that ‘Nazareth’ was not inhabited at the time Jesus should have been living there, and I have argued that ‘Nazareth’ was invented in response to Docetist arguments—if Jesus had a body and childhood, he had to have grown up somewhere! No matter. I’m sure that Jesus of Cucamonga had a body made of flesh and blood.
Dr. 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.