Sorry about yesterday; I was laid up with one of those fun migraine-and-nausea episodes I get sometimes. All better now! On to today’s topic: the historical Jesus. We’ve talked about him before here, but some new stuff’s happened in the last year that’s brought my attention back to the subject.
Before we start, let’s be clear about something: a historical Jesus wouldn’t necessarily mean a divine Jesus. Having or not having a historical Jesus doesn’t confirm or deny Christians’ claims of his divinity or the truth of the various claims he made and lessons he taught. As I said last time, having a real live Jesus, even a kernel of him adorned by all those later myths, wouldn’t make Christianity’s claims more valid. We’d just be moving the burden of proof one step over, from “Did he actually exist?” to “Are his claims true?” That he doesn’t exist when Christians insist that he did is a symptom of Christianity’s problem, but hardly the religion’s biggest problem.
That we can’t move past that first question makes the second one all but irrelevant; if we could resolve the first question we’d just move to “Are this religion’s claims true in the main?” It’d make Christianity more reputable as a religion to have a real live founder, or so Christians think anyway, but most religions haven’t got one and they potter along just fine. And religions that had a real live founder certainly aren’t guaranteed to be making reliable claims–just think about Mormonism and Scientology, which both face problems with credibility stemming from the simple fact that they were invented recently enough that we actually can go sift the truth of their founders’ lives from the chaff their adherents spout about them. A real live founder doesn’t imply a religion is making true claims, and not having one doesn’t hurt a religion’s credibility at all, at least not any more than it would be hurt just by itself.
Valerie Tarico’s written a damn fine piece over at AlterNet about Jesus not having been a real person. It’s a good piece, and I wanted to talk briefly here about something she goes into it, namely about the two competing schools of thought about Jesus’ historicity. See, for a long time people thought Jesus’ story in the Gospels was “mythologized history,” which means that there was a wee bare kernel of the story that was real and all the other stuff–the miracles and whatnot–got built up around it over time. Now there’s another school of thought that’s gaining ground:
But other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.” In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.
When I heard that phrase, historicized mythology, a lot of things fell into place for me. Did they for you? It makes a lot of sense for me that this would be the direction it goes, not the other way. Here is why.
If you actually read the New Testament, one thing you’ll notice quickly is how few details there are in any of its myths. What few there are, are often incorrect. Place names get messed up, people’s ranks and titles get distorted, historical events get garbled, and names are usually more metaphorical than real-sounding. There really isn’t much there to make anybody think that these were real stories about real people doing real things–especially if you know anything at all about just when the books of the New Testament got written and in what order. They really do go from less detail to more detail, not the other way around. People embellished those stories from the very beginning–because they had to.
In the Dark Ages, possibly even beforehand, people wanted to know more about the bare-bones stories in the Gospels. I don’t think people function well with ambiguity; we want to have all the details about stories we find interesting. And there are a lot of details missing from the Gospels. When you get down to it, these stories don’t tell anybody much about a “real” Jesus. We don’t know what he looked like or how he dressed; we don’t know what he was like as a person to hang out with; we don’t know much about his family life outside of a few very basic and obviously mythologized incidents. We don’t know anything about his family outside of Mary and Joseph except for a few obviously-mythological shreds about her parents, and little enough as it is about any of the rest of ’em.
So with the attitude of “if it ain’t true, well then it should be,” medieval minds went to work on those shreds and snippets.
Under their careful tending, Jesus’ family sprouted fully-formed from the brow of the Gospels. The Three Wise Men, unnamed entirely in the Gospels and even in the Apocrypha, gained names–and the reciting of those names became a magic spell in and of itself (one popular magic item in the Middle Ages was a ring with their names inscribed on it, thought to protect wearers). The woman who knelt to wipe Jesus’ face as he was dragging his cross? You know she got a name very quickly and became a saint besides–and the veil she’d used became one of Catholicism’s greatest frauds–er, artifacts, second only to the equally fraudulent Shroud of Turin, itself supposed by the gullible to be the cloth used to wrap the crucified Jesus’ body before he was resurrected. Every single character and important object in the Gospels, whether named or not, gained a name and backstory. Every artifact had been found, from the manger where Jesus had supposedly been laid as a newborn to the tomb where he was buried and even to splinters of the One True Cross that he’d hung upon for a few hours before facing his lousy weekend dead–and many of those were found multiple times. I bet you could name anything mentioned off-handedly in any of the four Gospel myths and I could go dig out my Catholic Encyclopedia and see that it has a name and a full story, especially regarding the lives of the earliest followers of Christianity, who were revered as martyrs for the cause even though evidence strongly suggests that no, actually, most of the martyrs Christianity reveres weren’t martyrs at all and probably didn’t even exist.
But we do not find any of those names and stories in the actual source material. Imagine for a second, those of you reading here who grew up Christian, imagine what it must be like to not have that rich tapestry of Christian mythology to bolster one’s faith. Imagine not having any idea who the Wise Men were or from whence they came. Imagine not having the faintest idea where Jesus had been buried. Imagine not having any idea what might have become of those twelve disciples Jesus is said to have had. Imagine not knowing anything about what the earliest history of one’s religion was. It really is as if a lot of that mythology just sprang up in the second and third centuries and got embellished in the next few–and we’ve got to wonder why this stuff didn’t exist contemporaneously with Jesus, if he existed, or why nobody chose to write a single word about those artifacts at the time they were made or discovered.
I think it bothered medieval minds very much that they couldn’t see any contemporary proof of anything in the Bible and didn’t know any of this stuff. I think it bothered their flocks a lot as well. With a little creative painting and writing, those omissions became miraculous events and magical artifacts, amazing sacrifices and inspiring biographies. And they lavished attention on their founder in the absence of anything solid about him.
Remember the rule about evidence that we talked about last time? A claim of something’s reality must be accompanied by real facts and observations–not just an argument. If someone thinks there was a real live Jesus, then that person is the one who must present real live evidence for that claim. I’d take anything contemporaneous with the fellow at this point–anything at all. A single mention of this weird preacher wandering around town, a single passing reference, a single record. Just one thing. But right now, there is dead silence. And the people who think he was real can do their very best to make that dead silence into some kind of reverse-evidence for Jesus’ existence, denigrating that silence or puffing up the obviously-wishful later words about him written centuries after his supposed death, but it’s a pretty sorry soup that’s made from such weak bones. The simple truth is that if Jesus was supposed to be a real person who really inspired Christianity, there really ought to be, well, something about the fellow from his lifetime-ish that we can find and point to, and there just isn’t a single word.
Up till now, I’ve heard from quite a few folks–including some atheists!–who felt that Jesus simply had to have been real. Nobody with sense would ever say that a Jesus fitting the Gospels’ exact biography could really exist, no–it’s sort of like placing a story “before Europe but after Paris,” to borrow William Goldman’s phrasing–but a kernel of Jesus? Surely there had to be something. Our minds stretch and wince at the idea of all that mythology being based on, well, nothing. A long line of “well he must have” or “but they all thought he did,” on the backs of turtles all the way down. Or upon perhaps an amalgam of nameless itinerant men, all nameless, all featureless, all blending into a cultural memory that became a Jesus when someone needed to make up a founder for this newly-made mystery religion that was becoming known as Christianity.
The idea of a mythologized history didn’t sit well with me, and now I know why. The real answer is likely to be historicized mythology, and this theory fits in beautifully with what we actually know the Christian church did with their religion. It explains exactly why there are exactly zero mentions of Jesus in any contemporary sources, why the Gospels went from shortest to longest as they got written and compiled, why Paul (the one New Testament author we’re pretty sure did exist and can be fairly sure did write at least some of what is attributed to him) didn’t say a damned thing about Jesus as a person, and why there’s nothing in the historical record about what happened to Jesus’ twelve disciples.
Just as people who believe in Creationism got an extra hurdle laid upon them when the Theory of Evolution got rolling, “historical Jesus” adherents have an extra hurdle to cross now that this concept has been written into the cultural lexicon. Simply put, we now have a really good explanation for the dead silence around Jesus in contemporary records. Anybody claiming he was real has to leap over that hurdle to explain why his or her pet theory works better. And as always, one simple contemporary fact would demolish this new idea, just as one simple mismatch in the archaeological record would put the ToE under serious scrutiny.
As it stands, it really seems like the entire reason that so many historians think he existed is because previous historians said he must have. We really do give Jesus a major pass on the rigorous requirements we set for other real-life figures. That the earlier historians happen to have been Christians with a big vested interest in Jesus being a real person doesn’t even seem to occur to the “historical Jesus” crowd. And I’m sure that the new historicized mythology camp wouldn’t be possible without some trained, credible historians joining the fold who aren’t Christians or as deeply married to the idea of a historical Jesus. Score another point for diversity!
And the hilarious thing is that really, if Jesus didn’t exist for real and we realized that as a culture, then his worshipers would figure themselves out. Some of them would simply deny the facts, like they always do, and drill down harder on their comforting lies. Of those who see the truth and understand it, though, a great many would stay worshipers, I’ve no doubt. Some, like me, would leave because if there wasn’t a real Jesus then there is no need to stay somewhere that is bad for us. But many would stay. His being real certainly wouldn’t make me consider joining the religion again–for the same reason that those who would stay, would stay: because his reality doesn’t impact his religion’s claims. If anything, evidence that he couldn’t possibly have existed would lead to a more nuanced understanding of the material, perhaps. In such a nuanced view of the religion, the showdown that fundagelicals often set up for their followers may well become less likely to occur. But none of that is nowhere near as fun as thinking that someone has all the answers, is it?
I see the question of Jesus’ historicity as fascinating because it hits right to the core of how humans know what’s true and what isn’t true–how we figure out questions like “Did So-and-so exist or not?” For that, I think the question is valuable. Just saying “Nope! No way!” because I don’t happen to be Christian would be just as immature and irrational as saying “Yes, of course he did!” because someone happens to be Christian or otherwise finds squirrelly the concept of him not existing. We need to be open to the evidence wherever it may lead–and we need to be ready to re-examine new evidence and ideas when they emerge. That’s what I’ve done here today: re-examined an idea in the light of new information. And I’ll continue to do it because I’m a history wonk and that’s how we roll.
Because of its importance to vast swathes of Christianity, I don’t see this question as one that will be put to rest any time soon, but I’m glad that historians are taking a second look at it lately and are asking the tough questions that would have been impossible to ask decades ago.